Comic Book Review: World of the Dragonlords

Comic Book Review: World of the Dragonlords written by Byron Erickson, art by Giorgio Cavazzano

Donald Duck has read another self-improvement book.  This one is about family togetherness, so Donald drags his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie and Uncle Scrooge out to a picnic in the woods.    None of them are particularly keen on this; the nephews have a movie audition to get to, and Scrooge is spending his time assessing the forest for lumber profits.  Just as Donald is reaching the end of his temper (admittedly a short journey), a hole opens in the air, bringing forth two odd pink-skinned beings called “humans”, followed quickly by three “Morgs” riding dragons!  Picnic called on account of adventure!

World of the Dragonlords

Those of you who don’t follow comic books may be unaware that Walt Disney continues to license out its cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Goofy and especially Donald Duck to be published in comic books both in America and around the world.  Thanks in large part to artist/writer Carl Barks, who invented Scrooge McDuck and many other characters, the duck stories have a reasonably coherent setting and loose continuity.  The Duck family primarily lives in Duckburg, in the state of Calisota.  Donald takes care of his three nephews after their father “went away” (early on, their misbehavior was legendary) and sometimes does odd jobs for his Uncle Scrooge, when he isn’t employed elsewhere.   The family often goes off on adventures together.

This particular epic storyline was originally produced for the German Disney comics, as they were having a sales slump at the time.   It took two years to get it ready, by which time the sales had rebounded and the editor of the main magazine was no longer interested in such a long and radically different tale.  Dragonlords sat in a drawer for a few years until a magazine aimed at older Disney fans picked it up, then it got collected in a special Finnish edition, which this volume is a translation of.

Back to our story.  The humans are the mighty warrior Brendon, leader of the human resistance against the Morg invaders, and the slightly airheaded wizard Hintermann, who opened up the portal from Our Mother (what the humans call their world) to Earth.   The Morg have both firebreathing dragons to fly on, and solar-powered lightning spears.  What they don’t have is good teamwork.  While the Morg are able to knock out the local ducks and capture them, at the cost of stranding one of their warriors, Brendon and Hintermann are able to get back through the portal and escape. Group Leader Snark decides to take the ducks back to Morgworld (what the Morgs call it) to sell as slaves.

Huey, Dewey and Louie wind up in the dragon stable run by Clarg, a stupid and lazy Morg.  They learn that the dragons are vegetarians and normally peaceful, and their kindness soon allows the triplets to tame a trio of baby dragons.  However, they also learn that the Morg use electrical torture and other cruelties to turn their dragon mounts into obedient war machines.  The good news is that the boys are able to make contact with the city’s human resistance, as exemplified by former stable boy Jute.

Donald winds up in the armory, polishing weapons and getting up close and personal demonstrations of how they work.  Uncle Scrooge, however, becomes the servant of Lord Moraq, ruler of the fortress city Toom.  He soon takes advantage of this by driving a wedge between Moraq and his immediate subordinate, General Hyrrr.

Back in Duckburg, Daisy Duck starts getting worried about the boys, and starts trying to figure out what happened to them.  (Her rescue effort only fails by dint of not being fast enough.)  Meanwhile, stranded Morg warrior Groob must make his way in a world of duck people.

The Morg culture is kind of stereotype baddies; based primarily on who can beat up who, with little seen of loyalty or honor.  There are civilian Morg, but we never see them (or any mention of female Morg, if such things exist.)  The Morg also don’t use pronouns to make them sound less educated.

Chapter 11 (of 12) is especially striking as the writer chose to make it an almost entirely silent one, allowing the excellent art of Cavazzano to take the fore.

For those of you who are shipping fans, the story does absolutely nothing to stand in the way of shipping Brendon and Hintermann together; even framing them together in a “family” moment.  Or they could just be really good friends of course.

In the end, “family” is what the story is all about, as the Ducks may not be into forced togetherness, but always seek each other out when separated.

Recommended for the intersection of Disney Duck fans and epic fantasy fans, from late elementary school readers on up.

And now, the opening theme for the new Ducktales cartoon, since it has several of the same characters:

Book Review: Black Bird of the Gallows

Book Review: Black Bird of the Gallows  by Meg Kassel

Cadence, Pennsylvania used to be a mining town.  The economy never fully recovered from the mines closing down, but the town survived.  But there are some disturbing signs.  There’s an unseasonably high number of crows for February, and an even more unseasonable number of unusually aggressive bees.

Black Bird of the Gallows

Angelina “Angie” Dovage doesn’t pay too much attention to that at first.  She’s trying to survive her last year of high school, live down her past life with her drug-addicted mother, keep her identity as Sparo (the town’s hottest DJ) secret from her classmates, and checking out the hot new boy who just moved in next door.  The tall, dark, brooding boy who has a mysterious past.

This is a young adult paranormal romance, so Reece Fernandez turns out to be a supernatural being with strange powers, and also a strong attraction to Angie.  And of course he feels the need to “protect” her by not telling her relevant information until much later than it would have been useful.

There’s also Rafette, a much less pleasant supernatural being who has taken an interest in Angie, and knows way too much about her mother for his appearance in Cadence to be a coincidence.  Unlike the crow-based Harbingers, Beekeepers can’t be killed–or at least that’s what everyone’s been told.

On the more normal high school drama side of things, there’s Angie’s musical friends Daniel “Deno” Steinway and Lacey Taggert, and mean girl Kiera Shaw.   Deno still seems to carry a bit of a torch for Angie, and is oblivious to Lacey’s interest in himself.   Kiera seems intent on bringing up Angie’s supposedly sordid past at every opportunity.

Things get progressively worse in Cadence as increasing numbers of people go mad, and the real reason the Harbingers are in town approaches.

At my current age, I sympathize more with Angie’s well-meaning but out of the loop father when it comes to her apparent relationship with Reece.  The story fudges a bit on the “much older guy falls in love with a teenage girl” thing, but it still comes off icky.

Thankfully, Angie’s reasonably competent on her own; it’s only supernatural problems that she needs a supernatural rescuer for.

A third kind of supernatural being comes into the plot briefly, creating a sequel hook.  (Yes, of course this is a series.)

Overall…I’m not the audience for this book.  It seems competently written, and I didn’t actively hate any of the characters, but they didn’t engage me either.   It will probably work much better for teenagers, and more likely artsy young women.

Let’s have a video of crows being annoying!

Book Review: Next Year in Havana

Book Review: Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Reading Copy from a Read It Forward giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.  The final product, due out 2/6/18, may have minor changes.

Next Year in Havana

In 1958, Elisa Perez is the daughter of one of the richest families in Havana, constrained by family tradition and the patriarchal society.  Her father supports president Fulgencio Batista in order to protect their sugar industry interests, but Elisa is becoming increasingly aware of the suffering of the Cuban people at the hands of the government.  Still, are the 26th of July movement and the other revolutionaries truly the way forward?

In 2017, Marisol Ferrera takes advantage of the partial thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States following the death of Fidel Castro and her job as a lifestyles journalist to travel to the land her family has long been exiles of.  Though she knows what Cuba was from the stories of her grandmother and other relatives, Marisol has little idea of what that country is like now.  More, she’s about to discover a family secret hidden all these decades.

The author, Chanel Cleeton, is herself the descendant of Cuban exiles, which inspired this dual romance book with political thriller elements.

My mother has told me of meeting Cuban exiles back in the late 1950s who eagerly hoped for the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictator Batista so that they could go home and rebuild their country.  They hoped that Castro would keep his promises of reform and that Cuba would rise to be the prosperous, modern nation it had once been.  Mom lost touch, and has no idea what happened to them.

Elisa, nineteen, is whisked out of the house in secret by her more daring sister Beatriz to go to a party in a less prosperous part of the city.   While Beatriz meets with their disowned brother, Elisa meets an earnest lawyer, Pablo, who it turns out is an ally of Che Guevara.   They begin a forbidden courtship, kept apart by social status and the explosive political climate.

Marisol is twenty-six, and a bit more worldly wise than her grandmother had been.  Her shoes still cost more than the average Cuban makes in a year.  Elisa’s best friend Ana had been forced to stay in Cuba, and has managed to make a small living as a restaurant owner.  Ana’s grandson Luis is a history professor who also helps out at the restaurant, and becomes Elisa’s tour guide.  As Elisa learns more about her grandmother’s life before exile, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Luis.

The descriptions are lush, with many glowing descriptions of landscapes and food.

Elisa’s section of the book seems surer-footed, perhaps because the passage of time has made the political outcomes clearer and that allows the author to weave the events together more closely.  Marisol’s section seems designed to appeal to the viewpoint of Cuban expatriates and their loyalists, and I have to wonder how much it would ring true to Cubans who actually live in Cuba.  The political thriller elements seem more forced in that section.

Torture is mentioned, and the results are seen.

I think this book will go over well with people who are heavily into historical romance as a genre and appreciate political thriller elements sprinkled in.  It’s also nice to read a book with Cuba as a setting; I’ve only had a handful of those.  (Check my back reviews for Mingo Dabney.)

The edition coming out in 2018 appears to be designed to be a book club selection, as there are discussion questions in the back.  Also, the sequel starring Beatriz, Elisa’s sister, is already in the works and there is a chapter from that.  (And from that excerpt, it looks like more my thing.)

Book Review: Oliver Twist

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

An anonymous woman stumbles into a village about seventy-five miles from London, heavily pregnant and with her shoes in tatters.  She collapses in the street, and is taken to the parochial workhouse.  There, she gives birth to a boy and then perishes, seemingly leaving no clue to who she was.

Oliver Twist

The boy is named Oliver Twist, the surname being because he is the twentieth nameless foundling in the parish since Mr. Bumble, the parochial beadle (a sort of petty law enforcer) took up the office and started using alphabetical naming.  He is shuffled off to an “orphan farm” to be neglected until old enough to start picking oakum in the workhouse.  At the workhouse, Oliver is labeled a troublemaker when he dares ask for more gruel.   Is it possible for things to get worse?  Probably.

This was the second novel length work by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).   He moved from the straight-up comedy of The Pickwick Papers to a dramatic plot with comedic undertones.  Much of what happens to young Oliver in the early parts of the book is drawn from what Dickens remembered from his own poverty-stricken childhood.  In the preface to the Third Edition (the one used for the reprint I read), Mr. Dickens defends his use of what we’d call “gritty realism” compared to the usual treatment of poverty and crime in that time’s literature.    Then he admits to toning the language way down to avoid having the book be banned for cuss words.

Once the adults in the charity system have decided that Oliver is a bad child, they proceed to behave as though this is the case while completely ignoring the lad’s actual behavior and character.  (Consistent with the general treatment of poverty as being the result of moral failings, and therefore the poor being undeserving of better treatment, and indeed an excuse to treat them horribly.)

The first adult we see even momentarily show some concern for Oliver is a magistrate that refuses to apprentice the boy to a chimney sweeper that routinely works his apprentices to death on the grounds that Oliver is clearly terrified by the man.   The workhouse managers blame Oliver for failing to look properly grateful.  A second apprenticeship application by undertaker Mr. Sowerberry goes better.

Mr. Sowerberry cannot be described as a good person; there’s too much petty greed and schadenfreude in his character.   But he’s not actively hostile to Oliver and sees a way to make the boy useful and good for the business.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Sowerberry,  older apprentice Noah Claypole, and serving girl Charlotte are hostile and make life miserable.  Noah, whose living circumstances are barely above Oliver’s, has always wanted someone to punch down at.

Oliver finally snaps after one too many insults to his dead mother, and punches Noah back.  This gets Mr. Bumble called in, and it appears that Oliver will be sent back to the workhouse, if not prison.  Understandably, Oliver decides to run away.  Life is not easy for a penniless child alone on the road, but a day’s coach ride out of London, Oliver meets someone who likes the cut of his jib.

This is Jack Dawkins, known on the street as the Artful Dodger.  A bit older than Oliver, and good-natured for a hardened criminal, the Dodger brings Oliver home to meet a gentleman who would be willing to teach Oliver a trade.  This gentleman is Fagin, a “kidsman” who trains children to steal for him.  At first, Fagin pretends that he teaches the boys hanging out in his shelter how to make handkerchiefs and wallets.

Oliver learns the truth when he’s sent out on his first mission with Jack and his amiable partner Charley “Master” Bates.  When he sees the pair steal an old man’s silk handkerchief, Oliver runs away from them, making it appear that he is the pickpocket.  The victim, Mr. Brownlow, quickly realizes the truth and does not press charges, instead taking the seriously ill boy home to tend him.

Mr. Brownlow realizes that Oliver Twist looks a lot like someone he used to know, but keeps that information to himself to avoid raising the boy’s hopes.   The lad grows well again, and for the first time in his life experiences enough to eat and decent clothing.  (Fagin provided minimal food and shelter.)  Unfortunately, Fagin’s gang, including Nancy (whose job is mentioned in the preface as prostitution) and Bill Sikes, a brutal burglar, have managed to track Oliver down.

The very first time Oliver is alone outside the house, he is abducted by the gang.  Fagin worried that Oliver might be induced to give evidence to the police, and also has been engaged by the mysterious Mr. Monks to make sure Oliver returns to a life of crime.  After they think that Oliver’s will has been broken enough, Sikes bullies Fagin into giving him the boy for a job in the country.

This crime goes south quickly, and things look bad when Oliver is shot.  But this is where Oliver’s fortunes truly turn, as he is taken in by generous householders, one of whom feels a certain kinship towards him.

The villains, however, are still at large, so Oliver’s trials are not yet done.

The last third of the novel moves the focus away from Oliver as the various schemes and plans of the adults in the story play out for good or ill.  Only at the end do we return to the boy as his true heritage is revealed.

Good:  Dickens had a way of language, and a saucy narrative style.  One character has the habit of exclaiming “I’ll eat my head!” and the narrator points out that even if science devised a method by which eating one’s own head was physically possible, the appendage in question is too large for him to devour in one sitting.

Many of the characters are comical even while being horrible, as with Mr. Bumble, who talks up his virtuous charity while doing nothing of the sort.  Bill Sikes is a notable exception, with no punches pulled as he abuses pet and lover alike, before slipping into outright murder.

Plus, Mr. Dickens was good at pulling on heartstrings.  Thus it feels earned at the end when the good people mostly are rewarded, while the bad people tend to meet stickier ends.  (Though I do kind of hope that the Artful Dodger makes good in Australia.)

Not so good:  Mr. Dickens was paid by the word in monthly installments, and you can spot passages where he’s using more verbiage to fill out his pagecount, and plot twists thrown in where the monthly installment would have ended to make sure the readers would come back.

And then there’s the antisemitism.  Fagin really gets hit with the stereotype stick in earlier editions, in addition to being referred to as “the Jew” in the narration.  Mr. Dickens claimed that he hadn’t done this because he thought Jews were criminals, but because he was given to understand that the type of criminals that Fagin was tended to be Jewish.  But that doesn’t change that the entire Jewish representation in the book is Fagin (a fence and pimp who exploits children), Barney (a henchman of Fagin’s with a speech impediment) and an unnamed rag dealer who does business with Fagin.

Later in life, after Charles Dickens actually met some Jewish people and got to know them better, he revised the book to lessen the emphasis on Fagin’s Jewishness and excise a few of the physical stereotypes.

There’s also some period sexism, with the villains sliding into outright misogyny.  Mr. Bumble falls afoul of the down side of patriarchy for men when he learns that the law will consider him responsible for the crimes of his wife.  (“The law is a ass.”)   The actual women in the story range from saintly (Rose) to wicked (Mrs. Bumble).  It’s worth noting that Nancy, despite her never-explained day job and criminal behavior, for which she feels she can never atone, is still a better person than say Mrs. Sowerberry, who never breaks the law, but has no charity in her heart.

And of course, there’s some pretty contrived coincidence involved, as Oliver just happens to run into the only two people in England who have personal reasons to help him…and the only person in England who has personal reasons to make sure he never reaches adulthood.

This is a classic novel which has had considerable influence on popular culture, and is well worth reading once.

And a trailer for the musical, perhaps?

Book Review: Felifax the Tiger Man

Book Review: Felifax the Tiger Man by Paul Feval fils

Sir Eric Palmer, the world’s greatest detective, is about to retire on his daughter Grace’s eighteenth birthday.  He’s looking forward to taking up gardening in Cornwall and becoming a full time grandfather (Grace is beautiful and accomplished, surely a suitable young gentleman will snap her up quickly.)  But he’s abruptly called in by Scotland Yard.

Felifax the Tiger Man

A baffling series of weird incidents in Benares, India have come to the British government’s attention.  There are rumors of a “tiger man” in the area who might be a threat to the colonial government.  Would Sir Eric please look into this for them?

So the noble detective (and Grace, having invited herself along) depart for India to learn what they can.  It turns out there really is a tiger man, dubbed “Felifax” by a certain Brahman priest.  This encounter is inconclusive, but back in London, a series of bizarre murders suggest that Felifax is more bloodthirsty than previously shown.

This book is by a second-generation French author of pulp-style adventure fiction, and translated by Brian Stableford, who also provides an introduction, postscript and end notes.  Per Mr. Stableford, Mr. Feval was a very fast writer who didn’t do a lot of planning ahead.  In this book in particular, the “Sherlock Holmes meets Tarzan” genre clash produces some plot issues that are clumsily handled, and require authorial juggling to resolve by the end.

It’s difficult to discuss this volume without going into heavy spoilers, so I will sum up here, and then go on to a spoiler section.  It’s an interesting read with some cool ideas, some bad ideas, and uneven execution.  Content warning for rape and torture.  Recommended for people who like the more out-there pulps.

SPOILERS from this point on–you have been warned.

The Tiger Man’s origin story is not quite what you might have expected from my using the word “Tarzan.”  Rather than being raised by tigers, young Rama (his real name) is the result of a bizarre mad science experiment.  The priest Sourina and an English doctor artificially inseminate beautiful temple dancer Siva with tiger semen.  This does not quite work, and the result is hideously deformed and stillborn.

However, the English doctor invokes Lamarckian genetics, and has Sourina make Siva  have dubiously-consented sex with handsome young Brahman Rao.  The result of this pairing is a human-looking baby with faint brown stripes, unusual strength and speed, and the scent of a tiger.  Sourina murders Rao and has Siva imprisoned as soon as the baby can survive without her, then raises “Felifax” with tigers in his temple of Kali.  (The English doctor is deported from India for unrelated bad behavior.)

When Felifax reaches adulthood, he seeks freedom in the jungle, but also begins a campaign of terror against Sourina to get the priest to release Djina, a young girl who’d been raised in the temple with him.  These actions set off the plot with Sir Eric.

The first half of the book takes place in India, and the depiction of Benares (now Varanasi) owes more to stereotypes and imaginative fiction than to reality.  If it’s any comfort, the second half in England is equally dubious, as it has Newgate Prison and transportation to Australia surviving into the 1920s and a British man doing the “kiss on the cheek to show respect” thing no Englishman of the time would have done.

There’s a bit of period sexism and racism, though the latter is undercut when Sir Eric has to back up his fine words about all men being brothers when Grace falls in love with Rama.

There’s also a scene where the narration becomes creepy as it points out that Djina has the hots for Rama, she’s very attractive, and thirteen is considered of marriageable age in India–but not to worry, eighteen year old Rama thinks of her as a sister.  Thanks, narration.

To keep the story from ending early, Sir Eric is laid up with illness for most of the first half, then retires to Cornwall in the second half.  So the murders (which are nicely inventive) are investigated by a new character, Inspector Sullivan.  He’s introduced as the world’s second-greatest detective and the personally chosen successor of Sir Eric.

And he does great for a couple of chapters.  But then the author remembers that he has to bring Sir Eric back to tie up the plotline, so Sullivan rapidly degenerates into a complete stooge.  (And then the narration pretends it knew this all along.)  He spends some time pursuing a petty criminal named Blood-drinker (it’s never made clear if that’s the man’s actual name or an alias) who happens to be innocent of these particular crimes, then fastens on Felifax, who’s in town with the circus.

Meanwhile, there has been no mystery for the reader, as we know that the evil priest Sourina is the real master of the circus, and is carrying out his vengeance against the British occupiers of his homeland.  Sir Eric figures out the truth, though Sourina escapes in a sequel hook.

One of the most disappointing bits is that although Rama gets to show off his powers on various animals, the author goes to great lengths to prevent him from ever ripping a human opponent apart with his bare hands.  I mean, seriously, you have a tiger man with an anger-triggered super mode, and he never gets to kill anyone?

Oh, and meanwhile, Grace has developed a cure for smelling like a tiger, which allows her and Rama to hook up.

There are lots of individual scenes that are good, but the novel as a whole doesn’t hold together.   Read it for the good bits.

 

Book Review: Nine Lessons

Book Review: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

A churchyard in a village not too far from Cambridge in England has one too many bodies in its graves.  The victim, a respected organist, was entombed alive, and odd details about the scene make it clear that this was murder most foul.  Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose is called in from Scotland Yard to investigate.

Nine Lessons

One of the clues brings DCI Penrose to Cambridge itself, where the victim was a student at King’s College before World War One.  As it happens, Penrose’s good friend, mystery writer Josephine Tey is in town, house-sitting for her very good friend Marta.  The days are turning chill as Armistice Day approaches, but there’s something else that is bringing fear to the university town–a series of sexual assaults on young women.

This is the seventh in a series of mystery books starring a fictionalized version of author Josephine Tey.  For starters, in the books this is her actual name, rather than being a nom de plume  for Elizabeth MacKintosh (1896-1952).  The real author is perhaps best remembered for her 1951 novel, The Daughter of Time, in which a hospitalized police detective amuses himself by investigating the supposed murder by Richard III of his nephews.  But this story is set in approximately 1937, as it’s mentioned that Alfred Hitchcock is loosely adapting one of Tey’s books into a movie.

But Mr. Hitchcock is only mentioned; the primary literary influence here is M.R. James, once Dean of King’s College, and famous for his chilling ghost stories.  The murderer seems to be taking inspiration from those stories, and all the victims were once in the King’s College Choir (which sings the Nine Lessons and Carols from whence the title derives.)

The subtitle on the cover is “some wounds never heal”; Inspector Penrose and some of the other characters are still carrying the scars from the War, while others are dealing with more personal wounds.  Another theme of the book is kindness, given, withheld, found in unusual places and the devastating effects if kindness is taken away.

An important subplot is the romantic relationship between Inspector Penrose and his current (and former) lover Bridget.  She’s been keeping a large secret from him that Marta (and thus Josephine) have learned about.  Keeping this secret is a betrayal, but it’s not theirs to tell.

There’s a lot of glowing description of Cambridge’s architecture.  I’ve only been there one day many years ago, so cannot speak to the accuracy of the descriptions, but the author lives there so presumably knows what she’s talking about.  The author deliberately moved some 1970s events into the 1930s to fit them into this novel.

The murder mystery part of the book wraps up several chapters before the end, allowing the other plotlines to take the foreground.  The ending is bittersweet at best; criminals have been found and taken off the streets, but the wounds they caused remain.  (Content warning: rape, suicide.)

Some bits made me cry, but then I’m the sentimental sort.  Recommended to fans of historical mysteries.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Here’s a video of the King’s College Choir and the Nine Lessons:

 

 

Book Review: Taran Wanderer

Book Review: Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

With the Black Cauldron destroyed, Death-Lord Arawn has retreated to his own lands for the time being, and no other major threats beset the realm of Prydain.  Long peaceful days at Caer Dallben have given Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper time to think.  Taran has realized a number of things, including that he wants to be together with Eilonwy for the rest of their lives…and that he has no idea who he is.

Taran Wanderer

That’s both in the metaphorical and literal sense.  Taran has no idea who his parents were, or if he has living kin.  And his life at Caer Dallben has been more about caring for the oracular swine Hen Wen than discovering his own way of life.  What if he is of noble birth?  What if he is truly a peasant?  Can he be together with a princess if his birthright is unknown?

Dallben the enchanter is as usual not a great deal of help; he either cannot or will not tell Taran the details of the boy’s heritage.  So it is that Taran sets out with his faithful companion Gurgi to the Marshes of Morva.  There, Taran consults the three dangerous sister enchantresses, but learns he cannot pay them a price high enough to learn his own secret.  They do, however, mention that the Mirror of Llunet might give him a glimpse of his true self.

Lake Llunet, where the Mirror was last seen, is clear at the other end of the country, and the rest of the story is about Taran’s journey there.

This is the fourth of five novels in The Chronicles of Prydain, a children’s series based loosely on Welsh mythology.  (Mr. Alexander mentions in the foreword that he’s borrowed bits from other folklore as well.)  The focus is on Taran’s character development, so there’s no one overwhelming threat, but a number of smaller problems and lessons that Taran must overcome or learn from on his way to maturity.

Indeed, Taran has grown a great deal from the callow lad he was at the beginning of the series; he shows wisdom whenever he thinks about how to help others, rather than his own problems.  But he still needs to let go of the notion that he needs to be special before he can embrace his true destiny.

Not everything is hard lessons; not-quite-human Gurgi and the prevaricating bard Fflewddur Fflam provide comic relief.  But there are villains as well, the terrifying Morda, who cannot be killed by mortal means (and who is responsible for some of the mysteries in earlier books) and the greedy mercenary Dorath.  Eilowny does not appear, but is often mentioned.

The book is well-written, though some of the running character tics grow tiresome by the end.  (And the lesson at the end is obvious at the beginning if you’re at all familiar with children’s literature.)   It’s a good breather before the climactic events of the final volume, where Taran and Eilowny must take their mature roles.

I recommend the entire series, and the Disney version has its good bits as well.

Book Review: A Man Named Raglan/Gun Junction

Book Review:  A Man Named Raglan/Gun Junction by John Callahan and Barry Cord, respectively

While most of the Ace Doubles (two short books fused together and printed upside down from each other) I’ve read are science fiction, Ace also put out mysteries and westerns in the format.  This book is one of the Westerns, and is volume M-100, first of the 45¢ series.

A Man Named Raglan

A Man Named Raglan takes place during the Civil War, as Nevada Territory becomes a state.  Wells Fargo shotgun rider Dan Raglan isn’t much fussed about it.  He did his bit for the Union up until his leg took a bullet at Chancellorsville, and that’s the end of the war for him, thank you.  His stagecoach driver partner Steve Munson is more concerned.  Munson’s a loyal son of the South, and doesn’t like how it’s getting whipped, and Nevada’s coming in on the side of the North.

Neither of them is pleased when they’re ambushed by road agents claiming to be Confederate irregulars here to confiscate that sweet Wells Fargo moneybox for the war effort.  When it turns out Wells Fargo hadn’t sent any cash on this trip, the owlhoots have to settle for robbing the passengers instead.  They had the drop on Raglan through the robbery, but as the robbers are departing, one’s horse shies, and Raglan has a chance to bring his rifle to bear.

Raglan is about to squeeze the trigger when the road agent’s mask slips–and he recognizes the man as Bob Worden, kid brother of Elizabeth Worden, the woman Raglan is courting.  Raglan hesitates just long enough for Bob to regain his balance and escape.

Munson is furious and accuses Raglan of cowardice.  the two men have a fist fight that reflects well on neither of them, but female passenger Lil Shannon seems to sympathize more with Raglan.  Raglan refuses to identify Bob, even when crack Wells Fargo agent Ben Nasmith asks him directly, so he’s out of a job.

Elizabeth isn’t particularly grateful about Raglan shielding her brother, as she doesn’t believe Bob could have been involved in the first place.  Oh, and the gang Bob was with has realized that Raglan can finger one of their members, and wants the former shotgun rider dead to prevent that.  For a man who thought his war was over, Raglan’s got a lot of fighting to do!

This is a decent enough Western, and I like how Raglan’s bum leg realistically causes difficulty for him.  He spends a good half of the time laid up in bed one way or another.

Less good is some historical sleight of hand that allows Raglan (and by extension the reader) to admire his Confederate foes, considering them honorable men fighting for an almost worthy cause.  There is zero mention of slavery, and not one black person appears, despite Virginia City’s actual demographics at that time in history.  The latter was typical of Westerns in the 1960s, but it sticks out like a sort thumb because of the storyline.

From Raglan’s perspective, there’s a mystery element to the story, but savvy readers will figure out the big twists well ahead of him.

Gun Junction

Gun Junction is set in Texas.  The small town of Fulton has been taken over by Luke McQuade’s gang of outlaws.  They lynched the sheriff, beat the deputy so bad he’ll never come back, and murdered the U.S. Marshal who came into town to avenge the sheriff.   Also, for some reason, they seem intent on preventing the Desert Line Railroad from being finished.

Deputy Marshal Matt Vickers is the next lawman to ride into town, though he comes incognito.  He’s brought two other men, ex-Ranger Doc Emory, and hard-bitten Kip Billens, the brother of the murdered sheriff.  Each of the men carries his own burden of secrets, and not all of them will leave Fulton alive.

This is a dark-themed and brooding story, and is better about delivering its twists than its partner.  (The book’s blurb did give a bit too much away.)  Overall, it’s better-written, too.

Both books use the “protagonist interrupts jerk who’s hitting on an uninterested woman who then takes an interest in the protagonist” cliche–Gun Junction plays it out better as while the young woman in question does fancy Matt Vickers, she’s fully aware he’s not a good long-term marriage prospect.  Also, both books have the phrase “don’t make war on women.”

I am given to understand that Gun Junction was later reprinted separately, and that may be a better bet than trying to track down the relatively rare Ace Double printing.

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

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