Back to the Bad Penny

The bad penny is back and having even more adventures that he really didn’t ask for.  I mentioned after finishing This Rough Magic that there Benito Valdosta became a mature adult, but that doesn’t mean he was left to while away all his days on Corfu.  Oh no, the Venetian Republic considers the former thief to be their ace in the hole, so when word comes that something has to be done about Constantinople and Lithuania’s fleet, there’s only one man for the job.

Burdens of the Dead takes place roughly concurrently with Much Fall of Blood and there are several callbacks in this book to its predecessor.  After all, these books generally cover anywhere from three months to two years, and given the geographical distances involved, there’s an awful lot going on at any given time.  The authors, Dave Freer, Eric Flint, and Mercedes Lackey, can only give us so much insight at any moment and they, being experienced writers, want to ensure that no words are wasted.  Even though this book is shorter than most of the series, being less than six hundred pages long, that doesn’t mean it isn’t jam-packed of more politics, intrigue, and battles.

Oh yes, there’s a bit of naval and other warfare in this book.  But don’t worry, it’s nothing like David Weber’s fascination with all things nautical.  In fact, there’s very little shown of any actual battles, the focus being more on the events surrounding them and the results afterwards.

And in case you thought this was going to be a more mundane book than the rest…don’t even think it.  Constantinople is where you will find the goddess Hekate.  She’s spent countless centuries – or possibly millenia – mourning her dead son and generally being oblivious to the world around her.  But, as in Venice and Corfu, old powers are beginning to awaken and Hekate is no exception.  Her priorities are somewhat different from the other great powers we’ve seen thus far, but she could be a notable ally in the coming battle against Chernobog…if she so chooses.

Oh and there’s a side plot over in Venice while the majority of the action takes place in and on the way to Constantinople.  But who needs side plots in this series?  They’re only as interesting or moreso than the main story.

To be honest, my favorite portions of this book are those involving Hekate and the climax of the side plot.  I think the authors have some very interesting takes on deities and how they would interact with “modern” sensibilities, and I think the gods are well portrayed.  There is a very strange meeting at one point, and I never know if I should just take it seriously or giggle throughout.

Sadly, Burdens of the Dead is the last book in the Heirs of Alexandria at this point.  However…Eric Flint’s website says All the Plagues of Hell is due out this December!  Pardon me as I quickly add a reminder to my amazon wish list.  I am very excited to read that, although I don’t think I’ll be rereading all five preceeding novels at that point, though we’ll see.  It’s half a year away, and a lot can happen in that time.

Tomorrow I’m planning on picking up my hold from the library, returning other material, and signing up for their summer reading program.  It looks quite easy (for me) and I’m not opposed to entering raffles.  We all know I’d be reading the books anyway, so why not get credit for them?  Unless if I choose to make a special trip, I’ll probably return a full sheet when I go to the library sale in two weeks.

I’m not certain what to read next.  Technically I should start the series my hold is from, but as I said last time, I don’t think I’m quite ready.  Maybe I’ll go for one of the anthologies in my Pile.  I think I’d prefer either science fiction or something new.  Or new science fiction, but I don’t think I have any of that at this time.  Unless if I chose one of the books out of the basement…hmm.  There are many options, and I’m off to consider them.

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Historical Fantasy

What you need to remember when reading the Heirs of Alexandria is that this is historical fantasy, and therefore based on reality to some degree.  Perhaps not as strongly as in some cases, given the magical elements in each and every book, but moreso than you might expect.  And it’s important to remember how very much research must have gone into these books, not only on the historical figures and events, but also the magical ones.  After all, the magical elements are based on folklore and mythology from the various regions we find them in.

It was this book, Much Fall of Blood, which really drove the historical aspects of Eric Flint, Dave Freer, and Mercedes Lackey’s world home for me.  The focus shifts northward, away from the Mediterranean, towards Hungary, Valahia (aka Wallachia & Transylvania), and the lands of the Golden Horde.  The Golden Horde are those who followed Attila into Europe and settled there.  At this time and in this place they are still living much as their ancestors did, keeping alive the ancient traditions and stories.

Which includes the story of Princess Kutulun.  She is the wrestling Princess, who would only marry the man to defeat her in a wrestling match.  It’s a nice story that is touched upon throughout the Mongol parts of the book and leads to a wonderfully warming climax, but that’s not what I love most about it.  You see, Kutulun is the very first entry in Rejected Princesses.  Opening that book to find her included was the very impetus to buy it.

As you might suppose from the earlier listing, another third of Much Fall of Blood is the story of Prince Vlad of Valahia.  Dracula, or the Dragon, as he’s called by his subjects, often shortened to just Drac.  He is not a vampire.  I think everyone’s noticed that I like vampire books, but this is definitely not one of those.  His journey is a bit different than most, but still enjoyable.

The last third of the book belongs to Prince Manfred and Erik Hakkonsen with bits from our villains and that scamp Benito Valdosta.  I don’t feel I need to go into great detail here, as this is the fourth book with our two knights and the third with the canal-brat who was born to be hanged.

This fourth entry is a turning point in the series.  Our perception of the world is expanded beyond the Mediterranean basin (Telemark in Norway isn’t really counting at the moment) and we’re starting to get a feel for the geopolitical affairs that are shaping it.  We’re also seeing the main villain starting to feel pressure with his setbacks, as opposed to mere anger at unexpected defeats.

Much Fall of Blood is not quite as strong as A Mankind Witch, but I truly do love the portions of this book belonging to Vlad and to Bortai of the Hawk Clan of the White Horde.  They’re vibrant new characters that I’m always happy to see more of, and steeped in the mythology of their respective peoples.

In present day news, my hold is in at the library, so I’ll be picking that up this week and probably looking into that series after I finish this one.  We’ll see.  Like I said, those are much easier and faster reads, so I might put it off a little.  Depends on how I feel.  I think it’s a three week checkout, so I should have plenty of time.

Don’t Mess with Maria

All the advertisements from the publisher bill This Rough Magic as the sequel to The Shadow of the Lion instead of A Mankind Witch.  But as you may have noticed, I have a distinct preference for reading series in order by their internal timeline…which does not always match publication order.  In this case, because A Mankind Witch takes place over the course of the winter following the events of Shadow of the Lion and preceeding the majority of This Rough Magic (some of the early parts are before and during that tale), I consider it to be the second book.  Which makes This Rough Magic the third.

All throughout Shadow of the Lion we had Maria.  She was a friend to Marco and Benito Valdosta, a lover to Ceasare Aldanto, and a canaler with a reputation for being self-sufficient.  Still, she was only a secondary character, important to the main characters and their plots, but not quite in that inner circle.  But this book is as much Maria’s as it is Benito’s.  We begin with her wedding – a somewhat hasty affair to an older, reliable man who desperately loved her mother.  She wants – needs – someone honorable to provide her family with stability, especially as it’s going to expand shortly.  Umberto Verrier, said husband, is transferred to Illyria as the new chief forester, getting Maria out of Venice and away from Benito, who seems to be getting into more and more trouble because of her.  Oh, he’s not been near her in months, but we can all figure why he’s acting out.

After the long-awaited wedding of Marco and Kat, Umberto is transferred again, this time to the island of Corfu.  A Venetian possession, Corfu is an old place.  A small community, sure, where everyone knows everyone else, but an old place.  And then King Emeric of Hungary decides to invade and lays siege to the island.  But this is no ordinary siege, for Emeric is a dark sorcerer, and his war is every bit as magical as it is mundane.  Things quickly become dangerous not only for Benito and Maria, but for several other characters readers will remember from Shadow of the Lion.

It’s easily seen that while Marco made the transition to mature adulthood within the first book, Benito was not yet at that point.  This Rough Magic gives the younger Valdosta his chance to become a responsible adult, and can be seen as an ending for his personal story.  After all, Marco is barely in this book, but that’s because he doesn’t need to grow in the same ways Benito does.  I believe this is the last book that spends any real amount of time in the Venetian Republic, and that as the focus shifts locations in the next two, they range farhter afield.

What more can I say without giving away important plot points?  Just like Shadow of the LionThis Rough Magic is a large, dense book, concluding at eight hundred ninety-three pages.  It’s from the same three authors as the first, Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and Dave Freer.  There’s every bit as much politics and intrigue as the first volume, although the tonality has changed a great deal with the move to a fortress under siege and a fairly rural island.  And there are a great many story threads to keep track of.  There’s continuation for even the most minor of charcters here, including those whose heads we’ve never seen inside.  Which are some nice subtle touches as the authors know well that just because the story’s focus is on a small group in an isolated location, doesn’t mean the world around them won’t keep spinning.  Time passes for everyone equally.

I did take the time to stop by Half Price Books as promised this weekend, and I found a few things.  The book one to go with two and three I’d bought at the art musuem, another anthology I’ve never read, and a book with a title that I am too curious about.  I also stopped at the comic shop today, but they still don’t have new issues of this year’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers annual.  I know the annual doesn’t usually have anything to do with the actual storyline…but I can’t take that risk given the Shattered Grid event.  Especially because said issue is listed as being a part of the event on the inside back cover detailing what books to collect and what dates they’re all released.

The store also reminded me that there is a new book out in a series I read.  So of course when I got home I put it on hold at the library.  Surprisingly, they have more than five copies.  Unsurprisingly, they’re all checked out at the moment.  Still, I expect that I’ll be getting that hold before I’m finished with the Heirs of Alexandria.  But I should be able to make it work.  I’m halfway through these…and that other series is made of much shorter and easier reads.

Watch Out for the Cabbage Schnapps

After over a year in Venice, Prince Manfred and Erik Hakkonsen are sent north.  First to Denmark where they get to deal with more symptoms of the problems found in the Knights of the Trinity and then further north to Norway where a much more interesting story is unfolding.  This is A Mankind Witch by Dave Freer.  It is the only book in the Heirs of Alexandria with a single author (thus far) and is also the shortest at just under five hundred pages.

Based on my understanding of books with multiple authors, it’s quite likely that in all the books, it’s Dave Freer doing most of the writing for Erik and Manfred, Lackey on Marco and Benito, and Flint on other major characters.  No guarantees of course, but that’s what I can project based on two major data points.  First, that A Mankind Witch uses only Manfred’s circle and is authored solely by Dave Freer.  Secondly, that chapter two of The Shadow of the Lion was lifted wholesale from a chapter in one of the Merovingen Nights books.  It was actually the second time I’ve caught Lackey taking an earlier short story of hers, changing some names, and reusing it as the foundation of a full book.  And when I say “lifted wholesale” I mean it literally.  Names are changed.  Sentences are not.  That’s it.  As someone who has a good memory for these things, I was immediately driven to look up the chapter in the novel for comparison and it’s identical.  And that’s why I can’t read Merovingen Nights.

Anyway.  The main character of A Mankind Witch is the sailor Cair Aidin.  He’s one of the Redbeards, a pair of brother captains who contol a large pirate fleet in the Mediterranean.  Somehow or other, Cair ended up adrift at sea, and is picked up by a Norse longboat.  He is taken as a thrall, keeping his true identity secret and planning to escape as soon as possible.  However, things don’t go as planned.  It seems there’s more going on in the small kingdom of Telemark than anyone had suspected.  When the storm warnings first go up, the Holy Roman Emperor sends Manfred and company to help solve the problem, but there’s a lot more to deal with than any individual party suspects.

I think A Mankind Witch is my favorite entry in the series.  It’s the easiest to overlook because it has only one author, and seems to be the hardest to find.  (I’ve been trying to pick up a second copy for a friend and have yet to see it in a good four plus years of searching used bookstores.)  It’s the tighest in terms of story because it has so many fewer major characters than any of the others, as well as being the shortest for the same reason.  My memory’s a little hazy on the newer books, but I think it may take place over the shortest span of time too.  Yes, there’s some weeks and even months between Cair’s capture and the main plot, but we don’t need reminders of new calendar months to keep track of time as in Shadow of the Lion.  And, to be fair, Telemark is not as European as Italy, and people care less about dates and months there.

But the real reason I love this book so is Cair Aidin himself.  The man is a corsair, a ruthless pirate.  But he’s also extremely intelligent and knowledgeable, skilled with tools and weapons, and capable of planning his way out of anything and everything. He shouldn’t be a hero and yet he is and I love it.  And yes, there’s many moments in this book that help flesh him out, but I refuse to spoil them for you.  This may not be the easiest book to find (outside of simply ordering it online), but it is well worth it if you do.  I do recommend at least reading Shadow of the Lion first to gain a proper appreciation for Manfred and Erik, because otherwise you’ll do them a grave injustice here.  They don’t really get to shine too much except if you’re building off previous experience.  Not to mention you wouldn’t understand any of the references to Venice.

A Mankind Witch almost never takes me more than a day to read because I hate to put it down.  I’m not sure if I’ll be back here tomorrow with book three, but it is possible.  Despite a plan or two, I will have plenty of free time tomorrow.  But then again, the weather’s going to be gorgeous and it is a good weekend for sales.  Such as at Half Price Books…

…because who doesn’t want more books?

The Murkiest City

Well, I decided it was time and past to reread the Heirs of Alexandria, a series written by Eric Flint, Dave Freer, and Mercedes Lackey.  How’s that for a power punch of authors?  And as you might guess from how long it’s been between posts, these are not short books at all.  Shadow of the Lion, the first book, is over 900 pages of story, plus a cast of characters and a glossary.  It’s historical fantasy, set in a 16th century Venice where magic is real and (Saint) Hypatia saved the Library of Alexandria…not that this has a huge impact on the main story.

Taking place over the course of about eighteen months, Shadow of the Lion has two main groups of main characters.  The Imperials, or Prince Manfred of Brittany, one of the heirs to his uncle the Holy Roman Emperor, and his Icelandic bodyguard Erik Hakkonsen.  They’re present as Knights of the Holy Trinity, and traveling incognito.  The other main characters are the Valdosta brothers of Venice, Marco and Benito.  Their mother was murdered two years ago, and they’ve been lying low since then; Benito as a canal brat and thief, Marco in the Jesolo marshes with the locos.  However, major events are beginning to center on Venice at the start of this book, and we see Marco and Benito rise up to recover what is rightfully theirs, and Manfred begin to truly understand how a monarch must think.

There is so much intrigue, so many politics and factions, that it can seem overwhelming.  And it’s true that a nine hundred page book can be a bit daunting.  But, I never really get overwhelmed until the climax, when everything comes together incredibly quickly and it’s important to remember who’s on which side.  It’s a lot easier to track than David Weber’s Safeholdian politics, but this is because we’re focusing only on Venice and surrounding environs.  Yes, there’s plenty of hints of how the series is going to expand beyond this one independent republic of a city, but there is no need to go into those details at this point.  That’s what the other books are for.

These authors create a lush world, with strong and vibrant characters against an equally colorful background cast.  I never care how long the books are because I simply want to keep reading until I finally get to the end…far too soon.  It’s a slow-going series publication-wise, but I was lucky enough to find The Shadow of the Lion used (thank you Books Again) fairly early on, enabling me to pick up the rest of the books brand new.  I’m keeping an eye out for that upcoming sixth book, but I don’t think it’s got anything more than a target year and maybe month yet.

Regardless, on to book two!

New Books

Today I switched gears yet again.  I went back to shorter books, quicker reads, mostly to facilitate the one I picked up yesterday at Target.  I don’t usually buy books there, but for some reason when I do, it’s usually by Rick Riordan.  Like today’s book, the Brooklyn House Magician’s Manual: Your Guide to Egyptian Gods & Creatures, Glyphs & Spells, and More.  This is in the same sort of vein as the Hotel Valhalla book I read a while back that related to Magnus Chase and his books, but obviously it goes with the Kane Chronicles and their Egyptian mythology.

So, a quick summary of the Kane Chronicles and their place in Riordan’s world: Carter and Sadie Kane are siblings who just happen to be descended from the Pharoahs of old, making them magicans.  Once they learn that, life goes from weird-but-normal to just plain weird.  And magical.  And there are gods (duh).  Their series is the shortest of Riordan’s mythology-based sets thus far at only three books.  There are also three short stories (collected in Demigods and Magicians) where Carter meets Percy Jackson, Sadie meets Annabeth Chase, and then the four team up against a threat.

The Brooklyn House Magician’s Manual is a basic overview of things as they stand in the Egyptian world at the moment, taking place after the books and Demigods and Magicians.  It introduces a number of side characters, makes endless references to the novels, and provides some basic information about the Egyptian pantheon.  It doesn’t add much in terms of story, although I do hope to see either more books in this set, or more crossovers with the other sets.  Either would be good.  I mean, I know Percy came first but he and his pantheon have gotten the most love by far.

So, this one’s okay but not strictly necessary.

Now, I knew Rick Riordan wouldn’t be long enough for the full day, so I grabbed a novella off the Pile as well.  It’s only sixty-five pages, so I knew it wouldn’t be a stretch at all.  This is On the Plains of Lapis by J.L. Holland.

Before I get into content, I should mention that I bought the novella because it was written by a friend of mine.  No one I’ve ever met, but someone I’ve RPed with for years.  And when she announced the existence of this book on Facebook (complete with an amazon link), I immediately added it to my wishlist to be added to a cart needing free shipping.  That happened a while back, but I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet, since it is so very short and could never constitute a full day of reading.

On the Plains of Lapis made a good foil for Rick Riordan, being science fiction instead of fantasy.  Lapis is a colony of Earth’s, and something strange and unexpected happened there, as the narrator tells us.  The narrator is in fact the colony’s computer system, and it relates the story through the lens of Rose, the human who can be considered its best friend.

I was so happy to like this story – it’s got those creepy undertones you expect for a science fiction story on a seemingly perfect planet, but it doesn’t go anywhere near as dark as so many contemporary authors favor.  (I chalk this up to Holland liking a lot of the same older books that I enjoy.)  You really feel for the poor narrator, and for me I find it very hard to not engender the system; it has that much personality.

It’s Holland’s first book and as a self-published work it shows mostly in the physical layout.  But not in the text, which is where years of roleplaying and telling stories has really paid off.  If you’re interested in science fiction, I’d give it a look, especially if you go for ebooks, as it’s fairly cheap.

Music Saves the Day

After something new, I wanted something old.  Something I hadn’t reread in years because, well, it’s kind of dumb.  But I won’t get rid of the book even so, and thus here we are.  This is Castle of Deception by Mercedes Lackey and Josepha Sherman, set in the world of The Bard’s Tale.  And I mean the old computer game The Bard’s Tale, which I personally have not played.  (I did go pick up a copy of the PS2 version sometime after I discovered this book, but still.)

The thing to know about Mercedes Lackey is that she’s been a part of fandom for a very long time.  You can tell just by looking at a lot of the books she’s written, even the timing of them.  Take Castle of Deception.  It’s from back in 1992.  Not having played the original game, I don’t know how much of the plot relates to it, just like with that Wing Commander book I read a while back.  So since I can’t make a good comparsion, let’s talk about what we’ve got here.

Kevin is a sixteen year old bardling.  That is to say, he’s young man who has the potential to wield Bardic Magic and is currently in training.  But, being a young man, he’s quite certain he knows everything he needs, if only he had that magic to help him out.  So when his master Aidan sends him to Count Volmar’s castle to copy a manuscript, he’s eager for adventure.  He’s not thrilled by the restrictions placed on his copying – by his master and by the count’s people – and has an inflated idea of his own self-importance, but his heart’s in the right place.

Unfortunately for Kevin, it seems that there’s more going on than it seems.  Thirty years prior, the Princess Carlotta had tried to usurp the throne from her aging father, displacing her half-brother the heir, Prince Amber.  She had used her sorcery to turn Amber to stone, and Bard Aidan, along with several others, was able to stop her and put Amber on the throne.  Not that you’d suspect the elderly Aidan to be so much of a hero, which is one of Kevin’s many disappointments with life.

Once he arrives at the Count’s home, Kevin is made thoroughly miserable by his lack of status and enforced isolation.  So when he’s given the opportunity to lead a rescue party for the sake of the Count’s niece Charina, he jumps at the chance like any young hero would.  Of course, he’s the youngest in the group by a long shot after Lydia the mercenary, Eliathanis the White Elf, Naitachal the Dark Elf, and Tich’ki the fairy.  Somehow, the bardling has to get this mismatched group of people to work together and save the Count’s niece.

It’s a fairly straightforward adventure in the tradition of Dungeons & Dragons, but that’s no bad thing.  Sure, Kevin’s obnoxious at the beginning, but we do see him mature and learn not only how to lead but how to use his own skills in the real world.  And, of course, it seems that Charina is the least of their worries…

I first found Castle of Deception in the used bookstore that was next to the eye doctor.  It was the first time I’d really had a local used bookstore to go to, and I was in heaven.  I was able to expand my Lackey collection with old, out of print books I’d never heard of before, and each one seemed better than the last in my excitement.  It was also the first place I’d ever seen fabric bookcovers of the type I’m never seen without these days.  They were made by a local woman as I recall, and had some wonderful patterned fabric choices.  (My first one had dinosaur skeletons.  I miss that one so much.)  It was a great little local business called Books Again, and I was very sad when it closed.  In many ways, it was that store that helped me get to where I am today, because until then I had never really bought used books – it just didn’t occur to me that you could get them anywhere besides Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, and other stores.  Admittedly, I was only in highschool at the time, but still, it was an important formative experience.

And, like I said, I picked up a video game later because of this book.  It’s not easy, especially for a very casual video gamer like myself, but I have fun with how down and dirty it gets.  (You can literally tip cows in the game.  I love this fact.)  I’ve only beaten the first major boss at this point (don’t ask how many years I’ve owned it, you don’t want to know), but I still have fun in between being frustrated at my own inability to play it well.

But if I’m not a great video gamer, I am a good reader.  And it was no great difficulty to follow Castle of Deception with Fortress of Frost and Fire, the second Bard’s Tale novel Mercedes Lackey had a hand in.  Although this one is coauthored by Ru Emerson instead of Josepha Sherman.  To my mind the exercise reads as another case of a more experienced and famous author giving boosts to newer, less well-known authors.  But it’s still very Lackey, to the point where I can see her hands in it, as compared to her book with Piers Anthony which seemed to be almostly completely written by her.

Following the events of the first book, our Dark Elf friend Naitachal has forsaken his life as a Necromancer and become a Bard.  He’s even got his own apprentice now, the bardling Gawaine.  And considering that one of the characters in this book is a Paladin named Arturis, I’m pretty sure someone was thinking on Arthurian lore here.  Probably Emerson, as Lackey didn’t really get into those legends until some twenty-five years later.

What does bear Lackey’s unmistakable stamp, however, is the titled fortress itself.  If you asked me what her favorite fairy tale was, I’d have to say it’s the Russian Firebird.  You know, with the deathless katschei in his fortress of everwinter, his heart that is not kept in his body, his collection of pretty maidens, etc.  Fortress of Frost and Fire was actually the first of Lackey’s renditions that I encountered, but I’ve read no less than three from her hands.  And, I suspect there’s a fourth in that Elemental Masters series I refuse to touch.  I don’t have proof of that, and have no interest in looking it up, but I seem to recall there was a variant on Beauty & the Beast in there and so I see no reason why she wouldn’t insert her favorite fairy tale at some point.

It’s a rather full adventure, as Gawaine gets a face full of real world experience that helps him overcome the final obstacles in becoming a functioning adult all the while we see a number of colorful characters (including the aforementioned Paladin) becoming more than they were when we first met them.  It’s a rather mixed bag though, as the group includes a dwarf, a lizardman, a stereotypical Russian peasant (of course, if you’re going to do a Russian fairy tale), a Druid, and our old friend Naitachal.

By the time I’ve gotten to Fortress of Frost and Fire, I’ve gotten over some of the problems I had with the early chapters of Castle of Deception, like Kevin’s attitude.  No, the flaws I noticed in Fortress of Frost and Fire are more to do with standard rookie mistakes, such as changing viewpoint characters from one paragraph to the next.  It does make sense in the end, but it’s a little rough on the reader who can’t follow the author as intuitively because of it.  That’s how you can tell that the bulk of the work was likely done by the junior author of the pair, because I’m quite certain Lackey herself was beyond that by the time this was published in 1993.  Or at least I hope she was.  We never want the people we look up to to be flawed, now do we?

Anyway, there are a total of three Bard’s Tale books that I know of and are coauthored by Mercedes Lackey.  The last one, Prison of Souls, is with Mark Shepherd (who also wrote some SERRAted Edge books with Lackey) and is the rousing conclusion to this set.  As you may have noticed, the real center of these books is Naitachal, the Dark Elf Necromancer-turned-Bard.  Now a good century after the events of Castle of Deception, his current bardling is Prince Alaire, the King’s youngest son.

It’s never stated how many generations down from Amber Alaire is, but we do know that Kevin is dead of old age and Gawaine is quite elderly.  I would note that Prison of Souls reminded me of Marc Scott Zicree’s Magic Time books in that there are some inconsistencies on details when this third book refers back to the first.  Minor things, that you’d only notice if you’d recently read the first, or your memory is as good as or better than mine when it comes to your reading material.

Things are fairly quiet at Naitachal’s house when a royal messenger comes out of the blue with a letter.  He and Alaire are being sent as formal ambassadors to Suinomen, Althea’s neighbor to the north.  Apparently there’s been noises about war threats and the King wants it dealt with.  Oh, and as an added catch, Suinomen doesn’t like mages.  Or nonhumans, for that matter, as most of them seem to be creatures of magic.  So the two head off, concealing their identies of Bard and bardling, and Alaire is to be just Naitachal’s secretary.

Alaire is quickly swept off by Kainemonen, the Crown Prince and resident drunken sot, while Naitachale works on behalf of the Althean king.  However, very little is as it seems and the two may find out that there’s far more going on in Suinomen than anyone outside the country thought.

As I said, this trio of books is clearly Naitachal’s story overall.  Sure, he’s an adult and an Elf (which makes him older and more experienced than most of the other characters he meets), but he’s not infallible or omnipotent and he’s got just as much to learn in each book as his students.  And that climax in Prison of Souls…!  Truth be told, the only reason I reread Castle of Deception (despite my continuing opinion that it’s the weakest of the three and Fortress of Frost and Fire (which is mostly retelling a fairy tale I’ve seen numerous times and don’t find as engrossing as Lackey seems to) was because I knew having all that buildup would give Prison of Souls a truly satisfying conclusion.  Not that I wouldn’t enjoy it even if I hadn’t reread the preceeding volumes, just that reading the last book in any series is never as satisfying if you can only vaguely recall what led up to that point.

You can figure these books aren’t horribly long – all of them are under 400 pages apiece.  And, regardless of quality, they are fairly quick reads once you get into them.  (Prison of Souls is probably the one that takes the least amount of time to get into.)  They’re not the best books I’ve ever read, but they’re not the worst by a long shot (witness I still own and reread them).  And they’re yet another example of why I consider Mercedes Lackey to be a “gateway” author.  In this case, I never would have picked up The Bard’s Tale video game if not for these books.  I don’t know that this was a life-changing occurrence, but it’s often hard to look back and point to all the effects stemming from a single specific cause.

A Bit Different

After five relatively thick books, three of which needed my saga-sized bookcover, I wanted something a little lighter.  And sort of nonfiction-y but not really.  So I went to the Pile and grabbed Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.  I picked this up at Half Price Books during their opening weekend.  It was brand new, but cheaper than list price and I had a coupon for 50% off.  So I paid…probably about or less than what I would’ve had to at a used bookstore for something this new.

Now, we all know that I enjoy much of Neil Gaiman’s work.  Not all of it, but most of what I’ve read.  And I do love me some mythology, although Norse is not my strong suit.  Still, after reading the first few books of Magnus Chase’s adventures, courtesy Rick Riordan, I had some familiarity with most of the stories here.  (Not that Riordan’s books were my first exposure to Norse mythology…just the first that stuck enough for me to remember details.  With the Greeks I still tend to think back to an old picture book I had as a kid.)

Of all the books I’ve read, Norse Mythology reminds me most of Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version where he retells many classic fairy tales in modern English.  Gaiman goes a step further, to my mind, and changes not only the language but the tone of the story to a modern one.  Not to say there’s anything wrong with Pullman’s interpretations, just that they read in an older and more timeless fashion than Gaiman’s.

The book starts with an introduction to the gods we’re going to be seeing the most of, the basics of who and what they are, and what they’re known for.  Then it goes off into some of the key stories to Norse mythology.  When I say “key stories” I mean the ones that you are most likely to know, if you know anything about the Norse pantheon.  So if the Greeks have Hades, Persephone, and the pomegranate, the Norse have that time Thor dressed as a bride, etc.  I know this collection only scratches the surface of what this mythology has to offer, but it’s a well-written and well-selected set.

I enjoyed this book a lot more than many of Gaiman’s others because while dark and terrible things happen, it’s not because of the author’s choices.  Rather, that’s because that’s how these stories go.  Loki tied up with his son’s entrails, Odin removing his own eye, or hanging himself on a tree for nine days, etc.  These aren’t joyous events, but to remove them from the stories would be to fundamentally alter the horror, pain, and sorrow they are meant to evoke.

Neil Gaiman’s books tend to have dark turns, and his stories don’t always end happily.  I accept that as par for the course with him as an author, but still, it’s nice to know that the terrible things in Norse Mythology are there because he’s being true to the source material, and not making things dark for the sake of darkness.  Not that he does that normally, but sometimes I feel about Neil Gaiman the way many have come to feel about Tim Burton; yes, it’s dark and creepy and there’s pale Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, but can’t we see something new and different, that he hasn’t done before and isn’t a caricature of what he’s become known for?

Anyway, Norse Mythology was a good read and I’m glad I got myself a copy instead of just borrowing a friend’s (it was offered).  I’m not completely certain what I’ll read next, especially as tomorrow’s going to be busy…though I need to pick something or I’ll be bored out of my mind for an hour.  This requires thought.

Mystery Man

Now, up until this point, the Bazhell Bahnakson books have been on a decently large scale, changing the face of a continent and for the better.  Which is why it’s all the more wonderfully disturbing to pick up The Sword of the South and realize that the four previous books are just a prologue to the real climax of the series.  Not that we’re at said climax yet, this is just the opening action.

David Weber’s fifth installment opens back in Belhadan, the major port city of the Empire of the Axe, and we find ourselves following a redhaired man as he enters a tavern run by the largest hradani (Bazhell, of course) ever seen.  Shortly afterwards, Wencit of Rūm, the last white wizard, shows up.

Our main character, known as Kenhodan, is a mystery central to the book.  Who he is is never actually stated aloud, but you can put clues together over the course of the tale and figure pretty strongly by the last pages.  But really, no matter what adventures Wencit drags people along on, no matter who or what they have to fight, the most compelling part of the story is figuring out who and what Kenhodan is.

Also Wencit is scary as shit for how well he plans and how far in advance.  Do not mess with the wild wizard.

Like many series that shift in tone and character, The Sword of the South brings a number of characters back for cameos (or key roles like Wencit and Bazhell) as well as introducing a number of new people, both friend and foe.  Plus, that “cusp point” that’s been mentioned for a couple books now is defnitely on the horizon.  Essentially, it’s a moment of truth where the world – the universe – is either saved for the light or condemned to the darkness.  There’s no guarantee which way things will go, of course, because the main players must be mortal, but each faction has its own hopes for the future.

As I’ve said before with other series as well as this one, there’s so much I could say but don’t want to because it might spoil this or previous installments.  And I truly do thing these are books worth reading.  So I guess the last thing I’ll say is that I didn’t realize David Weber wanted these books to be strongly based on D&D until I got to The Sword of the South.  Sure you can have standard adventuring parties, meetings in taverns, etc.  But that’s so much a part of fantasy tropes at this point that it can be overlooked.  Other aspects, however, well, I don’t want to say too much.  But this one is kind of a “duh” moment when you get to it.

I’m not sure what book I’ll start in the morning, but I’ll start giving it some thought as I drift off to sleep.  And eagerly await the next installment in this fantasy series from David Weber…

Next Book

It’s been six years since the events of Wind Rider’s Oath, and things have settled into a new norm since those events.  Those who serve the Dark Gods have been quiet…but now things are stirring again and the stakes are even higher than they were last time.  We even get some insight directly into what the Dark is thinking and how badly and why they want this victory.  It’s some incredibly meta thinking, but it’s not like Weber hasn’t prepared his readers for it.  And, in the end, it’s just the prologue.

In many ways, War Maid’s Choice is a finale.  Not the last book in the series, but the closing of the first arc.  There’s a lot of difficulty and hardship, but also love and happiness to get through for the ending here.  And it’s a good, solid, and satisfying ending that you could be happy to close the book on.  Yet…it always leaves me craving more.  I’ve been going back and forth ever since I started rereading the Bazhell Bahnakson books as to whether or not I’ll reread the fifth.  At this point I think I’m just going to have to do it, even though it does start a new story arc and is currently the only book available in said arc.  (I’ve checked.  Repeatedly.  There’s nothing solid except that obviously more books are coming eventually.)

Given the title of this book, War Maid’s Choice, it’s clear that a character from Wind Rider’s Oath will figure more prominently than before.  And if you’re observant and thinking, you can figure some of what happens there.

And then there’s the villains and one really wonders why, given their failures to date, they insist on such complex plots with so very many moving parts.  The more complicated you make these things, the lower the chances are that you’ll succeed with all of them…and when some aspects are more important than others, that can be a problem.

Part of my difficulty talking about this book is that it does build so heavily on what came before and many of those elements are key plot points that I’d rather not spoil for those who haven’t read the series before.  And sure, I could put up spoiler warnings, but I don’t feel a huge need to discuss those details tonight.  So I’ll just say there’s certain sections of this book that I tend to go back over before shelving it each time.

On a sillier note, today I was up at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which is far better known for its distinctive building than its collection.  That’s not a bad thing, as it does have some very interesting collections and impressive choices for how to display them.  And, me being me, I had to duck into the gift shop.  And, me being me, I ended up buying a couple of novels.

Those are going to sit in the Pile for a while though, as they only had books two and three in the series and, since I know that ahead of time, I will wait until I turn up book one.  Even without checking publication dates, I can tell these are probably less than five years old and so I don’t foresee a huge problem acquiring book one.  It may not be old enough yet to turn up as often as say…Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl, but I’m sure it’ll be in decent shape when it does.

But, speaking of the art museum, I did find a painting there that is so utterly perfect for me.  It’s the sort of thing I feel I should turn into my phone’s background…except that I still love the background I’ve had for several years (the cover of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers #0).

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Yep, that’s pretty much me in a nutshell.  And on that note, I need to fetch the next book in this series.