Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pink Slime Review: The Man Who Came Late


So. The state of Modern Sci-Fi/Fantasy is a wasteland of dreadfully dull Pink Slime. This is known, and a huge part of why sales have slumped dramatically over the last 20-30 years.

And today I read a reminder why.

Multiverse: Exploring Poul Anderson's Worlds is an anthology book published in 2014 in tribute to the late, great Poul Anderson (who passed away in 2001, thirteen years before the anthology). Edited by prolific author Greg Bear and prolific anthology editor Gardner Dozois.

The second story of the anthology is ostensibly a tribute to Three Hearts and Three Lions by veteran Alternate History author (and friend of Anderson's) Harry Turtledove, titled The Man Who Came Late (a title tribute/pun to a completely unrelated Poul Anderson story called The Man Who Came Early).

In it, thirty years have passed since the events of the novel. Alianora has settled down in a modest village with her modest blacksmith husband, and had three modest children (a fourth died in infancy). One day, while she spends several pages getting a bucket from the town well and reminiscing about the lost past, a muscular older man rides into town and recognizes her.

It is Holger Carlsen, and after thirty years of searching across the multiverse, he has finally returned to her. They have an awkward reunion where he meets her family and then they have dinner and discuss things and Holger works through his realization that the woman he spent thirty years' wandering the multiverse to return to has moved on, and then he walks into a dimensional wandering tavern to speak with Morgan Le Fay (one of the primary villains of the novel) and...that's it.

That's literally it.

The introduction to the story describes it as “bittersweet” but there is no sweetness here. There is no magic either. No Middle World. No Elfland. Oh sure, the magical white tunic that allows a maiden to transform into a swan is passed down to Alianora's daughter Alianna, and there is the Old Phoenix tavern that appears and disappears, but there's no real magic.

Alianora's world is reduced to a mundane village. There are no monsters to slay. No elves. No werewolves. No dragons. No dwarves. No nothing.

Everything that made this alternate world unique has been stripped away piece by piece.

Alianora's accent disappearing is hand-waved as she changed it to accommodate her village. Never mind that EVERYONE in this world spoke that way. (I suspect its a way to excuse not putting in effort to write the accent, which if so, why even bother to write the story in the first place?)

Alianora hasn't traveled far from her village since the novel, nevermind that she was a child of the woods with no roots who wandered freely as a friend of the Middle Worlders and beasts.

People are surprised at Holger's Christianity, never mind that Christianity was ubiquitous in the novel where a sword powered by literal Jesus Magic saved the day. But no, we must be secular.

At least Alianora gets a content ending, if not a happy one. Holger gets it far, far worse.

He rides in as a Quixotic figure in blue jeans and flannel. Despite having wandered the multiverse for 30 years. He gave up smoking because SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOU, KIDS DON'T DO IT. Never mind that the pipe he had was a memento of the loyal dwarf Hugi, who GAVE HIS LIFE for Holger's quest. He is cold and prideful, where he was once a compassionate lunkhead, and quick to think about using his sword when Alianora's husband gives him the side-eye. He patronizingly calls Alianora “Babe” several times, despite never once using that word in the novel. Then when he meets her pretty daughter Alianna, he begins to fixate his attention on her in a creepy old man way. 

Then, after an evening of talking, he goes into the wandering Old Phoenix Tavern (from another of Anderson's stories, A Midsummer Tempest where Holger had an appearance) to meet with Morgan Le Fay, one of the primary villains of Three Hearts and a woman Holger had a complete and total break with at the climax of the novel, despite their previous relationship history. The nods to other Anderson works are clever, but that's all they are, and are the only flashes of magic in the story.

Holger and Alianora's whole encounter is about her trying to let him down gently, even though he spent the last 30 years adventuring across worlds trying to find her again. 30 years moving forward through peril because of her. And instead of love, Turtledove calls it “pride.” 

Holger isn't Holger anymore. That character has been assassinated and replaced with a miserable old fool.

And the point of the story is apparently to show how the world treats a hero a generation after his war and how the world moves on. The story lets you know this by literally putting “Yes, that was the point,” in Alianora's mouth when Holger comes to this conclusion.

In short, everything about the world and characters that made them unique and loveable, from the magic to the culture to the weirdness to Holger's blockheaded goodness, are stripped away and replaced by stewpots, housework, and boring people living boring lives. Faerieland and the forces of Chaos have been replaced by something far more sinister: “Realism.”

Its a dozen or so pages of boring people talking. Then the next morning, Alianora asks her daughter for the white tunic again. Alianna agrees.

And that's it.


Read Three Hearts and Three Lions. Read Anderson's other works. Hell, read Turtledove's other works. Avoid this bitter piece of deconstructionist garbage.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Appendix N Review: The Tower of the Elephant

In a rowdy section of the “City of Thieves” in sweltering Zamoria, a young Conan stalks the streets seeking adventure. In a tavern, he hears a Kothian slaver talking about a fabulously valuable jewel: the Heart of the Elephant, which sits in the mysterious Tower of the Elephant in the heart of the city. It is the treasure of the sorcerer Yara, and all who have tried to enter the tower have met with horrible death.

Desiring to be the first to succeed, Conan gets the information he desires from the fat slaver, tensions flare and in a brief tavern brawl, the slaver from Koth lies dead on the floor and the Cimmerian stalks toward the tower.

Sneaking into the tower, Conan finds another intruder, Taurus, the self-proclaimed “King of Thieves.” Deciding that two heads are better than one, the two join forces and infiltrate the sinister tower.

Cover art by José Ladrönn

Appearing in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales, The Tower of the Elephant was published two months after The Scarlet Citadel. Here, Robert E. Howard takes a different approach to the first two Conan stories by going back to his barbarian hero's past. Years before taking the throne of Aquilonia, young Conan is a wandering thief in a foreign land that has barely heard of Cimmeria. For his part, Conan doesn't know what an elephant looks like either, aside from knowing it has a tail on its face. The perils within the Tower are suitably perilous, and the solutions are clever and exciting, particularly how Conan and Taurus deal with several deadly lions that guard the garden at the base of the tower.

Its a good story, and short. It hits all of Howard's strengths (action, tension, descriptions of the exotic, dark humor, etc) and while a little more straightforward than The Scarlet Citadel (which I think is a slightly better story) is still absolutely recommended and worth reading.

So go read it, because the next part is going to cover BIG spoilers.

I'm not joking.

Cover by Earl Norem

Still here? Don't say I didn't warn you.

This is the story where Conan meets a space alien. Yeah, that's plenty Weird Tales right there. Trapped inside the tower is an ancient, blind, green-skinned humanoid with a giant elephant's head. Yag-Kosha, or Yogha, as he calls himself (he uses both names), is from the distant planet Yag, and he was part of a group of exiles who flew to Earth on great wings. On Earth, the Yagians slowly died out, their wings atrophied to nothing and unable to leave, with Yag-Kosha the last survivor.

Having watched humans arise over centuries, he was eventually befriended by Yara, whom he taught many powerful secrets. Yara betrayed him, and imprisoned him, and now he sees Conan as a chance at escape. And revenge.

Art by Sanjulián

Naturally Conan is confused as hell, but his solution is to accept the situation as-is. Yag-Kosha is a funny-looking weirdo, but he's a nice guy, and clearly in misery. Conan's sympathy (and dislike of slavery) makes his decision for him. He'll help the elephant-man, even if it means losing out on the jewel.

As in The Scarlet Citadel, this crude kind of virtue is what sets Conan apart from later pastiches. When the chips are down, Conan actually does the right thing, as opposed to the profitable thing, even if the results don't go quite as he intended (doubly so when magic is involved). Conan always gives off the impression of a coiled spring ready to jump, but his decision-making process is what sets him up as a fully heroic character. The weirdness and violence he finds himself surrounded by is just icing on that cake.

Art by John Howe

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Legends Never Die: Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka

In the Fall of 1983, Del Rey published the last of the Lando Calrissian Adventures, Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka. Like the rest of L. Neil Smith's trilogy, it mixes gambling, comedy, Lando trying to find peaceful solutions to problems, Libertarian themes, and a hefty dose of weirdness.

This time, Lando and his astrogator/flight instructor Vuffi Raa meet and befriend a giant space manta that can naturally fly through hyperspace. His name is Lehesu and he's an Oswaft. Lehesu wanders innocently through the Centrality sector, but in doing so he draws the attention of the Centrality and Imperial Navies, who follow him to his home nebula of ThonBoka (literally “Starcave” in their language) and blockade it, slowly starving the Oswaft.

Deciding to help them, Lando runs food through the blockade by conning and gambling his way through the fleet, and plot threads draw to a conclusion. The strange renegades with a grudge against Vuffi Raa are fully explained, Rokur Gepta's origins and the fate of the Sorcerers of Tund are revealed, and we finally get to meet Vuffi Raa's parents. All this, and Lando teaches space mantas how to play Sabacc.

Its a weird, wild ride that takes place almost exclusively in space. There's a brief side trip to Tund, but that's a dead world thanks to Rokur Gepta. Lando is either onboard spaceships or is floating around in a space suit. The banter between Lando & Vuffi Raa remains a huge part of the series' charm and even their goodbye is handled with bittersweet wit.

Much like Han Solo and the Lost Legacy, there's a melancholy edge to this story. Lando's adventures in the Centrality are coming to an end, and he's going to go off with enough treasure to buy himself a city and an urge to settle down and become a legitimate businessman. The party's over and Lando needs to return to the Galaxy at large for the movies to take their course.

Its a satisfying conclusion to a fun ride. Not quite as quick-paced as The Han Solo Adventures, but Lando's a different kind of scoundrel. Han's general solution to problems is to shoot his way out, and Lando only kills two people in this entire trilogy. Instead, this trilogy hammers home the theme that Lando is a weirdness magnet, which would carry through into later stories.

I recommend it, but its not essential tier like Daley's Han Solo trilogy or Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy. In the 90s this trilogy was also reprinted as an omnibus, which is a good way to get it.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Appendix N Review: Nine Princes in Amber

A man wakes up in a hospital bed with his legs in a cast and he is repeatedly sedated. He has vague memories of a car accident and nothing else. Discovering his body has healed from whatever injury it sustained, he escapes from the private clinic and seeks out the only lead he has to rediscovering his identity, his sister in New York City.

He is Corwin, son of Oberon, and prince and heir to the fantastic city and kingdom known as Amber. Amber is the city at the heart of all reality, the greatest prize for any conqueror. As Corwin begins to remember his past, he also begins looking to the future. He is a Prince of Amber, and he will fight to claim his birthright.

This is the premise for Roger Zelazny's 1970 novel Nine Princes in Amber. Zelazny used to be a huge name in SF/F during the New Wave era. Winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards (back when that meant something) and was a longtime friend of current SF/F elder statesman George R. R. Martin. Zelazny was hugely talented and popular in his lifetime, but after his death in 1995, he dropped immediately from the public consciousness. In his hometown of Euclid, Ohio, the suburb of Cleveland I live in, he's effectively unknown.

That's a damn shame, because Zelazny is outstanding.

Without getting too deep into spoilers because here especially the journey is as important as the destination, Corwin (and the audience) discovers that he's part of a mostly-immortal dysfunctional family with powers that can affect and shape reality the further away from Amber they get. Each has their area of expertise. Julian is a master huntsman. Bleys is a tactician. Ransom is a rascally gambler. And so on and so on. They're all pretty much arrogant bastards, including Corwin himself before his amnesia, but Eric is the worst, and seizes the throne for himself, despite Corwin's best efforts.

Taken as a whole, the book is very much a product of the early 1970s. Dialogue is snappy and full of slang peppered with Shakespearean references while everyone who matters smokes cigarettes. Its Groovy for lack of a better descriptor.

There's a car ride through different realities that takes Corwin and Ransom to the outskirts of Amber. An undersea reflection of Amber called Rebma (get it?????) where Corwin reclaims his memories by walking the Pattern (a Magical/Mathematical Maze) and has a romantic interlude with its green-haired queen. There's a grand military campaign to take Amber from Eric that nearly ends in disaster multiple times (and with staggering casualties) that also nearly succeeds. There is a coronation sequence that displays Corwin at his most defiantly heroic before several years' tortuous imprisonment.

Its only 175 pages long, but it spans years and easily outpaces anything from A Song of Ice and Fire in terms of political intrigue, backstabbing family members, outrageous magic, swordfights, and grand conflict. The squabbles of the Princes of Amber are downright Olympian in their scope, and the prose flows beautifully off the pages.

The rulers of Amber are assholes, but they are magnificent ones, and Corwin, who was once one of the biggest assholes of the family, is given a fresh start and the hints of the beginning of a redemption arc for his character.

The only major nitpick I can put down is that they nameless, effectively faceless grunts that get recruited into Corwin's war are glossed over so much that its hard to feel anything about them dying in droves. They don't matter outside of Corwin occasionally feeling sympathy for their purpose in his ambitions.

Other than that, its a wildly imaginative, colorful, and trippy journey though space and time. Zelazny must have had access to the good acid. Absolutely recommended.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Con Report: March 2018

[Use Your Imagination to Insert Picture Here Because I Didn't Really Plan This]

This weekend was my local Comic Con, and while it was a good time, the cracks in Geek Culture are really starting to show.

The following is going to be an unorganized recap of thoughts.

The merch stalls seem more derivative than before. Funko Pops stare blindly out at passing guests. I didn't see anybody actually buying them, though.

The genuinely unique stuff, though, was clever and inventive. There was one stand that was selling character figurines made out of colored wires in colors and poses. I'm personally not interested in buying an abstract Galactus made out of colored wires, but its unique and inventive.

The actual comic pros continue to get no real respect from the normies walking past them on the floor. I spent a while talking to two old Marvel veterans from the Shooter-DeFalco-Harras eras and they had some great stories about the late, great Mark Gruenwald. They also appreciate talking to genuine fans who know the eras that they worked in. I feel a lot better spending a little more on prints from them than buying some cheap, derivative pieces like Batman fighting Goku or something, but with weird proportions and were probably drawn in a Korean art farm or something.

John Barrowman had a really entertaining panel that got a little preachy on [current year] politics in a couple places. That's his prerogative of course, but last year Kevin Sorbo had a great panel too, and he didn't start talking to us about Jesus at random points.

Cosplay is getting more and more ambitious. There was an Imperial Fists Space Marine this year who was huge and fully ambulatory. There was another Space Marine two years ago who could barely walk.

There were more Star Trek costumes than Star Wars this year. Original series, Next Generation, DS-9 and even a lone Enterprise uniform. There was absolutely zero Star Trek: Discovery ANYTHING.

A ton of Flash T-shirts. I stopped watching the show in season 2, but its doing well. Barry is still the 2nd worst Flash (after Bart), but whatever. I'm not bitter.


No MCU actors this year. I'm assuming its because we're so close to Infinity War that the studio doesn't want anybody accidentally leaking anything.

There was one panel meant to show-off trailers for upcoming movies. They showed four trailers and spent way too much time fishing for audience discussion. Wreck-It-Ralph 2 got the biggest reaction from the audience. Solo and Venom both got super lukewarm reactions and the Infinity War trailer was the same as the one from a few months ago. Awkward, boring panel that felt like filler. I felt a little bad for the presenters.

Doctor Who was a major focus this year because John Barrowman, David Tennant and Billie Piper were there. Flash & Cyborg from the Justice League movie were there, and they had good-ish sized crowds, but the DC cinematic universe remains love-it-or-hate-it.

There was very little hype for upcoming movies. Infinity War was kind of it.

Absolutely zero Ready Player One anything.

More comic book long boxes than previous years.

There were some forced diversity panels. Didn't bother with any of them.

Batman costumes were a given. There were a solid number of Wonder Woman outfits, and a small number of the Flash and one solid Captain Boomerang. A couple Jasom Momoa Aquaman and one really, really good Mera. Nobody cares about Suicide Squad though. A couple Harley Quinns of all kinds, but absolutely ZERO Jared Leto Jokers.

The MCU had a strong presence. Guardians of the Galaxy had a good showing. Spider-Man Homecoming had good number. Black Panther had a couple good costumes. There was exactly one Carol Danvers Captain Marvel cosplayer. She had some purple hair. It was exactly what you're picturing.

There was also a really good DC/Fawcett Captain Marvel. The SHAZAM one.

Star Wars is a severely damaged brand at this point. There still were Star Wars costumes walking around, but its mostly the Original Trilogy. Vader, Luke, Han, Leia, generic Jedi, a Chewie on stilts. You know, the classics. Nothing from the Prequels (I expect that to change soon as people continue to reconsider them) and wayyyyyy less from the Sequel Trilogy than last year. A handful of Reys and a smaller number of Kylo Ren (Kylo ditching the mask in The Last Jedi is going to kill people's interest in cosplaying as him). There was one really good Hera Syndulla from Rebels, and exactly ONE Finn I saw all weekend. The only stormtroopers around were from the local 501st Legion, which included a single Phasma but no First Order Stormtroopers. It was all Classic Imps all the way beyond that.

Let's recap to let it sink in. Disney Star Wars Cosplay at the convention included a couple Original Trilogy holdouts, a couple Girl Power Reys, and a small number of Kylo Rens with easily bought masks and lightsabers. One Finn. One group of people from Rebels.

That's it.

No Rogue One anything. No First Order troops. No Resistance troops. No classic Rebel troopers. No X-Wing pilots. No Holdo. No Poe. No General Leia. No Rose Tico. No Boba Fetts that weren't with the 501st. A lot fewer kids dressed up in Star Wars costumes, unless they were in group costumes with their parents.

This is just one con, but even a year ago you would be swimming through Star Wars costumes on the floor.

Not only that, but one merch vendor had the Kenner Power of the Force figures from the 90s. I collected them back then. They were good toys. You could get a mint on card figure for between $5-$7, which is close to what they cost twenty years ago.

Star Wars is a rapidly sinking brand.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Appendix N Review: The Face in the Abyss

Back to Abraham Merritt, because mind-blowing forgotten fiction is good for you.

Today it's The Face in the Abyss, which is a fix-up novel published in 1931 and based off two novelettes: The Face in the Abyss published in Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1923 and The Snake Mother published in Argosy in 1930, seven years later.

If you're keeping track, its technically his fifth novel, but only because it took so long between parts. The Metal Monster was 1920 and The Ship of Ishtar was 1924.

The story considers one Nick Graydon, an American mining engineer recruited for an adventure in South America in search of lost Incan treasure. The three other men are Starrett, a rough and tumble drunk, Soames, a lanky New Englander, and Dancret, a small, quiet Frenchman. They get lost deep in the jungle and tensions, already high, erupt when a beautiful young woman named Suarra is caught by Starrett around their camp. Graydon knocks out Starrett in a fit of berserker rage (the first of many he will experience over the course of the adventure) and learns the woman, Suarra, speaks a local language. The attraction between the two is immediate, and Graydon lets Suarra go, and she promises to bring back treasure to get the other men to leave the valley they're in.

It doesn't go well. Graydon's companions think he's ratting them out and their greed gets the better of them. They finagle their way into having Suarra take them to the source of the treasure, and so she does. A hidden valley where powerful men ride dinosaurs, and a giant obsidian face sweats gold out of its eyes and mouth.

Then it gets wild. Dinosaur arena fights, lizardmen, winged messenger snakes, advanced ancient technology, refugees from a lost civilization from now-frozen Antarctica called Yu-Atlanchi (and sharing common elements with the Atlantis myth), the shadowy Nimir LORD OF EVIL, creepy but friendly red spider-men called weavers and their leader Kon, and a mysterious and beautiful Snake Mother named Adana, who has powers beyond what the city itself has.

Graydon is a solid protagonist. Intelligent but quick to action, even when it gets him in trouble. Strong-willed and prone to the red mist rage when his sense of honor is thoroughly offended, he's a better hero than the bland crew from The Metal Monster but not quite on the level of John Kenton or (especially) Larry O'Keefe. Graydon's also an expert shot with a rifle.

Its also clear that Merritt's cast of stock characters is in full effect. Kon is the misshapen but strong and loyal friend, Regor is the battle-scarred big guy, and so on. Shockingly enough, the love interest Suarra ISN'T a redhead but a brunette.

The real star is the mysterious Adana. Upper-body of a beautiful woman, lower body of a snake, and ALL monstergirl, she's not the villain. Far from it, she's one of the most altruistic characters in the book. Which is funny when she's discussing melancholic matters with Graydon and then pausing to examine how she looks in a mirror. She feels like a real person with quirks and vanities, and a snake body.

Like all of the other Merritt books I've read so far, he just throws out one wild idea after another at the audience and keeps everything tied together and building until an explosive finale. Really solid stuff. I'm not going anywhere near spoilers, but I'll say this: it reads like one of those weird high-concept AD&D 1st Edition adventure modules. In a good way.

Absolutely recommended. Merritt is a goldmine.

Its also interesting to note that in my online wanderings, I found a set of photos from the 1980 Westercon on the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society website. Aside from being an amusing time capsule of hideous wallpaper and some very excellent early cosplay work, one of the guests was dressed up as Adana the Snake Mother. Which means Merritt was relevant as late as the 80s to inspire detailed (and bold) costume work.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Appendix N Review: Three Hearts and Three Lions

Where, oh where, to begin with this one? There's so much packed into Poul Anderson's 1961 novel Three Hearts and Three Lions that a thorough review would go deep into spoiler territory. And its only about 200 pages.

Okay. First, the plot. Holger Carlsen is a Danish-born engineer and former college athlete living in Pre-WWII America. When the war breaks out, he returns to Denmark and hooks up with the Danish Resistance and during a desperate mission to extract a scientist to Sweden, a bullet grazes his head and he passes out.

Waking up, he discovers himself naked in a forest with a horse waiting nearby with a set of clothes, weapons and armor. As you do.

The horse's name is Papillon (French for “butterfly”) and with the stallion, he rides to a cottage and gets advice from an old witch who sets him up with a dwarf guide named Hugi. Holger wants to know two things: How to get home, and who is this famous knight with a shield with three hearts and three lions that he's supposed to be.

He encounters a young swanmay named Alianora. She's a human girl who was gifted a cloak that allows her to change into a swan. She, like most of the other people in this world, speak in a stylized dialect meant to sound archaic that takes some getting used to on the page.

After barely evading entrapment by the Elven King Alfric of Faerie, Holger has a run-in with Morgan Le Fay, who knows him from his forgotten past, and he and Alianora begin to fall in love, though his desire to return to the Earth that he knows prevents him from acting on his feelings for her.

Holger finds himself swept up in a grander cosmic conflict as a champion of Law against the fickle and deadly Faerie armies of Chaos. Werewolves! Magic Swords! Dragons! Riddling Giants! Trolls! Heroic Saracens! Comic Relief Wizards! Throwing an Elf into another Elf! True Love!

Much has already been said about how much this story in particular has had an influence on the development of Dungeons & Dragons. Law and Chaos are foundational for the alignment system. The rapidly regenerating troll at the end that can only be permanently harmed by fire is translated directly into the Monster Manual instead of the traditional Scandinavian rock troll (though the fight with this troll is far more hardcore than anything I've seen presented in other stories). Swanmays, Nixies, Unicorns, all have their folkloric predecessors, but again, they are translated almost directly into D&D creatures from this book.

The Paladin, though, is one of the most famous/infamous D&D classes, and it comes from this book. Everything the Paladin class does in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is done in this story. Detect Evil? Yep. Character is bonded to a special mount? Yes. Immune to fear? Yes (though in Holger's case, much of it comes from being a man of action and an engineer trying to figure out practical reasons for why magic is happening around him) Laying hands on the sick to heal them? Symbolically, yes. Losing certain protections and bonuses when he begins to have impure thoughts? Yes.

Its all there. This book is the bridge between Charlemagne's heroic knightly warriors and Gygax's knights in heavenly armor. I knew that going in, and it still blew my mind to see it in action. (Incidentally, I recommend reading The Song of Roland, where Charlemagne's paladin Roland gets his famous last stand. Badass action and Charlemagne pulling on his beard in grief abounds)

The key to Holger's powers is faith. True faith. Cold Iron, the Cross, and sincere invocations of Jesus Christ all cause physical harm to the forces of Faerie, who are frequently described as having no souls. The tangible power of faith on this strange world shifts Holger from being a modern agnostic to someone who converts to Catholicism by the end (Anderson himself was apparently agnostic with a favorable attitude toward Christianity)

The book features a lot of lighthearted comedy. Holger's no idiot, but he can be a blockhead, especially around pretty ladies. The book takes frequent pauses to think up scientific reasonings for things, like how a dragon would work, or the principles behind a dagger that can be lit on fire. These excursions never get too long, but occasionally they get close.

Then, when the book gets serious, it fully commits. When Holger is presented with the challenge of identifying a werewolf that is terrorizing a town, he gets put into an emotionally difficult situation. Without spoiling it, he has to choose between two grim options, and in true Paladin form, chooses a third.

This book is nothing like the deconstructionist cynicism clogging modern bookshelves. Over and over and over, Holger Carlsen proves himself to be a true-blue White Hat style hero without ever becoming boring. Human and flawed, Holger's a dope with the ladies and a hearty drinker, but at every turn he tries to do good, and in return, becomes a better person and betters the world around him. This is the kind of heroism I've been starved for, and here it is, fully realized by a Grandmaster of Science Fiction.

I can't recommend this book enough. Read it, if for no other reason than to understand how Paladin characters are meant to be played.

Gorgeous Darrell K. Sweet cover for the Baen edition

And some say he waits in timeless Avalon until France the fair is in danger, and some say he sleeps beneath Kronborg Castle and wakens in the hour of Denmark's need, but none remember that he is and has always been a man, with the humble needs and loves of a man; to all, he is merely the Defender.

He rode out on the wold, and it was as if dawn rode with him.”