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Bry's Bountiful Book Blog

Because I need a place where I can pretend that people are reading what I'm writing...
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld - Patricia A. McKillip

My first encounter with Patricia A. McKillip, and I enjoyed every moment of it. Told in the style of a myth or fairytale, this is the story of Sybel, a young and very powerful sorceress (more of a conjurer, really) who has a very traumatic encounter with another wizard that starts her down a path of vengeance that takes her to places she was never previously interested in going and exposes her to emotions she had never previously felt.


This is, primarily, a story about an emotional journey, but it maintains a poise and dignity that belies the melodrama inherent in the phrase "emotional journey." A big part of the gravitas of the book is achieved by the consistently mythic tone that McKillip uses in her prose. It's not written like a myth is written, though; this is no Le Morte d'Arthur, no dry telling of noble deeds and base villainy. The prose itself is actually quite beautiful, and the mythic quality adds a thin layer of separation between the reader and the raw emotions of the characters. The intensity of the interpersonal relationships is therefore somewhat, but not entirely restrained, enabling the reader to get what they want out of the love story aspect of the tale while still being able to take the story seriously in a literary sense. This would be quite the juggling act for most authors, but McKillip makes it look easy.


The characters were great, too. The human characters were very well-realized, and were delightfully complex and believable in their reactions and motivations. No bad guys or good guys here, just various people with differing points of view. The Beasts themselves were incredibly interesting, as well, especially the riddling boar, Cyrin. Parsing the meaning from his sometimes opaque riddles was very enjoyable for me.


In short, a terrific tale told terrifically. Highly recommended to anyone who's tired of the same old trope-filled epic fantasy stories, and who wants to read a fantasy novel with depth and meaning as well as creatures and magic.

The World of Ice and Fire - George R.R. Martin, Elio M. GarcĂ­a Jr., Linda Antonssen

This was actually a lot better than I expected it to be, although it was perhaps the cynical part of me that expected it to suck (it's telling that I would still buy the book even though I half expected it to be lame). I bought the Wheel Of Time worldbook back in the day and was disappointed, so that maybe coloured my expectations for this one, but the two couldn't be more different from each other.


In the first place, the art in this book is fantastic. I actually feel a little bit strange even reviewing this book, as I tend to not write reviews for graphic novels that I read, but this had far more writing than it did art, so I count it like I would a novel. The art, however, is one of the main reasons to purchase the book, as it looks incredible. The average level of quality is extremely high, which is impressive given that there are nearly thirty different artists who have work featured in the book (my favourite was probably a fellow named Chase Stone, who drew the incredible Ser Duncan The Tall Vs. Lord Lyonel Baratheon, as well as The Death Of Meraxes). Even if you have no interest in buying this book, you should at the very least do yourself a favour and page through it at some point just to check out the artwork.


As much of an ASOIAF fanboy as I am, though, I am cognizant of the relative weaknesses of a book like this. I love reading about history, and I love fantasy, so a book like this is practically made for me, but I understand that reading 300+ pages of fake history is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Also, the whole book is written as if it were a history book from Westeros, authored by one Maester Yandel. The authors did a fairly good job throughout of maintaining the sceptical, pedantic, and in some cases rather sycophantic tone of a Maester trying to tell a history and still curry favour with his contemporary political elites. Still, this is going to come off as rather dry to some, and there were a few spots where the quality of Garcia and Antonsson's prose was not up to Martin's standard.


I loved reading about Martin's world, though, and this book takes us to many places never seen in the novels of the main series. I was fascinated by the mysterious legends of fallen Valyria, and also the stories of the fabled empire of Yi Ti, although I was a little disappointed that the cities around Slaver's Bay were conspicuously passed over. The highlight of the book, to me at least, was not the more atlas-like sections but instead the history of all the Targaryen kings ever to sit the Iron Throne. This was incredibly interesting, and I would happily have read a whole book of this type of stuff.


Lots of cool names in here, too, and Martin also gets pretty referential. There were a number of H.P. Lovecraft references (Ib and Sarnath from The Doom That Came To Sarnath, Leng and K'dath in the Grey Waste from The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kaddath, the Deep Ones from practically every Cthulhu mythos story). There were references to other authors (House Vance is an ode to Jack Vance, House Peake of Starpike refers to Mervyn Peake and his character Steerpike from the excellent Gormenghast trilogy, House Jordayne of the Tor is a nod to Robert Jordan and his publisher, Tor). R'hllor, the Lord Of Light gets his title from the Roger Zelazny novel, I believe. I think Hyrkoon the Hero is a reference to Yyrkoon, a character from Michael Moorcock's Elric stories. Martin gets fairly muppetish with his history of House Tully, as some of the men of that family boasted the names Lord Grover, Lord Elmo, and Lord Kermit. There are probably a ton of other references that I missed, too.


To sum up, a very enjoyable read with beautiful illustrations, although probably something that I would only recommend to hardcore fans of A Song Of Ice And Fire.

The City and the Stars - Arthur C. Clarke

I've always really enjoyed science fiction, but I've always felt like I haven't read deeply enough in the genre to truly count myself a fan. A big part of the problem has always been the fact that I have always been a far bigger fan of fantasy, and I've prioritized that genre when deciding what to read in the past. More recently, however, I've started making a point to educate myself in the classics of science fiction, and damn, has it ever been a rewarding experience. Of course, occasionally I've found that a particular SF classic didn't totally grab me, but most of the time I've found that books that are considered to be classics are called classics for good reason. Such is the case with The City And The Stars.


This is a really interesting book, and because it was my first experience with Arthur C. Clarke, I'm not certain if it's typical of his writing or not. Interestingly, this is a novel about exploring ideas as opposed to chronicling events. There is no real action to speak of, although the book still managed to entertain me, fascinate me and maintain my interest. The plot of the book is really just following Alvin about and relating what he discovers about mankind's past, and how these discoveries affect the remnants of the human population. There is far less of a focus on science than I expected, as Clarke seems more interested in exploring various philosophical themes relating to ideas like utopia, space exploration and colonization, A.I., digitization of personality, and so many more. I felt that Clarke's philosophical approach was a lot more accessible and engaging than a hard SF focus would have been, and I applaud him for weighting ideas over tech.


There's not much going on in the way of character development here, but then again, there really aren't that many characters. I had read reviews criticizing the lack of depth of Clarke's characters, but I thought Alvin showed a surprising amount of development for the type of story this was (idea-driven science fiction from the 1950's). The only other character who featured in a significant portion of the story was Alvin's friend Hilvar, who may not have had much progression over the course of the story, but had a lot more depth than he strictly needed to for a bit character.


Original, intelligent, occasionally subversive, this was my first encounter with Big Idea Science Fiction, and I loved it.

The Forge of Darkness - Steven Erikson

Before writing my reviews, I have the tendency to look over other reviews for the same book to get an idea of what the book reviewing community has to say about what I just read. Doing that for this review has made me realize how much in the minority I am in my feelings for this particular book. This, in itself, shouldn't really surprise me. This may be the first book of the Kharkanas trilogy, but said trilogy is a prequel trilogy (yes, that's right, Erikson needs an entire trilogy to serve as a prequel) to the Malazan Book Of The Fallen series, a complete series which consists of ten massive tomes. I'm willing to bet that the majority (if not the entirety) of the glowing five-star reviews I've seen for this book are coming from fans of the Book Of The Fallen series. As much as I enjoyed the larger series, I'm not blind to what I see as a number of glaring flaws in both this book, and also Erikson's style in general.


This story takes us back several hundred thousand years in the past of the main Malazan timeline (although Erikson's always been deliberately hazy about things like dates and timelines). The setting is the land called Kurald Galain, which is a separate magical plane of existence (called a warren) in the main series, but this whole storyline seems to be taking place before K'rul's blood has created the warren system of magic which the main series employs. The main thrust of this series seems to be chronicling how Kurald Galain goes from being a world to being a magical pocket dimension, how the Tiste people split into the three factions of Titse Andii, Tiste Edur, and Tiste Liosan, and also how and why the Tiste Andii break away from their living goddess Mother Dark. If all this sounds fairly complicated, well...it kind of is, or at least, Erikson makes every effort to make it sound complicated, to inveigle his readers and make the details of his world as obscure as possible. One of my issues with his style.


Another of my issues with Erikson involves the relative thinness of his characterizations, although that's an issue which he partially overcomes with this novel. In the main series, Erikson had the tendency to introduce dozens of new characters in every book, each of whom would get a slender amount of focus due to the engorged cast. In order to make up for the inability to dedicate much time to a single character, Erikson was wont to rely heavily on archetypes for the majority of his characters, and then would actually develop only four or five of them into real, believable, three dimensional people. In the case of this book, Erikson actually did a fair bit better than he usually does, although there are still a number stock soldiers amongst the cast of this book, and many of them have very similar names, making them easy to confuse.


Can we talk about the names for a minute? Fantasy literature is full of ridiculous names, but what is most frustrating about Erikson in this regard is the fact that he can, when he wants to, come up with very cool, memorable names. Anomander Rake is amongst my personal favourites, but there's also Draconus, Andarist, Silchas Ruin, and Caladan Brood to list off a few. Then you get names like Faror Hend. What? How do I even say Faror? It just doesn't sit well on the tongue. What about Tathe Lorat? Again, it's just an awkward sounding name. Hunn Raal, Olar Ethil, Gripp Galas...they all just sound clumsy. Some of the worst, though, are the returning characters Spinnock Durav and Sandalath Drukorlat. Seriously, only fantasy fans would put up with stupid character names like those. Not to mention that introduced in this book are characters with the names Resh, Rint, Risp, Renarr, Rancept, and Raskan. Did he really have to do that?


Another thing that makes the characters easy to confuse is the similarities many of them have in their outlooks and philosophies. I think Erikson was actually trying to do this, which is pretty concerning when examined closely. It essentially says that many of these individuals share a dourness of spirit simply because they belong to the same species. Not only that, but Erikson really beats his morose philosophies to within an inch of their lives in this book, and in their depressed musings, his characters have the tendency to get fairly abstract, nearly to the point of unintelligibility. Maybe it all sounded clever in Erikson's head, but a lot of the time I was reading this stuff all I could think was, "What nonsense."


Finally, Erikson seems to have lost one of the greatest strengths of his writing, which is pacing. It took about 400 pages for things to really start happening, and thereafter, something relevant would usually occur at the end of each chapter; the chapters, regrettably, were at least 60 pages long, which is quite a ways to go between events. Also, in the Book Of The Fallen series, the endings of each book were quite strong, as a confluence of characters and events would occur (dubbed "convergences"). This made for pretty epic climaxes, which is the sort of thing this book needed to turn things around. Unfortunately, the classic Erikson convergence never converged here, and I slogged through a 900+ page novel that was only halfway decent expecting an major climax to get a merely average climax. It was a let down.


All in all, I felt that this book emphasized Erikson's weaknesses as a writer, while downplaying his strengths. I'm not really sure if I'm interested in reading the next one.

Voice of Our Shadow - Jonathan Carroll

This was a fairly disappointing read for me, because I was very impressed with The Land Of Laughs. In a lot of ways, Voice Of Our Shadow mimics the format of that book; the first half to two-thirds of each book tries to pass itself of as "literary fiction," only introducing genre elements towards the end of the book. An unlikeable main character, a twist ending, and of course, an affair (as R. Scott Bakker said, the affair is to literary fiction as dragons are to fantasy). The main difference between that book and this one is that in Land all of these characteristics worked to make the story more interesting, whereas in Voice they were simply annoyances.


The unlikeable narrator thing is something I can deal with, usually. The thing is, even if the main character is intended to be imperfect, there's typically at least one aspect of their personality that is relatable, or at least interesting. Joe Lennox, I found, was neither relatable nor particularly interesting. He's a weak-willed person of fairly low moral fibre who writes for a living, although he fluked out the one time he wrote something good and hasn't been able to repeat his success. When India Tate is introduced into the story, you can tell right away that she and Joe are going to have an affair, and it really felt like Carroll had to try pretty hard to make it happen. Since it's such a central event in the story and the cause of (or at least the catalyst for) the fantasy/horror elements which occur later in the book, I would have liked for it to have been more believable.


The real kicker was the ending, and not in a good way. Without giving anything away, it felt even more contrived than the affair between Joe and India, and made considerably less sense. Whereas the twist ending to The Land Of Laughs was quirky but still satisfying, this one was bizarre, rushed and lacking in anything resembling a resolution.


Reading over this review, it makes it seem like I hated the story, but reading the book wasn't a fully negative experience. It's a testament to Carroll's skill that even with a main character who's a weenie, fairly clumsy dialogue, and some forced plotting, the bulk of the book was still engaging enough to keep me reading. A big part of the problem I had with this book was that I read The Land Of Laughs first, and that book set my expectations pretty high. Voice Of Our Shadow didn't live up to them.

Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny

Another fine novel by Roger Zelazny, and one that more than makes up for the lowest points of the Amber series. This has been touted as a science fiction classic, but it actually reads like epic fantasy. I was fairly impressed that despite the rather modern-sounding dialogue, Zelazny was able to keep up a consistently mythic tone throughout the entirety of the story, making it feel like I was reading the Ramayana or something of that sort. In this way, Zelazny managed to achieve his stated goal of writing a book that blurs the line between fantasy and science fiction without actually crossing that line; this is certainly science fiction, but it sounds like fantasy.


The basic story, without giving away anything crucial, is of a far distant planet where individuals, most of whom were originally of Indian descent, are using technology to help them play the role of gods of the Hindu pantheon. My knowledge of Hindu mythology was fairly limited before reading Lord Of Light, but from all the Wiki-ing that I did while reading this novel, it seems like Zelazny really knew his stuff. After reading it, I felt a little bit more informed, but now more than ever I find myself interested in doing some more reading on the myths of this particular culture. Mythology has always interested me, and Zelazny does a great job of repackaging Hindu characters into something easily digestible by an English-speaking SFF audience.


The plot was riveting, the worldbuilding was great, there was plenty of action, and there were some very poignant insights to be gleaned about the both the general nature and various facets of religion...if there was anything missing in this story, it was probably characterizations, specifically female characters. There were a couple (three, if you count Brahma) of women and they were not portrayed particularly well or with much empathy. Granted, this story was published in 1967, but that's actually a somewhat shitty excuse. Although the politics of our day are quite a bit different from when this book was written, it seems to me that if you have a large cast of characters and you choose to largely portray women as objects of sexual attraction, you lose marks. Still a terrific story, though.

Phoenix - Steven Brust

Another very satisfying book in the Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust. This one picks up pretty soon after the end of Teckla and a large portion of the happenings of this book involve the social and political events introduced in that one; namely, the leftist peasant revolt brewing amongst the Teckla (the agrarian worker class of Dragaeran society) and the Easterners (humans). These events, however, don't dominate the plot of the novel but instead form a backdrop against which the plot occurs. This was a neat and tidy way for Brust to include a nod to his personal politics and also keep continuity with his earlier books without sacrificing the integrity or stand-alone nature of the plot of this novel. He did this quite well here.


The actual events that this book focuses on are the ongoing dissolution of Vlad's marriage and the schism that forms between Vlad and his House, the Jhereg. In large part, this split is caused by Vlad's loyalty toward his estranged wife, although in truth Vlad had always been an outsider, even amongst the ranks of the Organization to which he belonged. In this way, this is sort of a book about divorces, as Vlad grapples with falling out of love with both his wife and the profession of an assassin. The latter issue presents Vlad with moral challenges which Brust illustrates well. The problems in Taltos' marriage were largely presented in Teckla, and in this book Vlad and Cawti had pretty much reached the stage of acceptance, although there are still a number of wonderfully uncomfortable scenes which the two of them share throughout the novel. These two themes - the end of a romantic relationship and disillusionment with a lifestyle of violence - are very unusual topics for a sword & sorcery novel, and I appreciate Brust's contravention of genre norms.


The only real issue I had with this book was that it seemed like Brust was in a hurry to wrap things up at the end, and the conclusion of the war with Greenaere seemed somewhat rushed. The events in the Vlad Taltos books often move quickly and the plots tend to be packed with incident, and in such short books this could, in the hands of a lesser writer, lead to slipshod writing or poor pacing. Brust usually avoids this, but toward the end of this book I felt that he crossed that line a little. Still a very good book, though, and I greatly look forward to the next one.

The Anubis Gates (Ace Science Fiction) - Tim Powers

Without actually intending it to be any sort of theme, I've read a number of time-travel books this year, and enjoyed all of them. The Anubis Gates was the most recent, and I picked it up not knowing that it was a time-travel story; I simply wanted to read more Tim Powers, as I really liked the other books of his that I'd read. This one, as it turns out, is vintage Powers.


In true Tim Powers fashion, this is at its heart an alternate history novel - that is, history with magic and a lot of other weirdness thrown in. It doesn't let you languish at all, as Powers keeps the plot moving forward at a near break-neck speed for the majority of the book. I liked this about it, but found that the character development could have been accentuated a bit more, almost as if character was sacrificed for the sake of action. That said, Professor Brendan Doyle was a pretty fascinating character (though I would have really liked to see him grapple with the body switching scenario a little more). As is typical for a Powers novel, if you simply list the story components used in the book, it sounds pretty ridiculous - time-travel, a werewolf, a clown crime lord, murderous gypsies, magicians, simulacra, Lord Byron, Egyptian gods...and so on and so forth. The really incredible part is that Powers makes it work, which in such a fast-paced book is quite something.


The only other minor issue I had with this one was a certain paucity of prose. I wouldn't say that the other Tim Powers books I've read (On Stranger Tides and The Drawing Of The Dark) had fantastic prose, but the writing served the story and didn't stand out. There were a few moments in this book, however, where I actually thought to myself, "Hmm, he might have been able to say that better," which drew me out of the story a bit (something prose is certainly not supposed to do). Although this didn't happen often, it was enough to make me knock a star off the rating.


I would recommend this book to anyone who wants that most rare of all books: a really good stand-alone fantasy novel.

Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner

I'm really into classics, and I'm especially into genre classics, so I almost feel a little bit guilty giving this book a "mere" three stars (although I feel I should note that I actually use the Goodreads star values, in which a three-star rating means "I liked it"). Ultimately though, I feel I have to rate and review books honestly, for my own piece of mind if for no other reason. I liked this book, but I don't feel much stronger about it than that.


Stand On Zanzibar has a lot of things going for it. I enjoyed a number of the characters (especially the smart-ass sociologist Chad Mulligan) , and I was really interested in Donald Hogan's storyline in particular. A number of Brunner's predictions about 2010 were eerily prescient (he nailed the global population, if not the effects of said population) , and even his predictions that weren't accurate still made a lot of sense when viewed through the lens of the 1960's and the geo-political climate of the Vietnam and Cold wars. I'm not one of those who gets really critical when a SF author predicts something incorrectly; as long as the story can stand on its own, I'll appreciate it for what it is.


The main beef I have with this novel regards the style in which it's told, which is something which is so integral to the novel that one can't review the book without mentioning it. For those who haven't read the book, Brunner basically borrows a style from one John Dos Passos (apparently, although I've never actually read Dos Passos) wherein regular plot-driven chapters are interspersed with chapters about characters who have nothing to do with the main plot and only serve to give the reader more information about the world. Further, there are also a number of chapters that have no plot at all, but which contain a selection of cultural samples (soundbites, basically) arranged in such a fashion that they're meant to convey to the reader a larger sense societal currents. Some reviewers seem to think it brilliant and some hated it. Personally, I found that there were some chapters in which it worked (for example, I enjoyed the party scene, which is told entirely in snippets of randomly overheard conversations) and quite a few where it didn't (one of the worst was the description of the music video which was not only completely irrelevant but also nearly nonsensical). The chapters where this style didn't work were quite numerous, and as a result I found myself having to wade through a lot of what I considered to be filler to get back to the main threads which I had been enjoying. The book, in my opinion, could easily have been 100-200 pages shorter and not suffered for it at all.


As a closing note, I'll point out something else which bothered me and tended to take me out of the story from time to time, although not nearly to the extent that the fractured narrative did. This was Brunner's invented "futuristic" jargon, which is something attempted by many SF authors, and which in my experience is almost always a bad move. Although rare and difficult to pull off, an author can correctly predict some world events or technological achievements. It is nearly impossible, however, for anyone to predict the vagaries of the vernacular, and I think it's not only a waste of time but also tends to make dialogue written in such contrived slangs sound pretty silly.

Replay - Ken Grimwood

Alright, so let's just get one thing out of the way. Even though this is a time travel story, it's not science fiction. There is absolutely no attempt to scientifically explain the time travel; in fact, the means by which the time travel (called replays) occur to Jeff Winston and others are intentionally never explained in any way, scientifically or otherwise. The replays are thus a plot device, a means by which Grimwood presents the ideas he wishes to have the reader ponder. In this way, explaining how the replays happen would have spoiled the story, as the focus of the story is really on how and why Jeff is living the way he is. To keep the focus on Jeff's mindset, the time travel had to remain something mysterious, something magical. So, fantasy it is.


Although the book follows the many lives of Jeff Winston, it's really about more than that. Winston tries out many of the classic time travel tropes in the course of the tale, including using his knowledge of the future to get rich, attempting to alter historical events, seeking out experiences he hadn't had in his previous life, and so on. The only time travel trope he seems to avoid is attempting to kill himself. What makes this story interesting is that Grimwood shows the inevitability of the thought processes which lead Jeff to make these decisions, and the core of the story is really the same as in many other stories - Jeff is trying anything he can think of in his quest to discover the meaning of it all.


Grimwood cleverly has the reader ask questions about their own lives, questions which truly have no answers. The moral of the tale is a simple one, albeit still fairly profound; that life is what you make of it, and regret over mistakes made, though understandable, is ultimately futile.


I would recommend this novel to anyone, not just genre fanatics like myself. It transcends genre, and I'm surprised it's not more well-known.

The Inheritance - Robin Hobb

This is a collection of short stories written by one woman under two pen names. I went into this one a huge fan of Robin Hobb, but I'd only previously read one story by Megan Lindholm, and as good as that one story was, I wasn't sure what to expect of the Lindholm offerings. I was not only pleasantly surprised at their quality, but I was also impressed by just how different in both tone and setting they were from the Hobb stuff. The first seven stories are the Lindholm ones, although the last three, the Hobb stories, take up just as many pages.


A Touch Of Lavender: A very moving and sad SF story with very unique and interesting aliens. The main character is a poor boy whose mother is essentially a groupie who becomes a "gropie," a pejorative term for someone who becomes addicted to the chemical exuded by the skin of the aliens. A lot of different topics covered in a relatively short story, everything from poverty and addiction to social stigmas and inter-species love. Pretty heavy, but very good.


Silver Lady And The Fortyish Man: One of my least favourite stories in this collection, this was nonetheless a decent tale, which I think speaks to the strength of Lindholm's skill at characterization. A somewhat autobiographical urban fantasy story about a struggling would-be writer in search of her lost Muse, this was also a pretty funny story. That's cool, as humour is something I haven't seen very much of in Hobb's writing.


Cut: Another really heavy SF story, this one with a point to make, but I appreciated that Lindholm was ambiguous with regards to her actual position on the topic. It's a thorny topic too, because body modification is something which is quite common in North America; I myself have a number of tattoos, and my wife has both tattoos and piercings. Although I think circumcision is weird and archaic and I would never consider having it done to any child of mine, my wife asked me the other day what I thought would be an appropriate age to get our daughter's ears pierced, and my first thought was of this story.


The Fifth Squashed Cat: At first glance, this is a rather silly urban fantasy about getting powers by putting roadkill in your mouth. Once you look a little closer, however, you'll see that not only does Lindholm subvert a number of fantasy cliches, but she also skilfully critiques a certain holier-than-thou set of personality traits which one might be tempted to overlook in the average protagonist if Lindholm hadn't made a point of putting them prominently on display. Masterfully done.


Strays: This was my least favourite story in the book, and even this one was still okay. It was an urban fantasy with decent characters and a good premise, but I felt that the ending came out of nowhere and since it was the only part of the story with a fantasy element to it, it felt a little tacked on. It wasn't a bad story, but it wasn't great.


Finis: This was sort of an urban horror drama, and even though it was fairly apparent where the tale was headed, it was still engrossing. I also enjoyed that it was told from the point of view of a carpenter - I can say, speaking as a carpenter, that it was fairly well done. Lindholm/Hobb has a definite affinity for the blue-collar man.


Drum Machine: A sort-of-dystopian SF story tackling the seemingly disparate issues of eugenics/genetic engineering and composition of popular music. Lindholm does a terrific job of comparing these two issues in a way that made sense within the context of the tale. What Lindholm doesn't do so well is portray the different arguments with the same semblance of neutrality that she maintained in Cut. That said, it was still a really good story.


Homecoming: Now we get into the Robin Hobb stuff. This was actually my third read of this particular story, and it got better every time I read it, honestly. Told in a series of diary entries (reminiscent of Bram Stoker's Dracula), it features a spoiled and fairly unlikable protagonist who eventually finds personal redemption through hardship and changes herself in her attempts to adapt to her new way of life (similar to Malta Vestrit when described like that). In addition to being a fascinating piece of history in the Realm of the Elderlings, this was just a plain old good read.


The Inheritance: Back to Bingtown for this one, and thrust fully once more into Trader politics. This is an old fashioned revenge story, Robin Hobb style, which means little action and lots of character development and riveting dialogue-driven confrontations. It's incredible that Hobb can create such believable characters and electrifying interactions in a twenty page short story.


Cat's Meat: Wow, Robin Hobb is really good at writing credible scumbags. From the introduction of the villain in this story, the reader (or this reader at any rate) is desperately wishing this guy would get what he deserves, and of course by the end he does. The fact that Marmalade the cat plays such a huge role in Pell's downfall should surprise no one who actually owns a cat, as cat owners know that cats are spiteful, vindictive, and somewhat evil...and that's why we love them.


I owned this book for quite some time before I actually read it, and now I regret having put it on the back burner. I was already a big fan of this woman's novels, and it turns out her short works are every bit as good.

The Lathe of Heaven - Ursula K. Le Guin

Another great Le Guin novel. I swear, I like this woman's writing more and more with each book of hers I read!


Although nominally a science fiction novel, the actual science was pretty scanty (which I'm fine with), and George Orr's power to alter reality with his dreams was more like something I'd expect to find in a fantasy novel (which I'm also fine with). The true strength of this book wasn't its ability to fit neatly within genre boundaries but instead examining ideas - in this case, Le Guin pits the equanimity of Taoism against the logical ruthlessness of positivism. I find it interesting that this is essentially a science fiction story that calls into question the validity of the scientific mindset. Even though I can identify with elements of the personalities of both Orr and his abuser, the psychologist Haber, I like that Le Guin was challenging the type of thinking that was and still is so prevalent in the genre of SF.


I'll comment on something I noticed while reading other people's reviews. It seems that quite a few people saw a nobility in Dr. Haber that I don't see. Many reviewers talk about whether the ends justify the means or Haber's desire to save humanity from itself...I saw his attempts to "better" the world as nothing more than a way to satisfy his enormous ego, pure hubris. It should be noted that Haber first sought to improve his own position, and with each successive attempt to alter the world, his lot in life got better and better, until he was essentially the most important man in the world. Even this was not enough for him, however, and his next move was to try and claim ultimate power for himself. These are hardly the actions of an altruist.


The characters are actually the weak point of this book, in my opinion. Both Orr and Haber were somewhat exaggerated in their personalities, and although I'm sure this was the author's intent, it made them seem a bit like caricatures. Heather is a notable exception, and I would have liked more of her, but there you have it. That criticism aside, this was a great read, and deserves its place amongst the classics of science fiction.

His Last Bow -  Arthur Conan Doyle

Although very repetitive and formulaic, I really enjoy the Sherlock Holmes short stories. They're fast paced, entertaining mystery nuggets that moulded a genre and even make great television to this day. Strangely, although this was the second last Holmes book to be published, it contains the last adventure of the great detective. I'll go through the stories one by one.


The Adventure Of Wisteria Lodge: The longest story of this particular collection, this story had some of the typical Holmes tropes; an introductory verbal exchange where Holmes shows off how smart he is (although, somewhat breaking from tradition, this time it's not Watson playing the witless foil), and Holmes solving the majority of the mystery "off-stage". There is some interesting voodoo stuff in this one, and also some unusual (for Conan Doyle) racial politics portrayed in the latter half of the story. Now usually, Conan Doyle is as backward and hamfisted in his portrayals of non-Caucasian ethnicities as most turn-of-the-century British writers, but in this story he actually shows a peasant revolt in a Latin American country to have been a positive and just thing. Interesting.


The Adventure Of The Cardboard Box: A more average Holmes story, but the culprit was quite relatable, in that he had been wronged and was meting out (an admittedly over-the-top) vengeance. This one starts out with Watson once again being flabbergasted by how easily Holmes can read him. You'd think he'd be used to it by now.


The Adventure Of The Red Circle: An international gang and a promise of revenge/murder. In some ways, this is a similar plotline to The Valley Of Fear, and also A Study In Scarlet (especially the latter, as the main suspect in this story ended up being a fairly sympathetic character who was basically acting in self-defence). One of the main characteristics in the story is coded messages sent through the obituaries, a trope which has been used repeatedly in all sorts of stories written since this one.


The Adventure Of The Bruce-Partington Plans: This was a fantastic tale, complete with espionage and skulduggery, and Mycroft Holmes to boot. This is essentially a spy story, and Conan Doyle carries it off nicely and with a good degree of verisimilitude, with the notable exception of the dude who dies of "shame". It's in this story that Holmes says that his brother Mycroft "sometimes is the British government," which is saying a lot more about him than was ever previously mentioned.


The Adventure Of The Dying Detective: Holmes annoyed me in this one. His whole scam seems like it would have been much easier to pull off if he had brought Watson into his confidence and used Watson as a sort of "extra medical advisor." Instead, he insults and patronizes Watson while lying to him, all in order to make it a more convincing ruse. Watson is quite a tolerant fellow, as I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have put up with this sort of behaviour from one of my friends.


The Disappearance Of Lady Frances Carfax: Watson carries a fair portion of this story, meeting up with a disguised Holmes partway through (much like in The Hound Of The Baskervilles). Holmes accuses Watson of bungling the portion of the case he was to investigate (and he did), but Holmes very nearly drops the ball at the end, and indeed, his quarry ends up getting away. One of the few cases where Holmes seems to have somewhat failed.


The Adventure Of The Devil's Foot: A fairly straightforward plot in terms of the mystery and solution, or maybe I'm just well-acquainted with Conan Doyle's style. Still, an interesting and enjoyable yarn. I've noticed a tendency for Holmes to forgive vigilante justice if he considers it warranted, as he clearly does in this case.


His Last Bow: Another enjoyable read, although not nearly as good a spy thriller as The Bruce-Partington Plans. Actually, Holmes makes for a pretty terrible spy. After going through a considerable amount of trouble to create a cover identity that the Germans trust in order to feed them false information, he intentionally blows his cover and gives away his false info as false to a German spy that he knows will probably be let go. Lousy spycraft, really. Also, it's kind of strange that although Watson is present for the entire story, this is the one Sherlock Holmes story told from the third person perspective, instead of first person from Watson's perspective. I'm not entirely sure why Conan Doyle chose to do that.


Well, even considering the war propaganda feel that the titular story had, this was a good collection. I'm looking forward to reading the last of the Holmes books, The Case Book Of Sherlock Holmes, although I'd be lying if I said that I didn't feel a little sad to be nearing the end.

The Land of Laughs - Jonathan Carroll

This was my first Jonathan Carroll novel, and based on this one I'm certainly interested in reading more of his work.


Although a part of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series, this is actually a character drama which slowly unfolds into a magical realism/horror story. In fact, there is no actual fantastic element introduced until well into the second half of the book, which is certainly not what one expects from something billed as a fantasy novel, and yet it works. The interplay between the characters has, fairly weak dialogue aside, a great degree of verisimilitude. One of the real strengths behind this book was that in addition to characters struggling with the discovery of magical elements in the real world, the characters are also struggling with daddy issues, self-discovery, self-empowerment, and yes, even a romantic affair (the staple of seemingly every literary fiction novel). The characters are not perfect, they battle their own flaws...just like real people.


Ultimately, this is also a book about being a reader and having a favourite author, which is something a lot of readers can relate to. When Thomas and Saxony first meet, they don't instantly fall in love, but instead form a bond based on their mutual obsession with the works of the reclusive children's author Marshall France. The novel chronicles Thomas and Saxony's quest to write the first and only official biography of France's life, and as they begin to do so, the strangeness of France's chosen home, the quiet town of Galen, Missouri, starts to become terrifyingly apparent. This is where the fantasy and horror elements creep into the story, and make for a bizarre, yet un-put-downable ending. Carroll expertly portrays the mystique of Marshall France (even including some very well-written snippets of France's books, written in a prose style completely unlike Carroll's), and makes the reader understand why his work so captivates the main characters.


This is a great book, and I was shocked to learn that this was Jonathan Carroll's debut novel. I'm looking forward to reading more of this man's work, as I feel that he made a very good start and still has a lot of runway left.

Dangerous Women - Jim Butcher, George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Lev Grossman, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Joe Abercrombie, Sam Sykes, Diana Rowland, Caroline Spector, Melinda Snodgrass, Cecelia Holland, Megan Abbott, Megan Lindholm, Nancy Kress, Pat Cadigan, Joe R. Lansdale, Gardner R. Dozois

A pretty good anthology, with a wide cross-section of genres, albeit a little fantasy heavy (I actually see that as a good thing). I've seen a number of negative reviews for this particular collection, and I wonder if that's just a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that Martin's putting out a book other than the one that many fans want. I found a lot of these stories to be quite strong. I'll go through them one by one.


Some Desperado: This was a decent effort by Abercrombie, but not the best I've read from him by a long shot. Although Shy was certainly a dangerous woman, I never felt even close to the same connection to her as I have to other Abercrombie characters. This may be a result of the fact that this was one of the shortest stories in the book; it might be that Abercrombie needs or is used to a lot more space in which to develop his epic fantasy characters (I don't know for sure, as I've not read any other short fiction by him).


My Heart Is Either Broken: This is a noir crime drama, and a tough one to read. I found the narrator and his significant other to be fairly unlikable, and the situation they were in with regards to their missing child was indeed heartbreaking and emotionally draining (I've had a harder time with terrible things happening to children since having kids of my own). Having said that, I was riveted until the end of the story, and a story that can do that to me is a well-told one, in spite of (or perhaps because of) how uncomfortable it made me feel. I'd never read Megan Abbot before, but I'm impressed.


Nora's Song: This is the second short story I've read by Cecelia Holland, and because the first one I read (The King Of Norway) was so good, I was really excited to see her name in this anthology. I usually really enjoy historical fiction. Unfortunately, though there were interesting moments in this story, I felt like the rising action didn't rise enough and the climax fell a little flat. I'd still be willing to give some of her other stuff a try, but this one disappointed me.


The Hands That Are Not There: An entertaining SF story, although one that relies fairly heavily on predictable SF tropes. I definitely saw where this one was headed long before it actually got there. I think I'd only previously read some of Melinda Snodgrass' stuff in the Wild Cards series, so this was my first real impression of her style. I think I'll reserve judgement on her until I've read some of her other work, because as I said, this one was good despite its derivative nature.


Bombshells: So, before every story in this anthology, Dozois and Martin do a little intro/write-up on each author and their body of work. I approached this story with some trepidation, as I'd only read the first three books in the Dresden Files series, and I was hoping the intro would give me some idea as to whether or not this story would be about Dresden or one of Butcher's other works, and if it were a Dresden story, I wanted to know if I had to worry about spoilers. To my dismay, instead of warning about potential spoilers, the write-up itself contained a HUGE spoiler for book 12 in the Dresden Files (a book that otherwise would have been the most shocking in the series). Thanks a lot, guys. At that point I figured that I might as well read the story since the whole series had basically already been spoilered for me. It was an alright story, very action-packed, but it definitely didn't stand on its own.


Raisa Stepanova: This is the second story I've read by Carrie Vaughn, and it's remarkably similar to the first one; but whereas the first one, The Girls From Avenger, was about female American pilots in WWII, this one is about female Russian pilots in WWII (and this one's better, in my estimation). Although Vaughn doesn't delve too deeply into the historical aspects of this historical fiction, she nails the characters, and the pacing of the tale is excellent.


Wrestling Jesus: Not a big fan of this one. The humour was largely predicated on coarse language, which can work in some cases, although it didn't here. The relationships were largely superficial, and the ones that could have been interesting (like that of Marvin and his family), were glossed over in a few throwaway paragraphs. The combat was a strange mixture of legit martial arts techniques and silliness. Joe Lansdale clearly knows something about fighting, so I'm not certain why he chose to write the fight scenes in such a slapstick manner, and I also had a hard time believing that these doddering old dudes could pull off some of the moves he has them perform. Also, the fantasy element, that of Felina's voodoo magic, was so peripheral that it might as well not have even been included in the story. All told, this wasn't my kind of short story.


Neighbors: I love Robin Hobb, but this was the first time that I'd read anything by her Lindholm pen-name. This was a slow-moving, thoughtful yarn about an elderly woman trying to prevent her adult children from putting her in a home (although it later turns into an urban fantasy/alternate universe tale of weirdness). It was very low-action, but Lindholm/Hobb makes you care about all of her main characters, no matter how boring they may seem from the outset. I was completely gripped until the end.


I Know How To Pick 'Em: I've read two stories now by Lawrence Block - two stories about psychopaths where their incestuous relationships with one of their parents was romanticized. Fuck you, Lawrence Block.


Shadows For Silence In The Forests Of Hell: I was sort ambivalent about Sanderson going into this one. Although I'd enjoyed the work he had done on The Wheel Of Time, the first Mistborn book had been really hyped up, and although it had a really interesting and unique magic system it was pretty generic in every other way. I had started to assume that Sanderson was overrated, but this story changed my mind completely. Great characters, solid relationships, and a brilliant and innovative world and magic system (this guy is obviously quite good at devising unique magic systems). A fantastic story.


A Queen In Exile: A decent, if uninspiring historical fiction story by Sharon Kay Penman. It's about Constance, Queen of Sicily, and although the historical facts presented were interesting, the story moved along at a fairly slow pace, while the characters (with the exception of Constance) had little depth to them. As a story with no action to speak of, it was reliant upon the strength of its characters, which were unfortunately weak.


The Girl In The Mirror: This was an excellent story, and it really makes me want to read more by Lev Grossman. The characters are interesting and the dialogue is funny, and it features a weird, psychedelic chase scene near the end that was a real trip to read. A tie-in with his Magicians trilogy, I didn't know anything about his books and didn't ever feel out of the loop, showing that this story stands on its own.


Second Arabesque, Very Slowly: A very disturbing, brutal distopian where the world has been ravaged by a disease which drastically reduces the amount of women who are fertile, making fertile women a prized possession, and where a woman's only value lies in her ability to bear children. A tough read, but very compelling. Nancy Kress knows what she's doing.


City Lazarus: This is a crime drama that seems to take place in an alternate New Orleans, but aside from the alternate world thing, Diana Rowland didn't do anything here of much interest. The characters were exactly what you might expect from this type of story, very archetypical, and they reacted in the expected ways. The "dangerous woman" in this story was a treacherous stripper (of course), the second time that particular trope has featured in this anthology, and the Snodgrass story pulled it off in a far more interesting fashion.


Virgins: This story was pretty bad. Although I've never read any of her novels, this was the third short story I'd read of Gabaldon's, and this was actually the best of the three. It's weird, because the basic framework of her stories (historical romances) are promising, it's just that...she really can't write men very well. Admittedly, it seems like it would be hard to write someone of the opposite gender, but it is, after all, her job, and it seems to me that she writes men the way she wishes men would be. Needless to say, I'm not a fan.


Hell Hath No Fury: This story was actually terrible. It's one of those ghost stories where all the characters are very attractive, the plot is beyond predictable, the story simply serves as a vehicle for the author's cheap attempts at moralizing, and the prose:dialogue ratio is something like 10:90. I told my wife (who likes Sherrilyn Kenyon's books) that I'd read this and how bad I thought it was, and she replied "Yeah, I thought you'd say something like that about her stuff. It helps if you try not to judge it." I just don't think I'm capable of that.


Pronouncing Doom: I'd previously read one of S.M. Stirling's Emberverse short stories (Ancient Ways), and although that one was more action-packed, I liked this one better. About a female clan chief in post-apocalyptic Earth who must pass judgement on a criminal, there were even helpings of well-delivered ethics (tough to do without sounding preachy), solid character relationships and interactions, exposition that avoided the info-dump syndrome, and realistic gender equality. Very good.


Name The Beast: I enjoyed this one despite some clumsiness in POV shifts. Taking place in a fantasy world where there is a conflict between invading human colonists and the non-human forest dwellers, there is quite a bit that is typical about this story, but it's told well, and Sam Sykes breathes new life into these worn tropes. Also, his characters are well defined, the children in particular.


Caretakers: No fantastical elements here, just a contemporary crime story, and a well-characterized one. Pat Cadigan forgoes the typical hard-nosed detective or cop and instead tells a tale about two adult sisters trying to show their ailing mother that they still love her, even though they've had to put her into in a care home. They find that there's more going on at the home than they at first supposed. Very well-told relationships in this one, especially the bond between the sisters.


Lies My Mother Told Me: Caroline Spector is another author who I've only encountered within the confines of the Wild Cards universe, and in all honesty (and perhaps this is just due to the mosaic-like nature of Wild Cards) I don't really remember her specific contribution. I'm not sure why that is, because this particular story was one of my favourites in this anthology. It features The Amazing Bubbles fighting against a power stealer who hijacks the abilities of her friend Hoodoo Mama, and it was a dark, serious, thoughtful and yet still action-packed story that was easily one the best Wild Cards stories I've read.


The Princess And The Queen: Martin is not only one of the editors of this tome, but also certainly the main selling point of the book. In light of that, I can see why many fans would be upset over this story, insofar as it's written in a completely different style from not only the main books of the A Song Of Ice And Fire series but also the Dunk And Egg short stories, and it's written as if it were an entry in a history book, which in and of itself is not going to be to everyone's taste. Having said that, I feel as if comparing it solely to the rest of the series is not entirely fair to this story, and I believe that if you allow yourself to be drawn into the style Martin uses in this story you will become enthralled like I did, and although it's not my favourite story about Westeros, it definitely does not suck. It has romance, treachery, interesting characters, dragons, plenty of bloodshed...real history books are not nearly this entertaining. It's a war-torn tale of the actual Dance Of The Dragons, and true to form, Martin slaughters almost everyone by the end.


In summary, this was a good anthology that introduced me to the works of several authors who I'd never before read, which is one of the main things I like about short story collections. There were only a small handful of stories I didn't like, and I loved the ones by Lindholm, Sanderson, Grossman, Spector, and Martin.

The Forever War - Joe Haldeman

This is, simply put, one of the best books I have ever read.


It's deceptively well written. Although the prose is fairly straightforward, it seamlessly meshes hard science fiction, space opera, military SF, and what I think of as "soft SF" (science fiction that maintains a focus on the so-called "soft" sciences, like sociology and psychology). What is most impressive about this is that none of the SF sub-genres represented by this story are neglected; Haldeman treats them all equally, handling them with respect even as he transcends them. Even though the story starts in the far-distant future of 1997, this doesn't really serve to date it as it's also a bit of a time travel story - nearly 1200 years pass in the course of the 250 page novel, so one isn't really given much time to dwell on the incongruity of near-lightspeed travel in the late 90's.


Although there's plenty of cool sciencey-type stuff happening here, the focal point of the book is that near-lightspeed travel. This is achieved by special technology built into spacecraft which allows the craft to utilize linked collapsars to provide them momentum. (For those wondering what a collapsar is, my understanding is that any collapsed stellar object, like a white dwarf or a neutron star, could be considered a collapsar, but the inference here is that Haldeman is referring to black holes.) The speed attained by the craft is so close to lightspeed that relativistic time dilation occurs, thus making it so that for every year the main character Mandella (a name with nearly the same letters as Haldeman) spends in a tour of duty in space, he returns to Earth to find that decades have passed. This leads to massive alienation amongst the returned veterans, a clear analogy for the alienation experienced by Haldeman and other Vietnam veterans upon their return to the States. It's fairly obvious that this is a war story told by someone who has actually fought in a war, as it portrays war in all its brutal senselessness and without any of the pat sentimentality and naive sabre-rattling of most other novels about war. There are no vainglorious battlefield heroics here, only dubious combatants coerced into perpetrating barbaric slaughter by a cynical institution which sees the endless war as an economic necessity.


There is too much good stuff in this novel to go over in a short review. Read it. It is not just one of the greatest science fiction stories ever, but one of the great stories of our time.