Friday, August 31, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum, directed by Paul Greengrass [4]

****/***** (4/5)

The Bourne trilogy
1. The Bourne Identity (4/5)
2. The Bourne Supremacy (1/5)
3. The Bourne Ultimatum (4/5)

I thoroughly enjoyed THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM. Featuring relentless action - and I do mean nonstop - The BOURNE ULTIMATUM concludes the Bourne trilogy in a very satisfying manner. I found this movie's predecessor THE BOURNE SUPREMACY too confusing and too fragmented. THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM however manages to remain focused on Jason Bourne's quest to discover his roots, and return to the place where it all started for him.

Matt Damon returns as Jason Bourne, a man gifted with a preternatural knack for combat, assassination and fighting. We see flashbacks of his love's death in THE BOURNE SUPREMACY which seems to fuel his thirst for some answers. The entire movie showcases one exhilarating action sequence after another and doesn't let go until the very satisfying ending. Julia Stiles and Joan Allen return to play CIA agents questioning the agency's callous pursuit to eliminate Bourne.

Just the way I like my movies, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM is extremely light on the characterizations and plotting while extremely heavy on the gripping action. Although the movie offers little opportunity to act, I nonetheless thought Matt Damon performed admirably as the insouciant, cold Jason Bourne seeking revenge and answers. The middle fight between Bourne and one of the other assets in Morocco -- wow, simply phenomenal.

Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch [2]

**/***** (2/5)

Gentlemen Bastards sequence (so far)
1. The Lies of Locke Lamora (5/5)
2. Red Seas Under Red Skies (2/5)

Crooked Warden, give me a golden line of bullshit and the wisdom to know when to stop spinning it, [Locke] thought.


The second installment of the Gentlemen Bastards sequence RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES (2007) returns our thieves Locke and Jean back to form. We see Locke doing what he does best: bullshitting out of his ass like never tomorrow! Locke always streaks his lies with traces of the truth, and RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES picks up where THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA left off: Locke dissembling, prevaricating, lying, and scheming for a big score. Again, we find Locke extemporizing with words and legerdemains on the fly, often plunging headfirst into volatile, sure-death situations without a plan or strategy until one seems to present itself. For example, explaining to Requin why Stragos has Locke and Jean go away to the Ghostwind Isles. Most of this was fun, but I found the conclusion a blur and entirely unsatisfying. I lost interest following The Major Death here, and the return-on-investment with this book, both from an entertainment standpoint and from a meaningful perspective, waned considerably in comparison to THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA. The deaths in THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA seemed to fuel the story whereas the The Major Death in RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES paralyzes the ending. Neither resolutions with Requin (Sinspire scheme) nor with Stragos (equivalent of Gray King plot, unwanted attention) in this novel compensated for Jean's loss from the reader's perspective.

Relatively speaking, I actually enjoyed the first 450 pages or so of this 576-page hardcover release. I really did. The rest ruined it for me though. Unlike THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA, Lynch's latest installment teems with too much set-up without the proper payoff. In fact, the return on investment and execution of RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES seems poor to average. For example, when Locke visits Salon Corbeau early in the novel for the construction of some chairs, the book spends quite a few pages detailing the macabre games at the arena in the city. Locke seethes and fumes over the participants' treatment ("defaults") and we knew that the book was destined to return to Salon Corbeau later. Unfortunately the "payoff" much later consists of 2 passages barely spanning 2 pages as the pirates pillage and plunder the city. We also have a long account of Locke and Jean training to climb down cliff faces with harnesses rope early on. The "payoff"? Maybe a couple lines telling us Locke and Jean slid down rope off of the Sinspire.

The Major Death here prompts Jean into a death offering. The "payoff"? Uh nothing really, they capture Stragos, that's about it. The conclusion was a blur, and I wasn't really interested after The Major Death, none of it made up for it. The circumstances leading to The Major Death were horribly contrived. All of a sudden, we have the existence of this potent alchemical globe capable of burning through ships, a ship's bane. In the ultimate act of heroism, our sacrificial lamb touches the globe that cannot be touched and hurls the globe to the other pirate ship where it finally shatters, engulfing the entire ship in flame and death. Conveniently, the globe didn't shatter earlier on our protagonists' ship the Poison Orchid.

In RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES, Scott Lynch seems to compensate for the relative absence of women in THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA. And compensating so much, I had trouble with my suspension of disbelief. You have close-to-40 Captain Drakasha and her first mate Lt. Delmastro. Both are strong women, and that's all well and good, but to see Drakasha handle another man like a toy was a little... uh, unbelievable? Now Locke is pretty small, so I can understand when she flings him like a nuisance out of her way earlier when they first meet in her cabin, but to strangle, drag and throw around Mazucca like he was little more than a toy was a little.... too much? Towards the end, you have Drakasha cleave other men effortlessly like Conan the Barbarian. All the arrows miss her even though she's front-and-center? How is that, just because she has 2 little children and we can't let Drakasha die, but the other death was necessary because it involved love between Jean & Ezri?

True to guy fiction, the love/romance here is tragic, and I could easily tell the novel would separate Jean and Ezri by the end of the novel at best. At worst ... Protestations of love in a SFF novel like this make me nervous because we know it only serves to foreshadow the worst (get the love out of the way early so the death means something when it hits). Can't have Ezri complicating Locke & Jean's comraderie for future books, right? Similarly, we know Locke means to steal Requin's painting ever since Locke observes the paintings in Requin's office.

Locke held up a glittering necklace, a braided band of gold and silver supporting a heavy gold pendant, studded with sapphires in the stylized pattern of a floral blossom... "That's a sweet piece," said Jean... "You didn't snatch that off a street."

"No," said Locke... "I got it from the neck of the governor's mistress."

"You can't be serious."

"In the governor's manor."

"Of all the -- "

"In the governor's bed."

"Damned lunatic!"

"With the governor sleeping next to her."

The night quiet was broken by the high, distant trill of a whistle, the traditional swarming noise of city watches everywhere. "It is possible," said Locke with a sheepish grin, "that I have been slightly too bold."
"I take some of it back," [Jean] said. "You might still be a lying, cheating, low-down, greedy, grasping, conniving, pocket-picking son of a bitch."

"Thanks," said Locke.

The Story, again, possible SPOILERS.

We pick up RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES in a vein very similar to the previous THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA: our Gentlemen Bastards' high-stakes con game going terribly, terribly awry by some unwanted attention from some powerful people. From THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA, we know that Locke crippled a Bondsmage who heralds from an elite cult, the Bondsmagi of Karthain. The Bondsmagi of Karthain own a monopoly on magic-users in Lynch's world, and to kill a Bondsmage instigates certain death for not only the perpetrator, but the perpetrator's family, friends and acquaintances. The complete and awesome power of the collective cult of magic-users exacts retribution for killing one from their order, and no man or woman of power is exempt from this order's complete retribution.

Although Locke didn't kill the Bondsmage in THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA, the Bondsmagi of Karthain stalk Locke and Jean making their presence known. On top of that, the Bondsmagi of Karthain have alerted the Archon of Tel Verrar, Maxilan Stragos, to the presence and dealings of our Gentlemen Bastards Locke and Jean. The military dictator of Tel Verrar and the most powerful man in the Tel Verrar, Stragos poisons Locke and Jean as a means of coercion and to use them as instruments for his own purposes. Locke and Jean don't know the ingredients of the poison and only Stragos can provide the antidote in regular doses every 2 months.

For 2 years, Locke & Jean's apparent target in RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES: a vault in the gambling tower of Tel Verrar's Sinspire. Requin runs the Sinspire and owns the vault where several Priori of Tel Verrar also place their fortunes.

As usual, Locke and Jean must balance their con game with Requin at the Sinspire, Stragos' attentions, mysterious assassins, and the most powerful cult in Lynch's world, the Bondsmagi of Karthain. Just great, they're royally fucked as usual!

Locke: "...Have we ever been less in control of our lives than we are at this moment? We can't run away from the archon and his poison, which means we can't just disengage from the Sinspire game. Gods know we can't even see the Bondsmagi lurking, and we've suddenly got assassins coming out of our assholes. Know something? I'd lay even odds that between the people following us and the people hunting us, we've become this city's principal means of employment. Tal Verrar's entire economy is now based on fucking with us."

Stragos sends Locke and Jean away to the seas to incite piracy over the seas around Tel Verrar. Stragos wants the entire city of Tel Verrar begging for him to assume more power, and in order to consolidate his power, he needs an opposition he can crush. After quite a bit of time as pirates on the sea, Locke and Jean return to Tel Verrar and balance the Priori, Stragos and Requin.

The adventures at sea were at times fun, but mostly felt out of place and horribly slow.

Untamed, by Elizabeth Lowell [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Elizabeth Lowell's UNTAMED provides for many paranormal elements steeped in tradition (rather than outright magic) as excuses for its plotting and pacing. After a while, it just seems like Lowell relishes lapping on one esoteric rule after another. The book also grasps and offends at quantifying love, and measuring it. For example, only love can produce a male offspring with a Glendruid witch (like our heroine) while pleasure will merely result in daughters. The implication: somehow, male offspring require a higher level of intimacy than female offspring. For the majority of 408 pages, rumors of another man (Duncan) restrain our hero Dominic's desire for Meg and he awaits Meg's monthly bleeding before consummating their marriage. Meanwhile, Meg snips at Dominic's crude practicality over wanting land and sons, and laments over his lack of faith in her and his dearth to love (Meg cannot love any man whom she knows will not love her back). She's a virgin of course, and the novel again involves a virgin heroine's sensual awakening.

The prose wasn't bad, but failed to engage, and the plotting/pacing stagnates. The ending represents the epitome of cheeseball. The conclusion showcases our hero Dominic's transformation into the "Glendruid Wolf," a legend portending peace and prosperity for the people of the land. This ridiculous "transformation" into the "Glendruid Wolf" hinges on Dominic discarding the sensible thing and mouthing his words of love for Meg first. I found all the people coming forward to show their dedication and devotion for their abducted Glendruid mistress terribly cheezy. Meg's lack of faith in Dominic resonated throughout (he can't love, blah, blah, blah) and especially in the end when she doesn't believe he'll rescue her consequently risking war. She lacks faith in her husband despite the fact that she's the recepient of Dominic's very tender affection and caring throughout the novel. He ignites and pleasures Meg.

The backdrop of UNTAMED? It's a time following the William the Conquerer's conquest of England, a time when the Normans vanquished or assimilated the Saxons. King Henry I awards the Saxon stronghold in Northern England Blackthorne Keep to our tall, dark and handsome Norman knight Dominic le Sabre. In the absence of any legitimate Blackthorne male heirs, the King awards Lady Margaret ("Meg") and Blackthorne Keep's opulent and fertile lands to his redoubtable Norman knight Dominic.

Like many a man during the time, Dominic dreams of land and sons. He views sons as a means of preserving peace. Meg resents serving as the tool for any man's aspirations for land and sons, though she's willing to marry Lord Dominic in order to avert bloodshed. Following the marriage, Meg isn't averse to all of his sensual servicing either.

And this is where all the rules of paranormal tradition factor into the story. The paranormal rules range from ridiculously contrived to offensive.

Meg hails from a long line of Glendruids, women many consider witches. Glendruid witches traditionally fail to bear many children, much less sons, and they're rarely impassioned exhibiting a very cold demeanor to passion and love. Incidentally our hero Dominic has little trouble stirring Meg's passion on his first attempt. Glendruids are revered and much loved by the people of Blackthorne Keep, and if the Glendruid women are forced in any way, the rules call for the dessication of Blackthorne lands, cattle and its people. If the Glendruid women are cast off, again the people will revolt. If the Glendruid women are pleasured, but not truly loved, then a daughter is possible. If there's love -- and only love -- can a Glendruid bear a son. A Glendruid hasn't borne a son for centuries. There's also a legend that the next Glendruid son born (dubbed the Glendruid Wolf) will hail a time of peace and prosperity. Furthermore our old Glendruid witch Gwyn explains to us, "ultimately [it] rests on the woman's love, not the man's. Many Glendruid women have wanted sons to bring peace to their world. Not one has managed the kind of love a son requires." Oh, and for good measure, Lowell adds another caveat to the Glendruid traditions so Glendruid women aren't tricked into loving their men: "Glendruid women see beneath the sensual lure of broad shoulders and handsome faces. They see a man's soul." Of course it doesn't hurt for the man to possess broad shoulders, a chiseled frame and a handsome countenance either. Nothing less would do for a hero in a romance novel!

Dominic promptly resolves to teach Meg to love him. We all know the rest, right? In the process of trying to make her love him, obviously he loses his own heart to her. The sexual tension in UNTAMED involves having the hunky, experienced dark knight ignite a virgin's passions in spite of her scathing resistance. Dominic answers Meg's feisty imprecations with his experienced wiles of seduction. Despite Meg's notorious indifference to passion, she succumbs to Dominic's touch and kiss on their very first meeting. The rest of the novel interminably plays out the seducing-the-virgin-and-igniting-her-passion routine. It's a kind of antiquated and tedious banality under the most contrived paranormal contexts (rules). Obviously, Dominic will cede control of his heart and soul to Meg first, and in so doing, Meg wins the game! Yay!

The lengthy and wearisome seduction of said virgin was just too much. Over the days and weeks, he slowly assaults her "defenses" (which are nonexistent) with caresses, light touches, and kisses. Nothing happens whatsoever. The books is mildly sensual, if that. The plotting/pacing feeble, the ending cheezy beyond belief.

The title of the book stems from the tradition/rule of Glendruid witches exhibiting a cold, detached disposition towards passion and love. Meg is untamed, and similar to Dominic training and taming a peregrine to his touch, so too does Meg soar to new heights under Dominic's experienced touch. Again, the same'ole-same-'ole sexually-experienced-hero-igniting-virgin's-passion routine. Of course, there's also making the hero recognize his love for his heroine. In this particular version of the typical romance routine, we see very cheesy paranormal elements thrown in for good measure as well.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Finding Noel, by Richard Paul Evans [1]

*/***** (1/5)

I've wondered why it is that some people come through difficult times bitter and broken while others emerge stronger and more empathetic? I've read that the same breeze that extinguishes some flames just fans others. I still don't know what kind of flame I am. --Mark Smart Diary

Since I failed to appreciate Richard Paul Evans' religious, melodramatic tearjerker FINDING NOEL, some may claim I'm too numbed by all the pulp in mainstream America these days . Maybe. I would categorize FINDING NOEL closer to a short story or novella than a novel -- it's probably a 2-hour read max if you're studious. Rife with undercurrents of Christianity, emotional angst and hardship, FINDING NOEL takes place during the holidays in Utah and more than once preaches the benevolence of God and the human spirit persevering over tragedy and loss. FINDING NOEL is exactly about that: Macy Wood's journey to find her long-lost sister Noel. The prose conveys a very teary, emotional and didactic tone while the pacing and plotting are quick. I didn't really care for the sententious preaching, I didn't really care for the "deep" philosophy, I didn't find anything special about the "love" story between Mark & Macy, and the epilogue's biblical parting proved less than inspiring. You can tell that Richard Paul Evans' passion deals with enlightening and aiding abused children, and for that, I couldn't help but admire his efforts.

I learned something valuable today. Oftentimes the greatest hurts of our lives come from running from the smaller ones. --Mark Smart's Diary

The Story.

Mark Smart has just lost his beloved mother to death and he found out about it two days after the funeral. Estranged from his father back in Alabama, dumped by his girlfriend, having lost his college scholarship at Salt Lake City in Utah, and now just having learned of his mother's death, Mark hits a new low as he ponders suicide. Macy Wood works the nighttime shift at a cafe where Mark's car breaks down and though strangers they may be, Macy immediately offers a hug and a shoulder to cry on. For Mark, Macy represents someone nothing short of angel. Mark is immediately dumbstruck by Macy's unconditional kindness and compassion.

Twenty-one year-old Macy Wood has more demons in her closet than you can possibly imagine. In various flashbacks, we discover Macy lost her mother to cancer when she was 5, her father drowns in alcohol and drugs after her mother's death, Macy was sexually abused by people in her father's rehabilitation clinics, separated from her younger sister Noel when she was 7-8 (a younger sister whom Macy mothers), adopted by a cruel woman who physically beats Macy on a daily-basis, and finally runs away from her adopted mother when she's 15 only to end up on the street and homeless willing to do anything for bread and cheese. A troubled yet loving woman Joette finally takes Macy in, and Macy survives her childhood hardships, stronger and more empathetic than ever.

With Mark by her side, Macy begins the search for her sister Noel, tracing through the threads of bureaucracy, luck and finally resistance. FINDING NOEL makes some strong statements about the impotence of government and the nonsense of bureaucracy in the process. Again, faith and God seem to bring salvation.

Along with Macy's search, Mark has family issues of his own to work out with his estranged father.

An out-and-out tearjerker from beginning to end and imparting strong religious sermons, I didn't really enjoy this one. Yeah, I admit it, I'm probably too "pulpified" by American media.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Enemy of God, by Bernard Cornwell [3]

***/***** (3/5)


It's amazing that I dislike or hate all the prominent characters in this Arthurian tale -- Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin -- and yet, I'm drawn to the book nonetheless! Cornwell imbues all the Arthurian characters with a tragic human quality: Arthur, noble and simple to a fault; Guinevere, beautiful and clever yet ever ambitiously plotting; Lancelot, our vain and weak pretty-boy but equally as ambitious as Guinvere; and finally Merlin, seemingly ruthless in his own goals. It's testament to Bernard Cornwell's skill in writing human characters, a captivating story full of love and war and intrigue and vivid settings. Incredible, that I dislike all the main Arthurian characters yet found the story very redeeming with fun moments always tinged with sadness. I didn't cry reading the first book; the death of Derfel's youngest daughter Dian however made me cry.

It's hard not to like our narrator Derfel. But from his eyes, everyone just looks bad, even his Lord Arthur. Poor Arthur, so simple, so faithful, and yet so tragically cuckolded. But alas, this is his own doing. It was heartwarming to see Derfel and Ceinwyn share a faithful love without marriage (so unlike Arthur & Guinevere).

[Merlin] smiled at me. 'I remember you as an earnest little boy, [Derfel], all questions and frowns, then tonight you came like a warrior of the Gods, a terrifying thing of iron and steel and plume and shield.'...Ceinwyn, one arm around Morwenna, wept while I just stared at the fretting grey sea and dreamed of revenge.

Again in ENEMY OF GOD, Cornwell impresses with the scenes and settings of 5th-century Briton, a dark time replete with war, chaos and religious turmoil. It's important to understand the state of Briton during this time when the Romans have left Briton with dilapidated Roman villas, roads and technology, and all of the knowledge of that technology lost with their departure. We have the barbarous Saxons invading from the east and taken over all of Eastern Briton. We have scattered kingdoms of Irish rulers raiding from the west. We have the kingdoms of Briton themselves in what is now Welsh territory. We have mercenaries from Christianity fomenting a movement to either convert or eradicate pagans and their pagan practices. We have Merlin, the principle symbol of pagan power, we have the Bishop Sansam an avariciously grasping Christian, and we have Arthur, a man who respects the Christian God and the Old Gods, but considers men as ants from the God/Gods perspective. Tragically, Arthur loves Guinevere, and values that love above anything else in his life. The Enemy of God is Arthur, and in Cornwell's afterword, Cornwell makes a strong case how 5th-century Christians in Briton really hated Arthur.

Recall from THE WINTER KING (Book 1 of the Warlord Chronicles, a tale of Arthur), that Arthur salvages victory from the claws of defeat with the help of Merlin and the Irish King Oengus Mac Airem. From the victory at Lugg Vale in THE WINTER KING, Arthur finally manages to unite the British kingdoms against the Saxons only to have things go terribly awry after he acclaims Mordred as King of Dumnonia. In ENEMY OF GOD, the words of the mistress who loved Arthur dearly before Guinevere comes along ring true (and I paraphrase): at his darkest hour, during the worst time when it seems all is lost, Arthur will snatch victory, but then he'll be stupid and forgive his enemies consequently providing them another chance to destroy him. As an afterthought, his mistress adds- unless Guinevere teaches him something of cold retribution. Alas, ENEMY OF GOD finally has Guinevere teach him not to forgive his enemies, with her own betrayal. This is a wrenching and cold pill to swallow for Arthur since Arthur loved Guinevere with his all his heart and soul.

Finally, a cold, tortured rock replaces the Arthur that once was by the end of this book, and the transformation is riveting, heart-shattering.

By the end of the last novel THE WINTER KING, we're privy to the budding love Derfel harbors for his star, the Princess Ceinwyn. ENEMY OF GOD begins with the plotting having to do with Ceinwyn's fate as again she's pawned off in a betrothal after the defeat of her father at the Battle of Lugg Vale in THE WINTER KING. Princess Ceinwyn has dutifully betrothed 3 times and seen all 3 of them broken by others, and now Arthur wishes to see Ceinwyn married to Lancelot in a political alliance to rule the Silurian kingdom. At Ceinwyn's fourth betrothal feast, we're treated to some fun romance, and Ceinwyn grabs her fate with her own hands.

Although I was thoroughly riveted by the first part (The Dark Road) dealing with Derfel & Ceinwyn's love and the quest for the Cauldron, and I was moved by the final, fourth part (The Mysteries of Isis) having to do with Guinevere and Lancelot's betrayal, I found the middle two parts extremely protracted and dragging (The Broken War, and Camelot, respectively). Granted these middle parts were a time of peace in a sense, but I didn't feel any motivation to read during these portions. Also, we see magic playing more and more of a prominent role in this novel whereas before it's mostly superstition and trickery. Still nothing outright magical, but we find many prophecies, visions and "magical" items. Can't say I really enjoyed this larger role for magic.

'Arthur thinks you should marry Gwenhwyvach.' [Merlin] said the name carelessly.

'Gwenhwyvach!' I said too loudly. She was Guinevere's younger sister and was a heavy, dull pale-skinned girl whom Guinevere could not abide [Guinevere couldn't abide anything that wasn't pretty and beautiful].

'And why ever not?' Merlin asked in pretended outrage. 'A good match, Derfel. What are you after all, but the son of a Saxon slave? And Gwenhwyvach is a genuine Princess. No money, of course, and uglier than the wild sow of Llyffan, but think how grateful she'll be!' He leered at me. 'And consider Gwenhwyvach's hips, Derfel! No danger there of a baby getting stuck. She'll spit the little horrors out like greased pips!'

Although ENEMY OF GOOD begins with some very fun, romantic plot elements, this is a very dark book overall, and ends on a very brutal note, both for our narrator Derfel and for Arthur. Our narrator manages to finally win Ceinwyn's affections and her love, while Arthur obstinately accepts Mordred as King despite how unfit Mordred is to rule and blindly loves Guinevere and trusts Lancelot.

Poor Derfel. In the beginning, we once again pity Derfel's dire present situation as a Christian monk biding his time for death to finally take him. Once again, we're gloomily reminded of all the friends and loves long since dead. Ceinwyn tells Derfel what a priestess predicts of her fate in marriage after sleeping on a bed of coals. Ceinwyn reveals that the next man who will want to marry her will marry the dead instead. The full impact of this isn't realized until the end of this novel in the fourth part, The Mysteries of Isis.

As we revert to the bulk of the story in a flashback, Derfel garnered some repute as a capable warrior from the final civil conflict amongst the Britains in THE WINTER KING at the Battle of Lugg Vale. Arthur wants Derfel on hand to battle the Saxons and marry Guinevere's sister Gwenhwyvach while Merlin wants Derfel to help him obtain the final of the thirteen magical Treasures of Britain, the Cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn. Merlin however knows of Derfel's love for Ceinwyn and uses that to get what he wants. I didn't like the magic and the dreamy stupor in the beginning of this novel in a series going only so far as superstition and trickery until now. Now we have a bone, that if broken, will break Lancelot's spell on Ceinwyn and make Ceinwyn come to Derfel. When Derfel finally snaps that bone, it's debatable whether magic played a part or not, but Ceinwyn does, in the last moment, come to him.

Of course, no one will do Derfel any favors out of generosity or love. In return for breaking the impending betrothal between Lancelot and Ceinwyn, Merlin demands Derfel's aid in the quest for the Cauldron. Arthur "rewards" Derfel's service by offering him Guinevere's sister. Please, Arthur, don't do him any favors!

Arthur's incessant, didactic drivel about justice, oaths and kings really got old. In all of his conversations with Derfel, Arthur always speaks in patronizing, instructive tones and Derfel always lets him get away with it. All of Arthur's moral drivel comes to head after he makes Tristan and Iseult stand trial. For the sake of order, justice and oaths, Arthur turns over the lovers Tristan and Iseult to the Kernow King who kills them both.

Merlin said with a sudden and surprising harshness, 'You desire order, Arthur, and you think that Lancelot will listen to your reason and that Cerdic will submit to your sword, but your reasonable order will no more work in the future than it worked in the past. Do you think really think men and women thanked you for bringing them peace? They just became bored with your peace and so brewed their own trouble to fill the boredom. Men don't want peace, Arthur, they want distraction from the tedium, while you desire tedium like a thirsty man seeks mead. Your reason won't defeat the Gods, and the Gods will make sure of that. You think you can crawl away to a homestead and play at being a blacksmith? No.' Merlin gave an evil smile and picked up his long black staff. 'Even at this moment,' Merlin said, 'the Gods are making trouble for you.' He pointed the staff at the hall's front doors. 'Behold your trouble, Arthur ap Uther.'

Nimue's defense of Guinevere's unfaithful actions towards the end seem utterly ridiculous. Nimue argues that Guinevere is very clever, smarter than all men put together, and wanted to see Arthur King while all Arthur wanted was a simple life. A simple life the very thought of which bored and repelled Guinevere. And so, Nimue explains, Guinevere turned to the religious fanaticism of her goddess Isis, copulating with Lancelot and the twins Dinas and Lavaine to make Lancelot King instead. But, Nimue defends, these actions do not make Guinevere a whore. So for power and a chance to rule, it's acceptable to Nimue for Guinevere to use her beautiful charms to sleep around and effect an outcome she desires. Poor, poor Arthur. You really feel his misery towards the end, and it's heart-wrenchingly sad.

Alas, the book concludes on a very bitter note, but not one that makes you want to stop reading. Although what Guinevere wanted finally comes to pass - Arthur as Lord of Kings and Emperor - she herself never gets to be Queen alongside him. Guinevere really underestimates Arthur's prowess and resiliency as Warlord when she betrays Arthur, and for the very last time, Arthur forgives. Arthur forgives Guinevere to life, a condemnation far worse than any death. I still thought he should have killed her. What she did to him was cruel beyond words given his devotion.

EXCALIBUR, the final installment in Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles: a tale of Arthur, is next.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Chase, by Lynsay Sands [0]

/***** (0/5)

9/10 on the chick-lit meter

Lord almighty, what a nightmare of a book. Prose, plotting, characters, settings, pacing-- everything is just garbage. Welcome to Lynsay Sands' tribute to the common handsome, chiseled libertine pimp inciting the sexual arousal of our typically very ordinary-looking, tall, skinny virgin amazon. Lord, I hate pretty-boy heroes. And THE CHASE's Blake represents just such a hero: pretty and "intrigued" by the very first woman who refuses him. You would think that at least one woman would have denied him in the past, but no. Our heroine Seonaid alone piques his curiosity and earns his pursuit simply by being the first to refuse him. The book drones on and on about how the heroine is more manly than any of the other women Blake has had, and how Blake lusts after her manly hardness and musky male scents. God. Kill me now.

I admit what follows is probably more rant than review. But here it is nonetheless. I'm almost wistful when I think about my first Lynsay Sands novel, THE RELUCTANT REFORMER. How did her writing plummet with time so badly?

More than 250 pages into the novel, we have our first coupling after a wedding. I just have this nasty image in my mind of a god-like Adonis coupling with a lean, flat and tall man-looking woman. This is chick-lit at its worse. You have an extremely long-winded account of a virgin's awakening passion as her husband pleasures her, and then insecurities later on over her tall, gangly looks while Blake serenades her about how she's perfect just the way she is: manly, insulting, scathing, kicking and punching.

Scottish woman Seonaid and Englishman Blake have been betrothed since they were little children. When the 24 year-old heroine Seonaid antagonizes Blake that he didn't fetch her 10 years ago so he should be happy she doesn't want to go now, again I had to laugh. Well then, if he came earlier, he wouldn't have gained all the sexual experience to ably satisfy your needs now would he? That is the entire point, isn't it, to have him nice and sexually experienced so he's ready to pleasure you satisfactorily? Later, after they consummate the marriage, Seonaid is grateful for all the experience he's had with so many other women! And how flattering to have a pretty boy so many women want, lusting after your tall, skinny, gangly body, right? True to chick-lit, there's nothing to notice in our heroine's tall, skinny body (except for eyes, hair and a charming smile), while of course Seonaid gawks at the perfectly chiseled frame Blake showcases for her at every turn. Our Adonis hero doesn't care about pretty women anymore as he settles down with tall, skinny and rather ordinary-looking Seonaid.

If you enjoy arrogant, chiseled pimps outsmarted and unmanned by the heroine at every turn, this is the book for you. If you enjoy muscular, brainless libertines offering little more to the story than to bathe and flex his muscles in front of the truculent virgin heroine and bear her spitting expletives, this book is for you. If you enjoy a sexually-accomplished pimp constantly thinking about the heroine and how different she is from the other women he's had (I hope the hero doesn't hurt himself thinking), while the manly heroine claws and scratches at him, this book is for you. If you enjoy the heroine taken aback by the hero's chiseled nudity and overwhelming handsomeness (no brains required), this book is for you. Where have I heard of all this before, let's just repackage and refurbish these trite romance formulas for any time period: medieval, regency, Victarian, and contemporary.

I enjoy romantic tension between the hero and heroine, I really do. Unfortunately, what passes for "romantic tension" in a lot of romance novels involves having the ordinary-looking, feisty virgin heroine curse, kick, claw and punch the arrogant, sexually-experienced, handsome hero. If the tension involved more of see-saw back-and-forth I'd enjoy it more. As it is, THE CHASE consists of a one-way street where the heroine consistently outsmarts, unmans and abuses the hero, while the hero responds in true chick-lit fashion by bathing nude in front of the heroine and fondling her nipples to stir the beginnings of her virgin passions (because this heroine lacks even the most remote signs of a breast).

For over 200-250 pages in this 371-page paperback, our pretty-boy hero broods over the heroine's apparent lack of interest in him when he's normally used to having all women fawn all over him. For most of the book, Sands uses the pretty boy's thoughts and introspection to remind us (over and over, again and again) how the heroine is the first woman who ever refuses him, and how many women in the past throw themselves at him. For most of the book, he's inexplicably aroused by her tall, skinny, and gangly appearance.

In fact, when it's his turn to chance on the naked Seonaid, he's fascinated by her "lithe body" and her "hardness," noting how there's nothing soft about her and how to touch her would be like touching one of his soldiers! Uhm, okay? And he's turned on by touching the lean, hardness of one of his soldiers? Close to 180 pages into the novel, Blake and Seonaid share their first kiss, and I was cringing as it noted the hero's soft lips against Seonaid's hardness. For most of the book, our gangly, homely, scathing heroine represents a challenge for our hero.

None of this is funny. None of it particularly attractive. I didn't find anything cute or funny about the heroine deliberately poisoning her hero Blake and a bunch of other men. Later, Sands try to redeem Seonaid by having her feel guilty about the poisoning. C'mon, she was joking over having them die and how it would relieve their misery. Guilty my ass. I didn't find anything cute about the virgin heroine gawking at the hero's Adonis appearance; but of course, that's really all the hero Blake is good for: pimping.

Like so many other romance novels, the sexually-experienced pretty-boy is good for little else other than... well, looking pretty and pimping around. He's consistently outsmarted and unmanned by everyone. He doesn't figure out why "Sister Helen" travels with Seonaid and her cousin, he waits for Seonaid's father to figure it out. He dithers over enjoying the heroine's "wit" at his expense, unable to explain why he enjoys the verbal dressing-down. I had to laugh when he thinks he really enjoys her "wit." I don't see much "wit" needed to maintain a steady barrage of insults, kicks and punches. Does it really take "wit" to hurl insults 24/7? And everyone gives Blake a dressing-down: Seonaid, Seonaid's father, Seonaid's cousin Aeldra, Seonaid's sister-in-law's mother, everyone! Blake really can't do anything on his own and he needs to 20+ men (including a 6-foot-10 brute) to guard 3 women. And he still can't hold or protect the women. Earlier, he was headed the wrong way from the convent and had to have others tell him that the women were headed in another direction.

The book calls him a "warrior" at one point, and again, I couldn't help but laugh at that, there's no evidence of his "warrior skills." Blake is grievously injured trying to fend of some enemies at the end, while Seonaid jumps to protect him. Pretty boy, chiseled, broad-shouldered and huge manhood? Definitely. Warrior skills? Brains? Please, don't make me laugh.

It seems most of Lynsay Sands' more recent writing abandons settings and woven plots, instead opting for a more conversationalist diction to drive the pacing of the novel. The prose, again, is much worse than her older novel, THE RELUCTANT REFORMER. Except THE CHASE focuses entirely on appearances, libertines, and virgins, a combination I just couldn't abide.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Brat, by Lynsay Sands [2]

**/***** (2/5)

Actually I found Lynsay Sands' THE BRAT (2007) very entertaining with the right touches of sweetness, humor and a heroine's courage to keep her man safe, almost reminding me of one of Julie Garwood's sweet romances. Compared to the other Sands novel I've read THE RELUCTANT REFORMER (***), I thought THE BRAT was a quicker read consisting mostly of conversations and anecdotal, soap-opera-ish plotting. Although I was charmed by THE BRAT, I thought it lacked the settings, prose and magic of THE RELUCTANT REFORMER. Most of the time, it seemed like THE BRAT took place in empty space, and its tendency to resort to conversational diction reminded me of Julia Quinn's horrible THE DUKE AND I (*). Still, I'd read THE BRAT any day of the week, I enjoyed its offbeat, shy-yet-strong hero who fumbles around when he speaks to his heroine, and I definitely enjoyed our heroine Murie's resilience to keep her man safe. Murie & Balan enjoyed a very sweet and passionate camaraderie which seemed to resonate and easily overcome misunderstandings which mire most plots in romance novels.

The Story.

THE BRAT showcases our heroine Lady Murie Somerdale's funny superstitions which, albeit annoying, always seem to ring true. I thought the book is a misnomer, and should be titled SUPERSTITIOUS or something like that. In the second chapter, we discover Lady Murie's reputation as the brat unwarranted, and she plays on the reputation so as to avoid conflict at King Edward III's court and encourage other schemers at court to leave her alone. The King dotes on his goddaughter Murie after Murie's parents pass away, and now he's given her the choice to pick her own husband when she's well past the marriageable age for the time period. Her dubious reputation aside, Murie comes with a rich dowry from her late parents and significant connections, especially the King.

The Black Plague has hit Lord Balan Gaynor and Gaynor Castle hard. Balan finds himself destitute and in desperate need of a wealthy maiden to help his people at Gaynor. He's served the King faithfully and ably in campaigns in France and now attends the King's court with his cousin seeking a wealthy potential wife to save his people. After witnessing Murie's seemingly juvenile display of crying in front of the King, Balan shudders to even consider Murie as a possible candidate for his wife.

After learning Murie isn't really a brat and it's a show she puts on so people would leave her alone, Balan also overhears of a devious conspiracy to use Murie's superstitious nature against her. The treacherous yet wealthy and handsome Lord Malculinus Aldous wishes to gain Murie's connection with the King, and plots to use her superstitious predilections so she'll pick Malculinus as her husband.

Malculinus' sister explains that on St. Agnes Eve, if a woman fasts all day or eats rotten meat right before going to bed, she'll dream of the man she's to marry. Malculinus' sister Lauda schemes to drug the rotten meat and have Malculinus slip into Murie's room so she'll see him in a drug-induced fitful sleep. Balan diverts Malculinus and Balan kisses Murie in her drug-induced sleep instead. Murie briefly opens her eyes to see Balan, a man she's never seen before.

After sidestepping many of Malculinus's schemes, Balan and Murie marry relatively early. They share some heated scenes of passion, and they grow to love each other dearly. Their interaction was very sweet we also have the trademark Sands scene having the hero and heroine caught after their passions get the better of them in compromising place (happened towards the end in this case).

Following their marriage, the primary storyline deals with attempts on Balan's life. I thought Murie & Balan's good friends the happy couple Emilie and Reginald tarried in the first half of the book too long. I also thought no one really actively investigated the attempts on Balan's life as Murie uses superstitious signs to predict the future and try to save her husband. Murie definitely shows her mettle as she rescues her husband Balan from certain death conspiracies time and time again. The book is often amusing, passionate and sweet rolled up into one relatively entertaining package.

If I didn't know for a fact Sands can do better with the prose, settings and storyline (I've seen it), I would have given the book 3 or 4 stars. As it is, the book fails to really come alive, and the plotting dealing with the attempts on Balan's life too fragmented, its resolution very weak.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Bloodsucking Fiends, by Christopher Moore [4]

****/***** (4/5)

Tommy went to the news racks by the registers and gathered up an armload of women's magazines... There was a pattern here. Cellulite, PMS, and men who don't commit were the enemies. Delightfully light desserts, marriage, and multiple orgasms were the allies.

Tommy felt like a spy, as if he should be microfilming the pages under a gooseneck lamp in some back room of a Bavarian castle stronghold, and any minute some woman in SS gear would burst in on him and tell him that she had ways of making him talk. Actually that last part wouldn't be too bad.

Women seemed to have some collective plan, and most of it seemed to involve getting men to do stuff they didn't want to do. [He] flipped [to an article] entitled: "Men's Love for Sports Analogies: How to Use Vince Lombardi to Make Him Put the Seat Down." ("When one player falls in, the whole team gets a wet butt.") He read on: "When it's fourth and ten and Joe Montana decides to go for it, would his linemen tell him that they won't go to the store to get him tampons? I don't think so."

My first Christopher Moore novel BLOODSUCKING FIENDS: A LOVE STORY delights, enthralls, and heartily amuses in tearful fits of laughter, all in the context of a vampire love story spun into a hysterical parody. BLOODSUCKING FIENDS sucks you right in, and even during the slower mid-to-late portions of the novel, I couldn't put the book down. I absolutely loved the contemporary western prose replete with references to American movies, writers and products, I was enchanted by all of the characters, I enjoyed the San Francisco backdrop, and I was charmed by the love story itself. Nothing special in the plot, Christopher Moore writes to his strengths: absolutely relentless humor and a satirical parody of sorts. This book had me laughing out loud at various places as Moore relentlessly packs every paragraph with his offbeat, quirky humor. The book contains adult language and at times some violence (thought nothing too bad).

Did I enjoy it? You bet, and I'll be reading more Christopher Moore down the line for sure. Reading Christopher Moore for the first time was like being a kid in a candy store.

The Story.

BLOODSUCKING FIENDS features 26 year-old, "cute-but-not-beautiful," green-eyed, red-haired, Transamerica employee Jody Stroud breaking free from her shell of insecurities and fears. Jody can't seem to live without a man in her life and attracts the worst kind of handsome, hunky assholes who exploit her sweet, passive nature. She's lived with so many guys over the years, she's lost count.

As the story begins, Jody is meekly walking home to her latest, hunky asshole of a boyfriend, Kurt. After she's suddenly attacked in a dark San Francisco alley, she wakes up the night after with heightened senses, a bunch of money and a wry retaliatory disposition, the vampire predator in her finally fighting back. Jody rebels, she rebels against people walking all over her, she rebels against her asshole of a boyfriend and knocks him out to suck some blood, and her survival instincts kick in as she seeks dark shelter from sunup to sundown. We're treated to the fun superhuman intricacies that go along with learning to cope with your new Vampire-self. Jody kicks some serious ass and the book rises above the hangover a lot romance novels have over insecurities in appearance. But then again, this isn't exactly a romance novel as much as it is Christopher Moore's hilarious parody on vampire love.

[Jody] thought, There must be a hundred thousand dollars here. A man attacked me, choked me, bit my neck, burned my hand, then stuffed my shirt full of money and put a dumpster on me and now I can see heat and hear fog. I've won Satan's lottery.

Meanwhile, C. Thomas Flood's family and friends ostracized him from his home in Indiana for trying to make it as a writer and being a bit on the sensitive side. Tommy doesn't exactly fit in with stereotypical hickville consisting of bowling, beer and rampant sex. After his car burns down from the drive to San Francisco, Tommy now needs a place to stay and a job to support his potential writing career. A comical, older homeless man known as "The Emperor of San Francisco" suggests a Safeway store for Tommy's job. By the way, the Emperor and his dogs, Bummer and Lazarus that he affectionately refers to as his "troops," are in some ways the heart of the novel. The Emperor rocks!

At the Safeway store, Tommy leads the graveyard shift stocking the shelves with the "Animals," juvenile delinquents between the ages of 16 and 27. The book describes some of the Animals' hilarious escapades during the graveyard shifts including using a turkey to bowl on a lubed, slick surface, surfing on a high-tech janitorial machine and drinking beer. The Animals always manage to get their stocking done though! All the Animals are introduced, from muscular, macho Simon to explosive expert Drew; all of them are fun and interesting and leave their mark on the story in their unique way.

Tommy meets Jody one late night as Jody searches for someone to do her daytime errands after she leaves her latest boyfriend (errands such as retrieving her impounded car, picking up her last check from Transamerica, etc.). Tommy calls her beautiful and Jody aggressively asks him out on a date. Jody would never have done that her last life, she thinks. Jody does and says things otherwise beyond the meek girl she once was, and Jody is absolutely loving her new, confident Vampire self. Things between Tommy and Jody progress intimately after a rather humorous first date and they quickly move in together. Jody trusts a younger Tommy who wears his emotions on his sleeve, and reveals everything to Tommy (about how she was turned into a vampire). Tommy agrees to help with Jody's errands during the day. Despite growing closer intimately, both still feel lonely since they're not like each other (one's a vampire, the other a human), and a younger Tommy constantly laments, "You're going to break my heart, aren't you." Jody answers, "Irreparably."

Jody and Tommy experiment over the fact vs. fiction of vampire culture. The exchanges are funny and I thought Moore handled the interchanges between a younger Tommy and an older Jody well. Since he's younger, Tommy does get a bit whiny at times, but he never manages to lose his sense of humor. It's a tumultuous relationship but a funny one nonetheless and Moore gets guys right: horny, sex-crazed beings of lust that can show tremendous love. Thankfully, Moore avoids the endless lovesick introspection romance novelists force upon their heroes' thoughts for their heroines and yet BLOODSUCKING FIENDS: A LOVE STORY still captures our hero Tommy's emotional affection for Jody.

"Let's try something." [Tommy] held his hand by her face. "Lick my finger."

[Jody] pushed his hand away. "Tommy, just finish eating and we can go home and do this."

"No, it's an experiment. My cuticles get split from cutting boxes at the store. I want to see if you can heal them." He touched her lower lip. "Go ahead, lick." [Jody] snaked out a tentative tongue and licked the tip of his finger, then took his finger in her mouth and ran her tongue around it. "Wow," Tommy said...his cuticle, which had been split and torn, had healed.

"Do another." He thrust another finger in her mouth." She spit it out. "Stop that...."

"Let's go home," Tommy said. "I've got a blister on my big tow."

"No fucking way, writer-boy."

"It's low in calories," Tommy coaxed, prodding her foot with his sneaker. "Good, and good for you."

"Not a chance."

Intermingled with this romance, Moore weaves the growing concern over the mysterious deaths of terminally ill people. Our homicide detectives investigating the deaths, the gay-but-rough Cavuto and the serene Cuban/Mexican/Colombian Rivera, make for an intriguing pair in their own right. The older vampire who initially turned Jody seems to be at large, and Jody and Tommy suspect the older vampire. It's funny, some of the interchanges between a feisty Jody and the laughing, older Vampire reminded me of the myriad of hero-and-heroine interactions from romance novels. The hundreds year-old vampire is darker and more mysterious than Tommy and that darker, mysterious quality fits the romance-hero mold much more so than our humble, skinny writer-boy Tommy.

In many ways, Jody and Tommy represent Moore's iconoclast figures in love stories.

Tommy interrupted, "Actually, there's only one body in the freezer. The other is my girlfriend."

"You sick fuck." Cavuto drew back as if to hit Tommy.

BLOODSUCKING FIENDS: A LOVE STORY had me in a constant state of laughing, chuckling, smiling and anticipating fervor. Good book, the love story itself may not work for some, but I enjoyed that aspect as well. And guess what. There's a sequel to this...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Love Slave, by Bertrice Small [1]

*/***** (1/5)

"There was life, and there was death. Living was the harder, stronger choice, and she wanted to live even if she could not have Karim."

Granted, THE LOVE SLAVE ends on a happy note, but the journey to arrive at that happily-ever-after proved nothing short of torturous. In THE LOVE SLAVE (1995), author Bertrice Small chronicles the sexual triumphs of beautiful Zaynab (Scottish-born Regan MacDuff) in 10th-century Moorish Spain and northwest Africa. Initially, what piqued my curiosity for this novel was a strong heroine not melting at every kiss and not cooing at every touch. Definitely, Zaynab is a strong heroine. I was also interested in the different locale for this historical with middle-eastern lavish settings, lavish settings admirably staged. I also found the grand scope of the novel intriguing in this 449-page superior paperback. Finally, Bertrice Small's erotic love scenes will assuredly engage the interest of any romance fan.

Unfortunately too many things didn't work for me. First, our libidinous heroine Zaynab is 13-14 when she undergoes extensive tutelage in the erotic, eastern arts. I realize this is the 10th century, but a 13 year-old going at it with a 28 year-old? I thought Bertrice Small should have taken some liberties with Zaynab's age. Although the book was at times unputdownable, the pacing of the story crumbles in a lot of places too. The pacing and story especially dulls and chokes in places detailing Zaynab's love scenes with men other than the hero. I understand the hero Karim is honorable, but he seemed too amenable to relinquish the heroine he loves. Twice, he lets her go *without putting up a fight*, once in the beginning and later towards the end. Though a couple of rape scenes in the beginning of the book could have been worse, I found the scenes of brutality and fornication at the villain Ali Hassan's camp towards the end and the retribution following it, overly gratuitous. Certainly, THE LOVE SLAVE doesn't hold back on its ruthless savagery. Finally, THE LOVE SLAVE contrivedly effected too many deaths at the end to manufacture its happily-ever-after and to make Karim a Prince. And it's true, the "hero" Karim sparingly appears in this novel.

You'll definitely have liberal sensibilities to enjoy THE LOVE SLAVE, as the "romance" didn't seem like a romance and the "hero" didn't seem like a hero. I keep saying I'd like markedly different romance stories, but maybe I'm a hypocrite, I don't know.

I constantly wondered whether the elixir concubines and mistresses quaff daily to prevent childbirth in THE LOVE SLAVE was really as effective as this book implies. I mean our heroine Zaynab is very active with 3 different men and she's enceinte just once over these years (and that was the time when she wasn't taking the elixir)! The elixir seemed one-hundred percent, efficaciously fault-proof, what's in it and how is it different from birth control pills?

Zaynab's rapacious carnal appetite no matter the man drained the novel's "romance" too quickly. I understand she's making the best of her circumstances and being strong, but c'mon the book even described her arousal by a brutal rapist and murderer at the very end. Before, Zaynab desires to lie with an esteemed physician just to sate her lust. Undoubtedly, this is the only "romance" novel I've read where one of the last love scenes isn't between the hero and heroine but in fact a threesome involving the heroine and 2 other people not including the hero! Empty...

On the plus side, the first part of the book did manage to hook and reel me in. In the first part, the Passion Master Karim training the apt Love Slave Zaynab was equal parts sizzling and fun. For example, the scene where Zaynab suspiciously dumps cold water on an aroused Karim after bathing him was fun. And I had to find out what happens after that first part, even as the book painfully gorged on graphic accounts of Zaynab's sexual conquests with prominent men other than the hero. The final nail in the coffin comes at the end, a copulation with the villain Ali Hassan.

Yep, the ugh/*wince*/ok-next-page/aaah-let's-end-this moments appeared in droves after the first part. I don't know, maybe men and women may find this book interesting strictly in the carnal sense. But there's other erotic books out there without the cringing revulsion THE LOVE SLAVE evinces.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

Twin Regan MacDuff was supposed to be a boy. Her bitter mother Sorcha weaves an intricate conspiracy of vengeance on the Fergusons and the Ferguson laird who killed Sorcha's husband and Regan's father. Born second behind her twin sister Gruoch, Regan never knows anyone's love as her mother preserves all of her affections for her twin Gruoch. Ever since they were young, the sisters know that Gruoch will marry the Ferguson heir while Regan will head to the convent after Gruoch is bedded (Regan hanging around as back-up). The twins grow into beauties and on Gruoch's wedding night, Sorcha cruelly plays on Regan's affection for her twin sister to make Regan switch places with Gruoch on Gruoch's wedding night. Sorcha's grand vengeance has Gruoch impregnated from another MacDuff prior to the wedding while Regan sacrifices her virginity to the Ferguson heir.

Satisfied of Gruoch's virginity (really Regan at the time) and Gruoch's potential child, the Fergusons then ship off Regan over to a convent run by a corrupt nun dealing in female slaves. Eventually, Regan finds herself in the services of Moorish Captain Karim al Malina, one of the last Passion Masters who trains Love Slaves. Love Slaves are a treasured commodity in Moorish culture as the Passion Masters who train them are few and far in between. Karim gives Regan a new name for the new culture and for the majority of the novel, she's referred to as Zaynab, or most beautiful one. Karim accepts the commission to train Zaynab, and agrees to present a trained Zaynab to the Caliph of the Moors Abd-al Rahma as a new addition to his harem already consisting of hundreds of concubines. If Zaynab manages to win favor and become the caliph's favorite (which she does in no time), it will bring great honor to Karim and the man who entrusts Zaynab to Karim, Donal Righ. After an year of exquisite training, Karim regretfully and honorably turns over Zaynab to the 50+ year caliph Abd-al Rahman despite both Karim and Zaynab admitting their love for each other.

Even though both the caliph Abd-al Rahman and Zaynab find comfort and pleasure in each other, the graphic scenes of their erotic lovemaking are grueling from a reader's standpoint. Especially after Karim. But alas, the caliph wasn't the end of Zaynab's conquests. Afterwards, Zaynab copulates with the hard-working, virgin physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut (a Jewish prince in his own right) and finally the brutal villain Ali Hassan, a murderer and rapist that Zaynab pleasures to death. THE LOVE SLAVE attempts to assuage the intimate scenes with the villain Ali Hassan by noting Ali Hassan's monstrous manhood, in fact the biggest Zaynab has had! The entire sequence with Ali Hassan served as sort of a case study in perverse attraction to a monstrous villain (yet handsome and with a huge manhood). The final conquest with the villain represents some sort of a crown on Zaynab's varied triumphs in her promiscuous resume. It was too much and certainly not enjoyable.

Earlier, Hadsai and Zaynab go at it (often) under the "hero" Karim's very roof where Karim and Zaynab settle down together by the conclusion! Karim is aware! Worse, after Zaynab prepares for her marriage with her "One-True-Love" Karim, she indulges in a threesome with Hasdai to show Hasdai her gratitude for reuniting her with Karim! Yep, I'm too traditional I think, I couldn't take that threesome after Zaynab knows she will finally get to marry Karim.

I particularly didn't care for the plotting which bartered Zaynab's daughter's life from her days as the caliph's favored concubine for her happily-ever-after with Karim. The happily-ever-after also bartered away Karim's entire family. Had Karim's family not perished and had Zaynab's daughter not died, Zaynab would have continue in her role as Love Slave for Hasdai. She would never know her happily-ever-after without these tragedies.

I could only take so much ugh-next-page moments.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Already Dead, by Charlie Huston [3]

***/***** (3/5)

"But I did get sloppy last night, and someone is gunna swing for it. So I'll fry a little to keep them happy and to keep myself alive. Because I don't want to die. Except, oh yeah, I'm already dead."

An interesting blend of gritty suspense, first-person detective thriller, and action in the context of a dark New York City (NYC) riddled with zombies, vampires and their socio-political hierarchies, Charlie Huston mixes a tangy cocktail punch in the form of ALREADY DEAD. There's a love mixed in as well, but true to guy fiction, it's a bit tragic and certainly not the primary focus of this novel. I liked the noir feel of ALREADY DEAD, I liked the fast-paced action, I enjoyed the dark NYC settings, I even liked the politics amongst the vampire (or "Vampyre") clans. The wry, sardonic humor our main character Joe Pitt exudes prompted some laughs. Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt reminded me of Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs, but I liked Kovacs better. Charlie Huston's ALREADY DEAD hums with an impassioned detachment - if I can call it that - that stems from its main character Joe Pitt, and the book contains plenty of violence and explicit language. All of it builds the dark and gritty scene in an unsympathetic New York City nightlife crawling with vampyres, zombies and other creepy entities you don't want to meet in a dark alley.

A cool, fun book overall, I still found the final pieces of the mystery puzzle a bit lacking, a bit anti-climactic. Although I liked the anti-hero persona of Joe Pitt, I thought the book had him in a reactionary role throughout. From beginning to end, Joe Pitt is always reacting to the circumstances others have set in motion, never really dictating any of his own. I suppose that's part of what makes this book a mystery/suspense, but it'd be nice to see Joe setting something up for once. Even at the end when he retains Horde's teeth and ultimately evades the Coalition and Predo, I thought he lucked out rather than eliciting an outcome of his own making.

There's some memorable soliloquies and humorous lines in this novel. That in and of itself made the reading experience very worthwhile.

"Death has truly and finally arrived.


I have failed. Failed as a child; failed as a man; failed as a revolutionary; failed as a lover; failed as a goodguy. My only success in life has been as a pawn. Fuck it, I never asked to be any of those things. And my life was over by rights long ago. I've just been waiting to catch up to it. Then my heart explodes, beating a manic rhythm, and a I realize my life is not over.


The Story, possible SPOILERS.

We pick up the story as rogue vampyre Joe Pitt eliminates some "shamblers" (zombies) which pose a threat to the underground Vampyre hierarchy by drawing undue attention. 6-foot-3 Joe Pitt looks 28, but he was was turned into a Vampyre some 30 years ago, and initiated into the vampyre clan the Society in New York City by his then-friend, Terry Bird. In Terry's clan the Society, Joe serves as the Society's de facto Enforcer, meting out the Society's justice and punishment. He leaves the Society though to live as a rogue vampyre, no longer wanting to play someone else's thug enforcer. Joe is very cynical and often times unapologetic over his brutal actions and prosaic immorality.

Joe settles into a life of a rogue vampyre after he leaves the Society. Sometimes he's hired for jobs by the Society, other times, he's hired for jobs by the biggest vampyre clan, the Coalition. The Coalition hires Joe to eliminate some zombies as the book begins, zombies he cuts down on Society's turf. After eliminating the zombies, Joe realizes he still needs to find and kill the carrier who is at large. Predo from the Coalition threatens agonizing death (sunlight) if Joe doesn't clean up the mess from the zombies Joe killed, a mess in which Joe leaves an innocent witness alive and the zombie corpses in plain sight.

It's Joe's soft spot for trying-to-do-the-right-thing which lands him into some trouble, and Predo from the Coalition exploits these good-guy tendencies, and stages events which ultimately position Joe between a rock and hard place. Predo further confounds Joe's problems as he obliges Joe to help the most wealthy family in NYC (and the closest thing NYC has to an aristocracy) find their missing 14 year-old girl, Amanda Horde. Dale Horde (CEO and founder of Horde Bio Tech) and his wife Marilee are seemingly at odds with each other and with Joe. Meanwhile, Terry and the Society are on Joe's case for all the unwanted events on their turf. The most powerful and also the most surreptitious Vampyre clan the Enclave also seems to have adopted Joe against his wishes.

Between trying to balance the different vampyre clans (Society, the Coalition, the Enclave), finding the zombie carrier, finding the Horde girl, Joe also struggles to maintain a semblance of normalcy with his HIV-positive girlfriend Evie. He loves Evie and Evie loves him but of course she knows nothing of what he really is; that is, his vampyre life.

Welcome to Charlie Huston's ALREADY DEAD, where the shit hits the fan, and Joe Pitt must solve some riddles and cope to survive with everyone breathing down his neck. Except, of course, he's already dead.

"So that's one more thing for me to deal with. I'd like [making up girlfreind] to be at the top of my list, but it's not. Instead my list reads something like this:

1) Find carrier.
2) Find Horde girl.
3) Find out who is spying on me.
4) Call Terry.
5) Deal with Predo.
6) Make up with girlfriend.

Oh, and at the top of that list you can add, GET SOME BLOOD."

The action is good, and I was glad the end refrained from a Matrix finale. However, I was disappointed by the reactionary elements in the storytelling and the various pieces of the mystery puzzle itself seemed empty once we learn everything. Still, there's some good kick-ass writing here, fast pacing, plenty of action and of course, a hard-nosed gritty first-person characterization to sate anyone's appetite.

Friday, August 10, 2007

This Is All I Ask, by Lynn Kurland [1]

*/***** (1/5)

For a PG-rated romance novel, I enjoyed the sweet h/h interaction in Lynn Kurland's THIS IS ALL I ASK but found the rest mostly monotonous, and the message a bit extreme to say the least. Much better than Carroll's PG-rated THE NIGHT DRIFTER, but still not as sweet Julie Garwood's sweet, yet passionate romances. I didn't like the essential premise of this novel. Basically the take-home message of the novel rests on making the hero blind as punishment for choosing outward beauty in his first wife. A bit drastic, don't you think? Even at the end, our wise witch Berengaria harangues, "The loss of your sight forced you to see with the eyes of your soul," as if blindness was the only way he could perceive true inner beauty. Making him blind also seemed to help him deduce the villain's secret plot towards the end before it comes to fruition. Maybe we should just make the entire male population blind. That will teach them from trusting in outward beauty while inducing a bit of cleverness in the process!

Along with belaboring our heroine's less-than-average to average looks, THIS IS ALL I ASK suggests that Christopher would fail to recognize Gillian's true beauty without his blindness. Essentially, the book impresses upon us blindness a suitable penalty for handsome heroes trusting in beautiful women. That's right, Christopher falling in love with his homely heroine depended on stripping Christopher of his eyesight. Christopher's blindness wasn't only extreme, but it was unnecessary. Christopher's honor and his promise to Gillian's brother William already compelled him to marry Gillian. After marrying her, they would inevitably spend time together (as they did regardless), and he would perceive Gillian's inner beauty over time (as he did) despite her less-than-desirable looks. He doesn't have to be blind for it!

Kind of sad actually, he will never truly see his heroine, he will never see his children or watch them grow up...

Simplistically, the book implies that beautiful women are treacherous while handsome men are wholesome. All well and good from a female's point-of-view. Stereotypically (for romance), the hero falls for the heroine's inside beauty (because she lacks it on the outside) while the heroine is free to love the hero's chiseled handsomeness. When Gillian chances on Christopher's near-naked frame wrestling with his squire in the courtyard, Gillian gasps with admiration of Christopher's muscled appearance. Gillian blushes and admires Christopher's handsomeness and powerful frame. Meanwhile, Christopher admires Gillian's innocent charm and tender compassion. Admiring her looks over time isn't an option obviously.

If you're going to make the woman undesirable yet beautiful on the inside, at least let's see some equality here and make the hero physically unattractive but with a compassionate heart! Alas, this is romance after all so we have the kind, handsome hero but the imperfect virgin heroine...

Worse, Christopher moons over Gillian relatively early despite not having seen her nor talked to her in person all that much. When Gillian runs away after Christopher threatens to cast her off (scenarios inspired by jumping to the wrong conclusions from hearsay and rumors), Christopher adamantly searches for two days without rest like a man stricken with love (even in his thoughts). But he can't see her, he barely touches her, and he hasn't spoken to her all that much during her stay so far. So where's all this affection coming from, other than the author's obvious desire to force a handsome knight see the inner beauty in homely women. The witch Berengaria says, "Your knight is learning to see things his eyes never could, girl." Answer: blind him so he has no choice?

The whole book seemed cheap, insinuating that for a handsome guy to fall in love with a sweet yet ugly girl, that guy must lack eyesight. Yet, the handsome knight was already compelled to marry her and consequently spend time with her, a situation that could result in love without the blindness!

The first half of THIS IS ALL I ASK comprises mostly of jumping to the wrong conclusions and misconceptions. Such as when the heroine Gillian overhears rumors of Christopher of Blackmour's demonic ministrations and takes them to heart. Like when Christopher learns of Gillian's attempt to speak to a midwife and drawing all the wrong conclusions as a result. Misconceptions of Gillian believing Christopher will want her if she can make herself pretty (lord knows how a blind man can see beauty), and of Christopher's misconception that Gillian won't want him because he's blind and thus less than a man.

And it wouldn't be a romance novel if it didn't deal with the insecurities of the heroine's appearance. THIS IS ALL I ASK isn't nearly as bad in this department as VANQUISHED (**) or a couple of Medeiros novels I've read, all of which mercilessly drum out insecurities over a heroine's bland looks, but there's many traces of these insecurities in this novel nonetheless. Even after 325 pages, Gillian is thankful that her lord Christopher is blind because otherwise, he wouldn't wed one so ugly such as she. Even though Christopher already loves her beyond petty appearances by this point.

So what did I like about THIS IS ALL I ASK? After the misconceptions were out of the way, I did enjoy the H/H interaction and they really seemed to want to give to each other. Gillian goes out of her way to please Christopher and Christopher genuinely cherishes her, giving all he is to her privately in spite of his gruff public demeanor. Christopher soothes her with loving words, massages her, aids her with her clothes and bath, feeds her. He affectionately cares for her while Gillian reciprocates in every way.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

Bernard of Warewick beats and maltreats his sweet, skinny and plain daughter Gillian. Before Gillian's loving brother dies, he makes his friend, the handsome Christopher of Blackmour, promise to provide his sister Gillian succor from their father Bernard. Despite misgivings of his own from his first marriage, the honorable Christopher obliges and marries Gillian, providing Gillian with his name and protection. Except for her sweetness and virginity, Gillian offers only her paltry dowry and skinny, plain looks. The looks don't mean much to Christopher. Christopher feels he's the one with nothing to offer Gillian as he considers himself less than man without his eyesight.

The first half of the story rings with misconceptions while the second half of the novel portrays the mutual affection Christopher and Gillian bear for each other. As you can tell, there's parts in the second half I really enjoyed, I really liked the tender moments of affection each bestow upon the other. It is also during this time Gillian and Christopher vocalize their I-Love-You's (Gillian is first).

The finale sheds light on a sinister conspiracy Gillian's father Warewick hatches, and again we have this notion of Christopher somehow needing his blindness to recognize Gillian's inner beauty. If we weren't reminded of this dumb notion, I would have enjoyed the novel more. I didn't mind Christopher staying blind, I didn't mind his public humiliation in a duel against Warewick (that was fitting actually), but I do mind the persistent reminders that recognizing inner beauty in a skinny, plain girl depends on a handsome knight's loss of eyesight. That he wouldn't fall in love with her if he wasn't blind. That being blind helped Christopher decipher Warewick's plot to subdue Blackmour (made him clever).

Again, it's sweet, and enjoyable in some parts for the H/H mutual affection, but cheap in the end also. A cheapness asserted by taking away a handsome hero's eyesight to make him perceive of a virgin's inner beauty, a beauty she lacks on the outside. Why a seeing Christopher couldn't love Gillian after his disastrous first marriage and after the time he spends with Gillian, I'll never know.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A Season to be Sinful, by Jo Goodman [2]

**/***** (2/5)

Solid writing, good intrigue, mature characters (for the most part) and a very absurd, nonsensical ending sums up my experience of Jo Goodman's A SEASON TO BE SINFUL. As you can tell, the end ruined the book for me. I could not understand the hero Sherry's actions at the end. He wants to ensure the villain's silence and force him into exile? He feels no anger for the man who physically and emotionally abused the woman he loves? Huh? When the villain Woodridge denigrates Lily right in front of him, Sherry feels no anger? How can Sherry live with himself letting the man who not only terrorized Lily but other young women, just walk away? By letting the villain to live, Sherry only ineptly stretches the ending and allows the villain a chance to return and terrorize some more! For a hero that's believable for the most part, the finale he maneuvers to contrive was pretty dumb. The book contains some entertaining and humorous banter, witty dialogue, and suspenseful plots of intrigue. Unfortunately, I thought the hero and heroine desperately lacked chemistry even though they enjoyed some witty banter.

Interaction between the lead pair was weird, off . . . forget about any equal ground here, appeared as though Lily went out of her way to ensure she was the dominant persona between herself and her hero Sherry. Didn't seem like a romance or an empowering love between the two, seemed more like Lily jostling to come out on top in every way. Poor Sherry, he honors Lily, respects Lily, never goes against any of her wishes or obscenely violent demands, voices the words I-Love-You early, mouths heartfelt words of affection early and often, and yet, Lily grinds him into the dirt. I understand Lily has been through a lot prior to meeting Sherry, but the relationship between Lily and Sherry seemed too much of a one-way street. Even at the end when both are supposed to love and trust each other and after both are married, I thought Sherry's love for Lily dwarfed Lily's love for Sherry (Goodman writes from Sherry's perspective specifically so we're witness to his lovesick thoughts and actions in the epilogue). It almost seems like Lily enjoyed having Sherry debased before her. I liked that Lily is aggressive sensually and didn't melt at Sherry's every touch so typical of romance novels, but it seemed to go beyond just aggression. Lily really doesn't do anything to justify Sherry's debased worship of her, because if she did, it would seem more like love. Sherry has to prove himself to Lily again and again, and when she reveals that she's barren, Sherry doesn't blink twice. We'll always have the orphaned children, Sherry notes, and Lily is thrilled to have Sherry by the balls.

Sherry sacrifices everything for Lily and the orphaned children despite having everything to lose. Lily has everything to gain and nothing to lose with a kind and loving Sherry.

This book belongs to Lily and the three "scoundrels," orphans Lily takes responsibility for. The hero Sherry cheers them on from the sidelines for the entire book. What is the hero Sherry's trivial purpose in the novel? Well, Sherry stages the scene towards the end which allows Lily and the 3 children to play their dangerous roles while Sherry timidly steps aside. It's Lily who pummels and scratches the villain Woodridge. It's Lily who cripples Woodridge when he returns later on. The children play key (but dangerous) roles stripping Granville of his weapons and then having the foresight to recognize Woodridge will return when Sherry lets him go alive.

Sherry is clueless and his actions (or lack thereof) indicate a complete void of sense and intelligence. During a confrontation involving Sherry, Lily and the villain Woodridge, Woodridge insults the woman Sherry loves (Lily) pretty badly. Sherry doesn't seem to notice or care, he doesn't even get angry. It's Lily who pummels and claws at the villain Woodridge. After learning of all of the despicable abuse Lily suffers at Woodridge's hands much earlier in the book, Sherry doesn't resolve to just kill Woodridge outright but instead concocts a harebrained scheme to force Woodridge into exile and silence, a scheme which leads to the initial confrontation among Sherry, Lily and Woodridge. I want to know how exactly Sherry is supposed to enforce the exile, and ensure Woodridge remains at his country estate without any backup from his secretive confederacy? Sherry tells Woodridge that Sherry will know if Woodridge steps outside of Woodridge's country estate, but how will you know Sherry? Will you post guards along the circumference of Woodridge's estate 24/7 for the rest Woodridge's existence? You don't care of the potential for Woodridge to come after Lily and the children? How big is Woodridge's estate anyway, how many guards will be required to watch along the periphery of the estate? Sherry doesn't resolve to kill Woodridge from the start, he doesn't get angry at Woodridge's treatment of Lily, he's actually cheering and happy after the dumb scheme which allows Woodridge to live (after Woodridge signs a confession and supposedly heads off to his exile)!

Any normal hero wouldn't be able to look at Woodridge after what he's done to Lily, much less talk to him at length. The entire time Sherry attempts to wring a confession out of Woodridge I'm thinking, how can you even bear to look at Woodridge considering what you know he's done to the woman you love?!? Sherry has nothing to do when Woodridge returns to Granville later at night and terrorizes Lily once again. Sherry thrusts a stiletto in Woodridge after Lily already maimed and incapacitated Woodridge [laughs]! So basically, Sherry talks to Woodridge at length knowing this is the man that abused the woman you love, shrugs off a disparaging remark aimed at Lily, allows him to live despite the potential for him to return and terrorize, secures his oath and exile, but in the end, endangers the children and Lily anyway. Way to go there, Sherry, really bright of you there!

Needless to say, A SEASON TO BE SINFUL highlights a horribly-contrived ending after some intriguing plot threads, and makes Sherry look pretty inept and dumb just so Lily and the children can shine. I think Sherry should start a 19th-century cheer leading squad.

The Story.

Sixteen year-old Miss Lilith "Lily" Sterling fosters at the L'Abbaye de Sacre Coeur, a convent in France after her parents died more than 10 years ago. The insidious Wycliff Standish, Baron Woodridge, visits the abbey seeking a governess for his children. Woodridge's intents for the potential governess extend beyond normal duties and into the realm of servicing his and friends' carnal pleasures. Lily's good friend and mentor Sister Mary Joseph arranges Lily's escape to London before Woodridge can snatch Lily.

More than five years later, we find twenty-one year-old Lily in London at Covent Garden as a common thief saving the life of Viscount Sheridan ("Sherry"), Alexander Grantham. Dressed as a boy and having her dark auburn hair dyed black, Lily takes a shiv in her side instead. Before Sherry can react, three boys haul Lily off while Sherry escapes unscathed. When Lily's condition deteriorates, the three boys ("scoundrels" as they're affectionately referred to) come to Sherry's home for succor. Sherry spares no expense enlisting a physician's aid to bring Lily back to health. Sherry himself cares for Lily and takes up vigil by her bedside for many nights.

In the process, Sherry comes to care for the three orphaned children ("scoundrels") as they never leave Lily's side either. A SEASON TO BE SINFUL features the scoundrels quite a bit in humorous subplots. In fact, I'd say the scoundrels Pinch, Dash and Midge overshadowed every plot and character in the book except for Lily.

As Sherry and Lily spend more time together, Sherry discovers more about the incident back at Covent Garden when Lily saves him. Sherry also glimpses into Lily's very dark and tortured past, as she reacts violently to many seemingly innocuous things. Despite Lily's attempts to prompt him into throwing her out and taking on the children into his household, Sherry begins to care for Lily and the children quite a bit. With everyone's permission, Sherry whisks everyone away to his far-away seat at Granville and has Lily teach the children as a proper governess. Sherry doesn't do anything without their permission of course even if it for their own good. Lily agrees on the condition that she's allowed to leave whenever she wishes, no questions asked.

While Sherry and Lily rendezvous more and more intimately, Lily also reveals more of her tortured past and what happened to her the 5 years between leaving the abbey in France and saving Sherry in London. I realize Lily's reservations and trust issues, but I still thought it took too long for Lily to trust Sherry as Sherry regales her with his affections and words of love.

The various threads of intrigue all come together and it seemed like every thing and everyone is interconnected, and the attempt on Sherry's life in London was no coincidence. Sherry's clandestine confederacy under the English Crown, Lily's parentage, Lily's wounded soul, Lily's secret history, her running, Woodridge, France, Nopolean, the scoundrels, and Sherry's godmother the Lady Georgia Pendelton, Countess of Rivendale, all come to a head. That was all good. What wasn't good was Sherry's contrived end-game delivering them from the villain Woodridge. As I mentioned before, it showed Sherry's complete lack of sense and intelligence. It also highlighted Sherry's apathy for the harm inflicted upon the woman he loves. A veritable ruse of an ending concocted to have Lily and the children play their dangerous parts, parts Sherry's negligence and provincial mind sanctions.

Ah, good writing, intriguing plots, and for the most part, mature characterizations completely ruined by a dumb ending and the hero's lack of foresight.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell [3]

***/***** (3/5)

The Warlord Chronicles (an Arthurian tale)
1. The Winter King
2. Enemy of God
3. Excalibur

"And then the horn sounded. The horn gave a clear, cold note like none I had ever heard before. There was a purity to that horn, a chill hard purity like nothing else on all earth. It sounded once, it sounded twice...It was as though a new bright sun had risen on that dying day. The light slashed over the pastures, blinding us, confusing us, but then the light slid on and I saw it was merely the reflection of the real sun glancing from a shield polished bright as a mirror. But that shield was held by such a man as I had never seen before; a man magnificent, a man lifted high on a great horse and men, armored men, men sprung from the dreams of the Gods to come to this murderous field, and over the men's plumed heads there floated a banner I would come to love more than any banner on all God's earth. It was the banner of the bear. The horn sounded a third time, and suddenly I knew I would live, and I was weeping for joy and all our spearmen were half crying and half shouting and the earth was shuddering with the hooves of those Godlike men who were riding to our rescue.

For Arthur, at last, had come."

Like the one above, this version of the Arthurian legend really has its fun moments. For example, Arthur's majestic arrival outside Caer Cadarn so reminiscent of Rohan's arrival at Gondor in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Arthur's duel against Dumnonia's brutish champion Owain, and finally Merlin's dramatic entrance into the novel as an ugly hunchback transforms into the wise man erecting to his full height.

THE WINTER KING is the first book in a completed Arthurian trilogy dubbed the Warlord Chronicles (ENEMY OF GOD and EXCALIBUR finishing the tale). Overall, I enjoyed this one, and I'll read the other two at some point down the line.

This book is written in the first-person and I'm impressed by Bernard Cornwell's research. In his Author's note at the very end of THE WINTER KING, Cornwell references all relevant Arthurian sources, recognizes their lack, and comments, "The Winter King is, then, a tale of the Dark Ages in which legend and imagination must compensate for the dearth of historical records. About the only thing of which we can be fairly certain is the broad historical background: a Britain in which Roman towns, Roman roads, Roman villas and some Roman manners are still present, but also a Britain fast being destroyed by invasion and civil strife [and religious upheaval]." THE WINTER KING specifically refers to the child (Mordred), heir of the powerful Britain province of Dumnonia. Mordred's bastard brother Arthur pledges to protect Dumnonia for Mordred after their father the High King of Britain Uther dies.

Our narrator Derfel's provenance stems from humble roots, born a Saxon slave and thrown in a death pit as an offering to the pagan gods when he's just a babe. As the lone survivor of the pit however, the pagan druid Merlin later finds Derfel and brings him over to his sanctuary at the Tor. Saxon-born Derfel grows up Briton at the Tor, along with Nimue, a young girl only a couple older than Derfel. Derfel and Nimue form a bond sealed by a scar and their adventures very much parallel Arthur and Merlin's. The magic in the novel is based more on superstition and trickery than real magic. THE WINTER KING follows Derfel's life journey from a young babe as Merlin's ward to one of Arthur's sworn warriors. There's much war, much death, much political turmoil and most of all, as Derfel shrewdly comments at one point, it's a story which shakes and trembles on the strength two loves; that is, Arthur's selfish love for Guinevere and Derfel's courtly love for Ceinwyn.

"Anger and selfishness, those are the qualities that make the world march." --Merlin from Cornwell's THE WINTER KING

THE WINTER KING contains many tragic themes, melancholy overtones and a very gritty, yet sadly romantic look at Arthur's tale sure to appeal to guys. I would have liked it more if the entire book wasn't a flashback and the writing didn't teem with an overwhelming melancholy. There's a lot of sorrow, a lot of regret, a lot of lugubrious tones. For example, Arthur's mistress Ailleann is a slave who bore him spoiled twin sons. Ailleann probably understands and loves Arthur far more than anyone else, and yet she must in the end yield to Guinevere. You have Derfel's love for Nimue which will never know a lifetime's happiness. The overwhelming sadness of a sweet, innocent girl (Ceinwyn) rejected after a betrothal, and Arthur puts her aside in favor of Guinevere. The sinking feeling of a common soldier and a former slave (Derfel) preserving and treasuring Ceinwyn's token (a brooch) as a symbol of his impossible, courtly love for her, a love which "[turns Derfel's] blood to smoke." Derfel will give up his prized sword, his clothes, everything, but he will not forsake Ceinwyn's common token.

Whenever we revert to the present at the beginning of each part, we're reminded of our narrator's dour condition, of dreams unfulfilled, of friends lost and long dead, and most strident of all, of loves torn apart in the face of an inexorable Time. It is the Dark Ages for Britain, and Cornwell impresses the darkness upon readers with a melancholy brutality. It's hard to get behind any "side" or character in this novel, Cornwell intelligently postures arguments and counter arguments, skillfully accounts for noble, honorable views and convincingly lays out opposing point of views. For example, the Powys druid Iorweth's skepticism why the gods should care when Merlin believes that if we shout loud enough, the gods will intercede to help our goals. I came to sympathize with King Gorfyddyd of Powys's grievances with Arthur after Arthur rejects his betrothal to the Powys princess in favor of Guinevere. Besides our narrator Derfel and in spite of the fact that he's bound to Arthur, I didn't like Arthur's character, his lunacy and stupidity had me rooting for Arthur's death, and obviously Cornwell's twist on Lancelot had me detesting both Lancelot and Guinevere. The pagan druids Merlin and Nimue are in many ways worse, and there's little cause to root for their callous goals of a purely pagan Britain ruled only by the old gods. But then again, THE WINTER KING emphasizes that the benefit of a greater whole sometimes mandates a cold detachment and sacrifice of individuals.

Almost sadly, Ailleann (Arthur's mistress before Guinevere) recognizes what burns inside Arthur: the twin chariots of Ambition and Conscience, noting how his Ambition will tug the Conscience along, but after he wins, his Conscience will catch up, subduing him to a forgiveness when a cold retribution would serve the realm as a whole best. Ailleann perspicaciously observes how Arthur will never know peace because of his forgiving nature. Ah, if only Arthur could be content with Ailleann. But alas, Ailleann is a slave, and Arthur's Ambition will always drive him to bigger and greater things.

In spite of all this melancholy, political turmoil, and religious upheaval, THE WINTER KING manages to grip and captivate. Its clutches are difficult to break once you really get going, though it helps to read a lighter book at the same time if you don't like dark, whining tones. There's enough battles and fighting here to enjoy the novel though, and the book tempers its retrospective melancholy with engaging writing, vivid settings, captivating historical backdrops and best of all, battles galore. Fortunately, unlike Dianora's chapters Kay's TIGANA, THE WINTER KING doesn't dwell on a sorrowful, emotional angst.

The book portrays a challenging, defiant Guinevere inveigling Arthur as the most cataclysmic act in the story. Guinevere snaring Arthur incites a bloody, warring time and decimates Arthur's dream of a united Britain. As we're plainly told by narrator Derfel more than once, the impact of Guinevere ensnaring Arthur into marriage when he was betrothed to another in a political alliance, was severe and the results bloody. Rivers ran red, thousands warred and died, and turmoil reigned. Then again, without Guinevere, we wouldn't have a story.

Derfel's rise as one of Arthur's most capable warriors represents one of the more triumphant plots, and his courtly love for the Powys Princess Ceinwyn was moving. Recall Ceinwyn was the Princess Arthur shunned in favor of Guinevere thereby also destroying any chance of a political alliance and a united Britain.

"And there...was Ceinwyn. I [Derfel] had wanted to see her again...I had not come to Caer Sws to make peace, but to see Ceinwyn's face again, and now...I saw her. The years had not changed her. Her face was as sweet, her manner as demure, her hair as bright and her smile as lovely.

'My Lord Gundleus,' [Ceinwyn] said softly, 'demanded my hand [in marriage] as the price of his army in this coming war.' 'Then his army, Lady,' I said, 'is the most valuable in Britain.'

Although the moments of romance are few and far in between, the courtly love our narrator Derfel feels for Princess Ceinwyn of Powys beats with an unsurpassed, profound affection. The combination of Derfel's down-to-earth, grounded forbearance and Ceinwyn's sweet, smiling character together in one room muted all other happenings when they first talk over 350 pages into the novel. It's sad, it's heartfelt, and it's more like the Lancelot-Guinevere romantic stories than that pairing ever was.

"I looked at [Ceinwyn] and told myself that I was not in love with her and that her brooch was a talisman snatched randomly from chance. I told myself that she was a Princess and I the son of a slave... 'Do you understand that madness [love]?' she asked me. I was aware of nothing in the room except Ceinwyn...I was aware only of Ceinwyn's large sad eyes and of my own beating heart. 'I do understand that you can look into someone's eyes,' I heard myself saying, 'and suddenly know that life will be impossible without them. Know that their voice can make your heart miss a beat and that their company is all your happiness can ever desire and that their absence will leave your soul alone, bereft and lost.' She said nothing for a while, but just looked at me with a slightly puzzled expression. 'Has that ever happened to you, Lord Derfel?' she asked at last. I hesitated. I knew the words my soul wanted to say and I knew the words my station should make me say, but then I told myself that a warrior did not thrive on timidity and I let my soul have government of my tongue. 'It has never happened until this moment, Lady,' I said. It took more bravery to make that declaration than I had ever needed [in battle]."

The book ends on a triumphant note, but it's edged with a foreboding sadness. It's also very exhilarating and entertaining as Derfel magnificently holds the shield-wall.