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The Scar Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn book review

Amid all the books of fantasy detectives and secret agents, The Scar Crow Men is the story of a fantasy secret agent in the 17th century. Fair enough. But what sets the Scar Crow Men apart is its grounding in a historical reality, Mark Chadbourn does a great job of bringing London of the period to life in all its strangeness.

Unfortunately the book is also uneven. There are absolutely great moments of Will and his allies dodging around plague pits and palaces on the run from a supernatural enemy, the fay, who have unnatural powers, torture and kill on a whim, and whose very sight drives men mad. And then the corner turns and the fay become just more redshirts to be mown down by Will, and even when they capture him, what follows is the usual “Let me tell you all my plans right before you escape from my fortress” bit.

Somewhere halfway through Scar Crow Men, and its promising beginning in the intrigue of the court and the grimness of the alleys of London, the book jettisons most of the horror and trades it in for cliches. The visit to France to encounter the thing that drove a man so mad that he killed an entire village, leads to nothing. The climactic hunt for the magic weapon that will change everything is anticlimactic and the weapon and how it works is undeveloped.

But to add insult to injury, the closing of the book reveals that the entire thing was pointless leaving The Scar Crow Men with an idiot plot.

Spoilers begin here…

The entire plot hinged on Kit Marlowe, the playwright, having known what was really going on, hiding the information in a ridiculously complicated cipher scattered around all over the place. It never made much sense that he would do this, and there was no real point to him doing it. The enemy already knew its own nature, so there was never anything to hide, and no reason Marlowe couldn’t have just put the actual information in his message.

Still that level of complexity can be accepted for the narrative’s sake… until Chadbourn has Marlowe step out in the final scene (after beating and tying up Will for no particular reason) to reveal that he was around all along, and could have told him how to defeat the plot against England at any time. That’s when a ridiculous plot becomes an idiot plot. (If you guessed that Chadbourn then reveals that Marlowe is the real Shakespeare, 2 points for nailing the last cliche.)

Marlowe is the shadow that hangs over The Scar Crow Men. Chadbourn worships him and insists on having all the characters worship him. He sets the plot in motion by his pointless secrecy, and keeps it going that way. And his return from the dead mans that there was no reason for anything that happened, except that if Marlowe had sent a brief note, it would have been a shorter and perhaps better novel.

High King of Montival by S.M. Stirling book review

High King of Montival by S.M. StirlingIf you took every single dinner party or mealtime out of the second phase of the Dies the Fire series, it wouldn’t have taken four books just to get Rudy and the gang to and back from Nantucket. To its limited credited, High King of Montival does manage to get them back in one book. But not without visiting everyone along the way. And attending all their dinner parties. A dinner party for the Maine Vikings. A dinner party for the Boise nobility. A dinner party in Wisconsin. A meal out in the wilderness. On and on until there’s more meals and dinners than battles. More dinner parties than the hobbits ate at in Lord of the Rings.

Four books in and there’s finally a sword, which is a deus ex machine that can read minds, project thoughts, teach languages and do everything. Characters get married. There’s a brief battle against the Cutters over in Canada’s Alberta province, which is the only place in North America to still have something like a non-feudal democratic government. And not much else.

The High King of Montival reruns the characters and situations from the previous books, wrapping them up, but mostly dragging them out. There are a few good moments, one as the travelers climb to the top of Toronto’s CN tower, but it’s a rare exception to a narrative which satisfies itself with more homecomings, detailed descriptions of food and repetitive banter. There’s a brief spurt of energy with the Cutter ambush but that dissolves into a generic homecoming. It’s not quite a cliffhanger, but it’s clear this story will drag on through more and more books.

Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson book review

40 pages in and Dust of Dreams, the ninth book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series looks like it might be the most astounding fantasy

Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson

novel in some time. 400 pages in and you’re bored to tears and can’t wait for it to end. But there are 400 more pages to go.

Dust of Dreams is to the Wheel of Time, as Black Swan is to Showgirls, a classier version without the energy. Dust of Dreams is well written, but the writing consists of the same thing done over and over again. There are too many characters and almost all of them spend frightening amounts of time agonizing about who they are, what the point of doing anything is and whether life has any meaning. And they do it for page after page.

There are gripping elements here and a dramatically edited down book might have captured them. The children’s journey across the desert deserves to stand on its own. So does the Malazan army’s last stand. But instead chapter after chapter goes to the prolonged bickering and internal debates of too many characters. Most of it adding up to nothing. Maybe a 100 pages or more dedicated to seven bickering characters who are parts of a split personality, leading to an awakening of a character who doesn’t seem to show up in this novel. A 150 pages on the rape and torture of Onos Toolan’s wife Hetan, then the failed rescue attempt by her brother, and the extermination of the White Face Barghast. Nothing anyone does makes a difference and the material is ugly, unpleasant and pointless. It leads nowhere.

Dust of Dreams might be more defensible, if Erikson didn’t top off his philosophical meandering with the trite. The K’Chain Che’Malle’s search for a new religion ends with Kathyn telling them to believe in compassion. The K’Chain Che’Malle are an ancient civilization with a high level of technology who are about to be exterminated, until two Malazan warriors show up with innovations like using shields and strategic formations, and rekindle their hope with their human confidence. For a book so determined to be smart, that isn’t smart at all.

Winter Duty by E.E. Knight book review

If Fall with Honor seemed to show Valentine maturing as a commander, Winter Duty takes him on a mission to recoverWinter Duty E.E. Knight some wounded troops that is a lot less interesting than it sounds. Usually the Vampire Earth books move from location to location, but Winter Duty follows up Fall with Honor’s occupation and reconstruction work in Kentucky. Initially that makes for some good reading. Kentucky’s vote for independence and a bombing plot that might have been orchestrated from the inside had potential, but instead Winter Duty takes Valentine away from his men and on a rescue mission with a group of mercs.

The back cover promises that the Kurians mean to kill everyone. The donut man hints at the same. But their plan is tamer and relies on using a biological weapon. Again there are some tense moments, but the whole thing works out with another ridiculously anticlimactic ending with hardly a shot fired.

Winter Duty is among the weaker of the books so far. It detaches Valentine from what seemed like character development on a mission with a matron looking to either save her ranch or bring back her son. It’s okay as an episode of Bonanza, but weak otherwise. The ending moves to an explosive revelation, but Valentine’s decision is incomprehensible.

The scourge of god by S.M. Stirling book review

The scourge of god by S.M. StirlingIf you aren’t familiar with the Emberverse series, the Nantucket section dumps the island of Nantucket into the bronze age, while the Dies the Fire part takes away most modern technology including gunpowder and electricity. It doesn’t make any sense, but it gives Stirling a chance to drag everyone into medieval times. And in this second phase, it’s no longer Science Fiction, but straight up fantasy.

There’s an anointed hero, villains with demonic powers and a magical sword. Every power structure becomes dynastic. The one exception in President Thurston’s Idaho quickly turns back into dynastic rule, when he’s assassinated by his son. Everywhere there is nothing but serfs and lords, with the limited exception of the Wiccans. Like every other book in the series, there’s lots of Wiccan crap here, and by that I mean prayers, rituals and songs. But there’s also a decent amount of adventure.

The Emberverse is a franchise by now, and scourge of god continues the second phase of the series as Rudi and his friends journey east in search of a sword, while being pursued by a Cutter cult that’s like a cross between the Unabomber and Islam. In the second phase, the Wiccan stuff isn’t just a sidebar, there are actual demons who possess the cult members and Rudi gains his own superpowers. Along the way, the nine encounter local color, including Mormons, a Tibetan Buddhist temple, Sioux Indians and Des Moines as the biggest city of the new world.

As befits a middle book in a fantasy series, things get dark and grim. Rudi’s first attempt to rescue a captive Mormon settlement goes down badly and kills most of the women and almost gets him killed too. One of the Rangers loses an eye. The story is uneven after the aborted rescue attempt, with too much color, an implausible Buddhist town, and a journey whose only real purpose is to drag things out until the end of the book. And the book ends on another cliffhanger, with some of the nine again in custody, and Rudi on his own.

Imager’s Challenge by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. book review

Is it fair to negatively review a book not on its own merits, but because it’s a carbon copy of half a dozen books just like it that the author already wrote? That’s the question that comes up with Imager’s Challenge by L. E. Modesitt, Jr., a book that reads well enough on its own merits, but is a virtual carbon copy of many of Modesitt’s Recluse books, right down to the beat cop assignment, which he had used in a recent Recluse novel only a few years ago.

Unlike Imager, Imager’s Challenge doesn’t crib from The Name of the Wind, but that just means Modesitt cribs from himself instead. And Imager’s Challenge has all the standard material. An earnest and incredibly talented young protagonist, forced by his magical power to join a special guild, and deal with obstinate superiors who manipulate him and refuse to tell him what he needs to know. A chunk of this goes all the way back to The Magic of Recluse, right down to the main character. There’s the usual conspiracy and a climax in which the main character figures out how to use his magic power to make things go boom.

Taken on its own, Imager’s Challenge is reasonably well written. The world building isn’t bad either, though pseud0-European 19th century settings are a dime a dozen now. And Modesitt just made the Recluse world, without Recluse and with a different magic system. Modesitt controls his urge to describe everything the character eats in great detail, but not by very much. There are thousands of words dedicated to describing meals. Much of the rest is dedicated to procedures in the job the main character has taken on and lectures about moral principles. Again standard fare for Modesitt.

But Modesitt has shown that he can actually take on different universes. The Ghost of the Revelator is set in a very different world. Imager though is a way to create a cheap new universe, without really going out and doing it.

March in Country by E.E. Knight book review

March in Country by E.E. KnightMarch in Country is the latest book in the Vampire Earth series and it carries on the same story as Fall with Honor and Winter Duty, as Valentine plays a role in bringing Kentucky out of the grip of the Kurian Order. Knight is clearly working with American history, and the last three novels have been trying to turn Valentine from a commando into a commander of armies. But Winter Duty was weak, and too many Kentucky novels may have made the series too joyless, so March in Country sends off Valentine from Kentucky to Missouri to pull a Grog population out of the grip of the Gray Baron, a top human servant of the alien Kurians, and back to Kentucky.

The material isn’t all that new, we’ve seen Valentine working in the Kurian order’s perverse societies before, but it’s a vast improvement over Winter Duty. March in Country has more content and a grander scale operation, on par with what Fall with Honor promised us. But there are major logic flaws. Some of it may be bad editing. But March in Country is full of events that happen for no real reason. The entire climactic showdown with the Grey Baron happens out of thin air. And it doesn’t get much better from there.

Knight has always had problems with anticlimactic endings, and March in Country is no different. There are solid moments, including an ambush by a school of teenagers and a battle against the Delta, but just as Winter Duty had Valentine miss the major battle, so does March in Country. And then there is the traitor from the last novel, who has somehow become a trusted operative with no explanation given of how the transition happened. A hidden lifeweaver is revealed and then possibly merged with Valentine or not, it’s hard to tell. March in Country is a large book, but there’s too much missing. Like the rest of the series, it’s a decent enough fast food read, but the narrative doesn’t hold together as well as it should.

The Devil’s Eye by Jack McDevitt

The Devil’s Eye has a potentially interesting plot about a planet of 2 billion people about to be hit by a hypernova from a nearby star, The Devil's Eye Jack McDevittburied by among other things, an irritating narrator, Chase Kolpath, her boss, Alex Benedict, and a focus on horror that’s completely out of place and context once you’re told what the actual threat is.

There are so many things wrong with The Devil’s Eye that it’s hard to know where to start, and most of them begin and end with Jack McDevitt’s limitations as a writer. McDevitt is a talented writer who works within very narrow limits. The Devil’s Eye is supposed to take place thousands of years in the future, but its society is almost exactly like our own. And when he sets out to describe a superior intelligent alien race with telepathic abilities, the Mutes, they also turn out to be just like us.

McDevitt insists on writing stories set thousands of years in the future, yet he can never create a believable future society, alien or human. Thousands of years in the future, everyone still listens to music from the 50’s and watches Broadway musicals. When hardly anyone does that today. And the aliens, they have beaches, backyard barbecues and small town mayors.

Television is the one constant in McDevitt’s novels. Almost everyone, everywhere watches television, even if they call it HV. Even the telepathic mute aliens watch it, and their version of television becomes the pivotal element in the plot as Chase wins over the aliens with an interview with their version of Walter Cronkite on their version of 60 Minutes. I wish I was joking, but horrifyingly I’m not. The analogy is actually right there in the book.

Then there’s the other problem with The Devil’s Eye. Vicki Greene. By rights, this should have been Vicki Greene’s story. She’s the one who discovers what happened and takes a great risk to get the knowledge out to someone. Instead it’s Chase Kolpath’s and Alex Benedict’s story. And Chase is annoying, a one dimensional female character as drawn by a man. It’s not that McDevitt can’t write believable female characters who have depth, he did it in the Roadmakers. Even his Academy series has believable female characters. But with Chase Kolpath, he seems to have taken the advice of Jack Nicholson’s character on writing women in As Good As It Gets. Alex Benedict isn’t much better, a thin shell in search of a personality. If Chase is supposed to play Watson to Benedict’s Holmes, it fails on both levels.

Then there’s the horror element in The Devil’s Eye. It might have seemed like a good idea to McDevitt to tell the story that way from a horror angle, too bad he doesn’t seem to know what horror is. His excerpts from Vicki Greene’s novels either read like the excerpts from his usual archeology books or from really awful romance novels. At the end we’re told that Greene goes down as one of the literary giants of the age. If that’s so, the hypernova didn’t go far enough in destroying the entire galaxy. There’s no actual horror angle here, which makes a 100 or so pages of Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath touring haunted sites at odds with the rest of the book.

There’s a brief period in the middle half of the book that has Chase and Benedict on the run from the authorities who are trying to cover up the imminent death of most of their population that’s exciting and actually gets at the meat of The Devil’s Eye. What do you do when a planet of 2 billion is threatened with death. Except McDevitt mostly ignores the question and shifts the terrain from the rescue effort to the Mute planet. Then he throws in a shield that can stop the radiation and saves Salud Afar from any and all harm.

The Devil’s Eye might have been a better book with a different narrator and with a focus on the actual crisis.

Fall With Honor by E.E. Knight book review

Fall With Honor by E.E. KnightThe series is Vampire Earth, but more accurately the books are military SF about an armed resistance to the alien occupation of America with everything from Dune’s worms to vampires thrown in along the way.

Fall with Honor isn’t as goofy as that summary makes it sound. E.E. Knight is a reasonable successor to S.M. Stirling. Like Stirling he does a good job of rooting an ongoing struggle in daily mundane affairs. Fall with Honor focuses on an attempt to link up with a resistance movement in West Virginia on a march that takes a regiment and Valentine’s rag tag band of pardoned Quisling collaborators through Kentucky to West Virginia. And like a few of the Vampire Earth books, things don’t go according to plan.

Knight is trying to move Valentine more naturally up the chain of command, giving him more command experience. The title tells the story well enough. Fall with Honor is about what happens when the plan doesn’t work and the fallback is to stand and fight or run away. It’s not an original story, but the book does a decent job of laying out the military realities. The Moondaggers are a little too exaggerated and the big battle is anticlimactic, but Fall with Honor is an improvement over Valentine’s Resolve.

Dreamsongs Volume I by George R.R. Martin book review

Dreamsongs Volume I by George R.R. Martin Dreamsongs Volume I is more of an autobiographical collection than a collection of short stories. That’s an important difference for anyone buying the book to read some great short stories. Dreamsongs Volume 1 has a roughly 3/4 to 1 ratio of stories to biographical essays about his own life by Martin. The stories are arranged in biographical order beginning with Martin’s efforts as a teenager. 5 or 6 of the stories are from his fanzine days or his earliest work and are not up to the quality that’s worth paying for.

Most of the best stories in Dreamsongs are also Martin’s better known pieces, like Sandkings, The Way of Cross and Dragon and Stone City, and they’re already available in his Sandkings short story collection. The collection is out of print but you can easily find copies for only a few dollars. Diehard fans of George R.R. Martin might find Dreamsongs worthwhile, but I still have to question the ethics of including fanzine work in a 27 dollar volume. Or the point of padding out Martin’s decent body of short stories with so much biographical material.

What’s odd about Dreamsongs is that George R.R. Martin is a reasonably talented writer, but much better writers didn’t receive this kind of multi-volume biographical series for their short stories. Isaac Asimov was the only writer I can think of that had anything close to this, and those volumes collected virtually all of his short stories. Dreamsongs doesn’t do that. It skips over some of Martin’s pro work to showcase a college age story about the fall of a Swedish fortress or his unlikely first sale, Hero, to Galaxy, about as cliched and flat an anti-war story as you could find. Dreamsongs’ setup only make sense if you think that George R.R. Martin is so compelling that you care more about gaining insight into him, than reading his stories.

I’ve often said that a short story collection focusing on a single writer doesn’t do them much of a favor. Seeing those stories piled together, instead of separately, makes it all too easy to spot the common denominators. To go, “Tower of Ashes is just Morning Comes Mistfall and A Song for Lya. Or look at Seven Times Never Kill Man, and realize that Martin sure does write a whole lot of stories about alien gods and myths that seduce human arrivals. It’s not a completely fair assessment, but reading Dreamsongs can make you think of Martin as a cross between V.E. Van Vogt and H.P. Lovecraft, or with the context of his fanzine work, make you think that Martin is a decent worldbuilder who does mood pieces that are inspired by comics and serials.

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