The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


Other Fantasy

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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.

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

This is one of the novels that shows glimpses of how absolutely wonderful Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels would become. First off, there’s the zany plot. Someone is trying to assassinate Lord Vetinari. At the same time, there’s a problem with the golems, which is to say, one appears to be killing people. If that isn’t bad enough, the civic leaders of Ankh Morpork have begun to imagine life without their leader and have concocted a hilarious plan to put someone more malleable in Vetinari’s office. As you can imagine, it’s up to Sam Vimes and the watch to sort all of this out and they do it in their typically hilarious fashion.

But the best Pratchett novels offer something a little more and this one has a look at prejudice and what it is to be human. Golems are just things—tools—with no rights of their own—except in a world with vampires and zombies, is it really right to say that golems aren’t alive? There’s a lot here for everyone.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.