Down Among The Dead


Did you know that K.B. Wagers hasn’t finished her second trilogy (the ‘Farian War’ trilogy)?

Because I didn’t. And I made a pledge to avoid starting series that are not already finished, because I don’t want to wait for authors to finish.

Oh, and it was good. Better than the first book in this trilogy. The big reveal was telegraphed, but at least our intrepid heroine was reasonably prepared for it.

But it’s not done. Ugh. How long do I have to wait? According to her website, it’s available for pre-order, but I’m not inclined to do that. And the first trilogy has been optioned for television or movie (television makes more sense these days), so when that happens, I can act superior to fans who haven’t read the series, which is a plus. But you know what would have been better? The third book.

There Before The Chaos


It was a mixed joy to return to Wagers’ ‘gunrunner empress’ novels with the first book of her second trilogy featuring runaway princess turned gunrunner turned empress of a matriarchal and Indian influenced space empire, Hail Bristol.

Not mixed because it wasn’t good, but mixed because I grew to love the characters, especially the heroine (and narrator), and got very angry at some of the bad things that happened to her. The first trilogy was more of the Star Wars mold. First one ended in a good victory, telling a reasonably complete story; the second with an Empire still dark setback; and finally with a reasonably upbeat conclusion, following a more conclusive struggle.

This was more of… well, something else. Bad going to worse. And having already started the next book (Down Among The Dead), I know that it doesn’t immediately get better, but instead, rather quickly darker.

I will make one quibble. The aliens are not very alien. One of them, the Shen, can pass as human. And they are, apparently, very close to the Farian, one of whom featured quite heavily in the original books (and is even more important now). For some reason, I had imagined them as looking like Roger from American Dad (I have no idea why), but now that I am noticing descriptions… well, what are the odds that every advanced species in the universe looks more or less like us? I’m a churchgoing man who believes we were made in God’s image, but take that to be more a spiritual statement than as a thesis proposing that all advanced species look more or less the same.

The Last Wish


Another Witcher novel. But actually, a collection of short stories (something close to half of the episodes of the Netflix series are taken from here) which precedes the novel I read. I feel like the novels and stories of Gerald of Rivia, the titular witcher(a sort of monster hunter; a child raised by other witchers and made stronger, faster, and less emotional through magic and chemicals) should be less interesting than they are, but also they are still missing something, though I couldn’t say what.

This stories were better than the novel I read, not in the least because the novel sometimes read like short stories forced together to form a single narrative.

I did also get the Witcher video game (technically the third one; it was deeply discounted because it’s five years old now), but haven’t gotten into, but that is perhaps more about me and my life than the game.

But while the game may get dusty on my shelves, I will read the next book of short stories about this witcher fellow.

She: A History Of Adventure


It should be made clear at the outset: this novel is not a history of adventure. It is a single adventure. In fact, it hand waves a couple of adventures that theoretically take place (the narrator literally says that he’s going to skip over the time he and his ward were held prisoner for six months by a pre-modern peoples).

And, if you are going to read this book, get used to reading She as a name (‘I handed the phone to She so that She could explain why the narrator didn’t want to talk about those six months of captivity.’). Also, is this first time the phrase ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ was used? It seems that way.

This is your classic, late nineteenth, early twentieth century adventure, as well as being a forerunner of lost world books.

The tale itself, is both fascinating and bats–t crazy. Ayesha, a woman of Arab descent has been alive for… they keep saying two thousands years, but honestly, it sounds like a lot longer when the book notes what she’s seen and who she’s met. She doesn’t use magic, but, similar to the Arthur C. Clarke rule about how a sufficiently advanced technology seems like magic to a less advanced civilization, science that feels pretty magical. She was also interested to hear that the Jewish savior arrived after she’d left the area of the Mediterranean civilizations.

Beautiful, compelling, seductive… she is a pretty cool character. Crazy and arguably immoral, but, without overstating H. Rider Haggard’s writing skills, someone who holds the readers attention.

Tek Kill


Do I really need to write anymore about the plots, characters, and pros and cons of (sort of) William Shatner’s Tek novels? Do I? Do I really?

No, I probably don’t.

It’s not clear why a drug cartel is going after the hero’s boss or why the hero is calm about his teenage son consistently getting involved in the machinations of drug cartels but… meh. It’s decent, untaxing fun.

And I will admit to a strange sadness at reading the intro to the next book, which announces that this (the next one, not this one) will be the last Tek novel.

A Memory Called Empire


I had some back and forth via email with a friend about this book. We both agreed it was amazing in so many ways, however, I felt that it was just a little short of the sum of its parts (he disagreed strongly).

My biggest issue was that, to me, Checkhov’s gun was taken out, placed on the table, and then the book ended without it even having been picked up again, much less fired. My friend pushed back on this and believed it handled well an ambiguity about a sequel that might fire the gun, while allowing for a smaller, self-contained story.

The good parts is a fascinatingly built world (the titular empire) which draws from both Pre-Columbian (especially Aztec) and Asian (especially Chinese) historical traditions. There are also fascinating depictions of different conceptions of identity and memory. There is one culture which prizes memory and the ability to memorize long passages of poetry and one which made perfect recall of past experiences so vital that it created technology to preserve memory and implant it in another, along with something resembling the deceased’s personality (which also brings up interesting questions about who one is when another person’s memories are in your head and also the question of whether those memories are sufficient to identity, i.e., are we just the sum of those experiences, versus identity being tied to being embodied or to a ‘soul’).

‘Vostok’ Is Even Worse


I don’t know even know why I really did, but I read the sequel to The Loch. It’s about another lake: Vostok, which is a real place in Russia.

But does the real lake have an alien outpost with telepathic extra-terrestrials who provide a pseudo-scientific argument for the existence of God and who planted information about atomic theory in the Bible and in Kabbalistic texts? Who knows really? I mean, probably right?

And is that real lake being investigated by a cabal of super rich companies who believe in aliens and are part of Majestic 12 (which, should you google, will lead you down a supremely stupid rabbit hole, so I recommend that you do not, but I did enjoy a particularly erratic character explaining that they stopped Obama from revealing the truth by exploding a missile nearby when he was in Oslo to receive the Nobel Peach Prize)?

In addition to his weird religious beliefs, Mr. Steve Alten (I keep on wanting to write ‘Steve Allen’) is a big fan of the idea of weird natural effects creating preserved ecosystems from prehistory. He showed a hitherto unknown to me lack of talent when it comes to writing science fiction about multiple and alternate timelines. Let’s call this Steve Alten (not Allen) ‘really terrible Philip K. Dick.’

Vostok is superior to The Loch in one key way, I will say. It is much shorter. While I haven’t read his most famous novels, the ones about giant sharks, he does gamely tie those novels to this one, creating, let’s call it, the Megverse. Actually, let’s not.

But it wasn’t all bad. I did learn something, like that there are multiple plains of existence. I would have thought that if such a thing existed, it would be multiple ‘planes,’ but apparently on page 308, the author launched a novel theory about alternate… grasslands? All very cutting edge stuff.

As one final note, let me just point out that the cover is a photo an alligator badly photoshopped into some generic snowy mountain lake. And while a giant, prehistoric crocodilian does appear, it is supposed to be closer to a caiman than an alligator. This is a pet peeve of mine. John Grisham wrote a book about a man who travels down the Amazon River and sees many, many alligators. Alligators only live in North American and China. There are no alligators in the Amazon. This felt like some super lazy research and an even lazier copy editor.

House On The Borderland


If someone ever said, hey, do you like Lovecraft, because, if so, you should read this, and then you read it, you would say that the aforementioned someone had a point. But only if you were a completist, because it draw a lot from Lovecraft’s more fantasy-like, dream tales.

The opening is a classic Edwardian trope of two well-to-do young men on an outdoorsy trip Ireland who camp and fish near an abandoned garden and find an old manuscript, which they read.

It’s the tale of man in late middle age (who, frankly, seems like he might not be a nice guy; he lives with his sister and I kept feeling sorry for her, without precisely being able to say why) who finds a put opening up near his house. He shoots a monstrous creature who are never explained but are usually explained as being ‘swine-things.’ Canny, they then lay siege to his house before mysteriously quitting the assault. Later, he investigates a tunnel, which seemed like surely the next step is to find an underground civilization, but no, the tunnel floods and he goes home. Where he has a dream (?) where he enters into a crazy cosmic phantasy, like someone decided to reenact Plato’s Timaeus after imbibing some kind of experimental pharmacopeia. And his dog crumbles to dust. And maybe the swine-whatevers come back? And did I mention they trap door to his cellar leading to… a supernatural river, maybe?

It actually was a little scary and, you know what, I’m going to recommend this book.

The Lost World


Arthur Conan Doyle’s yarn falls between the science fantasy of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the didacticism of Jules Verne, which is to say, it is an adventure about dinosaurs in the jungles of South America that makes some stabs at following the best science known at the time.

I remember reading this a kid in the kitchen of my Uncle Buddy and Aunt Anna’s house in Atlanta, especially the bit where the protagonist names the lake in the dinosaur-filled plateau, Lake Gladys, after the chilly, would-be fiancée who inspired him (and who subsequently married a clerk while the protagonist was doing feats of derring-do; suffice to say that Doyle has a bit of misogynist streak, not unlike his most famous creation).

What can you say about a book like this? That it’s a ripping good tale. That the racism… could have been worse? That the genocidal attack on a tribe of prehumans feels icky?

You can definitely say that it needed more dinosaurs (a truth which can also be applied to Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth).

I had a good time reading it though, all in all. From my father, I inherited a love of British adventure stories and from my childhood a love of dinosaurs. So, something for everyone, I suppose.

The Horse And His Boy


The title does a neat trick. The Horse (usually capitalized because, if you are unaware of how all this works, the Horse in question is a talking, Narnian horse) comes first and he is the dominant figure. The boy (not capitalized) is his, not the other way around. But really, the book is about the boy, not the Horse and especially not about the girl.

This was my favorite Narnia book as a child, barely, but definitely, beating out The Lion, The Witch, and the WardrobeAnd I thought my daughter my like it. It’s a simpler story than that first Narnia book (and it was the first he wrote and, frankly, everything will make much more sense if you read them in the order he wrote them than if you attempt to retroactively place them in a chronology based on the timeline of Narnia, itself) and less allegorical. The stakes feel lower because, even though the hero, Shasta (the boy), saves the nice kingdom of Archenland, Archenland is only Narnia’s neighbor and not the home of Talking Horses and the like.

But, if you read it now, you will find a muted, but still nasty form of orientalist racism running through. Thankfully, the girl, Aravis, is from the more or less Middle Eastern style kingdom of this world (though, really, it’s less Middle Eastern than inspired by, I would guess, childhood readings of The Arabian Nights). She does get some decent characterization and growth and is a strong person with brown skin and black hair (like my daughter, to whom I was reading this). But this doesn’t make up for the moment when the titular boy is singled out for being blonde and fair skinned and obviously of northern stock and though never said, one can’t help but feel that we are supposed to feel that this makes him somehow better than all those vaguely Arabic chaps. Reading those bits to my daughter almost made me put down the book.

I also had not remembered that C.S. Lewis made the correlation between Aslan and Jesus clearer than at any other point before the final book in the series. He even puts in a parallel to the incarnation.

What, in the end, as a grown up living in the days after the death of George Floyd (which came after the death of countless others), did I take from it? Anything at all? It is an old fashioned adventure story, more similar to the serials of the 20s and 30s than anything else in Lewis’ oeuvre and I like those stories, for all their many faults.