Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

When it comes to modern classic series of fantasy, there are a few names that always pop up: The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, Shannara, The Riftwar Cycle, Dragaeran (Vlad Taltos) series, and on and on, this being a very, very small sample of some of those that tend to pop up a lot. Among these series belongs David Eddings’ first foray into fantasy, The Belgariad. Originally released as five novels (and continuing into the five novel Mallorean and a couple prequels, along with a companion book), it is now also available in a set of two omnibuses. Having read the first novel quite some years ago and enjoying it, I picked up the omnibus so I could start from the beginning and actually read the other books this time.

Garion is a simple farm boy who lives with his Aunt Pol on a farm in the country. However, when the wandering storyteller returns and tidings of evil are spread, Garion finds a far more powerful destiny lies ahead of him. Along with his Aunt Pol and the storyteller, Mister Wolf, the loyal smith Durnik, and a couple of new allies, Garion begins a quest along the Western Kingdoms, meeting kings and rulers, as his group sets out to find a powerful artifact that has been stolen. Yet this is only the beginning of a vast quest that will change the entire world.

Once you pick up Pawn of Prophecy, it is hard to put down. The beautifully rendered style matches the story perfectly, and each character is unique. They meld together to truly be more than the sum of their parts.

Yet, one of the best parts of the book is how comfortable it is to step in and feel at home. It is a story with archetypes, yet it never feels clichéd or overdone. There is no real question on how this will turn out, but that doesn’t matter, because the joy and pleasure of the book is the characters, the interactions, and the beauty of the journey. In a way, this could be called comfort reading, but that might do an injustice to what Eddings has wrought, which is a wonderful story that won’t disappoint.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie

After the wonderful experience of reading The Murder on the Links, I knew I wanted to go straight into the next Poirot book, Poirot Investigates, which is a short story collection instead of a novel. Bits on each story:

“The Adventure of ‘The Western Star’”: When two jewels with mystical backgrounds are the object of capture by those who want to return them to their original resting place, Poirot must discover if this is quite what is truly happening.

“The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor”: After a man is mysteriously murdered, could it be his ghost that is haunting the manor and trying to bring the truth to the fore?

“The Adventure of the Cheap Flat”: When a bizarrely cheap apartment comes to the attention of Poirot, with no reason for its low price, Poirot investigates and is drawn into a multinational drama.

“The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge”: With Poirot sick, Hastings must work out the mystery with only the occasional telegraph with the master sleuth. But can he piece the puzzle together before the culprit escapes?

“The Million Dollar Bond Robbery”: Missing bonds and bank corruption revolve around the quest to recover both money and a man’s reputation.

“The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb”: Playing off the “curse” of King Tut’s tomb, Poirot travels to Egypt, where, at the tomb of Men-her-Ra, he explores a series of frightening, curse-like coincidences.

“The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan”: A vacation turns into mystery when prized jewels disappear, and the loyal maid seems to be the culprit. But, as always, there is more going on than there seems.

“The Kidnapped Prime Minister”: Poirot plays his part in World War I, saving the British Prime Minister and keeping the path of the war on track for Allies victory.

“The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim”: Poirot makes a bet to solve a case without leaving his falt, and begins his mental inspection into the case of a man who walked out of his house, never to return.

“The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman”: A business meeting gone wrong turns out to be far from as straight-forward as it seems.

“The Case of the Missing Will”: A young lady’s foster-father leaves her a complex puzzle that she has to solve if she wants the money he left her in her will. She hires Poirot, who sets out to find the hidden will.

“The Veiled Lady”: Poirot takes the role of criminal himself to solve the case and protect a lady’s reputation, but the lady isn’t quite the innocent young wife she seems.

“The Lost Mine”: Poirot helps a business discover who is stealing their important document.

“The Chocolate Box”: Poirot tells Hastings of the one case he failed to solve, the murder of a public figure.

Poirot Investigates was a fun diversion, but it doesn’t hold up to Christies first two Poirot books. What I really like about her novels was how in-depth and detailed the characters and situation were. In these stories, you just couldn’t get that depth, and so it felt more problem followed by immediate answer, without the usual psychological depth and search for criminal among the many possibilities. This is a good book for picking up and putting down, enjoying for short bits, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the Poirot novels.


Friday, March 26, 2010

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

After the brilliance that was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I knew that I would need to dig deeper into Agatha Christies works, especially her Poirot books. Setting out to read them all, and there are a goodly number of them, I picked up the second Poirot book, The Murder on the Links.

Hercule Poirot, along with his associate Arthur Hastings, are seeking an interesting case to work on, when Poirot receives a summons from Monsieur Renauld, begging him to come. Yet when they arrive, Renauld is dead. Everyone comes under suspicion, from his son, to his wife, to the woman he sees far more than his wife is comfortable with, and each has viable motive. After a terrible mistake by Hastings, key evidence disappears, and it is up to the “little grey cells” of Poirot to bring the criminal to justice.

One of the things I truly love about Christie’s novels is her attention to all of the characters. They are all fleshed out quite in-depth, which allows both for them to undergo intense scrutiny as a potential culprit, as well as a very pitiable victim. She is hard to beat when it comes to characterization. The way she fully spreads out her mystery is brilliant as well. She gives you plenty of space to get into the story and really become engrossed.

I quite literally couldn’t put this book down, reading it in one sitting. Christie takes a small book, and fills it with huge amounts of content, not wasting a single word. A brilliant story.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

FREE FICTION: Winter Song by Colin Harvey, Day Five

The free preview continues! Helpful Links: Angry Robot Books, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

When she leaves you alone for a little while, you taste the straw that is your bedding. It’s almost inedible, but overwhelmed by hunger you force it down. When she returns and catches you, she scolds you. “I’ve bought you extra gruel,” she adds. “It’s all there is.”

You get most of it in your mouth, finishing it within seconds. You lick the plate clean with what the rational part of your mind flags with inappropriate haste (inappropriate to what?), then you nuzzle amongst the straw and lick it clean.

“Oh, Loki.” Bera gently touches your arm. “You have to start behaving more like a man, and less an animal, or Ragnar will have all the excuse he needs to get rid of you.” You look up at her, drinking in her features. She says, “Does my looks repel even you, my child-man? Or do you not care? He didn’t.”

Then, as if the food has awoken some animal from its slumbers the world is again full of voices shouting mostly meaningless words:

“Iceland had no fruit-bearing trees–”

“Humanity has split into a myriad of factions–”

“Isheimur’s low gravity and inability to generate carbon dioxide through vulcanism render the colony sub-optimal, unlikely to return the company’s investment–”

People behave as if you’re a zoo exhibit. Like the tides the pain that accompanies the strangeness (and yes, the terrible beauty) recedes for a while, before sweeping in to the shoreline of your mind and you start gibbering again.

One of the gawpers is a pregnant woman who nudges her friend, an older woman. “See? He’s possessed: Jabbering like he’s got a head full of spirits. I reckon that he’s a seidr.”

“Don’t let our Gothi hear you talk like that,” Bera says from the doorway. Even though part of your mind is still in the here-and-now and you’re aware of your surroundings, you hadn’t noticed her arrive. “He’ll flay you alive if he hears you talking about warlocks and spirits. You know how he is.”

“Who are you to tell us what we should talk about, girl?” The pregnant woman backs toward the doorway. “His science is failing. Our founders wanted us to keep to the old ways. Well, the Norse Gods and magic are among the old ways.”

“The old ways included birth without anaesthetic, Salbjerg,” Bera says. “Think that that’s one old way we should return to? Our founders wanted us to cherry-pick the best of the old ways, not embrace every superstition.”

“Perhaps Pappi’s grown tolerant in his old age?” Salbjerg says to her friend. “I remember a time when a chit of a girl who got herself knocked up without keeping hold of the man’s dick would have had the skin peeled from her back one layer at a time.”

“Or maybe Pappi is the Pappi,” the older woman says, leering.

Bera doesn’t answer at first. Then she looks up. “Do you fear that I lay with your Bjarney, Salbjerg? You’ve nothing to worry about. He’s never even glanced at me. I promise you that.”

“Of course I wasn’t worried, you little slut.” The flush rising to Salbjerg’s face gives the lie to that. “Why would my man want a nothing like you?”

You watch Bera’s jaw work, and a part of you feels a surge of protectiveness toward her. She shouldn’t have to take such abuse. Ignoring the voices momentarily, you let out a low growl and both the women step back.

“You should go now,” Bera says. “Before Loki decides that he prefers cannibalism to starving to death. He might take a chunk out of you, Salbjerg.”

The women back away, muttering, and when they’ve gone, Bera laughs softly to herself. “Quite the lioness defending her cub, aren’t I, Loki? Who’d have thought milk-and-water Bera would bare her teeth so?”

But you arch to let the voices out, and clutch at your head, she holds you, shushing you.

Later, when the smell of burning has faded away, and the pain has receded to a level that’s almost bearable, you fall silent.

Bera is joined by a ruddy faced giant. She says to him, “Help me get him into the wheelbarrow, Yngi.”

You whimper when you try to stand, but when they ease their grip, you grab a pillar, and hold yourself up with it. They grip you under an arm each, and Bera nudges you toward the wheelbarrow, where they settle you into it.

“Thanks, Yngi,” she says.

“What are you going to do with him?” Yngi says.

“I’m going to wheel him outside,” Bera says.

The Other is pushing at you, pushing you down into a pit of blackness. Your skull isn’t large enough to contain both of you. You moan and clutch the sides of your head. The Other has awoken, and his voice is the loudest of them all, begging to be allowed his body back – as if it is his, the madman.

“Hush, now,” Bera croons. She pushes the wheelbarrow, grunting with the effort, and the world tilts alarmingly. You would get out, but the effort makes the barrow lurch, and at her urging you sit still.

“Ooh, look!” calls out the woman Thorbjorg who visited the barn earlier. “Bera’s got herself a pram! Taking baby for a walk?”

There are subdued laughs at this, but Hilda says fiercely, “Thorbjorg! She may have lapsed, but no woman deserves mockery after losing a child!”

Thorbjorg looks sulky.

“What are you doing, Bera?” Hilda says.

“He’s permanently hungry,” Bera says. “And then I realized there are lichens he can eat.” Your world tips and she half-laughs, half-cries, “Aagh! He’s falling!”

The grass is sweet and juicy, and as you lie prone on the ground you tear at it with your teeth, feeling some trickle down your chin. “Don’t eat that, Loki,” Bera says. “You can’t digest grass. Come on now, leave it!”

A noise catches your attention, just for a moment. A man whose name you don’t know – he has never been into the barn – dances on stilt-like legs. “Bera haad a little lamb,” he sings as he stops. “Baa, baa,” he bleats in that thin little voice that disrupted your eating.

A part of you notes, The young of all species share common characteristics; large eyes, small, thin voices. Although from his size he’s merely mimicking a cub, what’s more interesting is that you responded to the stimulus of what you thought was a youngster in distress. Maybe that’s a sign that this pseudo-autism is losing its grip.

You ignore the voice, and return to chewing the grass. At the same time the man stops his little dance and stands normally as Bera shouts, “Stop it, Thorir!”

Your chewing is again interrupted, by the man bleating, “I’m another of Ra-a-gn-a-ar’s little lost lambs; please let me suck on your titties, Bera-a-a–” His bleating is cut short by a thud, and he topples forward.

Ragnar stands over him, opening and closing his right hand, rubbing at its knuckles. “If you weren’t my son-in-law, Thorir, we’d be duelling at dawn tomorrow for that insult.”

“I– I didn’t mean to insult you,” Thorir says. “I was merely teasing Bera.”

“Even if what you say is true,” Ragnar says. “Your insult of my foster-daughter is an implicit slur of me. Though I would expect nothing more of Thorir the Stupid. How did you persuade Hilda you were worthy of her at the Spring Fair? Ye Gods, you must be good at shagging, because you’re good for nothing else. Get up, you cur!”

Thorir drags his knees toward his head, and pushes himself upright.

Your head is yanked back, the pain so excruciating that you your fugue is broken, as Bera shrieks, “Don’t hurt him!”

“You were eating grass?” the red-faced chieftain bellows over background laughter that subsides instantly at his glare.

“It’s the nanophytes,” you say, though you don’t understand half of the words that the Other pushes out of your mouth; he’s wresting control from you. “I’ve lost so much weight to the lifegel that the nanophytes have taken control. They’re assimilating them, but that requires energy. I’d need to eat a lot anyway to regain the lost mass, but on top of that I need thousands of calories a day. Every day. I’m so hungry, I’ll eat anything – even if I can’t digest it the nanophytes are swarming up into my gullet and converting the fuel directly.”

Ragnar is staring at you with both pity and revulsion. “You can talk. Even if half is gibberish.”

“The lingua-weave,” you say. “It intercepts what you say in your tongue while it’s still in my auditory nerves. That’s why I can’t watch your lips – it confuses the signals. When I reply in Anglish, it intercepts the signal again, takes control of the mouth and vocal cords, and turns it into Isheimuri.”

Ragnar clearly doesn’t understand. “Stop. Prattling.” He separates the words for emphasis. “Do something useful. Help the women work.”

You stare at him, still chewing on a mouthful of cud, as he stomps away.-

“The AIs’ presence is probably the one unifying thing that stops humanity from exterminating itself–”

“Come and help us pick lichens, Bera,” a woman says, baring her teeth in a rictus that you catalogue as a smile. Her teeth are crooked and irregular, but her lips are full, and again you feel a surge of desire for her.

“This report’s conclusion is that without constant access to technology the Isheimur colony’s long-term survival is unlikely –

She looks down at the gown that Bera draped over you, and her face is red, but she smiles. “My,” she says, “he certainly is a big boy, isn’t he, Bera?” You interpret this as reciprocatory interest, but before you can reach for her, Bera pushes you back into the wheeled device.

“Hormonal imbalance,” the Other says in that too-deep voice. “Testosterone and adrenaline will be re-absorbed into the bloodstream.”

You find it difficult to concentrate on anything. The sky is too big, the suns too bright, the wind too chill. Absently, the cataloguing part of you notices the absence of odours, as if the weather is so cold that it’s frozen them. You rotate your head around, staring at the sky and grassy hillocks that lead up to hills dotted with white blobs, that the cataloguing part identifies as sheep, domestic animal kept for meat and wool.

“Sheep,” you say, tasting the word.

Bera laughs. “You’re getting better!” Her words turn into a sob.

“You see this?” Bera says, pointing to a plant that covers several nearby rocks. “It’s edible moss, called lichens. We’re going to pick it, and you eat what you want, Loki, and we put the rest into this bag, here. You see?” She crouches on all fours, and you notice her haunches straining against her dress. She picks some of the plant, shows you, then loads it into the canvas bag that she is carrying. “Okay?”

You don’t answer, but pick at the lichen. However, it all goes into your mouth, and none of it into the bag.

Suddenly Bera stiffens. “Loki, do not move – not if you want to live.”

You stiffen, and watch her climb slowly to her feet. She calls out, “Asgerd, there’s a snolfur here. Can you make some noise?”

On cue, the others let out whoops and shrieks and yells, and stomp toward them in a long straight line. Bera nods, and you slowly turn your head, and follow her gaze to where something like a metre and a half-high weasel is backing away, baring sabre teeth. It turns and speeds away with a liquid, rippling motion belying its stocky frame.

“That,” Bera says to you, and lets out a long sigh, “Was a snolfur. It probably wouldn’t have attacked you. They prefer to feed on carrion. But then again, they’re not usually this far north so early in the fall. So maybe things are changing.”

“It’s likely to be a sign of a hard winter,” The woman Asgerd explains. “The longer the snolfurs stay toward the South Pole before venturing north the better.”

She seems one of only a few people, with Bera and the man Yngi, to be friendly.

You sketch a smile, and return to picking the lichens. They are dark-green and have a curious musty odour.

Most of the lichens end up in your belly rather than in the sack, but no one seems to mind. The others seem content to ignore you as long as you do not eat grass. The cataloguing part of your mind describes this as appropriate behaviour.

Eating grass is clearly not appropriate behaviour.

There are days of this routine. Some days you have pangs of hunger, and you eat straw or rip bits of wood from the beams if you are indoors, or if you are outside, grass or even earth (the grubs in it are tasty). Little by little you totter around the barn. Your legs are still unsteady, but your body grow stronger every day. Your mind, however, is still fragmented. There is the cataloguing part, there is you, and there is the Other.

Then one morning you awaken, and you feel completely different. The pain has gone. Your head feels clearer than – you don’t know when, because one moment your feet were on fire, and the next you’re here. Wherever here is. You’re lying on straw in a dark building that smells faintly of animals. The smells seem as ingrained as the stains on the dark wooden beams.

A woman, barely a girl enters. Her name is Bera, you realize, although you don’t know how you know. You suspect that your companion has been assimilating data while you’ve been – where?

Gon t’ayn,” she mouths before you can look away, and her voice in your head says “Good morning.” The translation module will soon synchronize – you hope – but in the meantime you’re careful not to look at her lips, which will be moving in the local dialect.

“Gon t’ayn,” you say back, in your too-deep voice, in what you hope is a serviceable accent, and her eyes widen, and slowly, shyly, she starts to smile.

“Well, well, this is progress, indeed,” she says. “Ragnar will be delighted with this, Loki.”

“Who’s Loki?” you say, wondering whether you’ve misunderstood something. “My name’s Karl. Karl Allman.”

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

FREE FICTION: Winter Song by Colin Harvey, Day Four

The free preview continues! NOTE: Textual links are Angry Robot's, not mine.  Helpful Links: Angry Robot Books, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3



The world through your eyes is full of pain and wonder, made even stranger by the whirlwind of voices shrieking for your attention:

“The Mizar Quartet are Sol-type hydrogen-fusing dwarf stars–”

“Isheimuri lingua confirmed as mix of Standard and Icelandic–”

Some voices verge on making sense, but most babble gibberish. Each is accompanied by a dizzying sense of vertigo, and little shocks deep inside your body. Occasionally you smell burning. Sometimes you taste colours, can hear, flickering jeering shadows.

“Absolute magnitude uses the same convention as visual–”

You are dimly aware that the nanophytes within you that keep your muscle tone even as you waste away are locked in a desperate fight against the cannibal predations of the remaining lifegel in a near sub-atomic battle of the idiots. Either through accident or a design flaw, the inhibitors appear to have failed, and if left to themselves will eat you alive.

“The Long Night was the longest conflict since the Hundred Years War–”

A strangely familiar voice cries out, “I won’t lie down and die!”

“The Isheimur populace is likely to suffer genetic drift and disease–”

The man Ragnar’s voice is a rumble from a mouth full of misshapen teeth, his words unintelligible.

“Pappi: estimated height one-metre-eighty, mass eighty kilos–”

The woman beside him answers, her voice lower. Her hair is lighter, but her features equally mismatched, one shoulder slightly higher than the other.

Oedipus: son of King Laius and Jocasta of Thebes–”

You realize that the voice refusing to die was your own, but it sounds strange. It should be alto but is tenor instead. Perhaps your voice-box was damaged in the accident?

“Pantropy lost favour as Terraforming grew easier–”

The accident. The pain increases as a shard of memory brings with its suddenly perfect recall the accompanying agony: The smell of burning dust, the isolation, the heat. After a while your throat hurts with the scream – which tails off into a whimper.

“A quasar at absolute magnitude −25.5 is 100 times brighter than our galaxy–”

The girl – barely a woman – Bera strokes your head. “Hush, Pappi, he kannske skilja you,” she says. Her breasts ooze milk, and a part of you realizes that while she has given birth in the last three weeks for there to be lactation, there is no sound of a baby. The rational corner of your mind tucks this away for later, but the animal part that has control has you lunging forward on all fours, scrabbling at her clothes.

“Humanity only found other sentient life after four centuries of spaceflight–”

“Neh!” The sting of her palms raining down on your face and head are microscopic compared to the waves of agony that ripple across you, but still they are enough to make you pause. You stare up at her dark hair, wide-set eyes and full mouth and wonder what her lips would taste like if you ripped them from her face.

“Oedipus left for dead with a shepherd but adopted–”

“He eats like an hungradur dyr,” Bera says, becoming more understandable with each sentence, as the lingua-weave begins to take effect. “He almost choked on that meat we fed him before. But he can eat elda food now. No more breast-feeding–”

“An Icelandic chieftain was politician, lawyer, and policeman combined–”

Some residual decorum makes you lurch away from her into a corner.

“Grain was only grown in limited quantites in Iceland–”

“Agh, he’s vomiting! He splashed my best boots!” Pappi kicks you. You growl, but you are too busy gazing at the pool of vomit to attack.

“The Mizar B pair mass approximately 1.6 times that of Sol–”

“No, Pappi! He doesn’t know what he’s doing. The horsemeat was too much for him to digest at this stage of his bati.”

“In Iceland, the chieftain’s position could be bought or sold–”

“Well, keep him away. Oh, what’s he doing now? He’s eating his own puke!”

“Nanotechnology requires vast consumption of energy–”

The undigested horsemeat still tastes much as it did before, though now with a rancid flavour that may be the bile that you’ve brought up with it, but there are also others; salt and a metallic taste. By squinting you can zoom right in and see shapes invisible to an unenhanced human eye crawling among the chunks of meat. You have vomited up nanophytes with the food. From somewhere comes the knowledge that vomit is as corrosive as battery acid – their tiny carapaces must be almost indestructible to withstand it.

“Sheep farming was the most common type in Iceland–”

You know you must eat it to get the nanophytes back into your system, but Bera clings onto you, trying to pull you away as you gobble the vomited meat.

“Isheimur has a lower water content than Terra–”

“No, no, Loki! Don’t eat that! Here!” She undoes her blouse but you ignore her, concentrating on re-ingesting the refugee nanophytes. You don’t know whether they’re still locked onto you as their source/target, but you can’t risk them eating the planet in some long-term runaway disaster. You brush against her face; you feel wetness, and note that she is weeping, and another corner of your broken mind wonders why.

Finally, when you’ve eaten all the meat and licked up the liquid, you allow her to guide you to her breast. “It’d give Palli’s death meaning if his milk were to save another’s life,” she whispers.

“Isheimur’s mass is 0.80 of Terra, but it’s gravity is only 0.67 – sub-optimal for atmospheric retention–”

“Jao,” Pappi growls assent.

“At 1.7 AUs, its year is 2.85 Terran years–”

She sobs, even as she strokes your head. “This is the last time I’ll do this,” she says to the Ragnar-man as you nuzzle her nipple. “I wasn’t going to let him feed today, but if it stops him eating his own puke, then I’ll make an exception. But after this, no more breastfeeding: You can whip me or starve me, but I’ll not do it again. I can’t cope with this. It’s like an eighty kilo baby with the habits of a wild animal.”

“Isheimur’s year comprises 1096 days of 22 hours 37 minutes–”

“Agreed,” Ragnar says, and you see the surprise dart across her face. He turns to go. “I’ve no desire to see any more of this sick, feral creature, anyway, even if he has displayed almost superhuman powers of recovery. Odinn’s Beard – to think that he only came out of his stupor yesterday!”

“Hunger is my friend.” The words echo through your mind as you swallow the warm, rich milk. “When I’m trying to lose weight, I embrace my hunger–”

You release her nipple, which she rubs.

The fool that said that clearly never had hunger eating them from within like a black hole, sucking everything into it, consuming it yet still wanting more more more-

“Isheimur is so cold, its air so thin that the colony’s long-term survival is marginal–”

“Stop it!” you scream, clutching your head. Bera frantically hushes you, tries to pour sugared water into your mouth, but you gag.

For a while, as if taking pity, the voices fade away almost to nothing…

“We’ll feed him from our stores for another few days,” Ragnar says.

“You still here?” Bera says. “I thought you’d seen enough of him?”

His laugh is bitter and mocking, devoid of humour. “I can’t help it. I get no pleasure from watching him, but there is a sort of horrible fascination.” Ragnar sighs. “If he keeps this up, we won’t be able to put him to work.” He says, “Just my luck that I’ve probably saved someone with an advanced psychosis. If it’s schizophrenia, that would explain why he was wandering.”

“Schizo–” Bera tries to wrap her lips around the word, which is clearly unfamiliar. Part of you would like to plunge your rigid member into her, but you have suckled at her breast, and another part of you analyzes your memory of mores to determine why this is wrong.

“Schizophrenics,” Ragnar says, “were often considered possessed in the olden days, before people understood personality disorders. Most likely that his family tried to care for him, but finally gave up when he became too much trouble.” When he continues, he seems to be talking to himself. “Food’s always so scarce even at the end of a good summer that we can’t afford to pour it down an invalid’s throat if there’s no chance of recovery.”

“What are you going to do?” Bera asks, moving between you and the Ragnar-man.

But he doesn’t seem to have heard her, instead saying, “The climate, even down here in the tropics, is so harsh that still the toughest Terran-descended crops grow poorly, and we live on the very edge of survival.”

“What are you saying?” Bera says. The fear in her voice hooks your attention away from the pain and the whirling madness of the world.

Ragnar shrugs. “What if we had left him where he lay? No one would have blamed us, leaving an outlaw to die at the teeth of trolls or snolfurs.”

“But you didn’t leave him, did you?” Bera says. “When you brought him here, you made him your responsibility.”

“Aye,” Ragnar says. “No good deed goes unpunished.”

“So what are you going to do now?” Bera says. “Take him back up into the hills? Murder him and toss his body into a geysir? Eat him, if we get hungry enough?”

“Don’t be silly, girl,” Ragnar says. “Remember who you’re talking to.”

“I know who I’m talking to, my lord,” the girl says. You hear the wobble of fear in her voice, but she ploughs on. “A man who’s sworn to uphold the law and customs our forefathers embraced. And now talks of leaving a sick man in the snow?”

“I can remember who I am without needing your reminding.” He leans into her face; you see her swallow, but she doesn’t flinch. “I’ve worked long and hard to earn and keep my people’s respect. I fought off three tribes of trolls at the Battle of Giri Pass. I’ve won the Silver Shield for my verse from the Althing, and been compared with the legendary Egil Skallagrimsson.” He bangs the wooden pillar supporting the barn’s roof as if he is one of the Viking warriors of Old Earth beating out his defiance on his shield. “What have you ever done, girly? Apart from open your legs the minute a man looks at you. Bringing shame on yourself and I, who was foolish enough to take you in! That’ll teach me to think out loud in front of a chit of a girl who misunderstands the processes of thought! I know who I am, girly – remember who you are!”

He stalks from the barn, leaving her shivering, but when she looks up at you, her eyes blaze with triumph. “The danger with myths and heroes, Loki, is that sometimes the myth starts to become more real to the heroes than the truth.”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

FREE FICTION: Winter Song by Colin Harvey, Day Three

The free preview continues! Helpful Links: Angry Robot Books, Part 1, Part 2

Later, as Bera loaded up the vast tin bath with clothes and ran water from the hot tap into it, it struck her as odd that shape-shifters were always lumped into the same category as trolls and outlaws, snolfurs and other predators. But shape-shifters were so rare that no one – as far as she knew – had ever definitely been attacked by one. Maybe, if she could snatch five minutes on the Oracle later, she’d search.

She managed to turn the tap off before boiling water ran over the pan’s lip; at least – for all Hilda’s carping – there was no shortage of heat and hot water. It was a shame that, according to the Oracle, there was no longer the resource to tip Isheimur’s boundless low-level geo-thermal energy into full-scale vulcanism.

She was used to washing by hand. The farm had finally run out of parts for the antique washing machine when Bera had first arrived from the North, and the Norns refused to consider such parts life-saving, so their petitions via the Oracle for replacements had been useless. But she hated the way it chapped her hands, and the effort required to wring out the sopping clothes left her hands and shoulders aching. Still, she managed to wrestle the sodden blouses and shirts into the mangle, bolt the rollers into place, then turn the handle against a wall of inertia.

She jumped at the voice; “You want help?”

She turned. “Oh, Yngi, you startled me.” Isheimur only knew how Yngi the Halt with his club foot had managed to creep up on her.

His freckled face was as transparent as any window, so she saw his disappointment. She added hastily, “I know you didn’t mean to, but you should cough or clear your throat, or–”

“Okay, Bera.” he said. Ruddy features lit up:“You need help with that? I’m stronger than you are, even if I’m not as clever.”

She shook her head. “No thanks, Yngi. I’m almost done.”

He turned to go, just as Thorbjorg’s voice cut across them: “Yngvar Ragnarsson, get away from that whore!”

Yngi cringed, and Bera swung round at his wife, anger at one humiliation too many finally breaking her self-control. Before she could speak, a shriek from the courtyard interrupted them: “Grandpappi! Granpappi’s coming!”

Bera and Thorbjorg rushed out into the courtyard, Yngi hobbling behind. Both suns were now high in the sky, and Bera had to blink to focus. She followed the other’s gaze down the valley to west, and the men returning from a week at the Summer Fair.

The two men at the front of the group rode shaggy Isheimuri horses, which stood only chest high to a tall man, but were formidably strong. Ragnar liked to brag that his was the strongest horse on Isheimur, and the chunky buttermilk-coloured stallion needed to be to carry his owner and his belongings, which between them probably massed over a hundred and fifty kilos. Arnbjorn rode a slightly smaller horse alongside him.

Surprisingly the other two horses were riderless, and Ragnar’s tenant farmers walked beside their mounts, which were dragging something, but Bera couldn’t make out what it was. Bringing up the rear of the procession were the farmer’s eldest sons. Both had been unbearable ever since Ragnar had agreed to take them to the Summer Fair, and Bera suspected that they would be even more conceited now they had been, and would consider themselves too grand to mix with children. One had been flirting with Bera before she’d become pregnant, but had quickly lost interest when he learned of her condition, and probably wouldn’t even speak to her now.

“Come on, Bera!” Hilda interrupted her daydreaming. “They’re ten minutes away yet, so back to work for a little while.”

Bera resisted the urge to say “Yes, boss.” Sarcasm would only earn her a lecture.

Instead she returned to grappling with the sopping wet clothes until shrieks from her foster-nephews and nieces announced Ragnar’s arrival. His gravelly voice boomed, “What? No hug for your Grandpappi, then?”

She felt the puppy stir beneath her bulky jacket, then return to sleep, and prayed that Brynja would sleep a while longer.

By the time Bera had joined the others but watching from the sidelines, women and children were hugging men, the tenant farmer’s mousey wives had erupted from their own dwellings, and the whole group had aggregated into one swarming, shapeless mass. Only Ragnar stood slightly apart from the reunions, a sad smile on his face.

Then Yngi’s wife Thorbjorg threw her arms around him. “Welcome back, Pappi!” It might have been Bera’s imagination, but she thought she saw him grimace, before he made his dark, brooding features as impassive as before.

He looked across at Bera. She gave him a little smile which she tried to make welcoming, but he only scowled, and she looked away so that he wouldn’t see how hurt she was. All you have to do is give him the name of the father. Make one up if need be.

Except that whichever name she gave Ragnar would be signing a man’s death warrant, if such a name existed – and names were strictly bound by custom, like everything else here. Bera wondered how it would be to grow up on a world that had never splintered away from the rest of humanity, never been driven apart by a seemingly – to the rest of the Galaxy – insane urge to speak a different tongue and adhere to old ways. To call oneself what one liked, to dress how one liked, do what one liked…

“What’s this?” Hilda pointed to a travois, which was hitched to the two horses belonging to the tenant-farmers.

“You heard the noise last night?” Ragnar said. “A meteorite crashed near where we’d camped.” He continued, “We heard what we thought was a small volcano where it fell, so we rushed toward it for a look. It took us a half-hour. When we got there, we found only this character–” Ragnar pointed at the travois “ –lying in the snow.”

Bera eased around for a look, and gasped. The man lying unmoving in the travois was stark naked, his skin a copper so dark as to be almost purple. His massive chest rose and fell irregularly, but apart from that he didn’t move. His eyes were closed. Bera had never seen such muscle definition on a man; corded, sinewy, he took her breath away. The face below the shaven skull was equally striking, with its chiselled zygomatic bones and almost inhuman symmetry. Bera looked down, then away, blushing, then glanced at him again. He was certainly impressive. She made her self focus instead on the splints on his legs.

“Cover him up!” Asgerd said, Ragnar’s older daughter-in-law reaching for a blanket from one of the horses. “He’ll scare the children!”

Ragnar reached out, and his daughter grew still. “You don’t cover burns like that.” He pointed to the man’s lower torso, and clearly broken legs. His legs would have been long, strong and muscular before they were broken.

Bera dragged her attention back to Ragnar, who said, “He was screaming, rolling around in the snow. We couldn’t leave him like that. Either I killed him and I’d no stomach for cold-blooded neck-snapping, or we brought him home.”

“Can we spare the food?” Asgerd said, her thin lips when she closed them giving her opinion: No, we can’t.

“You tell me, ladies.” Ragnar opened his arms to include Hilda and Thorbjorg in the question. “The management of the household is your responsibility, after all. I wouldn’t dream of interfering in your desmense.”

Not much, Bera thought. Ragnar didn’t hesitate when he felt it necessary.

“Of course we can, my lord.” Thorbjorg sensed as always which way the wind was blowing, and said what she guessed he wanted to hear.

Ragnar’s face split with a grin. “Then that’s settled.” He rubbed his hands together.

“How do you know that he’s not a vagrant?” Asgerd said.

“We thought that initially,” Ragnar said. “We were ready to leave him to die, until Bjarney pointed out that a trespassing vagrant can be indentured, if he recovers.” He shrugged. “If he doesn’t recover, he won’t eat, anyway.”

“Hmmph,” Hilda said, but didn’t argue.

“Funny,” Ragnar said, “the snow was stained blue.” Whether it was the colour or simply the fact that the snow was dyed, but it seemed to Bera that Ragnar sounded uneasy. It was so rare that Bera couldn’t help staring.

He caught her looking and straightening, returned to his normal forceful manner. “Here’s someone who can help. Bera, I need someone to safeguard our new investment. You can nurse our new worker.”

Bera looked down, bobbing her head in assent.

Ragnar must have mistaken her shyness for reluctance, or his next words would surely never have been so cruel (at least, she thought, not before you got pregnant): “Well, come on girl! Look to it! You should be grateful – it’ll give you something to think about, take your mind off that dead bastard of yours.”

She felt tears sting her eyes, and lunged toward the travois.

But Ragnar must have seen her well up, for she heard him half-groan, and mutter, “Well, you shouldn’t have brought shame on my house by opening your legs to the first man who ignored your plainness. My darling Gunnhild would spin in her grave if she could see what you’ve turned into.”

Bera wanted to shout that, but for the eruption on Surtsey, she would have gone home as soon as she was pregnant, but that was pointless. Her family was dead, and now she just had to get on with living.

So she didn’t answer, but instead wrestled the stranger off the travois. But in so doing, Bera scraped the stranger’s back on the stones, and he roused screaming from his near-coma. Ragnar shouted, “Yngi! Thorir! Give her a hand with that!”

The two men helped ease the stranger back into the travois and unhitch it. Thorir called, “Where do you want it?” He stood far too close to Bera for her liking.

“Put it in with the animals,” Ragnar said.

Grunting with effort the men picked him up, and staggered toward the stables. Bera shadowed them into the warm, odorous darkness. She gazed at the horses, three of which were hers. But the web of debts incurred had bound her too tight to indulge any fantasies of flight while she was pregnant.

Ragnar appeared in the doorway. “Mind you take good care of him.”

Bera didn’t answer.

When she was sure that Ragnar had gone, she took Brynja from under her furs. Weeping quietly, she let the puppy nuzzle the other nipple from the one she had suckled the night before. “Like Romulus and Remus,” she said, “but in reverse.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t end in tears,” Ragnar said, making her jump at his unexpected return. Luckily, he was so busy staring at the stranger lying on the hay that he didn’t notice the puppy, instead assuming her reference was to the man. He kept staring at the man, barely able to conceal his repugnance. “It’s an Icelandic tradition, to fear the stranger, but even so, this hairless stranger bothers me. His presence means trouble… we’ll call him Loki. It seems fitting.”

“I’ll do my best for you,” Bera said, shielding Brynja by turning away slightly.

Ragnar roused himself. “You will,” he said. “We’ve a critical time coming. Once the crops ripen fully, it’s a race to get them in. We’ll need every able-bodied hand we can get. He can repay us our hospitality – if he recovers.”

“If he doesn’t? Or he recovers, but stays an invalid?”

“That won’t happen,” Ragnar said. The feral look on his face chilled Bera. “He’ll have an accident before that happens. Clear?”

Bera nodded, swallowing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

FREE FICTION: Winter Song by Colin Harvey, Day Two

The free preview continues! Helpful Links: Angry Robot Books, Part 1



Bera wanted to scream her grief at the night, but that would rouse the farmyard dogs. That would in turn wake the sleepers. She already felt so raw that she might as well have been scoured by sandpaper, and a public lecture from Hilda was more than she could face, so she clamped her jaw shut until it ached.

The farmyard was so cold that her breath threatened to freeze solid in the midnight air – not that Isheimur’s midnight-sky was like other worlds, she gathered:. It would be another five weeks until the equinox, when the Mizar quartet would line up together on Isheimur’s far side, with only the twin moons, Stor and Litid, to illuminate the true-dark for a few hours. Until then, though Gamasol and Deltasol had set within a few hours of one another, the further pair was still high in the sky.

That she could see where to put her feet on the rocky slope up to the grave made the act of mourning her dead son easier, and at least Ragnar had allowed her to bury Palli here, rather than in open ground. The graveyard was in a pocket of such boulder-strewn land that it was good for nothing else, unlike the rest of the valley. Its rocky border at least protected the bodies from burrowing marauders. Snolfurs were another matter – only a precious bullet or arrow would deter one of them.

She clambered past a tapped-out steam-vent which no longer gave its energy to the generator, the metre-wide pipe to the water tank down the hill now disconnected. Putting the sprig of lavender on the unmarked cairn was a pathetic little token, but it was all she had. At the thought of Palli’s little face turning blue, the tears started up again, half-blinding her, freezing on her face as they trickled down.

She crouched, offering prayers, to Wotan, Yahweh – any of the old ones who might exist, just in case – to take care of Palli. Assuming that there was an afterlife, rather than just mouldering in the dirt.

Wiping her eyes, she glimpsed something streak above the top of the Reykleif hills in a flat curve, so it couldn’t be a shape-shifter; nor did any troll ever move that fast. It was fiery bright, so it was most likely a meteor, she decided.

Standing again, she winced. Moving sent slivers of pain shooting through her cramped-up feet, numb even through the fur-lined house-shoes. Taking outside boots would have meant stumbling around in the boot-room, perhaps falling over one of the sleeping farmhands. She didn’t want that. Better her feet froze than to admit to the other women that she still grieved for her beloved bastard.

If her body didn’t give her away: ten days after burying him, her breasts were still swollen and sore, her blouses sodden even through the wadding that she’d shoved into her bra. The others must have noticed, but if they had, for once – in a rare show of restraint – they had said nothing.

Bera turned back, looking down the slope to face Skorradalur. Farmhouses crouching into the hillside formed three sides of a square round a courtyard, with the lake Skorravatn beyond the barn the fourth side. On the far side of the lake, antique wind-turbines hunched in the lee of the valley slope, their blades turning slowly in the incessant wind, the open grassland between them peppered with sheep, grazing on the last of the late-summer long grass.

She descended the stony, treacherous slope to Ragnarholt, the biggest farmhouse, passing the water-tank which took the excess steam from the newer geo-thermal vent; what wasn’t needed to heat the house was allowed to condense inside its bulk to provide fresh water, so that the settlers didn’t need to venture down to Skorravatn in winter and risk ambush from lurking creatures. It wasn’t the halcyon days of when the farm had fusion power, but it was better than nothing.

Even in the thickening twilight she had to be careful not to turn an ankle on the stony ground. But if its aid in finding her way was a blessing, when the deep boom echoed from the west, waking the farm-dogs into a barrage of barking, it was a curse. Any onlooker could see her picking her way back. She speeded up, and twice nearly fell in hidden dips in the grass. Looking up, the shadowy bulk of Thorir perched in the watch-tower atop the farmhouse hadn’t moved. Hopefully, he was asleep. Thorir was good at that, even though, if he were caught, it would mean a flogging.

The breeze strengthened, the wind-turbines’ blades speeding up.

Brynja caught Bera’s scent and yapped.

“Hush!” Bera hissed.

But instead the puppy redoubled her efforts to slip the leash, where she was tied to the court-yard water-tap. Droplets from the tap had frozen so that Brynja’s feet slipped and skidded on them.

Reluctantly, Bera fondled the little dog’s ears. She was as white and fluffy as the rest of the litter, but they’d all found homes. No one wanted the little runt, though, so Ragnar had banished her to the courtyard, saying, “We can’t afford to throw away what resources we have on animals that aren’t viable, however cute they look now.” If Brynja survived on the scraps that she could scavenge, she would live, but she was already skin and bone.

Desperately, shivering, Brynja tried to climb inside Bera’s coat and nuzzled her blouse.

Still thinking of Palli, and of Ragnar’s ruthlessness, Bera undid the leash, her jaw clamped. Freed, the puppy scrambled inside her coat in a flurry of paws. Brynja nuzzled and nuzzled at her blouse, until Bera sighed. She reached in and undid her bra.

Teeth like needles clamped onto her nipple. The pain made Bera draw her lips back from her teeth in a silent scream, but in a perverse way she welcomed it. However bad it was, it was real, and for a few too-short moments it obliterated memories of a tiny face turning blue and silent.

Finally, the needles grew too fierce, and she prised her bloodied breast away from the seeking mouth. Rocking her furry cargo, humming an almost soundless lullaby, she crept across the farmyard to the back door.

Looking up again, she saw a faint glow to the north-west between the hills.

It’s not any of the suns, she thought, and if that’s a fire, then someone’s farmstead is burning.

But she couldn’t think of any farmhouses in that direction. Too many trolls likely to midnight-raid the settlements, if the old records were true. And if were a fire, then Hilda and the others would already be spilling into the courtyard to answer the distress calls.

She lifted the latch carefully, and ducking to step down into the lobby shut the door behind her.

A light snapping on blinded her, though it was only dim. Her vision cleared to reveal Thorir standing with sword in hand and an evil grin on his face at his cleverness in sneaking down from the watch-tower.

Behind him, his wife Hilda stood with folded arms and bulging eyes: “Bera Sigurdsdottir! What on Isheimur are you doing? Have you lost your wits?”

Nothing Bera could say would spare her from a scolding, so she just slumped.

Hilda said, “Go back on watch, darling, while I sort this out.” She snapped off the light. There were the noises of Thorir leaving, then Hilda hissed, “Stupid girl!”

“Sorry,” Bera said quietly.

“Pappi took you in when his old friend died – you repay us by disturbing our sleep while he’s away?”

Even after six years, you haven’t forgiven me? Bera thought. I don’t want his attention!

As self-appointed surrogate mother, Hilda didn’t hesitate to “correct” Bera whenever Hilda felt it necessary, which was frequently. “We thought you were an outlaw – or worse.”

“Did you hear the sound?” Bera said, in a desperate attempt to distract her foster-sister. “Like muffled thunder.”

“Never mind that,” Hilda said. Although she hadn’t distracted Hilda, Bera’s trick had at least robbed her rant of momentum. “Go back to bed. Try not to fall over the others on the way through.”

Bera wondered how much of Hilda’s anger was that Bera had shown her husband, and therefore Hilda, for the fool he was. If Bera could slip out without him noticing, then raiders could do the same in the opposite direction.

Or whether Hilda thought he hadn’t been sleeping, but that Bera had had paid him in kind to look away. Bera couldn’t tell Hilda that she’d sooner drink acid than go with Ragnar. Hilda wouldn’t believe her, would instead point to the cairn as proof that Bera would go with anyone.

Next day in the kitchen no one spoke to Bera over breakfast, but that wasn’t unusual. She had managed not to bump into the cots of the sleeping children and Farm hands, so no one was angry with her – at least, no more than usual.

All ten of Ragnar’s grandchildren, from the youngest toddler to eight year-old Toti, Hilda’s eldest, sat around the vast table, assembled by nanobots centuries earlier to resemble oak, now stained and pitted with age.

Bera and the other women shuttled pots and plates to and from the vast stove, while the men, were out checking the flocks as always

Except Yngi, of course. Bera had seen him at first sunrise, as Gamasol stained the horizon with its searchlight glare. She had snuck out again and clipped Brynja back to the water-tap, where a few shards of ice had half-melted in the direct sunlight, staining Brynja’s white fur with muddy streaks. The puppy yapped as Bera walked away, but she hurried and was back indoors before anyone noticed… she hoped.

Now she waited her turn for the porridge bowl, and when the others had taken their fill, scraped out the dregs of the weak, watery liquid. She got the last few bits when Thorbjorg said, “Why don’t you lick the pattern off the plate?”

Her face burned, but she didn’t answer Ragnar’s younger daughter-in-law. Thorbjorg was only four years older than Bera, but she was as pretty as Bera was plain, and used her voluptuousness like a weapon on the men. And besides, she was married, so respectable.

“Well?” Thorbjorg challenged.

“There is no pattern,” Bera mumbled.

Thorbjorg’s laugh was a caw. “No there isn’t, is there? You must have licked it off yesterday. Maybe if you weren’t such a greedy pig, your teats would dry up – it’s not as if you need the milk.”

Bera shut her eyes, dug her fingers into her palms.

Hilda must have seen how intense the pain was, and if any of them would understand, she would – now the medic had said that any more pregnancies would pose a life-threatening risk. “That’s enough,” Hilda said. “Save your wit for later, Thorbjorg.”

Bera slid into daydream, her usual refuge. Maybe there was some kind of payback. Bera had felt sorry for Hilda when she’d heard the others talking about it: barren at twenty-seven, with only two children to her name.

“How will we fill this big empty world if we can only have two children?” Thorbjorg had asked, smug in her brood-cow status. Bera had hated her for Hilda then: five children at twenty-one. Yngi might have been addled in the head, but his seed was potent – if it was his. Thorbjorg was always flirting with old Ragnar, always possessive with her hugs and touches.

Bera had wished that it was Thorbjorg who had miscarried instead of Hilda. When the others had gone, she had slipped into Hilda’s room and asked, “Is there anything I can do, Hilda? I’m so sorry to hear about…” and trailed off, not sure what to call it. Loss? Too tame. Miscarriage? Too clinical. So she had left the sentence unfinished.

But Hilda had seemed to understand. She shook her head. “I just want to be alone.”

That had been the last half-civilized conversation between them. They had never been friends, but as long as Bera was duly deferential to Ragnar’s eldest child, they had been civil. But a month later, two months after the Spring Fair, Bera had missed her period, and soon after, she knew that she was pregnant. Refusing to name the father meant that no bill of settlement could be made to another house, and as good as admitted that Bera would sleep with any man.

“Bera!” Hilda’s cry snatched her back, to the other’s amusement.

“Daydreaming again,” Toti said. Like most children, he could spot a legitimate target for teasing. “Bera’s daydreaming, Bera’s dreaming of her boyfriend!” he sang.

“That’ll do, young man!” Hilda said. “Enough of that or you lose your time at the Oracle!”

“Sorry.” Bera went without prompting to the sink to rinse the pots.

“You’re washing clothes today.” Hilda lowered her voice, “I’ve not said anything to the others about your star-gazing, but I will if it happens again. We can’t afford to heat the countryside.”

“But I closed the doors straight away!”

“And we’d have to send out search parties if raiders spirited you off. Bera, you’re so selfish!”

Bera managed not to snap back that she’d be the last person they’d send out rescue parties for, if outlaws, trolls or shape-shifters struck.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

FREE FICTION: Winter Song by Colin Harvey, Day One

The people at Angry Robot Books were kind enough to send me a copy of Winter Song by Colin Harvey a few months ago, and I never got around to reviewing it. While I still want to someday, in the meantime there is no reason you all can’t get an inside look. Over the next five days you will get an extensive preview of the novel, so you have more than enough of a taste to decide if you want to dive in or not. Enjoy! (For more information on the book, see Angry Robot Books)



Karl was dreaming of his clone-wife on distant Avalon when the plasma bolt slammed into Ship’s engines.

One moment he was bathing with Karla in iodized springs beneath Jodi’s Falls, soaping her up-tilted breasts in the warm sunlight of Delta Pavonis, the next a giant was sitting on his chest while alarms screeched in the emergency lighting.

The pressure lifted and he floated naked in his bed-web on the bridge, a voice calling ever louder, “Karl, we are under attack.” That Ship’s too-perfect alto was gravelled by static showed how mortal the blow might be. His interface wasn’t working; none of the usual displays were scrolling down his field of vision, and with no data feeding directly into his brain he was forced to use archaic Voice. “What – what’s the damage?” He smelled the acrid tang of smoke and the monitors – used only by passengers – were blank.

He coughed, his eyes stinging, and a smooth wall opened and out popped a freshly-grown mask connected to an air-pack.

“I’m not wearing that,” Karl muttered between coughs. “I hate putting things on my face.”

“You’re enhanced, not invulnerable,” Ship snapped. “Put it on!”

Muttering, Karl complied.

“Thank you,” Ship said. “We have lost all but emergency power in this third. In the central third we have intermittent power. The rest is undamaged. When waves from the gravity generator threatened to crush you, I had to take the engines down, and can’t restart them. I’m attempting to dodge a second incoming bolt with lateral power, but it’s already expanded, and complete evasion is unlikely. Time to impact is four minutes.”

Karl tried to digest the news that he was probably dead. “They must have fired as soon as they dropped out of fold-space.”

Ship didn’t answer directly. “The second bolt came from different co-ordinates, indicating another ship, though it’s difficult to scan through the asteroid belt. I’ve registered a third ship nearby.” It sounded sheepish; “They must have identified us before I could see them. The first I knew was their plasma bolt coming at point-nine-cee. I had barely three minutes warning. I’m sorry, Karl.”

“Forget it,” Karl said.

That meant there would be no respite while the others re-charged their capacitors. Even if by a miracle they dodged this second bolt, and one from the third ship, the first would have recharged and be ready to fire.

He slipped free of the amniotic safety of the bed-web. “Are they the Aye ships we spotted earlier?” Unlikely, he knew. The ships that were each individual Artificial Intelligences rarely interacted with the Flesh-bound, who held little interest for them. He floated over to one of the screens. “Can you get this working?”

Ship paused for so long that Karl wondered if it had died.

“Yes,” it said.

A schematic appeared, of Ship at less than three Standard AUs from Mizar B2. Karl had thought that here on the sunward edge of the system’s asteroid belt, surrounded by the myriad dots among which Ship and he had lurked, they would be safe to spy upon the Ayes. There they were, the symbols denoting the Ayes around the nearest of the four stars – the double pair that had so attracted astrophysicists ever since their nature had been discovered – in close orbit around the upper chromosphere of Mizar B2, doing whatever incomprehensible things Ayes did.

Scattered among the debris of the outer belt were three perfectly spherical ships, their regularity a defiant cry to the universe. “Their signatures indicate that they’re Traditionals. I’m sorry, Karl. You’ve been fired upon by your own species.”

Though it was debatable whether their assailants would consider Karl human, it was no surprise – Ship’s design was clearly the angular asymmetry of the Radicals; the Pures, the most likely suspects among the Traditionals, would have guessed that he had man-machine interfaces, and was therefore to be despised even more than the Ayes they hated. Like all bullies they picked on him, a single target, rather than five Aye ships.

Between the symbols denoting Ship and their assailants was the pulsing sphere of a plasma bolt, the enemy’s fuel hawked up from their engine and spat out of a tube.

“How far away are they?”

“Two AUs spaceward.”


“With five – four minutes to impact, your logical course is to abandon ship.”

“Stitch that.” He gazed at the monitor. “Let’s see how far lateral power gets us. Are we dead centre of the bolt?”

“Slightly to starboard, so I have already set course in that direction.”

“Good girl. What else can we do?”

“I can get no more power through the vents.” As always, Ship ignored his anthropomorphising.

He thought. “What if we vented atmosphere from the hold?”

Ship paused so long that Karl thought he would have to prompt it. “It’d increase velocity by an additional one per cent. Not enough. We need seven.”

“Vent the airlocks as well. Take the air pressure as low as possible, then drop it another per cent.”

“I can’t do that, Karl. I’m programmed to protect you. It’s an unacceptable risk.”

“And being blown up isn’t?”

“That’s why I recommended that you abandon ship. You have two minutes to decide. You should leave two minutes earlier not to be caught by debris and radiation. That’s now, by the way.”

“Jack it, I’m not leaving you!” Or the lump of neutronium locked in a stasis field in the corner of the hold. If the field failed the cargo would devour the ship in less time than it took to scarf down one of the tasteless protein-burgers he’d lived on for a month.

“Karl, that’s sentimental nonsense,” Ship said. “The major risk to you is from exposure, but I’ve sent a tight-beam Mayday toward the Hanghzou Relay, which I estimate the nearest one sympathetic. It’s about four light-months away. They can jump here in days once they have the signal, and the lifegel will keep you safe – even in vacuum – until then.”

“I’m glad you haven’t suggested I let our attackers pick me up,” Karl said.

Ship ignored his feeble humour. “You have many months of power in your companion, which will kick in as soon as I am out of range. But before the power fails, the lifegel will need fuel, and will slowly consume your body. Even before that, there will be side-effects – weight loss, anaemia, eczema. Such skinsuits are only designed as a short-term measure.”

Karl nodded, clenching and unclenching his fists. “I wish I had these bastards in reach…”

“Adrenaline has that effect,” Ship said. It added, “I am an object; you can replace me, probably even approximate my programming. But I am no more a person than any other vehicle. I am expendable – you are not. You should leave now, from Bay Eight.”

Karl slapped the wall, but it didn’t make him feel any better. “Bay Eight, then. Keep talking while I’m en route.”

“Karl,” Ship said. “There’s something else you should know.”

“Go on.”

“I’ve found some data that was previously misfiled. This system was settled over four centuries ago.”

“These bastards are local?”

“I believe not. There’s no other indication of local traffic. The last records are over two centuries ago, from just before the onset of the Long Night. If the colony survived, they probably slipped back during the conflict.

“It’s unlikely that they did survive. If the war didn’t get them, the planet’s orbit is elliptical. During summer it would just be habitable, but its winter's too cold to survive.”

“Which star is it orbiting?”

“It appears to be orbiting both of the Mizar B pairing, at a distance that would give it a sub-Martian climate.”

“Can I reach it from here?”

Ship said, “It’s about eighteen million kilometres from here, so it will take…”

There was a perceptible pause, which told Karl how terribly, terribly wrong things were – Ship should have been able to calculate the numbers instantly, as well as simultaneously managing a multiplicity of other tasks. “Three standard weeks.” It added, “I will get you there. And I will download all the information I have to you. Plug in.”

Gritting his teeth, Karl wiped the dust from the jack that hung beside the monitor screen for emergencies and inserted it in the socket behind his right ear, gasping, “Aagh! That’s horrible!” he cried. “It’s like someone running claws down a stone wall, really, really loudly.”

“I’m sorry.” Ship said. “If so many of my systems weren’t down.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, blinking a lie to the two words. The symbols flashed in front of his eyes, too fast to comprehend; he would review the data later, while he drifted in space.

Then he was pulling himself hand over hand down the corridor. As he rounded the first bend, Ship said, “The Ayes’ behaviour is curious.”

“How… so?” He was panting from the effort as he passed the hold, with the lump of super-heavy cargo that would have paid for the trip. Particularly if he could have traded it for information on the next leg.

“If I were to assume that they are going continue with their actions, what the Ayes are doing to the star’s upper chromosphere could have the effect of making the stars burn hotter.”

“Why would they do that?”

“I don’t know. They have never attempted to modify a star before, as far as we know.”

Karl reached Bay Eight, and paused.

Before he could speak, Ship said. “You must go now.”

Karl ripped off the mask, sighing with relief. He nodded, thin-lipped, and patted the wall. “Thanks – uh, you know–”

“No time,” Ship said. “Go now.”

The door irised slowly, revealing a wall of quivering blue jelly, seven feet high, and stuffed full of nanos. He pushed into the gel, which gave against him, and he felt the stupid-smart goo hook into his skin and poke squidgy fingers into his nostrils, ears and even up his anus and urethra. It had little more intellect than an amoeba but was hardwired to climb into him and form a second skin, and did so relentlessly.

“Why would terraformers pick a planet with such an unorthodox primary?” Karl wasn’t really that interested, but it was better than thinking about the gel, or worse, the boiling mass of superheated plasma hurtling toward them at a quarter of a million kilometres a second. He fought down a rising tide of panic as the gel pushed deeper. It took a mighty effort of will to open his mouth and let it flow down into his lungs. It formed an impenetrable skin over the vitreous liquid of his eyes: when it transluced so he could see the exit button, he knew that the covering was complete, and it had formed a tasteless, odourless emulsion between his frail flesh and the vacuum of space.

“With high maintenance, it would have been a viable project,” Ship said. “What they didn’t foresee was the coming war. They never do. That changed everything.”

Karl felt, rather than heard, the deep groan in the bowels of the ship as the containment fields around the neutronium weakened, and began to tear Ship apart.

“Got to go now!” he shouted to Ship by way of farewell.

“I have been squeezing all the lifegel into Bay Eight,” Ship said.

Before he could ask why, because the extra gel would do him no good, the closet-sized airlock opened onto space. The depressurizing atmosphere fired him clear, and he understood then. The extra gel was propellant, and as he tumbled head over heels, he blessed his clever, dependable Ship.

Counting showed that he was rotating head over heels every six seconds. The lifegel opaqued to protect his eyes – leaving him with only turquoise-blue to stare at – every time he faced the eye-meltingly fierce glare of the Mizar quartet. As he turned to face shadow, it cleared again.

The lifegel formed a perfect seal around him, but he couldn’t stop his chest from rising and falling; the carbon dioxide he breathed out was absorbed by the goo and gradually converted back into an oxygen and nitrogen mix a few microns thick, between him and the membrane.

He hadn’t counted how long he had been accelerating when Ship said, “Karl, there’s something else that I should tell you. The colonized planet’s ozone layer appears–” and broke off.

Despite the fact that Karl was facing away from the suns, the membrane opaqued. Then – even though it was supposed to absorb all kinetic energy – he felt a punch in his back that would have been a fragment of Ship, blown to pieces.

Although it had only been a semi-organic machine, Ship had been closer to him at times than any lover, and he wept for his loss.

Later, after he had exhausted his tears, he slept. It was a fitful doze, more to process everything that had happened since his rude awakening than from exhaustion.

When he awoke, he held himself in as long as possible until there was no evading the unpleasant sensation of voiding himself into the membrane and allowing it to absorb the deposit. If it had not been for his circumstances, hanging in space would have been enjoyable. He even wondered why no one had used the lifegel at home to sight-see Avalon’s neighbour worlds.

Astronomers on Ancient Earth had thought Mizar was one star. When they made the first telescopes, they realized that “it” was a pair. Still later, they finally understood that each pair – Mizar A and B – was in turn a pair.

Using the info that Ship had fired into him he went through the seven worlds orbiting the smaller pair that was Mizar B and the centuries old ruin of the semi-mythical Mizar B3, glimpsed only briefly before it flared and died again.

Farthest away from the stars that the settlers had named Alfasol, Betasol, Gamasol and Deltasol was tiny Asgard, a ball of ice and methane around a rocky core. Next was Valhalla, a blue hydrogen, helium and methane giant like Neptune. Moving inwards past green Midgard – Mizar B’s Uranus – Vanaheim was the largest world, though only slightly bigger than many-mooned Asagarth, next to it and closest to the asteroid belt dubbed Bifrost. While sunwards little Ragnarok was scorched to sterility. What this system lacked, Karl realized, was an equivalent to Earth and Venus; it would have made the Terraformer’s choices much easier.

And ahead of him was the other world, his destination. Isheimur, the settlers had named it – ice world.

The colony would have faded with the curtain-like falling of the Long Night, when the two types of humans, the Terraformers who wanted to shape worlds to fit humans, clashed with those Pantropists who rather wished to change humanity, to fit the worlds they settled. It had been a war that raged for decades, across only a few disputed systems to start with, but spreading like a virus.

Two centuries on, he had no idea whether there were survivors here or whether he was falling toward a dead world. The thought of re-entry made his mouth go dry, but at least the interminable waiting would be over – if he didn’t miss altogether and spin onwards until the lifegel ate him alive.

Days, weeks, perhaps months passed – he had no way of telling one day from the next. He could have switched his companion on, but the semi-idiot sub-routines reminded him too much of Ship, and he needed to save the power for more important things, like conserving the lifegel.

Isheimur crept closer until it filled his whole sky and he saw patches of blue and grey towards the equator. Sometimes it even eclipsed Mizar B – or Gamasol and Deltasol, as he should now call them, he decided.

He’d never heard of anyone trying what he was about to do, and he was sure that Ship would have told him if there was a precedent. No, this was the first attempt to confirm something that existed only as theory.

He was desperate to test the theory, for he still hadn’t gotten used to the gel taking care of his bodily functions; as well as the waste, it fed him through intravenous drips of nutrient-rich saline. Worse, he felt at times as if he was starting to lose his mind.

If he had switched it on, his sub-moronic companion would have fed basic data directly into his cortex. But it would have been nothing compared to what sounded like Ship haunting him; he awoke from fragmented dreams with whispers still pulsing in his ears. Sometimes he woke crying. It seemed wrong that he should miss an artificial construct more than his own partners, but he’d spent more time with Ship than with them.

He wondered what Karla was doing, where she was, who she with. More mercurial than he, though they were supposedly the same, would she and the others wait for him, or would they decant a replacement?

At last, he felt the drag of atmosphere. He swung his feet around so that he seemed to be standing on the still near-vacuum, but what air there was began to glow as he cut through it. He opened his arms to create drag, spreading himself as wide as he could. The gel rushed to insulate his feet and under his arms, but even so, some of the heat began to seep through.

He doubted that anyone had ever tried to dive feet-first into atmosphere, to fall all the way to the ground, and actually survived. Even with the lifegel, it felt as though giant hands squeezed him, and someone was applying a blow-torch to the soles of his feet.

The roaring grew louder, louder, louder, louder – until it filled his whole world. It drilled into his ears and the hands around him squeezed ever harder and each breath was an effort. When oblivion came it was a merciful release.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The World House by Guy Adams

NOTE: The World House was a free review copy provided to Luke Reviews by Angry Robot Books.

Between Trevis Powell’s Gran’s Secret, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, the original anthology Death & Dishonour, and Call to Arms by Mitchel Scanlon, Luke Reviews has seen a bit of a Fantasy reviewing renaissance. When I saw The World House show up in my mailbox, I decided to keep it up. Guy Adams has created a bit of a name for himself with his popular tie-ins, and I was curious to see how his first creator-owned work turned out.

Miles, heavy in debt and on the way to a beating from the man he owes money, disappears from his living room and reappears in a house like no other, where he is immediately attacked by an ostrich, a raccoon, and a tiger. Or is he? And after the shock of his first room, he sets out to try to find a way home, gathering more of a crowd as he goes. Meanwhile, two other groups begin their treks through the house, all searching for a way home. However, the house is far more than just a house, and its darkest secrets begin to unveil themselves as each group falls into deeper and deeper danger.

Adams does a lot well with this one. He uses an above average number of characters, yet never lets them become alike enough to be confused, each with a distinct and important personality. He makes his house sufficiently moody. He plays with setting without forgetting that it is, indeed, a house. And the exploration of the house by the characters is the highlight of the book, with each group finding more bizarre rooms, each with an imaginative set-up that works far better than it would seem it should on first glance.

In the spirit of full disclosure, this one ends on a cliffhanger, setting itself up for a second book (like we saw in Kell’s Legend, another book out from Angry Robot, which has a sequel due out at the end of April). While this can be frustrating, as a sense of closure can be nice, this book does seem to wrap its initial plot up, all while leaving many threads hanging for the second novel, Restoration. And, like with Kell’s Legend, I refuse to miss the sequel.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Friday Night in Beast House by Richard Laymon

I am a huge Richard Laymon fan, and I suppose that should be taken into account when you read this review. However, it is undeniable that Laymon is one of the best overlooked horror writers of all time. His ability to make you care about his characters in a scant few pages, as well as his using violence to increase the horror (as opposed to the book reviewed before this one), and his original plots, make him worth reading every time. And his pinnacle of horror writing is the Beast House Chronicles, which started with The Cellar, continued in The Beast House, and for the most part wrapped up in the brilliant The Midnight Tour. However, Laymon wrote one more tale of Beast House, the long novella Friday Night in Beast House. Out only in limited editions or out of print since it first came out, it has finally come out in mass market paperback, and I dove at the chance to grab a copy. This new version of Friday Night in Beast House is a collection of two novellas, the title story and “The Wilds,” Laymon’s tribute to Algernon Blackwood.

Friday Night in Beast House: Mark likes Alison, and so when she agrees to go out with him, he doesn’t think twice about her one condition: he has to help her sneak into Beast House overnight. But what starts out as an innocent quest for young love turns into a grueling day of hiding and an even darker night of danger.

The Cellar, as the first book in the series, stands alone quite well. While The Beast House and The Midnight Tour are sequels, they very much stand by themselves, and are just as enjoyable with no prior knowledge. Each book acts as a separate chronicle in the history of Beast House, so while they may have one character become a minor character in a later book, no main characters overlap and each story is self-sustaining. Friday Night in Beast House, acting as a coda of sorts to the saga, doesn’t stand alone nearly as well as the others. While it could be read with no prior knowledge, a lot of the little details mentioned will be completely missed, and the climax of the tale would likely be a bit confusing without having read at least one of the books. This one is for fans of the series.

However, for those fans, this is a wonderful treat. Is it as gripping as the first three books? No. It does, however, serve as a nice wrapping up of the world of Beast House. One final adventure, more light-hearted than the others, with its own bizarre twist in the final, makes this a great look back at a great series. You get to see the beasts one last time, before the door is closed, and one of the best tourist attraction-type horror series ends. Very fun, and a great way to end the Chronicles.

“The Wilds”: After a rough break up, Ned heads out for a solo camping trip in the Lost River Wilderness Area. However, the longer he stays out, the more reclusive he becomes. As he embraces his wild side, a few people invade his solitude, and he strikes out for his freedom.

A theme that Laymon works on a number of occasions is having his narrator slowly devolve into an antagonist. This is seen to full effect in one of his longer novels, Island, but it is also worked at here. The character of Ned starts out as a very sympathetic character coming off hard times, and gradually changes into a violent creep as he loses himself to his wild ways. A very solid story, well written and realistically portrayed emotionally, this story is a winner.

This newest collection of Laymon’s work, although very brief, is a nice place to stop for a couple days. Especially for fans of Laymon’s other work, this one will give you both a nice return and cap to his greatest story, but also a fun, quick stand alone piece. The two novellas go together well, and after going through a number of longer books, make a nice change up.


Friday, March 12, 2010

The Hualapai Cycle by Jason Walters

After the great result’s from BlackWyrm’s previous book, Gran’s Secret, I couldn’t wait to dive into another book put out by them. The next on my shelf was The Hualapai Cycle by Jason Walters. This is a themed horror collection, focusing on horror stories taking place in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. I looked forward to diving in.

The series of stories in The Hualapai Cycle, while they could stand alone, are very much interconnected and inter-related. The first few stories (featuring a man who breeds monster dogs, and hunt for a legendary mountain lion, and a self-conscious horse) featuring some reoccurring characters, as well as one common theme: these stories aren’t really that good. While the second story, “Phat Albert,” had occasional moments when it was good, they were drowned out. After the third story, I couldn’t continue.

Each tale tried to use graphic violence instead of horror, and failed. While violence can be used with, and in some cases is inextricable entwined with, horror, when it is presented in the wrong way it doesn’t do anything to the reader. To add on top of that the absurdity of the stories, which were bizarre in all the wrong ways, and the collection falls to pieces. While some very neat things could have been done with the setting and reoccurring characters, it just wasn’t well meshed into something that could be enjoyable. I have a feeling I will steer clear of Jason Walters’ work from here on out.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

NOTE: This review is brought to you in part by the kind donation of Luke Reviews site member Daniel Swiecki. Thank you, Daniel!

The third book in my look at Victorian genre fiction is Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is by far the shortest, but also most famous, book I’m looking at. While the story itself is a novella and thus not very long, I have the Norton Critical Edition, which gives very helpful annotations, particularly on words that have become archaic, or changed in meaning in the 125 years since the story came out.

Mr. Utterson is a local lawyer who happens to be good friends with both Dr. Lanyon and Dr. Jekyll, both of whom he has known since childhood. However, into their daily lives another man, Mr. Edward Hyde, becomes embroiled, and with each passing day seems to be more entwined than anyone ever suspected. And when Dr. Lanyon dies, Mr. Utterson is left with a complex web of terror that involves his dearest friend, Dr. Jekyll.

While the story itself may seem very familiar to modern readers, those who have never read the novella before will be in for a bit of a surprise. The story varies dramatically at times from that of popular legend. Stevenson’s characters feel incredibly real and human, and his evil Mr. Hyde becomes horrific not out of visceral violence and gore, but out of his deep uncaring for his fellow man.

An easy day’s read, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not just worth the time it takes to read it, but is far more than that. As far as early horror stories go, this one works because it relies not on the gross-out but on the psychological suspense. A wonderful tale.


Monday, March 8, 2010

On Writing Horror, Revised Edition edited by Mort Castle: Part 1

I am fascinated by books such as On Writing Horror, Revised Edition. As an author working on his craft and who isn’t widely published, one would think I get writing books to help me better my writing, and in part that is likely the case. However, the biggest reason is that they present a way to talk about writing with myself. An internal dialogue forms, and the interesting ideas the authors of this volume throw out makes for fun food for thought. As I normally read solely fiction, reading non-fiction is quite the cnage up, and so I decided to break up the book into pieces, and share it with you piecemeal while I stop to think about certain sections. This review will cover up through Part Three.

The forward gives a brief introduction to the Horror Writers Association (HWA). After an introduction to the text by editor Mort Castle, we dive in.

Part One (“Horror, Literature, and Horror Literature”) contains three essays, one each from Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, and Michael McCarty, on what horror fiction is, and why it is important. Stephen King’s piece, a transcript from his National Book Award speech, takes the top spot in this section, giving a very human view of the whats and whys of horror fiction, as well as his personal inspirations.

Part Two (“An Education in Horror”) contains a series of essays by Robert Weinberg, Ramsey Campbell, Tom Monteleone, and Michael A. Arnzen on both what you need to know about the horror genre and how to learn it. Weinberg gives a list of 21 classics of the genre any writer who wants to write horror should read, while Campbell discusses genre clichés. The other two discuss workshops and college programs that emphasize creative writing. The second two weren’t as exciting, but Weinberg and Campbell make for very interesting reading.

Part Three (“Developing Horror Concepts”) begins to get to the meat of the book. The underpinnings of horror fiction and how to use them well are explored by J. N. Williamson (how to formulate your ideas), Wayne Allen Sallee (finding horror in the everyday), Michael Marano (writing about things that scare you), and Richard Gilliam (on the accuracy of historical detail). These items are things that can make or break a story, and all four authors break down their topics into very well described and uncomplex pieces. The Gilliam piece in particular has a lot of things to offer that the starting author likely wouldn’t think of.

The next part of the review of On Writing Horror, Revised Edition will delve into sections on the more nitty gritty details of horror stories and art and innovation in horror.

This book is far more than a “How To” book. It contains a plethora of ideas just waiting to be thrown into stories, and it will incite excitement in any author to dive into a new horror story. This new author looks very much forward to using the excitement generated from On Writing Horror, Revised Edition in his next horror story. More news to follow, both on that front as well as continuing On Writing Horror, Revised Edition.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Next Ten (II)

Now that the first list from “The Next Ten” is wrapped up, it is time for the sequel, “The Next Ten (II).” There are some exciting things on the way. Below are the next ten (Title by Author (date of publication of edition read/publisher of edition read), but don’t forget that other little surprises will pop up in between. Enjoy!

On Writing Horror, Revised Edition edited by Mort Castle (2007/Writer’s Digest Books)

The Hualapai Cycle by Jason Walters (2010/BlackWyrm)

The World House by Guy Adams (2010/Angry Robot Books)

Soul Hunter by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (2010/Black Library)

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (2003/Harper)

The Holler by Marge Fulton (2010/BlackWyrm)

Edge by Thomas BlackThorne (2010/Angry Robot Books)

Flesh and Iron by Henry Zou (2010/Black Library)

The Breach by Patrick Lee (2010/Harper)

Millennium Falcon by James Luceno (2009/Del Rey)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Call to Arms by Mitchel Scanlon

NOTE: Call to Arms was a free review copy provided to Luke Reviews by The Black Library.

Of the admittedly small amount of Warhammer Fantasy fiction that I have read, I’ve seen elves and monsters of Chaos, demons and dwarves, but beyond some of the stories in Death & Dishonour, there has not been a lot about humans. Warhammer’s Empire Army series is rectifying that, putting out stand alone novels that focus on the soldiers of the Empire (similar to Black Library’s SF-nal Imperial Guard series). Call to Arms is the third book in the series, although they are all self-standing and don’t need to be read to enjoy the others.

Dieter Lanz is on his way to join with the 3rd Hochland Swordsmen, known as the Scarlets, when an orc army begins to march through the countryside. Arriving just in time to join the Scarlets in a crushing defeat, Dieter and his new comrades fight to stay one step ahead of the oncoming orc army, hoping to survive long enough to find a way to stop them.

Mitchel Scanlon begins his story with a bang, and the action never lets up throughout. His battle scenes feel realistic in their lack of romanticized maneuvering, and instead focus on the mindless pushing and surging of army against army. Dieter gets lost in the waves of battle, and only figures out what is going on after the confusion of combat dissipates. Fancy swordplay is not the mode of the day, but using what you have to stop your enemy any way you can.

Dieter, along with his companions Holst, Grier, and Gerhardt, are very well developed. In between battles soldiers tell stories, and we get to see a lot about each as they interact, along with how they think before, during, and after they fight. The ending is also well done, climaxing with a large battle, but not seeing the end of the war.

Scanlon crafted a wonderful novel with Call to Arms. While it is an entirely different story from The Chronicles of Malus Darkblade: Volume Two by Dan Abnett and Mike Lee, it sits up with it as the best Warhammer Fantasy and the Black Library have to offer.