Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold

Last month, I received all four of Bujold's Sharing Knife books from EOS. Their original call for advanced readers was for book four in the series, Horizon, due out January 27, 2009. But they sweetened the offer by throwing in books one through three. I jumped on it, promising to review not just Horizon, but all four books. As promised, here is the first of those reviews.

Like many novels, Bujold's Beguilement is multi-layered. On one level, it is a fantasy novel where Lakewalker patrollers protect the lands from malice. On another, it's a romance novel, where the veteran patroller, Dag, and a runaway farm girl, Fawn Bluefield, meet under life-threatening circumstances and, as one might suspect, develop a romantic relationship with one another.

There are other things going in Beguilement, such as the dichotomy between Lakewalkers and farmers, but, for purposes of this review, I'd like to focus on the fantasy and romance layers first.

First, the fantasy: In this respect, Beguilement is good stuff. It takes place in an unnamed world where Lakewalkers, thought to have once been lords and known to be sorcerers, patrol the lands searching for signs of blight and its cause, malices. A malice is a concentration of energy, what Lakewalkers term 'ground', brought to life under mysterious and not fully understood circumstances. Malices are not good. They bring with them beguilement and death, draining the ground from other beings in order to evolve into increasingly more powerful beings. Worst of all, a malice doesn't understand death. This grants them a certain immortality.

Enter the sharing knife.

A sharing knife is a special Lakewalker weapon that, when used on a malice, 'shares' a death with the creature. This act of sharing is the only way to kill a malice.

As much as the book's title denotes one of the principal powers of a malice, it also refers to the effect Dag and Fawn have on one another. Herein enters the romance.

Dag is a dry-witted Lakewalker, a veteran with over twenty malice kills and a reputation as a capable, resourceful patroller. He has tragedy in his makeup, which I won't say necessarily haunts him, but certainly fills him with a sense of regret. It is this regret which increasingly weighs heavy on him when, out on patrol, a new malice threat and a farmer girl named Fawn Bluefield enter his life. I won't ruin anything about the encounter with the malice, only that both Dag and Fawn survive and go on to become lovers. It's an odd relationship: by custom, Lakewalkers and farmers do not interrelate in such ways. They take this 'forbidden love' back to Fawn's home where much drama ensues between herself, her family, and Dag.

That, in a nutshell, is what Beguilement is about. The story has points of slowness, but I never felt like it bogged down. The writing is excellent and tight; while there are other sub-plots intertwined with the main ones, none of them were a distraction. If anything, exactly the opposite: there's plenty of character-building here, and the characters are grounded, believable, and exceptionally thought-out. Fawn, despite entering the story as a runaway farm girl (which seemed a bit of a stereotype), soon shows us she is much more. Dag, for his part, plays the role of veteran soldier-sorcerer well; it's what lies beneath that draws the reader in and allows us to sympathize with his past and what he hopes for his future.

I found Bujold's system of magic and such concepts as the sharing knife to be original and intriguing. In many ways, it was this intrigue which kept me reading and wanting to know more.

One warning: Bujold leaps from one book to another with nary a break in the story. I imagine her having written all four books at one time (is there a fifth still to come?), then the publisher coming along later and slicing it into the four books we currently have. This probably isn't the case, but that's how one might look at it. With that in mind, if you read Beguilement, you'll at least want to pick up Legacy, because it picks up right where book one left off and goes a long way towards concluding the storyline begun in book one.

I think Bujold delivers with Beguilement and the larger The Sharing Knife series as a whole. Superb writing, well-grounded characters, and a colorful world and an intriguing magic system all come together to form an entertaining, engaging read.

Book Review: The Memory of Earth by Orson Scott Card

So I'd never read anything by Orson Scott Card before. Of course I had heard of him and seen his books all over, but he was just one of those authors I never quite got around to reading. While that misstep has now been corrected, I had to put down The Memory of Earth.

I fully intended to read the book front to back, but something had been nagging me almost since the beginning. Given that I was a newcomer to Card's work, I was keeping an open mind and had no idea what to expect except that he's a prolific author so his stuff must be good, right? The thing is, the book isn't bad, it's just not good. It's a great idea--benevolent supercomputer controls peoples' minds, keeping them from destroying each other like they did literally 30 or so million years ago on Earth. Except that the computer starts to break down and needs help, so it starts to send certain individuals visions (that's how it communicates) saying more or less that it needs help. Sounds good, right?

Except the book really lacks two things: (1) execution and (2) complexity. What I basically mean by #1 is that not enough happens, and, when something does happen, I often thought, "oh, that's nice". Not nearly enough suspense and the characters really aren't engaging enough. #2 has to do with the author's style. It's too simplistic. He tells me that this character is angry, and this one is sad instead of showing it, or something happens where its painfully obvious what's going on, but Card has to come along and throw in an explanatory sentence just in case you didn't get it. It was annoying to say the least.

One of these days I'll take a look at Ender's Game, if only because it's considered the author's seminal work. For now, though, Card fades to the background on my reading list.

Book Review: Seeds of Change by John Joseph Adams (editor)

Back in early June, John Joseph Adams sent out a request for advanced readers for his Seeds of Change anthology. Of course, I took him up on it.

Adams is the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but he's also been on a tear of late editing anthologies. There's The Living Dead, Wastelands, and, now, Seeds of Change.

While Adams gave plenty of advanced notice of the imminent release of the anthology, I fell behind with some other reading and wasn't able to start it until after it had already been released. Fortunately, Seeds of Change is a fast-paced, easy read (though I have to admit I did not read every story through, see below), and so this review comes only shortly after the official release. You can purchase Seeds of Change in hardcover or Kindle formats.

Now, on to my review…

I'm going to start with an introduction pulled from the Seeds of Change web site to give you a taste of what this anthology is all about:

Imagine the moment when the present ends, and the future begins–when the world we knew is no more and a brave new world is thrust upon us. Gathering stories by nine of today’s most incisive minds, Seeds of Change confronts the pivotal issues facing our society today: racism, global warming, peak oil, technological advancement, and political revolution.

A heady claim, to be sure, but Seeds of Change delivered, for me, seven out of nine times.

That calls for an explanation: There are nine stories in total; two of them didn't do it for me, and I had to stop reading. But of the seven stories I did finish, I found each of them both entertaining and thought-provoking. That's a rare combination, IMO. Often an author will go too far into the literary realm, which is all well and fine when one is looking for that sort of thing. But these days I'll take entertaining over literary nine times out of ten. It was a pleasant surprise that Seeds of Change provided both, and probably why I found it such an easy read.

Of the seven stories I completed, the most entertaining were those by Jay Lake, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, and Ted Kosmatka. Tobias Buckell was up there as well, but I found his Pepper story contribution a bit of a letdown. Perhaps I'd gotten too used to the character's zombie butt-kicking ways from Sly Mongoose that to see him thoughtful and almost introspective threw me. On the other hand, this anthology is about change, so seeing things in a different light may be what it's all about.

Seeds of Change scores a ten on quality of writing. Regardless of what I might have thought about a story's theme or characters, the authors each come through with a wholly engaging style. That goes for the two stories I didn't finish as well.

For the record, those two were "A Dance Called Armageddon", by Ken MacLeod, and "Artists Aren't Stupid", by Jeremiah Tolbert. There was nothing inherently wrong with either story. The oration simply wasn't doing it for me. At my age (I'm 38), that's enough for me to give it a pass.

But that fact takes nothing away from the anthology. If you're looking for a healthy dose of thought-provoking literature leavened by a hefty shot of entertainment to put an exclamation on these final summer days, I highly recommend Seeds of Change.

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

The short of Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword: I liked it. Though I have to say I'm split.

But, first, a brief summary:

Lady Katherine Talbert goes to live with her Uncle, the Mad Duke, who has it in for Katherine's mother (the Duke's sister) and vows to leave her alone should she commit her daughter to living with him for six months. In that time, the Mad Duke completely changes her perspective on life and her place in it, having her trained as a swords(wo)man. Once she has mastered the sword, she can no longer go back to the life she would have otherwise led. It's as much a coming-of-age story as it is about the sordid politics the Mad Duke has immersed himself in. In the end, it's up to Katherine, with her Uncle's help, to save the day.

Now, on to my analysis...

On one hand, it's written exceptionally well. The writing flows naturally, the prose are very concise, never once does she launch into pages and pages of backstory or what I term 'excessive exposition', which is when a writer goes overboard dealing with a character's internal emotions or conflict. She keeps the story moving along from page-to-page, never really slowing with the exception of a page here and there where she gets a little too much into the intricacies of the lives of the young female aristocrats and their oh-so-harried social lives. The book was a delight to read, especially from the perspective of trying to learn, learn, learn everything I can so I can hopefully someday find success of my own with my own writing. Chalk this one up as a great learning experience.

On the other hand, there's not enough story there for my tastes. Kushner throws in a few smaller plotlines, one of which ties into Katherine's expertise with the sword, but the main plot didn't give me enough to sink my teeth into. I understand there are two other books which came out before The Privilege of the Sword (Swordspoint, The Fall of The Kings), but neither is necessary to understand this one (I haven't read either). So, what we have is Katherine learning the sword, her using her expertise to avenge a friend's honor, and the Duke playing a sort of chess game against one of his main rivals in the city. I'm afraid even that might be pushing it as the third point only comes into play towards the end.

In summary, The Privilege of the Sword is very well written but just didn't give me enough to truly enjoy it.

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb


Robin Hobb is one of my favorite writers. I devoured The Farseer Trilogy and tore through The Soldier Son Trilogy.

It was with the same excitement that I dove into Ship of Magic, book one of The Liveship Traders. Unfortunately, this particular journey ended in disappointment.

Hobb's greatest strength is twofold: her characterizations and her world-building. She has a knack for creating believable, likeable, even detestable characters. Also, the settings she creates are top-notch: well thought out, realistic, and most definitely populated by 'believable' characters.

Ship of Magic does not falter in these areas. But ultimately it did fail to present to me a character which I could readily identify with. Therein lies the true strength of The Farseer and Soldier Son trilogies. Both have strong yet flawed and very sympathetic characters. Ship of Magic has Althea, who fits this bill to some extent, but because there are so many other characters and other plotlines, she gets lost amidst the clutter.

Which brings me to my second contention with Ship of Magic: it's just too darn long. Standing in at a hefty 800 pages, this monster of a book is, in my opinion, about 400 pages too long. I've given up such weighty (no pun intended) series as George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire for wasting my time with books that go nowhere. While Hobb's pace moves along well enough, I still felt it suffered from bloat.

My last issue with Ship of Magic has to do with the characters, or rather my dislike of most of them. Kyle Haven is an ass. Wintrow is an unlikable wuss. Malta is useless.

Althea, already mentioned, stands out amongst these less than likable personas. Brashen, also, as a well thought out character whom I found myself genuinely rooting for.

At this point, I don't know if I want to invest the same amount of time in books two and three if book one is any indication of things to come. I don't know if either gets any better or worse in terms of page count. Also, as engaging as some (OK, two) of the characters are, the story lags. There's just not enough going on. It's mostly this trader family does this and the other one does that. The great thing about The Farseer Trilogy is that it has all the great characters but also an overlying mystery—what are the Outislanders doing to the people of the Six Duchies to turn them into such monsters and how are they going to stop the invasion? It's a strange happening that kept me reading on and on.

Ship of Magic just didn't have this same attraction.