Monday, August 18, 2014

Fairy Tale

Dark Dancer
Jaleta Clegg
Amazon Digital Services, 2014

How did the realm of Faerie ever become the place where children's stories take place? Even J.M. Barrie has Peter Pan surrounded by dangers that should give a sane person nightmares. It's the charm of his story that we think Peter is going to be OK. But in Faerie there are no guarantees.

I think the most dangerous realm of Faerie I've ever read about was Greg Bear's The Infinity Concerto, and its sequel, The Serpent Mage. In those pages the "fair folk" are inscrutable, chaotic, and deadly. Think of the quisatz haderach test from Dune, but it doesn't end, and there's not just physical pain involved. That depiction has sort of stayed with me, so when I come across stories that take place in that realm, Bear's take is one of my main touch stones.

In Jaleta Clegg's Dark Dancer the story starts out the way a horror movie might, with an innocent child dancing in a meadow. Mysterious magical things happen next, and before we know it, Sabrina is living with her aunt Dianna and her cousin Katie, with no memories of what came before. Things seem to be going perfectly, until the summer before college. Sabrina and Katie return to Sabrina's abandoned home, and when Katie starts dancing in that meadow it triggers a series of events that propel Sabrina into a life she hadn't dreamt of, and wasn't prepared for. Her childhood memories turn out to be real. There are dangerous elves after her for the magical powers she didn't know she had. And there are swoon inducing leading men to lose her heart to. Not to mention a prophecy to fulfill.

Betrayal. Intrigue. Magic. Adventure. The story is a fun mix of everything we want in our lives. Well, except for the betrayal. Most of us would be cool if we never experienced it. But, hey, if it means adventure, what price, eh?

Sabrina, as the viewpoint character (there are a few interruptions with scenes involving the main bad guys) is a likeable young lady, old enough to appreciate what is going on, but not terribly sophisticated. She's about to start college, but her life with aunt Dianna hasn't prepared her for dealing with treacherous elves, nor, apparently, taught her the meaning of the word "consort." Oh, never mind. I know people like that on Facebook.

The world itself has many of the familiar characteristics of realms of Faerie. It's small, parochial, and magical, with all the creatures we're accustomed to from stories - fauns, nymphs, dryads, pixies, and, of course, elves. They take their accustomed places without any complaints, it seems. It's a shortish story. There is the occasional feeling of getting railroaded from plot point to plot point; no doubt that's how a lot of people feel when things keep happening to them. In most but not all cases it's a believable form of zugzwang - events are being pushed along by the mere presence of Sabrina in this world.

I really wanted to like this story. There are many parts of this story that I did enjoy. But overall it seems a bit sloppy, with copy editing errors left behind, and several places where I think an editor would insist on more work. The scene where Sabrina meets Mordentius. The part where Sabrina meets Joren - there's got to be more to that for the end to make sense emotionally. The interactions with Dianna and Balakyn. Saber fencing and freeclimbing skills from seemingly nowhere. And especially the matter of Katie, and how she ends up conveniently in place for the final scenes - that part really contributes to the feeling of narrative railroading.

I read an Advance Reader Copy, so I don't know how much of this can be changed as the ebook is already available on Amazon. But right now I can't recommend the book.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Not Your Grandpa's History!

The Forever Engine
Frank Chadwick
Simon & Schuster, 2014
ISBN 1451639406

Time travel stories come in several flavors, mostly hinged around the paradox where someone travels back in time to kill their grandfather. I think the earliest time travel story I read was the version where any tiny change in the past irretrievably changes the course of history. It was a short story by Ray Bradbury called "Sound of Thunder," where someone accidentally kills a butterfly (of course). There's Asimov's novel End of Eternity, where time engineers intentionally change history. Finally there's Connie Willis' Time Travel stories, where historians travel into the past, always fearful of accidentally changing things, and yet it always turns out that the changes they introduce were actually part of history. Willis' most recent stories in that series, Blackout/All Clear, make clear that the universe may in fact be using the time traveling historians to make sure things go as intended.

Frank Chadwick's story The Forever Engine concerns the adventures of Jack Fargo, a former US Marine who fought in Afghanistan, but is now teaching history, trying desperately to forget the past he lived. Jack gets summoned to a small town in England where a wartime buddy of his is working on a secret weapon that apparently is also a time machine. The troubling thing is, the time machine seems to show that, somehow, the past has been changed, and the present as we know it may be on the brink of destruction! But before Jack even has a chance to look into matters, a huge explosion flings him into oblivion, and when he wakes up it's 1888, and ironclad battle ships are floating in the sky above a smog shrouded London.

The story's main characters, Jack Fargo, and Gabrielle Courbiere, the beautiful French spy, are well realized heroic figures. Jack's main motivation is making sure that the future in which his daughter exists is restored to reality. Gabrielle's motivations are far more mysterious. Since she's a spy it's not all that surprising. Still, when all is revealed towards the end of the book she doesn't suddenly pop. It's more a case of getting a new perspective on someone you thought you knew well.

Since this story's history is different from our past there isn't a good way of judging if Chadwick did his research. And since I'm no historian I don't really care all that much. We meet a few people that are known to us in the here and now, and their presence serves as a kind of anchor in a story that would otherwise have us all adrift.

I can't say more about the story without spoiling things. Jack's competences as a former Marine and history professor are both called upon repeatedly, for a series or cracking good adventures with thrills and spills. If you like steampunk I think you'll love this story, but it's a great read just from a general action adventure angle, as well.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Bad Choices

Demon Bound
Caitlin Kittredge
St. Martin's, 2009
ISBN 0312943636

I am obsessed about having something to read. Anything. I'll read the side panels of cereal cartons if there's nothing else. My kind of OCD, I guess. I know bookstores love me because of that. They ought to treat me the way casinos treat people with a gambling addiction.

So a few weeks back I'd been waiting for Elysa to finish shopping. There was a dollar store nearby, so I decided to just see if I'd stumble across something interesting there. I ended up in the book aisle, which typically consists of various editions of thesaurus and dictionaries, maybe a Bible story book, that sort of thing. But this time I noticed a number of paperbacks on the shelf. Browsing through them I noticed a story by Caitlin Kittredge entitled Demon Bound. Browsing the first couple of pages I realized it was yet another occult detective story - no surprise, since Jim Butcher left a nice blurb right on the front cover. While I'm really really really looking for new ideas in SF&F, I was rather desperate for something to read, and it was only gonna cost me a buck, so I picked it up.

One of the best dollars I've ever spent on reading material, I can tell you that.This was a truly lovely read. A lot of occult detectives are disgustingly competent, hardly working up a sweat while beating their opponents. Only in the boss battle do they have to bleed. (Above mentioned Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden is one exception.) It's not that occult detectives can't be competent, but it kind of spoils the thrill. Kittredge's Jack Winter (the name initially put me off, it did) is no magical n00b, but magic in his world is hazardous at the best of times, and a demon is gunning for him.

We meet Jack and his girlfriend Pete doing a little spirit raising to pay the bills. The scene beautifully sets the mood for the rest of the story, establishing Jack's competence, as well as his limits, and the prickly relationship he has with Pete. It's that relationship that drives the rest of the story. Thirteen years ago Jack made a deal with a demon to save his life - he didn't want to leave Pete without a mentor. His time is almost up, and he's desperately looking for a way out. But this demon is nobody's fool. As Jack tries to keep Pete from discovering what is going on while he negotiates with the denizens of hell I found myself getting drawn into the story. There's a showdown in the end, of course, and I suppose if I'd read the first novel in the series, Street Magic, I might not have been quite so surprised at the ending. Suffice it to say, Jack has more than the demon after him, and in the end he has to make that choice.

I loved Kittredge's characterizations. Jack, a lowlife ex-addict whose principles don't really extend much further than a personal debt to Pete. Pete, an ex-cop who is just learning about her particular powers, and whose relationship to Jack is a lot more than just rescuer and caretaker. Kittredge doesn't waste a lot of energy on the other characters. Jack and Pete and their complicated relationship are center stage. When it comes to this kind of a story, that's a rare and wonderful thing.

I don't know if you'll be able to find this book for a dollar, but even if you pay full price, I think it's money well spent.