Review: 'Quag Keep' by Andre Norton

Cover of Quag Keep by Andre NortonThis 1978 novel, the first ever written for a role-playing game, may still be one of the worst four decades later. The esteemed SF/F author Andre Norton was introduced to the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons by co-creator Gary Gygax. After a play session, she wrote a novel from her limited understanding of the rules about characters who don't know their lives and world are a game. That sounds intriguing but the novel isn't. It devotes less than 20 pages at the beginning and end to exploring the premise.

Instead, it's a plodding tale of an adventuring party dragged across the World of Greyhawk by a geas with bracelets holding RPG dice fixed to their wrists. The characters in the group were hard to tell apart, aside from a berserker were-boar and stoic lizard man named Gulth. The punishment he silently endured when forced to travel through a harsh, dry clime, far from swamps, was evocative and memorable. I read this in the '80s and didn't recall any of it. I'll likely forget it again.

Review: 'His Majesty's Dragon' by Naomi Novik

Cover of His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi NovikA charming read from first page to last, His Majesty's Dragon is a fantasy novel in which England is at war with Napoleon's France and both sides have a formidable arsenal of dragons and an aviator corps to pilot them. A Navy captain captures a French vessel and finds out why they fought so hard after all seemed lost -- there was an unhatched dragon egg on board. But this rare prize is about to hatch at sea, where no aviator is around to bind it to service.

In her Hugo-nominated debut novel, Naomi Novik puts an irresistible spin on dragons. They're literate, varied in skill and intellect and opinionated -- with Temeraire the most intriguing of them all. Though the book fits comfortably in fantasy, the protagonist Will Laurence is so particular about his belongings, manner and social mores he'd be right at home in a regency romance novel. This lends the book some of its best comedy. I'm running out of superlatives. There are eight more books in the series and I'm eager to read them all.

Review: 'Eternity Road' by Jack McDevitt

Cover of Eternity Road by Jack McDevittThis post-apocalyptic novel occurs long after the fall of civilization. Humans in an agrarian society along the Mississippi River yearn to learn more about the Roadmakers, so named because of the enormous network of roads left behind. Little else survives other than six books and a lot of garbage impervious to decay. Ten years after a quest to learn more ends in tragedy, the lone survivor's death leads to a discovery in his belongings. This sparks a dangerous new quest by a small band to cross the continent and find a legendary place where civilization endured.

Jack McDevitt's novel is a love letter to the importance of books. The best moments see the protagonists puzzle over ancient objects and places they encounter. The pacing is pokey until it races to a last-third payoff resolving the core mystery in a satisfying way. Seeing humans grapple with ways to invent better engines for river travel reminded me of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld, another work that venerates human ingenuity.

Review: 'Every Crooked Path' by Steven James

Cover of Every Crooked Path by Steven JamesWhen my favorite stop on I-95 in North Carolina ceased selling paperbacks because the distributor folded, they offered to sell me the spinrack and the 24 well-thumbed books left on it. I ended up with some thrillers I otherwise would have missed, like this one. I love the rack but wish I'd missed this book.

Every Crooked Path is a convoluted novel with slapdash pacing, thin characterization and characters who speak in the same voice -- a trait most excruciating when the protagonist attempts to bond across the generation gap with his girlfriend's sullen 15-year-old daughter. FBI agent Patrick Bowers is hunting a dark web child sex trafficking group, a disturbing subject the author tries to soften by being short on harrowing details. That works, but the logic of the case doesn't. One thing that did work was a character suffering a breakdown from a job watching videos of child exploitation for a safety group. That has become an all-too-real problem for social media moderators at Facebook.

Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers

Cover of Behind the Throne by K.B. WagersThis book was highly recommended by six avid readers on File 770 and they were right. Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, a gunrunner who left her family 20 years ago and never looked back, is brought home when the assassinations of her sisters and niece leave her heir to the empire.

The story mixes palace intrigue with well-spun action as Haili struggles to survive long enough to figure out who's behind the attempted coup. The India-inspired, far-future society Wagers has created is richly drawn and contains surprises too good to spoil. A lot of the charm comes from the fact that Haili's accomplished criminal life made her a fish out of water as a potential empress. She's always clashing with her ever-present bodyguards over her desire to carry her own weapons and is sometimes less the protected than the protector.

One minor criticism is that the large cast of characters around Haili made it tough to remember them all when they showed up again. The novel is a fantastic opener to a trilogy.

Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

Elmer Gantry felt as if I'd read it already because the protagonist has been so widely referenced in American culture. Sinclair Lewis mercilessly skewers a narcissistic preacher who exploits Christianity to enrich himself and secretly commits every sin he fulminates against from the pulpit.

The book begins with Gantry as a hard-partying, anti-intellectual football star at a Baptist university, follows him into a career as a pastor he feels no calling to pursue and tracks for a quarter century his ups and downs (but mostly ups). Gantry's mistreatment of women, whom he adores until he gets them, was particularly cutting. Aside from some racial slurs and Gantry's brief flirtation with a 14-year-old girl being insufficiently called out as predatory, the book has aged well.

Lewis is a withering social critic. Elmer Gantry is less a biography than an indictment. It's rare to read a book about a character so disliked by its author. I've never wanted more to see a protagonist pay for his sins.

Gamer Fantastic RPG Fiction Anthology

Cover of Gamer Fantastic RPG fiction anthologyThis anthology doesn't live up to the inventive premise of telling stories where roleplaying games and reality intersect. I was ready to quit after the introductory material and early stories all hammered the same worn-out joke about gamers being slovenly fast-food addicts, but I stuck around to see what Jim C. Hines would do with his story "Mightier Than the Sword." His entertaining tale was about libriomancers who could pull weapons and creatures out of SF/F novels, a premise he later expanded into a book of that name. I liked his references to real writers and novels, including a subtle, self-deprecating joke about himself. Reading Jody Lynn Nye's engaging "Roles We Play" about roleplaying being used as a therapeutic tool in the 19th century has motivated me to seek out her novels. Kristine Kathryn Rusch ended with an intriguing story about a magical RPG store in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The rest was forgettable, including a short perfunctory tribute to E. Gary Gygax after his death.

Star Wars: Rebel Dream by Aaron Allston

Cover of Star Wars: Rebel Dream by Aaron Allston

As a fan of Aaron Allston going back to his earliest RPG designs for Car Wars and Champions in the 1980s, I liked this book but felt like his creativity was constrained by the plot requirements required of the 12th book in a 19-book series (which I haven't read prior to this installment). The novel follows the fall of Coruscant to the Yuuzhan Vong. Starfighter squadrons and Jedi commanded by Wedge Antilles must take and hold the planet Borleias to help Coruscant refugees escape and regroup. Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Mara Jade Skywalker and Jaina Solo participate in dogfights and one covert mission to set up book 13. Most of the novel's appeal was seeing familiar faces engaged in expected derring-do, but the Yuuzhan Vong are as appealingly weird a foe as The Borg in Star Trek. They loathe tech and instead rely on pervasive and sadistic bioengineering. My favorite scenes were told from their perspective. Allston, who died in 2014 at age 53, was one of the best media tie-in writers in SF/F.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This comic novel about a neurodivergent genetics professor looking for a mate won me over quickly. Don Tillman is pushing 40 and has never been on a second date. He approaches the problem by crafting a long test for prospective partners he calls the Wife Project, believing that if enough women take it one will eventually pass. Everything in Don's life is methodical. He meets Rosie, a woman completely unfit according to his test criteria. Mayhem ensues. I laughed out loud many times at clashes that sprang from Don's unique, persnickety, detail-obsessed way of looking at the world. I liked that some of Don's inner dialogue was told in outline form because it makes perfect sense he'd use an outliner for every problem, professional or personal. The novel is told from Don's perspective so Rosie isn't as richly drawn a character, but they're an odd fit that works. This book and the inevitable romcom that comes from it are likely to appeal to anyone in the throes of Sheldon Cooper withdrawal.

Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear

Cover of Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear

In a modern world with no idea it is happening, the faerie realm and human magi prepare for a savage war that will break a stalemate going back to the time of King Arthur. Elizabeth Bear mostly takes the side of the fae through Seeker, a once-human bound to the Elf Queen who must steal humans at her command. Bear uses so many lush metaphors to describe the physical world experienced by magical beings that it was tough to consciously take them all in, but the cumulative effect was mesmerizing. Most of the novel consists of powerful otherworldly creatures readying for war and engaging in diplomacy with allies, enemies and undecideds, which reminded me favorably of Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. This builds to a harrowing and dramatic conclusion. The star of the book is a kelpie (water horse) nicknamed Whiskey. Seeker controls him by knowledge of his true name and they develop a deep relationship despite the fact he's allowed three chances to kill her, which he reminds her of often.

Everything About You by Heather Child

Cover of Everything About You by Heather Child

An engrossing novel that explores where Amazon Echo, Facebook, AI and VR are taking us. I kept waiting for something big to happen in this near-future science fiction thriller, but I learned later it already had and I didn't recognize the significance. A twentysomething grieving for her missing and presumed dead sister begins using technology called a smartface that can mimic the personality of anyone through data mining their entire digital footprint, producing an effect so compelling that people aren't sure whether an idea came from their own brains or the tech. Freya, a London resident who has fallen off the affluent career track because of a phobia to VR, can't get past the loss of her foster sister Ruby, who disappears during a dangerous late-night walk to retrieve her from a party after they argued. Child has clearly spent a lot of time contemplating the pervasive and oppressive places modern tech could be sending us. I only spent a week there as a reader and I'm pretty unnerved.

Welcome, Readers of the Future

I'm working on the next edition of Sams' Teach Yourself Java in 24 Hours. Java 9 has a new HTTP client package, jdk.incubator.http, that makes it a lot easier to GET and POST to web servers and other software that communicates over HTTP.

For a demo, I needed a simple server that could take POST requests and do something with them without requiring a user login. I was about to write one when I realized I already had. This blog takes comments submitted over POST.

When the book comes out, I'll be able to see from these comments that readers have reached Hour 22.

The Adam West Series That Wasn't: Lookwell

Adam West died Friday at age 88. As a child of the '70s, I thought West was a giant of Hollywood. I watched the Batman TV movie and show as often as they came on.

When cable TV arrived and my parents let us watch movie channels with precious little oversight, it was quite a shock to see him in The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood. Holy titillation, Batman!

West was underrated as a comic actor. His deadpan Batman performance was legendary, but he could do a lot more than that. Around 15 years ago a TV series called Brilliant But Cancelled showed the pilot Lookwell, created by Conan O'Brien and Robert Smigel with West in the lead. It aired once but wasn't made into a series.

West was perfect for the role of a washed-up TV action hero who thinks being a celebrity deputy means he can solve crimes.