Friday, October 26, 2012

The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker: A Review

Bram Stoker made his imprint on vampire lore with Dracula, and five years later, he made yet another imprint on another iconic type of undead: the mummy.

The 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars follows the attempts to revive a five-thousand-year-old Egyptian queen. The story opens with London barrister Malcolm Ross receiving a late-night summons to the home of Margaret Trelawney. Margaret's father, an Egyptologist, is comatose, and an attempt has been made on his life, or so it seems. His house, and especially his vast bedroom, is a veritable museum, with Egyptian artifacts, from mummies to sarcophagi, making for a strange, sinister setting.

Dragged from his sickbed, his wrist mutilated in an attempt to remove a safe key he keeps on a bracelet, Trelawney is put back to bed and a round-the-clock vigil is kept on him. From there, the mystery deepens. Some of Trelawney's wounds seem to be made by a cat; Margaret owns a cat, but swears it was safely tucked away. An ancient mummified cat is in the room, but it clearly couldn't be the culprit...could it? Trelawney is dragged from his bed more than once, but who could be slipping in to do it? There are people all around, including Margaret, who always seems to be the first by her father's side. What causes otherwise vigilant watchers to drowse? A nurse falls into the same kind of coma as Mr. Trelawney - could it be caused by the mummification substances that infuse the mummy and its wrappings? Suddenly, a visitor appears, an old colleague of Mr. Trelawney, bringing lamps from the tomb of Queen Tera, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh far ahead of her time.

Eventually Trelawney rouses from his coma. From then, the plot quickens. Trelawney and his colleague have finally put together the items needed to revive the Queen from her five-thousand-year-old slumber. Much discussion is had about reincarnation, and it seems Margaret may well be the old Queen in new guise. Margaret's increasingly strange moods could hint at anything, from frayed nerves to the internal struggle between Margaret and Queen Tera.

Soon, everything in the house is packed up, lock, stock, and barrel, and moved to the Trelawney's seaside mansion. From there, Trelawney prepares a strange ritual in a cavern within the cliff. Something seems wrong, but Trelawney bulls ahead, unmindful of increasingly unsettling omens. Margaret's mood and demeanor changes moment by moment. It seems that Queen Tera reaches from beyond the grave to tell her tale, and to urge the ritual onward. Promises and vows are made. Yet, how much stock can be placed in what Margaret/Tera says? Her erratic behavior alarms Malcolm, but no one else seems to pay much attention.

The trappings of a classic Victorian-era tale are present. As mentioned, the house is full of Egyptian tomb furnishings, including sarcophagi and mummies. Trelawney has left detailed and ludicrously uninformative instructions behind. Servants quit as strange events unfold. Margaret and Malcolm experience instant and oh-so-chaste love at first sight, with soulful looks and sincere pledges of devotion aplenty. Doctors drop everything to make days-long house calls. Detectives arrive and bumble around. Pseudoscientific theories and spiritualist ideas are earnestly proposed, intermingled, and expounded upon. There is the old seaside mansion pummeled by a howling storm. There is even the classic "lights out" bit at a climactic moment. There is a definitely spooky atmosphere to it all.

 This book left me unsettled and baffled. For much of the book, the vast majority of it, in fact, it reads as a standard Victorian horror story. The quest to find the tomb of Queen Tera, an Egyptian monarch learned in sorcery and science, is related in tales told by characters, and leads up to turn-of-the-century London. Stoker's original ending, though, is startling and sudden, and is strikingly hopeless. A reprint in 1912 saw a revision of the book that changed it to a much happier ending. It's not clear if Stoker, who had been pressured to change the ending, wrote the newer conclusion, or if the publisher took matters into their own hands. Stoker was ill by that time, so it seems likely the new ending isn't by his hand. Regardless, that newer ending is far less memorable, even if it provides more of a conclusion to the story than the original. Neither ending really resolves many of the questions posed by the plot, though that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The main question left unanswered is: what was Queen Tera's motivation? Dracula had a more straightforward agenda: direct, unsubtle, easy to grasp. Queen Tera is much more inscrutable in her plans, which stretch across five millennia. This mystery provides much of the depth to the story, and lends a chill to the ending. The questions that I still turn over in my mind show the power of the book, and especially its ending.

I've seen some mention of this book as the source for the 1932 Boris Karloff movie The Mummy. It really isn't, though there are a few elements that are familiar between the two. Apparently there have been screen adaptations of this book, though I haven't seen them as of this writing. The way the book ends would not translate well to a film, I believe, or at least it would not have the same impact as the book.

There is a lot to like about The Jewel of Seven Stars. There are also flaws: it starts slowly, and only really builds momentum around the last third of the book. A couple of characters make decisions that seem out-of-character and make no sense. However, when all the pieces begin to fall into place, there is an air of fate to the proceedings, an inevitability to the conclusion, that seems to suddenly gallop upon the reader, leaving them shaken and wondering. To me, that's a sign of a good horror story.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A bit of housekeeping: updates to a few posts.

This is a quick post to let those interested know that over the past couple of weeks I went back and rewrote and expanded a few posts in the Middle-earth Roleplaying series I've been doing. Specifically, they include:

Havens of Gondor

Mount Gundabad


Lost Realm of Cardolan

I did this to try to bring all the Middle-earth Roleplaying posts in line, and make them all as substantive as the others in the series. The earlier posts, in particular, gave short shrift to their subjects, and since those were among my favorites, I felt some revision was in order. I also added pictures and maps to them, too. I'll be revising others in the series along the same lines in the coming weeks, so my foray into southern Middle-earth will come after I take care of getting everything that came before all gussied-up, and after taking a short break from the Middle-earth stuff to post about a few other things.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Pirates of Pelargir

Pelargir and Umbar dueled on the high seas, another theater in the millennia-long war against Sauron. Between those two mighty ports lay a lot of water and land that was disputed as the fortunes of one rival power or the other rose or fell. The seemingly endless battle between Gondor and Umbar would have allowed for opportunists to prey on both sides as merchants traveled into lands and waters that changed hands on a regular basis.
The maritime regions of, and between, Gondor and Umbar.

This is a solid little book of adventures for the Middle-earth Roleplaying game. My guess is that the adventures that comprise it were once used for tournament games. I say that for a few reasons. One, the adventures themselves are straightforward: guard a merchant vessel owned by a merchant from Pelargir as it travels South; track down the lair of pirates and bandits plaguing the region between Pelargir and Umbar; and root out the pirates in their base. Two, the adventures are not intricately linked, but it's obvious how one could lead to another. Such adventures usually are designed so that players can have a full experience even if they only play one or two of the adventures in a tournament series. That is, each has a self-contained "story," such as it is, that does not leave a gamer hanging if he or she doesn't play the next one. And three, there are characters ready-made for the players for each adventure. Pre-generated characters, or pre-gens as gamers usually call them, are often a sure sign of a tournament module. Due to the limited amount of time a tournament, usually being run at a game convention, has to play out each round, the process of creating a character from scratch has to be dispensed with. In addition, tournaments usually don't allow homemade characters, as home games vary too widely, and a character from one may be too powerful or too weak for a given tournament adventure, or in comparison to other characters. So I'm pretty confident in my guess as to the origins of this book.

There is a lot of emphasis on the characters in this book, more so than for most such books. There is a substantial amount of background material given each character the players may use, as well as for several non-player characters. This is unusual, especially the assumption that the players will not be using characters of their own creation. I suppose this is part of the "ready-to-run" nature of these adventures, as touted by Iron Crown Enterprises on the cover.
A few of the characters described in Pirates of Pelargir.
The assault on the pirates' base is the most substantial part of the adventure, as far as being detailed in this book. It's a classic "storming the castle" type of adventure. The game master, the person who sets up and describes the situation for the other players, would do well to read through this section closely. That's so they can act and react as the characters run by players invade this or that section of the fortress area, and have the bad guys react in a logical way, rather than standing around as the next room over, and its inhabitants, is trashed.
Part of the pirates' lair.
Pirates of Pelargir is a good, serviceable book. Like many MERP books, it can be easily adapted for another game. It's handsome, with yet another dynamic cover by Angus McBride, and interior character illustrations by the always-welcome Jim Holloway. The maps are well-done, but not the spectacular kind done by Peter Fenlon.

Oh, and Pirates of Pelargir is a bit of misnomer. Pelargir is not the home port for the pirates, and it is never really threatened. The title is a nice bit of alliteration, though, so I won't give it too hard a time on this.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

For now we see through a glass, darkly: Umbar, Haven of the Corsairs

Its name means "fate" in the language of the High Elves. A great seaport and mighty fortress, it was the base for the great Men of the West to launch their attack upon and subsequent humbling of Sauron. When Numenor was dashed beneath the ocean and the king who had forced Sauron to surrender was brought low, Umbar remained in the hands of those loyal to that great, corrupted king. Umbar would remain as a reminder both of the greatness of the Dunedain, and the evil that had brought their ruin.

It's clear that Umbar is one of the great cities of Middle-earth. Built by the Numenoreans at the height of their power, it predates the founding of Gondor by centuries. Given that, Umbar had the potential to be a center of culture in its world; unfortunately, the taint of Sauron's evil lingered within it for centuries, making it a base for strife and destruction against the forces of good that remained in Middle-earth.

Compared to Mordor, Umbar was a thorn in Gondor's side. At times, though, it was like a dagger to that realm's back, poised to strike at the times Gondor could least afford the distraction. Fortunately, some still remained in Middle-earth who were vigilant enough to see the potential for great harm Umbar contained. One of those was Aragorn, the heir to the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. Taking on the name of Thorongil, he led Gondor's navy to demolish Umbar's fleet and shipyards, allowing Gondor to have decades to focus on the growing shadow in Mordor.

Umbar and its lands were home to the Black Numenoreans, the "King's Men" who still held onto the evil aspirations of Ar-Pharazon, the last king of Numenor. Jealous of and unfriendly to Elves, because those beings had the immortality the Numenoreans so desired, and filled with a fatal arrogance, the people of Umbar would have been intolerant and condescending, seeking to subjugate those they felt were beneath them. Their brethren to the north in Gondor and Arnor would be natural enemies, in the eyes of the lords of Umbar mere pretenders to greatness, rebels and usurpers of an empire they never made.

While Tolkien never stated it outright that I know of, Umbar was likely the home of at least some of the Ringwraiths, especially their chief, the Witch-King, as well as the Mouth of Sauron. The Numenoreans of old had been led into evil because they feared death, and Sauron's lies led them to invade the Undying Lands...where they were promptly destroyed by Eru, the creator of all things. This obsessive desire for immortality was undoubtedly part of the temptation of the Nine Rings Sauron offered to the kings of Men. This desire no doubt drove the man who became known as the Mouth of Sauron; ancient, so old that he'd forgotten his real name, using dark sorceries taught by Sauron to extend his life unnaturally, he epitomized how far the Numenoreans had fallen.

Such were the Men who lived in Umbar, and one can extrapolate that much of the culture in Umbar revolves around death and the pursuit of longer life. The utter destruction of Ar-Pharazon and his armies, as well as the entire continent of Numenor, must have had an even more horrifying effect on those who survived. The Faithful who founded Arnor and Gondor understood that immortality was not for them, that death really was the beginning of a new existence beyond the bounds of the world. For them, at least, and in that single way, they had a peace of mind their brethren in Umbar would never attain. For the remnant of Numenoreans who held Umbar, their only recourse would be to cleave even closer to Sauron, for only he offered any hope of escaping the death they saw as a punishment. This may have been especially true after there was ample evidence that they were damned...or, at least it would seem that way to them.

In some ways, then, the Men of Umbar can almost be pitied. There is a hopelessness to their existence. All choices were cast away by them long ago. Their empire was smashed from existence in a show of force that conclusively proved they were not on the side of right. Their remaining kin in Middle-earth were great friends of the hated Elves, and for a while the fortunes of those kin waxed to fullness as lords of Middle-earth, overshadowing once-great Umbar. Still, they chose a path that could only result in their own endless corruption. It's difficult to sympathize with that.

All that is my own interpretation of Umbar, based on my own reading of Tolkien. Given all that possibility for drama and intrigue, this Middle-earth Roleplaying book dealing with Umbar also has potential...but it doesn't really live up to that potential. Right off, I can say that this book doesn't have the space to truly delve into the potential of Umbar. Out of 52 pages, 9 1/2 are devoted to general information about the game and Middle-earth.

That said, the material that is here - in small, close-set type - is packed in tight. There are essays devoted to the climate, ecology, culture, military, and history of Umbar. The book is ostensibly a snapshot of the city and its environs in 1607 of the Third Age, but I think it could easily be tweaked to show Umbar of the late Third Age, when Sauron has returned and Aragorn is afield. In fact, there is a brief section at the end of the book about Umbar at other times that provides some ideas about how the city changes through time.
The region of Harad controlled by Umbar. The city is in the northeast corner of the map.
Umbar, as presented in this book, may be the closest to a typical fantasy roleplaying game city than anything else published in Iron Crown Enterprise's MERP line. There are various guilds that will be familiar to fantasy RPG players: thieves, wizards, merchants, and healers are the best examples. Smugglers, city guards, and armorers all have their own organizations, as well. A good bit of space is devoted to sailing, as Umbar is a sea power, of course. Ominously, a dark religion based on worship of Sauron is given some discussion. There are a few good-hearted folk in Umbar, hoping to stem the tide of darkness and bring the city back into the light. Above all, the Captains of the Havens rule Umbar.
Three of the ruling Captains of the Havens.

The remaining Captains of the Havens.
 All these factions work with and against each other, and intrigue is constant. It's the most interesting city put together for MERP; Tharbad comes a fairly distant second. Umbar has been corrupted too deeply and long for anything short of cities within Mordor itself to compare to its dangerous nature.

This is an early MERP book. The line had yet to hit its stride. Gail B. McIntosh's cover is good, but not as nice as her later covers for the Middle-earth Roleplaying line. Peter Fenlon's map of the Umbar region is not quite as sharp as his later maps, but it is still pretty. The castle and city maps were by others, and while serviceable, are not very inspiring.
Map of the city of Umbar. Not as sprawling and large as I would imagine such an ancient, important, continuously-inhabited city to be. Still, it's a usable map.
 The book's organization is not the best; for example, details about the Captains of the Havens can be found in at least three places. It would have been better had all that detail been consolidated into one single section. The artwork is sparse, and shows true talent, but there isn't enough of it, and not enough variety in what there is, for it to really bolster the writing. Still, despite all this, you can see the structure that would define MERP books soon after.

This was my least favorite of the major MERP sourcebooks. It never gelled for me, never really evoked a sense of place. As with many other MERP books, a closer reading really changed my assessment. Umbar, Havens of the Corsairs details a colorful, interesting region of Middle-earth. It extrapolates from what Tolkien wrote pretty well. With some work and close reading, this book would be a good resource for a game set in Middle-earth. For that matter, given Umbar's isolated location, it could be plugged into another setting, in a coastal, desert region. One has to meet the material halfway, but it's there, and worth the effort.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Fiftieth Post, wherein I ruminate on the past and the future.

So, I've finally reached fifty posts to this blog, after an initial start-and-stop beginning that lasted the better part of two years. Finally getting into the groove of posting regularly has created momentum, and the blog has now taken on a life of its own. I'm usually planning three or four posts ahead, researching and gathering materials. The writing of each post, at least the recent ones, takes me a while, and I haven't yet gotten used to the notion of writing briefer posts to bridge the gap. I've tried it, and I'll continue to try, but, like everything else, it'll take time. I also need to apologize to my friends who aren't gamers, as the blog has become very game-centric; that wasn't the intention. Still, I hope you all stick with it, or at least keep subscribed, because I hope to expand the scope eventually. For now and into the near future, though, the game stuff helps me generate content.

The current Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) series of posts I've been doing has helped give the blog structure. I hadn't seen much in the way of coverage of this game line when I started, though since then I've run across a few other blogs which have addressed it. I still have a ways to go before I'm finished, at least with the MERP books I actually own; there are quite a few I don't own, and which are too hard to find or too expensive for me to bother with tracking down. As it is, what I do have provides a fairly comprehensive overview of Middle-earth, including parts Tolkien never spent much time on. Still to come, as of this writing, are the southern regions of Middle-earth, as well as massive Moria, which will be the subject of a huge blog post or two. Or three. I'll also be covering Decipher's Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, too, as I think it's worthwhile to include it in the project. In addition, I'll be expanding upon my original Some thoughts on the running of a Fourth Age Middle Earth game campaign post, because I've had some more thoughts on the subject as a result of looking closely at the MERP books again. I need to locate, dust off, and rewrite my old Ruins of Barad-dur notes, too, which directly deal with the aftermath of the fall of Sauron and what he left behind. Yeah, I know, my non-gamer people will have their eyes glazing over in advance.

I also wanted to mention, and had to edit this post to add, that I plan on going back and expanding and, in some cases, rewriting some of my past posts. I wanted to bring all of them up to the same standards I've set over the course of time. Don't like a post and think it didn't cover the subject too well? Check back over time and I may have revised it. Or, drop me a note or comment and let me know what you think needs fixin.'

Anyway, this was a bit of a breather for me, a way to pause and say hey, thanks for reading, and to give you some idea of what I have planned. Any thoughts or suggestions are always welcome, Middle-earth-related or not. I wanted to commemorate fifty posts, but not make a big deal of it, after seeing some blogs with hundreds of posts.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Over the bounding main in Middle-earth: Sea-Lords of Gondor - Palargir and Lebennin

The Dunedain were mighty mariners, ruling the waves of Middle-earth. This is only natural, as they were given an island nation as a home - Numenor. From this star-shaped land, they plied the seas, colonizing Middle-earth at will, building great realms, and throwing back Sauron's shadow wherever they went. This power led to their downfall, as they dared to invade the Undying Lands in order to claim immortality for themselves. Yet their seamanship was also their salvation, as the Faithful, those who refused to adhere to the folly of their brethren, escaped by way of a small fleet of ships the utter destruction of Numenor as it was drowned beneath the sea. They remained great sailors, with Gondor a great sea power throughout its history, bedeviled by Black Numenoreans, the remainder of the arrogantly evil Dunedain who escaped the destruction of their island-nation and founded their own sea-focused realms in Umbar and further South.

The Havens of Gondor was a portion of Gondor's seagoing strength, but further south lay Lebennin, a beautiful land which held the greatest of Gondor's ports - Pelargir. Closer to Umbar, it seems natural that naval power would be a focus of the region. Gondor dueled with Umbar for centuries, fending off many sea invasions and mounting attacks against a foe which was a dark reflection of itself. Pelargir, a great haven of the Numenoreans, was the chief base for Gondor's defense of its southern ocean approaches.

This book covers the mighty port of Pelargir, which means "Garth of Royal Ships." What's a garth, you ask? Basically, a shipyard, at least in this context. So, just by the name we know this is both the main port and shipbuilding center of Gondor. Well, we can infer it.

Also covered is Lebennin, referred to as Fair Lebennin of the Five Streams; Lebennin means "five waters" in the language of the Sindarin Elves. This echoes the Land of Five Rivers, which is the Punjab region in the real world. I don't know if Tolkien meant any connection there, though I tend to doubt it. Since this is a game book, and subject to the whims of the individual gamer, trying to make a connection might lend some depth and interest to the area.

As with most MERP books, Sea-Lords of Gondor has a historical timeline and overviews of the climate, cultures, creatures, and geography of the region. Well-watered, generally mild, civilized, and densely-populated (relatively speaking), Lebennin and Pelargir, as described in this book, remind me a bit of San Diego with more access to fresh water. As with Dor-en-Ernil, characters are unlikely to find much sword-swinging adventure most eras.

Pelargir has the distinction of being where the Kin-Strife began. This is the period when some of the seaside provinces of Gondor rebelled against what they perceived as favoritism towards Northmen and the inner lands of Gondor. Castamir the Usurper, lord of Gondor's navy, seized the throne, driving away king Eldacar and executing his son.
Liz Danforth's portrait reveals nobility and humanity in one of the most divisive and hated figures in Gondor's history. It's an interesting portrayal.

After a decade of ruling Gondor, Castamir was slain by Eldacar, and the sons of Castamir, with his forces, fled South, seizing Umbar. Thus, the centuries-old enmity between Umbar and Gondor, specifically Pelargir, was not only reinforced, but made more immediate. This would continue for centuries, with Aragorn himself responsible for destroying Umbar's forces not once, but twice, and eventually conquering the haven of evil once and for all, thus bringing to an end the saga of the Kin-Strife once and for all.

The rivalry and jealousy between Umbar and Pelargir provides a great hook for adventures in Middle-earth. Spying, piracy, direct combat, sorcery, and agents of Sauron himself can be found in Umbar. Pelargir itself, as well as the entire coast of Lebennin, is attacked by Umbar often, especially during the War of the Ring. Much of Gondor's strength in the coastal regions was tied down defending against corsair invasions from Umbar, and could not be sent to defend Minas Tirith when Sauron sent his armies to finally attack that great city. Players could find their characters working to stave off invaders, or making preemptive strikes to stall Umbar's depredations so forces could be freed up to help Gondor's capital. The entire region, during most any era, could be the site of adventures.

A number of sites are detailed in this book. Oddly, Pelargir, despite being such a major city, is given just a little over two pages of fairly cursory attention. Maybe Iron Crown Enterprises had planned on a book devoted to just Pelargir itself, much as they did with Minas Tirith.This book has an appealing, good-sized map of the city, with a numbered key to sites within it, but as I noted, it's pretty sparse in detail.

There are a few towns discussed with a couple of paragraphs' worth of detail, some stronghold areas, and ancient burial sites for Dunlendings. Tolfalas, a large island off the coast which is only sparsely inhabited, is discussed, and it has potential for mysterious exploration. Subject to constant raiding and wild weather, Tolfalas is remote enough to discourage all but a handful of hardy souls from living there, and few others come to explore its hills and ruins.
Belfalas to the West (covered in Havens of Gondor), and the wild, largely empty island of Tolfalas central and to the South. To the northeast lies Pelargir.

It's a varied assortment of sites, though, to be blunt, a bit on the dull side. Still, there's a solid core of material to work with, and any gamemaster worth his salt can use it to create a wide spectrum of adventures.

Interestingly, and unique to the MERP books with which I'm familiar, Sea-Lords of Gondor also has a section concerning ships and ship combat in the game. It's a basic sea-warfare game, and includes statistics for several ships, including those of Gondor and its foes. It's not the most inspiring game, but it will do for those who are more focused on characters rather than ships.

The art is fairly notable in this book. Most obviously, the cover image by the redoubtable Angus McBride is a dynamic seaborne battle between a warrior of Gondor and a warrior of Umbar. You can just tell that the deck pitches and rolls beneath them, as battle swirls all around in a clash of steel and wood. The interior is dominated by maps. The Pelargir map by Jessica Ney is clear and usable, and Peter Fenlon's maps are outstanding, as usual.

This is a great depiction of the portion of Gondor closest to the shadowy land of Mordor, with Minas Tirith north and center, and Pelargir to the southwest.

Besides the maps, illustrations are sparse, but they're by the always-talented Liz Danforth. The picture of Castamir above is my favorite in the book, and one of my favorite character pictures by Danforth. A nice assortment of illustrations, but I was left feeling that I didn't have a really good idea of the "look" of the region and its folk.

This is a good, solid entry in the Middle-earth Roleplaying line, though I feel it's a bit bland. Lebennin and Pelargir seem, based on the history of the place Tolkien created, to be full of exciting potential, but that is not close to fully realized here. Still, it's a good start, and a nice reference.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Proto-Steampunk: Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells opened up a world of possibility, both narratively and generically. One of the establishing texts of science fiction as a genre, it still has power, and still fires imaginations. Not only did it help inspire a genre, it also inspired sequels by other authors, some long decades after it was first published. Morlock Night is one of those sequels. First published in 1979, it presages the Steampunk genre, though it's not quite Steampunk itself. Jeter himself is credited with coining the term, so this book's role in the development of that genre is obvious.

K.W. Jeter's book is an immediate sequel to The Time Machine, the action starting as Wells' book ends and the time traveler's guests disperse into the night. The protagonist of Morlock Night is one of those guests, mentioned and described in the narrative in passing. Jeter doesn't delay the proceedings; his protagonist is quickly plunged into a nightmarish adventure instigated by a mysterious and sinister man, happened upon in a night-cloaked street.

The pacing is brisk, to say the least. The protagonist - Jeter does decide to give him a proper name, Edwin Hocker, unlike Wells, who chose to keep his hero anonymous - finds himself descending without warning into a hellish landscape. His bewilderment keeps him off-balance through a good bit of the book, though his resilience and bluster combine to carry him through. The story rarely slows down, and Hocker finds himself falling from frying pan into a succession of fires, rarely able to catch his balance.

As you might guess from the title, the Morlocks of Wells' dystopic future figure into the plot. Jeter takes a few logical liberties with the degenerate descendants of humans, otherwise he might not have had much of a story. I don't think this jibes too well with Wells' vision of the creatures, but it's a fun interpretation.

Jeter conjures up three different Londons, the Victorian metropolis of Wells, an embattled ruin decades later, and the idyllic parkland the original Time Traveller found in his foray deep into the distant future. His Victorian London is the most fully realized, but much of the action takes place under it.

From here on, there will be spoilers.

I was surprised that Jeter brought Arthurian legend into the narrative. There's nothing wrong with that, it just wasn't the direction I expected the story to go in. There is a cleverness to his concept of Excalibur being a "sum total," so that when Merdenne - the evil counterpart/twin/dark side to Merlin, called Dr. Ambrose here - steals the sword from three different points in time, each sword is only a quarter of the original blade's power. It's an ingenious plot driver.

Merlin/Dr. Ambrose and Merdenne remain ciphers, which seems fitting for wizards. I got the feeling this was a brief glimpse into an age-old game of cat-and-mouse and one-upsmanship, where the balance of power has shifted countless times.

Jeter's use of the trope of Arthur as the hero for England who appears at need is familiar and touching. This treatment of the concept reminds me a lot of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion. If you like this book, then you might want to look into Moorcock's bibliography. The concept isn't unique to Moorcock, of course, but I think he has to be the author who's dealt with it more extensively than any other writer you could care to name.

There are problems with the book that may not be problems to some. The brevity of the book and the speed of the plot leaves a lot undeveloped. Perhaps the most glaring example is when Hocker acquires an ally in the ruined London he visits early in the book, a woman named Tafe. She is left undeveloped as a character, though she accompanies him through all his adventures. She never quite comes to life, in my opinion. The Morlocks are left only partly developed, also, and Jeter seems to portray them as something like World War II-era German military personnel with the sensibilities of the Three Stooges. That portrayal goes a bit too far afield from Wells' creations for my taste, but in such a brief book Jeter used broad strokes to paint his characters.

There are other, more prosaic, problems with the book. Foremost to me is that the book is riddled with typos. That's not Jeter's fault, of course, and it mars what is otherwise a handsome paperback.

There are a number of nifty details that Jeter uses to give texture to his book. The toshers, the folk who delve into London's ancient, labyrinthine sewer system, are a fascinating bit of history. The toshes they seek are caches of valuables deposited in nooks and crevices of the underworld, with the Grand Tosh being the semi-mythical, but ever-elusive (and illusive, perhaps) conglomeration of treasures from across the ages. The Lost Coin Kingdom is an evocative name for another legendary bit of the tapestry of the sewers, a civilization of subterranean dwellers who may be an uncomfortable glimpse into the future. I wonder if it may be a reference to the Parable of the Lost Coin, though, if it is, it's a little beyond me. Plus, Jeter almost casually tosses in tantalizing references to Atlantis. All these bits and pieces left me wanting to know more.

 Overall, this is a fun, though slight, book. It covers a lot of ground, and is a bit of whirlwind of colorful detail. It's surprisingly somber at the end, and my lingering impression is that it is a sliver of a larger story, a brief moment in a much bigger tale, caught for a moment like a tableau in a flash of lightning. I was left wanting more, and that's a good thing.