Day 1 Gotrek and Felix by William King and Nathan Long
Welcome to the March to Other Worlds 2021. To start us off I’ve chosen a fantasy series from the Black Library—which chronicles stories based in the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 gaming universe. I’ve been rereading these books while housebound during the COVID-19 pandemic and think they’re worth bringing to people’s attention.
So for the first day of the March, I’ve chosen a pair of heroes who walk back and forth across their world seeking adventure…
Gotrek and Felix are a legendary fantasy duo who could take their place beside Conan the Barbarian as they tackle the greatest monsters of the Warhammer universe. Gotrek is a dwarf who committed a crime so grievous that he was driven to swear an oath to seek his doom by seeking out the most horrible monsters and (hopefully) dying in battle against it. Felix is the poor human poet who made the mistake of swearing a drunken oath to follow Gotrek and chronicle his doom. There are no shortage of horrific monsters to fight in the Warhammer universe and each book’s title foreshadows the major trial of the novel—Trollslayer, Dragonslayer, Daemonslayer, and so forth.
These are modern day sword and sorcery novels that would have fit well in the pulp era. You can read my reviews of the series here: https://www.gilbertstack.com/warhammer
Day 2 The Valley of Despair by Chris L. Adams
For the second day of the March to Other Worlds we turn to author and painter, Chris L. Adams. Adams is an expert on the pulp era of science fiction and you can see the influence of those masters in his writings. The Valley of Despair would fit well in a collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs stories. It only takes one short chapter to convince you you’re in for a thrill ride.
German WWI pilot Erik von Mendelsohn has crashed in the jungle and is trying to survive a group of apes that have taken the wrong kind of interest in him. Desperate to escape, he reaches the edge of the jungle near a high cliff face and the apes who are in hot pursuit…refuse to follow him past the tree line. It’s a simple idea very subtly conveyed in the story, but it set all the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. These totally aggressive and fearsome animals won’t follow our hero as he attempts to climb the cliff face to get away from them. It’s difficult not to ask yourself—what are the apes afraid of? What the heck is Erik getting himself into? And the tension just keeps ratcheting higher from this point forward.
Erik is a well thought out character—he’s smart, a bit impulsive, and a little too curious for his own good. The supporting cast is equally interesting. I don’t want to give away the plot, but the people Erik finds and gets into trouble with are equally brave and capable—and the problem they have to confront is better thought out than a lot of “lost world” adventure-style stories I’ve encountered. In short if you want a fast-paced well-developed adventure story with great characters, you should give Valley of Despair a try.
Day 3 The Heisenberg Corollary by C. H. Duryea
For Day 3 of the March to Other Worlds, I’m going to take you on a light-hearted romp through the multiverse with author C.H. Duryea. The book is packed with action and plenty of movie and roleplaying game references and feels like hard sf without actually having to get bogged down in the math and incomprehensible theories. In short, The Heisenberg Corollary is an amazingly fun sf adventure which finds a simple solution to permitting the cast of heroes to discover just about anything you can imagine in the multiverse.
The plot revolves around Zeke Travers and his fellow scientists who accidentally trigger an interdimensional chase when they test out Zeke’s life’s work—a device that permits travel to other universes. The problem—something follows the device back to earth and begins ripping through the multiverse in its efforts to catch Zeke and his device. Most of the rest of the novel is built around Zeke and his friends’ attempts to first escape and then stop the aliens who are pursuing them. The plot gets rather fanciful as it proceeds, but the fun never lets up and the pace never slackens.
Narrator Will Hahn pulled out all the stops with this one. In addition
to rip-roaring, highly distinctive voices for the entire cast, he threw in
enough sound effects to make this nearly a fully dramatized experience. Not
enough narrators are able to bring that higher level of stagecraft to a novel,
and not many authors have created an experience that lends itself so well to
such dramatic audio creations.
Day 4 Legionnaire by Gilbert M. Stack
For Day 4 of the March to Other Worlds we’re going to turn to the fantasy series that inspired the original March back in 2020, my very own, Legionnaire. The series focuses on Patrician Marcus Venandus, a loyal and solid son of the powerful Republic of Aquila, and follows his efforts to protect the homeland he loves far better than it loves him. Aquila takes its inspiration from Rome in the two generations preceding the birth of the empire, but there is magic in this world and the legions have had to incorporate it to maintain their edge in these very dangerous times.
Most of the series occurs in The Jeweled Hills, border lands north of the Republic which have attracted the interest of the dreaded Qing Empire. With Aquila distracted by its internal political problems, Marcus finds himself having to build a defense of these important territories practically by himself. Yet the Jeweled Hills doesn’t recognize the external threat of the Qing either. It is too deeply riven by its own internal disputes as its ruling class fights among itself and its subject peoples seethe with rebellion.
If you enjoy solid military action built on
rational political problems that intelligently result from the plots and biases
of believable people and cultures, you’re going to love this series which just
launched its twelfth book (plus a prequel novel about Marcus’ first command).
Day 5 State of Chaos and the Midnight Zone by J.K. Franks
On the fifth day of the March to Other Worlds we’re going to turn to a science fiction world not too distant from our own earth and the Cade Reardon thrillers of J.K. Franks. At least, I hope they’re science fiction because truth-to-tell, they’re so well written and researched that they feel like they could be happening right now.
The series starts with everything a good thriller needs and just gets better from there. Franks gives us a war between two rival AIs, first contact with an alien species, and an insidious plot to create a coup within the U.S. government which will have the unavoidable side effect of killing many millions of people. And if that isn’t enough, the second novel brings Cthulhu into the mix. I mean, seriously, how does it get better than that? But it does because, unfair as it seems to other authors out there, in addition to building a fabulous totally credible world, Franks also crafts absolutely wonderful characters with all the strengths and flaws, ideals and insecurities, and basic human frailties of real people.
Oh, and in case you couldn’t tell, it’s also an amazing page turner, so
make sure you carve out a block of time before you start it because you’re not
going to want to put it down.
Day 6 Fierce Girls at War by Mike Adams
Marching to Other Worlds naturally brings military-themed fiction to mind and Mike Adams’ Fierce Girls at War is one of the best military SF series I’ve ever read. It holds its own with top series like David Weber’s Honor Harrington and John Ringo’s Troy Rising. Stylistically, it’s a mix of serious infantry action and behind the behind the scenes know how of a W.E.B. Griffin novel. The result is an often gritty, always fascinating, exploration of earth’s first colony and its run in with a peculiar alien species called the Rift.
In addition to the tight military action, politics plays a very important role in this series, but not the traditional high level presidential-style politics. In the Earth of the future, terrorism continues to be a significant problem and much of the anger of the terrorists is focused on the growing interstellar economy. Adams deftly uses this movement not only to establish the foundation of his series, but to add plausible tension at every level of the interstellar enterprise.
Another of the strengths of the series is the multiple points of views from which the reader gets to explore Earth’s first interstellar colony. Not only are their multiple POVs in the colony of New Hope, but Adams gets the reader into the nitty-gritty of life on a starship as the great ships transit the vastness of space. There is also usually a couple of chapters in each book grounded in the cast members still located on earth.
The cast is the greatest strength of the novel. Adams opens the series by introducing three generations of the O’Brien family. The matriarch, Kelly O’Brien, is in charge of firearms training for the NYC Police Department. Her children are almost preternaturally gifted marksmen, the beneficiaries of a training technique invented by their deceased father. Rick O’Brien and Sergeant Molly Bennett quickly run afoul of the Hassan Gul terrorist organization by killing several of the chief terrorist’s sons and are eventually forced to leave the planet to keep from being assassinated. From this very exciting beginning the whole series unfolds.
At New Hope Colony, Rick and Molly carve out a place of influence for themselves in the colonial logistics office while the alien Rift begin taking covert steps to reclaim the planet they feel the humans have stolen from them. The Rift are an advanced, economically focused, alien species with very little experience of war. They do their fighting with primitive mercenaries who are physically durable and are indiscriminate carnivores. Over the early books of the series, the reader watches the colony and an approaching starship begin to pick up hints that something is wrong, but not quite putting the facts together before the invasion begins in earnest.
From this moment forward, the series moves into overdrive, as the invasion advances, the colony struggles to respond, and Rick and Molly, together with a group of some fifty high school girls, find themselves marooned in the dangerous back country of New Hope Colony, hundreds of miles from civilization and unable to contact the colonial authorities for help. With their communications satellites rendered inoperative, the colony can’t even communicate with the starships slowly making their way into system. The already high tension continues to ratchet up as the war continues.
If you’re looking for a well-thought-out military sf series with plenty
of action, you should take a look at Fierce Girls at War.
Day 7 Khaled by Francis Marion Crawford
To close out the first week of the March to Other Worlds I’m taking us back in time to one of the most interesting fantasies I’ve ever read—one that is simultaneously a beautiful love story.
Khaled is a genie who is also an adherent to the Muslim faith who strives always to live by Allah’s dictates. He steps astray, however, when he intervenes in human affairs and kills a non-Muslim prince from India who has lied about his willingness to genuinely convert to Islam in order to gain the hand in marriage of a Muslim princess named Zehowah. As punishment, or possibly as reward, for killing the prince Allah decrees that Khalid will become a human man and if he can win Zehowah’s love, he will gain a soul and have the chance that every human has to achieve paradise.
This is a truly beautiful tale. Khaled knows little of women and Zehowah believes she knows nothing of love and is incapable of feeling it. So they have great discussions about the nature of love and the ways in which men and women should interact. Khaled tries various strategies to win Zehowah’s love, becoming increasingly frustrated with each failure. Yet, he never loses his faith in Allah and his desire to act rightly in accordance to Allah’s plan no matter what the consequence to himself. For her part, Zehowah has a genuine desire to be a good wife, but just doesn’t have the sort of feelings that Khaled needs from her. This is a tense and intriguing masterpiece from an author I’d never encountered before, but will definitely read again.
If you’re interested in Khaled, Chris L. Adams led a great discussion of the book at Written Gems on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/19352967-khaled-a-tale-of-arabia-by-francis-marion-crawford
Day 8 The Defense of Exeter Station by Thom Bedford
We open the second week of the March to Other Worlds by returning to the far future where we get to witness The Defense of Exeter Station. This is the story of an important early military action in a complex war between the Alliance and the Union. Part of the complexity of the novel is that neither the Alliance nor the Union appear to be particularly admirable political entities. The Alliance is a military and economic powerhouse that has been using its resources to take advantage of a large number of colonial systems. Many of those systems resent the domination by the Alliance core systems and accuse the Alliance government of having created a government that gives the pretense of political participation to the colonies without any real influence or power. The Alliance, quite understandably, sees matters differently.
The Union, on the other hand, is also a highly disturbing political entity. While it tries to position itself on the moral high ground, it is the power that initiates violent hostilities and it does so by recruiting thousands of agents inside the Alliance military and key civilian locations and using them to commit acts of mutiny and sabotage that cripple the Alliance fleet and kill millions of people. There’s also something unsettling about the style of Union propaganda that gives their government an almost cultish atmosphere.
After hostilities commence, Exeter Station discovers that the new political realities have changed it into an Alliance border system with badly weakened defenses and a Union fleet on the way to take possession of it. The whole novel revolves around the determination of a few Exeter personnel to prevent that from happening.
The Defense of Exeter Station is a very exciting novel. As Exeter Station attempts to rebuild its sabotage-weakened defenses in time to stop the Union from capturing it, a mystery ship—possibly a ghost ship—enters Exeter’s proximity further complicating their situation. They have a serious staffing shortage and very little reach thanks to their lack of a defensive fleet. This is really the crux of the novel—can Exeter solve the mystery of the ghost ship and can they create a plan that will bring the enemy ships into reach of Exeter’s superior firepower? Watching the heroes grapple with this issue makes for a great story.
Day 9 Wolf Mountain by Isaac Stone and Timothy Mayer
I believe that the best LitRPGs connect events in the real world to the game world, and that is one of the things that Stone and Mayer do very well in their novel, Wolf Mountain, my pick for Day 9 of the March to Other Worlds. The foundation of the story is not particularly original. A game company is testing out new technology and the protagonist, Vince, is hired to help test it. He is immersed in a game world and has to see if he can beat the system.
The game setting is a mountainous area of the U.S. during the 1920s—not a time period I’ve seen before in this type of book. The authors don’t bog the story down with countless repetitions of character sheet stats, but you never forget that this is in fact a game environment. As the action progresses, Vince becomes romantically interested in a well-developed NPC and after completing his employment becomes obsessed with learning how she was developed and whether or not she was based on a real-world individual. The game designers oppose his interest and then things get especially interesting as Vince begins to have problems differentiating between the game environment and the real world even though he is no longer attached to the equipment.
In many ways, Wolf Mountain is a set up for an even deeper mystery surrounding how the game was developed and what the company that owns it is trying to accomplish. That’s a tale worth telling.
Day 10 The Henry Gallant Saga by H. Peter Alesso
For Day 10 of the March to Other Worlds we turn to the future and The Henry Gallant Saga. There’s a spark of genius in the setup for this series. When Stan Lee created the X-Men, he made them relatable by making them mutants—reviled by humanity. Alesso accomplishes the same thing by making his hero, Henry Gallant, normal. You read that right. The military of the future is dominated by genetically-engineered humans and Gallant is a throwback without the benefits of all that customization. This makes him the subject of a great deal of harassment by fellow officers determined to prove he can’t be relied upon in stressful situations. But if Gallant does have one extraordinary ability, it’s perseverance. He just doesn’t quit and he certainly doesn’t lay down and die. So now matter how badly the odds stack up against him, Gallant bulls though to victory.
The series advances Horatio Hornblower style following Gallant through
the ranks. Earth is in a terrible war with an alien race whom they discover
developing the outer planets of our solar system. The aliens are not interested
in communication or any kind of diplomacy, they want humans wiped out of the
way of their developing civilization. So, the setup is apocalyptic, but many of
the greatest challenges Gallant faces come from the narrow self-interests and
prejudices of his fellow humans rather than the alien menace. If you’re looking
for a sharp new military sf series, you should give Henry Gallant a try.
Day 11 Whipping Star by Frank Herbert
For Day 11 of the March to Other Worlds we’re going to turn to sf great, Frank Herbert. Herbert is best known for his novel, Dune, but he has many other excellent books. He excels at the creation of truly alien, incomprehensible cultures, and it is the resulting problems of communication that is the heart of the superb novel, Whipping Star. In the universe of the future multiple alien species live together in a government called the ConSentiency. For several decades, the peoples of the ConSentiency have taken advantage of advanced technology provided to them by a new race called the Caleban. The Caleban are almost impossible to understand, but they have a jump door technology that permits people to instantaneously move anywhere in the universe. At the start of the novel, the Calebans are disappearing from the universe and with each new disappearance millions of beings are going insane or dying. Very quickly, the protagonist Jorj X. McKie, learns that the disappearances and deaths are connected, and if the last Caleban in the universe disappears or dies (a phrase the Caleban refers to as “ultimate discontinuity”) all people (99% of the ConSentiency) who have used a jump door will also die.
So the stakes could not be higher in Whipping Star as McKie tries to determine what could threaten the existence of a being with cosmic power. The answer is totally perplexing, but is also the key to the communication problems which make this book the masterpiece it is. The Caleban is being murdered by the richest woman in the ConSentiency who has an obsession with flogging people, but has had her psyche treated so that she can’t bear the thought of causing suffering. Her answer was to form a contract with a Caleban—a sort of energy creature—and whip her. But why a primitive leather bullwhip could threaten the existence of the most powerful creature in the universe…well that’s the heart of the story.
This is a wonderful novel by a master of the science fiction field.
Day 12 Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia
For Day 12, I’d like to introduce you to one of the most action-packed urban fantasy series on the market—Monster Hunter International. If you like your urban fantasy with lots of gunfire and brutal combats between heroes and monsters, you’re definitely going to want to read these books. Owen Pitt is trying to settle into life as a simple accountant when his supervisor turns into a werewolf and tries to eat him. Pitt fights back and surprisingly, without silver weapons, not only survives but kills the creature (and if that isn’t an action-packed way to start a series, I don’t know what is). Pitt’s actions bring him to the attention of not only our unfriendly government, which considers keeping the secret that monsters exist more important than its citizens’ lives, but to a private outfit called Monster Hunter International which recruits Pitt to join their ranks.
What follows is a rollicking ride through the twisted mind of Larry Correia. There are vampires, gargoyles, insectoid monsters, wights, ghostly figures, and crazy cursed beings galore all set in a fabulously thought-out alternate earth. Correia even offers the very best rendition of Frankenstein that I’ve ever come across. The characters are beautifully drawn and the tension grows from chapter to chapter toward an absolutely fantastic ending.
And then the next book starts with even more adrenalin and pulse pounding action than the first. And just when you think you can breathe normally again, you get to move on to book three, and four, and, well, you get the point.
If you’ve been wishing for a few more guns in your urban fantasy, Monster Hunter International is the series for you.
Day 13 Colonyside by Michael Mammay
For Day 13 of the March, I want to take a look at the latest book in a series I introduced in the first March to Other Worlds. Yes, Michael Mammay’s Colonel Carl Butler is back! The man who twice launched weapons of mass destruction and is hated by half of the human race for a genocidal action that he took to save them is pulled into another complicated and intensely exciting mystery that once again involves an alien species. This time he’s hired by one of the richest men in the galaxy to find out what really happened to his estranged daughter when she went missing and was reported killed outside the dome on a small colony world. His mission is supported by the president which one would think would mean that people would bend over backward to help the investigation, but the opposite is happening. Most everyone, including the company owned by the man who launched Butler’s inquiry, are all being quietly obstructionist. Everyone appears to expect Carl to rubberstamp the previous report on how the woman died, collect his money, and go home. But obviously, they don’t know Carl Butler!
This novel is a completely worthy successor to its two predecessors, Planetside and Spaceside. The tension builds to excruciating levels as Carl gets deeper and deeper inside the mystery. And he’s finally up against an opponent who is frankly better than he is and the odds against him are crushingly high. It’s always hard to write a review that doesn’t give away critical plot elements, but I will say that I’m impressed by how deep inside Carl’s skull Mammay gets in this novel. Every single thing Carl does—correctly or mistakenly—read true right down to his stubborn willingness to die rather than be untrue to himself. In fact, death seems like a very probable outcome of the novel despite the fact that Carl is narrating the action, so if you’re like me, you’ll be looking for opportunities for him to record what he knows, and waiting for someone else to come in with the epilogue to the story. That’s how serious the action gets. I just hope there will be another book in this series soon.
Day 14 The Sea in the Sky by Jackson Musker
One of the things that I think it is hardest for authors to pull off in science fiction is a realistic mission of discovery—stories that don’t devolve into simply surviving the bad guys. One of the movies that I think captures what I’m talking about the best is 2010. Now this fully dramatized audiobook has rivaled what 2010 accomplished for me.
Two astronauts spend three years in a spaceship journeying to explore the oceans on one of the moons of Saturn and encounter not only the physical demands of their mission, but the intense psychological pressure of being a billion miles from other human beings and having all of NASA depending on them to find something—i.e. life—that might not even exist there at all. So this is a story about intense psychological pressure, but it’s also, even more importantly, a story of friendship and the positive and negative force it can exert on an already stressed out human mind.
The science-adventure part of this novel is top notch. Exploring another world’s sea is an excellent vehicle for a mission of discovery. The two characters are both engaging and interesting, although their back-and-forth banter was way too cute at times, it was also necessary for establishing the friendship at the heart of this story. And the more they come to depend upon each other, the more the reader will fear that something is going to happen to one of them.
By far the best part of this novel is the overwhelming psychological pressure. It’s there throughout the whole book, but it becomes much more visible after the two astronauts have to deal with a crushing disaster. Isolation leads to insanity, but the mission continues and the readers, like NASA back on earth, are left to try and figure out what is really happening.
I was going to give this book four stars, but changed my mind when I realized I was still thinking about it long after I finished it. Elements have really stuck with me and I find myself still puzzling over where that line between reality and insanity truly sits.
Day 15 The Chronicles of Fid by David Reiss
Fid’s Crusade is on the list of my top ten superhero books of all time. Ever since the creation of Marvel’s Wolverine, it’s been popular to depict heroes who often cross the line. Then there are villains like Cat Woman who sometimes find themselves playing the role of hero. Fid’s Crusade is the story of how the world’s most notorious super villain finds himself putting it all on the line to save the world—which would be awesome in and of itself even if the novel didn’t give you one heck of a lot more.
First, let’s be clear, Fid is not a particularly sane human. When his younger brother dies because a so-called “hero” puts protecting his secret identify over saving a child’s life, Fid goes off the deep end and determines to prove how fundamentally selfish and unheroic most heroes are. So Fid sets out on a lifetime mission to expose to the public how unheroic their heroes truly are, and in doing so becomes one of the baddest of the bad. The villain no hero can beat—even when they manage to cut his arm off in the middle of a battle. He’s tough, he’s smart, and not a single one of the heroes or the media who love to cover them, have any idea what Fid is really all about.
Nor do they have any idea that he’s been changing over time—not losing his need to expose heroic hypocrisy, but evolving to understand that monstrous violence might not be the best way to obtain his ends. This sort of evolution is a tremendously difficult task for an author to take on—especially in a single novel—but Reiss handles it brilliantly. Can Fid change despite the heroes lined up against him? And can he save the world despite the best efforts of the men and women who have sworn to protect it?
One more thought on the series. It’s amazing that books that are as heavily psychological as these, could also be packed to the gills with amazing action scenes. David Reiss has given more thought to the armored hero / villain than the creators of Iron Man ever did and the reader benefits tremendously from this care on his part. Plus, Fid is a scientific genius to put Tony Stark and Reed Richards to shame and Reiss really makes you believe it as he applies his IQ to the challenges at hand.
This is a wonderful series.
Day 16 Gaunt’s Ghosts by Dan Abnett
In 2002, I was looking for a new military sf series and discovered Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I had never played any of the Warhammer roleplaying games, but I had bought the miniatures and many of the Warhammer fantasy supplements for use in other games. Looking back, it seems to me that the series didn’t really take off until book three, Necropolis, when it became one of my favorites and encouraged me to read a lot of other books in both the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer universes.
Warhammer 40,000 is a bleak place to live. What I’m about to describe comes from my impressions after reading dozens of books set in the universe. It appears to me that when humanity discovered faster-than-light travel, they inadvertently exposed themselves to the mutating and corrupting forces of chaos which existed in the warp. This force began to drive people insane and it spread among humanity as a sort of contagion. It activated psychic powers in many people and triggered a civil strife that seems to have essentially overthrown what we would think of as a scientific age.
Civilization survived by moving into a state of permanent warfare against the forces of chaos and by rejecting the advanced science that had led them to discover the corruption. Yet, they needed the things that science produced, so science was turned into a religion and scientific knowledge was turned into a catechism of secret knowledge guarded by various guilds. A political officer class, called commissars, was created to guard against the corruption of chaos and cowardice in the ranks and for tens of thousands of years the war has continued.
Gaunt’s Ghosts occurs within a multi-decade effort to liberate the Sabaat Worlds, a cluster of nearly a hundred star systems, from Chaos. Excerpts from historical chronicles that start each book help us to understand the context of the current fight and make it clear how important the crusade was and of the special role that Gaunt’s Ghosts played in winning it.
The series is packed with great military action, superb characters, and men and women who find it within themselves to soldier on when there is no hope that they will ever be ultimately victorious. The Ghosts are “ghosts” because their home world was destroyed before the series began. They are the “First and Only” regiment that will ever be raised from the planet Tanith to serve the Emperor. If you’re looking for a good military sf series that focuses on the infantry, you should give this one a try.
Day 17 The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
Science fiction is at its best when it makes you think and John Scalzi’s, The Dispatcher, will make your brain work overtime. In the future, the bodies of people who are murdered disappear from the crime scene and reappear—fully alive—in their homes. This outstanding novella explores the implications of this bizarre new fact of life.
One of those implications is the development of a new profession. Dispatchers are government licensed persons whose job it is to kill individuals just before they would die a “natural” death so that they have a second shot at living. So dispatchers are now required by insurance companies to be present in many surgeries in case things go wrong. If the patient dies on the operating table they are dead, but if the dispatcher kills them a few moments earlier they disappear and wake up at home with their body in a state before the surgery began. Similarly, in a car accident. If a dispatcher happens to be nearby you can instantly recover without your injuries.
These are examples of benign legitimate efforts to take advantage of
this new reality, but Scalzi also digs into the dark side—the many ways in
which criminals and other people can take advantage of the new situation. Much
of this is very troubling, but totally credible given the new rules of reality.
It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking, series.
Day 18 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 is very likeable as are many of the supporting cast. The bad guys are happily irritating. The battles are 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.
Day 19 The Destroyer by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir
For Day 19, I want to take the March in a different direction.
In 1971 Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir published a novel called Created, the Destroyer, the first in a series that has passed 150 books and spun a daughter series. The novels have changed considerably since the beginning. Originally, they read very much like an Executioner novel. Remo Williams is framed for a crime, "killed", and given a new life as a government agent with a so called "license to kill". (They don't use that term.) Apparently, JFK created an extra-constitutional organization called "CURE" which was supposed to save the constitution of the U.S. by violating it. Congress was investigating organized crime and JFK worried that organized crime had become so strong that it threatened American democracy. Enter, the Destroyer, a single man impowered to take out criminals without a trial.
To train Remo, Harold Smith, the head of CURE, hired Chiun, a Korean assassin, reigning master of the glorious House of Sinanju. (Sinanju being an impoverished fishing village in North Korea.) Originally, Murphy and Sapir saw Chiun as simply a martial arts expert, but they quickly come to realize that he had superhuman abilities and that Remo could learn those as well. (Explaining why that is takes a good number of books.) The novels enter science fiction with a growing number of non-mob opponents including robots and other machine intelligences, and more. At some point, the authors also became interested in writing scathing (and sometimes hilarious) satires of current celebrities, political figures, and social trends. (Since the series spans fifty years they offend just about everyone.)
I picked up the first novel at a used book store called Hole in the Wall Books in Northern Virginia somewhere in the early 1980s. Approximately twenty years later I noticed the “current” volume on a book rack in a Kmart and picked it up and ended up reading the rest of the series. I’m currently rereading them all—in part because the COVID-19 pandemic gave me the opportunity to rediscover hundreds (thousands) of paperbacks I had put into boxes years ago.
Let me be clear—The Destroyer is nothing like high literature and while most are fun, many of them are worthy of one-star rankings. But the relationship between Remo, Chiun, and Smith is worthwhile. And it is a rare opportunity to get to experience a series that was written over a sixty-year time frame (and includes multiple ghost authors later in the series at least one of whom (James Mullaney) appeared to understand Remo and Chiun better than Murphy and Sapir).I should also point out that Murphy was an accomplished mystery writer also and his Trace and Digger series (really the same series but published by two different publishers) are well worth reading as well, even if they don’t fit in the March to Other Worlds.
Day 20 Chronicle of Dragon by Craig Halloran
The Hero, the Sword, and the Dragon is the first book in a fantasy series by the author of the superb Supernatural Bounty Hunter series (which I spotlighted in Occultober 2020). 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.
Day 21: The Prison Stone by J. R. Mabry and Mickey Asteriou
Mabry and Asteriou’s 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 in all of fantasy literature, 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.
This is a great beginning to an intriguing fantasy series.
Day 22: Goldenshield by J.R. Andrews
For Day 22 we are coming back to the growing body of LitRPG novels and the book I think breaks the LitRPG mold. The heroes aren’t playing a game. Gerald is a deputy sheriff responding to a disturbance in a store when he encounters a strange old man who hits him and his friend with a staff. Both young men then wake up elsewhere—a world that is similar to their gaming universe with a few small but important differences. Gerald’s friend, Zeke, is excited by the new world, but Gerald just wants to get back home. He doesn’t think that things in the “game” universe are important and he certainly doesn’t want to take any responsibility for what is happening around them.
As Gerald fights against accepting his new reality, he and Zeke learn they aren’t the only earth-people trapped here in the game-verse. And they learn that one really important game function doesn’t work in this universe. There is no resurrection or respawning. This solidifies Gerald’s commitment to get back to reality, but unfortunately for him there are lots of more immediate problems in his way—local bandits, an invading army, and an usurper king.
J. R. Andrews has put together a very nice story here with lots of action, strong worldbuilding, and credible character growth. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am looking forward to the sequel.
Day 23: A Gathering of Heroes by Paul Edwin Zimmer
As we approach the final week of the March, we return to classic fantasy—but classic fantasy with a definite twist as I doubt there is any other novel truly like A Gathering of Heroes. The plot revolves around a group of heroes called together to defend a critical fortress against an army made of evil creatures. The heroes are mostly from a highlands-style culture. Each is known for his great deeds, jealous of his reputation, and caught up in a web of politics that makes it very hard for the good guys to stay united to try and save the day.
The story is told from the point of view of an outsider—Istvan the Archer, perhaps the greatest swordsman currently alive. He’s very different than the highlanders in that he comes from a culture much more akin to the Italian City States and he is the commander of a mercenary company (not with him for this adventure) which means that he is used to fighting a more orderly and disciplined war than these highlanders do. The reader gets to learn about the situation even as Istvan does.
And then there are the heroes among the bad guys—notable villains who are every bit as talented and fearsome as the heroes defending the fortress. And that’s really what makes this novel work so well—watching the heroes among the bad guys face off against those among the good guys and often win the day (which is obviously bad for the forces of good). It’s a remarkable novel with many memorable scenes and an ending that will test the metal of even the bravest hero.
Day 24: I, Cunningham by Benoit Goudreault-Emond
Gordon Cunningham died in a climbing accident in the twenty-second century, so he’s quite surprised to wake up five hundred years later in a robot body in a struggling colony in a distant solar system—only struggling is far too kind a word to describe the problems Gordon finds. The station AI and the station government are engaged in a sort of cold war with each other. At least two factions of the station population hate each other’s guts. There are intense frictions between basic humans and a genetically modified group. Oh, and the colony on the planet doesn’t get along with the station either. And that’s before you get into the rebels, religious cults, and illegal settlements that make Gordon’s new life even more complicated—because each faction wants to manipulate him into helping to bring about their personal vision of the perfect future for the colony. And if that isn’t bad enough, if Gordon can’t figure out what’s really going on, human life may die out in this future colony.
This is an impressive first novel with a couple of nicely interwoven mysteries fueling the action, but don’t stop when you finish the story. There’s a very nice afterword in which Goudreault-Emond discusses the influences that led him to write the book. It’s enjoyable all around.
Day 25: The Valens Legacy by Jan Stryvant
As the March to Other Worlds enters its final week this year, I want to turn our attention back into the realm of urban fantasy and The Valens Legacy. At its heart, The Valens Legacy is about a poor college student who discovers rather painfully that his dead father was a powerful enchanter and that wizards and lycanthropes are real. Suddenly transformed into a werelion, Sean must uncover the secret work that got his father killed or face a similar fate. But his father wasn’t just an enchanter, he was a revolutionary trying to figure out how to end the enslavement of lycanthropes by wizards and Sean finds that he must pick up both his father’s life work as both a crusade and a necessity for survival.
These books are a lot of fun. Their plots are decently well thought out and there is plenty of action. It takes a few books, but the magical system finally begins to make enough sense to carry the series, and if at times it seems as if Sean became werelion just so that Stryvant could “justify” him sleeping with a large number of women who all marry him and never suffer a moment of jealousy toward each other, the plot is generally strong enough to push us past these moments.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the only reason Sean became a werelion. Lions are the gods of the lycanthrope community and Sean is almost a messiah for them, taking on the role of liberator. The storyline is great, but it involves a very large number and type of lycanthropes filling the pages of the story and it slowly dawned on me that all of the lycanthropes felt exactly the same. In fact, become a werecreature starts to feel more like putting on a shirt than changing painfully into a beast whenever the full moon is out or a character’s emotions get the best of them. Great urban fantasies have humans cursed with lycanthropy struggle with their beasts. They aren’t truly human anymore. And that struggle is an important part of the genre that is totally lacking in this series and it annoys me on some level each time I read one of the 17 volumes. It’s not a series breaker, but I do think it keeps the books from becoming one of the great urban fantasy series. That’s a real shame because Stryvant has some very good ideas that he plays within in these pages.
Day 26 Time Travelin’ Gunslingers by Philip James
Time travel has always been an important part of science fiction and Philip James does a good job with it. In fact, he does a good job with everything in this novel. I picked up the book because I liked the idea of a western lawman suddenly finding himself facing down dinosaurs—and I got that—but I also found a fairly sophisticated plot involving an obsessed wizard, reincarnation, and the intense power of love.
At its heart, this is a novel about a rivalry between two men—US Marshal Dare Shine and outlaw Race Brody. They both wanted the same woman once upon a time and while Dare ended up winning her heart, Brody never lost his torch for her. By unfortunate coincidence, this woman is also the object of obsession of a millennium old wizard who is suffering under a curse which prevents him from directly interacting with people. He’s watched the woman live her life dozens of times and is determined to find a way to have her. So, he’s developed a fairly complex plan involving portals that move people through space and time and tries to manipulate Dare and Race into unwittingly giving him what he wants.
It’s a very good plot made even more interesting by Dare and Race’s reactions to showing up in such disparate places as modern day Las Vegas, a battlefield in World War I, and the Jurassic Era. There’s plenty of action to keep things hopping, but the center of the tale keeps coming back to Dare and Race’s interest in the same woman—who suddenly exists in multiple incarnations.
Day 27 Ciaphas Cain by Sandy Mitchell
The Ciaphas Cain series stands out in the Warhammer 40,000 collection because of its humorous tone. Based in style on George MacDonald’s Fraser’s Flashman character, Cain is an imperial commissar touted as a people’s hero, but who, according to his own memoirs was actually a self-aggrandizing coward and cad. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Cain truly doesn’t thrive on danger as his reputation suggests, but as you watch him do his job you realize he does do the right thing almost all the time—even if he would have you believe it is for all the wrong reasons. The result is a delightful, light-hearted, adventure story.
In the opening book of the series, For the Emperor, Cain takes on
a new post and ends up in a complicated struggle between the inhabitants of a
world, an alien species trying to take the planet, and the imperial guard. The
aliens and the guard each have reasons for trying to keep war from breaking
out, but someone on the planet seems determined to turn its cities into bloody
battlefields. The action is very straightforward, but what exactly is going on
is a mystery worth unravelling. A great first novel for a fun series.
Day 28 Winterhaven by Gilbert M Stack
For the 28th day of the March to Other Worlds I’d like to return to my own work and my fantasy series, Winterhaven. Depending on how you calculate it, I either began working on the world of Winterhaven when I was 12 or 21. Many of the ideas and concepts that became part of the book started very early, but a place called Winterhaven didn’t actually exist until I was a senior in college, and it didn’t become important to my plotting for a few years after that.
While I was in graduate school researching my dissertation in England, I wrote the first draft of the first novel, Winterhaven, and I spent the next two decades tinkering with it, eventually finishing the book and writing two sequels and planning many more. There have been times when the characters in this book were as real to me as people I actually knew.
In its largest sense, Winterhaven is the story of the last outpost of the Ardenesse who rallied to the call of their God, Vapin, and left their world to wage The War of Night in their current land. They have had their share of victories, defeats and betrayals, but now, centuries later the descendants of those original men and women think that the great deeds of their world are confined to the long past Age of Heroes. In Winterhaven, they begin to find out that they are very wrong and if my heroes and heroines survive the struggles of the first few books they will realize that the fate of many worlds will ultimately depend on the strength and courage of the last descendants of the Ardenesse and their Duchy of Winterhaven.
If you like solid military action, credible politics, and fascinating men and women struggling in a medieval fantasy world, you should take a look at Winterhaven, The First Snows, and The Blood of Torons.
Day 29: Ribbonworld by Richard Dee
As the March to Other Worlds winds to a close I turn back to a solid science fiction story with an excellent mystery. Ribbonworld opens like a scene from Dashiell Hammett, and while hero Miles Goram is not a hard-boiled detective, the novel keeps that Hammett-like feel as it builds a mystery around themes that the legendary author often wrote about. The opening scene sets the groundwork for the whole novel. Goram has arrived late in the domed city of Reevis and when he checks into his cheap hotel room, he finds a body in the bathroom—the body of the man he had traveled here to meet. Goram thought he had come to Reevis to review a new hotel, but his now-dead contact had a much bigger story in mind and Goram has to get to the truth behind it before someone kills him. The problem—absolutely no one seems to want him around—not the workers, not the local government, not the Balcom corporation—and it’s not easy to solve a mystery when no one wants to talk to you.
Yet Goram can’t help but dig and what he finds is…well I don’t want to spoil the novel for you. Suffice it to say that Dee has created a hero that it’s easy to get behind, and he puts enough clues out there that you have a legitimate chance not only to piece together what’s happening but to figure out the big surprises. So I think it’s fair to say Ribbonworld gives you a bit of Ellery Queen in a Dashiell Hammett plot set out in a realistic science fiction setting.
Day 30 Outland by Dennis E. Taylor
Roughly 30 years ago, I read a (fondly remembered) book called The Wild Side by Steven Gould about a group of students who discover a portal to a parallel universe. Since then it seems like we come across parallel universes everywhere. The Heisenberg Corollary was spotlighted earlier in this year’s March to Other Worlds. Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber from last year’s March might be considered the ultimate parallel worlds series. Robert A. Heinlein has The Number of the Beast. King and Straub wrote The Talisman. And then there’s Peter Cawdron’s Maelstrom (March to Other Worlds 2020), Star Trek’s Mirror, Mirror, the whole Sliders series, and I really could go on and on.
Enter Outland by Dennis E. Taylor. In many ways it starts out like a Robert A. Heinlein novel. A group of college students has discovered a way to open a portal into another universe and immediately start thinking about how they can make money off of it. They realize that they will lose control of their invention if the government, a major corporation, or even their university learns of its existence, so they begin seeking other ways to make money. One of the worlds is suffering from a horrendous green-house-inspired catastrophe, but another appears to be a North America without humans. They adopt the most commonly used strategy among these sorts of books and go panning for gold.
Had that been all that Taylor had in mind, this would have been an alright book. College students do not put large amounts of gold up for sale without attracting attention and that created lots of good tension in the story. Fortunately, Taylor has a much better plot in mind. While these college students are exploring their new world, the super volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park is preparing to blow. When it does, it immediately changes the whole situation and the college students have to focus on how they are going to survive an extinction level event on our planet and how many people they can save. This plot twist turns an enjoyable book into an intensely exciting one. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.
Day 31 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. I can’t think of a better person to end the March to Other Worlds 2021 on. Rest in peace, Mr. Gemmell.