Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy 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.

Book Review: The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien) is the tragic story of the scions of Hurin, Turin and his sister Nienor. Step into the wayback machine; this tale takes place long before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, when the First Dark Lord, Morgoth, sought dominion over all of Middle-Earth.

Morgoth has fled from his Valar brethren, taking up residence in his dark fortress, Angband, There he plots to conquer all of Middle-Earth. At first, only the Elves oppose him. But then Men revolt against Morgoth. The Elves welcome their new allies, most of all Hurin, who above all others defies Morgoth to such an extent that the Dark Lord takes a personal interest in him. Morgoth captures Hurin and places a curse on his children. He then forces Hurin to watch as Turin and Nienor's lives unfold. Always, there is Morgoth's curse hanging over them and, ultimately, leading them to tragedy.

Unlike The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin is readable. Where the former requires a classroom of Tolkien scholars to help interpret exactly what is going on, the latter is told in an easy narrative style. Christopher Tolkien, who edited the drafts and notes of his father to put this story together, says in the preface that he wanted to tell the story in a more accessible fashion, recognizing that The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales were anything but. That being said, The Children of Hurin, while readable, is told in a distant narrative style. Don't expect a lot of character viewpoint here; it's all told in third person omniscient. It's all telling, in other words, and no showing.

Much of the story has to do with Turin, son of Hurin. Turin comes to realize the curse he carries early on. As a result, he becomes a wanderer and wears many hats (and false identities) as he moves from one part of his life to another. He is often recognized as a natural leader, a stalwart ally, and a fierce combatant, though, and always he is thrust to the forefront where eventually his true identity comes to light. It is then when tragedy strikes as Morgoth's curse inevitably finds him time and again.

Turin uses many names corresponding to the false identities he takes on in an attempt to in some way forestall the curse. I found all of the names added to the already difficult names Tolkien bandies about. Fortunately, there is a "List of Names" in the back of the book which I found myself referencing often just to keep the various characters straight.

I enjoyed The Children of Hurin. It's a good addition to the Tolkien legendarium, though if you're looking for something as entertaining as, say, The Lord of the Rings movies, you might be disappointed.

Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon

Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon is the first book in The Entire and the Rose series. Subsequent novels include A World Too Near, City Without End, and Prince of Storms. Bright of the Sky was (and still is) a free Kindle giveaway, which is how I obtained this gem. Free is always easy; you didn't pay anything for it, so if it doesn't live up to expectations, no big loss. Fortunately, Bright of the Rose did not disappoint.

The novel is a blend of science fiction and fantasy, the latter coming into play because the technology is so far advanced that it might as well be magic. The setting is reminiscent of such series as The Chronicles of Narnia or the Thomas Covenant Chronicles, both of which feature characters who travel from our world into one that is both wonderful and strange. What Kenyon does, however, borders on brilliant: instead of journeying with the main character into this other world for the very first time, we quickly learn that our main character, Titus Quinn, has already been there. This sets things up in an entirely different way than if he's just come into the Entire (the name for this otherworldly dimension). The catch is that he doesn't remember much about his previous stay, and only once he's back and immersed in the Entire's strange culture do bits and pieces return to him. As readers, everything is new. But with Titus as our guide, we're able to skip over some of the minutia and get right into the good stuff. That's the brilliance of Kenyon's approach.

The only thing that Titus does remember for sure is that he didn't enter the Entire alone: with him were his wife and daughter. They did not return with him, though, and so Titus spends much of his time trying to convince others back in his own world that he isn't crazy, that there is another world or dimension that he somehow traveled to, and that his wife and daughter are still there. The opportunity to return final presents itself when your somewhat atypical greedy corporation steps in offering to send Titus back in exchange for his performing some reconnaissance for them. It seems space-time works differently in the Entire, and they think it can be used to speed up interstellar travel. Titus agrees, and off he goes.

The Entire is an odd place based loosely on feudal Chinese society. Ruled by the Mantis Lords, or Tarig, there are humans and many others races there, but all are kept in a sort of subjugation by the Tarig, who are the creators of the Bright, an energy source that makes the Entire possible. Our world is called the Rose, because while those of the Entire view it as a thing of beauty, they also have seen its thorns. Interaction with the Rose is forbidden, and punishable by death, as is aiding someone like Titus who's come from there. Titus does find allies, though, those who are tired of the Tarig yoke. HIs journey becomes one of deception and subterfuge as he avoids detection at all costs while trying to determine the fate of his wife and daughter.

Titus comes across initially as a bit of a bitter kook. He was ridiculed and discredited upon his return to our world, so he chooses to live a life of solitude until given the chance to return to the Entire. He is ruled by guilt over leaving his family behind, though, and so he desperately wants to return. This desperation sets him up ultimately as a sympathetic character whom I wanted to succeed. As the story unfolds and Titus's memories return to him, the fate of his family is both sad and bittersweet. Ultimately, what begins as a sort of rescue mission for Titus becomes something else entirely as old enemies emerge and secrets are revealed. Suffice to say that Kenyon resolves some threads while leaving others spinning on the loom for the next two books in the series.

I give Bright of the Sky a solid thumbs up and I plan to continue with the series.