Friday, December 31, 2010

Myth #3: Myth Directions (Asprin, Robert)

Rating: 5
Year: 1982
Genre: Fantasy/Comedy
Read again? Yes.

Skeeve and Aahz are bored. The weather in Possiltum is rainy and miserable and there's not much for the Court Magician to do.

When Tanda (the hottie assassin chick) pops in looking for a shopping assistant, Aahz reluctantly agrees to let his student go with her. She lets Skeeve in on a secret: they're going to be looking for a birthday present for Aahz!

They visit several dimensions off the beaten path, looking for the Perfect Something Aahz could never have seen, ending up on Jahk, where Tanda spots a hideous Trophy. She tells Skeeve the rest of the secret: they're stealing the Trophy.

The caper ends with the Trophy missing, Tanda arrested for a theft she didn't commit, and Skeeve and Aahz putting together...a sports team?

Myth #2: Myth Conceptions (Asprin, Robert)

Rating: 5
Year: 1980
Genre: Fantasy/Comedy
Read again? Yes.

Why, yes, every title will be a pun on "Myth!"

It's been about a year since Skeeve and his scaly demonic teacher defeated Isstvan (with a little help from some friends). Now they've been summoned to the Kingdom of Possiltum to try out for the position of Court Magician!

It's not until he wins the position that he learns the reason: Possiltum is about to be invaded by an enormous army. The Kingdom's own army is sitting it out because the guy who handles the king's money has bet that magick can defeat the mighty army, at a considerable savings in both lives and gold.

Now it's up to Skeeve and Aahz to defeat the largest army ever assembled! Can they do it with the help of a dragon, a hot assassin girl, an Imp, an elderly Archer, a stone gargoyle named Gus, and his buddy Berfert the Salamander?

Another short & sweet book, not too deep. I never paid much attention to this approach before, but I appreciate the relative minimalism of Asprin's style. Just the thing after four novels weighing in at 4,000 pages, with a cast of 1,100 characters!

Myth #1: Another Fine Myth (Asprin, Robert)

Rating: 4
Year: 1978
Genre: Fantasy/Comedy
Read again? Yes.

Yeah, it's another series. I usually take a break from them once I've finished something like the 6-month slog through George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire." But Asprin's "Myth" books are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Martin's: the books average about 200 pages each!

Skeeve ia the apprentice to Garkin, who despairs of his student ever being a magician. Skeeve wants to be a thief and doesn't study as hard as he should.

Then Garkin is killed by an assassin sent by the mad magician Isstvan and Skeeve ends up apprenticed to Aahz, a scaly green pointy-eared pointy-toothed demon!

Can the two of them find Isstvan and stop him before he destroys the world?

Very light reading--both as far as the size of the book and in Asprin's writing. The plot is uncomplicated, with the characters sketched out enough to leave to the reader's imagination. I wish the gags were as funny now as they were 20 years ago, but it's still fun. Besides, I deserve a 2-day book! Rather than still meeting the main characters or just getting to the Big Crisis That Will Change Everything for the main character, we're looking at the inside back cover and ready to grab the next book.

Asprin's intent was to spoof the cerebrally serious Heroic Fantasy genre of the late 1970s. What he ended up doing was creating a genre of comic Fantasy, making way for Craig Shaw Gardner's "Ballad of Wuntvor" series and others.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

SIF 04: A Feast for Crows

Rating: 5
Year: 2005
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes.

The fourth of five wrist-creaking supernovels in 'A Song of Ice and Fire.'

The worst of the fighting has ended, most of the knights expended. Now the realm belongs to the roving bandits and carrion-eaters.

Catelyn and Robb Stark were murdered by the Freys over a broken promise.

Bastard Boy-King Joffrey has died by poison; his uncle Tyrion is blamed for it by the boy's scheming mother Cersei, imprisoned only to be freed by his brother Jaime.

Joffrey's younger brother Tommen takes the throne.

Lord Tywin Lannister is dead at the hand of his son Tyrion, who then escapes to parts unknown.

Sansa Stark is spirited out of the city the night of Joffrey's death.

Arya Stark has made it to Braavos, where she becomes an acolyte of professional assassins.

Jon Snow has returned to command the Night's Watch and defend the Wall against a massive Wildling army only to learn that the Wildlings aren't looking to destroy the realm. They're running from the same cold, implacable enemy who made the Wall necessary to begin with, centuries before: The Others and their icy army of the dead.

Cersei Lannister continues to scheme and manipulate as she rules the realm in her son's name. With her father Tywin out of the way, there's no one to keep her from pursuing her game of thrones. Many thousands of lives have been lost because of this stupid power-hungry woman, but in her eyes other people are there to do her bidding.

Daenerys Targaryen has consolidated her rule by taking a city and settling there. But her eyes are still fixed on the far horizon, Westeros and its Throne.

Despite the long haul--six months for 4 books, thanks to some health issues--this series is beyond worth reading. Martin's characters and plot are vivid through all four books.

SIF 03: A Storm of Swords (Martin, George RR)

Rating: 5
Year: 2000
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes.

Right now, I'm kind of mad at this 1100-page behemoth. After a week-long hospital stay in July, I was too out of it to be able to read more than a page or two at a time. As I recovered, I found that my will to read this book wasn't improving. It took me just short of 4 months to finish it! I'm used to taking only a couple of weeks at most.

Things just keep getting worse in Westeros. Those major players who are still alive are scattered across the continent.

Joffrey the horrible boy-king is controlled somewhat by his grandfather, Lord Tywin Lannister, who is determined to hold the throne despite growing rumors that the boy's the product of incest. His mother finds her ambitions hampered somewhat by her father's presence.

Robb Stark has married, breaking an oath made to Lord Frey to marry one of his daughters in return for safe passage at the river crossing he controls.

Jon Snow has infiltrated the Wildlings and travels south with them, hoping for the chance to return to the Night's Watch with what he's learned about them.

Arya Stark has been captured, her true identity revealed. Her captors' leader hopes to ransom her back to her mother.

Brandon Stark and his younger brother Rickon are presumed dead after their betrayal by a former friend. The family castle, Winterfell, lies in ruins.

Sansa Stark is no longer married to King Joffrey; she's made to marry his deformed dwarf uncle Tyrion Lannister instead. Through her, the Lannisters hope to take her family's lands.

Daenerys, the last of House Targaryen, has been building an army, freeing slaves and adding them to her retinue, all with an eye to return to Westeros and reclaim her family's Throne.

Long reading aside, if you've made it this far you won't want to stop.

SIF 02: A Clash of Kings (Martin, George RR)

Rating: 5
Year: 1996
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes!

The second of 5 fat novels in 'A Song of Ice and Fire.'

The blood-red comet has grown brighter and larger, now visible by day, and everyone's sure it's a sign.

Stannis Baratheon has named himself the rightful Heir, setting himself against his younger brother Renly to the south, Robb Stark to the north, and the boy-king Joffrey. Stannis is certain that Joffrey is Cersei Lannister's bastard child, fathered by her twin brother Jaime.

The kingdom is in pieces, as is the Stark family.
--Lord Eddard Stark is dead, executed as a scapegoat for the death of King Robert.
--Robb Stark has marshaled an army and leads the North against King Joffrey; his mother Catelyn travels with him.
--Sansa Stark (the 'good daughter') is to be wed to Joffrey.
--Arya (the 'wild daughter') managed to escape the city the day her father was executed and is making her way north, hoping to rejoin her family.
--Brandon Stark and his little brother remain at Winterfell, the family castle.
--Jon Snow is with a band of the Night's Watch, traveling north to spy on the Wildlings.

Half a world away, Daenerys Targaryen leads her three dragons and a small group of followers on a quest to regain her family's rightful claim to the Throne, facing starvation, assassins, and betrayal.

All the good things I said of the first book apply here as well.

SIF 01: A Game of Thrones (Martin, George RR)

Rating: 5
Year: 1996
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes!

This is the book that changed my tastes in Fantasy novels. Before I read this, I was reading Mercedes Lackey's "Valdemar" series at least once a year. But Martin's darker, grittier style of storytelling, solid plotting and characterization simply puts Lackey to shame. She can be dark, yes, but her longer works tend to sag under their own weight even for being a third as long as one of Martin's novels.

"Thrones" is the first in Martin's epic 'A Song of Ice and Fire.' For all the characters he introduces--close to 1,100--this series boils down to the scheming of one evil, petty, power-hungry bitch named Cersei of House Lannister.

Cersei is Queen of the realm of Westeros, wife to King Robert Baratheon I. She loathes Robert and wants him out of the way so she can rule in his stead. She tolerates his occasional attempts at lovemaking, but has avoided having children with him, preferring to warm the bed of her twin brother Jaime instead. All three of her children (Joffrey, Myrcella & Tommen) were fathered by Jaime. Seemingly only a few people bother to find the truth, but Cersei has them killed to protect herself.

King Robert was a mighty warrior 15 years ago; these days he's a fat drunkard. He doesn't like his wife any more than she likes him, so he spends his time wenching and drinking, fathering a bewildering number of bastard children during his reign. He knows he's surrounded by people with more loyalty to his wife than to himself, so he travels far to the north to convince his old friend Eddard Stark to come to stand beside the Throne and advise him.

When Robert dies after a hunting...accident...the realm quickly falls apart; his brothers Renly and Stannis each claim to be Heir to the Throne, questioning Joffrey's parentage and opposing his succession. Joffrey quickly shows himself to be as evil and spiteful as his mother, having Eddard Stark executed--and this brings Eddard's eldest son Robb into the Game of Thrones.

The realm fractures, the families resume their old rivalries, and the bodies pile up in a bloody harvest.

Meanwhile, far to the north, Eddard Stark's bastard son Jon Snow has joined the Night's Watch, long ago set to guard the northern border of the realm from bands of wildling people and the Others.

Meanwhile again, in a more distant land, Danearys Targaryen (the last daughter of this formerly ruling family) faces an arranged marriage to a barbarian king. Robert feared the return of a Targaryen--any Targaryen--to the realm, and he ordered her murder.

There could be so many more "meanwhiles."

This book should come with score cards and wrist splints. Once King Robert dies, the body count goes up. The reader shouldn't get too attached to point-of-view characters, either: Martin kills them off in service to the story. This adds some weight to the narrative that I'd really like to see from other authors. He doesn't protect his POV or "main" characters any more or less than those supporting them and it brings a realistic sense to his books. Even relatively minor characters have a story, even if it's just a few words to let us know that this is someone's father, or that one is the town drunk. This makes them into people, even if they're put to the sword shortly thereafter.

This is where those wrist splints come in: "Thrones" runs to 807 pages. Martin doesn't waste them. The story is gripping and fast-paced even when little is happening.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pearl Harbor: America's Darkest Day (Susan Wels, 2001)

Rating: 3
Year: 2001
Genre: Nonfiction/History
Read again? Maybe

First off...printed in Hong Kong?! Really? I'm bombing two points for that. Having a Foreword by WW2 vet Senator Daniel Inouye doesn't make up for it.

This isn't much of a reading book. It's not an in-depth scholarly work. There's just enough information to keep the narrative moving and hopefully enough to make the reader want to know more.

The book's strength is in the pictures. It's lavishly illustrated from cover to cover with period photos and beautifully-rendered paintings.

Why Buildings Fall Down (Matthys Levy & Mario Salvadori)

Rating: 5
Year: 1992
Genre: Architecture
Read again? Yup.

I don't remember why I started reading this little book back in May; I must have been tired from the Dresden books and looking for anything that wasn't a series. Whatever the cause, this is a neat book, a series of short investigations into some notable architectural failures.

They tells us about pyramids, bridge collapses, a WW2 bomber running into the Empire State Building, stadium roof failures, and how one little old lady making tea caused the failure of an apartment building in Britain.

There's just enough detail to sketch out each situation without burying the reader in formulae and technical terms. It's not exactly light reading, but it's something different to read.

No Country for Old Men (McCarthy, Cormac)

Rating: 4
Year: 2005
Genre: Drama
Read again? Maybe

McCarthy's got an unorthodox writing style. No quotes on dialog. Likes to chain things together with "and." That being said, once you get used to McCarthy's style, it's still a good story.

Llewellyn Moss is a former Vietnam War sniper. It's the late '70s, somewhere along the Texas-Mexico border. He's hunting antelope.

He thinks he's made a kill, but the wounded animal was still up on its feet, so Moss has some hiking to do if he's going to get it.

Instead of his prize, he comes across a miniature war zone: dead men lying on the ground, trucks riddled with bullet holes, and one pickup truck loaded with heroin. He does some math, figures that there's a guy missing, and follows his tracks out of the area and into the hills. The dead man's propped up under a tree with a case loaded with more than two million bucks.

He knows he's making a mistake in grabbing the money, but he grabs it and gets the hell out of the area.

He's soon being looked for by a principled killer who won't settle for simply getting his employers' money back. Moss has to die. Nothing personal. It's about the principle and the inconvenience.

On Moss' side is a sheriff who's trying to protect him and an ex-Special Forces guy who can't protect him but is hoping to stop the killings.

If you've seen the movie, you won't miss anything in the book. The screenwriters stayed very close to it.

A Word from Limbo...

Just stopping in to knock the dust out of the Blog; all the Dresden reviews are finally done seven months after I finished reading the books. At first, I was bored with the whole review thing. Then in July I had some health issues that still haven't been resolved enough for me to do much more than read and sleep, usually more of the latter than the former.

I've got the remaining books of the year in my sights: Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men"; George R. R. Martin's wrist-hurting "A Song of Ice and Fire" series; and Robert Asprin's much lighter "Myth" series. If I can stay awake and focused, they'll be up shortly along with the Top Ten and Ten Worst for the year.

Dresden Files 12: Changes

Rating: 5
Year: 2010
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yup.

Another WHAT?! opening: Susan, Harry's long-lost almost-vampire girlfriend, calls to tell him that their daughter has been taken by Red Court vampires. He didn't know anything about the kidlet before the call, so he's understandably pissed off at her.

She and an associate come to town, the same guy she was teamed up with in "Death Masks." They're part of an organization dedicated to fighting the Red Court vampires.

The Red Court sends operatives of its own to blow up Dresden's office and sends an ambassador to the White Council to cut him off from any help, ostensibly to secure peace between the Wizards and vampires after a decade of war that has devastated both sides.

Lots of threads come together here: relationships revealed, awful decisions to be made, and the biggest battle yet in the ongoing war with the Red Court.

This is the "pivot" book; everything balances on it. And everything changes from here on.

And now I have to wait 'till April 2011 for the next book.

Dresden Files 11: Turn Coat

Rating: 5
Year: 2009
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yup.

This one begins with a good "holy shit!!" moment as the Warden who's been after Dresden for years turns up badly wounded on Harry's doorstep, begging for help. Morgan is wanted for the murder of another Wizard.

It seems as though everyone's looking for Morgan, hoping to claim a reward: the White council, White-Court vampires, a bounty-hunter wizard with a private army of not-men, and worst of all, a Skinwalker--a fearsome shapeshifting demon.

There are some awesome little moments between Morgan, Molly the apprentice, and Mouse the dog--and no, I'm not going to describe them. If you're not reading the Dresden Files after all the hyping I'm doing, you're missing out!

Here's one more reason you should be reading: The traitor on the White Council is finally revealed!

Dresden Files 10: Small Favor

Rating: 5
Year: 2008
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

It never lets up on Harry Dresden, does it? This time around, someone is trying to kill him by sending Gruffs, billy-goat-like creatures. When he defeats one wave, the next ones are larger!

Mab, the Queen of Winter, wants him to find Gentleman Johnnie Marcone. She gives him a vision of Marcone being captured by the Denarians, the evil demons from "Death Masks." If they're back in town, dealing with the Gruffs and having Molly as an apprentice are just nuisances.

Butcher takes us further into the ever-expanding notion of a Black Council slowly consolidating power in the world. Dresden has long suspected the existence of such an organization; he knows there's a traitor on the White Council of Wizards, but Marcone's capture points to a traitor in the gangster's company as well.

Apparently, there's a traitor amongst the Denarians as well....

Dresden Files 09: White Night

Rating: 5
Year: 2007
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

Someone is killing witches in Chicagoland, leaving biblical verses as tags on or near the bodies, cheerful messages like "Suffer not a witch to live!"

Harry quickly learns that someone wearing a grey cloak--the mark of a White Council Warden--has been seen with some of the victims. Harry's a Warden, he's in Chicago, and people are afraid he's the killer. He's got a less-than-shiny reputation.

And what the hell is up with Thomas, Harry's vampire half-brother? Why do some of the clues point to him as the killer?

Cowl--one of the Necromancers from "Dead Beat"--is back in town. Where does he fit in?

That's not all!

Harry's ex is in town.

Dresden Files 08: Proven Guilty

Rating: 5
Year: 2006
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

Harry attends the execution of a kid caught practicing black magic. Kid or not, any violation of the Laws of Magic can get you killed unless you have friends on the White Council like Dresden did: he was a sword's length from death after his own self-defense killing of his evil master.

This kid didn't have friends.

Harry's own protector, his replacement teacher & father figure Ebenezar McCoy, asks him to look into an increase in black magic activity around Chicago. Nearly 200 wizards--mostly the grey-cloaked Wardens--and some 45 thousand noncombatants--men, women and children--have been killed in the ongoing war against the vampires. Their massive onslaught was timed to take advantage of recent attempts by three Necromancers to raise a zombie army.

Harry quickly finds more trouble: the eldest daughter of his evil-fighting friend Michael Carpenter practically falls into Harry's lap when she calls him begging for help. Molly's boyfriend has been arrested for attacking an old man in a restroom.

Dresden rescues the girl, bails the boyfriend out, and in short order finds himself at "SplatterCon!!!" (a horror movie convention). The threads of black magic are still all over the restroom where the attack took place. The old man was beaten severely and gleefully--but not by the kid.

Then the lights go out and the screaming starts!

Butcher keeps delivering good, fast-paced storytelling. The book's title is the first that doesn't pun on the theme of the story ("Fool Moon" had werewolves, "Dead Beat" had zombies, etc.). "Proven Guilty" reminds us of the execution of the opening scene (which troubles Dresden throughout the story) and could easily be applied to another kid caught practicing black magic: Molly Carpenter.