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Book Review: Three Hands for Scorpio by Andre Norton

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On and off over the last few years this blogger has hoped to write a review of Andre Norton’s Three Hands for Scorpio. But despite her best efforts, until today this blogger did not manage to find the time. And on closer reflection that may have less to do with her schedule and more to do with the quality of the book itself.

Scorpio was the last novel Andre Norton wrote before her death in March 2005. Already ill for some time before this, she lived long enough to see the cover art (pictured above) before passing through the last gate she referenced so often in her fiction. Though she did her best and turned out a good story, comparing it to her previous works shows that Norton was at the end of her time when she wrote Three Hands for Scorpio.

Set in a fictional version of England, the book blends sixteenth century and Medieval Britain, with mixed results. There are snaplocks (guns) and swords used alongside alien magic and ancient sorcery. A church under the head of a queen is the primary religion in the characters’ home country, while a strange religion that brutally mistreats women has taken hold in the northern land of Gurlyon. Amidst these two countries lies a third land hidden in a ravine. This country is filled with strange creatures and even weirder inhabitants. Known as the Dismals, it is a land where many go but from which none have ever returned.

Andre Norton Witch World series/Halfblood Chronicles series/Trillium series/stand alone novel ...

Andre Alice Norton

Normally, Ms. Norton could have sewn this tapestry together seamlessly. But due to her illness, she did not succeed as well as she could have. Although the story is entertaining there are scenes that do not seem to be related to one another, yet are said to tie together. Descriptions, one of Miss Norton’s strong points, wander off base from time to time or focus on matters that have no importance. Some could accuse her of always engaging in this practice, but previous Norton novels always used descriptions of weird temples, places, or beasts/plants to help enhance the sense of strangeness and wonder in her fictional worlds. Three Hands for Scorpio tries to do this but does not quite succeed.

I think, personally, that the reason for this failure rests entirely on the author’s deteriorating powers. Ms. Norton was not far from death’s door when she wrote Three Hands for Scorpio. After a point, I believe, she simply could not focus well enough or spend the energy to finish tying off the various threads of the story without using up what time remained to her.

In all honesty, despite its flaws, I appreciate this novel precisely because it is Ms. Norton’s last. She held on long enough to give her fans one final story, a book to cherish because she fought death to give readers an enjoyable parting gift. That took a great deal of strength, commitment, and courage on her part, and I believe it behooves readers to give her the respect she earned in her final months on this Earth.

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Having said this, it is now time to take a look at the tale itself. Three Hands for Scorpio follows the adventures of the three daughters of Earl Scorpy of Verset. Verset is on the Alsonian border, right across from the northern country of Gurlyon. A great battle waged on the day of the sisters’ birth ended the ongoing war with the North, though border raids and kidnappings remain a part of life in and around Verset.

The three Scorpy girls – Tamara, Sabina, and Drucilla – are identical triplets. Tamara is the oldest, the one who enjoys horse riding and combat training the most. Sabina’s talent is herb lore and healing. Drucilla enjoys weaving tapestries, often basing her patterns on things she has seen in her dreams.

Each sister possesses the Talent, a measure of Power with which they were born. It seems to operate on the same basis as the Talent in the Witch World even though this country is in an alternate universe. All three girls can communicate telepathically, constantly talking among themselves mind-to-mind. They are also able to speak to their mother, who is a strong sorceress, and their father in this manner. While he has less Talent than the women in his family, that which the Lord of Verset does hold is quite formidable.

The story starts with the three sisters embroidering a tapestry Drucilla dreamed up. As they are working Sabina comments that there is something off about the design, prompting Tam and Cilla to take a closer look at it. Just as they realize the drawing is of Dark origin, their mother steps into the room and demands to know what is going on. Learning that Drucilla dreamt the design and did not of her own volition choose to begin weaving it, the Lady of Verset has her daughters repudiate the evil behind the picture. She then has the family’s wise woman, known as Duty, take the embroidery to be destroyed.

Once the offensive weaving has been removed from the room, the Lady of Verset tells her daughters that their father has at last secured a truce with the neighboring Gurly lord, who will bring a priest of the alien religion along in his retinue. Rumors about this creed’s view of women have reached the castle already and the girls are advised to be on their best behavior. Angering the priest may jeopardize the treaty and begin the war all over again.

Now one would think Cilla’s dream and near-disastrous embroidery would have served as a warning to the family that something nasty was coming. And the Verset family is certainly cautious. However, despite their best safety measures, trouble erupts. The priest traveling with the Gurly lord calls the Verset ladies openly insults the ladies of Verset, and the noble’s second son speaks to Tamara as though she were a prostitute at dinner. Infuriated by his lack of honor, all three sisters immediately stand up. Mincing no words, Tam explains why they are leaving the table, further humiliating the young lord. Then she marches off with her sisters to their tower room.

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Thinking over their behavior after they have calmed down, the three are none too sure they acted rightly. When their mother arrives they expect a scolding. However, while she admits their abrupt exit caused a scene, she holds them blameless for the dilemma. Their father likewise absolves them when he joins their mother in holding court in the girls’ bedroom.

Explaining that the three will remain home when their parents go with the Gurly lord to sign the treaty elsewhere, the sisters’ parents tell them that while they are technically “grounded,” they essentially have to hold the fort while the Lord and Lady of Verset are gone. This night’s trouble has been a baptism of fire, meaning the sisters have now unofficially entered the world plotting and scheming the adults have dealt with for so long. Therefore they must be prepared to ride to war – metaphorically speaking. They are officially “grounded” and confined to the tower for the foreseeable future, after all.

So for the next few days the Scorpy girls maintain their training regimen at the same time they monitor the castle. As they wrap up fencing practice two of the maids run in to tell them about a peddler, one who says he has no news of the North. Since every peddler usually has news from Gurlyon, the three are immediately suspicious. They send the women to buy some of the trader’s finery and learn more about what he has or hasn’t seen. They also have the castle bailiff try to get information out of him via games and drink.

What information the sisters’ receive isn’t unreasonable but it is still odd enough to set them wondering. With dusk becoming night the three head up to bed, suddenly quite tired. Before hitting the sack, though, one of them draws a symbol for warding over the door to their chamber. When asked why, she admits she did it on instinct.

Too tired to think about this very hard, the three fall into bed. In the middle of the night, Sabina awakes to find she cannot move. Nor can she speak, telepathically or with her voice. Helpless, she witnesses strangers pull her and her sisters out of bed, tie them up in rugs, and take them out of the castle into the wilds.

After a time of hard riding Tam, Bina, and Cilla find they have been captured by a Breaksword, one who survived a hanging. Though he has been hired by the Gurly noble’s son to bring the Scorpy girls to him, he also wants revenge on the Lord of Verset. Since Lord Scorpy had him hung, this Breaksword is happy to take the job of kidnapping his daughters just to make him suffer. When the castle rouses from the spell laid on it and the residents come looking for the sisters, he has them thrown into the Dismals – where the adventure really begins.

Image result for three hands for scorpio by andre norton

As I said above, the novel is not very well tied together. The description of the sisters’ abduction does not flow the way previous kidnappings Norton orchestrated did. Scenes like it also fall apart as one tries to read them. The active transitions from place to place or scene to scene literally become a near-incoherent mess for two or three paragraphs (in this reader’s mind) before straightening out into intelligible writing. It makes the story hard to read and can give even the most committed reader a headache.

Now, this does not change the fact that the story is good, or that it was a strong effort on the part of a dying author. It does, however, mean that readers will have a difficult time making their way throughout the narrative. Norton did her best – she really did. But it was not enough to make Three Hands for Scorpio the equal of her earlier works.

Clearly, this book is not for the casual reader. It may not even appeal to die-hard Andre Norton fans. I really cannot recommend this book to anyone in either category who looks at my opinion and says, “Nope, not going to wade through that to find the gem!”

I understand that. I really do. And I respect readers who feel Scorpio isn’t worth their time. However, I do suggest giving it at least one read through. Norton was not at her best when she wrote Three Hands, but she was determined to go out with flags flying. That is an effort that is worth a glance, isn’t it?

‘Til next time,

The Mithril Guardian

Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout: Before There Was a J. K. Rowling There Was Andre Norton

Book Review: House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones obituary | Books | The Guardian

Diana Wynne Jones

Previously, the first two books in this Diana Wynne Jones’ series – Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air – were reviewed here and here at Thoughts on the Edge of Forever. It is hard to recall for sure, but this blogger may or may not have stated in the latter post that she wished Mrs. Jones would write a fourth book in the series in the future.

Unfortunately, what I did not know at the time that post was published was that Mrs. Jones had passed away several years prior. If she has completed any more novels, then they have not been and never will be published this side of eternity. In her honor, therefore, this blogger decided to review the third and final book in her Howl’s Moving Castle trilogy. This would be none other than House of Many Ways.

The book begins with Mrs. Baker having a discussion with her great aunt by marriage. Aunt Sempronia has decided that Mr. and Mrs. Baker’s only daughter, Charmain, must take care of her Great-Uncle William’s house. Known to the rest of High Norland as Wizard Norland, Great-Uncle William is going in for surgery to take care of “…a growth.” No one else in the family can find the time to manage the property, so Aunt Sempronia has come in search of someone to mind the manor.

Truth be told, though, Aunt Sempronia has already selected the lucky young person who will manage the house while her Great-Uncle is away. This fortunate youth is the Bakers’ daughter, Charmain. Aunt Sempronia thinks the responsibility would be good for grand-niece-by-marriage, since the child does nothing but read and eat while her Aunt is present. Despite eating so much Charmain is quite skinny. She also hasn’t had to lift a finger to work around the house, with her mother treating her like a caged tigress and her father forbidding her to do anything that isn’t “nice.”

Retro Friday Review: House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne ...

So while she is not pleased to have been volunteered, Charmain is more than happy to have the opportunity to leave home. It is, as she herself admits, the opportunity she has been waiting for. The day before she leaves, Charmain takes out paper and pen to write a letter to the King of High Norland. The King and his daughter, Princess Hilda (whom we met in Castle in the Air), are busy cataloging the royal library.

Charmain loves books, and so working at the library with the King and the Princess has been her dream job for most of her young life. Free of her parents’ supervision for the next couple of weeks, she decides to take the plunge and applies to become their aid in the royal library. Although she is certain the King will dispose of her letter after reading it, Charmain feels better for trying.

The next day Aunt Sempronia arrives and picks her up. During the ride she grills the girl about her skills, asking in the process if she knows any magic. Since Mrs. Baker believes that magic is “not nice,” Charmain has never learned to use it. The idea of being denied her opportunity makes her blanch.

Luckily, Aunt Sempronia doesn’t seem to notice. She rattles off a few more notes about what is expected of her grand-niece-by-marriage until they arrive at the house. They get there just before the Elves come to pick up Great-Uncle William and take him in for surgery. Charmain barely has time to meet him, let alone ask him for instructions, before he is whisked away.

Left to her own devices, Charmain looks around. What she finds is an absolute mess. The taps in the kitchen sink are gone, the laundry has piled up, and dirty dishes abound. Exclaiming at the disaster, the heroine is quite surprised when Great-Uncle William’s voice echoes from the house itself. He has left instructions for her via a briefcase full of papers and a spell that lets him give her directions around the house.

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He also asks her to take care of his little dog, a white terrier type animal he calls Waif. Overcome by the sudden onslaught of responsibility, Charmain resorts to her first, best source of comfort. She grabs a book and starts reading….

….Only to find that her mother packed plenty of clothes and her father enough food to last a week. But neither of them packed one book for her to read while she is away from home.

Things pick up from here, readers, but I won’t spoil the rest of the story. Suffice it to say that this book in the trilogy is the one I have reread most. It is the funniest of the three novels, and I do not say that lightly. Everything entertaining in the earlier books is here, plus some. The characters are fantastic, the magic is good, and the hilarity is just pitch perfect.

If you can pick up House of Many Ways, I highly recommend doing so. You cannot go wrong with this book. Some may not like it as much as the previous ones, but this seems rather unlikely to me. How could anyone not find this story as funny as it is heartwarming?

Of course, there is only one way to find out. 😉

‘Til next time, readers!

The Mithril Guardian

Book Review: House of Many Ways | Anime and Book Messiah

Book Review – Imperial Stars Vol. 2: Republic and Empire

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Today’s book is an anthology created by Jerry Pournelle with John F. Carr. Published through Baen Books, the collection contains quite a few short stories, several poems, and numerous essays. Each of the above are directed at a single point: what is the difference between a republic and an empire? Which is the best form of government – that is, which provides the most room for freedom and mankind’s success? Most importantly, is tyranny confined only to an Empire, or is it a state of corruption that can ruin either type of government?

It is not hard to guess that this volume is densely packed. These are weighty questions, none of which can be defined easily or answered lightly. Although a Republic offers more freedom than an Empire, it is no less susceptible to the cancer of tyranny. And so the writers’ created stories and essays to explore what it means to be free and what it means to be a Republic…or an Empire. In keeping with the ideal of liberty, they leave the audience to make up their own minds on which of the two is ultimately better than the other.

Due to the solidity of this volume’s philosophical points, I will not be discussing the essays within the anthology. Suffice it to say they are thought-provoking, if a little pedantic and/or academic. If one wishes to skip past them to read the stories, doing so will certainly make the reading go faster. On the whole, though, I would recommend reading them – either before or after the stories they proceed/introduce.

Some of the stories do contain adult content, though. It did not bother me too much, but Younger Readers ought to keep it in mind if they decide to pick up this collection. This blogger will make a note of which stories have explicit scenes that conscientious youths may wish to avoid.

As a final notice, I did not read the last story in the compilation. This is a tale called “Shipwright,” which was written by Donald Kingsbury. Since the person who gave me the book wrote “Not a Good Story” next the title, this blogger accordingly avoided it. I also skimmed “These Shall Not Be Lost” because…well, the story just didn’t appeal to me. It felt out of place and boring, so I am afraid that this blogger cannot comment on it, either. If you want to know how these tales go, readers, you will have to find out yourselves. I cannot help you here.

Image result for Imperial Stars Vol. 2: Republic and Empire edited by Jerry Pournelle

Okay, with all of that out of the way, we can get down to business. The first story in the book is “Outward Bound,” by Norman Spinrad. This is a very good piece, with no sex scenes, gore, or foul language. In this tale space travel takes years, Earth-time. A man aboard ship can be eighty years old physically, but by Earth standards he will have lived eight hundred years.

This means that good ol’ Terra has her sixty colony worlds under her heel. Because of the time lag between them, Earth is the undisputed ruler of this tiny corner of the galaxy. No matter what they do, the colonies will always be sixty, eighty, or a hundred years behind the homeworld.

For man the only freedom to be found is aboard trading ships, such as the titular Outward Bound. They can go where they wish and have no worries that Earth will yank their chain, bringing them to ground. Dealing in knowledge of scientific techniques rather than money, the Outward Bound arrives on the planet of Maxwell to trade the plans for a force field. Maxwell doesn’t have much to trade; all they have of near equal value is a fugitive scientist from Earth. And since Terra never pursues a criminal this far into space the captain of the Outward Bound, Peter Reed, knows this scientist has something they want badly. And that means whatever knowledge he has is valuable – perhaps incalculably so. Thus, after a bit of haggling, he trades the force field for Dr. Ching pen Yee.

But Dr. Yee’s knowledge isn’t just valuable, it is a game changer. It could not only alter the future of space travel and Man; it could bring down Terra’s tyrannic control of her colonies. Reed has to decide if profits will rule the day or if Man will at last own the stars.

This is an enjoyable story, and one this blogger highly recommends. I do not know what else Norman Spinrad wrote (yet), but I intend to look up his other works and take a crack at them. “Outward Bound” was that good.

After this comes a less appealing tale written by Wayne Wightman. Titled “In the Realm of the Heart, In the World of the Knife,” it shows readers a world where tyranny and corruption have won. Revolution has brought down the previous order and established a new, “perfect” administration – complete with death camps, gulags, and state-sanctioned murder of those who offend their overlords in even the slightest manner.

This is not one of my favorite stories in the anthology. I recommend reading it because it is important, but it is not a likable or inspiring tale. While there are no explicit scenes, there are reminiscences of romantic interludes. The story also describes various forms of death and dismemberment that will probably startle Younger Readers.

None of this should make them avoid the story forever, since it shows the face of evil so and makes it more easily recognizable in the real world. But they should be aware there will be some disgusting things described in brief during the course of “In the Realm of the Heart, In the World of the Knife.” It will be unpleasant, of course, but evil always is. If we want to have good, then we have to know the face of wickedness in order to fight against it and preserve what is true. “In the Realm of the Heart, In the World of the Knife” makes this point quite memorably by showing readers what is lost when tyranny wins.

“Doing Well While Doing Good” follows “In the Realm of the Heart, In the World of the Knife.” Now “Doing” is actually a fun piece. It is a bit convoluted at first, but the finale clears up most of the confusion. Hayford Pierce, the author of this tale, certainly came up with one of the most ingenious answers to the pollution question that this blogger has ever heard! 😀

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Following this is a story titled “Minor Ingredient,” by Eric Frank Russell. Now this is a good story; no gore, no romantic interludes, and no language. Warner McShane arrives at the Space Training College for officers. A pilot-navigator on track for leadership training, he is taken through the college to his dormitory.

Once there, McShane is presented with a most unwelcome accessory. This would be Billings, his batman or personal servant. Scorning the idea that he would need someone to nanny him, McShane sends Billings away. But when the officer in charge of his dorm arrives and discovers this, he demonstrates why Billings’ presence is needed: the batman knows all the etiquette for the school, down to the proper arrangement of McShane’s clothes in his dresser drawers. Without him, the young man cannot hope to succeed in following the house rules, which will undoubtedly get him tossed out of the academy.

Unhappily, McShane agrees to take Billings back. Testing the older man to see just what he can and cannot get away with, the prospective officer finds himself frustrated at every turn. Over time, however, he comes to value his batman as a great friend and mentor, realizing how much the serving man and his fellows are doing for him and the other students.

This is a really, really sweet story. I cannot recommend it enough. More than worth the purchase price, “Minor Ingredient” is the piece de resistance of this collection. If you find it in a volume of a different kind, readers, snatch it up at once. This is a tale that should be on every book shelf in the country.

Next in line is Philip K. Dick’s “The Turning Wheel.” This is an odd piece which I still do not know what to make of, since it is rather bizarre. Set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, it shows a rigid caste system that has developed since man blasted himself almost back to the Stone Age. I say almost because the Bard Caste – the highest level in the caste system – uses rusting ships, viewscreens, and robots. The technology diminishes the further down the castes one goes.

At the bottom of the caste system are the Technos – the Caucasians or “Caucs” for short. Considered stupid, boorish animals, Technos are treated as pariahs by civilized society. But some of them have begun to challenge the ruling castes’ beliefs (which are a weird mixture of Buddhism, Christianity, and science). Known as the Tinkerers, this heresy is a threat to the ruling Bards.

The Bard Sung-wu has been sent to the Detroit area to check on reports of Tinkerer activity. He is not eager for this assignment. Due to die in the near future, he is more concerned with atoning for the adultery he committed with the wife of another man in order to avoid reincarnating as a carrion fly on another world. Unable to admit that to his superior, Sung-wu accepts the assignment and leaves – only to discover that, maybe, the Tinkerers aren’t so bad after all.

As I said, this is a weird story. It’s also a bit explicit in places, and so may not be appropriate for Younger Readers in the 12-15 age range. While it is a wacky piece, the tale is not necessarily a bad one. It is certainly worth reading at least once.

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“Custom Fitting,” by James White, is next. This is a straightforward tale about a tailor who receives galactic recognition for his work. Hired by the government in secret to design clothing for a Centauriform alien, George Hewlitt is struck dumb with fury when he discovers what type of clothing the administration wants him to design. A true craftsman, he sets out to fulfill his clandestine contract – the way he believes it should be done.

This is definitely a worthy story. It is readable for anyone of any age, with no objectionable content whatsoever. A fun romp, it is more relaxing than most of its fellows in this anthology.

Following this is Vernor Vinge’s “Conquest by Default.” This is a very disturbing thought experiment about how an anarchic government could be achieved. Anarchy is, and will always remain, an impractical form of governance in reality. You cannot have everyone running around doing their own things and still maintain a unified, ordered front.

Of course, that is not the point of this story. “Conquest by Default” is science fiction and thus it suspends this rule of reality to make a point about what anarchy would do to a society if it could be made into a workable frame for governance. A sad tale with an enormously important message, it has some objectionable content and may not be good for youths to jump into at once.

I did not like “The Skills of Xanadu,” by Theodore Sturgeon, very much on the first read through. The second reading left no better impression than the initial one. Young Bril of Kit Carson arrives on the world of Xanadu to exploit its people and technology. Although human, the Xanadu people appear childishly simplistic. They wear strange belts that produce a filmy energy outfit that hardly covers them and live in idyllic innocence.

But for a people that should be easy to conquer, Bril finds them almost impossible to outmaneuver. Whatever attempt he makes to learn the secret of their magnificent belts and skills is solidly stonewalled. It is like dealing with gullible, indolent children who have somehow crafted fantastic powers of the mind and technology one hardly notices.

For me, this story did not work. It is hard to say just why without giving anything away. Suffice it to say that the resolution feels too…effortless for this blogger to accept it. Although the message of the story is an admirable one, it is highly unrealistic, moreso than that found in “Conquest by Default.” Perfection is not possible in this life, and every time a story resorts to this trope, it bothers me because it is so implausible.

So, while “The Skills of Xanadu” is worth reading, it may not be particularly satisfying. You will have to make your own decision about it, readers, if you wish to read it. Young Readers may find some content a bit disconcerting, but there is not one explicit scene in the story.

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Jerry Pournelle

The same cannot be said of the final piece in the collection that this blogger can review. “Into the Sunset,” by D.C. Poyer, has a couple of romantic interludes. Something of a reverse 1984, the story has a good point despite these scenes and some other irritating tropes. I definitely recommend reading it, since one does not have to like the lead character or some of his actions to appreciate the story.

Admittedly, I cut the lead character a lot of slack because it is really nice to have a tale that shows a Party losing. One of the most depressing things about George Orwell’s 1984 is that it ends in despair. “Into the Sunset” does not have a happy ending for the protagonist, but it certainly is not as discouraging as 1984 was. I will take what I can get.

Whew! This author is wiped, readers. Hopefully she will be back again next week with something new. I am not sure what this will be just yet, but it will certainly not be another anthology. I am taking a break from those! 😀

‘Til next time!

The Mithril Guardian

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

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