Book Review: Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts

Ok, I’m a bit perplexed…

What is it about sexual hangups in more mature fantasy offerings these days? I’ve run across shame about homosexual feelings, marital infidelity, and spousal abuse in two recent novels from Robin Hobb (The Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven) and now I’ve hit the social and personal stigma of developing a lesbian relationship in J.A. Pitts’ debut fantasy novel – Black Blade Blues. I’d say it was just my imagination, but I don’t think so…

Anyway, Pitts’ novel is an urban fantasy set in the Northwest United States that centers on the life of Sarah Beauhall, a blacksmith by day and a movie props master by night with a love of medieval weapons and armor. As a collector of such forged materials, she has been known to prowl antique auctions offering swords, axes, knives, and such for sale and occasionally acquiring a piece for herself. One such piece is a beautiful black bladed sword.

When the sword is accidentally broken on the set of the latest movie Sarah is helping with, it begins a bizarre chain of events in her life. Offered help by an extra who claims to be a real live dwarf, Sarah is thrust into a world where dragons are real and magic exists. When she fixes the sword on her anvil, she becomes the central figure in a new cycle where myths and legends not only walk the Earth, but threaten the very lives of Sarah and her friends.

In recent years, beginning with Neil Gaiman‘s American Gods, the upcoming Thor movie from Marvel in 2011, and most recently with Jim Butcher‘s latest Dresden Files novel Changes, Norse gods such as Odin, Thor, Loki, and Sif have found their way into modern works of fantasy. And I have to admit that I absolutely love this trend. For far too long the gods of Asgard have remained dormant and it’s great to see them stalking the pages of fiction once more.

But back to the sexual revolution in modern fantasy for a moment… Sarah is estranged from her father, a devout believer in the Christian God and a misogynist who seems to believe that women should serve men and not get in their way. And she’s dealing with the new love she feels for her girlfriend Katie, a schoolteacher who knows who she is and what she wants – and that is Sarah. Sarah unfortunately isn’t so sure and struggles with feelings of shame brought on by her father’s intolerance for anything other than the union of a man and a woman…

I think I get it now that I’ve had time to consider it a bit. Finding yourself and your loves is a quest all of us is on throughout most of our lives. And weaving the storyline of self-discovery into the novel as Sarah goes from self-doubt about her relationship with Katie to somewhere nearing acceptance balances out the supernatural story elements surrounding the sword. It’s just interesting to see that these more modern relationships, unbounded by the “traditional” union of man and woman, are working their way into what I think of as mainstream fiction. Really it’s probably overdue.

Honestly, I was surprised to discover that this was a debut novel. The 400+ pages of Black Blade Blues went extremely quickly. As I learned more of how Pitts intertwined interpretations of Norse myths into a modern setting, it picked up speed and didn’t let me go. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Sarah Beauhall, Katie, and the rest of their friends as they deal with a world of dragons, dwarves, and magic. If you like urban fantasy and are looking for a female answer to Harry Dresden, be sure to check it out at your favorite bookstore!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up Black Blade Blues from Barnes & Noble today!

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[Book Review] Robin Hobb’s Dragon Haven

Wow…

What a difference a second book makes… I read Robin Hobb‘s The Dragon Keeper back in March 2010 and enjoyed it, but felt that it was really just getting going by the time the dragon keepers were chosen by the Rain Wild Council more than halfway through. Dragon Haven picks up where the action lets off in the first book and doesn’t let up until the end, providing a much more satisfying and quicker read than the first book.

Dragon Haven is the second book in the “Rain Wilds Chronicles” by Hobb, which is set in the world she’s created for previous series such as the Liveship Traders Trilogy. The Chronicles center on the people living in and around the Rain Wilds, a place of rivers running white with acid, dragons, interesting critters, and magical items left over from a vanished people. Some of the characters in the story are from Bingtown, a bigger town where the rules of society reign supreme and image is everything. And the rest are touched in some way by living in the Wilds, whether deformed or mutated in interesting ways by their continuous struggle against the natural order of the marshy area or in how they live as traders on the river.

The Dragon Keeper introduced us to the main characters in the story and the second book continues their journey…

Thymara is a child of the wilds, born with claws instead of fingernails. According to her people’s customs, she should have been left to die – but her father saved her and she grew up learning to hunt and forage in the treetop world in which she grew up. Chosen as a keeper, she ended up paired with the dragon Sintara, a beautiful queen bound and determined not to be dependent on her keeper.

Alise Kincarron grew up in Bingtown as a Trader’s daughter. She was shunned by society for her passion for learning all she could of dragon lore and the Elderlings, a people changed by the dragons who served as their connection with mankind. In the first book, she was courted and married to Hest Finbok, a successful Trader and businessman in need of an heir. The marriage of convenience with Alise allowed him to keep up appearances and allowed her to have access to more resources for her research, though there was a price to pay for such convenience.

Hest’s right-hand man was Sedric Meldar, a friend of Alise’s from her childhood. He served as Hest’s secretary, but also kept many of his secrets. Sedric was sent with Alise into the Rain Wilds so that she may see the dragons before they headed upriver to find the elusive and lost Elderling city of Kelsingra. But he had a secondary purpose to the journey that led him down a dark path…

And Leftrin, captain to the liveship Tarman, is tied to the dragons in his own way. In the first book, he found a wizardwood log – a dragon cocoon – washed far into the Rain Wilds. He and a hand-picked crew took it and worked the magical “wood” into his liveship to make it even more powerful than before. When the Tarman is contracted to help guide the keepers and dragons upriver, Leftrin becomes entangled with Alise and Sedric and falls in love with the Bingtown woman.

Dragon Haven continues the journey of the Tarman, keepers, and dragons upriver to find the mythical Elderling city of Kelsingra. Nobody knows if the place is real or imagined by the dragons, but they continue searching for clues as they delve deeper into the uncharted territory of the Rain Wilds.

Along the way, the dragons, keepers, crew of the Tarman, Alise, and Sedric learn more about themselves each day of the expedition. The dangers of the acid waters and simply finding enough food and fresh water to keep everyone alive would be tough enough, but unexpected dangers force everyone to reevaluate their situations and possibly even find happiness or at least understanding as they journey on.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, but I will say that the end works extremely well to tie up many loose ends in a satisfying way without closing the door on future books exploring the world Hobb has created.

As I said in my review of The Dragon Keeper, this is serious, adult fantasy dealing with complex issues. I found it interesting that in the first book there was an unwelcome sexual act (Hest forcing himself on Alise on their wedding night) and in Dragon Haven we deal with almost a Lord of the Flies situation with a coed group of keepers roaming free with little or no adult supervision. This leads to some sexual experimentation by a few characters and an incident of voyeurism that leads to conflict among the keepers throughout the story.

Both books of the series deal with tough topics like marital fidelity, homosexuality, young lovers, and being social outcasts, but eventually most characters gain a better understanding of themselves and what they want or don’t want from their new lives with the dragons. It hits me a lot like young people growing up in our own society these days. Kids have to grow up fast as they’re thrust into much more adult situations much earlier than ever before.

If Dragon Haven is a product of Robin Hobb at her best, I may now have to check out some of her other books! This novel provided fast action, deep emotional bonds, and a great ending that leaves the door open for further adventures by the characters. If you were disappointed by The Dragon Keeper, I’d encourage you to check out Dragon Haven and give Hobb another chance. I wonder what she has in store for us next…

This article was originally published at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up Dragon Haven and other Robin Hobb books at Barnes & Noble!

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[Book Review] Warriors edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Hi there…

Short story collections are tricky to sum up sometimes. In the case of fantasy, science fiction, or horror collections, often I find that an anthology feels more like it was rounded up like cattle to slaughter than a carefully selected group of stories about a particular theme. Warriors from Tor was thankfully in the latter category.

Warriors was put together and edited by George R. R. Martin (author of the bestselling Song of Ice and Fire series that began in 1996 with A Game of Thrones), and Gardner Dozois (acclaimed editor and novelist who has won fifteen Hugo Awards for his editorial work in science fiction and fantasy). I’ve read many of GRRM’s works, including some of his Wild Cards anthologies and have been waiting to see who lives and dies in the next book of his Song of Ice and Fire series for 5 years along with everyone else. And I really enjoyed Wizards: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy a few years ago, which was edited by Dozois. So I suspected that Warriors would be just as good.

Man was I wrong. Warriors was an amazing collection of stories from all eras and genres, from ancient Rome and Carthage to a future where soldiers jack into giant robots on a battlefield far away and everything between. These stories impressed me with their depth, their eloquence, and the ability to surprise me from time to time. I loved Wizards, but Warriors beats it hands down. It helps that the 735 page book could be used as a weapon to bludgeon a poor, unsuspecting wizard while they were trying to remember or cast a spell…

When I first saw this behemoth, I wondered if they’d sent me a dictionary by mistake. Its size alone presented a daunting challenge of carrying it around. That said, I think I added a bit of muscle as I lugged it around.

It would be impossible to cover all of the great stories in this collection in a single review. Instead, I’ll focus on a few that really captured my attention.

Robin Hobb is an author who I had often heard about, but never read until recently. I read Dragon Keeper and just finished Dragon Haven a few days ago, both of which were excellent. So when I read her short story “The Triumph” I already knew she was an excellent writer. But it’s one thing to write about a fictional world of your own making and quite another to write accurately enough about a historical period that you can enjoy the story without getting mired in historical details or inaccuracies.

“The Triumph” is about an Roman soldier named Regulus imprisoned by the Carthaginians and his childhood friend and soldiering companion Flavius, recently escaped from Carthaginian slavers. In the story, Hobb describes the love, respect, and admiration soldiers often have for one another that leads them again and again into and out of impossible situations. Regulus was a natural leader and Flavius a follower intent on keeping his friend alive through battle after battle. But in the end, there was only one kindness Flavius could give his friend. Beautifully written and told with just enough detail to be believable, but not so much as to become lost.

Joe R. Lansdale, I’m sorry to say I’d never heard of prior to reading his story “Soldierin’.” However, from the blurb before his story I now know he was involved with novelizing the awesome and quirky movie Bubba Ho-Tep. Now I may have to look for some of his other works!

“Solderin'” has nothing to do with Elvis, a mummy, and nursing homes, but instead deals with a story from the wild west of 1870 about two Black men looking for a better life. The pair get involved with the Ninth Cavalry from Fort McKavett “between the Colorady and the Pecos rivers” as Nat Wiliferd and Cullen find themselves in Indian country.

Did they find their better life? Perhaps. But what captured my interest was the way in which the story was told, from Nat’s point of view. I laughed my way through the story enjoying his view of the world and the way everyone spoke in a particularly direct, yet drawly English. It reminded me a bit of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. with Bruce Campbell. The language, storytelling, and the touches of history kept me amused from beginning to end.

The story that surprised me the most was “Dirae” by Peter S. Beagle, the author of The Last Unicorn, one of the great novels of an earlier era of fantasy and science fiction. Beagle has written much since then, including other novels, short fiction, and scripts for such great series as Star Trek: The Next Generation at the height of its run. “Dirae” starts with two pages of dream-like text and leads you on an adventure that transcends the frailty of the human spirit to help those in need. As you read and learn more about the character at the center of the action, you and she piece things together to the very end. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was beautifully paced and emotionally charged.

Another story that surprised me, and the last one I’ll talk about here, is “The Pit” from James Rollins. This one moved me to tears in the end and is not about a human warrior at all, but a canine one. Brutus is a dog trained to fight in the pit, stolen from his happy puppy days by a thief intent on perpetuating the “sport” of dog fighting. As anyone familiar with the Michael Vick dog fighting saga knows, it’s not a sport. It’s illegal and immoral. And this story should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants a glimpse into that world.

There are many other stories in the anthology from authors I knew and a few I didn’t – Joe Haldeman, Tad Williams, Diana Gabaldon, Naomi Novik, David Weber, S.M. Stirling, David Morrell, and the editors Dozois and Martin were among the ones I knew. And all the stories – whether I knew the authors or not – were well written, diverse, and told amazingly well.

If you need some summer reading material, Warriors works well on vacation as you can enjoy the collection a story at a time. The editors and Tor outdid themselves this time. Great work!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this collection and others at Barnes & Noble!

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