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Newsletter #55 September - November, 2001

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        At least a couple of customers had recommended Jim Butcher's Dresden File books as good things to read while waiting for Laurell K. Hamilton's next Anita Blake book, so I picked up the first Dresden File novel, Storm Front ($6.99).
        There are some strong similarities, but also some important differences. Anita Blake is a re-animator in a modern St. Louis where vampires, werewolves, etc., are part of society. Harry Dresden is a wizard in a modern Chicago where there are other wizards plus demons and other supernatural beings, but most of society doesn't believe in them. Whenever the St. Louis police encounter a crime with a super-natural angle, they call in Anita as an outside expert, and they respect her expertise. Whenever the Chicago police encounter a crime with a possible super-natural angle, they call in Harry, but almost nobody respects his expertise. And Laurell Hamilton is a St. Louis area writer writing about the St. Louis area, and it shows. Jim Butcher is an Oklahoma writer writing about Chicago, and it shows. (Harry is working a case as a P.I. that requires him to drive from Chicago to a vacation home in Michigan on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan--a trip that seems to take about as much time as a trip from downtown Minneapolis out to Lake Minnetonka--where he finds, "The grass around the house had not grown enough, this winter, to require a cutting.")
        I found Harry less interesting as a character than Anita, I was troubled by the way his relationship with his police contact was portrayed, and he had real problems with handcuffs (including a serious continuity problem late in the book). Enough other people enjoyed the first book for it to be a nominee for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel of the year. I enjoyed it enough to eventually get around to reading the second in the series, Fool Moon ($6.99), which involves several different kinds of werewolves. I was even more troubled by the portrayal of Harry's relationship with his police contact, and Harry continued to have trouble with handcuffs, but overall I thought the second book was much better than the first.

        The morning after I finished Storm Front, I received an advance reading copy of Laurell K. Hamilton's next Anita Blake novel, Narcissus in Chains ($22.95, due October 9, 2001, signing at Uncle Hugo's on Octoher 23rd). I've been a fan of this series for so long that I can barely remember back when Anita could solve a mystery for the police and deal with her personal life in the same book. This is a book where she deals with her personal life, but it still has a high body count, and there's hardly any contact with the police. (The first of the two contacts with the police is when Anita has to get vampire Jean-Claude out of jail--somebody has framed him for killing Anita--a plot thread that never gets resolved, although I guess the villain of the novel could have done it.)
        At the beginning of the book, Anita still can't make up her mind what to do about her two lovers, Jean-Claude the master vampire and Richard the werewolf. She's been avoiding both for 6 months, trying to figure out what to do. She receives a call about the wereleopards she's been taking care of--several have been kidnapped and are being held at Narcissis in Chains, a night club for shapeshifters with kinky sexual tastes. Anita needs some back-up if she's going to rescue the wereleopards, so she calls Jean-Claude (since she knows that Richard is only interested in the welfare of other werewolves). Anita is soon learning more than she wanted to about the bondage subculture, as well as the kinds of problems she has caused both Jean-Claude and Richard by her 6 month absence. (Both have had challenges to their power by foes who believe, correctly, that they are weaker without Anita to back them up.)
        I thought this was a much stronger book than the other "personal problems" books in the series, and I'm eagerly waiting for the next.

        Dead Until Dark by well-known mystery author Charlaine Harris ($5.99) is packaged as the first of a Southern Vampire Mystery series, and it has been selling like crazy at both Uncle Hugo's and Uncle Edgar's, and we've heard lots of good comments on the book, but only from female readers. I thought this was strange, so I read it. I think I can now understand both the good comments and the gender bias in the comments.
        Sookie Stackhouse is a bar maid in a small town in modern northern Louisiana. She has a "disability" she has to deal with--she can read people's minds. This can be a real problem in potentially romantic situation, where she can hear what the guy is really thinking instead of what he is saying, so she doesn't have much of a social life.
        Vampires went public a few years ago, but most of them tend to live in major cities, and New Orleans is particularly popular for vampires and those sexually attracted to vampires--fang-bangers. But it causes quite a stir when Bill Compton walks into the bar where Sookie works. It seems that Bill is a vampire that was born in this small town and served in the Civil War before becoming a vampire, and he's decided to come home to live. He's even willing to drink synthetic blood imported from Japan (doesn't taste as good as the real thing, but much more socially acceptable around small-town humans). But Sookie notices that she can't hear his thoughts, making him the perfect "man" for her. Soon, she is making up for lost time socially and sexually. Even her grandmother is happy that she's finally dating somebody--even if he's dead (or is that un-dead?).
        About the same time that Bill moves to town, the murders begin. The women are all strangled, and none of them are drained of blood, but most of them are fang-bangers. Only the most prejudiced people in town suspect that Bill is involved, because Bill is just such a nice guy. There are a few nasty vampires in the area, but few of the vampires we meet in the book are evil--they're just a little different from humans. (The small town also has a shape-shifter, who is still in the closet, but he's also a really nice guy, even when the moon is full. Most of characters in the book who are not nice are humans.)
        The primary thing that bothered me about the book was the pacing. As the bodies pile up, people seem to view the murders as something new to gossip about. Nobody seems to feel a burning need to find the killer. Even Sookie, as the danger comes closer and closer to her and her family, seems more concerned about shaving her legs and dating Bill than she is with finding the killer.
        I guess I'd call this a "cute & cuddly" vampire novel, with lots of sex, though not terribly graphic.

        After I recommended Matthew Woodring Stover's Heroes Die ($6.99) and it's sequel Blade of Tyshalle ($16.00) last issue, a customer asked why I was not recommending his other series. I hadn't read the other series because the way it was packaged didn't look as interesting to me. The customer told me enough about the other series to get me to try it, and I can now recommend both in the other series as well.
        Iron Dawn ($6.99) is set about five years after the fall of Troy. Barra is a Pict warrior princess who left the Island of the Mighty as a teenage with the Phoenician traders that came every year to trade for tin. She learned trading from her Phoenician foster parents, but she loves the life of a mercenary. She has a couple of partners (but not lovers) that she travels with. Leucas is a very large Athenian who, like many other Greek veterans of the war against Troy, decided that the mercenary life is preferable to going home to life as a civilian. Kheperu is a Egyptian priest who was exiled from Egypt, and he's more comfortable supporting himself with cunning, but can fight when necessary.
        In the Phoenician city of Tyre, there are 5 major trading families, plus many smaller families that are aligned with (and pay protection money to) one of the five major families. It looks like a major war is about to break out among the families, but nobody is sure who is behind the murders and magical attacks. Barra and her partners are hired by one of the major families to find out who is behind the attacks. They find that there is an outsider who plans to use very strong magic to take over the entire city, and they have to fight back to save themselves and the city.
        There are mentions during the book that the Greeks are frequently ribbed about the fact that it took them 10 years to take the walled city of Troy, while the Habiru took the walled city of Jericho is less than 10 days. At the end of the book, we learn that the king of the walled city of Jebusi is hiring mercenaries because the Habiru have now decided to conquer his city, which they call Jerusalem.
        The second book, Jericho Moon ($6.99), has a cover that suggests that it is a historical romance, which is probably the main reason it has not been selling well. Barra and her partners get involved in the battle for Jebusi. The author does an impressive job of showing the conflict from many points of view - various local people who are being subjected to "ethnic cleansing", the Israelites (as the Habiru refer to themselves), the Egyptians (who supposedly rule the area, but no longer have the military strength to intervene), and various of the mercenaries, including Barra and her partners.

        I've been hearing very good things about Kage Baker's series of books, often from people who pick up the first couple in paperback and then come back to special order them in hardcover.
        The idea for the series is that in the 24th century time travel is perfected, but only into the past. A time traveler can return to the point he left from, but can't go into the future. History cannot be changed-you can't prevent major assassinations, or commit major new assassinations, but you can sneak off with lost treasures and hide them in safe places to be found in the 24th century. Medical advances have been made that make immortality possible-but it won't work on middle-aged millionaires. You have to start on a young kid and perform many painful operations until the kid becomes an adult for the procedure to work-so painful that almost no parents in the future would put their kids through the procedure.
        A corporation, Dr. Zeus, is set up to secretly exploit these developments. They sent some agents far into the past to grab some young orphans, make them into immortals with all sorts of enhancements to make them faster, stronger, and smarter than humans, and then programed them to serve Dr. Zeus. The 24th century agents then went home to the future, and the immortals continued to grab other orphans and convert and program them for loyalty to Dr. Zeus.
        The first book, In the Garden of Iden ($5.99) begins during the Spanish Inquisition. Joseph is a Facilitator for Dr. Zeus, and has been working for the corporation for a few thousand years. At the beginning of the book, he is disguised as a priest, publicly working for the Spanish Inquisition, but secretly saving young kids from the dungeons that meet the requirements to be turned into immortals. One of the kids he saves is a young girl named Mendoza, who the corporation makes into a Botanist. This story is told from the viewpoint of Botanist Mendoza, who becomes part of a team sent to England during the reign of Bloody Mary. Queen Mary married Philip of Spain, hoping that he will bring the Spanish Inquisition to England to stamp out the Protestant reformation brought about by her father, Henry VIII. When Philip sailed for England, he brought along 100 ships, with "eight thousand predatory hidalgos on board, to say nothing of their cooks, confessors, catamites, and . . . personal physicians", which provided a great opportunity for many agents from Dr. Zeus' Spanish field office to sneak into England. Botanist Mendoza's job is to search for plants that had become extinct by the 24th century which might have medicinal or other uses.
        While the story is interesting, Mendoza is a damaged character. It's hard to say how much is from her experiences in the dungeon and before, how much is from the pain of her immortality treatments, and how much is from her conditioning, but Mendoza is not very comfortable with other people (but she loves plants), she has no sense of humor, and on her first field assignment she's pretty naive. In spite of her discomfort with people, she manages to have a romance with a human, which comes to a bad end.
        The second novel, Sky Coyote ($5.99) starts in A.D. 1699 in Central America. This book is much more fun because it is told from the point of view of Facilitator Joseph, who is very talented (and sly) at dealing with humans, and he also has a good sense of humor. He is going to take a team north to what will become California to study an Indian tribe before the Spanish colonize and destroy their culture, and Botanist Mendoza goes along to study the plants.
        Much of this book involves a series-spanning plot. Back in pre-history, Dr. Zeus had Enforcers, who were immortals that killed human groups that Dr. Zeus viewed as impediments to the development of the future Dr. Zeus wanted. In the old days, Joseph was friends with many of the Enforcers, but over the last couple thousand years all of the immortal Enforcers have mysteriously disappeared. Joseph has also noticed that other immortals have mysteriously disappeared after expressing negative opinions about Dr. Zeus or about the pin-headed agents sent back in time to supervise operations better left in the hands of experienced immortals. The hostility between the immortal agents and the dim-witted humans from the future keeps getting worse, and the immortals are not allowed to learn about anything that happens in the future beyond 2355 AD. Joseph tries to remain loyal to the company, tries not to think about all the reasons why he should be suspicious of the company, and tries to prevent any of the members of his team from expressing opinions that might lead to their mysterious disappearances. He's skilled enough as a Facilitator to get his immediate job done and to convince others that he is still un-thinkingly loyal to the company, but secretly he is becoming very concerned-with good reason.
        In the third book, Mendoza in Hollywood ($6.99), the story is again told from the viewpoint of Mendoza, who has been assigned to study plants in 1862 in the area that will eventually become Los Angeles. Most of the land is still in the hands of Spanish settlers, who have borrowed money from Yankee bankers to expand production of their cattle ranches-just before a major drought that will wipe out both the rare plants Mendoza is sent to study and the common plants that the cattle need to eat. Meanwhile, Confederate sympathizers want to set up a pirate operation to steal the gold that President Lincoln is using to finance the Civil War. The English think that they might be able to grab California for the Empire while the Civil War rages in the East.
        Mendoza now has centuries of experience in the field, but still is more comfortable with plants than with people. But all of the other immortals are a bit strange at the stage coach inn which is being used as their base. All goes well, if strangely, until Mendoza meets an English agent who looks exactly and thinks exactly like her lover from the first book, who she saw killed hundreds of years before. He is a mortal, and has no memory beyond what would reasonably be expected, but something strange is clearly going on. By the end of the book, we get some fresh hints about elements of the big series-spanning plot.
        The fourth book, Graveyard Game ($24.00), is told from the viewpoints of Joseph and another immortal named Lewis that we first encountered back in Sky Coyote. Mendoza mysteriously disappeared after the last book, and Joseph and Lewis want to find out what happened to her. Joseph is also trying to track down one of the Enforcers that mysteriously disappeared centuries before. Enough other immortals have become distrustful of Dr. Zeus that various procedures have been developed to temporarily prevent the company from monitoring what an agent is doing, and plotting is going on at a feverish pitch both by the immortals and against them. This book covers the period from 1962 to 2276, primarily deals with the big series-spanning plot, and left me very eager for the next book.
        
        Issola by Steven Brust ($23.95) was originally scheduled to be an April release, got rescheduled as a July release, actually arrived June 14, and was our best-selling hardcover in June. The latest of the Vlad Taltos series, it continues the story line with Vlad the former assassin still on the run from his former associates, who have placed a price on his head. A couple of Vlad's friends, Morrolan and Aliera, have disappeared, and neither Sethra nor the Necromancer can trace them, which suggests that they are no longer on the planet, nor are they dead. We eventually learn that they have been captured by the Jenoine, the mysterious beings who came to the planet and made the Dragaera from the non-intelligent lizard-critters native to the planet. The Dragaera created the Gods to drive the Jenoine off the planet, and now the Jenoine are trying to come back. I enjoyed the book a great deal, and regretted that I didn't have time to go back and re-read the entire series after learning what was revealed in this book about the origins of the Dragaera and the Gods.

        Marching Upcountry by David Weber and John Ringo ($24.00) is the first of a new series of military sf. I've enjoyed everything I've read by Weber, but had not previously read anything by Ringo when I picked up this book.
        Prince Roger is the third in line to the throne of the Empire of Man, a large interstellar empire based on Earth. His mother, the Empress, has many enemies both outside and inside the Empire, but Prince Roger hasn't noticed. He's been far too busy being a petulant, self-centered clothes horse to worry about anything that doesn't directly impact him. But when his mother sends him to a back-water planet to participate in a local festival, a saboteur tries to blow up the transport, and he and his bodyguards end up on a hostile planet far behind enemy lines. They must travel halfway around the world through dangerous beasts and hostile low-tech alien hoards in order to get to the only space port on the planet, where they will have to steal a spaceship from their high-tech human enemies, so that they can then try to evade their enemies in space and return to Earth. In the first book, they get part way around the planet, and Prince Roger does a lot of growing up. The sequel, March to the Sea ($24.95), is high on my read-it-soon pile.

        After enjoying the Weber/ Ringo collaboration so much, I read John Ringo's first novel, A Hymn Before Battle ($24.00, $7.99 pb due early October). This is going to be considered a classic in the military sf sub-genre.
        There is a large federation of worlds that includes many peaceful alien races, but they are now under attack from the Posleen-a race so nasty that they eat the races that they conquer. So far, they've taken 72 worlds from the federation, and nothing the federation has tried so far has worked. With great reluctance, the federation comes to current-day Earth and secretly briefs the governments about the situation, including the fact that the Posleen will reach Earth in 5 years. If Earth will supply troops to fight the Posleen, the federation will supply high-tech weapons, computers, starships, etc. If Earth doesn't agree to the deal, the Posleen will still hit Earth in 5 years, but the humans won't have the high-tech weapons to defend themselves with. Earth agrees to the deal. But, the powers in the federation are very nervous about how the humans will upset the power structure after the war is over, so they aren't playing straight with the humans.
        As Earth mobilizes to fight the Posleen, there is military brilliance in some quarters, military stupidity and rigidity much more often, bureaucratic foul-ups and game-playing, double-dealing by our allies, and lots of ground-pounder military action as the humans go into action on a couple of federation planets that are in the process of being conquered by the Posleen. Except for the fact that acronyms are used much more often than they are explained, I enjoyed this book a great deal.
        The sequel, Gust Front ($24.00), starts about a year later, and concentrates on the preparations to defend Earth from the invading waves of Posleen. Much of the adult population of Earth needs military training, equipment, and leadership. Those who are not drafted are taught guerilla warfare tactics. Infrastructure must be moved to secure locations. Some humans are moved off-planet to maintain the gene pool in case Earth is lost. The first wave of the invasion arrives earlier than expected, and the battle is on. Highly recommended to fans of military sf.

        American Gods by Neil Gaiman ($26.00, signed copies available) is a contemporary fantasy. Shadow thinks that everything will be fine when he gets out of prison-he has both a wife and a job waiting for him. But days before he is scheduled to be released, both his wife and his friend who had offered him a job are killed in a traffic accident. On the plane ride home to his wife's funeral, a strange man calling himself Wednesday offers Shadow a job, and strange things start happening.
         It seems that when various groups came to America, they brought their gods with them. But as the believers died off and their descendants moved on to other beliefs, the gods had to find new ways to support themselves. Wednesday is Odin, now reduced to supporting himself as a grifter. Shadow meets many other old gods getting by in modern society in strange ways. But there are also new, powerful gods that modern Americans worship (TV, drugs, etc.), and trouble is brewing between the new gods and the old gods.
        There are some books that are character-driven (such as Charles de Lint's), where you come to really care about the characters and continue reading to spend more time with these characters who you've come to care about. In this book, that didn't happen for me. Other books are plot-driven, where you have to keep reading to find out what happens next. Although the plot was strong enough to keep me reading far too late several nights in a row, this book is mainly idea-driven. Gaiman is constantly tossing out and examining interesting ideas. For example, there are places of power scattered around the Earth, and in the Old World people would build a circle of stones or a church at such a place of power; in America, people build roadside attractions such as House on the Rock at such places of power.

        The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett ($35.00, due early November) is not an ordinary Discworld novel. It's a moderately short novel (the advance reading copy I received was 132 pages long), with 90 full-color illustrations by Paul Kidby (which I have not seen), made into an oversized (9.5" by 11") gift book. All I can comment on at this point is the story line.
        Cohen the Barbarian has gotten bored with being Ghengiz Cohen, ruler of a vast empire. He has gotten together a bunch of his old hero cronies, and they're going on a last adventure. They are going to the home of the gods to return what was stolen from the gods (fire), but they are going to return it in the form of a very powerful explosive device. They meet up with some old villains along the way who also have grudges against the gods.
        The authorities in Hunghung have asked Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, to stop Cohen-it seems that such an explosion at the home of the gods would disrupt the flow of magic so severely that it would destroy all life on the Discworld. Lord Vetinari goes to the Unseen University to get help from the wizards. With help from experts in such areas as Inadvisably Applied Magic and Cruel and Unusual Geography, an expedition is launched to stop Cohen. It includes Leonard of Quirm (an artist and inventor, who is kept locked up so that nobody can try to make any of the unthinkable weapons of war that Leonard keeps inventing as a hobby), Rincewind (a wizard who hates adventures but always manages to survive them-often with help from his Luggage, which has hundreds of little feet, quite an appetite, and a mind of its own), Captain Carrot of the Ankh-Morpork guards, and a stow-away-all aboard a strange flying contraption invented by Leonard to plunge over the rim of the Discworld, orbit across the bottom of the world, and then land near Cohen's destination.
        While the novel is short, in this case that just means that the punch lines come closer together. While I've enjoyed all the Discworld novels, this novel had the highest concentration of good one-liners that I can remember.

        The Amazine Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett ($15.95, due early November) is being promoted as the first young adult Discworld novel. The two primary human characters are teens, so I guess the packaging is fair, but adults should not be put off by the packaging. I suspect this is a clever ploy to get the Harry Potter fans (and children's librarians) to give Discworld a try-after which they will search feverishly for all of the other Discworld novels.
        It seems that just over the wall from the Unseen University, there is a dump where the wizards throw all their trash, both mundane and magical. Rats live in the dump, and cats and dogs also prowl through the dump, eating both rats and garbage. Maurice was such a cat, and after he suddenly acquired the ability to speak and reason, he started to notice that some of the rats had also started to speak and reason. He organized the speaking rats, and came up with the idea of pulling a Pied Piper scam. Maurice went out to find a dumb-looking kid with a penny whistle, and then took the whole crew on a tour of small towns. The intelligent rats can quickly convince the villagers that they have a huge plague of rats, and the boy charges less to deal with the problem than the members of the Rat Catchers Guild. And Maurice manages it all and splits up the money (taking the inferior coins the color of the sun for himself and letting his associates share the coins the color of the moon, which he assures them are much more valuable). But the rats have been developing a sense of ethics, as well as an increasing distrust of Maurice. The boy turned out not to be dumb as he looks. And Maurice decided to pull the scam in the wrong town, resulting in problems for everybody.
        While not one of the best of the Discworld series, this novel is above average. And the price was held down because of the marketing to the young adult audience.

        Necropolis by Maureen F. McHugh ($24.00, due early September) is set in Morocco 150 to 200 years in the future, when high technology comes into the country and often conflicts with traditional cultural values and religious beliefs.
        Hariba grew up in the Nekropolis, where her family and many other poor families live in tombs that are no longer cared for by descendants of those interned in the tombs. In order to get a better life, she is "jessed"-an implant is put into her brain that guarantees loyalty to whoever buys her contract, and soon she is a housekeeper in the household of a wealthy merchant. For a while she is relatively happy, but the merchant's wife becomes increasingly hostile and violent towards her, and the merchant buys Akhmim, a harni-an artificial bio-engineered being who looks human and is based 98% on human DNA. Part of his artificially created DNA requires him to try to make the humans around him happy, and he soon decides that he must make Hariba happy. This leads to considerable problems and misunderstandings between them, especially as Hariba tries to decide how much she should treat his behavior as if it were human behavior.
        The story progresses with a different character narrating each chapter, first Hariba, then Akhmim, then Hariba's mother, followed by a former childhood friend of Hariba who still lives in the Nekropolis-thus giving us a variety of views of the culture as well as showing how Akhmim's thought processes differ from human reactions.
        I enjoyed Nekropolis more than either of the other McHugh novels that I've read.

        Sara Douglass is an Australian fantasy writer who seems to have put out eight books so far, which we've been bringing in one at a time from England because the British books are so darned expensive. Because she was not a familiar name to American readers, it was rare to sell a copy, but most of what we sold were The Axis Trilogy (Battleaxe, Enchanter, and Starman) and The Wayfarer Redemption Trilogy (Sinner, Pilgrim, and Crusader), all of which are set in the same fantasy world.
        Things really changed when Tor published Battleax in the U.S. (as Book One of The Wayfarer Redemption). Tor put some money into promoting the book, and it sold like crazy as a $24.95 hardcover. I expect it will really take off when it comes out as a $6.99 paperback in early September, with Enchanter coming as a $27.95 hardcover in mid-October.
        Battleax is compelling,, fast-paced epic fantasy with interesting characters and settings. For thousands of years, three races lived peacefully together in the land of Tencendor-the plains-dwelling farming Acharites, the forest-dwelling Avar, and the winged Icarii who include many magic users. But about a thousand years before the beginning of the story, a religious group convinced the Acharites that their god wanted them drive out the other two races (now called the Forbidden), destroy all trees, and put the entire land under the plow. Now, a great threat is growing far to the North, and the religious leaders claim it is a planned invasion by the Forbidden. Both the secular army, lead by heir-apparent Borneheld, and the religious army, lead by Borneheld hated half-brother Axis, are sent to defend the North.
        But the true danger in the North is from Gorgrael the Destroyer, and there is an ancient prophecy that only one man can defeat Gorgrael, and that man must re-unite all three of the races in order to save Tencendor from the Destroyer. We quickly learn that the man is Axis, who isn't aware that he is half Acharite and half Icarii, and who gradually learns how seriously he has been mislead his entire life by the religious leaders he has served. There's plenty of nasty plotting, back-stabbing, magic, and battles to keep the plot moving quickly.
        As soon as this newsletter goes to the printer, I'll be starting on my advance reading copy of the second book in the series.



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