Saturday, May 29, 2021

Doctor Inferno, by Pam Uphoff

I would have gotten this book, just because it’s written by one of the Masters of Prolificity, Pam Uphoff. Once you start reading her work, you will never finish (at least, not as long as you are trying to do other things with your life); but what a great way to go!

However, there was another reason for picking this volume, and that is that the person on the front cover looks A LOT like me, with some few differences; my hairline hasn’t receded that far back, yet. I was delighted to find that this represents a super-villain, and more so to discover that he’s about three hundred years older than I. So, I have a while to work on the hairline.

Alas, William N. Furnace (Dr. Inferno) and I appear to have at least one other thing in common: we forget things. He forgets what senior activities he has signed up for; I forget to review books I’ve gotten. This particular item was picked up on March 11; today is May 29. 

Sorry, Pam.

He’s long since retired, and been forgotten by the world. That’s what permits him to live undisturbed in a senior facility, close enough to the bright lights of Las Vegas to permit monthly field trips. Undisturbed, despite the fact that one of his fellow residents is a former agent who had pursued him during his days of active mischief. Time has healed those wounds, however, and now they have a bond formed by the fact that they are both inactive, due to being more than three centuries old. They expect that even their advanced, and manipulated, DNA will give out eventually, though, as it has already shown signs of doing.

But, don’t touch that dial! A comeback awaits!

A combination of irascibility, luck, and general refusal to accept fate without fighting back puts our aged ex-villain back into action. Backed with resources accumulated by his long-active AI, Dr Inferno emerges, just in time to threaten/save the world, one more time.

Uphoff’s ability to make you feel the characters she produces is enough to cause one to be just a bit suspicious. Does she actually KNOW a near-senescent super-villain? Is that why she is able to make this character come to life so thoroughly?

Alas. I fear that it’s merely a case of her being able to write characters that we want to be, ourselves. Is there anyone who WOULDN’T like to rise above the wheelchair and adult diapers, and shake the world to its’ foundations again? 

Maybe it’s just because the cover image and I resemble each other, but I think not. I would have liked to read this when I was 12 years old. I was, of course, a confirmed FAN by that time. And, while the technology referenced in the story would have been far advanced for 1965, the true nature of the adventure lies in the determination of the characters to Get The Job Done. And, as long as she is writing about that, not private relationships with super-villains are necessary.

I’m not ruling them out, though. She does, after all, live in Texas.

Peace be on your household.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

"Night Mage" (Academic Magic Book 2), by Becky R. Jones

The “Academic Magic” series, of which this is the second installment, delightfully mixes the savagery of battles in the halls of higher education with the more civilized conflicts found in the world of magic. An evil mage will merely seek your death, and subordination of the world to their will; the wicked academic, on the other hand, will seek to sabotage your research, have you assigned to a windowless cubicle without access to a copier, and try to make you grovel in order to obtain the golden apple that is TENURE. There truly can be no question as to where the greater peril will be found.

The team which bonded to prevent a demon from destroying the Philadelphia area in the first book has returned, and a few characters are added in the course of the story. For the opposing team, casualties attendant upon their loss have reduced their number, and the influence those that remain are able to bring to bear is significantly reduced.  Dr. Zoe O’Brien, a recent addition to the history faculty and our protagonist, has the vain hope that this will bring a period of peace and tranquility to the campus in general, and her life in particular. Alas, Nature abhors a vacuum, and the depleted forces of the plotters are supplemented by new hires and new powers.

If that were not enough, Zoe’s mentor in things academic as well as magical has been tapped to cover certain administrative tasks for the college, previously managed by one of the vanquished. Thus, he has essentially abandoned his role as her trainer, in favor of meeting the demands of his new position. 

On the other hand, she has cats; cats who can not only talk to humans, but also communicate with other animals (the Watchers) who are sensitive to magical influences. As long as she meets their demands for food and cuddles, they will provide her with the support they think she needs to be successful. The operative term, as anyone who is a servant of cats will understand, is that the advice will be provided according to the CAT’S schedule, not the human’s.

The new crisis is revealed when a previously undiscovered source of magical influence, in the form of ley lines, is reported to Zoe by a Watcher.

As she is a quite recent initiate to the world of magic, and her own powers, she has no way of evaluating the significance or impact of the discovery. Therefore, at first she doesn’t really know whether the message the Watcher has brought her is cause for great alarm, or not, although she suspects the former. Her confusion is compounded by frustrations with the way the experienced magic users are able to pass along the benefits of their wisdom. 

As the main plot moves along, little threads are planted that will (surely) have future payoffs. The powers of student Declan, his relationship with his djinn father, and mixed messages with his academic and magical advisor suggest development at some later date. In addition, Zoe is able to break out some information from her mother about her own parentage, and the bizarre behavior of her absent father. A third point that does directly affect the main story line is the revelation that not all magical agents can be said to be firmly in either camp, enemy or ally. 

And always remember: food service on campus usually provides dismal meals, but they DO make a good burger. 

Peace be on your household.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

"Responsibility of the Crown," by G. Scott Huggins

 I have read a lot of  Scott Huggins’ work over the years, with delight. This was not one of those experiences.

On a world dominated by a great ocean, three different cultures are brought into conflict: The Consortium, a technologically advanced, expansionist civilization, with both land and sea power; the Grove, a merchant nation with massive trading ships, that journey for decades between stops at the home port; and, Evenmarch, which blends dragon and human citizens with reliance on supernatural forces. These are not the only forces at play, but they form the background  against which the characters play out their own drama.

I found two bizarrely disruptive changes from what I have come to expect of this author: first, there are huge gaps in the narrative; second, the protagonist has an irritatingly lumpy progression in her character arc.

The first gap in the narrative comes at the very beginning. Without ANY preparation, we are tossed into an action scene involving Responsibility and Zhad. We are clued in to the fact that Zhad is blind, by the statement that his eyes are white, and his demand that Responsibility tell him what she sees, but we are given NOTHING to tell us about who, or what, or even where Responsibility is, or the significance of her name.  In the “Acknowledgments” section, the author mentions two prior works involving the character, and perhaps all the necessary back-story is contained there. However, none of that was available to me, and I had to collect the history in minute amounts as it was doled out in the narrative. Had this been an author I was not familiar with, or less favorably inclined toward, I would not have bothered. 

There is a similar gap, although not as severe, in the narrative between chapters 7 and 8. At the end of Chapter 7, Responsibility, now known by her true name of Azriyqam, has just faced a death duel, and has been given significant instruction on  aspects of loyalty and unity. In the very next page, with no transition given at all, we read that she is drowning, followed by a confusing narrative about her instruction in the supernatural arts. I found this to be utterly disorienting; it took me entirely out of the story.

The second significant glitch I encountered was the  inconsistent progress that the protagonist makes during the story. Admittedly, there is much she has to adjust to;  initially, she is a much abused and neglected prisoner, always fearing for her life. Very early in the book, however, she discovers that she is the daughter of the ruler of a powerful kingdom.  The whole of the book deals with her spiritual journey to accept and emerge into her new role. 

However, she is both poorly instructed, in some cases, and then often resistant to what instruction she is given. For example, we learn that she is unable to to pronounce certain phrases of power correctly, as long as she clings to her learned accent. However, if she intentionally mimics the speech of one of her antagonistic characters, her pronunciation is perfect. Despite learning this trick, however, she refuses to implement it.
She seems to shift back and forth, from acceptance to rejection, at random. 
Her stubborn refusal to accept the need to adapt is mirrored perfectly in another character, who is forced by circumstances to become an ally. In her case, though, she has her intransigent behavior stuffed into her face:

“Are you going to keep underestimating us, Captain? Or will you consider that you may have something to learn?” (Huggins, G. Scott. Responsibility of the Crown . New Mythology Press. Kindle Edition.)

And, who is the wiser person who forces this realization? None other than Responsibility/Azriyqam. So, if she preach it, why can’t she live it out?

I really liked the culture clashes possible with the three distinct civilizations. The great world-spanning oceans might be exactly what permits each grouping to go its’ own way, with civilizations based on water at a technological disadvantage to those with access to mineral resources on land. The story of the Lost Princess/Prince is a good one, and can be enjoyed in many permutations. I also appreciate the various aspects of sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic being used in the story; at one point, radio is explained by one character to another as sorcery, because the tech is too confusing. 

Although much of the main storyline is resolved, there are many threads that can be followed in the future. I hope that in those theoretical future volumes, the author will provide the reader with enough history to prevent the disorientation that I experienced. I certainly remain a fan of his work, and hope to see more on the way.

Peace be on your household

Monday, May 24, 2021

"When Valor Must Hold," Book One, Rob Howell, editor

(Amazon Associates link)

Sigh. Another anthology. These are almost always my favorite things to read, but my least favorite things to review.
I love to read them, because they were the first form I was able to enjoy, once I discovered my passion for reading. Being a bookworm with ADD meant that grabbing a big thick chapter book just wasn’t in the cards; but short stories? Yes, those kept my attention quite nicely. And today, sometimes my need for escape is far better met a small bite at a time.
Reviewing them, on the other hand, is a massive undertaking. Each author has compacted an experience into a very small package, and my job is to share that with the reading public. If it’s a novel I’m reviewing, that’s one job; in this anthology, it’s fourteen jobs. To that, add the fact that SOME short stories turn on a small plot twist, or a pun, even, and that I must NOT give that away because SPOILER….and, it’s tough.
Yet, my valor must hold; I must do the job I am called to do. So, let us gird up our loins, and dive into the stories. The monsters await!

Darkness Before the Dawn by Christopher Woods. Things haven’t worked out for Zaro. He has an affinity for each of the elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, but none of them selected him for training. So, he was left without a career, and separated from his true love, who was bound to Water. Rather than give up, though, he sets his hand to do what he can; and he does his duty, with each new day.

The Game’s Afoot by Christopher G. Nuttall. The people at the top do this and that, and believe that their whims rule reality. It’s always left up to the grunts to get the job done, though. 

The Ogre’s Brownies by RJ Ladon. Dogumrik is a brownie warrior, fierce and brave; but: tiny. The measure of the heart is far more than stature, though.

Dust in the Mouth by William Joseph Roberts. Draven is independent, before he is anything else. Even so, he willingly pledges his service to travelers he meets in the forest. But there are more dangers than sword and beasts to overcome.

Hanging by a Thread by Benjamin Tyler Smith. What a strange place to set a story! Some folks are dead, though still moving around; others are maybe not. But regardless of their status, it seems that without good policing, the mighty will ever persecute the weak.

Shard’s Fortress by Dexter Herron. This anthology contains 82 f-bombs, by Kindle count. 79 of those are contained in this selection. Is there a story, in addition? Possibly, and that’s a shame, because anything worthwhile is lost in noise.  I gave up, in disgust, after the third or fourth page. I don’t think it’s funny, and I really don’t know why someone with the authority to do so didn’t point out that 79 f-bombs gets tiresome.

Horse’s Heart by Sarah A. Hoyt. When it looks like all is lost, a myth turns out to be true. The tale of multiple heroes, but mostly of one who conquered his own death.

Island of Bones by William Alan Webb. The magicians hitch a ride with the smugglers, and snark at each other; the dialogue is worth the price of admission. Finding faithfulness in the treacherous is also quite pleasant, but I don’t think I understand what happened at the end.

Goddess’s Tears by Cedar Sanderson. Strip away the magnificent language, and the adventure, and you have the story of an abused and neglected woman who has had enough. Because she faces supernatural opposition, she has supernatural support; it’s her determination that makes liberation possible, though, and there is nothing supernatural about that. Magnificent, but not supernatural.

Hold the Line by Kevin Steverson and Tyler Ackerman. This is the story of the scouts. Circumstances deprive them of their role, but they report for duty anyway, and do what is needed.

What’s in a Name by Rob Howell. The protagonist begins the story disoriented, and I joined him in that; I didn’t have any idea WHAT was really going on for quite some time, which isn’t something I enjoy. It turns out to be a tale of conflicting loyalties.

The Errand by Jon R. Osborne. Vikings are jerks, and Vikings with magic are REALLY hard to kill. Even a ferocious Irish archer can use some magical help, from time to time, in order to fight back.

No Trade for Nice Guys by D.J. Butler. I’m not familiar with Indrajit and Fix, but they seem like a lovely pair of sell-swords. They have a way of making things work out, even if they aren’t playing with a full deck.

Fistful of Silver by Quincy J. Allen. Rellen is a sort of bounty hunter, or roving problem-solver. Magic is nicely limited in application in this story, by factors we can understand: if we haven’t LEARNED a language, we can’t read it. Getting to the root of the problem requires some serious detective work.

I found some of the stories to be excellent, and this despite the fact that fantasy really is NOT my cup of tea. Of the rest, all, with the notable exception of Shard's Fortress, were quite palatable, and worth the read. 

Peace be on your household.

Friday, May 21, 2021

"Jaguar Rising," by Amanda S. Green


(an Associates link)

The first book in this series, Nocturnal Origins, was one of the first books I reviewed when I started out in 2014. I blush now, when I admit that I wrote the review with my tongue so firmly placed in my cheek that my ear was slightly bruised. At the time,  I was a bit put off by message-fiction, in which all of the value seemed to be related to whether some social or political agenda was promoted, and good story-telling was ignored.  As an act of rebellion, I decided to write the review as if I were one of the worst of the message-fiction lovers, and had missed the point, utterly. The title of my review on Amazon was “A blisteringly erotic LGBT allegory.”

I blush, again.

If my count is correct, this is the tenth installment in the story of Mackenzie Santos, who started her story as a cop, only to have complications added over the past seven years (or so) of her life in literature. Thus we have a significant problem for the author who writes a series:

How do you address the disorientation of a reader who enters the world, somewhere other than at the beginning? And, how do you do that, without boring the reader who has been following the story all along?

Without detailing the alternatives, other than saying that failure to provide SOME mechanism to bring the initiate up to speed is a BAD choice, I think the method Amanda Green chose in this volume is magnificent. She incorporated most, if not all, of the necessary background into the narrative. Thus, as we see Captain Santos preparing for a new job, we are also given the history of the job she is leaving behind. Her relationships with friends and family are revealed, in the course of the discussion of who will attend which event, and which child needs a snack, and who will provide it.

A straight data dump would likely have been indigestible to the novice, and a waste of space for the committed fan of the story. Furthermore, the transition from background to current events would have been clunky; with this treatment, I found the transition to be perfectly seamless.  

I’m going to have to give part of my applause to the craftsmanship of the writing, and another part to what HAS to be some great planning of the story arc. Knowing what is going to happen in the life of the character isn’t always possible, I’ve learned, but it surely does make for good beginnings and endings to stories.

There is no guarantee that the principal characters in these stories are going to emerge unscathed, or even alive. After all, Santos herself dies in the first installment. However, WHATEVER befalls them is integral to the story; they aren’t killed off just for the sheer bloody-mindedness of it. So, be prepared to have some shocks, as you start your read. Green does NOT hamstring the villains, and in some cases, they accomplish their evil plans.

And those evil plans initiate RAPIDLY. Before the close of the second chapter, the action commences. I really wouldn’t call the book “action-packed,” as it isn’t one exploding spaceship/car chase after another. However, it IS story-packed, with no wasted narrative, and if there are any rabbit trails, I didn’t notice them.

The complications added to Santos’ life over the years are present in the storyline; we see her in her role as a cop, as a Marine officer, as a member of a family with close ties, and as a person with responsibilities to a greater organization. All of these are strongly positive in her life, but they also take a toll on her, and there are times when her fatigue is palpable; I found myself wanting to take a nap for her. 

I find myself wanting to tell the story, but I’m not going to do that, because spoilers. However, I WILL say this: there is no time in which Santos shape-shifts into a duck. I’m not saying whether that is a good thing or a bad thing; it WOULD bring an element of the absurd into the story, which would be out of place, but who am I to judge? At any rate rate, it doesn’t happen, and we can thank the good sense of the author for that.

Peace be on your household.