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: Old Celtic Romances

Book Review: Old Celtic Romances by P.W. Joyce

The Gaelic-speaking people of ancient Ireland told tales of their mighty ancestors and great men, not unlike the people of every nation and tribe.  When writing came, they began to put these tales into manuscripts.  Out of the large body of remaining literature, in 1879 P.W. Joyce chose thirteen legends he felt represented the most interesting of Irish tales.  Eleven of these were printed in the first edition, but this volume is a reproduction of the third edition which has them all.

Old Celtic Romances

They’re roughly in order of internal chronology.

“The Fate of the Children of Lir; or, The Four White Swans” is the first of what are called “the Three Sorrows of Irish Storytelling” due to their somewhat tragic endings.   Lir’s four children are turned into swans by their stepmother due to her belief that people liked them better than her.  She curses them to spend nine hundred years in those forms, three hundred years each in three different bodies of water.

Only the arrival of Christianity to Erin allows them to leave their watery prison, and a disciple of Saint Patrick is able to turn them human, whereupon the children of Lir die of extreme old age.

There’s some evidence to suggest that some of the older tales started out under the old “pagan” religions and then were altered to meet new Christian guidelines.  “Druidical wands” are common in the early ones.

“The Fate of the Children of Turenn; or, the Quest for the Eric-Fine” is set in the days of Lugh of the Long Arms, as he battles the Fomori (sea raiders, often depicted as giants or deformed.)  Lugh’s father Kian is murdered by the three sons of Turenn due to an earlier quarrel that is not explained.  Because Turenn is a distant relative of Kian, this is considered kin-slaying and Lugh can choose to have them either executed immediately, or exact a blood price (the “eric-fine” of the title.)

Lugh describes the eric-fine in general terms that makes it sound not so bad, but when the brothers accept, he reveals that each of the items he mentioned are in fact mystic relics of great power guarded by mighty owners, or are otherwise hard to get.  For example, the three apples he wants are the Golden Apples of the Garden of Hisberna, which can heal any wound among other properties.

The brothers cut a bloody swath across Europe gaining the parts of the eric-fine, using each item they gain to make it easier to get the rest.  Eventually, a smart king just gives them what they want rather than have his army and himself slaughtered.  But with 5/7ths of the fine gathered, Lugh plays a nasty trick on the children of Turenn, mind-zapping them into returning to Eire with only that part of the eric-fine, confiscating the magic items, and then sending them off for the rest.

The last two items have the toughest guardians yet, and the brothers are fatally wounded in the process of gaining them.  The children of Turenn manage to return to Lugh successful in paying their fine, and ask him to heal them.  He refuses and cheerfully watches the brothers expire, followed by their grieving father and sister.  The ancient Irish really know how to hold onto a grudge!

“The Overflowing of Lough Neagh, and the Story of Liban the Mermaid” tells the tale of two brothers who decide to leave home with their followers to settle new territory.  One perishes quickly, but the other settles down in an area with a magic well.  Too soon the protection around the well is broken, and it floods the entire valley.  One person, Liban, survives by becoming a mermaid.

“Connla of the Golden Hair and the Fairy Maiden” has the handsome young man lured from his home by  a beautiful woman from the land of Moy-Nell, where there is no old age or sickness.  He is never seen again.

“The Voyage of Maildun” has the title character go off for vengeance against the raiders who killed his father.  He’s told by a soothsayer to only bring sixty crew members, but his three foster-brothers insist on coming along.  Breaking this prohibition gets the ship lost in a storm, and they must sail randomly to bizarre islands and have adventures not unlike the Odyssey.  They lose each of the foster-brothers and are at last able to find their way again, but Maildun learns he must show forgiveness to finally come home.

“The Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees” is the first of the tales starring Finn, mighty leader of the Fena.  Finn  and his men slaughter an invading army, sparing only Midac, the youngest son of the invading king.  Finn brings up the lad in his own house, intending to turn him to good.

Midac, though, holds a grudge, and when he is fully grown, invites Finn and his men to his palace made of quicken tree (mountain ash).   It turns out to be a magical trap, foiled only by a) a couple of the younger men of the Fena being left on guard outside the palace, and b) Midac holding a huge banquet for all the villainous fellows he’d recruited to help him kill Finn.  The baddies come over in small groups, and by the time Midac is there with his full army, the Fena have been freed to fight.

This story also introduces Conan Maol (“Conan the Bald”) who is something of a comic relief figure.  He’s a coward, glutton and most feared for his sharp tongue-but also deadly in a fight.

“The Pursuit of the Giolla Dacker and His Horse” has Finn and his men be fooled by a giant calling himself “Giolla Dacker” (“slothful fellow”) who has a equally slothful-looking horse.  Giolla Dacker tricks several of the Fena to mount his horse in an effort to tame it–they are then stuck to it, and the suddenly vigorous horse runs off, followed by its also suddenly speedy master.  The rest of the story is the many adventures of Finn and his men trying to get back their fellows.

One bit that I noticed was Dermat O’Dyna has the habit of never eating leftovers–later his companions are able to know he’s been somewhere by the heap of half-eaten deer, as he kills a new one whenever he’s hungry rather than finish off the old one.

“The Pursuit of Dermat and Grania” has the young hero Dermat elope with the beautiful Grania.  This is an issue as she was promised to Finn (who is by this time old enough to be her grandfather.)  Finn reacts badly.  After much slaughter, Finn finally backs off.

However, this leads to the scene I describe as “remember that time twenty-five years ago when I said I forgave you?  I lied.  Now, I’ve led you into a trap, and will watch cheerfully as you bleed out and refuse to magically heal you.”  The translator notes that this is an unusually negative portrayal of Finn.

“The Chase of Slieve Cullinn” is the story of how Finn’s hair changed from golden to silver.  It involves a shapeshifter, a magical lake, and vanity.

“The Chase of Slieve Fuad” has another shapeshifter lure the Fena including Finn to her brother’s castle to be magically imprisoned and slaughtered.  This is Conan Maol’s big moment as he saves everyone–but also has a sheepskin permanently bonded to his body, requiring shearing every year.

“Oisin in Tír na nÓg” concerns Finn’s son Oisin, (also known as Ossian), the last survivor of the Fena.  He had been scouted by a young woman from the Land of Youth, and agreed to accompany her there to be her husband.  And that fair land was agreeable to him, but Oisin grew homesick.  When he returned to Ireland, the Fena were long  dead, the people had shrunk, and Christianity had come to Erin.  Oisin accidentally broke a taboo, and could not return to his wife, becoming old and blind.  (Tradition has it that this and the preceding two tales were told by Oisin to Saint Patrick before he died.)

“The Voyage of the Sons of O’Corra” has triplets who were dedicated to the Devil before birth (as God had not answered O’Corra’s pleas for children.)  They caused much mischief in honor of their sponsor (mostly destroying churches and outraging the religious) before suddenly coming to the epiphany that evil is bad.

Repenting, they converted to Christianity and started atoning for their ill deeds.  As part of their penance, the triplets and several men of the cloth took a sea voyage where they saw many strange islands, some of which were metaphorical.  (The translator notes that many of the instances are similar to or identical to scenes from Maildun’s voyage.)

“The Fate of the Sons of Usna” ends the volume with the Third Sorrow.  A girl named Deirdre is born, and it’s prophesied that she will bring woe to Ulster and Erin.  Deidre is raised in isolation, but decides that she wants to marry a man with hair as black as a raven, cheeks as red as blood, and skin as white as snow.

This turns out to be Naisi, one of the sons of Usna, and a Knight of the Red Branch.  He reciprocates, and they elope to Alba (Scotland) with his brothers and a group of followers.

Unfortunately, King Conor has decided he wants Deirdre for his own wife, and engages in a series of treacherous actions to bring the sons of Usna and Deirdre back to Ireland and then have the men killed.  This eventually works and Deirdre dies of grief.

Mr. Joyce notes in his prologue that he has erred more on the side of preserving the sense of the language from the old texts than a literal translation.  He’s also kept in the poetry that the characters occasionally burst into, which is probably fragments of the earlier oral tradition versions of the stories.  There are copious footnotes that explain words and the present-day names of places.  End notes go into further detail on aspects of Irish folklore.

As mentioned earlier, this Dover publication is a reproduction rather than a reformatted reprint.  This means it keeps the tiny font of the original book, and the even tinier font of the poetry sections.  It was difficult to read on Kindle, so I would recommend springing for the hard copy instead.  I also urge Dover to come out with a large print edition.

The writing style is a bit stiff and old-fashioned, but that’s to be expected.  Recommended to those wanting to research Celtic legends but without the ability to read the sources in the original languages.

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

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Book Review: One Night in Sixes

Book Review: One Night in Sixes by Arianne “Tex” Thompson

Island Town used to be known as Sixes, when the Eadan Confederacy controlled this area.  But a decade or so back, the indigenous peoples pushed the Confederacy across the river.  Now Island Town is on the border, with only a handful of the old inhabitants providing continuity.  Like many border towns, the former Sixes is a mix of various peoples with different customs and languages, who cooperate or clash in many ways.

One Night in Sixes

Sil Halfwick knows nothing of conditions in Island Town–not even its new name.  The sickly displaced Northerner was hoping to sell some horses at the County Fair to show his business acumen and earn enough money to move back East.  That didn’t work out, so he gets the hare-brained idea to go across the border to Sixes, where horses are scarce.  He drags along mixed-race ranch hand Appaloosa Elim, who Sil is nominally in charge of, but considers himself Sil’s babysitter.

Elim has good reason to worry.  Across the border, “mules” such as himself are regarded with extreme suspicion due to the belief they carry disease. And if that wasn’t enough, certain people in Island Town have cause to be on the outlook for someone like Elim.

Sil is oblivious to all this.  He samples the local nightlife and becomes involved in high-stakes gambling.  He seems to win big, but a series of coincidences and petty cruelties result in a man being dead in the morning.  Now the two outsiders are in deep, deep trouble.  And it looks like neither Sil’s fast talking nor Elim’s steadfast endurance is going to get them out of it.

This Western-flavored fantasy is the first in the “Children of the Drought” series.  Despite many similarities, this is not Earth as we know it.  The various kinds of humans have supernatural talents, and some of the people in Sixes aren’t strictly speaking human.  The “white” people speak Ardish, which is not quite English, while the trade language is the not-exactly Spanish tongue Marin.  (There’s a glossary and list of characters in the back.  The latter is mildly spoilery.)

One of the big differences is that it’s much harder for mixed-race people to “pass”, as instead of melding features, they wind up with vitiligo-like mottled skin.  Elim has a very conspicuous eye-patch marking.

The story is told in tight third-person, with switches in viewpoint character revealing new information and making motivations clearer.  We see that much of the tragedy in the story comes from people’s biases blinding them to the good intentions or full humanity of others.

In addition to Sil and Elim, we hear the thoughts of:

Twoblood, the other mixed-race person in town.  She’s Second Man (effectively sheriff) and feels the need to be seen to enforce the law rigorously  to offset the suspicion against her because of her ancestry.

Fours, the livery owner who is not what he seems and has conflicting loyalties.  As a result, Fours has to work against his personal agenda from time to time.

Dia, the only Afriti (black person) in town.  She’s a grave  bride of the Penitent religion (roughly Catholic nun) and wants to give mercy where she can, but the wickedness in Island Town often thwarts her.

And Vuchak, a member of the a’Krah tribe (followers of Crow) who works in the local den of sin.  He’s poor-tempered, even with his partner Weisei (who’s a trifle addlepated.)  Vuchak takes his tribe’s honor very seriously, and doesn’t like compromises.

There’s quite a bit of world-building and examination of culture clash.  The book ends as several characters leave Sixes/Island Town for a long journey that will presumably be the focus of the next book, but there are indications that those who died in this book will still have an effect.

There’s some rough language, and discussion  of slavery.  (Sil claims Elim is a slave at one point, but Elim’s situation is more complicated than that.)  The fantastic racism may strike some readers as too close to real racism for comfort.

I found this book well-written and look forward to the next volume.

Book Review: A Storm of Swords

Book Review: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first two volumes in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

A Storm of Swords

The Battle of King’s Landing is over, and the forces loyal to King Joffrey are triumphant.  But the War of Five Kings rages on, with no part of Westeros left untouched.  Lord Tywin Lannister returns to power as the King’s Hand after many years and his iron grip is soon felt both by the people of the land and his own family.

The various factions scheme and negotiate and betray, but all of this may soon be pointless as the Others gain strength and seek to slay all who live.

This is the third and largest volume so far in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series.  In a foreword, the author explains that the chapters from different points of view do not immediately follow each other chronologically.  Indeed, the first few chapters of A Storm of Swords take place before the last few chapters of A Clash of Kings, catching us up on some characters who were not at the Battle of King’s Landing.

The members of the Stark family remain a plurality of the viewpoint chapters, but other folks are catching up.

Catelyn Stark takes a calculated risk in freeing Jaime Lannister to exchange for her daughters, which angers some of her son’s bannermen.  Thus she has little room to talk when King Robb himself makes a major diplomatic faux pas.  (Robb still doesn’t get a viewpoint chapter.)  With their alliance falling apart, will the King in the North be able to mend fences before his enemies regroup?

Jon Snow infiltrates the Northern Wildlings as he was ordered, in order to learn what Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, is up to.  Like many spies before him, Jon learns that the Free Folk are people not so different from those he has loved and sworn to protect, despite their odd customs and desire to invade his homeland.  It is a bitter pill to swallow, but realizing that you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom.

Sansa Stark, trapped at King Joffrey’s court, continues to be a political pawn, valued primarily as a possible claim on the lands surrounding Winterfell, and if rebuilt, the castle itself.  She’s forced into a political marriage which she will need all her courtesy and will to survive.  The wolf may be caged, but she has not forgotten how to wait.

Arya Stark may have escaped the ill-omened castle Harrenhal, but the land is still torn by war, and one thing after another delays her reunion with her mother.  Among other events, Arya falls in with the Bannerless Brotherhood.  Once the enforcers of the king’s law, a change in government has made them outlaws who steal from the rich to give to the poor.  (For certain values of “rich” and “poor.”)  Arya may need to cash in a certain favor if she is to survive on her own terms.

Bran Stark, presumed dead after the fall of Winterfell, is headed north with the faithful Hodor and the Reeds.  (He has parted company with Rickon, who still gets no chapters.)   His link with direwolf Summer continues to grow, and he learns new facets of his powers.

Tyrion Lannister, badly wounded by an assassination attempt during the Battle of King’s Landing, finds himself fallen from power.  His father Lord Tywin grudgingly admits that Tyrion did a decent job as King’s Hand, but is soon back to treating his little person son like dirt, including saddling Tyrion with a cruel arranged marriage.  Queen Cersei and her son King Joffrey also take every opportunity to mock and belittle their relative.  How much can one man take before he snaps?

Daenerys Targaryen has come to realize that while being the Mother of Dragons is way cool, her reptilian wards are not yet big enough to win Westeros for her alone.  She needs an army, but where to get one?  Dani’s also finding that celibacy is becoming a harder stance to hold than when she was newly widowed.  Ser Jorah Mormont loves her, but the queen doesn’t love him that way back.

We don’t get any chapters from Theon Greyjoy’s perspective this time, though he is reportedly still alive and in possession of at least some of his skin.

Davos Seaworth, on the other hand, managed to survive the burning of the Blackwater, and returns to the service of King Stannis Baratheon.  The King of the Narrow Sea has been listening to the counsel of the Red Priestess Melisandre, and is prepared to sacrifice his nephew Edric Storm if that’s what it takes to gain enough power to rule Westeros.  Davos makes what is perhaps the smartest choices in the book when he realizes that Melisandre may be reading her prophetic visions backwards.

New to the list of point of view characters is Jaime Lannister, known as the Kingslayer.  Released in the custody of the female knight Brienne in order to get back to King’s Landing in exchange for the Stark daughters, Jaime must cross a hostile land with almost every hand against him.  We learn the reason he became the Kingslayer, and Jaime has to face up to how his past misdeeds have helped put Westeros in the mess it’s in.  Like Arya Stark, Jaime just keeps getting delayed on his journey until it is perhaps too late.

Finally, we follow Jon Snow’s less combat-effective friend Samwell Tarly, a steward for the Night Watch.  While Jon goes off on his secret mission, Sam assists the other Black Brothers in their scouting mission beyond the Wall.  The Others are deadly, but what may finish off the Night Watch might be treachery in their own ranks.

This is the book that really cemented the series’ reputation for having anyone die at any time, and kills off major and minor characters left and right.  (One character who seemed like they were going to be very important in the second volume dies offhand in a single sentence here.)  But that comes with a caveat that anyone who is only reported as dead may in fact be alive, and being dead doesn’t mean not making any more appearances.

The big theme of the book is marriage; there are multiple weddings, none of which turn out particularly well.  There’s also several songs that recur throughout, most notably the bawdy “The Bear and the Maiden” and “The Rains of Castamere”, which has more sinister connotations.

Parts of the book do become a slog as there are multiple characters trying to get from one place to another and not getting there over and over.  A couple of the Stark family just miss meeting each other, and some plot twists are gratuitously cruel.  (As are some actions taken by the characters.) A few of the mysteries in the first two volumes are solved, for what it is worth.

As always, there is plenty of gory violence, some sex, attempted rape of major characters and off-camera rape of minor characters, and great steaming heaps of rough language.  Torture takes place off-stage as well.  But if you weren’t warned by the first two volumes, there’s not much I can say.

There’s some nifty world-building, and a handful of great scenes.  Primarily recommended to people who liked the earlier books in the series.

And now, a song!

Magazine Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016 edited by C.C. Finlay

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction started publication in 1949.  According to Wikipedia, it was supposed to be a fantasy story version of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as it was at the time, classic reprints mixed with new material of a higher literary quality than was common in the pulps of the time.  Science fiction was added to expand the possible pool of stories.  F&SF has managed to publish fairly regularly ever since, though in recent years it’s bimonthly.  It has a reputation for literate fiction.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The cover story is “The Cat Bell” by Esther M. Friesner.  Mr. Ferguson is a successful actor in the early Twentieth Century, even having a fine house with servants.  One of those servants, Cook, greatly admires Mr. Ferguson.  Mr. Ferguson greatly admires cats, and has nineteen of them that Cook must feed every day.  One day there are twenty cats, and Cook finds herself in a fairy tale.  Content note:  Cook suffers from several of the less pleasant “isms” and isn’t afraid to say so.

“The Farmboy” by Albert E. Cowdrey is set on a distant planet being surveyed by a scout ship.  The crew has discovered a massive deposit of gold, but even if they had room to take it with them, the government would simply confiscate the wealth, giving nothing to the survey crew.  Several of the crew members come up with a scheme to make themselves very rich at the expense of the rest of the crew.  But if you can’t spot the sucker at the poker game, it’s probably you…some unpleasant sexism.

“Between Going and Staying” by Lilliam Rivera takes place in a future Mexico even more dominated by the drug cartels.  Dolores is a professional mourner using the newest bodysuit technology.  She’s been making very good money performing for the wealthy, but this funeral is personal.

There are two book review columns, one by Charles de Lint, in which he admits not being fond of psychological horror.  The other is by Chris Moriarty and focuses on books about human survival.

“The Vindicator” by Matthew Hughes is the last story in his current cycle about Raffalon the thief.  Raffalon is a mediocre burglar in the sort of fantasy city that has a Thieves’ Guild.  For some reason a Vindicator (assassin) is after Raffalon, and the Vindicator’s Guild isn’t being helpful for calling it off.  Raffalon hires a Discriminator (private investigator) and the truth turns out to be explosive.

A relatively rare Gardner Dozois story follows, “The Place of Bones.”  A scholar and his companion discover the Dragonlands, where dragons go to die.  More of a mood piece than a proper story.

“Lord Elgin at the Acropolis” by Minsoo Kang involves a police officer and writer meeting to consider the problem of a museum director who believes that one of the paintings in the museum is fake, despite no other evidence.  Is he just crazy, or is there another explanation?

“Special Collections” by Kurt Fawver is a horror story about a library with a section you must never enter alone, which is the first rule.  And then there’s the second rule….

David J. Skal reviews High-Rise for the film section, and compares it to the J.G. Ballard novel.

There’s the results of a contest for updating older science fiction works to today’s world.  Including a “Dishonorable Mention” update of 1984.

“A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley is set in a city where all disputes between the two major parties are settled by specially trained duelists.  Except that one side doesn’t want to play by those rules any more.  Very satisfying story.

“Passelande” by Robert Reed takes place in a depressing near future with electronic backups for people who can afford them.  Backups who have their own feelings and motivations.  This one grated on me, as I felt the characters had their motivations poorly explained/depicted.

“The Rhythm Man” by James Beamon is a variant on the legend about talented musicians selling their souls for skill or fame.  A lot of set-up for one great scene at the end.

And the stories wrap up with “Merry Christmas from All of Us to All of You” by Sandra McDonald.  It’s a dystopian tale of a gift-making community that ensures none of its children can truly escape.  But perhaps there is a ray of hope?

There’s an “Easter egg” in the classified ads, and then an index of stories and features that appeared in 2016’s issues.

I liked “The Vindicator” and “A Fine Balance” best, though “The Cat Bell” was also quite entertaining.  “Passendale” was the weakest story for me.

This magazine has consistently high quality stories and some nice cartoons; consider a print or Kindle subscription.

 

 

Book Review: A Clash of Kings

Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review contains spoilers for the previous book A Game of Thrones; if you haven’t read that one yet, check out the review here.

A Clash of Kings

Westeros has too many kings.  In the south, the King on the Iron Throne is Joffrey Baratheon, heir to the late King Robert.  He is a beardless boy, and cruel, and there are those who say he is not Robert’s trueborn son.  Still, he has the support of Queen Mother Cersei, Robert’s widow, and her powerful Lannister clan.

To the east is the King of the Narrow Sea, Stannis Baratheon, middle brother of Robert.  He is the one who instigated the rumors of his nephew’s illegitimacy, which would make him the rightful heir, and has a strong navy.  He is a hard man who has few friends, and has taken up with a foreign god.

To the west, his younger brother Renly is the King in Highgarden.  While Joffrey and Stannis yet live, Renly’s claim to the throne is tenuous at best.  However, Renly is a man who makes friends easily, and has the support of most of the southern lords who are not directly connected to the Lannisters.

The King in the North is Robb Stark, son of the former King’s Hand Ned.  He is barely older than Joffrey, but far more accomplished in strategy and battle, and has the support of the northern lords.  He may have too much of his father’s tendency to do the right thing rather than the wise thing, and grows weary of his mother Catelyn’s counsel.

Further north is Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, who is rallying the free wildling people for a journey south, as the Others begin to stir.

In the far west islands, Balon Greyjoy is styled King of Salt and Rock.  He has long chafed under the rule of landsmen, and intends to pay the “iron price” for such seaports as he can seize while Westeros is in chaos.

And far to the East, Danerys Targaryen is the last known descendant of the previous rulers of Westeros, and thus the rightful queen of that line.  But she has another, perhaps more important title now:  Mother of Dragons!

Perhaps this might be a good time for Westeros to switch to representative democracy.

This is the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, and source material for the Game of Thrones TV series.  It’s a thick book, with lots of events, though the tight third person narration means that many of those events take place “off-stage.”  Even the battle of King’s Landing, which gets a lot of detail, requires a key moment to be given in an after action report as none of the viewpoint characters are there.

So, let’s look at the viewpoint characters.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is dead (told you there’d be spoilers) and we still don’t get chapters for Robb or Rickon.  But the rest of the Stark family is represented.

Catelyn Stark (nee Tully) initially is with King Robb’s forces until he makes her ambassador to Renly.  She tries to mediate between him and Stannis, as their rival claims endanger them both.  It does not go well, and she is forced to retreat with one of Renly’s bodyguards, the female knight Brienne.

Jon Snow has joined a Night Guard expedition beyond the wall to learn Mance Rayder’s intentions and if necessary stop him.  There are dark doings afoot, both those of ordinary men and of the supernatural.

Sansa Stark remains a hostage of the royal family in King’s Landing.  She’s trying to retain what shreds of her optimism and belief in chivalry she can, but the story seems intent on crushing every last bit of her naivete.

Arya Stark has managed to escape the royal city disguised as a boy named Arry, only the first of several name changes.  She experiences the war from the perspective of the “smallfolk” who have no choice but to obey whichever master currently holds sway or be killed.  Her sections include a really cool character, but naming them would be a huge spoiler.

And Bran Stark learns that his body may be crippled, but he has powers of his own.  Also, being the eight-year-old lord of Winterfell castle is not as much fun as you might have thought, especially when enemies come knocking.

Meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister continues to be his family’s viewpoint character.  He’s appointed acting King’s Hand while his father Tywin deals with the military aspects of the multi-sided war.  His short stature is no handicap in a job that primarily involves making and carrying out plans, and Tyrion has more success than any other viewpoint character.  But because he took the post just as the ill effects of the war hit King’s Landing, he’s despised by the citizens.  And his relatives aren’t making things any easier!

Further afield, Dani is trying to parlay her baby dragons and handful of followers into a force that will retake Westeros for the Targaryen line.  This is the plotline with the most overt magical elements, including a trippy sequence where Dani gets a great deal of symbolic information that she can’t use because she has no context for it.  Apparently, dragons enhance magic merely by existing, but most magic is used in unpleasant ways so that’s not a good thing.

The first new viewpoint character is Theon Grayjoy, who appeared as a minor player in the first book.  He is at last released from his hostage status with the Starks so that King Robb can offer an alliance with Balon, Theon’s father.  Theon has a lot of resentment against his foster family, and is planning to betray them as soon as it’s convenient.  Balon, on the other hand, has no interest in an alliance in the first place–worse, he distrusts Theon because the young man has been too long away from their pirate island.  And indeed, Theon does very poorly trying to navigate between the differing ideas of correct behavior of the Northmen and the Ironmen.

Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, is completely new.  He’s a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis Baratheon for services rendered, while also being punished for his crimes.  Thus Davos is one of the few men totally loyal to the would-be king while not having any illusions about his character.  Ser Davos speaks truth to power, which does not bode well for his longevity.

This volume is full of signs and portents, beginning with a red comet that a number of characters think is relevant to them…but they can’t all be right.  Several other clues are disregarded due to prejudice or past experience.

Content issues: Rape continues to be the go-to “gritty realism” thing in this volume; none of the viewpoint characters are raped this time, but it is frequently threatened.  Incest gets an increased emphasis, once played for comedy!  Lots of violence of course, torture is mentioned more than once, and frequent cruel and pointless deaths  And of course salty language.

There are some really cool moments and the general quality of the writing is high.  On the other hand, the survival rate of likable characters is low (and unlikable characters are only somewhat longer-lived) so this tends to be a depressing book.

Recommended if you liked the first book or the TV series.

Now, let’s have the TV show opening credits!

 

Book Review: Goblin Quest

Book Review: Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines

Jig has always lived in the mountain, only hearing third-hand stories about the outside world.  Even stepping outside the goblin warrens is dangerous, why risk going any further?  Still, he dreams of being promoted from his lamplighter duties (a child’s job) to a patrolling warrior.  Jig’s smart, but that counts little in goblin society when he’s also small and weak, with poor vision.

Goblin Quest

Then  one day Jig is bullied into acting as a scout for a lazy patrol, only to find himself captured by adventurers who have killed the rest of the goblin patrol.  A captive, Jig is forced to become a guide for the party of four.  There’s Prince Barius, a younger son touchy about his honor and his low status among his siblings; Ryslind, Barius’ brother whose magic seems to be adversely affecting his sanity; Darnak, a dwarven cleric and tutor to the brothers, and Riana, an elvish pickpocket who was also dragooned  into serving Barius.  It seems they’re after the Rod of Creation, a powerful artifact that supposedly created the mountain itself.  Jig’s chances of survival just keep dropping!

This is the first volume in the “Jig the Goblin” trilogy of comedic fantasy novels by Jim C. Hines, who was a Guest of Honor at Minicon 52.  It’s heavily based on the kind of “kill monsters and take their stuff” style of fantasy common to games of Dungeons & Dragons, and in specific seems to be parodying aspects of the Dragonlance series of D&D tie-in novels.

One of the common hallmarks of comedic fantasy is to tell the story from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t the typical hero of heroic fantasy stories, and in this case, it’s one of the “monsters” who would normally be cannon fodder to allow the protagonists to show off their prowess before getting to really tough opponents.

Jig is initially only sympathetic because of his underdog status; he’s cowardly, selfish and all too willing to let others suffer or die in his place.  As the story progresses, Jig has his horizons expanded as he learns about the adventurers from their perspective, and realizes that goblin social norms put them at an even greater disadvantage than they already had due to their small size and lack of technology.  He even finds a god!

Meanwhile, the adventurers are no heroes; Prince Barius’ motive for seeking the Rod is entirely self-centered, Ryslind has a hidden agenda, Darnak is at least honorable, but must serve the brothers’ will, and Riana is only serving due to a threat of prison or execution.

And that’s not getting into the truly strong and evil monsters that wait deeper within the mountain.

Once Jig is dragooned into the party, the plot is a fairly straightforward dungeon crawl with some backtracking towards the end.  The back half of the book reads quickly, and the ending is reasonably satisfying.

Recommended primarily for fans of the tabletop role-playing games the setting is based on.

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

Book Review: Nexus

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.”  One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.

Nexus

Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five.  It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels.  Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology.  Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available.  These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.

After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights.  In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity.  Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.

Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD.  It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work.  The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory.  If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently.  Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him.  She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.

While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller.  Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory.  The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.

One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing.  The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies.  Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives.  Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work.  A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony.  But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.

Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.

Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse.  The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.

In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.

Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.

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