Review: Smoke and Mirrors – Short Fictions and Illusions

Book: Smoke and Mirrors – Short Fictions and Illusions

Author: Neil Gaiman

My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Recommended for: Die hard Neil Gaiman Fans

Reading this book was like sticking my hand into a large jar of loose change. Most of the time you are going to pull out a penny or a nickel, but every once in a while you find that holy grail – the elusive quarter.

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions is a short story collection by British author Neil Gaiman. Within its pages are 31 short stories written throughout Mr. Gaiman’s career. There is a good deal of variety between the stories, which range from poetry to micro-fiction to your standard length short story, and they all seemed to fit into this aptly named collection. That being said, my overall impressions can be summed up in one word…meh.

As a reader, I love short stories because I feel they give an author the chance to showcase their abilities in a way that differs drastically from a novel. All of my favorite authors are ones who can not only write engaging novels, but also short stories that entrap my attention and leave me wanting more. Sometimes life is moving a bit too quickly to find the time to sit down and enjoy a full length novel, so having the option to dive into a collection of shorter works and make my way through them one at a time is a nice option. Some authors (such as a personal favorite – Ray Bradbury) embrace the short story and come up with masterfully written sagas that blend together to tell an overarching narrative (The Illustrated Man) while some, like Mr. Gaiman, prefer to write stories that mostly stand apart. I enjoy both equally, but like I said above, a great number of these were duds, pennies in a jar full of change.

Minor spoilers to follow as I give small summaries for most of the stories in the collection, along with my thoughts.

Reading the Entrails – Not for me. Gaiman’s poetic style is not one I enjoy reading.

The Wedding Present – This was included with Gaiman’s introduction and was somewhat interesting. A couple gets a novel as a wedding present and each time they open it the story has changed. It kept me engaged, but it wasn’t anything special.

Chivalry – One knight’s search for the Holy Grail in modern UK leads him to an old woman’s mantle. Originally written for a children’s story collection and it shows. It was boring.

 Nicholas Was… – The first piece I really liked! A dark twist on Christmas and I think the first time I have ever seen micro fiction in a published work. I liked it a lot.

The Price – A story about a cat who protects a home from a demon. This was one of the better crafted stories in the collection and was one of my favorites. I don’t even like cats, but this was definitely one of the top three for me.

Troll Bridge – I actually read this one first when deciding whether or not to buy this collection in the bookstore. A child meets a troll under a bridge and then again and again as he grows up. The ending was fitting. One of the better stories in my opinion.

Don’t Ask Jack – This one was really boring. I suppose it was supposed to be a chilling tale of a Jack-in-the-Box, but I honestly don’t even remember what happens.

The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories – A story about a writer’s disillusioned journey to Hollywood and the hotel attendant he meets while he is there. Another hit for me, this one was a bit longer and it was entertaining throughout. I loved the way he portrays Hollywood.

The White Road – More narrative poetry – didn’t make it past the first page.

Queen of Knives – I actually finished this narrative poem, but overall it was meh.

Changes – Interesting concept. A new cancer drug has unintentional side effects when it is discovered it can allow people to change gender on a whim. I liked the dialogue it raises on the ethics of pharmaceuticals and the questions of gender in society. Execution felt like it could have been better, though.

The Daughter of Owls – Rape in olden-times. Not for me.

Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar – I kept thinking it would get better, but in the end I don’t really know what this one was about.

Virus – A short piece on video game addiction. It was also very MEH.

Looking for the Girl – I like stories where the main character goes through their life, but there is always that one constant they come back to. Here it was a girl the main character saw in a dirty mag one day. It was well written and entertaining.

Only the End of the World Again – Cult of Cthulhu tries to sacrifice a werewolf to revive the fallen God. Werewolves and ancient gods – what’s not to like?

Bay Wolf – The werewolf character returns in a different story to kill a monster terrorizing Venice Beach. This one was funny and well written. Two thumbs up.

We Can Get Them For You Wholesale – An entirely average guy finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him and finds an ad for an assassination company to kill her lover. As a man who can never turn down a good offer or a sale, he finds himself in a precarious position when the company rep offers him a deal on multiple hits…This one was funny and I liked the concept, but it kind of peters out as it ends.

One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock – I don’t know who Michael Moorcock Elric is so this one wasn’t my cup of tea.

Cold Colors – More poetry so I inevitably didn’t enjoy it.

The Sweeper of Dreams – Who cleans up your dreams when you wake so you can go about your day as a functional human? What happens if he stops cleaning up your dreams? This one was short, but I wish it had been longer. An interesting concept.

Foreign Parts – For someone with minor hypochondria this was a nightmare to read. I don’t need stories about STDs in my life.

Vampire Sestina – Even more poetry.

Mouse – Another one that I finished without really grasping if there was a point to it all. Boring.

The Sea Change – I wish I had known how much poetry was in this collection and how much his poetic prose bores me.

When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, age 11¼ – Yawn.

Desert Wind – A poem about a man who sees a mirage in the desert. The only poem I really enjoyed in the collection.

Tastings – Erotic fiction is not for me, so this was not one I enjoyed.

Babycakes – I liked it. Title says it all.

Murder Mysteries – A story within a story of the first murder in Heaven. This was well crafted and entertaining.

Snow, Glass, Apples – A twist on Snow White. Another top three for me and a good selection for the closing piece. At least I will remember this one when I think back to this collection.

If you bothered to read through all of those then you will see I liked about half of the stories in this collection. Mr. Gaiman writes killer novels and is an amazing storyteller, but this one just fell flat for me. I have heard good things about Fragile Things so maybe I will give that a try some day. Unless you are a die hard Neil Gaiman fan, I would recommend passing on this one.

Review: Wrath of Empire

Book: Wrath of Empire (Gods of Blood and Powder #2)

Author: Brian McClellan

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys fantasy adventures, religion/magic mashups, political intrigue, world building, military fantasy and fast paced novels.

Warning: This review contains spoilers for Sins of Empire.

Reading Wrath of Empire felt like snorting a line of gunpowder while charging headfirst into an enemy brigade on the back of a mighty steed. Seriously, though, McClellan has been one of my favorite fantasy authors since my random discovery of his first novel, Promise of Blood, during my college years, and he has delivered yet again with this second installment in Gods of Blood and Powder. He remains a master storyteller whose books flow so well that this 639-page novel felt like a much shorter read. Admittedly, I haven’t devoted as much time to reading as I would have liked these past couple years and it has been over two years since I read the first installment in the series, Sins of Empire. Luckily, the author does a great job reintroducing the reader to the main plot points as things progress, and I was able to quickly piece together where the last book had left off.

This novel follows McClellan’s typical format – three different POV storylines that each play into the overall plot. I find that this style of writing gives the book the flow that helps it feel like a much shorter read. The chapters often end on cliffhangers, but you usually have to wait at least a full chapter, if not two, before returning to find out what happened. Meanwhile, though, you are equally engrossed in what is happening to the other characters. This kept my heart pounding and my mind racing through the possibilities of what could happen next, and helps cement McClellan in my pantheon of action writers.

This installment in the trilogy is again told through the eyes of General Vlora Flint, powder mage and Adran general in command of a company of hardened mercenaries, Colonel Ben Styke, leader of the Mad Lancer cavalry and a man who never fails to flash his large Boz knife at least once per chapter, and Michel Bravis, a spy with complicated allegiances who is working to save the people he cares for while also furthering the goals of the enigmatic Taniel Two-Shot. The plot picks up where Sins of Empire left off; the mysterious Dynize empire has invaded Fatrasta in search of the godstones, large obelisks capable to raising a new god, and our heroes must work together to stop them. After the events of The Powder Mage Trilogy, none of the Adrans want to see another God walk among mortals and they convince their Fatrastan allies of the importance of their mission. Along with the dangers posed by the tireless Dynize forces, the heroes will have to deal with contending Fatrastan agents, ancient magic and often their own internal demons.

One of the most pleasantly surprising thing here was the interesting character development. Most notably, we get a look into Styke’s psyche and learn that there is more to the man than a large thug who kills his way through his problems – though there is plenty of that as well. Told through a side plot of revenge where he seeks out old companions responsible for his 10 years spent in a labor camp, we see Styke evaluate his past and present, and take a closer look at the man he thought he was. On the flip side is the development of Michel Bravis, a distrusting and furtive man who is no stranger to working in the shadows. We see Michel work as a spy for the Blackhats in Sins of Empire, only to end up being Taniel’s agent within their network. Here, though, Michel must navigate the dangers of working in an enemy controlled Landfall and his loyalties are tested as he joins the Dynize forces while on a mission from Taniel to find a woman named Mara. With no information to go on and almost nobody left to rely on, every decision he makes means risking life and limb. His internal struggles were a welcome addition to the action and adventure that dominates most of the book.

Another highlight is the melding of military fantasy, an interesting magic system and political intrigue that I have come to know and expect from McClellan’s work. His ability to write a clear battle scene that moves as quickly as the bullets and swords is part of the reason I keep coming back. On top of this, his writing of intrigue and politics through the eyes of Michel helps keep things moving forward. In my mind, this is part of what keeps these books a step ahead of other, more straightforward military fantasy novels. Regarding the magic system, there is not a whole lot that is new here, but I still get goosebumps every time one of the powder mages takes a bump of gunpowder and uses their sorcery to take out an enemy privileged. The one addition I did enjoy was a greater understanding of bone-eye magic. It is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, but we get to see the effects from both the Dynize bone-eyes and Ka-Poel, whose story is starting to unfold – albeit still a slow burn.

Finally, my draw to fantasy has been and will always be my love for intricate world building. McClellan does not fail to deliver in that regard. While we already have a fairly well fleshed out understanding of Fatrasta and the Nine, we are given our first peak at the secretive Palo Nation to the far North through the eyes of Vlora, and the history of the Dynize is discussed in detail during Michel’s time among their people. Not only is this a welcome addition to any fantasy novel, McClellan makes it critical to the plot and therefore all the more interesting to read. I cannot wait to see what more we learn in works to come. As a side note, the availability of the maps at the beginning of the book are a small touch that I love to see. I often found myself flipping back to them during the read as the characters explored new areas.

The novel ends with a bang (literally and figuratively) and I am truly excited for the release of the final installment in the series, Blood of Empire. For those of you who haven’t jumped on the powder mage band wagon, I encourage you to head to your nearest book store and pick up some novels by Brian McClellan!