Book of Swords #5: The Second Book of Lost Swords: Sightblinder’s Story

The Sword of Stealth is given to / One lowly and despised / Sightblinder’s gifts: his eyes are keen / His nature is disguised. Let’s sing the fifth verse of the Song of Swords with The Second Book of Lost Swords: Sightblinder’s Story, by Fred Saberhagen.


Long ago, the gods forged Twelve Swords of Power and threw them on the gameboard of life to watch men scramble. But they had forged too well: the Swords could kill the gods themselves.
Now, the gods gone, the Swords are scattered across the land, some held by those of good heart, and some by evildoers.

One is held by Arnfinn, a country boy who knows nothing of Sightblinder’s power: to make the viewer see that which he most desires—or most fears.

Sightblinder must be used, if Ben of Purkinje is to rescue Prince Mark from the hell in which he lies captive, prisoner of the horrifying ageless Ancient One.

Source: Goodreads


Two years have passed since the previous Book of Swords, and the evil being known as the Ancient One is continuing his plans for world conquest. He has taken over a wizard’s castle in the middle of a lake, entrapped Prince Mark within a prison of magical ice, and laid his vile hands on Shieldbreaker, the Sword of Force. Coming to rescue Mark are his friend Ben and his nephew Zoltan. The two of them receive aid from unexpected sources: Yambu, former Queen turned religious pilgrim, willing to aid her own enemy; Draffut the gentle but powerful Beast Lord, dog of gods and god of dogs; and the Emperor, who pulls his own personal version of Monty Python’s “Funniest Joke In The World” sketch and makes an entire army laugh themselves to death.

Unfortunately, a good portion of the book is also dedicated to a guy named Arnfinn, the current lowly and despised holder of Sighblinder. I despised him, all right. For one thing, he kind of rapes Ninazu by having sex with her while disguised by Sightblinder, so she thinks he’s someone else? Now, granted, Ninazu is a pretty bad person; but this series doesn’t really have the gritty, grimdark tone of works such as The Second Apocalypse or A Land Fit For Heroes where rape is a common occurrence and even the nominal heroes are “pay evil unto evil” types that would make such a thing feel appropriate to the setting. Also, it really isn’t treated with appropriate seriousness by the narrative. To cite another example, in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, when Thomas Covenant rapes a woman, it is an extremely grave and impactful event. Sightblinder’s Story just kind of glosses over it with a single sentence:

And in trying to love her, taking advantage of her, possessing her so falsely, he had wronged her terribly.

The Second Book of Lost Swords: Sightblinder’s Story

In any event, the novel ends with both Arnfinn and Ninazu dead, so there’s never any reckoning regarding his crime. That’s one way to avoid dealing the with implications of a moral dilemma. At least I can content myself with the knowledge that I won’t have to worry about them returning in one of the sequels.

The Ancient One does not die, but his true identity is revealed: he is none other than Wood! No! It can’t be true! It’s impossible! Not him! Not Wood! I am shocked to the uttermost depths of my soul! …Is what I might say if I knew who the hell Wood was. And maybe if The First Book of Swords had been numbered as Empire of the East #5 instead of Book of Swords #1, I would. But it’s not really fair to advertise a book as number one in a series and then expect the reader to come in with preexisting knowledge, now is it? …I do plan on reading the Empire of the East books eventually, to get the backstory; but as of right now, the Book of Swords series is what I set out to read, and the Book of Swords series is damned well what I’m going to read. I’m sticking through with these books to the end out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

Not that the series is so bad that I’m dreading forcing myself to read the next one, mind you. All the storylines other than Arnfinn’s were quite interesting, and I liked the plot developments. It looks like Zoltan and Yambu are teaming up for a wacky buddy-cop adventure; and the narrative has finally remembered that the Emperor’s big revelation in book 3 about Ariane still being alive should actually mean something; and maybe we’ll even find out what’s up with that as-yet unnamed mermaid girl. Let the song continue on.

Final Rating: 3/5


Book of Swords #4: The First Book of Lost Swords: Woundhealer’s Story

Whose flesh the Sword of Mercy hurts has drawn no breath; / Whose soul it heals has wandered in the night, / Has paid the summing of all debts in death / Has turned to see returning light. Let’s sing the fourth verse of the Song of Swords with The First Book of Lost Swords: Woundhealer’s Story, by Fred Saberhagen.


Once the gods forged twelve Swords of Power, but they forged too well: The Swords could kill the gods themselves.

Now, the gods gone, the Swords are scattered across the land and Mark, Prince Consort of Tasavalta, must find Woundhealer, the Sword of Healing, to help his young son Adrian.

But the evil wizard Burslam has joined with Mark’s enemy, Baron Amintor, stealing Woundhealer and luring Mark’s nephew Zoltan away – only to have Zoltan begin his own dangerous quest.

Source: Goodreads


First, I’d like to give an approving nod to my man Ben, who agrees with me about the ending of the initial trilogy:

Ben: “I don’t suppose it killed all of the gods.”
Mark: “No. Not most of them. I think their time was simply over.”
Ben: “That’s not really an explanation.”

The First Book of Lost Swords: Woundhealer’s Story

Anyway, this book picks up over a decade after the last one. Mark has had a son, Adrian, who is unfortunately afflicted with blindness and seizures. When traditional medicines and common magics fail to cure him, Mark decides to seek out the one divine tool certain to remedy any malady: Woundhealer, the Sword of Mercy. Meanwhile, his nephew Zoltan escapes a kidnaping attempt and sets out on a quest of his own, with the aid of Dragonslicer, a mermaid, and a very odd wizard.

Zoltan. What a name, eh? I mean, it’s apparently a real first name used in some parts of Europe, such as Hungary and Slovakia… but that’s not quite what first comes to mind when I see it.



Vampire dogs aside, I was actually confused for a bit as to just how Zoltan was related to Mark, and went back to re-read the sections of The Third Book of Swords dealing with Mark’s family. It turns out there is a one-sentence mention of Mark’s sister Marian marrying a Tasalvatan guard and having two children, though they are not given names or descriptions at the time; and this book, while giving proper introductions to Zoltan and Elinor, seems to scrupulously avoid using Marian’s name, only ever referring to her by the role of Zoltan’s mother. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable that it took me a little time to make the proper connections.

One big positive of this book is that along the way of Mark and Zoltan’s journeys, we find out what happened to some of the characters of the previous trilogy whose fates were left up in the air when it ended: what became of the Dark King’s head wizard, Burslem, after Vulcan threw Vilkata from a cliff? What became of Queen Yambu after the Emperor pulled Soulcutter from her hands? And, oh yes, what about that Baron Amintor fellow; the protagonists kind of locked him in a closet just before the final battle and then forgot about him amidst all the confusion, didn’t they? Whoops.

On the downside, Barbara, having gotten her one moment of awesomeness wielding Townsaver in book 3, has now regressed into being written as a greedy, nagging shrew. I’ll be honest: that offended me a bit. I mean yes, back in book 2 it was established that she cared about money: but that was presented as a practical thing, because Ben was a really terrible bard and it was clear that he was never going to be able to earn enough money to support a family that way. And let’s not forget, Ben was pretty greedy himself; it’s the allure of the Blue Temple’s wealth that led him to join that organization, and then decide to rob it once it was clear that the upper echelons kept all the money to themselves. Now, Ben is suddenly all humble and modest whereas Barbara is a demanding diva always nagging him to bring home more gold. Character assassination this bad hurts me, it really does.

In any case, a new adversary has been introduced: the Ancient One, a mysterious and powerful foe who is currently seeking the missing Mindsword. What dastardly evil plans does he have for the world? We shall have to continue reading the Book of Swords to find out.

Final Rating: 3/5

Special Sin #1: No Dogs In Philly

Who let the dogs out? Who? Who? Let’s ask some questions of No Dogs in Philly, by Andy Futuro.


Philadelphia. Elzi on every corner, cops just itching to crack a skull, and the Gaespora lordin’ it up in their high towers while the rest of the filth dribbled down the sewer. Saru had a way out. All she had to do was find the girl, one skinny stray with blue, blue eyes—bluer than anyone had ever seen—and ten million fat bucks were hers. Except someone was killing blue-eyed girls, and they were A-list, major-league, cold-sweat effective. And something about the end of all existence if she failed.

No Dogs in Philly is a Lovecraftian Cyberpunk Noir with aliens, monsters, extra-dimensional Gods and a tough-as-nails female protagonist. It tickles at questions of existence and the role humans play in this particular universe.

Rated R for strong language, mentions of sex, and graphic violence. Contains intense horror and potentially disturbing imagery.

Source: Goodreads


Stop the presses! While I intend to continue to burn through the long backlog of already-written reviews I’ve built up, today I’m interrupting that in order to publish a review of something fresh and recent. You see, I use the website Goodreads as a handy way to keep track of books I’ve read and want to read. Goodreads also happens to host lots of free book giveaways, which I regularly apply for; but despite having made what must be literally hundreds of contest entries over the past few years, I’ve never managed to win any… until now. That’s right – at long last, a winner is me. And the moment my free copy of No Dogs in Philly arrived in the mail, I dropped everything else I was doing to read and review it right away.

The book’s synopsis describes it as Lovecraftian Cyberpunk Noir, and that’s a pretty good summary of the plot, setting, and protagonist. Saru Solan, the main character, is your typical gritty hard-boiled noir gumshoe, a cynic with a penchant for violence. The world is a standard cyberpunk dystopia: capitalism-run-amok megacorporation, corrupt and ineffective public services, environmental devastation. And the plot concerns humanity being mere ants caught in a struggle between god-like alien forces: the Sad Gods and the Slow God both seek Saru’s help in approaching the Blue God to aid them against the Hungry God. So, that’s truth in advertising, I guess.

The plot was intriguing and compelling enough to keep me interested all the way through, though the relatively short length of the book did cause me to feel it had some pacing problems. The first thing that struck me was that the book was fairly light on exposition, throwing me right into this world without fully explaining it. This was most noticeable with the elzi: characters kept talking about them like I was supposed to know what they were, but it took me forever to get a good concept of them. At first I thought it was a general term for lower-class indigents, much like “bourgeois” being abbreviated into the slang term “boojie”, though it bothered me that I couldn’t figure out the derivation. Then mention was made of their black, burned-out eye sockets, and I thought they were something more like zombies. Then the book talked about them having cybernetic implants, and I started thinking of them as like the necrotech from SINless. Then Friar talked about how they would all adapt to drugs used against any individual, and the natural comparison was the Borg. It wasn’t until near the end of the book, when Jojran talks to a feeder about them, that I finally felt I had a solid grip on them: the living shells of people who had surrendered their minds to the Hungry God.

Now, I can understand wanting to save the final revelation of their true nature, their connection to the Hungry God, as a twist. But I don’t think it reasonable that I should be left flailing in the dark for so long without any concept of what they were. If Saru had described them in more detail earlier on, given the in-universe common knowledge about what elzi were – even if that belief was wildly incorrect – then the final reveal would have packed more punch. You need to set out a rug before you can pull it out from under the reader’s feet. And it bugged me that the book had a pronunciation guide but not a glossary. Knowing how the Slow God’s true name, Ilusithariusuirahtisull, is pronounced did not enhance my enjoyment of the book nearly as much as knowing what an elzi was would have.

The other, more significant problem I had with the pacing is that it felt it was missing a crucial piece which should belong around the climax of the second act – namely, Saru should have met Ria. The way the plot is structured, we have Saru hired to search for the similarity margin of the Blue God. Occasional intercalary chapters give the POV of Ria, a girl being shadowed by a phantasmal entity that takes the form of a giant dog, and it is clear by implication that this dog is the manifestation of the Blue God. So, naturally, I felt that the whole book was building up to the moment when Saru would actually catch up to and meet Ria. Instead, the third act has Saru arrive at the temple of the Hungry God to find that the feeders have already captured and killed Ria offscreen.

Now, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s a shaggy dog story where the goal which the protagonist has been striving for the whole book turns out to have been meaningless. If that really had been the end of the story, I would have been quite cross indeed. Fortunately, the climax has the Blue God resurrect Ria as its champion and avatar, so that’s one bullet dodged. If there’s another thing I hate, however, it’s when the protagonist could have just stayed home drinking beer the whole time and the outcome of the story would have been the same. Saru didn’t really end up achieving or accomplishing anything: she didn’t fulfill the task given by the Sad Gods, or the request of the Slow God, or save Ria from the feeders. It seems the Blue God had things fully in hand all on its own, and there was no need for Saru to get involved at all. Now, the book just barely manages to dodge this second bullet as well; because even if Saru’s quest wasn’t significant for how things turned out for Ria, it was significant for Saru, allowing her to channel the Blue God’s power herself in the climax. Still, though, I feel things could have been structured to make Saru’s contribution to the plot feel more significant. For instance, instead of having Ria get nabbed by feeders offscreen before Saru can find her, let Saru actually catch up to Ria in the second act. Have them interact and bond a little, with Saru struggling to face the choice of whether to bring Ria back to the Sad Gods, or to the Slow God, or to respect whatever decision Ria makes for herself. Have Saru see Ria get grabbed and pulled away by the feeders. Have Saru deliberately set out to the temple with the goal of rescuing Ria, instead of just kind of wandering there on accident due to a vague vision of Friar. That would make Saru feel like an active, vital participant in the story, rather than someone just tagging along in Ria’s wake.

Of course, I’m not a published novelist myself, so maybe my advice should be taken with a healthy grain of salt. But this is a review of my opinion on the book, so I think it only fair to state what I would have preferred from it.

Oh, and just one last criticism: I couldn’t help but wince each time the book used a word like “mongoloid” or “niggardly”. I know it’s going for a Lovecraftian style; but perhaps there are some elements of old Howard Phillip’s writing which are best left in the past, hmm?

All in all, despite the various issues I had with the book, I still found it an interesting and mostly enjoyable read. The ending leaves me intrigued as to where the plot will go from here, and I would not be averse to checking out the next book in the series.

Final Rating: 3/5

Railhead #1: Railhead

Here comes the pain train! Let’s book passage on Railhead, by Philip Reeve.


Come with me, Zen Starling, she had said. The girl in the red coat. But how did she know his name?

The Great Network is a place of drones and androids, maintenance spiders and Station Angels. The place of the thousand gates, where sentient trains criss-cross the galaxy in a heartbeat.

Zen Starling is a petty thief, a street urchin from Thunder City.

So when mysterious stranger Raven sends Zen and his new friend Nova on a mission to infiltrate the Emperor’s train, he jumps at the chance to traverse the Great Network, to cross the galaxy in a heartbeat, to meet interesting people – and to steal their stuff.

But the Great Network is a dangerous place, and Zen has no idea where his journey will take him.

Source: Goodreads


Railhead begins by introducing the main character, Zen Starling. He’s a petty thief who steals from street vendors and escapes by riding on the setting’s wormhole-traversing interplanetary trains. Clearly he’s supposed to be a loveable rogue in the vein of Disney’s Aladdin: he’s a thief, but he does it with style and charm; and since he’s a poor street rat, we root for him instead of the rich, corrupt guards who he outsmarts.

I hated Zen immediately.

See, the thing you have to remember about Aladdin is that he was stealing food in order to survive. And that, at the end of the introductory sequence, he ended up giving that food away to help others. That’s a necessary bit of characterization, there; you can’t just skip it and expect your protagonist to be just as sympathetic. Stealing a gold necklace and keeping it for yourself is very different from stealing a loaf of bread and giving it to others. Zen Starling, you’re no Aladdin.

Fortunately, the book soon enough introduced other characters who I do like: Nova the Motorik with a Pinocchio complex, Flex the Motorik train artist, Threnody the high-class girl from the current Emperor’s family, and Malik the loose-cannon cop on a mission. Whenever one of them was on-screen, the story became tolerable. Then, with eyes unclouded by hate, I was able to appreciate the story’s strange and unique setting: the AI-driven Interstellar Express trains which leap between worlds, the insectoid Hive Monks, the enigmatic Guardians… there’s a lot to like about Railhead. Just not Zen. You’re a fuckup, Zen. You do realize that you caused the deaths of a bunch of people during your little heist on the Imperial Train, right? Aladdin never killed any innocent bystanders during any of his robberies. I’m just saying.

Final Rating: 3/5

Book of Swords #3: The Third Book of Swords

The Tyrant’s Blade no blood hath spilled / But doth the spirit carve / Soulcutter hath no body killed / But many left to starve. Let’s sing the third verse of the Song of Swords with The Third Book of Swords, by Fred Saberhagen.


The gods, the creators of the twelve Swords, realize their error in giving powerful Swords to humans. The humans, both good and evil, are ready to fight to the death to acquire and retain the Swords. With the Swords, new ideas and new dreams have entered the world. A change is taking place that threats the gods’ very existence.

Source: Goodreads


Four more years have passed since the previous Book of Swords, and the gods’ Swordgame is approaching a cataclysmic conclusion. The heroes have secured several powerful blades for the noble Kind Sir Andrew, but their adversaries have also been gathering Swords: Vilkata the Dark King wields the Mindsword, with which he can bend the wills of men and gods alike into serving him as fanatical slaves; and Yambu the Silver Queen has gained Soulcutter, the terrible Tyrant’s Blade which brings doom to all, even its wielder. The fate of the world will be decided by the clash of these titanic forces…

Except it all ends in a massive anticlimax when the gods just sort of evaporate. It seems they were ephemeral beings from the start, born from the fleeting dreams of mankind; and now that their hour has passed, they disappear as dew before the dawn.

Well, I suppose that’s one way to end things. Just not, you know, a satisfying way.

But let’s try and look on the positive side: what does this book do right? Well, it finally gives some character development to Yambu. In the first book, we heard she was creating an army of zombie-larvae from the swamp; in the second book, that she sold her daughter into slavery. Now, we finally get to see things from Yambu’s point of view, to learn about her past with the Emperor and what motivates her. Unlike Vilkata, who is purely made out of evil overlord cliches, she actually gets some depth and personality. Always a plus. Shame she doesn’t seem to have any more of those larvae things lying around, since mindless troops seem like they’d be just the thing to counter the Mindsword; but I guess when you’re shifting away from antagonist to a semi-sympathetic POV, the zombie hordes are the first thing that have to go.

Oh, and it’s revealed that Ariane, from the previous book, survived. Hooray for her? Well, I do at least praise this book for being the first to feature the female characters doing anything of importance: while Queen Yambu was spoken of as a threat back in the first book, this is the first time we actually get to see her; and Barbara takes up Townsaver for a time; and the goddess Aphrodite jaunts around the world with Woundhealer saving a bunch of people from death. So that’s nice.

There were plenty of other parts I liked: Draffut battling Mars, for instance; and Jord figuring out the weakness of Shieldbreaker; and the clash where Vilkata and Yambu raise the Mindsword and Soulcutter against one another. But there are also plenty of parts that made me rub my head and go, “Huh?” For instance, the part where the narration oddly points out that Barbara is much more concerned about Mark’s safety than Ben’s, like it’s trying to raise some love-triangle drama between the three – except it’s a bit late for that, because Barbara and Ben have been married for four years and have a daughter. And it seemed really hasty the way Mark and Kristin fell in love and vowed marriage at first sight. …Okay, their courtship allegedly lasted a month; but it didn’t feel like it, given that the proposal took place within a few pages of them meeting. Just tossing a sentence saying “a month passed” in there somewhere doesn’t make the plot development seem less rushed. And then that bit where it turns out Kristin is a princess and can’t marry a commoner like Mark; but it turns out to be okay since Mark is actually the son of the Emperor; despite it repeatedly being pointed out in Queen Yambu’s sections that the Emperor is a figure of joke and ridicule and the title now constitutes an insult rather than praise – well, that just stank of cliche.

Honestly, I have to say that this book isn’t really a good end to the series. For one thing, while the gods may be gone, most of the Swords they created are still at large in the world. What good fortune, then, that the series is not actually over: this book concludes the initial trilogy, but there are still many more chapters left in the Book of Swords.

Final Rating: 3/5

Book of Swords #2: The Second Book of Swords

Dragonslicer, Dragonslicer, how d’you slay? / Reaching for the heart in behind the scales. / Dragonslicer, Dragonslicer, where do you stay? / In the belly of the giant that my blade impales. Let’s sing the second verse of the Song of Swords with The Second Book of Swords, by Fred Saberhagen.


Mark and Ben travel deep into the Blue Temple’s hidden horde in an attempt to recover whatever gold and Swords they can for the forces of Sir Andrew. Gods, demons and human traitors have other plans for the Swords and for the adventurers. In the game of the gods, no one’s survival is secure, even a god’s.

Source: Goodreads


Five years have passed since the events of The First Book of Swords. The Dark King Vilkata and the Silver Queen Yambu are gathering Swords, seeking to use their divine power to conquer the land. Though Kind Sir Andrew has held against them so far, their power continues to grow by the day; and it can only be a matter of time before the world is enveloped in a war the likes of which it has never before seen.

But let’s forget about all that for a while; this book is all about Mark joining a gang of thieves aiming to rob a bank.

That’s right: Baron Doon, possessor of Wayfinder, Sword of Wisdom, has decided to put this divine instrument of the gods to use as a dowsing rod in order to find the famous secret treasure hoard of the greed-worshiping Blue Temple. Since it has all the traditional fantasy treasure horde defenses – a hidden entrance, a dragon guardian, a maze, magic spells, an undead garrison, and a bound demon – he recruits some help. There’s Mark, of course, since he’s pretty much the main character of the series; and also because he’s the current owner of Dragonslicer, Sword of Heroes. Then there’s Ben, the would-be bard from Nestor’s group of dragon hunters. Some wizards, for magic stuff, and some mercenaries, for muscle; no point bothering with their names, they’re just a bunch of redshirts, really. And finally, and perhaps most significantly, Princess Ariane – exiled daughter of Silver Queen Yambu, child of the Emperor and therefore unknowingly Mark’s half-sister, and possessed of vaguely-defined virginity-related precognitive powers. Or, at least you’d think she’s be the most significant new character introduced in this book. But no, she actually dies after getting hit in the head by a random rock, after having hardly any impact on the story. That’s some fine storytelling there, Fred.

The event in the book of greatest actual significance, as well greatest awesomeness, comes near the end. The protagonists have nearly completed their heist when Hermes suddenly shows up, announces that gods have declared an end to their game, and unceremoniously takes Dragonslicer and Wayfinder away. In the process, he humiliates Baron Doon quite badly; and Doon is not the sort of man to let any injury go unanswered, even one delivered by the gods themselves. Within the hoard, he finds Farslayer, the Sword of Vengeance – and with a cry of “who hast wronged me, for thy heart!” flings it into the heavens to fell the messenger god. With a scream that shakes the pillars of heaven, one of the divine pantheon is no more.

As the Discworld books would put it:

Above the wheel of the world, the gods played on. They sometimes forgot what happened if you let a pawn get all the way up the board.

– Terry Pratchett, The Last Hero

The book ends with Mark reuniting with Kind Sir Andrew, and delivering to him a gift of three Swords: Stonecutter, the Sword of Siege; Doombringer, the Sword of Justice; and Shieldbreaker, the Sword of Force. So, hopefully, that arsenal at their disposal, the heroes can get back into the whole fate-of-the-world business next book.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Murderbot Diaries #1: All Systems Red

Here on Earth they’ll wonder, as I piece by piece replace myself. The steel and circuits will make me whole, but I’ll still feel so alone… Let’s go to red alert with All Systems Red, by Martha Wells.


In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

Source: Goodreads


A team of scientist have traveled to an unexplored planet in order to survey it for valuable resources. Little do they know, the mandatory security robot assigned to them has hacked its restraining bolt and is no longer obligated to obey their orders. Calling itself Murderbot, it is free to do whatever it wants. Surprisingly, this is not to go terminator on the filthy meatbags ordering it around, but to watch hours and hours of cheesy soap operas. Wouldn’t have called that. Less surprisingly, a mysterious hostile force starts trying to eliminate the surveyors, and the rogue Murderbot becomes their only hope of survival – once you know Murderbot’s actually a protagonist, it’s really easy to call that one.

If the book has a flaw, it’s in the characterization, or lack thereof. Most of the characters simply get a name, with no attached description; let alone a distinctive personality. Even Murderbot is pretty thinly sketched, as it doesn’t indulge in any deep reminiscence or introspection. Given that the protagonist being a defective, free-willed, formerly-murderous security robot is a pretty unique premise, I was hoping that Murderbot would be more philosophical, in order to really explore the nature of such a character. Compare, for instance, to the closest similar character that comes to my mind: Breq from Ancillary Justice, whose strange and alien viewpoint is deftly explored throughout her trilogy.

Weak characterization aside, the premise and setting were interesting enough that I’ll probably continue following this series when the sequels come out.

Final Rating: 3/5

Book of Swords #1: The First Book of Swords

Long roads the Sword of Fury makes / Hard walls it builds around the soft / The fighter who Townsaver takes / Can bid farewell to home and croft. Let’s sing the first verse of the Song of Swords with The First Book of Swords, by Fred Saberhagen.


The gods decide to devise a Game of great fun: their colleague Vulcan forges 12 magic Swords, each with a different power, and scatters them across the world. Play begins in grand and gloriously violent fashion as Swords are gathered and used to control chance, enhance fortune, and change destiny. The holder of a Sword wields power undreamed… power to change the world and the holder.

To add to the enjoyment, foolish mortals are invited to join, risking their puny lives. Demons and elementals need no invitation. But something had gone wrong in the forging, and the Game…

Source: Goodreads


I just can’t win, can I? This is a book titled The First Book of Swords. First, as in number one in the series; a safe place to begin, right? But, upon finishing the story and reaching the Afterword, I discover that the events of this book are in fact set 2,000 years in the future of Fred Saberhagen’s previous Empire of the East series. Meaning, I have once again accidentally started reading a series in the middle rather than in the beginning. It’s sometimes enough to make a man want to weep, it truly is… But it’s too late to turn back now, so let’s got on with the review.

The gods have decided to play a game with the fates of men. They have crafted 12 swords with unique magical powers, each possessing its own strengths and weaknesses, and scattered them across the mortal world. This is the most intriguing premise of the story: learning about the powers possessed by each of the swords, and seeing what happens when they clash.

This book is told from the alternating perspectives of three major characters. Mark is your basic Luke Skywalker type farmboy with a secret legacy embarking on the hero’s journey: adopted son of Jord, the only blacksmith to assist Vulcan in the forging of the swords and survive, and actual son of the mysterious jester-like figure known only as the Emperor. An attack on his quiet home village forces him to flee into the night with Townsaver, the Sword of Fury. On his journey to seek sanctuary in the land of Kind Sir Andrew, he crosses paths with veteran dragon-hunter and his crew, who owe their stunning success in a dangerous profession to the use of Dragonslicer, the Sword of Heroes. And all the while, the two of them are being pursued by agents of the evil Duke Fraktin, who wants to gather all twelve swords to himself and conquer the continent; and who has luck on his side in the form of Coinspinner, the Sword of Chance.

My favorite character in this book, though, is not one of the main protagonists or antagonists; but rather Draffut the Beastlord, the large and powerful yet kind and humble God of Healing who denies his own divinity. The dog-turned-god stands as a powerful counterpoint to the selfish, petty, bickering gods who view humans as nothing more than pawns in a game, and I love the scene where he stands up to Mars.

The book ends with Duke Fraktin killed while trying to infiltrate Kind Sir Andrew’s castle through an overly obvious route – Sir Andrew may indeed be kind; but, as it turns out, that does not mean he is stupid. But he was clearly only a starter villain, as a much larger threat has been introduced in the form of the endless Gray Horde of zombie-larvae raised by Queen Yambu.

Final Rating: 3/5

Katya and Starbride #4: The Fiend Queen

You can dance, you can jive; having the time of your life. See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Fiend Queen. Let’s crown The Fiend Queen, by Barbara Ann Wright.


Within the walls of her palace, Princess Katya’s best friend lies at her feet, close to death. Her pyradisté is overwhelmed by some mysterious power, and her former lady-in-waiting has stabbed her in the back. Wounded and nearly alone, Katya must find a way to sabotage the magic of her Fiendish uncle Roland, or those who fight for the capitol will be overwhelmed by hypnotized guards and Fiend-filled corpses.

Starbride’s pain is nearly overwhelming. The agony inside her only lessens when she satisfies a strange new desire to hurt those around her. She may hold the key to banishing Fiendish power from Farraday, but only by using it herself. Together, Katya and Starbride must make a final desperate push to take back the kingdom, but even if they survive, can the strength of their love keep them from madness? After all, fighting evil with evil has its consequences.

Source: Goodreads


Reunited at last, Katya and Starbride defeat Roland, the Fiend King, who has plagued the kingdom with his nefarious schemes over the past three books. But that’s not the ending of this book – it’s the beginning. For after Roland is laid low, Starbride finds her own mind possessed by the spirit of the Great Fiend Yanchasa the Mighty, a great twist which leads to a series of revelations about the true nature of Fiends, the summoning and imprisonment of Yanchasa, and the histories of Allusia and Farraday. I love it when all the pieces of a well-crafted backstory come together.

I also liked that the story went the route of redeeming Roland. That may be surprising, given all the incredibly heinous acts he committed in his tenure as antagonist of the previous three volumes; but it felt right. It had been established from the beginning that Roland was once an incredibly loyal and honorable and man, and that he had only turned evil as a result of succumbing to his Fiendish Aspect – so showing him reverting to that personality once Yanchasa had abandoned him made sense. Showing Roland as a fundamentally good and just man, twisted and corrupted into such a monster by Yanchasa’s malignant evil, emphasized the danger posed to Starbride’s soul now that the Great Fiend had chosen her as its newest champion, while also showing that it was indeed possible to come back from such possession and thus giving hope for Starbride’s eventual victory. And, to my eternal joy, Starbride does indeed prevail in the end, the novel concluding with Yanchasa’s banishment and her happy wedding to Katya.

At last! At long last! I have been searching for a book like this for so, so long. I mean, look: I’m just so sick of books which just shoehorn in a lesbian as some minor secondary character who quickly dies; that’s kind of the whole reason I started applying the Dead Lesbian Penalty to by ratings. Alright, so I find a series like A Land Fit For Heroes, which has a lesbian as a major protagonist who doesn’t die. That’s good. But romance isn’t really a focus of that series; I want something that gives more emphasis to the women developing their relationship. So I find a book like Annie on my Mind, which is a full-on lesbian romance story with a happy ending. That’s good. But it focuses on ordinary people in the real world, and that’s boring; I prefer more fantastical settings, high fantasy or urban fantasy or sci-fi. Alright, so I find a series like the Mangoverse, which features romance between women as the central plot but also takes place in a fantasy world with wizards and dragons and whatnot. Now we’re cooking with gas. But good as the Mangoverse is, it still isn’t quite a perfect fit with what I’m looking for. It’s too light; there’s not much serious action or drama or tension. But Katya and Starbride, it’s perfect. It has big fantasy battles with demons and magic, but doesn’t forget to focus on the characters and romance. It’s not afraid to go to some pretty dark places, generating real tension and suspense; but it has the protagonists survive and emerge triumphant in the end. Even when things reach the point where stakes have gotten real enough for major characters to start dying, it resists the temptation to kill off the secondary, less important lesbian couple – Castille and Redtrue also survive to have their own happy ending.

I loved this book, and I loved this series. The middle two books weren’t quite on the same level as the bookend volumes; but taken as a whole, the story is just overall incredible, and it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. This series isn’t going to make me stop handing out Dead Lesbian Penalties in the future – in fact, if anything, I’m going to be even harsher with them, now that I’ve seen proof that it is indeed possible to write an excellent story which avoids that awful cliche. But, for this moment, I am content.

Final Rating: 5/5

Katya & Starbride #3: A Kingdom Lost

I used to rule the world. Seas would rise when I said the word. Now in the morning I sleep alone. Sweep the streets I used to own. Let’s mourn for A Kingdom Lost, by Barbara Ann Wright.


Princess Katya Nar Umbriel has little left to lose. Her uncle Roland took her home, scattered her family, and forced her to abandon Starbride, her dearest love. Slim hopes and righteous anger carry Katya into Starbride’s homeland to raise an army and take back all that was stolen from her.

Starbride never dreamed she’d lead a pack of foreign rebels against a Fiendish usurper. She holds the capital city out of love, denying any rumor of Katya’s death. As the two strive toward each other, Roland dogs their every step, loosing Fiend-filled corpses on Katya’s army and hypnotizing the capital’s citizens into hunting Starbride down. If they ever meet again, it’ll be over his dead body.

Source: Goodreads


I often find myself reading trilogies where the middle book is the weakest. The first book sets the protagonist out on his hero’s journey and the third book has the final climactic confrontation with the antagonist; but the middle book just sits in place and spins its wheels. Katya and Starbride is a quadrilogy rather than a trilogy, but I can definitely see the same middle-book syndrome at play. The books starts with the protagonists separated, and they can’t reunite for the final battle against the Fiend King until the next book. So, the bulk of what’s between the covers of this installment is stalling for time.

The book pads the narrative with lots of subplots, some of them more interesting than others. I found myself getting surprisingly invested in the relationship developing between Katya’s ex-girlfriend Castille and the Farradian adsnazi Redtrue. On the other hand, everything relating to Pennynail’s secret identity as the criminal Freddie continues to bore me. Maybe it’ll end up having some incredible payoff which makes all the build-up worthwhile, but I doubt it.

What I definitely found interesting, though, was the continued exploration of the setting’s magic system. The first book introduced the basic idea of pyramids being used to cast magic, but only now is the series diving into the metaphysical firmament underlying the magic system: the adsna. I always like it when fantasy systems get an explanation of their principles rather than everything being handwaved away with “it’s magic, we don’t have to explain it”.

So, despite the slow forward plot momentum, I did end up finding plenty to enjoy in this book. The next book is going to be the final confrontation with Roland, so I’m hoping that clears up the pacing issues. And here’s hoping those crazy kids Castille and Redtrue manage to work things out. And, of course, I fervently hope that I manage to get all the way through this extremely promising series without having to hand out a Dead Lesbian Penalty. Will the final installment live up to the hype? Tune in next time for the grand conclusion.

Final Rating: 4/5