Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Companion to Wolves

Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
Completed 12/28/2019, Reviewed 12/29/2019
3 stars

This was a very peculiar book.  It was a bit reminiscent of the “Dragonriders of Pern” series, but with wolves instead of dragons and set in a Viking like culture.  Instead of threads, they fight trolls and instead of it being an honor to be in this wolf community, it has fallen into disfavor.  What was most peculiar about the book was that there is a lot of m/m sex, but there is almost no gay content.  The characters are mostly straight, or maybe bisexual.  Because the men are psychically bonded with wolves, both male and female, the men have sex with each other when the wolves do.  So if you’re expecting a m/m romance, this is not that book.  It is sexual politics with no sexuality. 

The plot however was simple but interesting.  Njall is the son of a powerful landholder who is heir to his father and sexually active with women.  One day a member of the wolf community comes with his companion wolf and demands that the father, Gunnar, tithe his son to the community as is the custom.  Gunnar is adamant that he will not for two reasons.  First, the community has fallen out of favor because the troll threat has greatly lessened, and second, because of the rumors of the man on man sex that happens.  However, Njall is dramatically drawn to the wolf, disobeys his father and joins the community.  There, he takes a new name, Isolfr, and pairs with a she-wolf who is destined to be a queen.  Together they fight a new wave of invading trolls.

Then it gets sexually weird.  When his she-wolf goes into heat, the male wolves become sexually aroused.  The same goes for the human companions of the wolves.  When the she-wolf chooses a mate, the associated human companions also have sex.  The thing is, Isolfr is basically straight and is not interested in man on man sex.  However, because he is driven to a sexual frenzy by his wolf-sister, he accepts the passive role, actively participating in it, but at the same time wishing it were over.  He never bonds with his sexual partners.  In fact, he is promiscuous with the women who work in the community (in traditional women’s roles) and even fathers a child with a local woman.  I was a little uncomfortable with these scenes.  While there is consent, it is a bit dubious.  Isolfr and others bonded with she-wolves accept their duties as their companions, but they are not necessarily gay or even bisexual.  It made for some uncomfortable reading. 

Another problem I had with the book is that there are a lot of characters, human and wolf, and they all have difficult, unfamiliar names.  There is no real differentiation in the names of each type, except that some of the men have “fr” at the end of their names.  I found it very confusing.  I often didn’t know who was a man and who was a wolf.  And the charater development of the minor characters is not that great.  So it was tough to tell who was through much of the book. 

The best things about the book are the world-building and the trolls.  The world-building is quite extensive, being a Nordic-like culture with references to the Nordic gods and the complexity of the social structure of community.  The trolls are pretty cool and even they have a social structure and some humanity, though that is not made evident until late in the book. 

I give this book three stars out of five for the world-building and the trolls.  It is a highly readable book, though the myriad of names slowed me down some.  The complexity of the wolf social structure and their companions was really well done.  I think I could have given this four stars if it weren’t for the sexual aspect. 

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Gilda Stories

Jewelle L Gomez
Completed 12/26/2019, Reviewed 12/26/2019
4 stars

This is not your typical vampire story.  While most vampire literature focuses on the sexy and the bloodthirsty, this book does so only subtly.  It focuses more on the main character’s search for self and relationship with other vampires and the world around her.  Gilda is a benevolent black lesbian vampire, made in 1850, who travels across the country at various times through the present and future.  The stories are vignettes that take place over a two-hundred-year span. At each stop, Gilda tries to build or integrate into a community of other vampires as well as the ordinary humans around her and struggles with whether it is worth the risk to bring someone else into the fold simply to help her with her own loneliness.  I found the book to be very readable with great prose and subtle takes on racism, feminism, dominant culture, the environment, and sexuality.  The book won two Lambda Literary Awards in 1991, for general lesbian literature and for lesbian sci fi/fantasy/horror (back when the sf/f/h category was separated into gay and lesbian). 

The plot is not really that grand, as the book is divided into different stories at specific points in time over a two-hundred-year span.  A slave girl in 1850 Mississippi runs away from her master when her mother dies.  She is found by a vampire named Gilda and brought to live and work in a brothel as a housekeeper.  Eventually, the vampire and her companion, a Native American named Bird, turn the slave girl into a vampire like themselves.  Bird acts as her mentor, teaching her to read, write, and about life in general and as a vampire.  She acquires her name from Gilda, her maker, when the older Gilda takes the voluntary of death of staying out in direct sunlight.  Unable to accept the older Gilda’s death, Bird eventually returns to her people to rediscover her own family and culture, leaving the younger Gilda to make her way in the world alone.  Eventually, she comes across others like her, and develops tenuous relationships with normal humans. 

Gilda spends most of her time as an artist, whether it be as a hairdresser, a theatrical worker, a writer, or a singer.  At one point she’s also a farmer.  The thrust of her existence though is to find a community for herself.  She does meet up with other vampires with whom she does maintain relationships with throughout the cycle of stories.  But her primary goal is to find someone who she can make a vampire to call brother or sister.  The caveat though is to make sure she finds someone who understands what they are getting into and to make sure the feeling is mutual, that she is not doing it for selfish reasons.  Even the code of the vampires’ eating habits is about mutuality: life for life.  When feeding, the vampire must give something in return, usually a psychic peace or resolution.  Never does a vampire feed to the death of their victims.  There are some vampires, however, who do not live by the code and Gilda does encounter one in the 1955 story. 

As I noted above, there is not a grand overarching plot through the stories.  Each one has its own plot.  The main theme is about finding community, or home.  Gilda, being the main character, is the best developed, though the secondary characters are well-drawn for being present for short periods of time.  The real star of the book is the prose.  Gomez is a terrific writer.  She doesn’t bang you over the head with issues.  She presents them subtly in the stories, making you care about them by caring for Gilda and her plight. 

I liked this book very much.  I was hard to put down.  My only problem with it was that I felt one step removed from the action.  But in a sense, I understand this reaction I had because Gilda always feels one step removed from the action herself.  She is always the observer, never feeling fully integrated into either the human or the vampire community.  This is something I can relate to myself, as I never feel fully a part of either the straight or the gay community.  I play the observer, only very cautiously letting someone close to me.  So I could really identify with Gilda at that level.  I give the book four stars out of five.  It’s a terrific read, and I’d highly recommend it to people who don’t like the classic vampire story. 

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Fifth Sacred Thing

Completed 12/21/2019, Reviewed 12/21/2019
4 stars

I was first introduced to Starhawk in Matthew Fox’s “Original Blessing”, a book about Creation Spirituality.  She had written several books on the topic as well on Goddess worship.  This is her first work of fiction.  It encapsulates a lot of the spirituality she espouses in the context of a future utopian society fighting against a dystopian power trying to overtake it.  It took a long while for me to get into the book, but I found myself drawn in by the world building and eventually became very engaged with it.  It won the Lambda Literary Award in 1994. 

The utopia of the book is in what was formerly known as San Francisco.  Everyone is free, everyone has a voice in what is going on, everyone works at what they want to do, and everyone pitches in to help each other.  Racial and religious diversity are supported.  Most people are polyamorous.  This is counter to the oppressive regime in the dystopia to the south, where women and minorities are repressed, sexual diversity is punished, and everyone must conform to the purity laws.  Those who transgress against the norm are told they have lost their immortal soul and are conscripted into the army or sexual slavery. 

The plot of the book isn’t that ground breaking and at times, I found it a little boring.  But Starhawk makes it all very real with warm, simple prose.  I found myself enjoying every return to the pages of the book, even when I felt like I didn’t know where the plot was going.

The characters were all very well drawn.  And the two main characters are black, which I found very refreshing.  Madrone, one of the main characters, is a healer witch.  She works with the local doctor to heal through spiritual energy and herbal concoctions.  One of her lovers, Sandy, just died from an epidemic that ran through the community, which may or may not have been biological warfare from the south.  One of her other lovers is Bird.  He’s been imprisoned in the south for ten years and it is not known if he’s alive or dead.  The story follows the two of them in alternating chapters for most of the book.

The one fault I have with the book is that it didn’t seem to really move.  Reading it was a slow process with little direction towards where it was intending to go.  Now that’s not to say that there was not action, because there was.  It just didn’t have any urgency.  That was why I needed the first hundred pages or so to get into the book.  I had to be immersed in the world and the characters before I started to care for them.  Eventually, I was, and I couldn’t stop reading it, even at that slow pace.

The book has a lot to say about what we could be doing to make this world a better place.  Peace, love, acceptance, patience.  And the passive resistance tactic when the army from the south comes to invade the utopia is really quite impressive.  I found it quite profound, especially because the choice between passive and active resistance is debated quite a lot throughout the invasion. 

I was going to give this book three stars at first, but I found myself really enjoying the heck out of it.  I had come to be totally immersed in its world, appreciating the characters and the philosophy it expounded.  I finally had to admit that it was really a four star out of five book.  Some may find it a little dated with concepts that came to the forefront during the New Age movement, but it describes many truths about human nature and what we can achieve if we can just get along.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Lions of Al-Rassan

Guy Gavriel Kay
Completed 12/7/2019, Reviewed 12/7/2019
5 stars

This was my first book by Kay.  At over five hundred pages, it’s one of the longest books I’ve read in a long time.  I was dreading it at first, but as I got past the first fifty pages or so, I became enchanted by the prose.  There are a lot of characters and city-states, and there is a lot of politics.  Usually I lose my way in this type of book.  But the prose was so glorious that the reading of it became easy and I didn’t have that hard of a time following the kings, the religions, the politics, and the warring.  It helped that I read some reviews first so I didn’t go cold into the book.  So I knew ahead of time that the setting is an alternative Medieval Spain, conquered by a people like the Moors, with the old Christian-like states pushed north, and a Jewish-like minority throughout.

The setup is fairly complex.  The Asharites control about three-quarters of the peninsula.  They are a desert people whose god is revealed through the stars and their prophet Ashar.  Once united as Al-Rassan, the land has degraded down to a collection of city-states.  Ammar ibn Khairan is an Asharite.  He’s many things, including a poet, a kingly advisor, and an assassin.  The Jaddites live in the north and some in the east.  Rodrigo Belmonte is a military captain of a band of mercenaries working for one of the Jaddite kings.  The Kindath live throughout Al-Rassan, but are generally quartered in ghettos, and are highly suspect by the Asharites.  In the Jaddite territories, they are often slaves.  Jehane bet Ishak is a doctor who treats all people.  Through a series of unusual events, these three characters end up exiled to one of the Jaddite kingdoms where they become strong friends despite their religious differences in a world inching closer and closer to a holy war. 

This book is really about relationships between people and their similarities and differences as a metaphor for how the world should get along.  It is about love, honor, and respect in a world with too little of these.  The complexity of the world and the relationships of these three main characters simply took my breath away.  There are good guys and bad guys, but the point of view of the book is told from many people from the three religions and the different city-states, leaving a lot of moral ambiguity.

There are many featured characters besides the three main ones.  Some of their names were similar so that made things a little hard to follow at times.  However, Kay makes sure to restate who people are which made it a little easier to remember.  They were all very well developed.  No one seemed like a cardboard cutout. 

My only complaint about the book is that it’s considered fantasy.  There are two moons and one of Rodrigo Belmonte’s sons can see the future.  But that’s about it.  It’s really alternate history and it’s probably more appropriate to use the term speculative fiction than fantasy.  But that’s really a minor point. 

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was completely absorbed in it.  Everything about the book, the plot, the prose, the characters, the world-building, all combine to form one terrific novel.  The ending was quite a surprise and quite devastating.  This was one of those books where I had to chill after finishing.  I really felt like had been immersed in a different world, and coming out of it required a conscious transition.  Kay has some retractors, but a lot of people love him.  I guess I’m now one of the converted.  At some point, I’ll have to read Tigana, which is considered his best.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Briar Rose

Jane Yolen
Completed 11/29/2019, Reviewed 11/29/2019
4 stars

This book was a difficult read, not because of the writing, but because of the content.  It is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale set during the Holocaust.  It reminds us that gypsies and gay men were among other smaller populations that were also exterminated in the camps.  Any book or visual media that deals with the Holocaust really saddens me and makes me angry.  It also made me angry that I found so many reviews on Goodreads that condemned the book because of homosexual content and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.  Wake up people!  Over two hundred fifty thousand gay men died in the concentration camps.  Their stories need to be told.  And there are some people that have sex (gasp!) outside of marriage.  Despite the sexuality references, there was no explicit sex in this book.  In fact, I found it very appropriate for teens.  Despite its short length, I thought it was really well done.  It was nominated for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards and won the Mythopoeic Award back in the early ‘90s. 

Becca is a second generation American of Polish-Jewish descent.  As a child, she and her sisters were fascinated by their grandmother’s (Gemma) telling of Sleeping Beauty.  It wasn’t the Disney version, but more faithful to some of the original texts.  Years later, on her deathbed, Gemma asks Becca to find out her true origins, calling herself Briar Rose.  Becca’s investigations lead her back to Poland and the Holocaust. 

Despite this being a very short book of about two hundred forty pages, Yolen packs in an awful lot of plot.  However, the characterization suffered a bit.  The main characters are not very deeply drawn.  Josef Potocki, the old gay Pole who has a connection to Gemma has perhaps the best characterization.  He tells Becca about his life including his capture by the Nazis.  His story is very prosy, so we learn more about him, his life, and emotions than even Becca, the main character. 

I really liked the setting of the fairy tale in a concentration camp.  I thought it was really great that Yolen used the barbed wire fences of the camps as the thorn bushes that grew around Sleeping Beauty’s castle.  I read a lot of reviews that thought the metaphors were forced, but I thought they were well done.  It also brings to light the little-known camp at Chelmno which was where the Jews of the Lodz ghetto were exterminated, 320,000 of them.  They were interned there and then stuffed into vans which circulated the auto exhaust into the back of van, killing all the people packed in there.  Only two men where known to have survived the Chelmno camp.  It is believed that no women survived.

I give the book four stars out of five, despite the lack of character development.  It is one of a series of fairy tale retellings compiled by Terri Windling in the early nineties.  This is only one I’ve read, and I thought it was well done.  Jane Yolen was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) in 2017.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Darkest Part of the Forest

Holly Black
Completed 11/26/2019, Reviewed 11/26/2019
5 stars

This book really knocked my socks off.  It was interesting, exciting, well-paced, and well-written.  Not one word was wasted.  It was sort of a young adult, modern, smaller scope take on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  It’s about faeries in the woods near a present-day American town and the teenage girl and her gay brother who try to save it from them.  Everything about the book is satisfying:  the plot, the characters, the world-building, the dark tone.  It wasn’t nominated for any LGBTQ awards, unfortunately, but was nominated for a Mythopoeic Award. 

Hazel and Ben live in Fairfold, a small American town which is known for its proximity to a forest with a strange inhabitant, a horned, faerie prince who has been sleeping in a glass coffin for hundreds of years.  Both sister and brother are in love with the prince and much of the town is infatuated with him.  The local teenagers hang out at the site of the coffin, drinking and making out, sort of like any middle American town with a tourist attraction.  One day the coffin is smashed, the prince awakens, and strange things begin to happen.  Hazel and Ben have been fighting bad faeries with Ben enchanting them with his faerie given gift of music and Hazel as a wannabe knight.  But now things reach a climax as the fabled monster of the forest starts wreak havoc in town and it is up to Hazel, Ben, the prince, and a changeling to save the day.

Hazel is glorious as the dark, brooding teen.  At age 11, she made a deal with the king of the faeries, the Alderking.  In return for getting her brother into a prestigious music school in Philadelphia, she serves the Alderking at night.  However, her day self does not remember the night activities.  In the meantime, she kisses boys, and some girls, at teen parties while secretly pining for Jack, a changeling.  She’s also obsessed with the horned prince.  Despite being a quirky teenager, she’s a strong female lead with just the right amount of angst.

Ben, her brother, is also terrific.  He’s not very adept at the dating scene in this small town.  In fact, he’s more obsessed with the sleeping prince than with any human boys.  He would go to the forest, lie down on the coffin, and whisper his deepest, darkest thoughts and secrets.  When the prince awakens, he has to reconcile his fantasy with this new reality. 

Severis the prince and Jack the changeling are good secondary characters.  The whole changeling story is in itself quite interesting.  Even though Jack is the faerie, his human family keeps him even after they get their real son back.  So he is brought up by his human family and is sort of a twin to his human brother Carter.  Severis is the son of the Alderking and heir to the faerie throne.  However, there is some bad blood between the two of them, and his character arc intertwines with Hazel and Ben’s. 

The pacing really surprised me.  There’s no lag in the book.  Every scene gripped me.  Even Severis telling his story should have felt like tedious exposition, but it was as engaging as if it were part of the action.  This is a testament to the author’s writing skill.  The world-building was extensive, even for a three hundred page book.  We only go into the faerie realm twice, but both times are quite profound.  The forest is almost its own character as Hazel and Ben go in it, searching for missing people and fighting bad faeries.

This book a five star book.  It just felt perfect in every way.  I was totally engrossed by it, and whole-heartedly moved.  I wasn’t near tears, but I found it hard to come down from the book and sit still enough to write this review.  It revved me up and I didn’t want to put it down.  When it was over, I felt like I wanted it to keep going, just to remain in the world with Hazel and Ben. 

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Age of Myth

Michael J Sullivan
Completed 11/23/2019, Reviewed 11/23/2019
3 stars

This was an okay book.  It’s the first of a six volume series and a precursor to one or two other series.  It was chosen by my book club on a night I didn’t attend.  It felt like standard fantasy fare with some interesting world building.  It dragged a little in the middle.  There were two climaxes and both were fairly exciting.  The clincher is that it really didn’t make me want to search out the rest of the series. 

There are two main races at the center of this book:  the Fhrey and the Rhunes.  The Rhunes are standard humans, with familiar life spans and no magical abilities.  The Fhrey are beings that live millenia, some of whom have magical abilities, called The Art.  The Rhunes consider the Fhrey gods and the Fhrey consider the Rhunes sub-human.  But that all changes when Raithe, a Rhune, kills one of the Fhrey.  In retaliation, the Fhrey go from tribe to tribe hunting down Raithe and killing all the Rhunes.

Persephone is the recent widow of a Rhune chieftain.  She was approached by a fourteen-year-old Rhune girl who has the gift of prophesy and surprisingly, some magical ability.  Suri tells Persephone that a great tragedy is coming upon her tribe, a prophesy which she divined by talking to trees.  Persephone asks Suri to take her to the trees so she could ask clarifying questions.  On their way, they are attacked by three warriors from her tribe.  Raithe and his companion happen to be nearby and save the day.  But one of the attackers escapes and claims Raithe and Persephone attacked them.  Now under suspicion of murder, Persephone must use her wits to keep her tribe alive in the foretold apocalypse.

The most interesting things about this book were Suri, the young seer, and her ability to talk to trees.  Initially, I was psyched about the book because on the cover is a beautiful drawing of a tree.  And that is a very cool part of the book, but it’s only a small part of it.  Suri’s arc is more about all her gifts and her relationship with Persephone.  Persephone is really the only person who believes Suri.  Even in this age of myth, and the belief that the Fhrey are gods, the general public does not much believe in this little prophet.  However, they do believe that Persephone is suspect.

Persephone is the main character and a good, strong woman in a time where women are still considered second-class citizens.  I did like her character.  The story wasn’t soapy, like being about falling in love with Raithe, although I could foresee that happening in a later book.  She was a take charge person in a tribe with a fairly impotent new chieftain.  I couldn’t help but think that her characterization was inspired at least a little by the iconic heroine Ripley from Alien and its sequels. 

There’s also an evil chief counsellor to the ruler of the Fhrey.  He’s deliciously evil and conniving.  In particular, he’s perpetuating a new myth that the only Fhrey worth anything are those with the gift of The Art.  All the other Fhrey are second-class, barely a few steps up from the Rhunes.  And of course, he wants to rule the Fhrey. 

All in all, it wasn’t a bad book, but I thought it could have been better.  It felt like there was something missing, and the whole middle was just filler to get to the two exciting climaxes at the end.  Sure there was world-building, and the introduction of a few other interesting characters, but it felt like a hundred pages could easily have been edited out and you might have had a better, fast-paced book.  I give the book three stars out of five. 

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Naked Lunch

William S Burroughs
Completed 11/16/2019, Reviewed 11/16/2019
3 stars

I’m glad I read some summaries and reviews of this book as I picked it up.  It helped me understand that there is no plot and that it’s a collection of loosely related vignettes.  I kinda got it and I kinda didn’t.  I realize that this book is about the author’s drug addiction and the vignettes are a mixture of actual events, hallucinations, and fantasies.  It was very hard to follow.  It’s very stream of consciousness.  I gave up trying to understand it and just reveled in the author’s word choices and creative sentences.  The book is beautiful, grotesque, offensive, funny, pathetic.  And in the end, I feel like I don’t know what I’ve read.

I have no plot summary for this book, because there is no plot.  I can say that it takes place in New York, Tangiers, and a strange hallucinogenic place called the Interzone, the first two being places where he actually lived.  There’s a lot sex, mostly homosexuality, and violence and it is all disturbing.  One might even conclude that Burroughs was obsessed with drugs, sex, and death.  It is definitely a transgressive work. 

I can’t say that I actually enjoyed the work.  At times, I thought that the way Burroughs strung together these random thoughts was genius and other times just lazy.  He plays a lot with mixing tense and number.  At the end of the book is a preface, which I thought might explain some of these choices, but it was as complicated as the novel itself.  In the preface though, is a great description of the book.  It’s a very long paragraph, so I’ll only include the beginning here (all words are exactly as written, and not typos):

“This book spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and street noises, farts and riot yips and the slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic…”

I can’t say that I’d recommend this book to anyone but the adventurous reader.  Maybe if you liked other stream of consciousness works such as “Ulysses”, you might get this.  As I said, I kinda did and kinda didn’t.  So I give this book a questionable three stars out of five.  I saw the film “Naked Lunch” many years ago, and thought it would help me understand this book a little better.  It didn’t.  In fact, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a scene between the narrator and a giant talking insect like there was in the film.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Honeyed Words

JA Pitts
Completed 11/11/2019, Reviewed 11/12/2019
3 stars

This is the second book in the Sarah Beauhall series.  I didn’t realize that until I started reading it and then looked more closely on-line about it.  The author does a decent job of bringing you up to speed, but I think there’s a lot of world building I missed out on.  This book has elves, dwarves, and shape shifting dragons, and is in a lot of ways, high fantasy despite being urban.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if I read the first book, which hopefully provided more descriptions of the denizens of the world.  This book was nominated for the Endeavor Award, a Pacific Northwest award given at the Oregon Science Fiction Convention, and won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2012. 

In the first book, Sarah is a blacksmith and a member of a small film company crew who slew a dragon and fought with her sexual identity.  In this book, she’s out of the closet, has a girlfriend, and is fighting her guilt over the deaths of so many people which may have been avoided if she hadn’t reforged the magic sword, Gram.  The reforging of the sword is what brought out the dragon in the first place.  Now there is relative quiet, until a filker is kidnapped by dwarves.  Then Sarah continues her blacksmithing apprenticeship under the strange Anezka whose home seems to be filled with strange and evil powers.  Although it takes a long time, the kidnapping is connected to the evil at Anezka’s home and once again, Sarah is thrust into a battle between good and evil.

It was actually difficult to come up with that plot description.  The book meanders quite a bit for more than half its length.  The kidnapping happens early, but nothing seems to come of it for a long time.  Sarah spends most of that time fighting her guilt, her one grounding force being her relationship with Katie.  Eventually, Sarah meets Anezka and things start to get weird.  Anezka has a companion named Bub, short for Beelzebub, a demon who is indentured to her.  Then she seems to have terrible bipolar swings, causing Sarah and Bub to somehow care for her.  The mental illness seems to be related to the terrible forces which surround the house.  That’s where the book starts to become more interesting, but it still doesn’t pull everything together until the final showdown between Sarah and the evil forces. 

Bub is the most interesting and fun supporting character in the book.  He starts out by attacking Sarah, but comes to be friends with her, even though he basically wants to eat her.  He actually eats anything, regular food, the dishes, people, but Anezka and Sarah keep him under control by feeding him hamburgers and burritos.  He helps Sarah take care of Anezka when she goes off the deep end. 

The other characters are good too.  There’s a lot of character development even though most of the characters first appeared in the first book.  They didn’t seem wooden or one-note.  And their dialogue was pretty natural.

The book is told mostly in first person by Sarah.  While the plot meanders, her narrative is pretty easy to follow.  Unfortunately, there are injections of third person narrative concerning the other dragons of the area and the dwarves who captured the filker.  By the way, filk is a type of music whose lyrics have themes in science fiction and fantasy.  The music may be a parody of a popular song, or may have its own original tune.  These third person breaks were hard to follow and sometimes didn’t seem to have anything to do with the plot.  I found them more distracting than informative.

All in all, the book was okay.  I liked Sarah, although she spent an awful lot of time in self-doubt.  I thought from the book blurbs that she was going to be a kick-ass leading character.  It’s not until the end that she gains the confidence she needs to continue her role as a defender of good.  And despite the book’s meandering, it was pretty easy to follow.  It was just hard to see where it’s going until the very end.  And the end leads into the third book.  There are four books so far in the series.  I give it three out of five stars.  If you are going to read this, I think it would be best to start with the first book. 

Sunday, November 3, 2019


Vonda N McIntyre
Completed 11/2/2019, Reviewed 11/3/2019
4 stars

This book starts out incredibly slowly, so slowly that I never thought I’d get through it.  I could barely get ten pages read a night before passing out from exhaustion and well, boredom.  Very little happened and I couldn’t see where it was going.  Then Saturday came and I picked it up after a good night’s sleep.  What I thought was boring was well over a hundred pages of character introduction and world-building.  It slowly began to pick up its pace and then finished with a hundred pages of breakneck action.  It’s the first of a four part series and this book serves as the introduction to the remaining three books.  With a title like “Starfarers”, you’d think this book was about space travel.  Well, since it’s an introduction, it’s everything that leads up to the space travel part.  You could easily see this book as the first season of a TV series with terrific cliffhanger for the last episode. 

The plot is fairly simple.  The Starfarer’s mission was to seek out alien life.  Due to a change in the presidency and increased tensions in the Middle East, the US wants to repurpose the ship for the military.  It’s up to a scrappy polyamorous, multi-cultural trio to save the ship from this change of plan.  There are a host of side characters with subplots, some smaller, some larger, that come into play.  The most interesting is that of JD, the alien specialist who is enamored with divers, genetically modified humans who live underwater as well as on land.  Her subplot weaves in and out of the main plot as her diver friend Zev is chased by the military on Earth while she is integrating herself into the crew of the Starfarer. 

The polyamorous, multi-cultural trio, Victoria, Stephen Thomas, and Satoshi, are main characters of the book.  Victoria is the commander of the Starfarer.  She’s black and Canadian.  Stephen Thomas is a blond hunk of mixed ethnic background.  Satoshi is a Japanese-American.  They are, of course, bisexual.  There was a second woman, bringing the relationship member count up to four, but she died in an accident.  The three are learning to live without her, but it is difficult because she was the relationship manager.  The character development was pretty good, though the book only takes place over the course of a few weeks at the most.  At first, I thought the characters were a bit wooden, but McIntyre fleshes them out pretty well.  JD is also a pretty good character, being described as a bigger woman, though she can swim with the divers.  All in all, a pretty diverse cast of characters for a book written nearly thirty years ago.

There are several other minor characters worth noting.  Kolya Cherenkov is a former Soviet cosmonaut who is basically stranded on the Starfarer because there is a death edict out on him from the Middle East.  If he returns to Earth, he’ll be killed.  He is mostly a hermit, but has an interesting perspective on the events happening around him.  There’s also an old woman whose name I can’t remember who adds some levity as well as intensity to their situation.  She’s there as part of the Grandparents Initiative, a movement to get older people up to the ship to increase the age diversity of the crew.  Lastly, there’s Griffith, the bad guy.  He’s a government man, posing as someone who works for the GAO, but is probably part of the military as it plans its takeover of the Starfarer.  He would have been a two-dimensional character, except for his infatuation with Cherenkov, which is the only thing that can divert him from his primary purpose. 

The plot is pretty thin, but as I mentioned before, this book is really an introduction to the characters and world-building.  I’m guessing the rest of the books have more of a plot than this one.  Still I thought this book held its own once it got going.  I was going to give it three stars, but the terrific climax and the setup for the rest of the series made me up it to four stars.  I must say that I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by McIntyre, which amounts to two books now.  Her Hugo and Nebula Award winning Dreamsnake was one of the best books I read back in my quest to read all the Hugo winners.  This book isn’t award worthy, but I agree with her quote that this was her best TV series never made.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Magic’s Price

Mercedes Lackey
Completed 10/27/2019, Reviewed 10/27/2019
5 stars

This trilogy far exceeded my expectations.  The third and final book is every bit as deep and exciting as the first two.  Picking up this third one was like hanging out with an old friend.  The prose continues to be as warm as in the first two.  Perhaps it was because I read all three in order and without interruption that I felt like I really knew the main character Vanyel.  I was cheering for his new relationship while at the same time, completely empathizing with his hesitancy.  At first I thought that more about him couldn’t be revealed, but he continued to grow, albeit slowly, in his new relationship, with his family, and with his power.  This book won the Lambda Literary Award for Science Fiction/Fantasy in 1991.

Like the first two books, this one was half personal life, half professional.  It starts out with him slowly falling for a new young Bard named Stefen.  Stefen is in love with Vanyel, and it’s not just hero worship.  At this point in the book, Vanyel is larger than life, being the most powerful Herald-Mage in the land.  So Vanyel tries to discount Stefen’s affections.  But Vanyel falls in love with Stefen as well, and it takes a visit to his family to realize that.  Yes, there is a third visit to Vanyel’s family, and his relationship with his father, Withen, turns in another new direction, as Withen comes to terms with his son’s orientation and career choices.  While at home, there is an assassination attempt on Vanyel’s mother’s life, also endangering Stefen.  This forebodes a plot not only to destroy Vanyel, but also the whole country.  So Vanyel must leave once again to get to the bottom of this new sinister conspiracy.

A lot of the first half of the book is about Stefen.  At first I didn’t like him, but he grew on me as he also grew on Vanyel.  At first, Vanyel brushes off Stefen’s advances, but it becomes a fun game as Stefen tries to find ways to get Vanyel into bed.  It also seems like Stefen is trying to add another notch on his bedpost at first, but the desire quickly becomes love and Stefen lifebonds with Vanyel.  Vanyel still hold a candle for his first and only real love, so the game frustrates Stefen and all the other major characters.  Vanyel does grow though, and he eventually comes around to the inevitability of a new relationship. 

The book becomes very sad as a major character as well as other minor characters are murdered.  Vanyel has to deal with his emotions, trying to control his powers, using them for good rather than for the desire to seek vengeance.  This is a recurring theme in the books: with great power comes great responsibility.  Vanyel gets a huge dose of this when he is captured and abused by the enemy forces.  He strikes out at his captors but then is revulsed by his uncontrolled emotional revenge.  So when he finally confronts the evil Master Dark in the end, he tries to use his powers in the least emotional way.

As a reader, you really get the sense that Lackey wrote these books in order, one after the other.  The tone and style are the same throughout the works.  It is an exceedingly pleasant read throughout all three.  I can see why there are so many fans of the author out there.  She has a wonderful voice, has interesting plots, and develops great characters who actually grow through the action.  While each book is not standalone, each wraps up nicely.  My only complaint with this volume is that it ends rather abruptly, but I felt it was better this way, rather than dragging out all the emotions of the bitter-sweet ending. 

I give this book a resounding five stars out of five.  The whole series was phenomenal.  I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a series as much in a long time.  I was truly enrapt in it from start to finish.  I didn’t get bored with it, thoroughly enjoying it every time I picked it up.  In fact, I forced myself to stay up to read the last ten pages, as I was nodding off in my usual late night fashion.  I had to know how it ended, and couldn’t wait until the morning for that last little bit.  I highly recommend this series and will now put Lackey down as one of my favorite authors. 

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Magic’s Promise

Mercedes Lackey
Completed 10/20/2019, Reviewed 10/20/2019
5 stars

Magic’s Promise is the second installment in the Valdemar: Last Herald-Mage trilogy.  It picks up over a decade after the first book.  Vanyel visits his family after four years away and confronts many of his own demons as well as real demons in this highly enjoyable follow-up.  In the first half of the book, there is really no action, only the encounters with his family and the household employees.  Yet Mercedes Lackey writes it really well, with all the immediacy and pacing of a well-crafted adventure novel.  I found myself plowing through it as it held me emotionally and intellectually. 

Vanyel is now the most powerful Herald-Mage in the land and has just finished a terrible tour of duty at the front lines of a war, exhausted, gaunt, and ready for a leave.  He doesn’t really want to go to visit the family, but if he stays at the Mage center, his alma mater, he’s concerned he will be called on another mission, and he simply does not have the stamina for that.  He goes home with much trepidation as his relationship with his family is pretty strained.  But it has been four years since his last visit and he feels it is his duty to visit.  There, he has numerous confrontations with his father and Jervis, the abusive armsmaster.  Halfway through the book and his visit home, his Companion Yfandes (a horse with the soul of a woman) hears a terrible cry for help in the neighboring land.  Vanyel and Yfandes rush to the scene where a horrible bloodbath has taken place.  The only survivor is a near-catatonic teen who is being blamed for the tragedy.  Recognizing that something is very wrong with the scenario, Vanyel escapes with the teen to his home farm and tries to find out if the boy killed everyone or if something even more nefarious is going on. 

As I stated above, the first half of the book could be considered somewhat slow, but it is written so well, it completely had me enrapt.  Lackey knows relationships and character development.  The confrontations between Vanyel and his father and Jervis are remarkable.  Even though he’s twenty-eight years old now, Vanyel still feels like the awkward, closeted teen when he goes home, trying to gain acceptance.  But he’s maturing in front of their eyes, taking a stand for himself and not letting anyone get away with bullshit.  His biggest problem turns out to be his mother who thinks that if he found the right woman, it would make him straight.  So she puts it in the mind of the one of the household staff who has been in love with him since he was a boy to pursue him at all costs.  This makes for some laughable and embarrassing situations.

Yfandes comes out as major character as his Companion.  Companions are horses but contain the soul of a woman.  They choose Heralds and Mages and become lifelong companions, as their name implies.  As long as the Herald and/or Mage has some psychic ability, the two can communicate with each other.  Companions also communicate with each other acting as a go between for people who do cannot Read each other.  I really liked Yfandes and her role with Vaneyl.  She acts sort of as a guardian angel, giving advice and often keeping her Chosen’s feet in reality the way no one else can. 

Jervis’ character was a big surprise to me.  I don’t want to give away too much, but he is so much more than the cardboard character from the first book. 

I have to say I am still really enjoying this series.  I thought this one would be a little boring because the first half of the book is simply family dynamics.  But it was riveting.  I was almost sorry to see the plot of the bloodbath come up.  However, as with the first book, Lackey uses the mystery and the action to enhance the characters while still making it exciting reading.  Even the boy who is near catatonic at the beginning of this sequence has moments of growth.  I give this book five stars out of five.  It’s unusual for me to give two books in a row five stars, but I was once again very emotionally involved with this book.  I could feel the interactions between Vanyel and his father and Jervis in my gut.  And thanks to my usual insomnia, I read almost the whole book yesterday through this early morning.  I can’t wait to read the third and final novel in this trilogy.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Magic’s Pawn

Mercedes Lackey
Completed 10/17/2019, Reviewed 10/18/2019
5 stars

Magic’s Pawn begins a trilogy set in the Valdemar universe, of which there are now many installments.  Not having read any of the other books in the series, I found this book to be self-contained.  It tells the story of a gay teen who is at odds with his macho, elitist father who wants a son to take over the family legacy.  Vanyel, the teen, wants to be a Bard, but turns out to possess powerful magical powers that have not yet been awakened.  This is my first Mercedes Lackey book and I loved it.  It was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 1990 and was quite deserving of the honor. 

Vanyel lives on the family estate with his abusive father who is trying to make him a man’s man.  He never compliments his son, discourages the boy’s love of music, and forces him to train with a sadistic military trainer.  After an incident where the trainer breaks Vanyel’s arm in a particularly vicious attack, and not taking Vanyel’s side, the father decides to send him to his aunt who runs a boarding school where he thinks Vanyel will get more discipline and more serious fighting experience.  While this is true of the school, it also features academics and magic training.  Vanyel goes unwillingly, but soon realizes that this school, and his Aunt Savil, are much more liberal than he expected.  At the school Vanyel falls in love with Tylender, a herald-mage in training.  With Savil’s blessing, they pursue a relationship.  Vanyel excels in his academics and in love.  But a tragic turn of events seems to destroy everything in Vanyel’s life while at the same time, awakening the powerful magic which lay dormant within him.

This is the first high fantasy I’ve read in a while.  It features the classic trope of a school for magic.  When this book was published in ’89, it wasn’t quite the trope it has become since Harry Potter hit the market.  At first, Vanyel doesn’t like the school, believing he is there for punishment.  However, he soon comes to love it for its wide “liberal arts” academia and its supportive, non-sadistic combat training program.  Unfortunately, while being a decent musician, he is deemed not to have the gifts necessary to become a Bard.  This is the first of several incidents that throws Vanyel for a loop.  The other major incident of course is falling in love after repressing his true orientation.  Aunt Savil, who at first has no time him, begins to take a liking to him and becomes supportive of his scholastic and burgeoning sexuality.  She realizes the terrible childhood Vanyel’s father provided and tries to nurture him back to being a normal teen.

I loved the character of Vanyel.  He’s a bit whiney, but at the same time, I think his emotions and expression of himself is very typical of a gay teen who has been repressed for so long by a belligerent father.  He does a lot of second-guessing of himself, and is full of self-doubt.  It takes most of the book to work through his self-esteem issues.  But hence, we get some pretty phenomenal character development.     I also really liked the characters of Tylender and Aunt Savil.  Savil is Tylender’s mentor.  She is a great person, though it his hidden by the toughness necessary to run the school.  It is in her relationship with Tylender that we see her humanity.  Tylender is an all-round nice guy with one major flaw:  he is obsessed with the feud his family has with another family, and it is the one aspect of his personality Savil cannot seem to break.  But I just cheered when he and Vanyel finally get together. 

The world-building is excellent.  Despite having been the sixth (I believe) book published in the series, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much.  There were a few times when a situation came up where I didn’t understand the reference, but it was explained a further in the book, namely, the colddrakes.  I have a feeling they appeared in an earlier series. 

I give this book five out of five stars.  I deeply connected with Vanyel’s character, despite his being kind of whiney.  His self-doubt tries to sabotage so many things in his life, but between Aunt Savil and Tylender, he has the support and encouragement to work through the pain.  There is some real tragedy in the book, which I did not see coming, and it made me want to weep.  Lackey writes emotions really well.  This is the kind of book where emotions take priority over the action.  The action is there to accentuate the character development.  I will be reading the rest of this series, as the third book in the trilogy is on my LGBTQ list on WWEnd.  I’m really glad I started with this origin story of Vanyel and not just jumped right into the third book. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Red Hood’s Revenge

Jim C. Hines
Completed 10/13/2019, Reviewed 10/13/2019
3 stars

On the cover of this book, there’s a quote from the Green Man Review that is very accurate.  It says that this book (or possibly the whole “Princess” series) “…brilliantly remixes fairy-tale elements with a modern action/adventure sensibility, as if the Brothers Grimm had been allowed to watch a ‘Charlie’s Angels’ marathon.”  That’s what you get: three powerful women trained in the marital arts and magic fighting fairies, demons, and evil in general.  There’s lots of sly remarks and funny asides, but basically, this is an action/adventure novel.  And it’s fluff.  Nothing about it is great, but there’s a lot of good stuff in it.  I once tried to read the first novel in the series for Book Club, and put it down.  It was too much fluff.  I gave this third entry in the series a better effort because it was nominated for a Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2011.  I didn’t love it, but I liked it. 

The premise of the series is that Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella are three rough and tumble princesses who fight evil in their world.  In this book, Sleeping Beauty is being pursued by an assassin who turns out to be Red Riding Hood.  They capture her, find out who bought Red for this mission, magically bind Red to help them, and then attempt to confront the instigator.  But the plot is a little more complex than that, it turns out the instigator is a fairy feigning serving a queen who usurped Sleeping Beauty’s throne and commands an army of the undead, called the Hunt.  To get to the queen, the four must destroy the fairy and disperse the Hunt as it pursues them.

There isn’t much character development in this book.  Any that might have occurred probably happened in the previous books.  But I don’t expect there was necessarily a lot of it.  The characters are rather cardboard and cartoonish, not unlike “Charlie’s Angels”.  There is some depth to them, but they are basically strong, self-sufficient women.  Sleeping Beauty, whose real name is Talia, is a lesbian.  She has feelings for Snow (her real name), but comes across an old love during their travels.  Snow is straight, but feels a loss when Talia meets up with her old flame.  Cinderella, whose real name is Danielle has a husband and son.  Roudette (Red Riding Hood) is a hard-core assassin, with little need for emotions.  And that’s about all the emotional connection you get from them.  But what they lack in depth, they make up for in action.

Normally, this wouldn’t be my type of book.  I think if I wasn’t trying hard to read through the LGBTQ Spec Fic Resource list I curated for Worlds Without End, I would have put this book down, like the first.  But I stuck with it and I have to say it was kinda fun.  The books from this series would make great action flicks.  I give this book three stars out of five because it is good.  I probably won’t read any more from this series, though because straight-forward action/adventure is not my cup of tea, even with positive LGBTQ content and strong women characters, like this one has.  But for the average person, I would recommend this series as great fluff.