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book reviews by Althea


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The Sorcerer’s Daughter – Terry Brooks **

The Sorcerer’s Daughter
The Sorcerer’s Daughter by Terry Brooks

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It had been many, many years since I’d read a Shannara book – long enough that I had no idea whether my distantly-remembered opinions of the early books were valid or not. When I had the opportunity to pick this up from NetGalley and DelRey, I was happy to check it out and see what I’d been missing all this time.

Unfortunately, I failed to be won over. Although this was explicitly advertised as a “stand-alone” novel, it’s really not. A huge chunk of the beginning of the story is a “let’s get all caught up” infodump… but somehow, though a large number of pages are devoted to the backstory and how all the characters are related to each other, I didn’t come out of it feeling like I really ‘knew’ them at all, or that I was really certain of the scenario. I’m guessing that if I’d read earlier books, I might’ve felt better acquainted – but in that case, I think I would’ve been more annoyed at having to get through all the past history.

Leofur and Chrysallin a two young women who have become good friends. When Chrysallin is kidnapped, Leofur must go on a quest to save her – not just because of their friendship, but because she suspects her father, the evil wizard Arcannen, might be involved in the abduction. In addition, Leofur’s partner, Paxon, is Chrysallin’s brother. Although Paxon is off on his own mission, and doesn’t seem to have time to spare for Leofur, whatever would he say if he came back to find his sister gone?

As a secondary plot, we follow Paxon’s mission. A diplomatic summit between Druids and a Federation Council is attacked, and although innocent, the Druids fear that they’ll be blamed. Paxon must lead the druids back to their safe stronghold, but their journey is plagued by mishaps. A suspicion grows that who else but the evil wizard Arcannen Rai is behind the terrorism.

While entertaining enough, the plot structure felt quite formulaic. I also didn’t really like the ‘steampunk’ elements thrown into the general “quest fantasy” scenario – they didn’t feel natural in the setting; it was more like they were thrown in just to suit a current trend.

Overall, my pre-teenage opinion that Brooks is rather mediocre and generic fantasy has been confirmed.

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The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror – Joyce Carol Oates

The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror
The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror by Joyce Carol Oates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**** The Doll-Master
(Previously read in “The Doll Collection.” Re-read.)
While, in general, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with little boys playing with dolls, there’s certainly something quite, quite wrong with this specific boy playing with dolls.

**** Soldier
Powerful, disturbing story. This isn’t what I expected from “Tales of Terror” but it’s quite horrific. Oates brings us into the head of a man who’s something of a cross between Bernie Goetz and George Zimmerman – and it’s not a pleasant place to be.

**** Gun Accident: An Investigation
A woman thinks back on the ‘gun accident’ incident that traumatized her as a teenager.
The story feels believable to the point where I would think that it was true.
Again, the ‘terror’ here is the sort that people really truly have to face: mundane, banal, and perhaps all the more horrifying for it.
The tension is masterfully raised as the details of what happened that one afternoon are revealed.

*** Equatorial
This piece was as masterfully written as the preceding stories – but I so hated the main character that if I knew her, I’d seriously want to kill her myself. This feeling undercut the effectiveness, for me: I feel that the author wanted us to feel equally ambivalent about both her and her husband, and I didn’t.
A middle-aged woman on a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos with her husband has become suspicious that he actually wants to kill her. Are her fears justified, or is it all paranoia that will lead her to make rash choices? The ending leaves it up to the reader to decide what might happen – with several dire possibilities on the table.

**** Big Momma
This one’s a more traditional horror story. A lonely young girl is having a hard time adjusting to life in a new town, at a new school – until one of her classmates befriends her and brings her into her family’s warm embrace. But is this a family one really wants to be embraced by?
There have been mysterious disappearances around town – of pets, and small children…

***** Mystery, Inc.
From a purely literary standpoint, this might not be the best story in this brief but excellent collection – but it was my favorite. A crime story set amongst crime stories, it’s a twisty tale of malfeasance between booksellers – where the competition might get literally cut-throat.
Although hardly ‘cozy,’ this is a much more ‘fun’ story than the others in the collection.
In addition to the plot, what really made it for me was the vividness of the details and the clarity of the setting – you come away from this story feeling that you actually remember being in this bookstore.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Mysterious Press for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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It – Theodore Sturgeon ***

It
It by Theodore Sturgeon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read as part of the Retro Hugos nomination packet.

I generally like Theodore Sturgeon quite a lot. This story was OK, but it wasn’t one of his best. It’s an early work from him, and it fits more snugly in the pulp genre than his more complex later work.

A strange fungus-monster develops sentience, and animates a human corpse, going on a violent rampage in a rural area, wreaking havoc on one family in particular. One little girl has no idea the danger she is in. But her childish innocence is nothing to the curious amorality of the monster…

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The Hammer of Thor – Charles W. Diffin ***

The Hammer of Thor
The Hammer of Thor by Charles W. Diffin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If a mysterious alien shows up on Earth one day, don’t disrespect him and piss him off.

That’s the moral of this story, where an American firefighting ace pilot happens to be there when an alien ambassador(?) tries to introduce himself to the Soviets. The alien’s destructive fit of pique is not limited to Russia, as he angrily flings meteoric rays at Earth.

Our firefighter must team up with a nerdy genius in order to figure out the alien tech and quickly come up with a way to combat it. Bravery and ingenuity will save the day… at least that part of the ‘day’ that remains to be saved.

Originally published in 1932, in Astounding Stories, this short piece is very much of its time – but is still fairly entertaining.

Read on a recommendation from my Post-Apocalyptic book club, as it was cited as a (very slight) inspiration for Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Hammer of God.’

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The Mathematics of Magic – L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt **

The Mathematics of Magic: The Enchanter Stories
The Mathematics of Magic: The Enchanter Stories by L. Sprague de Camp

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Read as part of the Retro-Hugos Voter Packet.

Review based on only the short story, ‘The Mathematics of Magic.’

I know I’ve read stuff by L. Sprague de Camp in the past and been amused – so either I just wasn’t in the right mood, or this isn’t one of his better humorous offerings.

The story features a couple of modern-day psychologists, one older, one younger, who figure out a way to transport themselves into alternate, fantasy-like universes. Soon, they find themselves on a rambling adventure through a land which is a combination of Faerie and the Age of Chivalry. The humor rests heavily on poking fun at fantasy tropes that are quite a bit outdated and are seen far more rarely in the literature now than they were when the story was written. I felt that it was a bit too long and unfocused for what it was.

‘The Roaring Trumpet’ was also nominated, but it’s another story featuring the same two protagonists, so I think I’m going to skip it, since I didn’t particularly get into this one.

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Darker Than You Think – Jack Williamson ***

Darker Than You Think
Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read as part of the Retro Hugo Voters’ Packet – although it was disqualified as a nominee: “The finalist “Darker Than You Think” by Jack Williamson was mistakenly categorized as a novelette. The story is a novella, but did not receive enough nominations to be a finalist as a novella.”

Personally, I’d say this is definitely an actual novel – the pacing and structure give it that feel. It’s really not that short, either.

Wait… ah-ha!

“Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson, originally a novelette, was expanded into novel length and published by Fantasy Press in 1948. The short version was published in Unknown in 1940.”

I’m pretty sure that I actually read the 1948 novel-length version. (Because it kept not-ending. Not that it really dragged on, but I thought I was reading a short piece, and I wasn’t…)

Either way, I thought this would’ve made a great 1970’s or 1960’s horror film. It would sit on the shelf comfortably next to The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby.

Journalist Will Barbee is ready to meet the returning members of an expedition to far-off lands. He’s sure that he’ll get the scoop on whatever their discoveries were, because it just so happens that he was college friends with the researchers. However, while waiting for them to meet the press, he finds himself next to a young woman, April Bell, who introduces herself as a budding journalist and is eager for him to give her professional tips. Barbee feels an intense mix of attraction and mysterious repulsion regarding the young woman. The press conference ends up being prevented due to a shocking tragedy – and Barbee’s feelings toward April begin to include a suspicion that she might somehow be guilty of a terrible crime. That doesn’t stop him from asking her out to dinner, though.

As events progress, we learn that whatever ancient secrets or artifacts were discovered on the expedition may be a threat to a modern cult of witches or other supernatural beings. Against his will, Barbee is drawn into diabolical doings…

Not bad; glad I read it.

I wouldn’t have voted for it to win a Hugo, however, mainly because it’s horror and not speculative fiction.
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The Builders – Daniel Polansky **

The Builders
The Builders by Daniel Polansky

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

‘The Builders’ is, I guess, intended as a satire of grimdark-style fantasy. In the afterword, the author himself refers to the story as a ‘one-note joke.’ The joke is that all the characters – a nasty, brutal bunch – are small, furry animals. The trouble is that – yeah, that’s all there really is to it. It’s just not that funny.

The style aspired to, as well as the plot and content, reminded me most of Scott Lynch – and the thing is, Scott Lynch IS really funny and clever. It’s hard to poke fun at something by being less amusing than the original.

The plot involves one of those old gangs of thieves, being re-gathered for one more dastardly plan. Far too much page real estate is devoted to painstakingly introducing each of the gang, one by one, and detailing how each is recruited, induced or blackmailed into signing up for the venture. It got tedious. By the time we get around to the predictably bloody and disastrous mess that bringing this untrustworthy crew together was bound to result in, I was ready for it to be over.

Full disclosure: I’ve never liked stories with anthropomorphic, talking animals. I’m not sure why. I guess there have been a few exceptions, but in general, though I love reading stories about aliens of every physical description; start calling those characters animals and I just get turned off. I’d heard enough good things about this story that I’d hoped it would be turn out to be one of my rare exceptions, but – it wasn’t. If you find the idea of a talking mouse in trousers inherently amusing, your mileage may vary significantly.

Read as part of the Hugo Voters’ Packet.

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