Review: Necromancer – Gordon R. Dickson

necromancerSo I reviewed this book before, in November of 2019. It’s not a very good review, and it’s also not a very well-written review. One excuse for this is that slaving in the tiger pits is hard work and not conducive to metaphysical contemplativity or resultant expression. The other reason why I liked but didn’t understand it at the time is that I hadn’t consciously or subconsciously figured out the twist–or was just skimming too hard to catch it–and that’s kind of critical to understanding the actual book and its place in the series, which, after all is called the Childe Cycle….not the “Dorsai series.”

Needless to say, on reading it again I was impressed by how well it’s done. Yes, it is low on scifi blasting action. But it’s not a scifi pulp-action. It’s more of a futuristic thriller, with [para]psychological overtones that become more prevalent as the plot unfolds. (Also, needless but unfortunate to say, almost anything improves in contrast to The Final Encyclopedia.)

Necromancer was published 1962, the second book of the Cycle. It’s unquestionably the work of a younger author: it’s intense, bold, quick in thought and action, and immensely self-assured without being self-indulgent.–rather like it’s protagonist, Paul Formain. And to discuss said protagonist. I’ve opined before how most authors have character types which they resort to time after time, how better authors are aware of this tendency, and how the best authors make use of it. Dickson’s Hero Type is a loner, a man separate from humanity, who observes it with varying degrees of interest, affection, and masterful dominance. Dickson being an old grandmaster, he twists and plays with this character type, giving its tendencies varying emphasis: on the mastery, on the loneliness, on the affection or disaffection for other humans–and sometimes subverting it wholesale, by allowing the protagonist to be completely and utterly wrong about things. (They also tend to be extremely tall, muscular, and strangely attractive to women, but never mind that.) But it’s a character type which, in competent–and confident–hands, is immensely satisfying to follow. Readers of the Childe Cycle will note essential similarities between Dorsai!‘s Donal Graeme, Necromancer‘s Paul Formain, and others along the way. But, of course, that’s the point…

md30651125858I was also quite impressed with the plot structure, which unfolds the personalities involved in the conflict, then the conflict itself, and then the solution to that conflict, in a manner which allows each side time to develop and explain its side and stance, and then resolves it all without diminishing any of them. (The ending is kind of brilliant, because each of the parties involved in the confrontation walk away thinking they’ve won, or at least been allowed to walk away and continue their path to inevitable victory.) Often–almost always, in fact–authors can only resolve a confrontation between two ideologically-motivated opposing forces by writing one as obviously evil, and then making that side inexplicably stupid when the critical moment comes, even if it’s been monolithically powerful before. Here, both sides of the conflict are allowed to draw out and present their case. Both (/all) sides have their good points and bad ones, which are shown and not told by the simple yet brilliant method of embodying them in the personalities which showcase each side. The powers of both sides are presented, showing that they are in their own ways, evenly matched in their total opposition. –and then the audience is reminded that anything that perfectly balanced in one direction can be upset by a force from a different direction.

And, critically, it does all this in less than 200 pages. There’s no padding, no self-indulgent, meandering theses. Every scene is well-crafted, to the point, and solid.

Okay, so what is the book about? So young mining engineer Paul Formain loses his arm in an accident, which by itself doesn’t seem to be all that strange. Neither, in isolation, does the fact that, five years before, Paul survived a boating accident which should surely have killed him–an accident from which he hazily remembers being rescued by a strange figure in a black cloak and pointy hat. Somewhat strange is the fact that Paul’s body completely rejects transplant attempts to graft on a new, replacement arm. Maybe strange is the way his remaining arm grows freakishly stronger over time. Definitely strange is his utter rejection of his psychiatrists’ diagnosis of a subconscious urge to self-destruction; but, following this, entirely natural for him to conclude that modern science is of no use in this matter, and that hope lies with the agents of Alternate Science, the self-proclaimed wizards, warlocks, and necromancers of the Chantry Guild…

The Chantry Guild boldly declares that it’s purpose is to destroy: to smash down the institution and the attitudes which have brought the human race to a well-fed, well-groomed, near-mindless, complaisant sickness…except that, as events unfold, what they really want to do is protect themselves. And, since rational human beings (even rational beings who believe in Alternate Laws and follow a leader who wears a pointy hat and a long cape) don’t have to protect themselves in the absence of an enemy, it follows that there is an enemy. And that this enemy is not simply an institutional attitude, but has actual, physical form–an enemy which even modern-day sorcerers, with the ability to warp time, perception,  and matter itself, are hard-pressed to match, let alone overcome.

Oh, and the fate of the human race itself is at stake.

But that’s the ultimate point of the Childe Cycle….

Other stuff: Formain returning to the final confrontation in a cryogenically-frozen body which hasn’t quite finished thawing out is still a striking scene. So is the reveal of the final pages, which make it clear what’s going on without, and I cannot stress this enough, belaboring the point.


Rated: I still don’t get what the deal is with the “apple comfort” song, though.

MicroReview: The Final Encyclopedia – Gordon Dickson

final-encyclopedia-coverNarrator: On that fateful day when Bleys Ahrens, leader of the Others, slew Hal Mayne’s teachers, Hal knew that it was his duty to fight against the evil force of the Others, who are evil.

Hal: I am Hal Mayne. It is my duty to fight against the Others, who are evil.

Reader: Oh, okay. Why are the Others evil?

Hal: They killed my teachers and I have to hide on the mining world of Coby til I’m grown up enough to fight them.

Reader: Oh, okay. But what are the Others doing…?

Hal: Why am I on Coby, anyway?

Narrator: So you can learn that ordinary human beings are human and worthwhile.

Hal: Oh, okay.

Narrator: You must flee from Coby (the Others, who are evil, have caught up to you) and take refuge amongst the Friendlies.

Hal: Why the Friendlies?

Narrator: So you can learn that Friendlies are human and worthwhile. The Others, who are evil, control and torment them.

Hal: Oh, okay.

Narrator: You must flee from the Friendlies and go to the Exotics. Temporarily.

Hal: Why can’t I stay with the Exotics?

Narrator: The Exotics are human and worthwhile, and also they’re scared of the Others, who are evil.

Hal: Oh, okay.

Narrator: You must go to the Dorsai. Temporarily.

Hal: ….I just realized what’s going on.

Narrator: Oh, okay…..what is going on?

Hal: Not gonna tell you. I have to go to the Encyclopedia again.

Narrator: Oh, okay.

Hal: I have to go to the Friendlies.

Narrator: Oh, okay.

Hal: I have to go to the Dorsai.

Amanda: Hai Hal!



Hal: What?

Amanda: What?

Narrator: The Others are evil!

Reader: Yeah, okay, but what are they, y’know, doing?

Hal: I have to go to the Friendlies.

Narrator: Oh, okay. Why?

Hal: Not gonna tell you. I have to go to the Encyclopedia.

Tam Olyn: Oh, okay. Why?

Hal: Not gonna tell you. I have to go to the Dorsai.

Amanda: Hai Hal!

The Dorsai Leaders: Oh, okay. Why? I mean, the Others are starving us out of business but what are you going to actually do about it?

Hal: Not gonna tell you. I have to go to the Exotics.

Amanda: Bye Hal!

Hal: Au Revoir Amanda!

The Exotics Leaders: Oh, okay. What do you want us to do?

Hal: Not gonna tell you. I have to go to the Encyclopedia again, I’m taking over. It is my destiny.

Tam Olyn: Oh, okay. [dies]


Everyone else: Oh, okay. How are we going to do that?

Hal: Not gonna tell you.

Amanda: Dearest Hal, as I embark upon a grueling life of guerilla warfare and you take up your comfortable post as director and ultimate ruler of an impregnable and self-sustaining high-tech fortress in orbit around a highly technologically advanced and resource-rich planet, please c.f. The Spirit of Dorsai and recollect that I did warn you I wasn’t going to be with you in the long run.

Hal: Oh, okay. Damnit.

The End.

QuikReview – The Book of Dreams – Jack Vance

603afd41507e4107706a9906840cce59The Book of Dreams is the fifth and last in Vance’s magnum opus, the Demon Princes cycle. Naturally enough, it’s the first one I read, when The Father of Skaith snatched it up at a library sale years ago. For me, the Big Three of science fiction are Roger Zelazny, Gordon Dickson, and Vance. Each of them embodies something different about good scifi: Zelazny a conscious, irreverent sense of wonder; Dickson, the coolly tempered love and respect for humanity as only felt by one who is part of, but also apart from, the thing itself; and the many worlds of Vance, in their colors, scents, shapes, placid beauties and hard-edged underbellies.

Vance is principally praised for his peerless prose, distinctively detailed yet fascinatingly flourishing. He balances the golden-age scifi sense of wonder with a grounded sense of callous verisimilitude–but strikes a fine line while doing so–rarely falling off to either the grim, or the fanciful sides. Needless to say, The Demon Princes saga is not a work in which he steps awry. His worlds are fleshed out–by a side description of the vegetation, by the peppery smell of alien vegetation and the two-toned light of other stars–and then made real as he shows the attending, distasteful side: the grime and casual horror. So a chance paragraph informs us that on a certain world, native tribesmen labor for years to intricately inscribe slabs of precious wood and ceremonially set them afloat in the sacred ocean; over the horizon, trading ships wait to collect these slabs and sell them for curios.

Vance’s heroes tend to the distinctly SFfian mode: superbly competent, innovative and clever, cool under pressure, and emotionally inept. Guys, he’s a classic-era scifi writer. What else do you expect? Anyhow, we all know that it’s the first of these things that are the interesting ones as we watch his heroes, enmeshed in conflict, calculate, strategize, or just plain smash their way back out again. They’re active, not reactive; they’re strong (and sometimes headstrong); steely, and rarely out of their depth except when the love interests are involved.

So, The Book of Dreams is the fifth and last book in the Demon Princes saga. What does that mean? Nearly thirty years before, five master criminals united to destroy and enslave an entire human settlement/planet, the Mount Pleasant Raid. There were only two survivors: nine-year-old Kirth Gersen, and his grandfather–a gentleman with an unknown but somewhat recognizable background. Kirth was raised and educated as a weapon with a single purpose: to destroy evil men, beginning with the five who orchestrated the destruction of an entire world. Through the proceeding years and four other volumes, Kirth Gersen has managed to locate Attel Malagate, The Star King; Viole Falushe in The Palace of Love; Kokur Hekkus of The Killing Machine; and has found (and put a projac beam through) Lens Larque’s monstrous Face.

One more remains: Howard Alan Treesong.

In the manner of the most successful and righteous avengers, Gersen has also become enormously rich and controls the popular and widespread magazine, Cosmopolis.–which becomes enormously useful when, in the wastebasket of the Cosmopolis archives, he finds a photograph of ten men and women at a banquet. Scrawled in a corner of the page, a now-dead woman has written Howard Alan Treesong’s name.

And honestly, the back cover blurb summarizes the plot and characters better than I can, so:

WIN_20230508_11_36_35_Pro - Copy

[Photo courtesy of my mother’s kitchen table.]

Anyhow. ‘s a good book.

Rated: H. A. Treesong is here…

The Shadow #116 – Intimidation, Inc.

shadow_magazine_vol_1_116For anyone else, this would be a mid-tier gangster story. The Continental Op  could comfortably swagger up and start either throwing hands or throwing insults at any point in time and fit right in. But, since this is Walter B. Gibson (nee Maxwell Grant…or maybe vice versa), what results is quite a superior little novella that includes disguises, gun battles, corrupt politicians, disgruntled inventors, martial law, capeswishing, and ends with the requisite distant, triumphant, sinister laugh.

So The Shadow dealt with quite a wide range of crime and criminals, from common murderers and bankrobbers, to  racketeers, jewelry thieves and organized gangsters; he also investigated and resolved quite a lot of white-collar crime, too. As you can imagine, the intersection between these genres also provided a lot of fun, too. This isn’t even the only “crime has its own HR department” story in The Shadow’s oeuvre: there’s Wizard of Crime (the 1943 one, there are actually two novels with this title, one of which can’t be found for love or money); Crime, InsuredChain of Death; and probably others I haven’t gotten to, yet, or have forgotten. Of course, we are disregarding in this count any organization which does not include standard business attire for its meetings. 


We start a bang. Actually several bangs, as disgraced business magnate Ludwig Meldon attempts to relate his exculpatory story to a notary public. Meldon has been financially ruined by a disastrous business trade, with another company, purchasing solid stock at way below the market value, wins hugely. Except that the supposed benefactor of this scenario also soon undertakes an insane loss, transferring the funds still further, into the eventual control of the cunning criminal we–and The Shadow–soon come to know as Intimidation, Incorporated.

The Shadow arrives too late to prevent the murder, but soon enough to study the evidence that the cover-up crew (who helpfully identify themselves as minions of local mob boss Sack Balban) shortly after manage to disguise with a firebomb. So it’s off to round two, as globe-trotting multimillionaire and investor of random large cash payouts to worthy causes, Lamont Cranston, saunters into town. The Shadow isn’t able to prevent the previous payout from reaching Intimidation, Incorporated, but he is able to study the criminal’s methods in real time. Cranston is privy to the scene when the four men who hold the key to the wealth of the city of Dorchester receive a threat from Intimidation, Incorporated. DA-elect and….rather spineless lawyer Elwood Clewis, radio announcer Ray Bursard, manufacturer Newell Radbourne, and “bewhiskered” Mayor Jonathan Wrightley all fold like wet rags when instructed to accept an inflated bid for an important contract. Intimidation, Incorporated is thorough in his work, carefully threatening all parties involved–the high bidder, who was instructed how much to bid for and will be forced to pay over the excess funds; the low bidder, who was (wait for it) intimidated into dropping out of the race; and the city bigwigs, who are threatened with death by bomb if they don’t accept and pay out city funds to the contractor with the higher bid–and promptly announce the fact publically.

With people like this in charge of the city, you kind of realize how come it’s in the state it is, and why Intimidation, Incorporated has been so successful.

SHAKILY, the committee men arose. Bursard was the first to reach the door. He tried the knob, looked startled when he found that it still failed to turn.
The Shadow, strolling up as a spectator, took hold of the knob and gave it a firm twist.
“It wasn’t locked at all!” ejaculated Radbourne, who saw the action. “The inside knob was merely tightened, so that it would stick.”
“It fooled me,” expressed Clewiss, angrily; then he added to Bursard: “But you fell for it, too.”
“I did,” gritted Bursard, “but I’ll be a fool no longer!”
Striding across the room, Bursard grabbed up the microphone that stood on the corner table. The other committee members gaped when they saw a loose cord follow the instrument.
The microphone was not attached to any circuit!
Clewiss, not to be outdone, made a dive for the rug beneath the table. He yanked it away. Instead of a bomb-filled hole, the viewers saw solid floor. Like the door and the microphone, the bomb threat was a bluff!
Four angry men went into a huddle.

The calm Mr. Cranston is also there when they decide that a) even if the threat wasn’t real, b) the embarrassment would be if we admitted it, so, c) let’s all keep our mouths shut about this. Again the obvious suspect is Sack Balban.

The Shadow therefore pays a visit that evening to Sack Balban–in the disguise of famed gunman and racketeer Link Delvo. Since Sack runs his joint with a veneer of respectability, he has quite the fancy office, with a solid door dividing him from the boys in the back room. Link Delvo is jawing with second-fiddle Nobby (heh) Kilgan until the boss finishes meeting with a front-door visitor–one of the four big-shots of Dorchester–the one who shifted the blame on the Intimidation, Incorporated business to Sack Balban, and is currently demanding a 50-50 split of the racketeers’ gains in the city, and therefore the one who is actually behind it all. Unfortunately, by the time Sack susses this out, he’s been cleverly murdered by Intimidation, Incorporated, who escapes without any of the others knowing his name or identity.


Does The Shadow know?

Either way, as Intimidation, Incorporated maneuvers to steal $200,000 from Newell Radbourne via threatening both the elderly but stalwart Judge Noy and the plaintiff’s as-previously-mentioned spineless lawyer Elwood Clewiss, The Shadow adroitly steps in and freaking steals the money right back. The rest of the book is a cat-and-mouse game as The Shadow sets up, step by step, to trap the audacious and greedy criminal red-handed. Oh, and to also expose all petty crime, graft, and racketeering in the town as well and get that scum off the streets, too. And it’s kind of delightful as the author gleefully points out how Intimidation, Incorporated, must be fuming to have his own tactics used against him, while highlighting the entirely deadpan style in which The Shadow proceeds to issue (and ignore) typewritten threats.

WHEN he reached the hotel room, The Shadow opened his portable typewriter and wrote himself a note, addressed in simple, direct style to Lamont Cranston.
The note specified that he should take the plane that left Dorchester at noon, without the two hundred thousand dollars that he had received from Newell Radbourne.
The instructions added that he was to leave the money in a suitcase in the hotel room, with his other luggage; therefore, he was not to check out of the Dorchester House. He was to leave the door  unlocked, so that whoever wished could enter.
The letter threatened death if instructions were not followed. It added that the recipient was to destroy the note. When he had finished the letter, The Shadow signed it in capitals with the name “INTIMIDATION INCORPORATED.”
The Shadow then proceeded to disobey his own instructions.

Awesome, heh.

Today’s tropes and general feeling towards rich bankers, financiers, or factory owners being what they are, I feel the need to point out the interesting fact that quite often The Shadow is protecting wealthy businessmen–generally from other wealthy businessmen, but sometimes from thuggish lowlifes, overeager shareholders, or overeager relatives who are shareholders–without any of today’s nice ideas about redistributionism. Legitimately acquired wealth–up to and including the ornate jewels owned by vacuous dowagers and ditzy socialites–is seen as the legitimate property of its owners, who deserve to keep and quietly enjoy it. (Or display it conspicuously whilst walking down dark alleys, but hey. Free country.) A quaint notion that absolutely would not survive in the current day, where property is for me but not for thee.

Of course, another quaint notion is the noblesse oblige shown by good-coded characters. Honorable business magnates pay their servants well and contribute to charities; they deal honestly and honorably with each other; they avoid underhanded tactics. Newell Radbourne was taken to court by a disgruntled inventor, but having seen proof of the man’s case, he’s willing to settle for a more reasonable sum–entirely voluntarily. Especially notable is the globe-trotting multimillionaire Lamont Cranston, who quietly funds many a philanthropic endeavor, such as personally paying for retired crooks to go to an exclusive Caribbean island…

So is bravery, responsibility, and trust in civic institutions, even while examining how weak men can create (wait for it) bad times. Judge Noy, although shaken by a death threat, steels himself and is prepared to render an entirely fair judgement for the inventor–if only Elwood Clewiss hadn’t absolutely thrown the case. Judge Noy is also instrumental in authorizing the city-wide cleanup that destroys the low-level rackets and petty crime that plagued Dorchester.

This book (#116) falls in the middle of what I originally registered as a decided slump, a joltingly poor run in an until-then triumphant five years’ worth of increasingly good pulp novels. I’m slowly revisiting most of these books and finding them to be pretty damn good (although Washington Crime is just straight-up embarrassing.) This is the point where The Shadow shifted from a terrifying, faceless agent of merciless justice, to a more human, humane, conventionally-understandable superhero. The Shadow is more directly identified as “wealthy globe-trotter Lamont Cranston” and spends more time with his face on-screen and less often seen through the eyes of awed or just plain clueless (i.e., Harry Vincent) agents or proxy heroes. As time wore on, he became ever more humanized and less powerful; here, though, he’s still impassive, keen-eyed and inscrutable, evading mooks with ease, vanishing from death traps with nothing more than a trailing whispered laugh, and materializing out of the darkness to thwart maddened murderers like the specter of Vengeance itself. And highly entertaining it is to read, too.

Rated: Yours very truly,
Skaith, Incorporated

QuikReview: Ondine (2009)

4c5ff60086c9bSo sometime during the weekend I watched Ondine, a 2009 film starring a young/er Colin Farrell, Colin Farrell’s eyebrows, some actress as the titular character, and a cute kid as the cute kid in a wheelchair. It’s directed by Neil Jordan, who has also directed a number of other movies you may have heard of but not seen because they sound dumb, like Interview with a VampireOndine is, however the plot description may take you, a worthwhile little movie in itself: just a little bit grounded, just a little bit mysterious, and with just enough aplomb to wrap everything up in just a satisfactory enough way.

I’m not sure how many entries this particular genre has besides The Secret of Roan Inish, but so far it seems to be a worthy one. Selkies also feature in a couple of The Dragon Knight books, though. Hm.

Anyhow, Farrell is Syracuse (nee Circus), a fisherman who pulls a mysterious woman out of the ocean in his fishing nets. She gives her name as Ondine, wants absolutely nobody to know of her existence, and Syracuse hauls in weirdly good catches when she sings her mysterious, haunting songs in an unknown language. Syracuse’s disabled but precocious daughter immediately concludes that Ondine is a selkie (and never mind that selkies are Scottish, this movie is Irish, “Ondine” is French, and the actress playing her is “Mexican-born Polish.” Nice.) In a manner which makes subsequent twists crucially obvious to students of the genre, Ondine fails to deny this, and in fact recruits young Annie’s help to conceal her seal coat, washed up to land in the form of a bundle of seaweed. Syracuse himself isn’t totally convinced, but…what if this beautiful, wonderful woman is one of the seal-women who come to land only for love of the men they have chosen and can also grant wishes….?

Annie is, y’know, eight or nine. Syracuse just isn’t very bright.

I don’t have a lot to say about this movie and probably won’t watch it again unless The Mother of Skaith has a hankering for Irish accents, but it caught my interest and held my attention. The actors have great chemistry and the script is never embarrassing.

That’s not actually damning with faint praise, I swear.

Rated: So if the Coast Guard had them surrounded, why didn’t they arrest….?

Book Review: Tower of Silence – Larry Correia

tower-of-silence-9781982192532_xlgSo Tower of Silence, the fourth of five in Larry Correia’s Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, is out, and Larry promises that there’s only going to be five books, so yay. It’s a really good book, in a really good series, and I recommend it AND THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR ALL FOUR BOOKS SO FAR, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. SotFW is some of Correia’s very best work so far—a work that plays to his strengths (action scenes, over the top violence, strong and violent men, strong and sometimes violent women, unexpectedly detailed worldbuilding, and snarky humor), while also building on them. Correia started out with the schlocky Monster Hunter International, a gory and brainless homage to a) B-grade monster movies, b) guns.

He’s gotten so much better since then, and Saga of the Forgotten Warrior showcases that growth. So the action scenes in this book/series are never pointless or excessive; the violence either exhilarating, shocking, or deeply satisfying; his characters, male and female, have depth, intelligence, and personalities that develop and expand as they move through the world and face the challenges that plot and life throw at them.  And apparently his world has fractional reserve banking, so….I’ma say he indeed put some thought into the worldbuilding. Crucially, he doesn’t waste audience goodwill by including detailed scenes of financial analysis—but the world of Lok does have an authenticity about it when the characters discuss the economies of rebellion, war, and wholesale genocide.

And despite that last sentence, there’s also a healthy current of dark but snarky humor throughout.

There’s also several heartbreaking deaths and plenty of nauseating ones.


Good stuff:

One of the things that always bugs the hell out of me in a certain genre of fantasy is EVERYONE BLOODY HAVING TO TRAVEL FROM POINT A TO POINT B, ALL DAY, EVERY DAY. Just because JRR Tolkien did it doesn’t mean you have to, too, and it drives me bonkers when other authors use “travelogue” to substitute for “plot.” Other books in this series have had that tendency, to a degree. This one mostly doesn’t (Ashok not initially being on the correct continent is the only exception). Correia has managed to place his characters, mostly, where they physically need to be, and lets the plot proceeds with, around, and occasionally over their dead bodies.

One of the other things that Correia does is write a very satisfying book. Because his characters are multi-dimensional and intelligent, their actions lead very logically to consequences–some of them planned, some of them unforeseen but predictable to the readers because this is how the world and stories set in this world logically work. Even better, some of the consequences might not have been explicitly predicted by the readers, but fit within the rules provided. So, after we have been shown that magical communications can occur best when communicants embed their messages on adjacent demon bones, and that the Inquisition is harvesting their bones from a captive demon held in a massive tank beneath their headquarters, [SPOILERS] Omand eventually finds that all messages that have ever been sent using that creature’s bones are known to it. Omand is intelligent, lusts for power, and has absolutely no limits when it comes to increasing his power, but he has several significant blind spots when it comes to the actions of other people–or beings–who also have no limits. (Hence always underestimating Ashok.)

The other part of why this book is so satisfying to read is that the characters are intelligent, competent, and largely proactive. The plot is a series of moves and countermoves by people who have clearly defined goals and ambitions. Thera wants to save the casteless. Bharatas wants revenge on Ashok Vadal. Jagdish wants to keep his family safe and the honor of House Vadal intact. Rada wants to undo the harm she has done by forging reports leading to genocide. Ashok wants to get back home and protect the Prophet. Devedas wants power. Omand wants unlimited power. The demons want unlimited revenge. Each of these characters works to get what they want.

As far as wordsmithing goes, it’s competent and brisk. Correia knows what he’s good at, and improves on what he’s not.

And we already have discussed the action scenes. They’re great.


So I’ve reviewed Son of the Black Sword and House of Assassins, books 1 and 2, but failed to review book 3, Destroyer of Worlds. This is because while SotBS and HoA were fairly self-contained stories with satisfying conclusions, Destroyer of Worlds ends on a downer note-slash-cliffhanger. The Great Extermination has begun and Ashok is out of commission as far as leading the rebellion goes. As a matter of fact, he’s just washed up on the shores of Fortress after having had his throat cut in a duel and falling into an icy river.

Book 4 opens with Ashok still out of commission, after having been imprisoned in the deepest dungeons of Fortress / Xhonura for almost a year. Unlike the rest of Lok, the people of Xhonura do remember the prophesies about the return of Ramrowan—but there are many pretenders, and the easiest way of dealing with them is to see if they can survive the sort of conditions that Ramrowan could have. Unfortunately, even when proof of the prophecy’s fulfilment is presented to them (and their current tyrant meets, uh, the end that comes to those who piss off Ashok Vadal), Xhonura itself is still politically divided and unready to take action to support their Avatara. And support is very necessary, because Thera has decided that Sons of the Black Sword need to strike a decisive blow against Capitol and the Great Extermination.—and in her council, the right-hand man of her priest and chief advisor, is Javed, a spy for the Inquisition.

Meanwhile, the chief Inquisitor, Omand, starts to leverage his position with the demon he has kept captive and tortured beneath the Inquisitors’ Dome: in return for the deaths of the blood of Ramrowan—all the blood of Ramrowan—power. Thing is, despite Omand’s cunning and intelligence having brought him so far, he’s still quite blind in certain vital ways.

Also meanwhile, our other heroine, the ex-Librarian Rada has been warned by the black steel artifact of which she has been made keeper. She, her Protector bodyguard Karno, and their host and friend Jagdish, must heed this warning if they are to survive…for there really are powers greater than man at work in the world of Lok, and they have decided to move.

Oh, also, there is one hell of an “uh oh, uh oh, oh shit!” cliffhanger ending here.

Rated: “You bear my name. For I am the witch.

The Shadow # 105 – The Yellow Door

shadow_magazine_vol_1_105TLDR: it’s Harry Vincent’s finest hour.

Since the 1942-batch of novels was heavy going, I zigged back to this one. It was published in 1936 and showcases The Shadow and his agents at the top of their game. Cliff Marsland, Rutledge Mann, Hawkeye, and Jericho Druke get some pagetime. Even Burbank gets a chance to get some fresh air, taking up a field operations post in New Jersey and running mission control for Vic Marquette and the G-men.

So I’ve reported at length about the taut pacing and easy to follow, fast-moving plots Walter B. Gibson had pretty much perfected. I’ve also mentioned that his characterization skills benefited, rather than suffered, from brevity. With less leeway for self-indulgence, only the most relevant, vivid, and memorable traits of each character are showcased, and these are shown only in service of moving the plot forward. So Hawkeye is the best trailer and spotter in the business: he finds his man and trails him without anybody any the wiser, uncovering vital clues. Cliff Marsland is a gunman who walks his own trail in the badlands, and is cool as a cat while the bullets are flying. Burbank is a technological wizard with nerves of absolute tungsten and an unflappably methodical manner. Unlike some other pulp novels (by which I mean: Doc Savage), The Shadow isn’t a huge gadgeteer even though he does stay on the cutting edge of aeronautic developments. The most complicated device he or his agents carry normally is a flashlight. This is one of the exceptions, as Harry Vincent is sent off undercover equipped with a miniature radio transmitter which The Shadow and Burbank use their own send/receiving stations to triangulate in on and discover the secret Citadel of the hidden Yellow Door. It’s smart, but feels entirely grounded.

Oh yeah, and then there’s Harry Vincent (sigh). Actually, though, as remarked above, Harry Vincent actually lives up to his moniker as The Shadow’s “most competent agent” in this book, hardly at all making a misstep until the 94% marker, and that barely through any fault of his own, and then also taking on his direct antagonist, and contributing to the big shot villain’s demise by lead injection. Not bad for our boy who usually is the resident punching bag. (There is also another Shadow story wherein Harry Vincent makes a triumphal exit from an underground lair shirtless, waving a gun, with a disheveled damsel clinging to him…but he’s done like 2% of the work in that particular instance, and also I just can’t take that mental image seriously. I mean, it’s Harry Vincent. Come on.) Still! He does good in this book. Let us not forget this.

Okay, so. The other part of why earlier plots feel more grounded and competent is because…they are. Instead of having a so-called detective who be led by the nose from obvious clue to obvious clue (looking at you, Bruce), The Shadow actually investigates. He tails suspects, confirms theories, and, well, he would have interrogated the suspects, too, if they hadn’t ended up eating a bullet in the ensuing gunfight. Ah well. What’s more, since this case is fairly simple and because The Shadow has almost an inside man on the job, the complicating twists are almost entirely supplied by forces which The Shadow cannot reasonably predict: Police Commissioner Weston and his attempts at detectiving.

Our game begins to foot with the entrance of James Dynoth, who has just murdered the wealthy businessman Peter Gildare and returned to his home preparatory to fleeing to the safety of the Citadel. He is given twenty minutes to pack and depart. About fifteen minutes in, he turns around to find an ominous black-clad figure standing behind him. The Shadow was too late to save the dying man, but not too late to hear his dying words. Among these words were “The Yellow Door.” We are about to find out exactly what this means when twenty past eight hits and a) Dynoth’s nerve gives out and he crunches his suicide capsule, b) a machine gun opens up on the house, c) the house explodes. The Shadow escapes with some injury, but does have a lead to follow up on: a man named Ferris Krode, who works in Cleveland and knows about The Yellow Door.

Meanwhile, millionaire businessman Dudley Birklam is confiding in Vic Marquette. Birklam has been approached by a man named Ferris Krode and warned that certain courses of action will lead to trouble for him and his business. He fears that Krode is involved with the prior deaths, of which Gildare’s was typical. Marquette promises government protection to big business, because of course he does.

The Shadow has carried this deduction still further, and has a man on the spot. And it’s Harry Vincent. Now, normally this would result in Harry getting slugged over the head, kidnapped, or shot at, but in this case Harry actually manages not only to bluff Krode into thinking that he’s there for the 11:00 meeting with “Mandon,” he also turns around and manages to convince the real Mandon that he’s Krode, uncovering valuable information the entire time.

The Yellow Door is a secret society of blackmailers, saboteurs, and industrial spies, running a multi-industry racket.  It’s also an actual door, in a place called the Citadel, where the big shot is. Krode is the highest ranking man that The Shadow or Harry Vincent are able to discover, but he isn’t the big shot. And if he isn’t, who is…? The Shadow intends to find out, although he is substantially hindered at critical points by the not-so-cunning plans of Commissioner Weston. Like, seriously, Commissioner, stick to the budget and presiding over official breakfasts.

Another great thing is that having a proactive hero makes it easier to showcase that hero’s competence, as well. The Shadow already has a plan in place for the final battle–position the G-Men and have them rush in guns blazing once he, Burbank, and Harry Vincent have collaborated to locate the Citadel–but when he gets the information that the perimeter fence is electrified and the surrounding hillside is mind, The Shadow instantly adjusts his plans and orders his forces accordingly.

Overall, this story seems as though the author enjoyed writing it. There’s an eagerness to the descriptions and plot, and a relish to the action–and even a few witty flourishes, such as his description of Guzzler’s Joint:

The proprietor was leaning on the bar, his fat arms folded, surveying the customers with a pleasant grin. To Guzzler, the middle line of the room was like the bars of a cage; on one side, the monkeys – on the other, visitors to the zoo. In comparing the boastful thugs and the society habitues, Guzzler had never yet decided which were the apes and which the humans. Guzzler was philosophical as well as imaginative.

Rated: I liked this book and reading it made me happy.

The Shadow # 241 – Vengeance Bay

shadow_magazine_vol_1_241So it’s been a little while since I reviewed one of The Shadow stories. One reason is that I haven’t been reading much of anything at all lately, and the other is that they’ve not been that great. I’ve been reading through the three hundred and twenty-six Shadow novels proper for over a year now, and this is, as the title states, number 241. Walter B. Gibson had been writing The Shadow stories for ten years at this point. The world is distinctly different: gone are the gangsters firing tommy-guns out of touring cars (and associated massive casualties), or smuggling, or racketeering. I haven’t even seen an evil mastermind for weeks and minions must be demanding. And, needless to say, it’s 1942 and there are “unsettled world conditions” making things complicated.

The sea change starts mostly in the 1941 story cycle, with noted globe-trotter Lamont Cranston grounded in New York, and thus having little better to do than hang out with his friend the Police Commissioner, or hang out on dates with his other friend, Margo Lane. (She showed up about a dozen books ago and is…an OK character. Actually she and Harry Vincent make an excellent team, but frustratingly they don’t work together that much.) And here’s the problem I have with that: the real Lamont Cranston, what we see of him, is actually a solid dude and doesn’t really deserve this treatment. I headcannon that he’s hanging out with Jim Corbett teaching jungle survival skills to army recruits in India during this time period. Gibson mostly has moved away from his earlier staples of writing from the point of view of a proxy hero (such as, sigh, Harry Vincent); and also has largely abandoned his focus on the villains.

Most of his earlier novels were written kind of in reverse, mapping out the villains’ path for victory rather than the hero’s as step one; and only then strategizing on the method of countering what would otherwise be an inevitable win for the bad guys. This also allowed Gibson to use a more, shall we say, colorful cast of characters (and then thin them out as the novel progresses.)

Another thing lost is the lack of genre shifts. Gibson used to regularly shift between gangster noir (now out of style along with the gangsters who inspired it), gaslamp fantasy, psychological thrillers, and plain murder mysteries. Now, it’s…I can’t define the genre other than to say it’s “Lord Peter Whimsy plus Batman.”–and there it stays without departure. I have nothing against Lord Peter Wimsy, but have come to regard B. W. as an ingrate imposter, so…

However, the real problem with the ’41-’42ish batch of stories is that The Shadow,  is: a) the primary point-of-view character, b) diluted. He’s much less formidable, much less powerful, much less insightful, and much, much less of an active instigator. He investigates less, shoots less, and misses more. The Shadow is no longer a personality, as in previous, early stories where the man involved seemed to be almost somehow crippled without cloak and hat, and unleashed with them; it’s a persona now, something that Lamont Cranston dresses up and does. (And the less said about Kent Allard is…very little actually said.)

Nevertheless, this book involves The Shadow commanding a cannon duel with a submarine, so it’s worth it entirely for that scene alone.

Okay, so: there’s this famous partisan refugee from Significantly Unnamed European Countries Which Have Been Overrun By Another Country, Vedo Bron. The Shadow is keeping an eye on him on the theory that he may need protecting, a theory which at first seems to not be borne out at all–and then is shown to be entirely true. Unfortunately, due to circumstances, the person whom the gutteral-voiced, stocky attackers end up with is Lamont Cranston (who was distracted lighting a cigarette with his back to a dark doorway, it could happen to anyone). Getting out of this scrape results in a rather thrilling sequence wherein crooks are astounded and dismayed to see The Shadow in one place, and hear his laugh coming from somewhere else entirely (meanwhile also, bullets. It’s understandable.)

Exactly why Vedo Bron has hired a crew of totally reformed and 100% trustworthy ex-smugglers to ship him down to Massaquoit Bay is yet unknown, but The Shadow promptly places himself and his agents Margo Lane and Harry Vincent on location to find out and help, thwart, or protect as needed. Harry Vincent doesn’t even get clobbered over the head once in this story. Unfortunately, The Shadow takes up the slack, getting heavily concussed not once but twice and almost needing outside help.


Already on the ground (water?) in Massaquoit Bay are our new characters, Judy (who owns a speedboat and is generally wealthy), and her swain Jack (who is poor and also kind of a jerk.) Jack is searching for the famed buried treasure of Blackbeard, and thinks that he has a genuine lead on it. Into this ongoing drama enters Vedo Bron, Margo Lane, shifty professional treasure-hunters, fake lighthouse keepers, and a couple of stocky little men with gutteral foreign accents.–all watched over by the sharp and unerring eyes of…The Shadow!

And so it goes…

Having listed my complaints about the last batch of The Shadow novels, I’ll say that this one went down quick and smooth as any of the best of them. It has a minimal cast of agents, but it uses them effectively; the action scenes are mostly decent except for the climactic battle, which is epic, and, yeah, this one’s good.

Rated: Do you guys know how hard it is to actually clamber in and around stuff with a broad-brimmed hat on? It’s hard.

Review – Dorsai! – Gordon Dickson

(By the way, this cover is book-accurate.)

So, in this book Dickson stays on the correct side of the mysticism/science line that philosophically-inclined SF, his in particular, sometimes falls off of. What’s more, he also stays on the right side of the action/introspection divide as well, neither spending too much time tossing grenades around and shouting “clear,” or becoming too absorbed in the mind of its ubermensch. The result is a story that is fast-paced and gripping, but which never forgets that it has a deeper purpose and meaning–a terrible purpose, as Paul Atreides would say.

That terrible purpose? To portray the life and times of the Super-man.

That’s a spoiler, but I feel that knowing the reveal to one aspect of the plot doesn’t detract from the rest of this book; there’s a solid enough mil-SF plot with all the trimmings of a political thriller there on top of the aforementioned psychological aspect. It’s an engrossing enough plot, albeit briskly told with an absolute dearth of padding (my paperback copy is a mere 280 pages); and while I have some doubts on the actual efficacy of certain plot elements, such as Donal’s total-takeover strategy for invading a “civilized” world, or the whole issue of how very efficient it could be to contract skilled labor from other planets in lieu of, IDK, sending your own students to other planets to get educated, maybe….well, it’s speculative fiction.

What I find valuable about this book is Dickson’s adept portrayal, and explanations of in simple terms for the socially maladapt nerds reading it–of the tactics of mistake. Dickson breaks down thought processes involved in strategy, and the viewpoint that would support a short-term unfavorable position in order to achieve conditions favorable for a long-term goal. He shows how the personality types that would deal in such methods work–and how an honest and honorable, but equally cunning opponent can deal with such duplicity. Again–all this, but it’s explained in terms teenage nerds can comprehend. (Frank Herbert did much the same, with somewhat more stylization, in Dune.)

After all, what is the Super-man? To a nerd, it’s someone who understands other human beings….

So, Gordon Dickson is an author with pretty uneven output. He published a lot of stuff, some of which has been forgotten because it was overly grim and lacked balance; some of which was forgotten because it was overly fluffy and lacked staying value (as sorry as I am to say it about the valiant Hokas). At his best, though, his works speak deeply but not very clearly. He tends to write of individuals, men (Golden Age SF = male protagonist, sorry) who are alone in a crowd, in a city, in a universe: men who struggle not with other people or with that collection of other people known as society, but with themselves.

In Dickson’s world, “Man versus Self” is typified in the titanic but entirely internal struggles of a character making choices and acting upon those choices, in search of the understanding of what feelings or motivations determine those choices. Internal conflict is a character who does not understand his or her subconscious motivations, but either acts boldly on them regardless–or who struggles against them and refrains from action–and, examining the consequences of their actions or inactions, gains insight into their own mind, until the time comes when they see themselves and are at one with what they see.

[I had more on this theme written down but the paper got lost somewhere. Alas.]

In Dorsai! Donal Graeme’s internal conflict is with himself–to understand himself and where he stands in relation to humanity. Donal is apart from humanity, although he values it as a collection of individual lives. His external conflict is  with the shadow version of himself: someone part of humanity–possibly even the apex of humanity–who regards human populations as a disposable whole, and who acts towards them accordingly.–a conflict as natural and instinctual as it is unavoidable, inevitable, and increasingly personal. And there you have your answer to the question “okay, but so what is the plot, anyway?”

So, anyway. It’s a well-crafted novel where even the love-interest subplot, on reflection, fits snugly, if a little gratingly at first. It’s interconnected to the rest of the Dorsai cycle deeply enough to make me go and re-read Lost Dorsai. And The Spirit of Dorsai. And Warrior. And Brothers

Rated: I really need to know who would win in a knife fight between Donal Graeme and Paul Atreides, but I want to be standing on a different planet when it happens.

Also rated: Donal Graeme can walk on air, because walking on water would have been way too on the nose.

Rambling Review: The Witches of Karres – James H. Schmitz

I’m frankly impressed at how dreadful this cover is.

So I did do a half-baked kind of review of this book a couple years ago. Thing is, this new review isn’t going to be much better.

It’s difficult to review a book that is…pretty much perfect. I don’t think that I can make any substantive criticisms of this book. It’s tightly plotted, paced, characterized; the action scenes are swift, adept, exciting; and there’s a pervasive sense of wonder, adventure, and fun that You Just Don’t See Every Day. It’s got witches, space pirates, space battles, the dread overlord of a crime planet wearing a skullcap to protect him from psychic emanations, robot assassins, time travel (technically), creepy survival horror on an alien planet, rescuing little girls from slavery (and God help their former owners), fighting against the evil Empire, not being double-crossed by alien warlords, and quite a bit more.

I don’t think I have a single ill word to say about this book.

So what about the things that make it work?

Verisimilitude is one of them. I went into this review vaguely thinking that Schmitz was a Merchant Marine (he wasn’t, that may have been Jack Vance.) Nevertheless, his space ship battles, repair woes, difficulties with customs inspectors and uncleared merchandise—and the looming, inescapable fact that No One Reads The Regulations—rings very, very true. (Would the information on the witch-folk of Karres be under K? Or W?) The worlds feel worn and lived-in, in a way that can be most easily visualized as “Old-school Star Wars,” the floors scuffed and the corners dusty, the plas-leather of gunbelts worn and supple, the light of the suns overhead whiter and brighter than we see ourselves.

The other is an ethos that is pervasive to Schmitz’s oeuvre that took a few readings for me to define, and which may on that definition be one of the most endearing things about his work. It’s the spirit of the Golden Age of science fiction and space opera—the idea that to a competent and courageous man or woman, with a goal in their sights, a gun in their pocket, and their wits about them, nothing in the universe is impossible. It’s the idea that authority figures, up to and beyond the level of planetary governments, are competent, foresighted, and concerned with the safety as well as the benefit of their people.

Consider current media. Authority figures exist to oppose the heroes; to offer objections to /necessary but dangerous plot happenstances/–objections that may or may not have a basis in reality, but objections that do not come with solutions. They are then to be overridden and embarassed, or simply ignored (especially if the hero, as per the author, doesn’t have a better solution). Consider Top Gun: Maverick. It’s subtle, but it’s still there. At every step of the way, when plot, heroism, and human decency requires a daring (and dangerous, but also necessary) action, the Authority Figure objects.

In the opening of the movie, the Admiral shows up to obstruct Maverick from flying his super-duper fast plane. Why? So he could be shown up and proven wrong as Maverick buzzes him with a sonic boom. The Other Admiral objects to Maverick’s mission plan of flying the Death Star Trench (come on, lol), in under two minutes. Why? So he can be shown up and proven wrong. The Admiral refuses to lauch rescue to retrieve his downed fighters. Why? So he can be shown up and proven wrong. Why? So our heroes can look better. It’s a short-sighted view. An intelligent author would be able to draw a scenario where our heroes look good because they (and we the audience) know how difficult the task at hand is, know that all eyes and hopes are resting on them, know that everything powerful and capable allies can do to help has been done…and through timestorm and laser sword, have swon through.

Intelligent, thoughtful, competent authority figures do not exist in modern media. But once upon a time, back in the days when Man set foot on the moon, they kind of did. And they do here. Authority figures don’t reflexively oppose the heroes doing (random dangerous but necessary acts); they’re at the command post, weighing the pros and cons and providing the heroes with the information and armaments necessary to carry out those acts. After the fact, they may critique or praise, but they don’t actually ever forget that they are not the men in the arena.

Uh, what was I talking about? Oh yes, The Witches of Karres.

Look, it’s a really great book. If anybody in Hollywood had reading comprehension, we’d have had a Federation of the Hub Cinematic Universe decades ago.

Rated: The key word, it turned out, was “PROHIBITED.”