Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

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.

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.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson is the first novel in the NY Times bestselling Mistborn trilogy. It is followed by The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages. Recently, Sanderson announced that film rights to the series have been optioned to Paloppa Pictures LLC.

Sanderson's debut novel, the sixth he'd written but the first to gain a publisher, was Elantris, which received enough critical acclaim to land Sanderson a three book deal from Tor to write the Mistborn books. Sanderson records the Writing Excuses podcast along with authors Howard Tayler and Dan Wells. Last, I would be remiss in not mentioning that Sanderson was chosen to complete the late Robert Jordan's celebrated Wheel of Time fantasy series by Jordan's estate. That book is The Gathering Storm.

Mistborn is an ambitiously plotted novel. For time immemorial, the Lord Ruler has held dominion over the empire. Hailed as the "Hero of Ages", he confronted and defeated a dark, ancient force threatening the world long ago, thereby saving humanity from destruction. But something changed in the man following that confrontation: he became immortal and, in doing so, seemingly gave up his humanity. Now, he rules the world as a tyrant. The Final Empire is vast and all-powerful, but it lives under a pallor of perpetual gloom. Ashfalls (presumably from neighboring volcanoes) are a constant and, nightly, mists rise up to embrace the darkness.

Society in the Final Empire is dictated by a class system. At the top are the nobility. Beneath them are the skaa, or slaves. There is nothing in-between. Nobles can treat skaa however they like, including visiting upon them violence, rape, or any other depravity, all without any repercussion. It is a society more than ready for revolution.

Enter Kelsier, once a skaa sent to the Lord Ruler's mines to be worked to death. Right from the beginning we learn that not only did Kelsier survive that ordeal, but that he emerged possessed of allomantic abilities. In short, an allomancer is a sort of sorcerer who "burns" metal to gain certain powers, including vitality, the ability to fly, and even to see a short way into the future. The Lord Ruler has his own allomancers: obligators, who are a sort of priest, and Steel Inquisitors, indestructible arch-allomancers; very powerful and very deadly.

Kelsier returns to the empire's capital city for revenge. More than that, he begins to orchestrate the very downfall of the Lord Ruler and the Final Empire itself by fomenting dissent amongst the noble houses, raising a skaa army, and, finally, ending the Lord Ruler's reign by taking his life.

Amidst Kelsier's grandiose designs he finds Vin, a street skaa who also happens to be a Mistborn, a very special sort of allomancer. Kelsier and Vin form a sort of father/daughter relationship as they both work towards Kelsier's end goal. Much of Mistborn is told from Vin's perspective as she matures from ignorant, fearful street thief to something approaching a noblewoman. All the while she learns allomancy from Kelsier; right from the start she proves a capable pupil, even more powerful than Kelsier.

Sanderson weaves a fairly complex tapestry here; just when you think you've figured something out, you find out you were wrong. Sanderson excels at this, leading the reader down a fairly predictable road only to throw a curveball that changes everything. It keeps the story fresh and the tempo high. To be honest, there are parts of Mistborn that are just plain exhausting.

The story flows well, though I did find some parts dragged slightly. There is what I found to be quite a ridiculous scene where Kelsier and his band of rebels are "white-boarding" their plans to take down the Final Empire. I don't know if Sanderson has ever worked in an office environment (I did some checking: No, he never has), but somehow the idea of rebels from a fantasy world outlining their plans to defeat an ancient evil using a chalk board was just kind of ridiculous. Fortunately, it's a short scene.

There is much carnage in this novel, though it is told in a matter-of-fact way and never really had me genuinely horrified. The obligators, Steel Inquisitors, and Mistborn are all very interesting, and the magic system is both unique and fun to read about as Sanderson's characters work within it's limits.

Last, the final battle between Kelsier and one of the Steel Inquisitors is spectacular and the novel's ending, much like many other parts of the book, was not entirely what I expected. That ending, however, is beleaguered by a sort of trial-and-error approach to defeating the Lord Ruler. Perhaps Sanderson meant to end it this way by deviating from another trope where our hero has discovered the means leaving only the execution or perhaps we are witnessing a writer grasping for a way to end a novel. Not entirely sure.

Mistborn is a long read (541 pages), though at times I had a hard time putting it down as I breezed through chapter after chapter. While the story told in this novel does come to a conclusion, there are definitely matters left unresolved and more than a few things I foresee Sanderson tackling in the subsequent novels in the series.

Kindle February Pick of the Month

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I'm supporting Kindle writers by selecting for review the occasional eBook from Amazon's Kindle Store each month. This is the first of those selections.

Eleganta: A novel of Fairykind by Denny Swartzlander is my first pick for my ongoing I Support Kindle Writers campaign.

Eleganta is offered in both Kindle and paperback editions, but the paperback is through, so still satisfies the criteria I outlined for how I'd be making my selections. It hasn't gone through the traditional publishing process, in other words.

The review count of Eleganta is a little higher than I would have liked (it has 8 five star reviews), but I'm going to let that pass on this one.

It seems like a promising read:

Enter the 9th century, a time of magic and mystery. On a hidden isle in the seas near England, a young fairy named Ethywyne Eleganta secretly gives birth to the first youngling in fourteen years. She and her child become the hunted prize of the wicked troll general Sunderin. Ethywyne must make the perilous journey across the Fairy Realms, to get her child to the Fairy Queen, the only one who can protect her from the shadow that seeks to destroy all of Fairykind.

You can visit the official Eleganta web site for more information about the book or its author. I should have my review out in a few weeks.

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The Alchemist's Code by Dave Duncan

The Alchemist's Code is the second in the series of fantasy/mystery tales penned by Dave Duncan and set in the historic, beautiful, and oftentimes dangerous world of 16th century Venice. I reviewed the first book in the series, The Alchemist's Apprentice, not too long ago, and since I found that first book such an enjoyable read, I was eager to jump into this one.

Once more, Alfeo Zeno is our narrator as the ruling body of Venice, the Council of Ten, calls upon Alfeo's master, Nostradamus, to crack encoded messages which they fear contain state secrets. Espionage, a lover's tryst, and a friend from Alfeo's past become intertwined as Alfeo must face down a supernatural threat and his own execution for practicing witchcraft as he is forced to invoke supernatural powers of his own to stop the spy's machinations.

Much like its predecessor, The Alchemist's Code is beautifully written. Duncan does his best to display his command of the written word with eloquent prose and a plethora of words that had me reaching for the dictionary a couple of dozen times. The Alchemist's Code was the first eBook I purchased for my Kindle; the built-in dictionary was a godsend.

Alfeo's descriptions of the political and social aspects of Venice are more terse in this book as compared to the previous novel. The same goes for his telling of ancillary characters. In other words, Duncan assumes we've read the first book in the series and don't need this information in as much depth this time around. The doge (the leader of Venice, sort of like a duke but without the power) plays a smaller role in this second book, and his relationship to Alfeo as well as their history does not play the part it did in book one. The same goes for Violetta, Alfeo's lover who also just happens to be a prostitute to members of high society. Filiberto Vasco, however, plays a major role in this novel. Vasco is Alfeo's chief adversary in government, and the one who would most like to see Alfeo burn at the stake for witchcraft. Duncan never goes into great depth regarding this rivalry, though it can likely be attributed to professional jealousy. That, and the two grew up together, and so they share history.

All that being said, while reading the first book in the series will give you good background information about these extra characters and the setting, it is by no means necessary to have read that first book before reading this one. Still, there's also no reason not to; both are well-worth the read.

Duncan once again does a nice job with characterization. Alfeo is a likeable, personable, and sometimes humorous narrator. Nostradamus is aloof, stubborn, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is tempting fate by challenging Venice's authority but always with an ace up his sleeve. Even Vasco, who makes no secret of his desire to see Alfeo trip and fall, shines through because of his loyalty to the state and underlying desire to do (what he thinks, anyway) is right.

The Alchemist's Code is a well-written, enjoyable read, full of mystery, intrigue, and action. I'll be picking up the next in the series, The Alchemist's Pursuit, soon.