Wit'ch Fire by James Clemens

Wit'ch Fire by James Clemens is one that I just couldn't finish. In fact, I didn't get very far at all with it.

The story begins with a foreword; never a good sign. Info dump (i.e., background story of a bygone era where bad things happened) ensues. The problem with a forward like that is that the reader isn't invested in any way: not in the world and certainly not in the characters. I'll admit I skimmed through most of it.

Then the story begins. The writing is competent enough, but, ah, the story. It's your basic farm boy girl who discovers she's the heir to an ancient power that if she learns to control will no doubt save the world. Someone is after her, too, which I suspect means she'll have to flee and will probably meet some nice people who will help her not get killed, or something.

Wit'ch Fire was published in 1999, which is about the time when these sorts of tales were beginning to go out of style. Perhaps if I'd read it back then, I wouldn't feel so detached from it. Perhaps it would have grabbed me and not let go. Perhaps, or perhaps not.

In any case, chalk Wit'ch Fire up as a "not finished."

Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb

Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb concludes the story begun in Dragon Keeper, book one of the Rain Wilds Chronicles. Word is that Hobb wrote this series intending it to be a single novel, but given it's length the publisher decided to split it in half (Robin Hobb informed readers of her blog that she is, in fact, working on a third book in the series). The result is that Dragon Keeper doesn't exactly leave us hanging or wanting to rush out to buy Dragon Haven (I didn't, but that was more about the then eBook price of $14.99; I finally bought it for $9.99). But, all that aside, I still was looking forward to getting my hands on this one.

The Rain Wilds is something Hobb has delved into more and more in each successive series of hers. These two novels delve deeper still. Whereas Dragon Keeper was about stunted dragons choosing keepers for themselves and the beginning of a journey to find the lost city of Kelsingra, Dragon Haven is about the continuing angst and trials between the dragons and their keepers and the conclusion of their quest.

I'll leave it to the reader to discover if they find Kelsingra or not, but I would like to comment that Hobb, in her own way, finally explains the acidity of the Rain Wilds River, something that has played into many of her novels and defines the people who choose to make their homes at its banks.

In terms of writing, it's hard to complain or find fault with Hobb. She's a wonderfully competent author who has a knack for developing rich characters dwelling amongst a richer world. As is mentioned often about Hobb's writing, pacing is an issue. If you're looking for the latest Abercrombie-type novel, go elsewhere. Hobb leads the reader on a slow walk down a meandering path, tantalizing with hints of something more and just enough contention and challenges that when presented, you tend to want to see how the characters involved make out. Sometimes they win, sometimes they don't. The conclusion of the Farseer Trilogy still stops me in mid-thought sometimes and sends me into fits of melancholy. It's powerful stuff.

If I were to say anything bad about Dragon Haven it's that we never get the level of tragedy I was expecting out of Hobb. It just seemed to me there were multiple points where certain characters could have come to serious harm or made to sacrifice, but those opportunities were passed over.

While Dragon Haven is a complete tale, I couldn't help but feel that it is only a stepping stone leading into Hobb's next series. There's a lot of setup here, with some aspects of the Rain Wilds and dragons in general finally explained, but we're left looking into a horizon that is not darkening, but becoming brighter and wider. In any case, Dragon Haven will be going on my Favorite Reads of 2010 list.

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey is urban fantasy with a decidedly noir detective flavor to it. James Stark awakes in the middle of a cemetery out of sorts. Can't blame him. He just returned to our world after spending eleven years in Hell. Not as a deceased person, but as a living, breathing human, sent there by his once friend but now arch-nemesis, Mason Faim. Stark's back, and he's only got one thing on his mind: revenge.

So begins the tale of Sandman Slim, who we come to learn escaped from Hell where he most recently was serving as the personal assassin to one of Lucifer's demonic generals. Life in Hell for Stark began as one might expect. But when he not only survives the initial assaults but becomes stronger after each one, Stark begins to wonder what's going on. He takes it in stride, though, it being impossible for him to leave until his employer bequeaths him with a very special key that allows him to travel undetected and instantaneously from one shadow to another and—magically—between worlds. Stark doesn't waste any time. He leaves Hell as soon as he can, returning to our world and setting out to find Mason and his cronies, who were all complicit in sending Stark to Hell.

Sandman Slim reminded me in many ways of the recent season of Supernatural: angels and demons are at each other's throats, battling each other for dominance of the mortal world while all sorts of other nasties wreak their own particular sort of havoc. I don't read enough urban fantasy to know if such premises are anything unusual. My guess is not. But where Sandman Slim really stood out for me was in Kadrey's narration and in his "hero", Stark.

Kadrey captures perfectly the flavor of a Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane hardboiled detective novel, except that Stark, aka, Sandman Slim, is not a detective per se. He does share many of Marlowe or Hammer's mannerisms, though, in that he is brusque, foul-mouthed, not afraid to take a punch (or give one), and, despite his cynicism, still will make the choice that keeps others from slipping into the hell that his own life has become.

Kadrey's writing is fast-paced, gripping, and laugh out loud hilarious at times. When Stark finds himself commiserating with a talking head, what can you do but laugh? The action is a mix of shoot'em up, fisticuffs, and some new weaponry straight from Hell. Oh, and magic. Stark, Mason, and others are all magicians, and have certain magical abilities as a result.

Sandman Slim was offered as a free Kindle download by Amazon some time ago. The next book in the series, Kill the Deadalt, is already on my "to read" list. This is a great read that I highly recommend.

The Mark of Ran by Paul Kearney

The Mark of Ran by Paul Kearney is the first in the Sea Beggars duology. As my mind wanders over the story and its characters, I'm not quite sure where the series title comes into play. The main character, Rol Cortishane, is at times without home or hearth, but never does he beg. He never needs to. Cast into the world after his guardian/grandfather is slain by an angry mob, Rol seeks out an old associate of his grandfather's in whom he finds a mentor willing to train him in the ways of his ancestry. Rol is not human. While he looks human enough, certain traits come to the forefront when Rol is pushed emotionally or physically: his eyes glow, his strength is superhuman, and he heals quickly.

While the story is entertaining enough, it seemed to jump from place to place a bit too often with less than smooth transitions between. Much of the tale revolves around Rol's initial training, his interactions with his mentor, and his love/hate relationship with the mysterious and beautiful Rowen, who is not human, either. About halfway through, Rol takes to the sea, and while I expected the story to really take off from that point, it instead fizzles in a somewhat predictable direction.

I've heard good things about Kearney, so it was with some disappointment I have to say that I will not be reading the second book in this series. The author's Monarchies of God and the novel, The Ten Thousand, have both stood out in others' reviews, though, so I'll set my sights on those the next time Kearney's name comes around.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest

Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest is a modern day urban fantasy with deep roots going back to the time of the Civil War. That fact is interesting because Priest's latest work, Boneshaker, Dreadnought, and Clementine, are all set in an alternate history where the American Civil War continued well beyond its 4 years. That's more of an aside, however, as Four and Twenty Blackbirds does not take place in the same world as those other novels.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds is a ghost story. The lead character, Eden Moore, is haunted by three women who died under unknown circumstances. Eden suspects the three have something to do with her own mysterious origins, and so she sets out to discover where she comes from. The story is really that: Eden follows one clue after another, reacquainting herself with long lost relatives while staying ahead of an odd cousin who wants nothing more than to end her life.

I would classify the story as urban fantasy. Eden is a fairly typical, spunky heroine of the genre. Other characters are interesting and colorful. The ghosts are mysterious, but I would have liked to have seen more of them. Their own origin is not revealed until the climatic ending.

The term "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" is not new. Its origin seems to lie in the nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence, which begins,

Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds,

Baked in a pie.

Both Mercedes Lackey and Neil Gaiman contributed works that bear the name. There's even a Brooklyn pie shop that uses the name.

Those facts aside, Four and Twenty Blackbirds was an enjoyable read, though it was lacking a certain oomph.