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.

Area 51 by Bob Mayer

This novel is an alien-contact conspiracy theorist’s dream. Area 51 is the famous / infamous theorized location of a secret government repository of alien artifacts and possibly dead bodies. It’s the center of a conspiracy theory in which the U.S. government is orchestrating a massive cover up designed to hide the existence of these alien artifacts and intelligent extraterrestrial life from both foreign governments and its own people. In Area 51, Bob Mayer spins a tale in which he connects the dots behind Area 51 and a great many of the mysteries that populate the alien contact shows that dominate late night cable television.

At the heart of the novel’s mystery is a secretive government compound where alien spacecraft—whose technology is not yet understood—are being test piloted. The president is concerned that the personnel in charge of the project are concealing information from him, so through his science advisor he arranges to have a special forces solider inserted into Area 51 security as a presidential spy. Almost immediately everything starts going wrong.

Ancient Egypt, Easter Island, legends of lost Atlantis, secret Nazi investigations, Antarctica, Thule…all point to the conclusion that aliens once visited our planet and unless humans are very careful the secret machinations of the investigators at Area 51 might just bring them back again.

The Wild Heart of Stevie Nicks by Rob Sheffield

I used to think I was a pretty strong Stevie Nicks fan back in my college years. I’m not much of a concert goer, but one of the three I’ve been to was Stevie Nicks. I had all her albums up to that time, knew tons of the lyrics by heart, and knew it was only a matter of time until she got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Then I came across this Audible Original and realized that for me Stevie Nicks was just a passing phase. Rob Sheffield has been breathing Stevie’s air for his entire life and he clearly thinks in her lyrics. The whole book could almost be described as stringing versus from her various songs together to make a narrative whole. And what a narrative it is. If you’ve any interest in Stevie or Fleetwood Mac this book is a must listen. Everyone knows that the band had romantic problems—hookups and breakups—during the making of Rumors, but I had no idea just how long lasting and how crazy the drug-fueled romantic madness really was.

Through it all, Stevie’s strong voice resonates as Sheffield successfully articulates why she is so important to rock and roll and why her music continues to resonate with so many fans. I’m very glad I stumbled across this book.

Bad Things by Jasper Tripp

If you buy this novel be prepared to fasten your seat belt because you’re in for a wild ride. Aliens have come to the small town of Slagstone, Montana and it’s up to the small-town sheriff, his cheerleading coach girlfriend, and a family of crazy survivalists to save the whole world from alien conquest. There frankly isn’t a lot to this plot that you haven’t seen a dozen times before, but Tripp puts it together with lovable characters and a heck of a lot of action. It’s loads of fun from start to finish and I’m very glad I read it.

I wanted to give this novel five stars for the sheer pleasure of the experience but the truth is there are a couple of flaws in the book that make me hold it down to four. The first is that the way the aliens propagate never really makes sense to me. I don’t want to say more because it would spoil a surprise toward the end of the book, but it seemed to me that the rules for making more aliens that were setup early on are broken near the end and that doesn’t sit well with me.

My second problem was much more serious. There are a lot of encounters with the big bad guy across the room while our heroes are shooting up the aliens. They identify him. They watch him do bad things. They exchange meaningful glances. But nobody ever takes a shot at him and that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Since he’s needed for the end of the story, I wouldn’t have minded him ducking out of the way, or one of the other aliens taking the hit for him, but it’s hard to understand why nobody tired to send a bullet his way in multiple scenes.

I think these problems are serious, but they only slightly tarnish a really fun story. So if you’re looking for a lot of hearty action in the alien invasion subgenre, you’ll be glad you read Bad Things.

Wearing the Cape 3: Young Sentinels by Marion Harmon

One of the many things Marion Harmon does very well is develop ultra-powerful super villain threats. This time the book opens with the Green Man—a super-powered eco-terrorist with the ability to make plant life grow and spread at remarkable speed. So new trees essentially “charge” across the parks, break up roads, grab and kill anyone in their paths, wreck property, overturn cars and basically try and turn Chicago into a forest. Stopping the growth across a front more than a mile wide and rescuing all the people involved would tax the abilities of the Justice League or the Avengers and it’s a great challenge for Harmon’s Sentinels. But it’s not the only difficulty they face in this story.

The Wreckers, a new group of super villains, has come to Chicago where they are targeting for execution known members of the Paladins—an anti-supers extremist group. The Wreckers powers are top-notch and dangerous and they’re not afraid of causing a lot of collateral damage in their attacks. To make matters worse, their appears to be a connection between the Wreckers and the mysterious mass murderer called the Ascendant, further complicating the Sentinels’ problems.

While all of this is happening, Blackstone decides to increase the fire power of the main team by recruiting a group of trainee heroes to be led by Astra. Technically, these new heroes-in-training will be blocked from most combat operations, but in the insanity that has become Chicago that is often impossible. With the city in constant danger the Sentinels are going to need all the help they can get to win this face off.

Enriching all the action is the growing cast of very strong characters and intriguing personal relationships that are Harmon’s bread and butter. One of the young Sentinels is a Merlin-type super who believes she is Ozma of Oz. Grendel is a shape changer who gained his powers the day he lost his family in the Ascendant’s first mass homicide. Megaton’s family has deserted him because they’re afraid of his new superpowers. These backdrops create intriguing problems for Astra to deal with that can’t be simply punched and kicked into submission.

Finally, in my review of Villain’s Inc I expressed some unhappiness with the change in narrator from K. F. Lim to Caitlin Kelly. I still like Lim’s excellent narration of Wearing the Cape, but Kelly has found her groove in the series and I was completely comfortable with her storyteller’s voice. She shows a lot of talent in bringing the large cast to life and I look forward to hearing her read the next book in the series.

Last Man Out by Elliott Kay

The latest novel in the Poor Man’s Fight series finally brings us past the Debtor’s War and into a whole new galaxy of troubles. Tanner Malone has become one of the most hated men in the galaxy thanks to the propaganda machine of the Northstar Corporation which has succeeded in twisting his heroic deeds against them into the actions of a blood thirsty war criminal in the eyes of much of the Union. Fresh out of the military, Tanner is trying to get his life started again by finally heading to college, but he discovers that many of his fellow classmates are more interested in protesting his presence than in learning anything approaching the truth about what actually happened. To make matters worse, many who lost a lot of money because of the war have decided that killing Tanner would give them no small manner of satisfaction.

With his life in danger and apparently going nowhere, Tanner gets an opportunity to join a xenoarchaelogical dig which would get him away from campus for a semester and earn him tons of college credits. He agrees and in so doing gets himself firmly entrenched in a mystery involving another greedy corporation, colonial insurgents, and an alien technology from a race that died off five hundred years before.

This is the most complicated of the books so far with plots and subplots galore, but ultimately, like all the others it’s a wild ride with the kind of action that makes this series stand out from so many others. By the end of the novel, the galaxy of Poor Man’s Fight has gotten a lot wider. I can’t wait to see where Kay plans to take the series next.

The Moon Maze Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

The Dream Park series ends on an awesome note with The Moon Maze Game. I loved the first book and thoroughly enjoyed The Barsoom Project but thought the series took a wrong turn with The California Voodoo Game. With the Moon Maze Game, Niven and Barnes recaptured the magic, and ironically did it by breaking the formula that governed the first three books.

These novels all revolve around a live-action role playing game which utilizes holograms and robotics to produce fantasy adventures. The efforts by the players to win the game is always a central part of the plot, but there is also always a crime that occurs outside the game that somehow involves the players in the games. Our heroes are always trying to solve the crime without interrupting the game which is a major cinematic event with tens of millions dollars depending on it being completed. The Moon Maze Game has all of that plus some excellent subplots involving problems between members of the cast, but what makes this stand out as the best book in the series was that Niven and Barnes broke their formula midway through, upping the tension dramatically and making this a thrilling rollercoaster of a ride.

The plot was especially appealing to me because it revolves around H.G. Wells’ novel, The First Men in the Moon. The numerous ways that Wells’ work is woven into this story is an utter delight for the science fiction fan. You don’t have to be familiar with Wells to enjoy the book, but it certainly adds to the fun if you are.

There was only one significant mistake in the plot that I picked up upon. The crime involves people on earth believing that one of the players in the game taking place on the moon has been kidnapped—even though the kidnappers don’t always have control over their victim. Communications between the game area and the rest of the world have supposedly been severed. Yet, we find out at the end of the story that the game cameras were transmitting everything that happened. This means that everyone on earth knew the kidnapping had at least partially failed. It also means that the authorities on the moon trying to figure out what to do should have had more information than they did (because they were still able to contact earth). To make matters worse, the error wasn’t necessary to advance the plot. Still, it’s easy to overlook this one thing and enjoy a great novel.

The Beast in the Rocks by John Erebus

Koholt is an aging mercenary of legendary reputation who has retired to a small mining town where he trains guards and accompanies miners into the depths to protect them from beasts that live in the darkness. It’s a fairly easy job until a group of miners penetrates to a new subterranean level and disappears. The local ruler, High Duke Nessa, wants Koholt to determine what happened to them. High politics are at stake as the Duke maneuvers to keep his duchy free of the neighboring empire and he isn’t prepared to take “no” for an answer.

The trip into the mine is extremely well done with Erebus handling the darkness and isolation very credibly. The fate of the missing miners leads to some tense action—both physical and psychological—and sets the stage for the next story in this series.

Koholt makes an interesting protagonist. He’s a drug addict and strikes me as suffering from depression as well. Yet he’s also an amazingly pragmatic man who is able to accept the challenges life throws at him. He’s also smart enough to realize he doesn’t want to be in the middle of the political problem the High Duke has sucked him into.

One of the biggest advantage that this story has is that it is short. You can read it in one sitting and go right on to the next one—which is what I plan to do.

Trying Times by Jan Stryvant

Trying Times starts out a little weak with a villain who is less than two dimensional, but it gains strength as the novel progresses and sets up an intriguing problem that will have to be resolved in later books. First, the two dimensional villain…

Stryvant quite correctly figures out that not all the country is going to be happy to discover that lycans are everywhere and that thousands of military men and women are being converted to fight the war with the demons. So Stryvant shows us this by creating a preacher who goads his followers into attacking Sean and his people. The preacher is every bad stereotype of a protestant minister that you’ve ever seen on TV rolled up into one. He’s a bigot that’s been looking for the “right” group to hate. He takes sexual advantage of every pretty female in his congregation, telling them that God wants them to have sex with him. He’s a coward who justifies his cowardice (like his evil deeds) as God’s work. And he turns on his own flock to “save” them from the lycans when his idiocy gets them in trouble.

I’m not opposed in principal to idiot villains, but I think Stryvant missed the boat here. It isn’t hard to imagine that an honest preacher might fear what is happening in the U.S. and blame the lycans (who are quite visible) instead of the demons (who are not so visible). Had the preacher been more honorable in his fanaticism that would have made for a much more dangerous and insidious villain. But hey, it’s Stryvant story and ultimately these are his decisions. I’m just glad that we quickly moved on to other things because the problem with foreign governments, for reasons both strategic and corrupt, starting to move against Sean is well thought out and far more interesting than the cartoonish preacher’s efforts.

The war is going to have to move to Europe where there are plenty of signs that the demons have made inroads with the magic users and now with key government figures, but how exactly Sean and his crew will handle that is beyond me. I very much look forward to seeing how Stryvant handles it.

I also want to credit Stryvant for killing off one of the better supporting cast characters. This was a shocking and painful loss and I thought he dealt with its aftermath well. The cast is big enough to absorb quite a few of these deaths, but it’s never easy for an author to kill off a beloved character. Stryvant deserves praise for his handling of the situation.

As always, I’m looking forward to the next book.

The March South by Mike Adams

Adams returns to his Fierce Girls at War series with another strong entry in the consistently high quality science fiction military adventure. Now that we’re seventeen books in its worth taking a few moments to remember how we got here. Earth is developing its first interstellar colony. It’s an impressively international effort marred only by the terrorist groups that oppose any interstellar colonization and the normal distrust that nations have for each other. To minimize that distrust, the earth governments have agreed to minimize the military hardware on the admittedly dangerous planet to modest automatic rifles with minimal excess ammunition. This leaves the colony ill prepared to defend itself when aliens show up to contest their right to the planet.

The aliens, however, are not your typical sf villains. While they definitely count as bad guys in the series, the “jammies” as the humans come to call them are not used to waging war among themselves and when they do find the need to fight generally use low tech proxies to wage their battles for them. These proxies, the raagaa, are physically durable creatures using medieval-style weapons. They also find human flesh to be a delicacy. The long-lived jammies are inexperienced in combat and slow to react making “initiative” one of the primary human strategic assets during the war.

The other factor to keep in mind is that it takes about six months for a ship to get from the colony of New Hope to the earth and another six months to get back again. So from the beginning of the alien attack, the humans have recognized that their primary task is to hold on until help (in the form of military back up with state of the art weaponry) can reach them. This leads to the only significant weakness in the overall story. The aliens aren’t stupid. They also figure out that the humans are much more warlike than they are and that their reinforcements are likely to bring much more advanced and destructive weapons, yet somehow they think that killing and eating every human on the planet before the reinforcements arrive will resolve the conflict in their favor. Maybe this is simply a reflection on how their species would react to a similar situation, but it seems rather dense of them.

The March South picks up the storyline of a group of captured humans who are basically waiting to be eaten. Their situation is desperate and they have no hope. The aliens have pushed the humans back to only three settlements and the colonists have no ability to locate or rescue the prisoners. But by fortuitous, but credible, coincidence, one of the main storylines that has been being developed for fifteen books, crosses paths with the prisoners. On the first day of the war, a shuttle bearing a handful of rangers, two of the principal heroes of the series, and about fifty young women from the New Hope Academy was shot down by the aliens and crashed in the wilderness far from any hope of rescue. Our heroes have been training those young women to fight as the colonial rangers do and after about six months of preparation have been trying to march their way out of the wilderness to civilization. This small group (called Jack’s Company) encounters the raagaa with many of the prisoners and their clash forms the central action of the novel. Then Adams does one of the things that makes this series so good. In the aftermath of the rescue he brings a great deal of strife into Jack’s Company by having many of the rescued prisoners be self-centered jerks unable to recognize the reality of their circumstances and to take the young women who rescued them seriously. In the midst of all the life and death struggles that dominate the series, this is a very different style of challenge that makes this novel stand out from the rest. As always, I am looking forward to the sequel.

A Chance Beginning by Christopher Patterson

This novel starts with a bang! A very likeable freeholding farmer and his wife—descendants of the hero in the prologue—are murdered by a nobleman who wants to turn them into serfs. It’s a powerfully moving and absolutely shocking beginning that sets the reader up for an exciting tale of justice and vengeance. And that tale is probably going to happen over the course of this new fantasy trilogy, but it isn’t what this novel is about. A Chance Beginning focuses on the two sons and nephew of the murdered couple who have left the farm to seek their fortune only to discover difficulty and poverty greater than they have ever known. The change in pace is striking after the fast-moving opening, but Patterson takes the time to introduce you to these three young men and really bring them to life with distinctive personalities.

Patterson writes a very good action scene—good enough that it makes you wish there was much more of it. He also deals very well with the aftermath of violence as the three young men are forced to begin growing up. This is common feature of fantasy and it’s a strength of the novel.

The other big strength is the slowly developing international political situation. The political powers are searching for something and starting to make military moves. We don’t really understand this situation yet but it’s very clear our three young heroes-to-be are going to be in the middle of it.

Overall, this is a nice start to what promises to be a very good trilogy.

Lucius Fogg 1 Deadly Creatures by Dan Wickline

Dan Wickline’s urban fantasy series is built upon the Nero Wolfe model established by Rex Stout. Lucius Fogg is a master sorcerer—perhaps the greatest alive in post World War II New York City—but he has one significant restraint on his power. If he takes even one step outside of his home, he will die. To get around this difficulty, he employs private detective Jimmy Doyle to do his legwork for him as he investigates supernatural phenomenon that catch his interest.

Jimmy Doyle is a World War II vet who took a bullet to the head and spent three months in a coma. He only woke up because Fogg sent a magical pendant to him which a nurse hung around his neck. Now he has a metal plate in his head (more on this later) together with a strong sense of justice. He’s also got a lot of attitude that makes you wonder why he doesn’t get slugged more by the men he provokes.

The final piece of background that is critical to understanding this series is that most Americans do not believe in the supernatural even though quite a few of those creatures live among them.

The novel opens with a peculiar instance of a man following Doyle, wanting Lucius Fogg’s help, but panicking and running before Doyle can find out what he wants. He darts into the street and gets hit by a van seemingly closing the strange encounter. A few days later, women start to die in a peculiar fashion and a police detective who has reluctantly come to know that the supernatural is real, asks Fogg for his help. That mystery takes up half the novel and is thoroughly enjoyable, pulling all the early threads together. In resolving the case we get introduced to the supernatural world. But in closing the case, questions Fogg does not want to pursue get opened and Doyle’s sense of justice leads him to quit Fogg’s employ so he can pursue justice on his own.

This is where things get very interesting. We learn that the relative peace that New York City enjoys was built upon a compact by Fogg, the chief vampire and werewolf of New York, and a famous hunter who had been trying to kill off all the supernatural creatures in the city. This compact kept NYC from breaking out into total war at the price of Old Town (about thirty blocks of the city) being turned over to the supernaturals. New Yorkers believe this is an area of such tremendous crime that not even the police go there, but those in the know understand the truth. Now, the compact appears to be in violation as werewolves are being seen killing people outside of Old Town.

The resolution of this mystery is very exciting, but there are some problems with it which I’m going to discuss next. So be forewarned, SPOILERS are ahead.

The compact was made necessary by the tremendous immigration of supernaturals to New York City from elsewhere—especially Europe. All werewolves and vampires in the city came to Old Town when Fogg cast the spell that formed the compact—basically limiting those creatures (and their progeny) to Old Town. This ignores the fact that it is immigration which was helping to cause the problem and presumably would continue after the compact was made. New immigrants would not be bound by the compact but apparently this never occurs to anyone. It’s especially troubling that no one even considers this possibility when they start finding new werewolves operating in the city. This is a serious flaw in the plot.

It also appears that new vampires and werewolves have been creates since the compact but this would seem to be impossible under the terms of the compact. Maybe I’m incorrect about this, but it struck me as a significant inconsistency.

The next complaint may be unfair, but the reader is constantly reminded that Jimmy Doyle has a metal plate in his head. Unfortunately, the plate is forgotten when Jimmy gets infected with lycanthropy and transforms. I don’t know that this would cause problems, but it would seem that the plate would have to be moved around by transforming in and out of wolf form and this is never addressed.

These are small complaints but they bothered me as I first read and thought about the book. That didn’t stop me from rereading the novel, however. If you like a good mystery with some supernatural elements, you’ll enjoy this series.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.