Sunday, February 23, 2014

Blood Royal by Eric Jager

It was a cold November night in 1407. In Paris, the Duke of Orleans, younger brother of the King and the regent of France, was returning to his lodgings after dining with the queen. He was suddenly attacked by a group of armed men. They pulled him from his horse and hacked him to death. The group of armed, masked men then made their way through the streets terrifying any one who dared to look out of the doors or windows. Then simply vanished. The subsequent investigation and discovery of the person responsible for this action would affect the next twenty-five years of French history.

Louis of Orleans was an unpopular figure. His brother, Charles VI, suffered from recurring bouts of madness. Louis had been appointed regent to act when Charles was indisposed. Louis used his position to raid the national treasury for his own gain. He was a notorious womanizer who routinely seduced the wives of other nobles. He was also in a type of cold war with his cousin John, the Duke of Burgundy.

 In charge of the investigation of the murder was Guillaume de Tignonville, the provost of Paris. de Tignonville soon discovered the culprit. The man who ordered the assassination was none other than his cousin, the Duke of Burgundy. This revelation would plunge France into civil unrest for the next twenty five years. Henry V of England would use this unrest to invade France. The Burgundians would help the English in the war against the French crown.

This is a fascinating story about a turbulent time in French history. Jager does an excellent job of piecing this story together. The French aristocracy, particularly the royal line, comes across as one big dysfunctional mess. It’s the kind of story one would expect to see on an HBO original series. Illicit affairs, madness, opulent balls, murder, and mayhem. Against this story of the highborn Jager deftly weaves the stories of those less know to history. He gives us the story of the honest de Tignonville. A man whose integrity worked against him in the end. Readers of Shakespeare will recognize this figure and recall that he recaptured his honor by dying at the Battle of Agincourt.

We also get a glimpse of the justice system of medieval France. The public gibbets, the ways in which nobles and the clergy could escape justice. We also see the lives of normal Parisians. The beginning of the book gives us a glimpse into the lives of the men and women who lived and worked in the area where the assassination occurred. Dr. Jager’s writing is quite good. As a professor of literature at UCLA he is very knowledgeable about the period. He never falls into the trap that catches so many professional historians. He doesn’t beat the audience to death with obscure information and theories that add nothing to the narrative and only serve to impress the writer and other academics. This book is very scholarly and the material is well sourced. It is also well written and enjoyable to read.

I can highly recommend this book to lovers of history and to anyone who loves a good crime drama as well. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Spy For Hire by Dan Mayland

Mark Sava has retired from the CIA and is taking it easy in Kyrgyzstan. He is spending his days playing board games with the old men of his new hometown. His girlfriend Daria is trying to be supportive, but she is ready for him to get back to work. In the meantime she is running several orphanages in the region. The action in the novel starts when two men forcibly remove a young boy from one of the orphanages. There is only one road out of the region so Daria calls Sava and asks him to stop them. He does and suddenly finds himself in the middle of an international crisis. This small boy seems to be wrapped up in some scheme that involves the CIA and Saudi Intelligence. Sava has few people he can trust. Before he knows it his own distant past comes back to trap him.

Now, with the help of only a few close friends and some old trusted colleagues he has to face down agents who want to use this boy to manipulate the future of a nation. Sava has to balance all of the stories he is hearing against the well being of the child. Since everyone seems to be telling him half truths his job is that much harder. Along the way Sava has to confront some of his own personal demons.

The book is well written and very interesting. You don't find a lot of novels focusing on this the Central Asian republics that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. While Sava shows himself to be tough as nails he tends to use his brain for than his brawn. His enemies are cunning and devious, so is he. They show themselves capable of kidnapping, so does he. He is not an anti-hero though. Sava may bend the rules, but he still operates by a code. In many ways Sava reminds me a lot of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon. 

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good spy thriller novel. This is my first Sava novel, but it will not be my last. I hope to see Sava, Daria, and the rest of this new crew back in action soon.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Graveyard of Memories by Barry Eisler

A young man with no roots. A CIA agent manipulating government officials. A handicapped girl. Organized crime. These are the elements that make up Graveyard of Memories, the new John Rain thriller from Barry Eisler. This novel takes us back to the start of Rain’s career as an assassin. At the start of the novel John is a half Japanese, half American veteran of the war in Vietnam. He has returned to Japan, the land of his birth. He is working as a bad man for the CIA. He makes regular cash drops to a contact. He is told nothing and asks no questions. 

Everything falls apart when a group of punks jump him. As a cocky young agent he decides to take them on. In the fight he drops one of the punks hard on the pavement and kills him. The police don’t care, but there is a hitch. The punk he killed was the nephew of a powerful Yakuza boss. After an attempt on his life, Rain decides that the only way to stay in Japan is if the yakuza boss is dead. So he asks his handler for information needed to track the boss down. His handler agrees, but only if Rain will first kill a government official and make it look like an accident. Rain agrees and carries out his first hit.

Everything seems to go well as he embarks on his personal mission. Too well. Now he is suspicious of every one around him. To make matters more complicated he falls for Sayaka, a young Korean girl in a wheelchair. This young woman will introduce him to one of the passions that will define his later life: jazz music.

This book will set the stage for the man that Rain will become. At the beginning of the book he is a raw and untrained. As the story progresses he realizes that he must learn to pay attention or die. Eisler does an excellent job in developing his character. At the start he is young, arrogant, and not the most likable character. As the story progresses he grows quickly.

One of the most impressive parts of the book is Rain’s relationship with Sayaka. Eisler’s treatment of the difficulties facing a wheelchair bound young woman is moving and powerful. The young John Rain may be a bit of a blundering doofus at times, but the tenderness and passion he shows towards Sayaka help to both grow the character and our liking for the character. It is fascinating to watch this character kill several people with alarming skill and confidence, then to turn into a bumbling fool when trying to interact with this young woman. 

This is a very enjoyable novel. The story is based around real life events. The CIA was heavily involved in “financing” Japanese politics in the 1960s and the 1970s. Eisler was meticulous in his research about Tokyo in 1972, the year this novel takes place. He makes the city come alive for those of us who know little of the city or the culture. Most importantly the characters are fascinating and well written. All of the research, steamy sex scenes, and great action would not mean a thing if it wasn’t for the characters. Do yourself a favor. Get this book and get ready to have a good time.  This was my first Rain novel, but I can guarantee you that it will not be my last. 

From Jesus To The Church by Craig Evans

The first generation of Christianity is a subject that still continues to fascinate both scholars and general readers over two thousand years later. In this short volume Dr. Evans examines several topic concerning this first generation. This book grew out of a series of lectures given at a conference. In his introduction Dr. Evans states that his primary purpose is to examine the conflict between the family of Annas, the high priest, and the family of Jesus of Nazareth. He sees this conflict as underlying many of the violent confrontations experienced by the early church in Judea.

Dr. Evans gives an excellent background to the conflict. He traces the history of the first centuries BC and AD. During this period there was a lot of conflict between the leaders of the temple and reformers. Many groups accused the priestly leaders of corruption. Movements such as the Essenes rejected the leadership of the Temple completely and separated themselves from the larger Jewish community. Into this world came Jesus. His cleansing of the Temple was part of a larger conflict within Judaism.

Evans wanders over several topics in this volume. In fact the book only brushes by the thesis from time to time. This does not diminish the overall quality of the book. There is a lot of fascinating information throughout the book. He spends a good deal of time examining the conflicts that existed in the first Christian generation. As Gentiles began to come into the church a conflict grew between those who believed that the new converts needed to observe the laws of Moses and convert completely to Judaism and those who believed that this was no longer necessary.

While the book feels a little scattered and even redundant at times it contains a lot of excellent information and by examining the conflicts the early Jesus movement faced, both external and internal, Evans shows us the rich, diverse world of that period. This book is written as an academic book and so the general reader should be aware that there is some very technical writing here.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Deal by Adam Gittlin

Jonah Gray is a rising star in the world of New York Real Estate brokers. High dollar deals, women, booze, and drugs dominate his life. Then the opportunity of a lifetime comes his way. An old friend who owns a multi-billion dollar Russian oil company contacts him. It seems that his friend has decided to diversify his holdings and wants to invest in real estate. This is a huge deal There is only one hitch. The deal has to take place in three weeks. Jonah and the other associates at the small firm where he works go after this deal with everything they’ve got.

Then, without warning, everything starts to fall apart. He is used to juggling his job and his lifestyle, but when he meets a girl who seems to good to be true the lifestyle comes crashing in on him. On top of that he is unwittingly dragged into a heist. Now, as he scrambles to keep his life from falling apart and to make this deal happens he learns that you have to be careful who you trust and that everything that he knows is true may be built on lies.

The Deal is a fast paced, interesting novel. I have to be honest and say that I didn’t like the book very much at first. The story is told as a first person narrative. When the book begins Jonah Gray is a dope snorting, weed smoking, alcoholic, womanizer whose repulsive personality is only matched by his excessive ego. So when you have an immoral narcissist as your narrator the story can get old quick. I pushed on through and I found myself enjoying the story. There are a lot of plot twists and turns. At one point they can seem almost absurd when you look at them from the outside, But it works very well in the novel.

The author, Adam Gittlin, works in the world of commerical real estate so the parts of the novel dealing with that world are very informative. The characters are not very sympathetic at first, but that just gives Gittlin a lot of room to develop these characters. He does this very well. By the end of the book you find yourself interested in Jonah Gray. The Deal is full of surprises and plot twists. Overall it is a very good book. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys a good thriller. The next Gray novel is scheduled to release in March. I look forward to reading it.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Night of the Hunter by R. A. Salvatore

In The Companions R. A. Salvatore brought Drizzt’s old friends The Companions of the Hall back to life. He did this in an amazing original way. Our heroes were not simply resurrected, instead they were given the chance to come back as newborn children. When they were born they had all of their memories of their past life and were fully conscious of this from the moment of birth. The book followed the first twenty-one years of the new lives of Cattie-Brie, Bruennor, and Regis as they grow and develop in their new personas. Each of them faces challenges and each of them grows in understanding as they prepare to meet again in Icewind Dale to stand beside their friend Drizzt.

Night of the Hunter picks up where both The Companions and The Last Threshold end. Readers of Salvatore’s Drizzt books know that he likes keeping a lot of different plot strands going at once. In Night of the Hunter this tendency is taken to the limit. There are at least four main plot lines going throughout the book. There are several other minor ones as well and they all touch, move on, bump in to another, and ricochet off that I felt at times like I needed to keep a score card to keep up with every character and plot happening around me. We follow more intrigues of Menzoberranzan as the Baenre family seeks to increase it’s powerful hold on the city. These intrigues include the new Drow city of Q’Xorlarrin that is being constructed in the ancient dwarven city of Gauntlgrym. Add to that the continuing story of Drizzt and his new friends, and the more recent companions of Drizzt and you have quite the story.

The primary story line follows Drizzt and the Companions as they work their way back to Gauntlygrim. Their mission their is to find their old friend Thibbledorf Pwent who has been turned into a vampire. They want to find a way to put him to rest. It is great to watch the old companions adventure together once again. At the end of The Companions we see that Wulfgar chose to join them as well. For the first time we get a happy Wulfgar. The barbarian lived a life torn by conflicting duties in his first life. Now he is back for the adventure. He plans to live life to the fullest. Regis has also changed and is anxious this time around to be a full member of the companionship, not just a tag along. Cattie-Brie is now the wisest of the team. Her communion with the godess Mielikki has imparted a lot of knowledge and understanding. Bruennor is driven as never before to bring his people together. Drizzt seems a bit overwhelmed, first at the return of his companions from beyond the grave, then with the new dynamics that this team represents. Along the way he will have to face some uncomfortable truths.

If I have one complaint about this book it is that it is too short. I see that Salvatore has a lot that he wants to do with this new story. In many ways Night of the Hunter feels incomplete. It feels like there is a lot of setup for the next book or two. In that sense the book feels incomplete. That doesn’t diminish this volume at all. It is a great new chapter in the Drizzt saga. 

Over the years Salvatore has stood out in the fantasy genre with his abilities to grow and mature his characters. I’ve often been amazed at the emotional depth found in these stories that are on the surface simple sword and sorcery adventure novels. As he embarks on a strange and wonderful new adventure this skill is still there. Night of the Hunter is first and foremost a fun book. Salvatore manages the multiple plot lines with his usual skill. The fight scenes, one of Salvatore’s hallmarks are brilliant as always. His ability to include plot lines that contain everything from great political intrigues that may well change the world, to the emotional trauma of a single character caught up in that change keeps the story fresh and intriguing. Salvatore’s books are rarely ever slow and this volume keeps the pace moving. You find yourself flying through the book and at the end you are amazed that he is able to pack so much story into less than four hundred pages.

I received a free e-book copy of this volume for reviewing purposes. One way that I know I love a book is that immediately upon finishing the free e-book I pre-order the hardcover edition. I have limited space for books on my shelves so I only buy physical versions of books that I want to keep and read over and over again. This book lans in that category. Let me encourage every reader of the Drizzt saga to buy this book. If you have never read Salvatore’s Drizzt books then let me encourage you to start. This is some of the best fantasy writing out there.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Reaver by Richard Lee Byers

Last year a major new even began in the Forgotten Realms. The Sundering is a world changing event that is ushering in new changes to the Dungeons and Dragons gaming system as well as the world of the Forgotten Realms novels. The first three novels dealt with established characters. Some are relatively new and some have been around since the beginning of the Realms. Now in the fourth book bestselling author Richard Lee Byers introduces us to a new character: Anton Marivaldi. Marivaldi is a reaver, a pirate known for his bloodthirsty ways.

The novel opens with Marivaldi and his crew searching after Stedd Whitehorn, a boy who appears to be a prophet of Lathandar, the god of the dawn who was believed to have been slain. After capturing the boy Marivaldi’s crew turns on him and takes him prisoner as well. The wily Marivaldi is able to escape with Stedd. During this time the entire Sea of Fallen Stars is experiencing a major environmental disaster. The rain has fallen almost without a stop for a year. Crops are almost non-existent and the people are hungry and scared. Into this void has come the worship of Umberlee, the dreadful goddess of the sea. Her chosen is a former pirate Evendur Highcastle who she raised in undeath. Now Umberlee wants the blood of Stedd Whitehorn to increase her power. Szass Tam, the lich-lord of the Thayans wants the blood of Stedd Whitehorn. Stedd wants to preach the return of Lathander and help bring an end to the rains. Before the book is finished strange companions will come together as allies in the battle between the Chosen of Umberlee and the Chosen of Lathander.

Anton Maribaldi is a great new character. He comes from an honorable past, but has fallen to a low station. No matter how hard he tries to stay bad the young Stedd keeps talking him into doing the right thing. Normally I am not fond of stories where characters go from murderous rouges to honorable characters. Most of the time the transformation doesn’t make sense. Somehow Byers is able to make this transition believable. So much so that we almost forget about the bloodthirsty actions in the beginning of the novel. 

As the Sundering moves towards the finish we see change coming to the world. Old gods thought dead seem to be returning. The Spellplague seems to be coming to an end. Hope is returning to the world. Where will the future of the Forgotten Realms take us? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to make the journey.

After reading The Reaver I certainly hope that the future of the Realms holds more Anton Marivaldi stories. The book is well written. The characters are well rounded and interesting. This is great, classic sword and sorcery fiction. If you enjoy a good fantasy adventure novel then stop here and enjoy The Reaver. Afterwards, do what I plan to do. Go buy more of Richard Lee Byers novels and read those as well.

Red Hook by Gabriel Cohen

Red Hook
Gabriel Cohen
Open Road Integrated Media
Release Date: February 4, 2014

If you like well written crime novels the let me suggest that you pick up Red Hook by Gabriel Cohen. This is the first novel featuring Cohen’s detective Jack Leighter. Leighter is a top notch detective working for a special branch in Brooklyn. He is not assigned to an actual precinct, but instead works crimes throughout Brooklyn. He draws a case with a young murdered Dominican. There isn’t much to go on. The young man had a wife and two kids, a full time job, and now enemies. Everyone seemed to like him, but someone worked him over, stabbed him, and tried to hide the body in a canal

Leighter has very little to go on, but he just can’t let the case go. It isn’t that he has a lot to do with his life. He has been divorced for fifteen years and is unable to maintain any stable relationship. He barely speaks to his son. The one constant in his life is the job. Leighter is a complex character and as he investigates the case his own life begins to unravel at the seams. 

Red Hook is well written and spends as much time developing the character of Jack Leighter as it does on the actual case itself. You find yourself drawn into the character and you want to learn more about him. In many ways the book is about the end of an era. Leighter grew up in the working class community of Red Hook during the fifties and the sixties. He was the son of a Russian immigrant who came to the US and found would as a longshoreman. That neighborhood was killed when city planners decided to build a highway through the middle of the community. They uprooted shops and houses, and others had to move because of the noise. Now the area of his childhood is run down and killed with drugs and violence. Leighter must come to grips with the demons in his own past before he can move on and create stable relationships. Like Red Hook he has been scared by the world. The only question is will he be able to turn his own life around before it is too late.

Red Hook is a well written and enjoyable crime novel. The characters are intriguing and at the end you will look forward to reading the next Jack Leighter novel.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Adversary by Erin M. Evans

In her two Brimstone Angels books Erin Evans introduced us to the young tiefling warlock Farideh. The Adversary picks up where Brimstone Angels: Lesser Evils left off. Farideh is still trying to protect her sister Havilar form learning that they are descended from one of the most powerful warlocks and as such are considered collector’s items by certain devils. Faridah strikes a bargain with a devil to protect the two sisters for ten years. The devil keeps the first part of the bargain by suddenly dropping them seven and a half years in the future. The knowledge that they lost that time drives a wedge between Faridah and Havilar.

Farideh still has to keep her end of the bargain. This requires her to go to a hidden fortress, even though she doesn’t know what will happen. As she drops through the portal her one time traveling companion Dahl tries to stop her. Instead he is dragged along. Now they are trapped in a hidden fortress far from their friends. While Dahl hides in the nearby village Ferideh is forced to help an old enemy with some experiment involving the Chosen of the gods. These individuals are connected in some way with the cataclysmic events coming to the world of Faerun. Now Farideh and Dahl have to find a way to stop the schemes and plans that are swirling around them.

This is the third book featuring Evans’ character Farideh. Unlike many fantasy writers Evans takes time to develop her characters and to make us really care about them. Farideh is a very sympathetic character. She made a poor deal to protect her sister in a world that holds a powerful prejudice against her race. Havilar is tired of being dragged around in the maelstrom of her sister’s decisions, but she knows that she can’t abandon her. Then there is the failed paladin Dahl. Ever since final rejection by his order he has taken to drink. Now he has to overcome his own feelings of anger and guilt and try to save hundreds of innocents.

The Adversary is also the third book in the new Sundering series from Forgotten Realms. The books in this series are connected to each other only loosely. As the books progress you can see the events moving towards some end. Like The Companions and Godborn, The Adversary links the author’s character with wider events in the world. Over the last few years novels in the Forgotten Realms world have mentioned the Netherese Empire’s actions in collecting the Chosen of the gods. Now, for the first time, we see what is happening to these chosen.

Evans is an excellent writer with a great touch for making her characters really come alive. The pacing is perfect and story is compelling. I look forward to seeing Farideh and company again very soon.