The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack





Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

This is a novel for men and women who spent their youth playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and look back fondly on the experience. Eames world is about as ridiculously fantasy based as you can imagine. There is every sort of fantasy monster there and adventurers galore organizing themselves into bands to combat them—trekking out into the Wyld where the monsters tend to live. At least, that’s what used to happen. Now that the world has been tamed, most adventurers fight with each other in the arena for money and glory.

Enter Clay. In his youth, he and his band built a legend, but he’s older now and wants those days to be behind him. Except, it’s really hard to tell an old friend “no” when he arrives on your doorstep telling you his daughter (turned adventurer like the old man) is one of the people trapped in a city about to be overrun by the Horde. What is the Horde you ask? It’s one hundred thousand monsters—giants, hydras, griffons, etc.—who have been rallied by a druid to basically destroy everything in existence. Kingdoms are paralyzed by the fear that they will be next on the target list so everyone pretty much ignores its existence. (So much for the tamed world.) Kings of the Wyld is about a bunch of old men getting the band back together to go and save their friend’s daughter from those hundred thousand monsters.

In structure, it’s a bunch of adventures you might have gamed when you were in high school. They’re individually fun and often humorous. Clay has mellowed over the years and isn’t particularly bloodthirsty, but we see him tapping back into the old him more and more as the book continues. At the start the old men look incompetent, but they keep winning and the reader quickly gets the idea that they always had looked incompetent. They’re legends because they kept winning (i.e. surviving) anyway.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. The truth is that the individual parts were good, but there were just so many of them and I wanted to get to the end much quicker than the author wanted me to get there. I think that Eames was technically correct in his pacing. We needed to see the band getting their groove back together and get to know them well enough to care what happened. And yet, I kept thinking, how much more do I have to read?

The ending was well worth the wait. The question no one can adequately answer throughout the book is how a handful of old men can make any difference against a Horde of one hundred thousand monsters. I was well satisfied with Eames’ answer to that question and in my mind’s eye I could see my own band, gathered around our table, dice in hand, grinning as the solution to the problem finally became apparent and we readied our weapons for the epic conclusion to a grand campaign.

The Hawks of Kamalon by Mike Reisig

This is the second time I have read this novel. I read it the first time shortly after it came out some twenty-two years ago and had fond memories of it. The second time I was somewhat less impressed. It’s overly long and very slow getting started, but if you stick with it, there is a lot of enjoyable action and a couple of very powerful scenes.

The basic plot is that a fantasy world where a basically peaceful people is fighting a technological superior and extremely aggressive foe recruits (read—kidnaps) a squadron of pilots flying out of England against Germany in World War II. The pilots are unhappy about being kidnapped, but end up doing what the peaceful folk need without putting up any real argument. First they defeat a major arial attack and second carry out a successful assault on the enemy only to find out that a feared invasion is very close to being launched.

What follows is a rather complicated plan to bolster the war-making ability of the peaceful kingdom in time to defend against the invasion. It involves raiding Nazi Germany to steal weapons with which the peaceful folk can fight back against their enemies. From this point forward the book starts to pick up speed toward an increasingly more effective pace. The actual final battle which takes place over approximately the last hundred pages of the book is well done. There are exciting tricks, heroic stands, and an important betrayal.

I’m glad I read the book a second time.

Spellmonger 2 Warmage by Terry Mancour

In Warmage, Minalan returns from the events of the last book to try and rally a defense against the goblin invasion. He has two major deficits working against him in accomplishing this task. The first is that he was not born to a noble family and the second is that he is a mage, precluded by the bans from receiving a title and with it the right to lead armies. Now, because of the structure of the novel with every second chapter taking place in the past, the reader knows from chapter one that Minalan will overcome these problems and lead a small army into the field against the goblins. That does not make the challenge of getting the support he needs any less exciting as Mancour proves he can write very credible and interesting political storylines.

Yet the heart of the book remains the goblin invasion with more than a quarter million of the creatures, plus trolls and doubtless other things, determined to wipe humanity off the face of the planet. This is a serious threat made much more so by the goblins’ dead god—also introduced in the last book—whose rage is what is driving the creatures.

For those of you who don’t like politics as much as I do, the battle scenes in this novel are frequent and superbly written. To add to the considerable tension, Mancour makes it quite clear that everything that Minalan is doing is intended merely to stymie the first wave of the invasion. This is going to be a very long, very drawn-out war. And of course, much of the problems are Minalan’s fellow humans, who are all kinds of treacherous. And I’d like to also point out that while Minalan thinks that he and his mages are the only ones with access to witch stones, the censors have been collecting witch stones from the mages they have brought down for centuries and our hero had better be preparing a defense against them when they decide to more vehemently protest his efforts to eliminate the bans.

I really enjoyed this book, but I feel the need to point out that like the first one, this is an impressively thick tome. I listened to it audio and it’s more than 28 hours long. Fortunately, the superb narrator, John Lee, speaks very clearly and I could push the text speed up considerably, but it’s still a long book so carve out some time when you decide to read it because it’s exciting enough that you’re going to want to find out what’s going to happen as fast as you can.

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Beyond Night by Eric Brown

I wanted to like this book more than I did. I love Rome and I’ve read at least one other Brown book, but this novel never quite worked for me. The biggest problem was that the Roman legion never once felt Roman to me. The lack of discipline was the largest problem, but there were subtle elements as well such as the speech of the legionnaires that never quite made me believe that we were dealing with one of the most successful militaries the world has ever seen.

On the positive side, the three-way threat proved to be an interesting problem. But again having one be a threat that the Romans repeatedly refused to believe in didn’t quite work. The authors often presented the Romans as condemning superstition when they had a large number of unscientific beliefs themselves. They also had an interest in other peoples’ gods and their disdain for the possibility that there was a genuine supernatural cause for the very unnatural-seeming deaths of their legionnaires just didn’t strike me as believable.

In a horror novel like this I expect most of the characters to die so a lot of the fun is figuring out who will make it through the end of the novel. One of the survivors made me laugh with delight. I’m not sure if I was supposed to like him but he was probably my favorite character, even though he was a decidedly minor one.

To Reign in Hell by Stephen Brust

This is a story of crisis and betrayal, miscommunication and lies, and a brewing civil war. The characters are vivid and the action is filled with tension and quite enjoyable. Written in a different context it would have been a four-star novel. Unfortunately, To Reign in Hell is an effort to retell the story of the war between God (called Yahweh in this novel) and Satan but it accomplishes this by flipping the expectations of who is good and who is evil. Yahweh is described as a dimwitted, small minded, easily manipulated, quick to violence fool who surrounds himself with equally stupid angels who are disturbingly quick to agree to attack their fellow angels who they apparently still consider to be their friends. On the other side, Satan and those who will become known as demons and devils, are portrayed as honorable, brilliant people who suffer from naiveite. Whereas Yahweh acts with cruelty throughout the novel eventually becoming genocidal, the demons never do so. It is a bizarre twisting of the story that makes listening to it highly disturbing, even though the basic action is still enjoyable.

In addition, there is a major flaw that greatly weakens the credibility of the story. I’ll leave out names so that I don’t spoil the action, but the angel who is the arch manipulator of Yahweh kills another angel and is caught in the act. This murder occurs well before the breach between Yahweh and Satan has become certain and it is the act that inspires most of the rest of the misunderstandings in the story. Again and again, Satan tries to kill the offending angel and is stopped by forces of Yahweh who do not know they are defending a murderer. But never once does Satan or his allies think of yelling—"He killed (fill in the name of the angel).” Those three words would have ended the immediate threat of violence and permitted the discussion that would have healed the accidental rift between Yahweh and Satan. I realize that the rift is necessary to the story, but couldn’t a believable problem have been created?

Perhaps the real problem is that Brust wants Satan and the “fallen angels” to be the heroes of his tale and Yahweh and the heavenly host to be a bunch of homicidal (in Yahweh’s case, genocidal) maniacs. It would have been a much more interesting story if Satan had actually been the bad guy trying to gain dominance in heaven. There are numerous novels that manage to make the bad guy an interesting protagonist. It’s unfortunate that Brust decided to go in the opposite direction.

I would like to end on a positive note. Narrator Jiraiyah Addams has a wonderful vocal range which permits him to create a large number of individual characters in this audio book. That greatly enhanced the rendition of this tale.

Hell’s Super by Mark Cain

The point of this novel appears to have been to show a lot of famous people suffering in hell. The suffering is not, for the most part, of the burning fires sort, but based on things in their past. For example, Orson Wells was not allowed to be in charge of anything. Basically, it made hell look very petty.

There were plots involving determining who had sabotaged an escalator bringing people down to the lower levels of hell and trying to identify some rebels, neither of which made much sense. It was obvious that Satan knew what was going on from the beginning. The real reason for these plots seems to have been so that the protagonist could wander around running into famous people. It was entertaining but not hugely so.

Blue Fire Harem by Dragon Treasures

This is the humorous story of a very evil man who turns himself into an angel in his quest for more power only to discover that as an angel he is bound to act in a fairly “good” manner. His inability to rape and pillage and do other dastardly deeds makes him suicidal. Unfortunately, he is pretty immune from damage in his angelic form so killing himself doesn’t appear to be an option.

Finding a cult composed mostly of women waiting for an angel such as himself to come to them, he finds that he isn’t interested in sex even as these women throw themselves at him. Apparently, it just isn’t fun if the partner is willing. (Yes, that’s disgusting, but it is still amusing to watch him forced to be “nice”.) Finally our…hero doesn’t sound like quite the right word…decides he is going to have to try and destroy his old evil cult in the hopes that they will kill him in an act of self defense.

This isn’t the greatest book you’re ever going to read, but I found the premise original and it made me laugh.

I received this book from Free Audiobook Codes in exchange for an honest review.

The Beast in the Rocks by Jon Erebus

Koholt is an aging mercenary of legendary reputation who has retired to a small mining town where he trains guards and accompanies miners into the depths to protect them from beasts that live in the darkness. It’s a fairly easy job until a group of miners penetrates to a new subterranean level and disappears. The local ruler, High Duke Nessa, wants Koholt to determine what happened to them. High politics are at stake as the Duke maneuvers to keep his duchy free of the neighboring empire and he isn’t prepared to take “no” for an answer.

The trip into the mine is extremely well done with Erebus handling the darkness and isolation very credibly. The fate of the missing miners leads to some tense action—both physical and psychological—and sets the stage for the next story in this series.

Koholt makes an interesting protagonist. He’s a drug addict and strikes me as suffering from depression as well. Yet he’s also an amazingly pragmatic man who is able to accept the challenges life throws at him. He’s also smart enough to realize he doesn’t want to be in the middle of the political problem the High Duke has sucked him into.

One of the biggest advantage that this story has is that it is short. You can read it in one sitting and go right on to the next one—which is what I plan to do.

Flowers of Rock by Jon Erebus

After escaping the mines by the skin of his teeth, Koholt gets dragged deeper into the politics of High Duke Nessa and his struggle to stay independent of the Jakuli Empire. Unfortunately, the empire has arrived in the High Duke’s territory in the form of Vriddhir Adaic, a Grammarian. The title doesn’t sound that frightening, but the Grammarians are the masters of the holy languages which makes them the worlds only wizards—and they are fierce.

Vriddhir Adaic thinks that Koholt’s discovery in the mines—the flowers of the title—are the key to great power and she wants that power. Unfortunately for Vriddhir and Koholt, everything goes wrong in the mines and continues to go wrong throughout the rest of the story. That turns out to be a powerful way to build tension and really sets the mood for the next tale in the series.

The Colours of the Past by Jon Erebus

In this latest volume, Koholt finally gets out of the mines and into the politics he’s been trying to avoid. Matters heat up very quickly as the series moves in a new direction, building on the first two tales but staying on top of the earth. To complicate things, an old friend-turned-enemy of Koholt’s appears to add a personal element to the problems confronting our hero.

I’m not sure that Koholt makes the right decision at the end of the story. In fact, I’m still not certain why he made the decision he did, but it still sets the stage for a promising adventure in the next story.

Eagle and Hare by Jon Erebus

Koholt is being hunted while he tries to find the teacher of Grammarian Vriddhir Adaic. The plot of this story is the first one that didn’t hold any surprises for me, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t exciting or that I didn’t enjoy the journey. Koholt is getting deeper and deeper into problems he doesn’t want to be involved in and the next story promises to be a great one. My only concern is that’s it’s been a year and a half since Eagle and Hare was published. I hope Erebus hurries up and finishes the next installment.

The Hero, the Sword, and the Dragon by Craig Halloran (Chronicle of Dragon 1)

The Hero, the Sword, and the Dragon is the first book in a fantasy series by Craig Halloran, the author of the superb urban fantasy series, Supernatural Bounty Hunter. While it’s my understanding that dragons are becoming increasingly common figures in urban fantasy romances, in classical fantasy they are usually the bad guys, so I was interested in seeing how Halloran would handle building a series around one.

First up, the dragon of the title is the hero—not the anti-hero—and he’s not quite a dragon yet. He’s descended from one, but whatever makes dragons grow their scales hasn’t happened to our hero yet. He’s stronger and faster and hardier than normal humans, but he’s not a fire-breathing lizard yet or even close to becoming one.

The second interesting twist that Halloran has put on the series is that classic fantasy activity—heroes slaying monsters and bad guys—threatens to get our hero into trouble. Blood lust is bad for dragons—although we’re not told why at the beginning of the book. This means that our hero has to find a non-hack-and-slash way of winning the day—or else. Now before you start thinking of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (“Violence is not the answer!”), let me assure you that there is a ton of action in this opening book. It’s just that there is also a ton of consequence that is clearly going to fuel the entire series. I’m anxious to see where it takes him.

Mirkwood by Steve Hillard narrated by William L. Hahn

This book is a must read for anyone who loves J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings. The novel is based upon the idea that Middle Earth exists and that Tolkien had access to several manuscripts which became his published works. In addition, he had several more manuscripts that he did not publish, and the dark lord wants one of them (maybe all) destroyed as part of his “come back” strategy. He is trying to wipe out a tale of resistance to him by destroying a young hobbit woman who has a peculiar opportunity to frustrate him.

Yet that is only a small part of this book, because most of the action doesn’t happen in Middle Earth, it happens here, in our world with flashbacks to J.R.R. .Tolkien’s past and his decision to pass on these manuscripts. It’s a mystery story in which the young heiress to these manuscripts is trying to find out what they are and what happened to her grandfather who was their caretaker for so long. Oh, and she’s also trying to survive an assassin from Middle Earth who has come to kill her and destroy those precious manuscripts.

This is a tale of beauty and sophisticated layering of plot brought to even-more-engaging life by the fantastic vocal talents of narrator William L. Hahn. Like the original Lord of the Rings which inspired it, I don’t think you can glean every depth of this novel in a single perusal. I’m going to have to read it again.

Legend by David Gemmell

David Gemmell, may he rest in peace, was one of the great fantasy writers of our time and this is the book that launched his career. Gemmell had been diagnosed with cancer and says that he started this book to occupy his mind while he was in treatment. It’s unlike anything in the genre that I had ever read. A sixty-year-old legendary warrior comes out of a very short retirement to fight in one last helpless cause to try and save the Drenai people. Druss has been in every major battle for the past forty years, but none of the lost causes he turned around ever looked as bad as this one.

Gemmell gets inside the skull of his heroes, none of whom—not even Druss—are without serious flaws. This book will tap every emotion you have. There’s plenty of excitement, but there’s also outrage, and respect, and trepidation, and grief, and wonder, and horror as men and women struggle to find it in themselves to hold on one more hour so that millions of people they will never know have a chance to go on living.

This would be a remarkable novel for any writer to produce—but as a first novel it will just knock your socks off. And it’s only Gemmell’s first novel. He fought the cancer off long enough to give us at least a score more books and make a legend of his very own.

Drenai 2 The King Beyond the Gate by David Gemmell

Two generations after Legend and the Drenai peoples are in crisis again. They have a tyrant ruling them with an iron fist—a particularly frightening iron fist in that is backed up by magically created combinations of man and beast called joinings. Gemmell focuses his story on a grandson of the barbarian king Ulric and the Earl of Bronze from the last book—a half breed who fits in no where but is a brilliant strategist and warrior. He gathers former companions in arms to kill the tyrant and ends up trying to plan a defense against the tyrant’s legion and his joinings.

This book does not reach the emotional heights of Legend, but it’s still a superb story with great personal battles and large scale military action. The mystical “thirty” appear again to aid the defendants, this time facing Black Templars instead of barbarian mystics. All in all, this is another wonderful novel in which we get into the hearts and souls of men and women trying to save their world from cruel oppression. As Gemmell is still willing to kill just about everyone he puts on the page, the ending is quite painful to read. You’ll care about the people dying and worry tremendously about every character.

Clovenhoof by Heide Goodman and Iain Grant

I have mixed reactions to this novel. On the one hand, the main storyline about Satan exiled to earth never quite caught my interest. It moved slowly and I just didn’t care. On the other hand, there’s a story simultaneously taking place in heaven which I eagerly awaited each installment of as I trudged through the main storyline chapters. In heaven, the board of directors (people like Michael the Archangel, St. Peter, Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, and Joan of Arc) try to deal with the consequences of earth’s population boom greatly increasing the numbers of people dying and going to heaven (and hell). This was often humorous before its disturbing and totally predictable end.

So it’s a mixed bag. I never cared about Clovenhoof but I was interested to uncover the plot that had ended up getting him exiled to earth. Also the mystery surrounding the Throne of God was quite clever (if predictable). All in all, there was a lot of good fun.

NPCs by Drew Hayes

Here’s a clever twist on the growing body of LitRPG-style literature (and no, this isn’t quite an LitRPG, but it’s in that mode). Instead of focusing on the player characters, Hayes writes a book about the NPCs and it’s utterly delightful. The book opens with a GM explaining to his characters why sitting down and having an ale in the inn has just led to each of their deaths. For the players, this is annoying, but all it really means is that they have to roll up a new set of characters. But for the NPCs whom the story then moves to follow, it’s a crisis. You see, it looks like the “adventurers” were poisoned in the inn and this is especially bad as these clearly low-level persons had just been summoned to a meeting with the mad king who looks for excuses to devastate villages in his realm. So, to protect their neighbors, the four NPCs decide to impersonate the adventurers. They figure they are going to die, but they won’t be dying in this village and drawing the mad king’s attention to it.

So they start on their journey and immediately run into a problem with goblins. It’s a nice starting adventure which takes an unexpected twist. And it shows the four learning how to be something more than villagers. And then, rinse and repeat as they approach the major task the king has sent out for them.

The characterization is very well done and so is the growing threat that these individuals will have to face. The differences between the NPCs and player characters is highlighted by occasional glances at the original group of players with their new characters. Most of this group is composed of genuine grade-A jerks who really give PCs a bad name.

So, good threat, good characterization, good story, and a great launching point for the next book in the series. I’ll have to read it.

Run like Hell by Elliott Kay

I really enjoyed this novel. It takes the current trend toward writing stories that are really simply roleplaying adventures and turns it on its head. The monsters are the good guys—but here’s the twist—they really are. Our “heroes” are a group of outcasts who band together to try and survive a group of adventurers who are overrunning the dungeon they are currently employed in. Most of the monsters in that dungeon are nasty bullies but our heroes are the ones who were getting kicked around by them so in addition to avoiding the adventurers they have plenty of trouble with their supposed allies. And of course, there are the legions of undead who inhabit the lowest levels of the dungeon (an old dwarf stronghold) who are a threat to everyone.

As the novel advances, Kay does an excellent job of drawing out the backstories of these misfits making them even more likable and sympathetic. He also shows us that they aren’t wimps. Their problems largely resulted from having no one to watch their backs in the survival of the fittest atmosphere of the barbaric monstrous society. We also learn that the humans, elves and dwarfs are not so likable either (or at least their governments aren’t). The humans have broken a treaty with the monster races that had kept the peace for three generations and appear to have done so for the basest of motivations—greed and racism. Even the adventurers (who would normally be the heroes of this tale) show themselves to be the worst kind of mercenaries.

This is a fun adventure all around and I look forward to the next installment. I’m particularly grateful that Kay avoided all the leveling up and character statistics that usually dominate this subgenre. The novel was much better for concentrating on story and characterization than on character sheets.

Nowhere to Run by Elliott Kay

Nowhere to Run picks up with the Wandering Monsters trying to earn a living by taking care of problems for a small village in the north of the kingdom. They frighten off some bandits only to have the villagers they are protecting turn on them and throw them out once the danger is over. (Humans in this series often fill the role of “bad guy” not because humans are evil, but because many just suck.)

Our heroes find a group of refugee goblins, hobgoblins, etc. and try to help them out. They’ve arrived just in time. The “bandits” that were driven off from the human village turn out to be cavalry scouts for the king acting incognito so as not to alarm neighboring lands. Real reinforcements are on their way and they plan to exterminate the refugees who have no place further to flee. So this novel ends up being about preparations for a fight while trying to resolve internal problems in the goblin camp and an ancient evil that is buried beneath it. As with all of Kay’s books, the action is solid and the story moves along at a very quick pace.

We also learn a little more about the characters and set the stage for the next volume. The dwarves have discovered that Dig Dig has uncovered a powerful artifact and they want it. The king has discovered that the daughter who escaped him is with the Wandering Monsters crew and he wants her back as a powerful token in his relationships with his neighbors. This series is only getting better with each new volume. I look forward to reading the next one.

Small Victories by Elliot Kay

This is a collection of short stories from Elliot Kay’s three fictional universes: Good Intentions, Wandering Monsters, and Poor Man’s War. He starts with several from Good Intentions of which only two interested me—Rough Day and Good Neighbors. The first of the stories shows the limits to what angels can accomplish when trying to deal with the problems in Seatle, and the second involves Alex and Rachel confronting a demon in their apartment building. Both of these stories advanced our understanding of the characters and the second had quite a bit of action in it. The others in this section were mostly excuses to write about sex. I don’t have any problem with sex occurring in a story, but I prefer it to support the story as opposed to “be” the story. I suppose you have to run into this problem occasionally when one of the main characters is a succubus.

The next two stories were in the Wandering Monsters universe and each was a shorter example of what those novels were like. The characters are all monsters serving as a sort of adventurer band such as you would find in any Dungeons & Dragons game. The fact that the monsters are the good guys (and they actually are “good” people) puts a bit of a twist on the stories that makes them a little more fun.

The final stories occur at different times in the Poor Man’s War universe ranging from during the first book to after the fifth. They were all solid short stories which you didn’t have to have read the series to enjoy (as were those in the Wandering Monsters universe). I hope that Kay publishes more collections such as this and that he takes his cue from the last two sections not the first.

Habitual Heroes by Elliot Kay

This is another good collection of short stories set in Kay’s three literary universes—at least the Wandering Monsters and Poor Man’s Fight stories were good. Only half of the Good Intentions stories were good—the others count more as soft porn, which would be fine if that advanced some plot, but too often it seemed to be the point of the story instead of a vehicle to advance it.

But most of the stories are just really good—short versions of Kay’s novels that I enjoy so very much. There’s plenty of action, some good humor, and every so often a chance to think about right and wrong, especially in the short story, Justice, in which the “adventurers” have to take a good look at themselves and come to realize that they are in facts the bad guys in their recent run in with the monsters.

Dirk Quigby’s Guide to the Afterlife—E.E. King

This is a novel without a plot—or possibly a novel with a plot that stops long before it gets to the end. It’s built on an interesting premise. Dirk Quigby is an advertising copy writer hired by the devil to write a travel guide to the afterlife so that humans will become interested in reaching heaven again and hell will be less overpopulated. The first couple of these guides (ancient Egypt and Greece) balance encyclopedia-like information with snarky observations by Quigby and are quite humorous, but as the sections on each religion get longer and the snark becomes a bit mean-spirited (especially with the Catholics) they cease to be enough to carry the novel. Thus we fall back on the almost plot—Quigby’s problems with his day job, and his strange girlfriend with the big surprise. The problem is—and I admit I’m a heavily plot driven reader—the plot doesn’t go anywhere. And ultimately, there doesn’t seem to be a purpose to the Guide to the Afterlife. Quigby is supposed to go on a talk show. The world has a chance to learn of the guide and respond to it. Presumably many will be unhappy with his observations. Yet the story ends before showing us any of these results which in this reader’s opinion was the point of the whole novel. So Ms. King, you have a great idea here, but I suspect that I am not the only reader who wishes you would revise the book and add a few chapters that address the impact of the guide and leads Quigby to a satisfying ending. That would greatly enhance my overall enjoyment of your story.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

I suspect this novel was inspired by the baking of the giant gingerbread cookie in one of the Shrek movies. The plot revolves around a city state in which all of the people capable of using magic have been slowly killed off over the past year or so. Enter our heroine, a fourteen-year-old baker who discovers a dead body in her aunt’s bakery when she goes in to start the preparations for the day’s business at 4am. Somewhat to her surprise, the inquisitor immediately suspects her of being the killer because she discovered the body. The reader will immediately suspect that something other than extreme dimwittedness is the cause of this suspicion.

Things quickly get worse. Someone tries to kill the young baker and she and a new friend decide to try and figure out what is really going on. This leads, through a quick series of twists and turns, into the young baker becoming the primary line of defense against an invading army. There’s some nice tension throughout the plot, but this is primarily what I think of as a “cute” novel with a group of basically nice people trying to stop a dastardly plot. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The Buried Pyramid by Jane Lindskold

I’ve been a big Jane Lindskold fan for years now. I discovered her by reading her PhD dissertation on science fiction great, Roger Zelazny, which she wrote at my own alma mater, Fordham University. This led me to the novels she completed for Zelazny after he died and I’ve been reading one of her books every couple of years ever since. She’s an author of extraordinary breadth, writing series about—wolves, a China-inspired fantasy, and immortals.

The Buried Pyramid is another example of Lindskold’s range as a writer. Set in Victorian England and Egypt, she develops her setting and characters in exquisite detail. As a young army officer, Sir Neville brushed against what was almost the greatest archaeological discovery of all time. Forced to turn back by hostile Bedouin, the lure of that almost-discovery has haunted Sir Neville ever since. The Buried Pyramid is the story of his second attempt to uncover greatness. Accompanied by his American niece, an amateur Egyptologist, and his old army sergeant who has converted to Islam, Sir Neville braves the dangers of a hostile environment, competing explorers and a secret society determined to keep this tomb from being rediscovered.

This novel starts out slowly but picks up a lot of steam in the second half of the book until it’s difficult to stop turning the pages. I was completely taken by surprise by many of the twists and turns the heroes encounter in the tomb. I was quite pleased by these twists as they happened and anxious to see how Lindskold would handle the situations, but at the end of the book I did not feel completely satisfied—which is not my usual Lindskold experience.

I’m glad I read this novel. There are beautiful descriptions of late nineteenth century Egyptian society and Lindskold’s understanding of the extraordinarily complex ancient Egyptian mythology and writing systems are amazing. I really liked her characters as well, although I thought that the major villain, Lady Cheshire, should have suffered a significant penalty for her malevolent efforts.

Junk Magic and Guitar Dreams by T. James Logan

Otter is a teenager who lives in poverty with his dying mother. They have family, but because of years-old enmity, Otter’s mother forbids him to turn to them for help. She’s so opposed to contact that she arranges for Otter to be emancipated rather than ask for their aid in taking care of him after she passes. Unfortunately, Otter’s understandable rage at all the unfairness in his life undercuts the act of emancipation and allows a rather unsympathetic social worker to try and take it from him so she can force him into foster care.

On the surface, that’s the whole plot of the novel—Otter trying to survive after his mother passes—but Logan gives the reader so much more, including a very dark and disturbing subplot of white supremacists trying to seduce Otter into their ideology. As Otter feels more and more isolated from the world, he finds unexpected solace in a box of junk that his wealthy grandfather left him. The junk permits Otter through never explained magic to relive parts of his grandfather’s life, giving Otter perspective he desperately needs and insight into why his extended family is so messed up.

Then there’s Otter’s guitar and his band—a source of release and hope for so many millions of teenagers around the world—and the only thing keeping Otter sane as he tries to deal with his many problems.

Logan somehow pulls all of these disparate plot threads into a highly compelling, but painfully realistic, growing up tale. I supposed it’s technically a young adult story, but the themes and situations Otter deals with are ones I hope no child ever has to face. This is not a light read, but it’s definitely worth your time.

I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

A Troll Walks into a Bar by Douglas Lumsden

The human detective in a fantasy world has become a very popular trope since Glen Cook published Sweet Silver Blues back in 1990. This novel looked like more of the same, but proved to be a richer experience than I first expected. The fantasy world is more of an urban fantasy world in that it appears technology-wise to be twenty-first century Earth with all the bureaucracy that goes with it. Where Cook's Garrett is based on Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin (with the Deadman playing Nero Wolfe), Lumsden's Alexander Southerland is more in line with Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, going from one beating to the next until he finally figures out who committed the crime.

The mystery—which ends up being who committed a murder—revolves around a mysterious box that must be kept cold and is boobytrapped so the wrong party can't open it. What is in that box proves to be both very interesting and a credible motivator for everything that happens in the story. It also depends heavily on some excellent worldbuilding that forms the foundation of this novel and presumably the series.

If you're a fan of the detective-in-a-fantasy-world style of story, you will definitely want to check this one out.

Spellmonger by Terry Mancour

Spellmonger is a great fantasy novel set in a very complex world of magic at a medieval level technology. Armies have learned to incorporate mages into their military units. Our hero, Minalan, is a veteran of these magical wars who, at the ancient age of twenty-five-ish has decided to retire from the army and set up shop as a village spellmonger, selling his skills to the locals. He thought he was setting himself up for a simple life without a lot of stress. Then a major goblin invasion begins and his life is turned upside down as the world he knows may well be coming to an end.

There is a tremendous amount to like about this book. The world has been carefully developed with a lot of depth and breadth. The main character was very likeable as are many of the supporting cast. The bad guys are happily irritating. The battles were good. The magical system is interesting. The overall threat keeps developing into a more and more apocalyptic peril and I didn’t see any way for them to ultimately escape – and since Minalan is narrating the novel, it was clear that he had to survive.

On the downside, each chapter includes a flashback to show how Minalan got to where he is and this structure got old fast. It also pretty much precluded any real character growth occurring in the novel. I think it would have been far wiser for Mancour to tell the story in much more chronological fashion and let us watch Minalan become the man he is at the beginning of the story. I also think that this would have added significant drama to the tale.

Over all, I really enjoyed the book. It’s a great set up for further adventures as the goblin threat continues to imperil all of civilization. I’ll be curious to see where Mancour goes with this.

The Dark Field by J. R. Mabry and Mickey Asteriou

In the first book in this series, the reader watches as a combination of incredible stupidity and self-centered immaturity and greed release a planet devouring dark god into the universe again. In this sequel, matters go from bad to worse as kings seek to conceal their own roles in creating the apocalyptic tragedy by turning on their best hopes to stop the destroyer. If only their short-sighted idiocy wasn’t so believable.

If the first book establishes the problem of the series, this one puts the pieces in place to best the threat. Our mixed bag of heroes is in place and they know what they have to do—if not how they are going to accomplish it. And here I think the authors have out done themselves because to stop the villain from destroying the universe, the heroes will have to destroy civilization as they know it.

Talk about the devil and the deep blue sea—even the good guys are likely to try and stop the heroes during book 3.

The Prison Stone by J. R. Mabry and Mickey Asteriou

Mabry and Asteriou’s new series has one of the most unique settings I have ever encountered in fantasy literature. It’s a galaxy worth of worlds—each with their dwarves and elves and humans—but despite the essentially medieval level technology they are reached by dwarven built spaceships. I suspect that it is magic powering those ships, but they are spaceships nonetheless and that makes for a very distinctive mix of high tech and low tech interactions that gives this series a wonderful flavor.

The plot revolves around a totally evil big bad guy who destroyed entire worlds a millennium earlier before the good guys managed to trap him in the prison stone. That’s just long enough ago that even the long-lived dwarves think of these events as stories rather than history (many elves actually remember the big bad) so when the stone is rediscovered (and one does wonder how you lose something that important) it isn’t given the proper respect it deserves. In a decision that must go down as one of the worst ever made, a dwarf king decides to transport the stone by humble courier instead of by armed battalion. This being an epic fantasy series, no one will be surprised when that decision goes bad and the fate of worlds is once again endangered.

There are a lot of great characters in this story but none so endearing as Ellis, the haffolk. I admit I initially rolled my eyes when I saw the race. Hobbits or halflings are a staple of fantasy literature—gentle, inoffensive, and often loved by all. But here again, Mabry and Asteriou have taken their own route. The haffolk are still basically gentle, but they are not a race. They are instead mules—the infertile product of a dwarf and human mating who are despised by just about everyone—and it quickly becomes apparent that that is going to have major implications for the development of this story.

So the setting of the Prison Stone is exceptional, the foundations are strong, and now my expectations for the rest of the series is sky high. Can’t wait for the next book to be published.

A Chance Beginning by Christopher Patterson

This novel starts with a bang! A very likeable freeholding farmer and his wife—descendants of the hero in the prologue—are murdered by a nobleman who wants to turn them into serfs. It’s a powerfully moving and absolutely shocking beginning that sets the reader up for an exciting tale of justice and vengeance. And that tale is probably going to happen over the course of this new fantasy trilogy, but it isn’t what this novel is about. A Chance Beginning focuses on the two sons and nephew of the murdered couple who have left the farm to seek their fortune only to discover difficulty and poverty greater than they have ever known. The change in pace is striking after the fast-moving opening, but Patterson takes the time to introduce you to these three young men and really bring them to life with distinctive personalities.

Patterson writes a very good action scene—good enough that it makes you wish there was much more of it. He also deals very well with the aftermath of violence as the three young men are forced to begin growing up. This is common feature of fantasy and it’s a strength of the novel.

The other big strength is the slowly developing international political situation. The political powers are searching for something and starting to make military moves. We don’t really understand this situation yet but it’s very clear our three young heroes-to-be are going to be in the middle of it.

Overall, this is a nice start to what promises to be a very good trilogy.

The Reaper of Iremia by Kenneth Rocher

The Reaper of Iremia is an action-packed fantasy novel set in a very modern-feeling city that seems to have been modeled on the medieval Italian city states. It’s got strong characters and an involved mystery with a lot of surprises. But the thing I liked the most about it was the big bad’s magic item. I don’t want to give away the coolest part of the plot, but this item was an extremely creative idea that I don’t remember coming across before in the hundreds (thousands?) of fantasy novels I’ve read. And it creates a truly fascinating problem for our heroes as they attempt to save the day.

I was given this book in exchange for an honest review.

Nolyn by Michael J. Sullivan

This novel shows why the back of the book blurb is so important. It can whet your appetite for the novel, but it can also set you up for disappointment. That’s what happened to me with Nolyn. The blurb set me up for an exciting fantasy military adventure—and there’s enough of that there that I was glad I read it. But it was also misleading, because in the first sixty or seventy percent of the novel, roughly two-thirds of the prose was devoted to a storyline focused on a woman whose child has been kidnapped—and that really wasn’t military at all. It wasn’t a bad storyline, but I resented it because in tone and style it was nothing that I had been led to expect in this book.

That being said, the last third is great—truly interesting—as are the opening chapters on the military problem. It’s an interesting book and I’m ultimately glad I read it, even if I feel a little misled by the blurb.