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.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Shadow Man

Melissa Scott
Completed 10/11/2019, Reviewed 10/11/2019
2 stars

I went into this book with a lot of anticipation.  I have not been a fan of Melissa Scott’s works so far, but “Shadow Man” won a Lambda Literary award and is in the Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of fame.  As of this writing, she’s won four of the former award, two of the latter.  She seems to be the darling of the LGBTQ literary award circuit.  I thought this book would be different.  It’s about a planet with five sexes and nine sexualities, which was really intriguing.  Well, the author pulled off the world-building really well, but the execution of the story was terrible.  It was a slog to get through.  It was only three hundred pages long and nothing happens for the first two hundred.  But by the last third I was only barely interested.  I figure this book won its accolades for the concept, because the plot has a lot to be desired. 

First, the world-building:  It turns out that faster than light travel required a drug that causes sexual mutations.  So now the colonies of earth have five sexes because of the FTL mutation.  This one planet named Hara has been isolated from the rest of human colonization for several hundred years.  Only in the last hundred has contact been re-established.  During the period of isolation, Hara decided that persons with the mutation (mems, fems, and herms, as in mostly male, mostly female, and hermaphrodites) must pick a gender when they attain adulthood to maintain the binary gender system.  This is unlike the rest of the colonies where the other sexes have been accepted and integrated into society as themselves.  Now that Hara is in contact with the rest of humanity, called the Concord, they are receiving pressure from without and within to change their social order.  The governments and about half the people of Hara are resisting mightily.

Now, the plot:  Warreven is a herm who is a lawyer, specializing in defending mems, fems, and herms relegated to the sex trade because they don’t fit in with the rest of society.  Tatian is an off-worlder man, a corporate executive from the Concord.  The paths of the two cross.  Warreven becomes an Important Man in a rigged election, though he didn’t want the office, but uses his new role to try to bring sexual equality to the planet.  Tatian helps him with his mission.

That’s the plot, there’s not much more to it.  The first two hundred pages are about the political and corporate dealings that are going on on Hara.  They are inconsequential to the plot.  There’s basically nothing in the first two hundred pages that’s needed for the last third, except for the world-building.  At the best, it introduces characters and concepts, and gives a little character development.  At its worst, it’s just really dry reading.  Nothing interesting happens.  Even the dialogue is uninteresting. 

There were no real relationships in the book.  I was hoping that Warreven and Tatian would become intimately involved, just to make the book more interesting.  They only develop a friendship with cursory attractions to each other. 

There are a lot of Haran and Concord terms requiring two appendices.  I had an issue with lots of the Haran words.  They were kind of slurs and misspellings of English or French words.  There is baas for boss, baanket for banquet, and memore for memorial.  While I appreciate the use of new words in science fiction, these just seemed lazy.  One thing I do have to give props to the author for is the use of other pronouns for the mems, fems, and herms.  It was very inventive and used really well. 

I give this book two stars out of five.  Just having an interesting concept and world-building is not enough to carry a book.  The plot has to be interesting too.  You can’t have two hundred pages of filler to get a message across that could have been told in a hundred-page novella.  In my quest to read all the books on the LGBTQ Speculative Fiction Resource List I curated for Worlds Without End, I have two more Melissa Scott books to read, and from my experience with her in her other four, I’m not looking forward to them.

Sunday, October 6, 2019


Perry Moore
Completed 10/5/2019, Reviewed 10/6/2019
4 stars

This was a really fun book.  It’s a YA novel, and reads like one.  It’s not great prose, there’s a lot of exposition, and it’s not even that original.  But the plot and the characters made up for its shortcomings.  It’s a coming of age tale of a teen boy who turns out to be a superhero and gay and tries to hide his identity from his father who is both a failed superhero and homophobic.  The book was nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2008 and won the Lambda Literary Award for Children’s/YA novel in 2007.  Despite its accolades, it’s not a great book, but I really enjoyed the heck out of it. 

The plot revolves around Thom Creed.  He’s a pretty good basketball player in high school.  He lives with his dad, a former superhero who has been disgraced and works now as a blue-collar laborer.  His mother left the family a while before.  Thom has secrets, as mentioned above.  After being on a bus attacked by super villains, and performing his superpowers of healing on the victims, he’s invited to try out for the League, the big superhero team.  Unbeknownst to his father, he becomes a probationary member.  Teamed with several other new members, they go about practicing their superhero gifts in simulations, and eventually in real life.  Then, some great members of the League turn up dead, and it’s a race to find out the murderer before all hell breaks loose.

The plot is a little more complicated and multi-layered than that, but that’s the gist of it.  Thom tries to juggle his new-found career as a burgeoning superhero with school, basketball, two jobs, and volunteering, as well as keeping his sexuality and superhero training a secret, particularly from his dad.  Hal was a sidekick to a superhero, he had no powers of his own, but he did something that, while saving the world, cost the lives of 27,000 people (I think that’s the right number).  This got him exiled from the League and he became a national disgrace.  Now he resents the League and is a homophobe to boot.  Unfortunately, rumors are spreading about Thom being gay, which gets him kicked off the basketball team.  So there’s more for him to keep secret from his dad. 

Even though it’s what he’s always wanted to do, being a probationary member of the League is no picnic either.  Compared to all the other newbies, he’s still rather untamed, having seizures whenever he uses his powers.  He’s teamed with a motley crew, Typhoid Larry who gets people sick, Scarlett who controls fire, and Ruth, a chain-smoking old woman who can see the future.  The team is lead by Golden Boy, a seasoned hero.  The team is pretty awesome, with lots of quirks and tons of personality.  Some of their personal details were melodramatic, but it worked for me.  They were multidimensional and grew through the story. 

Thom has a love interest, although they start out as enemies, and the buildup is rather slow.  Like much of the book, you see it coming, but the journey is still fun.  For that matter, you see most of the twists in the story coming.  It’s not particularly inventive in that way, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

The one thing I didn’t care for in the book was that the main superheroes were based on the DC and Marvel comic superheroes.  So Uberman was Superman.  There was a Wonder Woman-like character that was so like Wonder Woman, I forgot the actual character’s name.  I thought this lacked originality on the author’s part.  A few of the minor ones had cute, original names, but were only mentioned in passing here and there.  Even the League is so close to Justice League, I read the latter whenever I saw the former. 

I give the book four stars out of five despite its shortcomings because I thought it was so entertaining.  For a first novel, I give the author props for a job pretty well done.  Unfortunately, he died from an apparent suicide, mixing pain killers he was taking for back and knee pain.  Before he died, he was the executive producer of the Narnia movies, and had written and directed several smaller films with his partner.  I think this book shows a lot of potential and if he kept on growing in his writing, I think the author would have gone on to write some pretty great stuff. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Before Mars

Emma Newman
Completed 10/1/2019, Reviewed 10/2/2019
3 stars

This was a book club selection and I wasn’t too excited about it.  It was selected on a day I wasn’t at book club, so I can’t complain because I didn’t vote.  However, it wasn’t too bad of a book.  It’s a mystery that takes place on a small research station on Mars.  I found the backstory of the main character to be a little tedious at times.  I kept thinking, let’s just get on with solving the mystery.  And the mystery part was good.  It’s just that the journey was not always exciting. 

The story begins as Anna Kubrin walks out of a spaceship and into the Mars research facility.  In her new quarters, she finds a note to not trust the facility psychiatrist, and it was painted by Anna herself, though she has never been to Mars before.  She goes to put on her wedding ring and she realizes it’s not her ring.  Then she notices discrepancies with the AI that runs the facility, images of Mars that the AI supposedly took that have stones in the wrong place and media antennae that disappear.  Is she going crazy or is there really some conspiracy afoot?

The reason Anna thinks she’s going crazy is because her father went crazy when she was twelve.  She also suffers from severe post-partum depression, which prevented her from bonding with her baby, for which she is wracked with guilt.  Lastly, she is in a loveless marriage ahead of which she puts her career.  All these things create a very unstable mental environment for Anna.  When she is alone, she plugs into immersion videos to remember the family she left behind on Earth, but that only causes more grief.  So when things don’t add up on Mars, she has to questions her own psyche as she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Anna is a very well-developed character, as we get intense background on her.  There are times when she’s reflecting when she’s not even sure if it’s a normal memory or immersion psychosis (I think that’s the term the author used).  This sometimes makes the reality line seem tenuous at best.  It’s a great way to get the back story on a character.  However, I felt that it was too much, interfering with the flow of the mystery.  At one point I thought that if there was one more scene about how she didn’t love her baby enough, I would just not finish the book.  I felt it wreaked havoc with the pacing.  On the other hand, it’s the first story I’ve ever read with a character with post-partum depression.  So it was quite informative on what goes on in a woman’s mind when she’s afflicted with this terrible state.

The cast of characters is rather small, so there’s some pretty good development for their characters as well.  I was particularly fond of the non-binary person who used “hir” and “ze” for their pronouns.    It was pretty good preparation for a book I’ve requested through interlibrary loan about a civilization with five genders, using five different pronoun sets. 

In the end, I was glad I read the book, but overall, I felt the book was just okay.  I was going to give it two stars initially, but the ending was quite good.  And I had to give it props for tackling a serious mental illness that you don’t often find in fiction, particularly science fiction or fantasy.  So I ended up giving it three stars out of five.  The book was nominated for a British SF Award in 2018.