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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.

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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

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Book Review: Sole Survivor by Dean Koontz

Sole Survivor by Dean R. Koontz - Reviews, Description ...

Here we are, readers, reviewing yet another Dean Koontz novel. Unlike Innocence, I was able to finish reading one, so you know it’s a good story. 😉 Originally published in 1997, Sole Survivor is still current. Yeesh, it is scary how much art is mirroring real life….  Brrr! But if you wanted to know more details about that, you would be watching the news. Since you are here, you want to know what to expect when you pick up Sole Survivor. Therefore, let us begin the description process….now:

The hero of this book is one Joe Carpenter. Thirty-seven years old, Joe used to be a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Post. Then, a year ago, his wife and daughters died in a plane crash on their way back from a trip to the east coast.

The grief and anger he feels over his loss led Joe to quit the Post and alienate most of his friends during the course of the past year. He can’t look at a crime scene without seeing his wife and daughters’ bodies rather than the real victims’; he can’t go a day without suffering panic attacks. During these episodes he imagines dying with his beloved family, feeling racked by guilt that he could not die with them, leaving him the sole survivor of the Carpenter clan.

Nevertheless, Joe has not taken the ultimate step to utter despair. He is desolate, certainly, but he hasn’t committed suicide yet. Mostly, this is due to the fact that he is not sure there is a life beyond this one. If he gets there and finds nothing but an empty void, he will still miss his wife and daughters. And if there is life after death, which he seriously doubts, then murdering himself will guarantee he never sees his family again.

All of this means that Joe is in a rut. He sold his and his family’s house and now lives in an apartment, waiting for the day he can wake up dead. He can’t drink or dope himself to death because doing so would eventually erase his memories. Since those are precious to him, he doesn’t overdo the beers. But he hasn’t been taking care of himself, either.

This morning, on the anniversary of the crash, he calls his mother-in-law. She’s the only one with whom he feels capable of discussing his grief and despair. She asks after his health and suggests he go back to writing, but he deflects her probing questions, convincing her to describe the sunrise at her Virginia home. Her voice has the same southern lilt that his wife’s did, and so he likes hearing her talk. Joe also wants to make sure she and his father-in-law are doing all right, since they’re still grieving, too.

Sole Survivor - Audiobook by Dean Koontz, read by Ryan Burke

Later on Joe goes to the beach. He’s hoping to lull himself into a mood where he can visit his wife and daughters’ graves later in the day without falling apart or getting violently angry. While he is there, drinking and watching the waves, a couple of young boys sidle up and ask if he is selling something. Joe tells them no, and they say that someone must think he is, because there are a couple of “cops” keeping tabs on him from further down the beach. Thanking the boys, who walk away, Joe soon gets curious and turns to spot the men they identified.

Neither man looks to be the regular variety of cop. They’re definitely interested in him, but Joe can’t guess why they should be. He dismisses them from his mind until he goes to the men’s room. Worried about being jumped, he pays a fourteen year old boy to scope out the territory for the two men. Coming back, the boy tells him he spotted one of the two men staring at a couple of bikini-clad women, one of whom is apparently deaf.

“Deaf?” Joe asks. The boy elaborates and states she kept pulling out and putting in a “hearing aid” in one ear. Paying the boy the rest of his promised money, Joe leaves the restroom and goes back to his place on the beach. Two young women set up next to him and, since he is wearing sunglasses, Joe can keep an eye on them without giving his suspicion away. They are watching him – and not the way young women usually watch men at the beach.

Using up the last of his beer, Joe decides these cops have picked him out of the crowd by mistake and ignores them. He packs up and heads to the cemetery. When he gets there, however, he finds a woman photographing the headstones of his wife and daughters’ graves. She tells him she is not ready to talk to him yet, then asks how he is coping with his loss. It doesn’t take a great detective to see he is in bad shape, mind you; she just needs a conversational topic.

Sole Survivor: Amazon.co.uk: Dean Koontz: 9780747254348: Books

Before their graveside chat can go any deeper, the two are interrupted by a screeching engine. Joe looks up to see a vehicle approaching the cemetery. It stops and the two men who were observing him at the beach jump out. Immediately, the woman takes off, and she is so fast that Joe can’t keep up with her in his poor condition.

His two shadows chase after the strange woman. Doubling back to their vehicle, Joe discovers a third man inside. Taking the brute by surprise, Joe subdues him before studying the interior of the van. Abandoning it, he races off before the thug can grab him. He gets shot at, but loses his pursuers, only to find he has picked up a helicopter instead. Discovering a tacking device on his car, Joe slaps it on a passing dump truck and goes to get some answers.

In the process, he learns there is a reason to keep living. Someone survived the plane crash that killed his family, which should be impossible. But apparently it isn’t and, on the off chance that the woman he met at the graveside can help him locate the survivor, Joe begins chasing after her. As he does he learns by inches why he was allowed to survive his family’s demise.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you, readers. In spite of the protagonist’s depair-induced whining about the world toward the beginning of the novel, this is a riveting book. Joe eventually gets whacked on the head enough times that he straightens up and flies right, naturally. Koontz doesn’t hold with wimps or whiners, though he occasionally writes about them. Sole Survivor is no different than the rest of his works in that respect.

A good read with a good ending, Sole Survivor is as timely today as when it was written. But you don’t need to take my word for it, readers. Pick up the novel at your earliest opportunity and discover how good a book this is yourselves!

‘Til next time!

Sole Survivor « Dean Koontz

Book Review: Star Wars: Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn

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Since I have disposed of this book, I thought it best to review it here and now rather than later. Star Wars: Outbound Flight focuses on the grand, enigmatic experiment which occurred just before the Clone Wars began in the Star Wars mythos. A Jedi project headed by Master Jorus C’Baoth, Outbound Flight was an ambitious attempt to leave the Star Wars galaxy, planting colonies on the way out.

Unfortunately, Outbound Flight never got past the edge of the Outer Rim into Wild Space. They met a Chiss force led by Thrawn and were wiped out.

After reading Survivor’s Quest, which I will review here in a little while, I really wanted to know what happened aboard Outbound Flight. So when I saw the book in a store, I bought it without hesitation.

Outbound Flight, sadly, was something of a disappointment to me. I have heard from Mr. Bookstooge about Zahn’s limitations as an author, not to mention experienced them when I finished his promising Quadrail series. Outbound Flight is, unfortunately, in this category as well.

I think the reason I did not notice his limitations in his other works – or put up with/ignored his weaknesses in his other stories – is because the characters were so engaging that these faults didn’t annoy me. Zahn’s rendition of Mara and Luke, their relationship, along with Han and Leia and their relationship, is always fun and interesting. So I think that usually I can give Zahn a pass on the slower parts of the books he wrote which were previously reviewed here. Outbound Flight, sadly, lacked that staying power for most of the tale, though I did grow to like a couple of the characters herein.

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Before I discuss the story, I have to say one thing in defense of Zahn. Looking up the submissions guidelines for Baen and the other publishers of his work, I see that they require something on the order of 100,000 – 150,000 word limits on their manuscripts. That is a lot of work to fill out; creating a story which meets criteria like that means you get a thick book in the end. (My small paperback copy of Outbound Flight itself was almost an inch thick!) It may not be that Zahn is a weak author so much as he works with publishers who refuse to take stories slimmer than an inch in the spine, and he cannot transfer his stories away from those companies due to contracts or something.

I could very well be wrong, of course. And, since I do still enjoy the majority of Zahn’s work, this is probably personal bias speaking. But it is something I have been thinking about lately due to the fact that some of Zahn’s books work fine despite their length while others do not. I can only assume that those stories which “feel off” do so because they should have been shorter, but he had to make them longer than was healthy for them to satisfy the requirements of his publisher(s).

Anyway, back to Outbound Flight. It begins with Jorj Car’das – up and coming smuggler and the youngest member of his present crew – thinking he is going to die pretty soon because his current captain has ticked off a Hutt crime lord, in part because he gets a kick out of it. (Yeah. Wow. How is it this guy isn’t dead yet?)

The crew makes a blind jump into hyperspace, but the Hutt follows them. What neither of them realizes until the freighter is knocked out and the Hutt’s ship destroyed is that they are in Chiss space. Actually, they are in Thrawn’s lap. He has Car’das and his two crewmates brought aboard his ship, the Springhawk, where they learn he can speak Sy Bisti. Thrawn eventually invites them to stay for a little while longer so he can learn Basic, paying them for their time with some loot taken from slavers. Car’das agrees to the bargain on his captain’s behalf, but asks to learn the Chiss language as well.

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Meanwhile, back in the Republic, C’baoth is fighting with the bureaucracy to get the Outbound Flight project approved. His apprentice, Lorana Jinzler, does her best to keep up with him but it is clear that she isn’t pleasing him any more than the irritation of the bureaucracy. Instead of getting what he wants, C’baoth is shunted to work on some negotiations on Brolf….

Only to find Obi-Wan Kenobi and a teenage Anakin Skywalker are waiting for him.

Things sort of spiral out from here – it turns out that Palpatine wants C’baoth out of the way because he is so strong in the Force and has Dark Side leanings. (This book shows us quite clearly how the clone went mad; the original beat him to it.) You don’t want a rival when you are trying to take over the galaxy, after all, and Outbound Flight is the means Palpatine plans to use to get rid of C’baoth – along with a whole lot of innocent people.

Car’das’ character was wonderfully expanded in this novel, and I really enjoyed reading from his perspective. Watching him interact with Thrawn, who has the hint of Dark Side leanings of his own in this book, was great, too. Lorana was another interesting character who grew more likeable the longer I read about her, and Zahn handled Obi-Wan’s perspective well while giving us hints about Anakin’s eventual fall to the Dark Side.

None of this, sadly, saves the book from its rather tedious pacing. The novel probably would have worked better if it was shorter, but I don’t think there are very many Star Wars books out there which are short – unless you count the ones meant for children. Even the short story collections have very thick spines.

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I’m not casting Outbound Flight into exterior darkness, though, because it fleshes out the above characters so well and explains what happened to the project. My local library has received this copy so that others can read it and (maybe) enjoy it more than I did. If long books or Zahn’s stretching beyond his limits bother you, then this book will probably not be something you absolutely need to read – unless you want more original Expanded Universe background on Outbound Flight, Thrawn, and Car’das. (I really liked him in this novel – did I say that already? He was extremely interesting and well-developed here.) If even that doesn’t appeal to you, then please avoid this book.

Well, that’s it for now, readers; I am wiped. I got absorbed in the book while I was writing this in order to keep at least some of the details straight, so this is quits for me. Until next time, may the Force be with you.

Book Review: By the Light of the Moon by Dean Koontz

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I think I have reviewed a total of three Dean Koontz novels prior to this point, readers. Though horror is not my preferred milieu of fiction, Koontz has valuable insights in his novels that are worth the price of admission. He also creates compelling characters and satisfies my desire for a good story well told. So I have read more than the three novels reviewed here at Thoughts; I just have not gotten around to writing about most of them.

By the Light of the Moon is the most recent book that I have read, and the ending is an absolute kicker. The author pulled a fast one on me with this one, so I have to be careful to describe it or I will give away spoilers.

Dylan O’Connor, an artist, has stopped off at a hotel on his way back from selling some of his work in the next state. In the hotel is his younger, autistic brother, Shepherd. (For the majority of the book, he is called Shep.) Unfortunately, before Dylan can get back to their room with the fast food meal his brother ordered, someone sneaks up behind him and knocks him out.

He wakes up some minutes later, strapped to a chair and gagged in their room. At the table in the center of the area, Shep is putting together a puzzle at lightning speed, seemingly oblivious to the little old man who is preparing to stick Dylan with a needle full of strange, golden liquid. The mad man tells Dylan that the “stuff” in the syringe has effects that are “without exception interesting, frequently astonishing, and sometimes positive.”

Oh, great. Of course, that makes total sense. And it is super comforting, too, Doc McEvil. We all love the idea of being injected with “stuff” by mad scientists. (Yes, I am being sarcastic and snarky.)

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And yes, this little old man is the bad guy – and what a villain. He doesn’t go in for the usual evisceration, mental or physical, that you would expect. He is apparently harmless and full of remorse, but as a fan of Koontz’s, I can tell you to never assume any antagonist in his stories is harmless or full of remorse. This bozo is no exception.

Well, Dr. McEvil finishes up with Dylan and leaves the room, telling him he has some handful of minutes before the MIBs show up to kill him. This is because the “stuff” is the scientist’s life’s work and it is apparently dangerous enough that the Feds want it completely eradicated. While Dylan works on freeing himself, Dr. McEvil spies his next victim: Jillian “Jilly” Jackson.

Jilly is trying to become a professional on the comedy circuit, and to that end she travels around the Southwest with her jade plant, Fred. Fred is part of her act and the closest thing she has to a friend in her travels. Anyway, she pops out of her room to grab a drink and a snack from the vending machine. When she comes back, her door is ajar and it takes her too long to react to the fact that she has an unwelcome visitor. Knocked out and injected with the same “stuff” as Dylan received, Jilly misses most of Dr. McEvil’s spiel and stumbles out of her room toward the parking lot – with Fred in hand, of course.

Dylan and Shep are headed to their truck at the same time, and the three begin traveling together after a nearby explosion shows them that Dr. McEvil wasn’t kidding about the MIBs. Whatever he injected them with, the Feds want it destroyed –

And that means they want Dylan, Shep, and Jilly dead.

This has to be one of the most surprising stories Koontz has ever written. The first five to seven chapters had me in stitches; I am usually pretty good at handling his customary “gag-on-your-giggles-so-the-librarian-doesn’t-throw-you-out” humor, but this time it was amped up to eleven. I nearly choked trying to keep quiet so I could read the book. It wasn’t easy – at all. 😉

But the real surprise in this book was the ending. It is a lighthearted, almost fluffy finale that pokes fun at a genre you hear a lot about here at Thoughts. The fun isn’t aimed at my favorite company, but its rival which, let’s face it, takes itself waaay too seriously most of the time. There is still some self-deprecating humor in my favorite producer, but heaven only knows how much longer that will last.

Someone else I know who read the book felt this ending was a bit disingenuous, but I kind of liked it. Most of Koontz’s novels end with a “Beware the Darkness” note, which is fine. But it is nice to know he can put a little more bounce into an ending if he wants to do so. The fact that he doesn’t just goes to prove the point I mentioned in my review of The Good Guy.

If you don’t think you can handle Koontz giving you a “fluffy” ending, then you may not want to pick up By the Light of the Moon. I think it was worth the read, however, and that is why I am recommending it. The first few chapters, at least, are worth it for the humor alone.

Have fun with By the Light of the Moon at your earliest convenience, readers!

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Book Review: Year of the Unicorn by Andre Norton

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Welcome back to the Witch World, readers! This book – Year of the Unicorn – takes place in the Dales of High Hallack, the western continent of the Witch World. We are in uncharted, amazing territory here. Let’s dive in!

The long war between the Dalesmen and the Hounds of Alizon is finally over. The uniting of the Dale Lords, coupled with the loss of their support from the alien Kolder, weakened the Hounds’ ability to fight the Dalesmen, to be sure. But even this was not enough to secure the victory of High Hallack over the invaders. No, only one thing tipped the balance in their favor toward the end of the war. That was the appearance of the Were Riders on the side of the Dalesmen.

You are probably wondering who or what the Were Riders are, aren’t you? Bespelled by an Adept in the hidden realm of Arvon, which is sealed off from the rest of High Hallack, the Were Riders are men who can turn into animals. They have other magic as well, of course, but the Dalesmen know them best for their ability to assume the forms of beasts and birds.

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There are roughly thirty members of the Were Rider “Pack,” as they call themselves. And they agreed to enter the war on the side of the Dalesmen on one condition: after the war was over, the Dale Lords would provide the Riders with thirteen maids of marriageable age. They were to be comely and without illness or some other blemish, and they were to become the brides of thirteen of the Riders. The Pack was exiled from hidden Arvon to the rest of High Hallack; they did not come here willingly, they were banished.

But their time of exile is nearly ended. Once it is done they will either be allowed to reenter Arvon – or they will be stuck in High Hallack for the rest of their lives. If that last occurs, they do not want their people, such as they are (all the Riders are male), to disappear. The only way to preserve themselves as a race is to marry.

At the Abbey of the Flame in Norsdale, Gillan helps the Dames at their daily tasks. Taken by the Hounds from a land across the sea, she remembers nothing of her real home or people. Gillan only remembers scraps of the sea voyage and being rescued by Dalesmen raiding her captors’ ship when it arrived in port.

The Lord Furlo led the raid which rescued Gillan and so his wife, Lady Freeza, kept her as a fosterling. They retreated to the Abbey when he was killed and their Dale taken by the enemy. The strain of both losses, however, was too much for Lady Freeza and she died, leaving Gillan in the care of the Dames.

While grateful for the Dames’ protection over the years, Gillan has begun to feel trapped in the Abbey. Her chance to escape comes when the selected brides for the Were Riders stop by to take advantage of the Dames’ hospitality – and to pick up a couple of brides to fill the quota along the way.

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One of these prospective maids, a girl named Marimme, goes off into hysterics when she learns what her guardian has in mind for her. Seizing her chance both to help the poor creature and to escape the Abbey, Gillan knocks the girl out and takes her place, joining the other twelve brides on their journey to meet the Were Riders. By the time her deception is discovered it is too late to send her back, and so Gillan goes with the other young women to meet her future husband.

The Rider she chooses is Herrel. Herrel is not a full Were Rider; he is not as powerful as the rest of the Pack. And Gillan did not choose him because she was bedazzled by the marriage spell he and the other Riders used to call their new wives to them; somehow, she could see past the illusion. Nevertheless, she chose Herrel as her husband.

Herrel soon puts two and two together, realizing in the process that Gillan is not like the other girls or even of High Hallack. But because he is not as powerful as his fellow Riders, he cannot protect her from anything they try to do to her if they discover her power. So he asks Gillan to pretend the illusion the Pack keeps up for the benefit of the other brides is real, in order to protect them both from trouble.

If you think she says no, you would be wrong. If you think Herrel’s hope to keep Gillan’s ability secret gets exposed, you would be closer to the mark, readers. Year of the Unicorn is one of the best novels Miss Norton ever wrote; after the Falconers, I think I love the Were Riders best out of all her fictional races. They are just as cool and mysterious as the men of the Eyrie who, despite their practices, have always intrigued me.

In one of her essays, Miss Norton said that Year of the Unicorn is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I leave you, readers, to discover how they are alike. No more spoilers here; go out and get the book yourselves. You won’t regret it!

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Book Review: The Good Guy by Dean Koontz

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I have stated that I am not a fan of horror novels/films/fill-in-the-blank. That still stands. Do I believe in ghosts, monsters, demons, and evil? Oh, yes, I do. That is part of the reason why I do not like horror stories. Too many people think these things are not real, and therefore they take them lightly. But these things are all very real, so I do not have a blasé attitude when I consider them.

Evil is real, and Koontz makes sure to tell his readers this time and again throughout his novels. The Good Guy is no exception; it opens with Tim Carrier – a bachelor, mason, bricklayer, and former United States Marine – sitting down to have a beer.

Since his return to the states, Tim’s kept himself off the radar. He is a self-employed mason in California who shows up, does his job well, and says very little about himself. He likes to end his days with a drink or two at his friend’s bar, the Lamplighter Tavern.

On this particular night, though, he does not go unnoticed. A nervous, twitchy little man enters the establishment after Tim has exchanged the usual pleasantries with his friend. For the first few minutes, he thinks the newcomer’s just jumpy, so he tries to strike up an interesting conversation with the guy.

Then the man slides a thick manila envelope over to him with the words, “Half of it’s there. Ten thousand. The rest when she’s gone.”

At first, Tim is too surprised to explain that there has been a mistake. Before he can get his mouth to start working, though, the little man has bolted out the door. Looking at the manila envelope for a while, Tim then opens it and checks out the contents.

Inside are ten thousand dollars in cash and a photo of a pretty woman about Tim’s own age. Printed on the photo is the woman’s name – Linda Paquette – along with her address.

He puts the photo and the money back in the envelope before sliding it as far from him as he can. No sooner has Tim put this slimy offering away, however, than a man – who could be his dopplegänger – enters the bar. He takes the uneasy man’s seat, orders a beer, and picks up the envelope.

What would you do here, readers? Call the cops? Try to tell the man the job’s off? Tim tries the second course, but it does not work. As for the first, Tim considers it until he sees the killer put a police light on the top of his car. This hired murderer might be disguising himself as a cop, but having seen his eyes, heard him talk, our Good Guy doubts that very much. Going to the police will therefore get Linda – and very probably Tim – murdered a whole lot faster.

Now, readers, in this situation, what would you do? Help Linda, or walk away and forget the entire scene had ever occurred?

Dean Koontz lets Mr. Carrier make the choice. And Tim chooses to go help Linda.

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The Good Guy is a great read. It will scare the pants off of you, and it will break your heart. It will crack the veneer of normalcy the academics and journalists have laid over our world to show you the writhing, seething things that hide in the darkness so prevalent in the world where we live. If you pay attention, you will learn many things about evil, faith, hope, love, and courage while reading this book.

Koontz has often referenced Flannery O’Connor, one of his favorite authors, in his novels. Flannery O’Connor once said that her aim in the stories she wrote was to “shout loud enough for the atheists” to hear the truth she had to tell them.

Mr. Koontz is aiming in the same general direction, but it is not just the atheists and unbelievers he wants to awaken. It is the rest of us who go about the world with our hands over our ears, eyes, and mouth in the hopes of avoiding the face of evil. Evil is real. It is very, very real, and the only thing that allows it to win is if good men and women – good guys and girls – let it.

That is Mr. Koontz’s message in all his fiction, something new readers of his works ought to be aware of. The Good Guy is one of the stories where he shouts the loudest.

Discover The Good Guy, by Dean Koontz, at your earliest opportunity, readers. It is worth your time and money.

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Book Review – Star Trek: Traitor Winds by L. A. Graf

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Well, we have been to the Witch World, Newfoundland, and a toy castle from England. Let’s see what is going on in the United Federation of Planets, shall we?

I gave this book as a gift to a friend, so I do not have a copy of it with me as a reference. Please forgive me if I mess up some of the details, readers. 😉 The novel, written by the ladies who use the pen name L. A. Graf – “Let’s All Get Rich And Famous!” – takes place in the interim between the end of the original series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Kirk has become an Admiral some time before this book starts; McCoy is enjoying being a crotchety, grounded Earth doctor; Spock is away on Vulcan, and Scotty is aboard the Enterprise, which has been docked in orbit for a refit.

Meanwhile, Sulu is working as a test pilot for a new shuttle with a cloaking shield in White Sands, Arizona. The project is top secret, but he has told his best friends – Uhura and Chekov – all about it anyway. After all, if they cannot keep a secret, who can? At the same time, Uhura is teaching a communications class at Starfleet Academy and Chekov is going to the Security Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Of the three Chekov has, as usual, gotten the short end of the stick. He wants to be a Security Officer so he can gain the experience he needs to enter the Officers’ Academy which Kirk attended. Kirk was admitted to this school at a young age because he was a special case. Chekov is special, too, of course, but the guys in charge have deemed him too immature to enter the school at this time.

This has stung his pride so badly that he has decided Security is the only place to gain maturity. Unfortunately for Chekov, one of his classmates absolutely hates him. This man’s name is Leong, and he has been in Security for quite some time. He thinks all Starfleet officers are flash and splash; that they do not have the mettle to take on real threats. Because Chekov is not as graceful or fast as he is, Leong can outmaneuver and whip him easily in practice fights. There is nothing wrong with Chekov, who has faced worse opponents in deep space and lived to tell the tale. It is simply that he cannot keep up with Leong when it comes to speed.

Chekov does not see it that way, though, probably due to a combination of the Officers’ Academy’s vitriolic rejection letter and his natural Russian pessimism. He rarely has any fun at the Security Academy, and he has almost no friends there. The only bright points in the whole mess are the occasional dinners he has with Uhura and Sulu when they leave their much nicer jobs out west to visit him on the weekends. Then they all get to sit down, reminisce, and relax at a nice diner, restaurant, or café somewhere in Annapolis.

The latest dinner includes McCoy and Dr. Piper, the physician for the Enterprise before Kirk took command. The dinner is merrier than ever, and Chekov gets an offer from Dr. Piper he cannot refuse. Dr. Piper is working on finding a way to treat injuries caused by Klingon disruptors. The problem is, no one at Johns Hopkins University knows how to fire the one disruptor they have. Starfleet officers who have faced Klingons in combat are not exactly lining up at the door to shoot it, either.

Knowing how bad a disruptor injury can be, Chekov jumps at the chance to help. It is only later that Piper confides in Chekov the real reason he wanted to hire the ensign: he thinks a traitor in Starfleet is trying to steal the disruptor. Afraid to trust anyone at the University, since those attached to the project might be compromised, he hired Chekov because he served under Kirk aboard the Enterprise. If Kirk trusts him, that’s good enough for Piper.

Unfortunately, as Chekov learns too late, Piper is right about those attached to the disruptor project being compromised. Unable to get to Dr. Piper in time to save him and, robbed of the recordings proving what actually happened, Chekov ends up on the run from the authorities after he is accused of killing Dr. Piper. Though Uhura and Sulu know this is not true, Starfleet’s top helmsman soon has other things to worry about. The plans for his stealth shuttle have been copied and stolen, and the Navajo engineer helping him to test the shuttle has gone missing.

The engineer is blamed for the theft, naturally, but Sulu finds this hard to believe. His faith in his friend is rewarded when he is testing the shuttle some days later. During the test flight Sulu finds a message from the engineer embedded in the shuttle’s systems. Through the message, the engineer warns him that someone in Starfleet has turned traitor and stolen the plans in such a way that either the engineer or Sulu would take the blame. To take the heat off of Sulu, the engineer ran off and hid in a place only the Navajo can find.

He left the message because he wants Sulu to know someone is out to get him. And Sulu has a feeling he is not the only target. The theft of the plans, the disappearance of the disruptor, and now Chekov’s supposed murder of Dr. Piper have happened too close together to be coincidence. They were both senior officers aboard the Enterprise, so whoever the traitor is, Sulu can only assume that he is trying to black Admiral Kirk’s name by framing him and Chekov for treason.

Star Trek: Traitor Winds is a good standalone Trek novel. It rotates through the POVs of Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, and Kirk. Spock is the only member of the Enterprise Seven absent from the story, while Christine Chapel and Janet Rand get guest appearances. As a high stakes race to the finish, Traitor Winds is one of the best. Engage that warp drive of yours, readers, and search this novel out. It is worth the read!