Review: “The Iron Assassin” by Ed Greenwood

Title: The Iron Assassin
Author: Ed Greenwood
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2015

Ed Greenwood is a legend in certain circles, having created the immensely popular Forgotten Realms fantasy world that serves as one of the primary settings for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game series. I’ve yet to venture into this universe, but I’ve heard a good deal about it from friends and fellow geeks. Now Greenwood is venturing into a new universe, trading in Sword & Sorcery for Steampunk (or, as he refers to it, Gaslamp Fantasy.) The good news? Greenwood’s genius for world creation is unabated. The bad news? The book itself could have used a bit more work to bring it up to the expected degree of awesomeness.

In a world parallel to our own, the Empire of the Lion vies with the Spanish-based Empire of Amirondro and the Indian-based Rajahirate Empire for supremacy over a patchwork world of steam-driven innovation. Victoria III rules from seclusion, kept stubbornly alive with steam-powered heart & lungs while her son shoulders the responsibilities of government in a London rife with conspiracy and intrigue as the Dread Agents of the Tower seek to thwart the schemes of the villainous Ancient Order of the Tentacles. One such agent is Jack Straker, a brilliant (or reckless) inventor of numerous devices for protecting the Crown. His latest masterpiece: a clockwork-driven corpse to serve as the Prince Royal’s bodyguard…if it can be controlled. And if one man can control it, well…the Ancient Order is very interested in figuring out how to wrest that control away from the Crown and put the Iron Assassin to their own use….

While Greenwood is an old hand at classical fantasy, The Iron Assassin is his first foray into the realm of steampunk. Greenwood’s genius is in world creation, and that experience and attention to detail is clearly on display here. The book was a ton of fun, and I will definitely watch for the inevitable continuation. Unfortunately, the book could have used a little more editing before publication. There are numerous fragmentary sentences scattered throughout, and not just in the dialogue where such things are more accepted. The Dramatis Personae section at the beginning is wittily written but overlarge, running ten pages and containing every character found within these pages—even those who appear only long enough to expire. In the end, it’s more harmful than helpful, especially since it gave away the identity of the Ancient Order’s leader (I assume this was meant to be secret, as he was only ever referred to by his title in those sections, and by his name when he was acting in public.) Another sore spot is the somewhat inconsistent characterization. One character is introduced as a complete badass, then dies with barely a whimper. Perhaps forgivable, as the scene itself paints her as caught off guard at the end of a pleasant evening…except that several scenes beforehand it was established that she had managed to deduce that her killer was a member of the Ancient Order, and so should be very much on guard while accepting unexpected dinner invitations from said villain. At another point a character assesses the situation facing him and decides to get out of Dodge…and then shows up pages later at an induction ceremony for the Ancient Order, very much the opposite of fleeing for his life. Finally, there is an unresolved mystery surrounding the former identity of the Iron Assassin, Bentley Steelforce. Or maybe not, as everyone seems to think they know who and what he is: the reanimated body of a chimney sweep by the name of Bentley Roper. Except that there is clearly more to his story–when a startled knight starts to blurt out something about Steelforce’s past to Straker and a group of assembled notables, Steelforce calmly rips out his throat without missing a beat. I kept expecting the matter to be revisited, but it never was. Like I said, I enjoyed the book, but it was merely good when it could have been spectacular.

CONTENT: Surprisingly mild on the profanity front, though the “PG” words get quite a workout alongside the more colorful genre/era-specific cursing that litters nearly every conversation. Strong, sometimes grisly violence, scattered all through the novel. There are not infrequent sexual innuendos, mostly non-explicit, interspersed with slightly more jarring instances of explicit material such as is usually not found in this particular genre (at least so far as I’ve seen), including a clockwork corset for improving the quality of a lady’s “alone time.” There is little occult content, aside from references to a bogus (or is it?) cult that worships an ancient deity that sounds suspiciously like H.P. Lovecraft’s legendary Cthulhu. The Ancient Order supposedly uses this cult to muddy the waters regarding their activities, but there’s a bit of evidence towards the end of the book that suggests there is more to that story than is being said….

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Review: ” Star Wars: Dark Disciple” by Christie Golden

Title: Dark Disciple
Author: Christie Golden (Novel); Katie Lucas, Matt Michnovetz, & Dave Filoni (Original scripts)
Series: Star Wars (Official Canon, The Clone Wars)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2015

New Star Wars! Dark Disciple is based on a collection of scripts from the canceled Clone Wars animated series on Cartoon Network which serve to tie up the story arc featuring Asajj Ventress, Count Dooku’s former apprentice.

The galaxy-wide Clone Wars have raged for almost three years, but an end is nowhere in sight. Every Republic victory is matched by a corresponding setback, almost as if both sides were being played by a single entity bent on preserving the stalemate. The Separatist forces led by Count Dooku grow only more ruthless as the war drags on, committing atrocities that haunt the Jedi with their inability to prevent innocent bloodshed until even the Jedi council is ready to consider the unthinkable: assassination. This dangerous mission will forge strange alliances, forcing unorthodox Jedi Master Quinlan Vos to ally with Dooku’s former apprentice Asajj Ventress, a deadly assassin holding a grudge against Dooku for betraying her and slaughtering her entire people. Together, Vos and Ventress could just be powerful enough to take out Dooku…if they don’t kill each other first.

I have to say, I really enjoyed this one. Towards the end of the animated series Ventress was becoming one of the standout characters, gaining some real depth as she dealt with the consequences of Dooku’s betrayal and her private war for revenge. Add Quinlan Vos, one of my favorite characters from the Legends version of the Clone Wars, into the mix and you’ve got a winning proposition. If you followed the animated series, you owe it to yourself to check this out. If you’re a newcomer, you’ll probably be fine as well, though most of the references to past events will likely be lost on you. If you’re a veteran of the pre-Cartoon Network Clone Wars though…you’ll have to come at this with a clean slate. A lot of this, especially Vos’s storyline, is territory we’ve seen before, albeit through the looking glass. I’ll refrain from saying more in the interest of spoilers, but those who were reading Star Wars: Republic in the run-up to Revenge Of The Sith should know what I mean.

CONTENT: Some disturbing violence and torture. Mild profanity. Mild flirting/sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit.

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Short Story Review: “This Long Vigil” by Rhett C. Bruno

Title: This Long Vigil
Author: Rhett C. Bruno
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Perihelion Magazine, 2015

A while back, I gave a friendly review to Mr. Bruno’s debut novel The Circuit: Executor Rising. As a result, the author asked me to also review This Long Vigil, his first professionally-published short story. I was more than happy to do so, and only regret that life kept getting in the way and delaying this review. As of this writing, if you click on the title of the story up top there you can read it for free on the interwebs. Not sure how long that stays up….

Orion has spent twenty-five years as the lone conscious human inhabitant of the Interstellar Ark Hermes, his only companion the ship’s AI Dan as he monitors the various functions of the ship’s age-long trip to a likely new home for the human race. Now the time is approaching for him to be placed back into hibernation, there to sleep away the rest of his life before being recycled into fertilizer for the ship’s garden. Unless he manages to do something unthinkable…unless he manages to escape….

On the whole, I enjoyed the short story. It managed to get me to care about the main character despite the brevity of our encounter, and I definitely enjoyed the role reversal in the naming structure. Usually the AI/computer characters have the more exotic names, but not here. Here, we have a computer named Dan and a human named Orion. Would the constellation Orion be visible from Alpha Centauri? I kind of doubt it would, but the factual discrepancy didn’t actually occur to me until a moment ago, so I’ll let it slide. Most importantly, I was actually satisfied with the ending to this tale, which is not always the case.

CONTENT: No profanity. No sexual content. Some musing on death, but no real violence.

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Review: “A Storm Of Swords” by George R.R. Martin

Title: A Storm Of Swords
Author: George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song Of Ice And Fire, Volume III
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 2003

Three down, two to go! Then I’ll join the horde of poor souls clamoring for the next book’s release…. Obviously, I loved this one. This is no real surprise, though, since everyone says this is the high point of the series so far. Given the awkward structure of the next two books, I can certainly understand that. Obviously, this will contain MAJOR spoilers for the first two books. You’ve been warned!

The chaos that has engulfed Westeros is abating slightly, in that the War of the Five Kings seems to be winding down a bit, but that in no way means that normalcy is anywhere on the horizon. In fact, for most of our favorite characters, things just keep on going from bad to worse. Stannis Baratheon’s bid to capture King’s Landing was foiled spectacularly by the cunning of Tyrion Lannister, but our favorite dwarf was nearly killed in the fighting. When he awakens from his wine-and-poppy coma, he finds himself without a nose….or his position as the King’s Hand. Instead of being hailed as the savior of King’s Landing, all Tyrion has earned is the hatred of the smallfolk. Now under the distrustful eyes of his father and sister, Tyrion is left little power to wield as he navigates the corridors of power. In the Riverlands, Robb Stark’s cause is dealt a deathblow by the loss of the North to Ironborn raiders. On the battlefield, Robb remains undefeated. In every other arena, things are looking dire. People are whispering about this young king who has won every battle, yet managed to lose the war. Heartbroken by the news of the supposed deaths of her two youngest sons, Catelyn Stark has committed treason, releasing Jaime Lannister from his captivity in exchange for the freedom of her daughters held captive in King’s Landing. Unfortunately for her, events have moved beyond such an exchange. While Tyrion would have honored that deal, Tywin has no such intention. Arya was never captured, escaping the city in the guise of a young boy headed to the Wall and now roaming the Riverlands trying to find her way to her mother at Riverrun. Sansa, on the other hand, has had a harsh time of things in King’s Landing. Now it looks as though she’s to be freed from her engagement to the young monster Joffrey, but such a stroke of good fortune can only last so long….Meanwhile, Bran and Rickon are far from dead. The treacherous Theon Greyjoy was unable to catch them, and so resorted to killing and mutilating a couple of peasant boys in the hopes that everyone would believe them dead. Now Rickon is being protected by the Wildling Osha while Bran travels north towards the wall with Jojen and Meera Reed in search of the three-eyed crow that haunts his dreams. North of the wall, Jon Snow walks a fine line as he pretends to be a deserter from the watch, all while watching for an opening to escape and report back to his brothers all he’s learned….if they don’t execute him for desertion when he gets there. Across the sea, Daenerys strikes a desperate gamble for the forces she will need in order to return to Westeros and reclaim her father’s throne….

Longtime readers of A Song Of Ice And Fire hail A Storm Of Swords as the high point in the series, at least as its been published so far. While I have yet to read A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons, I am inclined to agree. This was spectacular. Martin’s prose improves here, if anything. While some might describe the plot as rambling (a fair assessment, I suppose), I never got bored with it. The plot moved quickly despite various side roads, and the characters involved more than hold your interest through every up and down. And speaking of characters, Martin continues to shine here. The characters you already love get more complex, and new favorites are added to the mix…including one or two that you thought you hated. Believe it or not, all it takes to turn Jaime Lannister into an interesting character is the ability to get into his head. We got maybe a hint of his intriguing nature at the end of A Clash Of Kings, while he was being interrogated by Catelyn, but being inside his head takes the edge off his offensive tongue. Turns out he’s far more complex and conflicted than we’d been previously led to believe, and this reveal has been in the works since the first book. To say more would be to court spoilers, so I’ll shut up now. We also get a bit more insight into Tywin Lannister, though increased understanding does not necessarily bring with it increased affection. Tyrion is once again placed on the defensive, removed from his previous position of power and trying desperately to survive the machinations of his sister and father. As a result, he is somewhat less entertaining if no less interesting this time around. Without spoiling things, the major blows he takes towards the end of the book leave me holding my breath to see what happens to him next…and frustrated that I have to wait until book five to find out. In short, I cannot recommend this series highly enough. So go read it already!

CONTENT: R-rated profanity, not gratuitous, but not rare either. Rampant, disturbing violence, from hangings and decapitations to occasionally more grotesque fates–flaying comes up occasionally, though we don’t actually “see” that happen. There’s not-infrequent reference to torture though. Again, a fair amount of sexual content, including topics such as incest, rape, underage sex, and prostitution. Not really rendered in gratuitous detail, but often frankly and/or crudely discussed. There are also some elements that could be considered occultic, beyond the usual fantasy-based magic of dragons and monsters. The Others command an army of reanimated corpses, while the followers of R’hllor wield some very real power, including resurrecting the dead and reading the future (though not always reliably).

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Review: “The Dresden Files: Ghoul Goblin” by Jim Butcher, Mark Powers, & Joseph Cooper

Title: Ghoul Goblin
Writers: Jim Butcher & Mark Powers
Artist: Joseph Cooper
Series: The Dresden Files
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dynamite, 2013

After producing comic adaptations of the first two Dresden Files novels, the creators decided to go in a different direction: original stories starring Dresden instead of just adapting preexisting tales. Personally, I’m in favor of this decision, since my favorite of the comics so far was the prequel that was set before the series began. And thus we get Ghoul Goblin, an original adventure set several months after the events of Fool Moon, taking Harry Dresden away from the Windy City and all the way to Boone Mill, Missouri in defense of a family of orphans.

Nearly a century ago, Major Archibald Talbot had the spectacularly bad sense to insult and offend a cadre of Egyptian mystics, a lapse in judgement that led to a nasty curse being placed on him and his entire bloodline. Ever since, Talbots have tended to draw supernatural trouble like flies to a rotting corpse. Today, all that remains of the Talbot bloodline is a single family…and the last week has seen two of the seven orphaned siblings die under mysterious circumstances. Can even Harry Dresden manage to protect the remaining Talbots and lift the curse? You’ll have to read on to find out!

On the whole, I really enjoyed this. It fit well into the larger Dresden universe, referencing other events and maintaining its connection to the series as a whole without making you feel lost if you were a new reader. It was interesting to see a few future elements foreshadowed too, such as Harry’s fight with a creature that just might be first contact with the Fomor. The art was great, if not as striking as Ardian Syaf’s in earlier books. (I’ll stop whining about that someday, I promise….) Syaf did come back long enough to do the covers, though, so that was better than nothing I suppose.

CONTENT: Some R-rated profanity, but not too gratuitous. Minor sexual innuendos, nothing explicit. Some gruesome violence, with varying degrees of gore. Harry is a wizard, working with magic and spells. There are various degrees of magical and monstrous creatures in this universe, with varying degrees of connection to the occult. Take that how you will.

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Review: “A Clash Of Kings” by George R.R. Martin

Title: A Clash Of Kings
Author: George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song Of Ice And Fire, Volume II
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 2002

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m absolutely sold on this series. I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I hit the end of what’s been published so far…join the poor souls clamoring for The Winds Of Winter, I suppose. Obviously, this is going to contain MAJOR spoilers for A Game Of Thronesthe first book in the series. You’ve been warned!

Westeros is in chaos! King Robert Baratheon is dead, slain by a boar in a tragic case of “hunting while intoxicated.” Robert’s young son Joffrey now sits upon the Iron Throne, advised by his mother Cersei Lannister. What few know is that Joffrey is actually the illegitimate offspring of Cersei’s incestuous liaisons with her twin brother Jaime. Robert’s Hand, Eddard “Ned” Stark, discovered this deadly secret, thus sealing his own fate as well as that of his king. Cersei made sure her hated husband was well-supplied with his favorite wine before heading out to hunt the boar that would kill him, and Joffrey ordered Stark’s head struck off in punishment for his failed attempt to place Robert’s brother (and legitimate heir, given Joffrey’s true parentage) on the throne. Tyrion Lannister has been sent to serve as Joffrey’s Hand, much to Cersei’s annoyance, and he’ll have his work cut out for him. Both of Robert’s brothers have taken the opportunity to declare themselves the true king, Stannis by right of birth and Renly by right of arms. Sadly, they stand a much thinner chance of success opposed to one another than if they teamed up…. In the North, Robb Stark’s bannermen have declared themselves free of the Iron Throne and placed a crown on their lord’s head. A string of brilliant victories has left them with a strong bargaining position and a valuable hostage: Jaime Lannister. Sansa Stark is stuck in King’s Landing, at the mercy of the cruelty of Cersei and Joffrey. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) her naivete was stolen when her father’s head left his shoulders. Now she plays the meek and obedient prisoner, all the while praying for an opening to escape the hell she’s stuck in. Arya Stark has successfully avoided her sister’s fate, posing as a boy and falling in with a train of recruits heading north to the Wall–a road that leads right past Winterfell…after wending its way through the thickest of the fighting that’s engulfed the Seven Kingdoms. Meanwhile, Jon Snow joins a massive force ranging beyond the Wall to search for news of his missing uncle…as well as insight into the return of the Others, ghastly frozen wights thought to be the stuff of legend. Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen has assumed leadership of her dead husband’s Khal, her followers awed by the three dragons birthed from Drogo’s pyre. But despite their devotion, the fact remains that they are weak. They are in no condition to face any of the rival Khals that roam the Dothraki Sea, let alone reclaim Westeros….

Martin’s prose continues to be top-notch, keeping you enthralled with the world he’s weaving even as you’re disgusted at the horrific events that are unfolding before your eyes. Various characters continue to prove just as unreliable in their assumptions as in the first book, and Martin seems to delight in working the narrative equivalent of “negative space”–the important information is often what’s NOT being said. It’s refreshing to see an author who respects his audience’s ability to work things out on their own. Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow remain hands-down favorites, while Daenerys and Bran continue to grow on me. As winter approaches and Danaerys’s dragons grow, magic slowly flows back into the world in subtle ways, but this remains primarily a historical fantasy at this point. If you can stomach the brutal world Martin is creating here, I can’t urge you strongly enough to join me. Apparently it only gets better from here….

CONTENT: R-rated profanity, not gratuitous, but not rare either. Rampant, disturbing violence, from hangings and decapitations to occasionally more grotesque fates–flaying comes up occasionally, though we don’t actually “see” that happen. There’s not-infrequent reference to torture though. Again, a fair amount of sexual content, including topics such as incest, rape, underage sex, and prostitution. Not really rendered in gratuitous detail, but often frankly and/or crudely discussed. Also, occultic elements begin to creep in here. Beyond the fantasy-based magic of wights and dragons, we get a guild of pyromancers whose power is waxing again for reasons they can’t seem to figure out (“Our spells haven’t worked this well since the time of the dragons!”) and a priestess of a foreign god with the power to strike men down with shadows.

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Review: “The Silent Deal” by Levi Stack

Title: The Silent Deal
Author: Levi Stack
Series: The Card Game #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Amazon, 2013

I’ve mentioned before the thrill of finding a gem when sifting through the sludge of most self-published work. Once again, I present an excellent debut novel! This time we have The Silent Deal, a nominally (but not restrictively) YA adventure set in the back-country of 1840s Russia. In the interest of full disclosure, I received a digital copy from the author after failing to win a FirstReads giveaway. If you’re interested, this first book in the series is currently available for free on your Kindle from Amazon here.

There’s something wrong with the village of Aryk. Everyone knows it, but no one will talk about it. Strangers exchange knowing glances in the street. Adults clam up as soon as youth enter the room, awkwardly changing the subject and pretending that there’s not an air of impenetrable mystery hanging over the small Russian hamlet. Then there’s the Brass Art, cryptic graffiti plastered over the walls of abandoned alleyways in clear violation of the law yet never cleaned up. Viktor is haunted by the mystery, ever since he saw a man hanged for the capital offense of carrying a playing card. Allying himself with Romulus, a mysterious lad who knows the surrounding forest like the back of his hand and who harbors countless mysteries of his own, Viktor is determined to find out just what happened in Aryk before they were born. What could be so dangerous about a playing card? Viktor and Romulus are about to find out….

As I mentioned above, I really enjoyed this one. The pace was perhaps a bit leisurely at the outset, but that changed quickly. While I had no trouble putting the book down and hitting the hay at a reasonable hour when I started, by the end I was staying up way past when I had planned in an effort to find out what happened next. The resolution wrapped up enough of the mysteries to be satisfying, yet also managed to leave a number of loose threads still hanging to bug you until you get your hands on the sequel. There are still a few elements that might annoy some of my pickier brethren, but on the whole I managed to forgive these scattered potential issues. Classifying this by genre is a bit hard, as after a heavily fantastical opening the book helms hard back into straight historical fiction (or, more accurately, straight fiction in a historical setting)….but the fantastic creeps back in, almost without your noticing it. Surely Gypsy fortune telling is all rubbish….but what if it’s not? And what on Earth is going on inside the walls of the imposing Staryi Castle? Had Mr. Stack not otherwise proven to be a master of his craft, I would suspect the opening to be an artifact from a previous draft, but his otherwise-excellent writing and the knowledge that all is not as it seems with the character in question leads me to believe instead that this is seeding plot elements for the sequel. Throughout the book characters look at evidence and draw conclusions in their attempt to solve the mystery of Aryk’s past. All well and good, except that a number of these conclusions are wrong…and at the time left me scratching my head wondering what they saw that I didn’t, because their assumptions were not at all what I was getting from the evidence. This leads to a sequence that can only be described as a villainous monologue as one of the “big bads” sets straight all their misconceptions about what went on in their town all those years ago. In Mr. Stack’s defense, this was far from your usual “Bond villain explains the plan instead of just finishing off the hero” moment, and the villain in question was far more intent on taunting our heroes in order to break their concentration and resolve their current standoff in his favor, but I can see where some of my fellows are (rightfully, in most cases) annoyed with such a device. In most cases, it’s a storytelling crutch. Here? It may still be a crutch, but Mr. Stack’s storytelling proves pretty nimble regardless.

CONTENT: Mild profanity. Mild sexual innuendo, mostly just flirting. Some violence, ranging from schoolyard scuffles to more lethal and terrifying encounters. Gypsy magic such as fortune telling could be considered occultic, depending on one’s views.

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