Fantasy Review: ‘The Shotgun Arcana’ by R.S. Belcher

Sometimes taking a story all the way over the top just flat out works. It is not enough to The Shotgun Arcana (Golgotha, #2)have angels on earth, zombie outbreaks, Frankenstein-ish scientists and various shape shifters in a Wild West town. It would be much, much better to add in some ninjas, ancient orders of mysticism, and a large number of the nastiest killers in the world to the mix. When in Rome and all that jazz (mixing clichés is even more fun that mixing metaphors, you should try it). Here is the weirdest thing about all of this though; every single strange element I just listed is present in The Shotgun Arcana yet somehow the story avoids feeling like pure pulp.

Really it shouldn’t surprise me that this works so well as the ‘everything goes into the pot’ approach is used in the urban fantasy sub-genre to great affect all the time. And when picking a classification the UF label works as well as any other for this series despite taking place a good hundred plus before most urban fantasy tales.

Anyway… The Shotgun Arcana is the follow up to The Six-Gun Tarot which set the stage for this weird west town named Golgotha and the strange happenings with in. The first book was overly ambitious and while I enjoyed it immensely it was all almost too much; it wanted to do everything and I felt there were a few things that fell through the cracks by the end. Shotgun Arcana benefits from having the mythos of this world pre-established and was able to move right in the story. As such it felt like a tighter and more focused book all around. From beginning to end the pressure is never let off; right up to the end as loose ends are neatly tied while new threads are purposely unraveled.

A basic plot summery boils down to rival angels competing for the direction earth will take; final showdown taking place in Golgotha. Serial killers from around the world appear to be converging on a town that is doing its best to forget the crazy transpirings from a couple years before. Those standing to stop them from destroy the town (and eventually the world) include an immortal (allegedly) sheriff, his part coyote deputy, a decedent of Lilith with near super powers, and a few other over the top and completely awesome personalities. Expect lots of action, lots of blood, and a few things that can’t even be explained by the supernatural.

Dark but occasionally funny this a tale that balances characters one can’t help but love and a setting /mythos that will leave a person dying for more. I admit I was hooked, flipping pages at a pace I don’t get to do much of anymore and threatening to bite anyone who asked me to put the book down. I wanted to know who all these serial killers I was meeting in random interludes were; and gave a self congratulatory pat on the back to myself when I figured out just what it was they were all carrying. I was rooting for the various love interests despite some of them being incredibly creepy. And when it was all over I was a bit sad that the next book in the series isn’t out right now.

A small note about Golgotha itself. It is a city with life and realism. Mining camps outside of town, various churches, people everyone knows and people completely marginalized- all are present.  Belcher gives he women professions other than prostitute (and though that profession is present the ‘happy whore’ trope is thankfully not in affect). He remembered enough about U.S. history to include a strong Chinese contingent in a town affected by the building of the railroad. Though some of his characters are suspiciously modern when it comes to their views the town still fights with racism and other strong ‘views.’ And the characters fight real fights against these views; some winning small victories and some sadly losing the fight.

4 Stars

Copy for review provided by publisher.

 

Fantasy Review: ‘Dreamer’s Pool’ by Juliet Marillier

Dreamer's Pool (Blackthorn and Grim, #1)Once upon a time Juliet Marillier wrote a fairy tale and it was wonderful. She didn’t revamp an old classic with a new twist. She didn’t write something like a fairy tale that twists all the tropes around. She didn’t even write a fantasy book with a fairy tale feel to it. She wrote an honest to goodness fairy tale; slightly dark, slightly magical, and completely wonderful.

It starts with a bargain. Blackthorn, who had another name in another time under different circumstances, strikes a deal with a fae; seven years of services for escape from certain death. But the service is not to the fae himself but rather to the service to a community Followed by a man called Grim, or more often Bonehead in the jail they shared, she is to take on her old role of healer and wise women in a new location far from any home she has ever known.

Or maybe it starts with a tragedy. A prince eagerly awaiting his unseen soul mate first sees her in the worst of situations; right after the drowning death of one of her handmaidens in a mysterious pond on the princes’ lands. Where ever it starts these three very different people are now tied together in this fairy game – Grim, Blackthorn and the Prince Oran.

Let’s talk Blackthorn first as it is her story. A redemption tale? Perhaps, we first meet her in jail awaiting her time. A revenge story? Certainly not, as much as she wishes otherwise. The very nature of her bargain keeps her from the vengeance she desires for unknown past crimes. Worse, it forces her to help any who seek it despite her lack of desire to do much for anyone. But she is good at what she does, earns respect quickly and becomes an valuable member of her new community. She is that rare middle aged women who never seems to show in fantasy; the young see her as a crone already but she knows she has a ways to go before she hits that label.

Now Grim. Silent giant, thought to be touched in the head. A violent past implied. Destined to be either a gentle giant or a thug…in another story. But here is just a very human character. He has anger issues but controls them, makes friends in some places and not others, follows Blackthorn like a guard dog but doesn’t hover or attempt to control.

Finally Oran. Idealist. Dreamer. But more practical than he at first seems. He cares for his subjects, rules fairly, and plans his marriage for love around the needs of the kingdom. So it is with surprise and confusion that he tries to understand his betrothed. She isn’t the sweet, intelligent girl he has been writing to. There is a cold side, an aggressive side that doesn’t make sense. Confusion becomes suspicion and eventually he turns to several women he can trust to help him figure it all out.

Recognizing the fairy tale that was being wove I started trying to out think it. All the clues were there. Look how smart I am putting them all together! Aha you think you are so clever but I have figured out the mystery at the half way point. I am enjoying this so keep on writing but…oh wow. Didn’t see that coming. Should have, those clues were there too but I sat there distracted by the more obvious ones. Well then Marillier, this round goes to you.

Nothing fancy here, just great characters and a wonderful story. The only truly evil villains are minor players (though a few others make a run at the title at times) and the fae influence seems to be an easy way to set up the story rather than anything with lasting influence. Those who can’t take some fairy tale conveniences in plot set up may be disappointed but once the pieces are in play there is very little to pick at.

Recommended with full enthusiasm. One of the best books I have read this year.

5 Stars

 

Tough Travels- Named Weapons

tough-traveling

Each Thursday, our copy of ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ in hand, we shall tour the mystical countryside looking for adventure and fun (and tropes) from all over fantasy.

This week’s topic is NAMED WEAPONS

Surprise! This is not from the Tough Guide but fits the spirit of it well. So let us say for this topic the weapon either needs to be A. Named, B. Famous, or C. Sentient. Thanks to Mogsy for the idea!

This week’s topic almost derailed my reading plans. I was skimming Rachael Aaron’s book for the actual name of the sword I used for the list (which I never found, but it was called The Heart enough that I went with it) and almost jettisoned my current read in favor of a complete series reread. Probably a bit too soon for that so instead have a list.

The HeartEli Monpress by Rachael Aaron – Josef is the best swordsman in the land and The Legend of Eli Monpress (The Legend of Eli Monpress, #1-3)he holds the best sword in the land. Which he does his best NOT to use for long periods of time because it makes things just a little two easy. Light as a feather in his hands The Heart may as well be a steamroller in the hands of anyone else; it ain’t moving. And there is a reason for this because the sword is quite literally a mountain. Big rocky things? Ya, one of those.

There were so many things going on in the Eli Monpress series I know I have lost track of much of it. But Josef’s relationship with his sentient swords made for a very interesting minor side plot.

Stormbringer Elric by Michael Moorcock – What do you know? A book I just read gives me immediate payoff for the topic. A very cool fight scene takes place between to characters holding to named swords; Strombringer and Mournblade. It soon becomes very clear that the swords are threating to become the master of each. Elric’s struggle to take control of a weopon that looks to have the ability to make him near godlike is pretty damn cool.

Though truth be told, Mournblade had the cooler name of the two swords. Also, nice random factoid here, my ‘W’ key is sticking badly and originally that last sentence said ‘to sords.’ So that happened.

The Color of Magic (Discworld, #1)KringThe Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett – ‘In his right hand he carries the magical black sword Kring, which was forged from a thunderbolt and has a soul but suffers no scabbard. Hrun had stolen it only three days before from the impregnable palace of the Archmandrite of B’Itun, and he was already regretting it. It was beginning to get on his nerves.’

Sentient swords should be a blessing to any battle hardened warrior, right? But what if you are a coward who wants to run away? When Rincewind picked up this sword he was unaware that there would be some forced heroism involved. But who can say no when there is a sword up to your throat? Especially if that sword is being wielded by your own arms.

Sword of ProbabilityThe Scar by China Mieville – Uther Doul is one cool cat, guardian to The Scar (Bas-Lag, #2)the lovers who rule the Armada. His sword is a little something special. Which each stroke it goes through every probably outcome that that swing can take. He in turn fights with a style that is basically random in order to insure each swing brings the desired result. I swear this stuff makes since if you read the book.

And yes you can read this one without reading Perdido Street Station. And yes it is proven that if a book is called The Scar it is guaranteed to be awesome.

HruntingBeowulf –No, I have not read Beowulf all the way through. I actually know the story from a ‘translated’ version I found somewhere around college that really dumbed it down while keeping the story in place. That said I am aware of Hrunting. It was the sword that had never failed, which full passages of its creation. And when the time came to go against Grendel’s mother… well you know how it goes.

Basically Hrunting was the fantasy equivalent to Casey at Bat.

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Join us next week as we look for MISSING HEIRS

MISSING HEIRS occur with great frequency. At any given time, half the countries in Fantasyland will have mislaid their crown princess/prince.

If you have a topic you want to see us cover, or if you have an entry for next week’s post but don’t have your own blog to put it on, please head over to the main Tough Traveling page and fill out the form at the bottom.

As always thanks for joining, feel free to join along at any time, and please check out my fellow travelers!

Fantasy Review: Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock

In the style of an oral storyteller, bringing to mind the Greek classics in its deeds, I admit I Elric of Melnibonewas quite surprised by how good Elric of Melniboné was. It is not a question of an old book holding up in this case, rather Elric is obviously a pace setter that countless that follow can only hope to keep up with. If anything I have proven to myself that some of the classics of the genre are considered so for a reason; I will drop a minor heresy in that given a choice I would reread this title again anytime over any of Tolkien’s creations.

A man thrust into power that he doesn’t truly want but is determined to keep. Elric struggles with a type of morality at the head of a people who most certainly don’t; long time adherents to chaos gods are the people of Melnibone and years of unquestioned superiority has them holding their heads high. Yet Elric is not shining knight; anti-hero seems to be a common designation. He often does things that would be considered to have the moral highground; such as stupidly showing mercy on several occasions when none would be given to him. But his search for morality seems less about a care for people underneath and more about controlling his own life and steering a new path for Melnibone; long lost in its own arrogance.

Example? A inevitable sword fight comes to pass between two wielders of swords with minds (and desires) of their own. Mercy is not shown for mercy sakes, only to exert control over the sword’s bloodthirsty ways. Elric is a man who has no issue sending out his entire fleet to search for his own love; nor to use his own wounded veterans for his own purposes despite sending them to almost certain death.

Knowing nothing going in but reputation I expected a darker run; more barbarian sword play than games of royal succession. So consider me pleasantly surprised on this front. With his albinism and reliance on a cocktail of drugs to keep his strength he is considered weak by his own people; a race completely sure of their superiority and unsure of the weak blood they perceive Elric to have. (I am unsure at this point if the people of Melnibone are a different race than the people of the ‘younger kingdoms’ or if it is a racial superiority complex they are exhibiting. It is interesting, disturbing, and probably best left to be answered by those who study the author in more depth).

I mention a similarity to Greek classics partial because of the direct involvement of gods; Elric is both guided and saved by beings of greater power than even his own considerable sorceries. But he also feels like a hero of the old ballads. He isn’t perfect but is certainly larger than life. Toss in visuals of ships grounded by petty infighting between high beings and an entire golden fleet and I think my comparison is apt (and no doubt should I start digging I could find pages and pages proving that none of my ideas are all that original).

Perhaps at its most interesting when dealing with memory; in Elricverse apparently a curse and a weapon. Elric has spent several lifetimes on a dreamers couch before taking the throne; giving him knowledge beyond his years. A mirror that steals and houses memories proves to be enough to take over small nation; the consequences of it possibly breaking are too dire to consider. Or a man trapped in another realm for wanted to know everything; and is now stuck there until he forgets it all.

I am left in a strange spot in the end. Though obviously setting up a longer tale I feel oddly comfortable with where this book ends. I enjoyed it, quite a bit actually, but I am unsure if I possess the desire to move on in the story.

4 Stars

A note on the audio; it was interesting. The narrator had the perfect voice for the tone and his pacing was superb. He also switched between characters effectively but subtly; no falsettos for the woman’s voices or the like. It was backed with a musical score throughout which at first I thought might be distracting but ended up kind of digging. So, more musical scores behind my fantasy please!

Not a Review: ‘The Tree of Water’ by Elizabeth Haydon

The Tree of Water (The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme, #4)Cute.

But this is definitely not a book that is meant for me. Perhaps if my little boy was a bit older we could have run reading it together (I certainly hope he wants his old man to read to him for a long time coming). Because the book reads as a high action version of Dora the Explorer; one mini-adventure after another with occasional learning moments dropped in (I learned the green sea slug eats algae then conducts photosynthesis within its own body). This is entirely intentional as the press sheet points out that there are teacher’s guides to this series to be found on Haydon’s website.

So despite reading the whole book this is NOT A REVIEW. Because I don’t know how to review it. I don’t think it is a book designed to appeal to older readership despite a Publisher’s Weekly’ quote to the contrary. It appears to be a book designed to be read middle graders or to be shared between a slightly younger crowd and their parents. Neither group are one I currently belong to (though I am holding out hope that I will start reverse aging at some point and maybe get back to my school days).

It was fast. It was fun at times but lacked any real depth. Despite being the forth book in the series there was no issue jumping right in. Ven, the protagonist whose ‘journal’ the narrator built the book from was just kind of there, carried along on his adventure more than taking part of it. His best friend Char was actually pretty annoying. His merrow (mermaid) friend was much better. The educational drops are vegetables hidden in a kid’s dessert; the story comes first with occasional factoids thrown in.

I am going to keep this book and hopefully someday read it with my little boy. At that point I will probably be able to talk about it better. And if you have a young reader around it may be worth your time to check it out.

Copy for review provided by publisher.

Tough Travels- Novices

tough-traveling

Each Thursday, our copy of ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ in hand, we shall tour the mystical countryside looking for adventure and fun (and tropes) from all over fantasy.

This week’s topic is NOVICES

Novice is a term in frequent use. There are not only Novice Priests and Priestesses and nuns: you will also encounter novice healers and bards, and sometimes also novice mages…Novices are always young, frequently skinny and undernourished, and clad in robes.

Honestly, we should fire the guy coming up with these lists. This topic was tough.

Malacus QuaiThe First Law by Joe Abercrombie – This guy hits all of Jones’ requirements. When Logan Ninefingers first meets him he is a skinny malnourished kid, when he finally gets him back to his master the poor guy is damn near dead.

And what a master Quai has; Bayaz is no ordinary mage taking on an apprentice, he is a damn near immortal that controls half the known world. The stress of working for him would be just a little over bearing, wouldn’t you think?

KadenThe Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley- Ah the old ‘hide the heir to the throne The Emperor's Blades (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, #1)with monks who beat him half to death’ for his own good trope (I kinda paraphrased this line from a Goodreads friend named Dee). Kaden is put with the monks as their novice and taught all kinds of things without realizing he is being taught. He gets starved, left in the cold, hit on the head, buried in sand, thrown down a mountain (I think, details are hazy but I know it was lots of torture). I still think the Karate Kid reference here is apt but instead of ‘wax on, wax off’ it is ‘run up this steep mountain with lots of jagged rocks blindfolded.’

Of course by the end of the book it turns out all these tortures just happened to have toughened Kaden up into super awesome mystic monk fighter man, so it was all good. Did I really give this book three stars?

LobsangThief of Time by Terry Pratchett – Confession: I had to go thumb through my copy to even remember his name. I don’t remember anything bout this book except the chocolate war that Susan started. But I knew it dealt with the monks of time and that there was an apprentice. With my requirement of having Pratchett on the list every week I had to include it.

One of the few Pratchett books I have only read once and it was LONG ago; this is coming up in my big reread and I look forward to seeing one of his books through mostly fresh eyes.

A Shadow in Summer (Long Price Quartet, #1)OtahThe Long Price Quartet – I find it amazing that as popular as Abraham has been lately this is the first time his first series has made the list (if I am wrong about this I am happy to be corrected). It is one of my favorite series around, and in my mind has so far been better that the Dagger and the Coin (a series I have enjoyed very much).

Otah’s path starts a bit like Kaden’s up ahead, a little bit of training by harsh measures. But unlike Kaden Otah’s training seems to serve a purpose almost immediately. When we first meet him we have no idea what the poets are or what they do but they are obviously important. And while is training is tough and often involves physical correction it isn’t pure torture.

Join us next week as we look at NAMED WEAPONS

Surprise! This is not from the Tough Guide but fits the spirit of it well. So let us say for this topic the weapon either needs to be A. Named, B. Famous, or C. Sentient. Thanks to Mogsy for the idea!

As always thanks for joining, feel free to join along at any time, and please check out my fellow travelers!

Urban Fantasy Review: ‘Premonitions’ by Jamie Schultz

PremonitionsPremonitions is a book that is exactly as advertised; a heist novel with paranormal elements. Karyn Ames, leader of a little crew with a constant need for cash, takes on cases that involves the theft of items that may have protections a bit harder to cut through than state of the art alarm systems or dogs with big teeth. She has a condition that allows her to see glimpses of the future but it is more curse than blessing. While occasionally useful in their heists it takes a powerful (and expensive) drug to keep from taking over; seeing EVERY vision of the future is maddening.

The story kicks off when the crew takes on a case from a known crime lord named Sobell. Their mission is simple enough; steal an artifact. Problem is the artifact is in the hands of a pretty fanatical cult and may be guarded by something extra sinister. Saying no is not really an option though. Not only do several members of the crew REALLY need the cash; Sobell is not the type of person one says know to.

There are two threads here playing out as one. One is the story that is supposed to be the main one; that of Karyn and her crew. It is an exciting heist tale with simple theft gone wrong, a failed delivery, and a whole lot of minor magics. The second story, which is supposed to be the background thread, involves the crimelord Sobell. And Sobell’s story absolutely shined. He was exactly the kind of character I wanted to read about; talking to demons, locking up angels, gaining a near immortality and ruling a criminal empire. Any scene he showed up in was gold—and it over took the rest of the story for me. I felt that this book lacked when he wasn’t present; a problem when he is not supposed to be the main character.

I don’t know where Karyn’s story moved to the back seat for me but once there it never threatened to come back up. Her crew was actually pretty forgettable; if you showed me a list of names two days later I am positive I will mix up a couple of them. One plays the tough girl, there is the big gun, and we have a newcomer who can draw up some cool magic. But Karyn’s condition basically places her outside the action. While her reflections on what is really happening had potential I mostly ended up thinking they distracted from the action; this is a heist novel and a brisk pace is pretty key.

So I found myself entertained throughout but usually wishing Sobell would just take over the whole story. There was nothing wrong with the main plot line on its own, it was fairly well paced and had some nice twists and turns that kept things from getting stale. But dealing with crew infighting and Karyn’s slipping sanity just couldn’t compete with Sobell’s full on mutiny and fight to stay ahead of demons.

A good read with perhaps a few too many ideas put into its page count. Something was going to suffer or the pace would be lost and for me it came out of one of the two major plot lines. Like many first in a series there are a good number of questions that are as yet unanswered. But still a book I have no problem recommending; it is a series that will be worth keeping an eye on.

3 Stars

Copy for review provided by the author.  Thank you Jamie Schultz!