The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack

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Reviews

Hi! And thanks for continuing to hang out in my imagination. This page is a diverse collection of reviews. If you like them, you can find many more organized by genre through the "Reviews" heading above. Take a moment to look around. I hope you enjoy your visit.

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What Have I Read Recently?

Here's a smattering of what I've read or watched in the past few months. If you'd like to recommend a book for review, please leave your suggestion in the Guestbook.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

I was very pleased to learn that Andy Weir had written a new novel that sounded very similar to The Martian. A lone astronaut is out in space trying to save not just himself, but the entire human race. It sounded like a formula with a lot of promise, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.


First, the good. There are a lot of really interesting challenges that have to be solved much as was the case in The Martian. There’s also a totally unexpected first contact situation and I liked the alien character tremendously. I also think that, even though it annoyed me at times, the back and forth between the “current” problem in space and the chapter-by-chapter revelation of how our hero (Grace) got there worked pretty well, although I really wasn’t happy with this chronological restoration of his memories.


Now for the bad. There were lots of parts of this novel that I just had a great deal of difficulty buying into and they start right at the beginning. I have trouble believing that there is any situation in which a scientist who has left his field to teach middle school becomes the principal investigator in an effort to stop an extinction level event. I realize that Weir made Grace a teacher to set up the very last scene in the book, but to my mind it undercut the whole story. Similarly, I just don’t believe that any potential cataclysm would be so great that the United States would turn the keys to their nuclear arsenal over to an unelected civilian without any safeguards. It just isn’t going to happen. I also have some difficulty with the idea that there would only be one Hail Mary and that Grace could ever have been chosen to be on that ship especially when he was totally opposed to going on a suicide mission to save the planet.


Add to all of that that the novel was very slow moving for the first two-thirds or so and you can see that it just didn’t quite work for me. It’s better than Artemis but just nowhere near The Martian.


The Santaroga Barrier by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert has long been interested in expanded consciousness and collective or hive minds, themes that show up at least in part in many of his novels (Dune, Destination Void, The Dosadi Experiment, Helstrom’s Hive, The Green Brain, etc.) and is of central interest in The Santaroga Barrier.


The setup for the story is handled quite efficiently in the first pages. Major retail and marketing firms are frustrated by their inability to penetrate the Santaroga Valley for their consumer goods. Almost everything used in the valley is produced there (there are exceptions like gasoline, but there is only one gas station in town, and it is run by a Santarogan). The retailers want in to Santaroga and they’ve hired psychologist Gilbert Dasein to do a market study on the valley to help them solve their problem. There is only one major problem. The last two people they’ve sent to do the same project have died from what appear to be genuine accidents—and yet Dasein and the reader are immediately left to wonder if something more sinister might be involved. Dasein has one major advantage over his predecessors that is undoubtedly the reason he was chosen for this task. His college girlfriend, Jenny, whom he asked to marry him, left him at the end of her studies and returned to her home in Santaroga. Dasein has a potential “in” that the marketers and retailers want to take advantage of.


Things are weird from the moment Dasein arrives. Outsiders passing through the beautiful valley on the federal highway do not feel comfortable there when stopping at its restaurants or lone hotel. Dasein gets a different response. He is almost immediately recognized as Jenny’s young man from school (despite the fact that he’s never been there) and sort of half welcomed and half not. While Dasein struggles with himself to keep an objective view of his surroundings, it is instantly obvious to the reader that he can’t. This valley is the reason Jenny refused to marry him. She wanted them to return to her home (a place she left for without him every weekend of their schooling) and he was too proud to simply give in to her wishes without a “reasonable” explanation of why they couldn’t set up their practice somewhere else. Now he has a chance to understand the mysterious hold her home has on him.


Then the accidents begin to happen. Gas leaks into his bedroom and nearly kills him. A dangerous fall caused by tripping on a turned-up carpet almost causes him to plummet to his death. Accidents? As more and more such incidents pile up, it’s really hard to believe that they aren’t part of a conspiracy to do Dasein harm, and yet, they honestly appear to have been accidents and sometimes Santarogans save him from the peril.


Where many people would have simply given up the job and left, Dasein doesn’t for two reasons. First, he is incredibly proud and stubborn. Second, there’s Jenny, the woman he’s in love with and who honestly appears to be in love with him. Yet Jenny is part of the Santaroga mystery, working in the mysterious co-op which seems to be the heart of it. Yet it’s Jenny’s friend who rescues Dasein when he breaks into the co-op and gets over-exposed to the mysterious Jaspers.


Jaspers (and it’s never quite clear just what it is) is the heart of the Santarogan mystery. It’s consumed like a spice and it’s addictive and mind expanding. But it also becomes increasingly clear that it is something much more. It links Santarogans together at least on a subconscious level and when Dasein discovers what’s happening with the Santarogan children (and that many become brain damaged by the Jaspers) the town turns on him in a truly frightening way.


Jenny understands on some level what is happening, but no one else in the valley seems to be able to consciously credit that they are creating accidents to kill Dasein. It’s the most exciting part of the novel. Jenny has begged Dasein to leave because she loves him, he refuses, and weird things start happening and people start dying in situations clearly directed at Dasein. The reader grows to understand that the valley—jaspers—is protecting itself. The question is, will Dasein be killed, escape, or ensnared into becoming one of the Santarogans? It’s important to keep in mind that in many of his books Herbert isn’t interested in a conventional victory. You simply can’t predict how this novel is going to end.


Frank Herbert once said that he wanted half the country to think that Santaroga sounded wonderful and half to find it highly disturbing. At times, as a reader, I felt both ways, so I’d say he succeeded.


The Loch by Steve Alten

I read Meg back in 1997 and enjoyed it but for some reason never picked up another Alten novel until coming across The Loch recently. In many ways, writing about the Loch Ness Monster seems to be a natural for an author who made his reputation writing about a prehistoric super shark that survives into the modern day. The Loch did not disappoint me. If you have a fascination with Loch Ness Monster, then it’s almost certain that you’ll enjoy this book.


To start out with, we have a hero, Zach Wallace, with issues—his father sucks and he’s also just gotten blamed for a terrible investigation-gone-astray in the Sargasso Sea. As if that isn’t enough, almost drowning for the second time has given this marine biologist a serious case of hydrophobia. So he’s not in the best of moods when he learns that his father is about to be tried for murder and that he wants his son to come home to Scotland to offer moral support. He almost doesn’t go—and soon enough wishes he didn’t.


While his father is manipulating him to bolster his court case which one might call “The Loch Ness Monster” defense, something begins killing visitors to the Loch. Drownings are way up and now people are being bloodily murdered on land. It appears that Nessie may be real after all and she’s angry.


The best parts of this novel are when Alten gets into various theories about what the Loch Ness Monster might be and how it might exist in the freshwater loch. That was all fun. Less fun was the very poor portrayal of the Scottish legal system. I also wish Alten had decided to steer clear of the Knights Templar as I thought they were a needless complication to the story that in my opinion distracted from the true tale. That being said, this novel is a lot of fun and if you’re willing to just run with it, you’ll be glad you read it.


Terminus by Peter Clines

Okay, I admit it. I have a thing for Cthulhu stories, especially really smart ones like Terminus by Peter Clines. This is a novel in which the author has really thought about the whole Cthulhu subgenre and asked interesting questions like, why haven’t creatures this powerful already eaten the entire planet. And his answer is…they have. And they’re getting ready to do it again.


This one has a really well thought out explanation for Cthulhu, and absolutely fantastic competing plots as heroes and villains struggle to keep the monster away or bring him here out of the deluded belief that somehow life will be so much better after all life on the planet has been consumed. Throw in some mad scientist style science and a great cast of characters and you have a novel that I think H.P. Lovecraft would have been proud of. This novel does for the Cthulhu subgenre what Clines’ Dead Moon did for the zombie apocalypse—gave it a totally new and interesting spin. If you like stories about Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, you’re going to love Terminus.


Starfall by David Reiss

The notorious Dr. Fid emerged triumphant once again after the events of Behind Distant Stars, but the price was horrendous. For the second time in his life, Fid failed to protect the life of a younger sibling, but this time, there is just the smallest of chances that he can rectify his error and bring Whisper safely home again. So Fid totally rearranges his life to give one hundred percent of his attention to the task of rescuing his sister, and woe be it to any foolish hero or villain who dares to get in his way. And yes, you guessed it, it’s the heroes who are going to be the major problem this time.


Reiss has clearly been thinking of this last book at each stage of writing the first two, because all of the components of Fid’s life come together perfectly here. His unbreakable will, his towering genius, and—just like some of the heroes he most despises—his willingness to go to any extreme to achieve his aim. In this last book, we get to learn once and for all who Dr. Fid is and whether or not he has actually accomplished anything with his crusade against false heroes. The fact that it is not a world at stake but “only” the life of one little girl makes him both more awe-inspiring and more endearing than ever before. Reiss has found a way to answer once and for all the question of whether or not Fid is actually better than the false heroes he’s dedicated his life to bringing down and I think every reader will be totally pleased with the answer.


Yet, that was not the part of the book that brought tears to my eyes. Fid is not the only person tested in these pages. And perhaps his legacy will ultimately depend upon whether or not any of the self-proclaimed heroes out there really meet the standards they proclaim. Fid, of course, expects them all to fail.


This is a supers trilogy to stand with the absolute best in the genre. My only complaint is that it appears Reiss is finished with the story.


Colonyside by Michael Mammay

Colonel Carl Butler is back! The man who twice launched weapons of mass destruction and is hated by half of the human race for a genocidal action that he took to save them is pulled into another complicated and intensely exciting mystery that once again involves an alien species. This time he’s hired by one of the richest men in the galaxy to find out what really happened to his estranged daughter when she went missing and was reported killed outside the dome on a small colony world. His mission is supported by the president which one would think would mean that people would bend over backward to help the investigation, but the opposite is happening. Most everyone, including the company owned by the man who launched Butler’s inquiry, are all being quietly obstructionist. Everyone appears to expect Carl to rubberstamp the previous report on how the woman died, collect his money, and go home. But obviously, they don’t know Carl Butler!


This novel is a completely worthy successor to its two predecessors, Planetside and Spaceside. The tension builds to excruciating levels as Carl gets deeper and deeper inside the mystery. And he’s finally up against an opponent who is frankly better than he is and the odds against him are crushingly high. It’s always hard to write a review that doesn’t give away critical plot elements, but I will say that I’m impressed by how deep inside Carl’s skull Mammay gets in this novel. Every single thing Carl does—correctly or mistakenly—read true right down to his stubborn willingness to die rather than be untrue to himself. In fact, death seems like a very probable outcome of the novel despite the fact that Carl is narrating the action, so if you’re like me, you’ll be looking for opportunities for him to record what he knows, and waiting for someone else to come in with the epilogue to the story. That’s how serious the action gets. I just hope there will be another book in this series soon.


The Banshee of the Atacama by Chris L. Adams

Several years ago, Chris L. Adams wrote a great short story called Blonde Goddess of the Tikka-Tikka which mixed a little of the Tarzan atmosphere with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft. He’s just published the sequel and man was it worth the wait.


Ansen Grost has the unique background of being a descendant of Vikings raised by the Arapaho at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. He’s a mighty warrior who carries a mystical tomahawk. He served in World War I and has had trouble settling down after his experiences there. In Scotland he comes across an old man looking for someone to find his missing daughter for him. It seems like a simple enough task except that the young woman, Mhairi, is lost in the wilderness of South America and she has an unhealthy interest in the supernatural. Ansen agrees to go look for her which opens the first half of the novel.


I’m not going to give a blow by blow of the book, but it’s worth noting that—as was the case with Tolkein—the journey is a significant and important part of the story. We learn a tremendous amount about Ansen and how his years away from the Arapaho have damaged him. We also meet two members of the critical supporting cast and get to understand their unique personalities. This is far more important than it would be in a typical adventure story because Adams has intertwined a truly spiritual quest with his Lovecraftian adventure and that wouldn’t have been successful without the time and care he puts into introducing these characters.


The main action of the story comes when Ansen and company finally find Mhairi, but the circumstances are not anything I could have imagined before the start of the story. There are demons and dark gods and monsters by the hundreds, but the most pivotal creature is the banshee of the title and if they can’t uncover her secret motivations, they just might trigger the end of the world.


I opened the book expecting a fairly straightforward adventure story, but Adams gave me much more. This is a deep and complicated tale which draws upon multiple world mythologies to create an adventure I will not only long remember, but return to again and again in the future.


An American Weredeer in Michigan by C.T. Phipps and Michael Suttkus

Jane Doe and her friends are back for another deer-lightful adventure. If you liked all the endless puns and pop culture references of the first book, you’re going to love this one as well as new problems come to Bright Falls. There’s a religious cult with a leader who is disturbingly open about his villainous plans who’s planning to use the magic of Bright Falls in his scheme to take over the world. Add to that that Jane accidentally promises to help hunt down and kill an earth goddess who—while not nice—is critically important to the survival of just about everything and you have the ingredients for a great adventure.


Honestly, I couldn’t figure out how Jane was going to get out of all the messes she wandered into, but the cast is so much fun—especially the gun with the angel in it—that I wouldn’t have minded her taking twice as long to resolve all the problems. Phipps and Suttkus have found a wonderfully light-hearted way to deal with some very dark issues and I think it’s this tone that puts this series head and shoulders above so many other urban fantasies. I’ve just never read anything else in the genre that feels like the Bright Falls stories. I hope they keep writing them.

Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt

I started playing Dungeon and Dragons in the sixth grade with the basic boxed set and quickly graduated to the Advanced Players Handbook and the related books. In eighth grade, I started gaming with a guy whose older brother had started playing in college and using the original books—Greyhawk, Blackmoor, etc. We were all very proud of that connection and considered ourselves to be second generation gamers. So it was with great excitement that I stumbled across this book on the history of Dungeon and Dragons by David M. Ewalt.


Ewalt’s greatest strength is that he provides a coherent history of the development of the game from its beginnings as a war game, to those early days in Gary Gygax’s basement, to the development of the first of many iterations of TSR, to the intense infighting within the company, and its eventual sale to Wizards of the Coast. He also traces the development of the game through multiple editions and the influence of major figures. He even goes into some of the spinoff events and talks about the scandals. Overall, he builds the case that the introduction of D&D was a transformational event in the history of playing games.


There is also a lot of Ewalt’s personal experiences with roleplaying games, which seems to be a necessary and expected part of any book of this nature. Gamers are storytellers and they love to share their stories as much as other people love hearing them. Those stories also permit Ewalt to give a little insight into the dynamics of game play and player interactions.


While I suspect that this book appeals much more to gamers than to the larger world, if you have some interest in the subject this isn’t a bad place to start. Of course, if you’re really curious about Dungeons and Dragons, the best way to learn about it is to join a game and start playing.


Maelstrom by Peter Cawdron

I almost didn’t get this book and that would have been a terrible misfortune for me. On the surface, Maelstrom struck me as a run-of-the-mill story of beings and creatures passing between parallel earths, but it proved to be much better than that.


The novel is broken into three parts. The first is told from the POV of Elizabeth Cali, an American doctor working in rural China. Security guards at her medical center have a violent conflict with a tribesman from the nearby desert. The tribesman has brought in a sick elderly man and for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, the guards are fighting with the younger tribesman who performs feats of amazing strength and basically wins the battle. The doctor calms him down, gets security to back off, and starts to help the sick man who is dying of heart problems. She realizes that both tribesmen have deformities. Neither can speak, their skulls are elongated, and more. She gets x-rays and realizes that both are Neandertals. Excited that she thinks she has discovered a possible Neandertal tribe that has survived into the present day, she investigates further and learns that the situation is much more bizarre than that. The Neandertal have been passing from their world into ours for centuries and there is frightening evidence that more worlds are colliding with ours, opening up passes between them in a manner that will eventually destroy our planet.


The second portion of the story follows a NYC cop, named Mark, and a jogger in Central Park who are caught in the next collision of planets and transported to a world where Homo Sapiens does not appear to have risen and prehistoric lions, saber tooth tigers, and more roam what on our planet is NYC. This is both the best section of the novel and the one that requires the greatest suspension of disbelief—it seems highly improbable that for the first time a portal will open in a major city just as Dr. Cali was discovering that the portals exist. That small problem aside, I was extremely impressed by how the author, Peter Cawdron, handled this dislocation and the terrible problem of trying to help a woman trapped in the rubble of NYC buildings that collapsed when they were pulled onto this new planet. This is a painfully powerful section that had me on the edge of my seat.


The third section follows many of the people introduced earlier in the novel as they move through the portal (called a maelstrom) in China to try and figure out how to save our planet. This seemed hopeless to me when they started, but again, Cawdron has brilliantly thought through the situation that caused the maelstrom and I was totally satisfied with his conclusion. This is among the very best of parallel universe stories that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read and the three narrators in the audio book do a magnificent job of bringing the text to life. I’m very glad I bought the story and I’ll be looking up other books by Peter Cawdron.


Strangers

This is one of those novels that will linger in your thoughts for decades and I don’t just mean an image or two. From the very first chapter, Koontz starts cultivating feelings of suspense and ever-increasing tension that will have your desperately turning pages, or, if listening to it in audio as I did this time, finding excuses to keep the book playing long after your commute is done. What is especially impressive for an author who made his reputation in the horror genre is that it’s not even clear that there is going to be a supernatural element for half the book. It opens with a man who finds himself hiding in the closet after apparently sleep walking. He’s sore, he’s frightened, and he has no idea what is going on. But it isn’t until he pulls himself together and sits down at his computer to continue writing his books that things get really eerie. He finds that while sleep walking he has typed page after page of just two words: “I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared.”


Koontz then shifts focus to a young doctor on her day off who panics and flees in a fugue state when she notices a pair of black gloves. Next we meet a retired marine who is suddenly terrified of the dark and trying desperately to hide his fear from his wife. None of these people have any apparent connection, yet they are all showing evidence of psychological suffering they can’t explain. Later in the book we meet a young child who has become terrified of doctors and a priest whose deep and abiding faith suddenly collapses so that he throws the chalice in the middle of Mass. And the list goes on. What makes this all the more frightening is it is way too easy to imagine yourself suffering these almost normal problems which means that you will enjoy a high level of empathy with each of these very well drawn characters.


As we get deeper into the novel, elements of a vast conspiracy begin to be uncovered with the real possibility of danger for the people trying to find out why they are suffering these bizarre symptoms. This ramps up the tension to a whole new level as we also began to meet people who have gone over the edge and even kill themselves as a result of the psychological harm they have suffered. At the same time suppressed memories begin to pop free in those sufferings and they separately begin to evolve plans that will ultimately bring them together to find out what incredible event triggered all of this.


I don’t want to give away the end of this novel, but I found it to have a totally satisfying conclusion. The chief villain, when he is revealed, is both frightening and believable. This is a long book—nearly 30 hours in audio—but every page is worth reading.


Wearing the Cape 8 Repercussions

The pacing and tone of Repercussions is very different than Harmon’s previous novels. Everything occurs at high speed with little time for the heroes to react and even less time for them to think. To add to the feeling of ever-growing frenzy, the point of view changes multiple times in most chapters and reflects a significantly larger number of character perspectives than we have been introduced to before. The civilized world is under attack and it is by no means clear if the Sentinels can save the day this time. Harmon has long flirted with post-apocalyptic settings—both in the visions of the Tea Time Anarchist and in the alternate realities of Team Ups and Crossovers. Within a very few chapters it becomes evident that this might just be the book that sees those dark ages introduced full time into the series. Starting in the United States and spreading outwards, the death count is higher than at any time since the first book in the series, and that number includes the heroes as well as the civilians. If you’ve grown to love the large cast of Wearing the Cape—brace yourself—everything is on the table this time and no one gets away unhurt.


So this book is everything in a superhero novel you could desire—tons of actions, great super powers, and a gritty plot worthy of our heroic cast. That being said, I do have a small complaint that I’ve had a little difficulty articulating. I have read every book in this series at least twice and am listening to the audiobooks now. I feel like I know the action and the characters very well. Yet there were many times when Harmon made references that made me wonder if there was a short story out there that I had missed (and maybe there is) and the novel was just jammed packed with facts about supers in the rest of the planet—as if after finishing the guide books to his super hero roleplaying game, Harmon just couldn’t resist feeding us information a little bit artificially.


That being said, Astra experiences a lot of changes in this novel and I found the character development well thought out and credible. I’m anxious to see what Harmon has in store for her and her friends in the books to come.




Test of Fire by William L. Hahn

In Test of Fire, William L. Hahn proves that great writers do not need to have their heroes save the planet to construct a gripping tale. What it takes is fascinating, well-developed characters willing to risk everything they have for a cause they believe in. That’s the situation that Querlack finds himself in. He’s a retired adventurer who has invested his loot from his wilder days in a foef—a bit of mostly swampy land that doesn’t appear to have much of a future. A poor investment by any contemporary standard, made more so by Querlack’s determination to better the land for the sake of his peasants, not to milk it for every coin he can extract from it.


His neighbor, Sir Cran-Kalrith Pritaelseran is a hard elf with a rigid sense of honor that basically comes down to the following—everyone exists to better him. He finds his new neighbor offensive and decides to continue a centuries old conflict and attempt to expand his own borders—a strategy he has used successfully on other neighbors. It’s a serious threat, but not the only one Querlack faces as he learns more and more about his new home.


This is a great book—made all the better by its primary focus on a relatively small territory. Hahn has always been capable of “painting” the master strokes of epic conflict—demons threatening his Lands of Hope. Now he proves he can be just as effective in small scale adventures and in doing so makes us cherish his characters all the more.


Wolf Hunt by Jeff Strand

George and Lou, the atypical heroes of Wolf Hunt, have just become two of my all-time favorite characters in fiction. They had me laughing right from the beginning of the novel and their banter was enough to take the gruesome edge off even the most horrendous crimes that Ivan the Werewolf commits throughout the book. They’re a little bit dumb, seriously stubborn, and surprisingly heroic and human as they try to make up for the admittedly stupid mistake that sets a seriously sadistic werewolf loose on the world. It seemed like a simple job—transport a caged man a few hundred miles—but we quickly figure out that nothing involving George and Lou ever goes smoothly. Things happen to them, and around them, and, unfortunately, to anyone in the vicinity.


There is a lot to love about this novel—but for the serious fan of werewolf books and movies two particular items stand out head and shoulders above the rest. First, Ivan, is a phenomenal werewolf villain. He is so clever in his psychological sadism that the author’s family might want to have him checked out by a mental health professional. Ivan gets in everyone’s head as he taunts them on his way to dismembering and killing them. It’s sick, but that’s what makes a great villain so fun to hate, isn’t it?


The other absolutely amazing thing about this book is the creative—but pretty untraditional—ways in which George and Lou continue to go after Ivan. It turns out that silver bullets just aren’t that plentiful in the state of Florida and that forces them to get clever—not A-Team clever by any means, but creative none the less. I was astounded by the mirid ways they managed to hurt this basically unkillable-by-conventional-means creature. All the while soaking up tremendous amounts of damage themselves.


As if these three characters were not wonderful enough, Strand adds an innocent victim—accidentally kidnapped along the way by George and Lou—and their handler who set them up with the job. Again, wonderful characters who had me laughing my posterior off throughout the book.

Now, lest I give you the wrong impression, Wolf Hunt is not a comedy. It’s a serious action/horror adventure, but the humor sure does add tremendously to the fun even while the action and the evil deeds of Ivan continue to ramp up the feelings of suspense until the very last page of the novel. Ivan is a serious monster on both a human and lycanthropic levels and you will want him to die just as badly as George does.


I suspect that this would be a great book in paper or electronic format, but it was my good fortune to encounter the audio version, so let me just add a few words of praise for the performance of Scott Thomas. All of the key figures in this book have totally unique voices that make them easy to identify. More importantly, Thomas really draws out the humor in the banter. I am really impressed that he did this without once breaking down into peals of laughter himself, as I did consistently while listening to it.


In summation, let me say that Wolf Hunt is a gem of an adventure novel, but it should come with a warning not to listen to it while operating a motor vehicle.


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


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.