The third and final book in the Eric John Stark sword and planet trilogy.

Another very nice Steranko cover but Stark still isn’t white.

Publication year: 1976
Format: print
Page count: 208
Publisher: Ballantine Books

Betrayed!

The previous book, the Hounds of Skaith, ended in hopeful tones because a starship captain had agreed to take Stark and his friends to the stars. But the captain, Penkawr-Che, was overcome with greed. He kidnapped Stark and Ashton, and demanded ransoms for the others.

The story begins when the captain tortures Stark for information about a huge treasure trove of artifacts from Skaith’s ancient past. But Stark and his foster father Ashton manage to escape. The starship crews plunder nearby towns and temples while Stark and Ashton try to find another way to contact off-worlders. Meanwhile, the wise woman Gerrith and Stark’s loyal Northhounds are far away. But Gerrith has had a vision: they must reach Stark and Ashton before the duo reaches the sea. If not, Stark will die and Skatih is doomed. So, Gerrith and the few allies Stark have start a dangerous journey towards Stark and Ashton.

We get to see again the places and peoples we saw in the previous books but somewhat changed. Again, Stark gathers allies where he can, even from former enemies. They know that one Wandsman has an off-word communications device and they must try to get it.

We also see briefly how Penkwar-Che’s crew deals with some other familiar characters when Starks isn’t there to witness it. Also, the whole climate on the planet is changing: winters getting longer and harsher, summers shorter. This makes the people more ruthless and desperate.

The book starts with three maps and glossaries of places, peoples, and characters. There’s also enough recapping to maybe start the story here but I recommend reading the previous volumes first.

The Reavers of Skaith has more named female characters than either of the previous books. Some of them are only seen briefly but they all (except one) have life beyond their encounter with Stark. Interestingly enough, Stark’s foster father Simon Ashton often fills the role of a typical female romantic interest: the series starts when the Wandsmen have kidnapped Ashton and Stark comes to the planet to rescue him, and Ashton isn’t a warrior and has to rely on Stark to protect him. Ashton is an accomplished diplomat but rarely has a chance to use his skills on this violent planet.

The Skaith trilogy is a very good sword and planet story with a satisfying ending. Stark is a relentless (and humorless) main character with deep loyalty to people he likes. He doesn’t trust easily and he doesn’t consider himself a civilized man. He also has to rely on his “beast side” to survive, especially with the hounds.

However, there’s a brutality to the story, in the people, the environment, and Stark himself which makes this story feel very different from the light-hearted (if with a high body count) adventures in Barsoom. I wouldn’t want to read books like these all the time and I don’t think anyone would categorize these stories in the children section, as Barsoom books are now (at least here in Finland).

Today, the topic for Top Ten Tuesdays is Top Ten Things That Will Make Me Instantly Want To Read A Book.

I’m a picky reader. 🙂 Indeed, it’s easier to make a list of things that will instantly make me not want to read a book. But below are some of my favorite things to read about:

1, Superheroes.
I’m a fan of superhero comics but I’d also like to get them in book format. But not superhero romance, no.

2, Female action heroes
When I started reading sf and fantasy, female main characters were rare. Even in a group (sometimes a large group) of characters females then to be rare, say, four or five males for one female. And the few women tended to be healers. So, now I tend to gravitate towards female action heroes, like Buffy, Xena, and Modesty Blaise. Unfortunately, most action heroines come with toxic romance so I’m careful to read the blurbs. If the dreaded R-word is present, the book needs very good reviews for me to touch it. And she can be a secondary character. In fact, some of the best female action heroes are sidekicks, such as Lena Greenwood in Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer series.

3, Dragons
Like with female action heroes, I’ve learned to be cautious with dragons. Maybe too cautious. Now that the wonderful Temeraire series (from Naomi Novik) has ended, I need more dragons.

4, Elves
That’s right, I like elves! Although I’m more partial to Elfquest like elves than Tolkien, I’ll happily try any elf.

5, Author
Yup, names Lois McMaster Bujold, Steven Brust, Elizabeth Bear, and a few others always get me to pick up their book.

6, Part of a series
When I enjoy the characters, I want to read about them more than once.

7, Genres
I don’t read everything in these genres but in order to get me to look at a book it’s usually a fantasy, science fiction, historical mystery, or mystery. Or a historical non-fiction book.

8, Two enemies forced to work together
It’s especially good in a series where we’ve seen the two are fighting before. The situation could make them a grudgingly friends or hate each other more, either way, I’m enjoying it. An obvious example is Magneto working with X-Men.

9, Heist stories
There aren’t enough of these around, especially set in a fantasy or science fiction world.

10, Ancient civilizations
Be they Egypt, Greece, or a fantasy counterpart, something just draws me to them.

The second book in the Eric John Stark sword and planet trilogy.

Impressive cover from Steranko, but Stark is a black man

Publication year: 1974
Format: print
Page count: 184
Publisher: Ballantine Books

In the first book, the Ginger Star, former mercenary Eric John Stark followed his adopted father Simon Ashton to the planet Skaith which is at the fringes of the Galactic Union. The people on the planet don’t allow advanced technology, indeed many of them don’t believe that other planets exist, and so Stark couldn’t bring any with him. The local rulers, who don’t want new people coming to Skaith and giving the local oppressed people any ideas, kidnapped Ashton, and Stark had to fight his way to the Citadel where Ashton was held captive. Along the way, Stark made many enemies and a few allies. Now, Stark has reached Ashton and destroyed the Citadel, but the local rules, called the Lords Protector, have fled and taken some of Stark’s allies captive: the wise woman Gerrith and a wounded warrior Halk. Stark still has the nine huge Northhounds and with them and Ashton he follows the Lords Protector to the sandy but cold desert.

Skaith has ruins of old, fallen civilizations and among them live many unhappy groups of humans. The planet also has near-humans who are apparently the results of genetic engineering long ago. The Wandsmen are the minions of the Lords Protector and rule over everyone. They also want to keep their power and so are enemies of Stark. The Hooded Men are in turn the Wandsmen’s minions intent on keeping their own power. The planet has also winged humans who control the winds, a group of people who live underground, and a couple of people who live in the sea. It also has Runners, people who are mostly skin and bones and apparently nearly mindless, just wanting to hunt and kill.

The book has many big battles. Stark is grim and relentless in chasing his goals. At first, he wants to free his two friends but soon it becomes clear that he will have to plan big if he intends to keep all of them alive. So he does what he must.

Even though the story is set on a planet and the first book had some planetary travel, Stark had to give up all of his advanced tech and the fighting is done hand-to-hand with swords. This gives a very archaic or fantasy feeling to the book.

The fights are written very clearly, and now and then Brackett uses quite poetical language. But this a very harsh book; no humor at all and lot of violence.

My favorite things in the book were the hounds. They live like wolf packs, led by the strongest hound. But they also obey the Wandsmen and can’t hurt them. Stark defeated the previous pack leader and now leads them like a hound. If he is wounded, the next strongest will challenge him. The hounds can send fear telepathically and then bring down their pray, no matter if it’s a man or an animal. Stark survived the fear sent to him because he’s not a civilized man; he was able to reach inside for strength to endure it. The hounds can also communicate with him and some others telepathically.

The female characters are very much sidelined this time. Men decide the fate of their cultures through swords.

The ending gives some closure but it’s clear that the story continues.

The second book in the Gateways to Alissia series where a stage magician from our modern world travels to a world where magic actually works!

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook
Page count: 317
Publisher: Harper Voyager

I got an eARC from the publisher. Thanks!

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series, the Rogue Retrieval, and this sequel didn’t disappoint. However, you really need to read that first book before diving into this one.

Quinn Bradley is a stage magician who had dreamed his whole life of getting to perform on the big stages in Las Vegas. Now, he’s finally made it: a slot on Bellagio Casino. However, when an agent from CASE Global asks him to come back, Quinn doesn’t hesitate to agree.

CASE Global is one of the big international corporations and it has found a gateway to another world, called Alissia. It’s all top secret but the company has been sending people to spy on Alissia for 15 years. But then their top operative and Alissa expert, Dr. Richard Holt, defected. He disappeared into Alissia with a backpack full of modern technology. Now, he has reappeared – as the head of the most powerful country in that world. Of course, the company wants him taken out. But that’s not easy because Holt has friends all over the place and now even real wizards ensuring his safety.

Quinn and his friends from the first book return: anthropologist Veena Chaudri is as knowledgeable and enthusiastic as before and the tough soldiers, Lieutenant Kiara and Paul Logan, continue to kick ass when needed. They’re joined by another soldier Julio Mendez who instantly likes Chaudri and the feelings are mutual. Their mission is to locate and capture Holt and the advanced tech he has. But to do that, they need to gather information. Quinn’s specific mission is to get back to the Enclave, where the local magicians live and train, and set a beacon in it so that the company can find the place. Soon, they find information which forces the group to divide with Quinn, Chaudri, and Mendez going one way while Kiara and Logan go another. Also, when Quinn finds a way to maybe get into the magicians’ island, he has to go there alone.

The story has three point-of-view characters: Quinn, Logan, and Chaudri. They have communication devices so they can keep up with each other. They’re all also important to the plot and the pacing is pretty quick. They’re all likable and interesting.

Quinn is starting to get second thoughts about fulfilling his mission and he gets mixed up in the Enclave’s politics which could be very dangerous. He’s fascinated by real magic. Even though he has come up with interesting gadgets to mimic magic, now that he knows the real thing is possible, nothing else with do. As in the first book, he’s glib and charming, quick to smile and joke.

Near the start of the story, Kiara gives Mendez an order to kill one a spy from a rivaling company. This doesn’t sit well with Logan even though he doesn’t question his loyalty to CASE Global. Also, Chaudri has to struggle with her own conscience.

The vast majority of the story is set in Alissia. Still, all the major characters are from our modern world, so we get a lot of contrast between the Renaissance like world and our world which I liked. The team has lots of modern tech with them, from binoculars disguised as opera glasses to tablets disguised as books. Logan drills Quinn and the others in combat but Quinn is much better with a bow than a sword because Quinn’s grandfather taught him how to use it.

The Alissian people aren’t depicted as being ignorant or backwards which was good. Some of them are good, some of them are pirates looking for loot. This time, the group uses bribes more than their weapons.

The story does end in a couple of cliffhangers so I’m hoping the third book will be out quickly.

The second book in the wonderful fantasy series Divine Cities.

Publication year: 2016
Format: print
Page count: 442
Publisher: Jo Fletcher books

The story starts about five years after the ending of the previous book, City of Stairs. Colonel Turyin Mulaghesh who was the polis governor of Bulikov has been promoted to general and joined the Saypuri Military Council. But recently she has retired to chase her dream of living beside the sea and enjoying life. Sadly, that dream hasn’t come true. She lives by the sea but in a hovel and has to chase local bandits off her property. She also has flashbacks to the Battle of Bulikov. When an old associate comes to her bearing a letter from the current Saypuri Prime Minister, Mulaghesh is at first annoyed. However, she agrees reluctantly to become the Prime Minister’s spy.

The PM’s previous investigator Choudhry has disappeared and it’s Mulaghesh’s job to go to the city where she vanished and find out what happens to her. Also, the Saypuri have discovered a metal in that same city that not only conducts electricity 100% but it also seems to augment the electricity. This shouldn’t be possible and the PM is concerned that something Divine is behind it. What really irritates Mulaghesh is where she’s going: Voortyashtan which is the “ass-end of the universe, armpit of the world” as she calls it. Voortyashtan was built by the sea but the port is currently extremely dangerous to use because of debris from the time when the Continent’s gods vanished (in the event called the Blink). The city was also the capital of Voortya, goddess of war, death, and destruction. She was the first divinity killed and none of her miracles work. But her followers, her sentinels, were hated by the Saypuri and they don’t treat the remaining people at all nicely. In fact, beside Voortyashtan is the Fort Thinadeshi which has guns trained on the city all the time. And the weather is miserable.

Mulaghesh is tortured by her past and she can’t escape it here because the fort’s commander is also her old commander. Mulaghesh finds out that the disappeared woman had started to act strangely and was considered insane by some. She comes into the middle of a politically hot situation: the invading Saypuris are constantly harassed by the locals whom the Saypuri’s hate. Also, northern Draylings have been hired to clear and rebuild the harbor. Both Saypuris and the locals cautiously trust them, as long as they don’t do anything weird.

City of Blades continues in the wonderful footsteps of the previous book: an investigation in a new city. Many of the elements which made the previous book great are here, too. I through enjoyed Mulaghesh as the main character and her journey in this book is more personal than Shara’s in the previous book. Mulaghesh is a career soldier and over fifty. She smokes cigarillos, drinks, and curses a lot. She has a tortured past and yet she has uncompromising principles.

However, this is a grimmer book than the first one; there’s little hope of complete victory, just keeping to your ideals while the world goes to hell. The theme of the book centers on war and soldiers. It also contains some gruesome violence. I’m also not sure if I agree with the ending for even though it was rather impressive.

We also get to know some more about the history of Saypur, how it rose after the gods were killed and about the horrible way the Continentals kept the Saypuri slaves before the gods were killed.

Great, wonderful continuation of the series!

Kristen at Fantasy Cafe is hosting Women in SF&F Month 2017. The posts in previous years have been great and it’s wonderful to see that so many people, men and women, are again celebrating women writers.

A new Phryne Fisher mystery.

Publication year: 2013
Format: Audio
Running time: 11 hours and 22 minutes
Narrator: Stephanie Daniel

Orchestral director Hugh Tregennis has been murdered, with a stack of musical notes stuffed down his throat. Inspector Jack Robinson is looking for Phryne’s help because the policeman knows nothing about singers. Phryne agrees to help. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Tregennis was universally hated and nearly anyone in the choir could have killed him. Phryne promptly joins the choir and goes undercover.

Phryne has also some more personal troubles. Mathematician Rupert Sheffield is giving a lecture about the art of deduction and out of sheer curiosity Phryne attends. Rupert turns out to be very handsome but very rude and downright insufferably arrogant. But Phryne’s dear friend John Wilson is Rupert’s aide and head over heels in love with him. Rupert doesn’t seem to even notice poor John’s devotion and Phryne decides to educate Rupert.

This one somewhat rewrites Phyrne’s experiences as an ambulance driver in WWI. In a previous book (Murder in Montparnasse), we’re told about Phryne’s first love, after WWI. But apparently, Phryne had a fling with John Wilson just before her first love who was a famous Parisian painter. John was a young doctor who did his best to keep his patients alive. While he’s mostly gay, during the war both he and Phryne hook up, just to feel alive in the middle of death. They parted on good terms and quickly fall into bed together.

This was another somewhat unlikely story, but very entertaining. The familiar cast is back and the new characters are good, too. Most of Phryne’s time is spent in the choir, practicing along with the others. Some of the choir members are large personalities and very entertaining.