Thursday, August 29, 2019

End the cycle

So, after more years than I care to count, I've joined the rest of geekdom and finished Russ T. Howard's The Ultimate Helm, the final book in the SpellJammer Cloakmaster Cycle.

We again join Teldin on his voyage to meet the legendary ship, which he technically found at the end of the last volume. The ship responded by attacking his Nautiloid. Anyway, as we begin, the legend impales Cloakmaster's ship, and three survivors board the SpellJammer, joining the human population living on the back of the Manta Ray.

And promptly get attacked by every non human population living on the SpellJammer, all of whom have heard the legend of the Dark Times heralded by the arrival of the Cloakmaster.

So, basically, the entire ship goes to war, all the different fleets come join the war, and eventually, after being reunited with Estriss the Illithid and Cwlanas, the elf maid from book 1, and a psionic projection of the kender Gaye, we finally find the final secrets of the SpellJammer.

(As a side note, given that pretty much the gnomes of Krynn are about the only ones who know anything about SpellJamming in general, one is hard pressed not to imagine the Silvanesti, models of elven grace and xenophobia, watching people get kidnapped by aliens, and not wonder how that went over. Redneck elves.)

While this is a satisfying conclusion to the series as a whole, the war for the SpellJammer and the various factions vying for control really isn't that well fleshed out. One never gets a sense of the intrigue floating aboard the ship. And frankly, the serious contenders for taking out Teldin are almost cartoonish in their villainy. Unlike book 1 which took a turn for the very dark during the Neogi torture scene, this one has the villains doing the equivalent of tying the helpless maiden to the train tracks while twirling a moustache.

So, honestly, while the finale is actually really good, the build up to everything is rushed and silly. But I'm happy I read it anyway.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Oh yeah, this is where Mary Ann gets evil

Hey, it's the second part of the twofer, with Volume 5 of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, Significant Others.

Again, we're mid 80's and dealing with AIDS and its impact on San Francisco. Michale has been diagnosed as HIV antibody positive and has been mostly virginal since that result. His friends are trying to change that. So, when he meets Thack on Alcatraz as part of a dying friend's bucket list, a new relationship gets planted. Mary Ann, on the other hand, is now running her own local version of Donahue, and is going to appear on Entertainment Tonight. Brian's uptight nephew arrives in town, leading to Brian to find one of his old conquests to deflower him. Mrs. Madrigal is trying to save the wooden steps leading up to Barbary Lane. Mona is dating a post mistress in England. DeDe and D'or are headed to Wimminwood, while DeDe's mother's husband Booter is headed to the Bohemian Grove. We meet Wren Douglas, the plus sized model, who ends up getting hired by Booter for an extended weekend.

Things get complicated as Brian ends up heading north with Thack and Michael as he deal with his own HIV scare (This alone leads to one of the most painful exchanges in the book), Booter's friend dies, sending him drunk in a canoe down river, and DeDe and D'or start fighting about trends in feminism and lesbianism of the era. (DeDe, being a Dowry Dyke, is a lot more conservative than Radical D'or, D'or wants to go topless, DeDe doesn't, DeDe pulls a security shift at the festival and winds up letting rednecks in who trash the place, D'or lusts after lesbian poet Sabra....)

With Booter floating down the river, he misses an appointment with Wren, who calls in Thack and Michael to find out what happened. Brian ends up joining Wren and finally working through many of his issues by talking with her. Booter winds up at Wimminwood, captive of Rose, the authoritarian head of security.

It all eventually works, out, and Brian does eventually tell Mary Ann what happened. The one question I wind up with has to do with Sabra, whom I assume is a cypher, much the way ____ _____ was for Rock Hudson a few books back. The question is whom she's supposed to be.

This installment has a bit more humor than the other two books in the middle third, but it also has a bunch of meditations on love and loss, and occasional new beginnings. Probably the best of the middle three.

Go with the flow

Twofer again tonight, starting with Nigel Findley's return to The Cloakmaster Cycle with The Broken Sphere. 

There isn't that much to say about the plot of this installment of Teldin's adventures in the Phlogostein, since most of the book is an extended chase from Crescent to the eponymous Broken Sphere wherein he can find the fabled SpellJammer.

On one hand, this one does have a few advantages; with the return of Julia, we get a better reason that recycling as to why characters keep returning to the series after being presumed dead, and we also get a lecture on why late stage capitalism in Medieval space is just as bad as it is in post modern time.

Unfortunately, this is still a big "Sail here, find out there are traitors and spies on the new crew, meet an old cast member who may or may not be bad, find out who the actual big bad is an their motivations, then proceed on the quest."

Which, honestly, isn't poorly written, and indeed features a Beholder in human disguise as a crewman. It's more that we've have 4 books prior to this really following a similar formula. I am happy they decided to enter an Elvish concept of a person to whom fate bends around as a reason why people keep wondering in and out of the story.

It's just, if it weren't for the appearance of the legendary ship at the end, this book would have been filler.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Just a faded reminder of who I used to be

Many years ago, like when it got released, I first read Christopher Rice's A Density of Souls. I just finished rereading it again today.

We open on Stephen, Meredith, Greg, and Brandon, still in Elementary School, playing hide and seek in one of New Orleans' cemeteries. Stephen doesn't play as much as he goes and sits in front of his father's tomb. A thunderstorm breaks out, Meredith stumbles on Greg grinding on top of Stephen. Brandon yells out as he hits home base, they discover the gate is locked, and they're trapped. Brandon freaks, Stephen calms them with a poem his father wrote.

Cut to first day of school at Cannon Academy as the gang starts their freshman year of high school. Stephen has fallen out of favor, as Brandon and Greg are football players and Meredith quickly joins the ranks of the popular girls. Stephen, effeminate and fey, becomes outcast. Meredith and Greg start dating, Stephen becomes a theater geek. The rift between the friends gets worse as Brandon affixes a note reading "FAG" on Stephen's back in English class. This leads Stephen to crying in the theater and introducing Jeff, a football player with theater pretensions, who gets kicked out by the teacher, who blames the athletic department for Stephen's ouster.

Freshman year passes, Stephen goes to Rome and sees handsome men he wants to sleep with. Sophomore year, Stephen gets a car that Brandon and Greg destroy and spray paint "Cocksuckr" across the windshield. Jeff picks up Stephen after school one day, takes him to the river with beer, and punches Stephen's V-card. While it snows in New Orleans. Anyway, Jeff's ulcers act up, so he has to sit out the Playoff game, making Greg quarterback for the last game before the state championship. Brandon gets kicked out of the game, shattering his helmet on the bench on his way out. Greg's parents are late arriving, and Greg's little brother gets run over by a garbage truck. At the funeral, Greg's mom goes nuts, and is escorted out. Later that evening, Greg commits suicide.

Then we skip ahead 5 years, and the southern gothic kicks in, as we have Jeff return to Stephen's life until he gets blown up by a bomb Brandon planted, Meredith goes to the asylum where Greg's mother is catatonic, and Brandon's older brother, Jordan enters the picture. We also get to see the rather pained relationship between Stephen's mom and Brandon's mom.

By the end, we finally find out everything that happened in the Bishop Polk bell tower the night Greg died,  we know the true relationship between certain characters, even as they remain blissfully unaware of it.

My initial response is about the same as it was several years ago, there's a heck of a lot of plot holes and a bunch of trying to imitate his mother, characters that are the worst sort of privileged white rich kids, adults who are as bad as their children, but.... much of Stephen resonates with me on many levels, which makes it a good read, even with the flaws.

On the other hand, rereading it managed to swing me back into some of the headspace I was in when I first read it, which wasn't a good place emotionally. But that discussion belongs elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

That's Snow Ghost!

Teldin Moore is back for more in The Radiant Dragon, book 4 of the Cloakmaster Cycle.

We open on a Reigar captain finding the fabled SpellJammer, only said Reigar isn't. She's really a space dragon who also has one of the Ultimate Helms that are supposed to allow a person to control the ship. Whatever said dragon sees on the ship leads to her reverting to her draconic form and destroying the ship she was captaining.

From there, we rejoin Teldin on his current Helm, a really understaffed ship that gets attacked by Illithid slavers, who happen to be hosting Estriss, last seen floating in the void a few books ago. (This series recycles characters so often, I feel like I'm watching a soap opera half the time. I half expect the last book to involved every dead character to be waiting on the SpellJammer.)

The Elves rescue Teldon and his Half-Elf navigator and Gnome engineer, who in turn wind up rescuing two Dracons and a Space Gypsy from a Beholder. The Elvish ship is piloted by Vallus Leafblower, last seen also two books ago on Toril. Speaking of Toril, we wind up briefly in Evermeet on Toril, as Vallus and the elves are trying to convince  Teldin to go get the SpellJammer and bring it to bear on the Scro in the Unhuman War. The Scro, in the meantime, are trying to get the cloak themselves as well as bring a new weapon to bear from the prison world Armstice, where entire generations of goblinoids have lived in ice caves for generations following the first Unhuman War. And an elf joins the crew, na,ed Raven Moonbeam, who's a legend among the elves.

Anyway, we eventually all wind up on Armstice as the Swan Ship (the elvish ship Teldin sort of commands) has to make an emergency landing. We find out about the Insectare plotting with one of the clans of Bionoids (Elven creations that transform from Half Elf seemings to giant battle insects) to take out the Scro and the Elven fleet. And we find out who Raven really is.

 There's a lot going on here, and it mostly hold together.  If nothing else, we've at least been shown that the living ship that looks like a manta ray with a city on its back does indeed exist and a way to reach it eventually. Two more to go.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

This is why I don't live in a high rise.

Finished up Riley Sager's Lock Every Door today while waiting at a dealership.

With each book written under the name, the pacing of the thrillers improves, and indeed, we get the final twist roughly 2/3 of the way through the book, allowing for the full revelation to really resonate with its consequences.

Basically, we're following around Jules, an orphan from Pennsylvania couch surfing with a friend in New York City. We know bits about her past, that her sister went missing and her parents died, leaving her overflowing with debt. We learn she had a job, got laid off, then came home to find her boyfriend screwing someone else, thus leading to her sleeping on Chloe's couch.

As such, Jules in thrilled to find a job listing looking for someone to apartment sit for $1000 a week at the swanky 12 story Bartholomew on the Upper East Side. Said building is also the setting of a beloved book Jules and her sister used to read.

Anyway, Jules gets the job and moves into 12A next door to Dr. Nick. She meets one other house sitter in 11A via messages passed on via dumbwaiter. Ingrid is flighty, but she bonds with Jules early on.

Then Ingrid vanishes the next day. Jules, flashing back to her sister's disappearance, starts trying to find her. And we meet some of the other residents of the Bartholomew, like a Soap Opera Actress, a retired senator, Dr. Nick, and of course, Greta, author of the beloved book.

Eventually, as things progress, another apartment sitter vanishes, the book veers off into Ira Levinson before turning into Robin Cook.

Honestly, as I said before, the pacing has improved as the books get written, and this one is very entertaining. Indeed, I almost felt like yelling at our protagonist as she hooked up with one person who was hinted at being really bad.

Fun read, can't wait for next year's installment in abandonment theatre.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Love in the time of a different plague

Part two of the twofer.

Book 4 of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, Significant Others, starts the second third of the 9 volume series and brings us into the early years of the AIDS crisis. Which unfortunately means we hit one of the more controversial aspects of the series, as Michael's lover Jon dies a few months prior to the beginning of the book. We'll return here in a second. We start with Queen Elizabeth arriving in San Francisco following a night on the QEII with Ron and Nancy Reagan.

Her Majesty flies to San Francisco due to bad weather, although her ship sails in later to take her to Seattle. However, her arrival does mean Mary Anne, now hosting Bay Window on the TV, has to cover anything Queen related, leading to some stress in her marriage with Brian. Brian, who's having issues at his wait job, wants a baby. Mary Anne does as well, but she's found out Brian is sterile. Not that she's told Brian any of this.

Anyway, the widow Michael is mourning, and the rain isn't helping matters. Ned shuts down the greenhouse for a month and takes Michael and a few other friends to Death Valley camping.Which gives a bit of a peek into the lives of gay men in San Francisco as the dying begins. (Like one random waiter discussing how he's quit cruising Folsum Street in favor of cashmere bars for safety, or a discussion while camping about the sudden impetus to use condoms.)

While covering the Queen's departure, Mary Anne meets Simon, a radioman from on board the ship who has gone AWOL. Simon eventually works out an apartment swap with Michael, sending Michael to London for a month. (Simon also bears a striking resemblance to Brian, which becomes important later.)

We get reintroduced to Mrs. Madrigal's daughter Mona, briefly at first, as she works in a copy shop in Seattle.

Michael's adventures in London eventually lead to him finding Mona in Easley-on-Hill as she's set to get a green card marriage to the current Lord Roughton who wants to move to San Francisco.

Brian and Mary Anne have a huge fight after it becomes known Mary Anne has been sleeping with Simon, but it works out as Mary Anne's friend Connie dies in childbirth and leaves them her baby, Shawna.

This middle third is really rough in several places, and what up until book 7 came out was a really ugly ending to a good series. While this book does have some shining moments, it lacks some of the lightheartedness that the first three had. (This is not to say the darkness is new, but it's much more visceral here.)

Love, it's a burning thing and it makes a firey ring

Twofer tonight, although both will likely be shorter entries. (Got delayed by taking a vacation last week.)

Starting off with Pass of Fire by Taylor Anderson, the latest installment of his alternate Earth Destroyermen series.

This volume has been a long time coming, since it marks the beginning of an actual naval assault on the Holy Dominion is a volcanically active area where Costa Rica/Panama would be in our world. Mind you, 2/3 of the book covers what looks to be about the end of the Grik conflict, but hey, at least we're getting more than a few pages in the prologue and epilogue about what's going on in Central America.

But first, we begin with teh big risks taken to take the ancient Grik city at the head of the Zambezi river, and the rather large split between the current Celestial Mother and First Regent Esshk. Indeed, by the end, the Celestial Mother forms a very strange alliance with the Allies to take down her former champion after his partisians try to kill her.

In the mean time, the assault on South America gets going as the Allied forces try to break the pass and link up all parties in the Pacific with the New United States in the Gulf. This gets particularly ugly, as the Holy Dominion likes using children to run attacks. On the other hand, one of the solutions for clearing out the Dominion Navy is one of those grand moments akin to a Dresden moment where an animated T. Rex skeleton goes on a rampage.

By the end, the Allies are pulling most of their assets out of Africa to join the South American fight, while know one knows what Halik (last seen marching through Persia from India) is going to do when he arrives. The fascist League is mobilizing some of its navy to join the fight in South America while one of their ship has been sighted taking out transports in the Pass.

It's a good installment in the series, allowing for some focus shifting, which is most welcome.