Sir Apropos of Nothing, by Peter David (Pocket Books, 2001)

We all know what a Hero is like. Though born of ignoble birth, he overcomes great odds and adversity to accomplish noble quests, gain the aid of mysterious allies and ancient artifacts, and show up to save the day in the nick of time, winning the love of the beautiful (and virtuous) princess, and probably the throne in the process. Right?

Wrong. Prepare yourself for the heroic fantasy novel that laughs at convention, scoffs at tradition, and overturns the apple cart of expectations. Peter David, noted “Writer of Stuff,” is at it again with Sir Apropos of Nothing, the book that Tolkien is glad he didn’t write, the story Eddings shut the door on, the tale too unpredictable for Jordan.

Let’s review the facts: Apropos is a coward and a thief, a craven, conniving, selfish, self-centered, egotistical, bitter young man He’s about as much hero material as a half-eaten jelly donut. He’s lame, walking with the aid of a staff. His mother was a whore, and his father could have been one of six “noble” knights who forcibly had their way with her. All his life, Apropos has been betrayed, spit upon, mocked, reviled, picked on, and used. After his mother is killed, he has but two goals in life. Avenge her death, and get enough money to live happily ever after.

The princess in question, Entipy (short for Natalia Thomasina Penelope) might just very well be a pyromaniac, as well as a sociopath.

The hero is Tacit One-Eye, who claims he was raised by unicorns, and who used to be Apropos’ best friend, once upon a time.

The knight is Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions, a useless, addled, broken-down mockery of a once-mighty warrior who can’t even remember his own name from day to day, and who goes through squires like Clinton through interns.

Despite his best efforts, Apropos actually ends up squired to Sir Umbrage. And despite his even better efforts, he and Sir Umbrage are sent on a routine mission, to escort Princess Entipy home from the Holy Retreat of the Faith Women.

Wouldn’t you know it, things go wrong. Very wrong. Extremely wrong. We’re talking disastrous. On a large scale bad. As they used to say, this was ‘moose bad.’ (Long story.)

The unicorns are out to kill them. The Evil Warlord Shank is out to kill them. The Harpers Bizarre are out to kill them. The mobile army of the Vagabond King, Meander, are (you guessed it) out to kill them. Hell, at the rate Apropos collects people out to kill him, it’s a wonder he manages to survive from day to day. And you’ll never guess what part the jester plays in all this.

I promise you, if you’re not rendered speechless at least twice by the end of the book, you’re not reading it properly. I read some of the worst puns out loud to my wife, and she wondered if Peter David had been bitten by a radioactive Spider Robinson (of the Callahans series). The cats were less amused.

Sir Apropos of Nothing is both an excellently told fantasy novel and a brilliant metatextual commentary upon the heroic fantasy genre. It’s self-aware, but not embarrassed in the least. In this regard, it ranks right up there with Eve Forward’s Villains By Necessity and Simon R. Green’s Blue Moon Rising for taking the traditional trappings of epic fantasy, and not just twisting them into knots, but giving them a good sucker punch to the groin for good measure.

Apropos is by no means a hero, not in the least, save for the few times enlightened self-interest gets in the way. Frankly, it’s nothing short of amazing how well he can fast-talk his way out of danger, and even more amazing how he ends up back in those same situations against his better judgment. He’s an anti-hero, a lazy scoundrel who’s concerned about himself first, himself second, and himself third, and to Hell with the king, the kingdom, the princess, and everyone else. But he’s the sort of character we can identify with nonetheless, for in the end, he’s wholly believable. And his reaction upon learning his true role in the world is nothing short of priceless. I can’t give it away, but I can say that it’s been a long time coming for a character to gain such self-knowledge.

I can only pray there’s a sequel, because Peter David’s only scratched the surface of the genre with this offering, a fairly hefty tome in its own right. He’s given us a believable, if amusing, world to play in, with place names like Flaming Nether Regions, and The Tragic Waste, with fully-realized characters, and with a magic system that defies description. (Well, it could be described, but I just like saying something defies description. Ha! I defy you! I defy you again!) (Forgive the digressions. I blame the book.)

If you like fantasy, and you’re tired of the same old epic quests, noble knights, unpronounceable names, and recycled elves, you’ll enjoy Sir Apropos of Nothing. Now, if you don’t have a sense of humor, you’re probably better off sticking with the elves. All in all, this is one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while.

And its only fault was daring to come out at the same time as Neil Gaiman’s new novel, thus making me choose which to read first.

I’ll be looking forward to Peter David’s next offering, and if it’s even half as enjoyable as this one, I’ll enjoy it at least half as much.

Two Shakespeare-related Books

A Shakespeare Sketchbook, by Renwick St. James and James C. Christensen (Greenwich Workshop Press, 2001)
Shakespeare on Fairies and Magic, by Benjamin Darling (Prentice Hall Press, 2001)

There’s no doubt that Shakespeare, whether he was a playwright from Avon-on-Stratford, Sir Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth I, or a conspiracy of time-traveling aliens, has had a tremendous impact upon Western culture for hundreds of years. Long after his death, his plays continue to be produced by the hundreds and thousands each year, with interpretations ranging from the distant past to the far future, from the feudal society of historical Japan to Manhattan in the 1990’s, from the West Side to distant planets, from grade-school productions of Midsummer Night’s Tale to experimental off-off-off-off-Broadway versions of As You Like It with full frontal hermaphroditic nudity. Perhaps I exaggerate just a little, but the truth is, it’s hard to find a milieu or genre which Shakespeare can’t be translated for. In that spirit, I’d like to offer up a pair of books which reimagine Shakespeare through art and drawing, through the visual mediums while leaving the text to speak for itself.

First up is the absolutely wonderful little volume, Shakespeare on Fairies and Magic, compiled by Benjamin Darling. What Darling has done is to extract those elements of Shakespeare’s plays which deal with the occult, supernatural, fairies, myth, or magic, and find suitable illustrations, drawing upon four hundred years worth of artistic renditions. So while you’ll quite naturally see extensive selections from “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest,” Darling also throws in selections from “Macbeth,” “Julius Ceasar,” “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

Each of the several dozen selections is laid out in the same fashion, with the quotation and its source laid out on the left-hand page, with a small drawing, painting, or piece of artwork to fill the page if the quote itself doesn’t take up the whole space. Then the right-hand page is home to a full-size illustration, representing the very best of Shakespearian-related art. That way, you get at least two renditions of the same material, reimagining and representing the subject matter from two points of view. In one, Puck might be a full-grown fairy, lecherous and lusty, while on the opposite page he’s more like an infant, albeit one with a most mischievous gleam in his eyes. Titania and Oberon are depicted in various manners by Joseph Noel Paton (1849), Francis Danby (1832), and of course by one of the greatest painters of fairies and the supernatural of his time, Arthur Rackham (1908). In fact, Rackham’s work makes up a significant minority of the collected art to be found in this book, accompanied by Johann Fuseli, William Heath Robinson, H.M. Paget, John Simmons, Charles Altamont Doyle, P. Konekawa, and dozens more.

Combining the classical appeal of Shakespeare’s work, with the primarily (though not exclusively) Victorian charm of the art, this is a book suitable for a wide range of people. Whether you appreciate the words of the Bard, or the work of the artists within, this is recommended. Benjamin Darling has done an exemplary job of putting together this book, producing a work of art in all ways. He truly proves that he’s earned his reputation as an expert on illustrated Shakespeare.

Next on the list is something different, but not too far removed: A Shakespeare Sketchbook, written by Renwick St. James (Voyage of the Bassett, A Journey of the Imagination) and illustrated by James C. Christensen (award-winning artist also known for Voyage of the Bassett and numerous other works).

Quite simply, this is an artistic and introspective romp through Shakespeare’s many works, from the best-known and most-loved like Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, to the downright obscure or near-forgotten, such as Pericles or Two Noble Kinsman. Every play has its moment on stage in this pageantry dedicated to exploring Shakespeare’s works. There are synopses of each play, grouped into categories like Histories, Romances, Comedies, Tragedies, The Roman Plays, and The Problem Plays. There are amusing sidebars on a number of subjects: men playing women on the stage, famous lines we still use today, the unfortunate incident of Mr. Thomas Bowdler and his insistence upon rewriting the plays to make them family-friendly (Disneyfied), useful Shakespearian insults (would thou wert clean enough to spit upon), witches, the superstitions surrounding Macbeth, the role of the fool, and so on.

Interspersed between these, on every page, are sketches and full-blown drawings from Christensen, depicting scenes and characters and incidents in all their glory. They’re beautiful, noble, sly, wry, whimsical, knowing, cunning, sober, dramatic, romantic, accidental, incidental, and unearthly. The ultimate telling piece would have to be “All The World’s A Stage,” the frontispiece which puts together some three dozen and more characters all onto one stage for the ultimate cast party, with their creator and storyteller, Shakespeare himself, in the center.

Again, this is designed to highly appeal both to lovers of theatre and literature, and to lovers of art. The author and artist, noteworthy collaborators for their previous endeavors as mentioned above, have outdone themselves with this offering, which is both intelligent and accessible. Its mixture of entry-level Shakespeare education and entertaining trivia should make this useful for anyone with even the slightest interest in the material.

While these are but two of the many, many Shakespearian-related books and items available on the market today, there’s no doubt but that they’re both high-quality, and worth picking up. Join me next time, for a look at several more books along these lines.

Seven Nations, The Pictou Sessions (Seven Nations, Inc, 2000) and Seven Nations, Seven Nations (Q Records, 2000)

Some months back, I raved about Seven Nations’ 1999 release, The Factory. Now I’m back with a pair of releases from one of the best Celtic rock bands out there. The Pictou Sessions, released in 2000 on their own label, is what happens when a talented group of musicians travels to the town of Pictou, Nova Scotia, Canada, to endure a hectic five-day period, producing an acoustic album, “aided and abetted by several of their friends, who also happen to be some of the finest pickers and players from the region.” The second album, simply called Seven Nations, contains many of the same songs as The Pictou Sessions, a compilation of most of their crowd-pleasing hits, and was released in October, 2000, by Q Records in association with Atlantic Records. And although the two have almost the same cover, it’s important not to confuse them.

As before, Seven Nations consists of Kirk LcLeod (vocals, twelve-string acoustic guitar, piano), Struby (fretless bass, vocals), Ashton Geoghagan (drums, vocals), Scott Long (highland bagpipes, electric bagpipes, vocals), and Dan Stacey (fiddle, vocals). For The Pictou Sessions, they were joined by guest musicians Dave MacIsaac (acoustic guitar, mandolin), Dave Gunning (guitar, background vocals), Randy MacDonald (bodhran, jembe, tambourine, shakers, vocals), and Nigel Poirier (piano, vocals).

There’s a reason that Seven Nations has fast become so popular, with seven independent albums under their belt and a nation wide fan following. It’s not just the fact that they spend over 2/3rds of the year touring and playing. It’s because they’ve thrown rock, pop, traditional Celtic and more into a blender and hit “puree” to create something wholly unique. I cheered them for their FHL (Faster, Harder, Louder) factor last time, and they haven’t let down one bit since. Their lyrics are powerful, the vocals strong, the instruments energetic. They’re the musical equivalent of a force of nature, slamming into a song with all guns blazing, and leaving the listener reeling as quickly as they came. But then they’ll switch tactics from toe-tapping fiddling (such as “The Surprise Ceilidh Band Set”, as strong a tune as any I’ve heard) to the sombre and reflective (such as “God”, which is deceptively quiet, lulling one almost into a state of melancholy.)

Vocal, versatile, and unpredictable, Seven Nations is a hard act to match. They’re even harder to describe, being as multifaceted as they are talented. I’ve mentioned how they can switch styles like some people change clothes. Well, it’s true. From celebratory to inflammatory to melancholy to pure piano (of note, “Skyezinha/The Egret” on The Pictou Sessions), they’ve got something for every listener and every season. They can make bagpipes do things I swear bagpipes weren’t meant to do (the true purpose of the bagpipes being to shatter the moral of the listener, I’m told…). They’ve got good old drinking songs, like “A Rare Auld Time,” and pipe songs (“Pipe Set”), and songs that defy definition.

So, what am I saying? I’m saying that Seven Nations is as good as ever, if not better, and if you like Celtic of any sort, you owe it to yourself to pick up The Pictou Sessions and/or Seven Nations.

They have a Web site that contains all the 7N information you could ever want. From a band history and timeline to a discography, from news articles and releases to photos, sound clips, tour dates and a chat forum, there’s even online ordering for Seven Nations music, hats, artwork and other merchandise. So, become a citizen of the Seven Nations today.

Flash Girls, Play Each Morning Wild Queen (Fabulous Records, 2001)

“They talk about the Islands and they have been called Wild Queens. I wonder if they were not really Anne Bonney and Mary Read, those piratical dames, those buccaneer broads, those sword-and-knife wielding beauties of the Bounding Main. After all, did anyone actually see Pansy and Violet in the same room with Anne and Mary? I think not. I remain among their greatest fans, especially now that I know their secret.” – Jane Yolen, on the back page of the liner notes for Play Each Morning Wild Queen

The Flash Girls were the musical equivalent of Thelma and Louise, a pair of wild women musicians who’d taken their songs on the road, spreading chaos behind them merrily. They’re what happens when you throw in the Celtic rock talent of Cats Laughing or Boiled in Lead, the peculiar English sentiments of Neil Gaiman, the urban phantasms of one “Colonel” Emma Bull, and the genius of “The Fabulous” Lorraine Garland, self-styled Duchess of Hazard, into a blender and serve chilled with a twist of lime. Or, to put it another way, it’s what happens when some really creative, talented people got together and decided to have some serious fun.

Play Each Morning Wild Queen marked the third adventure of Emma Bull and Lorraine Garland in their alter(ed) egos of Pansy Smith and Violet Jones, aka The Flash Girls. In her previous tenure with a musical group, the much-renowned Cats Laughing, Emma Bull demonstrated that her talents were as much instrumental and vocal as they were literary, leaping from the Fae-haunted streets of Minneapolis to the stage, as though invoking one of her own characters. And while like the Flash Girls, Cats Laughingis no more, its legacy also lives on.

In The Return of Pansy Smith and Violet Jones, they introduced us to characters so real that they ultimately took on a life of their own in Chris Claremont’s short-lived comic book, Sovereign Seven. In Maurice and I, they continued to expand their horizons, mixing traditional songs with ones penned by Neil Gaiman and Jane Yolen, among others. And now they were back again for their final CD.

Play Each Morning Wild Queen was as different from its predecessors as they were from Cats Laughing. With Emma on vocals, guitar, washboard and spoons, and Lorraine on vocals and violin, they demonstrated the full range of their abilities, while assuring us that, yes, they were having fun.

And they had brought friends: Robin Anders joins in on the drums, and another Boiled in Lead colleague, Adam Stemple, helped out on bass and keyboards. Lojo Russo, formerly of Cats Laughing, brought her bass into the mix, and Steven Brust contributed dumbek as well as lyrical assistance.

The traditional songs of the mix (“Nottingham Ale”, “Lily of the West”) were joined by songs written by Neil Gaiman, Steven Brust, Dorothy Parker, A.A. Milne, Todd Menton, Jimmy McCarthy, and of course, Emma and Lorraine.

Looking at the above list, it’s no wonder that the offerings that were put forth in this album ranged from the unusual to the unexpected.

So, were they any good? You bet. I’ll admit up front, their style wasn’t for everyone. The Flash Girls seemed to occupy a certain, oft-unused portion of the consciousness, taking up residence when you were not looking and refusing to pay rent on time, if at all. They started out with a nice, almost subtle instrumental, the darkly atmospheric “Driving With Noel,” a heavily bass-accented tune that had my walls shivering and my cats eying me suspiciously. It’s immediately my favorite song of the batch, without having heard the others, the sort of song that should be turned up louder, if only I wasn’t afraid of causing an earthquake in Virginia. It’s vaguely Celtic, vaguely folk, with a healthy dose of violin and drums, the afore-mentioned bass, and an erupting volcano for good measure.

It’s almost a relief to go from the moody dark autumn night of “Driving” to the Dorothy Parker inspired “Threnody,” which presents us Our Heroines on vocals, the usual suspects on backup instruments, and one of Parker’s own poems as the basis for the lyrics. What can I say, except that Mrs. Parker would undoubtedly be pleased with the treatment of her work.

“Lily of the West” proves that the Girls could handle traditional as well as they did other sources, throwing us into the story of the man who met, loved, was betrayed by, and lost, Flory, Lily of the West. Cheerful? Only if you like the sort of love that can survive betrayal and death, to the very end. I hear some people were big into that intensity of faithfulness.

Then it’s to A.A. Milne, whose words, taken from When We Were Very Young give us the core of “Buckingham Palace/Dunford’s Fancy.” After the previous song, it’s a very welcome change of pace and atmosphere. Fast-paced, witty, light-hearted in tone, catchy, it’s Christopher Robin and Alice going down to the Buckingham Palace, and it doesn’t let up in its energy levels until the end.

“A Meaningful Dialogue” starts off with a sort of ’50s girl group vocalization but rapidly degenerates into the aftermath of a bad relationship: “I’ve got my fingers in my ears I’m going lalalalalalalalala/I can’t hear you/I’ve got my fingers in my ears I’m going lalalalalalalala/Going la la la”. Admit it. Haven’t you ever wanted to do that? It works when the boss gets mad, it’s the solution to the worst day you’ve ever had, and sometimes it’s the best response available. Childish, yet meaningful, and all too entertaining on some levels.

“Race to the Moon” was the result of a collaboration between Emma, Lorraine, Steven Brust and Adam Stemple, blending nursery rhymes like “Little Bo Peep” and “Ring around the Rosy” to create a whole new way of looking at things. Then it’s time for another instrumental, “The Wine With The Stars In It/Mr. and Mrs. O’Mara,” a fine traditional tune written by Lorraine, backed up by Adam Stemple and Steven Brust.

“All Purpose Folk Song (Child Ballad #1)” was another one of those songs that had to be heard to be believed. Words by Neil Gaiman, inspiration by all those Child Ballads that were the meat and potatoes of any folklorist or folk musician. This one’s an a capella tune, but you’ll hardly miss the music. “Sure of Me” speaks to all those doubts a lover has ever had to assuage in his or her partner, with just the slightest hint of wryness.

As the song says, “Even with an explanation/How will you be sure of me?”

Back to the traditionals for “Ride On/Reverend Guiness” for another haunting tale that might or might not have once been called “The Right Reverend Guilderness’ Jig,” and then it’s next door for a Neil Gaiman creation, “Personal Thing,” which is as much of a love song as we may ever expect to get from the man most famous for Sandman and American Gods, that is to say, it’s full of gorgeous imagery and magical suggestion.

Finally, we wind up our tour of that ill-used part of your consciousness with “Nottingham Ale,” a traditional song about drinking, without which no proper folk(ish)album would be complete. Drink up your Nottingham Ale, boys! (And I won’t mention the ‘bonus track’ that you’ll get if you let the CD play on past the last track. Let’s just say it’s… interesting.)

So yes. Play Each Morning Wild Queen was good. It’s unique, fascinating, esoteric, and just plain fun. I haven’t decided if I like it more than the other Flash Girls offerings, but then again, does that matter? Take this one on its own, or with the others, or on faith, and enjoy it fully.

Of Darkness, Light, and Fire, by Tanya Huff (Daw, 2001)

The newest book by Tanya Huff is actually an omnibus of two of her oldest books. The first, Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light, is an urban fantasy originally released in 1989, while The Fire’s Stone is a more traditional fantasy story released in 1990. Each book is a stand-alone; they represent the two sub-genres she’s best known for (although arguably her Blood Price vampire-and-monsters series is more dark fantasy bordering on horror than it is urban fantasy (see this review). Out of print for some time, these two books have been brought back in one handsome volume to reintroduce readers to some of her earliest, and favorite, works.

The Darkness and Light exist in a precarious balance, each opposed directly by the other, each remaining apart from the mundane world except when called by our own hopes, wishes, dreams, or darker desires. When an Adept of the Darkness slips through the barriers into Toronto, he threatens to upset the balance and bring down horrors unimaginable. He leaves a grisly trail of death and despair behind him, twisting minds and souls to fit his needs and his unhealthy appetites. The only people capable of standing against him are inexperienced, untrained, and, in some cases, way out of their league.

Roland is a simple street musician, a guitar-playing busker who’s never followed anything through properly in his twenty-eight years. Daru is an overworked, dedicated social worker who fights a losing war against the darkness of man’s nature on a daily basis. Mrs. Ruth is a bag lady who knows more than she lets on, but that knowledge has driven her mad … or has it? Tom is a cat with uncanny instincts and the courage to do what he has to. And Rebecca, for all her charm and good nature, is simple, unable to grasp the complexities of modern society, considered incompetent by so many. With Evantarim, an Adept of the Light, to aid them, they have to track down this Adept of the Darkness and stop him before all Hell breaks loose.

Roland will undergo a personal quest that will either break him, or forge him into the man he’s always been destined to become. Rebecca will tap into her true nature and discover the magic both within and without. And Evan will embrace humanity, helping them to unite and call upon the power of the Goddess. But someone will die to save the world, and no one will remain unchanged by the events leading up to Midsummer.

Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light is a fun book, that doesn’t require any previous knowledge of a series. Well-told, with exceptionally well-crafted characters and an increasingly tense plot, it only stumbles once in a while, such as when Roland is thrown into otherworldly realms that seem to have little to do with the ongoing plot. The trio of Roland, Rebecca, and Evan are a treat to behold, as they struggle with the tasks at hand, and with increasing attractions to one another. These characters are realistic, first and foremost, as they cope with things many of them couldn’t even dream of.

The Fire’s Stone is much like Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light, in that it too features a trio of protagonists out to save the world. However, this is much more a story of personal choice, defying roles, and making one’s own destiny.

Chandra, only daughter to a powerful lord, has defied him, insistent upon following her destiny as a Wizard of the Nine, one of the all-too-rare people capable of channeling not just one, but all nine disciplines of magic. Where most choose one or the other, becoming wizards of the First, or Fourth, or Seventh, she can transcend them all with her power and skill. But she’s been promised in marriage. Gambling desperately, she sets off to try and thwart this plan, but instead gets caught up in a far more immediate concern.

Darvish, third son of the king of Ischia, is a hopeless cause. An alcoholic, fond of women, men, wine, beer, song, and general misbehavior, his only redeeming skills are his superb swordplay and his charming demeanor. He’ll never amount to anything, and he knows it. But when a thief falls into his life, he finds responsibility, just in time to be sent on a dangerous quest. Is he the only man for the job because he’s got the qualifications, or is he the only man because he’s expendable?

Aaron, self-exiled heir to a far-northern Clan, has assumed a life as a thief, choosing a slow path of self-destruction to bury the memories of the love his father had killed. When his mentor dies, he looks for a way to honor her, but betrayal lands him in the hands of justice, and ultimately bonded to Darvish.

Together, Aaron, Darvish, and Chandra will go forth. For the Fire’s Stone, a magical artifact that’s the only thing keeping Ischia from being destroyed by the volcano it was built on, has been stolen. Without it, the city will perish in fire and smoke, horribly. The trio must go forth as warrior, thief, and wizard, to reclaim the Stone, expose a traitor, defeat a wizard, prevent a war, and save Ischia. In the process, Chandra will find her path, Darvish will find his destiny, and Aaron will find his love. Together they can do what no one else can. But if they don’t stand together, they’ll be the first to fall.

Again, the characterization is the standout element of this book. The three main characters are believable, and one can sympathize with their choices and motivations. The feelings they exhibit are as complex as any real person, going against social conditioning and even religious indoctrination to follow the heart. The storyline is fast-paced and gripping, with plenty of dramatic rooftop chases, intrigue, skullduggery, and sharp fight scenes to keep it moving.

Compared to Tanya Huff’s later works, these might lack experience and polish, but they still hold up as wonderful stories in their own right. Because each book represents a different sub-genre, the collection offers something for varied tastes. Of Darkness, Light, And Fire is recommended, with the only real downside being the somewhat clunky title, meant to represent both books and instead dropping like a stone.

Narcissus in Chains, by Laurell K. Hamilton (Berkley, October 2001)

The next time someone I know has relationship problems, I’ll point out that no matter what, they have to have it better and less complicated than Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. In Narcissus In Chains, the tenth novel to feature the popular character, things have reached an all-time level of complexity. SNAFU: Situation Normal, All Fouled Up.

For starters, Anita’s not the nice, innocent little necromancer/vampire hunter she was back in her first outing, Guilty Pleasures. She’s dating, at the same time, the Ulfric (King) of the local werewolves, and the vampiric Master of the City, respectively Richard and Jean-Claude. She shares in their power, but only in an incomplete sense, and if she doesn’t do something about it, who knows what’ll happen? Furthermore, she’s the Nimir-Ra (pack leader, more of less) of a small group of wereleopards. Makes the single life look good, doesn’t it? Between her dating life and her permanent houseguests, Anita’s about ready to scream, even after six months of self-inflicted celibacy and ‘alone time’ to try and get herself back in order.

Guess what? Things can always get worse.

For instance, when Nathaniel, one of her wereleopards, gets in some serious trouble with Narcissus, the werehyena owner of the popular club Narcissus in Chains (most of the Anita Blake books seem to be named for the club or hotspot they feature … Circus of the Damned, Guilty Pleasures, Lunatic Cafe … ) Anita goes rushing in, and finds herself up against some very nasty snakemen. After rescuing her wayward ward, and a few other innocent victims, the true fun begins. Let’s summarize, shall we?

A) After being potentially infected by her own wereleopards, Anita’s in danger of actually becoming one with the next full moon.

B) After merging her supernatural side with Richard and Jean-Claude, she also has to worry about taking on -their- aspects. Namely, Richard’s rage and Jean-Claude’s “ardeur,” the need to emotionally or sexually feed from people.

C) One of her wereleopards is to be judged and executed by the local werewolves, in response to a conniving new enemy among their ranks. Richard, in his role as Ulfric, can do nothing to help her anymore.

D) The snakemen, and their enigmatic leader, Chimera, want Anita dead.

E) There’s a second wereleopard pack in town, and their Nimir-Raj, Micah Callahan, could either be Anita’s best ally, or another enemy.

F) A deadly conspiracy is preying upon the local werecreatures. No one is safe, be they rat, wolf, leopard, hyena, cobra, fox, bear, swan, or hamster. (Okay, I made up the hamster … )

If Anita can’t rally her allies and master her own abilities, innocents will die, and Saint Louis will never be the same again. Nor will her poor love life.

If you think I’ve given away too much, think again. Narcissus In Chains is densely plotted, reeling and turning from plotline to plotline with exhausting complexity, interweaving the various strands until they all come together in one final explanation and showdown. It doesn’t let up one bit, offering no relief or reprieve to Anita and her friends, or the reader. With some books you read until you find a good place to stop. Be warned. There’s not much of a good place to stop once you get started. The book may take place over the course of days, even weeks, but it doesn’t feel like time’s really passing. From one thing to the next, it’s a nonstop ride of erotic dark fantasy.

That’s right, I said erotic. From the boudoir to the back alleys, Laurell K. Hamilton continues to redefine the image of vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night as creatures of dark passions, sensual desires, and dangerous temptations. The book doesn’t just steam, it fogs up the windows. The pages drip with the same sort of erotic imagery and romantic entanglements and outright lust that have popularized the vampire of late, stopping just sort of explicit with the same grace and style of the best softcore Cinemax offerings. And yes, this is a good thing. Narcissus In Chains knows full well what it is, and isn’t embarrassed in the least. It combines dark fantasy/horror and eroticism in a way that would make Anne Rice stop to take notes.

On the flip side, I’d have to label the book with a big old “R” rating. Most definitely not for children, people with weak hearts, prudes, or those who find shapeshifters ‘icky’. Mature, consenting adults, this one’s for you. If you’re not familiar with the Anita Blake series, I do recommend starting with Guilty Pleasures and reading in order. They’ve all been recently released in paperback with a series of gorgeous covers that would look great unencumbered by cover copy, either as posters or prints. You can’t miss them.

License Invoked, by Robert Aspirin and Jody Lynn Nye (Baen, 2001)

They’re not Mully and Sculder, or whoever those two are. Not by a long shot. In fact, the only thing Liz Mayfield and Boo-Boo Boudreau have in common with the Dynamic Duo of the X-Files is that they’re both government agents, members of small and obscure departments devoted to dealing with the paranormal, the unusual, the inexplicable, and the occult.

Elizabeth Mayfield is from overseas, an agent for the British Government Office of Occult and Paranormal Sightings Investigation. That’s right, OOPSI. Sigh now, because it doesn’t get any less tongue-in-cheek as we go along. Her counterpart is Beauray Boudreau, better known to his friends and colleagues as “Boo-Boo,” an easygoing good old boy from New Orleans who’s a “free-lance” stringer for the FBI’s Department BBB (Bibbity-bobbity-boo, a holdover from those wild and wacky try-anything ’60s). The uptight Brit and the laid-back American are about to go head to head as they’re forced to partner on an assignment which will tax their resources to the limits, and either make or break their departments for the year.

It seems a certain -very- visible rock star, Fionna Kenmare, lead signer for the Irish acid-fold-punk-rock band Green Fire, is having some occult problems, and they’re following her on her new world tour. Poltergeists? The Fae? Psychic assault? Bad karma? Who knows, but she wants it stopped, and now. And so do the unnamed higher-ups who’ve assigned Liz Mayfield to this unorthodox (and not entirely welcome) assignment. And since the FBI wouldn’t want to be left behind, they give her their best (not really) man for the job (only one in the area, to be truthful), Boo-Boo. Dana and Fox, eat your hearts out.

There are complications. Liz and Boo-Boo don’t entirely like or trust one another. Fionna doesn’t want them around. They have to stay as unnoticed and undercover as possible, to avoid publicity. There’re more intrigues and jealousies in the band and its entourage than is healthy. Oh, and there’s a fiendish plot by SATN-TV, which proves that cable is evil, to utilize Fionna for decidedly nefarious purposes. Then there’s the fact that Liz and Fionna are old school buddies, which doesn’t please either one of them.

Things get messier and messier as the investigation into the invisible, unpredictable attacks continues. Things burst into flames, objects levitate, people vanish, and in between, Liz meets Cajun-style cooking. It’s big trouble in the Big Easy, with just two agents there to prevent a tragedy of epic proportions if Fionna’s concert goes awry, as her enemies desire.

Luckily, Liz and Boo-Boo have a few aces up their sleeves, in the form of magical spells and resources that they’ll definitely deny if caught or exposed. Liz is a practicing witch, Boo-Boo a practicing … er … something-or-other.

And when they pull in representatives of two dozen or so different religious and arcane traditions to lend them a hand, it can only get more interesting. Eighty thousand people are on the line if Liz and Boo-Boo can’t pull off a minor miracle with a little help from some friends.

Straight up, this is comic fantasy, something both Robert Aspirin (The Myth series) and Jody Lynn Nye (The Mythology 101 series, the Don’t Forget Your Spacesuit Dear anthology) are quite familiar with, and it’s as good as anything I’ve seen from either of them in a while. It’s a fun and quick read with engaging characters, a familiar-but-enjoyable premise, and plenty of potential for sequels. I’d be surprised if we didn’t see more of Boo-Boo and Liz, as the chemistry between them shines and carries the story along swiftly. This may not be the most complex or sophisticated novel of the year, but once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. It has just the right touches of quirky asides and self-effacing humor without lapsing into sophomoric hijinx or endless puns, as many comic fantasies seem to do. This book’s worth checking out, whether you’re a fan of Jody Lynn Nye, Robert Aspirin, neither or both. Here’s looking forward to more from this team.

In Legend Born, by Laura Resnick (Tor, 2000)

An act of defiance that sows the seeds of rebellion. A man long gone from home, returned with foreign weapons and skills. A young woman possessing otherworldly blood and visions of the unknown. These are the elements which will throw the land of Sileria, a hostile and unwelcoming island nation made up of feuding, disparate ethnic elements, into utter chaos, and revolution against the decadent Valdani, who are but the latest people to hold proud Sileria under their thumb. A thousand years of Outlander control is about to be challenged, and it all starts with simple acts, and long-held prophecies.

Mirabar is a Guardian, part of an outlawed yet indispensable cult which uses fire to contact the Otherworld, and speak with the dead. Her fire-colored hair marks her as demon-blooded, outcast and distrusted even among her few friends. Plagued with visions of the future and contacted by enigmatic manifestations of what might be a god or long-dead hero, she is given a task to see a prophecy fulfilled.

Tansen, though one of the clannish and stubborn shillah, has returned to his homeland after years away, in the garb of a Moorlander and carrying the swords of a Kintish warrior, marking him as a truly dangerous man. Unwilling to surrender his weapons, unable to surrender, he comes under the scrutiny of the local Valdani commander, a man by the name of Koroll, who sees in this strange man the opportunity to rid himself of another problem.

Josarian, also of the shillah, is a man for whom the breaking point meant no longer giving in to the Valdani. Killing two of their Outlookers while on a routine black marketeering mission, he becomes an outlaw overnight, and soon parlays that status into something of a folk hero, a guerrilla fighter dedicated to nothing less than driving the Valdani out once and for all.

Sent to kill Josarian, Tansen swiftly chooses to switch loyalties, siding with his race over the unwanted Valdani. And when the two unite, they become the figureheads of a swiftly-growing movement born of vengeance and liberation. If they can unite the scattered peoples of Sileria: the mountain-dwelling shallaheen, the aristocratic toreni, the suspicious Guardians, the mighty and arrogant wizards of the Water Society, the lowlanders, and the seafolk, they just might stand a chance against the Valdani Empire, which now fights a war on several fronts and has little time or patience for the Silerian uprising.

As the story unfolds, the rebellion grows and the stakes rise. Can the disparate elements of the uprising stand together long enough to drive the Valdani out, or will infighting, treachery, long-held hatreds and distrust rend them asunder first? Jealousy will threaten Josarian; vengeance will threaten Tansen. And love will bind Mirabar to one of them, but not in the way anyone expects. And someone will undergo the ultimate test of faith, devotion, and sacrifice to fulfill a prophecy and become the instrument of a jealous goddess. But what happens when the long-awaited leader of prophecy has been dead for years?

In Legend Born weaves together a dozen different threads to tell a truly epic story of a land oppressed, a people in revolt, and would-be heroes caught up in the middle. Love, treachery, loyalty, honor, vengeance and betrayal form the basis for a story in which one man can make a difference, but it’ll take an army to make a lasting change. Sprawling, beautiful, and complex, it presents three-dimensional characters with true strength and damning flaws. Mistakes of the past will come back to haunt some, fear of the future will guide others, and only the desire to see their land free will unite them all. Picking up the pace as it proceeds, In Legend Born ends in a gripping climax that leaves no one untouched, and the way open for more tales told in this world.

While highly recommended, the book does come with this caveat: pay attention. It’s easy to get characters confused, as many of the Valdani have similar names, as do the Silerians. While these names are often indicative of their particular ethnicity or allegiance, it makes it sometimes hard to remember who’s who. That, and a constantly changing set of loyalties mixed with multi-leveled plots and conspiracies and agreements makes this book somewhat on the dense side. Plotted on a wide scale, though, it delivers a fascinating and entertaining story that will appeal to anyone who likes widescreen fantasy mixed with the Byzantine politics of such a mixed alliance. Give this one a shot.

Historical Hauntings, by Martin H. Greenberg and Jean Rabe (Daw, 2001)

Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you’re gone, or done with the world. In Historical Hauntings, edited by Martin Greenberg and Jean Rabe, eighteen authors dredge up stories worthy of any stormy night or campfire, tales of spectral vengeance, ambition, atonement and more. Stories of people who still have one last task to accomplish before they move on. People who can’t move on no matter what. Unfulfilled destinies, unfinished business, untold stories. And the ghosts invoked in this collection aren’t always who you’d expect. Anyone, anytime, anywhere, is fair game for this superb collection of spine-tingling and evocative ghost stories.

For instance, in Roland J. Green’s “Fighting Spirits,” the war for Iwo Jima isn’t over for General Kuribayashi, or for at least one of the many men who died on that island. The story is about honor, dignity, and purifying the spirit before moving on. Told from the viewpoint of an aging WWII Marine vet who now works for an agency too secret to be named, it sets up an interesting framework that could easily be expanded into future stories.

Stephen W. Gabriel’s “Jennie In The Field” is touching and tragic, the story of two sisters who can’t quite let go of one another until the time is right.

Science Fiction Grand Master Andre Norton weaves a gripping tale of ghosts inspired by Arthurian legend in “Ravenmere.” Morgan attempts dominance over the Ladies of the Lake, and only one enchanted reincarnation of a certain Arthurian lady stands in her way, as pawn or obstacle. James Lowder takes a different look at Arthurian legend, as one man tries to prove the true existence of Arthur, and becomes both celebrity and victim in the quest for the Grail.

Brian M. Thomsen gives us “In The Charnel House,” a profoundly disturbing and ambiguous tale inspired by the Holocaust, which plays with the senses and the nature of reality. What’s real and what’s the ghost in this story? Read it yourself to decide.

Michael A. Stackpole’s “When You’re Dead” features a magician who said he’d attempt the great escape of his career … by returning from beyond the grave. Though he doesn’t quite succeed, Harry Houdini does help one man cheat death by performing an escape even Houdini would be proud of.

John Helfers delivers a thoroughly enjoyable story set in Japan’s magical past, as a wandering wizard, his impetuous apprentice, and their enigmatic ronin companion must settle the mystery of a cursed castle, and the dangers from beyond which infest it. It’s another tale of honor, dying with dignity, and the fascinating mythology of the samurai, which sets up plenty of room for further tales featuring these characters. Easily one of my favorite stories in the book, “Spirit of Honor” is a fun read.

Janet Pack brings out “Danny’s Desire,” where a Tory spy for Washington’s army during the American Revolution is mistakenly hung. His curse reverberates through the centuries, impacting at last upon a modern-day professor, who will find a kindred soul in the young librarian who helps him to unravel the centuries-old mystery, and right the injustice.

Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s “The Mummies of the Motorway” is an offbeat tale in which a vacationing American family has to deal with the thousands of disgruntled mummies who were ground up to make pavement for British roads during WWII. You’ll never look at mummies, cats, or truck drivers in quite the same way again. Peter Scheighofer turns in a second tale of ancient Egypt impacting on the present in “Hatshepsut’s Revenge.” Immortality isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, and revenge can wait for millennia.

Bruce Holland Rogers shows us what happens when you invoke the wrong man’s name, when Chief Seattle comes back to deal with some ecoterrorists in “In The Chief’s Name.”

Leslie What’s “Those Taunted Lips” brings us a tale of Helen Keller … after her death. Pierce Askegren resurrects Jimmy Hoffa, while Lisanne Norman conjures up ghosts from the Battle of Hastings. Gene DeWeese spins a story of faith and Catholicism, and a ghost whose appearance is nothing short of miraculous. Tom Dupree’s protagonist still remembers the Confederate South, and his ghosts have a particularly nasty form of revenge in mind. Donald J. Bingle gives us the last message of John Lennon as it travels back through time, and Brian Hopkins touches upon the ghosts of the deep blue sea, and the lives the ocean has claimed over the years.

Chilling, touching, fascinating, these stories will make you think and shiver, and leave the lights on for a while. They take full advantage of the theme to truly explore unexpected topics, and feature some unusual protagonists. It’s another example of how rich and varied the genre can be, and how compelling stories of ghosts and the afterlife can be. Highly recommended.

Grave Peril, by Jim Butcher (Roc, September 2001)

What do you get if you cross Sam Spade or Mike Hammer with a healthy dose of magic? Harry Dresden, the only practicing wizard in the Chicago Yellow Pages. He’s a private detective and wizard for hire who takes the cases no one else can, or will. Vampire stalking your girlfriend? Werewolves digging in the trash? Fairies stealing your dreams? Ghosts refusing to stay dead? He’s your man, and then some. And in a world where all of the above can and will happen, he’s one of the few things standing between the unspeakable terrors of the Nevernever and the unknowing public at large of the mortal world.

In his last few cases, he’s dealt with some pretty rough stuff. Demons, rogue wizards, werewolves of all kinds, and vampires. He’s been knocked around, beat up, smacked down, hit over the head, shot at, cursed, arrested, propositioned by seductively dangerous vampires, chomped on by any manner of nasty critters, and only just survived. You’d think a sane man would hang the ‘Gone Fishing’ sign on the door, and leave town. For good. But Harry’s not like that. He’s a hero, and heroes never give up. Not even when things get unspeakably bad.

Grave Peril pushes Harry to the very edge of his limits, as it continues to fill in his backstory, and flesh out his life. In addition to his skull-dwelling familiar and magical resource, Bob, he’s joined by Michael, a carpenter turned Knight of the Sword, a crusader for God’s will who wields one of the three great holy swords. It’s good, because Harry’ll need all the help he can get. Chicago’s been turned upside-down lately by a plague of restless, unpleasant ghosts, spirits, and spooks. The two are run ragged trying to keep things under control and send the spirits on to their deserved rest. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Someone, or something, is intentionally stirring up these ghosts. It’s not the local vampires, some of whom have a real grudge to settle with Harry… is it? It’s not the wizard Harry helped bring to justice the other month… is it? It’s certainly not Lea, Harry’s treacherous Faerie (of the Sidhe variety) godmother, right? Whoever it is, they have reasons for raising havok with the dead and creating a Nightmare whose sole desire is to suck Harry’s power dry, and drive all his friends insane with spiritual torment. It’s gotta be personal.

Harry and Michael will both be tested to destruction, as the saying goes. With enemies on all sides, innocents falling victim left and right, and their enemies constantly one step ahead, it’s a sure bet someone’s dying along the way. They’ll brave the perilous etiquette of the Vampire Courts, make alliances with the people they least trust, risk losing body and soul and faith, and sacrifice the things they care for most, in order to see the world safe from the things which threaten it. Because that’s what good men do.

Once again, Jim Butcher turns in a fast-paced, breath-holding, stomach-churning mixture of pulp noir and urban fantasy. Harry’s the quintessential hard-headed hero, determined to do the right thing, no matter what the cost. He’ll risk anything for his friends, and keep going until he’s exhausted every potential, and can’t move. And even then, don’t count him out of the running. He’s Humphrey Bogart with magical spells, all tough guy with a heart of fool’s gold. Heaven help the nasty that harms someone he feels responsible for.

The plot is deftly twisted, leading us and Harry around all sorts of deadends and blind alleys, dangling clues all the way until, at the end, it all comes together in an unexpected manner. The dark and dangerous world Harry inhabits, not far removed from our own, is further explored, with the end result of leaving just enough unexplained and unresolved to make a fourth book in the series a distinct and hoped-for possibility. (In fact, I’m told that the fourth book, tentatively entitled *Summer Knight*, will further involve poor Harry in the intricate hostilities between the Summer and Winter Courts of the Fae, among other things. Holy Shades of War For The Oaks, Batman!)