Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tough Travels with . . . Vampires

Every Thursday, Nathan (over at Fantasy Review Barn) leads the gang in touring the mystical countryside, looking for fun and adventure. His Tough Traveling feature picks one of the most common tropes in fantasy each week, as seen in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynn Jones, and invites us to join in the adventure. All are invited to take part, so if you're joining the journey late, no worries . . . we'll save you a spot in the caravan.

This week’s tour topic is: VAMPIRES

VAMPIRES are increasingly rare on the TOUR.  They have been attracted over to the Horror Tour by offers of better pay.  Where they appear, you will find up to date Vampires wear expensive sunglasses and wish to drain you of energy rather than blood.

Oh yeah, it's time for some kick-ass, old-school, evil-as-hell, vampires! No sparkly pretty boys or romantic entanglements here. We're talking blood-sucking, mind-control, soul-destroying evil. I could go on forever, but let's try and keep it fantasy-focused.

Let's get right to the heart of the matter and kick things off with the vampires of Brian Lumley, as seen in his Necroscope saga & Vampire World series. It all begins with the adventures of Harry Keogh, Necroscope, who stumbles upon the Wamphyri, immortal malevolent forces of evil, driven by vampiric symbiotic leech-like parasites. This symbiotic bond bestows immense strength, telepathy, and metamorphic abilities on the host, while infecting them with an insatiable bloodlust. While Necroscope was a traditional horror saga, set in our world, the Vampire World series is more a dark fantasy saga, set on a world where humans live in a primitive fear of their monstrous masters.

Having cut my fantasy teeth on the Dragonlance novels, it's hardly a surprise that I soon graduated to the Ravenloft series of novels. These books were a perfect blend of epic fantasy and classic horror, set in a Dungeons & Dragons world of elves, halflings, dwarves, and . . . yes, vampires. Christie Golden kicked things off with Vampire of the Mists, while P.N. Elrod kicked things up a notch with I, Strahd: Memoirs of a Vampire. There were actually over 20 books in the Ravenloft series, dealing with vampires, werewolves, liches, and more, but it's the Dracula-like Strahd and vampire death-knight Lord Soth who really define the world. Long out of print, the books have found new life as e-books, so there's really no excuse for not mixing your swords, sorcery, and vampires.

From Christopher Golden we have the Shadow Saga, an urban fantasy series that's heavy on the heroics, and even heavier on the vampires. This is a series that starts off as a rather standard urban fantasy tale of secret societies and ancient evils, but then it goes crazy off-the-rails. Tons of fun, with some of the wildest climaxes you could ask for.

Heading back to the realm of traditional fantasy, Barb and J.C. Hendee bring us the saga of the Noble Dead. This is largely your typical epic fantasy saga, complete with medieval setting, but it all begins with a vampire slayer and her half-elf partner, and proceeds from there. It's a great series that reminds me a lot of Ravenloft, but for more mature readers.

Even heroic fantasy legend David Gemmel has dabbled in vampires, specifically with his Knights of Dark Renown, in which the legendary knights of the Gabala disappeared through a demon-haunted gateway, and returned as soulless vampiric monsters. This was the book that made me a Gemmel fan, with a very dark twist on his usual brand of fantasy.

Finally, we have The Diaries of the Family Dracul from Jeanne Kalogridis, which takes an epic fantasy look at the life, death, and undeath of Dracula himself. Okay, this one does have a bit of period romance to it (a la Anne Rice), but it's never sparkly or cheesy. More importantly, it also has a lot of blood, some epic battles, and tons of atmosphere.

Waiting on Wednesday: When the Heavens Fall by Marc Turner

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

When the Heavens Fall by Marc Turner 
Hardcover, 544 pages
Expected publication: May 19th 2015 by Tor Books

The first of an epic swords & sorcery fantasy series for fans of Patrick Rothfuss, When the Heavens Fall features gritty characters, deadly magic, and meddlesome gods.

If you pick a fight with Shroud, the Lord of the Dead, you had better make sure you end up on the winning side, else death will mark only the beginning of your suffering.

A book that gives its wielder power over the dead has been stolen from a fellowship of mages that has kept the powerful relic dormant for centuries. The thief, a crafty, power-hungry necromancer, intends to use the Book of Lost Souls to resurrect an ancient race and challenge Shroud for dominion of the underworld. Shroud counters by sending his most formidable servants to seize the artifact at all cost.

However, the god is not the only one interested in the Book, and a host of other forces converge, drawn by the powerful magic that has been unleashed. Among them is a reluctant Guardian who is commissioned by the Emperor to find the stolen Book, a troubled prince who battles enemies both personal and political, and a young girl of great power, whose past uniquely prepares her for an encounter with Shroud. The greatest threat to each of their quests lies not in the horror of an undead army but in the risk of betrayal from those closest to them. Each of their decisions comes at a personal cost and will not only affect them, but also determine the fate of their entire empire.

This is a title that landed on my doorstep as a surprise ARC a little while back, and it's probably the most anticipated paperback sitting on my shelf at the moment. Not only is Marc a fellow Canadian (albeit transplanted across the Atlantic), he counts Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie among his influences. This just sounds cool, and from what I've read with a quick scan of the opening chapters, it has a style to match.

IWSG - Time Management

The Insecure Writer's Support Group is a once-monthly blog hop originated by our very sci-fi ninja, Alex J. Cavanaugh, and which now has a permanent home at the IWSG site. Every first Wednesday of the month we gather to connect with one another, to share our thoughts and our insecurities, and to offer one another the kind of guidance and reassurance that only another author can provide.

My challenge this month is an old foe, one against whom I've gone head-to-head many times . . . and never done any better than come away with a mutual agreement to continue the fight again tomorrow. That foe, my friends, is time management.

Despite my best efforts, it appears the world isn't going to add another hour to the clock, so it seems I have to deal with the hours available to me. The problem is, there just aren't enough of them in the day. If I want to get anything accomplished, then I am going to have to start sacrificing something in order to borrow/steal that time away. Unfortunately, work is never going to go away, our little man isn't going to suddenly sprout from toddler to teenager overnight, and I'm not about to deny my wife the support she needs while she goes back to school.

So, what's left? Well, I could just stop sleeping and/or eating, but I hear that's only a short term solution and one that never ends well. I could just stop reading and reviewing, but that's like asking me to stop breathing. I need to read. For now, it's back to pen and paper, to going to have to be writing and editing in 15-30 minute chunks of time as I can find them, with a tattered notebook I can quickly whip out and stash away.

On the plus side, that notebook is old-school, spiral-bound, dead-tree terrific, with absolutely no wi-fi or built-in apps, so there's no chance of social media interruptions.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Scifi Review: The Usurper by John Norman

A little over 20 years ago John Norman stepped outside the world (if not the themes) of Gor and delivered a trilogy entitled the Telnarian Histories. Whereas the Gor novels were primarily fantasy epics tinged with science fiction elements, this new trilogy flipped that around, being more of a traditional space opera with fantasy influences. Like the Jason Marshal trilogy with the Gor saga, it was an interesting sort of diversion or side story, but most fans just wanted more Tarl Cabot. As such, I never expected to see the series continue, so I was genuinely surprised to be offered a copy of The Usurper for review.

Having looked back and re-familiarized myself with the first three Telnarian Histories, I've found myself with a new appreciation for the books. Thematically, they're not much of a departure from the Gor novels, and no hero will ever replace Tarl Cabot, but the futuristic ideals are something new, and the space opera elements lend themselves well to the storyline. More than that, the mythology is more detailed than we ever saw in Gor, and it attempts to do what Jacqueline Carey later did with her Kushiel's Legacy series, providing a spiritual justification for what many have seen as sexist, sadomasochistic core to Norman's writing with Dira, "the goddess of love and beauty . . . the goddess of slave girls . . . the slave girl of the gods."

In terms of narrative, little has changed over the years, with The Usurper having the same sense of style that fans have become used to, but which may unsettle a new reader. Expository prose is often long and blocky, with descriptions that can stretch into a second page without a paragraph break, and the amount of detail surrounding the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological realities of slavery is often exhausting. That's not to say it isn't fascinating, or sometimes necessary to the plot, but it may take some readers deeper into a submissive mindset than they're comfortable with. Dialogue is often very formal, carefully structured and delivered as if for an audience, with little of the casual banter we so often expect of the genre. Again, that's not a flaw or a complaint, just an observation on what makes Norman's writing unique. Overall, however, the prose here is stronger and more polished than what fans may be used to, with phrases like "the airless, lonely, nigh-vacant deserts between world" having an almost poetic quality to them.

The world-building is exceptionally strong here, as it was in the Gor saga, with a fully realized history of conquest and rebellion. Culturally, there are significant Greco-Roman influences to the story, but there's also a bit of a Conan-esque flavor to Ottonius, the barbarian King. It's really with the philosophies of sadomasochism and the spirituality of submission that the story comes alive. Despite the criticisms and complaints of critics, this is not merely a tale of men being cruel to women, or of women being bound and broken. Norman presents us with a culture in which free women are rarely that - they're as bound by society's rules and conventions as any slave is by her collar. Ironically, it's the slaves who are more intellectually and spiritually liberated, more respected and admired by the men around them, and the fact that they find true happiness and contentment in their submissive role is crucial to the tale.

However, in an era where BDSM has very much become a part of pop-culture, Norman's ideas are hardly as shocking or taboo as they once were. From Fifty Shades of Grey, to Kushiel's Legacy, to music videos from Christina Aguilera, to network television shows like CSI's Lady Heather character arc, BDSM (and fetish in general) are everywhere. That's something of a double-edged sword for the Telnarian Histories, as the novelty (and some of the attraction) for old fans is gone, while new fans demand something more than mere taboo titillation. It's a cultural shift that has forced Norman to focus more of his attention on the storyline and the characters, with The Usurper being one of his strongest, most complete tales yet.

This is a book that's heavy on the history and the cultural composition of the world, with a mysterious narrator often acting in the role of teacher or advisor to the reader. Part of that is necessary to allow new readers to catch up on what's gone before, but part of it is also deliberate world building. As for our hero, Ottonius, he has grown and evolved significantly from what I remember. Instead of the cold prototypical Norman protagonist, he has acquired some of the rough-edged charm and black humor common to pulp adventure heroes like Conan. Filene is a remarkable character as well, perhaps the most well-developed female character Norman has written. She begins the story masquerading as a slave, in order to get close and assassinate Ottonius, but we also get glimpses of the free woman behind the mask. Of course, she's very quickly found out, turning that masquerade into a reality, but she retains a spark of personality that only grows brighter as the tale continues.

There's more of conflict to The Usurper than I remember from any of the Gor novels as well, which is sure to appeal to fans of more militaristic science fiction and fantasy. Alien technology, starships, blockades, sieges, and battles dominate much of the second half of the book. This is very much Otto's tale and Otto's conflict, with him at the center of it all, but we do get a much wider view of the war and how it impacts the characters around him. There are some long, slow periods of prose before we get to the conflict, and Norman still interrupts the action to share the insights of slaves and masters on their role in the battle, but overall I found this to have a much faster paced story, with a better balance of plot and philosophy. Politically, it's a sharper tale as well, with great attention devoted to the affairs of rulers and captains, which helps bring it all together.

If you've ever found yourself curious about John Norman's work, then The Usurper is a great place to begin. Even though it's the fourth book of the Telnarian Histories, it can still be read as a standalone title, which is almost necessary with a 20 year gap. If, like myself, you always saw this saga as a weaker sort of cousin to the Gor novels, then you're likely to be pleasantly surprised. However, if you're deeply offended by his social philosophies or his depiction of women, and aren't interested in the 'how' and 'why' of his world . . . well, this isn't going to change your mind.

Kindle Edition, 798 pages
Published March 3rd 2015 by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Huge Opportunity for Self-Published Fantasy Authors (thanks to Mark Lawrence)

In case you've been sleeping under a rock (or, as the weather dictates, hibernating in your bear cave), then you need to know that Mark Lawrence has launched a very cool opportunity for self-published authors.

It all started with a call for blogger volunteers who will serve as literary agents (of a sort), combing through 25 different submissions each, before selecting the 1 title they feel is most deserving of continuing through to the second round. Each blogger will then read all 10 finalists, and the winner will get reviewed on all 10 blogs, providing the author and the book with both bragging rights and a wealth of free publicity.

I am pleased to say that, of the 19 blogger volunteers, Beauty in Ruins was selected as part of the "team of 10 highly respected and well-established bloggers" who will put on our pseudo-literary agent hats and read through our assigned slush piles.

1./ Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues
2./ Steve Diamond &co at the Hugo winning Elitist Book Reviews
3./ Mark Aplin &co of the award winning Fantasy-Faction
4./ Mihir Wanchoo of Fantasy Book Critic
5./ Lynn Williams of Lynn's Books
6./ Milo of The Fictional Hangout
7./ Bob Milne of Beauty in Ruins
8./ Ria of Bibliotropic
9./ Tyson Mauermann of The Speculative Book Review
10./ The guys at Fantasy Book Review

There's no money involved, and no big publisher's contract guaranteed, but who knows where a competition might take you. First of all, you have Mark Lawrence's name and clout behind the whole idea, and then you have 10 bloggers selected for their high traffic and popularity who (and this is important) are open to self-published titles. The opportunity here for publicity is huge, and you have to wonder where the winner might go, armed with such bragging rights and such high-profile reviews.

If you're a self-published fantasy author, then I urge you to head on over to the call to self-published fantasy authors and submit your book. Currently, 134 books have been received (out of a maximum 250), so you still have time to get involved.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Thriller Review: Three Strikes and You're Dead by Michael A. Draper

Having suffered through several Major League Baseball strikes/lockouts, including the two big ones in 1981 (713 games) and 1994 (948 games), I immediately saw the appeal in Michael A. Draper's tale of murder and 'vindication.' After all, who among us hasn't questioned the motives of men who walk away from their jobs to pad a salary that's already more than we'll make in our lifetime?

Three Strikes and You're Dead takes that anger, that frustration, and (let's be honest) that sort of jealous envy and follows it to a violent bottom of the ninth, bases loaded scenario. What begins as some chat room posturing very quickly escalates into a serial murder spree by a man dubbed "The Vindicator," who begins targeting the highest paid players in an effort to force a resumption of play.

This was a solid read, with a fascinating premise at its heart, and a well-developed mystery surrounding it. Draper wastes no time getting the game started, throwing an early fastball that sees a young superstar dead in his hotel bathtub. In the dugout opposite against The Vindicator is a team of amateur sleuths, an idea I originally struggled with, but which actually worked fairly well. The whole better-than-the-police trope ran out of legs long ago, but Draper has enough of a spin on his pitch to make it work here. It's as much a matter of passion and drive, as it is one of skill and luck, that makes them so successful in helping to track down their foe. They also help to ground the reader and provide a much-needed sense of normality in the face of inflated egos, salaries, and vendettas - even as their chase takes us on the road.

The first few innings were a little rough, with some solid storytelling marred by some awkward dialogue but, like any good pitcher, Draper soon settles into his game, and it's smooth sailing from then on out. Just when I thought the premise might be suffering a bit as it headed into the seventh-inning stretch, as the narrative began to feel a little tired, he switches to a knuckleballer who takes the game in an entirely new direction - one involving bombs, drugs, sociopaths, and domestic terrorism. It's a calculated risk, with a set-up that potentially stretches the bounds of credibility a bit too much, but the closer in Draper is strong enough to overcome any late inning jitters.

If Three Strikes and You're Dead were a baseball game, it'd be a slugger's match, with big hits, home runs, and some inspired base-running. There is a bit of a pitcher's duel at the end, as heroes and villains come head-to-head to determine the fate of the season, but it's the action that will have the crowd cheering. The ending might be a bit too perfect, with an epilogue born of optimism and wish-fulfillment, but the post-season is always about hope - no matter how blind or desperate it might be.

Paperback, 192 pages
Published July 24th 2014 by Xlibris