Review: "The DaVinci Code" by Dan Brown

If Alfred Hitchcock produced and directed the television show 24, the end result would be The DaVinci Code, a strap-yourself-in-and-hold-on-for-dear-life of a read that lives up to the hype and does not disappoint.   [Read more...]

On A Pale Horse

This book was originally posted on the Dragon's Den forum, oh, months ago. Then some dickless hacker crashed the site, and the review was lost forever, or so I thought. Amazing what will turn up when you clean your apartment.

The review is posted nearly as-is, with a few spelling corrections, and the addition of rating the book on the one to five scale.

After listening to the interview with Piers Anthony, I decided to try one of the books in his Incarnations of Immortality series. The first book in the series is titled On a Pale Horse.

The book is about a down on his luck photographer named Zane. In his desperation, he allows himself to be swindled out of the love of his life by an unscrupulous magic dealer. Afterwards, alone in his apartment, he decides to end it all, and puts a gun to his head. As he is pulling the trigger, the Grim Reaper enters his apartment to oversee the death. And Zane, instead of shooting himself, shoots death right between the eye sockets.

Zane has killed death. And there's a catch. Now he has to take his place.

It's kind of like The Santa Clause, only cool.

What else happens? Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, monsters, chases, escapes, torture, revenge, true love, miracles, talking horses.

You know, like The Princess Bride meets Mr. Ed, with a big fight - Death vs. Satan to cap it all off.

So much for what the book is about, is it worth the $7.99 plus tax?

As I was reading the book, two thoughts kept coming back to me. One: Piers Anthony comes up with fantastic stories. Two: Unfortunately, he doesn't tell them that well.

And that's the rub. As much as I want to like Piers Anthony, I can't stand his writing. Several years ago I tried reading his novel Firefly, and couldn't make it past twenty pages. I think the fact that I enjoyed his first Xanth novel many years ago must be a fluke.

First of all, Anthony writes bad dialogue. Worse than bad. Worse than worse. It was actually physically painful to read at times. I almost put the book down at one point when a common thug actually used the word "Hark!" I realize that written dialogue is different from spoken language, and that nobody speaks like a book. But good written dialogue, though not actually like spoken language, should seem like spoken language. Anthony's characters speak b-movie dialogue.

And as for description, Mr. Anthony must never have met an adverb he didn't like. If you removed all the "Tom Swifty's" from the book, it would be five pages shorter. I mean, come on - "She grimaced prettily"? Bleh.

And finally, there is nothing, and I mean nothing, more annoying than knowing what's going on, and waiting for the protagonist to catch up.

On a Pale Horse is the first in a series. Other incarnations have books dedicated to them, i.e. Nature, Time, Fate, etc. But I think this is my last Piers Anthony novel. Not enough Rolaids in the world to go through that again.

Rating: 2 out of 5

On A Pale Horse by Piers Anthony
Published by: Del Rey; September 12, 1986
ISBN: 0345338588
Genre: Fantasy
Author's Webpage:
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Dragon's New Home

I found myself smiling when I finished the last page of Dragon's New Home, by Theresa Chaze. I've read a pretty good number of books in my life, but none have given me quite the mix of emotions that this books has. Let me explain.

The Dragon Page reviews science fiction and fantasy from large publishing houses, small houses, and self-published authors. With few exceptions, a wide gulf separates the large houses' books from the others in terms of the quality of prose. Even when large publishers send me books I don't like, from a purely technical standpoint those books tend to be far better written than the small press stuff. Even the small press books that I like.

Now, Dragon's New Home isn't a well-crafted book. But the book has something that most small press books don't even have a sliver of. Potential. Dragon's New Home feels like a diamond in the rough. I think that given a few hundred thousand more words, Ms. Chaze will become one damn fine author. She's just not quite there yet with this book.

The Gist: Kevin Mitchellson's mother murdered his grandmother. His guilt for letting her get away with the crime is eating him alive, but he will not break his word to his father to protect her secret. So, one night, under the influence of potable spirits, he beckons spirits of another sort to take the problem out of his hands, and expose his mother in a way that cannot be denied. And damn if they didn't hear him.

Rachael Franklin, a Wiccan Priestess, has just won the lottery, and has an inclination to set up a New Age bookstore called Dragon's Den (great name.) She calls on the Goddess to send her to a new home where she can make a difference. She throws a dart at a map and eventually finds herself on the front step of Kevin's grandmother's abandoned house with the local agent from Century 21.

So, in one corner, wearing the red trunks, we have Rachael and her three cats: Merlin, Tara, and Ralph. In the other corner, wearing the blue, is Lady Katheryn, the murder, and the House of Christ, the local Christian cult that thinks that whole "live and let live" thing is for sissies.

And the bell rings.

The Good: Is it right to point out the good points of a novel by pointing out the mistakes the author could have made, but didn't? Forgive me if it's not kosher, but as I write this I can't stop making comparisons in my head between this book and other small press books I have reviewed.

For instance, most first time, small press authors try to tell big stories, and tell them too small (all life on earth my be destroyed by a world wide phenomenon. Let's tell the story of one family driving across country.) Ms. Chaze's story, on the other hand, has a simple, relatable plot, and doesn't skimp on the ensemble needed to tell the story.

Most genre books in general are plot based. This story is character driven, which I have firmly come to believe is the better route to take. Every plot-advancing decision Rachael Franklin makes comes from who she is as a person, not from what decision needs to be made to advance the plot in a certain direction. This gives the book a believability that many sci-fi and fantasy stories lack.

And, finally, it doesn't hurt that the reader might be learning something new. Not being knowledgeable about Wicca myself, I enjoyed reading a book told from the perspective of a philosophy I'm not accustomed to.

The Bad: The book suffers mostly from what most first time authors suffer from - amateur writing syndrome. The dialogue has no real spark. It's too on the nose. The story has no irony. In what could have been a very scary and engrossing story, there was only occasional suspense, and not very strong suspense at that.

Not only that, but the author tends to write too much about things that are obviously important to her, but are not important to the story. At all. Not even a little. It is not hard to see that Ms. Chaze loves animals, but why do why have to plod through pages and pages of Rachael feeding the cats, sleeping with the cats, potty training the dog, etc? Dragon's New Home is the first book of a trilogy. I have the sneaky suspicion that once the series is done, it will be apparent that instead of three short novels, the book could have been one moderately-long novel, if the writing were more focused on the story and less sidetracked by animals, visions, astral projection trips that don't really go anywhere, and the like.

The Ugly: A nit-picky thing, perhaps, but come on. Xena is spelled with an "X," not a "Z." I don't know if this was done out of ignorance, or because the author wanted to avoid copyright issues, but it is aggravating to no end, especially since the word is used so often (it's the name of the dog.)

Well, I hope I didn't bore you with another long review, but I have a lot of hope for this author, and I wanted to be thorough. This book is a so-so read, but I'd keep my eye out for future books by this scribbler.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Dragon's New Home by Theresa Chaze
Published by: Publish America, Inc.; May 2003
ISBN: 1592863108
Genre: Fantasy, Wicca, Pagan
Author's Webpage:


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Those of My Blood

I don't like romances. I'm not terribly fond of mixing science fiction and fantasy together. I've always found vampire stories that try to give a scientific explanation for the existence of vampires rather silly.

So what do you get when you have a romance novel placed in the future on the moon between a human and a space alien vampire? A pretty good book, actually.

Centuries ago, an alien craft crashed on earth. The aliens hid the crash, and blended into human society. Glimpses of their otherness eventually gave rise to myths of vampires. Now there is a civil war among the vampires of Earth. The Tourists, an elitist association, want the vampire race, the luren, to return to their home planet, and are willing to do so, whatever it takes. Their adversaries, the Residents, believe the humans they live among and hide from have rights and should be respected, and not merely treated like food.

Whether or not the vampires could ever return to their home world has long been only an academic question, until another luren spacecraft crash-lands on the surface of the moon. The multinational Project Hail is developed to try to determine the origin of the craft and maybe, just maybe, send a message to that far away star.

Abbot Nandoha, an old and powerful Tourist, has every intention of helping the humans contact this distant world, with his own imbedded SOS buried in the signal. Titus Shiddehara, a Resident, is sent to stop him at all costs. Too bad Abbot is Titus's father. And too bad there is more to Project Hail than either of them know.

Fortunately, Titus has help. Connie, his Resident connection back on Earth, smuggles him much needed information and blood. And a former lover, Inea, takes up the charge to defeat Abbot and save humanity from a possible luren invasion.

I'm telling you, the book is much better than my description, as I'm trying to keep this review spoiler-free, and if I reveal all the coolness that occurs, you'll be spoiled. The plot has great twists and turns, political intrigue, romance, and familial angst. The story constantly builds on what came before, tightening the screws until the action-filled d?uement.

Certainly not your typical vampire story, Those of My Blood is definitely worth a read if you're looking for something a bit different.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Those of My Blood by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Published by: BenBella Books; October 1, 2003
ISBN: 1932100091
Genre: Science Fiction
Author's Webpage:
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Tinker by Wen Spencer

If heavily armed elves, a demonic conspiracy, and a girl genius doesn't sound like a wild enough ride, how about Pittsburgh being the epicenter of a dimensional rift. Welcome to Wen Spencer's Tinker, a book that is an adventure worth every page!

Rating: 5 out of 5

Now, here's a serious issue I have with writers who try to combine science fiction with fantasy. Most of the time, it fails...miserably. I really believed you could never truly combine both genres seamlessly without the final work resembling the 80's epic blunder, KRULL. Usually, science fiction and fantasy when meshed together is nothing more than that...a jumbled mesh of devices...

...but Wen Spencer has broken the convention and married both genres together in her latest novel, Tinker, a jam packed, wickedly funny, and thoroughly entertaining adventure that brings Elves and their magic toe-to-toe with hoverbikes and Quantum Physics.

This is the unexpected adventure of the local girl genius who runs a scrapyard in Pittsburgh. Everyone knows her as Tinker, and the girl is gifted. She makes MacGyver look like a pretty boy with a pocket knife. When she's not customizing her own computer system, she's enhancing hoverbikes and resetting the standards of technology. A good deed one night begins a chain of events that make Tinker the most popular girl across the dimensions with Elves, government agents, and ancient creature hell-bent on ruling the world...

...and all this is happening in Pittsburgh which is a dimensional epicenter between Earth and Elfhome. And you thought being a teenager was tough. Try being one living in two universes!

What makes Tinker as real delight is in Spencer's ability to combine both the mystical elves of Elfhome with future Earth. While the elves still hold a control over magical ley lines and mystical tattoo runes, Tinker manages to explain most of it through biochemical and genetic explainations, and even theoretical physics...and all of it makes sense! Spencer's world is clever, desireable, and an extremely fun place to spend some quality time in. Get ready for one wild ride on a hoverbike with Wen Spencer and Tinker!   [Read more...]


Time to get over your personal Affleck-factor, slip on your best DareWear, and check out Paycheck. Time well spent at the movies!

Rating: 4 out of 5

Okay, I'm not a fan of Ben Affleck. Yeah, I liked him in Daredevil and all, but I've not been really kooky-crazy about him as an actor or about his films except of Shakespeare in Love, a film very early in the pre-JLo phase of his life. Sad thing is, there's a lot of pressure (yeah, like you can call his like "pressure"...I'll take that pressure any day!) on ol' Ben to crank out a hit because his last few film have all tanked. Hard to believe Gigili did so because even without Ben, JLo really shows off her talents in Maid in Manhattan. Seriously though, Ben needs a hit, a big hit...

...and in Paycheck, Ben finds it.

First, Ben is in good company. John Woo directs Paycheck and really hits a nice balance between a terrific SF-action film and a John Woo film. You have all those great Woo-Woo touches (but dammit, John, what is with the dove imagery?!), but he also manages to get some very personal, human performances to this movie, making Paycheck a little better than the average action film. Then you got Uma who is still looking buff from her Kill Bill project. She is the most unlikely actress to make action least, I thought she was. Uma kicks ass, and does it very convincingly. With a very strong supporting cast (including Paul Giovanni, a terrific character actor that brings fun to any project he's involved in!), Ben and Paycheck can't go wrong.

On a final note, don't be surprised if you notice some strange similarities between this film and Minority Report. Both of these film are based off the works of Philip K. Dick. And if you rush out to get a copy of the original Paycheck, expect very little similarities between Woo's directing and Dick's writing. I read the original Minority Report (not much better than the film) and BOY HOWDY did they take liberties! However, Paycheck, unlike Minority Report, succeeds not only as Philip K. Dick on the big screen but working as a movie...a really GOOD movie! The chase sequences do not feel contrived. There is genuine tension built in the film. And instead of noticing that "Speilburgian" look, I genuinely cared about the characters and storyline of Paycheck, reinforcing my faith in Philip K. Dick films.

This was worth the ticket and a good time, to boot! Way to go, Ben! You done good!   [Read more...]

SOMETIMES THE MAGIC WORKS: Lessons from a Writing Life by Terry Brooks

Take a sneak peek into the imagination of an amazing writer...and a good guy to boot. Sometimes The Magic Works is a book for everyone who either loves to write, loves to read, or loves to dream.   [Read more...]

The Last Samurai

Don't expect a Dances with Kimonos or Bamboo Braveheart. Expect an adventure worth the ticket price. This isn't a good Tom Cruise movie. This is a really good movie -- period! Do not miss The Last Samurai.

RATING: 4 out of 5

Okay, when I saw the trailer for The Last Samurai, I got the impression that Tom Cruise went back and remade Kevin Costner's epic Dances with Wolves, substituting Native Americans with the Feudal Warriors of Japan. And he did. I also wondered, after seeing clips of the battle sequences, that Cruise was substituting the Braveheart broadswords with katanas. And he did. I also guessed from some of the clips that Cruise would fall in love with one of the Samurai women in the same manner that William Wallace did with the English queen in Braveheart. And he did. And then as Costner did in Dances with Wolves, I surmised that Cruise's character would be faced with a society considered "savage" but discovers the peace and harmony within these people -- and himself -- and takes arms against those he once served. And he did.

You would think that if Cruise was going so out of his way to mimic Dances with Wolves and Braveheart, he would have a tough time pulling this off...

He didn't. I loved it from frame one to the ending credits!

I'm addressing the similarities between Dances with Wolves and Braveheart, but The Last Samurai stands on its own as a deep and gripping film, and hands down Tom Cruise's finest performance. I enjoyed watching his transformation that was far from perfect and not as "easy" as Costner's in Wolves. There was also a haunting parallel drawn between the "Westernization" of Japan and the suppression of the Native Americans...something that Cruse's character picks up on, but decides to act against the injustices this time.

As far as the actors go, the reason Cruise gives his best performance to date is so that he can keep up with everyone else! There is no weak link in this cast. Everyone is top knotch, especially Ken Wantanabe who plays opposite of Cruise and -- in some scenes -- makes Cruise look like he's running in place! A good portion of the film is spoken in Japanese, and yet you understand everything conveyed even before reading the subtitles. As producers, the unstoppable team of Cruise and Wagner should be proud of this air-tight ensemble put together for this film.

And with the Japanese backdrop, you got extremely cool swordfights, extremely cool wardrobe, and extremely cool landscapes. The visuals are nothing short of breathtaking, and you begin to take this journey with Cruise into this far-away culture that lives by duty and honor. You also have some battle sequences that raise the bar, but not in an over-the-top manner, one of many reasons I give The Last Samurai an A+ for doing their homework. These weren't Hollywood Samurai but the real deal, right down to the ninja tactics, the archery style, and the little touches that made this film a historical epic.

Tom Cruise has come a long way from the days of dancing in his underwear to Bob Seger (although he does have a funny scene where he's trying out his robes for the first time!), and The Last Samurai is a crowning achievement for his evolution as an actor and producer. Well done, Tom, and thank you for this amazing cinematic journey!   [Read more...]

Jump Start

Correction added on 12/31/2003. My review contains a remark that implies that Mr. Carter's book is self-published. It is not. His book was published by Publish America, so it would be considered a small press publication.

Mark Twain, among others, is credited with ending a rather long letter to a friend with, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Or something like that, anyway.

I have to make the same apology for my review of Gary Carter's Jump Start. I wanted to get this review done before the holidays, as Mr. Carter has waited forever for me to get my act together and read his book. I wasn't sure how to begin, so I used my old The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly format, and this is what came out, a 1500 word review. But I don't have the time to make it any shorter. Sorry.

The Gist: Jacob Malfusco's "career as a botanist had long ago dried up, and his career as a paleontologist had never gotten off the ground". That is, until he and his class from San Diego State have a weekend dig in Death Valley and uncover the bones of what can only be a dragon, a dragon that dates back a measly nine thousand years ago.

Marsha Kimbrough is a crack-pot archeologist with theories of space astronauts visiting the earth and being the cause of just about every unexplained phenomenon in earth's history: Stonehenge, the extinction of the mammoth, the pyramids, the extinction of the Neanderthals. She is taken seriously by few of her peers until she and her daughter discover what appears to be an Egyptian pyramid in the middle of the Australian desert.

Papalov Ulysses Darringer, an astronomer working out of Mt. Palomar, has discovered that the world is going to end when a meteor storm of epic proportions is going to smash the earth in less than a year.

When the meteors turn out to be dragon eggs, sent to earth because our planet is the equivalent of an interstellar smorgasbord, the two down-and-out-scientist-turned-celebrity-experts must help the president push back a plague of biblical proportions, as millions and millions of flying lizards start feeding on us natives.

The Good: To me, the idea that dragons are alien livestock, and that life on earth becomes feed for them periodically over the history of the planet, is fiendishly clever.

The author certainly has done some homework, as various objections that kept cropping up in my mind as I read the book were addressed and answered later on. Though I wouldn't call this book "hard" science fiction, he doesn't just tell the story the way he wants, while ignoring all the "hey, what about..." questions such a story creates. It is a bit grating to have the question floating around in your head from the beginning of the book, only to have it addressed near the end, but what are you going to do?

And I noticed in this book something that I have noticed in many of the first time author/self published books I've reviewed. The writing got noticeably better as the book went along. Clunky at the beginning, the writing became much smoother later on, with the exception of the last two chapters, which I'll get to later.

All in all, though I think the book is flawed, I wanted to keep reading. I wanted to see how the story ended, which is a lot more I can say about other books I've reviewed.

The Bad:

1. The Dialogue: When it comes to both books and movies, I'm a big, BIG dialogue freak. Give me Tarantino! Give me Kevin Smith! Give me Mamet, over and over and over again. Reading many first time authors, I've come to the conclusion that dialogue simply must be a difficult aspect of writing to learn, because many of these authors are quite bad at it.

The book begins and ends with exposition done in the "As you know Bob" tradition, where people stand around telling each other things they already know, so the reader is clued in to what's going on. Though Mr. Carter does not indulge in this hackneyed technique often, his characters do speak throughout the book in a stilted, unnatural way that sounds like it came off a keyboard.

2. Stupid protagonists: One of the keys to the plot working in the novel is that the dragons appear right out of the oceans one day, and start their feeding frenzy, and the whole world is completely taken by surprise.

But, the world is only taken by surprise because all of the world's governments and scientific institutions are full of idiots. When the dragon egg "meteors" were still a year out, the scientists knew that they were behaving in a way that simply wasn't natural, but no one seriously considered the idea that they might be guided. When the meteors, which were expected to be swallowed up in Jupiter's gravity well, split up, went around it, and regrouped on the other side, the scientists simply mumbled "weird meteors, ain't they?" Nobody seemed to entertain the idea that these might be guided objects till they landed on earth, and every single one of them went into the sea. Finally, people said, "hey, that ain't right," but they still don't take any measures to prepare the military or civilian population for a possible attack, or first contact.

I cannot believe that this would actually happen. If the world were actually under this kind of threat, there would be world meetings. Every single scientist remotely qualified would be consulted, and the suggestion that the objects were being guided would have been brought up and taken seriously from the start, and most countries would have started beefing up their militaries within the month.

3. Lack of Scope: Let me just say that if you have an end of the world novel, which is only one hundred seventy-seven pages long, you're leaving too much out. The book follows only Malfusco, Kimbrough, and Darringer as they advise the President, and drive home to San Diego. That, along with five to ten pages devoted to a little girl in Japan, is it. Though I think this would work in a movie or novella, there needs to be more for a novel. The book abounds with subplots that could have been, but weren't. There was not one international conference. No religious doomsayers. No increase in crime. No political ramifications. Is there nothing of interest going on at all in the world besides three scientists on a road trip from Colorado to California to look for Kimbrough's daughter, who's probably already dead?

4. Improbable science and scenarios:

a. Even with the existence of the human species at stake, I cannot believe it possible that within five months, a SUBTERRANEAN lunar colony is built, and a ship is sent to Mars, with the intent of setting up a colony there as well.

b. Human "intelligence" began about nine thousand years ago. One premise that provides the foundation of the book is that humans were "Jump Started" by aliens about nine thousand years ago, in order for the population to grow to the ridiculous size it has so there is lots of food for the next time the dragons are sent. This is Kimbrough's theory from the start, and events prove her theory correct. However, there is no real reason given in the books to believe the theory in the first place. Several times it is stated that human culture started all around the world at "around" the same time, but that's only true if you're willing to seriously dick around with the numbers.

The mammoths went extinct ten thousand years ago, or so we think. But what if it was really more like nine thousand? Neanderthals went extinct about thirty thousand years ago, but what if it was really thirty-six, or twenty-seven? It's not a big stretch to think that an event like the extinction of the mammoths, that current theory states happened ten thousand years ago (according to the book) actually happened only nine thousand years ago. However it isn't reasonable to believe that this same event occurred at the same time as events we believe to be six and a half or seven thousand years ago, like Stonehenge. In a timeline that is only nine or ten thousand years long, our scientists and historians have placed events that occur at the same time three thousand years apart? We can't be THAT far off. But these leaps are made to make this basic theory work, and only to make the theory work, with no proof given.

5. Chauvinism: All of the female characters are portrayed as emotionally weak in this novel. While the men are characterized as decisive, stoic, making the tough decisions, the women are characterized as overly sentimental, hysterical and distraught. The only people opposed to the president using excessive force, when all other options have been used up, are his female advisors, who have to be shouted down. Kimbough is insanely determined to reach San Diego. She knows the place is destroyed, and she has no reason to believe that her daughter is even there in the first place. But when stopped at a roadblock in Arizona, she yells at her husband not to be a wimp when a soldier stops them by pointing an M-16 at his chest. She wants to go home NOW! Good Lord.

6. Anti-climatic ending: The world is doomed. The dragons are overrunning the world; the alien spacecrafts are on their way. This is it--don't get scared.

And then... the book ends a little disappointingly.

And finally, the ugly: This alone almost made me put the book down around page forty or so.

What do the U.S.'s top astronomers advise the President to do when it looks like the earth is going to be smashed into oblivion? Put a colony on the moon that faces away from the meteor shower. It should be safe from impact cause the moon doesn't rotate, you see.

The moon doesn't rotate?

Oh. My. God.

I feel a bit flummoxed when it comes to rating this book. I enjoyed reading it, I don't deny that, but the entire time I'm also thinking how much better it could be. Since I'm torn down the middle, I'll tear the rating down the middle as well.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Jump Start by Gary Carter
Published by: PublishAmerica; October 2003
ISBN: 0765307669
Genre: Science Fiction
Author's Webpage:
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The Hunter's Blades Trilogy

You may not know this about me, but I have a tendency to speak before I truly know what I'm talking about. Going all the way back to this big Stryper incident between me and my friend Ross back in high school, I have a history of criticizing something, then having to come back and say "My bad," when I find out I didn't have a clue.

For instance, in my review of Morevi, I rant about characters living in medieval England using the words "pistols" and "bullets" instead of "muskets" and "musket balls." Well, turns out I should have done some research before blabbing away like that, as I later found out (with Tee's help) than muskets and pistols are two different things.

Which brings me to The Hunter's Blades Trilogy. After reading the first twenty pages of The Thousand Orcs I thought, "Is this a joke? Dwarves, Elves, Giants? Orcs, for chrissakes? If Tolkein were alive today, he'd clean up in the lawsuit."

I bitched to Evo. I bitched to Tee. I couldn't believe I was even considering reading these books. If I wanted elves and dwarves, I still had Return of the King to read. But c'mon, I thought, it's R. A. Salvatore, and The Thousand Orcs made the New York Times best-seller list. So I trudged on.

By page fifty, I was still reading. By page one hundred? well, you know, I really should learn to keep my mouth shut.

The Thousand Orcs, The Hunter's Blades Trilogy - Book I

Gandalug Battlehammer, the First King and Ninth King of Mithral Hall, has died. Bruenor Battlehammer and his clan must return to Mithral Hall so he can take his rightful place as King of the Dwarves, whether he wants to or not.

Along with his band of five thousand Dwarf warriors, Bruenor's closest companions accompany him: Regis the Halfling, Wulfgar the Barbarian, Catti-Brie, Bruenor's human adopted-daughter, and Drizzt Do'Urden. Drizzt the deadly. Drizzt the loved. Drizzt the reviled. Drizzt the dark Drow Elf.

As they travel home, the convoy encounters Orc raiders in larger and larger numbers. Obould, the King of the Orcs, as allied himself with Gerti, Queen of the Giants. Soon, open war is declared on the lands of the Dwarves.

Held up in the town of Shallows, the Orcs and Giants battle the horribly outnumbered Dwarves. Drizzt watches from within enemy territory as the city and his beloved king fall in battle. Now he is the only one left between Mithral Hall and the thousand Orcs.

How much does this book rock? About as much as my description of it sucks. Seriously, the book far outshines my synopsis.

Like most good fantasy, this is a dense book, filled with great characters and intricate plotting. Every individual character, like little pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, moves around and joins together with others, creating an intricate final picture. No characters are wasted. If any of them would have been omitted, the book would have had to end differently. Authors should take lessons on weaving a plot together this well.

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Lone Drow - The Hunter's Blades Trilogy - Book II

You didn't really think that Bruenor and all the dwarves died did you? Due to some from some unlikely allies, the dwarves escape the Shallows and make their way back to the king's palace. And the battle for Helm's Dee? I mean, Mithral Hall, begins.

This second installment in the trilogy is essentially entails one LONG battle between the Dwarves and Orcs at Mithral Hall, intercut with the story of the now deeply despondent Drizzt, who has become a one Drow army, attacking the Orcs from the rear. His sole goal in life is to destroy Obould, who the dark elf believes has killed all of his friends. Unfortunately the Orc king, through magic, sacrifices, and a new impenetrable armor, has become a god. Go figure.

This is definitely a "middle book," the action has increased, and the stage is definitely set for the final book.

Rating 3.9 out of 5
(I couldn't give it a four, it wasn't quite as good as the first installment, but it was close.)

These are the first books by R. A. Salvatore that I've read. Now I know why he is a best seller. These books are not profound. They are not really awe-inspiring, even given the scope of the story. Aside from some journal entries by Drizzt, there is very little that is "deep" in these books.

But, they are a hell of a lot of fun to read, and surprisingly well written. I'm thinking I may have to check and see if he could indeed have written a good book based on Star Wars: Episode II.

The Hunter's Blades Trilogy, a trilogy by R. A. Salvatore
Published by: Wizards of the Coast
Genre: Fantasy
Author's Webpage:

The Thousand Orcs
Published on: July 2003
Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0786929804
Buy This Book

The Lone Drow
Published on: October 2003
ISBN: 0786930128
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The Two Swords
Coming: October 2004
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The Darkest Part of the Woods

Have you ever had a sore spot like an aching tooth, an ingrown toenail, or a spot on your arm where you just got a shot? You know, some place that kisses you with a sharp pain if you don't leave well enough alone? What do you do? You touch it, squeeze it, push on it. There you go, a grown-up, intelligent human being with a toothache, and you'll actually bite down hard. When you can't take the pain anymore you let up and wonder at your stupidity. Then, you go and do the same thing again half an hour later.

The Darkest Part of the Woods, by Ramsey Campbell, was a toothache I wouldn't stop biting down on. I don't know how many times I set the book down after an hour of reading, completely bored, totally uninterested... just to pick up the book again the next day.

I kept asking myself, "Why are you doing this to yourself? This gig as a book reviewer has certainly not gotten me the chicks that Michael and Evo promised it would, so why torment yourself like this?" Well, I'll tell you. TOR books published The Darkest Part of the Woods.

I love TOR. TOR puts out a nice chunk of the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror around. When I look at TOR's author list, I get a semi. And, to add sugar to the tea, now that I review for the Dragon Page, TOR sends me free books, and I sure as hell don't want that to stop. With that in mind, I figured it would benefit my cause better to suffer through this wreck and write an honest negative review, to show them that I've read the submission, than not review the book at all, and have TOR think I don't read the books they send me. So, basically, I'm writing this review 'cause I'm a book whore.

The story centers on the Price family, who live in a small English town called Goodmanswood. Lennox Price moved to the village way back when to study what appeared to be a history of mass hallucinations in the village, and found a psychedelic moss that grew on the bark of the trees of Goodmanswood, the mile-square forest the town is named after. The discovery only cost Lennox his sanity.

Lennox's daughter, Heather, runs the library at the local college. Her son Sam works at a science fiction store and hugs trees in his spare time. Heather's American-raised sister, Sylvie, is an adventurer/writer. The mother, Margo, sculpts.

Goodmanswood, the town, has the unique property in that the forest, which is considered bad luck and a place to avoid, is visible from every single window and street in the entire town. Heather looks out her bedroom window. The forest looks scary. Sam drives down the highway, and looks to the forest, and the trees look ominous, and scary. Sylvie returns to visit her sister from the last adventure, and likes to take walks in the woods, which the neighbors don't like at all, cause the woods are scary. Little girls see a scary man walking around in the scary woods.

And the book drones on for three hundred and sixty-four pages. Sylvie and Sam find the journal of an evil magician who created a demon that haunts the scary woods. Sam can't seem to get away from the scary woods. Margo takes scary videos in the scary woods. Sylvie goes missing, and Heather goes out to find her in the scary woods. And, Oh.My.God, what she finds!

Think I'm being a bit monotonous? I'm not. Page after page of the trees reaching up as if trying to block out the sun; of the trees seeming to move closer; of the goddamn trees being really, really, really scary.

I can only think that Campbell was trying to write a horror story that was all about mood, all about building tension slowly, rather than trying to startle or gross-out the reader to scare him. He failed.

This is a horror novel that isn't scary, written about people I couldn't care less for. Sorry, I guess I could have just lead with that and spared you the other six hundred and seventy-one words.

Rating: 1 out of 5

The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell
Published by: Tor Books; October 2003
ISBN: 0765307669
Genre: Horror
Author's Webpage:
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The Neanderthal Parallax

"The biggest job of science fiction is to portray the Other. To help us imagine the strange and see the familiar in eerie ways. Nobody explores this territory more boldly than Robert Sawyer." --David Brin on Humans

If you have never read my reviews before, I have to warn you of something ahead of time. I love Robert J. Sawyer's writing. Sometimes I think that next to him, everyone else is playing with the net down. You cannot give yourself a better present than an afternoon with one of his books.

Hominids begins with a scientific experiment conducted in an alternate universe goes awry. Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, is conducting a quantum computing experiment. He and his man-mate, Adikor, has developed a quantum computer that can reach out to similar computers in alternate dimensions, and use their combined power to perform mathematical calculations that were previously beyond reckoning. The two Neanderthals enter the calculation, the computer reaches into other dimensions... and Ponter disappears.

He reappears in a quantum telescope facility in another dimension. A strange world in which his form of humanity had become extinct thousands of years ago, and his genetic cousins, Homo Sapiens, have become the dominant intelligence on the planet. And he has no idea how to get back home.

And back home, Adikor has no idea what happened to Ponter. Unfortunately for him, the authorities don't believe him. Between Ponter's disappearance, and Adikor's history of violence, he winds up facing murder charges, and has no defense but a ridiculous hypothesis of how a man can simply disappear from an empty room without a trace.

Several Homo Sapien scientists befriend Ponter, including Mary Vaughn, a geneticist who verifies that Ponter is in fact a Neanderthal. Through Mary, Ponter learns of an Earth radically different from his own. An Earth worth learning about. So, when Adikor manages to reopen the portal between the two dimensions, and Ponter returns to his home, the two men discuss ways to open the portal on a permanent basis.

Humans begins about three months after then end of Hominids. Ponter and Adikor, after much debate with the world government, have permission to reopen the portal between the two dimensions. The quantum computer is activated, and a tunnel is slid into the portal, and expanded to full size, making it possible for people to simply walk through the tunnel from one reality into the other. Ponter returns to our version of reality with Tukana Prat, a Neanderthal diplomat. And negotiations between Gliksins (us) and Barasts (the Neanderthals) begins.

During those three months before the portal reawoke, Mary moved to the US to join the Synergy Group, a "think tank" designed to create protocols to set in place if the portal is ever reopened. Mary studies Ponter's blood samples to create a test to differentiate between Homo Sapien and Neanderthal DNA. And in doing so, Mary answers a decades-old debate. Are Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals subsets of the same species, or are they different species altogether? (No, I'm not going to tell you! You have to read the book.

Mary and Ponter are finally reunited, and they struggle. The two races are so different. How were they going to come to terms with the fact that they were in love?

And meanwhile, back at the Synergy Group, a threat is discovered that may "crash" human consciousness on a planetary scale. Can the Neanderthals, who have already survived the anomaly in their reality with no ill effects, help the humans do the same?

In Hybrids , the trade of knowledge and goods goes well between the two worlds. Tukana has brought over several experts in the sciences, music, sports, and art, to offer a free exchange of ideas across cultures, and both sides are eating it up. Ponter and Adikor begin work with Gliksin physicists to open a new portal that connects to the Neanderthal world directly from the UN. Things couldn't be going better.

Mary and Ponter want to have a baby! But unfortunately for them, they can't do it the old fashioned way. They need a little help from some illegal Neanderthal technology. So they search for Vissan Lennet, a Neanderthal geneticist who left Neanderthal society when her codon writer was banned by the government.

What does her codon writer do? It makes DNA. Want to make a fertilized egg with Gliksin/Barast hybrid DNA? No problem. Want to have a sperm cells made from the blood of your sterile husband? Piece of cake. Want to correct genetic congenital diseases? Step right up. Want to create a secret virus designed to kill off the entire Neanderthal population, leaving their pristine world for the taking? It can do that too. "Think tank" my hairy ass.

Will the Synergy Group commit genocide against the Neanderthals? Will a shift in the magnetic field of the earth destroy human consciousness? Will Mary and Ponter live happily ever after? You'll have to get these books and find out. You'll thank me after you do.

I find it very difficult to write about these books without gushing. As much as I've given you in the synopses, there is more that I left out. What I found in Sawyer's Neanderthal reality is a world society that is fundamentally different from our own. What would humanity be like if there was no racism? How would the earth be different if zero population growth was a top priority? What kind of culture would humanity have if we had never developed a belief in the supernatural? What if children were born only every ten years? What if bisexuality was the norm?

And, unlike much science fiction that is based on a "really cool" idea, Sawyer also manages to write complex characters that I grew to care about deeply. The books ripped my heart out at times, made me laugh at times, and kept me at the edge of my seat till the very end. Very little science fiction out there can do all that.

Rating: 5 out of 5

The Neanderthal Parallax, a trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer
Published by: Tor Science Fiction
Genre: Science Fiction
Author's Webpage:

Published on: February 2003
Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0765345005
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Published on: September 2003
ISBN: 0765346753
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Published on: September 2003
ISBN: 0312876904
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The Sorority

You know you've done it. Don't lie. You go into a videostore. You have no idea what you want, you just wonder around the isles, and you see a movie. You look casually from left to right, snag the box, and flip it over quickly and scan the back. You want to get it, but you can't bring yourself to take it up to the counter. You didn't go into the, um, backroom, so you don't have one of those videos, but this video is still tacky enough to embarrass. So you go up to the cashier with copies of On Golden Pond, The Godfather Part II, and Sorority Slaughterhouse VII.

Tamara Thorne wrote The Sorority trilogy as the literary equivalent of a teen exploitation horror movie. It has dozens of girls in a sorority house, an evil sorority president, sex, ghosts, oral sex, dead football players, group sex, human sacrifice, and chipmunk sex. Reading a book like this makes me cry. In college I couldn't get laid to save my life.

Eve, Marilynn, and Samantha spent a summer of their childhoods together at Applehead Lake Cheerleading Camp "eight years ago." One night, the sneaked off to the boathouse and the rowed out to the island in the middle of the lake. Everybody knew that the town of Applehead sits at the bottom of the lake, and sometimes you could see the ghost of Holly Gayle walking about. A strange sound, a howling, drew the little explorers from the beach inland, to the mouth of the cave, and...

Eight years later, the girls find themselves reunited at nearby Greenbriar University, all pledging the Gamma Eta Pi sorority--for different reasons. Eve wants to join Gamma for its fabulous cheerleading squad. Marilynn is attracted to the sorority's history of ghosts and death. Samantha, the journalist, knows that something evil is brewing here, and she plans on breaking the story.

And what is the story? Malory Thomas, president of the exclusive Gamma Eta Pi, is also president of the sinister Fata Morgana, the sorority within the sorority. The Fata Morgana need to offer a sacrifice to the Forrest Knight by Halloween, and Eve would certainly make a worthy lamb.

The Sorority trilogy consists of the books Eve, Marilynn, and Samantha. Each book, of course, tells its story from the title character's point of view. The books follow each other chronologically, each book picking up the story from where the previous book leaves off. The reader must read all three books in order, as they certainly do not stand alone.

It thrills me that Tamara Thorne wrote the story deliberately as a guilty pleasure. She intentionally broke many rules of good storytelling to give the movie a B-movie flavor. Eve, the "hero" of the fist book, is a wimp, which is usually a no-no. The sex in the book, and there is a lot of it, is completely gratuitous and silly and funny and fun. And, I mean, come on, a sorority of evil college students performing human sacrifice in the middle of the woods!?! I loved it.

But the books commit two deadly sins that ultimately makes this a "thumbs down" review. The books build, and build, and build up to the climax, a big fight scene between the evil Malory and one of the girls, the scene we've been waiting for. DON'T GET SCARED! And then Thorne completely wimps out at the finale. I don't know if she got bored, or afraid that she couldn't pull of an exciting ending, or if some other conflict raged within her, but the story just peters out at the end, ruining the story as a whole.

The other problem has to do with padding the books. This is not really a trilogy. In fact, if I had money to bet on it, I'd wager that the book was finished as one book, and then split into a trilogy by the publishers. This should have been one novel, The Sorority, divided into "Book I: Eve," "Book II: Marilynn," and "Book III: Samantha". Chapters that ended on right hand pages had blank pages following them to make the following chapters begin on a right had page. This format stretched the books significantly, making them seem longer than the 190-200 pages they actually are. Instead of printing one book at 550 pages and selling it for $7.99, the reader must purchase three books at $5.99 each. For that I have to reject the book on principle, and say "Shame on you".

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

The Sorority, a trilogy by Tamara Thorne
Published by: Pinnacle Books
Genre: Horror
Author's Webpage:

Published on: June 2003
ISBN: 078601539X
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Published on: July 2003
ISBN: 0786015403
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Published on: August 2003
ISBN: 0786015411
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Gilbred Guteater

"If Harry Potter bores you, if you thought The Lord of the Rings had too many slow parts, Gilbred Guteater will rock your world."

This quote appears on the back cover of Gilbred Guteater, by David S. Watkins. It shouldn't. Watkins really shouldn't remind the readers that they could spend their time reading something else.

The thirty second sum up of Gilbred Guteater: Ten year old Gilbred Goodeater (yes, Goodeater) flees his clan after killing another child for laughing at him. He accidently sets the evil wizard Lord Elkengarth free from his magical imprisonment. Gilbred goes on to find a mentor and learn magic and fighting. A mercenery, working for Elves, finds Gilbred. Gilbred and the Elves make a last stand against Elkengarth and his orcs (I swear to God.) to keep the wizard from coming to full power. He has sex with an elf warrior. The End. Or is it?

In this novel, Watkins intended to write the literary equivalent of a shoot-em-up video game. Constant action, fast pace, ultra-violent battles. Watkins pushes this as a main selling point of the novel, but it is ultimately what makes Gilbred Guteater a bad book.

God, I don't even know where to begin, so I'll just briefly go over the writing itself. The book has the basic first novel feel, i.e. too much narrative, not enough scenes, not enough dialogue, and not enough detail. All in all, Amateur Hour. But the problems go beyond that.

At its core, a story entails a character that has a goal, which he either does or does not accomplish. Frodo discovers that he has the One Ring, so he sets off to Mount Doom to destroy it. Harry believes that Professor Snape will steal the Sorcerer's Stone, so Harry sets out to stop him.

But in this novel, things just happen to Gilbred, and he goes along for the ride. He's walking along a pond, and just happens to find a magic elven sword, and then just happens to find a cave imprisoning an evil wizard. He accidentally sets the wizard free using the magic sword he just happened to find. Later, he just happens to find someone who can train him in just about everything, and the guy takes Gilbred in, no reason given as to why he would. And on and on. Maddening. This type of moving from one scene to another works in a video game: you walk into a room full of monsters, you kill them all; you drop down into the basement, face more monsters, kill them all; you inch your way into the wine cellar, face more monsters... It doesn't work in a novel.

And Watkins misses the point on what makes successful fantasy, or any successful story. Why do millions of people love Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings? Because people care about Harry and Frodo. They care about Gandalf and Hermione. You cannot write an engaging story without writing engaging characters, and Gilbred Guteater doesn't have one interesting character. Hell, Watkins doesn't even bother to give many of his characters names. The only character with any backstory is Gilbred, and it is barely there.

How can we pull for these characters when we know next to nothing about them? Why does Sierra know so many different things about different lands? Did he travel as a soldier? A mercenary? A tradesman? The reader never finds out. Why do some call Sierra the Silent One? Why does the evil Lord Elkengarth want him captured? Why does Kelly become a mercenary? Why, why, why? These questions need answering. Why should I care one drop about these people? Since Watkins gives me no reasons to, I don't.

Epic battles and heroic men and sexy women and cool magic in and of themselves will not make a story good. You gotta give the reader someone to root for.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Gilbred Guteater by David S. Watkins
Published by: 1stBooks Library; December 2002
ISBN: 140338567X
Genre: Fantasy
Author's Webpage:
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The Hades Project

What would you do if you had chased a demon possessed mass murderer for hundreds of miles, and he finally gave you the slip? What would you do to find him? How about calling on your local bald, dominatrix, demon-raising, black witch? Come on, raise your hands if you expected me to say that!

Michael Pacilio works for the Office of Scientific Accountability, a federal agency. His division of the federal government usually handles cases of fraud occurring in federally funded scientific research. But every once in a while, they need Pacilio for the big cases, the tough cases.

In Fairfax, Virginia, eleven scientists experiment with opening portals into parallel dimensions by using witchcraft. The feds find ten of the scientists dead at the worksite, and call in Pacilio to investigate. But, whoever murdered them didn't simply murder them. He beat, tortured, incapacitated, raped, burned, disfigured, disemboweled, decapitated, and displayed them. And the eleventh scientist, Peter Barbour, has run.

Pacilio follows the trail of dead bodies until he finds a woman who Barbour left alive. And what she tells Pacilio leads him to believe that someone, or something, has taken control of the good scientist.

But where does the demon want to go, and what does he want to do when he gets there?

Readers will find The Hades Project, by Justin Gustainis, a tight and exciting read. He has created a wonderfully over the top villain, and has added a supporting cast to match it. Along Pacilio's hunt for this horrific killer, he meets up with a part-time hooker, an ER doctor who likes to play doctor, a demon-raising dominatrix witch for hire, a Jesuit exorcist, a hypocrite preacher megastar, and the ghost of an old buddy from Viet Nam. The author throws just enough monkeys in the wrench to make you wonder how all the threads will tie up in the end.

However, this is a debut novel, and it shows in the writing. Gustainis too often uses euphemisms and clever word play when simple language would suffice, especially when describing the actions of the demon Asmodeus. Instead of simply calling him by name, the reader gets phrases like "The thing that once was Peter Barbour," or "The demon moved Barbour's hand and..." Gustainis also consistently referred to Asmodeus as "it" instead of "he," which became distracting very quickly.

The author shows his inexperience the most, however, in his dialogue. He tries to put far too much information in his character's mouths, when it should simply have been put into narrative. This lead to conversations that I have heard described as "As you know, Bob" dialogue, or "Jim, this is a positron" speeches.

This kind of dialogue goes something like:

Evo: Michael, I'm feeling a little guilty.
Michael: Why's that, Evo?
Evo: Well, I just think we've been getting too much credit for the success of the Dragon Page. As you know, Michael, not only are we on the Bookcrazy Radio Network, but we're on syndicated radio in two states, as well as Cosmic Landscapes Internet Radio.
Michael: So, what's wrong with that?
Evo: Nothing. I think it's wonderful, but I don't think Joe Murphy's getting the credit he deserves.
Michael: Really?
Evo: Well, let's look at the facts. You're the author of Mistress of the Dragon and Dragon's Fire, Wizard's Flame, I know, but what do you really do for this show? You get the guests and talk to them. Big hairy deal. I am in charge of the website, and talk to guests too, neither of which, incidentally, has anything to do with my main passion, which is herbalism. But a trained monkey could do my job.
Michael: So?
Evo: But Joe, he writes REVIEWS! He writes the newsletter. Surely, he is our backbone. Our show, which was rated as the second most popular show on Bookcrazy Radio, would crumple and die without him.
Michael: So, what do you propose we do?
Evo: I think we should call it "Joe Murphy's Dragon Page, starring his humble followers, Michael R. Mennenga, and Evo Terra." Maybe I should even change my name back to "Travis." This is my real name, remember Michael?
Michael: I remember.

Writing dialogue in which the characters tell each other things they already know, in order to convey the information to the audience, is a hallmark of bad writing. And The Hades Project overflows with it. The entire epilogue consists of almost nothing but this type of speech. Somehow, the television show CSI gets away with it, but it doesn't work here.

In creating The Hades Project, Justin Gustainis wrote a good story, but I think he needed to write a few more drafts to make it a good book.

Rating: 3 out of 5

The Hades Project by Justin Gustainis
Published by: Brighid's Fire Books; September 2003
ISBN: 0971327866
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Mistress of the Dragon

As a wizard who has spent a lifetime studying and creating magic, do you think anyone could surprise you anymore? How much joy would you feel if strangers came to your home and wanted you to see something different, something NEW? Something even you, in your one hundred and four years, have never seen. Wouldn't you find the opportunity for such an adventure worth leaving your cave for? Worth leaving your beloved cat for?

Neferes believes so, and so he travels to the nearby village of Oricam to see the winged, scaled girl captured by the townspeople. There he finds Patrill, the daughter of a human mother and dragon father.

Neferes learns the story of Petrill's origins from her father, Tigora. A tale of forbidden love, betrayal, loneliness, obsession, and death. The great, dying dragon asks Neferes to tell the story to his daughter, so she can finally understand her parents and forgive them for the life she has had to endure.

Since Michael told me he likes it so much, I'll divide the review into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good: I like original ideas, and while one can easily find half-breed creatures in science fiction and fantasy, I have never run across a half-dragon before. Oh, to sit down to a fantasy novel devoid of elves and dwarves! Mark the calendar at such an event. Circle the date twice, since you'll find no heroic quest, either.

Like Interview with the Vampire, Mistress of the Dragon tells of the isolation felt by those different from the norm through the metaphor of monsters. Michael appears to feel very strongly about this theme, as it arises not only in this book, but also in his children's novel Dragon's Fire, Wizard's Flame as well. Michael's writings teach the value of tolerance, a lesson we as a species should take more to heart.

And, finally, not only do we have the unique Petrill, but we also have a supporting cast worthy of future tales, should the author want to take another swing at this world. Michael set up a world and characters worth returning to over and over again.

The Bad: Mistress of the Dragon essentially tells two stories at the same time. One story, the story of Petrill, takes place in "real time," while the story of Tigora and Morana, Petrill's parents, takes place in long flashbacks told by Tigora to the wizard Neferes. The story suffers from this structure. I believe that to strengthen the story, Michael should have simply told the story of Tigora and Morana in this book, and left the story of Petrill for a sequel. Both stories could have supported a novel each, and some of the final sequences would have more suspense if the reader didn't already know that Tigora would survive to tell the tale.

Also, this structure causes the book to suffer from Saving Private Ryan syndrome. Namely, that in parts of Tigora's telling of the story, he talks about events that he could not possibly know about, since neither he nor Morana witnessed them. A more traditional narration could have prevented this problem.

And, alas, The Ugly: The book had no professional editing, and it shows. Yewl find typoes. Lot's ov tipeos. And sum reely, realey, long parigraphs. So, blame the publisher, suck it up, and keep reading.

But, I have no doubt that for the sequel (you will write a sequel, eh Michael?) he'll run it by an editor first.

Mistress of the Dragon by Michael R. Mennenga
Published by: PublishAmerica, Inc.; August 15, 2001
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