Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold takes the Penric and Desdemona series of novellas to a new level in terms of story complexity, character development, and reader engagement. Where the previous three installments were serviceable enough stories, fun to read, and moved things along in terms of Penric’s progression as a sorcerer, Penric’s Mission allows the character to grow in entirely new ways. Not only does he display a level of confidence I’ve not seen before with his sorcery, but he also builds up enough courage to engage in a bit of romance despite a certain over-protective brother working against him. I received Penric’s Mission via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Bujold did not write the Penric and Desdemona stories in chronological order, though I’ve been reading them as such, ignoring the order in which they were published. Based on information I found on the Chalion Wiki, Penric’s Mission is the fourth novella in the series.

In Penric’s Mission, the titular character finds himself in a far and distant land, working undercover to enlist the aid of a disaffected general. All seems to be going well until Penric is betrayed, thrown into a dungeon, and then sentenced to death. Penric has come a long way since he first met Desdemona, the demon who shares his body in a sort of symbiotic relationship, so he handles this change of fortune with tact and intelligence. Once free, he has the option to flee for his life. Instead, Penric stays on point, putting the mission ahead of his own well-being. It doesn’t hurt one bit that Penric finds himself attracted to the general’s sister. What started as a straightforward mission to secure the aid of a military genius becomes a fight for survival as Penric must face off against his betrayer and the sorcerer who serves him.

Penric’s Mission is a great addition to the Penric and Desdemona series and the first novella to earn a four rocket rating from me. Bujold’s writing style is as captivating as always, but what really sets this book apart from its predecessors is Penric himself, who has matured in terms of both his sorcery and his personality. He still relies on Desdemona’s greater experience and wisdom, but he often shows initiative all on his own now. It’s a refreshing change to his character, one that allows him to grow much more within the span of this one book then I’ve seen previously.

Needless to say, I liked Penric’s Mission and I already have plans to pick up the next book in the series.

Outpost by W. Michael Gear

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Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Outpost by W. Michael Gear is the first novel in the Donovan Trilogy. The second book, Abandoned, is slated for release in November 2018. In the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of Outpost from the publisher via NetGalley. I’m giving Outpost a solid four rockets because it’s a fun read with some unexpected developments, some interesting characters, and one heck of a problem/mystery that serves as a nice, overarching dilemma that really drives some of the character’s decision-making. You see, no ship has arrived at the planet of Donovan in some time. Not for lack of trying, it turns out, as the inhabitants of Donovan learn once Turalon arrives in orbit. The people of Donovan, who thought they’d been abandoned, come to realize that other ships have attempted to reach Donovan, but that each attempt has resulted in the disappearance of the ship in question.

This really isn’t a problem so much as an unsolved mystery to the inhabitants of Donovan, though. They came via an Earth ship of their own many years before with the intention of settling the habitable but wild planet. Extreme circumstances called for extreme survival tactics such that once they came to realize no additional supplies were coming, the Donovanians stepped up and began to provide for themselves. They established their own government, their own laws, and staked their own claims to the land. Their system is not the rigid form of government they left behind, but one that values self-sufficiency and independent thinking. This works great up until the point when Turalon, the first Earth ship to reach Donovan in years, arrives and makes contact. Their mission to bring new settlers and supplies to the planet becomes one of suppression and control as they attempt to establish order in a society they deem as lawless.

Now this may all seem somewhat stereotypical to the point of tossing the book out the window because who hasn’t read this sort of story before, right? But Gear takes this whole thing in an entirely new and almost opposite direction from what you might expect. I won’t go into details for fear of ruining the story for you, but suffice to say some characters change allegiance, others who seemed doomed have a change of fortune and really shine, and others who you might want to meet a horrible fate embrace the new world order that is Donovan and (unfortunately) come out on top. But the story is in no way finished with this first book. Abandoned, the next book in the series, comes out soon. I plan to pick it up either via NetGalley or on my own via Amazon.

Outpost earns a solid four rockets from me. I liked the characters, the story, the planet, and the direction the author is going with all of it. It’s a good science fiction series you should add to your reading list.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

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Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

In The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, humans finally leave Earth to settle the distant stars when a remarkable discovery is made. The Flow, as it’s called, is a phenomenon made up of passageways that enable FTL travel. But the Flow is scarcely understood, and soon Earth is cutoff from the rest of the Flow when it’s entry point mysteriously closes. No matter, though, because the Interdependency, a series of unified human settlements, has done well on its own, establishing artificial worlds all along the Flow’s pathways and a substantial presence on the only habitable planet along the Flow, End (called that because it literally lies at the end of the Flow).

As one might imagine from the book’s title, the empire, in this case the Interdependency, is on the verge of change or, rather, collapse. [Note that none of this is a spoiler since this information is in the book’s description] Not because it’s reached it’s height of decadence or because of imminent invasion, but because the entry and egress points along the Flow are closing, cutting off each symbiotic piece of the Interdependency one by one until each settlement will be entirely on its own. Of those settlements, only End has any hope of surviving because of its natural resources. As readers, we learn of the imminent catastrophe in bits and pieces. Ultimately, the problem becomes one the new emperox of the Interdependency, Cardenia, must solve.

But along the way there are mutinies, business and political backstabbing, and attempts on a certain emperox’s life. If you have an appreciation for Scalzi’s other work you should have no problem settling into the punchy, dialog-heavy writing, which actually does a fairly nice job of keeping the story moving along at a fairly fast-paced clip. Right away, we experience what happens when an entry point into the Flow begins to close. For a ship’s crew marooned outside the Flow, they face a slow death as their stores and power runs out long before they can traverse the potentially hundreds of light years distance to the next closest settlement. Space is truly vast and humans never developed FTL technology.

One word of caution: if you are in any way put off by use of the F-word, then tread carefully into this one. Scalzi uses it like it’s going out of style. One character in particular has few sentences, if any, that do not contain swearing. It fits the character, but even I thought it was a bit much after a few hundred pages of it.

The Collapsing Empire is an exciting read and only the first book in the Interdependency series, so there’s plenty more to come. If you liked Old Man’s War and the other books in that series, I think you’ll enjoy this one as well.

Krampus the Yule Lord by Brom

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Review

Krampus by Brom celebrates the mythology and folklore surrounding the pagan figure of Krampus, the Yule Lord, in a novel that is part fantasy, part horror, and part holiday treat. I went into this one with neither the highest expectations nor the foggiest idea what direction the story might take. Though the beginning is a tad shaky, as we are introduced to the main character Jesse, once the disparate pieces start falling into place I was pleasantly surprised to find a wide array of characters with rich personalities and motives and a story that portrays Krampus as everything one would expect: he is both good and terrible, with qualities that make him, in many cases, as human as you or I.

Though the legend of Krampus cuts across different cultures and takes many forms as a result, Brom selects a decidedly Norse leaning interpretation of the horned creature. Those familiar with Norse mythology will encounter many familiar personas (some directly and others by reference): there’s Odin, Loki, Hel, Geri, Freki, Huginn, Muninn, and others. Krampus’s acolytes are referred to as Belsnickels, which is not Norse in origin but German, brought over by early immigrants to America from that country. Then there’s the Christian influence, the followers of which instantly see Krampus as none other than Satan himself. Krampus is a seven foot tall demon with curved horns sprouting from his head, so can’t really blame them.

The story of Krampus is this: Santa Claus imprisoned Krampus hundreds of years ago and, as a result, Yule and its traditions have been forgotten. Krampus himself is wasted away, a sad shadow of his former self. But he still yearns to return to the world to spread his own particular form of holiday cheer. His Belsnickels, or servants, carry out his will, slowly setting the stage for the Yule Lord’s escape and the fruition of Krampus’s dream: to kill Santa Claus and to then remind the world that Krampus was here first.

While there are elements of horror in Krampus, this is not solely a horror novel. There are some gruesome deaths, but there are also many fantastical elements, such as Santa’s flying sled, reindeer, and his sack, which he stole from Krampus long ago and which can produce nearly anything one desires as long as the user is of Loki’s bloodline.

What struck me the most about Krampus is the characters. Jesse is a loser looking for his way in life while trying to win back his estranged wife and daughter (very cliché, I know, but he kind of grows on you). Some of the baddies, including the General and Chief Dillard, are mostly just bad with no motive other than that. But the Belsnickels and Krampus himself felt very real to me. Each Belsnickel was “recruited” at different times and under different circumstances. One is near a hundred years old (Belsnickels do not age since they have the blood of Krampus flowing through their veins) and another, Isabel, a girl of about twenty, has been that age for going on forty years. Wipi, Nipi, and Makwa want nothing more than to serve their lord. Vernon would prefer the Yule Lord keel over and die; he does little to hide these feelings, too, which presented some laugh out loud moments for me. Isabel, Krampus’s “little lion,” is the little sister archetype. She left behind a newborn child in her previous life and she longs to return to that life to undo some mistakes she made, but she’s also terrified of facing those failures and of being rejected by her now grown child. Even Krampus, who is both good and terrible, has his own inner struggles as he tries to cope with the fact that the world has moved on without him. It’s not until the end that Krampus rediscovers himself entirely:

Jesse had never seen this side of the Yule Lord, and it occurred to him that he was seeing the real Krampus, the Krampus of ancient times, the great and wild Yule spirit that galvanized mankind to brave the darkest primeval nights, kindled their will to survive the trials of the harshest winters. He could almost see the horned beast dancing this very jig within the communal houses of primitive man. Jesse saw the way the people fed on Krampus’s spirit, and how, in turn, Krampus fed on theirs. And understood now just why those shoes, with their small tribute of candies, meant so much to the Yule Lord. That what Krampus needed more than anything was a flock to shepherd, to protect and inspire.

Krampus is as much a story about the traditions of Christmas and Yule as it is a tale of discovery. Krampus steals the show in many scenes, but the supporting characters have stories of their own that I found intriguing and fun to follow along. Krampus is an alternate classic for the holidays which I could see myself reading again and again.

Mississippi Roll by George R.R. Martin (editor)

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Thanks to Tor Books I have a hardcover edition of Mississippi Roll to give away. Head over to the giveaway post on the Out of this World Reviews web site for more info.

Mississippi Roll is the latest installment in George R.R. Martin’s popular Wild Cards series of shared world anthologies. I generously received an advanced review copy of the novel from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. The series is very long; Mississippi Roll is the twenty-fourth book. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to have read the previous books in the series in order to enjoy this new one. This novel was, in fact, my indoctrination into the Wild Cards universe; I had absolutely no issues jumping in and immersing myself in the world. I did, however, spend a few minutes perusing the web to learn what the Wild Cards series was all about before I’d gotten too far with my reading. I’d recommend the official Wild Cards web site, called Wild Cards World, as well the unofficial one, Wild Cards Online. I found both sites very informative. In fact, straight from the latter site is this bit of background info (which is really all you need to know before reading):

An alien bomb is detonated above the planet, shedding an indiscriminate gene virus on an Earth barely recovered from the horrors of World War ll. The result: Wild Cards. ACES blessed with superhuman powers and JOKERS cursed with bizarre physical and mental disfigurements.

While the Wild Cards novels are edited by George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame, the stories themselves are written by a wide cast of authors. Mississippi Roll boasts the talent of Stephen Leigh, David D. Levine, John Jos. Miller, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Cherie Priest, and Carrie Vaughn. You may be asking yourself how Mississippi Roll can be classified as a novel with so many authors having taken part. Isn’t it by definition a collection of short stories? The answer is both yes and no. There is an overarching storyline that’s moved along via each individual story and a continuity that’s established by each author’s contribution picking up where the last story left off, though from a different character’s perspective. What binds all of the characters and their disparate, individual storylines together is the fact that they are all onboard the same steamboat, the Natchez, and they all cross paths with one central character: the Natchez’s captain, Wilbur Leathers.

It is the year 1951 when we are first introduced to Wilbur Leathers, a vibrant river captain who shares the steamboat he calls home with his wife, Eleanor. Tragedy strikes and Wilbur is changed into what he thinks is a ghost. Given that this is a Wild Card novel, though, chances are he’s actually become an Ace, Joker, or something in between. Regardless, this life change brings about a separation from Eleanor, who leaves the Natchez forever, and a seemingly eternal captivity for Wilbur, who finds he is unable to leave the boat at all. Years pass as the Natchez finds herself with new owners, captains, and guests. All the while, Wilbur Leathers “haunts” the steamboat, becoming something of an urban legend.

That’s the setup for Mississippi Roll. From there, the reader is introduced to a menagerie of colorful characters, their interactions while onboard the Natchez becoming the basis of each of the stories. Even though each tale is penned by a different author, I found the reading experience to be very level and smooth. This is the mark of a good editor; you can’t do much better than Mr. Martin. The characters are a mix of unchanged humans, Aces, and Jokers. The latter have talents that either get them into trouble or cause trouble, though all types of people alike are simply getting by in this world, some trying to make their mark more than others. There is no evil, per se, though there is certainly an alignment of better and worse as the stories progress and the central plot eventually comes to a head.

The writing is top notch all-around, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the list of contributors. That being said, no particular story stood out to me above any other in terms of quality, though I can’t say the opposite, either. Overall, it’s a well written set of stories with some imaginative plots and characters. Mississippi Roll is appropriate for all ages. The stories range from lighthearted to suspenseful with some violence mixed in here and there. Only one story has strong violence as one of its central themes, but that one also involves forbidden love (so of course things are going to get violent).

What really stands out in Mississippi Roll is the character and story of Captain Leathers. He binds all of the disparate stories together but also has one of the most interesting and intriguing storylines of them all. I felt for his situation and applauded his final fate, though it is not necessarily a good one. But he does find some peace, which is, I think, the best one could hope for given his situation.

Mississippi Roll is an entertaining jaunt onboard a steamboat of old. The stories flow together seamlessly (a credit to the editor) and the overall story is fun and engaging while fitting nicely into the Wild Cards world. I’m giving it four rockets and a recommendation to add it to your TBR list.