• Elizabeth Moon wraps up her "Legends of Paksennarion" series with "Crown of Renewal" (Del Rey, $26, 498 pages), and though it's not quite the epic finale one would hope for, it's still a professional effort that gets the job done.

    Moon's first book in this 12-book collection came out in 1988 ("Sheepfarmer's Daughter" ), and she's built a complex pre-industrial world with magic, demi-gods and well-developed characters. Unfortunately, there's so much going on that it's often hard to keep up, and the lack of a detailed map makes it even more difficult. Presumably if you started with "Sheepfarmer's Daughter," or even "Oath of Fealty," which marked Moon's return to this world after a long break, and read them consecutively, you'd be more on top of things.

    Nonetheless, Moon is very good at what she does, and I recommend the series, though the good guys might be a little too good, and the bad guys just a little too in love with evil.

  • Elspeth Cooper lacks Moon's experience, and it shows in volume three of the "Wild Hunt," "The Raven's Shadow" (Tor, $27.99, 567 pages). Her monochromatic villains are just evil from top to bottom and are straight out of an old-fashioned comic book. Why does the evil sorceress want to trample on the bones of farmers in the Empire and glory in their blood? Why does the evil suitor try to rape a woman he wants to marry?


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    Cooper's other major issue may not be her fault, but somebody at Tor should pony up and put a map in this book. Geography impacts pretty much every aspect of the complex plot (the gears grind on occasion, and the twist at the end was obvious from about page three), but there's no way for the hapless reader to know how close King's Gate is to Saardost Keep, nor where the Nordlands are in relation to Gimrael.

    Finally, the romances are of the kind that the reader can see what's coming 100 pages before the characters do, but Cooper is hardly alone in failing to negotiate that stumbling block. All that said, I liked "The Raven's Shadow," as Cooper is a good writer and the narrative rolls along. I'm guessing there's one more volume before the final battle between the evil villains and the various good folk — but it sure would be nice to have a map to see where it's happening.

  • In the afterword to "Shipstar" (Tor, $27.99, 415 pages), co-author Gregory Benford (with Larry Niven) refers to the massive Bowl that is the main topic of this book and its predecessor, "Bowl of Heaven," as a Big Smart Object. And in so doing, Benford pretty much reviewed both of these books, which should be read back-to-back, as if they were one volume. The authors don't fill in any blanks, and in fact I had completely forgotten two major characters were married until it was brought up during the final pages.

    Nevertheless, these two volumes are in fact one Big Smart Object, with a lot of what passes for the plot being discussions of how the Bowl (an incredibly massive object that cruises the galaxy) works, and how a jet from its accompanying star is generated and controlled. The characters fade into the background as the technical ideas flow, and then Benford and Niven add more and more aliens to the mix to further muddy the waters and distance the reader from the supposed protagonists.

    Then again, fans of Benford and Niven won't mind at all, as "Bowl of Heaven" and "Shipstar" are right in the pocket of their previous works. But newbies should probably start with Niven's classic "Ringworld," which is the seed for this grand conception, and is a much better book.

    Contact Clay Kallam at clayk@fullcourt.com.