Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Book Review: Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword by Tee Morris

Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword by Tee Morris is a melding of two of my favorite genres: traditional fantasy and the noir, hard-boiled detective tales of such characters as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. In many ways you get what you expect here: a tough but endearing detective, plenty of buxom babes, and a colorful cast of villains, some dim-witted, others cunning. Taking place in 1920's Chicago, the kicker and what sets this novel apart is the fact that our hero, Billibub Baddings, is a four foot dwarf from another world.

Seeking to save his own world from a plethora of powerful talismans that have fallen into the wrong hands, Billibub makes a final, desperate attempt to destroy them by casting them into a magical portal. In the process, he is also sucked into the portal; he figures his life is worth the price. But instead of dying, Billibub finds himself transported to our own world. Later, as the story unfolds, he learns that the talismans, like himself, live on.

As the story begins, we find Billibub already settled into his new life; the above is given as back-story. He faces many of the daily headaches we might expect: finding the next client, paying the rent, keeping his secretary and assistant happy. But the story really begins when the rich and beautiful Julia Lesinger enters Billibub's office. Our dwarven detective is hired to investigate the death of Julia's boyfriend, a man who Billibub soon learns has mob ties and, more ominously, a link to an artifact found in a Egyptian burial dig that is a bit out of place. Billibub takes the case, following the trail until it leads him to the artifact that is the Singing Sword, one of the talismans he thought destroyed when he hurled it into the portal.

I have to mention that I listened to this novel in audio format. Hailed as the first ever podiobook—that is, a reading embellished by sound effects and an ensemble of voice actors portraying the novel's different characters—it was an absolute joy consuming it in this fashion. The production quality is top-notch, the voices excellent and, in most cases, very fitting, and the use of sound effects was just right.

Whether you read or listen, you have to consider that much of the humor and storytelling is tongue-in-cheek; Morris embraces many traditional fantasy tropes, but they exist only as embellishments and oftentimes for humor as the principal story takes place in the "real" world. But, of course, even that has its own set of stereotypes, especially as the story follows the typical formula of most hard-boiled detective novels. But Morris injects plenty of dwarven wit into the telling that I found myself laughing out loud more than a few times.

I do have to wonder why Morris chose a name so like Bilbo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings fame, but that's a minor qualm. This is the kind of audio book that I'd listen to again, and I've already told my wife she needs to hear it, too.

Tee Morris has podcasted many of his other books. He was the man behind The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy, a writing advice podcast which is now defunct, and he was both a contributor and editor of the books in The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy series. The next novel in the0 Billibub Baddings Mystery series is The Case of the Pitcher's Pendant.

The Gilded Chain by Dave Duncan

The Gilded Chain by Dave Duncan is the first in his six book King's Blade series. While the story in each novel takes places in the same world, each work stands alone as a tale unto itself. This first book tells the story of Durendal, a waif with little future who is recruited to become a King's Blade, a swashbuckling swordsman bound by magic to serve either the king or whoever the king so chooses.

The enchantment is important as it defines the identities of the Blades as a whole. It goes beyond mere allegiance as each Blade is bound magically to protect, serve, and always hold their ward's safety and life in the highest regard. Blades do not sleep, they can stomach only one glass of wine when on duty, and they look upon everyone with suspicion or at least as a potential threat. They do not do this willingly; the enchantment makes them. While there is great loss of freedom in choosing to serve as a King's Blade, it is also considered the highest honor.

Durendal is, of course, special. It is a common practice for each Blade to take the name of a previous Blade and, in doing so, aspire to live up to the previous Blade's deeds. There is one name, Durendal, that none will take for the bar was set too high when that first Durendal served. Not so for our young hero as he claims the name for himself and not only meets the challenge but far exceeds it. What begins as a bit of a predictable tale, with Durendal bound to a nothing lordling, does an about face when that lordling is killed early on. The tale picks up from there, introducing a completely different tale from what one expected based on the book's summary. This works out for the best, for Durendal is sent to learn the whereabouts of a missing Blade and to unravel the mystery of a gladiatorial arena where the gladiators cannot be killed.

I've been reading a bit of Duncan's work lately, namely The Alchemist series of Venetian fantasy/mysteries, which is one of his more recent works. The Gilded Chain goes back a bit to 1998. It's interesting to note the differences in style between this book and Duncan's more recent novels. I can see signs of maturation in both the author's ability to tell a tale and in his writing chops. Regardless, The Gilded Chain is exceptionally written, with a good balance of endearing characters, plot intrigue, adventure, and even a bit of mystery. Duncan does an excellent job of bringing the overall story full circle with a bit of a twist ending that I did not see coming.

The Gilded Chain is a fun read and I'm looking forward to picking up the next book in the series.

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell is the first novel of Buckell's set in his Caribbean-style sci-fi world. Buckell himself is a native of that region of the world, though he now resides in landlocked Ohio. You can follow the author on his blog. Buckell contributed a Pepper story to the Seeds of Change anthology, of which I received an advanced reader copy and reviewed. I also previously reviewed Sly Mongoose, which is the third novel (and I believe last as the publisher decided to not move forward with anymore novels set in this world) in Buckell's Caribbean sci-fi series.

Events in Crystal Rain are such that Caribbean natives come to a far-off world to colonize and are then trapped there when the wormhole that they arrived through is closed. It's either that or face annihilation from an alien enemy. The mechanism which closes the wormhole also renders inert most technology, so the world is set back into a traditional Caribbean way of life, though there are elements of steampunk in the form of steam-powered watercraft and airships.

Much of the story told in Crystal Rain revolves around John deBrun, a man who arrived on the planet under mysterious circumstances and who doesn't remember anything prior to his arrival. That was some twenty years ago. As the novel opens, another stranger to this world arrives, a cyborg named Pepper. Genetically modified to fight the ancient alien enemy which forced them to close the wormhole those hundreds of years ago, Pepper has come looking for John. John soon learns that Pepper holds the key to his past, and that their destinies are woven together whether John deBrun likes it or not.

Crystal Rain is an enjoyable read, but I couldn't help but feel it was missing something. The character of John deBrun is hard to pin down; he's interesting, but ultimately feels flat. The same goes for many of the other characters with the exception of Pepper who was the most interesting of all. Sadly, the novel is really about John, though Pepper gets his fair share of narration.

The title of the novel seemed a bit misplaced to me. It refers to snow, which the people of the novel experience only when an expedition ventures far north. Perhaps there is some deeper meaning here which I missed.

Overall, Crystal Rain is a good read, but I'm not overly compelled to go read Ragamuffin, the next in the series. I did, however, enjoy reading Sly Mongoose, which is a story that centers around Pepper.

Book Review: Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthing by Jo Walton is a little bit of a different read for me. I went into it not knowing anything about it; I never even bothered to read the summary. Turns out Farthing is alternate history, which as a rule I usually don't read, but it's also a murder mystery with strong political overtones. The events that unfold in Farthing continue eight years later in Ha'pennyand conclude with Half a Crown.

So what's Farthing about?

It's alternate history and takes place in the 1940's. In this version of history, the United States never enters the war against Nazi Germany (there's no mention of the Japanese, so I guess the reader is left to assume that the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor never happened). As a result, England is left to fend alone against Hitler. But Hitler isn't interested in England. Turns out he's more interested in making peace with the British so he can turn the fullness of his attention on Russia. This is what happens. The story begins at a country estate where the orchestrator of this peace accord, Sir James Thirkie, is found in his room, murdered. What follows is a Scotland Yard investigation led by Inspector Carmichael where everyone—servant and noble alike—is considered a suspect.

Farthing garnered a lot of excellent reviews on Amazon. It's written well and has a style that is easy to read while holding the reader's attention, but ultimately I just didn't find enough going on here. The pacing is rather slow at times, with lots of tea and lunches and not enough intrigue or suspense for my taste. What Farthing really amounts to is a peek into a sort of Marvel Comics What If? scenario where Nazi Germany's influence (in particular their bias against Jews and homosexuals) begins to influence seemingly benign countries like England where such hatred becomes a convenient excuse for certain parties to impose their will upon their nations. It's a scary possibility, but scary only inasmuch as one thinks alternate history is scary. It didn't happen, so I, for one, am not particular scared.

The Alchemist's Pursuit by Dave Duncan

The Alchemist's Pursuit by Dave Duncan is the third of his tales involving Nostradamus and his resourceful and daring apprentice, Alfeo Zeno. This time the Maestro is called upon by Violetta, courtesan and friend to Alfeo, who informs the pair that a dear friend of hers has been murdered. An impossible case—the woman was killed weeks ago, there are no witnesses, and the body spent considerable time in the water—turns into something much larger as the murders of other courtesans come to light and soon intersect with the guilty party in an eight year old patricide long thought solved.

So begins the latest installment in Duncan's Venetian fantasy/mystery series. The story follows the basic path set in the previous two novels, with Nostradamus being called on to solve an unsolvable crime and Alfeo, our narrator as always, charged with the elder Maestro's legwork. In this novel, however, we see Alfeo grow in new ways we’ve not seen before. Not only does he demonstrate an increased aptitude in the working of magic, but he also displays a newfound ability to navigate the perils of Venetian society and its politics. Descended from nobility, Alfeo's name is written in the Golden Book, though the family fortune long dried up and so he employs himself as an apprentice and assistant to Nostradamus.

Trained in the "dark arts," it is a fine line master and apprentice walk, for Venice is a Christian city, and so witchcraft is outlawed and its practice punishable by death. Yet the magic in Duncan's Alchemist novels is very subtle. In The Alchemist's Pursuit, besides for the usual divinations for which Nostradamus is famous, much of it culminates in the presence of a cat which assists Alfeo at times, though Alfeo suspects he may have attracted the attention of a demon who is helping him only to gain his confidence. It is a sometimes harrowing, sometimes humorous unfolding in which we finally learn the true purpose of this feline spirit.

As for the murders themselves, we soon learn that not one but three courtesans have been slain. A divination by Nostradamus shows that they are only the beginning, and so Alfeo must track down witnesses, avoid the law which has expressly prohibited Alfeo from investigating the crimes, and protect the woman he loves, Violetta, before she becomes the next victim.

All in all, The Alchemist's Pursuit is yet another gripping tale set in Dave Duncan’s (mostly) historically accurate Venice of yesteryear. Duncan's style is top-notch and his prose worthy of study (not in the literary sense so much, but more in the 'this is how modern fantasy tales should be written' sense). While I've had limited exposure to Duncan up to this point, it's books like The Alchemist's Pursuit that make me want to seek out other novels by the author. Also, I hope this is not the last we've seen of Alfeo and his irritable master. With such a marvelous setting and intriguing characters, I think Duncan has many more tales to tell in this world.