Sunday, October 7, 2007

Beyond the Gap by Harry Turtledove (2007)

Hardback cover blurb

Count Hamnet Thyssen is a minor noble of the drowsy old Raumsdalian Empire. Its capital city, Nidaros, began as a mammoth hunters’ camp at the edge of the great Glacier. But that was centuries ago, and as everyone knows, it’s the nature of the great Glacier to withdraw a few feet every year. Now Nidaros is an old and many-spired city; and though they still feel the breath of the great Glacier in every winter’s winds, the ice cap itself has retreated beyond the horizon.

Trasamund, a clan chief of the mammoth-herding Bizogots, the next tribe north, has come to town with strange news. A narrow gap has opened in what they'd always thought was an endless and impregnable wall of ice. The great Glacier does not go on forever--and on its other side are new lands, new animals, and possibly new people.

Ancient legend says that on the other side is the Golden Shrine, put there by the gods to guard the people of their world. Now, perhaps, the road to the legendary Golden Shrine is open. Who could resist the urge to go see? Not Hamnet Thyssen or Trasmund. Not Ulric Skakki, Hamnet’s old comrade in arms: a good man to have at your side, although perhaps not at your back. And not, damnably, Eyvind Torfinn – a scholar, a very knowledgavle man but, alas, the husband of Hamnet’s former wife, Gudrid: a troublemaker if there ever was one. She’s decided to come along, too.

For every one of them, the glacier has always been the boundary of the world. Now they'll be traveling beyond it into a world that's bigger than anyone knew. Adventures will surely be had...

My thoughts

Beyond the Gap almost breaks the rules that I spell out to the right, but since it is a fantasy rather than a historical drama, it qualifies for inclusion on this blog. Anyway, after spending the last three evenings reading it, I felt it would have been a waste not to review it.

The novel is an odd mix of Clan of the Cave Bear and Dungeons & Dragons. It is a swords and sorcery tale that substitutes mammoths and short-faced bears for dragons and unicorns, and it is set in a fantasy version of North America at the end of the last Ice Age. The continent is home to a European civilization cut off from the rest of the world by a great ice sheet to the north (the Laurentide ice sheet). A warming climate has caused the ice sheet to split in two, and Count Hamnet Thyssen is charged by the emperor to lead an expedition through the gap to see what is on the other side. Problem is, Hamnet’s ex-wife has decided to accompany the group, and she delights in tormenting her former husband every chance she gets.

Beyond the Gap is far from Turtledove’s best work. The characterization is thin and the dialogue often clunky and amateurish. The whole “angry ex-wife” subplot was thrown in to flesh out the main character, but he is portrayed as so stereotypically good and his ex-wife as so stereotypically evil that their relationship isn’t the least bit interesting. The rest of the cast is composed of stock characters from fantasy fiction: A boisterous barbarian, a wise-cracking rogue, a down-on-his-luck wizard. Only the setting shows some originality.

The plot moves at a glacial pace (ha ha) with really not much happening in the 320 pages of the novel. There isn’t enough action to keep fans of adventure fiction happy, and the characters are not human enough to really care about what happens to them. Several Ice Age animals have cameos throughout the book, or are at least mentioned, but they are more for color than an integral part of the plot.

Beyond the Gap is meant to be the first book in a new fantasy series and the ending leaves room for what could be an interesting sequel. I generally like Turtledove’s works, and he has tackled the same subject matter better in the past, so there is hope this series could improve.

Trivia

  • Beyond the Gap clearly takes its inspiration from the theory that at the end of the last Ice Age, a corridor opened up in the Laurentide ice sheet that allowed the ancestors of the Native Americans to travel from Alaska to the rest of the continent. This PBS Nova web site has a graphic illustrating the gap and may help you visualize the world of the novel.

Reviews

10,000 B.C. poster

This is not book news, but I thought it may interest anyone who likes to read about prehistoric animals. The movie poster for the upcoming film 10,000 B.C. was recently released. (Click image for a full-sized version.)


A reviewer over at Chud.com didn't like it, but I can definitely see this poster hanging on my wall. That's not an endorsement of the movie. There are numerous scientific inaccuracies in the trailer, including the construction of what appears to be the Egyptian pyramids thousands of years before they were actually built. The director, Roland Emmerich, is fond of throwing pseudoscience in his movies. His last film, The Day After Tomorrow, was based on a book written by a paranormal radio talk-show host and a writer of several "non-fiction" books about UFOs.*

That said, I have no problem with the movie as long as it's marketed as a fantasy rather than a realistic take on Ice Age society. Still, I imagine that paleoanthropologists and archaeologists are going to need to spend a lot of time separating the fact from the fiction for the public.

10,000 B.C. has a release date of March 7, 2008 "A.D." Ain't It Cool News has already posted an advance "spy" review for those of you who don't care about spoilers. The official web site is www.10000bcmovie.com

* The Day After Tomorrow was very similar to a 1979 disaster novel titled The Sixth Winter by Douglas Orgill and John Gribbin, so much so that I find it hard to believe that the writers of movie were not aware of it. The book also is about the sudden onset of an Ice Age, and both feature storms that instantly freeze people and killer wolves. Pick up the book if you ever stumble across it in a used-book store -- it's a fun little read.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ratha's Courage out later this month

Via SFrevu.com comes this news: The fifth book in a series about the adventures of a clan of intelligent prehistoric cats is coming out this month.
"Ratha and her clan, the Named, are sentient prehistoric big cats. In Ratha's Courage, the first book about the Named since 1994, Ratha extends the use of the Red Tongue—fire—to a hunter tribe. One of the hunters ignites a blaze that sets off a devastating conflict between the two clans. Now Ratha must find the courage within herself to set it right."
I've honestly never heard of these books, although they sound interesting. The series is set in the ancient past and features several prehistoric mammals. That creature the cat is riding on is almost certainly an Indricotherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived. Apparently several of the original books have been republished so readers can see where it all started.

The books are written for young adults, so you will most likely find them in the children's section of your local bookstore. I really can't say anything more about the novels, but the author writes on her web site that the fictional species of the series is evolved from Dinaelurus, which was a cat-like nimravid rather than a true cat.

Ratha's Courage is scheduled for release on Oct. 18, but it looks like the reissued novels may be out in stores now.

The official web site of the series is www.rathascourage.com

Saurian Safari! by Chris Peers (2002)

Note: This is a review of the second edition of the rules.

Rest in peace Wade Hackett, for we barely knew you.

Wade, you see, had been my safari guide for three hunting trips to the Mesozoic. He had successfully led the first two expeditions in and out of the Cretaceous period without a scratch, racking up a nice collection of dinosaur trophies along the way. But during a trip to the Jurassic, a pair of allosaurs spotted the hunting party and charged it. Wade’s gun misfired just as one of the allosaurs reached him, and before the other party members could react, the beast was carrying away his lifeless body in its mouth.

Of course, we only know this because one of the expedition members had written it down in his journal. The surviving members of the hunting party were attacked and slaughtered by a trio of ceratosaurs as they made their way back to camp. All that was found afterward were a few bloodstains
on the ground and several crushed weapons with spent casings beside them.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, Dinosaur Safari! is a dinosaur hunting game published by HLBS. It is a miniatures game, meaning it is played with little figures on a table set up to simulate a natural landscape. It also is a lot of fun, although the rules could use some polish.

Players assume the roles of Victorian-era hunters out to bag the biggest game of all time. There is a nice variety of animals to choose from in Saurian Safari!, from dinosaurs to prehistoric mammals, and the rules come with several scenarios that let gamers tailor the hunts to their own preferences.

Saurian Safari! is a cooperative game with the players working together to bag an animal instead of competing against each other. All animal moves are based on reaction tables, so there is no need for a “game master” to oversee animal encounters and the game can be played completely solo. Players will need a d20 set of dice to play the game, as well as the appropriate miniatures.

One downside of Saurian Safari! is that actions take several dice rolls that eat up time. Shooting an animal, for example, isn’t simply a matter of rolling the dice to see whether you hit it. You also have to roll to see whether your character spotted the dinosaur, whether the gun knocks your character down, whether the gun misfired and whether the bullet managed to penetrate the dinosaur’s thick hide. While I appreciate the realism, I wish these actions could be determined with fewer rolls.

The rules themselves also have a lot of gaps and players will need to make up their own rules to fill in the blanks. Luckily, there is a sizable online community dedicated to the game with many helpful suggestions.

The biggest problem with Saurian Safari! is that there are not many miniatures of prehistoric animals available. There are plenty Victorian-era figures for sale and the miniatures world is awash with fantasy creatures, but gamers don’t seem to be interested in real animals. Several internet forums suggest using plastic dinosaur models, but nearly all the models I found were either too small or way too big. I just downloaded pictures of the appropriate dinosaurs from the web and turned them into paper cutout figures, which worked just as well. Also, be warned that miniature gaming can be an expensive and time-consuming hobby. Players need to build their own landscapes from scratch, and miniature figures can cost quite a bit of money and almost always need to be painted.

That said, Saurian Safari! is a fun game once you get into it. Hunts are limited only by the players’ imaginations, and the scenarios and settings can be tinkered with so that no two hunts turn out the same. There also is a certain feeling of exhilaration in facing a rampaging dinosaur and bringing it down with a well-placed shot just seconds before it would have trampled you. Just don't always expect to make it back alive, as poor Wade found out.

Trivia
  • Saurian Safari! features a make-believe “dinosaur gun” you can choose as a weapon for your hunts, but apparently there were real dinosaur guns made for the movie Jurassic Park: The Lost World. They were actually elephant guns, and according to this article, director Steven Spielberg is alleged to have kept one of the guns. (Thanks to Bob Mozark for pointing out this interesting little tidbit.)
Reviews
  • None

Sunday, September 30, 2007

New October releases

Sorry for the silence over the past week. I had some personal issues come up that pretty much consumed all my free time, but now I hope to continue blogging regularly. There are still plenty of books to review.

There also are three titles coming out this month that should satisfy anyone looking for paleo-fiction. The first, The Sky People by S.M. Stirling, has actually been out for a while but it is now coming out in paperback. The novel is set in an alternate timeline where Venus has been terraformed by aliens and turned into a preserve for Earth's prehistoric species. The Sky People is meant to be a homage to the pulp sci-fi of yesteryear, and it looks fun. You can read more about the title on the publisher's web site. The paperback should be out in bookstores on Oct. 2.

Next up is the comic Neozoic, which is set in a world where the asteroid (or comet) that killed off the dinosaurs missed. Dinosaurs and mammals have evolved side-by-side in an uneasy co-existence. You can read a preview of the comic here and my review here.

Last up is Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, which was recently reviewed on this site. No need to go into any great detail about this title, since I just finished a Dinotopia week.

It is pretty unusual for so many works of paleo-fiction to be released at the same time, so enjoy it while it lasts.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara by James Gurney (2007)

Hardback cover blurb

After many years of searching, artist James Gurney has discovered in a used bookstore a never-before-seen journal by the nineteenth-century explorer Arthur Denison. Denison’s previous travel accounts, published as Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time and Dinotopia: The World Beneath, introduced a lost island where dinosaurs and humans live together in peaceful interdependence.

Now Professor Denison and his saurian companion, Bix, set out on a perilous journey to the forbidden empire of Chandara. When their personal invitation from the emperor goes missing, they are forced to cross the border penniless and in disguise. Every step of the way, Denison documents in exquisite detail the creatures, characters, and architecture he encounters: a village composed of three ships propped up on end, a fifty-foot-tall Brachiosaurus outfitted for fire fighting, an Allosaurus tending its hatchlings, young pilots air jousting on giant pterosaurs, and a lot more.

The land of Dinotopia is conjured by a brief but vivid narrative and a beguiling variety of visuals, including maps, cutaway views, and mechanical diagrams. The lives of the humans are intertwined with those of the dinosaurs and ancient mammals, all of which are actual species portrayed according to the latest scientific research. By turns whimsical, dramatic, and philosophical, the journal radiates a life-affirming vision that will cast a new light on the overlooked wonders of our own world.

My thoughts

The Italian explorer Marco Polo made many hard-to-believe claims about his famous journey to China – some people even question whether he went at all – but the one thing he never did claim to see was dinosaurs. Only in the world of Dinotopia would such a thing be possible.

Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara is essentially a retelling of Marco Polo's travels, but set in the imaginary continent of Dinotopia. The book, the fourth in James Gurney's series, returns to the journal format of the first Dinotopia. Not only is Journey to Chandara the best sequel in the series, in some ways it surpasses that first work.

Journey to Chandara takes place not long after the events of The World Beneath, with the scientist and explorer Arthur Denison anxiously awaiting word about whether he will be allowed passage to the mysterious city. Chandara, we learn, is one of the great centers of Dinotopian civilization, rivaled only by Waterfall City. Relations with Chandara have soured because the democratic-minded people of Dinotopia objected to the city’s style of government, with the Emperor Hugo Khan ruling supreme. Chandara cut off trade and diplomatic relations with the rest of Dinotopia as a result, and it has been so long since anyone has visited the city that little is known about it.

Denison and Bix, a Protoceratops, are invited by Hugo Khan to travel to Chandara, which will make them the first outsiders to journey to the city in decades. Events take a turn for the worse when their invitation is stolen by the villainous Lee Crabb, but instead of giving up, the two set off on the journey in hopes of eluding the border guards and making their way into Chandara. Along the way they will brave bandits, predatory dinosaurs, hostile environments and a culture that is wary of outsiders.

In many ways, Gurney seems to be trying to recapture the spirit of the first Dinotopia book in Journey to Chandara. Both start with the artist stumbling upon one of Arthur’s forgotten journals, and both share similar images, such as a group of kids running along a beach with a sauropod or a visit to a snow-covered mountaintop temple. The difference here is that Gurney has refined his skills as both an artist and a storyteller. Journey to Chandara combines the first-person narration of first book with the focused storyline of The World Beneath. The characters are not just wandering Dinotopia to see the sights. They have a goal in mind and must undergo hardships to reach that goal. They meet interesting characters along the way and come across several different cultures that parallel real-world civilizations, but with their own twists – my favorite being a group of very anti-Pilgrim Pilgrims.

Of course, Dinotopia is most famous for its dinosaurs, and keeping with the Asian theme of the setting, several species of feathered dinosaurs discovered in the Gobi Desert make appearances throughout Journey to Chandara. Sporting feathers or scales, the terrible reptiles are depicted with an amazing amount of realism, and they are incorporated into human society in imaginative ways. After all, what kid wouldn’t want to ride in a school bus carried on the back of an Apatosaurus? The landscapes, architecture and people are all painted with the same painstaking detail.

The production values of the book also are top-notch, with a map of Chandara printed inside of the dust cover, the cover stamped to look like dinosaur hide and the book sporting a cloth bookmark. Sure, these are tiny things, but they make readers feel they got the most out of paying the $30 cover price.

The Dinotopia books are children’s books, but Journey to Chandara has plenty for dinosaur-loving adults as well. This is a book that parents will want to read even when their kids are not around, if just to ogle at the gorgeous illustrations.

Trivia

  • Marco Polo is not the only explorer Gurney is channeling in Journey to Chandara. Part of Denison’s travels also mirror the real-world adventures of British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, particularly his trip to Mecca.
  • It is interesting to see how our knowledge of dinosaurs has changed over the series. For example, in The World Beneath, Gurney painted an Oviraptor with scales, but in Journey to Chandara, the dinosaur sports feathers.
  • A few Ice Age mammals also make appearances in Journey to Chandara, including one that essentially plays the role of Santa Claus. (Santa Claws, anyone?)
  • The Web site ExpandedBooks.com recently posted a preview of the book and an interview with Gurney:


  • The official web site www.dinotopia.com has previews of Journey to Chandara as well as ordering information.

Reviews

  • LJay (Dinotopia message board)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Dinotopia: First Flight by James Gurney (1999)

Hardback cover blurb

THE STORY OF DINOTOPIA UNFOLDS!

The much-anticipated third book in James Gurney’s Dinotopia series takes us back to Dinotopia’s ancient past, where the empire of Poseidos is about to use its robotic technology to capture the peaceful dinosaurs of Dinotopia. Only Gideon Altaire and his faithful mechanical friend, Fritz, can stop this evil plan. But first they must escape Poseidos and win the trust of the prehistoric creatures.

This dramatic addition to the award-winning Dinotopia series tells a tale of partnership and courage, where humans and animals fight side by side to over the greatest challenge yet to free Dinotopia. As a special bonus, the front cover opens up to reveal an easy-to-learn board game. By detaching the game cards fro the back of the book, players can join Gideon on his adventure, experiencing his crushing setbacks and his high-flying triumphs.

My thoughts

If Dinotopia was the equivalent of a novel, then First Flight is the equivalent of a novella. The third book in James Gurney's series is about 100 pages shorter than the others, and as a result, it doesn't quite have room for the epic story it wants to tell.

First Flight is set a few thousand years prior to the events in the first two books, when the human empire of Poseidos was at its height. Poseidos is an island kingdom where advanced technology has replaced biology and its citizens drive around in vehicles shaped like dinosaurs. True dinosaurs are not allowed on the island but are instead confined to Dinotopia, which the empire's leaders are planning to invade.

Gideon Altaire is a young-pilot-in-training who gets kicked out of flight school for being a little too high-minded for his own good. Shortly afterward, he finds a small pterosaur that has injured its wing. Instead of turning the creature over the authorities, Gideon befriends the small animal, who leads him to a group of humans secretly working to protect Dinotopia's saurian inhabitants. The meeting sets off a series of events that will eventually lead to Gideon becoming the first human to fly on the back of a Quetzalcoatlus -- the first skybax rider.

Dinotopia has always been a children's book series, but First Flight is probably the only title in it that was targeted almost exclusively for children. The text is the uncomplicated, third-person narration used in The World Beneath, and the front cover of the book folds out to unveil a children's board game. The final two pages of the book are punch-out cards to be used in the game, and while I understand the reasoning behind that, I've always been a little wary of books that encourage kids to rip up their pages.

The artwork is superb, as usual for Gurney. There are not many dinosaurs in First Flight when compared to the previous two books, but there are plenty of pterosaurs as well as a gang of furry little extinct mammals that play a key role in the plot. (There also is a rather odd-looking mammal-like reptile I had no idea existed until I encountered it in this book.) The main problem is that the art and the scant 60 pages of the book don't leave much room for a story. Readers instead get a CliffsNotes version of a story that moves far too quickly and glosses over many details. It would have been nice to spend more time the odd characters or watch Gideon wrestle with the decision to betray the empire that he has called home, but there simply isn't room.

First Flight is still worth owning if you are a Dintopia fan, given the quality of the art more than makes up the cover price. Kids also will like the book and the simple board game that comes along with it. Just remind them that it's not always cool to tear pages out of a book.

Reviews
  • None

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dinotopia Lost by Alan Dean Foster (1996)

Hardback cover blurb

This thrilling tale of high adventure set in the world of James Gurney’s Dinotopia, the extraordinary uncharted island where humans and dinosaurs live in harmony, features all the colorful wonder and wining characters that have won this “land apart from time” millions of fans all over the world.

In all Dinotopia’s countless centuries, rarely has a vessel reached her peaceful shores except as a splintered wreck, until a mighty, storm-swollen breaker hurls the pirate ship Condor beyond the treacherous fangs of the coral reefs that surround the island. When marauding pirates capture a dinosaur family, young skybax pilot Will Denison leads a tiny band of rescuers on a pursuit that takes them into the perilous Rainy Basin, where tyrannosaurs still stalk the steamy forest long abandoned by civilized Dinotopians. Doggedly tracking the invaders, Will and his dinosaur companions must face both the cruelty on ancient instincts and the brutality of modern ignorance as they race toward a fateful confrontation at the breathtaking climax of a once-in-a-lifetime typhoon.

A harrowing tale of suspense, courage, and triumphant cooperation between creatures great and small, Dinotopia Lost will be relished by both newcomers to this exotic and magical realm and those who have already made the voyage.

My thoughts

Throw together Treasure Island with a lighthearted version of Jurassic Park, and you will end up with something very much like Dinotopia Lost.

Dinotopia Lost is the first in what became a series of novels set in artist James Gurney’s Dinotopia. Most of the books are for kids, but Dinotopia Lost was written for adults and kids alike.

The plot is pretty simple. A group of scurvy pirates safely land their ship on the coast of Dinotopia after a storm surge carries them over the coral reefs that protect the island continent. The pirates, of course, have never seen dinosaurs before, and mistaking the animals for dumb beasts, they capture a family of the ostrich-like Struthiomimus so they can sell the dinosaurs to the outside world. One of the dinosaurs escapes and alerts a nearby village of the danger. Skybax rider Will Denison leads a rescue mission to free the family, but complicating things is the fact that the pirates are walking right into the carnivore-infested Rainy Basin, and they’ve captured a young T. rex whose parents won’t be happy to learn the news…

Dinotopia Lost is a decent attempt to tell an old-fashioned adventure story while remaining faithful to the non-violent nature of Gurney’s books. In fact, anyone picking up the novel who has never read the original Dinotopia stories will have no clue about what’s going on. The writing itself is pretty good from a technical standpoint, with Foster knowing how to create colorful descriptions with just a few words. And the pirates are appropriately villainous if a little toothless because of the aforementioned non-violent nature of the setting.

One issue I had with Dinotopia Lost is that plot could've been better paced. The storyline meanders quite a bit, never finding a real focus until midway through the novel when Will launches his rescue mission. The pirates get quite a bit of ink, so much so that for a good part of the novel the heroes are little more than a supporting cast. Still, things pick up once the rescue is underway, and the resolution to the story keeps with the optimistic tone of Gurney’s works.

Dinotopia Lost won’t please anyone approaching it hoping to see realistic depictions of dinosaurs, because like in Gurney’s books, the animals are depicted as smart as humans. But fans the setting should enjoy this fantasy adventure.

Trivia

  • Alan Dean Foster is a prolific writer who has written a number of original works, but he may be best known to the general public for his many movie novelizations, ranging from the original Star Wars to, most recently, Transformers.

Reviews

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dinotopia: The World Beneath by James Gurney (1995)

(Note: This is the sequel to Dinotopia, reviewed below. Spoilers ahead if you haven't read the first book.)

Hardback cover blurb

The voyage that Arthur Denison and his son, Will, began in Dinotopia now continues in The World Beneath. On the lost island continent where dinosaurs and humans live together in peaceful interdependence, Arthur embarks on a quest into Dinotopia’s deepest mystery that soon becomes a desperate race to keep Dinotopia’s existence unknown to the outside world.

When The World Beneath begins, Professor Denison unveils his new invention, a steam-powered flying machine. Will, a fledgling Skybax pilot, flies his father’s creation over Waterfall City, but disaster strikes and Will narrowly escapes death.

Though stung by the failure of his machine, Arthur Denison turns his focus to an earlier exploration of ancient caves that yielded artifacts he believes point to a long-lost Dinotopian civilization. The mysterious society seemingly employed a technology beyond any that Arthur has ever encountered. The answer lies in The World Beneath.

Arthur Denison and Bix soon organize an expedition that will include the untrustworthy but resourceful Lee Crabb, and Oriana, a beautiful musician who holds the key to their quest.

While Will flies scouting missions for caravans in the Rainy Basin, Professor Denison and his team plunge deeper into the heart of the island, toward a monumental discovery that will teach him and important lesson about the power and peril of technology.

Full of dramatic illustrations like those that delighted the readers of Dinotopia, this sequel offers another wondrous excursion into this saurian realm. The balance of science and nature created by James Gurney’s imagination guides us from one wonder to the next… until we stand beside Arthur Denison in contemplation of an ancient marvel called Poseidos.

My thoughts

Dinotopia: The World Beneath was the first sequel to the original Dinotopia and Gurney's attempt to answer many of the questions that had been raised in the first book: What did Arthur Denison find when he traveled to The World Beneath? And how did his journal make to the outside world?

Gurney drops the first-person narration of the first book to tell a more traditional and straightforward adventure story in The World Beneath. The book opens with Will test-flying a dragonfly-shaped contraption invented by Arthur only to have it crash into the swirling waters around Waterfall City. Arthur is disappointed by the failure and comes to realize that if he is ever going to master the technology behind the flying machine, he must revisit The World Beneath. It turns out the vast caverns under Dinotopia hold the remains of an ancient and highly-advanced civilization that has long since disappeared. Arthur mounts a second expedition, this time joined by the protoceratops Bix, the shady Leo Crabb and by the musician Oriana, who is in possession of a key that can open the doors to the underground world.

Meanwhile, Will is assigned to escort a caravan across the Rainy Basin, a place where carnivorous dinosaurs prey on humans and other dinosaurs. While on patrol, Will makes a discovery deep in the rainforest that has implications for his father's expedition.

One thing readers will notice when comparing The World Beneath to Dinotopia is that Gurney has refined his skills as a paleo-artist. The dinosaurs in the original book were exquisitely detailed, but they are even more so in The World Beneath. There are subtle changes in their appearances that make the creatures even more lifelike, such as detailed skin textures. Also, people who like their dinosaurs big and ferocious will be happy to see that the carnivorous dinosaurs play a much larger role this time around.

The focused story may please readers who wished the first book had more of a plot, but I believe something was lost in Gurney's decision to replace the first-person journal entries of Dinotopia with the third-person narration of The World Beneath. The narrative format of the first book allowed readers to connect with the setting at a more personal level -- you felt as if you were traveling with Arthur as he made his way across Dinotopia. The world seemed more real because you could fool yourself into believing this really was a journal written by someone who lived in a lost world of dinosaurs. Also, Will's inclusion in the story seems almost an afterthought, which is a shame after spending so much time with him in the first book.

These are small complaints, however. The artwork more than makes up for any shortcomings in the text, and expedition to The World Beneath manages to capture much of the whimsy of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. You will once again be left waiting for a return visit to Dinotopia after you have finished with The World Beneath.

Trivia
  • The World Beneath plays a central role in the 2002 Dinotopia miniseries.
  • Two real paleontologists who helped with the research for Dinotopia are honored in The World Beneath. Ralph Chapman of the Smithsonian has an island named after him on page 45. Michael Brett-Surman is portrayed as the grinning bearded sea scavenger on page 40.
  • “Stinktooth” the Giganotosaurus is the first reconstruction of the new giant carnivore recently found in Patagonia. Gurney met the discoverer Rodolfo Coria just weeks after he uncovered the first fossil. Coria graciously allowed Gurney to include the dinosaur in the new Dinotopia book, provided the publication date followed that of Coria’s scientific paper. It did by just a couple weeks.
* Updated trivia provided by author James Gurney.

Reviews

Monday, September 17, 2007

Dinotopia by James Gurney (1992)

Paperback cover blurb

In 1860, when extensive uncharted territories covered a respectable portion of the globe, biologist Arthur Denison and his young son, Will, set out on a Darwinian voyage of exploration.

Somewhere on the expedition, Professor Denison and Will disappeared. Neither they nor anyone from their ship were heard from again – until very recently. It now appears that, through the kindly intervention of dolphins, they were transported to the lost island of Dinotopia, a land where dinosaurs and humans live together in peaceful interdependence. The dinosaurs appreciate the skills and liveliness of Homo sapiens, and the humans benefit from the wisdom and gentleness of the very much older species.

The exciting, often spectacular, adventures of the Denisons in Dinotopia are chronicled here by the Professor. As a trained professional observer of the world’s flora and fauna, he recorded his experiences in meticulous detail; otherwise it would be difficult to believe the astonishing discoveries he documented. His artistic skills allow the rich tapestry of Dinotopia life to emerge with graphic impact. He presents clearly the marvels of architecture designed for 50-ton organisms – aquatic cities, water-parks, treetowns, and other wonders both natural and dinosaur/man-made.

Professor Denison details aspects of daily life, too: parades and celebrations, sports (some quite risky!), and foods. He tells of sleeping quarters suspended from trees; hatcheries (where dinosaurs tend dinosaur young) and playparks (where dinosaurs tend human young); and modes of transportation, including air travel on Quetzalcoatlus, known locally as Skybax. In short, he shows Dinotopia to be a marvelously fascinating place, offering adventure and excitement, as well as an extraordinary opportunity to gain insight into our own world and time from the Dinotopian point of view.

My thoughts

The word "Dinotopia" literally translates to "terrible place," but as envisioned by artist and writer James Gurney, it isn't such a bad place to visit.

The story begins with Gurney stumbling upon an obscure journal written by an equally obscure 19th century explorer, Arthur Denison. The book that readers hold is a copy of that journal, which records Arthur's travels in Dinotopia, a lost continent where dinosaurs and humans live together in peace, with a few exceptions.

Arthur is traveling by sea with his young son Will when their vessel is shipwrecked in a storm. The two are saved by friendly dolphins, who carry the father and son to a sandy beach. The discovery of a large footprint in the sand is their first clue that something strange is going on. Not long after, a bizarre-looking reptile come walking out of the underbrush, and Arthur, in a panic, throws a large stone at it and injures it. Arthur and Will are immediately surrounded by a group of dinosaurs, but instead of being trampled or eaten, they are surprised when a young girl appears and talks to the beasts. It turns out that dinosaurs are not only still alive, they're as intelligent as humans.

So begins a years-long journey across Dinotopia, which Arthur meticulously records with paintings and writings in his journal. At the same time Will makes his own journey into manhood, training to become one of Dinotopia's most celebrated residents -- a skybax rider.

I admit my first reaction to the book was mild disappointment because I was assuming Dinotopia was a place where humans lived beside wild dinosaurs and not the intelligent beasts that populate the Gurney's world. However, that disappointment soon disappeared and I quickly got caught up in the fantasy. What makes Dinotopia an outstanding work of fiction is the art. It is incredibly detailed, from the anatomy of the dinosaurs to the architecture to the often bizarre clothing worn by Dinotopia's residents. It's as if Gurney painted each of his scenes from real life rather than from his fertile imagination, and a reader can easily loose track of time scanning for details in many of the paintings.

The book itself really doesn't have much in the way of plot. The character of Arthur is largely just the vehicle readers use to explore Dinotopia, experiencing the world through his eyes and ears. Will's story is more fleshed out as he grows to manhood, falls in love and pursues his dream of becoming a skybax rider. Some readers may bemoan the lack of a focused story with a beginning, middle and end, but the journal format Gurney uses works quite well because it allows readers to explore the setting at a level that would have not been possible with a more traditional plot.

Dinotopia ends with many of the questions raised throughout the book left unanswered. It is clear that Gurney meant the book to be the first in a series. While the ending may feel like a bit of an anti-climax, you will have had so much fun making the journey, you won't mind returning again.

Trivia
  • The Code of Dinotopia, found on page 77 of Dinotopia begins with the saying: “Survival of all or none,” and is followed by 10 other lines. If you look at the first letters of each of those sentences and read down, they spell out another line: “SOW GOOD SEED.”
  • The dinosaur and the human in charge of the library are named “Enit” and “Nallab.” If you spell their names backwards, you get “Ballantine.” Ian Ballantine, who served as the model for Nallab, was the publisher who encouraged James Gurney to write the book.
  • The Dinotopian footprint alphabet was inspired by cuneiform writing from ancient Babylon. The idea developed from actual reports that early explorers mistook the impressions in clay tablets for the footprints of birds.
  • In the dinosaur parade scene on page 153, the building says “SAUROPOLIS” in Roman letters rather than in the footprint alphabet. This painting was finished before the alphabet was developed, and the change wasn’t possible.
  • On page 24 of Dinotopia, there is a man with white hair named “Orchardwine” seated at the head of the table. His face is modeled after Sir Richard Owen, the British scientist who came up with the name “Dinosauria.” If you rearrange the letters of “Orchardwine,” they will spell “Richard Owen.
  • Dinotopia has been published in 18 languages, including Chinese, where the word “Dinotopia” translates as “terrible lizard happy dream kingdom.”
* Updated trivia provided by author James Gurney.

Reviews

Saturday, September 15, 2007

"Dinotopia Week" starts Monday

Dinotopia is one of the most successful dinosaur franchises in history. The creation of artist James Gurney, it has spawned video games, tie-in novels, a TV miniseries and a short-lived television show, not to mention a mountain of related merchandise. I doubt there are many dinosaur-loving kids or adults who haven't at least leafed through one of the books at one time or another.

Now the first new Dinotopia book by Gurney in eight years, Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, will soon be released, and to mark the occasion I plan a series of Dinotopia reviews starting Monday. I'll profile a different Dinotopia book each day, including a tie-in novel written by Alan Dean Foster, wrapping up with a review of Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara on Friday. (That is, assuming no emergencies or other situations come up -- so far it looks like it will be a pretty quiet week for me.)

Why the wait? I'm a sucker for suspense, plus I need to write the reviews. But in case any of you are debating whether to order the book, I believe it's his best work since the original Dinotopia.

You can check out the official site, Dinotopia.com, for previews of the book and for ordering information. Gurney also maintains a blog that serves as a sort of "behind the scenes" look at how a Dinotopia novel is created.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Time Spike coming next summer

It looks like next summer we will have at least one new work of paleo-fiction -- I think.

Authors Eric Flint and Marilyn Kosmatka have a new science-fiction novel coming out titled Time Spike. The cover shows a T. rex ready to chow down on Spanish Conquistador, with pterodactyls flying overhead. There is nothing about the book yet on the publisher's web site, but I found the cover image and the below blurb on the novel's Amazon.com page:
Captain Mark Stephens was overseeing the change of shifts at the state of Illinois’ maximum-security prison when the world outside was suddenly ripped. They thought it was an earthquake until they found that the Mississippi river had disappeared, along with all signs of civilization. Then the sun came up—in the wrong direction. And a dinosaur came by and scratched its hide against the wall of the prison . . .

Something had thrown the prison back in time millions of years. And they were not alone. Other humans from periods centuries, even millennia apart had also been dropped into the same time. Including a band of murderous conquistadores. But the prison had its own large population of murderers. They couldn’t be turned loose, but what else could be done with them? Death walked outside the walls, human savagery was planning to break loose inside, and Stephens and the other men and women of the prison’s staff were trapped in the middle.
Not sure from the description how much Time Spike will involve dinosaurs, but it's still worth noting. Amazon.com also gives a release date of May 6, 2008, for the book, so we're going to be waiting awhile for this one.

I've never read anything by Eric Flint, but I've noticed that his name appears on many books he has apparently co-authored with numerous other writers. I suspect this is because he writes the substance of the book while the other, usually unknown author provides the plot outline. Anyone know if that's the case?

Anyway, Flint has also co-authored Boundary with Ryk Spoor. The novel has something to do with dinosaurs, although I'm not certain what role they play in the plot. I haven't read it yet because I was waiting for the paperback to come out, but the publisher isn't going to release a paperback until early next year, so I guess I'll hunt down a copy. (No offense to the writers, I've just always preferred paperbacks, finding them more convenient to carry and read.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Lost Prehistorica by Dark Quest Games (2004)

Cover blurb

Has your adventuring party ever wondered what was to be found on those parts of the map marked “Here there be monsters’?

Have you, as a GM, ever been at a loss as to what to do if they decide to explore these hitherto uncharted regions?

Have you, or your players, ever wanted to play something a little more primitive?

Lost Prehistorica could be the answer to your questions! An informative well presented tool-book for the GM who wants to try something that little bit different! Packed full of new playable races, information upon long lost cultures, lost continents, nomadic tribes and settings specific monsters, this book could be just what you need to spark a whole new range of adventures in a land untouched by time where dinosaurs still roam!

108 pages of tools to create a setting like no other.

Features include:

  • 16 new diseases
  • Over a dozen natural traps
  • New weapons, armor, and equipment
  • Nine new races
  • Ten new divine entities
  • Extensive beastiary
  • Guidelines for creating tribes

My thoughts

Anyone who is thinking about turning their Dungeons & Dragons game into a “Dungeons & Dinosaurs” game will want to give this game supplement a look. (And given the last three posts all concerned D&D, I figured this was a good way to wrap up this week's theme.)

Lost Prehistorica is simply a guidebook for inserting “lost world” settings into traditional fantasy worlds. It is campaign neutral, meaning you can use it to add on to an existing world or create new one. And while it is an amateur effort – a fact reinforced by the subpar illustrations – the subject matter is well thought-out and the text is quite useful to any gamers wanting to get their adventurers out of the standard Medieval European setting of most roleplaying games.

The book provides everything from tips about how big to make your lost world to suggestions for creating primitive societies. There are sections about the environmental hazards found in stereotypical prehistoric settings, diseases your character could contract, how certain character types would react to the lost world and even how fossils may fit into local economies. It also has a sizable bestiary of both extinct animals and mythological creatures.

Lost Prehistorica is pretty closely tied to the J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired gameplay of most RPGs, and that diminishes its value for other types of game settings, like those inspired by pulp fiction. Still, there is enough here to keep most gamers satisfied. The supplement is available as a cheap PDF download on RPGnow.

Trivia

  • The publisher also has produced Lost Creatures, a bestiary of fantasy creatures suited to lost world settings.

Reviews

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Son of Thunder by Murray J.D. Leeder (2006)

Paperback cover blurb

It was the best thing that ever happened to him.

It was his god’s blessing.

It was hell.

Vell was content to be a warrior in the Thunderbeast tribe who stayed behind on the hunt to guard the camp.

But then something alien awakened deep within him, the spirit of a behemoth that he could not control. With it came attacks from the sky, visitors from far lands, and a mysterious command from their ancestral totem: Find the living. And this time, no one was going to let him just stay behind.

My thoughts

I learned from reader reviews on Amazon.com that this Dungeons & Dragons novel somehow concerned dinosaurs. It turns out the prehistoric reptiles are central to the plot, although Son of Thunder is more standard fantasy fare than paleo-fiction. Ironically, the book reminded me of the 1985 movie Baby, Secret of the Lost Legend, which shares some similar plot elements.

Vell the Brown is a young barbarian who isn’t much of a barbarian – he would rather stay home and guard the children and the old folks rather than join the men when they’re out raping and pillaging or whatever. However, during a religious ceremony, the skeleton of the tribe’s totem animal – which is some kind of sauropod dinosaur – comes to life and gives Vell the ability to morph into a dinosaur whenever he is threatened or angry. The dead beast also cryptically tells the tribe to “find the living.” The tribe takes this to mean that they’re supposed to find the last living dinosaurs in their part of the world. (Dinosaurs still live in Chult, but that’s far away.) Meanwhile, a young sorceress in another part of the world gets the same message, and she sets out to join the barbarians in their quest.

Complicating things is an evil wizard and his pretty young assassin, who learn about the living dinosaurs and a powerful artifact that may be keeping them alive.

The main problem with Son of Thunder is it tries to cram too much story into a single novel. Readers follow not one but two quests to find the dinosaurs, and Leeder is much more interested in his villains than his heroes, with the former seemingly getting more screen time. In fact, the author spends very little time fleshing out the personalities of the good guys, having obviously put more effort into the bad guys. The epic quest to find the dinosaurs is a rushed effort, quickly skipping from scene to scene with no build up of mystery or suspense. And, as usual in these types of novels, the climax is a big battle between the forces of good and the armies of evil.

The book also is dripping with obscure Forgotten Realms history, so much so that anyone not already familiar with the campaign setting probably won’t have any idea what’s going on. Then again, I doubt anyone else would pick up this book.

The dinosaurs here are just another fantastic creature populating the setting of the novel, and despite the focus on them, Son of Thunder isn’t concerned about paleontology. I included the novel on this blog simply to be comprehensive.

Reviews

  • None

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Ring of Winter by James Lowder (1992)

Paperback cover blurb

For centuries, adventurers have sought the fabled Ring of Winter, rumored to possess the magical might to make the wearer immortal and bring a second Ice Age down upon the Realms. Artus Cimber knows where it is.

After discovering the ring is hidden in the jungles of Chult, he sets off to fulfill the quest that has devoured a decade of his life. Knowing that the artifact is hidden somewhere in the danger-filled jungles and recovering it are two entirely different matters, however – especially when a lost city, rampaging dinosaurs, and the villainous Cult of Frost all stand between Artus and his goal.

My thoughts

The Ring of Winter is part Raiders of the Lost Ark, part The Lost World, and a lot of The Lord of the Rings all thrown together into one novel. While not a complete failure, it’s not very memorable either.

The novel is set in the Forgotten Realms, a campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons. Artus Cimber is basically the Indiana Jones of Middle-Earth – an explorer and archaeologist who plunders ancient tombs for magical artifacts. He has spent a decade searching for the legendary Ring of Winter, an artifact that, as the cover blurb says, could bring about another Ice Age (and probably solve global warming in the process). During a stop at the explorer’s club in which he is a member, Artus meets a half-crazed explorer recently returned from Chult, a vast jungle where dinosaurs still live. The explorer tells Artus that the man who founded their club – a man who should have died hundreds of years ago – is still alive and in possession of the ring. Artus immediately sets off for Chult, but he is followed by the Cult of Frost, which wants the ring for its own evil plans.

The first thing that struck me after reading The Ring of Winter is that for a book set in a lost world of dinosaurs, it’s surprisingly lacking in dinosaurs. The terrible reptiles make a few cameos but Lowder mostly populates his setting with mythological creatures more traditional to the Dungeons & Dragons world, which is a shame. The characters themselves are stereotypical and the writing is simply serviceable, but tie-in novels have never been known for their literary merits.

That said, Lowder never takes the whole thing seriously, and there is a playfulness in the writing that reminded me very much of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. When two characters are a talking wombat and a ghost stuck in the material world because of a bureaucratic blunder between gods, you get the idea. And I must admit I enjoyed the merging of the pulp fiction and high fantasy settings, if more in concept than in execution. The Ring of Winter didn’t feel like a chore to read, and while that may not sound like much of a compliment, it’s more than I can say than some novels reviewed here.

Trivia

  • The author would later flesh out the world of the novel in the game supplement The Jungles of Chult.

Reviews

  • None

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Jungles of Chult by James Lowder and Jean Rabe (1993)

Cover blurb

Come, all ye seekers after treasure beyond your ken and adventure greater than any you can dream!

Come, all ye mighty warriors, seekers after prey worthy of your peerless skills, and stalk the Children of Ubtao. Walk the streets of the city of Mezro, of the Maze of Life. Meet the barae, the holy warriors of Ubtao, those men and women who will live forever sustained by their wisdom and their faith.

Wizards, be prepared for new magical spells and new methods of magic use based on gemstones.

Search the jungles of Chult for the fabled emerald mines, for the Heart of the Jungle, a single gem as large as a man's heart.

Also within these pages are new monsters and new character kits: Mage hunters, specialty priests of Ubtao, and spiritlords.

My thoughts

This is the game supplement for anyone who has ever thought, “The Lord of the Rings would’ve been so much cooler if it had dinosaurs.”

The Jungles of Chult is set in the official Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting Forgotten Realms. The world is inspired – some would say ripped-off – from a dozen different works of fantasy fiction, most notably the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Chances are if you ever played a Dungeons & Dragons computer game, it was set in the Forgotten Realms.

Chult itself is the most forgotten of the Forgotten Realms, usually just filling the role of a distant, little-known land that supplies magical items for the rest of the fantasy world. The Jungles of Chult was an attempt to flesh it out a little, but it’s a weak effort.

Chult, as portrayed in the book, is an African Congo setting with African natives, primitive dwarves, dinosaurs and “pteramen” – half-human, half-pterosaur creatures. The authors don’t bother going into any real detail about the setting, places to explore, or its wildlife, instead spending most of the book detailing a tribe of goblins who live in the jungle and a “lost city” that Chult’s human natives call home. Neither culture is particularly interesting, being made up of clich├ęs. The only imaginative streak comes as a threat to the jungle in the form of a logging operation where all the employees are zombies – a fantasy parallel to the modern-day destruction of the rainforests.

The Jungles of Chult is simply a lazy effort considering the vast amount of real-world history and jungle-adventure fiction the authors could’ve drawn on when writing the book. In recent years, writers of the Dungeons & Dragons line of game supplements have been trying to redefine Chult as a base of operations for the villainous snake-people of the Forgotten Realms setting, the Yuan-ti. It would be nice to see them revisit Chult in a future supplement, but I doubt that will happen.

Trivia

  • A couple stages of the Dungeons & Dragons video game, Demon Stone, are set in Chult, but no dinosaurs or other prehistoric wildlife make appearances.
  • The game supplement Serpent Kingdoms provides a little more history about Chult and the snake-people of the setting.
  • The Jungles of Chult was published the same year that the first Jurassic Park film was released, which I'm betting wasn't a coincidence.

Reviews

  • None

The Shores of Kansas by Robert Chilson (1976)

Paperback cover blurb

IN THE PRESENT

Grant Ryals was a world-famous figure, the man who had mastered time travel, and who now was surrounded by the ravenous forces of commercial greed and by the man-eating appetites of "celebrity groupies," women who wanted to add him to their list of conquests at any price.

IN THE PREHISTORIC PAST

Grant Ryals was the only human being on the face of planet Earth, walking through the great, trackless landscape of jungle, swamp and sea that was Kansas millions of years ago, and facing the hugest and most hideous carnivorous creatures that had ever ruled the globe.

In the present, Grant Ryals was fighting for his manhood. In the past, he was fighting for his life. And he did not know which was the more dangerous…

My thoughts

One of the perks of haunting used-book stores is that occasionally you come across a long-forgotten title that turns out to be a surprisingly good read. The Shores of Kansas is one of those titles. It’s a flawed book, but still an entertaining one.

Grant Ryals is one of a handful of people who can travel through time simply by willing themselves into the past. But even among this group Grant is special, because he is the only person who can travel to the age of dinosaurs. Equipped with a movie camera and a medieval war axe for protection, Grant made two prehistoric wildlife documentaries and then used the profits to set up an institute to research and publicize his findings.

Grant is one of the most famous people on the planet when the novel opens, but the reclusive time-traveler isn’t adapting well to his celebrity. He is constantly hounded by the media and by women want “to add him to their list of conquests.” The greedy people who run his institute are trying to maximize their profits while minimizing the center's scientific research. And a rookie female time traveler is apprenticing to journey back to the dinosaur era, but Grant isn’t sure he wants the company.

The Shores of Kansas isn’t as much about dinosaurs as it is about a man trying to come to grips with the decisions he has made in life. Most of the novel is set in the present – the “present” in this case being the 1970s – with the excursions to the Mesozoic Era being only rare events. Still, the time-travel sequences are well-executed with an impressive amount of research put into them. In a few pages, the author manages to paint a believable prehistoric world with dinosaurs that behave like real animals rather than movie monsters, and even modern readers will find the descriptions of the terrible reptiles are not far off from how we view them today.

The passages set in the prehistoric past are so well done that it’s a shame the author didn’t use them more often. He instead focuses on Grant’s inner turmoil as a celebrity who doesn’t want to be a celebrity. The Shores of Kansas has literary ambitions, and sometimes it succeeds, but sometimes it doesn’t. The most glaring problem is the author’s sexism. Women are constantly referred to as “girls” and are often depicted as emotionally and intellectually shallow, leading to howlers like this sentence, describing a group of kids playing with a toy plumbing set: “All the boys were absorbed, and the girls were equally interested, if only for the shiny beauty of the copper tubings and the brass fittings.”

Sexism aside, the novel remains a good short read, weighing in at about 200 pages. The Shores of Kansas tries to be many things, but it works best as a tribute to the long lost Mesozoic world, which is described so poetically at times that readers will understand why Grant feels more at peace among dinosaurs than among humans.

Trivia

Reviews

  • None

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Some thank yous, and the future of Prehistoric Pulp!

I just got around to realizing that a few days back, Brian over at Laelaps chose Prehistoric Pulp as one of his five favorite blogs. It's a big honor for me and I just wanted to give him a very belated thank you. Any readers who love natural history and paleontology must put Laelaps on their favorites list -- his posts are some of the best reading on the subjects you will find, either in print or on the web.

The nature of Prehistoric Pulp, being mostly reviews and news, doesn't always allow me to properly thank other bloggers who mention this site. There have been several, from Biology in Science Fiction to Robert J. Sawyer to Cryptomundo to The Esoteric Science Resource Center. Check out the blog roll to the right for a more complete list, because there are several other bloggers I want to thank.

This almost sounds like a goodbye post, but it's not. I just wanted to give you a little update about where this blog is heading. I'm roughly three-fourths of the way through my collection of paleo-literature. I have some catching up on reading to do, and I still have a lot of reviews to crank out, but at some point my posts will become less frequent simply because there is a finite amount of fiction relating to dinosaurs and prehistoric animals.

Ironically, if I wrote about books set in outer space, or even fiction concerning dragons rather than dinosaurs, I would probably have enough material to update at least on a weekly basis. Also, I admittedly limited myself by not reviewing caveman romances such as Clan of the Cave Bear. (Paleoanthropology has never appealed to me the same way as paleontology, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.) Prehistoric Pulp will continue even after I've read every work of paleo-fiction in my library -- it will just be updated three or four times a month rather than three or four times a week. Usually only one or two novels about dinosaurs and other extinct animals are published in a single year, so news about the paleo-fiction is slow. More than anything, I want the blog to be a library of information about stories concerning paleontology so they are not forgotten even if I didn't care for them. (Remember readers, it is perfectly OK to disagree with my reviews in the comments section -- I even encourage it.)

As far as the more immediate future, I'm hoping to start a series of "theme weeks" soon. There will be a Dinotopia week, a King Kong week, and a mammoth week. How soon they will come will depend on how quickly I can catch up on my reading -- my personal life has been pretty busy lately, so I haven't had as much time to devote to my hobbies as I usually do.

Stay tuned!

Dinosaurs, edited by Martin H. Greenberg (1996)

Hardback cover blurb

Though gone from the world for sixty-five million years, dinosaurs live on with mythic power in the human imagination. Here, editor and award-winning anthologist Martin H. Greenberg assembles fourteen classic stories featuring these at once fearsome and awe-inspiring creatures, whose enigmatic and sudden disappearance may account for part of our enduring fascination. Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov are among the many notables who breathe life back into the dinosaurs in this imaginative collection.

My thoughts

Sure, I realize this anthology was slapped together simply to make some money on the dinosaur craze that had gripped the public between the first two Jurassic Park films, but come on… A picture of someone’s eye for the cover image? I mean, couldn’t have publisher just used some stock art of a reptilian eye instead? Or better yet, how about actually paying an artist to design a cover image? Artists need to eat, after all. (So do writers and bloggers, for that matter.)

That said, this anthology proves true the old saying about not judging a book by its cover, because it is a very good collection of dinosaur-related fiction. The only downside is the book can be hard to find these days.

The two best stories are two classics of paleo-literature. “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury is the story of a lighthouse fog horn that calls a very lonely reptile from the ocean depths. “A Gun for Dinosaur” by L. Sprague de Camp is the first Reginald Rivers story, with the author’s time-traveling safari guide explaining to a client why he will only take men of a certain size dinosaur hunting.

Other highlights of the anthology include “Time’s Arrow” by Arthur C. Clarke, a time-travel story with a twisted ending; “Shadow of a Change” by Michelle M. Sagara, which concerns a shy woman who undergoes a strange transformation; “Wildcat” by Poul Anderson, about an oil-drilling operation in the Jurassic Period; and “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi” by S.N. Dyer, a story where the famous rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope and O. C. Marsh reaches critical mass when the two discover a living sauropod.

The remaining stories are all strong and nicely fill out the volume. Some of the tales are decades old, so the science isn’t exactly up-to-date, but that doesn’t diminish their entertainment value.

Stories

  • “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Day of the Hunters” by Issac Asimov
  • “Dino Trend” by Patricia Cadigan
  • “Time’s Arrow” by Arthur C. Clark
  • “Chameleon” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • “Shadow of a Change” by Michelle M. Sagara
  • “Strata” by Edward Bryant
  • “Green Brother” by Howard Waldrop
  • “Wildcat” by Poul Anderson
  • Just Like Old Times” by Robert J. Sawyer
  • “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi” by S.N. Dyer
  • “Hatching Season” by Harry Turtledove
  • “A Gun for Dinosaur” by L. Sprague de Camp
  • “Our Lady of the Sauropods” by Robert Silverberg

Reviews

  • None

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Ice Hunt by James Rollins (2003)

Paperback cover blurb

Carved into a moving island of ice twice the size of the United States, Ice Station Grendel has been abandoned for more than seventy years. The twisted brainchild of the finest minds of the former Soviet Union, it was designed to be inaccessible and virtually invisible. But an American undersea research vessel has inadvertently pulled too close—and something has been sighted moving inside the allegedly deserted facility, something whose survival defies every natural law. And now, as scientists, soldiers, intelligence operatives, and unsuspecting civilians are drawn into Grendel's lethal vortex, the most extreme measures possible will be undertaken to protect its dark mysteries—because the terrible truths locked behind submerged walls of ice and steel could end human life on Earth.

* The cover image and blurb are from the publisher's web site.

My thoughts

Land shark! Wait! I mean, land whale!

You wouldn't peg Ice Hunt as paleo-fiction by its cover or its blurb, but it passes the test. In this case, the plot hinges around the survival of the famous "walking whale" Ambulocetus.

Ice Hunt starts when an experimental U.S. Navy submarine finds an abandoned military base carved into the side of an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean. The scientists aboard the sub learn that the berg is crisscrossed with tunnels, with strange creatures frozen in the ice. Meanwhile in Alaska, game warden Matthew Pike investigates a plane crash in the wilderness and comes across the sole survivor -- a reporter on his way to the hidden base. The two are immediately set upon by assassins and must race to the arctic to uncover why they have been targeted. And to make a bad situation even worse, a Russian admiral also is seeking the secret hidden in the iceberg, and he has his finger on the trigger of a doomsday weapon.

I was pretty forgiving with Rollins' first novel, Subterranean, which I enjoyed despite its numerous flaws. I couldn't do the same with Ice Hunt, which was his fifth novel and showed all the same weaknesses as his first. The novel is all about action, action, action! The characters are constantly running from something, be it Russian assassins or hungry walking whales, but many of the action scenes strain credibility. Until I read the book, I never knew that 1) bear spray has the same effect as battery acid on human faces, 2) you could fly a small Cessna full of people through a mountain range like Luke Skywalker through the Death Star and still make it across Alaska on a single tank of gas, or 3) you could have a nuclear bomb detonate right beside you and come out without a scratch.

Suspension of disbelief only goes so far -- it shouldn't be used as an excuse for lazy writing.

Another problem with the novel is it's too convoluted. Ice Hunt would have worked well simply as a thriller about a group of scientists who make an extraordinary discovery that turns terrifying when the hibernating walking whales emerge from their slumber. Rollins actually has a good explanation for the survival of the prehistoric critters and what their discovery may mean for science. Unfortunately, that wasn't good enough for the author, who had to throw in a government conspiracy, some post-Cold War politics, and a doomsday device that would make Dr. Strangelove squeal with joy. The monsters eventually take a backseat to all the other, less-interesting plot elements as a result.

Yet again, we have another work of paleo-fiction where a little subtlety would've gone a long way toward making it a better read.

Trivia
  • James Rollins is the pen name for veterinarian and amateur spelunker Jim Czajkowski. He has written several thrillers where evolutionary biology and archeology are the main focus.
Reviews