Review of Last Call by Tim Powers

SFFaudio Review

Last Call by Tim PowersLast Call
By Tim Powers; Read by Bronson Pinchot
16 CDs – Approx. 19.1 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: December 2010
ISBN: 9781441757364
Themes: / Fantasy / Gambling / Immortality / Las Vegas / Poetry / Arthurian Legend / Greek Mythology / Egyptian Mythology

Scott Crane abandoned his career as a professional poker player twenty years ago and hasn’t returned to Las Vegas, or held a hand of cards, in ten years. But troubling nightmares about a strange poker game he once attended on a houseboat on Lake Mead are drawing him back to the magical city. For the mythic game he believed he won did not end that night in 1969—and the price of his winnings was his soul. Now, a pot far more strange and perilous than he ever could imagine depends on the turning of a card. Enchantingly dark and compellingly real, this World Fantasy Award–winning novel is a masterpiece of magic realism set in the gritty, dazzling underworld known as Las Vegas.

Tim Powers’ Last Call (1992 William Morrow and Co.; 2010 Blackstone Audio, Inc.) is studded with references to old myths, snatches of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” the art of poker playing, and the unique culture and atmosphere of old and new Las Vegas. It contains numerous major and minor characters, overarching themes and subplots, and digressions into probability theory. In other words, it demands close reading and attention to detail. Listening to it in half-hour chunks as I did while driving to work was probably not the best idea, and may have affected my review of the book, but what follows is an honest appraisal.

There’s a lot to like in Last Call, and I lot I liked. At its heart it’s really about the vast, mysterious forces driving the universe and the ways in which they manifest in our lives. Why does tragedy pass over a criminal and take a good person instead? Why does a disease like cancer randomly strike a family man with a wife and children to support? Although life appears chaotic and meaningless, perhaps there are active, purposeful forces of fate at work as well, old gods that exist outside our typical suburban lives but can be sought out and appealed to, and even manipulated. In Last Call Powers breathes new life into ancient myths like the Arthurian Fisher King, the Greek god Dionysus, and the Egyptian goddess Isis, incorporating themes of resurrection and physical health tied to spiritual health. These ancient demigods reappear in the forms of unlikely modern-day characters, including broken-down ex-gambler Scott Crane and his estranged foster-sister Diana. Last Call also includes a cast of memorable bad guys, including a bloated fat hit man Trumbull who is convinced that eternal life can be had through the consumption of raw flesh, and the chief baddie Georges Leon, a mystic who achieves immortality through stealing and possessing the bodies of the living. Crane is the central figure in the story, a man who in 1969 played a portentous game of Assumption with a powerful set of tarot cards. Twenty years later Crane returns for a second game against Leon with nothing less than his soul on the line.

Last Call is ultimately a hopeful book, as it implies that there may be a purpose to our lives and a way to control one’s destiny, if you can read the cards and master the archetypes of the Tarot. In Powers’ hands playing cards are a metaphor for the mysteries of life and the skill and luck required to navigate its uncertain waters.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods employs a similar conceit of old gods reincarnated in the modern world but I must say I enjoyed Gaiman’s take better. Powers is a talented writer and I enjoyed his descriptions of the seedy soul of Las Vegas, as well as some memorable set-pieces he creates, including an encounter with the ghost of the infamous gangster Bugsy Siegel beneath the waters of Lake Mead. But the slow pace of the narrative, the meandering plotline, the too-numerous characters and plotlines that drop in and out of the story without sufficient explanation and resolution (Crane’s wife Susan, for example), and tedious descriptions of card game after card game make Last Call a difficult listen and at times an outright chore, despite the fine narration by Bronson Pinchot.

Perhaps my lukewarm reaction to Last Call has something to do with the fact that I I’m not a fan of card playing; Vegas is a cool place to visit and I’ve tried my hand at a few slot machines, but sitting down at a table in the company of hardcore gamblers has zero appeal for me. If you read Last Call watch closely for the signs, the subtle flush of cheek or restless eyes that the best card players know how to detect and interpret. As for casual readers: Beware.

Posted by Brian Murphy

Review of We’re Alive: A Story of Survival – Season One

SFFaudio Review

Blackstone Audio - We're Alive: A Story of Survival - the First SeasonWe’re Alive: A Story of Survival – Season One
By Kc Waylan and Shane Salk; Performed by a full cast
12 CDs – Approx. 14.2 Hours [AUDIO DRAMA]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2011
ISBN: 9781455114580
Themes: / Horror / Zombies / Post-Apocalypse / Los Angeles /

This exciting audio drama is based on an immensely popular podcast that has received hundreds of positive reviews and has had over four million downloads—and counting.

Uneven and slightly amateurish, but also fun, mildly addictive and highly listenable, We’re Alive: A Story of Survival, the first season (Modern Myth Productions, LLC) should appeal to fans of the zombie/post-apocalyptic/survivalist genres.

Unlike most audiobooks, which typically feature a single narrator reading text in unadorned style, We’re Alive is an audio drama. It employs a large cast, incorporates a wide range of sound effects, and is scripted in a way that caters to the ear, emphasizing dialogue and interpersonal relationships over lengthy descriptive narrative. Our minds are left to fill in the gory details, and it works. It’s simultaneously fresh and retro, reminding me of what the old radio shows of yesteryear must have been like. We’re Alive was launched and remains an ongoing podcast (check it out HERE) but you can obtain the entire first two seasons from Blackstone Audio, Inc.

The storyline is about what you’d expect: A zombie apocalypse strikes without warning, quickly overwhelming most of the population. Three young Army reservists (Michael, Angel, and Saul) commandeer a humvee and seek out survivors in downtown Los Angeles. After rescuing a couple civilians they find an apartment building, clear it of zombies, and begin to fortify it, rigging it up with a generator and stocking up on food, water, and ammunition. More survivors eventually trickle in and/or are rescued by the group, including Burt, an aging Vietnam veteran who acts and sounds a lot like Clint Eastwood. Soon there’s a small but thriving community holed up in the apartment building.

We’re Alive has a few problems. I had a hard time distinguishing between some of the women. The men are generally given more agency and are more fully developed characters. There are some writing weaknesses, including characters that bicker and bitch over trifles and at times seem more concerned with saving face than staying alive. This creates plenty of distractions and gets the group in more trouble than it should, at first with zombies and later with a greedy, nasty group of human convicts (the “Mallers”). Also, a few of the characters’ skill-sets seem a bit too fortuitous (one of the women is a pro archer — rather convenient).

The story also uses zombies that break sharply with most undead traditions. Some have a rudimentary intelligence, at least one can talk and strategize, and at times they are directed by some unseen controlling force to capture and carry away their victims rather than consuming them. While I’m not a strict zombie purist, these traits lessen their scare factor and weakened them as a threat. Zombies are at their best when they’re relentless, merciless eating machines; take away that characteristic and they become caricatures. There’s even some species of large zombie monsters lurking in the background, though they’re not described well and it’s impossible at least through season one to determine if they’re a large zombified animal or a creature of pure fancy. In short, if you’re a zombie purist, or expecting undead in the Romero mold or new Dawn Of The Dead style, be prepared for a lot of “rule breaking.”

But We’re Alive also has plenty of good things going on, enough to give it my recommendation. Most of the characters grow on you and the voice acting is reasonably good. There are enough plot twists and turns to keep you guessing. There’s a hardly a dull moment—when not fighting the undead or the Mallers, the survivors are fighting amongst themselves, often chafing against Michael’s inflexible never-question-my-orders military style of leadership. Ex-lawyers and teachers find themselves growing vegetables on the rooftop, serving as quartermasters, or standing guard duty, with inevitable grousing and dereliction of duties. As the survivors’ supplies start to dwindle, they’re forced to take increasingly dangerous runs for food and ammo into the “hot zone” of zombie and looter-infested downtown L.A. There’s also a larger backstory about the hows and whys of the zombie outbreak that’s still unrevealed but will undoubtedly be a part of latter seasons.

While it lacks the moral/philosophical questions and hardcore grittiness of The Walking Dead, We’re Alive is nevertheless fun stuff and I’m looking forward to listening to season two.

Posted by Brian Murphy

Aural Noir Review of The Hook by Donald E. Westlake

Aural Noir: Review

AUDIOGO - The Hook by Donald E. WestlakeThe Hook
By Donald E. Westlake; Read by William Dufris
MP3 Download – Approx. 7 Hours 17 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: AudioGo
Published: 2012
ISBN: 9781609988654
Themes: / Crime / Murder / New York /

Bryce Proctorr has a multimillion-dollar contract for his next novel, a trophy wife raking him over the coals of a protracted divorce, a bad case of writer’s block, and an impending deadline. Wayne Prentice is a fading author in a world that no longer values his work. He’s gone through two pseudonyms, watched his book sales shrivel, and is contemplating leaving the writing life. Proctorr has a proposition: If Prentice will hand over his unsold manuscript to publish under Proctorr’s name, the two will split the book advance fifty-fifty. There’s just one small rider to the deal…

I’m a literal babe in the woods when it comes to mystery/suspense. The Hook by Donald Westlake would be … the first book I’ve ever read in the genre. No, really. So if you’re interested in an evaluation of The Hook’s place among the all-time great works of crime fiction, or of learned comparisons to other like authors and works, you’ve come to the wrong place. But if you’re interested in reading the opinion of a purely neutral observer—a Fantasy/SF fan’s clear-eyed observations of a completely alien genre—read on.

I liked The Hook. It was a lot of fun. It’s obviously the product of a man with a lot of writing experience under his belt. This certainly describes Westlake (1933-2008), a legend in the genre more than a hundred novels and non-fiction books to his credit. The prose is effortless and engaging, the dialogue convincing. It’s mainly suspense, not action, though the violence is unexpected and shocking, and well-portrayed.

Bryce Proctorr is a bestselling mystery/suspense author in the midst of an ugly divorce with a terrible case of writer’s block. With his bills mounting, alimony looming, and a million-plus dollar advance hung up on a book he cannot produce, Bryce asks a former friend, Wayne Prentiss, a struggling mid-list author, to give him his manuscript in exchange for half the advance. The only caveat: Wayne has to kill Bryce’s wife first. Yikes.

The ending is not predictable, save as one possible outcome among many. Westlake keeps you guessing: Have Wayne and Bryce sufficiently covered up their tracks? Will the persistent New York detective Johnson solve the crime? Will Wayne decide that Bryce is too unbalanced and kill him to save his own skin? Will Bryce go off the deep end, cracking under the strain of covering up an awful deed and the mounting pressures in his life? These questions keep you reading on to a chilling end.

In addition to its intrigues The Hook also contains an interesting insider’s look at the publishing business and the squeeze put on midlist writers with the advent of the computer. Wayne’s lament: The bookstores took on 5,000 copies of his last book but only sold 3,100. So for his next work the computer recommends an order of only 3,500 copies. The result is thinner national distribution and lower sales: Wayne’s next book only moves 2,700 copies. So the computer calls for an order of 3,000. And so the downward spiral continues. His advances fall from $75,000 to $20,000. Wayne hits on a workaround: Writing under a pen name, he is able to get a good advance as a “first time” author with a good book. But when his pen name suffers the same fate, he takes up Bryce on his offer to collaborate as a behind-the-scenes ghostwriter. And so the events of The Hook unfold.

It’s hard to go into too much additional detail, lest spoilers ensue. But I will say I can definitely see the appeal of mystery/suspense, which lies in its unpredictability, the tension within and between the characters, and not knowing how or even whether a character’s bad deeds will go unpunished. Will I become a regular mystery reader? Probably not. Would I read something else by Westlake, should the chance arise? Certainly yes. The man can write.

William Dufris does a fine job narrating the tale; my only criticism is his voice portrayal of Bryce Proctorr, which seemed a little too reminiscent of J. Peterman of Seinfeld fame. Overall he has a fine voice for mystery.

Posted by Brian Murphy

Review of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - The Name of the Wind by Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind
By Patrick Rothfuss; Read by Nick Podehl
28 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: 2011
Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Magicians / University /

The emperor may have clothes, but they didn’t fit me
A review by Brian Murphy

What do you want out of your fantasy? Exotic places? People different than the ones you know? High language? The clangor of battle? Wonders cold and distant and magnificent? The calling of silver trumpets? You don’t get any of this in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. It feels very … pedestrian, and common. Rothfuss’ created world is very much like our own, and is altogether too much with us. Worst of all, its protagonist is annoying as hell. In my opinion.

I was fully prepared to love The Name of the Wind. I knew about the overwhelmingly positive reviews on Amazon, and the rave reviews from bloggers whose tastes and opinions frequently mirror my own. I was excited to see fantasy/SF luminaries like Robin Hobb, Ursula LeGuin, and Orson Scott Card (“He’s the great new fantasy writer we’ve been waiting for,” the latter wrote) singing its praises, and was fully prepared to do the same.

But the long and short of it is this: I didn’t love this book, and for long stretches, I didn’t even like it. Which makes me a bit sad, as I too was anticipating the arrival of a new great hope to emerge (or rescue, depending on your point of view) from the current crop of fantasy writers. As it turns out, I’m still waiting.

All that said, I recognize The Name of the Wind as a pretty solid artistic endeavor. In no way would I describe it as objectively bad, and the more I thought about it, I realized that it’s just not to my tastes. So I thought I would detail in this review why I didn’t like it, and then speculate on a few of the reasons why so many others have found it appealing. Of course, since I didn’t like The Name of the Wind very much, this review will spend much more time on the former, so be prepared.

The Name of the Wind is the first in a planned trilogy called The Kingkiller Chronicles. It details the life and times of a young man named Kvothe, a brilliant and talented magician doing his best to stay out of the limelight by posing as a simple innkeeper. When we meet Kvothe he’s in his early to mid 20s and is already a legend, though the events of his life have been exaggerated and mythologized. The Name of the Wind is essentially about a single day in which Kvothe sets the record straight for the loremaster Chronicler by giving the latter the full and true account of his youth and his subsequent rise to fame. We learn about Kvothe’s upbringing with a traveling group of minstrels and performers, to his days as a homeless street urchin, up through his first year at a University for wizards.

The Name of the Wind is epic fantasy length-wise (approximately 700 pages, and 23 discs in the audio version), but has nothing to do with J.R.R. Tolkien. It has everything to do with Harry Potter—Potter with a harder edge, yes, but Potter, unmistakably. When I read the description of the book and some of the reviews on Amazon I was expecting something closer to Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series—mythic, serious, a book with lessons to teach us about human nature and our place in the world. Instead I got a harmless, overlong soap opera.

I think we need a new name for this type of fantasy. This “positive” review (“Lovely and Undemanding” by Jo Walton or expresses one of my problems with the novel: its lightweight nature. Writes Walton, “It’s not very demanding—and I wonder if that’s precisely part of its wide appeal and success… I wonder if “undemanding” is something we actually seek in fantasy, if it’s part of the star quality that DAW instantly recognised in Rothfuss? … The Name of the Wind is a lovely read, but at the end there isn’t much to say about it.”

There is something to say about The Name of the Wind, of course, but the word that comes to mind is ordinary. I don’t mind applicability to the real world in my fantasy fiction, but what I don’t want is 1:1 equivalency. Aside from some sprinkled anachronisms (calling a week “a span,” or invoking the name of “Tehlu” instead of God) Rothfuss’ world is too much like our own. Half or more of the book is about Kvothe’s struggles with … student loans. Most of the problems Kvothe encounters are pedestrian: Young love, separation from his parents, completion of school projects on time, teachers who just don’t understand him. His college days also suffer from what I would call 90210 syndrome—despite the heavy workload we’re assured he’s suffering under, Kvothe seems to have endless time for hanging out with friends and sipping wine at the bar, or saving the town from marauding dragons. Which is much cooler than schoolwork, of course, but not entirely realistic. This is a problem, given that one of the conceits Rothfuss employs in The Name of The Wind is that he’s telling us a “real” story as opposed to a cliché fantasy. He uses the construction, “Now if this were a book, then X would have happened, but this is not a fantasy, and so here’s the real truth,” time and time again. But the problem is we never once feel like we’re in something other than a well planned, well coordinated, safe fantasy. Rothfuss does not have the maturity as a writer to pull off this conceit, in my opinion. Despite its claims to the contrary The Name of the Wind is a genre novel in every sense of the word. Again, that’s not a bad thing, and many readers have enjoyed it and will continue to do so. But let’s not pretend it’s anything more than another Belgariad.

This brings me to my first major problem with The Name of The Wind: I don’t like Kvothe. I don’t need to identify with the main character to enjoy a story, but I have to at least enjoy residing in their head space. I come up just short of actively despising the dude (Rothfuss does deserve praise for evoking that reaction in me, but I would bet it wasn’t his intent). The only way to explain Kvothe is that he is some avatar of the Gods. It’s utterly impossible for a boy his age to know what he knows. A precocious human child does not even come close to explaining his impossible adroitness and encyclopedic knowledge. Even after spending three years as a homeless street urchin, during which he did little but beg for coins and bread, Kvothe can rattle off every historical and anatomic question thrown at him by a brilliant panel of instructors to gain admission to the university. At one point he finds a dead man with a crossbow and knows how long the man has been dead, the type of crossbow he’s using, its cost, its usage, the fact that it’s illegal, etc. This is supposedly a medieval setting and yet what we have in Kvothe is a medieval McGyver, a walking Wikipedia page, applying scientific rigor and clear-headed rationality to every situation he encounters (another thing that irks me: The medieval tech level of Rothfuss’ world makes no sense. We have a college of brilliant teachers who have mastered anatomy and physics and every natural science known to man, yet are stuck reading rare books over candlelight and riding on horses).

One Amazon reviewer said that “Kvothe’s cockiness, arrogance, and impatience are constantly and quite believably landing him in trouble.” Except that they really don’t. Kvothe is not cocky and arrogant, save on a very superficial level. Impatient, yes. But his impatience lands him in minor scrapes from which he emerges undamaged or perhaps lightly scathed. He is, basically, perfect in every way, able to overcome every challenge with ease. For example, Kvothe takes the stage at a prestigious tavern to “earn his pipes,” a challenge which requires him to play before a tough, knowledgeable crowd to earn the distinction of master musician (yes, he’s an incredibly gifted lute player too. I didn’t mention that yet?). A jealous student sabotages Kvothe’s lute string so that it breaks at the height of his performance. But Kvothe is unflappable. It’s not even a real crisis, just a chance for Kvothe to again prove that he is that much better than we could have even thought. He finishes the most difficult song in the land with five strings and doesn’t miss a beat. Afterwards the audience weeps uncontrollably. There always seems to be a crowd around to applaud his every word. Hordes of faceless onlookers cheer his every act, applaud his every song, laugh at his every joke.

Kvothe’s only reported “fault” is his awkwardness with women and his inability to understand them, yet during one scene he compares his love Denna to a half dozen flowers with practiced, poetic ease, wooing her as no suitor before ever could. Denna returns the favor, spending paragraphs describing how Kvothe’s eyes change color when his emotions are aroused and how beautiful his red hair is. Kvothe flatters her back, telling her that only one other person has ever noticed that his eyes change color… this is bad romance novel stuff.

As for its originality? Sorry, I’m not seeing that either. The magic system seems very much cribbed from Ursula LeGuin, the conceit that knowing the true name of something grants you power over it.

So after all that grousing what is there to recommend about The Name of the Wind? At the sentence level Rothfuss is a pretty good writer. I think he’s better than Terry Brooks, and better than Stephen Donaldson. The Name of the Wind is compulsively readable, which is no mean feat. Stephen King has been labeled by a number of critics as pedestrian or lightweight, yet most of these guys can cite chapter and verse of his books and have apparently read all of them straight through. That’s because he’s so darned readable. So is Rothfuss. The story is easy to follow and carries you along to the end.

Second: Rothfuss gives you a lot of cool stuff to gawk at. Teachers engaged in a decades long war over the proper way to shelve books. A room where papers are cast to the wind and land on tiles labeled with “yes,” “no” and “maybe,” answering your questions unerringly like a medieval magic eight ball. And so on. Again, very Harry Potter-esque with its fine imaginative touches. Rothfuss also embeds lots of “Easter Eggs” and bits that prove significant later on, or lead the reader to speculate about their importance in the story. There’s lots of chatter by fans about why the evil Chandrian are so secretive, what the Underthing (mysterious passages and rooms beneath the school) are all about, and so on.

Yet a third reason: The Name of the Wind is a nice change of pace from the “GrimDark” fantasies of Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, and Richard Morgan, where everyone is a bastard and ends up raped, or dead, or both. We can cheer for Kvothe, and enjoy his scrapes, and perhaps remember what it was like to love our first girl with an unrequited love, or when we could barely scrape together six bucks on a Thursday night for a pizza.

In summary, The Name of the Wind is the product of a good writer with a lot of potential but did not deliver what I was looking for. Your mileage will vary, of course.

Posted by Brian Murphy

Review of Hide and Seek by Jack Ketchum

SFFaudio Review

Horror Audiobooks - Hide and Seek by Jack KetchumHide and Seek
By Jack Ketchum; Read by Wayne June
5 CDs – 5.5 Hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audio Realms
ISBN: 9781897304402
Themes: / Horror /

Dead River’s a sleepy little town on the coast of Maine without much going for it. The Great Depression hit hard and never let go. Even now, sixty-odd years later, there’s not much to do, not much going on. So that when a trio of friends, rich college kids, arrive there on a forced march with their parents for summer vacation they have to make their own amusements. And they do, in spades.

So what scares horror writers? I imagine something like this: They draw back the curtain to provide the audience with a full look at their half-hidden ghosts, only to find that their readers react with indifference instead of terror at the final reveal.

This scenario has happened to me more than a few times during my reading experience, which is why I think that the old saw that horror writers “choose” not to write about vampires and zombies and ghouls because they’re “overused” and “cliche” is so much bullshit. Horror writers avoid these elements not because it’s hard to write about them, but because it’s hard to write about them believeably.

Jack Ketchum’s 1984 novel Hide and Seek unfortunately suffers a bit from this malady. Although its monsters are not truly supernatural, Ketchum’s novel contains a beast that really isn’t very scary, and its appearance towards the end of the book is a bit of a letdown–at least from my point of view.

Of course, it’s only a letdown because the buildup to that point is so damned compelling.

Hide and Seek is set in Dead River, a sleepy, depressed tourist town on the coast of Maine, and follows the story of a 20-year-old townie, Dan Thomas. Dan is living a life of inertia (“A tired life breeds tired decisions,” Ketchum writes), but the arrival of Casey, Kim, and Steve, three rich teenagers vacationing with their parents for the summer, shakes up his routine. Although he’s from a very different background, Dan is drawn to Casey, a beautiful but cynical and wild girl with a volatile, dangerous streak in her. She returns his affections and Dan becomes an accepted part of the group.
The teens like to get their kicks by breaking the rules–skinny dipping and petty thievery, mostly. So when Dan tells them about the old Crouch residence–an abandoned coastal house with a grim past that includes rumors of a cannibalistic couple and a pack of wild dogs–the lure is too much to resist. Casey suggests a game of grown up hide and seek without flashlights at night in the house, and the fun (and horror) ensues.

I’ll try not to spoil anything, but suffice to say that Hide and Seek has much more going on under the surface than a teenage slasher or haunted house movie. Hide and Seek is about the darkness we have inside of us. In a play on the title, Casey has her own dark secret that she keeps buried and hidden. Seeking it out at its dark core proves very dangerous, indeed.

The old Crouch house contains a tunnel of horrors in its dusty basement. Read as a symbol, the journey into this dark and rotten place is a voyage inside Casey’s bleeding psyche. A horrible, vile truth lurks in this void, but it must be faced and stamped out if she is to become whole.

Hide and Seek begins with a brief meditation on how fate and chance are unpredictable, and how even a single, awful event can twist and ruin someone for the rest of their life. For Casey, a moment of unforgiveable weakness by her father in her 13th year causes her to develop a wild, nihilistic streak that threatens to consume her. Only when she finally faces her fear–the beast in the cave–does Casey grow up:

In the midst of all the terror, we were happy. The caves had shown us the worst the world could do to you. And for just a moment, something of the best.

But Ketchum is not a typical writer and happy outcomes are not guaranteed. His horrors–and those endured by Casey–are mean and nasty, and can kill.

In summary, if viewed in a purely psychological sense, Hide and Seek works and its implications are frightening. But with a literal reading in the cold light of day, the things in the Crouch house aren’t really so frightening, after all.

Hide and Seek is read by Wayne June, and although I’ve said it before I’ll say it again: The guy has a voice made for horror. He’s not only dark and creepy sounding, but he imbues the text with passion. June is quickly becoming the “George Guidall” of horror.

Note: Hide and Seek is Ketchum’s second novel and, although I still recommend it as a cracking good read, his later stuff (The Lost, The Girl Next Door) gets better.

Posted by Brian Murphy

Review of Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold! by Terry Brooks

SFFaudio Review

Magic Kingdom for Sale: SOLD! by Terry BrooksMagic Kingdom For Sale: SOLD!
By Terry Brooks; Read by Dick Hill
12 CDs – 14 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: 2008
ISBN: 9781423350125
Themes: / Fantasy / Magic /

If you like a big, heaping helping of vanilla with your fantasy, you’ll probably like the flavor of Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold. Me, I’m a New York Super Fudge Chunk guy and I thought Magic Kingdom tasted lousy.

Yeah, that’s harsh. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, etc. etc. But I have an obligation to review Brooks’ work for two reasons: I owe it to this website, and I figure I might steer away a couple potential readers who might stumble with tragic results into the banal minefield that is Magic Kingdom.

To be fair, Brooks can write, in terms of stringing grammatically correct sentences together. I’ve read much, much worse stuff than Magic Kingdom. I also have fond memories of Brooks’ Sword of Shannara series, which I read as a teenager and liked (although I knew even then that they were derivative of Tolkien). But I’m afraid to revisit Shannara these days, especially after Magic Kingdom. I just know its not going to hold up.

Magic Kingdom is the tale of Ben Holiday, a 40-year-old lawyer burned out with his profession and his life, having lost his wife to a car accident and finding no satisfaction in his work. While thumbing through a specialty catalog he finds a literal magic kingdom for sale for a million bucks and decides to make the purchase. The broker, a wizard, whisks Holiday away to the fantastic realm of Landover, a once shining kingdom now in serious decline. The land is failing and the great castle of Sterling Silver is tarnished because Landover has been without a king for 20 years.

Holiday soon finds out that he’s not the first king to try to ascend to the throne in that time, however. Far from it. Instead, he’s been duped by the broker, and learns that dozens of previous kings have failed before him, and were meant to. Landover’s peoples are bitter and disenchanted with the string of would-be kings turned failures, and Holiday has a fight on his hands to win their pledges.

But Holiday has help in the form of a doddering old wizard (Questor), a talking dog who once served as a court scribe (Abernathy), a beautiful shape shifting sylph named Willow, a pair of Kobolds, and a pair of hairy, grubby, earth-tunneling gnomes.

The biggest problem I had with Magic Kingdom is that this is kids’ stuff, but it’s not labeled nor probably intended as such. I don’t buy that Magic Kingdom is written for an adolescent audience: its clearly marked as “adult fiction” on the cover of the audiobook I’ve reviewed. Nor is its subject matter for adolescents: At its heart it’s about a man’s middle-age crisis, hardly the stuff to captivate a young audience. And because Magic Kingdom doesn’t know what it wants to be, it suffers mightily. I enjoy good adolescent fantasy lit–C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and Nancy Farmer’s The Sea of Trolls, for example, are terrific reads for folks of any age–but Magic Kingdom failed to satisfy my grown-up tastes, or my childhood love for good, simple stories.

Secondly, Landover as a world is completely unrealistic and devoid of any personality or charm. With generic place names like “The Greensward,” “the Deep Fell,” “The Wasteland,” and “The Mountains of Melkor,” Landover may as well be anywhere fantasy USA. And the way Brooks describes Landover you’d think it was the size of a postage stamp–two sentences of description here and there and Holiday and his crew have traversed the whole continent without breaking a sweat.

Thirdly, I didn’t much like the main character. There’s nothing to dislike about Holiday, but there’s not much to like, either. He’s bland and featureless. Holiday stumbles around most of the story, avoiding scrapes by luck or occasionally pluck and wit, but mostly because he’s “fated” to become king. He’s revealed as the chosen one almost from the outset of the story, so there’s really no tension or doubt that he will ascend to the throne of Landover. I also found his companions extremely annoying. The kobolds, gnomes, and even Abernathy and Questor resemble a troupe of circus clowns who are there to provide levity, a sounding board for Holiday’s questions, and occasionally bail him out of trouble, but do little else.

Fourthly, the underpinnings of the story have some serious flaws and holes. We find out that the evil wizard who “sells” Landover to Holiday is doing it for the money. Keep in mind that this is a wizard who has powerful magic at his disposal—and can use it freely on Earth—but can’t seem to figure out how to use it to make a few honest bucks. Lame. Brooks draws some extremely tenuous connections between the health of the king and the health of the land, an old Arthurian trope that is not at all developed in Magic Kingdom. Other than a few brief mentions of blighted crops, swirling mists and gloom, and some unhappy farmers, there’s no overt suffering, darkness, or disease, nor any explanations about why a king is needed to restore the land’s health. In short, I had no emotional investment in whether Holiday succeeded or failed in his mission because I didn’t find myself caring about him or the plight of Landover. By the conclusion of the story I was simply glad to see it end.

I could go on and on with the criticisms (the evil wizard allowed Holiday, a brilliant lawyer and a golden gloves boxer, to buy Landover because he thought Holiday was a good candidate to fail at becoming king?) but it’s like shooting ducks in a barrel. I do think there is an audience for Magic Kingdom, and you could do worse if you’re looking for a brainless beach read, but suffice to say that it’s not for readers like me.

I will conclude on one positive note: Narrator Dick Hill does an admirable job holding this mess together with a fine reading voice. His work depicting Questor and Strabo, the dragon, is nicely done, and adds value to the audiobook.

Posted by Brian Murphy