Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Johnny Halloween by Norman Partridge

Rating

Review

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

Johnny Halloween by Norman Partridge is a collection of Halloween-themed horror short stories. All but one of the stories appeared previously in other publications. Partridge is perhaps best known for Dark Harvest, which won the Bram Stoker Award in 2006. This collection contains references to that novel in multiple stories, and concludes with a story set in the same town as Dark Harvest aptly called “The Jack o’Lantern: A Dark Harvest Tale.”

In fact, a word of caution: DO NOT READ “The Jack o’Lantern: A Dark Harvest Tale” until you’ve read Dark Harvest. That story is so closely related to Dark Harvest that it will ruin it for you if you read the story in this collection first. I did, and, yes, it did indeed ruin the ending of Dark Harvest for me.

Johnny Halloween is a fairly quick read. It took perhaps two hours to consume its 125 pages. While every story is not specifically Halloween related, at minimum they each contain a spooky overture inline with the spirit of the holiday. Supernatural elements are present in only some of the stories, though the setup for something otherworldly is there in almost every story, so it isn’t until the end that you find out just what you’re dealing with. When a story does delve into the supernatural, it does it effectively, with the right amount of spookiness and unexplained mystery. The author’s style, which is easy and flows well, reminded me a lot of Stephen King. There’s a fair amount of swearing, but it’s used effectively.

The best story in this collection was “The Jack o’Lantern.” It contains the heaviest dose of supernatural elements and was a real page turner. The worst? Calling anything in this collection “worst” doesn’t feel right because I found all of the stories well-written and enjoyable in their own way. But if I were to call it the “least ranked” instead, I’d say the story “The Man Who Killed Halloween” rated the lowest. The author makes a point of discussing in the introduction how he grew up in the 1960’s in the Bay Area where the Zodiac killer struck multiple times and so this story is obviously his expression of that time period in his life, but it fell somewhat flat for me. I don’t doubt having the fear of a serial killer hanging over your every waking moment is something tangible and real, but I didn’t feel those elements were conveyed well in the story itself.

All told, Johnny Halloween is a good collection and a worthy read for this Halloween or any other. I give it three rockets.

Book Review: On Basilisk Station by David Weber

On Basilisk Station by David Weber is the first book in the Honor Harrington series. The series started in 1992 and, while the main Honor series concluded in 2012 with A Rising Thunder, Weber has written a number of additional series since that time chronicling the continuing adventures of his Royal Manticore Navy captain. In all, there have been some thirty-four Honor Harrington novels. The prospect of reading all of those books is daunting to say the least, which is why I intend to concentrate on reading only the thirteen novels in the original series first. If all goes well with that series, I may continue on. Regardless, anyone coming into the numerous Honor series has many, many books to settle into and get comfy with Honor Harrington as she puts all on the line for queen and country. Some will find that very appealing, others, not so much.

On Basilisk Station begins with our main character just having been promoted to the rank of commander and given her first ship, the Fearless. During her and her new crew’s first war games simulation, Commander Harrington proves too clever for her own good, scoring an early kill on the opposition’s flagship. The flagship may be out of commission, but not so the remainder of the opposition’s fleet, which proceeds to score kill after kill on Fearless as retribution for “destroying” their fleet’s command ship. Politics come into play afterwards, and Fearless is assigned to Basilisk Station, a remote outpost where good commanders are sent to idle their careers away performing useless patrols.

But not long after she arrives, Harrington begins to discover the machinations of some unknown persons bent on disrupting the system and possibly more. What follows is a multi-layered story that moves along at a sufficient pace (most of the time) right up to the final, climatic ending where Commander Harrington’s stubborn perseverance, tactical expertise, and ability to inspire her people to perform great and heroic actions are on full display.

Weber’s writing is serviceable. With the exception of some rather large infodumps (one just as the action is really getting good, no less!) early on and toward the end, he shifts perspectives, injects new information, and heightens the stakes just enough to keep my interest from one chapter to the next. He also spends considerable time introducing us to the crew of the Fearless, which helps to establish these supporting characters as more than just cannon fodder. Bad things do happen; their suffering is felt more poignantly as a result of having gotten to know them.

All told, On Basilisk Station is both a good standalone story and a good introduction to Harrington and the ‘Honorverse,’ as it’s called. I’m looking forward to picking up the next book in the series.

Book Review: Renegade's Magic by Robin Hobb

An SFFWorld Favorite for 2007, Renegade's Magic concludes the story of Nevare Burvelle who is fated to become a Soldier Son in his king's army. Life takes some unexpected turns, however, as Nevare is called to a different destiny. Drawn by magic to the frontier, where his king is waging war against the Specks, Nevare finally succumbs to the forces taken control of him and, instead of fighting his king's enemies, he joins them. Thus begins Renegade's Magic.

Renegade's Magic is a continuation in excellence--excellent storytelling, excellent prose, excellent characters. Hobb has created a world that transcends the classic good vs. evil model, where everyone has the potential for either. If there is any weakness at all in this trilogy it's that, in the end, no one is really "evil". Characters may do despicable things, but, once we understand their viewpoint, I found myself often sympathizing with them regardless of what they'd done or why they'd done it. It makes it hard to want any one individual to come out, in the end, as the victor. The truth of the matter, though, is that there are multiple victors. But victory comes at a price. No one is left unscathed, least of all Nevare, who sacrifices much, oftentimes without even fully comprehending what is happening to him or why (not until the very end, anyway).

Magic plays a dominant role in the Soldier Son Trilogy. So much so that magic itself becomes an entity unto itself. The manner in which magic is mastered is both unique and intriguing, though I have to admit I was a little put off by it at first. I hate to throw out a spoiler (so I won't), but suffice to say magic actually transforms the wielder physically. The end result is a hero who, well, doesn't appear very heroic. I don't think there's any doubt Hobb was making a statement here about our own society, and how we often judge people by their outward appearance. This failing of our own society also exists in Nevare's world, except that only Nevare's own people loathe the change that has overcome him. Their enemies, the Specks, actually hold him in great reverence. It makes for an interesting dichotomy in terms of the storytelling and character development.

Past experience with Robin Hobb's work really had me expecting a bittersweet ending (think Fritz in the The Farseer Trilogy). Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. I won't go so far as to say the ending is all roses (even roses have thorns), but there is a certain gratification I felt as I finished the final sentence. Nevare's world may have been turned upside-down, but, with will and tenacity and a heavy dose of plain stubbornness, he comes out alright in the end.

Renegade's Magic was a worthy conclusion to an excellent story.

Book Review: Forest Mage by Robin Hobb

Forest Mage is the second novel in Robin Hobb's Soldier Son Trilogy. Other books in the series include Shaman's Crossing and Renegade's Magic.

The original cover for this book (no longer displayed) was important, I thought, because, more than any other cover I've seen for this series, it symbolized what the Soldier Son Trilogy is all about. You have a man--a cavalry soldier--sword drawn, facing the mists of the forest and the ominous mountains beyond. There is fire, carnage, and an overwhelming feeling that something is out there. Is it coming? Is it waiting for our cavalryman's charge? We don't know, but clearly the man senses the danger he's in else his sword would not be drawn.

The soldier, of course, represents Nevare. I say "represents" because Nevare never becomes that man--that soldier--shown on the cover. Something happens to him, something that was begun in Shaman's Crossing that spills over here. He never becomes the Soldier Son he was supposed to be. Instead, he changes in ways I won't report here least it take something away from your own reading. Suffice to say bad things happen. He's in a sorry state. Yet he battles on, searching for a solution to a dilemma begun in book one which has taken everything from him but his life. Even that, however, might be forfeit if he doesn't come to terms with who and what he has become.

Again, Hobb draws us in with her masterful storytelling. I honestly felt for Nevare's misfortune and kept turning the pages because I wanted to see him succeed. Sad to say, he doesn't. Not in the way we hope, anyway. Forest Mage, like any middle volume, is a bridge between book's one and two, though it does wrap up a good part of Nevare's misfortune (and one of his lives--read the book to understand that!) and sets him on the road to finality as told in Renegade's Magic.

Book Review: Shaman's Crossing by Robin Hobb

Shaman's Crossing is the first novel in Robin Hobb's Soldier Son Trilogy. Other books in the series include Forest Mage and Renegade's Magic.

Shaman's Crossing is where we are introduced to our hero, Nevare Burvelle, second son of a second son, fated because of his birth order to become a soldier in his king's cavalla (cavalry). Much of this novel deals with Nevare's childhood: how his father initiates him into his birth-fate, begins to meld him into the man he must one day become, and, finally, sends him off to the King's Academy where he will learn the business of soldiering. Along the way, Nevare becomes entangled in a web that neither he nor the reader will fully understand until events unfold in Renegade's Magic.

Nevare's early years on his family's estate draw you in from the start, introducing us to his father's war history with the Plainspeople and Nevare's own bond with one Plainsman in particular. There was almost a low point where Nevare is at the academy, what with the mundane day-to-day life of a student and all, but Hobb keeps the reader interested with a myriad of sub-plots and a cast of real, believable characters who each have difficulties or challenges of their own.

I found Shaman's Crossing to be a fully engaging read. Many others did not agree with me, but that’s ok. Hobb never disappoints with her writing, and while this story was a little off from her usual Fitz novels, I still found a lot to like in the beginnings of what becomes a much larger story for Nevare. Needless to say, it didn't take me long to pick up the next book in the series.