Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Vanishing Tower by Michael Moorcock

(1970: fourth novel in the Elric series. An alternate version of this novel, titled The Sleeping Sorceress, was published by Lancer Books in 1972, "without reference to the author.")

Review:

Warning: possible spoilers in this review.

Elric's grim pursuit of the Pan Tangian sorcerer Theleb K'aarna, begun in The Weird of the White Wolf (specifically the tale "The Singing Citadel"), continues. Along for the ex-emperor's dark ride is Moonglum, a devil-dog killing warrior, whom Elric also met in Weird ("While the Gods Laugh").

Like The Sailor on the Seas of Fate and Weird, Vanishing is divided into a trilogy of connected stories.

In the first of these stories, "The Torment of the Last Lord," Elric and Moonglum encounter the seductive Myshella, also known as the "Dark Lady of Kaneloon," who has been imprisoned in castle-bound sleep by K'aarna. If Elric and Moonglum can defeat the Pan Tangian sorcerer and his ally, Prince Umbda (the Chaos-serving "Lord of the Kelmain Hosts") and Umbda's monstrous army, Elric might not only get his revenge on K'aarna, but receive further peace from Myshella, who resembles the kinslayer's dead beloved, Cymoril (from Elric of Melniboné and Sailor).

"To Snare the Pale Prince," the second story, pits the elusive K'aarna and Urish the Seven-fingered (greedy king of Nadoskar, whom Elric has supposedly wronged) against Elric, Moonglum and Rackhir the Red Archer, when K'aarna and Urish send Urish's hellish soldiers to attack Rachkhir's supply caravan, en route to "tranquil Tanelorn".

(Rackhir originally appeared in Elric of Melniboné -- he was with the albino ex-monarch when Elric became bonded with his black demonic sword, Stormbringer. Once a Warrior Priest in the Eastlands and a servant of Chaos, Rackhir now serves Chaos' antithesis divinities, under the aegis of Law.)

The third story, "Three Heroes with a Single Aim," takes place a month after the events of "Snare".

Elric leaves his companions (Moonglum and Rackhir) in Tanelorn to commit suicide in the Sighing Desert. While he is there, delirious, Myshella -- rescued by Elric and Moonglum in "Torment" -- appears to him and tells him that the Lawful city of Tanelorn is still under threat from K'aarna and his most recent allies, an assortment of Chaos gods. Elric goes to end that threat and, after an interrupted battle with K'aarna, is accidentally transported into a strange, alternate world.

In this alien world, Elric meets Prince Corum, an anti-Chaos hero who "must banish the domnation of Chaos from the Fifteen Planes of Earth," otherwise known as the multiverse. He and Elric, in order to fulfill their convergent quests, work with another warrior, the amnesiac Erekosë, to do so.

Voilodion Ghagnasdiak is the main villain in this piece. Ghagnasdiak, an evil "dwarf clad in puffed multicolored silks, furs and satins," lives in the Vanishing Tower, which randomly appears and disappears in different realms every few hours.

Within these brief hours, Corum, Elric and Erekosë must defeat Ghagnasdiak's treacherous magick and rescue Corum's kidnapped companion, Jhary-a-Conel, before resuming their separate quests.

The writing in these tales is, once again, action-intensive, cut-to-it-lean, fantastic in its imagery and supernatural beings, and reader-hooking. What makes this Vanishing stand out from the other excellent books in this series is that it introduces the idea of alternate selves and worlds (the Fifteen Planes of Earth), an expansion that promises to take Elric beyond his soul-harrowing goal of absolution -- whether it be death or something less grim.


Followed by The Bane of the Black Sword.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Batman, Volume 1: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder and various artists

(pb; 2011, 2012: graphic novel, collecting issues #1 - 7 of Batman. Prequel to Batman, Volume 2: The City of Owls)

From the back cover:

"Batman has heard the tales of Gotham City's Court of Owls. Meeting in the shadows and using the nocturnal bird of prey as their calling card, the members of this powerful cabal are the true rulers of Gotham. But the Dark Knight dismissed the stories as rumors and old wives' tales. Gotham was his city.

"Until now.

"A brutal assassin is sinking his razor-sharp talons into the city's best and brightest, as well as its most dangerous and deadly. If the dark legends are true, his masters are more powerful predators than the Batman could ever imagine -- and their nests are everywhere. . ."


Review:

This reimagining of the Batman universe is a mixed bag of bad and good. Characters who have died in earlier versions of the Batman legend are still alive and that is mostly good (I can still do without the irritating brat who is Damian Wayne, a.k.a. the new Robin). The lethality, action and intensity of the writing and characters is especially high, considering how invasive the Owls are, and with their revealed entrenchment, so is the level of alarm that was aroused in this reader. This reworking of the Wayne family's violent past and present is truly bold and adventurous, and -- up to a point -- that is admirable.

I write "up to a point" because in his eagerness to further layer the backstory with elements that will include supporting characters, Snyder goes too far, with at least one of the supporting characters: it feels forced, too comic book-y, and it jarred me out of the story at several points.

I know some long-time Batman/DC Comics purists are put out by DC's rebranding and reworking of its characters (called "The New 52"), and while I am not, I can see where they might be. If you are looking for an Old School version of Batman, you probably should not be reading Court of Owls or its two sequels (the aforementioned Volume 2: The City of Owls and The Night of the Owls).

Court is an exciting and occasionally goes-too-far read, one worth checking out from the library. I would not want to own it, even at a discounted price, but I mostly enjoyed it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

(pb; 1995: first book in the Pendergast series)

From the back cover:

"Just days before a massive exhibition opens at the popular New York Museum of Natural History, visitors are being savagely murdered in the museum's dark hallways and secret rooms. Autopsies indicate that the killer cannot be human. . .

"But the museum's directors plan to go ahead with a big bash to celebrate the new exhibition, in spite of the murders.

"Museum researcher Margo Green must find out who -- or what -- is doing the killing. But can she do it in time to stop the massacre?"


Review:

The Relic is a fun, blast-through-it, b-movie read. It has got bad guys worth hissing at, a monster who harkens back to those blood-thirsty, rubber-suited monsters of the Fifties and (somewhat) updated science to lend read-it-with-popcorn credence to its gory, violent proceedings (as well as Relic's high body count).

This is an especially good read for its slick, cinema-minded writing and breakneck pacing. If you are looking for something beyond that -- e.g., a book that goes beyond cookie-cutter storylines and characters -- do not read Relic.

Followed by Reliquary.

#

The film version was released stateside on January 10, 1997. It was directed by Peter Hyams, from a script by Amy Holden Jones (billed as Amy Jones) and John Raffo.

Penelope Ann Miller played Dr. Margo Green. Tom Sizemore played Lt. Vincent D'Agosta. Linda Hunt played Dr. Ann Cuthbert. James Whitmore played Dr. Albert Frock. Clayton Rohner played Det. Hollingsworth.

Chu Muoi Lo played Dr. Greg Lee. Thomas Ryan played Tom Parkinson. Audra Lindley played Dr. Zwiezic. Don Harvey played Spota. John Kapelos played McNally.

Vincent Hammond and Brian Steele played Kothoga. Gary A. Hecker (billed as Gary Hecker) provided the "Kothoga Vocalization".

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Edgewise by Graham Masterton


(pb; 2007)

From the back cover:

"Lily Blake's first mistake was getting involved with dangerous forces she didn't understand. But she was desperate. Her children had been taken. The police were no help. And George Iron Walker claimed he could summon the Wendigo, a Native American spirit that can hunt anyone. . . anywhere. . . forever. She didn't think he could really do it.

"But the man who took Lily's children had just been found -- ripped to pieces. An Lily has made her second mistake. She has told George Iron Walker that she can't keep her part of the bargain. Now she has become the prey, hunted by a spirit no one can see, but which she knows is there. Chasing her. Tracking her. A spirit that will never rest until Lily is dead."


Review:

Caveat: (possible) spoilers in this review.

The first half of Edgewise is a tightly written, entertaining thriller with supernatural elements spicing up the mix.

The second half of Edgewise sucks. It starts when Lily decides not to pay Walker -- claiming he was not upfront about the consequences of her decisions. Only a dumb, selfish, lying and/or naїve person would not have been aware of such consequences, and prior to that Lily had not seemed like such a person -- even though a desperate mother is bound to be even more reckless and selfish. . . that said, the level Lily's disregard for the lives of those around her goes beyond belief, making her so unlikeable that even Masterton's otherwise solid, gory and occasionally quirky writing is rendered ineffective. I only finished this novel because I had already invested time in it and I wanted to see Lily die, horribly and slowly.

 
If Masterton had forced Lily to face up to her hypocritical self-delusions for even a sentence, I would not have minded Lily's character flaws so much.

That is not the only bad thing about Edgewise: the last quarter of it reads like an especially bad Syfy Channel television movie, with its what-the-f**k dumb traps that Lily and her future dead meat friends set for the Wendigo.

Avoid this book, with its above-mentioned flaws and its dogsh*t ending, and read something -- anything -- else by Masterton, who, for the most part, writes worthwhile stories.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Werewolf Principle by Clifford D. Simak

(hb; 1967)

From the inside flap:

"Andrew Blake is found in a space capsule on a distant planet and is brought back to an unfamiliar Earth, where antigravity devices have replaced the wheel, and house talk and even fly!

"Yet nothing is as strange as Blake's own feelings. Tormented by eerie sensations and loss of memory, he doesn't know who he really is or exactly where he has come from. His destiny only begins to grow frighteningly clear when he meets a weird, tassel-eared creature who darkly hints at the truth about Blake's origins.

"Slowly Blake becomes aware of the long hushed-up 'Werewolf Principle,' a scientific theory buried in the past, which holds the key to Blake's own fate -- and the future of the human race."


Review:

Werewolf is fun, often surprising and quirky science fiction novel, with its odd, risible mix of elements and characters (the Brownies, the A.I.-enhanced houses whose different rooms have different personalities who bicker, etc.). There are not a lot of twists in this, but there are tightly written, point-of-view shifts which eagle-eyed readers will probably, quickly make sense of, as well as an effectively foreshadowed end-of-novel twist, which further contributed to my enjoyment of Werewolf. (Some eagle-eyed readers may grumble that the nature of the end-twist feels tacked-on, but I -- who view this as the work of an excellent writer having a mainstream, good blast-of-a-time -- didn't mind it.)

Werewolf is worth owning, if you enjoy science fiction that's mildly provocative and generally thoughtful, but does not take itself too seriously.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Dexter is Dead by Jeff Lindsay

(hb; 2015: eighth book in the Dexter series)

From the inside flap:

"Dexter has spent the better part of his life burning the candle at both ends: blood-spatter analyst. . . husband. . . father. . . serial killer. We always knew his myriad dark deeds were bound to snare him in a trap of his own making. And now, for the first time, his world has truly collapsed. Dexter is in prison -- accused of multiple homicides. He has lost everything: his wife, his kids, his career, and the loyalty of his sister. Yet, the irony is, Dexter did not commit any of these murders of which he has been accused.

"Dexter is thrown the thinnest of lifelines by an unlikely source -- his brother, Brian, a homicidal maniac  who makes Dexter look like the angel in the family. Brian is in some serious trouble of his own, and by helping him, Dexter sees a possible path to proving his own innocence. But the stakes are truly deadly, and with nothing to lose, Dexter hurtles toward an epic showdown. . . and what may be his demise."


Review:

Like Dexter's Final Cut, Dead continues to wreck Dexter's carefully constructed world -- not only that, Dead reads like the series wrap-up novel that it is being touted as in its press.

And, like all of its previous seven novels, it is dark, witty and entertaining. The story is also lean, action- and corpse-packed, now that Dexter has an especially urgent, ticking-clock focus (namely some drug dealers a dirty cop) upon which to inflict his frustrations and survival instincts -- with help from his brother, Brian, who has his own problems to deal with.

The only thing I did not like about Dead is how it ended. I can see why Lindsay might want to end it that way, but given how entertaining and involving  the rest of the book was, the finish felt cheap, like something an amateur hack writer might tack onto his book.

That quibble aside, Dead is worth reading. I would not want to own it, not even at a discounted price, but it is a mostly satisfactory cap-work for the Dexter series.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Kar Kaballa by George H. Smith

(pb; 1969)

From the front page:

"Kar Kaballa was the new king of the Gogs and the rumor was that he would lead his barbaric cannibalistic band of Northern nomad down a mad crusade against the civilized nations of the world. Cultured people found this improbable -- but they were soon to learn better.

"Their weapons were good, about as good as you could get in a Victorian army, which was what the period was. But there was a traveler in town with a weapon he said was better, an odd chap with a thing called a Gatling Gun from a country nobody ever heard of called the United States.

"The question was could this outlander, this Major Churchwad, sell his unearthly import to the Empire soon enough -- or would Kar Kaballa become the new Tamerlane of a bloody-dawned Twentieth Century?"


Review:

Kar Kaballa an action- and battle-intense, intriguing science fiction novel, set in a Victorian-era alternate world, Annwn. Its characters and settings are a colorful mix of science and magic (and its resulting themes), from the brash explorer Dylan MacBride, to his fiery, would-be lover (Clarinda MacTague, a high priestess of the fertility goddess Keridwen) to Cythraul, the dark, devouring god of Kar Kaballa and his Gog soldiers.

Entertaining and over-the-top, Kar Kaballa is what science fiction novels of this sort should be: thrilling and addictive. This is worth owning.

#

Kar Kaballa was packaged as a reverse-bound "Ace Double" novel, which means that if readers flip the book upside down and over, there was another science fiction novel, penned by another author, on the other side. (Considering that these books sold for 75 cents a pop, this seems like a great deal, even back in the Sixties.)

In this case, the flipside novel is Lin Carter's Tower of Medusa.