If you like epic space opera with imaginatively detailed world-building and a focus on characters rather than gadgets, try In Conquest Born, C.S. Friedman’s extremely impressive first novel. This complex, sprawling story begins with the births of two enemies-to-be from two different worlds that have been fighting each other for generations:
Zatar, a Braxin, is bred for beauty and aggression because those are the qualities his brutal, elitist, and misogynist culture admires. Ruthless, clever, and perfectly poised, he is preparing himself and his world for his ascendancy to a throne that does not yet exist in his oligarchic government. Part of making himself most qualified for this potential position involves manipulating, discrediting, or simply getting rid of any man who might stand in his way. (Women are no threat in Braxa… or are they?)
Anzha is an outsider in her Azean society because of her red hair — it’s an indication of foreign blood somewhere in her lineage. Nonetheless, her psychic powers, which are revered in Azea, are strong and that, along with her unrelenting drive to prepare herself for revenge against the Braxin man who killed her parents, causes her to rise up in the Azean military ranks. When Zatar and Anzha finally meet, they each know they have met their match, and they immediately set out to destroy each other.
C.S. Friedman began building her worlds while she was in high school and continued developing them for years before submitting In Conquest Born to DAW. It shows. The world-building is excellent — both the Braxin and Azean societies (and others) are deeply explored from multiple perspectives. Among other things, each has its own art forms, attitudes toward women, sexual preferences, inherited strengths and weaknesses, and ideas about genetic manipulation and psychic abilities.
Friedman explains on her website that In Conquest Born originally began as “a collection of interconnected stories” which she developed into a novel which was partly re-written when her editor encouraged her to make the tale less “fragmented.” Still, the story feels somewhat disjointed because it covers a huge span of time (it’s a long time before Zatar and Anzha actually meet) and each chapter is a vignette told from one of several perspectives. This technique is advantageous in that it allows us to thoroughly explore Friedman’s worlds, but has the disadvantage of causing us to spend a lot of time with minor, and often expendable, characters. (But then, Zatar and Anzha are repulsive enough that it’s nice to have a break from them.)
Friedman’s plot is exciting — there’s political intrigue, treason, space battles, torture, planet explosions, and horrible deaths. The compelling plot is made even more readable by Friedman’s pleasantly sophisticated writing style which contains just a touch of black humor. She gives us lots to think about, too — nature vs. nurture, free will, parallel evolution, genetic modification. If I had liked her characters better and had been effortlessly carried along by a more cohesive plot, I’d have surely given In Conquest Born my highest recommendation. I have no doubt that C.S. Friedman has the skill to write a perfect novel and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s version of In Conquest Born which was read by Joe Barrett. He gives a very nice reading which is not overly dramatic. His female voices sound much like his male voices, so a couple of times I assumed a newly-introduced female character was male until I was corrected by the text. Once I knew not to expect Mr. Barrett to use a feminine-sounding voice, I had no problem with his reading.
In Conquest Born, first published in 1986, was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award. A sequel, The Wilding, takes place generations later.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
In Dzur, the tenth book in Steven Brust’s VLAD TALTOS series, Vlad is finally back in the city of Adrilankha. I suspect that most fans will be thrilled to return to that decadent cosmopolitan city; it’s just so much more interesting than watching Vlad roam around the countryside. Fittingly, each of the chapters in Dzur is named for one of the items Vlad is served at his favorite restaurant during a gourmet meal that runs parallel to the main plot of Dzur. (Vlad, an assassin by trade, is quite the foodie and, while he dines, he often points out the analogies between preparing a gourmet dinner and preparing to make a hit.)
So, he’s back in Adrilankha eating with a new Dzurlord in his favorite restaurant and telling us what happened just after the events of the last book, Issola (which you’ll want to read first, I think). Vlad now owns a great weapon and is learning more about what they are and how they work. He’s back in the city because he finds out that his wife Cawti, who he’s been separated from for years, is having trouble with the “Left Hand of the Jhereg,” an group of women who Vlad calls the “Bitch Patrol.” They are adversely influencing Vlad’s old organization — the one he’s been running from all these years. Now, to protect Cawti, he’s willing to take his chances and shows up to straighten things out. Of course, he’ll need a little help from a couple of new friends and all his old friends, including some he hasn’t seen in quite a long time.
It’s great to see Vlad back in his element — swaggering down the streets of Adrilankha and dining in his favorite establishment. Unfortunately, a lot of the plot of Dzur is actually watching Vlad swagger down the streets of Adrilankha and dine in his favorite establishment, which turns out to be not all that interesting after a while. The plot moves awfully slowly and sometimes seems disjointed, especially when Vlad starts talking about how he thinks the goddess Vera has been messing with his memories.
But, still, it’s always fun to listen to Vlad and Loiosh talk — they’re genuinely funny — and there are a couple of promising new characters added to the mix and there’s another big life change for Vlad. Dzur isn’t one of the better books in the VLAD TALTOS series, but it will still probably satisfy Brust’s fans. As always, Bernard Setaro Clark is brilliant with the narration of the audio version which is eight hours long and produced by Audible Studios.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
“My heart gave a thump. It had been doing that a lot lately. I wished it would stop. I mean stop giving random thumps, not, you know, stop.” ~Vlad Taltos
Note: This review contains spoilers for previous novels in the series.
Hawk is Steven Brust’s fourteenth (and latest) novel about Vlad Taltos, a charming assassin living in Dragaera. Over the past 31 years, fans of this series have been through a lot with Vlad and Loiosh, Vlad’s flying reptilian familiar.
We first met Vlad when he was at the top of his game, running the Jhereg criminal organization of Adrilankha. Then he married Cawti, who also used to be an assassin but later became a social revolutionary. The change in her worldview was too much for the marriage to handle and they separated, but that didn’t stop Vlad from betraying the Jhereg in order to save Cawti from being executed. The Jhereg want revenge and have been hunting Vlad for years while he wandered around the Dragaeran Empire. Meanwhile Cawti gave birth to Vlad’s son, which he didn’t know about until later.
Now, Vlad wants his life back. He wants to return to his city and be able to visit his son (now eight years old) without worrying about the safety of his son, Cawti, or himself. So Vlad hatches a plan to make peace with the Jhereg. He thinks he has discovered a new form of sorcery that he can offer to the Jhereg — something that will make them rich and powerful — in return for their promise to call off his assassination. Will it work? Or will he just expose himself and get killed?
After watching Vlad brood for a long time, it’s great to see him come out in the open, face his fears, take charge of his destiny, and once again become the smart assassin he used to be. It’s great to be back in Adrilankha among Vlad’s friends and associates (including a couple of interesting new characters). For these reasons, Hawk feels more like the earlier novels in which Vlad was witty, clever, and full of life. His voice is once again breezy and ironic, and he’s fun to listen to, even when he’s just walking down the street….
…which is fortunate since Vlad does a lot of just walking down the street in this story. Until the very end, the pace is slow and leisurely, but that’s okay since it’s actually amusing just to listen to Vlad bicker with Loiosh, or wish he had a name that starts with “The,” or lament that his cloak doesn’t billow dramatically when he walks down the street.
I’m glad Vlad’s back. I’m not sure when we’ll see the next VLAD TALTOS novel, but I look forward to it. I listened to the audio versions of this series which were produced by Audible Studios. Hawk is almost 9 hours long, though I increased the playback speed as I usually do. Bernard Setaro Clark is an excellent narrator and this is one of those cases where I enjoyed the book more because of the reader’s performance. I wouldn’t think of reading these any other way.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Dragon is the eighth novel in Steven Brust’s VLAD TALTOS series. As you’re reading the series, it probably doesn’t matter when you read Dragon since it’s really a stand-alone story which tells of a battle that occurred earlier in the series’ chronology, just after the events of Taltos, which was a prequel to the first three VLAD TALTOS novels. (As you can see, the books jump around in time). But Dragon is not one of the better volumes, so I wouldn’t recommend, say, reading it first and basing your judgment of the entire series on this novel. Read Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla and Taltos first.
Most of the VLAD TALTOS books are named after one of the Great Houses, feature one or more characters from that house, and usually in some way discuss its denizens’ personality characteristics in a way that includes some social commentary about the general human condition. The Dragons are known for their confident, strong, aggressive bearings. They tend to be leaders who think they know how the world should run and they are willing to fight for what they believe in. Fans of the series are already familiar with the Dragonlord Morollan. In this story, Morollan declares war on the Dragonlord Fornia who has stolen a Morganti weapon from a wizard who was recently killed. Vlad gets recruited into Morollan’s army which is led by Sethra Levode, the undead enchantress of Dzur Mountain.
Most of the plot details Vlad’s experiences as a soldier. He complains about picket duty, latrine digging, marching in the rain, slogging through the mud, eating bad food, waiting for hours and days for something exciting to happen, and then being terrorized when something finally does happen. There are a couple of interesting discussions about tactics and how the ultimate purpose of war is peace, but mostly (like Vlad) I didn’t find Vlad’s soldiering experience to be very exciting except for the couple of times he and Loiosh (his jhereg familiar) tried to sabotage the enemy camp. Those parts were fun.
Just like the series as a whole, the story in Dragon is not told linearly. (I wonder if Steven Brust has something against straight lines?) It follows three different timelines which are easy to keep straight and help to change up the pace and add a little more texture to a somewhat bland story. In one of the interludes, Vlad mentions that Cawti has agreed to marry him, which helps orient us in time. We also hear a prophecy that Vlad will someday carry a weapon called godslayer.
As usual, the strength of the story is Vlad’s appealing personality. He’s often funny as he tells us his story (“Virt said that the bandage around my forehead made me look like a real warrior. I made scatological culinary recommendations.”), makes occasional geeky pop culture references (“Run away! Run away!”) and carries on a snarky internal dialogue with Loiosh (“You’re pretty smart for a guy with no opposable thumbs”). Besides just liking Vlad as a person, I also like that all of Brust’s female characters are strong and smart.
If you’re reading these books in publication order, you might be glad to return to this “old” Vlad because he’s been kind of depressed in the previous three novels and I thought the last two, Athyra and Orca, were not up to par. Dragon is better than Athyra and Orca, but not as good as the books 1-5. (Fortunately, I like the next book, Issola, a lot better than Dragon.) I continue to listen to VLAD TALTOS in audio format. I love Bernard Setaro Clark’s narration of Audible Studio’s version.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Orca is the seventh book in Steven Brust’s VLAD TALTOS series. It’d be best to stop here if you haven’t read the previous books. We don’t want to spoil anything, do we?
Okay, so you should recall that Vlad Taltos, everyone’s favorite Jhereg assassin, is wanted by his organization because he betrayed them in order to save his wife from the executioner’s ax (or whatever implement the executioners in Dragaera use). Vlad has given up his territory and is on the run. In the last book, Athyra, he met a boy named Savn who helped him defeat a necromancer. Because Savn used a Morganti weapon to kill the bad guy, Savn is now witless, and he’s been that way for a year. Feeling responsible for Savn’s condition, Vlad finds a woman who may be able to heal him. In return, Vlad will try to find and stop the person who is trying to get the woman kicked off her land. He’ll need help from his friend Kiera, Dragaera’s most famous thief. Together they will uncover an extensive plot that involves a murdered financier, collapsing banks, the empire’s Minister of the Treasury, and even the Jhereg organization that is trying to assassinate Vlad.
As with the last novel, Athyra, Steven Brust is once again playing around with voice and structure. Fortunately we’re back to Vlad’s first person POV, but this time Brust also adds Kiera’s first person POV. This is the first time we’ve had a first person account that wasn’t Vlad. (In Athyra we had a third person POV from Savn’s perspective). Also, when Kiera talks, she is relating the story to Cawti, Vlad’s estranged wife, who she has met in a tavern after these events occurred. Vlad is often relating his story to Kiera and vice versa. So, often we get Kiera telling Cawti what she told Vlad that she did during the day and then telling Cawti what Vlad told her that he did all day. This sounds a little confusing, but it’s not really. Brust handles it well.
Brust has also been gradually changing Vlad’s personality. Since the end of Phoenix, Vlad has been a bit depressed due to being alone and separated from his wife and friends. I miss Vlad’s vibrancy and sense of humor, but this (temporary, I hope) period of depression makes sense after what he’s been through. Could Brust also be preparing us for a career change for Vlad? In Orca, our famous assassin has become a forensic accountant who tries to help an old lady keep her land.
While I like this more gentle and noble side of Vlad, I thought the convoluted financial plot of Orca just wasn’t much fun. Almost the entire plot involves Vlad and Kiera investigating a banking scam and trying to figure out who’s involved, how far-reaching it is, and what it means for the woman who’s trying to help Savn. To do this, they look at public records, sneak into offices to steal papers, go through papers for clues, meet people and pretend they know what’s going on so that others will spill information, tell each other what they’ve found and try to work it out together, etc. Maybe it’s just my personality, but I thought this was boring (although there were some bright spots such as when Vlad tries to swagger in a wig and platform shoes). Keep in mind that we’re hearing Kiera tell the story to Cawti after it all happened, so the events feel slightly removed from the present and some of the tension is removed, too. Also, it’s one of those types of mysteries that there’s no way the reader can figure out. We just have to watch Vlad and Kiera make wild guesses and eventually hit upon the right ones. This is not very exciting to me, but other readers may enjoy it.
I am not certain that Brust’s magical system is consistent in each book. Especially the rules for when and why teleporting should not be used. I don’t think this has been dealt with the same way in each book. I’m willing to overlook this, though, especially since I’m not certain.
At the very end of Orca, a couple of huge revelations are made. If you’re a fan of the series, you probably don’t want to miss these. They’re big.
A word about the audiobook version: Because Orca has two first person POVs — one from Vlad and one from Kiera — Audible Studios divided the reading between two narrators. As usual, the wonderful Bernard Setaro Clark reads Vlad’s parts. Kiera’s parts are read by Angele Masters who also did an excellent job. Orca is 9.25 hours long on audio.
Originally published at Fantasy Literature.
Athyra is the sixth book in Steven Brust’s VLAD TALTOS series. If you haven’t read the previous books, you should probably skip this review until you’ve read Phoenix so that I don’t spoil its plot for you. I’m listening to Bernard Setaro Clark’s narration of the audio versions (Audible Studios) of VLAD TALTOS. Athyra is 8.5 hours long on audio, though I increased the playback speed, as I always do, so it was shorter than that for me. Bernard Setaro Clark’s narration continues to be excellent and I recommend the audio format for this series.
I mentioned in my review of Phoenix that Vlad had come to a turning place in his life. Because of what he did in that story, Vlad has left Adrilankha and is now out in the world on his own (except that he has his jhereg familiars, Loiosh and Rocza). Vlad betrayed the Jhereg organization and turned over his positions to Kragar, his assistant, and Cawti, his wife from whom he is now separated. He wears a chunk of phoenix stone that makes him psychically invisible to the assassins who pursue him.
After traveling for a couple of years, Vlad arrives in the town of Smallcliff where a resident has just been murdered. Because he’s a stranger, and an Easterner, Vlad is a potential suspect. As Vlad begins investigating the unusual murder, he realizes that the town’s Baron is an undead necromancer and a former enemy who may be working with Vlad’s current enemies. He needs to get rid of this guy before the Baron helps the Jhereg assassins find him. Vlad gets some help from a local boy named Savn, an apprentice to the town’s doctor. And, of course, Loiosh and Rocza are pretty useful, too.
Frankly, I thought Athyra was a little boring. Most of the story is told from the point of view of Savn and I found him to be a dull narrator. For me (and, I assume, many of Brust’s fans), the best part of this series is Vlad’s witty ironic voice, and we don’t get much of that in Athyra. It is kind of interesting to see how someone else perceives Vlad (we usually get only his thoughts on this), but Savn is a sheltered child and sometimes naïve, and he doesn’t make a dynamic storyteller. He often relates long passages in which he is harvesting flax, walking into town, or reading medical texts. Boring.
Another point of view character is, surprisingly, Rocza the jhereg. Her mind is rather blank and we see that she thinks of Vlad as merely “the provider” who she must obey because Loiosh wants her to. I thought it was daring for Brust to experiment with voice and structure in Athyra, especially knowing that his fans like Vlad’s voice. But while I admired the way he changed things up, I found that I really wished to be listening to Vlad instead of Savn and Rocza. I also missed Vlad’s friends and the decadent city of Adrilankha in this novel.
The Athyrans, the house for which this book is named, are philosophers, so Vlad and Savn spend a lot of time talking about philosophy. This is a topic I usually enjoy thinking about, but Vlad’s lessons about how to discover truth and knowledge were at a level suitable for Savn, an uneducated peasant boy, so I found these discussions to be uninspiring and a little trite.
I’m not giving up on Vlad Taltos. I can tell that Brust is experimenting here, and I approve of that, but I hope he’ll return to the type of stories found in the earlier books. As a personal favor, I’d like to offer Mr. Brust my #1 tip for taking care of children because I think it might apply to taking care of developing stories as well: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Originally published at Fantasy Literature.
Phoenix, the fifth novel in Steven Brust’s VLAD TALTOS series, is a turning point in Vlad’s story. By the end of this book, his life will have changed drastically. The story begins as Vlad is stuck in a situation that he might not be able to get out of alive. In desperation, he calls on Verra, his patron goddess, for help. She saves him (or so it appears), and in return she demands that he sail to the island kingdom of Greenaere and assassinate its king. Vlad can’t refuse, and so he goes. This sets off a series of events that eventually lead to a Teckla revolution in Adrilankha. During all the turmoil, both Vlad and his wife Cawti, a member of a rebel group, are captured and rescued more than once, and both have reason to believe they don’t have much longer to live. The usual crew is there to help, though, including Kragar (Vlad’s assistant), Loiosh and Rocza (his jhereg familiars), and Morrollan and Aliera (powerful Dragonlords). There are new faces, too, including a spacey drummer from Greenaere. In the end, Vlad pisses off all the wrong people…
The plot of Phoenix is fast moving and fairly exciting, though I didn’t think it always made perfect sense (such as how easy it was to get close to the king — twice —on that island). Adrilankha is a city on the brink of war and Vlad is highly engaged because not only does he suspect that his actions may have caused the conflict, but his wife is a key member of a group that’s fomenting revolution. Vlad realizes that if she’s arrested and executed as a traitor, it might be his fault. The couple was already having marital problems due to Cawti’s growing dislike for Dragaeran society and Vlad’s role in it. The events in this story may push them apart forever. These events also make Vlad step back and take a look at his life. Is this really who he wants to be? A Jhereg crime boss, an assassin, and the lackey of a demon goddess? We see him questioning everything he stands for. Vlad tends to be flippant and snarky, which makes him fun to listen to, but this inner turmoil gives him more depth.
All of the political mayhem gives Brust a chance to give us a little more information about how his world works (I admit that I’m still shaky on this and not sure that it all fits together very snugly). We learn more of its political history and how its caste society functions. We also learn, along with Vlad, a little more about how the magic works after Vlad makes some discoveries on the island he visits. (Until now, Vlad has known almost nothing about the world outside his own country.) Lastly, there are some revelations about a couple of Vlad’s acquaintances. Two of them are related in a surprising way.
So, at the end of Phoenix, things are different. Will this be good or bad for Vlad? Will this be good or bad for the series? I guess we’ll see…
Audible Studios’ version of Phoenix is 8 hours long and narrated by Bernard Setaro Clark. He’s got Vlad’s cocky voice down perfectly. I love these audio versions of VLAD TALTOS.
Originally published at Fantasy Literature.
Deryni Checkmate, first published in 1972, is the second novel in Katherine Kurtz’s epic fantasy series that’s set in a world called Gwynedd (loosely based our own medieval UK) where some people have inherited magic from a race called the Deryni which has interbred with normal humans. The church of Gwynedd considers magic anathema and is using its wealth, power, and influence to rid the world of Deryni magic. Thus, Kurtz’s story is clearly inspired by our own middle ages when the Roman Catholic Church dominated Western religious and political systems and, having strayed from its Biblical roots, lorded it over the political leaders and the rest of the citizenry.
In the previous novel, Deryni Rising (1970), we met young King Kelson who ascended the throne after his father was killed by an evil Deryni sorceress. With help from his father’s friends and advisors, Kelson discovered his own Deryni powers and defeated her. Now, only a few months later, Kelson is 14 and he realizes how inexperienced he is. He relies on the help of his uncle Duke Alaric Morgan and Morgan’s cousin Monsignor Duncan McLain, a priest of the church. Both men are half-Deryni. But the church is after Morgan (at the beginning of the novel they don’t yet know about Duncan). They’ve ex-communicated Morgan which means that Kelson is not allowed to have any sort of relationship with his Uncle at a time when a neighboring kingdom is threatening to invade and Kelson needs Morgan’s connections and military expertise. The church is threatening to put the entire region under interdict if Morgan will not turn himself in and recant his powers. This causes a rift between the church and state and threatens to lead toward civil war and even a split in the church itself.
Meanwhile, an anti-Deryni zealot named Warin de Grey is gathering minions and terrorizing citizens. Because they both have the same enemies (the Deryni), the Archbishop is courting Warin, but he doesn’t know all the zealot’s secrets. Another subplot involves Morgan’s sister Bronwyn and her fiancé Brian, who is Duncan’s brother. They get caught up in an incident involving another evil sorceress. Thus we see that Deryni magic has the potential to be a weapon of terror and destruction, which helps us sympathize with the church’s traditional stance on the issue, if not with the Archbishop who is actually leading the witch hunt.
I don’t typically enjoy older medieval-style epic fantasy as much as I used to; I’m a little tired of all the pomp and circumstance, all the courtly mannerisms, and just the heaviness of it all, but I like Katherine Kurtz’s heroes — especially Morgan and Duncan. I suspect that I’ll also become increasingly fond of Kelson as he matures into his role as king. I’m certainly interested in what happens to these people in the next book, High Deryni. Will Morgan and Duncan be reinstated? Will all of Gwynedd be punished for the sins of its Duke? Will there be a Reformation in the church? What will Kelson be like when he becomes a man? I plan to find out.
I listened to Audible Studio’s production of Deryni Checkmate which is 9.5 hour long and excellently read by Jeff Woodman. He has a pleasant English accent, nice pacing, and does a great job with both male and female voices. I will choose High Deryni in this format, also.
Originally posted at FanLit
Fritz Leiber’s The Ghost Light, recently produced in audio format by Audible Frontiers, is a collection of nine short stories and novelettes and an autobiographical essay by Fritz Leiber. Only the first novelette, “The Ghost Light,” and the essay, “Not so Much Disorder and Not so Early Sex: an Autobiographical Essay,” are original to this collection. Most of the previously printed stories were nominated for, or won, major SFF awards. Here’s what you’ll find in The Ghost Light:
“The Ghost Light” — Young Tommy and his parents are visiting Cassius, his estranged grandfather, in California. There’s something creepy about the painting of Tommy’s dead grandmother that hangs in the living room and Tommy knows the bluish green nightlight in his bedroom has something to do with it. This is a spooky tale that I mostly enjoyed, even though it (not surprisingly) features a dirty old man lusting after his young female family members. “The Ghost Story” is original to this collection.
“Coming Attraction” — A British man visits post-WWIII Manhattan where radiation levels are high and society has completely changed. After he saves a masked woman from being hit by car, she invites him out and begs him to take her back to England so she can escape her abusive boyfriend. This story was bleak and depressing, but I will never forget the opening line: “The coupe with the fishhooks welded to the fender shouldered up over the curb like the nose of a nightmare.” “Coming Attraction” was originally published in 1950 in Galaxy Science Fiction and was nominated for a Retro Hugo Award in 2001.
“A Deskful of Girls” — A man manages to get an evening invitation to visit the lab of a famous psychologist and to see his work in the field of the psychophysiology of sex. This story is brimming with the blatant sexism and bad psychology of 1950s pulp magazines, but the excellent twist at the end appeased me. Unfortunately, I’ll never be able to listen to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker with happy innocence again. “A Deskful of Girls” was originally published in 1958 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
“Space-Time For Springers” — This delightful story, written from the perspective of a kitten named Gummitch, was my favorite. Kitty has some funny ideas about the world, and he’s got data to back them up. This adorable story was first published in 1958 in Frederik Poul’s Star Science Fiction Stories No. 4 and has been reprinted many times since then. A must-read for all cat lovers.
“Four Ghosts in Hamlet” — The ladies in a company of Shakespearean actors start playing with a Ouija board backstage and then notice there are too many ghosts in their production of Hamlet. This is a good story with plenty of humor and suspense. This 1965 novelette, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, was nominated for a Nebula Award.
“Gonna Roll the Bones” — Joe Slattermill is a poor miner who would rather spend his evenings drinking, gambling, and whoring than sitting at home listening to his domineering wife and mother. But when he goes out this night, he finds a new gambling parlor and ends up dicing with Death. This folksy story is an unusual style for Leiber and though I’m not sure I got all the symbolism and allegory, I appreciated the imagery and atmosphere. “Gonna Roll the Bones” was originally published in Harlan Ellison’s highly decorated anthology Dangerous Visions in 1967. It won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novelette.
“Bazaar of the Bizarre” — I loved this novelette when I read it in Leiber’s Lankhmar collection Swords Against Death. In this story, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are sent by their patron gods to destroy a magic bazaar where customers are enchanted into believing that the trash for sale is valuable. When the Gray Mouser gets there first and falls under its spell, Fafhrd must save him while still carrying out the gods’ commands. This story has been in many collections but was first printed in 1963 in Fantastic Stories of Imagination.
“Midnight by the Morphy Watch” — Fritz Leiber loved to play chess, so it’s not surprising that he’d write a ghost story about what happened to chess champion Paul Morphy’s famous missing watch. Chess enthusiasts will enjoy this novelette. It was first published in Jim Baen’s Worlds of If in 1974 and was nominated for a Hugo Award.
“Black Glass” — First published in Peter Weston’s Andromeda 3 in 1978, this story begins as a man is walking through Manhattan musing that the black glass being used to construct the new sky scrapers could symbolize the doom of New York City as it experiences rising levels of violence and crime, filth and pollution, drugs and porn, and even union strikes and junk food. As he continues walking, he seems to travel to the future and discovers that things will be much worse than he imagined. The climax of this story occurs in the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which makes this story even sadder than Leiber intended.
“Not so Much Disorder and Not so Early Sex: an Autobiographical Essay” — This is a long (5.5 hours on audio) autobiographical piece written when Leiber was 71 years old. He begins by talking a little about his German ancestors and describing his parents’ work (his father owned a traveling Shakespearean theater) and his upbringing with his aunts in Chicago. He goes on to talk about his studies at the University of Chicago, his short careers as an actor and then a priest, his writing, his love of chess, his marriage to Jonquil, their cat (the real Gummitch), and his trouble with alcoholism. Throughout the essay he describes his boyhood fascination with women’s breasts, his long-lasting naiveté about female anatomy and the sex act, and his obsession with understanding what nobody would talk about in an era of sexual repression and lack of sex education. He’s quite candid about this hang-up and he explains how this issue, along with his experiences in the theater and with chess and cats, give a lot of context to the stories in The Ghost Light. “Not so Much Disorder and Not so Early Sex: an Autobiographical Essay” is original to The Ghost Light and was later reprinted in his autobiography Fafhrd & Me and in his novel Conjure Wife.
I listened to the audio version of The Ghost Light which was produced by Audible Frontiers and is read by a team of excellent narrators. The print version has some interior art (each story features an illustration by a different artist) and personal photographs which I missed, but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed the narration so much.
Originally posted (with links) at FanLit.
Audio readers, rejoice! Finally, Steven Brust’s VLAD TALTOS novels have been produced in audio by Audible Frontiers. For years I’ve been planning to read this long series and have only been waiting for this moment.
The VLAD TALTOS novels follow Vlad Taltos, a well-known and highly successful human assassin living on the planet Dragaera. The native species, the Dragaerans, are a tall long-lived race created by sorcerers who cross-bred humans and certain animals. The characteristics of the animals give each clan, or “House,” its name, physical features, and personality traits. The exception is the house of Jhereg (named after a small dragon-like creature) which is a low-class conglomerate of outcasts from other clans and also any true humans who can buy their way in, which is what Vlad Taltos’ father did. Each of Brusts’ novels in this series is named after one of the Dragaeran houses.
In this first installment, Jhereg, we meet Vlad Taltos and his familiar, Loiosh, the jhereg who can communicate with him through mind-speech. Vlad has been hired to kill a councilman named Mellar who has embezzled a huge sum of money from the Jhereg council. When Vlad catches up with Mellar, he discovers him hiding out in Castle Black, the floating mansion of Vlad’s friend, the Dragonlord Morrolan. Castle Black’s rule of hospitality is that anyone who has been invited to stay at the castle cannot be touched and nobody wants to violate this law because it would ignite another Dragon-Jhereg war. The last war devastated both houses. Vlad and Loiosh must flush out Mellar without offending a Dragonlord or starting a war. This is not an easy task and Vlad will need to solve a mystery and get a little help from his friends.
Jhereg is appealing for several reasons. Vlad Taltos is a great character — the sort of honorable criminal that you can’t help but like. It helps that in Brust’s world, an assassination isn’t necessarily permanent. People can be revivified if their body is still mostly intact and they haven’t had their soul destroyed by a Morganti weapon (somewhat like Elric’s sword). Vlad is clever and must use his brain, not just his weapons or witchcraft, to solve his dilemma (though I thought he solved the convoluted mystery a little too easily). Vlad’s friends are also likeable, especially Loiosh the familiar, Vlad’s wife (who he met when she tried to kill him), and a female Dragonlord. Brust’s female characters are strong, smart, and competent.
Steven Brust’s writing style, sense of humor, and dialogue are also pleasant, and the story moves quickly. There’s a lot to learn in the first novel of a huge epic, but Brust does this so well. We learn a little about Vlad’s childhood, the planet of Dragaera, the origin and structure of the houses (this was fascinating), and anything else we need to know. Brust gives us just enough extra to make us curious about his world, but not enough to make the plot slow down while we learn the entire history of Dragaera and its residents. (Yet, Brust’s world is so complex and detailed that some readers may wish for an online resource such as this helpful Wikipedia entry, and several fan-made Dragaera sites that you can easily find with a Google search.)
Audible Frontiers’ version was narrated by Bernard Setaro Clark. He was terrific, speaking with a lively manner and giving each character a pleasant and distinct voice. As usual, I had to speed up the narration a bit (I’m beginning to suspect that Audible has purposely slowed down their narrators). I’m pleased to see that Bernard Setaro Clark has also narrated the sequels and I’ll be picking up book 2, Yendi, which is actually a prequel to Jhereg, very soon. I look forward to spending more time with Vlad Taltos.
Originally posted at FanLit
Nazhuret was an ugly half-breed orphan when he started life at an exclusive military school, but now he’s someone important. So important, in fact, that the king has asked him to write his autobiography. Who is this man who has fascinated a king, what is he now, and how did he come so far in the world?
Lens of the World, published in 1990, is the first book in R.A. MacAvoy’s LENS OF THE WORLD trilogy. It’s a coming-of-age story which reminds me of several fantasy epics I’ve read, especially Ursula K. Le Guin’s EARTHSEA series, Robin Hobb’s FARSEER saga and, more recently, Patrick Rothfuss’s KINGKILLER CHRONICLE.
Those are some big names I’ve used as comparison. Can MacAvoy really stand up to that? Mostly yes. Nazhuret is not quite as likable as FitzChivalry Farseer and not quite as interesting as Kvothe, but he’s an appealing hero, as are a couple of the other main characters such as Nazhuret’s enigmatic teacher, Powl, who lives in a strange round building and teaches Nazhuret to sit still, think, speak several languages, dance, fight, and appreciate optics, linguistics and other academic subjects. Then there’s a girl named Charlin who Nazhuret thinks he loves, though he’s not sure. (Sexuality is confusing to Nazhuret since he was raped by his schoolmasters when he was a boy.) And finally there’s Arlen, a thief who remembers Nazhuret from his school days, and the red-headed King whom Nazhuret meets later in the story and to whom we assume he’s writing.
Plot-wise, Nazhuret’s story is always interesting and I often found it absorbing, but I wouldn’t say that it quite reaches the level of “exciting.” For nearly half of the book he’s being educated before he sets off on his own and works odd jobs such as farm hand, janitor, and bouncer. He encounters bar fights, murderers, a wedding, a werewolf, a dragon, and makes friends with a dog. All this time, of course, we’re aware that he’s casually addressing the king as he writes his autobiography, so this makes us realize with anticipation that something important is going to happen. Toward the end we find out why his teacher is so interested in him, and learn that perhaps Nazhuret has a destiny. Other revelations about Powl and Arlen made me want to read on.
This doesn’t sound too much different from many other coming-of-age fantasy novels I’ve read, but what makes Lens of the World stand out is R.A. MacAvoy’s style, and this is why I’ve compared her to Hobb and Le Guin. Like those authors, MacAvoy’s prose is both beautiful and succinct — something that I truly admire but rarely experience.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s audio version of Lens of the World which was narrated by Jeremy Arthur, who did a perfect job with voices and cadence. It was the lovely thoughtful prose and the excellent narration that really carried me through this story, letting me just sit back and enjoy a beautifully told tale. I’m looking forward to the next book, King of the Dead.
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