Friday, 24 February 2017

Spider's Bite / Jennifer Estep

3 stars out of 5
My name is Gin, and I kill people.

They call me the Spider. I'm the most feared assassin in the South — when I'm not busy at the Pork Pit cooking up the best barbecue in Ashland. As a Stone elemental, I can hear everything from the whispers of the gravel beneath my feet to the vibrations of the soaring Appalachian Mountains above me. My Ice magic also comes in handy for making the occasional knife. But I don't use my powers on the job unless I absolutely have to. Call it professional pride.

Now that a ruthless Air elemental has double-crossed me and killed my handler, I'm out for revenge. And I'll exterminate anyone who gets in my way — good or bad. I may look hot, but I'm still one of the bad guys. Which is why I'm in trouble, since irresistibly rugged Detective Donovan Caine has agreed to help me. The last thing this coldhearted killer needs when I'm battling a magic more powerful than my own is a sexy distraction... especially when Donovan wants me dead just as much as the enemy.


I decided to start this series as the author will be attending a conference that I am registered for this summer. I like to have a feel for the work of the featured guests before the event.

If you are enamoured of urban fantasy, as I am, I would recommend this book to you. If, on the other hand, you find UF tiresome, pass this series by. For those of us who enjoy the genre, this is an acceptable series, with a number of good ideas.

Good ideas: (1) A female assassin. With magical powers, although she tries not to rely on them. (2) An interesting elemental magic scheme. (3) Gin (our assassin friend) is confident, competent & doesn’t even pretend that she’s a loner. She has friends who are like family & freely admits it.

The stuff that didn’t work so well for me? (1) The repetition. How many times do we need to be told where Gin carries all of her knives? Or how much she loves all of her knives? (2) The novel was filled with UF clichés, e.g. the main character has a tragic & damaging past (shades of Batman), she has a “code” (à la Dexter or Spademan in Shovel Ready). (3) Of course she is romantically interested in a policeman, he is as self-righteous as she is pragmatic, and every time she lays eyes on him all she can think about is sex
(but her little feelings are hurt when they eventually have sex & he still dislikes her).

The set-up of Gin’s world is a little grittier and darker than I would normally choose. Sexual situations are just part of the background (lots of prostitutes & their clients) and often described more graphically than other UF series that I have read. I realize that it is just part of Gin’s “wrong side of the tracks” world, but it grated on me a bit.

Still, I liked the book and will continue with the series, both to see if Gin can “go straight” with her restaurant business (I assuming not entirely or the series is named wrong) and if she does, whether Detective Caine will unbend a bit and meet her in the middle.

Sheepfarmer's Daughter / Elizabeth Moon

3.5 stars out of 5
Paksenarrion — Paks for short — is somebody special. She knows it, even if nobody else does yet. No way will she follow her father's orders to marry the pig farmer down the road. She's off to join the army, even if it means she can never see her family again.

And so her adventure begins... the adventure that transforms her into a hero remembered in songs, chosen by the gods to restore a lost ruler to his throne.

Here is her tale as she lived it.


I really wanted to like this tale more than I actually did. It had moments of greatness—as when Paksenarrion fights off her father and leaves home to join the army. (Although, as the daughter of a pig farmer, I will tell you that there are worse men that you could end up married to).

I read this book while on holiday and it always seemed that I was interrupted right in mid-battle, left wondering for many hours how things would turn out! That said, the battles were certainly not gritty like those described by Glen Cook in his Dark Company series. These were battlefield-lite. And although Paks is injured several times and has bad things happen to her, she leads the charmed life of the fantasy heroine.

What was refreshing was having a female main character who was competent with a weapon and interested in tactics. Now, how much is her own doing and how much is she being assisted by somewhat magical influences? This supernatural stirring in her life puts me in mind of Joan of Arc….

Book 241 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

The Dragonbone Chair / Tad Williams

4 out of 5 stars
A war fueled by the powers of dark sorcery is about to engulf the peaceful land of Osten Ard—for Prester John, the High King, lies dying. And with his death, the Storm King, the undead ruler of the elf-like Sithi, seizes the chance to regain his lost realm through a pact with the newly ascended king. Knowing the consequences of this bargain, the king’s younger brother joins with a small, scattered group of scholars, the League of the Scroll, to confront the true danger threatening Osten Ard.

Simon, a kitchen boy from the royal castle unknowingly apprenticed to a member of this League, will be sent on a quest that offers the only hope of salvation, a deadly riddle concerning long-lost swords of power. Compelled by fate and perilous magics, he must leave the only home he’s ever known and face enemies more terrifying than Osten Ard has ever seen, even as the land itself begins to die.


Oh, the orphan boy with unknown talents, who under-performs until the pressure is applied—how many fantasy stories have you read with this structure? Let’s see--Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey, The Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist, The Belgariad by David Eddings, The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, even to some extent The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien (substitute “hobbit” for “boy”). Maybe even the King Arthur story to some extent—until young Arthur pulls the sword from the stone. It’s a well-used idea.

At the book’s beginning, I found Simon particularly annoying. As lives go in Midieval-like settings, his lot in life isn’t so bad, although the housekeeper Rachel does make his existence somewhat miserable. However, we all have to earn our keep, so pull up your socks, laddie, and make an effort! Even when offered opportunities to learn to read and to study, he complains! Typical 14-year-old, I guess, something I wouldn’t know about, having had the reading bug ever since I learned to read. Simon doesn’t appreciate his warm bed, three square meals a day, and secure surroundings until he has to flee the castle.

Once he starts running for his life, Simon begins growing up. He becomes a much more likeable character at that point and I began to get invested in his tale. He loses some of the ADHD qualities that made him a “mooncalf” in the beginning and becomes a much more focused young man.
I also appreciated a brand new take on trolls—making them smaller, wiser, and wilier. I liked Binobik and his wolf companion a lot. The Sithi are interesting in their ambiguity—are they enlightened, ethereal beings like the elves in Tolkien? Or are they the dark enemies of mankind? The world of Osten Ard is very detailed and easy to picture in the mind’s eye.

The writing isn’t the best ever, but the story is engaging and I am waiting impatiently for volume 2 at my public library, where it is ‘on order.’ No telling how long I will have to pause before I know what happens to Simon, the kingdom, and the Storm King!

Book number 239 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Fire Touched / Patricia Briggs

4 out of 5 stars
Tensions between the fae and humans are coming to a head. And when coyote shapeshifter Mercy and her Alpha werewolf mate, Adam, are called upon to stop a rampaging troll, they find themselves with something that could be used to make the fae back down and forestall out-and-out war: a human child stolen long ago by the fae.

Defying the most powerful werewolf in the country, the humans, and the fae, Mercy, Adam, and their pack choose to protect the boy no matter what the cost. But who will protect them from a boy who is fire touched?


Plenty of Fae goodness in this installment of Mercy Thompson! They are absolutely the best frenemies—devious, slippery, powerful, and power-hungry. Mercy has to be careful even with her friendly Fae!

Mercy & her shape-shifting gang beat a powerful troll, then Mercy “claims” the Tri-Cities area à la Kate Daniels of the Ilona Andrews series. Just like Kate, Mercy finds that her spur of the moment solution causes more headaches than she anticipated.

Excellent things about this book? Mercy finally gets some female friends! She gets to have a heart-to-heart talk with The Flanagan, a fabulous Fae woman—the only reservation I have is that its “girl talk” as they discuss the men in their lives. Soooo close to Bechdel test territory, but no cigar. But there is less hostility from the female werewolves and Baba Yaga makes some friendly overtures, giving me hope that Mercy may get some normal friendships out of the deal.

Secondly, Mercy doesn’t get absolutely bashed up in this installment. For once, someone else gets crushed by troll-tossed cars, fae-flung boulders, and any other bone-crushing missiles. Just a few bruises this time for our heroine.

If there are any minuses, it’s that the vampires are virtually absent. Yes, we get Thomas Hao, as The Flanagan’s prospective love interest, but Stefan never makes an appearance at all and even Wulfe only gets one little phone call to be creepy in.

A perennial complaint of mine—cover art. This one seems particularly bad to me, depicting Mercy with far less clothing that I picture her wearing. I just don’t see that shirt being too practical for all the butt-kicking that she does.

I wonder if we might get a spin-off series featuring Thomas Hao & The Flanagan? I’d read those!

Agent of Change / Sharon Lee, Steve Miller

4 out of 5 stars
Once a brilliant First-in Scout, Val Con yos'Phelium was "recruited" by the mysterious Liaden Department of Interior and brainwashed into an Agent of Change—a ruthless covert operative who kills without remorse.

Fleeing the scene of his latest murderous mission, he finds himself saving the life of ex-mercenary Miri Robertson, a tough Terran on the run from a team of interplanetary assassins. Thrown together by circumstances, Val Con and Miri struggle to elude their enemies and stay alive without slaying each other—or surrendering to the unexpected passion that flares between them.


The Liaden Universe entertains again—I stayed up past bedtime last night to finish this novel and absolutely had to know how things ended. Except I now know that I will have to consult another title for “the rest of the story.” That’s okay, this was a fun romp.

What do you do when you are a hardened, take-no-prisoners spy who almost incidentally rescues someone and then you find yourself quite taken with her? Val Con yos’Phelium suddenly can’t just leave Miri Robertson in the lurch. He saved her life once and now it seems the two of them have become interdependent. Neither one of them is sure how they feel about it.

Although their developing relationship definitely has a starring role in the novel, there is plenty of action & adventure too. A new species is introduced to the Liaden series, that of the large, sentient turtles (The Clutch). The most prominent of them, Edger, reminds me of the Ents in LOTR—living & doing business at a stately pace, watching short-lived humans whip through the world at a frantic rate. I’m looking forward to seeing how these reptilian characters feature in future adventures. Not to mention the space mafia that they seem to be set up to oppose.

The ever-so-complicated Liaden world barely impinges on this book—our main characters never get near Liaden society, so there is less of the societal machinations prominent in Local Custom or Scout’s Progress. I look forward to future stories of Val Con and Miri.

Book 245 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

Leonard / William Shatner

3 out of 5 stars
Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner first crossed paths as actors on the set of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Little did they know that their next roles, in a new science-fiction television series, would shape their lives in ways no one could have anticipated. In seventy-nine television episodes and six feature films, they grew to know each other more than most friends could ever imagine.

Over the course of half a century, Shatner and Nimoy saw each other through personal and professional highs and lows. In this powerfully emotional book, Shatner tells the story of a man who was his friend for five decades, recounting anecdotes and untold stories of their lives on and off set, as well as gathering stories from others who knew Nimoy well, to present a full picture of a rich life.


I am a dyed-in-the-wool Star Trek fan—I started watching the original series while in my tweens. It was “must see” after school TV (even though the show was cancelled by this point & I was watching re-runs). Mr. Spock was my absolute favourite character and I was happy to see him popping up in later incarnations of Star Trek, especially the new series of movies. So I was saddened by Leonard Nimoy’s death in 2015. I appreciate that he did many other roles, by it is Spock that I will remember him for.

In January, I was able to see his son’s documentary For the Love of Spock while flying to Johannesburg. I enjoyed seeing Nimoy & Spock from his son’s perspective, even the difficult parts of that relationship. Naturally, when I got home, it seemed appropriate to read William Shatner’s memoir concerning Leonard Nimoy as well.

I was pleasantly surprised at how honest Shatner seemed to be in this memoir. I think that it takes courage to admit that you don’t have many friends, that you don’t know how to make or maintain friendships, and that you screw up friendships & don’t know why. His co-writer, David Fisher, lets Shatner’s voice shine through and I felt some empathy for a man who may have career success, but seems like a lonely old guy.

Mind you, this book is replete with Shatner’s two favourite words, “I” and “me.” While nominally about Leonard, the memoir reveals far more about Shatner than it does about Nimoy. Shatner can’t be an easy man to befriend—he doesn’t seem to fully understand concepts like teasing, for example. He tries to participate, but more like a person following a ritual than like someone who truly understands what’s going on and as a result, he often misses the mark.

Although his egoism is obvious, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Shatner at the book’s end, when it seems that he and Nimoy were estranged. Shatner couldn’t understand why and seemed sincerely distressed by the situation. Despite their rift, he has written an honest and moving account of their 50 year association and has tried to give a fair portrayal of their relationship.

If you too are a Star Trek devotee, you will probably enjoy this memoir. Others may not find it quite as interesting.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Magic's Pawn / Mercedes Lackey

4 out of 5 stars
Though Vanyel has been born with near-legendary abilities to work both Herald and Mage magic, he wants no part of such things. Nor does he seek a warrior's path, wishing instead to become a Bard. Yet such talent as his if left untrained may prove a menace not only to Vanyel but to others as well. So he is sent to be fostered with his aunt, Savil, one of the famed Herald-Mages of Valdemar.

But, strong-willed and self-centered, Vanyel is a challenge which even Savil can not master alone. For soon he will become the focus of frightening forces, lending his raw magic to a spell that unleashes terrifying wyr-hunters on the land. And by the time Savil seeks the assistance of a Shin'a'in Adept, Vanyel's wild talent may have already grown beyond anyone's ability to contain, placing Vanyel, Savil, and Valdemar itself in desperate peril...


Oh, what a validating novel this would be for a child who had no sports talent, but was being forced to participate anyway! Every boy convinced by his father to set aside his violin or book in order to fail dismally at baseball or hockey would be able to relate to Vanyel. Music is everything to Vanyel with academics running a close second, but his father only wants him to become a brutal swordsman.

Others who may relate: those who excelled in their own small pond (small town or small school), but find themselves out-shone by talented peers when they arrived at university. Vanyel is considered smart and musically talented at home, but once he is sent to his Aunt Savil at the school for Herald-Mages, his talents fall short of the mark.

Also a book for a youngster (in the 1980s) struggling with his/her sexual orientation. The good thing that comes out of this new situation is that Vanyel realizes that he is interested in boys—that’s why bedding girls at home was never alluring to him. And although some people are prejudiced against him for his orientation, the author makes it clear that they are “provincial” and not to be listened to. I was pleasantly surprised to find this viewpoint expressed so unequivocally in literature from the 1980s.

Like most teenagers, Vanyel is very self-centered. It goes with the territory, but it does make the kid hard to like (at least for a woman in her 50s). However, it was also disappointing that the instructors at the mage school made so little effort to see behind the arrogant pose that Vanyel used to protect himself. The situation improves as the book progresses, with Aunt Savil realizing that there is a great deal more to her nephew that she had previously realized and that maybe her brother was even thicker than she had thought. This is also a pretty standard plot device—I think of Simon in The Dragonbone Chair, who also starts as a self-involved teen (with fewer talents than Vanyel), but eventually becomes a person of character.

I had to wonder at the addition of the horse-like Companions—in order to become a Herald-Mage, one must be “chosen” by one of these superior, magical beings, who reminded me very much of the Houyhnhnms from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Maybe in the next book, I will figure out why the Companions are necessary to this world.

Book 244 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project.