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Speculative Fiction roundup for the Ledger

April 13, 2009

“War, Murder, and fantastic adventure in these reads”
by Elizabeth Willse, for the Star-Ledger
April 12, 2009

The Steel Remains Richard K. Morgan Del Rey, 432 pp., $26

Battle-weary, grouchy Ringil the swordsman thinks epic battles are behind him. But when his mother sends him to rescue a cousin from slavery, joined by Eran of the steppes and Arceth, the last of the Kiriath, his journey takes him through several riveting battles against both mystical and all-too-human enemies. Although Ringil’s numerous homosexual encounters are rarely described in graphic detail, they combine with the profane language salted throughout the text to make this a tale strictly for adults only.

It’s a shame the story marginalizes itself to a mature audience, when there’s so much to like about the adventure. The zombie-like steppe ghouls and corpse mites, or the mystical half-forgotten Aldrain race could be part of a creepy, spellbinding tale for any fantasy fan; and the grumbling of anti-hero Gil makes for a wryly funny spin on the usual fantasy quest yarn. Relentless coarse language and sex scenes make Gil’s misfit identity verge on camp, although they echo the plot’s darker, more macabre aspects.

Ender In Exile
Orson Scott Card
Tor Books, 384 pp., $24.95

Intended to fill in the gap between Card’s Hugo and Nebula award winning novels: “Ender’s Game” and “Speaker For The Dead,” this novel is wonderful in the same ways as its companions in the Ender Wiggin series. Realistic, morally nuanced characters retain some of their Earth cultures and customs as they explore among the stars. Ender Wiggin’s formidable intelligence guides him to insights beyond any average 15-year-old, even as the brutalities of the war against the alien buggers trouble his conscience. Part of a mission to colonize a new planet, Ender seeks a new beginning.

Card does an excellent job blending action and meditation, insights into human and alien culture, and writing both child and adult characters full of hopes, doubts, moral dilemmas and wisdom. However, this cannot be a stand-alone novel, but an invitation to read Card’s series beginning with “Ender’s Game.” For fans of the series, this novel fills in the gaps by showing Ender growing up, and tells its own adventurous tale.

The Illumination
Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori
St. Martin’s Press, 320 pp., $24.95

“The Illumination” is steeped in mythology and cutting-edge action. Reporter Dana Landau finds a golden amulet half-buried in the sand in Baghdad. Thinking it merely a symbolic trinket, she sends it to her sister, Natalie, a museum curator in the states. Dana’s brutal murder is the first hint that the amulet is a precious prize that everyone from religious factions to the U.S. government will stop at nothing to obtain. With Jim D’Amato, Dana’s boss, Natalie races to unravel the amulet’s mystery, staying ahead of everyone who wants them dead. Can she trust D’Amato, who carries multiple passports and knows more than the average TV newsman about guns and car chases?

With a relic tied to Hebrew legend and the Old Testament’s David, frenetic chases, suspense and violence, the novel might invite comparisons to “The DaVinci Code.” Some similar plot twists aside, this is a better story. More nuanced characters and vastly superior writing quality make for a breathlessly fun read.

The Horsemen’s Gambit
David B. Coe
Tor Books, 368 pp., $26.95

Although this is the second volume in Coe’s “Blood of the Southlands” series, readers beginning here will be launched immediately into an adventure that blends magic, ancient feuds and elements of a medical thriller into a fantastic adventure. A plague is killing Qirsi magic users and unleashing their magic in destructive waves. Interwoven plots shift the action between Eandi merchants unknowingly spreading the plague, frantic Qirsi trying to stem the outbreak, and a swordswoman who hopes that the plague’s chaos might bring the key to her destiny. Coe handles the bigger picture deftly. Carefully detailed descriptions of magic make the plague threat real. It’s easy for readers to get swept up in the innovative blend of fantasy and medical thriller as more and more magic users die, consumed by their own spells run riot. But Coe’s individual characters tend towards flattened fantasy cliches and ciphers. It’s unclear whether Coe intends character development to stretch across multiple books, or it was sidelined by the frenetic suspense plot.

Bones of the Dragon
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Tor Books, 416 pp., $24.95

“Bones of the Dragon” will appeal to fans of previous Dragonlance books, as well as fans of fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft. This installment introduces the lands and the gods of Vindras, clearly intending to launch characters and readers on a multi-book adventure saga of epic proportions. The village of Torgun falls prey to a savage attack by ogres. Their dragon-gods have seemingly deserted them. The Norse-influenced gods’ doings are much more of a factor than in previous Dragonlance books.

Weis and Hickman weave Norse influences through this adventure. Many descriptions and dialogue ring with cliches and the reams of world-building explanation needed to launch a new adventure series. Some scenes and coarser language hint at a darker, more realistic level of violence too harsh for pre-teen D&D players. It’s a credit to the pair of authors to see characters so jealous, arrogant, worried and flawed in a basic adventure tale like this.

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