Devil Dance, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This final installment (the author confirms that fact in her Acknowledgments) of the series is set in May 1921, a few months after the previous one. The book’s opening finds Jade in Zanzibar, a new setting for her, which takes her out of the Nairobi area and away from her friends there. One reviewer complained about their absence, but as a compensation, we get to not only spend some more time with Jade’s formidable Spanish-born mother, Inez, but to meet Jade’s dad as well. Her parents have come to Africa for her impending nuptials, and she and Inez plan to enjoy a relaxing sight-seeing trip while Richard del Cameron gets acquainted with his new son-in-law on a planned safari.

Since she didn’t expect to need it, Jade didn’t bring along her trusty Winchester. But Simba Jike’s reputation has preceded her, and her propensity to land in the middle of dangerous skullduggery is as much in evidence here as ever. (Luckily, she did bring her knife….) She and Inez soon encounter a sudden mysterious death, an appeal for help, and a wealthy Arab household rife with secrets. And meanwhile, back in Mombasa, their menfolk stumble across an apparent slave-trading operation –and they’re not the sort of guys who’d let that sort of thing go on without getting involved.

This is the only novel in the series to be self-published; Arruda evidently wrote it without the aid of her usual proofreading and editorial services. There was also a five-year gap between it and the preceding novel, during which she apparently had the distraction of a pregnancy, childbirth, and care for a newborn daughter, to whom the book is dedicated. (From internal evidences, I’m guessing that the early chapters may have been written before the pregnancy, and the middle and later ones after the baby had become a toddler.) These factors show in a number of typos (though none of them are bad enough to keep the reader from understanding the author’s intention), and in some discontinuity between plot elements near the beginning and the developing story, which cost the book a star.

Otherwise, the quality is very similar to the other series installments. The mystery was more deeply concealed, with several developments that genuinely surprised me. As always, the author thoroughly researched her setting(s). An element of the possibly supernatural has typically been a feature of these novels, and that’s particularly strong here, with the background of the witchcraft guild of Zanzibar’s neighboring island, Pemba, and their rites of human sacrifice. Jade’s (and Arruda’s) concern for human rights in the face of injustice is also a strong note in the book, in the face of the persistent practice of slavery, which was nominally outlawed on Zanzibar in 1897, but still went on in practice even on into the 1920s. (And it continues to flourish today in the countries of the Arabian peninsula that are still governed by Sharia law, which regulates slavery but doesn’t forbid it.)

Barb and I read this book together, as we have the whole series, and we’re both sorry to see the series end! Jade has been one of our favorite heroines, and its been a privilege to get to know her.

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Molly and the Gold Baron, by Stephen Overholser

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Stephen Overholser is the son of acclaimed Western author Wayne Overholser, who’s followed in his father’s footsteps as a writer of Westerns; both father and son have been Spur Award winners. The younger Overholser created the character of Molly Owens as the protagonist of one of his early novels, Molly and the Confidence Man (1975), and went on to write five more novels featuring her. Orphaned young, Molly and her now-deceased brother survived a rough childhood on their own; after he came West, she answered an ad and went to work for the Fenton Detective Agency, which is fictional, but modeled on the real-life Pinkerton Agency –which actually did employ women detectives, Kate Warne becoming the first in 1856.

Overholser set much of his work in his native Colorado; Molly’s based in Denver, and this tale is set in the real-life Colorado mining boom town of Cripple Creek in ca. 1893. That setting is actually drawn with considerable accuracy, and the depiction of the community’s history and labor troubles in that period reflects actual realities, with some license and changing of names. (I’ll give Overholser credit for doing serious research.) While I wouldn’t describe the author’s characterizations as sharp, Molly comes across as a kind person who cares about justice, as well as both brave and capable. She approaches her detective work with good observation skills and intuition (and isn’t above picking a lock or two if that’s what it takes to hunt for evidence).

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, debuting in 1982 in A Is for Alibi, is usually considered literature’s first gun-packing female detective who could handle rough stuff if the baddies wanted to throw it at her. Yet Molly preceded her by seven years and is no shrinking violet where combat is concerned, either with her double-action Colt or with her fists and feet (and she can deliver a pretty nasty head-butt as well); she just was never noticed by mystery-genre critics because her venue is in a different genre. Here, her assignment calls for her to get to the bottom of a pregnant prostitute’s bogus paternity suit against a newly-rich prospector; but the case soon morphs into an unauthorized murder investigation, in the context of a labor dispute between mine owners and mine workers that threatens to become a blood bath. (Some on both sides are up for illegal violence, but the mine owners and their thugs are the more dangerously violent.)

As is true of some other works in this genre that I’ve read, the author’s prose style is mediocre, adequate but uninspired, workmanlike pulp that does the job in an undistinguished way; he tells the story and allows you to picture the action and settings, but this isn’t a novel you’d read for scintillating dialogue, vivid turns of phrase, telling details, or description that soars and sings. His plotting is on a similar level; towards the end, a couple of characters make some decisions that serve the storyline, but struck me as dubiously likely to have been made had this been a real-life narrative in the same situation. The mystery element isn’t very deeply mysterious in the long run.

Despite its flaws,though, I basically liked the book as passing light entertainment, and liked and admired the heroine for her genuine good qualities. Personally, I won’t bother seeking out the rest of the series; but if you’re a Western fan who doesn’t demand much from your books and read for recreation, you could certainly pick a lot worse books, with a lot worse messages. And at 172 pages, it’s a relatively short read, and doesn’t require a lot of thought.

Note: Bad language, of the d-word/h-word sort, is minimal and Molly herself pretty clean in her own speech; I wouldn’t guarantee that she never lets a cuss word slip under stress (I don’t have the book in front of me to check) but she certainly doesn’t make it a noticeable habit. There are three explicit sex scenes. (They can be skipped over with no loss of anything.) However, this isn’t a romance as such, nor is it a trashy “adult Western”.

Author: Stephen Overholser
Publisher: Bantam, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Crocodile’s Last Embrace, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

This sixth installment in Arruda’s outstanding series has much in common, in terms of style and other characteristics, with the preceding five. We pick up here in February 1921, and our setting is the familiar one of Nairobi and its environs; all or most of the supporting cast we’ve come to like are here, as well as Jade herself.

Early on in the story, Jade becomes an inadvertent witness to a clandestine body disposal (Inspector Finch once wryly commented that she “attracts corpses,” and that’s running true to form here!), and other deaths will follow, seeming to be connected with a mysterious purported gold mining operation in the northern reaches of the colony. Intertwined with these events is the menace of a huge, man-eating piebald crocodile, whose depredations along the Athi River are a concern to both the Kikuyu natives and the authorities. More than one concealed identity factors into the situation, and as usual there is a soupcon of traditional African supernatural belief flavoring the mix. The setting continues to be strongly evoked.

It can be said, though, that this is one of the better constructed and more challenging mysteries in the series. Based on my knowledge of how Arruda writes, I was smugly certain that I had identified one of the principal villains as soon as the character was introduced. But I couldn’t have been more wrong; and I had no clue about the other one, either. I did see through one concealed identity, but otherwise, Arruda does a masterful job here of hiding her clues in plain sight And the final chapters before the wrap-up are a tour de force of excitement and suspenseful tension as the author maneuvers various characters into position for a climactic confrontation that doesn’t disappoint.

More than most entries in the series, too, this one is no running in place operation in terms of an overall story arc; this volume will bring significant changes to Jade’s life. Indeed, there are some indications that this (so far) penultimate entry may originally have been intended as the series finale. (All six of the first books were published by Big Publishing, and no more than a year apart. The seventh book was self-published, and only after a five year gap.)

As always, I would recommend reading the series in order, rather than trying to start with this book. It would lose a lot without the built-up familiarity with the characters and their history in relation to each other. But series fans won’t be disappointed in any respect!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: Berkley, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Collection, by Lance Charnes

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Lance Charnes and I are Goodreads friends, having “met” (electronically) a few years ago through the Action Heroine Fans group. Some time ago, I bought a copy of his outstanding debut novel, Doha 12, and it got five stars from me. This new novel, the opener for a projected series, didn’t come to me as an official review copy –instead, Lance generously donated a print copy to the library where I work– but he knew I would read and review it, and knew my tastes well enough to be pretty sure I’d like it. Of course, we both understood that he might be wrong –but he wasn’t! For much of my reading experience, I expected to rate the book four stars –a denouement and conclusion that blew me to pieces and then knit me back together easily pushed it up to five stars.

Being his Goodreads friend, I try to keep abreast of Lance’s book reviews, so I know firsthand how well read he is in the whole area of the contemporary fine arts market, and particularly of its increasingly seedy underbelly. In real life, art by big-name artists can command staggering prices, and in the last 15-20 years it’s come to be a major commodity in the world of big-time international money laundering and shady commercial exchanges where cash transfers come too easily to the attention of authorities. And a lot of art that’s traded this way may be stolen, or forged.

Rich collectors with an enthusiasm for art aren’t the only players any more; we’re dealing with crime syndicates, corrupt and despotic governments and their officials, and billionaires looking for ways to cheat the tax authorities, and violence and murder may be aspects of normal business operations for some of these people. Lance sets this novel in that milieu, and he and his protagonist Matt Friedrich know it like the back of their hand. The author is also well-traveled; he sets his tale mostly in Europe, and principally Milan, and brings the locale to life with an assurance and level of detail which suggests he’s actually been there, or researched it a LOT online.

This is crime fiction more than traditional mystery; and as in his debut novel, Lance uses the knowledge of skulduggery, weapons, and high-technology snooping gained as a military intelligence officer to good advantage. The plotting is taut (first-person, present-tense narration is used for maximum immediacy) and the pace brisk, with a steady dose of dangerous situations and life-threatening tension. Matt’s crafty scheming sometimes takes the reader by surprise, and he’s sometime majorly taken for surprise himself, along with the reader. Action scenes aren’t frequent, but you never know when they could erupt, and when they do they’re well depicted. I’ve used the term “thriller” for this book, and that’s one I seldom use; I don’t seek out books that bill themselves that way, because I think the plotting is usually so cliched and stereotyped that it fails to thrill. This one doesn’t fail.

I’ve also used the term “gritty.” As described above, the moral world of this novel is a dark one where people are generally guided by the most selfish and cynical of motives, where the law is typically powerless to do much, and where innocent people are hurt as a by-product of what some of the characters routinely do. The DeWitt so-called “Agency” is a morally ambiguous enterprise that works for the highest bidder, and our narrator is an ex-con who was once involved in crooked art deals, and is now so crushed under a mountain of legal debts that he’s willing to violate his parole by working for said agency if it gives him a shot at paying it down.

And yet this is a surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly, given the moral vision that animates the author’s earlier novel) moral work of fiction, with a main character who’s learned something about life and ethics from his time in prison, and who wants to become a human being that he can look in the mirror and respect. He’s going to encounter challenges and decisions here that will put that resolve to the test. Both Matt and Carson (the female operative he’s paired with –who provides the team’s muscles and fighting skill when it’s needed) are intensely vital, round, realistic characters with a credible pattern of interactions that doesn’t stay static, but develops believably. Unlike some writers of this type of fiction, Lance understands that characters you care about are the only thing that can truly provide it with its heart, and he gives character development and relationships their due. There’s a lot that I can’t tell you because I’m determined to avoid spoilers; but I can say that this is where the book really earns its stars. (The principal supporting characters are masterfully drawn as well.)

You don’t have to be familiar with the world of the contemporary art market to enjoy this book (I’m not, at all); the author explains everything you have to know, and he does it easily and smoothly, in small doses with no info-dumps. None of the discussion is detailed enough to be boring. He uses enough physical description to let you visualize scenes, but not, IMO, too much; the same with technological exposition. (At one point, I didn’t really understand what one of the villains was trying to gain by his conduct; but the narrative drive carried me through without asking questions.) f you’re any kind of fan of crime fiction thrillers in a contemporary setting, and my review intrigues you rather than turning you away, I’d say this is definitely worth your checking out. I’m certainly going to be following the series; and I’m now even more anxious to read the author’s South, sooner rather than later!

Matt’s very sensible to feminine charms (he hasn’t been out of prison very long), but there’s no sex here, and Matt actually refrains from taking sexual advantage of one young woman. Violence isn’t any more frequent or graphic than it needs to be. As for bad language, not all of the characters swear, but some do, including Matt; Carson and one of the villains have the worst mouths (including the f-word as regular vocabulary). I never felt that the author was trying to mainstream that kind of thing, nor push the envelope with it.

Author: Lance Charnes
Publisher: Wombat Group Media, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Staff Sergeant Belinda Watt, by Tom Holzel

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

This self-published novel was recently donated by the author to the library where I work, a kindness that we appreciate. The author and I are both members of the Action Heroine Fans group here on Goodreads, and I was intrigued by his posts there about the book. Understanding (from experience!) the frustrations of waiting for reviews in today’s glutted book market, and being a fan of kick-butt female protagonists myself, I’d hoped to help him out with a good review, though he didn’t donate the book with any such expectation. As my rating indicates, my reaction wasn’t as positive as I’d hoped, so I would have refrained from writing a review at all; but Tom graciously indicated that he didn’t have a problem with a less than stellar review.

I’ll say at the outset that if you like to discover the plot of a novel (as opposed to the basic premise) for yourself as you read it, I would NOT advise reading the cover copy, which gives away a fair bit of the plot. Suffice it to say that our chronological setting is the year 3177. Chapter 2 begins –and Chapter 1 is just a one-page set-up; chapters here tend to be quite short, which helps the plot flow quickly– with our title character, a cook from Idaho in the Galactic Federation army (who’s recently been discovered to have extremely good natural marksmanship skills with a rifle) being acquitted by a court-martial of murder charges in the killing of her commanding officer, General Bloodworthy. The physical evidence overwhelmingly proved that General Bloodworthy had been raping her at the time. But the late General was the head of the Guardian Council, a semi-secret cabal of “right-wing” army officers who are suspected of self-serving and illegal behavior aimed at advancing and protecting their own members; and their power within the military makes them “virtually unstoppable.” Since it’s pretty plain that the Council will murder Belinda in retaliation for Bloodworthy’s death, Intelligence officer Lt. Col. Andrew Jackson Jones conceives the idea of spiriting her off-world for her own protection. (Why an Intelligence officer is serving on the Judge Advocate’s staff in the first place is only one of several unexplained problems here.) So these two characters take off for the stars, and the plot takes off along with them.

Holzel’s fictional universe has similarities to that of many other writers in the SF tradition: FTL space travel, a galaxy-spanning Federation, etc. But he puts his own original spin on this. Here, the Federation extends into several different galaxies, reachable by navigating through wormholes associated with black holes. There are, however, not very many habitable planets out there, and the few there are are populated by alien species that are all pretty much humanoid (this is explained by convergent Darwinian evolution adapting them all to similar conditions). Earth turned out to be the most technologically advanced of the lot (that, and the distances involved, might serve as a plausible explanation for the old chestnut about why, if there are alien civilizations out there, we’ve never picked up their radio waves, though Holzel doesn’t mention this). Jones and Belinda’s destination is the far-off, Jupiter-sized planet Magnus, a major source of a mineral that’s critical to FTL travel. The planet’s ultra-rapid rotation reduces its gravity around the equator to Earth-like levels, and its extremely strong magnetic field prevents electricity from being transmitted on the planet’s surface. As this discussion indicates, this novel is very much in the “hard” SF tradition. The effects of the planetary conditions on local technology are worked out in some detail, which will please fans who like that sort of thing. (Personally, I’m much more of a “soft” SF fan.)

I’m not scientifically knowledgeable enough to understand or evaluate much of Holzel’s above use of actual science, though I would say that it comes across as plausible. My interest in fiction, in this or any genre, is more in the human and literary elements of the stories. On that level, the plot is predictable, has serious logical gaps (beginning with the fact that the military even tolerates the Guardian Council to begin with, or that they would let a serving soldier simply go off planet with no orders), and IMO makes excessive use of coincidence. Some readers have found Belinda too passive; I’m not sure that criticism is entirely fair, since she grows here from a fairly naive and passive young woman to a greater maturity. But the characterizations are not well-developed, and I particularly don’t feel the romance as believable. (Jones treats Belinda with a degree of duplicity and manipulation that’s more or less treated here as just an example of how boys will be boys, but which I don’t think most women would or should accept.)

No serious Intelligence officer would confide his mission to total strangers the way Jones does twice here; and I seriously question whether it’s physically possible for one crucial plot point to have happened the way it did. The Galactic Federation’s policy of paternalistically controlling interstellar trade (to “protect” other species from the “bad” competition) and Exporting Democracy strikes me as a naive extension of the worst aspects of globalist American foreign policy extrapolated onto an inter-galactic scale, and the cavalier attitude of the characters towards mass destruction of innocent life with a tactical nuke was a really serious negative for me. There are also repeated editing issues, numerous plot points that are inadequately explained, and not much world building outside of the technological area. (A minor quibble is the unexplained variation in Belinda’s name, which seems to be random; I could understand “Bea” as a plausible nickname, but she’s also sometimes “Linda” rather than Belinda.)

On the positive side, I was interested enough in the story to finish it. There’s a certain amount of bad language (though I don’t recall any obscenity –there might be some I’ve forgotten) including religious profanity, but it’s probably within the bounds of realism for the milieu. Although there’s no explicit sex, there are sexual situations, and Belinda tends to be a frequent target of sexual harassment and rape attempts. However, this isn’t condoned, and it’s dealt with forcefully. I don’t think the “moral tendency” of the novel would be to encourage that sort of thing in any sense.

Author: Tom Holzel
Publisher: Self published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Treasure of the Golden Cheetah, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Warning –my review doesn’t contain any spoilers for this book, but it does divulge a major series plot development from the preceding book!

In the 10th century B.C., the kingdom of Sheba (or Saba –the S and Sh sounds were still fluid in the Semitic alphabets of that day) straddled the Arabic and African sides of the southern entrance to the Red Sea, and enjoyed considerable income from its control of that trade route. Both the Old Testament books of I Kings and II Chronicles record a state visit by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Neither of these writers record her name (it varies in the legends, but the most common name given is Balkis or Belkis –English transliterations vary) or much about her, and written records from Sheba at this time have not survived; but she’s also mentioned in the Koran. Jewish, Arabic and Ethiopian legends (the latter written down in the ancient writing Kebra Negast, or “Glory of Kings”) some of which probably preserve actual handed-down oral history, greatly elaborate the story, and the latter makes Solomon out to be the father of her son and heir, Menelik. (The royal house of Ethiopia historically claimed descent from Solomon through Menelik.) The legends of the Masai and other African peoples south of Ethiopia also credit Menelik with a great (and obviously historically memorable) expedition through their territories. This real-life material provides the basis for Jade del Cameron’s fifth adventure.

It’s now the autumn of 1920, and an American silent film company is in Nairobi, preparing to journey south (into what is today the country of Tanzania) to fabled Mount Kilimanjaro, there to film a movie, set partly in ancient and partly in modern times, based on a supposed legend of Emperor Menelik having climbed the mountain to die and be buried near the summit with his treasure. Ever ready to visit other African locales to do an article and photo shoot for “The Traveler” magazine –based on the real-life magazine of that era “Travel”, as Arruda mentions in her fascinating-as-always Author’s Notes– Jade’s agreed to go along as second-in-command (with primary responsibility for looking after the expedition’s female members) to the group’s guide –though she’s less than delighted to learn that the guide is Harry Hascombe, whom series readers have met before. The trip will also give her a chance to think seriously about, and hopefully finally sort out her mixed feelings, about her beau Sam Featherstone’s marriage proposal. But shortly before departure, things get off to an ominous start with a strange murder-suicide just outside Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club.

Much that I’ve said in my reviews of previous books in the series applies to this one, too. All the things that attract its fans are here: a strong, tough heroine with admirable character and with the guts and physical conditioning to handle dangerous challenges (yes, that knife in her boot on the cover picture is going to have to come out of its sheath!), well-drawn and sometimes likeable supporting characters, adventure and danger in a well-realized exotic setting, chaste romance, good writing with bad language kept to a minimum and no explicit sex, an undercurrent of supernaturalism and mystery that never turns the book into supernatural fiction but that adds a dash of that flavor. But I can say that this is one of the strongest books in the series, and presents one of the best constructed mystery plots –in several of the books, I fingered the culprit early on (and twice in the first chapter!), but I didn’t here! This one kept me guessing (wrongly) almost down to the wire. The behind-the-scenes look at the film industry of the 1920s enhanced the book; and though I didn’t recognize the tie-in to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (never having read that story) until the Author’s Notes explained it, I can recognize now that it was masterfully done. I also appreciated the personal growth here of Jade’s young Kikiyu friend, Jelani.

There are only (so far) two more books in this series; Barb and I have already started reading the sixth installment, The Crocodile’s Last Embrace. I’m hopeful Arruda will eventually write more of them; Jade’s a heroine we both want to keep on spending time with!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library (Obsidian imprint), available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Black Amazon of Mars, by Leigh Brackett

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

Normally, I like to start a series at the beginning. But I chose to read this second novella of Brackett’s Eric John Stark series, as my long-awaited first introduction to her work, because Amazon offered me the chance to read it for free on my Kindle app. (And yes, I’ll definitely be buying a paper copy!) That means there are unanswered questions here about Stark’s origins and background, and about the Martian world –what kind of “beasts” are used as mounts here, for instance, or what the economic base of a city-state like Kushat is– that probably have answers in the first book, or earlier stories. (The author wrote about the character in both formats, and not all of the corpus is still in print.)

Genre giant Brackett stands in the Romantic tradition, and represents SF’s “soft” school; she’s known for her “swords-and-planet” tales of adventure and derring-do on mostly low-tech worlds, and her style was shaped in the hey-day of the pulp magazines. Stark himself has affinities to the typical Burroughs hero, or to some of Robert E. Howatd’s protagonists; the appeal of “primitivism” (which I’ve discussed elsewhere) is clearly present here, though in Stark’s case, he’s not a refugee or escapee from civilization. (Of Earth stock, he was born on Mercury, and apparently grew up in a rough setting and circumstances, with trauma that left him carrying a lot of psychological damage.) He’s a bit more rough-edged than , say, John Carter, and indeed can at times seem almost feral. But he’s clearly a person of principle, with a strong sense of loyalty and duty, and a willingness to put his life on the line for what’s right when it really matters.

Fans of this site, however, will be as (or more) interested in the title character here. Given the title and the cover art, we know she’s definitely a fighting female. For perhaps the first half or more of the book, however, some readers might wonder when she’s going to show up. Don’t worry, though –Brackett incorporates one plot element here, at a crucial moment, that’s meant to come as a major surprise. It does to Stark (of course, he didn’t see the cover or read the title!), but it probably won’t to most readers. Not to share any spoilers, but the phrase “hidden in plain sight” might come readily to mind. And our ax-wielding lady’s fighting prowess won’t disappoint.

Of course, if she’s judged honestly and fairly, it has to be admitted that she’s pretty much a villainess in the legitimate definition of the word; she’s motivated by selfish personal ambition for power and status, and she’s quite ruthlessly willing to inflict suffering and death on any number of people who defy that goal. But she’s also a nuanced villainess who does have some genuine good in her, which shows itself in actions. (And sometimes, when the chips are down, a nuanced villainess with some genuine good in her might find that she has the stuff inside to add “heroine” to her resume’….) That degree of nuance makes her an interesting character (at least to me).

Like many SF authors who wrote before the advent of space exploration by unmanned probes, Brackett imagined the other inner planets of our solar system to be much more hospitable to human life than they actually are. Her Mars is a cold, arid world whose fragile ecology depends on the annual summer melting of much of the polar ice cap; but it’s a world with a human-like native race (if they differ from Earth humans in any way, it’s not stated here), with a civilization originating a million years earlier, in the time of a culture hero called Ban Cruach. Much of his story is forgotten and mysterious; but at the end of his life, he passed through the Gates of Death, the high pass that is the only way through the mountains enclosing the uninhabited, permanently frozen region around the North Pole itself, after leaving behind an enigmatic talisman in the northern city of Kushat (which controls access to the pass). Now, at the behest of a dying friend, who stole the talisman years before, Stark is journeying through the bitterly cold Martian winter and across the wild, mountainous North (a region much less civilized than southern Mars) to return the object to Kushat.

Brackett’s world-building is much more plausible than that of Burrough’s Barsoom novels, and (allowing for the basic premise) the science isn’t, to a lay reader like myself, glaringly off-beam. (How the high technology –yes, there is some here, but I’m not writing any spoilers– works isn’t explained, and it’s not extrapolated from any existing technology, but that’s because we’re in the realm of soft SF; the author’s purpose isn’t to speculate about what high technology might someday do, but to use it to tell and enable a story about people in a particular dramatic situation.)

Brackett’s imagination is genuinely original, in a type of story that often wasn’t handled with great originality in the time period when she wrote. The plot covers just a few days, and incorporates a lot of action, usually violent action (corpses at one point are lying in “windrows”), but there’s no graphic wallowing in violence for its own sake. Our main characters here aren’t plaster saints, and we might disapprove (big time, in some cases!) of some of their actions; but they’re each vibrantly alive, understandable men and women whose fate we come to care deeply about. They’ll face conflicts and challenges here that involve extremely high stakes, and that will tax physical, mental and moral strength to overcome (IF they’re overcome….); and the personal interrelationships are complex and emotionally evocative.

Bottom line, if you like an old-school pulp action sci-fi yarn in which the gal gets to swing the sword (or, in this case, the ax) as well as the guy, I think you’ll find this a very good read of the type!

Author: Leigh Brackett
Publisher: Aegypan, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Forest Child, by Heather Day Gilbert

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

“A cleaved head never plots.”

“I swear to you, this death will be avenged. And not in the afterlife.” –Freydis Eiriksdotter

Most readers with any knowledge of early American history are aware that Viking sailors, faring south-westward from Greenland, discovered mainland North America around the year 1000 A.D. No lasting settlements were made, but archaeologists have excavated the temporary settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in present-day Newfoundland (probably the one referred to in the sagas as Straumsfjord). Our main contemporary historical sources for the Viking voyages to “Vinland” are two oral Icelandic sagas, committed to writing about 250 years after the events, which differ in details but basically present a common core of factual information. (The skalds who composed and transmitted the sagas weren’t composing fiction; they were recording history for an aliterate society, although they sometimes garbled or misunderstood details.)

Evangelical Christian author Heather Day Gilbert has taken these sagas, coupled with serious research into the Viking history and culture of that era, plausibly reconstructed a unified picture of the events they present, and brought it to life in a masterful historical series, The Vikings of the New World Saga, consisting of two novels, God’s Daughter and this sequel. Faithful to known facts, she uses her imagination to flesh them out, and to reconstruct believable personalities for the major and minor players in the events. (I’ve read modern re-tellings of the sagas, though not the sagas themselves, and could recognize persons and events in both books.) The first book focused on Gudrid, former pagan priestess (now a Christian) and healer; I wouldn’t really characterize her as an action heroine, though she does pack a blade and is psychologically prepared to fight if she has to. However, this one focuses on her half-sister-in-law by a previous marriage, Freydis, out-of-wedlock daughter of Eirik the Red, and she’s most definitely a butt-kicking lady.

Historical fiction about real-life people uses imagination to reconstruct the details history leaves out, and especially the inner personalities and motivations that history may record imperfectly or not at all. The Icelandic sagas don’t remember Freydis kindly: she’s depicted as a vicious, treacherous psychopath who becomes the New World’s first mass murderer. BUT…. 1.) No historians, medieval or modern, are wholly free from biases that shape their reaction to their material. Gender relations in early Scandinavian/Germanic and Celtic society, as reflected in these books, were comparatively more egalitarian and meritocratic than those of the “civilized” states of southern Europe. By the 13th century, though, when the oral sagas were being committed to writing, the more patriarchal and stratified attitudes of the latter were re-shaping thought and practice in the northern lands. To these historiographers, a woman who clearly didn’t fit their picture of proper gender roles may well have been seen as an obviously deviant villainess by definition, whose actions called for censorious treatment. 2.) Even some of the details recorded by the saga compilers themselves, if one reads between the lines, cast doubt on the supposedly innocent and pacific intentions of Freydis’ adversaries. And 3.), the two key conversations in the sagas that cast Freydis in the worst light, taken at face value, were totally private conversations that none of the original tellers of the material could actually have been privy to. They’re imaginative reconstructions, just as much as Gilbert’s dialogue is –and they’re reconstructions created by writers with an ideological agenda of their own.

Gilbert follows the factual account of events in the sagas faithfully (even including the two conversations I find suspect). But she fleshes out the picture with a more sympathetic vision, and a broader reconstruction of a plausible context, that gives us a very different picture of what (may have) actually happened on the Vineland coast a thousand years ago. The Freydis who emerges here isn’t an evil harridan, and isn’t psychotic. What she is is a tough-as-nails young woman who’s the product of a society that puts a premium on physical courage and fighting ability, who’s had to fight tooth and nail for anything she’s ever gotten, who didn’t feel loved as a child, never knew her birth mother, and doesn’t show love or give trust very easily, a female warrior (in her culture, that wasn’t a contradiction in terms) who killed men in combat while she was still in her teens, who doesn’t readily take orders from any man, woman, or deity, and who isn’t a total stranger to the effects of the special kind of dried mushrooms imbibed by Viking “berserkers” –which are as potent as modern-day “angel dust,” and just as dangerous. She’s also a smart, competent woman (it says something that she’s the expedition leader here, not her husband) with principles as strong as steel, and deep reserves of love and loyalty. And like all of us, she’s a woman on a spiritual journey … which might not end where it began. In real life, the Vikings of succeeding generations never forgot her. Modern readers probably won’t, either.

Gilbert brings Freydis’ world vividly to life here, without employing info-dumps or cluttering the narrative with excessive details. (She includes a family tree for Freydis and a short list of other characters in the back, along with a short glossary of Viking terms used in the text; but I personally didn’t need the former, and with my Scandinavian background, the latter only included a couple of words I didn’t know –and I’d roughly deduced the meanings of those from the context already. Even readers who haven’t read much about Vikings, I think, could guess the definitions of all these terms the same way.) This is a very taut, gripping read, with a lot of suspense in the first part even when you know the general outline of the history, and the plot continues to hold dangers and surprises up to the denouement and beyond. It’s written in first-person, present-tense, which puts us inside Freydis’ head and bonds us to her quickly. As in the first book, the characterizations are believable and vivid. All told, this is historical fiction at its finest! I give it my highest recommendation, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Gilbert’s work.

I would strongly advise reading both books in order; they have many of the same characters, and it will help you as a reader to come to this book with the better and deeper understanding of the relationships, personalities and general situation that reading the first book will give you. Action heroine fans usually like other kinds of strong heroines as well, and Gudrid easily fits into that sorority.

Full disclosure: I was gifted with a free copy of this work by the author, just because she knew I wanted to read it. I wasn’t asked to give a favorable review (or, really, any review at all) –that had to be earned, and it was earned in abundance.

Author: Heather Day Gilbert
Publisher: WoodHaven Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Daughter of the Eagle, by Don Coldsmith

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

d-e-coverAlthough it’s self-contained enough to be read as a stand-alone, this is actually the sixth novel in Coldsmith’s popular Spanish Bit Saga, a multi-generational epic of the history of the Plains Indians after their culture is transformed by the coming of the horse, focusing on a tribe that calls itself (as most of them did) simply “the People.” (It’s a fictional, composite tribe, but probably modeled most closely on the Cheyenne.) In terms of style and literary vision, it has a lot in common with the series opener, Trail of the Spanish Bit, and the numerous other series installments I’ve read. However, it proved to be my favorite (and, I believe, my wife’s as well). Re-reading it, and re-experiencing parts I’d forgotten, was a reminder of how much I liked it the first time, and still do!

By now, our chronological setting is the late 1500s; we’re focusing on the granddaughter of Juan Garcia, the Spanish soldier who first introduced the People to the horse, and daughter of his older son Eagle (hence the book title). She’s known as Eagle Woman when the book begins, and will become Running Eagle later (in her culture, personal names can be changed with circumstances and status). When we meet her, she’s 19 (and the oldest girl in the tribe –or at least in her particular band of the tribe– still single). Like all children, both male and female, of her people, she grew up being trained in athletic pursuits and the use of weapons; she’s stronger and faster than most girls, and recognized as proficient with the bow.

Most men of hunting/fighting age among the People belong to the main warrior society. (The author does his usual excellent job of bringing the culture and its institutions to life here.) This group concerns itself with buffalo hunting –but also with tribal warfare, usually against the People’s traditional enemy, the Head-Splitters. (Unlike warfare in the European tradition, this isn’t concerned with political conquest, though jockeying for control of hunting territory plays a role in it; it’s more a matter of sporadic raiding to bring personal glory to warriors, and for stealing horses and slaves. But like all warfare, it’s a grim and ugly pursuit.) Our heroine is a “warrior sister” of the society, one of a few girls who take part in its rituals as priestesses. But for reasons of personal challenge and fulfillment, she makes a momentous decision near the beginning of the book: she’d like to take the unusual –but not culturally prohibited– step of seeking full warrior status in the society. This won’t necessarily require her to be involved as a member of actual war parties, and that isn’t her intended object in wanting to join. But the ways that circumstances develop are often not at all what people originally intend and expect….

One of my Goodreads friends who read this book wrote that she “couldn’t get into it.” That’s probably a result of Coldsmith’s writing style, which won’t be every reader’s cup of tea. He prefers straight narration to development of plot and characters through dialogue; so the latter takes a back seat to the former here. And where we have dialogue –and we have it, as needed– it tends to be terse and laconic, realistically reflecting the norm of a culture that devalued chatter and cultivated terse simplicity in everyday speech. Our three main characters are developed very well, IMO, but mainly by the author allowing us inside their heads, so we’re privy to their thoughts and feelings. This didn’t bother me; but if it would bother you, you may not “get into” the book either. Otherwise, the style is made to order for a quick read, with short chapters in 178 pages of text overall, and prose that doesn’t call attention to itself but carries you along on a white-water ride. The plot is exciting and increasingly suspenseful, and the literary craftsmanship first-rate (I considered the ending perfect!). There’s a good, clean romantic element; Long Walker is a fine leading male character, and the book has no issues of bad language or overly graphic content.

However, because Coldsmith is a male author, and he’s dealing with a plot in which rape occurs, some readers will find the latter fact problematical; it may be suggested that the only reason a male author could have to treat the subject at all is because of a morbid fascination with it, and/or that he’s “trivializing” it here. (Taken captive at one point, Running Eagle is subjected to sexual union with the enemy sub-chief who has a sick obsession with her, though the incidents aren’t directly described; she submits physically but not emotionally, remaining defiant, and isn’t reduced to emotional and mental ruin by the experience.) In the context of thousands of years of history in which women have repeatedly been victims of sexual violence, and a large percentage of present-day women have or can expect to be, sensitivity on this subject is completely understandable.

My honest response to the concern here would be that I think Coldsmith includes that component in his plot because in the historical setting it was a realistic danger that couldn’t be ignored, not because of any fascination with it (it’s glossed over too quickly to see it as being milked for any particular fascination); that he views it, and encourages the reader to view it, as evil and disgusting, and that he correctly sees it as being about power, not about normal sexual desire; and that the kind of female response to rape we have here doesn’t “trivialize” it so much as view it from a perspective of personal strength, in which a woman doesn’t choose to be self-marked or self-defined for the rest of her life by anything an enemy might do to her. Obviously, not all women, or all men, have that kind of inner strength; and anyone who’s left horribly psychologically scarred by traumatic abuse (of whatever sort) deserves our fullest compassion. But I personally think a response of personal strength provides a better role model for women in this situation than they get from, say, a writer like Thomas Dixon, with his advice to “defiled” rape victims that they commit suicide over it.

Author: Don Coldsmith
Publisher: Doubleday, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Queen of the South, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Literary rating: star
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

reina-novelDisclaimer at the outset: I haven’t read this novel from cover to cover. Seven years ago, I read the prologue and first three chapters; this time around, I read the first seven (re-reading the ones I’d read before), and skimmed the last ten and the epilogue –though I skimmed very thoroughly, taking about three hours and absorbing all of the major plot points. I feel qualified to give it a fair rating and review; but the level of bad language and grungy sexual content, blended with the tedious prose style and the wall-to-wall cynicism of the author’s literary vision (if we can call it that) made this too distasteful to read word-for-word any further.

Our title character here is Teresa Mendoza, who, when we first meet her, is a 22-year-old girl from Culiacan, Sinola, Mexico, a community dominated by the cross-border Mexican-U.S. drug traffic. Her boyfriend is a airplane pilot ferrying drugs for a local narco kingpin. But this boyfriend had a bad habit of defrauding his employer with side deals of his own and bragging about it when he was drunk; the prologue opens with her phone ringing to inform her that his boss has just had him killed –and that she’d better run, because the killers are on their way to dispatch her, too. Her resulting 13-year odyssey will take her to Spain (Perez-Reverte’s home country), see her eventually rise to control the drug traffic into and through southern Spain, and eventually bring her back full circle to the place of her birth and a reckoning with the past.

There’s a solid story here, which despite its seeming far-fetched improbability is plotted in a way that actually comes across as believable (except for Teresa settling and working in Spain under her real name, and not getting whacked within a matter of weeks!) and told with a few twists that I did not see coming, even though I’d skimmed the ending seven years earlier. The author appears to be extremely knowledgeable about the history and minutia of drug trafficking, at least up to 2002 when the novel was written (though he doesn’t quite understand that not all readers are necessarily as fascinated as he apparently is with every scrap of minutia). Teresa is a complex character, not one a reader will readily forget; and there are moments in the story that are quite emotionally evocative, even poignant.

However, the execution of the idea is wanting here, in several respects. First, Perez-Reverte gives us two interlaced narratives, Teresa’s own direct story in the third person and that of a journalist, in the first person, who’s piecing together her story from interviews with her (in the first chapter; most of the rest of her saga unfolds in flashback) and others who knew her. The actual meat of the story is in the former strand of narrative, however; the journalist’s really adds nothing except padding to bulk the book up to its 436 pages. There’s nothing of substance in his contribution that couldn’t have been conveyed much more economically, and with a more unified structure, by incorporating it into the third-person narrative. Every time we switch to his strand, there’s a marked loss of momentum and interest.

Even in the strand focused on Teresa directly, however, the prose is slow-moving, and detail heavy (about a third of the text could probably have been edited out without major damage, and it would have produced a quicker, more easily-flowing read). Given that it’s also peppered with constant f-words (probably incongruous for Spanish-language speakers) and other foul language and crude sexual content, both heterosexual and lesbian, for me it was a real chore to read as much as I did. Perez-Reverte (who’s the author of at least five other novels, though I haven’t read any of those) also affects a self-consciously “literary” style, with a lot of emphasis on his protagonist’s inner thoughts and on portentiously-described Significant Moments, which gets old quickly. In fairness to the author, the translator is probably responsible for the f-words and for the erroneous use of “clips” to describe ammunition magazines –and certainly for the frequent Spanish phrases left untranslated, apparently to give the text a Spanish flavor. (Most monolingual English-language readers would have preferred that he’d stuck to doing that with familiar words like “si” and “gracias,” that don’t need translation.)

reina-novel2For a writer who was so inclined, the subject matter here would be a gold mine for moral and social reflection. The storyline cries out for exploration of the (im)morality of a drug trade that corrupts and destroys every life it touches, of the roots of demand for drugs in modern society, of the inequities in Mexican government and society for which the drug trade is a symptom and a result, of the failure of the prison system as an instrument of rehabilitation or justice, and any number of other serious themes. Readers who bring the raw materials for such reflection with them to the book may indeed think about these things, but without any direct encouragement from the author. His basic message appears to be nihilistic cynicism; and if anything, he tends to glorify drug trafficking, in somewhat the same fashion as the “narcocorridos” that he quotes at times.

To the extent that he has a vision, it could fairly be summarized as: “Wow, Teresa is a tough survivor who climbs to the top of the heap against odds; isn’t she COOL?” Well –no. She is a tough survivor who can handle threatening situations with courage and resolution; she has intelligence and talents that could be put to more constructive uses than they get, and she demonstrates some instinctive basic decency in her face-to-face relations with people. But she’s incapable (or doesn’t want to be capable) of any reflection about the consequences of her actions for people who use the drugs she transports, and doesn’t come across as particularly likable or admirable in most ways that count. (We’re also asked to believe –unrealistically– that her own drug habit has no more psychological or physical consequences than chewing gum would have; and some readers probably will believe it, to their own detriment.) I wouldn’t characterize her as an evil villainess –but I wouldn’t call her a heroine or a role model, either.

Readers who frequent this site will, understandably, be interested in the book’s action component. I set Teresa’s kick-butt quotient at three stars as a matter of attitude; she’s pragmatic about the elimination of enemies, though unlike the drug lords of Sinola, she’s not into slaughtering their innocent families. (She may threaten it for effect, but the reader knows that on that score, her bark is worse than her bite; and she’s capable of mercy where others in her position might not have shown it.) But as far as any direct personal action on her part goes, she picks up and uses a gun here exactly twice, once near the beginning and once in the climactic shoot-out near the end. And that scene is described, in Perez-Reverte’s typically “literary” fashion, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style from a slightly befuddled viewpoint; he doesn’t handle the action with the clarity that some other writers would.

Author: Arturo Perez-Reverte
Publisher: Putnam, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.