The Sword of Conan by Robert E Howard [Gnome Press]

This is a collection of short stories, apparently from the middle of Conan’s career. The included stories are The People of the Black Circle, The Slithering Shadow, The Pool of the Black One, and Red Nails.

I actually liked all of them. The People of the Black Circle was the longest; it’s a cool arabesque adventure, with lots of riding among the steppes and plateaus, dark sorceries, and the like.

The Slithering Shadow doesn’t pull any punches; it begins with the heroes out of food and water, stumbling into the desert as the last remnants of an army, expecting to die. Then they come on a city of weird technology (it made me think of Hawkmoon style brass and jewels) that’s haunted by a demonic thing that slinks through the city…

The Pool of the Black One is an interesting depiction of life at sea… until they stumble on a bountiful island. Conan’s not a hero (he murders the captain unprovoked), until the Black Ones take the crew back to their enchanted pool…

Red Nails is an interesting–they encounter one giant house, with a war/feud among the remnants who are trapped within the walls for generations.

Each story partners Conan with a woman early–a different woman each time. Sometimes they are commanding and respected leaders, sometimes they’re fainting maidens, and sometimes she’s a skilled warrior in her own right. I could see “the women of Conan” as an interesting project from these 4 alone.

Ash by Malinda Lo

A great fairytale retelling, grounding the story and explaining (or justifying) the faerie interference. It’s long on setup–with Ash being acted on, as a child–but eventually she starts to stretch within the confines of her family.

There’s a cool element with the huntress, but that part seems underdeveloped–or, I suppose–mostly hinted at until the very end. The second debt seemed much thinner than the first–I could feel the rails of “must match” more strongly, but it’s imaginative and well told altogether.

While the above is a bit of faint praise, I did really enjoy the book and will look for other things that the author wrote.

Moon Flights by Elizabeth Moon

A neat collection of short stories; all well crafted and relatively uniform in length. They’re mostly books from her universes.

My reaction to stories mostly corresponded to the exposure to the source books. The one short story about the composer who hastily signs a contract was good and memorable — and unfamiliar to me. The stories in universes that I already liked (Paksenarrion), were cool additions to the universe — not required, but new slantwise reads on the way things are. The Vatta series came out well–I really liked “Say Cheese”, and may have to track down the novels that go with it. (The short story about the musician in Sparta was also interesting, but relied on familiarity with the culture (and maybe the hero) a bit too much for me to love it. The Ladies Arms short stories were humorous, but didn’t really grab me.

In the end, it was a fun read–and no clunkers.

Reread: League of Peoples novels by James Alan Garder

I recent reread the League of Peoples novels by James Alan Gardner, beginning again with Expedables It’s been almost 10 years since I last read it–and it was completely compelling, despite remembering the broad strokes. The technique of short punchy sections makes it feel like a popcorn book. The setting is great, as is Festina. If you need someone to do the impossible, call in an Explorer.

Vigilant is an interesting continuation of the world. It’s again a single world, and our Faye is messed up, but not in the deliberate way of Festina. It’s an odd world, with the plague casting an appropriately horrific shadow over everything.

Hunted follows Edward, whose mere presence leads to death and disruption around him everywhere. His Dad is a total dick.

Ascending is told from Oar’s perspective. Her naivete sometimes grates, but the Pollisand’s interference is interesting. We start to learn about the interference of the “higher” races; he walks the line a bit with pointing out cultures corrupted by laziness; the ties to our time were a bit transparent. Still, it’s a fun journey with great payoff–but you’ll really want to have read at least Expendables first.

Radiant finishes off the series. The Unity is a great addition to the universe, with different but comprehensible reactions to Earth and the technologies they were gifted. The trio (Ramos, Youn Sue, and Tut) play off of each other very well. It turns a bit philosophical; Youn Sue’s struggle against the Balrog is fascinating throughout.

The end is a bit ambitious and ambiguous–the Balrog explains the structure and purpose of the explorers and their role. It’s implied that their meddling is having great effects that we should expect to continue… which makes it ironic that this was the series end.

Radiant will spoil key elements in Ascending, so I suggest reading it as the finale. I enjoy Commitment Hour and Trapped, but they’re in a separate sequence–they’re about the “left behinds” of old Earth, not the League and Explorer Corps.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

A fast moving book about regret and missed opportunities–but in action, not reflection.

Jason Dessen is the hero of the story; a smart professor who has settled into a comfortable life with his family, teaching at a local college. Then it all goes sideways.

Jack was wise when he recommended it to me without much detail, just an enthusiastic recommendation to read it. I’ll say the same, mostly to avoid spoilers.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

This book was such an interestingly different future that after a few chapters I had to pause and check–was this a fantasy? Soldiers marching and formations that almost magically shield their members… I thought that we might have slipped into fantasy or an “indistinguishable from magic” space fantasy. But after Cheris calls in artillery and returns to the starship, some of the technology begins to feel familiar. It’s still not all familiar–there’s real invention, and not limited to any one field. One cool aspect is that on the fly mathematical calculations are required to tweak formations, and that math and geometry continue to perform important roles… despite never bogging the reader down in the equations.

Cheris is soon caught up in intrigue, promoted to terrific responsibilities… and saddled with a ghost. The world makes sense and flows with a strong semblance of order; it’s the way it is for tedious reasons that would bore us. Except that those tedious underpinnings often prove to be less stable and more interesting than you’d think.

It turns out that this is the first book in a series; I’m interested in seeing where it goes.

Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer

The conclusion to the trilogy. For this book we abandon the single POV and get a series of overlapping and parallel stories. Some of the story continues on from the Biologist and Control at the end of book 2, though we now see some of the action from her viewpoint.

We also have interesting chapters running alongside that deal with the beginning of Area X–before it was even a separate area. Plus we learn about the S&SB (though only indirectly), get more theories about Area X and its relationship to “the normal world”, etc.

It’s a more straightforward book, despite the many viewpoints and multiple timelines. It’s interesting to see the overlap and weirdness, and to find out more. An intriguing conclusion to an interesting trilogy.

Authority by Jeff Vandermeer

A new character, Control, brings a new viewpoint in the wake of Annihilation.

This book is largely about the organization that “manages” Area X, from the POV of a brand new director. Even on the “right side” of the border, everything is odd. As the book goes on, we learn more about the conditioning techniques that were applied to the expedition members.

In the end, it’s a sequel in topic–but with a new vantage point and different focus. In the background Area X still looms… but we now get hints as to the dysfunction that was involved in running it, the effects of being near the border, etc.

If you enjoyed the aura of mystery in Annihilation, you’ll probably enjoy the continuation of the story in Authority.

The Fireman by Joe Hill

The world ends before our eyes–not in a hazy before time, but as we read. Harper is our viewpoint character, and she’s very engaging. While her love of Mary Poppins may be going a little far, she’s exactly the conscientious neighbor we all want, or person we want to be. She does a good job of being selfless, but not in a fake feeling way.

The disease that’s killing everyone is tragic–and it’s clear that the old world is mostly over. Fortunately, it’s mostly over in a believable way, instead of a YA shortcut to societal dissolution. The limited viewpoint makes what’s obvious (and hidden) not always what an omniscient observer would find obvious, which is nice. Harper finding Harold’s notes is a nice way around their limited perceptions.

It’s also a more rugged tale of survival; the book covers about a year, not a deadly weekend. Old norms fall fast… but after watching our panic over Ebola in the west, it’s not that hard to imagine society failing to overcome the challenges of this much deadlier spore.

I look forward to reading more books by the author, though this story is done enough for me.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The novel is well written, about a group exploring a strange area that doesn’t quite conform o the world’s rules. While their minds aren’t wiped, they are subject to oddness–particularly in their perceptions. It pairs nicely with our strategically unreliable narrator.

Things fall apart very quickly and continue getting worse. The exploration is very well done; it’s not hard to imagine ourselves in the unnamed narrator’s shoes. (That’s one bit of interesting story building: the conscious avoidance of names–of the exploration crew, but also for just about everything. It makes the timelessness and undefined seem strategic…

Anyway, the rest of the trilogy also sounds interesting, so I’ll add them to my library queue.