The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack

Subtitle

Reviews and More

Hi! And thanks for continuing to hang out in my imagination. This page is a diverse collection of reviews and strange facts about me. Take a moment to look around. I hope you enjoy your visit.

What Have I Read This Month?

Here's a smattering of what I've read or watched in the past few weeks...

Gate of Ivrel by C.J. Cherryh

When I was in ninth grade I joined the Science Fiction Book Club and got 4 books for a dollar with the commitment of buying 4 more books in the next year. As I recall my mother had to sign off on it because of my age and she wasn’t happy about it, but she did it for me. (Thanks, Mom!) I stayed in the SFBC for the next ten or twelve years and bought hundreds of books from them, but those first four stand out in my memory: A Heinlein Trio, The Chronicles of Amber, Riddle of Stars, and The Book of Morgaine. Each was at least a trilogy because I wanted to get my money’s worth, and oh did I get it. That was the single best dollar I have ever spent in my life!


Over the last 38 years I’ve read each of those books several times. Recently it was C. J. Cherryh’s turn again with the amazing novel, Gate of Ivrel. This is the story of the enigmatic, Morgaine, a cursed woman out of legend, and Vanye, who becomes bonded to her and her mission to save humanity by closing down a series of gates that can transport people through space and time. These gates offer the potential of great power, but they have also the potential to destroy civilizations if someone uses them to tinker with the past. A human civilization sent a company of soldiers through the gates to close them one after the other until there are no more. (So it’s a suicide mission because they will only discover that there are no more when they don’t come out the other side of the last gate.) Morgaine is the last (and possibly not the first generation) of those soldiers and her tale is amazing in no small part because the Gates offer power and the possibility of immortality and many fight her in her efforts to close them down.


Cherryh tells Morgaine’s story through the eyes of Vanye, the bravest man in literature who was ever condemned for cowardice. He is the epitome of honor and we watch him be tricked into serving Morgaine whom he loathes and fears as a witch who got ten thousand men killed a century earlier. Over the course of the book he grows to understand just how selfless and heroic his lady truly is. In doing so we watch him navigate a world in which none of his peers (save one) lives up to the ideals that he embodies. Cherryh’s greatest strength as an author has always been her ability to portray new and distinctive cultures in great detail but without exhausting the reader through long and tedious descriptions. Vanye is one of her tools for accomplishing this. We learn about his people by contrasting his actions and motivations with those of everyone he encounters. I love this novel and I bet you will too. 


Perilous Embraces by William L. Hahn

The first time I read this book, I raced through it seeking to build on the first two and learn what was coming next. That was a mistake. This is a book that needs to be savored. It deserves you to saunter through it rather run. And if you are wise enough to take your time, you will find a novel of great subtlety definitely handled by an extraordinary writer.


William L. Hahn’s greatest strength may be his ability to adopt extremely distinctive voices for his characters. The first three books in his Shards of Light series each picks up the tale of a different player in an unfolding political crisis. Captain Justin is trying to keep the region peacefully in the Empire. Feldspar, the adrenaline junky, gets involved despite his lack of interest in politics when he’s hired to locate a magical artifact. And finally, the priestess, Altieri, who is trying to build a political alliance that will prevent the Emperor from feeling the need to come forth and crush a rebellious region. Each book in the series thus far has been told from a different one of these perspectives and each in a very distinctive voice. And each story weaves in and out of the tales of the other characters braiding the series together in a most satisfying way.


Perilous Embraces is the critical book of the series. Justin and Feldspar, the heroes of the first two novels, are outsiders who never really understand the civil war that is brewing. But the priestess heroine of this third novel has the familiarity with the city to fully understand the danger just as she has the skills to sort through the factions and find out who the true villains are. So Altieri, guided by the confusing visions of the future bestowed upon her by the Stargazer, risks everything she has to keep her city from erupting in blood shed and death using the weapons of a politician—words and innuendo—rather than swords and daggers. 


Once again, Hahn’s narration and sound effects richly add to the drama of his story. He is a master of the spoken word and it greatly enhances the experience. Right up to the utterly surprising end.

Plane of Dreams by William L. Hahn

William L. Hahn’s first novel, The Plane of Dreams, is an excellent introduction to his Lands of Hope and is packed with appearances by the characters who drive his later novels. From the opening paragraph, I was sucked into this tale of danger haunting a group of adventurers—a cursed item which threatens to corrupt the world. Hahn attacks the problem from multiple angles—storylines which do not initially appear to be related but which intertwine seamlessly by the end of the novel. The Plane of Dreams is a hard driving adventure novel set in a world rich with history and excitement and unlike any other fantasy world I have ever read about.


The Christmas Spirit by J. M. Phillippe

This is a happy little Christmas novel by an author who has spent way too much time thinking about the physics behind Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol. Charlene Dickenson suffers an unusual Christmas-themed death and finds herself in the next life auditioning to become a Ghost of Christmas, Past, Present or Future. Unfortunately, if she fails her tryout, she will be trapped forever as a Marley, unhappily wearing the chains of her past life. This is a fast moving, thoroughly enjoyable, transit through the world of Dickens with a lot of creative explanation for why the afterlife works the way it does. If you have a couple of spare hours this Christmas season, and if you’ve enjoyed A Christmas Carol (or one of its thousand spin offs), you should give The Christmas Spirit a try. It will definitely boost your holiday spirit.

Run like Hell by Eliot 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.

Valley of Despair by Chris Adams

It takes one short chapter of this novella 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 keep 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.

Doc Savage: Skull Island by Will Murray

It’s been about fifteen years since I borrowed a bunch of Doc Savage novels from my brother-in-law and read all about the Man of Bronze’s exploits. Since then I’ve also seen him in the comics but while I’ve always found the character interesting, I haven’t felt inspired to pick up any more of his novels—until now. The idea of putting Doc Savage and King Kong together intrigued me and I found myself happily reading Skull Island but with increasingly mixed reaction.


First the good: the basic idea, Doc Savage coming on to the scene right after King Kong had been shot down off the Empire State Building was great. Learning that the Man of Bronze had encountered Kong on Skull Island was even better. I was quite ready for the story. Having a tale of Doc Savage as a young man before he has fully become Doc Savage was also fascinating. I thought Murray dealt with him pretty well and I liked the jungle scenes and the slow building tension to Kong’s arrival and the great climatic conclusion worked well too. In addition, the chance to learn about Savage’s parents and grandfather also went well with me. But all of this wasn’t enough to fully overcome the weaknesses of the tale.


So now the bad: The first third of the novel is three times longer than it should have been. The sea journey is interminable and I wanted to give up reading. The only reason I didn’t give up was I wanted to see Kong. Add to that that I thoroughly disliked the depiction of Savage’s father (whom I had never encountered before) and hated every moment the character appeared on the page. He was a major distraction from the good things happening in the story. Calling him a horse’s rear end is being too kind, but I kept getting the impression that the author thought he was both cool and all around wonderful. (I could be wrong, but that was my impression.) Finally, the opening scenes indicate that Savage is going to take Kong’s body home to Skull Island, so when the story ends well before that happens, I felt disappointed. Murray could easily have cut a hundred pages from the earlier part of the story and brought the reader back for Kong’s “funeral” for want of a better word. And I think that also would have been the point to give the reader some reason to believe that Kong wasn’t actually the last of his kind, or that he could, in fact be revived in some way back in his native home. The whiff of hope would have made for a happier ending and promised future stories.


So in sum, I’m glad I read the book. There are lots of good characters and a problem worthy of Doc Savage’s and King Kong’s peculiar skill sets. But with some quality editing this could easily have been a far better novel.

Fierce Girls at War by Mike Adams

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 view points 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 in 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. For more information on the series, take a look at Mike Adams web site at https://fiercegirlsatwar.com.

Free Read - A Delicate Situation

In 2004 after I successfully defended my PhD dissertation, I decided it was time to get serious about my fiction and try to get something published. In January of the next year, I stumbled across a flash fiction contest at Chizine asking for stories dealing with memory, or maybe it was lost memories. (Ironically enough, I can't remember precisely which it was.) I knew nothing about Chizine, but wrote the following 500 word story and submitted it anyway. Since Chizine focuses on very dark horror, they weren't interested in this piece, but I've always liked it anyway. You can read it here.

A Moment of Grateful Recognition

Finally, I'd like to take a few moments to recognize some of the very important people in my life who inspire me and who challenge me to improve my craft.

My wife, Michelle, is the audience I most want to please. From the time we first started dating, she would sit with me while I read my stories to her, and there is no greater motivation than the opportunity to share the work of my heart with the woman I love. Now she's reading my Pandora stories to my son, Michael, and listening to them share my writing is an incredible thrill which simply cannot be equaled any other way.

My most loyal reader and friend of more than twenty-years is Scott Wight. Scott doesn't write himself but he runs fabulous roleplaying games which have honed his skills as a teller of tales. Every one of my stories has been improved by Scott's patient, thoughtful comments. He sees stuff that isn't really ready to be read yet, and not only doesn't complain, he always encourages me to send him more.

Marc Hawkins co-wrote the first two books of the forthcoming Among Us series with me, and the first novel in a new science fiction series, Fissures (also forthcoming). We've been friends since our Freshman year in college when he also started reading my work. Hawk has keen insight into characters and plots which he generously shares and, like Scott, I'm very lucky to have him as a friend and reader.

I learned more about writing from Raymond Hill than any other person. Ray is an extremely harsh critic, but after you realize he's not telling you to throw away your computer and not touch a keyboard ever again, you realize that he's almost always one hundred percent right in his observations. Ray taught me about believing in my imaginary worlds and how to bring the environment to life through the five senses. And I'm still waiting on your novel, Ray! I'm looking forward to reading a great book and sharing some heart felt comments in return.

Finally, I would like to thank Michael McQuillen. Mike and I were friends from the sixth grade until his death on November 4, 1994. We were best friends as kids getting together regularly to hang out, or go backpacking with the Boy Scouts, or play Dungeons and Dragons. But even though we drifted in college, we kept in touch and I sent him all of my stories. After his death when I was visiting his mother, she handed me a thick oversized manilla envelope with all of my stories in them. They weren't crisp anymore. The pages were curled and crumpled as if Mike had read them many times--not just the single reading you owe a friend when they share a work of their heart with you. It was a sign from above that someone out there enjoyed my craft as much as I did and I needed to continue pursuing it. So thanks, Mike, I'd like to think you're still reading my works up in heaven.