Fantasy/SF Book Reviews

The Internet Writing Journal, February 2003

The Assassins of Tamarin by S. D. Tower

Eos, December, 2002
Hardcover, 453 pages
ISBN: 0446528625
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The Assassins of Tamarin
 by S. D. Tower 11 year-old Lale is an orphan who lives in the small, poor village of Riversong, located in a land that brings both ancient China and ancient Rome to mind. Turned out of the village for losing the town's precious needles, Lale is adopted by Makina, the Despotana of Tamurin, known as "Mother" to all the adopted girls. Lale, a great beauty, is eventually sent to the secret school of Three Rivers where she learns all the trades of a professional spy and assassin. Sworn to absolute loyalty to Makina, Lale is magically enthralled -- if she betrays Makina, she will be tortured to death by the hideous and merciless wraiths. Lale is sent to the nearby country of Bethiya with a troupe of famous actors, where she is ordered to seduce and then destroy the ruler of the country, Terem Raithai. Mother despises Terem because she believes him responsible for the murder of her child and family, many years ago. Lale becomes the Inamorata of Terem, but she also falls in love with the ruler, who turns out to be an honorable and just man, despite what Mother has told Lale over the years. Now, as war threatens, and Makina's terrible plans are revealed, Lale must make a terrible decision as to whom she will betray, a betrayal that will most likely mean her death.

S. D. Tower (actually a pseudonym for a Canadian husband and wife writing team) creates a stunning new fantasy world, peopled with peasants, poets, monarchs, sorcerers and assassins, set against a rich background of luxurious palaces, rough countryside, and lively cities. Lale, the orphan who becomes a deadly assassin, tells her story in first person, and her character is vividly portrayed. Makina, the seemingly benevolent monarch who actually runs a deadly network of spies and who has grand designs for the world, is a fascinating character who at times seems to be teetering on the edge of madness. With all the conflicting motivations of the characters and the potential for deception, one never really knows who is right or wrong until the very end of the book, which makes for some very suspenseful reading. A detailed map is the only thing missing from this well-executed fantasy.

The Fifth Ring by Mitchell Graham

Eos, January, 2003
Paperback, 576 pages
ISBN: 0060506512
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The Fifth Ring
by Mitchell Graham King Karas Duran has always longed for a way to conquer the rest of the known world. He is given that power when an excavation on the palace grounds unearths a strange room with glowing crystals and rings which enable the wearer to telepathically use the power of the crystals. Karas eventually masters one of the rings, cavalierly blowing up quite a few servants and statuary along the way. His studies in the crystal room tell him that there were originally five rings; one of them is missing. In the town of Devondale, young Mathew Levin is a fencer of great skill. Through a series of unusual events, Mathew acquires possession of a rose gold ring, which has amazing and destructive powers. Karas makes a deal with the ruthless and terrifying Orlocks to wage war and to find the last ring. Mathew, several friends and Father Thomas Siward are forced to leave Devondale, as they become swept up in Karas' quest for a power which could destroy the world.

Although it is set in a fantasy world, there are strong science fiction elements in The Fifth Ring, the first in a projected trilogy. The world is medieval in technology, yet it sits on top of the ruin of an incredibly advanced civilization that no longer exists, but whose secrets are there for the taking by those who dare. This makes for a very interesting twist on the standard magical systems used in most fantasy books. A fencing expert himself, the author uses that expertise to great effect in his exciting and well-written action scenes. The characters are well-drawn: Mathew, the insecure boy who tends to lose his lunch before fencing tournaments, Lara, Mathew's love interest who can fence as well as any man, and particularly Father Thomas Siward, the enigmatic town priest who seems equally at home on the battlefield or in the pulpit. The dialogue is crisp and often funny, and Graham's prose is spare and lean. Mitchell Graham is clearly an author to watch.

Impossible Places by Alan Dean Foster

Del Ray, September, 2002
Paperback, 275 pages
ISBN: 0345450418
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Impossible Places
by Alan Dean Foster There are few masters of the art of the short story. Alan Dean Foster is one of them. This collection includes a variety of short stories from Foster, creator of the Commonwealth series, the Pip and Flinx series, and author of the bestselling Star Wars bridge books, Splinter of the Mind's Eye and The Approaching Storm. This collection, which features exotic locales, leans towards the macabre, starting with a delightfully creepy story called "Lay Your Head on My Pilose." "Empowered" is a hilariously cynical look at what might happen to a real Superhero in today's litigious society, and "The Question", in which a valiant explorer determines to see what lies outside his comfortable existence, gives one a wonderful sense of perspective. The collection ends with "Sideshow," a marvelous little Pip and Flinx adventure. Each story begins with a short, fascinating commentary from the author. Anyone who enjoys the short story form, or who thinks he has a future writing short stories should definitely own a copy of Impossible Places.

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