The White Wolf’s Son

The White Wolf's SonThe White Wolf’s Son
by Michael Moorcock, Published by Warner Books
Reviewed by Cheryl Barkauskas

The White Wolf’s Son continues Moorcock’s Albino Underground series, an epic fantasy series tracing the battles between Law and Chaos. The main character is twelve-year-old Oonagh von Bek, and she begins her tale as old friends of her grandparents gather around her in Ingleton. Old friends of their type attract old enemies, and Prince Gaynor von Minct and Klosterheim return with a pointed interest in the girl. In an attempt to escape the two men, Oonagh accidentally falls through a rift to another world, ending up in a city named Mirenburg. Among those who aid her as she searches for a way home are the giant fox Lord Renyard, dandy and thief lord; an oracular building named Mrs. House; and Oonagh’s grandmother, Oona, who can travel between worlds on the moonbeam paths.

Unfortunately, Klosterheim and von Minct pursue Oonagh to this new world for reasons Oonagh still doesn’t understand. She learns, though, that she’s not the only object of their interest. By chance, she meets a blind albino boy enslaved in a factory and discovers that he’s a relative of her grandmother’s. Before she can arrange his rescue, she’s forced to flee Mirenburg. Their paths cross again, though, and the reason why Klosterheim and von Minct need them both turns out to have dangerous implications, not only for Oonagh but for the balance of Law and Chaos in the multiverse.

Interwoven with Oonagh’s tale is the story of Elric, the patriarch of the family at the end of a thousand-year dream quest. He senses that his descendants are in danger, and although he is dying in his own world, he manages to send his spirit on a mission through the multiverse to protect them. Elric is well-known throughout the multiverse, and he goes to some pains to avoid old enemies as he searches for Oonagh. However, he is prepared to risk his own life to defend his family.

The White Wolf’s Son spans a broad array of settings, from the gloomy underground realm of Mu-Ooria to the opulent and corrupt empire of Granbretan. In scope and imagination, the novel excels. Since the events are narrated mostly by Oonagh, who necessarily has a limited perspective, the mythology of Elric and the worlds takes a secondary position to the events that immediately affect her. The story is Oonagh’s, not Elric’s. Though she lacks the destiny of her renowned ancestor, her adventures are just as intriguing on a smaller scale, and fantasy lovers will find them worth the telling.

May 15, 2007 – Cheryl Barkauskas for Senses Five Press

Book Review: The Crimson Shadow

The Crimson ShadowThe Crimson Shadow
by R.A. Salvatore, Published by Warner Books
Reviewed by Cheryl Barkauskas

The Crimson Shadow collects R. A. Salvatore’s novels about Luthien Bedwyr—The Sword of Bedwyr, Luthien’s Gamble, and The Dragon King—into one volume for the first time. Luthien begins the trilogy as an idle younger son who spends his days fishing and training with his father’s gladiators. For his entire life, his homeland of Eriador has been occupied by neighboring Avon and its monstrous allies, vicious one-eyed beings called cyclopians, but Luthien is oblivious to it. Everything changes for him when a cyclopian kills Luthien’s best friend in the arena at his father’s order, and his older brother Ethan is banished for speaking out against the crime. Distraught and disillusioned, Luthien kills the cyclopian in revenge and flees. His fight against injustice eventually leads him to spearhead a rebellion against the evil wizard-king Greensparrow, and in the end, he becomes the famed Crimson Shadow, hero of Eriador. Along the way, there’s plenty of action, suspense, and humor to keep the reader involved.

The characters, if not profound, are vividly drawn. Luthien and his lover Katerin are honorable warriors, and Greensparrow is suitably wicked. The standout among the supporting characters is Oliver de Burrows, “highwayhalfling,” who gets most of the best jokes. The lines between good and evil are clearly drawn; even when Luthien must resort to thievery to survive, he never forgets the honorable path.

Action is Salvatore’s specialty. Especially in the hand-to-hand combat scenes, his talent shines. He has the gift of describing action minutely enough for a vivid image, yet his pacing is good enough that the scene never bogs down. Banter among the companions and some humor in the actual fighting (such as Luthien firing an arrow point-blank at a cyclopian and missing) break the tension at strategic points.

The volume concludes with a brief interview with Salvatore in which he discusses his writing and his worlds. Of future forays in this world, he says: “I fall for my characters (those that survive). Right now my contractual obligations prevent a peek at [Luthien and Oliver], but I never say never.” If he does return, many of Salvatore’s fans will be eager to make the journey with him.

April 9, 2007 – Cheryl Barkauskas for Senses Five Press

Trail of Time – Book Review

Trail of TimeDC Universe: Trail of Time
by Jeff Mariotte
Published by Warner Books

Reviewed by Eugene Myers for Senses Five Press.

Trail of Time is the final novel in the DC Universe series of original stories. It features ensembles of superhero characters from the expansive DC history. Superman (who previously appeared in the first installment, Last Sons) returns for a new adventure that spans two universes and hundreds of years. Completing the cast are heroes that may be unfamiliar to even the most faithful comic book readers, including the Phantom Stranger, Jason Blood/Etrigan the Demon, Jonah Hex, Bat Lash, and El Diablo. These unlikely allies join forces to combat a trio of magical supervillains–Vandal Savage, the Dark Lord Mordru, and Felix Faust–who are bent on nothing less than world domination, naturally.

This is likely the most ambitious entry in the DC Universe series, a story that could easily demand a multi-title comic book event, akin to the ongoing 52 Weeks. Trail of Time begins in an eerie alternate universe: Earth revolves around a red sun, America is locked under strict military control to guard against foreign terrorists, and there is no Superman. Most of this book’s target readers will realize that red suns rob Superman of his powers, which leaves Clark Kent as simply a mild-mannered reporter, turning out government-approved stories that downplay the people’s lack of freedom in favor of their safety. Readers might also suspect that in a world without a Superman, Lois Lane has a much-shortened life expectancy. After Clark’s wife is killed while investigating a man named Vandal Savage, the Phantom Stranger and Jason Blood tell him of his heroic destiny in another reality and the role he must play to save it.

Still grieving Lois’s death, Clark joins them on a journey through hell to the proper DC Universe, where he merges with Superman (regaining his powers but retaining some memories of the other world’s Clark) and learns what is at stake. Vandal Savage and his cohorts have spawned a parallel universe which threatens to wipe out the original, leaving them in control. The heroes must locate the branching point in history and attempt to stop the magicians before they can put their plan into motion. Meanwhile, in the Old West, Jonah Hex and the others of his time find themselves inexplicably drawn together to fight some unknown force. Trail of Time follows a large number of characters in multiple parallel plotlines, most of which tie together satisfactorily in the final conflict. The novel is filled with time-hopping from one period to another, from a Camelot under siege to ancient China, with demons and magical menaces waiting at each stop. Aside from Kryptonite, Superman has always been susceptible to magic, which puts him in as much jeopardy as his companions.

The plot is heavy on action, but fortunately Mariotte is up to the task of describing it all as vividly as if it were drawn in comic book panels. Mariotte’s dialogue and prose truly shine with the characters from 1872—no surprise given his experience with his “Weird West” comic series, Desperadoes. The story skirts some sobering political and moral issues that would add some depth and resonance to the plot, and there’s little character development beyond a cursory summary of their origins, but the pace is quick and consistent with what you might find in the pages of your favorite superhero comics. Trail of Time is a grand and bold adventure that would be a challenge to present in any other medium, and it easily delivers more of what fans want in their favorite monthlies.

Stephen King’s “Lisey’s Story”

Lisey's StoryLisey’s Story
By Stephen King, Published by Scribner

In Lisey’s Story, Stephen King’s latest work, Scott Landon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is dead. He is survived by his wife, Lisey (pronounced “Lee-see”). Lisey is trying to reassemble the pieces of her life, and though it has been two years since Scott’s sudden death, for Lisey it feels like yesterday. As she wanders her lonely Maine home, she still hears her husband’s voice echoing through her head. Meanwhile, petulant “Incunks,” as her husband called them, telephone incessantly, seeking access to Scott’s unpublished work. One such Incunk, who calls himself “Zack McCool”, decides to take this goal one step further. After several drunken conversations with a professor at a nearby college, he takes it upon himself to retrieve Scott’s unpublished manuscripts by any means necessary. Zack, if it needs to be said, is a little off his rocker.

But this arc takes up only one half of the story. The bulk of the novel is told in flashback; King fluidly weaves from the present into the past dozens of times. He stops in mid-sentence, changes tense, starts a new paragraph, and continues without pause, without capitalization, as if the story is being told in one long outbreath, one long elegy. We learn of Scott’s and Lisey’s strange courtship, delving steadily into Scott’s past as the novel progresses, learning of odd treasure hunts called “bools,” mind-warping malevolences that the childhood Scott calls “the bad-gunky,” and a dream-like alternate world called “Booya Moon.” After a time, we learn that the talented writer might have received many of his ideas not from his deep imagination but from actual, terrifying experiences. The flashbacks are the most engaging aspect of the novel (besides the highly-satisfying end) because in them we learn of the dark secret Scott has been carrying with him his whole life.

There’s a lot of magic to be found in “Lisey’s Story,” but it’s often buried under long stretches of meandering plot. Monsters don’t lurk around every page as in some of King’s earlier works. Instead, the reader must be patient. Clues are left often, and it is only later that one understands why, for example, Scott cuts his wrists open one night as a “gift” to his wife, or why he has made so many arrangements in his will for Lisey’s catatonic sister, Amanda.

Lisey and Scott frequently speak in their own private slang. They call each other “babyluv” and say “smucking” instead of the F-word. There are about a dozen more such made-up words. Some early critics of the book found this babytalk annoying, and while I found it difficult to wade through at first, I later understood that this language was absolutely necessary for two reasons, to show that Scott Landon is in some sense still a child, haunted by a past no boy should have to face, and to show how much Lisey Landon loves her husband. Scott is a man of words; Lisey, in mourning him, is unable to let a single thing of his go, not even his words.

Having read King’s semi-autobiographical On Writing, I suspect that Lisey’s Story, though not autobiographical itself, took a large part of its setting from King’s life. In both there is an older brother whom a boy loves more than anything, a hand-cranked printing press with messy ink in the basement, In both there is a writer who dwells in Maine, who is a professional and successful horror writer, whose wife has many sisters. The difference is that one is King’s true past and the other is a story. King says in an author’s statement at the end of the novel, “[Lisey] is not my wife, nor are her sisters Lisey’s sisters…” Nevertheless, the analogy is impossible to ignore, and the meta-fictional implications are somewhat creepy. (I.e., is King suggesting that he may have received some of his ideas from childhood experiences? Most likely, no, but the thought is interesting to ponder.)

My only criticism of the novel is its occasional slow pacing. Early on especially, humdrum descriptions of common activities, like frying up some hamburger helper, crowd the pages; tension is slow to build and sometimes frustrating. But once the plot does move, the payoff is well worth it. King says this is his attempt at a more “literary” novel, whatever that may mean to you, but I for one welcome his experimentation in a new area. It may both inspire non genre readers to pick up a horror story, and it might convince some blood and gore fans that there is more than one way to hide a monster under a bed.

More reviews can be found here.

My Take on the Spin

SpinI finished reading Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, this weekend. I really enjoyed the book. And in my ongoing rating system I have on my personal bio page, I’m going to give it an A+. However, because I’ve spent an average of two days per month for the last five years or so in various writing groups, it’s become my nature to read things with a critical eye. Few books are perfect, and though I thought Spin was excellent, I can’t resist pointing out two minor flaws.

1) The novel juxtaposes two opposing views: the scientific and the Christian. Characters maintaining both views attempt to explain their rapidly changing world through their perspective. It is clear, in my mind, that Wilson favors the rationalist, scientific, point of view. What I couldn’t figure out was (spoiler warning) why Wilson felt humanity needed to be saved? The central premise of the novel is that any sentient culture living in a limited space with limited resources (i.e. a planet) will eventually exhaust its supplies and die. Along comes Vast-Interstellar-Intelligence to save the day. But the VII is so slow-thinking that humanity doesn’t recognize it at first. What Wilson has unintentionally done is ruin his argument (if I read the text correctly). In the novel, a messiah doesn’t come to save humanity, but the VII does. In both cases, humanity is impotent to effect it’s own change. And while altering this premise would vastly change the novel, I found myself more than a little frustrated at Wilson’s suggestion that humanity is at best impotent to cosmic forces.

2) This one is more technical. Throughout the novel Wilson refers to the use of aerostats, high-altitude balloons that are used instead of orbital satellites after the Spin (a black shroud that encloses the Earth) appears. Every time there is an astronomical event in the sky, the aerostats conveniently stop working, leaving humanity temporarily without communication. Wilson should have studied intercontinental communications a bit better. Most communication data travels over fiber-optic cable, not satellite, including the Internet and phone calls, and therefore would be immune to any interference from the stars. A geosynchronous satellite has a two second round-trip time, a latency that’s okay for one-way mass broadcast communications like television, but downright snail-like for Internet and phone calls where latencies in the half-second are considered high. I suppose it was a good device to have when Wilson wanted his characters to be ignorant of the state of the world at large.

These two flaws aside, however, I thought Spin was a remarkable novel in its breadth of scope and its ability to extrapolate a future billions of years hence. I know why it won the Hugo, and it my mind it is very deserving. My trigger-happy crit brain just couldn’t resist the crit.