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Newsletter #39 September - November, 1997

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        I've been a big fan of Roger Zelazny since his short stories started appearing back in the 1960s, and the two things that impressed me the most about his early works were the feeling of mythology coming to life in science fiction and his use of language. Before his death, he started two collaborative novels with Jane Lindskold. The first of these two efforts, Donnerjack ($24.00), recaptures the feeling of his early work very well, although the language is not quite as highly polished as his early work.
        Long before the book, for some reason that neither the humans or the computers are quite sure of, the computer net came to life, and suddenly there were two realities filled with living beings--the human world (Verité) and virtual reality (Virtù). Humans can visit Virtù, and are told that it is safe to do so, and most of the time it is safe--but humans no longer make the rules in Virtù. Artificial intelligences rule Virtù, and many have taken persona heavily based on human mythology, which are often not very friendly towards humans.
        John D'Arcy Donnerjack was one of the leading human programmers, and he fell in love with Ayradyss during his visits to Virtù. He wasn't aware that she was a creation of Virtù rather than another human visiting Virtù-- until her death when her program fails. He then made a deal with Death (ruler of the Deep Fields section of Virtù) to get her back, thinking of course that she would only return to life in Virtù--but she followed him back to Verité. He must design a palace for Death, and Death gets any first born of the his and Ayradyss--which John thought was impossible until Ayradyss became pregnant in Verité. He then began battling Death for his son, but the creatures of Virtù keep getting better and better at reaching into Verité. Some of the more powerful gods of Virtù have plans to invade and conquer Verité.
        I strongly recommend Donnerjack. The blending of cyber and mythology works much better than I would have guessed.

        J. V. Jones is a relatively new fantasy author, whose first trilogy (The Baker's Boy ($5.99), A Man Betrayed ($5.99), and Master and Fool ($12.99)) I enjoyed very much. Her newest book, The Barbed Coil ($22.00), is her first hardcover, and is a single-book fantasy with no connection to the trilogy.
        This is another fantasy where somebody from our world (Tessa McCamfrey, who recently moved to California) gets zapped (by putting on a ring) to another world where magic works (this time, with calligraphy, the proper use of pen or brush, the proper colors and patterns, etc.). Tessa has the proper talents to succeed, but needs training in the magic system, and must learn how to make her magic work soon to save her life and perhaps save the entire world from terrible evil. Sure, the basic premise has been used plenty of times before, most notably by Barbara Hambly. But the characters are handled well, the world is well crafted and interesting, and the pacing keeps the reader interested in turning the next page. If you've enjoyed Barbara Hambly's writing, you'll almost certainly enjoy this book just as much.
        J.V. Jones is scheduled to stop by Uncle Hugo's for a signing on Thursday, September 11 from 4:30 to 6:30 pm.
        
        A couple of years ago I was surprised by the quality of Time Scout by Robert Asprin and Linda Evans ($5.99), but it took me almost a year to find the time to read the sequel, Wagers of Sin ($5.99). The second book is at least as good as the first. The main characters from the first book are back, but much of the action involves characters who were secondary in the first book. Skeeter Jackson is a young con artist at Time Terminal 86, where Time Tours, Inc. takes batches of rich tourists to ancient Rome, London of the late 1800s, Denver of the mid 1800s, etc. Goldie Morran is his main competition for ripping off the tourists, but she has much more experience. Skeeter and Goldie make a wager--a one month competition to see who can scam the most, and the loser has to leave the terminal for good. Soon many other 86ers are taking sides, trying to help one or the other, and both competitors try to undermine the scams of the opponent. But a real pro comes along and scams both of them, just as a little sideline to his main mission of smuggling ancient art treasures to the future--and he doesn't care how many bodies he leaves behind to cover up his smuggling. Both books are well researched, with likable characters and a story that moves along at a good pace.

        Jake Page has written a batch of contemporary mysteries set in the Southwest, which I haven't read, and one alternate history, Operation Shatterhand ($5.99). The Nazis decided to invade Arizona in 1944 through Mexico with the help of some rich Mexican fascists, and plan to use the Navajo and Hopi Indians to help create enough trouble inside the U.S. to weaken the U.S. war effort in Europe. The Germans think they understand how the Indians will respond to this, based on a very popular series of Western adventure novels written by Karl May, a bestselling German author of the 1930s. Unfortunately for the Germans, the Navajos and Hopis failed to read those novels, and don't behave according to the Nazi plans.
        Early in the book we encounter a young white American archeologist who is digging for Anasazi artifacts on the reservation with a work crew of Navajos, and I thought I could see an Indiana Jones style adventure coming. I was wrong. The Indian rituals are described in great detail, and the book was clearly well researched, but the pacing of the book is surprisingly slow. I was never on the edge of my seat, even during the climatic final battle scenes, but the story was interesting enough to keep me reading until the end.

        I've enjoyed everything I've read by John Barnes, and I've been a real sucker for stories of battles across alternate timelines since I discovered H. Beam Piper back in the early 1960s, so it's no wonder I loved Patton's Spaceship ($5.99), the first of the Timeline Wars series. Mark Strang was well on his way to getting his Ph. D. in art history when his mother, brother, and wife were killed by a mysterious terrorist organization that was trying to wipe out his entire family. Mark's father was an international expert on terrorism, and had found out too much. After the second attempt on his and his father's life, Mark decided to make a change in his life--he became a private investigator and bodyguard. He soon learns (from a special agent from a timeline where Athens beat Sparta in 430 BC and went on to rule the world) that the terrorist organization is run by bad guys who are trying to take over all alternate timelines. The bad guys sometimes just invade a timeline, but other times they help to create a police state--and then they take over the police state. Mark eagerly joins the fight against the bad guys, although with almost no training from the good guys, he's mainly supposed to be armed backup to the trained special agent. When the special agent gets shot, Mark ends up in an alternate timeline (where the bad guys helped Hitler win WW II) that they are using as a base for the infiltration of our world, and Mark sets out to join the resistance and topple the world-wide Nazi military machine. The action is fast, the extrapolations are interesting (George Patton vs. Rommel in a tank battle at Gettysburg after years of President Lindbergh and an isolationist Congress cutting back on the military, for example), and the cameo appearances of people from our history placed into this alternate time line were a lot of fun. After two and a half years of fighting the Nazis, Mark is finally found by the good guys. They are so impressed with what he has managed to do with no training, they offer him the chance to receive training and become an agent. There are three kinds of agents: Time Scouts, who jump into one of the millions of timelines not yet explored and tries to determine if it's been invaded by the bad guys or if it has potential to help the good guys; Special Agents, who jump into a timeline that has been scouted and tries to achieve a particular goal in that timeline; and Crux Ops, who jump into a situation that has gone bad and tries to rescue the Time Scout or Special Agent and then tries to complete the mission.
        The second in the series, Washington's Dirigible ($5.99) follows Mark as he gets training to be a Crux Op and then goes on his first official mission. He learns that most of the war between the good guys and bad guys is happening around 2700 AD because it is fairly cheap and easy to jump across timelines if time travel is not also involved, but it becomes much more expensive to send somebody back through time. So, both the good guys and the bad guys tend to send very small forces back into time to bring about a change and create a new timeline that will be useful by the time 2700 AD rolls around. A Special Agent had been working on creating a new timeline where the American Revolution never took place (by, among other things, getting Benjamin Franklin hired to tutor the young George III). He had also been rapidly introducing technology and economic theory in England, hoping to quickly bring about a world-wide English empire with high tech, free trade, and a bill of rights. The Special Agent had been doing wonderful work for decades, but suddenly disappeared. Mark is sent in to investigate. Of course, the bad guys discovered what was going on, killed the Special Agent, and are trying to turn the timeline to their advantage. Mark saves the day, and the timeline. I did not enjoy the second book as much as the first book, but it was still reasonably entertaining. A third book, Caesar's Bicycle ($5.99), will arrive early in September.

        I don't normally read vampire books, except for Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake series, so I normally wouldn't have read Raven by S. A. Swiniarski ($5.99). But this is the real name of the author who has been publishing sf novels under the name S. Andrew Swann, so I decided to give it a try on the strength of the Swann books. I was very pleasantly surprised.
        Kane Tyler is a former cop turned private investigator, specializing in finding missing teenagers in Cleveland. He's built quite a reputation for success, so when the teenage daughter of a local crime boss goes missing, Kane is forced to take the case. He tracks her to a man who has been lurking on the edges of the Cleveland neo-pagan community and seems to have been involved in making a number of teenagers disappear permanently. Then Kane is attacked and left for dead. When he wakes up, he can't remember a thing and has to put together the pieces of who he is and what happened before the attack. One thing he realizes fairly soon is that he is now a vampire, which is the only reason he survived the attack. As soon as he realizes what's going on, he decides he has to stay on the case.
        This is a book that is hard to put down. The ending is not happy for Kane, the missing teenager, or anybody else, but is reasonable under the circumstances. It lacks the smart-mouth humor of the Anita Blake series, but I think most people who have enjoyed the action of the early Anita Blake books will also enjoy this book.

        Hell on High by Holly Lisle and Ted Nolan ($5.99) is the third of the series where God sends 58,851 devils, demons, etc. into South Carolina. Just as with the first two, Sympathy for the Devil (by Holly Lisle, $5.99) and The Devil and Dan Cooley (by Holly Lisle and Walter Lee Spence, $5.99), we have a fresh batch of characters in the same setting. The writing is fairly light and fast paced. The demon on the front cover holding a poodle is trying to be a private investigator, with some demonic twists. He loves poodles--barbecued poodle, poodle-on-a-stick, stir-fried poodles, etc., and he has a trophy wall of collars to prove it. Things are going fine for him until some high-power devils show up in his office and demand that he accept a case from them. A fallen angel snuck out of Hell over two years before without permission and is presumably hiding from both Heaven and Hell somewhere in South Carolina. He will track her down and help them return her to hell, or else. While this book can be read and enjoyed on it's own, I recommend starting with the first book to get a better feel for the background of the series.
        
        I kept hearing great things about Archangel by Sharon Shinn ($6.50), but the way it was packaged just didn't appeal to me. Finally, I gave in and started reading it. The angel Gabriel flew to Mount Sinai to learn from the oracle what human woman the god Jovah had selected to be his wife in preparation for Gabriel becoming archangel. I stopped reading the book, looked on the spine to make sure it still said "Science Fiction" rather then "Fantasy", and then resumed reading. It seems that Jovah brought the humans and angels to this planet, set up the social system that is still in place, and Jovah is still up in orbit trying to make sure that things go according to plan. If an angel pleads for a miracle (end the drought, or end the rain, or cure the plague), Jovah produces a miracle. But if the rules aren't followed, Jovah will send fire or flood.
        We never learn why the system was set up this way, or exactly how the miracles are performed. We simply follow the characters as they try to deal with the situation they are in. And the characters are compelling and the situation is very interesting. The novel is so character-driven that the nuts-and-bolts of the background are almost irrelevant. I strongly recommend this book.
        Shinn has two other books. Her first was The Shape-Changer's Wife ($4.99), a pleasant fantasy that is also character-driven against a background that is not well developed. Her latest novel is Jehov's Angel ($), which is set on the same world as Archangel, but takes place 150 years later. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but it's high on my "read it soon" list.

        Terri Windling's The Wood Wife ($6.99) is another book which was packaged in a way that did not appeal to me (it should have had a Brian Froud cover), but I enjoyed the novel a lot. This is a modern fantasy, somewhat similar is style to much of Charles de Lint's work, set in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. Davis Cooper was an old, acclaimed poet who lived on a ranch near Tucson. Maggie Black had been trying for years to get him to let her write a biography of him, but he had always refused to even meet with her. When he died under mysterious circumstances, Maggie was amazed to learn that he had left almost everything to her in his will--his ranch, all his papers, even his famous, deceased wife's paintings. She quickly sold her house in Los Angeles to move into his home and began researching his life.
        But strange things are happening in the desert. Supernatural forces, that may have been in that location before humans first arrived, are very active. Artistic individuals in the area are having amazing bursts of creativity, but the price can be very high. Maggie gradually figures out that things are much stranger on the ranch than she could have imagined, and she must figure out what is going on, both to understand Davis Cooper's life and to protect her own life.
        One of the things I particularly liked about the book were Davis Cooper's 50-year-old letters that Maggie read as she researched his life. Cooper's poetry in the book did not overwhelm me, but the letters convinced me he was a poet: I have no muse. I struggle on my own. Every word, every line is chiseled with great effort from the hard white block of language.
        One clear difference between this book and de Lint's novels involves character development. I always find that I care about de Lint's characters very quickly. In The Wood Wife, the early emphasis seemed to be on giving the reader a deep understanding of the desert, and I was nearly half way through the book before I started really caring about the characters. I think the book would have been better if I had cared deeply for some of the characters early, and then experienced the desert through the eyes of the characters with whom I had an empathetic relationship.

        David Weber's In Enemy Hands ($22.00) is the seventh book in the Honor Harrington series of outer space naval adventures. This series should be read in order: On Basilisk Station ($5.99), The Honor of the Queen ($5.99), The Short Victorious War ($5.99), Field of Dishonor ($5.99), Flag in Exile ($5.99), and Honor Among Enemies ($6.99) precede In Enemy Hands. Readers who have been following the series will find some surprises this time. Honor doesn't save the day this time--other characters get to play a more significant role than usual. In all the previous books, Weber did a pretty good job of wrapping up the story line by the end of the book, but this time we're left with a cliff-hanger. Throughout the series, Honor has been bonded (as are many other naval officers) to an intelligent, empathetic treecat from the planet Sphinx, and these far-travelling treecats have been reporting back to their home planet about what they have seen. They've seen enough massive destruction in this war that the treecats at home have decided that having almost their entire population on a single planet is not a good idea. Honor's mother becomes a significant character in this book. To find out more, read the book.
        I have two complaints. First, the amount of hero-worship directed towards Honor in this book, especially by her commanding officer, but even by some of the enemy, was very extreme. Second, I want the rest of the story now!

        I discovered Melisa Michaels in 1985, when the first of her wonderful (and long out of print) Skyrider series came out. This series featured a feisty, very competent female space pilot as the main character, and had lots of action and humor. The series consisted of Skirmish, First Battle, Last War, Pirate Prince, and Floater Factor, but all are hard to find used--those who have them are seldom willing to give them up. After having these five wonderful books come out in three years, she wrote a so-so science fiction adventure called Far Harbor, and then the books stopped. I was very excited to see she had a new novel after eight years, Cold Iron ($5.99). This is a fantasy, featuring Rosie, a San Francisco-area PI who is hired to protect an elf rock singer that a groupie is convinced somebody is trying to kill. I looked forward to a novel with a feisty, competent female PI as the main character, with lots of action and humor. Unfortunately, that wasn't what I found.
        Cold Iron is a book of sex, drugs, and elf rock and roll, which is a subject that some people really like, but I'm not very interested in such books. And Rosie was neither feisty or competent--she spent most of the book too drunk and/or stoned to even look for clues, and she often even forgot what her job was. And very few of the other characters in the book were likable either. People get killed, but Rosie doesn't figure out what's been happening until the killer explains it to her in the last 20 pages of the book.
        In spite of its flaws, there is some fine writing in the book: It's all very well to speak in awe and admiration of great artists and their tormented souls, but it is not well to share a room with one. There's plenty of exploration of tormented souls and of the magic of music, there is some humor, and there are some likable characters. I finished the book and found that I did enjoy it, but not as much as I would have if Rosie had been the kind of character I had expected.
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