Monday, October 26, 2009

The Keep (Wilson, F. Paul)

Rating: 4
Year: 1981
Genre: Horror
Read again? In a few years.

April 28, 1941. Major Erich Kaempffer of the SS is diverted from his assignment in Ploiesti, Romania: a German army detachment has met with resistance and need reinforcements. Six men are dead. Kaempffer is sent with einsatzkommandos--SS extermination squad troops--to mop up the resistance. He will go from there to establish a death camp in Ploiesti--but he is to pacify the troublemakers first.

Kaempffer is bothered by the message sent from the army commander:

Request immediate relocation.
Something is murdering my men.

April 22, 1941. Captain Klaus Woermann and his men arrive at a small castle in Dinu Pass, in the Transylvanian Alps north of Ploiesti. It's always been known as the Keep, and it's been well-maintained. In contrast to the brooding, dark stone, there are thousands of brass-and-nickel crosses inlaid in the walls. Woermann warns his men against stealing any of them.

A private on guard duty finds a gold-and-silver cross and decides to take it.

Others come to investigate his screams and those of his accomplice. The private is dead, his head torn clean off. His partner in crime is catatonic.

There's a large hole in the wall, stones pushed out: something found its way out.

April 23. The catatonic thief dies, his throat torn out.
April 24. A man on guard duty dies.
April 25. A man on guard duty dies. The guard is doubled.
April 26. A man asleep in his bedroll dies. Everyone on guard duty, all night!
April 27. A man on guard duty dies in plain sight.
April 28. Kaempffer and his kommandos arrive. Two kommandos die. This time, a message is written in blood on the wall where the men were killed.

...and the Nazis' only hope of learning what is killing their men lies in a Jewish scholar.

As the first man dies, a red-haired man realizes that what he's dreaded has come to pass. He makes his way to the Keep....

The story plays out as a version of the vampire legend--Viscount Molasar hung out with Vlad the Impaler; he built the Keep to protect himself from his enemies; he casts no reflection, but silver and garlic aren't a problem; he cowers away from a crucifix, and the name "Jesus" causes him agony.

I remembered liking this book from the last time I read it, maybe 4 years ago. I'd forgotten just about everything, so I can't say whether I was as disappointed by the ending as I am now. Wilson has the red-haired man holding back on all of his important information until shortly before the Big Fight between him and Molasar. Everything we'd been led to think about the evil creature turns out to be wrong--and it feels cheap, or maybe just clumsily-executed. Still, it's much better than the movie Michael Mann made of it in 1983.

God Is Not Great (Hitchens, Christopher)

Rating: 5
Year: 2007
Genre: Religion; Atheism
Read Again? Yes (audiobook)

The only thing better than reading this book is having the author read it to you. Hitchens' calm, measured voice delivers a series of stinging indictments of each of the Big Three monotheist religions, but seems most intent on Catholicism.

He leads us far and wide: Muslims wigging out over some cartoons in 2006; Orthodox Jews wigging out over people doing things on Sabbath day; a Pope's complicity in the torture and murder of millions, then aiding and abetting the escape of known torturers and murderers after WW2; and the making of a star in 1969, soon known to the world as Mother Teresa.

Hitchens further discusses the chief claims of religious apologists "against" atheism--claims I see nearly daily in the alt.atheism newsgroup--such as the "atheistic" regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and other totalitarian regimes. He points out that totalitarianism is fundamentalism, with the state--and, by definition, the leader of that state--taking the position of the object of worship.

Not that anything in this book will de-convert the hard-headed, determined believer who is already possessed of The Truth. This isn't Hitchens' goal; only thinking readers need approach.

I'm looking forward to getting the actual book soon; the audiobook format lends itself to filling in those long, boring stretches of time known as "work," but I couldn't stop to take notes when Hitchens made a point I would have liked to scribble about.

On a Beam of Light (Brewer, Gene)

Rating: 4
Year: 2001
Genre: Comdey/Sci-Fi
Read again? In a few years

prot returns almost to the minute 5 years after his departure for his homeworld of K-PAX. It's August 17, 1995.

Dr. Brewer had concluded that prot was no alien, but rather an alternate personality created by Robert Porter to defend himself against traumatic situations--first, when his father died, then when he was molested by his "uncle," and most recently--in August of 1985--when his wife and daughter were murdered. When prot left at the end of "K-PAX," Robert became catatonic, curled up on a bed, unresponsive to any stimulus.

Now, prot/Robert has awakened, and prot announces that this time he's leaving for good--and he's willing to take 100 people with him! Brewer only has a few weeks to bring Robert closer to a cure. As he investigates Robert's background and gets more and more of his story from the man himself, Brewer finds that there are more than just Robert and prot living in there:

Robert--the innocent.
prot--the alien pal, calm, rational, highly intelligent.
Harry--the protector; he killed the man who killed Robert's family.
Paul--the lover; because of the molestation by his uncle, Robert is seriously messed-up where sex is concerned.

In the meantime, everyone wants to talk to prot--the CIA, biologists, astronomers, and people who want to go to K-PAX. Is he really just an alternate persona? If he is, what happened to the woman who left with him at the end of the last book? Why is there a slight difference in DNA in the blood samples taken from prot and Robert?

As with the first, a light and fun read.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

K-PAX (Brewer, Gene)

Rating: 4
Year: 1995
Genre: Sci-Fi/Comedy
Read Again? In another few years

Time for that Lackey-free zone again.

Gene Brewer--as Dr. Gene Brewer, a head mechanic--narrates his story of a pleasant-seeming man in his thirties who becomes a patient at the Manhattan Psychiatric Institute. He's known only as "prot" (rhymes with "goat") and claims to be from one of the stars in the Lyra constellation. His WORLD is K-PAX (prot has such disdain for humanity, he does not capitalize names--but his respect for stellar objects is such that he renders them all-caps).

prot was picked up by the New York Police Department after he was found standing over a mugging victim. Brewer schedules one session a week, on Wednesdays, and the book's chapters are numbered accordingly.

Brewer learns that prot and his fellow X-PAXians live in Utopian conditions: the weather is always pleasant; there is no crime; everyone provides for everyone else; a typical life is 1,000 years; there is no pollution, no one eats animals, and sex doesn't drive anyone to misbehave or harm others. When asked how his people travel the vast distances of interstellar space, prot smiles condescendingly and tells him it's done with mirrors.

By the 5th Session, Brewer learns that prot is leaving for K-PAX on August 17th, 1990 (less than 3 months away), at 3:31 a.m. precisely. This gives us a clock to watch: Will Brewer figure out what's happening in prot's head and find out who he really is?

"K-PAX" isn't a sci-fi story in the typical vein; we don't see any flashy technology or travel to other worlds--we just have prot's word that it's real, and all done with mirrors.

I like Brewer's style--spare, straightforward, conversational, like a friend over coffee instead of the author-as-performer. His humor isn't screamingly funny, but it's not forced like Lackey's sometimes feels. The story's engaging. It's not Great Literature--but it doesn't try to pretend that it is anything more.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Valdemar 20: Winds of Fury (Lackey)

Rating: 5
Year: 1993
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

The 20th book. Third in the "Mage Winds" trilogy. Six. Six! SIX more books left, but after this one I'm taking a break, considering that I've done 10 Lackey books in a row.

We begin with King Ancar of Hardorn. He's been at war with Valdemar for a decade and is fed up with his lack of progress. He's been learning magic, but his teacher has been holding out on him, and he's fed up with her, as well. When the evil, cat-like Mornelithe Falconsbane falls at his feet after a dangerous experiment, Ancar can't believe his good fortune. He wastes no time getting controlling spells into place--and now Ancar has an Adept--and through Falconsbane, the power he's always wanted.

Next, we return to Elspeth as she and her merry band prepare to leave the Vale, finally headed back to Valdemar to start protecting her country from Ancar's depradations. They get hijacked by an old friend of ours: Herald-Mage Vanyel, whose body died centuries ago (in a battle with Leareth, a previous incarnation of Falconsbane), but whose ghost protects the northern border of Valdemar. After some important plot points are laid in, they finally get back to the capital and get to work training new mages.

And now, our third major character, An'desha. It seems that this young Shin'a'in lad owns the body that Falconsbane has been living in for several decades. And now things are happening that might get him that body back. All An'desha has to do is feed information about Falconsbane to representatives of his Goddess, who will get that info to the folks in Valdemar who need it.

This book went by a lot more quickly than the previous two did. The only real nitpick I have is with a pretty important plot point. Just before the big confrontation at the end, we're told that Nyara--Falconsbane's daughter--is able to bear children. It's used as a reason for the good guys to destroy his spirit before he can be reborn. Okay, okay, fine--but Nyara was established as unable to have children in the previous book.

I won't kill any points over that, though; not because I'm being nice, but because I know how hard it is to keep plot points and details straight over several years of writing, even between just two books in a series, or even between chapters. All things considered, Lackey has done a good job keeping the story going.

All the same, I'm glad to be nearly done with the series. It's one thing to read-and-forget, but blogging about it makes me have to think about what I'm reading.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Valdemar 19: Winds of Change (Lackey)

Rating: 4
Year: 1993
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes.

Number 19, with 7 left. Second in the "Mage Winds" Elspeth trilogy.

We begin with Elspeth and Skif being adopted into the Tayledras Clan they've been helping. Everyone's happy--they all think (wishfully) that the evil mage who's been harrassing the Clan for a decade and more is dead. We learn that the Tayledras--the "Brothers of the Hawk"--were set by their Goddess to cleanse the lands of twisted magic and creatures, to make it safe for regular people to move in and live their lives.

We follow Nyara, the cat-like woman, daughter of the evil Mornelithe Falconsbane (Mornelithe: hatred-that-returns). She has found a hiding place where the talking magic sword Need can train her without disturbance.

Skif goes off with Darkwind's brother Wintermoon (yeah, all of the Tayledras have names like that) to find Nyara, for he's in moon-eyed love with her.

Elspeth and Darkwind begin training in magic.

Falconsbane isn't dead. He's resting, and brooding upon revenge. We learn that he's the latest incarnation of the evil Ma'ar, the Mage of Black Fire, supposedly destroyed in the Cataclysm. Ma'ar had an escape plan: he hid his spirit away, waiting for a suitable descendant to try simple magic that would trigger Ma'ar's return. He would possess the body, destroy its owner's spirit, and continue with his evil plans (Total World Domination, and all that). One of his incarnations was Leareth--whom Herald Vanyel fought to the death in the "Last Herald Mage" trilogy.

A better book than the one before; the pacing is a bit tighter and there aren't as many continuity problems in the story as there were in the first one. Plenty of fussy little Lackeyisms, but I should be used to those by now.