The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack

Subtitle

Reviews and More

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

What Have I Read This Month?

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

Run like Hell by Eliot Kay

I really enjoyed this novel. It takes the current trend toward writing stories that are really simply roleplaying adventures and turns it on its head. The monsters are the good guys—but here’s the twist—they really are. Our “heroes” are a group of outcasts who band together to try and survive a group of adventurers who are overrunning the dungeon they are currently employed in. Most of the monsters in that dungeon are nasty bullies but our heroes are the ones who were getting kicked around by them so in addition to avoiding the adventurers they have plenty of trouble with their supposed allies. And of course, there are the legions of undead who inhabit the lowest levels of the dungeon (an old dwarf stronghold) who are a threat to everyone.


As the novel advances, Kay does an excellent job of drawing out the backstories of these misfits making them even more likable and sympathetic. He also shows us that they aren’t wimps. Their problems largely resulted from having no one to watch their backs in the survival of the fittest atmosphere of the barbaric monstrous society. We also learn that the humans, elves and dwarfs are not so likable either (or at least their governments aren’t). The humans have broken a treaty with the monster races that had kept the peace for three generations and appear to have done so for the basest of motivations—greed and racism. Even the adventurers (who would normally be the heroes of this tale) show themselves to be the worst kind of mercenaries.


This is a fun adventure all around and I look forward to the next installment. I’m particularly grateful that Kay avoided all the leveling up and character statistics that usually dominate this subgenre. The novel was much better for concentrating on story and characterization than on character sheets.

Valley of Despair by Chris Adams

It takes one short chapter of this novella to convince you you’re in for a thrill ride. German WWI pilot Erik von Mendelsohn has crashed in the jungle and is trying to survive a group of apes that have taken the wrong kind of interest in him. Desperate to escape, he reaches the edge of the jungle near a high cliff face and the apes who are in hot pursuit…refuse to follow him past the tree line. It’s a simple idea very subtly conveyed in the story, but it set all the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. These totally aggressive and fearsome animals won’t follow our hero as he attempts to climb the cliff face to get away from them. It’s difficult not to ask yourself—what are the apes afraid of? What the heck is Erik getting himself into? And the tension just keep ratcheting higher from this point forward.


Erik is a well thought out character—he’s smart, a bit impulsive, and a little too curious for his own good. The supporting cast is equally interesting. I don’t want to give away the plot, but the people Erik finds and gets into trouble with are equally brave and capable—and the problem they have to confront is better thought out than a lot of “lost world” adventure-style stories I’ve encountered. In short if you want a fast-paced well-developed adventure story with great characters, you should give Valley of Despair a try.

Doc Savage: Skull Island by Will Murray

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


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


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


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

Murder on the Orient Express

I read the Agatha Christie book around the time I was in college despite having seen the 1974 movie which did not encourage me to think highly of it. I also read a Randall Garrett story in high school which turns the classic Agatha Christie on its head. (I didn’t know it was based on an Agatha Christie novel at the time.) Strangely it was the Garrett novel I remembered the best and none of them stood out well in my memories. So it was with mixed feelings that I learned that a new movie based on the book was being made. The cast was superb and the previews were gorgeous and so it was with quite a bit of anticipation that I sat down with my family to watch it on HBO. I knew how the story was going to end, but I couldn’t remember most of the details.


To cut to the quick, I was very impressed with the new movie. Kenneth Branagh gives a masterful performance as the exhausted Hercule Poirot, desperate for a holiday away from the crushing crimes of the world, and unable to escape them. The rest of the cast is every bit as extraordinary. As the movie progresses and Poirot’s investigation begins to get traction, the carefully maintained masks begin to drop off the suspects and the raw emotion that drove this crime is revealed. This is a powerful movie with an incredibly emotional ending that has me looking forward to Murder on the Nile.


Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stahl

This novel was a tremendous amount of fun. On the one hand it’s a straight forward zombie apocalypse parody—and it does a great job with this. But if you’ve ever enjoyed an episode of Star Trek this book is an extra special treat. Anderson and Stahl know Star Trek inside and out and they brings that love of the many series and movies—not to mention the conventions—to this novel. Yet on top of all of this, there truly is a decent plot with good twists and lots of excitement. The character development was also credible. My son and I were very excited about whether or not the “red shirt” was going to make it to the end. In addition, there are some Star Wars versus Star Trek elements that are a bonus on top of all the other bonuses. The chapter titles are even taken from television episode titles. It’s just a delight from start to finish. I will definitely read this book again.


Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints by Larry Correia and John Ringo

After looking forward to this novel for a year, I almost didn’t read it because it quickly became apparent that this great subseries of Correia’s Monster Hunter books was the last about Chad Gardenier. You can’t help but love Chad and the thought that this was his last adventure was heartbreaking (not surprising, but it’s set in the past and we all knew when Chad is going to die from the beginning, but heartbreaking none the less). So I read it with a heavy heart and loved every page. I loved it so much I had to resist the urge to put it down and pick up the first two books in the trilogy to reread them and make certain I was totally up on what was happening. Not one page was disappointing. It’s a fabulous combination of hard action and genuine world building that (thanks to Correia) fits seamlessly with the main series. And then, as a reward for my loyal reading, the novel ends with a ray of hope—not for Chad—that I’m praying means Ringo will be teaming up with Correia to give us a new little sub series like this one. I hope they are both reading this and remember that it’s okay to tease as long as they come through with the new stories.


Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook

This is one of my favorite Glen Cook books. I’ve read it five or six times in the last three decades, it inspired my best friend to run an awesome D&D game that lasted eight years, and it leads to 13(?) mostly good sequels and countless spin offs. At its heart, this series becomes a fantasy take on the Nero Wolfe mysteries, but this first one is almost all about Garrett, an ex-Marine turned private investigator in the fantasy city of TunFaire. There’s a lot of action, but there’s also a very good mystery and a surprisingly strong chord played on the heartstrings by the end of the book. The characters are memorable and the world is ever more fascinating. This first novel revolves around Garrett being hired to find the woman his old army buddy has left a fortune too. She’s in a realm called the Cantard which has been the focus of a generational war between the wizards of his kingdom and their enemies. From the very beginning multiple groups of mysterious bad guys are showing too much (often violent) interest in Garrett’s mission and Cook plays these competing plot lines brilliantly to keep the adventure both fast-paced and always interesting. But the reason I keep coming back to this novel is the last five sentences of the second to last chapter—the true end of a brilliant novel. With five short sentences Cook transforms a triumphant ending into one which makes you want to weep and in doing so gives Garrett a depth worthy of a hundred sequels.

Fierce Girls at War by Mike Adams

Mike Adams’ Fierce Girls at War is one of the best military SF series I’ve ever read. It holds its own with top series like David Weber’s Honor Harrington and John Ringo’s Troy Rising. Stylistically, it’s a mix of serious infantry action and behind the behind the scenes know how of a W.E.B. Griffin novel. The result is an often gritty, always fascinating, exploration of earth’s first colony and its run in with a peculiar alien species called the Rift.


In addition to the tight military action, politics plays a very important role in this series, but not the traditional high level presidential-style politics. In the Earth of the future, terrorism continues to be a significant problem and much of the anger of the terrorists is focused on the growing interstellar economy. Adams deftly uses this movement not only to establish the foundation of his series, but to add plausible tension at every level of the interstellar enterprise.


Another of the strengths of the series is the multiple view points from which the reader gets to explore Earth’s first interstellar colony. Not only are their multiple POVs in the colony of New Hope, but Adams gets the reader into the nitty-gritty of life on a starship as the great ships transit the vastness of space. There is also usually a couple of chapters in each book grounded in the cast members still located on earth.


The cast is the greatest strength of the novel. Adams opens the series by introducing three generations of the O’Brien family. The matriarch, Kelly O’Brien, is in charge of firearms training for the NYC Police Department. Her children are almost preternaturally gifted marksmen, the beneficiaries of a training technique invented by their deceased father. Rick O’Brien and Sergeant Molly Bennett quickly run afoul of the Hassan Gul terrorist organization by killing several of the chief terrorist’s sons and are eventually forced to leave the planet to keep from being assassinated. From this very exciting beginning the whole series unfolds.


At New Hope Colony, Rick and Molly carve out a place of influence for themselves in the colonial logistics office while the alien Rift begin taking covert steps to reclaim the planet they feel the humans have stolen from them. The Rift are an advanced, economically focused, alien species with very little experience of war. They do their fighting with primitive mercenaries who are physically durable and are indiscriminate carnivores. Over the early books of the series, the reader watches the colony and an approaching starship begin to pick up hints that something is wrong, but not quite putting the facts together before the invasion begins in earnest.


From this moment forward, the series moves into overdrive, as the invasion advances, the colony struggles to respond, and Rick and Molly, together with a group of some fifty high school girls, find themselves marooned in the dangerous back country of New Hope Colony, hundreds of miles from civilization and unable to contact the colonial authorities for help. With their communications satellites rendered inoperative, the colony can’t even communicate with the starships slowly making their way in system. The already high tension continues to ratchet up as the war continues.


If you’re looking for a well-thought-out military sf series with plenty of action, you should take a look at Fierce Girls at War. For more information on the series, take a look at Mike Adams web site at https://fiercegirlsatwar.com.

Free Read - A Delicate Situation

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

A Moment of Grateful Recognition

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

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

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

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

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

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