Monday, October 8, 2007

Kirkus Reviews genre reviews (October 15th issue)

Lots of good stuff here:
Breath and Bone by Carole Berg (Roc): * Starred Review * "Second part of a fantasy duology, following Flesh and Spirit (2007, etc.). Young Valen, a novice monk with magical skills of finding and unlocking, also has a personal problem. Owing to his ghastly upbringing, he's addicted to doulon, a pernicious drug that requires pain for release. His protg, the youthful scholar Jullian, whom Valen has sworn to protect, has been kidnapped by the evil renegade monk, Gildas. The latter's in league with the fanatic Sila Diaglou, who has lethal theories of destruction-as-salvation, and whose armies of Harrowers are running riot. Worse, Valen's liege lord, the sorcerer Prince Osriel—his secret identity is Gram, secretary to Thane Stearc—collects the eyes and souls of dead warriors. Sila Diaglou also threatens the elflike Danae; she poisons their secret places and imperils their homeland, a magical realm adjacent to human lands. Osriel agrees to help Valen pursue Gildas, but then gives him over to the Danae to be broken, whence Valen, not altogether surprisingly, discovers he's actually a half-breed, anathema to the Danae. But then, when he reveals abilities the Danae themselves can't match, Valen's Danae uncle Kol agrees to teach him the skills of the Danae. But while Kol teaches Valen, Sila Diaglou grabs Osriel (in his Gram persona) along with Stearc and Jullian. With his new magic, Valen conceives a plan to rescue the three. But can Valen really trust Osriel, whom he suspects of building an army of enslaved undead? Though the plot twists are sometimes obvious, the narrative crackles with intensity against a vivid backdrop of real depth and conviction, with characters to match. Altogether superior." (Jan. 2)

Firstborn by Arthur C. Clark (Del Rey): "Wrapping up the Time Odyssey trilogy—according to the publishers anyway. The book's contents speak otherwise. In Time's Eye (2004) one version of planet Earth was split into segments, then reassembled, with each segment from a different epoch. In Sunstorm (2005) another Earth defended itself against a gigantic solar flare. The enigmatic alien Firstborn, having caused both baffling events, intend to wipe out intelligent life, so that they can do—well, whatever it is they want to do, billions of years hence, without interference. This time, Sunstorm scientists note another object drifting toward Earth: a Q-bomb, a device powered by dark energy, peculiar stuff that (according to current real-world theories) powers the accelerating expansion of the universe. Athena, an artificial intelligence launched into space, finds a home, and reports back that Earth isn't the only planet to have suffered the aliens' malevolent attentions. Meanwhile, Bisesa Dutt, having survived on both Earths, wakes from a 19-year hibernation and hurries off to Mars, where scientists have discovered an Eye trapped in the polar ice by a Martian civilization billions of years ago. Bisesa has a curious affinity for the Eyes, enigmatic spheres by which means the Firstborn keep tabs on developments. The Eye sends her to Mir, the reassembled Earth, where a flabby, aging Alexander the Great is busy trying to conquer the patchwork planet. Various other characters wander about the cosmos, by space elevator, ion drive and whatever, each peregrination described in full scientific detail. Readable, but more science travelogue than science fiction—and if you were anticipating a conclusion, or at least an alien encounter, forget it." (Dec.26)

Frankenstein's Bride by Hillary Baily (Sourcebooks): "British author Bailey (The Strange Adventures of Charlotte Holmes, 1994, etc.) offers a continuation of the Mary Shelley classic. First published in the U.K. in 1995, the book is told from the perspective of Jonathan Goodall, who recounts his association with Victor Frankenstein. Jonathan meets Victor through mutual friends and the two men quickly develop a rapport, sharing an interest in the origin of languages. Eventually Victor forms a bond with (and displays an unseemly attraction to) a strange and beautiful woman, Maria Clementi, a singer and performer of some renown. When Victor's lovely wife, Elizabeth, and small son are found in Elizabeth's bed with their throats cut, Jonathan can't help but be disturbed by Victor's reaction. While on a mission to solve the killings, Jonathan observes an enormously strong, odd individual near Victor's home. Jonathan is distressed by the monster-like man's insistence that he wants his "bride" and flees in fear from the creature. It isn't until Victor suffers serious injury that the truth of his doings is revealed. Bailey displays a competent understanding of Shelley's original tale in this inventive narrative. Bonus: For those who need a refresher, the text of Frankenstein is also included." (Oct.7)

Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker (HarperCollins): "Any narrative that begins "Burn this book" definitely merits attention—unfortunately, readers would be much better off were they to heed this advice. The novel starts in Hell, so there's literally nowhere to go but up. The demon Jakabok Botch, also the narrator, introduces us to his sadistic and dysfunctional family. Botch wants to ingratiate himself with his mother by inventing "the first mechanical disemboweler." Shortly thereafter he is horribly disfigured in (go figure) a fire and winds up with no nose and no lips. Soon Botch and his father, Pappy Gatmuss, succumb to the temptation of steak and beer, but this turns out to be bait from the Upper (i.e. our) World. Although they're both hauled up in a net through the nine circles of Hell, only Botch makes it up alive. To disguise his demonhood, he wears clothes that cover his devilish aberration, two tails. In the Upper World he links up with Quitoon, an elder demon who's even more adept at evil than Botch. For 38 years they travel around the countryside, doing (as we would expect) repulsive things like burning people (Quitoon's specialty) and taking baths in the blood of infants. Eventually they meet Johannes Gutenberg, of printing-press fame, and his wife Hannah, who turns out to be an angel and hence an arch-enemy of Botch and his homoerotic friend. An overfed and puffed-up archbishop is also revealed to be on the side of the devil. During an apocalyptic battle between Hannah and the archbishop, Botch inadvertently puts his finger (claw?) on the problem: "Everyone continued to watch them as they carved up Humankind's future…the whole thing, for all its Great Significance and so on and so forth, was actually beginning to bore me." Exactly. An affected and pathetic narrative—nothing would be lost by confining it to the ninth circle of Hell." (Oct.30)

Troy: Fall of Kings by David and Stella Gemmell (Del Rey): "Final volume in the authors' historical fantasy (Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow, 2005, etc.) very loosely based on The Iliad. The narrative was completed by Stella following the death of her husband in 2006. Agamemnon of Mykene and his allies seek the destruction of Troy and its king, Priam, for the latter's supposedly vast hoard of treasure, not revenge for the abduction of the fabled Helen—here she is plain, plump and peripheral. Odysseus, a wanderer and fabulist, has strong ties to Troy's main ally, fierce mariner Helikaon (aka Aeneas) of Dardania, and sides with Agamemnon only because of a now-regretted oath. Warrior Achilles despises cold, treacherous, ambitious Agamemnon. Priam's in his dotage, and turns over the defense of Troy to his sons. However, before the battle for Troy can reach its climax, Helikaon must take Andromache, Prince Hektor's wife, to the island of Thera to return some bones and fulfill a vow. Andromache—just one of the many strong female characters—loves Helikaon as well as her husband, and complications ensue. Helikaon's warship is the most powerful on the seas—and he's armed with Greek fire! Other anachronisms abound: the Mykene fight in Macedonian phalanxes; the characters merrily chomp on corn bread. There's plenty of revisionism, too: Achilles kills Paris, not the other way around, and never sulks in his tent, while his single combat with Hektor ends not at all as Homer would have us believe. Finally, the Trojan Horse, still a brilliant deception inspired by Odysseus, owes nothing to a hollow statue on wheels. A rousing conclusion for fans of the previous volumes—but not one for the purists." (Dec.26)

Half the Blood of Brooklyn by Charlie Huston (Del Rey): "The further, even gorier adventures of Joe Pitt, Vampyre extraordinaire (No Dominion, 2006, etc.). Unbeknownst to most, there are 4,000 undead sucking blood in Manhattan. Among them, the talented Joe Pitt has always been a sort of paradigm of Vampyre independence—until now. Suddenly, he's become an establishment figure, head of security for the powerful Society clan. There are obvious advantages to a regularized undead life. It's nice, for instance, to have a reliable blood stash. Even more importantly, Joe gets the time he needs to care for his beloved and seriously ailing girlfriend Evie. There's a price, of course. Joe has to go along to get along, and when he's assigned the onerous Brooklyn gig he grumbles but obeys. Something strange is stirring there, he's told: Go find out if we have to worry about a Vampyre Civil War. What Joe discovers is strange enough: a motley group of Chosen Vampyres, including a Rebbe out of Fiddler on the Roof, a Jewish mother out of a Henny Youngman sketch and a cadre of murderous warriors in battle yarmulkes. Readers whose world view is as bleak as Joe's won't be surprised when his mission comes to a bad end. "Like there's any other kind," he says dourly. Violent, often ugly, Huston's series is not for the squeamish, but fans will find this installment the best to date." (Dec.26)

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