Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Book Review: Eleganta by Denny Swartzlander

Eleganta by Denny Swartzlander is my February and first Kindle Pick of the Month. In a way, this is an experiment. First time writers publishing in the Kindle store either (1) couldn't get their novel published by a traditional publisher or (2) didn't submit to a traditional publisher. Either way, the traditional publishing route, which some people feel is pretty important to boosting quality, has been circumvented.

Full disclosure: My first fantasy novel was not picked up by a publisher, so I decided to put it out on my site, the Kindle store, and other online venues.

So, the experiment is to see if self-published eBooks meet the same quality standard as traditional books.

Eleganta left me undecided.

The titular character, a garden fairy, has just given birth to a baby, an occurrence not seen in over a decade. It is quickly decided that the baby must be brought to the fairy queen for protection, for an invading army of trolls—and one troll general in particular—is hell-bent on capturing her. Seems that the trolls grow sick and die when ingesting the current crop of fairies, so they're consumed (no pun intended) with creating a line of fairies not toxic to them. For reasons which remain unclear to me, Eleganta's baby is the key to this source.

So begins a journey for Eleganta, her daughter, and a warrior fairy charged with protecting them that should by all accounts be one charged with suspense and danger. There's plenty of danger (though I never really felt anyone was going to suffer from it) but little suspense. Eleganta and company go from one destination to another, sometimes quickly, sometimes stopping to frolic in the forest, so to speak, all the while chased by a pair of monstrous hound-like creatures. That in itself is a problem: the trolls want the baby alive, so why send a couple of creatures who will probably do nothing less than eat it if they ever capture it?

Another point of contention I couldn't get past: fairies fly, yet their villages are walled. Perhaps this is because they've been fighting the army of trolls for some time, so they've simply built their defenses up. But, still, I had imagined a different sort of lifestyle for fairy-kind, one that did not mirror our own so much.

In terms of writing, Eleganta varies from above average to below average. Character descriptions sometimes are info dumps, with too much, too soon and descriptions that are too detailed. I prefer to find out the nuances of a character as the story unfolds rather than having information thrown at me straight off. There are parts of Eleganta that are on par with anything you'd read elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are also other sections I felt could have used a bit more polish.

The storyline is good enough, though pacing was not the best and the characters are all-too-familiar or just flat. There was no one character I really connected with nor any characters I genuinely wanted to see succeed.

Perhaps the most telling sign of all: I couldn't finish Eleganta. I made it halfway. Knowing when to stop reading isn't always easy. In this case, I was having a hard time getting enthused about picking up my Kindle and diving into the story. If that isn't a sign tell me what to do, I don't know what is.

While Eleganta has thus far racked up nine five star reviews on Amazon, I didn't feel it quite met that level. I plan to give it three stars when I post my review there shortly.

The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance

The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance is part of the Tales of the Dying Earth omnibus. Other novels in the compilation include The Dying Earth, Cugel's Saga, and Rhialto the Marvellous.

Jack Vance is one of the most prolific and popular science fiction and fantasy writers of our time. Many of his works are considered classics. The individual novels found in the Tales of the Dying Earth are certainly amongst them.

This second Tales novel is just that: unlike The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld is not a collection of short stories but a full-length novel. Here we have the character Cugel, who is likeable enough throughout most of the story, though I did find some of his qualities unsavory if not reprehensible at times. Still, he is our hero, so to speak, and it is his adventures we follow as the story progresses.

We begin with Cugel trying to sell some goods. Things are not going well, though, and at the urging of a fellow merchant, Cugel gets it in his head to go steal from Iucounu the Laughing Magician if only to acquire some magical items which he can then sell for profit. Cugel is caught in the act and, as penance, the Laughing Magician sends Cugel on a quest halfway round the world to bring back a favored item. Keeping Cugel in line is a parasite called Firx, who wraps himself about Cugel's liver and promises certain death if Cugel strays from his appointed task. Thus begins a series of odd and sometimes death-harrowing adventures as Cugel attempts to locate the wizard's prized item and return home, all the while keeping Firx content that he is in fact doing all he can to fulfill said quest.

Trouble arises when Cugel sees an opportunity for personal gain, which is at almost every turn, for Cugel is concerned with himself above all other things. He steals, he cheats, he lies, he even rapes a woman at one point in the story (though, to be fair, they are married and she does agree, but only after Cugel's extreme urging). Still, Cugel is likeable if only because nothing ever seems to go his way. He's the quintessential down-on-his-luck character who, after being beaten down so many times, we just want to see succeed even just once.

The Eyes of the Overworld is, of course, set in Vance's Dying Earth world, so far in our future that the Sun is nearing the end of its life and technology is so advanced (and its operation forgotten, in most cases) that it is more magic than science. Those who do know its operation are few and far between, and are actually called sorcerers and wizards rather than technologists, engineers, or scientists.

Vance's writing style is from another era; the book was originally published in 1966. The matter-of-fact narration is easy to follow, though, and the adventures Cugel finds himself on are engaging. The Eyes of the Overworld is a short novel, standing in at about 150 pages, and overall I found it a quick read. If I rated the books I review, I'd give it 3 stars out of 5.

Book Reviews: The Complete List

This is an always updated list of all the book reviews I have written, organized by author (alphabetized by last name) and title for ease-of-access. Alternatively, you can browse the content of all of my book reviews.

If you are an author or publisher, and would like for me to review your work, please see my review guidelines.

Joe Abercrombie

John Joseph Adams (editor)

Peter V. Brett

Tobias Buckell

Lois McMaster Bujold

S.C. Butler

Orson Scott Card

Glen Cook

James Clemens

David Drake

Dave Duncan

Randall Garrett

Christopher Gravett

Paula Guran (editor)

Robin Hobb

Washington Irving

Richard Kadrey

Paul Kearney

Paul S. Kemp

Kay Kenyon

Stephen King

Joe Konrath

Ellen Kushner

Mercedes Lackey

Robin Laws

Jane Lindskold

James Mallory

Paul Malmont

Graham McNeill

China Mieville

Tee Morris

Tim Pratt

Norman Partridge

Cherie Priest

Brandon Sanderson

John Scalzi

Karl Schroeder

Jon Sprunk

Denny Swartzlander

J.R.R. Tolkien

Harry Turtledove

Jack Vance

Jo Walton

Peter Watts

David Weber

Connie Willis

Robert Charles Wilson

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance is the first part of the Tales of the Dying Earth omnibus that also includes The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga, and Rhialto the Marvellous.

Jack Vance is one of the most prolific and popular science fiction and fantasy writers of our time. Many of his works are considered classics. The individual novels found in the Tales of the Dying Earth are certainly amongst them. I found it of particular interest that Vance, like myself, spent part of his childhood in the areas of San Francisco and Sacramento:

Vance's early childhood was spent in San Francisco. With the early separation of his parents, Vance's mother moved young Vance and his siblings to Vance's maternal grandfather's California ranch near Oakley in the delta of the Sacramento River. This early setting formed Vance's love of the outdoors, and allowed him time to indulge his passion as an avid reader. With the death of his grandfather, the Vance's family fortune nosedived, and Vance was forced to leave junior college and work to support himself, assisting his mother when able. Vance plied many trades for short stretches: a bell-hop (a "miserable year"), in a cannery, and on a gold dredge,[3] before entering the University of California, Berkeley where, over a six-year period, he studied mining engineering, physics, journalism and English. Vance wrote one of his first science fiction stories for an English class assignment; his professor's reaction was “We also have a piece of science fiction” in a scornful tone, Vance’s first negative review.[4] He worked for a while as an electrician in the naval shipyards at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii -- for "56 cents an hour". After working on a degaussing crew for a period, he left about a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor.[3]

The Dying Earth was originally published in 1950. In length, it is more novella than novel, coming in at 130 pages (figure 32,500 words; 250 words/page * 130 pages), and is, in fact, a collection of short stories. The stories share a common world: a future so far advanced that technology has become more akin to magic, even to the point where the few who still understand how the technology works are called sorcerers. Going into this compilation, I thought I was going to be reading science fiction. It was with some surprise, therefore, that I found the stories more fantasy than science fiction despite the presence of very advanced technology. In fact, in this first segment of Tales, the only technology that is recognizable as such is a sort of jet car in the story Ulan Dhor. The rest of it is described in a distinctively Dungeons & Dragons manner, with "spells" being cast with such names as Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth and another called Prismatic Spray (I'm almost certain there is a spell of the same name in Dungeons & Dragons; it's been a long time since I've played). In any case, it's clear where the founders of the game, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, found at least some of their inspiration.

The stories in The Dying Earth are told with an almost fairy tale or fable quality to them. Vance's style is of the classic era: matter-of-fact and to the point. They're enjoyable reads nonetheless. Also, one story sometimes will lead into another, with characters spanning one or more stories or sometimes making a cameo or maybe even a quick mention. This does much to solidify the experience of being in a 'real' world as the characters often run into each other and have realistic interactions as a result.

At only 130 pages, this first part of Tales of the Dying Earth is a quick read. But because this is a compilation you've got books 2, 3, and 4 right there. The whole collection comes in at just over 700 pages.

Book Review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson is a modern day science fiction mystery of sorts. One night, the stars disappear. Twin brother and sister, Jason and Diane Lawton, and friend Tyler Dupree witness the phenomenon from outside the Lawton family household. While their initial claims go unheeded, over the next and subsequent nights the world comes to recognize that powerful forces have moved against them, but for completely unknown reasons.

That is the thread Wilson weaves throughout most of Spin: we know what has happened (on a superficial level, anyway), we just have no idea why or who’s responsible. Tyler Dupree is our narrator; much of the mystery unravels from his perspective. Wilson does a fair amount of jumping around from one time to another, so while we start with Tyler, Diane, and Jason’s childhood, the reader is quickly launched forward to an unspecified time where, as adults, Tyler and Diane are in hiding and on the run. Other jumps are made, always with the intent of revealing information and moving the story forward.

Wilson does a nice job here, revealing just enough through various plot devices to keep the reader interested. The overlying mystery is perplexing enough, but once some headway is made into what exactly has happened, Wilson keeps us hooked with the attempted solutions.

Jason Lawton and his father, E.D. Lawton, are at the forefront of these solutions. The Lawton family was already well-to-do and influential, but when satellites are suddenly rendered inert by the “Spin membrane” (membrane because while the stars are blotted out, sunlight is allowed through during the day), as it is come to be known, the Lawton’s aerostat business takes off. Soon they’ve formed their own agency to work alongside NASA in their investigation of the Spin membrane. Eventually, with Jason at the head of this new agency, they’re running the show.

They launch probes, study data, and do what scientists do best, eventually discovering many things about the membrane. I won’t go into any of that here, though, since much of Spin’s attraction is finding these things out as you read along.

I found Jason to be the strongest of the characters in terms of having a sense of purpose. He’s really the one who pushes to discover what has happened and why, and I wondered at different times what this overachiever might have done with his life if not for the destiny laid down for him by the appearance of the Spin membrane.

While Tyler tells the story, it is only because of his close association with Jason that he (and thus the reader) learns what's really going on. In many ways, Tyler is a flat character. He spends much of his life watching the actions of others, on the periphery without ever really getting involved. While this may make for a good narrator, I was often more intrigued by Jason and his sister, Diane.

As for Diane, I thought she possessed a lot of potential that was left unexplored. She disappears for large chunks of the story as she becomes involved with one of the many doomsday cults that spring up following the disappearance of the stars. There's not much religion or fanaticism in the novel per se, though given that the Spin membrane winds up threatening the future of humanity it's understandable that such things creep into the story.

Spin is one of those books that isn’t necessarily bad, but it isn’t necessarily good, either. Wilson followed up Spin with Axis, but I’m not inclined to continue on with the series at this point.