The Six-Gun Tarot by R. S. Belcher

It’s well-known that the best ideas are usually ones that make you slap your forehead and wonder why you didn’t think of them yourself. Things like the Post-It Note, or the Slinky, or even Crocs. They make you stand back and wonder how someone made a new idea that was right under your nose, how they made something you might have seen everyday into an amazing new creation.

The same is true in writing: there are a hundred fantasy books about knights, a thousand sci-fi stories about spaceships, and a million about hard-bitten detectives. The average ones all tend to blend together, but the amazing books make the same old ideas jump out and seem new, even if the parts of it are something you’re well familiar with from other places.

The Six-Gun Tarot is one such book. It’s part of a genre called the Weird West I don’t visit too often, but this one must indeed be a classic of the kind. A mix of Old West characters and weird fantasy on the edge of the frontier, Tarot keeps the pages turning and on each one you will find someone or something old and reliable popping out fresh and new, both relying on those stock characters from the Westerns while remaking and deepening them.

Young Jim Negray is traveling west, trying to make a new life after ending up with bloody hands back home in Kansas. He nearly dies in the desert before being rescued by an Indian named Mutt, who is the deputy serving in a nearby town called Golgotha. Mutt takes young Jim into the tough little burg to meet Sherriff Highfather, who like just about everyone else in Golgotha has a secret and a story to tell. However, on Jim’s first day a man attacks the local general story, screaming that something is coming, something is waking up…..

The cast of characters is varied and well-drawn. Mutt is torn between the traditions of his heritage, the pressures and racism he faces in town, and his own place as a son of Coyote The Trickster. Jim has a bounty on his head and is accused of murder because of his father’s glass eye. Highfather has a doom upon him, one that helps him in his job but forces him to see good people taken by the strangeness that lives in Golgotha. The Mayor lives with a secret and a Holy Mission that seem at odds, the shadowy owner of the town gambling hall may not be human, and a banker’s wife is the latest in an ancient order of warriors.

The town itself is also an important part of the story. References are made to other crises that faced the town and were defeated by Highfather, and a history of strangeness is part and parcel of Golgotha. The latest trouble is rooted in an abandoned silver mine nearby, and though we’re told in the beginning what that trouble is and why it’s there, the fear of its presence and influence over the people isn’t diminished in the slightest.

Everyone in the story behaves with uncomfortable period-realistic racism toward Mutt and the sizable Chinese population in the town, and their slang and behavior seem to fit without being to stereotypical or affected. No one calls anyone “pardner”, for example, and there’s no gunfights (well, not at first). It would not surprise me to learn that Mr. Belcher did a lot of research to paint his world as clearly as he did as far as slang and clothing, either.

I’m looking forward to the sequel to this story which is called the The Shotgun Arcana; enough is left unexplained or unresolved in this one to leave us reassured that both the story goes on and that the people we’ve met will have to face a new menace tomorrow. I’d be happy to join them for the ride into the next sunset of Golgotha, when the horrors of the frontier come out to play. Any town where they’re performing The King In Yellow twice a week has to be a wild place to live, even if it’s only for a few hours.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

 

Madwand by Roger Zelazny

I read the prequel to this book, Changeling, for an earlier review, and I really enjoyed it. As I stated then, I sadly haven’t had a lot of experience with Mr. Zelazny’s books. This is a situation I am definitely going to change, though Madwand didn’t put much fuel on that fire.

In Changeling we meet young Pol Detson, who was brought to our world and raised as Daniel Chain to prevent him following in the steps of his father Det, a powerful evil sorcerer. An old wizard named Mor (who may well be Pol’s grandfather, since Det’s last name is Morson, though this is never noted by the characters in either book) brought a baby named Mark from our world in return who grew up to be a dangerous tech-obsessed villain, and Pol was forced to return to defeat Mark. This book starts up after Mark’s defeat, and Pol is just settling in to learn about his place in this world and the legacy his father left behind. However the sins of the father start to catch up to him very quickly.

Pol is attacked in his home by a rival wizard and barely survives. Afterward, he decides to go directly to the source of information, which in this case is a gathering of wizards in a nearby town. Along the way he meets up with others and learns that he is a Madwand, or someone who uses magic without instruction or training. Madwands are usually powerful but clumsy. He also learns  that his father’s name and castle of Rondoval have a very bad reputation, though no one explains why. Dark dreams start appearing every night, dreams of opening an ominous Gate and releasing terrible beings, but again he has no idea what’s going on……..

The chapters of Pol, his friend Mouseglove, and other characters are interspersed with another being that seems to have only come into existence since Pol arrived back in the castle. This other being slowly gains solidity and purpose throughout the book, and eventually interacts with Pol in an important way. It’s these chapters, unfortunately, that drag down the book in a very serious way.

Zelazny spends these chapters explaining the growing awareness and intelligence of this being, and the vague descriptions are somewhat difficult to push through. It’s the opposite problem of filming a book; I get the sense that these sections would be much more coherent and enjoyable in a visual medium as opposed to the written word. They also break up the flow of the plot, since the being sometimes simply recounts his own experiences during an event.

His writing of the main characters is likewise somewhat lackluster-the actors never feel invested in anything they do, simply playing their parts. His love from the previous book, Nora, is gone with only a single line of explanation, and a new possible interest is introduced here with little fanfare, and the new people who are introduced are likewise flat.There’s no passion here, no emotion.Hell, he also makes Pol doing magic seem dull and uninteresting, with more vague descriptions of what’s going on without a great deal of explanation. In Changeling there was real conflict. Mark was an angry and driven man, and Pol reacted to that anger and the destruction Mark was inflicting, as well as his own “outsider” status. It popped, but by the time Madwand rolls around that vitality feels gone, as if Mr. Zelazny didn’t really plan on a sequel. Given that he didn’t create one for Madwand despite a clear sequel hook after the bad guy escapes on a flying armchair, this is possible. All in all, read the first, skip the second. I have no doubt about Mr. Zelazny’s talent, but talent without passion doesn’t equal entertainment.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I remember the first time I read Wuthering Heights. The characters, the winding plots and schemes twisting around from the random events that tear apart everyone’s lives. It was a memorable and well written book that I hated then, dislike now and would not read again if you paid me. Heathcliff can go jump in a lake.

The Shadow Of The Wind is a similarly complex and dizzying book, filled with layers of plot and emotion, but I loved reading it and won’t soon forget the experience. As Daniel described his own, similar absorption in the titular story: “Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over, until the breath of dawn touched the window and my tired eyes slid over the last page.” Shadow is wrenching story, packed with tragedy, love, and broken lives that have been mangled by the cruel hands of fate.  If that language sounds flowery, it might be an aftereffect of the beautiful writing style of Mr. Zafon, who paints people, buildings and the city of Barcelona with a clean and loving brush. Mr. Zafon apparently lives there presently, and he has written, among other things, a love letter to the place.

The story opens with young Daniel Sempere being escorted to a mysterious building one foggy morning by his father, a bookseller by trade. Upon entering he is told that it is the Cemetary of Forgotten Books, from which he may choose one, on condition that he never lose it or give it away. The little boy wanders the isles until a volume catches his eye: a faded book called The Shadow Of The Wind by Julien Carax. Taking it home, he is instantly absorbed by the story and sets out to find more books by Carax. However, it turns out that someone is destroying all of the copies of Caraxs’ work, and learning their secrets will bring up a lot of old and bloody history……

This is an amazing book, and like young Daniel it will grab you from the start and not let go. Not because it has action, or death-defying peril, or world-shattering calamity, but because of the tightly plotted narrative. Everyone and everything in the story is deftly explained without unneeded detail, since it isn’t as important to know who they are as it is how they respond to what happens to them in the past, present and future.

Part of the backdrop of the book is the Spanish Civil War, a conflict I will admit I don’t know much about at all. Here, it is portrayed as a time of tension, changing loyalties and blood, and the violence it caused are a direct influence on the story, alongside class and social ranking that also play a part in the lives of the participants. Zafon succeeds as well in blending fear, humor, terror, and love in one place. An undercurrent of darkness and corruption is present everywhere. Everyone is flawed and almost all of them are looking for happiness in a battered world.

On the one hand, I’d love to tell you more about the plot, because it’s deep and beautiful, and hopefully telling you about it will make you more likely to pick it up. On the other, I’d hate to give anything away. Go read it if you have some free time-it’s hard to put down.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

Changeling by Roger Zelazny

There’s a lot of easy, formulaic things that have been created over the years and used to spin out a story, be it a book, TV or a movie, without too much effort. Damsels in distress, buddy cops, forbidden treasure, government experiments…and the list goes on for pages. Some examples, of course, can be found at the timesink called TV Tropes. ( I shouldn’t have linked to it! Please come back!)

One of the most tried & true is the adversarial relationship between magic and technology. It’s faith and using  strange powers in ways that break the laws of science set against facts, logic and the result of human knowledge and ingenuity. It’s also many times portrayed as the chosen few who can use magic instead of the average person, since anyone can become proficient at science with enough hard work and dedication. When the two forces meet, it’s rarely pretty. For example, in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, the titular wizard is a walking bane to electronics, which is both a blessing and a curse for his spell-slinging.

That battle is a central theme of Changeling. It begins after the defeat of the evil wizard Det Morson. His castle is destroyed, his minions scattered, his dragons and other creatures put into a deep sleep. However, Det had been busy with more than magic-he had a son, Pol, a tiny baby who was found in the rubble. Unwilling to kill the innocent child despite the virtual certainty that the boy would grow to have some ability at magic, the kindly wizard Mor decides to take the child to a world where magic does not exist, in an effort to both give the boy a normal life and save everyone a potential crisis down the line.

However, as with any good fantasy story the magic used has certain rules, and this one requires that a balance must be maintained. To fulfill this law Mor plucks a newborn child from a couple in our  world, replacing it with the infant Pol. He gives the transplanted baby to a trusted friend, and little Mark Marakson grows up with an unusual talent and interest in mechanical devices, while Pol, now named Daniel Chain, has a taste for music and a tendency to short out and disrupt any nearby technology, much to the frustration of his engineer father.

Mark’s efforts to help and advance his family and neighbors are met with suspicion and anger, especially since the local scars of evil wizardry haven’t faded to any great degree, and his sufficiently advanced technology is seen as not being too much different from Morson’s magic. After a terrible accident and rejection, Marakson flees to the open desert, where he discovers the ruins of an ancient civilization that had created amazing technology. He quickly mastered it, and set out to again spread his message of peace through greater science..whether the people of his world desired it or not, of course. On the other plane, Daniel is summoned by the dying Mor to return to his birthhome and battle Mark.

There’s more to the conflict, and what I’ve described above is laid out so smoothly and cleanly that it’s quite pleasant. When Daniel arrives in the magical dimension, however, all bets are off. The characters and plot might seem somewhat one-dimensional from my description, but I can assure you that Zelazny makes them solid and fun to read. You never stop feeling a sympathy for both Mark and David as they grow into the roles created for them by birth and magic. The story revolves around the two of them, but the lesser roles are not neglected, each given sufficient meat to their bones. While I get the impression from the writing style that it’s aimed at high-school students (that may be only my impression) and that’s certainly not an indictment of the quality on display. If you’re in the mood for a nice chunk of delicious fantasy writing, Changeling will fill you up without making your brain feel overwhelmed. The book has a sequel named Madwand, which I’m also going to review as soon as I get my hands on a copy.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

War Of The Worlds: Goliath

I don’t usually do reviews of movies-not because I don’t like them, but because  I don’t own a TV. This animated one is based on a book, so I’m going to cheat and include it.

The central premise is that the world is just recovering from the invasion detailed in H.G. Wells’ famous book War Of The Worlds. As a result, a world military force called A.R.E.S.  (Allied Resistance Earth Squadron) has been set up to prepare for a possible second strike using huge tripedal mechs and airplanes. The pilots for these machines are from the military from all over the world: the USA, Britain, Japan, Germany, India, and others.

The main characters are a group of the best and brightest who have been assigned to the biggest and most powerful mech: The Goliath. Led by young Eric Wells’, who saw his parents killed by the Martians moments before the aliens died from exposure to microbes, the team is trained to operate the huge war machines. A weird note: for some reason the mechs have open cockpits for the captain on top of the machines with no cover. Unfortunately, their training is interrupted by the very event that A.R.E.S. was founded to prevent-invasion by a larger and more advanced second force of aliens. Just to top things off, WWI begins at about the same time, and the empires of the world are itching to bring their soldiers home to fight each other…

This is an animated film, but it doesn’t stint on the gore and adult situations (though there’s no nudity). People get disintegrated a LOT in this film with an almost depressing regularity, and there’s the implication of mass death. For the most part the art is pretty good (the alien tripods are snazzy). The voices are quite nice as well (with such talents as Peter Wingfield, Adam Baldwin, Jim Byrnes, and Adrian Paul), though I don’t have a good enough ear to say if the accents are accurate or overdone. It also has a few real historical characters added as supporting players (one has a very fun bar fight).

The story itself is fairly barebones-aliens attack, we respond, people die and sprinkles of character are dolloped out to each person, though not very much. It feels more like the set-up for an animated series rather than a full movie. Goliath is an entertaining film with an interesting idea behind it. How will you know if you like this movie?

If the idea of the Red Baron dogfighting UFO’s over Roswell doesn’t appeal to you, it’s not up your alley.