Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Test of the Twins By Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman

The Test of the Twins
Vol. 3 of Dragonlance Legends
By Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
Copyright 1986

The third volume of the Dragonlance Legends trilogy opens with Tasslehoff Burfoot and Caramon Majere landing in the future of Krynn after they attempted to travel back to their own time. It is a bleak future where the world is barren ash and all is dead. They find Caramon’s wife’s grave and Caramon’s grave. They learn that Raistlin was successful in drawing the Dark Queen into their world and defeating her. The cost was life on Krynn.

They resolve to travel back to their own time and prevent Raistlin’s success. In their own time, they find a world preparing once again for war. This time the aggressor is Kitiara, Caramon and Raistlin’s half sister who, with her Draconian henchmen and dragons, is traveling to the city of Palanthas in a flying citadel to attack the High Clerists Tower.

Raistlin and Crysannia are in the Abyss. Raistlin is tormented by magical illusions – scenes of great pain from his life. Crysannia also witnesses these torments and tries to protect Raistlin. The attacks turn to her and she is blinded and crippled with injury. Raistlin is able to free himself and moves toward his goal of confronting the Dark Queen, leaving Crysannia behind to fend for herself.

Tanis is in Palanthas, helping the Knights of Solomnia and the other defenders of the city prepare for battle. Caramon and Tasslehoff arrive there with a book given to them by the historian, Astinus, that shows that Tanis dies in the battle. Caramon and Tanis go to the Clerists Tower to aid in the defense. Tasslehoff decides to board the flying citadel to take over. There, he enlists the aid of a gully dwarf and seizes control.

Tanis and Caramon, accompanied by Tas, take control of the citadel. They then discover from the book that Dalamar is prevented from stopping Raistlin when he is killed by Kitiara. Kitiara gets into the Tower and injures Dalamar, who lethally wounded her. Caramon and Tanis soon arrive. Dalamar is too weak to battle Raistlin. Caramon enters the Abyss, as he is the only one who can stop Raistlin. Soth comes to claim Kitiara's body. Raistlin encounters Caramon and is told of his inevitable failure; he gives the Staff of Magius to Caramon that he might close the Portal and stop Takhisis. Raistlin is attacked by the Queen, but he is said to fall into a dreamless sleep, protected from her. Caramon comes out and closes the Portal, having retrieved Crysania, who is still alive.

The battle for Palanthas is won by the people of Palanthas at the cost of most of their city. Crysania, now back to health but blind, becomes head of the church of Paladine. Dalamar seals the laboratory where the Portal is for all time. Caramon goes to his wife, Tika, and they are overjoyed to be reunited. Tasslehoff finds a spot on the map he's never been to and teleports off with the aid of the magical time traveling device.

The Test of the Twins involves several timelines, settings, and characters and weaves a complex tale. In it, we can see the full maturity of Weiss and Hickman as storytellers.

The third book in the trilogy is a textbook example of how a third installment should read. It was all fast paced, with the first two volumes leading to a volume long climax where all of the plot lines converge. No new characters are introduced. No new subplots are brought in. All of the events, subplots, and plot are brought to fruition and neatly wrapped up with nothing left unresolved.

My chief criticism of this book specifically was it felt a little rushed. In the first two installments, the plot slowed occasionally to allow contemplation and introspection by the characters. In the third installment, there was little of that. Of the three books, this one read most like an installment of the first trilogy.

What made Legends better than Chronicles was Weiss and Hickman’s dedication to developing their characters beyond Dungeons and Dragons action heroes. Just a little more introspection and contemplation – especially at the end of the book as the action was winding down – would have been a nice cap on a wonderful trilogy.

Nobody is ever going to confuse any of the Dragonlance novels with Lord of the Rings or the Thomas Covenant series at the pantheon of great fantasy fiction. However, they are great fun to read. They are well plotted and have great characters. No fan of fantasy should look down his nose at these wonderful books.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Mine by Robert R. McCammon

By Robert R. McCammon
Copyright 1990

It’s the 1990s of day traders, hedge funds, and multi-million dollar deals in the country’s financial centers. In the midst of all this, Laura Claybourne is a successful journalist married to a successful broker. They have a beautiful home with beautiful cars. The only hitch in their marriage is they never seem to have enough time to spend with each other to keep the marriage healthy.

Laura Claybourne is pregnant with the couple’s first child. She has a happy life on the surface. Her husband, a commodities dealer in Atlanta, makes a good living and they have a good home. She is a society page reporter for a local newspaper. But she suspects that perhaps her husband is having an affair.

Mary Terrell – aka Mary Terror – is a sixties radical hiding underground. She was a soldier in an organization called The Stormfront. The Stormfront waged war on the establishment, killed cops and bankers and blew up buildings. They were high on the FBI wanted list. One night, the cops stormed their headquarters. Only a few made it out, including Mary and their leader, Lord Jack. They all flee separate directions and off to different lives to live underground. Mary Terror is a sleeper agent, waiting for the summons to rejoin the Storm Front Brigade.

Through a message in the Rolling Stone Magazine, Mary – Once known as Mary Terror – has seen an advertisement for all remaining members of the Storm Front – a 1970s radical group who fought the establishment through a series of murders and bombings aimed at ending the capitalist system of government. Their Leader, Lord Jack, has summoned her. She must have his baby ready when she meets him in New York.

As Laura moves into the ninth month of her pregnancy, she starts to get suspicious of her husband who has to make himself scarce so often in the evenings, leaving her alone. One day, she decides to call her boss’s husband who can not confirm her husband’s story of being out with a client. Eventually, Laura puts it together by following him one evening to an apartment complex where her husband goes upstairs with a six pack of beer. She has some thinking to do before the baby arrives.

Mary has her own thinking to do before her meeting with Lord Jack. When she last saw Lord Jack as the pigs were shooting up their apartment in New Jersey, she was pregnant with her child. In the process of escaping, she lost that baby. Losing a baby would not be acceptable to Lord Jack. Mary wanted to present him a beautiful child as their son. She has practiced caring for a baby on dolls, and it always ends badly. Now she needs the real thing.

Laura finds the evidence that proves that her husband is having an affair and throws him out. A short time later, she goes into labor and goes to the hospital with her husband and parents.

Meanwhile, Mary has acquired some guns and a costume that will allow her to get into the hospital and steal a baby. Dressed as a nurse, she slips in and takes Mary’s little boy from her arms, out of the hospital and to a waiting van. She heads off for New York.

Laura is distraught to the point of hysteria. She is able to pick out Mary Terror from an FBI file and the FBI starts looking for her. Unable to stand still with lose ends, Laura launches her own investigation.

A couple months prior, she had been given a book to review by a guy who spent a great deal of time with various 60s radical groups including the Storm Front. After a great deal of arm twisting, Laura gets the man to take her to Ann Arbor to meet a retired member of the organization who might know something about the whereabouts of the old gang.

When they arrive there, the woman isn’t home, having gone to a cabin in the woods for a few days to paint. That night, Laura does a little recognizance on the woman’s cabin and encounters a man also looking around. They fight and the man escapes. The next day, when the woman returns, Laura meets Bedelia, Bedelia is adamant she is not going to get involved. As they start talking, shots ring out and kills the guy riding with Mary. Mary fires on Laura and Bedelia and miss him. They manage to escape, chasing Mary and Laura’s baby down an interstate while an unknown party continues to track them.

Mary is headed from Michigan to San Francisco where they Storm Front Brigade owned a home. Mary is confident that it is there Lord jack will meet her and accept his new, beautiful son he has for her. Laura and Bedelia are determined to see that she doesn’t make it there.

The three chase each other down the highway for hours, exchanging occasional gunfire. Finally, the third car, that contains an old, retired FBI agent with a grudge to score with Mary, wrecks and kills himself. It’s now just Laura and Bedelia versus Mary Terror. From time to time, Mary pulls off and ransacks the home to kill the people, take their food, vehicles, and guns. Mary and Bedelia rob a pawnshop for money. When Laura and Bedelia meet at a lumberyard, their car gets shot up in the firefight and all parties get their bodies chewed up by guard dogs.

Mary tears away in her van and Bedelia and Laura steal the yard master’s car and follow in pursuit. Mary has a several hour head start on them and, as they enter the mountains, the weather starts to turn treacherous.

Both Mary and Bedelia have an old newspaper photo and some names of men living in a town near San Francisco where the Stormfront was founded many years before. Mary plans to get there, find Lord Jack, and take up life as a family woman. Laura plans to kill her if she has to to stop her.

Mary is wounded from a major dog bite on her thigh she received at the lumber yard. She is hurting and has lost some blood. The roads are becoming impassible, so she pulls off into a lodge where stranded travelers are being put up. A few hours later, Laura and Bedelia arrive and confront her.

A shootout ensues and Bedelia is killed. Mary takes off into the diminishing storm. Laura follows, but falls far behind when her car’s radiator gives up the ghost.

As Laura is getting her radiator fixed, Mary arrives in town and begins the search. The first guy she finds is not Lord Jack and she kills him. She moves on. Laura arrives in town and begins her search using the same set of clues. They arrive at Lord Jack’s house to find he’s settled into a life of quiet domesticity. A shootout ensues. Mary is killed and Laura gets her baby back.

This was McCammon’s first novel outside the realm of horror or the supernatural and he proves he has the chops for it. Mine is a taught chase thriller with believable characters, superb and plausible plot, and a narrative that seldom pauses to let the reader get his breath.

The novel fuses two very different decades. It brings the “burn, baby, burn!” decade of the late 1960s into the self-focused, self possessed decade of the 1990s. Two value systems and two different generations collide to create friction and conflict.

It also introduces another element of conflict within culture. There were the radicals hell-bent on destroying capitalism in America versus the “silent majority” as Richard Nixon called them who were average Americans who worked and paid bills.

There is a minor subtext within Mine that was brought much more to the fore in the famous baseball movie Field of Dreams. It is how the peace and love generation who devolved into the Yippies and the Weather Underground atone for or live down their previous lives. Mary hurt her wealthy parents who wanted so much for her. Bedelia did the same to hers. Bedelia went underground, but strived to live a life that was free of violence and harm. She tried to do right in helping Laura and found redemption in her actions. Mary, like a few of those radicals from decades ago, remained true to her cause. McCammon could have strengthened this subtext just a bit more by assigning a few more bad deeds to Bedelia in her past. Still, it worked.

Laura was the protagonist in Mine, but Mary Terror was the star. McCammon wove a true to life character. So many radicals of that time and of our time subscribe to causes and ideologies not to advance any core beliefs, but to provide a context for their lust for blood. Mary is no true believer in the cause of world socialism. She is nothing more than a sadistic killer needing ideological fuel to stoke her furnace. She’s as terrifying as any supernatural monster.

As a chase novel, Mine worked exceptionally well. McCammon’s interludes were all plausible. The finding and escaping rarely relied on ex deus machina. That was tough to pull off, but never does the reader groan when one of these meetings takes place. It all works. The pacing and the tension in the pursuits is also nicely done. Both parties are injured and hurting. Both are driving junker vehicles. Neither knows if they will make it. The tension was palpable throughout Mine.

McCammon really stretched himself when he wrote this book and it was a breakthrough for him. He would become enamored with writing more mainstream material – much to the chagrin of his publisher. McCammon’s difficulties with his publisher are well documented and after another mainstream effort, Gone South, it would be a long time before McCammon would write again. When he did return to writing, he was writing historical fiction – good historical fiction that maintained his already dedicated fan base.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Alienist By Caleb Carr

The Alienist
By Caleb Carr
Copyright 1994

Caleb Carr, an historian of some renown, takes his ability to research and explain cultures of earlier times, the science of an earlier time, and a well plotted murder mystery and fold them into a riveting horror/mystery novel.

It’s 1896 and a serial killer is stalking the gay brothels of New York City. He’s abducting, mutilating, and murdering young boy prostitutes. Desperate for results and not trusting his corrupt detectives bureau, police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt assembles an unusual team to investigate the crime and identify the killer.

John Moore is a crime reporter for the New York Times and he tells the story. He is teamed with Dr. Laszlo Kreitzler, a psychologist which in the vernacular of the time were known as alienists. Kreitzler believes he can develop a psychological profile of the killer to help find him. Also joining the team are Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, a pair of brothers recently hired by Roosevelt as detectives. They utilize the new and unrecognized by courts technique of identifying suspects by fingerprints. The final member to join the team is Sara Howard, a secretary within the police department.

The team decides, with its expertise, it is going to utilize all the new police techniques to bring the killer to justice.

They don’t have to wait long to see their first victim. In lower Manhattan, a 13 year old boy, dressed as a girl while working as a prostitute, is founded murdered and mutilated. His eyes are missing. He is found in a kneeling position with his right hand chopped off and his genitals removed and placed in his mouth.

The team then learns of an earlier crime performed on another immigrant kid in lower Manhattan. They learn that this particular victim’s family learned what their son was doing on the streets and the father tried to beat him out of it. The boy ran away and took to life on the streets.

Along the way, Moore and Kreitzler and their team come up against a number of opposition groups – the groups who want to maintain the status quo in society. The gangsters who will use rabble rousing about the murders to put the establishment on their heels. Traditional cops who do not want their corruption exposed or their lack of ability. The churches of the area do not want their parishoners exposed. The monied interests – including J.P. Morgan – have an interest in assuring the investigation does not intrude upon their interests.

A little hard detective work in examining similar offenses many years before put them onto a suspect. This suspect was exposed to gore and violence by his ultra-religious father who showed him picture after picture of massacred Indians. Later, that child and his brother’s parents are found murdered. Local law enforcement assumed that the Indians had retaliated against the family. Kreitzler and Moore have their doubts.

They locate the brother of the young boy, living as a farmer in rural Massachusetts. Kreitzler and Moore talk to him and learn that the brother had been molested by a trusted friend of the family while on a hunting trip. His brother, he tells them, enjoyed torturing small animals.

With a suspect’s name in hand, the mission becomes one of finding the man they know has committed these atrocities. The forces opposed to them bring all that they have against him. Kreitzler’s maid and love of his life is murdered, driving him out of the organization. His house boy is beaten badly by those who do not want the killer exposed.

After a day working in the underworld of tenements in Lower Manhattan, they are on the trail of the man. The final confrontation happens on the man made water reservoir in Lower Manhattan where they confront the killer who has a victim in hand. The killer overpowers Kreitzler and Moore and ties them up. As he’s getting ready to kill his victim, Machine Gun Kelly’s men arrive on the scene and kill him, preventing Kreitzler from conducting the forensic psychological examination he so badly wants to conduct.

In the end, Commissioner Roosevelt is grateful for what they have done. A strong bond has formed between Kreitzler, Moore, and Sarah that promises to place them together in more similar adventures.

In The Alienist, Caleb Carr brings so many plot elements into play that the story does not fit into any particular police subgenre. It is not a procedural, although there is a lot of procedural in the story. Most of it is new and cutting edge for the time. The central, traditional element was the simple whodunit facet of the story. All of the other subplots and character developments sprung directly from the plot.

The real-life characters, embellished just a little for the purposes of the story, added a taste of historical fiction. With the time and place being Manhattan at the turn of the century, the historical elements are quite in play. Many authors will use one of these devices to tell an exciting, yet single faceted story.

Carr goes one better. He takes all of the elements of developing science, the real life players of turn of the century New York, the criminal and the nature of his crime, the nature of this victims, and created a story to be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys any of the police/mystery subgenres.

The story's climax had a bit of ex deus machinas that was a bit of a head slapper toward the end when all of the characters and their agendas arrived at the same place at the same time. But Carr sorts it out al to make it not quite as painful to read and a little easier to swallow.

The character development is good, but not great. Most of the book dealt with the plots and subplots. But we end up with a Kreitzler who has deep feelings for another woman. We have a Moore questioning his own profession as a reporter, and Sarah, questioning her role in crime detection as a woman and her relationship with Moore. All this lends itself easily to a sequel that came just a few years later.

This was a sold book from beginning to end. Well worth the time and effort invested in reading. A first rate story will keep the reader rivited while learning new and interesting facts in the history of detective work and science.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

End of Watch By Stephen King

End of Watch
Bill Hodges Trilogy Vol. 3
By Stephen King
Copyright 2016

Brady Hartsfield is locked in Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic. He is a vegetable. He can speak only a few words. Has just a little bit of motor control. Can barely communicate with those around him. As long as he remains in that state, he will not stand trial for attempting to blow up a rock concert.

He has found a friend in an obsolete hand-held video game system known as a Zappit. He stares at the game – particularly a fishing game – for many hours at a time. It keeps him occupied while he isn’t using newly developed telekinesis abilities to move objects around the room.

A doctor has taken a strong interest in Brady’s case. He is giving Brady experimental drugs, hoping to restore Brady’s senses. But Brady turns the tables and uses new found abilities given to him by the doctor to make the doctor part of his army of revenge.

Bill Hodges and his partner, Holly are quite successful in operating their detective agency, Finders Keepers. However, Bill has been sick lately and losing weight. Pain in his side has sent him to a doctor and he fears the diagnosis and prognosis are not going to be good.

They are invited to the scene of a murder suicide involving a mother and daughter. The daughter, completely paralyzed, had been one of Brady Hartsfield’s victims in the attack with the Mercedes Benz. While at the scene, he locates one of the Zappit game systems along with the letter Z drawn on an electrical outlet. They learn that the mother used the Zappit game quite frequently.

Later, while Bill is at the hospital checking up on his old pal, Brady, Jerome’s younger sister is narrowly missed by a delivery truck she tried to step out in front of. Bill is there to talk to her and she tells how she got the Zappit from someone handing them out for free in exchange for completing a survey.

Soon, with Holly’s help, Bill uncovers a scheme that had all of the Zappit game systems shipped to his town after the company went bankrupt. Through Holly’s tracking, they are able to track a mysterious Mr. Z and Dr. Z to one of Brady’s old colleagues from the electronic store. From her, they learn that all the Zappits – many of which were put specifically into the hands of those who attended the concert several years before that Brady intended to blow up – are programed to hypnotize their possessors and drive them to a website to convince them to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, Brady has taken up permanent residence in the head of his doctor – Dr. Z – and has driven off into the country to watch the results of his plan. Using their resources, Bill and Holly are able to track him down to a remote, wooded location. There, they confront Brady and put an end to the insanity.

Bill admits himself to the hospital to get treatment for his cancer. But it is too late and the cancer too far advanced. Bill dies, leaving the business to his friend, Holly.

End of Watch was a fitting end to the Bill Hodges trilogy. The first book was a lot about plain old detective work and not really my cup of tea. The second had many twists and turns and subplots that kept the plot moving and would have worked as a fine stand-alone novel. However, the third is an excellent race against time against a cunning evil.

This book – and all the Bill Hodges books – are shorter than the average King book. Therefore, minor character development – for which King is so famous for – suffers some. However, where there might have been backstory, there was action. The book was seldom ponderous nor were the characters other than Bill that introspective.

The other two other main characters, Holly Gibney and Brady Hartsfield, received substantial development in the first book which may have rendered Mr. Mercedes somewhat less action driven than the other two. They didn’t develop much beyond that, but they didn’t need to. The evil Brady Hartsfield was already evil and cunning enough to set up his diabolical plan. The neurotic Holly never got better – which made her believable – but never backslid into deep neurosis when the pressure was on.

This book involved more technical research than most King books and it is apparent that King’s researchers provided him with adequate material to build a techno-thriller that worked on a technological level. King, who admits he hates research, certainly put forth the effort to learn this material so it might not be picked apart by techno-geeks.

Stephen King rolled a lot of ideas into this short novel. The concept of pure evil. The supernatural element of mind and body control. A high-tech conspiracy. The constant pain of his hero which, since his accident, has been a staple of King’s writing. The end came in an old fashioned chase through a snow storm. Congratulations on weaving so much into such an easily digestible book.

End of Watch does not work as a stand-alone novel, unlike Finders Keepers. To understand it, one must read the two earlier books. End of Watch is a fine climax to a fine trilogy and will stand as one of the better books in the King canon.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The October Country By Ray Bradbury

The October Country
By Ray Bradbury
Copyright 1953

The Dwarf

A dwarf comes to a carnival house of mirrors every night to stand before a mirror that makes him look tall. He inquires about purchasing such a mirror. The proprietor treats it like a joke and decides to play a joke on the dwarf. The consequences are dire.

This is relatively early Bradbury. He’s established, but still having to prove himself to the pulp editors. So, much of the whimsy that has come to characterize Bradbury’s writing is not there. However, it is a strong narrative and has two strong characters and a decent climax.

The Next in Line
A couple are stuck in a small Mexican village where their car broke down. While there, they tour a mausoleum of sorts where the dead whose families can not afford burial or grave maintenance are stored. The woman is haunted to the point of exhaustion and wants to leave. But those repairs are taking so long. . .

I didn’t think this story was very well written. Yes, Bradbury makes us aware of the woman’s creeping terror. But what is the reason? The mummies? The atmosphere of the strange little town? What? Why? And the twist, such as it was, was limp.

The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse

George Garvey is the world’s biggest boor, with a vanilla house, a vanilla job, and vanilla opinions on everything. He finds himself at the middle of an avant garde movement that worships the complete and totally mundane. When his popularity starts to wane, he finds sacrificing body parts and having them replaced with unusual prosthetics keeps him hip.

If there is a metaphor here, it is lost on me. The story itself wasn’t good, so Bradbury must have been striving to reveal some subtext. Perhaps it is lost on me or lost to the ages.

A man develops a horrible phobia of his own skeleton, regarding as a separate being living inside his body. He fears it, loathes it, and believes it seeks to betray him at every turn. He finally finds the right guy to help him.

This story displays Bradbury’s gift for using the English language for maximum impact. However, the maximum impact of this story was minimal because it just wasn’t a good story.

The Jar
A country bumpkin buys a jar with an oddity preserved in it from a carnival freak show. He buys it to be popular with his neighbors. His neighbors are quite curious and stop by night after night to ponder what it is in the jar. When his wife insults him by talking to the man from whom he purchased it, he puts a new item in the jar.

This is the typical Bradbury fare that so many of us fell in love with as children. It involves grotesqueries and murder. But Bradbury finds a G-rating way to present the material making it palatable, entertaining, and appropriate for children.

The Lake
A man recalls his childhood visits to a lake for vacation and one time when his 10 year old friend drowned. The body was never recovered. He returns, many years later, with his new wife to find that a lifeguard has discovered a long submerged body of a child.

This story was moody and sorrowful. Wonderfully crafted, the story exhibits Bradbury’s ability to eschew whimsy and embrace darkness and sorrow.

The Emissary
A young, disabled boy stays in touch with the world through his dog, with whom he has a psychic connection, and a neighbor woman who comes to visit him. The woman dies and his dog runs off, only to return later to gift his master.

Bradbury strived for the same moodiness as The Lake, but didn’t quite hit the mark here.

Touched with Fire

Two men make it their lives’ work to bring happiness to other people. After several test runs, they are finally ready to try their first real run. They find a woman who has an unhappy life at home and work. The men try to work their magic and fail. They are dismayed.

This was not a particularly strong story nor was it based on a strong premise. I could see that Stephen King had tapped elements of this story for his book, Insomnia.

The Small Assassin
As she is giving birth, a woman becomes convinced that her baby is trying to kill her. The new parents take their baby home and the baby keeps them up all night, leaving the wife exhausted. Then other events, such as toys left lying on stairs lead to new tragedies. The husband becomes concerned and consults the doctor.

This is the dark, Bradbury fare that belongs in a book called The October Country. This is straight forward horror the likes of a young Stephen King could have appreciated. Great stuff from one of the masters.

The Crowd
A man is injured in a car crash and marvels at how quickly the crowd develops at the accident scene. He becomes obsessed with gawkers at auto crashes and who they are. He eventually learns the truth and joins them.

This charming story was a favorite of preteens and teens. Simple and creepy, it works at that level and can be enjoyed by adults. It was made into one the absolute best episodes of the Ray Bradbury Theater.

Jack in the Box
A boy’s existence is confined to his house and he knows nothing of the world outside. He has a mother and a teacher who seems to live in his house. He sees the outside only through his windows. But one evening, his mother is killed in an accident and the boy goes outside to confront the world for the first time.

This story was incredibly dark without being violent or macabre. The creepiness of how this boy sees simple things such as grass and sky highlights the pervasive sensory deprivation of its main character. It felt like a haunted house story without the ghost. Simply one of the finest stories I’ve ever read.

The Scythe
A desperate farmer and his family come across a farm whose previous owner if found in bed, dead, holding a single stem of wheat. With him is a scythe. The family moves in and the farmer begins to harvest wheat, using the scythe. He finds that he wields no ordinary scythe, nor is he reaping any ordinary harvest.

Like Jack in the Box, this story had a dark feeling that Bradbury creates so well. The premise is unique and interesting. The plot clicks right along and the story wraps up fabulously.

Uncle Einar
Uncle Einar is a man born with wings. One day, while flying home to Europe from a party in Missouri, Uncle Einar hits some power lines and is knocked out. A woman finds him and they soon fall in love and settle on her farm. But afraid of being seen, Uncle Einar quits flying and becomes miserable. Then, one day, his children provide a solution.

This is a child’s tale. Were it not set in our time, place, and world, it would be a fairy tale. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the writing. But I was never a fan of fairy tales.

The Wind
A former adventurer is terrified by the wind. He believes that the weather is trying to kill him for having found the secret place from which all wind originates. He constantly calls his best friend with updates on his battle inside his home as the wind pursues him.

This is not the first story Bradbury has told about the weather being an intelligent, malevolent force. This one has a great sense of urgency and foreboding, making it an excellent read. It does not, however, measure up to the great short story, The Rainy Season from The Illustrated Man which makes one positively uncomfortable.

The Man Upstairs
A young boy watches his grandmother butcher chickens and becomes fascinated by what’s inside of animals. When a new border moves into the house who sleeps by day and works by night, he wonders if that man has the same stuff inside him that we all do. He finds out he doesn’t.

This one has the feel of the Greentown trilogy with the kid viewing older people as alien. The story is quite nondescript and the ending silly. A poor entry in this short story collection.

There Was an Old Woman
Death takes a stubborn old woman who refuses to die, leaving her soul behind to grouse about it. Determined to go on living, she goes to the funeral home to stop the mortician and reclaim her body.

I don’t mind Bradbury’s whimsy. I even enjoy it and embrace it. He tries whimsy in this story and just comes across as silly. I know this story is old. But this is a tired trope and Bradbury’s story is nothing new, original, or clever.

The Cistern
A pair of spinster sisters sit in a drab room. One sister works at her quilting. The other stares out into the rain and tells a chilling tale of a pair of dead lovers who reside in the storm sewers below the town.

This story had a somber and funereal narrative that created an appropriate mood for the reader. This and the next story, had they been more narrative and less dialogue driven, would have reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft in his Lord Dunsany phase.

Timothy is the oddball of the Elliott family (Uncle Einar’s family). He doesn’t like blood to drink, can’t fly or perform any other supernatural tricks. When his many generations of living family gather for a reunion, he wants to impress them with some ability to show he fits in. His telepathic sister plays a mean trick on him.

I’m not a fan of the Elliott family. Uncle Einar was not a particularly good story. This one had a little more emotion and a little less silliness. It worked much better than the earlier Elliott family tale.

The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone
A fan of the writer, Dudley Stone travels to his home town to find out what happened to the great writer who suddenly disappeared from the writing scene twenty years prior. He finds Stone living a life of quiet and happy domesticity. Stone agrees to tell him of the incident that led him to quit riding and change his life.

There are a lot of stories like this about the reclusive writer everybody wants to talk to. King utilized it most recently in book 2 of his Bill Hodges trilogy, Finders Keepers. I once saw the trope employed on an episode of the sitcom, Frasier. Bradbury has no major twists or turns or anything sinister. The writer Stone just gained a new perspective on life.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The War of the Twins

The War of the Twins
Dragonlance Legends, Vol. 3
By Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
Copyright 1986

The War of the Twins picks up in the aftermath of the Cataclysm and the destruction of the world above. Raistlin, Caramon, and Crysania are in the Tower of High Sorcery. Raistlin establishes his dominance over the ghosts who live there and is deemed master of the tower. He sets out to find the portal to the Abyss that will allow him and Crysania to travel there. The portal has moved.

After dispatching Caramon to reconnoiter the nearby city, Raistlin goes to the library where Astinus tells him the portal has moved to the great Dwarven city of Zhaman. Raistlin knows his history and knows there is going to be a great war fought there between Hill Dwarves, the Dwarves of Tharbodin, and an army of humans under the leadership of Fistandantulas. History is repeating itself.

As they leave the city, they are ambushed by a group of ruffians led by a half ogre creature. While some of the brigands discuss what they plan to do to Crysania, Caramon decides to challenge the big man to a fight. He beats the ogre and impresses the men who were once members of the now-discredited Knights of Solamnia. They agree to join him and start to call him general.

This suits Raistlin’s purpose. To travel safely, an army is a good escort. It will also help if they have to fight to get into Zhaman. Caramon picks up many followers along the way.

Meanwhile, poor Tasslehoff Burfoot ends up in the Abyss. He finds it to be a desolate place with no jails needed because there is no place to go. While there, he meets the gnome Gnish who fixes the time travelling device and lets them escape the Abyss.

The Army of Fistandantilus moves south toward the dwarven city. Meanwhile, the dwarves are trying to form an allegiance with their cousin Hill Dwarves to stop the human invasion. The bullheadedness of the respective leaders makes it impossible. The Hill Dwarves leave the negotiations and prepare for war against their cousins as food and gold supplies dwindle for both.

The Hill Dwarves join Caramon’s army and the group attacks Pax Tharkas, the fortress outside the Dwarf kingdom. With the help of the treacherous and traitorous Dark Dwarves, Caramon and his forces are able to secure the fortress.

The Dwarven hero, Kharas, leads a mission into Pax Tharkas to assassinate Raistlin. Kharas approaches Raistlin and delivers a dagger blow deep into Raistlin’s bow. Raistlin was defenseless because a Kender and a gnome show up in the middle of the struggle and distract Raistlin. Raistlin is taken to a chamber for his wounds to be assessed. Tasslehoff and Gnish are jailed.

Crysania is able to heal Raistlin. Meanwhile, Tas and Gnish both fall ill with a debilitating and killing disease in the dungeons. Raistlin is eager to talk to Tas and learn from his experiences. He goes to the dungeons and is able to save Tas. However, he lets Gnish die.

With the information he has from Tasslehoff about the Abyss, Raistlin is ready to access the portal and Crysania is ready to accompany him. They head there, with Caramon and Tasslehoff providing cover. Raistlin directs Caramon to return to his own time and resume his life. Caramon has resolved to do just that and let his brother go off on his quest for godhood alone. Then the group is attacked by rebellious dark dwarves. Raistlin and Crysania enter the portal. Tasslehoff activates the time travelling device to send them home. The explosion that results throws both groups off track of their desired destination.

The book ends up there as Raistlin and Crysania embark on their search for the Dark Queen Takhasis. Caramon and Tasslehoff will pick up their lives at home before the whole adventure started.

This book was like many second books in a trilogy. The characters are already introduced and developed. The plot has been put in motion. Now, the plot has to advance substantially to allow the third book to steadily bring about the climax. War of the Twins fulfills all those roles adequately.

One character develops substantially in this book and that is Caramon. Through the first entire trilogy and the first book of this second trilogy, Caramon has always been a bit of a muscle-bound doofus. He’s bound to his brother and endures his emotional abuse stoically, never letting it alter his loyalty.

Caramon climbs a steep slope in his character arc. He emerges as a leader as he builds and leads the Army of Fistandantulus. He plans logistics, supply lines, troop placements, and training. All this he does without soliciting advice from his brother.

He is also finally able to separate his fate from his brother. He accepts he can not, nor does he want to follow his brother into the Abyss. Raistlin’s dreams are beyond him. He resolves to take Tas and go home to live out his life with his wife.

Raistlin is revealed as fallible. He is susceptible to love. He constantly has to fight his feelings for Crysania to keep his eyes on his prize. He also makes a critical mistake that almost costs him his life when he loses his spell when Tas and Gnish arrive. We also see that it is not only dark thoughts and goals Raistlin harbors. When he allows Gnish to die, we see he is indeed, evil.

Tas is Tas is Tas and while he did develop emotional complexity in the first trilogy. However, he’s the same character now that he was at the beginning of the first book and, in fact, plays but a minor role in War of the Twins.

What this novel lacked was a great deal of action. The war, treachery, and double dealing were all interesting and the interactions on and off the battlefield were complex. However, the march, as they often are, was boring. The novel really lagged in the middle before arriving at the battle.

Like all second novels in a trilogy, it ended with a cliffhanger that indicated something is going to go wrong with either Raistlin and Crysania or Tas and Caramon.

The book served its purpose as part of the trilogy. Raistlin is in his final pursuit of the Queen. Caramon is on his way home with Tas. Something has gone wrong. It moved the plot along and developed the characters. Now, on to the Test of the Twins and the final installment.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Fireman By Joe Hill

The Fireman
By Joe Hill
Copyright 2016

Fire in the form of Spontaneous Human Combustion is taking over the earth. People everywhere are bursting into flames with just moments notice. The precursor of the event is a golden skin rash called Dragonscale. Society slowly falls into hell.

Amidst the chaos is a nurse Harper Grayson. She cares for the ill at work for many hours a day before returning to her home she shares with her boyfriend, Jakob. Harper compares herself to Mary Poppins with her unbridled positive attitude. Jakob is a bit more dour and is concerned about her work at the hospital and becoming infected. He makes a pact with her. If they become infected, they will not burst into flames as so many others have. They will end it with pills she will steal from the hospital.

One day at work, with the afflicted coming in in lines, a fireman brings a small boy to the front of the line and insists that he be treated first. The hospital security is about to toss him when Harper steps in and defuses the situation. The boy is afflicted, as is the fireman. The fireman leaves the boy in the care of the hospital.

Soon, Harper finds Dragonscale’s telltale marks on her arms. She also finds out she’s pregnant. Jakob is distraught and Harper does her best to keep it under control. But when the hospital where she works burns down, there’s nothing left for her to do except spend time with her husband at home except when he’s out working for the city road crews.

Harper decides that, no matter what, she is going to try to have her baby. She is not going through with the death pact. Jakob has different ideas and comes home to end it for them both. When a fight ensues, Harper escapes into the woods behind their house. There, she finds that same fireman who came into her hospital weeks before. He rescues her and delivers to a place called Camp Wyndham.

Camp Wyndham is a remote summer camp where people afflicted have come to hide from the incineration squads that now roam the streets. At first, Camp Wyndham seems idyllic with people caring for each other, standing guard, and providing food. They commune and sing songs which allows them to enter The Bright which is a sort of collective emotional state that brings piece and keeps the horrible effects of the disease at bay.

Things start to deteriorate at Camp Wyndham when Harper and the Fireman undertake a mission to rescue two men pinned down by an incineration crew near the local municipal complex. They are joined by the camp’s leader, Father Storey. The Fireman uses his ability to channel Dragonscale into creating great pyrotechnic displays to distract the crew and Harper rescues the men. However somebody bashes Father Storey over the head and sends him into a coma.

The camp is taken over by Father Storey’s daughter, Carol. Without a doctor, Harper is charged with the care of Father Storey. She is watched day and night by Carol’s lieutenants but still manages to sneak away to meet with the Fireman. They and a few others plot to leave Camp Wyndham and head for a place known as Martha Quinn Island (named for THAT Martha Quinn) where there is care for the sick, food, educational facilities, and civilization.

Before they can leave, they are betrayed. Father Storey dies and it is revealed that he was murdered and Harper is framed. As the camp is about to mete out the ultimate justice to Harper, the Fireman, and their coconspirators, they are attacked by an incineration crew led by the infamous shock jock, The Marlboro Man and Jakob. Harper, the Fireman, and a couple others escape the inferno and head for Martha Quinn Island.

They make their way across the scorched Maine landscape. This part of America is destroyed and most vestiges of society are gone. Still, they are helped along the way by people who leave out food and water. Meanwhile, Jakob pursues them relentlessly.

They finally have their showdown with Jakob and then make their way to the reception center for Martha Quinn Island. There, they find the ultimate betrayal.

There was a lot to like about The Fireman and I was entranced by this novel for about the first three quarters of it. Then, Hill start rushing his plot, and it sort of fell apart.

Camp Wyndham’s political and social dynamics were fascinating and kudos to Joe Hill for conjuring a multi-layered society where everybody’s motives are hinted at, but revealed in a surprising fashion. I felt there was something sinister going on in Camp Wyndham. It all seemed so innocent and pure on the surface and I thought perhaps I was seeing sinister intent where there was none. That kept me turning pages.

It falls apart after the escape from Camp Wyndham. The journey across Maine could have been so much more. I love writers who can bring a post apocalypse alive with vivid imagery and action. Hill never really develops that. The characters move and move and move. There are a series of actions written without feeling. There is no interaction with outside characters who could elaborate on what happened there. They do not visit any cities or towns that tell the story of the breakdown of society in the wake of the fires that scorched Maine. There was so much story left on the table here it hurt the novel badly.

The climax and twist were not telegraphed, but were easily guessed because it all seemed too good to be true. Again, it all seemed rushed. Captured, escaped, and rescued all quite quickly. We never learned anything about Martha Quinn Island’s development or why the pretense was developed. The villains were not developed. Their motives never explained. Again, a lot of story left on the table that could have added another rich layer to this novel.

Harper is a wonderful character. Hill develops her marvelously. You root for her. But the Fireman, for whom the novel is named, is rather one dimensional. There is no backstory to speak of. He does what he does because he needs to do it for the plot. He’s not developed as heroic, anti-heroic, noble, or anything. He’s just a tool to move the plot. This is the chief failure of the novel and a bitter disappointment.

Hill does doff his cap to a few who influenced him. The name, Camp Wyndham, is an obvious tribute to John Wyndham who authored Day of the Triffids – one of the great post-apocalyptic novels of all time. The Fireman, when it’s good, resembles Day of the Triffids. There is also a cat named Truffaut. This is a more veiled acknowledgement of Ray Bradbury who authored the best book about burning. Francois Truffaut directed the movie adaptation of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But why Martha Quinn? I guess only Joe Hill knows.

In anticipation of the book’s release, many were hoping for something similar to Stephen King’s The Stand. The Fireman is not in the same league as that book. King put as much effort into the single character, The Trashcan Man’s journey, as Hill did into the entire final third of his novel. King also provided a rich tapestry of post apocalyptic America. He explored its sociology, theology, and underpinned his tragedy with subplots and vignettes. Hill does none of that.

The Fireman
was not a bad reading experience. I was riveted the first two thirds of the book and really enjoyed trying to figure out what was going on behind the scenes of Camp Wyndham. After that, it was quite unsatisfying and a letdown. It was a good story, but it could have been so much more.