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Book Review: Valley of the Sun by Louis L’Amour

Valley of the Sun - A collection of short stories by Louis ...

Valley of the Sun is a collection of nine of Louis L’Amour’s short stories. As the title suggests, each pice included in the anthology is a Western. None of the entries are among the noir detective shorts or sailing tales he liked to tell. That does not make the assortment bad; it just means that if you want a little variety, Valley of the Sun has that for Westerns but nothing else.

The first story in the anthology is “We Shaped the Land with Our Guns” and it is one of the best installments in Sun. Tap Henry and Ryan “Rye” Tyler, two cow punchers nearing the end of a cattle drive, discover a quite a few strays have settled in a neat little valley a few miles from the town where they are to deliver the current herd. After finishing the drive, Tap and Rye draw their pay and move into a cabin near the stray beast. They begin to fix the place up in order to start their own cattle outfit.

As they soon learn, however, the local ranchers don’t like having to make room for new men staking their claim in prime grazing land. One of the cattlemen named Chet Bayless wants them gone, in no small part because their new ranch threatens his plan to take over the territory. Unknown to him, he and Rye have a history – one that Rye knows will eventually end with lead.

“We Shaped the Land with Our Guns” is fantastic. Compact and full of action, it manages to convey the characters’ personalities quickly and completely. Nothing is missing from this tale. Reading it is like reading a book, since the story feels longer than it actually is. That is no mean feat, even for a writer of L’Amour’s skill!

Next is “West of the Pilot Range.” Ward McQueen, from Arizona, comes upon a herd of cattle protected by four men. Since two men already quit, the group is short-handed and looking for more help. The leader of the outfit, Iver Hoyt, asks if he wants a job protecting the cattle. McQueen says he does and is hired on the spot….

But something about the entire situation does not sit well with him. Hoyt and his ramrod, Red Naify, both seem too harsh and hurried. The other two hands – Baldy Jackson and Bud Fox – are friendlier and honest, so McQueen has no concerns about them, something is definitely off about the other two. When he comes upon the body of a nice young man with a good horse the night after joining the outfit, his suspicions increase. Something is definitely wrong. McQueen begins investigating the situation more thoroughly, only to become mired in a deadly rustling conspiracy.

“When a Texan Takes Over” follows the exploits of Matt Ryan. Matt has been living in the Slumbering Hills for about three months, quietly mining gold. In order to keep away from prying eyes, Matt moves his camp and stays out of everyone’s view. This means that, while they know he is around, they do not see him until he comes out in the open. And he usually becomes visible only when he goes to Hanna’s Stage Station for the food. And the girl.

Kitty Hanna helps her father run the stage station, cooking meals for passengers and drifters alike. Though she does not yet know his name, she likes Matt Ryan and makes certain to show it. But when a known rustler and his hanger on, Fred Hitch, arrive at the station, the former tries to brace Ryan. In order to avoid a fight with them in the station, Matt does not rise to their bait – something Kitty does not appreciate.

Put out, Ryan considers leaving. However, despite not being invested in the area (beyond his interest in Kitty), he respects the man who brought law and order to the Slumbering Hills. That man is Tom Hitch, the adopted father of Fred Hitch.

Tom is dying. He is also being robbed blind. His adopted son, who has very little strength of character, has been forced to go along with the stealing by the rustler he hired as a ramrod. Knowing this, Ryan makes a decision to tell Tom what is going on, only for the thieves to push Matt out. They’re just a bit late, however. Before they murder him in cold blood, Tom leaves a message for Ryan: Take over. By any means necessary.

Valley of the Sun: Stories eBook: Louis L'Amour: Amazon.ca ...

The next story is “No Man’s Mesa.” Matt Calou bought the Rafter H, a ranch situated near Black Mesa, and has arrived to settle his claim. But he soon finds that the locals are opposed to his moving into the abandoned farm. Whenever cattle go missing, crops fail, or unseasonable weather moves in, they blame Black Mesa for the trouble. Convinced it is cursed and spreads bad luck to those who live near it, they want no one to move within the rock’s shadow and spread the evil around.

Amused by their fallacy, Matt goes to the ranch and begins settling in. He soon finds he has some pretty company; Sue Reid, the daughter of an archaeologist who lives nearby, likes to drop into the Rafter H from time to time. Visiting with Matt, she tells him that the townspeople take their superstitions about Black Mesa very seriously. Having given him a week to leave of his own accord, they plan to run him off the farm if he does not go willingly.

Knowing there must be something going on for the cattle to continuously disappear without a trace, Matt begins investigating. What he finds makes the whole picture clear. It also gives him the high card when the townsfolk inevitably come to chase him off the Rafter H.

“Gila Crossing” is one of the longer stories in the collection. Texas Ranger Jim Sartain arrives in the town of Gila Crossing, which is simmering with resentment. A fire recently burned off several acres of good grazing land. It nearly burned out a group of nesters, who purposely moved into an area that they believed would be out of the cattlemen’s way.

Despite their efforts to avoid trouble, it has arrived. One of the nesters was murdered, his animals driven off, and his house set ablaze. Coupled with the fire that destroyed the range, things look suspicious. Both sides blame the other, but neither has anything to gain in a range war. They all lose if they set the country alight with their anger. So who benefits in such a despicable situation?

Jim Sartain aims to find out – preferably before more people die.

“Medicine Ground,” the following story in the anthology, is a Cactus Kid tale. It is a bit formulaic and dry in its presentation of events, much like a Zorro or Lone Ranger story would be when it was written by someone who was not totally invested in the character. I do not know if Mr. L’Amour created the Cactus Kid – I think he was a protagonist created by someone else, but whom many writers used in various stories in order to make a sale.

While L’Amour’s tale is strong and he does put effort into it, to me, there is some genuine heart missing from the piece. It feels like something he did simply to earn a few dollars and fill space in a magazine. There is nothing wrong with that; everyone has to eat, and L’Amour was as human as anyone else. But in my opinion “Medicine Ground” is not a particularly interesting story, despite the craftsmanship that went into it.

Anyway, the Kid is heading out to a date with Bess O’Neal, a local Irish girl from a ranching family. Having missed two dates with her already, he has been warned that to miss a third will be the end of their acquaintance. To avoid that fate the Kid has dressed accordingly. Riding a piebald horse with one blue eye, he heads off to the dance at the nearby school to meet his sweetheart.

Unfortunately, his trip is interrupted. While playing poker earlier in the day, the Cactus Kid happened to notice that one of the players was not dealing fairly. Ace Fernandez, the card sharp in question, got a little greedy and missed the Kid slip his sleeve cuff over a nail. When Fernandez reached to collect the pot, his sleeve tore and the sleeve holdout he had been using was revealed. On being thus discovered, Ace reached for his iron. He was slower than one of the other players, who shot him dead.

Ace’s brothers, Lobo and Miguel, have decided that the Kid is primarily to blame for these events. Thus they lie in wait for him between the town and the school. Being a scientific as well as a betting man, the Kid knows better than to argue with two unwavering guns. However, he also knows he has to live and make the dance with Bess. With that thought in mind, he begins trying to escape…

…Only to overhear the brothers say something about a senorita.

Valley of the Sun - Short Story | The Official Louis L ...

Following this installment we have the titular “Valley of the Sun,” which begins with Brett Larane waking slowly. Wounded and left to die in the desert, his memory takes time to return. But when it does, he realizes he has to get home – fast. Having accepted a job as Marta Malone’s foreman at the Hidden Valley Ranch, he worked there even after her other hands quit, making him foreman in name only.

Deeply in love with Marta, he had hoped to start a life with her at the ranch. Now that future is in serious jeopardy. Brett knows the men who shot him will go back to the Hidden Valley Ranch. One of the men wants Marta, the others want the ranch. They already have the money he had received upon selling her horses. It will be the easiest thing in the world for them to say that he ran off with the cash and left her.

Brett does not want to die. He does not want to leave Marta. But a wounded man afoot in the desert has to be careful if he wishes to survive. For Brett to make it back to Hidden Valley Ranch, he will have to cross the Valley of the Sun. And if he doesn’t do it right, he is a dead man.

Next we have “That Slash Seven Kid,” a rip-roaring good yarn if there ever was one. Johnny Lyle is the nephew of Tom West, the owner of the Slash Seven Ranch, and his uncle loves him dearly. However, he does consider the boy a guest and a greenhorn, an opinion shared by most of the hands.

More than a little tired of their babying, Johnny sets out to find a local rustler named Hook Lacey in order to win the respect of the hands. Though free with his talk, there is nothing wrong with his hearing, and Johnny has heard that Lacey seems to like Tierra Blanca Canyon, which is near the town of Victorio. While there, he discovers three disguised Slash Seven hides at the butcher’s shop. The butcher tries to chase him off, only to be given the beating of his life.

After telling the townsfolk that he intends to deal with Hook if he rustles another Slash Seven steer, Johnny makes the outlaw angrier by falling for the girl Lacey likes. Setting out the next morning, the so-called tenderfoot knows he has to make good on his brags to a degree if he wants to be considered a hand. The problem, of course, is to do it without dying in the process.

This is a very good story, one of the best in the volume. It’s got all the heart and style L’Amour is known for, as well as a good plot and strong characters. “That Slash Seven Kid” is a tale to ride the river with. 😉

The same can be said of the final story in the collection. “In Victorio’s Country” is a fantastic piece that follows the exploits of a set of bank robbers. Red Clanahan and his men successfully rob the bank in the town of Cholla. Red’s old friend Bill Gleason, who stayed on the right side of the law as the West was won, is the sheriff of Cholla. Having set out in pursuit of Apaches, he is not present when Red and his gang make their play.

While heading for the border, Red and his three companions find a set of tracks that makes them pause. The Apaches are indeed active in the area, but the four men know how to avoid being seen by them. However, it appears there is someone else out here as well: a couple of kids, boy and girl.

Identifying their tracks leaves the outlaws in a quandary. They have more than enough money to make them very rich, at least until they spend it on gambling, drinking, and women. And although they are well ahead of Gleason, the sheriff and his posse are even now tracking them down to bring them to justice. So the question before the thieves is: do they continue south as they had planned, or do they go help these two kids?

9780786205875: Valley of the Sun: Frontier Stories ...

This has to be one of the best short pieces L’Amour ever wrote. If I had to recommend Valley of the Sun on the basis of a single story, this would be it. The other tales in this anthology are worth reading, but “In Victorio’s Country” is the real prize. It epitomizes the Western ethos along with everything fans love about the genre. And it makes Valley of the Sun more than worth the purchase price.

But you do not need to take my word for it, readers! Pick up Valley of the Sun at your earliest opportunity. You won’t regret it! 😀

‘Til next time!

The Mithril Guardian

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Book Review: Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey

Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey - Reviews ...

Black Horses for the King is the first Anne McCaffrey book that I have ever read. No, I am not joking; prior to this, yours truly had never done more than peek at a page of Miss McCaffrey’s books. The Dragon Riders of Pern series is on my “to read” list, but so far this blogger has not actually read those books.

Knowing her reputation with those novels, however, Black Horses for the King looked like a good place for this writer to begin getting to know Miss McCaffrey and her work. While it doesn’t strike me as an excellent piece, it is enjoyable and well written. I really have no complaints about it, beyond a few minor nitpicks.

The story begins with Galwyn Varianus, who has been apprenticed to his uncle, a rough sailor and pagan who despises him. Following his lead, the crew picks on the boy mercilessly. The fact that Galwyn is currently cleaning up after six seasick passengers below decks isn’t helping much, since their discomfort is making him ill, too. Despite that, he is doing his best to avoid telling off the sailors; doing that only makes them increase their cruel teasing. But when one of the sailors insults the lad’s mother, Galwyn whirls around, ready for a fight…

…Only to be stopped by Comes Artos, the Dux Bellorum. Artos is Latin for Arthur, making this novel an Arthurian tale. Miss McCaffrey, however, is leaving off the magic and other familiar trappings in order to remain as true to history as she can. She is also focusing on an almost mundane aspect of the legend – the large horses Arthur had to buy to repulse the recurrent Saxon invasions.

Artos is sailing to the continent to buy big horses he can breed with the larger ponies in England so that his men can face the Saxons on better terms. On their ponies the Britons cannot face the pagan invaders, since the animals are incapable of carrying the large Englishmen for great distances or long amounts of time. In order to out-maneuver and overcome the invaders, Artos and his Companions need bigger horses. So they are sailing to Septimania to buy them.

When apprised of the Comes’ plan, Galwyn finds he approves of it. Having grown up in a Roman villa prior to his apprenticeship with his uncle, the boy has a fondness for and skill with horses. He would much rather tend the animals than sail, but due to his father’s death, working at sea appeared to be the best way he to support his mother and sisters until he can find a different profession. And better companions.

Black Horses For The King ISBN 9780552529730 PDF epub ...

But when his uncle’s crew goes too far, Galwyn seizes his chance and escapes his hateful relative’s ship. He then buys a pony and follows Lord Artos to the fair in Septimania. There his knowledge of horses, his ability to bargain, and his skill with languages prove invaluable in the purchase of a large group of black Libyans – stallions, mares, and foals. Following their purchase he, Artos, and the rest of the Companions lead the animals to port in order to bring them back to England.

Shipping the creatures across the ocean is difficult work, since they are as unused to the water as the Companions, who are too busy taking care of them to get sick this time. On their first arrival in England, Galwyn makes a final end to his apprenticeship under his uncle. Staying with Artos and his Companions, he helps bring the other two sets of horses to Britain.

From there, he travels to a farm where the animals will be tended and allowed to breed with each other and the biggest Briton ponies. On the way he becomes apprentice to the horse expert friend of Artos, a man named Canyd. Canyd and his fellow horse masters are trying to make the first horse shoe in order to protect the animals’ feet. As Canyd likes to remind everyone around him, whether they want to hear him or not: “No hoof, no horse!”

Black Horses for the King does not strike me as the best of Miss McCaffrey’s work. Still, it is an enjoyable story that presents a good picture of the times in which it is set. Horse and history lovers will find it a great read, and it is hard to stop once you get going with it. In the final analysis, it is a worthy book from a good author.

‘Til next time, readers!

Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey (Paperback ...

Book Review: Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

Retro Friday Review: Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne ...

Previously, Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle was reviewed here at Thoughts. It was so good that I thought an analysis of the sequel was in order. Castle in the Air has the great distinction of improving upon the framework in the original story, something that doesn’t always happen in modern fiction.

It begins in the Sultanates of Rashpuht, a country far to the south of Ingary, the nation where Howl’s Moving Castle takes place. A young carpet merchant named Abdullah is standing in his booth at the Bazaar, daydreaming about being a prince. Though Abdullah’s father was a rich carpet merchant, everything but his booth went to his first wife’s in-laws because he was disappointed in his son.

Just why he was upset with his son Abdullah doesn’t know. And at this point, it doesn’t matter to him, either. Despite his daydreams, Abdullah is a very happy carpet merchant. He sells enough goods to make a comfortable living, and he is content to never be wealthy or leave the Bazaar. In truth, he really does not have a reason to want to leave; his reveries just add a touch of romance to his otherwise ordinary life.

In the middle of his latest fantasy (which, for the first time, features a beautiful princess), a customer appears and asks to sell him a carpet. He wants five hundred gold pieces for the rug, but Abdullah is skeptical. The mat is in bad shape, and even if he wanted it, he certainly wouldn’t pay five hundred gold coins for it.

So when the man says it is a magic carpet, Abdullah is intrigued but disbelieving. He allows the stranger to enter the booth proper in order to have him prove that the carpet can fly. Even when a commotion occurs in the next stall, the carpet merchant keeps an eye on his customer as the man orders the rug two feet into the air.

The carpet does as it is told and, after checking to make sure none of the usual tricks could have been pulled to fake its flight, Abdullah agrees to buy the carpet. Several hours are spent haggling over the price, and he finally pays two hundred fifty gold pieces for the mat before going out to lunch. Worried the rug will fly away when he leaves, Abdullah ties it the center pole of the booth to make sure it stays put.

Castle in the Air (First Edition)

It does. But in order to keep an even better eye on it, Abdullah puts the carpet on top of his bed (which is made up of other carpets piled one atop the other). During the night, Abdullah wakes to find himself in a luscious garden. There he meets a girl – a princess – who mistakes him for a girl.

How can she make that obvious error? Simple – the only man she has ever seen is her father, the Sultan. Confused, but convinced this is all a dream, Abdullah tells the princess about his daydreams. And because he thinks he is still asleep, he makes it sound like his daylight fantasies are the truth.

The delighted princess, who identifies herself as Flower-in-the-Night, absorbs his tale with avid interest. But when the two try to experiment with the carpet, they accidentally give it the wrong command, sending Abdullah back to his booth post-haste. He wakes up again the next morning feeling blue, until he realizes that he was not actually dreaming. The carpet transported him to a real palace where he met a real princess named Flower-in-the-Night.

Abdullah spends the rest of the day buying paintings of different men so he can bring them to Flower-in-the-Night (who is still convinced he is a woman). Once he has done this, he tries ordering the carpet back to the palace at once. But it doesn’t budge, throwing Abdullah into despair. There appears to be a secret code word that will “activate” the magic carpet, but since he does not know it, he is stuck.

Once he calms down a little, though, Abdullah reminds himself that the carpet definitely took him to the palace the previous night. Deciding that he must have mumbled the code word in his sleep, he asks the rug to transport him to Flower-in-the-Night as soon as he speaks the word in his sleep. Meanwhile, he waits anxiously for nightfall so he can go to bed and return to his princess.

The plan works, and Abdullah shows Flower-in-the-Night the pictures. She studies them all, especially the ones showing the most handsome specimens, then declares that none of them are as handsome as her midnight visitor. Confirming that she is now sure he is, in fact, a man, Abdullah falls to discussing marriage with her. As it turns out, Flower-in-the-Night is to be betrothed to the Prince of Ochinstan (the Rashpuht name for Ingary). Upset upon learning that it is common for men in Rashpuht to have more than one wife, Flower-in-the-Night declares that to be an unfair arrangement, especially when Abdullah says he thinks even the Prince of Ochinstan already has several wives.

Castle in the Air Audiobook | Diana Wynne Jones | Audible.com

The discussion of marriage eventually brings the two to talk about their relationship. It isn’t long before they both decide to elope, and Abdullah begins to set the plan in motion. He narrowly escapes being married to his two fat cousins before the following nightfall. After selling off his stock and sewing the money into his clothes, he goes to sleep on the carpet.

Sometime later, he awakes in the garden. Flower-in-the-Night rushes out to meet him, and it looks like their fairy tale life together is about to begin…

…Until an enormous, dark djinn arrives and snatches up Flower-in-the-Night.

Things begin to pick up from here, but I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you, readers. Suffice it to say this novel is as good – if not better – than its predecessor. The humor is top notch, the characters are well drawn, and the story is executed beautifully. It is a great read.

But you don’t need to take my word for it. Pick up Castle in the Air and Howl’s Moving Castle at your earliest opportunity and read them for yourselves. You won’t regret it!

Until next time!

Castle in the Air (Howl's Moving Castle, #2) by Diana ...

Book Review – Star Trek: Death Count by L. A. Graf

Amazon.com: Death Count (Star Trek: The Original Series ...

Last week we stopped off in the Marvel Universe for a fun trip down memory lane. Today’s destination promises to be fairly exciting, even though it is a voyage forward rather than backward in time. Once again we return to the Federation of Planets for another adventure aboard the famous U.S.S. Enterprise, readers!

Aboard Sigma One, a space station a few days from the Federation/Orion border, Captain Kirk has gone out to dinner. Scotty and McCoy have whisked him off to a Scottish restaurant aboard the station in order to help him unwind. For the past three days, which were supposed to be used for shore leave by the crew, the men and women aboard the Enterprise have been pestered almost to death by four auditors from the Auditor General.

It seems the Auditor General has teams of auditors surprising starships throughout the fleet with on-site inspections. For the last three days the crew of the Enterprise has been running efficiency drills to prove they are following the regulations properly and can react to a stiuation as fast as possible, with the clipboard-wielding inspectors looking over their shoulders the whole time. In the process these four individuals have, unsurprisingly, made themselves an enormous nuisance to the crew.

This has put everyone aboard the ship on edge, meaning those who can grab shore leave are not letting it pass them by for any money. While Scotty and McCoy help Kirk relax, Chekov has convinced Sulu to help him try and beat a record set by another ship’s crew on the station’s piloting simulator. After failing the simulator’s sixth level, the door opens automatically, allowing Uhura to ask how much longer the two men plan to continue playing.

My Star Trek Scrapbook: Sulu and Chekov...BFF!

Sulu answers the question by getting out before Chekov can reactive the machine. He then leads his two best friends to a plant shop he has already visited three times so far. On the way there the three bump in to some Orion police officers in riot gear. Since they are out of uniform, the men merely push past them instead of goading the Starfleet officers into a fight. Not long after they enter the plant shop, however, an Orion policeman comes to “inspect” the premises for something/someone.

His “inspection” consists mostly of wrecking the store owner’s property. This infuriates the businessman, who attacks the alien with a broom. Chekov and Sulu intervene on the man’s behalf after he is tossed across the room, earning the latter a free gift of plants, pets, and the lily pond they need to survive and be happy. Unfortunately, Chekov’s gift is entirely different; the Orions cast his actions as assault, leading Sigma One’s security forces to throw him in the station’s brig.

Meanwhile Kirk, Scotty, and McCoy’s relaxtion proves to be premature. Like a troubadour leading his not-so-merry band, the head auditor arrives at the restaurant, fuming about being barred from the Enterprise. Kirk is sanguine until he learns that he has new orders to go to the Andorian/Orion border – with the inspectors in tow.

Tense once more, Kirk goes to speak to the commodore in charge of the station, a friend whom he helped to promote to his current position. The commodore explains that since an Andorian scientist named Muav Haslev – who was developing some kind of technology for the Andorian military – disappeared from their space, the Andorians have blamed the Orions for the incident. The Orions claim they had nothing to do with his vanishing act, but no one believes them. And even without definitive proof, the Andorians are spoiling to pick a fight with the Orions. The sector between the two is heating up and threatening to embroil the Federation in a war with Orion, which is a neutral stellar nation.

Kirk is fine with this part of the assignment; he has done this kind of thing before, and knows how to handle it. His problem is the auditors. While traveling to the Andorian/Orion border is dangerous enough for him and his crew the way things stand now, taking four civilians (one of whom is extremely annoying and has a superiority complex) into a possible war zone isn’t his idea of a smart move.

Dog Star Omnibus: Captain's Blog pt. 92: The Enterprise ...

But as he soon learns, neither assignment is negotiable. The ship that was supposed to take the auditors next and deal with the Orion/Andorian issue at the same time recently suffered a containment breach of its warp core. Though the damage could have been much worse, it is bad enough; the vessel may never be spaceworthy again. She’s barely able to limp to Sigma One with the help of tug shuttles.

This leaves Enterprise to carry out the mission – exasperating auditors and all. Once Chekov gets out of the brig and boards the Enterprise with Sulu and Uhura, the ship heads for the border….

…Only to be struck by a burst of radiation that sends her instruments haywire. Sulu just barely manages to keep the starship from warping straight through Sigma One after the radiation scrambles the helm. The computer turned the Enterprise back toward the station thinking it is open space.

Returning to their normal course, the Enterprise gets under way at last, only to be intercepted a short time later by a disguised Orion destroyer. Following on its heels is an Orion police cruiser, whosse captain is intent on arresting Chekov for the incident back at the station. Upon learning the details of the confrontation on Sigma One, Kirk realizes the Orions set him up to get his security officer. After a brief word with the Orion commander, he has the Enterprise continue on to the border.

As he knows all too well, though, missions that begin this badly don’t get any smoother the longer they last. So when a transporter accident turns out to be a triple murder, Kirk isn’t really surprised, just angry and determined to find the culprit. But how can he catch a sabatour while keeping four number-crunching civilians determined to nose their way into vital systems safe and out of the way? The answer is…

An Oral History of Star Trek | pufflesandhoneyadventures

…Not for me to tell! If you want to know how Death Count ends, you will have to read it yourself. It is a good book, but unlike most L. A. Graf novels, it doesn’t include Uhura’s direct perspective of events. The three points-of-view explored in this novel belong to Sulu, Chekov, and Kirk. That is a fairly unusual choice for L.A. Graf. Normally, the writers using this pan name include Uhura’s viewpoint along with Sulu’s and Chekov’s to explore their characters, while giving fans a view of life from “below decks.” Kirk’s POV is included to show how he regards the three younger members of the “Enterprise Seven” as officers and people.

For some reason, Death Count breaks this pattern. While it is not irritating or a loss in any sense of the word, it does make one wonder. I only note it for the curious and for those L.A. Graf fans who have not managed to acquire this story yet.

Until next time, readers: “Second star to the right and straight on til morning!”

Death Count (Star Trek, #62) by L.A. Graf

Five Decades of the X-Men edited by Stan Lee

Image result for five decades of the x-men

Today’s topic is an odd one because normally I don’t read books about the Marvel characters I enjoy. This is due mostly to the fact that there are so few novelizations that don’t relate specifically to the comics. The Marvel Masterworks anthologies contain replicas of the original comic books, not black and white original tales or blow-by-blow accounts from the comics themselves.

Five Decades of the X-Men is a collection of short stories, one of which is almost certainly a translation from the first X-Men comic ever written. Published in 2002, the writing here isn’t very good. I don’t know if Stan Lee himself actually edited it but typos, bad grammar, and similar errors abound throughout the anthology. That doesn’t hurt the stories in any major way but it is annoying.

As the title suggests, each piece within this collection is from a different decade of the X-Men’s extensive history. The first tale is from the 1960s, the second from the ‘70s, and so on until the early 2000s, just before Marvel went really crazy. They were drifting that way in the mid-90s, but everything began truly falling apart around ’05, with the famous/infamous Civil War arc.

That’s a topic for another day, though. Five Decades of the X-Men begins, fittingly enough, with a near-direct translation of the first X-Men comic. Titled “Baptism of Fire, Baptism of Ice,” it is told from Bobby Drake/Iceman’s viewpoint. Jean Grey is introduced to the X-Men just before the team has their first battle with Magneto. In the finale, while on a date with a pretty girl, Iceman ends up in a fight with (possibly) a Frost Giant from Jotunheim.

As a story, this installment is just fine. It demonstrates the problems which Jean (known as Marvel Girl early in her career) had to face joining a team full of curious and flirty teenage boys. Since he was the youngest boy and uninterested in dating her, Bobby caused Jean less trouble on this front than Angel and especially Beast did. Surprisingly, Beast made some pretty blatant, determined passes at the new girl during this tale. Given his later, more mature depictions, I never expected to see this kind of behavior from him.

The end for this story was good, in no small part because it showed Stan Lee’s recognition that not everyone fears mutants on sight. Some actually like them and think they are amazing. Although these normal humans might be surprised by a display of astonishing powers, that doesn’t mean they automatically hate mutants. But on the downside this translation adheres far too closely to the original comic’s perspective. It is clearly a narration of a visual story. It gets a little better toward the end, but not by much.

Image result for five decades of the x-men
The original team of X-Men: Marvel Girl, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman, and Angel.

 

Following this tale is “First Commitments.” This piece is much better written than the previous story. Jay Sanford, a normal human, is waiting for a job interview at a company called Genetech. Sitting beside him is Hank McCoy – The Beast. To pass the time the two strike up an amiable discussion. Jay feels far inferior to Hank during their chat, as the latter’s intelligence is evident even in a relaxed conversation. So he isn’t surprised when the X-Man gets the job and he is passed over.

However, he is surprised when Genetech calls a few days later and offers him the job Hank supposedly got.

Jay sets to work with a will, studying mutant cells “donated” to Genetech for research purposes. Unfortunately, what he discovers too late is that the company is a front for an organization called the Secret Empire. As power hungry as HYDRA but a bit more subtle, the Empire has infiltrated almost every government branch, police force, etc. in the U.S. In the comics, they actually managed to frame Captain America for a crime and make him a wanted fugitive – until he defeated them on live television on the White House lawn, that is. 😉

Right now, though, the Secret Empire is still in the clandestine stage. And they have used Jay’s discoveries to turn mutants – specifically a number of captive X-Men – into human batteries. Angry and afraid, Jay cannot report the Empire to the authorities because they have been infiltrated to such a degree. Then he gets an idea. Slipping away from the spies that he knows are watching him, Jay manages to get the X-Mansion. Once there he tells the X-Men what he knows and asks for their help.

This has to be my favorite story in the collection. Jay is presented as a thoroughly decent guy who doesn’t care that mutants are different from normal humans. He only cares about what is right, to the point that he risks his life to help stop the Secret Empire in the only way he can. It’s an excellent tale, and possibly the best in the anthology.

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 “Up the Hill Backwards” is next. Set in the 1980s, it takes place after a battle in NYC that decimated the Morlocks and left a number of X-Men severely wounded. The Morlock survivors and injured X-Men have been taken to the Muir Island Research Center to recover. Since it is run by friend of the team Moira McTaggert, they know they can convalesce without fear of being attacked. But until the injured team recovers, the X-Men are officially out of commission while the downed members to recover.

While they are doing this, Storm and Wolverine head out to deal with some…personal matters. This means they can’t train the new X-Men – Rogue, Psylocke, Dazzler, Longshot, and Havok – who will be required to maintain Professor X’s dream of human/mutant coexistence. So Storm asks Sean Cassidy – formerly known as Banshee – to teach the newbies the ropes.

It is not an easy assignment. Psylocke is arrogant and far too sure of herself, while Rogue is still regarded as a potential enemy due to her mishap with Ms. Marvel. Dazzler is withdrawn, nervous, and has a grudge against Rogue due to an entirely different misunderstanding. And Longshot is as naïve as a child because he’s from an entirely different dimension and has no idea what this world is like.

Worst of all is Havok, Scott Summers’ younger brother Alex. Banshee hopes he will lead the team, but Alex doesn’t want to do it. This isn’t just because he is tired of super heroics and desires a normal life. He’s certain that Sean only wants him to lead the team because of his relationship with Scott, the legendary leader of the X-Men.

That’s not Sean’s intent at all, but Alex won’t listen to reason. He doesn’t recognize his own leadership potential, and combined with his distaste for the role, he only succeeds in making things harder for Banshee. Until an exercise with British intelligence goes horribly wrong, the group looks more like a band of squabbling children than a united team of superheroes.

In terms of storytelling, this installment is very good. Unfortunately, it comes with an attached Warning for Younger Readers. There is a fair bit of foul language present in this tale, which surprised me. I was under the impression that sort of thing crept into the comics in either the ‘90s or the 2000s. Apparently that wasn’t the case. There is also quite a bit of gore, but it isn’t particularly graphic. Not by my standards, at least. So “Up the Hill Backwards” is still a good read, but the language and gore may be a serious problem for some young readers.

Now “The Cause” I disliked a fair bit. Set in the ‘90s, this story revolves around the release of one of the X-Men’s enemies from prison. Reverend Striker – no preacher in the X-Men films – is being released on good behavior. But that performance doesn’t extend to mutants in general or the X-Men in particular.

What is more, Striker’s followers are letting them know it. Led by his right hand man Gabriel Merritt, the “Striker Crusade” has been murdering mutants left and right to send the message that they are ready and willing to kill them all regardless of race, sex, or age. They’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest that has started race riots all over the country. Merritt is pleased with these events but he is not so happy with one of his Crusaders.

More than a little crazy, this girl has developed an intense crush on Merritt. She makes her murders or the murders she participates in more gruesome and twisted for that very reason; she is hoping to impress him and make him fall in love with her. So when he gives her the cold shoulder, she’s more than a little upset. And when his attempt to boost the Crusade by having Striker murdered goes awry, “the voices in her head” give her a new target to focus on. (Hint: it isn’t Striker.)

Thinking back, I believe that this story probably qualifies for a Warning for Younger Readers, too. “Cause” starts with the brutal murder of a young mutant making a living as a stage magician, and it’s about as cruel as you can imagine. So this is a story some younger readers may wish to pass over for a few years along with “Up the Hill Backwards.”

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Finally, we have “Gifts.” Set in the early 2000s, this tale follows a more mature Rogue, a humbled Psylocke, and Nightcrawler as they race to save people from Laguardia Airport during an apparent earthquake. With Cerebro detecting mutant activity in the area, the X-Men know they are dealing with one of their own. The problem is they don’t know who they are dealing with. The damage has no discernable pattern or purpose, no one claims credit for the wreckage and, luckily, no one is killed. It looks less like their new mutant is trying to make a statement and more like he/she is just having a temper tantrum.

In addition, each of the X-Men experience strange sensations of increased power during their midnight rescues. The source isn’t immediately visible to these mutant combat veterans/ first responders, but it proves to be as amazing as it is dangerous. By the time they get everything sorted out, dawn is coming.

I enjoyed this story almost as much as “First Commitments.” “Gifts” is vintage X-Men, following the team of three as they search for a mutant just discovering the power they have. There are no villains here and, aside from the constant trouble with earthquakes, no huge stakes. Best of all, this story is very young reader friendly. No curse words, no gore, and no sex. 😉

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Pick up Five Decades of the X-Men at your earliest convenience, readers. Despite the poor grammar (and “The Cause”), this is one Marvel book anyone would be proud to have on their shelf!

‘Til next time!

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Book Review – Star Wars: Survivor’s Quest by Timothy Zahn

301 Moved Permanently

Once again we travel to a galaxy far, far away, readers! This time the destination is Star Wars: Survivor’s Quest. Strap into your X-wings and hold onto your lightsabers, because here we go!

Set three years after the Hand of Thrawn duology and three years before the Yuuzhan Vong Invasion, Surivivor’s Quest begins with Talon Karrde aboard Booster Terrik’s traveling casino, the Errant Venture. He is anxiously waiting to hear from Luke and Mara Jade Skywalker. Someone in his organization betrayed him. They stole a message meant for the Skywalkers, then rushed off into the Unknown Regions with it.

Knowing how trouble-prone the two Jedi are and what the difference a few days can mean where important messages are concerned, Talon has practically paced a rut into the Errant Venture’s command deck waiting for Luke and Mara to get his message to meet him at the casino. Booster tries to calm him down, but all he succeeds in doing it making Talon stop pacing. The smuggling chief doesn’t like letting his people or friends down, and even though Mara is now a Jedi and the wife of Luke Skywalker, she’ll always be his friend. The idea that this message’s delay could put her and her husband in jeopardy does not sit well with him.

Meanwhile, blissfully unaware of this, Mara Jade Skywalker is in a cantina on an Outer Rim world negotiating with a gang that used to work for Karrde. Having turned his organization into a neutral intelligence agency that reports to the New Republic and the Imperial Remnant, Karrde has been gradually disengaging from the smuggling world for the past three years. Mara has been helping him out, in part because she is also been working on separating herself from his organization.

It is hard to say how the previous meetings went, but this one isn’t looking like it will be smooth sailing. The leader of this gang has stocked the cantina with all of his friends, most of whom have blasters pointed at Mara’s back. Since Talon is cutting them loose, the gang leader demands Mara forward them half a million credits as a “tide-me-over” until they can connect with another, more powerful organization like Karrde’s to maintain their operations.

The demand is more than a little unreasonable, and Mara has no intention of fulfilling it. She is also not as helpless or alone as the gang thinks. Using the Force and her lightsaber to distract the group, she buys Luke enough time to make his fantastic entrance. There is a brief scuffle, but the Skywalkers end it without bloodshed. Mara promises to transfer a generous but sane amount of money to the group just as a young man rushes in to tell his boss they received a message from Karrde for Mara.

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Luke takes the opportunity to scare the crooks with an apparent Jedi mind trick by reciting most of the message, which was forwarded to him from Mara’s ship. Having suitably impressed the bunch, the Skywalkers leave. Knowing Karrde wouldn’t send a message to them and throughout his network of contacts unless he really needed to talk to them, they head out to meet the Errant Venture.

Once there, they find the Venture getting a new paint job. Booster is having it painted bright red, perhaps in the hopes of making the Star Destroyer less intimidating. Contacting Karrde and Booster, they learn about the message. Turns out it was from an Admiral Voss Parck on Niraun.

Mara and Luke share a look. Last time they saw Parck was in Vision of the Future, when they blew up a hangar full of his fighters. The fact that he suddenly wants to talk to them is more than little surprising.

It also doesn’t bode well, since Parck was adamant that there were hundreds of threats the Republic wasn’t capable of facing in the Unknown Regions. If one of those threats is headed their way, they need to know about. Saying good-bye, the Skywalkers head to Niraun….

To find that they’ve been invited to see the remains of Outbound Flight. By the Chiss.

Destroyed by Thrawn on its way to another galaxy, the colonizing ship Outbound Flight was thought lost for good. But now the Chiss have found relics of the vessel in an asteroid field. Since Outbound Flight was primarily a Jedi project, the Chiss have invited Luke to come and pay his and the new Order’s respects to the victims.

Mara is less than pleased. The whole thing is a little too neatly packaged. Provided the Chiss have found what is left of Outbound Flight, the timing of the message’s delivery was such that, even if it hadn’t been stolen, she and Luke wouldn’t have had time to tell anyone in the New Republic where they were going. Although her danger sense isn’t prickling and she’s not getting any warnings from the Force, the whole thing feels too much like a set up.

Nevertheless, she knows as well as her husband does that they have to take this mission. The why is still a mystery, but they can both sense they’re being guided by the Force into this mission to the Chiss. Getting the coordinates from Parck, they head out to meet the Chiss envoy…

…And then the fun begins.

If you want to see what Luke and Mara’s married life is like, Survivor’s Quest is a must-read. Although they haven’t had the first three years of their marriage all to themselves, by this point they are an even more exceptional team than in previous novels. They have grown together and become far stronger than they ever were apart. I wish Zahn had been allowed to write up more adventures like this for them!

As usual, since this is a Timothy Zahn novel, there are no Warnings for Younger Readers. Everything is completely above board. No sex, no gratuitous violence, and nothing remotely offensive. It is just a fun romp in a galaxy far, far away. No one could ask for better than that.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Pick up Survivor’s Quest at your earliest opportunity, readers. You won’t regret it!

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Book Review: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

YES!!! Finally, the pile of books this author set out to review last year is DONE!!! Whoo-hoo!

Sorry to take so long to get here, readers. But with one thing and another, yours truly ended up going through these various analyses at a snail’s pace. Hopefully, that will be avoidable it in the future – but since life happens, we will have to wait and see how that goes. The important thing is that this particular novel is now on the table for discussion. Yay! 😀

It has been some time since I read The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, in full. However, that has not dimmed my love for this wonderful book. Despereaux is one of the best children’s stories ever written. Ms. DiCamillo is a truly good writer who is well-respected in the field, as shown by Dean Koontz’ many allusions to her novels (including this one) in his stories. They appear to agree on many things and seem to see life through a similar lens, which means that if you like the one, you may enjoy the other.

That being said, it is not a guarantee. DiCamillo writes for children, middle graders on up to high school level. Her focus isn’t on horror, though there is an undercurrent of dread in many of her novels. For the most part, she deals in fairy tales, though hers are different from the originals in many ways. The Tale of Despereaux is, as we shall see, a good example of this…

Within the walls of a castle in a far away land, Despereaux Tilling is the only surviving mouse in his litter. Born to Antoinette and Lester Tilling, the rest of his litter died at birth. Disappointed by this and how the stresses of giving birth keep ruining her beauty, Antoinette declares she will have no more babies. Staring at Despereaux, Lester Tilling sighs and states that he will be the last and that he will die soon, just like the others.

The reason he says this? Despereaux is an unnaturally small mouse. With the exception of his ears, this infant mouse is extremely tiny. But his ears are huge, much like Dumbo’s were. More disturbing to his father, this last son was born with his eyes open. On top of this, instead of dying, the little mouse lives. Though he hardly grows any bigger and becomes ill easily, Despereaux keeps on living happily in the castle.

Others, however, are not pleased with the youngest of the Tilling offspring. This is due almost entirely to the fact that Despereaux does not act at all like a proper mouse. He does not scurry, search for crumbs, or fear anything or anyone within the castle. Instead he stares at light streaming through the windows and listens to a music none of the other mice seem to hear.

And then things go from bad to worse. Despereaux learns to read in lew of chewing up and eating the glue in the books in the castle library. How he learns is a mystery; when his older sister takes him to the library to start chewing up the books, Despereaux looks at the open volume she wants him to start on and read the first line aloud.

He finds the story in the book enthralling.  It is about a knight rescuing a fair princess and goes back to read it every single day after his older siblings give up trying to teach him how to be a proper mouse. Although this is decidedly odd behavior for a mouse, his family leaves him to it. This allows him to spend the hours he is not reading exploring the world of the castle or staring at light streaming through windows.

In between readings and wanderings, Despereaux discovers the sound he is hearing is music. The music is played by the king for his daughter, the Princess Pea. Going to a crack in the wall of her room, Despereaux listens to the music from the hole. Then he sticks his head through the hole. Then his front legs, and so on, until he is right in the room at the foot of the king, where the princess sees him.

And then something amazing, wonderful, and utterly ridiculous happens. Despereaux falls in love with the princess. (Yes, he does. Really.)

Now the Princess Pea has her own story. A few years ago her mother died. This was due to shock. Arat, Chiaroscuro (Roscuro for short), from the castle dungeon snuck into the chandelier above the banquet hall and accidentally fell in the queen’s soup. Seeing him, the queen was so astonished that she could only say, “There is a rat in my soup,” before fainting and falling face first into said soup. That is where she died.

Following this sad event, the king outlawed rats, soup, and spoons to assuage his grief. His and the castle staff’s only solace now is the Princess Pea, to whom the king is singing and with whom Despereaux has fallen in love. Pea wants to have soup back in the kingdom just like everyone else, but she is still too sad over her mother’s death to do anything about changing her father’s mind in that regard at the moment.

Meanwhile, stuck in the dungeon below the castle, Roscuro is plotting his revenge on the princess for having him banished. Unlike most rats, Roscuro has a great love of light and beauty. Seeing the princess glaring at him after her mother’s death broke his heart, and now he wants to get back at her and everyone else in the castle.

What does all of this have to do with poor Despereaux? Unknown to him, he has not met the princess unobserved. One of his older brothers sees the princess touch Despereaux on the nose. Convinced he is, at least, a goner, this brother reports everything he has witnessed to the council of mice that run the mouse community in the castle.

They are not happy that the little mouse has been seen. Part of this is for practical reasons – if the palace staff starts seeing too many mice around, or the king gets upset about seeing a mouse, the entire community will be chased out of the castle or banished to the dungeon with the rats. But most of the reason the council is unhappy is because mice do not fraternize with humans; it “simply isn’t done.”

So now you can imagine how they react to Despereaux’s declaration of undying love for the Princess Pea, can’t you, readers?

Ah, ah, ah! Those are all the spoilers that you are going to get! I’ve given too much of the story away as it is. If you want to know more, borrow or buy The Tale of Despereaux today. Worth its purchase price many times over, this is a book no shelf should be lacking!

Until next time. 😉