Shadow of the Conqueror – Shad Brooks – QuikReview

shadow-of-the-conquerorEnthusiastic, imaginative, and inept. 

It’s a first novel, and it has the clawmarks of one: big ideas; enthusiastic, imaginative but vague worldbuilding; exposition delivered mostly through dialogue; characterization delivered mostly through dialogue; action described mostly through dialogue; and unnecessary dialogue pointing out themes and moral implications that have already been made obvious by basic narration or other dialogue strings

There are also several structural failures: the main hero-buddy duo just doesn’t work (although the secondary one does, mostly). What’s worse for the book as a whole, none of the humor is quite as funny as it wants to be; the book itself could have excused a multitude of faults with a strong infusion of black, self-aware humor.

Continue reading “Shadow of the Conqueror – Shad Brooks – QuikReview”

Mentally Tired Read/Watchlist

Readlist: 
– Eight Days of Luke – Diana Wynne Jones – a nice, relaxing old stand-by. I really like this book.
– Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik – also a relaxing, low-stakes fantasy novel that’s joining the I’m-tired-and-need-to-relax rotation.
– You’re Stepping On My Cloak and Dagger – Roger Hall –  This guy joined the OSS during WW2 and, unwillingly, ended up flying a desk for most of it. Highlight: He gets the assignment to be dropped behind enemy lines and take over leadership of a guerilla group…except by the time he got there the lines had moved and he was back in American territory again. Heh. Also, he ends up accepting German surrenders in Hell. 
– Byzantium – Judith Herrin – is one of the things I lack the fortitude to actually power through right now.

Watchlist:

– Taking Lives – an early-2000s movie starring Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke. It’s mostly interesting because Ethan Hawke is very handsome and Angelina Jolie is…Angelina. Other than that the plot falls apart when you think about it for more than ten seconds and the characters are more a collection of quirks, twitches, and mannerisms than actual characterization.

– Want to watch: The Wolf of Snow Hollow appears to be available…

“Add title”

Some have broken the bounds of the narrow land

Laid open the book of dreams

Drawn doorways in the sand 

walked through Shadow to the many worlds

With fellowship and dread companions

From the last castle to the Gaean Reach

strangers and pilgrims in a strange land, 

progressing, our destination universe.

The farthest star but a mote in God's eye.


When the world turned upside down,

through a splinter in the mind's eye, recall

who goes there, out of the dark?

A star rider on a steel horse, 

a rite of passage through abyss of wonder,

shelters of stone to the starpilot's grave. // clan of cave bear to the lioness rampant

I saw the doors of his mouth open

and the lamps of his eyes shine.

A final rose bloom for Ecclesiastes,

and no night, ever, without stars.


What's it like out there -- Skagganauk, or the space beyond,

the birthplace of creation, or the crossroads of time?

There is time enough for love. 

Soul music in a minor key, sung by no woman born

In a many-colored land: red, blue, and green.

East of Eden, children of the mind await their childhood's end.

The player of games is gonna roll the bones.

Computers don't argue, the right to arm bears is in the bone

Equal rites are observed,

And no man sayeth call him lord.


There are Skylarks three in an alien sky;

from homely house to lonely mountain 

the long patrol guards moss and flower;

a stainless steel rat runs for president (to hell and back).

Sheep are electric. The horse and his boy

dream of dancing mountains.

All cats are gray, walking between the walls

To say nothing of the dog

that bays with five mouths

the fool moon.


Creatures there are of light and darkness:

When true night falls on the borders of infinity

two suns setting cast slithering shadows

across the long tomorrow. 

Ancient, my enemy, the old gods waken. 

Alas, Babylon! The city and the stars!

Wolves across the border

A feral darkness, the darkness that comes before,

Beyond the black river. 


I will fear no evil, 

not the hills of the dead nor the black god's kiss,

the wings in the night, or the red nails' gleam;

Daemon, sidhe-devil, or devil in iron

or the nine billion names of God,

for the stars are also fire

and the stars

burn.


Soldier, ask not 

of unfinished tales or a dry, quiet war.

Take iron counsel of the cold equations.

Till we have faces, lest the long night fall,

Raise the sword of Rhiannon

Set a fire upon the deep.

More than honor, we few,

Wee free men, the high crusade,

Seek Armageddon inheritance

In the service of the sword. 


Sleeper, awaken! from this alien shore

To your scattered bodies go

A citizen of the galaxy

and not this pale blue dot

Bid farewell again to the cool, green hills of earth

I have space suit and I will travel

The stars are my destination 

These stars are already ours.

The Thief of Baghdad (1942) – With My Mother (repost)

“Wait, this is the little movie with Sahib or Saboo or what’s-his-name, isn’t it?”
“You never watched it! You can’t say it’s bad! You’ll like it!”
“You’re still hung up on that silly movie from when you were a kid?”
“It’s a good movie!”
“…”
“You promised you were going to watch it.”
“And I don’t know why.”

The movie begins in medias res, with a blind man and his dog begging for alms on the street. Conrad Veidt drops by:

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“Who’s he?”
“Jaffar.”
“Is he the Sultan?”
“No, he’s the evil usurping vizier.”
“Usurping what?”
“The kingdom.”

Like the blind man, the dog is special and more than he appears to be–as demonstrated when he picks out false coins from an offering.

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“What?”
“He said, the dog must have been a tax collector in a previous life.”

The blind man is collected by the enigmatic Halima:

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“I didn’t get all that.”
“The blind guy is the real king. The dog is the thief, Sabu. Jaffar did that to them when he did the usurping. But now he needs the king back to do something for him.”
“Who is she?”
“She works for Jaffar.”

“Oh! So that’s why the dog can tell! He’s really a person!”

“Is Tony Curtis in this?”

The blind man begins to tell his story, and we flash back to the beginning:
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He is the king whom Jaffar usurped, was tricked into leaving the palace, thrown in jail, rescued by the little Thief of Baghdad, and fled the city for safer climates.

“What’s his name? The king.”
“John Justin. He never hit it big.”
“I can see why.”
“…”
“That is one scrawny looking man.”

They end up in the nearby city of Basra, where armed guards ensure that no man sees the face of the Princess before she is married.

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“He said, is she that ugly?”
“Heh.”

 

“June Duprez….”
“Apparently she never hit it big, either. I think she said it was because Joan Fontaine or one of those people had it out for her.”
“I can see that happening.”

Ahmad, however, sees the Princess, is smitten, and with Abu’s reluctant help manages to sneak into the palace to see her up-close.

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“He said, Sinbad the Sailor offered them berths on his ship.”
“Mm-hm.”
“Isn’t that nice?”
“….mmm.”

Fortunately, the Princess is receptive…
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“Oh please. NO.”

Unfortunately, Jaffar arrives, intent on founding a dynasty (no, seriously, those are his exact words), and he has planned ahead.

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“What is it? What is it!”
“It’s a clockwork horse.”
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“What!”
“It’s a flying clockwork horse.”
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“How could that work!?”
“It’s a magic flying clockwork horse.”
“Is it real?”
“What?”
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“I know what he wants for that!”

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The Princess makes a run for it. Meanwhile, a captured Ahmad confronts Jaffar–unsuccessfully–resulting in the state of affairs that we began with and catching us up to the story in the present.

“Why is he so happy?”

“What’d he say?”

“He turned into a dog!”

“What’d he say?”
“He said, the king would be blind and the thief would be a dog until he gets to hold the Princess.”
“Hold the Princess?”
“…hug…the Princess…?”
“Oh.”

It is then revealed to Ahmad that he is in the same place as the Princess, she having been captured and bought by slavers, but is in a strange magical coma (you know, the kind Princesses are prone to…it must be genetic), which only he can break.

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“They lying?”
“No.”

Jaffar watches the proceedings:

“He put a spell on her he can’t break?”
“He didn’t enspell the Princess, she just fell into it herself. He enspelled THEM.”

Ahmad wakes the Princess successfully, but is then hustled out by Halima. He leaves Abu:

“Guard her? One dog against a sorcerer?”

–While Halima then lures the Princess onboard a ship, promising that Ahmad’s sight can be restored there.

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She’s not lying….

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“But he had her before, I don’t understand.”
“Yeah, but she wasn’t awake.”

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Conrad Veidt was actually the big star of the movie (I think this was John Justin’s first role, while Veidt had a long list of international credits to his name), and was ordered to play the tortured, suffering lover to the hilt. Veidt obliged. In fact, watching this movie with a couple of girl friends a year or so ago, the general consensus was that, aww, he can’t be all that bad, why can’t he end up with the girl?

Because he’s a creepy, usurping Grand Vizier, that’s why.

“What’s he doing?”
“Hypnotizing her.”
“Why? So she will like him?”

“He hypnotized her?”
“No, because he can’t get her to like him, only to obey him.”
“…what’s the difference?”
“…”
“Well from his point of view! She’s not going to like him anyway, so why is he even bothering?”

It’s all for nothing, though, as Ahmad and Abu are once again on their trail:

“What’s he doing now?”
“He’s calling up a storm to stop the other boat.”
“Oh that’s really gonna get her to like him now. Fool!”

–and all that gets him is a mopey Princess.

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“Go where?”
“She doesn’t want to go with him. She wants to go home.”

“Oh, he took her home?”
“He’s trying to be nice.”

The Princess does get a promise from her father that he will never send her away, as long as he lives.

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“This is a funny premise. For toys he’d give up anything. You heard about men and their toys.”
“Well, they’re right.”
“…she’s going back to Baghdad….”

“Aaah! She gon’ kill him!…oh…”

“Hm! Wouldn’t like to live in them times. Always be watching your back because people gon’ stab you in it!”

Meanwhile, Abu finds a genie in a bottle. There’s only one problem: Genie has been in the bottle for two thousand years, and is unhappy about it.

“Solomon put him in there? Must be a bad genie.”

“Uh…”
“Why else would Solomon put him in there, then?”

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Abu keeps his wits about him, and fortunately, has read the correct stories.

“What’s he doing?”
“He tricked him back into the bottle.”
“He CAN’T BE THAT FOOLISH. NO.”
“…it’s one of the traditional stories about the three wishes and the genie. They didn’t just make this up!”
“…”

“Why should we trust him?”
“He swore.”
“So?”
“He swore by King Solomon!”

Abu needs to know where Ahmad is, and to know where Ahmad is, needs the All-Seeing Eye of the Goddess of Night. But first things first.
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“He gon’ use one wish for a meal! Please!”

The heroic part of this adventure then begins, as Abu enters the goddess’s temple to steal the All-Seeing Eye:

“What is it, a spider’s web?”
“Yeah.”
“Oh. Oh Lor’, he goin’ up a spider’s web and the spider coming for him?”
“Yep.”
“Does he know?”

“Wait, where is the Prince?”
“He’s trying to find the thing that will allow him to find the Prince.”
“…What thing?”
“The All-Seeing Eye.”
“…”
“…And then he’ll see where the Prince is and the genie can take him there.”

Ahmad and Abu are reunited, but the genie is cackling ominously:

“The genie is a fool?”
“The joke is, he’s about to get away and he knows it.”

…Which promptly happens.

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“He looks like a scrawny person! Look. One scrawny man.”
“Mom!”

“What? Who’s going to be chained!”
“They’re both gonna die.”
“What? He gon’ kill the girl? Why? He just said he had her!”
“She broke free. And he got mad.”

Abu smashes the All-Seeing Eye, and then things go wonky:

“What, the genie came back?”
“No, something else happened.”
“What?”
“I dunno! Something else happened.”

“He died?”
“No.”
“Then who’s this old man? And how come he’s a prince?”

…I’m not sure what the logic is behind this scene, taken out of context. Let me just say, that like all great stories, it makes perfect sense when you’re going with the flow of it. Anyhow, the Sages give Abu the title of Prince and a bow that will not easily miss evil, but explicitly forbid him to take their flying carpet. That carpet. Over there. It flies if you tell it, “Fly carpet.” Now, excuse me, I’m leaving the room now. Remember, now! That carpet.

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“The boy, he gon’ stay there?”
” ‘No thanks.’ “

So Abu arrives in the nick of time and the people, emboldened, rise against their oppressive overlord:

“What’s going on?”
“They’re revolting against Jaffar.”
“Because they saw the cloud?”
“Because of the prophecy!”

Jaffar attempts to escape on the flying horse, but:

“Oh my.”

And they all live happily ever after, including Abu, who takes to the hills on hearing that Ahmad intends for him to–gulp–attend school.

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“Ahahahaha.”

I love this movie so much. I always have. I think I always will.

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“See! I told you it was good!”
“This should be the last time you look at this, ever.”

Sigh.

Son of the Black Sword – Larry Correia – Book Review

sons-of-the-dark-sword-send-to-larry-c.-2Son of the Black Sword is Book 1 of the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior trilo…oh wait no people actually like this so let’s make it a five…wait are they still buying it? What, after book 3 didn’t wrap everything up? Multi-part series instead.

I complain, but it’s in good humor. This series showcases Correia’s strongest writing, because it plays to his strengths: exciting combat scenes; honorable men; fight scenes; violent men; battle scenes; emotionless but charismatic men; chase scenes; beautiful women, and you may have gotten the gist at this point: he writes fight scenes really, really well. There’s a one-vs-many fight at the end of this book that is just a work of art. What’s more, this book avoids his weaknesses: self-insert characters, silly humor, and bashing of political opponents in juvenilely amusing ways.

It’s a damn good book. Fight scenes with a purpose are exciting, charismatic protagonists with inner depths and meaningful journeys are memorable and enjoyable, and beautiful women who have personalities, motivations, and effect on the plot, are good characters regardless of what they’re wearing. Son of the Black Sword has all of those. (Note: with the exception of a ditzy librarian who tries using a romance novel as a how-to spy manual, all female characters are dressed quite appropriately for their circumstances.)

As mentioned, SoTBS was originally #1 of 3 books, before Trilogy Creep Syndrome set in. I hope the story doesn’t get stretched out too far, because I want to find out how it ends, damn it! There is the distinct impression that the story Correia is telling is going to be epic enough to withstand the expansion, but…I really like this story. What is the story?

So.

20-year veteran, Senior Protector Ashok Vadal is one of if not the most dangerous men on Lok. Not only is he a scion of the powerful and respected Vadal House, a Protector gifted with superhuman abilities, not only trained to the peak of physical ability and combat skill, not only above the law and tasked with enforcing it as the most famous member of an order of right hard bastards–Ashok is also the wielder of the mighty ancestor blade Angruvadal. Ancestor blades, made of the mysterious black steel, can cut through steel and demon hide, cleave all four legs off a galloping horse, and, moreover contain the memories and instincts of every warrior who has borne them previously and can guide the muscles and mind of its present wielder to victory….or can savagely punish the unworthy who dare set hand on it.

Ashok was judged worthy as a small child and has lived his life in the Protector Order ever since. How could a man who never lies, who never feels fear, who is wholly devoted to the Law, be unworthy? And why could his mentor, the man whom he trusted and loved as more than his own father, tell him that his life is a shameful falsehood, a disgraceful lie.

Ashok is given a choice: become Lord Protector, head of the Order and continue to live a life of fame, valor, and value…or open a letter that will reveal his past to him and reveal the truth.

Ashok chooses honesty. (Ashok, it transpires, didn’t have a choice).

The disgraceful secret the Protectors have kept for twenty years? Ashok isn’t a man. Ashok isn’t even a human being. Far from being son of the First Caste, the rulers, movers, and shakers…he is actually a casteless. Legally, less than the tools used to till the fields; practically, of less value than the animals used to pull the plow. Although Angruvadal chose him, the utter shame of the choice meant that House Vadal had his mind magically wiped to remove all memory of his casteless origins, deep compulsions implanted in him–rendering him literally fearless and utterly devoted to the law–and he was sent to the Protectors as a mere child in hopes that he would soon die. Oh, and his mother was murdered as part of the cover-up.

Ashok, after delivering a fairly gory reckoning to the people who have committed this injustice and this sin, checks himself into the nearest prison to await trial and sentencing. (Remember what we said about devoted to the Law? Ashok walks the walk…not only because he’s been brainwashed for his entire life.)

Unfortunately, what Ashok gets instead of justice is Omand, the Chief Inquisitor. Omand is seriously bad news. For one, he’s planning a genocide against the casteless…as a stepping stone to whatever his evil plan actually is. Step 1 involves creating a reason for his genocide to continue. Step 2 is ordering Ashok to join with the casteless rebellion and make it into enough of a threat to justify continent-wide genocide.

The implication is that Omand is going to get a horrible surprise about just how clever he isn’t a book or two down the road.

Ashok obediently escapes from prison to find and join the rebellion. He finds–or is found–by Keta, Keeper of Names, and his hostile bodyguard Thera. They have been sent to judge his worthiness before he can be allowed into their ranks, or to meet the mysterious Prophet whom the rebels have rallied about–the Prophet who speaks with the voice of a Forgotten god and testifies that blood, seas and messes of it, are incoming…

But that’s not really a prophecy so much as an accurate observation, really.

And anyhow, yeah. I’m out of time and I need to put some content up that isn’t cat pictures.

Rated: It’s really good. Get it and read it and then tell all your friends.

The Magician’s Guild – Trudi Canavan – Review

9780060575281-the-magicians-guild-1So, a while ago, I read Spinning Silver and remembered how much fun a good, absorbing, exciting, funny, well-written fantasy novel was.

This book is none of those things.

Plot: There’s an oppressive city society, with magicians on top and slum dwellers on the bottom. Our heroine, Sonea, is one of the latter, but after nearly (accidentally) killing one of the former with a rock that goes through his protective magical barrier, all hell breaks loose. The magicians want her badly–partly because she’s a powerful natural talent and if untrained might end up destroying the city; but also because that one guy she hit with a rock wants revenge, as he is a petty bitch. Her friends, and later, the weirdly-well-organized Thieves Guild, strive to keep her safe. But it becomes increasingly clear that she’s going to be found and she is going to NEED training, only MAGICIANS can train her, TrAiNiNg iS EsSeNtIAl FoR a WiZzArD.

That’s about the point that I gave up. There was no point to continuing. This book didn’t have any exciting action scenes, cool characters, interesting plotlines, or vaguely neat ideas that I wanted to continue, even at a skimming pace, to follow.

My problems are:

– Bland to underutilized characters. Sonea is an entirely reactive, rather than active, character. OK, well, she’s suddenly got an entire city chasing after her and she has no idea of how to use her powers. Well, she actually starts making progress, before the author chokes off that avenue, and she has the benefit of books, and the Thieves’ Guild is very anxious to help tutor her in whatever way they can. Would it have added characterization and personality if Sonea was someone whose curiosity and stubbornness refused to admit defeat or the necessity of help, and she studied away determinedly? Would it have added evidence to the idea that Sonea is Special, Powerful, and Dangerous if she actually made progress on her own? Would it have added verisimilitude if Sonea, at the very least, realized that the Thieves’ very generous help is going to require a payoff sooner or later and that she had better learn really, really quickly if she wants to retain her ears?

What’s more, everybody else is fairly boring as well, and when you’ve got a young thief-urchin, a wizard serial killer, a gay wizard so deep in the closet he’s seeing fauns and lampposts, and the freaking king of the Thieves Guild who runs an underground empire with an iron fist…that takes some doing.

– Zero payoff to a large chunk of the plot. Fully half the book is Sonea running away from the wizards. This isn’t used to set up how powerful the underworld is and therefore explain how much of a threat it actually is to the established government. We barely even get to see the government/guards in action at all–it’s all wizards, weirdly enough. We don’t become acquainted with the Thieves as characters. We don’t use the time to build relationships between the existing characters. We don’t even, and this is important, get any cool fight, chase, hiding, or suspense scenes. And, at the end, Sonea goes to the wizards anyway and it was all for nothing. Plus, at the point when it becomes clear that the wizards are tracking Sonea down when she works her magic, I started wondering why she was still in the city. Surely the Thieves have contacts outside who could take her in and hide her. That’s on par with, “Why doesn’t Buffy just get a GED and not have to attend high school anymore?” or, “Why not destroy the McGuffin instead of hiding it?” Or, “why is this movie about trade negotiations and not Sith lightsaber battles?”

– High stakes get artificially lowered. Sonea starts out the book convinced that she’s in danger of her life and the lives of everyone who helps or is even vaguely associated with her. She’s on the run for her life and everyone she knows or even comes in contact with her, anyone who helps her, anyone who cares about her, is in danger. She ends the book being pressured by a bully to be his student. She’s on the hook for perjury. That is not a good progression.

– Deus ex machina ending that solves almost all of our heroes’ problems. So after giving up on the first half, I flipped to read the end in hopes that it had something cool, exciting, or clever happening that would redeem the rest of the book.

Suffice it to say that it doesn’t.

– I’m favor of homeschooling. “Your Hero is in a school where they, wait for it, LEARN MAGIC!!” plots are just incredibly boring to me at this point, especially when your wizarding school is as incredibly boring as Trudi Canavan’s Magician’s Guild is. What’s more, having a hugely powerful but not well-trained character is a good way of making them, well, be both powerful and at the same time, handicapped. It means, while they are capable of doing awesome and plot-relevant feats, it’s also going to be hard for them to do so or come at a high price (also plot relevant.) Notice how many wizard protagonists are students or otherwise only partially trained? Notice how many fully-trained wizard characters are mentors or even just antagonists?

Of course, that would require that there be a plot for your character to be active in.

Are there good things in this book? Possibly. But I’m in no mood to celebrate the correct use of commas.

Rated: 168/370

Hour of the Dragon – Robert E. Howard

Rush in and die, dogs–I was a man before I was king!

Hour of the Dragon / Conan the Conqueror is the only novel-length Conan story, and it’s none too long at that, clocking in at 150 ebook pages and 79,000 words. So I’ll start my review with a disclaimer: this is a short, pulp fiction novel, written nearly a hundred years ago. Presumably I should lower my standards and expectations, because it was never intended to be high art or great literature. The thing is, Howard was genuinely a good enough writer to create both, if he’d wanted to or been able. The things I’m going to criticize are things I’d ding any author for, no matter what the genre or intended audience; they’re things I think would have made the story, exciting, well-crafted, superbly-worded as it is, exponentially better. Basically: Howard should have slowed down the pace a hair, expanded the characters a just bit, and stopped using the main character falling unconscious as a scene-changing device, because that always ticks me off.

So anyhow. The plot is….Conan has a series of adventures and then saves the day. You see, a cabal of highly-born and ambitious wastrels has enacted a plan to take control of Nemedia and neighborning Aquilonia: resurrect the three-milennia-dead sorcerer, priest, king, and monster Xaltotun of long-gone Acheron. By his magic, supplemented by the Heart of Ahriman, they intend to create a plague that will the King of Nemedia and replace him with one of their own. Then they will attack Aquilonia and replace Conan with a relative of the previous King.

For anyone not supported by a forgotten sorcerer from long-fallen Acheron, step 3 is where this is most likely to fail. And it almost does. Only because of Xaltotun’s sorcery is Conan struck by an uncanny wight in his tent, unable to lead his troops into battle–or hold them back from leading a charge that his less experienced body double falls for; and only because of sorcery does that end in disaster, as a landlide collapses a mountain on his army. Conan is taken alive by Xaltotun himself and cast into the Nemedian dungeons.

The cabal, you see, is not a stable alliance; Xaltotun knows it, and knows that he’ll need some threat to check Tarascus in Nemedia and hang over Valerius in Aquilonia. At this point, the narrative switches over from the fast-moving but slightly more measured pace of a novel, to the almost-frenetic short story velocity which is more familiar to Howard’s stories but….he should have slowed it down just a hair. If for no other reason than that he’s actually got plenty of plot and characters to describe. In short order: Conan is rescued by the fair maiden Zenobia, despite the efforts of Tarascus to remove Xaltotun’s leverage via a cannibal gray ape. Conan proceeds back to Aquilonia, pausing only to attempt to witness Tarascus consign the Heart of Ahriman to a Zamoran thief with orders to cast it into the sea, attempt an assassination, kiss the girl, and then, rather randomly, bump into a Nemedian warrior who had the good sense but bad luck to wonder why there was a random horse tied in a thicket outside the palace. Now, this is good writing in the sense that no exit should go easily when you’re in your enemy’s capital city, but it’s bad in that it pauses for a paragraph to introduce the Nemedian Adventurers, a class of fighting-men unique to that country who, etc etc etc. Well, the Nemedian Adventurers are unique to that paragraph, too, because the only one we meet gets run through by Conan, making this a Chekovian blunder. A simple soldier on patrol would have done just as well for the amount of effort Conan puts into escaping him.

The bulk of the plot is expanded on promptly, as Conan encounters Zelata, an Aquilonian witch, who tells him he must find the heart of his country before he can lead them in the fight again; and Servius Galannus, one of his barons, who clarifies the political situation to him. Conan’s general, Prospero, lacks the manpower to carry war to the enemy without more support; Conan’s appointed heir, Count Trocero, has been rejected by the trucculent barons, who would submit to a king but distrust one of their own gaining supremacy over them. Valerius has been proclaimed king almost unimpeded–which the Aquilonian citizens are only just begining to realize was a really stupid mistake. Loyalty to Conan or simple self-respect is being brutally punished–a burned villa and a countess about to be executed form the chief examples–and the common people, as we have seen in Zelata–are already being persecuted by foreign soldiers.

This part of the novel, where Conan demonstrates his grasp of statesmanship and strategy, discusses options with a counselor, listens to the advice given him–and then decides what to do–is masterful. We get a clear picture of what is going on, the conventional view of what should be done, and then we see both how our hero thinks (differently) and how he differs from ordinary people (he intends to get things done.) It does this briskly, without frills, digressions, or narrative excesses. And, since almost all the rest of the actual, non-serialized adventures plot of the book rests on this one chapter, it accomplishes some serious heavy lifting in its few pages, too.

But Conan decides to rescue the Countess Albiona before he heads off to join his remaining loyal generals, which, besides allowing a little bit of scantily-clad fair-maidenly-rescuing, gives the last impetus for the main action of the novel. Rescue complete, Conan and Albiona meet the priests of Asura, a religion which is usually persecuted but which Conan has allowed freedom to practice in Aquilonia. The priests of Asura have a widespread network and some uncanny abilities. They assure Conan that the Heart of Ahriman is the secret to defeating Xaltotun–and, better yet, that it has not been cast into the sea and is traceable.

Conan goes after it, utilizing his old contacts in the underworld, from his time as a petty thief, a masterless fighting-man, and a corsair captain. His pursuit of the jewel and its sequential passage from hand to hand by theft, murder, flight, and more murder, covers about one-third of the book, and….it’s the least satisfying part of the story, simply because we’ve seen Conan do these serial-adventure things so many times before, with the same exact narrative beats and same exact pacing. I guess that’s what my main problem is: this is a big chunk of the novel, and it’s the same old same old. Incidentally, Conan is being followed by a team of creepy guys in hoods, but they’re almost more of a stage dressing than a threat so never mind. Nevertheless, he finally does secure the Heart, after following it across a continent and an ocean and returns in hasty triumph to his corsair ship and to Aquilonia.

From there, things proceed, very satisfactorily, from the utterly characteristic message with which Conan opens hostilities:

To Xaltotun, grand fakir of Nemedia: Dog of Acheron, I am returning to my kingdom, and I mean to hang your hide on a bramble.
Conan

–to the final stroke, wherein Conan sets the ransom for Tarascus of Nemedia: one girl from his palace–Zenobia, who will become Queen of Aquilonia.

This book has bits that are absolutely brilliant:

Beside the altar-stone lay no fresh-slain corpse, but a shriveled mummy, a brown, dry, unrecognizable carcass sprawling among moldering swathings.
Somberly old Zelata looked down.
‘He was not a living man,’ she said. ‘The Heart lent him a false aspect of life, that deceived even himself. I never saw him as other than a mummy.’

After Conan has had an encounter with a beautiful woman in the cellars of a forgotten temple (who tries to drink his blood and whom he flees into the monster-haunted catacombs rather than face down):

…through his fear ran the sickening revulson of his discovery. The legend of Akivasha was so old, and among the evil tales told of her ran a thread of beauty and idealism, of everlasting youth. To so many dreamers and poets and lovers she was not alone the evil princess of Stygian legend, but the symbol of eternal youth and beauty, shining for ever in some far realm of the gods. And this was the hideous reality. This foul perversion was the truth of that everlasting life. Through his physical revulsion ran the sense of a shattered dream of man’s idolatry, its glittering gold proved slime and cosmic filth. A wave of futility swept over him, a dim fear of the falseness of all men’s dreams and idolatries.

There’s even Servius Galannus’ reaction to Conan’s appearance at his plantation:

At the low call the master of the plantation wheeled with a startled exclamation. His hand flew to the short hunting-sword at his hip, and he recoiled from the tall gray steel figure standing in the dusk before him.
‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘What is your – Mitra!’
His breath hissed inward and his ruddy face paled. ‘Avaunt!’ he ejaculated. ‘Why have you come back from the gray lands of death to terrify me? I was always your true liegeman in your lifetime-‘

When was the last time you read or heard someone say “Avaunt”? And as an intro, this is a good way of showing that, while Servius Galannus is a small-time farmer, he does not fear man; and he does not hesitate to protest to Conan’s supposed-shade that he was loyal.

But these are moments only: it doesn’t sustain them…and I wish it had.

So my main criticism is that the book needed to slow down just a tad and expand on its characters a hair. One of Howard’s main strengths is a weakness in this book. His ability to portray quick, vital snapshots of bold and passionate characters engaged to their utmost in at the most dramatic moments of their lives is great for creating memorable short stories. But in a longer work, more than a single snapshot is needed. Is it a problem? Only if you pause for breath between battles, assassinations, rescues, hidden temples, wars, dungeon escapes, battles, lost temples, catacombs, slave revolts, shadow-cloaked priests, vampire queens, forgotten temples, giant serpents, more battles, and plain old street fights. But I submit that it could have made the difference between a crackin’ good Conan yarn and a genuinely great novel.

The breakneck pace keeps your attention! And it is headlong as hell. But it’s without time for reflection, or, well, characterization. Everyone is portrayed in the quick strokes and primary colors; further developments are informed of by the omniscient narrator. This…could have been better. While quick and vivid sketches are the name of the game in short stories, this is a novel and it has to be a) longer, b) more interesting. There’s time and there’s a need to slow down, if just a hair, and expand on things, like people’s feelings.

Especially Conan’s. Conan is different as a king than he was as an adventurer–but not by much. He’s always had an eye for strategy, and he’s always had a soft spot for helpless civilians; he’s always been frank and fair. He was a man before he was king; and that he remains. We get to see what he says and does, and with Conan what he does is what he thinks….mostly. But, given that we’re dealing with an older and wiser Conan, it would be nice to see him realizing this and, even if it makes him uncomfortable, to think about it some.

There are also a menagerie of secondary characters who don’t get to be nearly as cool as they could be. Although Trocero is Conan’s appointed successor and heir, he gets only a single scene and no real characterization: his scene and comments are really only a repeat of Servius Galannus’ from ealier. And then there are the cool people who pop up in one scene and are never, uh, seen again. Who is Countess Albiona, other than a pretty girl whom Conan must rescue because he hasn’t met his quota for the novel? Does Servius Galannus rally to his king at the end, bringing only his loyalty and a handful of men-at-arms? What is the deal with the Nemedian Adventurers–could they form an elite squadron which dies to the man, struck down trying to defend the undeserving Tarascus? Zelata and the Asuran whisper network are cool enough to genuinely deserve more than the single line they get describing how much a problem they have become to Valerius.

You see, Howard comitted a tactical error: he made his characters too cool and then didn’t use them enough to showcase how or why.

Writing this review, I’ve also realized that most of my problem with the “chasing the McGuffin” section of the novel is primarily because it hews too closely to the short-story formula–probably because Howard was just tweaking his existing stories to fit the new frame narrative. Would it have been better written in a different fashion, after all? Honestly, maybe not. I don’t know. I only can plead a vague dissatisfaction with this part of the book and not really any cogent solutions.

Yeah, so basically, if you were to ask me how I rated this book:

I have not heard lutes beckon me, nor the brazen bugles call,
But once in the dim of a haunted lea I heard the silence fall.
I have not heard the regal drum, nor seen the flags unfurled,
But I have watched the dragons come, fire-eyed, across the world.

The Lord of Castle Black – Steven Brust – Review

TLDR: Even if this one is pretty good, I have lost all patience with the Dragaera Cycle.

It’s difficult to read Steven Brust’s books at all now–even ones I previously loved liked found okay, like Issola and the very first Jhereg–because now I know the dirty secret. He’s not interested in his own story, his own universe, or making it all fit together. Dragaera isn’t a tightly-woven narrative tapestry, it’s a collection of very bright and colorful threads in a loose knot. Now and then Brust may tug a couple of threads taut, just to show off how shiny and pretty those strands are. But there’s no overall, well-thought out picture that can be salvaged from the tangle at this point (well, not without extreme and conscientious effort which I highly doubt will be made).

Brust’s interest in Dragaera lies in…I can’t say the characters, because he seems painfully uninterested in them, but he does like gourmet food, philosophical digressions (AKA, why socialism is good and mafia aren’t), and….I guess, Devera. And this is a problem, because klava and gourmand fried chocolate-dipped garlic and roast asafoedita-stuffed dormouse have left enough of a bad taste in my mouth that even after reading half of this book and enjoying it, I was extremely reluctant to pick it up again–and I still can’t bring myself to actually read The Baron of Magister Valley (AKA, The Count of Monte Cristo IN DRAGAERA.) Why should I read a book in a series that the author doesn’t even want to finish and doesn’t like any more? Why should I expect to be pleasantly entertained when that’s not the purpose of the story, anymore? Why read a well-written and enjoyable prequel to a series that the author doesn’t want to finish?

Brust does not want to tell stories about swashbuckling but hard-edged heroes, noble but ruthless warriors, sorcerers who are as powerful as gods, and gods who are as petty as men. He doesn’t want to tell a story of criminals or of empires, rebels or righteous war. He doesn’t really care about excitement any more, and adventures are downright distasteful. Much better to drink egg coffee in a corner cafe. His stories are the stories of an old man who shares little in common with his younger self (who at least tried), or with younger audiences (who came on board for the swashbuckling, capeswishing, rapier-flashing, epic fantasy stories written on a narrative backdrop that is a richly-woven tapestry, etc…AKA, people like me who stuck it out for fifteen books but have at this point noticed which way the wind blows.)

That said, and with it in mind, Brust is at his best when he’s riffing off a better author and doesn’t have to come up with those tedious narrative beats himself. As in Paths of the Dead, which I own but haven’t read in several years, this is one of those instances.

This subseries is a prequel to the main Vlad Taltos books, covering the fall and rise again of the Dragaeran Empire. It’s also a riff off of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers–D’Artagnan, Portos, Aramis, and, uh, whats-his-face, Oliver Reed played him in the movie…whatever–becoming Khaavren (the main hero), Tazendra (the dumb but loveable ruffian), Aramis (the sneaky Yendi), and…I dunno, the other guy. (WHAT IS HIS NAAAAME?!) So, I had it wrong, this is actually book 2 of a sub-trilogy within the Khaavren Romances subseries of the Dragaera Cycle. Eh, whatever.

The plot is: Khaavren, formerly the swashbuckling hero of a previous generation, has decided that he needs to get back in shape and take to the road again. His timing is good, because meanwhile, Zerika has re-emerged with the Orb from the Paths of the Dead–making her indisputably the new Empress. Problem is, there really is a dispute going on, because there are at least two pretenders to the throne, and they have quite a few more men than she does. (She’s got about twenty-five, including Khaavren’s son Piro). Meanwhile, young Dragonlord Morrolan has set up shop in a ruined castle and begun doing what he is assured Dragonlords do, which tax the local civilians and use the money to assemble an army. He’s got about three thousand soldiers. Meanwhile, immortal sorceress Sethra Lavode is…well, she’s in her mountain doing whatever she does that is of deep mystic import and is never actually explained to the audience. And, since this is book 2 of 3-ish, that’s about it. There’s a couple of battles but they don’t resolve the Pretendership conflict, and on the personal level, the book ends with a near-tragedy as Khaavren’s old-school values and personal prejudices end up pushing his son away into a life of banditry (whee!)

So the main attraction the Khaavren Romances have is that the writing style, as well as the plot, homages Dumas–that is, it’s wordy, literate, and full of narrative filligree and little stylistic flourishes which ironically help flesh out the world and the characters far, far better than plainer prose. It’s a bit stilted, but it’s charming, often amusing, (“Oh bother,” said Tazendra, “I’ve lost the reins.”) and sometimes actually quite witty. (Citation needed.) Actual action is treated in classic style: with many flourishes and little detail and as much posturing as is necessary to show our heroes in a heroic light.

The characters are less of an attraction, mostly because they’ve already been established and the narrative convention is to keep them on a bit flatter of an arc than we’d normally see. Mostly the only development is between Piro and his love interest Ibronka, culminating in a highly amusing scene wherein their friends basically lock them in a closet to resolve the UST. Morrolan, the second lead, amusingly gets slighted by the biased narrator, who regards him as an unsophisticated country (human-raised) bumpkin who wavers between dangerously airheaded and just plain dangerous. Needless to say, Morrolan’s actual actions put a lie to everything but the dangerous bit.

So, overall: this is a good book, and it’s part of a series that once showed great promise. Unfortunately, given that the rest of the series fails signally to live up to that….I honestly can’t enjoy it anymore.

Rated: One half-exploded sorceress out of…well…one.