Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Book Review: Draculas by Crouch, Kilborn, Strand, & Wilson

Joe Konrath of A Newbie's Guide to Publishing fame posted an offer giving away free ARC's of an upcoming horror eBook he and three other authors wrote in exchange for a review here and on Amazon.com. I've gotten a lot of good info from Joe's blog, so I figured I'd do him a favor, read the ARC, and give him a favorable review. So much for good intentions…

Draculas was written in record time (2 months?) as an experiment to see if an online only novel could reach Amazon's Top 100 in Kindle eBook sales supported solely by online reviews and marketing. The experiment worked. Draculas hit the Top 100 in its first week, if not sooner. The novel received a phenomenal number of 4 or 5 star reviews. From what I read, it's selling very well.

That's all great, and I wish the authors best of luck and mucho dinero. There's just one problem I had with this book: it just isn't that good.

The writing is fine. It's the soulless characters and superficial storyline that ultimately led me to abandon this novel after reading just 10% on my Kindle. It mostly reminded me of a bad Sci-Fi channel movie (you know, like Sharktopus). Amusing for brief moments as you're channel surfing, but not something you're going to stay tuned into for long.

Given the rushed quality of the novel, I have to wonder how many of those 4 or 5 star reviews on Amazon were put up as a favor to the authors. I know Joe helps a lot of people out with his blog (perhaps the other authors do as well; I don't know), but I can't in good conscious give Draculas anything more than 2 stars.

The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King

I was impressed enough with the first novel in the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, that I immediately started reading this next novel. While The Drawing of the Three is indicative of King's excellent and unique writing style, ultimately it just didn't do it for me.

The novel picks up right where The Gunslinger left off. Roland has had his confrontation with The Man In Black, who planted in Roland's mind enough clues to the Dark Tower that our hero is even more determined than ever to find the Tower. There's just one problem: Roland is exhausted from his travels through the desert, he's dehydrated, and, as occurs almost immediately as we jump into this novel, he becomes crippled.

Right there is where King began to lose me. Roland is an indomitable character; nothing is going to stop him as long as he's got his six shooters at his side. We learned that from the first book. But what King does is change the game right from the get-go as Roland is severely wounded by a lobster-like creature (called 'lobstrosities'), thereby impairing his ability to use his weapons in quite the same fashion as he did in The Gunslinger.

It's fairly obvious what King is doing. The Man In Black told Roland he would need to draw three people from the other side (i.e., our world) to aid him in his quest. These three are then to become Roland's crutches. This might have worked if the Three were as strong as characters as Roland himself. But instead they are a druggie, a crazy black woman with a severe split personality disorder, and… well, I won't reveal the third. Suffice to say I couldn't get into the crutch characters. They become too much of the story and just weren't nearly as compelling as Roland himself.

While King shines through with his usual well-thought supporting characters, and the writing truly kept me engaged, I just don't like where this series is going. I read a review of the next book in the series, The Wastelands, and it didn't sound like it was much different. In fact, the reviewer said it was even more out there than this novel.

That being said, I don't think I'll be following Roland any further on his quest to find the Dark Tower. I am, however, looking forward to the Ron Howard directed movie adaptation. King has penned some amazing novels that have later been adapted to the big screen. I think Howard is going to come up with something superb with this material. The Drawing of the Three , however, was not good enough to compel me to want to continue reading the series.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The announcement that Stephen King's Dark Tower series was coming to both movies and television was all the impetus I needed to finally jump into reading this series. All told, the series encompasses seven novels, with the first having been written in the early 70's and the next not coming until almost a decade later. In the preface to The Gunslinger, King notes that it was upon reading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings that the seed of the idea for his own epic fantasy was planted. But it wasn't until later viewing a certain western featuring one of America's greatest living actors (the movie being The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, starring Clint Eastwood) that the light bulb went off in King's head.

The Gunslinger is very much a melding of Tolkien's epic scope, Eastwood's gritty, gunslinger persona, and, without a doubt, King's own unique writing style. The plot is fairly straightforward: Roland, the last of the Gunslingers, is pursuing an ominous villain known only as The Man In Black. Roland follows in the latter's footsteps across a wasteland dotted only by the vestiges of our own modern society, for the world has "moved on." The modernisms we know so well have been swept away. By war, disease, or some other means, King never says, but the world depicted in this first novel is harsh, desolate, and unforgiving.

With only the occasional flashback into Roland's past, The Gunslinger follows a fairly straight course as Roland does whatever he needs to do to capture and kill The Man In Black. Even still, the glimpses into Roland's persona offer a glimpse into a very complex individual. He's a man driven by things we may not fully understand yet, but we see him as sympathetic nonetheless. We may not understand or condone his willingness to sacrifice anyone or anything to capture or kill his enemy, but we also realize that, hell or high water, he is going to do so.

King admits he didn't know what direction the series was going to take past The Gunslinger. He knew Roland was on a quest to find the Dark Tower, but King didn't know the why's of it or even if Roland would ever actually find it. Needless to say, the reader is left with more questions then answers, which might be the best way to leave the first novel in a series of seven.

Cugel's Saga by Jack Vance

Cugel's Saga by Jack Vance is the third of his Tales of the Dying Earth novels and continues the tale of Cugel from the previous book in the series, The Eyes of the Overworld. That book started with Cugel crossing Iucounu the Laughing Magician, who pays Cugel back by transporting him halfway across the world. Much to Cugel's chagrin, the end of that novel finds him right back where he started: halfway round the world in a strange place (that is perhaps a bit less so since Cugel has now been here before), though this our erstwhile hero is driven by a simple desire to return home and hopefully live out his days free of Iucounu's attentions.

Much of Cugel's Saga is about the fulfillment of that desire as Cugel signs on with one group of travelers after another. Each time, he attempts to do what Cugel the Clever does best: receive maximum payout for the smallest expenditure possible. This works admirably well sometimes. Other times, not so much. Always, Vance entertains us with his unique blend of strange characters, places, and situations. There are some absolute laugh out loud moments. Some times I wanted Cugel to get a sound smacking for his underhanded tactics. Other times, I was applauding him for his ability to out-fox the fox.

Cugel is without doubt a complex characters. Neither hero nor villain, you'll alternately like or hate him. He's neither the best of the best, nor the worst of the worst. Nor does he always come out on top. On the contrary, more often than not he's chased from town with his tail between his legs. But, like any good opportunist, he never gives up, and always sees new possibilities around every corner.

This is my first go-around with Vance's work, and I find myself eager to jump into the next and last novel in the series while also hoping Cugel makes an appearance. It's not clear from the title if he does. But if Cugel's Saga is the last we hear from Cugel, then I think Vance has concluded his tale with a fitting ending. Cugel finally learns his lesson (that, sometimes, you just have to be happy with what you have) and ultimately gets the last laugh when he has his final confrontation with his nemesis, Iucounu, the Laughing Magician.

Book Review: Medieval Siege Warfare by Christopher Gravett

Medieval Siege Warfarealt by Christopher Gravettalt is a break from my usual reviews of fiction. But I'm starting to think about my next novel and, if all goes as planned, this one is going to take place exclusively during a siege. One of the rules I set forth going into this next one is that everything would happen in one place—whether it be one city, town, castle, whatever. No traveling, in other words. In an effort to make sure my bases are covered, I thought a little reading on the subject of sieges was in order. Fortunately, I was able to look no further than my own library where I found Medieval Siege Warfare along with another book entitled Siege: Castles at Waralt by Mark Donnelly and Daniel Diehl (review forthcoming on that one).

Medieval Siege Warfare is fairly short, coming in at 64 pages. There are an abundance of pictures, illustrations, and numbered diagrams; the obvious reason for these is to provide a visual for the discussion subjects. In many cases, they helped. The ones I found of most significance were the aerial photos of various castles as these go a long way in impressing upon the reader just how difficult a castle was to capture via siege. The height and thickness of the walls, the strength and defensive position of mural towers, the fact that the defenders were not often idle, leading sorties against the besiegers at every opportunity; all of these factors meant sieges were often a long, drawn out affair where the besiegers best hope was to wait out a castle's defenders until they ran out of water or food. Besiegers often hastened this waiting period by plugging up sewers, doing their best to promote disease within the castle walls by hurling carcasses over the walls, and by cutting off supplies in or out of the fortress. In fact, often diplomacy was the first tactic in any siege.

It's an interesting fact that in a feudal system soldiers were only required to serve for forty days before being allowed to return to their fields or craft as the services and goods they provided formed the basis of society.

Siege engines, artillery, and the other constructs utilized by besiegers are perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of a siege. Gravett spends some time discussing mantlets (a large shield or portable shelter used for stopping arrows or bullets), belfries (a siege tower; expensive, time-consuming to build), battering rams (up to 60 men swinging it to break stone apart), as well as the three types of (pre-gunpowder) artillery separated by the firing principles of tension (ballista; giant crossbow), torsion (catapult), and counterpoise/weight (trebuchet).

The author also discusses sapping or mining, escalade, where men with ladders attempt to take a fortresses' walls by force, and pyrotechnics, many medieval strongholds and towns being highly susceptible to fire.

My overall impression of Medieval Siege Warfarealt is that it gives a good, high-level overview of the different aspects of a siege. I don't know that you'd be able to go off and write a thesis on the subject based on this work alone, but it's thorough enough to satisfy the layman. The only complaint I have about the book is that there is no index. However, it's short enough that finding information isn't all that difficult.