June 2014

The second half of the “Lean Times in Lankhmar” collection.

Publication year: 1996 (1964-1968 for the stories)
Format: print
Page count: 144
Publisher: White Wolf Inc.

The collection contains the stories “In the Witch’s Tent”, “Stardock”, “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar”, and “The Lords of Quarmall”.

These stories chronicles the adventures of the Grey Mouser and Fafhrd. Fafhrd is a tall Northern barbarian while the Mouser is a slight man and a former sorcerer’s apprentice. They’re both warriors and thieves, and Mouser has some slight skill in magic, as well. They’re after fortune and women, and sometimes fame, too. Often they adventure together but sometimes they are pitted against each other, like in this collection’s last story. They both have a strange wizard as a patron: Fafhrd works for Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and the Mouser’s patron is Sheelba of the Eyeless Face.

The first story is really short and funny. The Mouse and Fafhrd are planning a trip to the Stardock which is the highest mountain in the whole Nehwon. They are searching for treasure which is supposed to wait for any man who reaches the top. But first, Fafhrd insists that they consult a witch. This doesn’t go well.

In “Stardoc” the duo starts their climb accompanied by an ice-cat Hrissa whom they had bought free during their travels. The mountain is a very dangerous place but they are also trailed by a couple of other rogues who are also searching for the “pouch of stars”. The ice and the snow are the real enemies in this story, though.

After that adventure, the duo gets into an argument and split up. They even split their jewels and try to fence them separately. This is difficult because the jewels can only be seen at night, so ordinary fences most likely don’t want to deal with them. So, they each get quite a quirky fence as buyer.

In the final novella, the duo are still so sick of each other that they take different jobs – or so they believe. In reality, they’ve both been hired by a prince of Quarmall. Quarmall is a strange, labyrinthine place, mostly underground. It’s ruled by Lord Quarmal whose two strange sons hate each other and are constantly trying to kill each other by wizardry. Now, they’ve both hired a swordmaster as well: Gwaay has the Grey Mouser and Hasjarl has Fafhrd. Gwaay lives in the Lower levels of Quarmall and his brother in the Upper levels, so they never actually meet and neither do their households, unless a meeting is specifically arranged. Hasjarl’s wizards send disease spells to Gwaay all the time but Gwaay’s wizards protect him from them, all the time. Lord Quarmal is old and his sons are expecting his death.

As usual, Leiber’s writing is fantastic and evocative:
“Once, the Lords of Quarmall ruled over broad meadows and vast seas; their ships swam between all known ports, and their caravans marched the routes from sea to sea. Slowly from the fertile valleys and barren cliffs, from the desert spots and the open sea the grip of Quarmall loosened; not willingly but ever forced did the Lords of Quarmall retreat. Inexorably they were driven, year by year, generation by generation, from all their possessions and rights; until finally they were confined to that last and stauchnest stronghold, the impregnable castle of Quarmall. The cause of this driving is lost in the dimness of fable; but it was probably due to those most gruesome practices which even to this day persuade the surrounding countryside that Quarmall is unclean and cursed.

It’s also bizarre and horrible, especially in the fourth story.

The world itself is quite depressing. By today’s standards it might be called grimdark: lots of people are slaves with no hope of escaping. In the last novella especially, one brother is a torturer and the other is apparently a psychopath: he has no regard for the people around him, the only feeling he seems to have is extreme hatred toward his brother. Oh, and women are very much second class citizens (if at all citizens): slaves mostly, victims and prizes. But the vast majority of men aren’t much better off: mostly slaves, also, and the rest doing what they must. The powerful are too worried about keep their power to actually enjoy it (except by keeping harems of slave girls). Indeed, very few people seem to enjoy their lives in these books.

As much as I liked the earlier stories, I’m again reminded of why I don’t read these back to back.

Collects issues 1-5 of Ms. Marvel vol 2 and Giant-Size Ms. Marvel.

Writer: Brian Reed
Artists: Roberto de la Torre

The new Ms Marvel series starts right after House of M alternate universe story where our heroine Carol Danvers was the most popular hero in New York, a genuine celebrity who could do no wrong. Unfortunately for her, she still remembers that reality because in the here and now she’s not that perfect. She’s undoubtedly a hero but she’s also a recovering alcoholic and she has a tendency to rush into things without thinking. She was also permanently harmed by Rogue who absorbed her original powers along with her memories and personality.

She’s a long time Avenger and adventurer, so her brashness is a bit odd, like the writers don’t know what to really make of her. On the other hand, she used to be a pilot and they aren’t known for their contemplative personalities.

It’s also quite a challenge to introduce a long-time hero to the audience but the first issue does this just fine. (Of course, I met Carol when she was Binary, so I’m not really in the right position to judge new reader’s reaction.) A young man with the power to make words come into reality starts to read Carol’s book about her adventures in space. Unfortunately, his pictures start to impact the world around him and he conjures Carol’s old enemy to life again. The boy turns out to be an A.I.M project and we will see him again.

Next Carol fights the Brood for two issues. The Brood are being hunted by a being called the Cru who is also after some Cavorite Crystals which are powerful enough to destroy the world. Carol is injured quite badly in the fight but pursues Cru by herself. Carol proves here her continuing rashness because she loses the fight against Cru and a whole town is destroyed, killing thousands of people. This isn’t really an auspicious start for our heroine!

Then Traveler from House of M makes an appearance. He’s a sorcerer who can travel between universes and through time, and he’s fixated on Carol. (He wasn’t in the House of M miniseries, though. Maybe in the House of M: Avengers? I’ll have to look those up.) He seems evil enough but in these issues at least, he wasn’t terribly memorable. He’s babbling nonsense in the first issue and Carol contacts Dr. Strange for help. However, Traveler manages to incapacitate the good doctor who just has enough time to ask Carol for help. Unfortunately, I don’t think Traveler is very good at the time travel stuff. This plot line wasn’t satisfying to me at all. The fifth issue ends with a cliffhanger leading to Civil War.

A continuous plot point in the series is media. Carol has hired a publicist and is trying to lift her image in the media. This means interviews and appearances in TV-shows. Marvel heroes have always had quite a mixed relationship with the (in-world) media. X-Men are usually hated just because they’re mutants but sometimes they even get good press (usually a Christmas issue). The Avengers are usually adored and even get parades in their honor but sometimes they’re accused of being mutant lovers or murderers. No wonder Carol wants to be in control. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t interest me terribly.

Unfortunately, I don’t have Giant-Sized Ms Marvel and it’s not in Marvel Unlimited, either.

These stories are a bit rough start for Carol; she makes mistakes and in unsure of herself in way that feels a bit odd for a long-time hero but at the same time makes her more human. On the other hand, we see that she isn’t perfect and that she’s aspiring to do better.

Carol isn’t my favorite hero ever but she’s very interesting and I think she has a lot of potential. I loved her powers when she was Binary but now they’re more generic. (Oh, Marvel? Are you looking for a female hero for a movie or series of movies? Right here! Need spy stuff: Carol Danvers before she got her powers. Need space opera: Binary and the Starjammers. Straight superhero stuff: Ms Marvel/Warbird of the Avengers.)

11th book in the series in the internal chronological order.

Publication year: 2002
Format: Audio
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Running Time: 10 hrs, 54 m

Miles and Ekaterin are enjoying their delayed honeymoon, off-world, when Emperor Gregor’s message diverts them to Graf station. It’s a commercial space station in the Quaddie space. Komarran ships, which have a fleet of Barrayaran warships as escorts, have run into trouble. Apparently, some Barrayaran soldiers have been murdered or arrested, and shots have been exchanged and some people have been injured. Also, the local Barrayaran informant’s report and the report of the fleet commander are different. So, it’s Miles’ duty to hurry to the station and solve the whole thing, diplomatically. Miles has a mystery in his hands but fortunately he’s quite an accomplished detective by now.

When Miles and Ekatarin arrive to Graf station, they find out that one Barrayaran has apparently been murdered and a group of them are in jail for breaking into a quaddie’s quarters, trying to rescue their fellow soldier from the clutching of the said quaddie. Unfortunately for the fleet commander, the soldier they tried to rescue doesn’t what to be rescued at all.

Miles and Ekaterin’s first children are in the uterine replicators and Miles is anxious to return before their due time, which gives him about four weeks to solve the problem. About half of the merchant ships are owned by the Komarran Toscane family. Gregor’s new wife, the Empress, is a Toscane. Then there’s is of course the mutant problem. Barrayarans hate and loath any mutations and until recently children born with an obvious mutation, even something as easily repaired as a hair-lip, were killed. The quaddies are humans who have been genetically engineered to thrive in free fall: they have arms in place of their legs. Some Barrayarans describe them, in an official report, as “horrible spider mutants.”

The book is set in Graf station so most of the characters are new, which I think was a good choice because the previous book, A Civil Campaign, was set in Barrayar with almost all of the familiar cast present. Here we have Miles and Ekaterin, Miles’ bodyguard Roic, and Bel Thorne who is Barrayar’s informant on Graf station… and in a steady relationship with Nicole, the quaddie musician last seen in Labyrinth. Bel is a former mercenary and Miles’ confidante. We also get an interesting cast of quaddie police, Barrayaran military officers, and various others. We also get to see Miles and Ekaterin working together, which was a delight. I love established couples (or triads but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them) as main characters solving problems together. Not enough of them around!

“All sort of men don’t make it home for the births of their children but ‘my mother was out of town on the day I was born so she missed it’, just seems… seems more profound complaint, somehow.”

“I always thought my parents could fix anything. Now it’s my turn. Dear God, how did this happen?”

This year’s Once Upon a Time event is over.

I managed to read almost all of the books I was planning to:

1, A. M. Dellamonica: Blue Magic
2, A. Lee Martinez: Too Many Curses
3, Tanya Huff: Blood Bank
4, Kristine Kathryn Rusch: Five Diverse Detectives
5, A. Lee Martinez: Monster
6, Terry Pratchett: Night Watch
7, Tanya Huff: Blood Debt

Blue Magic was good but not quite as good as the first book, Indigo Springs, although I freely admit that I should have read Blue Magic as soon as possible. Maybe I will reread them back to back.
Prachett was, of course, as delightful as ever and I had do get my Rusch fix. 🙂 She’s currently working on several books which will finish off the Retrieval Artist series. I’m happily waiting for them. (Another reread seems likely.)

But my favorite thing during this challenge was Robin of Sherwood rewatch. I loved this series back when it came out in 1980s. Luckily, Finnish TV chose to air them quite soon. Happily, the series has aged well and it was a treat to return to these characters. I’m currently rewatching the third season.

Robin of Sherwood: season 1
Robin of Sherwood: season 2

This first book in the series is available for free from e.g. Amazon and Smahswords and from the series’ own website: http://shadowunit.org/episodes.html.

Publication year: 2007-2011
Format: ebook
Page count: 153 in pdf
Publisher: CatYelling

This is a collection of short stories and novellas. In the foreword about the origins of Shadow Unit Emma Bull writes that this is a TV show which just happens to be in the written format. And that’s what this is. Clearly these people are huge fans of Criminal Minds and have put their own twist to the series. I’m also a fan of the series and so I was very curious about this collaborative project. Each of the writers have contributed their own stories to the collection. The stories have the same characters.

Shadow unit is a nick name for Anomalous Crimes Task Force. It’s a special branch of FBI’s BAU unit, the Behavioral Analysis Unit. In essence, this is a team of profiles who are hunting serial killers, just like in Criminal Minds. The twist is that in this universe, paranormal things happen and some of the serial killers have been influenced by outside forces, the paranormal. Here it’s called Anomaly. The people who have paranormal powers are either gammas (really powerful and they seem to have some internal story with explains their powers to themselves) or betas (some powers but they can control it).

The character files are here: http://shadowunit.org/agents.html
On the surface, many of the character bear more than a slight resemblance to Criminal Minds’ characters. However, it seems to me that CM characters were the starting point and all of the characters were developed in different ways. And they do have some original characters, too. Daphne Worth is the new person on the team and the first POV character. She’s an experienced BAU agent and a former paramedic. We get to know the Shadow Unit characters and the world through her eyes.

Overall, I enjoyed these stories. Their format follows very closely CM episodes but they had more personal times: one of the (shorter) stories is about the agents’ evening get together for barbecue.

Booking Through Thursday

All other things being equal, what is your favorite format for reading? Hardcover? Paperback? New book? Old book? Leather-bound first edition? E-book?

These days my favorite format is audio for the simple reasons that I can do other stuff while listening it and I can download them to my computer so they don’t take shelf space.

A historical mystery set in the city of Akhetaten.

Publication year: 2006
Format: print
Page count: 443
Publisher: Black Swan

Rahotep is one of the Medjay detectives in Thebes where he lives with his wife and three young daughters. Then he’s commanded to go to Akhetaten and into the king’s court to solve a mystery. He doesn’t know anything about the case but he has to leave his family behind and travel to the new city. Once there, he encounters a hostile chief of police, Mahu, who tells him that the Queen Nefertiti has disappeared. The people already suspect that she has been murdered which is greatly undermining king Akhenaten. Mahu is sceptical of Rahotep’s chances of finding her. Rahotep is given two assistants who know the city but who are clearly spies.

When Rahotep meets the pharaoh, he commands Rahotep to find Nefertiti or Rahotep and his whole family will be killed. Rahotep has to find him in ten days, before the inauguration Festival. During the festival, powerful people will gather to the City of the Horizon and Nefertiti will have to be there by her husband’s side.

However, Rahotep requires authorization to question some of the most powerful men in Egypt, and Nefertiti’s household. She has been missing for five days; Rahotep’s task is far from easy.

Rahotep is pretty usual detective type even though in his own world he’s said to be unconventional because he actually questions witnesses and visits crime scenes rather than judging people by class, wealth, and appearances. This doesn’t make him a popular man; quite the opposite. Unfortunately, to me he was a bit too modern, especially because he doesn’t believe in any of the gods. The story is set during the Great Change in Egypt, when Akenaten has forced people to abandon the old gods and worship only one god, the Sun god Aten. However, Rahotep dismisses them all which sets him apart from the people around him. Well almost – Nefertiti admits at one point that she supported the change just so that the old powerful priest families would be stripped of their powers and to make Egypt at least a little more equitable.

I did like that Rahotep is happily married and is worried about his family. Even Nerfertiti’s legendary beauty doesn’t make him a gibbering fool, which is something I was a bit worried about initially. However, I didn’t feel any personal connection to him.

Akhenaten is shown with two sides: he has a powerful personality and strong vision, even single minded obsession. And yet, his body is weak and he needs a cane to walk. When he appears in public, his frailty is disguised from the common people.

The pace is somewhat slow but this isn’t a thriller. However, a lot of the book seemed to be spent talking about local politics. Incidentally, I’m an Egypt geek so I found it fascinating and wouldn’t have minded more of it, but readers looking for a mystery might be disappointed. There are also some social commentary; Drake makes the point that Akhetaten is an artificial city, built on the backs of the poor laborers with fabulous wealth and miserable poverty side by side. Even the Medjay police are robbers. Yet even the rich constantly fear for their status and even for their lives. Nobody is really enjoying living in the city.

This season has seven episodes, with the two part Swords of Wayland.

Episodes: The Prophecy, The Children of Israel, Lord of the Trees, The Enchantment, The Swords of Wayland 1 and 2, and The Greatest Enemy.

This season has more magic than the previous season, particularly in the Enchantment and the Swords of Wayland. The writing is still very good and otherwise, this season is just as good as the first one. With only seven episodes, there’s no room for filler.

The series starts with Herne’s prophecy about a prisoner close to Robin. First Robin and the Merry Men think that Herne means Little John who is Guy’s prisoner. However, after they free Little John, Robin hears that Prince John has come to Nottingham with a mysterious prisoner.

The sheriff is away from Nottingham and Guy has to entertain the Prince. However, that’s increasingly hard for Guy who has never been a diplomat nor a courtier. Guy also has his own scheme: one of his men has infiltrated the Merry Men. Pretty soon Guy is stripped of his position and thrown in jail. Will and Robin have a conflict over leadership which escalates in the next episode.

In the Children of Israel, the sheriff is back and shows the depths of his cruelty and greed. He owes a significant amount of money to a Jewish man, Joshua de Talmont. The sheriff doesn’t want to pay him back, so he arranges a riot and during it almost all the Jewish people in Nottingham are killed. However, Joshua’s eldest daughter Sarah has caught Guy’s eye and Guy warns them. The family flees
just in time but Guy kidnaps Sarah. He just assumes that Sarah will happily marry him, renouncing her faith and overlooking his part in the riot.

Meanwhile, our heroes are trying to ambush the returning sheriff but they fail and Tuck is hurt. Will lectures Robin about how he will never be more than an outlaw and that they should just keep the money they steal. Will leaves and later he robs the de Talmont family. Robin’s gang asks help from villages for the first time but the villagers are afraid and refuse to help them. This discourages Robin but only momentarily.

However, the rift between Will and Robin is repaired pretty easily. It seems to me that it had more to do with helping the de Talmant family, than with Robin.

In the Lord of the Trees, we see the villagers worshiping Herne. During the time of the Blessing no blood must be shed. Of course, exactly at that time Guy has invited some French mercenaries to Nottingham in order to deal with the outlaws.

The outlaws celebrate the Blessing with villagers of Wickham. Even when Herne is shot with an arrow in full view of everyone, they still keep to the time of the Blessing and even though Herne himself says that he’s “just a man” he clearly has some magical powers. Even Abbot Hugo warns Guy not to underestimate the old gods and when Guy says “they never existed” and storms off, Hugo is clearly disturbed. He has just admitted that as long as the villagers appear to behave like Christians, he doesn’t care whom they actually worship. In the previous season he’s been shown as greedy for land and power, now he’s a heretic in addition to being a hypocrite. Interestingly enough, while witched and sorcerers have magical powers in this series, the priests and monks don’t. Except of course political power.

Speaking of magic, the Enchantment has plenty of it. Lilith is a witch and a follower of sorcerer de Belleme from the first episode of season 1. She’s trying to bring him back to life and so she casts an enchantment over Robin. Because of it, Robin doesn’t recognize his Merry Men or even Marion. When the band realizes what has happened, they have to hunt him down. This is an interesting contrast to the next episode.

The two-parter Swords of Wayland is my favorite of the two seasons. The outlaws travel to Wales to protect a village from a group of horsemen called the Hounds of Lucifer. They organize the villagers to fight back when the horsemen attack and even though the outlaws are victorious, they have to fight against the covenant which is a group of devil worshiping nuns. It sounds cheesy but I think the covenant’s reputation of piety was used very well against our heroes. The covenant’s leader casts a spell over Little John, Tuck, Will, Nasir, and Much, turning them against Robin and Marion.

And the final episode, the Greatest Enemy, where the Sheriff finally gets his revenge against Robin. At the time I was shocked and dismayed by Robin’s death but of course it fits very well with the myth of Robin Hood where Robin’s identity has changed depending on the story and era. This Robin was a peasant from the village of Loxley.

Overall, I really enjoyed this second season too.

One of the prequel series to Watchmen.

Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artists:Andy Kubert, Adam Hughes, Eduardo Risso
Publisher: DC
Publication year: 2012

Collects issues 1-4 of Nite Owl, 1-4 of Dr. Manhattan, and 1-2 of Moloch.

So far, I’ve liked this collection the best. In all three stories we get to see the back stories of the characters which expanded them further.

The Nite Owl story starts with young Daniel Drieberg who idolizes the Nite Owl. Dan is abused both at home and at school but he gets strength from seeing who the Nite Owl never gives up but gets back up even when he’s been knocked down by some robbers. Dan tracks him down and quite easily finds out his real identity. Once the Nite Owl, Hollis, realizes that Dan is just an enthusiastic boy who wants to become his sidekick, he starts to train Dan. Then Hollis declares that he’s retiring and leaves the Nite Owl to Dan. When Dan is working as Nite Owl, Rorschach offers to become his partner.

From the second issue onwards, the story focuses on their teamwork. They have very different backgrounds but they’ve both been traumatized in some ways and sometimes it’s not easy for them to work together. In this story, they are searching a man who kills prostitutes. The police isn’t interested in finding him and Rorschach has his own issues, too. Nite Owl runs into a high-class prostitute and is very attracted to her. She starts to help him with the case which, of course, leads into sex and romance.

This really fleshed out Dan’s character. I remember wondering why Dan would work with a psychopath like Rorschach but here we see them before Rorschach really snaps. Andy Kubert’s classic superhero style art fits the story well. Unfortunately, nothing about the story is remarkable or unique. Dan’s background is pretty average, too.

In Watchmen, we got to know how Dr. Manhattan got his powers through the accident. Here, we get to see the events leading to that. The story starts with him on Mars, thinking about his past and wondering why he’s never gone to the moment of accident or further into the past. So he does so and discovers something really strange.

The story explores his childhood, and we also get to see some alternate histories which I found really interesting. I’ve been a fan of Adam Hughes’ work ever since he was Wonder Woman’s artist. Now granted, his women look all pretty much the same, but otherwise I love it.

Dr. Manhattan’s story rehashes pretty much all of the major events in Watchmen, but from a somewhat different perspective. Both of the stories include the scene where the heroes gather in the “Crime Busters” meeting. That scene is really popular with all of the writers. Not a complaint, just an observation.

The Moloch story fleshes out the super villain. While his home wasn’t an abusive one, he looked strange and was tormented over it mercilessly at school. (Well, I guess balanced, happy people aren’t going to run around as either heroes or villains.) We get to see his crime career and later involvement with Ozymandias. Again his background is pretty average but I enjoyed the latter half of the story a lot.

Booking Through Thursday

How do you feel about explicit detail in your reading? Whether language, sex, violence, situations and so on … does it bother you? Faze you at all? Or do you just read everything without it bothering you?

It depends on lots of things. When I was younger, I grew bored with epic fantasy because of the interminable battles which didn’t have anything to do with character development and even less with plot. They felt like computer game battles where it’s expected for the characters to win without any serious injury or any consequences. I also tend to avoid detective stories with lots of gore, so I’m bothered by too much violence. (Yet, I often eat while watching Bones. Go figure.) I’m also far more bothered by violence in real life than fiction.

Swearing doesn’t bother me. It also doesn’t impress or fascinate me, unless it’s actually inventive, rather just repeating a few well-know words.

Sex scenes also depend on the context and what my expectations are.

As for other descriptions, it depends on the context and my (possible) emotional connection. I’ll happily read long descriptions of, say, USS Enterprise-D or Sherwood Forest or the economics of Ankh-Morpork. But if I don’t have an emotional connection, I’m far more likely to just skim it. So actually, in story which has new to me places or characters I’d first have to know something about them before I can appreciate descriptions.

And my dark secret as a reader is that I tend to skip long descriptions of clothing or poems. Why, yes epic fantasy, I’m looking at you and your way too long descriptions of, well, anything. 🙂

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