THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does his very best Edgar Allen Poe impersonation with HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, a story full of red herrings and side characters that shows Doyle again experimenting with the style of his Sherlock Holmes stories.

In this episode, Holmes and Watson are employed to investigate the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskervilles, whose family, the legend goes, is haunted by a giant dog that will kill them if they’re caught wandering the moors surrounding their home at night. Doyle was apparently inspired by¬†the legend of Richard Cabell and possibly by the Devon legend of the Yeth hound, and he uses such inspiration to set the scene.

Holmes is absent for much of the book, as he sends Watson to investigate while he attends to business in London, and in Holmes’ absence we’re told the tale through Watson’s letters to Holmes, describing what has taken place in the master sleuth’s absence. Holmes doesn’t show up until the mystery has nearly concluded, which allows Watson to show himself far more than Holmes’ shadow.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed the story, though I don’t know that I would single it out as Doyle’s best Sherlock tale. With the horror and action elements inherent to the story, I can see why the story has been adapted so often, but I’d picked out the villain early, possibly because I’d seen “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” a movie clearly inspired by this story.

SHADOW OPS: FORTRESS FRONTIER by Myke Cole

After reading the first book in Myke Cole’s SHADOW OPS series, I was excited about the series as a whole, but I had some serious concerns about what I referred to as the “Britton problem.” Fortunately, Cole addressed that problem with a compelling new character and far less focus on Britton — changes that made FORTRESS FRONTIER a very enjoyable read.

This book, the second in the series, begins with Alan Bookbinder, a pencil-pushing military bureaucrat who is very much aware of the fact that many of the men and women he works with are combat veterans while he has spent his entire career handling the paperwork that makes certain soldiers have the supplies they need to succeed. He sounds boring, and perhaps he is when he starts out, but it’s exciting to see the changes in Bookbinder’s confidence and leadership abilities as the book moves forward.

In contrast, we were introduced to Oscar Britton in CONTROL POINT in the midst of a high-stress mission that turned into a firefight. It seemed as though we were meeting a decisive military leader capable with the physical and mental strength to be an inspiring protagonist, but as the book continued, Britton’s indecisiveness and occasionally blatant stupidity grew frustrating. Bookbinder, on the other hand, isn’t Britton’s physical equal, but he’s committed to his family and the men he serves, and that lends him a strength that Britton has only intermittently managed to this point in the series. At the end of the day, Bookbinder was far easier for me to root for and a far more enjoyable character for me to follow.

Britton isn’t entirely absent in this book, and when he does show up he seems to be handled a bit better than he was in CONTROL POINT, though he’s still not nearly as compelling as many of the characters surrounding him. Cole continues to create interesting supporting personalities, and we’re starting to get a better feel for who the heroes and villains will be moving forward. Cole introduces a new alien race cooperating with the Indian government that exposes us to not only another race, but also how other governments outside the United States are interacting with the Source in different ways. It lends depth and realism to the world, and serves as a demonstration of Cole’s maturation as an author.

It’s exciting to see Cole get stronger from his first book to the second, and I’m looking forward to reading BREACH ZONE when it comes out next year.

SHADOW OPS: CONTROL POINT by Myke Cole

If you can ignore the main character, SHADOW OPS: CONTROL POINT might be a great book. As it is, it’s a fascinating world with non-stop action that fights to overcome the indecisiveness of its primary protagonist.

Oscar Britton has just completed a mission to eliminate a teenage girl who lost control of her magical powers when he develops magical powers of his own. Rather than turn himself in, he briefly goes on the run before joining a secret military operation in which he uses his newfound abilities to help the government establish a base of operations in a magical world referred to as the “Source.”

Cole does a great job of developing this world and understanding what the sudden development of magical powers might mean to the military-industrial complex, and the characters around Britton are dynamic and engaging, with their own motivations and depths. Unfortunately, the story is built around Britton, and he proves problematic, spending the entire book questioning whether he wants to fight on the side of the government or go on the run and almost certainly be killed.

When he’s first brought to the military base, he hates everything about it. Then he changes his mind. Then his commanding officer is mean to him and he hates the government again. Then he goes on a mission and loves it. Then he changes his mind again. Then he hates it again. It’s every bit as annoying as it sounds, and as I read I found myself wondering how Britton theoretically thrived in the military before he developed magical powers. He doesn’t like taking orders, he wants to be able to choose his own missions, he grows petulant when things at the base don’t run the way he believes they should — these don’t seem like attributes that would work in any form of military life.

While Britton’s defense of the goblin contractors working on the military site works in terms of putting the reader on his side, most of Britton’s complaining comes across simply as that — whining.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating world. I had trouble with some of the military terminology in the book’s opening pages — we open in the midst of a military op, and it feels like we’re thrown in the deep end early. Fortunately, it felt as though this got easier to understand as the book progressed. It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I realized there’s a glossary of military terms at the back — this would have been more helpful at the front of the book, but I certainly understand that’s not Cole’s fault.

In all, I enjoyed the book. Cole has demonstrated the ability to write engaging characters, he just didn’t succeed with Britton. I’m looking forward to the second book in hopes that Cole fixes his “Britton problem” because the rest of the book is really quite good.

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman

I think the greatest compliment I can pay Neil Gaiman about THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is much like the novel itself — simple on the surface and yet, at the same time, deeply meaningful: I can’t imagine anyone else writing this book.

In THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Gaiman is as sharp as he’s been since AMERICAN GODS, mixing the wonder and powerlessness of childhood with a deep understanding of the myths and stories humans have told one another since the beginning of time. Somehow, the combination of magical beauty and terrifying darkness in Gaiman’s stories, sometimes taking place just moments apart and described in his magnificent, easy-going writing style, manages to feel entirely truthful — as though when you’re reading one of his books you’re understanding something that you were only peripherally aware of during your day-to-day existence.

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is about friendship and loss and childhood and fear, and how all of these come together to make us into the person we become as adults. There’s a part in the story where our nameless narrator’s best friend, a mysterious young girl named Lettie Hempstock, tells him that all adults are really just children in disguise, that they may look big and tough and in control, but on the inside, where no one can see, they’re still the exact same person they were as a child. And as we see in the course of the book, no one is as powerless in their day-to-day lives as a child — a fact most people seem to have forgotten but which Gaiman uses to great effect in these pages.

Like the very best of Gaiman’s work, this book is hard to explain, because it’s about so very much. Perhaps the best way to describe it is this — you’ll be left thinking about this book for days afterwards, about the conversations characters had, about the themes Gaiman weaves together so effortlessly, about your own childhood and how that childhood still impacts who you are.

So maybe I was wrong when I said Gaiman’s singular ability to write this tale was the greatest compliment I could pay him; maybe it’s the simple fact that I’m going to be thinking about this book and what it means for days to come.

THE DAYLIGHT WAR by Peter V. Brett

THE DAYLIGHT WAR, the third book in Peter V. Brett’s DEMON CYCLE series, is all about delving just a little deeper into the characters. And while that comes at the cost of plot development, I’m mostly OK with that.¬†Admittedly, this is a book with some pretty significant flaws, but the story has so much potential that I’m still eagerly looking forward to the next book in the series.

The first book, THE WARDED MAN, was full of break-neck action, expertly introducing us to new characters and new worlds without slowing down the plot progression or interrupting the excitement. In THE DESERT SPEAR, the second book in the series, Brett seemed to go off the path a bit, providing us Jardir Ahmann’s back story and more details into a Krasian society we’d already been introduced to. Now, with THE DAYLIGHT WAR, we open with a detailed account of Inevera’s back story, and it feels like the story relies on flashbacks even more than THE DESERT SPEAR did.

Fortunately, Brett’s characters remain his greatest strength. Inevera, Abban, Jardir, Count Thamos and Gared all had the opportunity to become one-dimensional villains at one point or another, but Brett does a great job of adding shades to their character. Jardir is basically a good guy, and was extremely likeable during his childhood flashbacks and throughout much of THE DAYLIGHT WAR, but he’s also hard and bent on conquest rather than cooperation. Inevera and Abban’s motives are sometimes selfish, and all the characters make mistakes, often deadly ones, but there’s something likeable in all of them.

The only major issue I had regarding Brett’s handling of characters was with Arlen and Renna, who too often strayed into becoming hillbilly superhero demon killers. Renna is probably the weakest character in the book, and Arlen was a stronger character before those two paired up. I don’t object to their relationship — it allows Brett some storytelling flexibility with Leesha Paper — but their interactions are the weakest in the book, especially contrasted with some of the other relationships that feel far more functional and better developed.

I’ve also got to say I wasn’t a terrific fan of the book’s ending. The confrontation felt forced, out of flow with the rest of the story, and the cliffhanger ending — come back for Book 4 to find out what happens! — struck me as cheap and a bit disrespectful to the reader, especially when it’s not an especially gripping cliffhanger.

The overall read wasn’t bad thanks to the strengths of Brett’s writing ability and the depth of his characters. I would have liked to have seen more plot development from THE DAYLIGHT WAR, but I’m hoping that as the Demon Cycle progresses, Brett relies less on flashbacks and writes stories with the same forward momentum that made THE WARDED MAN such a great read.