Are they role-playing?

…which is what the wife asked me in the car last night, as the kids embarked upon an imaginary quest from the backseat that involved a dungeon, treasure, evil wizards, and yes, a dragon.  

A proud moment for a geek-dad.

And it should come as no surprise as kids do so much creative storytelling and scenario-play with their action figures, dolls, and legos. Our kids are primed, with their many hours of viewing Adventure Time, playing Minecraft, and reading mythology and fantasy-themed books…  The girl recently finished the Percy Jackson series and the first Eragon book, while the boy has enjoyed Beast Quest and super-hero comics of late. Continue reading

Books: The Red Knight

In Brief:  Miles Cameron’s The Red Knight blends traditional fantasy elements with strong historical fiction writing to great effect.  The title character leads his band of mercenary knights into the frontier to protect a vital outpost against the chaotic forces of the Wild.  As the forces of the Kingdom of Alban gather to confront the Wild, we meet a number of other interesting characters, Cameron’s system of magic, and a complex-without-being-excessive setting that includes complex politics, medieval economics, and philosophical-religious overtones.

Pros:  The sense of historical realism, even within this fictional setting rife with magic, wyverns, daemons, places this book in rare company.  Once you grow accustomed to Cameron’s method of switching between the main characters – not always to their p.o.v, but always focused on them – the method works extremely well.  Excellent characterization, pacing of the action and the world-building, and a very intriguing setting and magic system.

Cons:  None, really.  This is a very, very good book.  Maybe if you’re not into a Medieval Europe-style setting…  Maybe if you don’t find historical detail woven into a fantasy world fascinating…

Review:  Miles Cameron has a degree in Medieval History and an obvious love for historical reenactment.  He also has had a fine career writing historical fiction (as Christian Cameron), is an old school D&D guy, and likes to camp in the deep woods.  With swords.  This is my guy.  Of course, I didn’t know any of this before picking up The Red Knight; I’d just viewed a recommendation lauding the book for its blend of historical authenticity with fantasy elements.  It turns out, Cameron has written a number of historical fiction books and stories (as Christian Cameron), and his knowledge and familiarity with everything from armor to fortifications to the philosophical foundations of Christianity sets this novel apart.

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Books: The Twilight Herald

In Brief: Tom Lloyd’s second in this series, The Twilight Herald, continues recounting the ascent of Isaak, a former wagon boy,  to Lord of the Farlan and chosen of the gods.  The book strives for a legendary tone, with powerful characters seeking artifacts, weapons, and bold military and strategic victories.

Pros:  Lloyd’s familiarity with many of the conventions of high/epic fantasy (along with, presumably, his editorial background) helps him avoid pitfalls and cliches.  The main characters, including Isaak, are strongly written and fairly approachable (no mean feat since some of them are super-heroic and/or immortal).

Cons:  The pacing seemed uneven at times, with a lot of slow building as the players make their way to Scree and the big showdown.  The insertion of certain bits of background history and prophecy seemed labored, almost ham-fisted at points.  This is a second book, and it has that feel of setting up for the next one.

Review:  The Twilight Herald picks up directly after the first book in Tom Lloyd’s fantasy series, The Strormcaller (reviewed here).  Lord Isaak has only just assumed the mantle of Duke of the Farlan, and he immediately faces a rebellion of some of his own banner men, as well as the political fallout from new alliances and the previous Farlan Lord’s death.  Isaak faces these challenges with measure of clumsy resolve, humility, and raw power.  Understandable, as he’s a young White-Eye still learning about his power and the nature of his bond to Nartis, God of Storms, and patron of the Farlan.

Meanwhile, in the City-State of Scree, Rojak, a mysterious servant of the shadow-god Azaer, has begun putting on very strange plays in the heart of the city.  Scree is on the verge of civil war, with the ruling White Council having been defeated elsewhere in the region, and the regent of Scree has begun employing mercenaries to assist with defenses.  Among these is Zhia Vukotic in disguise.  Zhia is a powerful vampire cursed with a soul and a conscience, who, like Isaak, carries a crystal skull (ancient artifact of power).  Also in Scree, the Abbot of a sacked monastery, who is hiding his own crystal skull from the former monk who burned the monastery and killed many of his brothers.  This rogue monk, we soon learn, serves Rojak now.

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Books: Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier

In Brief:  Myke Cole’s second book in his Shadow Ops series continues the story of a contemporary Earth in which magic has suddenly reappeared, to be wielded by a small, seemingly random number of people.  In the US, the military has consolidated power and influence over these new mages, training them as elite soldiers and sending them into the parallel world called the Source, to establish a base.  Fortress Frontier follows the renegade Oscar Britton and a new character, Colonel Alan Bookbinder, as they deal with the consequences of this base being cut off from Earth.

Pros:  Cole brings the knowledge and sense of realism of military and special forces veteran (which he is).  His writing is descriptive and effective, and his sense of the various genres – sci-fi, fantasy, military thrillers, comic books – meld together well.  Col. Bookbinder as a lead character will grow on you.

Cons:  The initial decision to move away from Oscar (lead character in the first book) was a little frustrating, and the first few chapters with Bookbinder could have moved quicker.

Review:  The second book in the Shadow Ops series, Fortress Frontier, picks up in the immediate aftermath of Control Point (reviewed here) and actually moves back in time slightly to introduce Colonel Alan Bookbinder.  Bookbinder is a career officer and logistics expert in the Pentagon.  He’s no ground-pounder, as we quickly realize, but one of those competent professionals who keep the tanks fueled, the laptops charged, and the ammo tallied.  But Bookbinder’s life changes rapidly when he comes up latent as a potential magic-user.

Cole weaves in the background and sets up the magic system established previously, with less than 1% of humanity (in a very X-Men mutant-like scenario) discovering they can manipulate other-worldly forces:  magic.  These abilities are organized along basic schools, like elemental (fire, water, earth, air), animal control, shape-shifting, and *other.  Bookbinder doesn’t seem to have a school; he only exhibits an ability to tap and channel magical energy, but because of this the military quickly reads him into its Top Secret magical program and sets him up for training.

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Books: The Wise Man’s Fear

In Brief:  Patrick Rothfuss returns to the saga of Kvothe (aka The Boss) in this beautifully written book.  It’s Portrait of the Wizard as a Young Man, with Kvothe telling the continuing story of his days at the University, his ongoing love with Denna, and adventures out in the world.

Pros:  Rothfuss can really, really write, and with Kvothe he’s created a wonderfully accessible and fascinating lead character.  This volume of the story features adventures outside the university, to include a trip to faerie and a sort of internship with a quasi-bushido culture.

Cons:  The books is long, long, long, and the pacing drags for at points.  Also, the sense of tragedy within the third-person frame started to feel strained.

Review:   Since this book was published, I’ve been looking forward to diving in.  It had been sitting on my shelf, awaiting the right time in the old reading schedule (it is nearly 1,000 pages after all).  I was pretty certain  The Wise Man’s Fear would deliver, based on how much I enjoyed the first book (The Name of the Wind), as well as the knowledge that Pat Rothfuss was doing it right, taking some time, and getting the second volume out on what we can assume was something close to his timetable. It was worth the wait.

Kvothe is a wonderful character, flawed, self-aware, sensitive yet prone to temper-induced lapses of judgment.  But always, he’s a kind and decent soul at heart – the kind of guy you can root for.  And it just so happens that he’s the most famous magician of his time.  As in volume 1, Kvothe is telling the tale of his youth to the Chronicler, so most of the book is a 1st person recounting of adventures.  The third person frame takes place in a distant future, with Kvothe surviving as a simple innkeeper, seemingly a shadow of his former self.

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Books: The Buntline Special

In Brief: Mike Resnick’s The Buntline Special is a steampunk alternate Western with fantastic trappings.  That’s a lot of genre-melding.  Familiar events in Tombstone proceed down a different path amidst shamanic magic and alternate Tom Edison’s inventions.

Pros:  Resnick is a master of dialogue and a student of the real history of the West.  The characters are so familiar (based on real people we know from history and other media), and its fun to see them reimagined within this setting.

Cons:  The dialogue-heavy and scene-by-scene style really stretches at times.  The pace suffers as a result, and you may find yourself wondering if this story is a novella dressed in a short novel’s clothing.

Review:  The Buntline Special is the first in a series of Weird West tales penned by legendary sci-fi writer, Mike Resnick (check him out).  We’ve been reading Resnick since first discovering sci-fi novels and also enjoy his series of reflections with colleague Barry Malzberg  on the state of business and writing in the speculative fiction world.  So a Weird West series, with obvious steampunk and fantasy element (just look at the cover), written by a great sci-fi author…  We’re in.

Mostly, it’s a fun read that goes quickly.  Mostly, it works.  Here we are in Tombstone, Arizona.  The Earp brothers are feuding with the Cowboys, led by the McLaury brothers.  Wyatt Earp has sent for Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson.  Sound like any one of many familiar movies?  Tombstone is the one that plays in my head here.

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Books: Last Argument of Kings

In Brief:  The final book in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy brings main characters Logen, Jezal, Glotka, Ferro, and Bayaz full circle amidst grim warfare, invasions, political machinations, and ancient magic.

Pros:  This is Joe Abercrombie, who has the knack for great characterization, realistic action, effective plotting, and occasional dark humor.  Many of the showdowns hinted at in the first two books (internal and external) come to pass.

Cons:  To quote the overused coach-speak cliche:  “They are who we thought they are.”  And in the end, this may not be enough.

Review: Last Argument of Kings begins with the lead-up to the election among the nobles of the Union to choose a new king.  Inspector Glotka and the Inquisition, attempting to secure votes for the candidate of their choosing, proceed along a course of threats, bribes, and blackmail as they vie for power.

The scenario is familiar, having been setup towards the end of Before They Are Hanged, the previous book. So too we follow the splitting of the wizard Bayaz’s ‘anti-fellowship’, who, having failed in their quest to recover the powerful artifact called the Seed, now find themselves sucked into plot arcs the author has skillfully molded throughout the series. Continue reading