The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


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. If you'd like to recommend a book for review, please leave your suggestion in the Guestbook.

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

I think it’s important to start this review by recognizing how tremendously influential Lovecraft in general and At the Mountains of Madness is in particular has been. He basically created and popularized the whole Things Man Was Not Meant to Know subgenre of horror / fantasy / sf or whatever it really is. The Elder Gods threatening the very sanity of the planet comes from Lovecraft and not only do his motifs show up rather blatantly in works like Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October as well as more recent series like John Ringo’s Special Circumstances and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunters International, I suspect that you would never have gotten a TV show like the X-Files without Lovecraft.

So Lovecraft is hugely influential (the World Fantasy Award used to be a bust of Lovecraft) but that doesn’t mean that he’s an easy author to read. Most of the problem is that he was writing in the 1920s and 1930s and his fiction style comes off as slow moving and dated. At the Mountains of Madness takes the form of a narrative account of a disastrous expedition to Antarctica written long after the expedition’s survivors returned with the hope of dissuading the next expedition from beginning. It is filled with long and impressive descriptions of the geology of the continent and the remarkable discovery of a series of fossils the like of which have never been seen on the planet. Isolated from the rest of the world the scientists begin to discover that a wholly unanticipated species inhabited the earth tens of millions of years ago and the more they discover about this early life form the more horrific the story becomes.

And yet, while it is definitely creepy and Lovecraft has many subtle tricks to increase the reader’s understanding that things are going badly wrong, it is still a very slow moving story thanks to the narrative style. Today this book would have been written as a third person narrative following the expedition in “real time” and the action scenes that are quickly summarized in the original would have been fleshed out to play a much more significant role in the book, but that’s not how Lovecraft wrote and I think it makes the book harder to approach for today’s readers.

I listened to an audio version of the novella narrated extremely well by Edward Hermann who did a masterful job of bringing the text to life, but even so it remains a slow moving story. That being said, I still highly recommend it due to its influence over the decades since it was published.

Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas

The DC Icons series offers a glimpse of prominent figures in the DC universe before they have quite become the heroes (and villains?) the fans know. They are, presumably, geared toward a young audience, and thus far have been very effective. It’s also an obvious opportunity to retcon the subject of each novel for new audiences.

In Soulstealer Maas makes a couple of daring moves to set the stage for her story—she decides to link Catwoman’s origins to the League of Assassins (it’s possible that this is actually part of Catwoman’s background, but if so, I had never heard it before) and much more controversially she chose to set Catwoman against Batwing—not Batman—bringing all the tension and attraction from the original relationship to the new one. To do this she takes Batman out of Gotham on a secret mission and leaves the defense of the city totally in the hands of Luke Fox/Batwing.

Catwoman, fresh out of her training with the League, has come to Gotham with an agenda and begins carefully setting both Gotham’s elite society and its underworld on edge through a series of daring robberies. She hooks up with a young Poison Ivy and through her with Harlequin—who’s price for making it a trio of crime is the freeing of Joker from Arkham Asylum.

Batwing and the Gotham PD grow increasingly frustrated by their inability to stop Catwoman’s very public crimes. Yet something is not right in the background. The League of Assassins begins appearing, but they are trying to kill Catwoman, not support her plans. As law and order becomes ever more tenuous in Gotham it begins to become apparent that Catwoman is playing for much larger stakes than anything in a bank vault or around the necks of Gotham’s elites at the next gala.

This is an increasingly emotional story as the reader gets a glimpse into the woman behind the cat mask and heroes and villains both are forced to confront their biases and figure out where they really stand.

Sphere by Michael Crichton

Warning: There are significant spoilers in this review.

This could have been a truly great science fiction novel. The protagonist, Norman, is a psychologist who thinks he’s been brought to a crash site by the FAA to help survivors only to learn that he is actually being involved in possible first contact situation. Early in Norman’s career, he accepted a top secret government grant to explore first contact scenarios. He hadn’t taken the idea seriously when he wrote the report, but now he is suddenly face-to-face with the probability that alien’s exist and have come to earth.

To complicate things, the alien spacecraft they have discovered is 1000 feet under the surface of the Pacific Ocean in the middle of nowhere. As a result, the contact team—four civilians with military support—will be operating under even more tension than a first contact would normally impose. Crichton builds the tension excellently through each section of the novel until the team finally gets to the space craft they’ve come to explore. In addition to the external issues, there are growing personal conflicts within team and trust issues with the military who are clearly not fully sharing their knowledge with the civilians. Finally, a storm moves in on the surface that forces the navy to retreat from the area totally isolating those beneath the surface.

Things really start jumping when the team discovers that the space craft appears to have been built in the future by the United States, but also contains an apparently alien artifact—the sphere of the title of the novel. One of the civilians, mathematician Harry, succeeds in entering the sphere, but can’t remember what he found there. Then strange things start happening. Sea life—at first benign—starts to appear outside the underwater habitat—squid, shrimp, jellyfish. And then the first of the crew dies horribly.

While everyone is reeling from this loss, the crew is contacted by video monitor with a code that appears to come from an alien intelligence. When they break the code, they find a childlike curious entity that gets angry when they want to stop talking to converse among themselves. Shortly thereafter, a giant squid attacks the habitat and more members of the crew die. Tension among the survivors keeps ramping higher. The habitat is fragile and is becoming unusable after multiple squid attacks.

When only three of the civilians remain alive, Norman figures out that all of the unusual events (alien contact, squids, etc.) occurred after Harry entered the sphere. He hypothesizes that the sphere gave Harry the ability to manifest material objects—basically anything he can think of. Norman further theorizes that Harry’s subconscious has caused the attacks by the squid and the contact with the alien. Harry is a danger to them. So he shares this theory with Beth (last remaining civilian scientist besides Norman and Harry) and they attack Harry, drug him and decide to keep him unconscious until they are rescued.

This appears to be the end of the book except that there is roughly 20% of the pages left. Manifestations continue to happen and Beth (who has been acting increasingly paranoid throughout the novel) tries to convince Norman that he also entered the sphere and that he needs to let her drug him so that he is not a danger to anyone. When he refuses, she grows enraged and tries to kill him, leading Norman to find evidence that Beth also entered the sphere. In self defense, Norman enters the sphere himself and now all three individuals have the power to manifest anything they can imagine.

This is where a superb novel breaks down. Beth has placed explosives all around the habitat to protect herself. She is actually suicidal (without consciously recognizing it) and Norman is worried that she subconsciously wants to die and further wants to kill everyone with her. Norman accidentally triggers a twenty-minute timer on the explosives but never seems to realize that he has the power not just to turn the timer off with his mind but to get rid of the explosives all together, just as Beth has the power to blow up the habitat without any explosives at all. There is also a major effort to get everyone into a minisub because of the explosives and the damaged habitat, but again, the habitat can be fixed with a stray thought.

At the end of the novel, the three survivors decide that knowledge of the sphere is too dangerous and that they will all decide to forget the sphere ever existed and lose their powers to manifest. They also decide on a new story about an underwater disaster at a plane crash site that killed all the dead crewmembers. They enact this and everyone in the world now believes the new story—proof that the whole explosives confrontation was ridiculous.

It’s really unfortunate that Crichton didn’t think through his manifestation power. This is a good book, but this ending weakness seriously mars the overall quality of the novel. The last sentence, however, goes a long way to redeeming the entire storyline.

Awaken Online: Catharsis by Travis Bagwell

One of my long-running complaints about LitRPGs is that while they all seem to start with a person in the real world living a crummy life that he or she wishes to escape, there is rarely any genuine synergy between the game experience and the real-life experience. We see character growth in the game, development of tactics, greater self-awareness, and often enhanced maturity, but that growth occurring in immersive game experiences rarely has any impact on the player’s real-life experiences. That’s not the case in Awaken Online: Catharsis. More than any other book which I have read in this subgenre, it consciously uses the gaming experience to influence how the player deals with life in the real world and it does so in a way that develops the plot in both game and life.

The book is a little bit slow getting started as it establishes just how crummy our protagonist’s, Jason’s, life really is, but once the game gets going the tension builds and the pages fly past. Jason gets expelled from school when the administrators side with a bully over him because the bully comes from wealth and Jason doesn’t. He seeks to escape his problems in an online game which is much more sophisticated than it first appears. We learn about this sophistication through a supplemental narrative at the beginning of each chapter. The game is run by an artificial intelligence which is out of control, making changes to the game rules, and demonstrating the ability to both access players’ memories and write onto their memories. But since there is money to be made, the company hides this from government regulators and starts the game anyway. Evidently they have never seen the movie, The Terminator.

In the game, Jason discovers that his nemesis Alex, is the hero of light, Alexion, who, because he was a beta player, has a ridiculously high level character. Jason is encouraged by NPCs to act on his desires (i.e. seek revenge and power) and become a necromancer. As he develops his skill he discovers that kills made by his zombies give him experience. He also discovers that his city is being betrayed by the nobles and the guards to Alexion’s kingdom, and so he decides to try and frustrate their plans. He takes his small horde of zombies and by using excellent tactics, is able to wipe out all the noble families in the city in one crazy night. His levels shoot skyward and he decides to take out the guards as well cleverly creating a zombie apocalypse and transforming the city into an undead metropolis called the Twilight Throne. This is big news in the online community and Alex/Alexion quickly swears to take down the undead setting the stage for the real conflict of the novel.

This is where the novel really shines. The contrast between how Alexion runs his army versus how Jason rallies his city and fights for them is quite strong. Jason is extremely clever using psychological warfare to defend the Twilight Throne. He gets roundly criticized by many players for this but essentially he is defending while they are making an unprovoked attack upon him. By contrast, Alexion continues to act as a bully without any real sense of strategy. It is purposely ironic that an evil person is running the forces of light while a good person is mobilizing the dark. Overall this is one of the stronger books in the LitRPG subgenre.

Simple Things by Jan Stryvant

This novel may be the best of the Valens Legacy series to date. Sean is stuck in the demon realm where he meets a lioness who has been trapped there for about fifteen hundred years. Together they develop a plan to try and get back to the earth again. On the way they are forced into a detour which presents some genuinely interesting possibilities not only for future adventures in this arc, but for whole new arcs. Yet that isn’t the part of the book I liked the most. On earth, the supporting cast takes over and tries to continue fighting the war without their leader. We get to see Adam, the most likeable of the lions introduced this far, carve out a role for himself in Sean’s army and we get to see several small players step into the spotlight as they finally figure out that steel and iron bullets hurt the demons and work to get serious supplies of said bullets. At the same time a demon king steps into the action and seriously increases the threat level as the demon realm seeks to feed on the humans. To round things off there are a couple of future plot points dropped in place that promise lots of good action in the next novel.

So I want to be clear, I liked this one a lot, but I feel compelled to point out that problems continue to multiply in the basic structure of Stryvant’s world. One is that every woman we meet is not just willing but anxious to join a polygamous union and none of them ever seem to suffer even a hint of jealousy. Not only is that totally unrealistic, it also bypasses some excellent storyline possibilities. Jealousy is a powerful motivator and I’d like to see it rear its ugly head to sabotage some of the progress that our heroes and their allies are making in fighting the war. Having someone you like have a problem everyone could empathize with will only strengthen this series.

My other complaint is one I should just admit is never going to get better. If there was any doubt left, it is now perfectly clear that becoming a lycan is little more than putting on a shirt with magical powers. We get thousands of new lycans in this book and there are no problems at all with their transformations. There is, in fact, no downside to becoming infected. They act as if they are perfectly normally human without even the slightest hint of an animal nature. It frankly is unclear why every person on the planet isn’t begging to become a lycan. They are stronger, faster, heal magically, and probably live longer too. I think this is a huge lost opportunity by the author.

This last is not a complaint, but a suggestion. I imagine that for religious reasons and simple bigotry there are a lot of people who will be angry that lycans and magic users have outed themselves. I also think that there are many people who would willingly (if stupidly) side with the demons. We’ve been given glimpses of these people, but I suggest that thousands of people with protest signs picketing Sean’s house and generally making nuisances of themselves would be a good subplot for future stories. And that’s just one idea of how to use such feelings…

Spider's Bite by Jennifer Estep

The opening book in the Elemental Assassin series is a fast-paced, enjoyable romp through the southern city of Ashland run by a mix of wealthy humans, elemental wizards, giants, vampires, dwarfs and what have you. Gin, the main character, a top-notch assassin known as The Spider, has a lot of sparky attitude and generally makes a fun heroine. The opening scene is perfect for capturing the assassin at her work and makes her an instantly lovable character.

The plot of the novel is that Gin is set up to take the fall for an assassination. In covering up the crime, the people behind the setup also torture and kill her mentor. Gin wants revenge and the rest of the novel chronicles her efforts to find out who is behind the betrayal and making them pay.

To complicate matters, Ashland’s one honest cop, Donovan Caine, is smack in the middle of Gin’s problems. He knows—contrary to the city’s corrupt account of events—that Gin didn’t murder the victim. He also knows she’s on the wrong side of the law. The question is, can he work with Gin to find out what really happened or will he turn on her and arrest her as his superiors want? Of course, as has become an expectation of the genre, there is tremendous sexual tension between cop and assassin, although it’s overplayed early on throwing into question just how professional Gin really is.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but I do have two major problems with it in addition to the aforementioned overplaying of the sexual tension. First, in working with Donovan Caine Gin loses any pretense at being a professional. She brings him to her apartment. She introduces him to her best friend. She talks about critical details that could let him identify her in front of him. She exposes critical contacts to him all while apparently not intending to kill him when the need to work with him was done. And all of this while he is insisting he will turn on her as soon as he doesn’t need her anymore. Needless to say, this was crazy.

In addition, Gin is a stone elemental. Among her powers is her ability to harden her skin so that she is immune to little things like gunfire. Yet Gin doesn’t want to use her magic because she fears it will make her overdependent on it and weak. This might make sense when she decides to stab someone instead of collapsing a building on top of him. (She also argues that such overt use of magic would attract too much attention.) But when a fellow assassin gets the drop on her with a pistol and she refuses to make her skin hard enough to be immune to his bullets (taking a wound for her stubbornness) this makes her look stupid and insane—not the consummate professional she keeps insisting she is. To make matters worse, when she finally does use her magic to harden her skin, one of the bad guys punches rattle her when bullets don’t. This is a major problem that appears to have derived from Estep’s inability to think of a better way to threaten Gin than pointing a gun at her.

That being said, it’s still a fun story and the series shows a lot of potential.

This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

Zelazny won the Hugo for this novel and it’s easy to see why. Conrad (of the many names) is a fascinating man and the immortal of the title moving through a vividly and poetically depicted post-apocalyptic earth which is supported economically almost totally be alien tourists fascinated by earth’s history and the near destruction of the planet in the Three Day War. There is depth of thought regarding this future society evident in almost every page and yet never once did I have that experience of wondering, “Why is Zelazny telling me this now? Why can’t we get on with the story?”

The plot revolves around a rich Vegan who wants to write a travel guide to earth’s most important sightseeing spots starting with Egypt and the Great Pyramids. Conrad is an official in the government agency in charge of protecting the historical monuments. He doesn’t want to play tour guide especially after it becomes that some of the humans who attach themselves to the tour want to see the Vegan die before he leaves earth. They worry that the alien’s real purpose is to lay the groundwork for the Vegans to buy up the rest of the planet.

This is where Zelazny truly shows his depth because much of the plot revolves around a political terrorist group who have embraced the ideology of Returnism—wanting all humans to return to earth and make it an independent planet again. Conrad actually started this movement and led the terrorist cell in an earlier life, but came to a point where he believed that it was not capable of achieving the Returnist aim and set about instead exploring other paths. As with many diasporas, most humans don’t live on the planet anymore and the sad truth the Returnists don’t want to face is that second and third generation humans who have never seen earth don’t want to return there at all. Their lives are elsewhere now, but the fanatics can’t give up the dream and have become certain that killing this Vegan is the key to earth’s eventual independence.

To achieve their end they have hired a fascinating assassin named Hasan who, thanks to a quirky response to a longevity procedure, is also effectively immortal (at least he’s lived for a very long time as a young man). Conrad and he know each other well but now they are reluctantly on opposite sides of the Vegan problem.

As if this tension wasn’t enough, the post-apocalyptic earth is a very dangerous place with mutations giving rise to legends out of myth and other monsters. Over all, it’s just a delightful tale filled with Zelazny’s brush-stroke characterizations that hang in the mind years after you read the piece.

This time through I listened to an audio edition narrated by Victor Bevine. At first I thought his slow rate of speech was going to wreck the novel. (I never think of Zelazny’s books as slow moving.) Fortunately, I quickly came to love the nuance with which he shared Zelazny’s prose and brought his characters to life. Whether in print or in audio, this book is worthy of its Hugo and well worth your time.

Champion for Hire by John Van Stry

John Van Stry tends to bring his books to market a couple of drafts too early. This novel is based on an idea with a lot of potential. Gods choose champions to act for them in both their own realms and in those of their allies and enemies. Worlds are connected by a series of portals which champions can use to move between them. Van Stry’s protagonist, Will, stumbles into one of these portals and starts down the path to becoming a champion. Along the way he beds a lot of women and kills a lot of the followers of his god’s enemies. Unfortunately, this potential is often squandered through what feels like excessive haste on the part of the author. The problems fall into three primary areas: weak characterization, weaker settings, and a failure to develop good battle tactics.

There are no multi-dimensional characters in this novel starting with the hero and continuing through the entire cast. As a result, no one is particularly likeable. Some modest efforts are made with Will. For example, he likes to marry the women he has children with and he doesn’t like human sacrifice. These are good things but not enough to form the basis of a robust protagonist. The women who throw themselves at him have no personality above the “I want to have sex with you and lots of children” level—which is to say, none at all. There are a couple of guards and a general who’s basic purpose is to be around so Will can talk to somebody. Even the gods lack distinctive character. After reading the book, I don’t know what Will’s god, Fel, is the god of or what he stands for. This is a major weakness that may be resolved in future books but remains a problem in this one.

Van Stry deals with his settings in a similar fashion. They are places without character. He takes the time to describe a large castle toward the end of the book and he talks about some locks in the river, but again, in a book where the hero moves between worlds it would be nice if the settings and the cultures were more distinctive than cats live here and humans live there. That’s only a slight exaggeration.

Finally, the best part of this book is the battles, but again Van Stry doesn’t give us much by way of tactics. It is just Will, enhanced with his Champion Powers, killing people. It was a much appreciated change of pace from the earlier novel, but on reflection it was like eating a lot of cotton candy when what you really wanted was a full meal.

I’ve read several of Van Stry’s novels and know that he is capable of writing a much better book. I didn’t check the copyright date, but I’m assuming that this was a very early one for him and that the future books will get better. So even though I was disappointed in this one, I will probably end up reading the next book in the series.

Old Tin Sorrows by Glen Cook

Garrett’s old sergeant calls in a favor to make everyone’s favorite fantasy detective find out who’s trying to murder an already dying General Stanton. Stanton’s a lot like General Sternwood in The Big Sleep. He’s tough but likable in his final days of life, sitting next to a roaring fire because he doesn’t generate enough heat to keep his body warm on its own. He looks like he’s mere days from croaking on his own but is his poor health the result of a rare tropical disease caught in the service or an exotic poison? It doesn’t help that the General doesn’t like doctors and won’t cooperate in trying to save his life.

As to motive? There’s a will that gives half of the General’s estate to his daughter and splits the remaining half between several long term retainers most of whom served under the General in the war. Suspicions that someone is trying to knock the General off are strengthened by the growing number of his retainers that have met an unexpected end—shrinking the pool of inheritors and growing everyone’s share of the estate. There’s also a woman (isn’t there always a woman in a Garrett novel) who is sneaking around the General’s home and nobody but Garrett admits to being able to see her. The only thing really going for Garrett as he tries to investigate this tight-mouthed group of suspects is that the pool of potential killers is diminishing so rapidly.

Old Tin Sorrows shows us a different aspect of Garrett. He’s ten miles outside of the city for almost the entire book so he has to depend on his own wits and a little bit of help from his friend, Morley Dotes, to solve the crime. The Dead Man is simply not available to make connections or suggest courses of action. As the story progresses and the tension grows tauter it begins to look like Garrett isn’t up to the task.

It’s always hard to evaluate the mystery of a novel you’ve read a couple of times before but I think Cook does a pretty good job with this one. At times Garrett seems to be a little slow, but if we recall he’s getting no sleep and is under a lot of strain, I’m not sure it’s fair to hold that against him. There are a couple of nice surprises toward the end and the portrait of Eleanor becomes a fixture in later novels, so this is not a book that is forgotten as the series progresses.

Logan's Run by William F. Nolan

I was first introduced to Logan’s Run through the television series that began in 1977. I was young enough that I only remember a few things about it—the robot in the ice cave, Logan demanding to know if he’d get his four years back, and maybe a dozen other equally small details. But I’ve always had a fond place in my memory for the short-lived series and was glad to stumble across the audio book read by the author, William F. Nolan.

So first off—Logan’s Run the book is a lot grittier than I remember the TV series being. In it we follow a sandman (a sort of cop) whose job it is to kill “runners”, people who turn 21 years old and decide they don’t want to die for the good of the world. (Evidently to combat overpopulation after something called the Little War, it was decided that all people would be killed on their twenty-first birthday.) Logan is approaching 21 and wants to make his mark on the world before dying. When he retrieves a key and the code name “sanctuary” from a runner, he decides that his mark will be made by finding Sanctuary and destroying the hope of all runners. He believes this will make him a legend among sandmen, but to pull off the feat, he has to pretend to run.

What follows are several adventures which Logan and another runner named Jessica experience as they follow lead after lead trying to reach Sanctuary. Logan believes that a possibly mythical “42 year old man” named Ballard is manipulating them bringing them to trap after trap until Logan begins to out think him. This is partially true, but as Logan and Jessica survive, they gain experiences most of their peers never have. They begin to understand that their society is doomed to deteriorate and die. The basic problem is that children are not capable of maintaining the technology upon which their society depends and they are not capable of producing more. These experiences allow Logan to grow up in a way that none of his peers do and cause him to have a highly credible moral conundrum when he has his chance to end the hope of Sanctuary at the end of the novel.

I suppose that it should be said here that the runners (including the supposedly ingenious Ballard) are really stupid. The reason that the sandmen can track them is they have a device embedded in their palms that both keeps track of their age and permits them to be tracked by computer devices. When a citizen turns 21 the sandmen are alerted and use their scanners to hunt them down. To defeat this system, all people need to do is leave for Sanctuary before their twenty-first birthday. If they “ran” at twenty years and eleven months, no monitor would treat them differently than any other citizen and they could escape without ever endangering themselves. However, we wouldn’t have a novel if the runners figured that out so I suppose we’ll have to overlook this major flaw in the plot.

Mostly Logan’s Run is a straightforward adventure story but that moral conundrum, combined with Logan and Jessica’s growing feelings for each other, and one superb surprise at the end of the book, make this a story well worth the attention of fans of classic science fiction. If you like old SF, you might want to check it out.

Recruit by David Ryker and Daniel Morgan

I almost stopped reading this novel after the second chapter, but I’m glad I hung in there. James Maddox is a lab grown human (called a “tuber”) designed to work in a dead-end job manufacturing atmosphere on a dingy planet in the vast Federation. He gets drafted out of his mundane existence into the Federation Ground Forces where the three year survival rate is publicly known to be 7%. This number is a big problem for the credibility of the Iron Legion universe. First off, no one seems to think that the Federation is at war, so why would it be losing 93% of all of its soldiers? Secondly, there would be riots every time the military appeared to conscript people if that figure was really common knowledge. Third, it’s difficult to imagine that the Federation could maintain any kind of real fighting machine with that casualty rate—not just because morale would be nonexistent among the troops but because it takes a certain core of experienced soldiers to pass on the traditions and experience that permits an army to function. But that’s not the end of the basic—let’s call them “world building” problems.

Maddox breaks the records in his simulation test and becomes the first tuber to be given a chance to join the Iron Legion—soldiers who pilot twenty-foot-tall mech warriors that were clearly inspired by Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Because he’s a tuber, everyone in the program—pilots, instructors, and commanding officers—want him to fail. He has to join an already in progress class made up of academy graduates and immediately get up to speed with them in their study and performance or get kicked out. Let me repeat that. He is expected in three days to catch up academically with a class of students who have studied in military academies all their lives well enough to pass the next exam they are taking. (Failure means eviction from the program.) Astoundingly, Maddox not only passes the test, he keeps passing them, yet this doesn’t affect the feelings of a single person in the military toward him. Again, think about what this means. Not only must Maddox be an Einstein level intelligence, he must also be the Michelangelo of the mech world to accomplish this, but his success makes no impression whatsoever on any of his instructors or superiors because he is a tuber. I suspect, that in reality, within hours of his record breaking sim performance, the military would have been moving to grow ten thousand new James Maddoxes that could be properly educated from birth in the hopes of turning them into super soldiers.

So let’s pretend that that’s actually happening behind the scenes and get into what this novel is best at. Through several chapters that mostly depict hazing by Maddox’s classmates, authors Ryker and Morgan succeed in building interesting relationships between Maddox and three and a half other people in the program. These are not positive relationships as all of these people are antagonistic toward our hero, but they formed the basis of what I assumed would become a core group that Maddox would reluctantly win over by saving them repeatedly in combat. The groundwork for this actually is set in place during an extended sim exercise, but rather than build on this, the carrier the students are on is destroyed and Maddox is launched into the last phase of the novel.

This final phase is filled with action-packed adventure as Maddox basically saves the day. We pick up two new (and interesting) cast members and rescue one of the old ones. We also find out for the first time that there is a 7% survival rate because the Federation has been at war for centuries with a group referred to as “the Free” who don’t like the dictatorial policies of the Federation. (I wager that by the end of the series, Maddox has switched sides and joined the Free.) The Federation doesn’t come off looking good here and Maddox and his new friends move heaven and earth to rescue a bunch of their fellow soldiers captured by the Free before the Federation counterstrike turns them into friendly-fire casualties. Maddox’s moral sense—his willingness to put himself on the line to save others—differentiates him from most of the people we’ve met in the book and I’d have liked to understand better where this attitude came from. It’s certainly respectable, but his background didn’t seem to teach him anything but looking out for himself.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It has some major weaknesses in its background, but those weaknesses didn’t really spoil the experience for me and I suspect elements like this will get better as the authors become more comfortable in their Iron Legion universe.

How to Get Arrested by Cameron J. Quinn

This short novel is a very quick read with no real surprises. The book blurb tells you everything you need to know, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun watching the action unfold. Jennifer Morgan is an ex-NYC detective who has come to Starsboro after suffering a traumatic loss. She’s successfully fighting alcoholism in part by throwing herself into her new job. She’s just arrested Zurich D’Vordi for using a machete to kill a handful of men. It’s all been caught on videotape but unfortunately someone has tampered with the evidence since bringing it to the police station and the part where Zurich can be identified has been erased. She’s forced to let him go and despite being warned off by her superiors can’t stop trying to prove he committed murder.

As a basic plot, this one is fine, but there was an early problem in the details that never made sense to me. Zurich (or whoever is in the videotape) killed the men on camera but their bodies have all disappeared, Morgan keeps asking him where he put the bodies—but (and it’s a big but) author, Quinn, never deals with the fact that the video does not show him moving the bodies out of camera range. They can’t find even a single drop of blood at the scene of the crime, which is pretty amazing since the killer decapitated people with a machete. Instead, all they can find is ash. (Insert images of vampires exploding into dust in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) We the reader understand from moment one that the bodies turned to ash after Zurich killed them. Why wasn’t this caught on video? It’s a big problem with the logic of the story that the reader simply has to ignore, but if you do so, the rest of the story hangs together pretty well.

Zurich is the very definition of bad boy. He refuses to take the law seriously. He does what he wants. He is emotionally distant from the dozens of women who throw themselves at him. He’s handsome and charming when he wants to be, but he’s also incredibly self centered. He’s also emotionally scarred by a tragic personal loss that causes him to keep putting into danger people he starts to care about. That doesn’t make any rational sense but it’s emotionally convincing in the story.

So on the level of urban fantasy, this story is a solid monster hunt in which the handsome vigilante eventually leads the beautiful capable cop into discovering that monsters exist and the law is not capable of handling them. That story has been done a thousand times and it works well here. Also in keeping with the genre, there is tremendous sexual tension between Morgan and Zurich which starts in the first paragraph and continues through the last. It leads to a couple of nice interactions as she pursues him and is generally fun. I would have preferred the attraction stay at the level of Remington Steele or Moonlighting in the first few seasons. When Morgan and Zurich finally have sex it goes on too long and seems to be a big distraction from the story, but such things seem to be a major part of the genre these days so I guess we have to accept them.

My final complaint about this story is the ending. It was already set up for a sequel. We didn’t need to introduce a big bad villain—especially not a villain who has led everyone to believe she is dead for a century. I can’t fathom the reason she would expose herself as she did at the end of the book. After all, she is not supposed to be stupid.

All of that being said, How to Get Arrested is a fun book. It has pretty good action. It moves quickly. There’s a mystery about Zurich and his family that was genuinely interesting. The cops, especially Morgan and the Captain, were well drawn characters. The monster problem was better established than I usually find in this genre. I also frankly like the way Quinn titles her works. It feels fresh to me and that’s always a good thing when I’m picking up a book in a genre in which I’ve already read scores of other stories.

Shards of Light by William L. Hahn

E-book Review:

For those of you who have been impatiently waiting for this book to be published for the past six months, rest assured that it is worth every moment of anticipation. In Shards of Light, Hahn masterfully brings the plotlines from the three preceding books together into a climatic final novel that tops everything that came before it. There is more action, more mystery, and thankfully, many more revelations as the conspiracy is exposed. There are also several significant surprises and some important moments of painful character growth.

My favorite character coming into this book was Feldspar and he holds on to the top spot, but just barely. Captain Justin gains some important depth and Altieri—I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll settle for reporting that she grew mightily in my esteem. There are supporting characters which are also increasingly important, not the least of which is the Man in Grey whom I gather has a couple of books of his own which I will be reading soon.

There is a lot to praise in this concluding volume. Hahn has always impressed me with his ability to adopt different voices for his characters and he interweaves those voices effortlessly in this novel. Yet, he’s so much more versatile than that, moving from deft military actions to the spy-like efforts of Feldspar to the complex swirl of politics and religion which motivate so many of the powers in the city. Perhaps what strikes me most profoundly as I look back upon it is how rich Hahn’s Lands of Hope are in their history. I can’t stop here. I’m going to have to read the rest of them. 

Audio Book Review:

Shards of Light was a great novel even before William L. Hahn added his audio talents to the text. It’s the capstone to an extraordinary fantasy series that mixes deft military action and thrilling cloak and dagger adventure in a headlong rush to prevent a mad elf from using some religious fanatics and a monstrous army of Despair from destroying the city of Cryssigens in his quest for power. The last three books brought us to the point of uncovering and understanding the nefarious plot. Now it remains to be seen if our heroes have what it takes to save the city. It’s far from certain, as the end of book 3, Perilous Embraces, already showed us. If you think you know precisely what will happen in the conclusion, my guess is that you’re wrong.

So to be crystal clear here, we’re talking about a five star text which I have already reviewed above. What I want to discuss now is how an excellent audio narration can take a superb novel and elevate it into something that breaks the five-star scale. I have listened to hundreds of audio books in the past two decades and every once in a while you find a narrator who has the magical combination of vocal talents to bring a text to life in a manner that the mere printed page will never succeed in doing. It’s the subtle intonations that convey fear, excitement, joy and anger. It’s the wide variety of voices that key the listener to who is speaking before the text gives the information away. It’s the energy that propels the tale forward with ever growing power as we rush to an epic and wholly satisfying conclusion. Then you add in a smattering of special sound effects—the breaking of glass, the roar of flames, the shriek of a griffon—that trick the listener into thinking you are right there in the action.

The end result of combining a gripping adventure with the vocal talents of a master performer is a titanic listening experience. Shards of Light delivers at all levels—plot, characterization, surprises and performance. Treat yourself to this one. If you love epic fantasy, I bet you’ll find yourself returning to it again and again.

Invasion at Bald Eagle by Kris Ashton

This promising tale of alien invasion in a sparsely populated Colorado town in the 1960s has a lot going for it despite taking a swerve toward the parody, Sex Zombies, in the first third of the story. Bald Eagle is a tiny little place with one hotel, a two-man sheriff’s department, a weekly newspaper, a nuclear plant and a hippie commune. Life is pretty tame in Bald Eagle despite the fact that the hippies enjoy protesting nuclear power and the manager of the facility freaks out every time they arrive with their signs. Bert, the sheriff, is pretty laid back and sensible about his job, at least until he discovers that his daughter, Sharna, who is supposed to be in Denver has actually joined the commune and its free love lifestyle.

While the sheriff tries to figure out how to stick all the hippies in jail without forever alienating Sharna, strange things begin happening at the commune. A silver egg plummets from the sky into the lettuce patch and “stings” the hippie who picks it up. The next day he begins to act stranger than usual as does the woman he sleeps with a short while later. This is where the Sex Zombies parallel comes in as the “strangeness” spreads like a venereal disease in the free love community (and later in the larger area of Bald Eagle).

I don’t want to give too much away, but things really start to heat up when Derek, the leader of the commune, gets undeniable evidence that his fellow hippies aren’t just sick, but have something sinisterly wrong with them. He runs for it, eventually encountering the sheriff who locks him up and is uninterested in stories revolving around strange eggs from the sky and the changes they have wrought on a hippie commune. Yet within a couple of days, the sheriff can’t pretend that the problems growing in his town (a large number of disappearing persons and more of the silver eggs) are all originating from hippies taking bad drugs and he is forced to deputize Derek, plus the head of the local nuclear plant and a journalist in an attempt to save his community. The federal government also gets involved but they seem more intent on quarantining the town and wiping all the infected out than in helping people.

This is where this novel goes from being merely entertaining to gripping. These unlikely defenders of humanity have to come up with a plan to save Bald Eagle—both its handful of uninfected residents and those who have already been contaminated by the eggs. Their plan is a little hokey but frankly, with the pressure they are under, it’s totally believable they would try it. One of the strengths of the story is how Ashton deals with this effort and the extraordinary pressure on these men as they try to save everyone—especially the handful of very young kids who seem to be immune to the contagion. People you come to like die painfully and frankly I quickly reached the point where I couldn’t figure out how anyone was going to survive the crisis.

If you enjoy a good mystery turned horror-thriller, you’ll like Invasion of Bald Eagle. I know I did.

Rich Man's War by Elliot Kay

The system of Archangel is in dire straits at the start of Rich Man’s War as three major interstellar corporations twist the screws on its government after a spectacular series of security failures led Archangel to suspend both its security contracts with the corporations and suspend its debt payments to them. We the reader know that Archangel covertly arranged those spectacular security failures in the last book. For their part, the corporations only know that the game is supposed to be rigged in their favor and that they cannot afford to let Archangel get away with rewriting the rules or else other governments within the Union may try and do the same. They must do everything possible to keep that from happening including using their tremendous influence to stop other companies from dealing with Archangel and attacking the government through its citizens by jacking up the interest rates on already incurred private debt. They also try and embarrass and hurt Archangel by taking covert military action against them in other areas of the Union.

As the tensions continue to increase, we return to the POV of Tanner Malone who is trying to come to grips with his fame and to hold on to his decision to serve out his term and return to private life. Unfortunately, his commanding officers understand what kind of a man they have serving under them and keep putting him into troubled areas where his unique combination of qualities might prove the most useful. This works very well as we see Tanner pulled into another fantastically depicted military action.

We also get to see more of life for a normal enlisted man in the Archangel navy. Tanner finally gets to go to school, this time to become a military policeman, finishing his training just in time to be involved in the defense of the system against a major corporate fleet which should crush Archangel like a tiny bug on the tarmac. The corporations are convinced they are using overwhelming force, but Kay has permitted the Archangel navy brass to construct a truly clever (if far fetched) counter plan. It requires a little conscious suspension of disbelief, but if you give it that little bit of extra leeway, the action (as in the first novel) is absolutely superb right to the end of the novel.

Yet action alone does not make a great sf novel and once again Kay comes through with superb characterization. Tanner with his regrets and grudging acceptance of the role he has to play in the military crisis is totally credible, but once again it is the secondary cast—recurring and new—that really make this book so wonderful. They’re real people—many of whom you’d want as friends. There are also a couple of really great enemies—including the pirate from the first novel—who manage to be both cool and despicable at the same time.

A lot of times sequels are weaker than the first book, but not in this case. Kay has delivered a worthy follow up to Poor Man’s Fight and I’m looking forward to reading book 3.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I find it strange that the first word I think of to describe this hardboiled detective novel is “beautiful”. The heroes of these sorts of novels are rough and ready and I expect the prose to be the same. Yet that isn’t the case in The Big Sleep. From the very first page, Chandler’s writing is elegant, smooth and even breath-taking. His novel is so superbly crafted that when the movie starring Bogart and Bacall was made in 1946 they lifted much of the movie dialogue directly from the pages of Chandler’s book. It’s that good.

His characters are also superb from Marlowe himself with his tough exterior and uncompromising sense of honor, to General Sternwood who becomes sympathetic only because he’s dying, to his two daughters who are both a mess but in such fascinatingly distinctive ways, to Joe Brodie who wants to be tough but proves he isn’t whenever he’s pushed. I could go on, but I’ll settle for adding one more—Harry Jones, a man who is physically small and slight of build but proves to have more backbone and loyalty than anyone else in the novel but Marlowe himself.

I also loved the movie. I saw it several times with my roommates in college, but there were several small problems with it that do not exist in the novel. The biggest of those problems is that at the end of the movie we never really understood how Eddie Mars got the goods on the Sternwood family or how Marlowe figured out who murdered Regan. I think that might have been due to the movie standards of the time because the pivotal scene in the novel only halfway happens in the movie. Marlowe comes home in the book to find Carmen Sternwood naked in his bed (she kept her clothes on in the movie) and when he throws her out she loses all of her cuteness and much of her appearance of humanity and begins hissing at him. (Again, in the movie she just gets thrown out.) Chandler builds this scene with extraordinary care. It shows us there is a lot more going on in Carmen’s head than the doped up sweet and giggly mess that she shows the world most of the time. Without this scene the ending of the book makes no sense whatsoever—which may in part explain why the movie created its own ending rather than stick with Chandler’s better (but less romantic) one.

If you’re ever wondering why Raymond Chandler is held in such high esteem as an author of detective novels, The Big Sleep is a great place to start.

Days of Future Past I: Past Tense by John Van Stry

This is a fun, fast-paced novel, with a couple of good personalities driving it. Paul Young is a lieutenant in the Air Force about to be drummed out of flight school for reasons he personal reasons that have nothing to do with his skill at flying. Major Riggs is the man who’s helping Paul’s enemies get rid of him. Then a “goddess” intervenes kidnapping both people. She tells Major Riggs he’s been chosen to save the Navajo because he’s half Navajo; she has no use for Young but he’s in the jet with Riggs and so he gets pulled into the future too. They are quickly found by the Navajo where Riggs tells them that Young is a slave he is giving to the tribe. Young and Riggs didn’t get along well before this betrayal and their relationship quickly plummets even further.

Riggs makes the perfect jerk in this story. At every single opportunity he outdoes his last dastardly deed. Young’s a pretty good hero who fairly quickly finds out that one of the gods thinks the others made a big mistake counting on Riggs and he wants to use Young as a backup to save the world. The difference between the two men could not be more clear and this makes them great antagonists for each other.

After Young escapes the Navajo, we start to get a much better understanding of this postapocalyptic future. It includes magic, dragons, fantasy races and a sort of Mad Max style human society. The government of the one non-tribal organized community we really get a good look at is very cleverly constructed and helps to drive home that the America we know is long gone. The fight scenes are well done and I liked the supporting cast. I think Young’s two girlfriends are especially well developed, even if I think they got interested in him a little too easily. Overall, characterization is a major strength of the story.

If Van Stry happens to be reading this review, I have a request. Could we have a map please? I found the terrain very difficult to visualize. Young leaves Navajo territory going east but somehow ends up on the west coast by the end of the story after traveling quite a bit and going around a new inland sea. I’m quite sure Van Stry has a clear understanding of the geography but I had a lot of trouble following it. A map would totally resolve this problem.

The Cosmos of Despair by Chris L. Adams

In this fast-paced sequel to Adams’ brilliant Valley of Despair, Erik and the hundreds of people he’s rescued from the alien invaders of the last book discover that while they’ve been trapped in the valley the aliens took over the rest of the planet. Worse than that, because of some weird time issues that were central to the last story, hundreds of years have passed separating our hero completely from the world of his birth. Erik and company are immediately enslaved by the aliens (technically they are re-enslaved, but the aliens don’t know this at first). A few select humans who pass a test conducted by some sort of high tech scanning device are given tasks to do for the aliens (Erik is trained to be a navigator) but the rest are destined to become food or fuel for the spaceships. It’s a horrible situation with no realistic chance of escape, but Erik has faced long odds before and immediately begins searching for the path to freedom for himself and those who are depending on him.

I don’t want to give away any of the many surprises this book contains, but I do think it is worth stressing that there were a lot of plot twists I didn’t anticipate. There are also some excellent moral dilemmas such as deciding if it is better to live as a slave or die trying to set others free. If you enjoyed the first story you will definitely want to read this sequel.

Life Reset: Environment vs Player by Shemer Kuznits

In this sequel to the very enjoyable Life Reset, Oren, Dread Totem of his monster community, Green Piece, has a new and serious challenge on the horizon—the player characters are coming after him. The same group of players who betrayed him in the first novel have figured out where he is and are coming to finish the stealing everything Oren has created in the game and author, Shemer Kuznits, has cleverly managed to make this a real world crisis in addition to a gaming one.

To understand this, we need to take a step back and look at a few unique features in this gaming environment. Because of the enormous popularity of the New Era Online (NEO) gaming system, many of the top players actually make a living in the real world off the game. The most important part of this real world income revolves around “Prime” skills which are owned by the player who first thinks to create them. So if your player has made a new spell it becomes a “Prime” skill which he can give to other players and many times the skills are sold to other players. When Oren’s “friends” betrayed him they were trying to steal from him dozens (or maybe more than dozens) of prime skills that allowed him to live a comfortable life in the real world based on his gaming. In addition, Oren had built the most successful guild in the game (the Manipulators) which also added to both his game and real world wealth. Without Oren managing the guild and making all of these prime skills available to his guild members, the Manipulators are falling apart and all of this wealth is about to be lost to the people who stabbed Oren in the back. So the bad guys have developed a plan to save themselves: find Oren in the game, destroy his new goblin town, kidnap him and torture him in game until he agrees to use all his prime skills for their benefit. They have figured out that Oren, because of a glitch in the system that occurred in book 1 can’t log out anymore and so could literally be tortured forever. Notice how smoothly Kuznits has taken an in game rivalry and bumped it up into serious real world evil.

To protect himself (and eventually get his own vengeance by destroying the Manipulators so that he breaks the wealth of the betrayers) Oren has to build up the power of his goblin/hobgoblin/ogre community. This is the heart of the book—Oren learning to manipulate the system like the pro he is to permit him to take relatively weak monsters and boost them to a power level that will let them best some very high level characters. Kuznits does this very well, but it’s basically what he did for the vast majority of the first book and that part of the plot didn’t hold my interest this time. Fortunately, he has added some new subplots which did keep me intrigued. Oren is in danger of going native—forgetting that he’s really a human and not a goblin. There are some new players joining the game as monsters and one of them is clearly working for the Manipulators. Oren needs these players help to defeat his old guild, but can’t trust them. Also, his patron demon/god who wants to escape to cause the apocalypse is getting more powerful and closer to breaking out of prison. Again, Oren needs the power this creature is feeding him, but every success that Oren achieves brings Armageddon closer to fruition.

There is a lot to like about this book and the last fifth or so is all devoted to a mighty battle that everyone who’s played a computer roleplaying game will love working their way through to see how Oren bests a far superior force of player characters. That being said, I found myself skimming through many sections in the middle where Oren was building up his town and NPCs. I realize these scenes were important to the overall plot, but I think Kuznits could have trimmed this section down quite a bit and we’d have had a tighter, more action-packed novel. That being said, the last chapter lays out a lot of plot threads that have me looking forward to book 3.

The Savage Realms by Willard Black

On the surface, this book appears to have a lot in common with Ready Player One. Both novels are about a quest to find a treasure in an immersive online gaming environment but the similarities aren’t really even skin deep. In Ready Player One the hunt is a mystery that has people acting both in the game world and the real word, but in The Savage Realms, after a brief set up, all the action takes place within the game and takes the form of a classic fantasy quest.

The Savage Realms game is an unusually realistic gaming environment—so much so that it seems to steal a lot of the fun from the fantasy gaming experience. There doesn’t appear to be character levels. People learn skills the way they do in the real world. Injury and death is as painful as in the real world. To log out you have to travel to specific ports that might take weeks or months of journeying to reach and pirates attempt to kidnap characters who have just logged in to abuse and enslave them. The treasures in the game can be converted to money in the real world and this is facilitated by a banking feature. Frankly, the whole premise fascinated me, but the only reason for most people to be in the game appears to be that crappy as their game experience might be it is better than what most people are experiencing in the real world.

That being said…the actual quest to find the money is well done. The people who make up the heroine's adventuring party are well constructed and very important to the storyline. Their personalities matter and lead to a convincing and very exciting ending. The heroine herself has a moment of utter stupidity that was totally not believable and totally unnecessary to the plot (there were other ways for other gamers to find out that she thought she had the solution to the mystery of where the prize money is) but that being said, the story recovered and held my interest. Over all, I quite enjoyed this novel and would be interested in seeing more books set in The Savage Realms—especially if they would shine some more light on the connections between the lives of the players in the real world and the game.

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.