Fantasy/SF Book Reviews

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

HarperCollins, July, 2001.
Hardcover, 432 pages.
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American Gods
by Neil Gaiman Shadow didn't like prison at all. After learning the trick of getting people to leave him alone (and not beat the daylights out of him) he settled in to do his time, and count the days until he could see his beloved wife again. Just before he was to be released, he learned that his wife had died in a car accident in compromising and embarrassing circumstances. Feeling lost and betrayed, Shadow drifts aimlessly. He then meets up with the mysterious Mr. Wednesday who offers Shadow a job. So Shadow becomes Wednesday's assistant, and accompanies Wednesday on a mission to contact the ancient Gods, who are alive and living all over America. The old Gods have fallen on hard times. No one believes in them anymore, so they are gradually fading away. In stark contrast, the new Gods of modern society (the Internet, Media and so on) are fat, happy and determined to wipe out their aging competition. Initially ambivalent about the idea of a bloody contest between the new and old Gods, Shadow eventually comes to develop a deep affection for some of the ancient dieties. He will be swept up in conspiracies, con games, and betrayals. And he will have a crucial role to play in the upcoming battle.

American Gods is, by turns, moody, disturbing, hilarious and -- ultimately -- quite moving. The "hero" of the story is Shadow, who is on a mythic quest, although he's not quite sure what he's searching for -- until he finds it. Haunted (literally) by his dead, unfaithful wife, he meets everyone from Easter to Anubis while experiencing the dubious joys of middle America: long road trips, strange companions, greasy diner food, coin tricks to pass the time, and the odd Roadside Attraction. The book can be read on several levels; on one level, it's an entertaining road trip story with a deliciously nasty small town murder mystery as a subplot. On another level, Gaiman explores -- in a most thought-provoking way -- the depths of the American psyche, and the power of our conscious and unconscious beliefs. He also addresses the themes of death, the search for self, meaning in one's life, and redemption through sacrifice.

Gaiman's wit and humor are in full force describing the down and out Gods; the beautiful and hypnotic Queen of Sheba is reduced to turning tricks on Sunset Boulevard; Easter picnics alone in Golden Gate Park; Anubis runs a funeral parlor, and Bast spends most of her time as a cat. The God of the Internet (a pimply, annoying adolescent), the Goddess of Media (honey-voiced, hard-edged, spouting inanities), and the mysterious Government Conspiracy guys are especially entertaining. Mythology buffs will be transported, but even those with only a rudimentary knowledge of multi-cultural legends will find the book compelling. More sweeping in scope and more complex than the delightful Neverwhere and Stardust, American Gods won't be easily forgotten. Highly recommended.

--Claire E. White

The Ring of Five Dragons by Eric Van Lustbader

Tor, May 2001.
Hardcover, 608 pages.
ISBN: 0312872356
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The Ring of Five Dragons
by Eric Van Lustbader They call themselves the V'ornn. Ruthless and technologically superior to most species that they meet, the V'ornn are space wanderers who conquer worlds, strip them of resources, and them move on to the next planet. The V'ornn also have masters: the mysterious technomages known as the Gyrgon. The reign of the V'ornn on Kundalan has been devastating for the planet and its people, but small sects still keep the secrets of ancient magic and the lore of the Goddess Minna alive. Those secrets are of great interest to the Gyrgons, who want to find the source of this ancient and powerful magic. First, they must find the Ring of Five Dragons which opens the Storehouse, a repository of great treasure and artifacts of power. But another is also searching for the Ring: the Dar Sala-at, who is prophesied to discover the secret and return freedom to the Kundalan people.

This is first book in a new epic fantasy series from the internationally bestselling author of The Ninja, White Ninja and French Kiss. Eric Van Lustbader takes a standard fantasy device, the quest, and turns it into a breathtaking epic fantasy with rich, interesting characters, a complex plot and some nice twists and turns along the way. Lustbader excels at pacing, dialogue and writing exciting action scenes, and his magical world is captivating. This is a marvelous first entry in what is sure to be another bestselling trilogy.

Priestess of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson

Viking, May, 2001.
Hardcover, 394 pages.
ISBN: 0670910236
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Priestess of Avalon
by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson Priestess of Avalon follows the life of Eilan, from her childhood as a princess, through her training as a priestess of Avalon, to her days as consort to the Roman Emperor Constantius and her reign as Empress-Mother of the Emperor Constantine. Eilan lives through a crucial turning point in Western history: Christianity is slowly replacing the pagan religions of old, and there is much war and bloodshed as rulers and religious leaders jockey for position and power. The story really begins in AD 262, when young British princess Eilan has settled into her life on the mysterious island of Avalon, where the Lady of Avalon leads the druidic priestesses in their duties and their training. Eilan defies the Lady of Avalon and substitutes herself for her sister priestess as the offering to the Roman warrior, Constantius, who has a great destiny before him. Eilan will experience great passion, heartache and a profound spiritual evolution over the course of her long, full life.

Priestess of Avalon is an amazing and enthralling book. It is a prequel to the bestselling Mists of Avalon, which retold the Arthurian legend from a feminist point of view. The great Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson began work on Priestess of Avalon before Bradley's death in 1999, and Paxson finished the work. The result is true to the style and tone of Bradley's other works. Diana Paxson is a very talented author in her own right (See, The Hallowed Isle) and excels at taking historical figures and bringing them to vibrant life. Priestess of Avalon gives an absolutely riveting eye view of the turbulent history of Emperor Constantine's reign, as well an intriguing look at the Druidic religion. The ecumenical approach towards the different religions should strike a chord with modern readers who may have more tolerance for other religions than did most during the turbulent days of early Christianity. With magic, deep and layered characters and a sweeping narrative, Priestess of Avalon is sure to delight Bradley's many fans, and make many new ones for the talented Diana Paxson.

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