StormRaven's 100 or More Books for 2013

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StormRaven's 100 or More Books for 2013

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Jan 16, 2013, 10:30 pm

Belated Review: Servant of the Jackal God: The Tales of Kamose, Archpriest of Anubis by Keith Taylor.

Stories included:
Daggers and a Serpent
Emissaries of Doom
Haunted Shadows
The Emerald Scarab
What Are You When the Moon Shall Rise?
The Company of Gods
The Archpriest's Potion
Corpse's Wrath
Return of Ganesh
The Shabti Assassin

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Servant of the Jackal God is, as the title indicates, a set of stories originally published in Weird Tales about Kamose, a powerful priest in the service of the god Anubis sometime during the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties of Egypt. Kamose is a powerful sorcerer who gained his arcane knowledge by stealing the got Thoth's scrolls of magical knowledge, earning Thoth's enmity in the process. Ironically, the knowledge Kamose gained by doing so is what allows him to fend off threats from Thoth's supporters, although even Kamose's considerable abilities were unable to prevent the deity from exacting revenge upon Kamose's wife and children. The individual stories are all complete self-contained tales, but they are at the same time interconnected in a manner that builds a narrative that threads through the entire volume.

Although the stories build a more or less coherent narrative, they don't do so in a linear fashion, hopping back and forth between different viewpoint characters and different time periods. The opening story Daggers and a Serpent, shows Kamose at the height of his powers as a master sorcerer in the servant of the lord of death. Raiders attack and ransack one of Anubis' temples, killing its priests and their attendants and then carting off its wealth. Confronted with this insult to his patron, Kamose goes into action, using his powers to track down the offenders and extract terrible revenge. This opening story serves to set the table for the rest of the pieces in the book, establishing Kamose as a powerful and ruthless master of arcane magic. In effect, Taylor throws down the gauntlet with this tale, casting Kamose as, essentially, the anti-Conan. While Cimmerian was generally seen as heroic in his thieving exploits aimed at foiling and defeating the evil wizard who guards it, Kamose is essentially the flip side of that equation - any evil wizard to be sure, but a somewhat sympathetic one charged with guarding the treasures of a deity to ensure the passage to the afterlife for his countrymen. And he handles the intruders in this story almost effortlessly, showing his power and his lack of mercy at the same time. From there, the remaining stories paint a patchwork quilt of Kamose's life, and showing how even a sorcerer as powerful as he could be hampered by politics and misfortune. In Emissaries of Doom a Kushite challenge to the authority of the Egyptian Pharaoh requires the archpriest to defend his nation's ruler. After the Kushite magician threatens the life of Pharaoh Setekh-Nekht, Kamose tries to defend him, but the jealous priests of Thoth, implacably opposed to the Anubian priest's actions due to his insult to their own deity, manipulate the court with petty politics to exclude Kamose's demons from their vigil. This meddling allows the Kushite to kill the ruling Pharaoh of Egypt, and results in a grievous injury to Kamose himself. In the end, Kamose is able to put the Kushites in their place, at least temporarily, but the cost paid is high.

In Haunted Shadows, the persona Ganesh is introduced, a jewel merchant and also the confidante of Amenufer, a young priest of the temple of Thoth. Amenufer is obsessed with gaining magical prowess, and seeks to locate the fabled Forty-Two Scrolls of Thoth, which are supposed to hold all magical knowledge. Unfortunately, they are also forbidden to men, and anyone who reads them will forever earn the ire of Thoth. To dissuade Amenufer, Ganesh tells him the story of Kamose's search for the scrolls, and the terrible price that was exacted from him for finding them and learning the knowledge they contain. The story is a fairly straightforward quest story until after Kamose acquires the scrolls, at which point it becomes a cat and mouse game between a human and a deity, which the human cannot hope to win. The story serves to add interesting background about Kamose's character while avoiding getting bogged down with exposition in the middle of another story. In the end, Ganesh' s cautionary tale falls on deaf ears, but everything changes when Ganesh reveals yet another secret that chastens Amenufer and ensures that he will crop up in further stories in the book. Taylor returns to Kamose's background later in the collection in the story The Company of Gods, which details the magician's return to Egypt from exile following his unpleasant encounter with Thoth. Knowing that he has earned the displeasure of such a powerful divine being, Kamose is in the market for a godly patron to protect him. This story doesn't have much in the way of plot, being almost entirely character development for Kamose. It is a testament to Taylor's skill as a writer that he can make a "story" that is almost nothing but exposition work. The narrative is mostly a set of vignettes as one by one the various Egyptian deities present themselves to Kamose and make their case for his service. In quick succession Set, Ma'at, Osiris, Hapi, and Hathor all show up, give their spiel, and are spurned as being too weak to serve Kamose's protector. Finally, Anubis arrives to claim the priest as his own, filling in the reader as to how the Jackal God's archpriest actually became the archpriest, and at the same time explaining the scrupulous attention to his patron's desires displayed by the otherwise generally impious magician.

Although the stories thus far have seemed more or less unrelated, when Taylor gets to The Emerald Scarab, it becomes clear that he is weaving a longer tale through the shorter individual installments. This story centers around the preparation of the body of now-deceased former Pharaoh Setekh-Nekht for its final journey through the afterlife. While conducting the lengthy embalming procedure designed to turn the body into a preserved mummy, Kamose discovers that the priceless emerald used to represent the departed's heart has been stolen and replaced with a fake. He quickly determines that this switch was made in order to discredit him politically, and despite still being weakened by his encounter with the Kushite priest's demons in Emissaries of Doom, sets about finding the thief. Kamose occupies his unwilling and dangerous servant lamia Mertseger in a trivial diversion with a minor priest who might have had opportunity to commit the crime, and uses his considerable talents to unravel the felonious conspiracy. The story ends with the gem recovered, and the direct culprits unmasked, but the architect of the duplicitous scheme as yet unrevealed, with the denouement of Kamose's quest put off until a later tale.

Following The Emerald Scarab, the story Lamia is the first in the book primarily told from a viewpoint other than Kamose's own, as the lamia Mertseger takes center stage. During the events of the previous story the lamia had become aware of Kamose's injury induced infirmity and, chafing at her unwilling servitude to him, tries testing the limits imposed upon her. She takes up with Remi, the minor priest she seduced in the prior story, and tries to indulge her rather murderous appetites. But as this series of stories is ultimately about Kamose, the tales has a twist in the end that turns out to be not at all to Mertseger's liking, but also shows just how many challenges the archpriest had taken on, and which threaten to overwhelm him while he is still recovering from the injuries sustained in Emissaries of Doom. The truly fragile nature of Kamose's position is further explored in What Are You When the Moon Shall Rise?, a story in which his life is threatened directly by those loyal to Thoth. Because of Thoth's association with the moon, once a month Kamose makes it a practice to curse the moon when it is full, so as to confound the attempts of Thoth's priesthood to use magical means to destroy him. In this story, he and Amenufer (who had been moved from the priesthood of Thoth to the priesthood of Anubis back in Haunted Shadows) must deal with a rather clever attempt to insert a magical threat into Kamose's house. But Kamose once again proves to be too crafty, too powerful, and too paranoid for the plan against him to succeed, and in the end, the reader learns yet one more means by which Kamose's secrets are so closely guarded, and at the same time learns even more about Kamose's own character. It is in these sorts of revelations that Taylor shows his talents, exposing the nature of his characters bit by bit as an organic part of the story, drawing the reader inside the paranoid nature of his protagonist's mind without having to resort to tedious exposition to do so.

Taylor introduces another protagonist in The Archpriest's Potion in the form of Si-hotep, a professional thief who does occasional work for Kamose, although Si-hotep's contact with Kamose is the jewel merchant persona Ganesh. This doesn't just appear to be a convoluted relationship, it is, although it seems natural enough in the book. In this installment, Kamose has returned to the task of discovering who had stolen the emerald in The Emerald Scarab, and to continue the pursuit, the archpriest needs the assistance of a skilled thief. But it turns out that Si-hotep's natural skills will not be sufficient for the task, so Kamose has prepared a magical potion that will allow him to see through walls and also walk through them. Not one to let an opportunity pass him by, Si-hotep quickly realizes that the fact that Kamose provided three doses of the potion means that he could engage in a personal foray to acquire some of his own plunder. After enlisting the aid of Ganesh's scribe Wesu, Si-hotep sets out to steal the treasure from the impregnable vault of Khentau, a wealthy and paranoid noble. After this adventure which introduces and describes the thief, Si-hotep still has to track down the rogue responsible for purloining the emerald, a task taken up in the story Corpse's Wrath. The trail leads Si-hotep down to the Nile docks, where he finds his mark in a cheap tavern, a jeweler named Perkhet. His task of returning the man to Kamose is hampered by the presence of an angry walking corpse. It is in this story that we are also introduced to Kiya, Si-hotep's lover, who serves to humanize the thief and give his character a little more depth. The story itself is fairly straightforward, with Si-hotep locating his quarry, and then bundling him back to Kamose while overcoming the impediments that crop up. The story wends its way back to Kentau in Return of Ganesh when Perkhet is induced to divulge the name of the man who commissioned him to create a fake emerald. It turns out that the wealthy noble was behind the creation of the paste replacement, so Ganesh instructs Si-hotep to act as a specialist in exorcisms and present himself to Kentau with an offer to get rid of the ghost that had been causing him trouble. A ghost that had been originally summoned and put to the task of harassing Kentau by none other than Kamose, which should come as no surprise to anyone who had read this far in the book. The plan works reasonably well for most of the story, but as usual, the pursuit of the conspirators who tried to set up Kamose runs into a dead end, keeping the plot thread open for further stories.

The final story of the book, The Shabti Assassin, takes a sharp left turn away from the fake emerald plot and has Kamose on the trail of a set of seemingly inexplicable murders. The archpriest turns his considerable talents to uncovering the culprits, and after some twists and turns the killers are revealed. At the end of the story, the culprits are brought to justice, but instead of a sentence of death they are exiled, leaving open the possibility that they could return and seek vengeance against those that foiled them. And this development highlights one of the traps that this kind of story telling can fall into if an author is unwary: plots that never resolve, giving the series a feeling almost like that of traditional episodic television. In The Fugitive television series Dr. Kimball could never find the One-Armed Man and get a confession out of him, because if he did, the series would end (and it is exactly what happened when Kimball did catch up with the One-armed Man). In a similar way, once a mystery is solved in a series of short fiction like this, that plot line is dead. But unlike a series such as The Fugitive which was dependent upon the single conflict, in a story like Servant of the Jackal God the author could come up with new plots and new characters to replace those that have ended or left. Instead, Taylor never seems to end a plot. The Kushite magician seen in Emissaries of Doom escapes and still lurks out there. Si-hotep doesn't die, but rather decides to take a trip out of Egypt for a while. The killers in this story are not condemned but are instead exiled. And the fake emerald plot remains unresolved. Eventually, the reader starts to feel the weight of all of the unresolved plot threads that are left hanging, and starts to wonder if they will ever be resolved, or just left open for an endless series of stories.

Leaving aside the fact that major plot elements never seem to get resolved, this is a pretty good set of sandals and sorcery fiction stories told from the perspective of a character that would normally be the villain in such tales. Kamose himself is an interesting character, and the fantasy version of Egypt that serves as the setting for the stories is both intriguing and well-detailed. While some of the supporting characters are a bit one-dimensional, most of them are more substantial than that and fill their narrative roles well. On a slightly unfortunate note, there is a decided lack of female characters in the stories, and one of the two notable ones is actually a murderous sex-demon that is banished to an underworld prison halfway through the book. This lack of female characters would seem to limit the possible story lines, possibly explaining in part why Taylor seems so reluctant to bring any plot threads to a conclusion in the series. Even with these flaws, however, this series of darkly magical interwoven stories is fairly good, and is definitely a fun read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jan 16, 2013, 11:11 pm

Welcome back, StormRaven! I've been wondering if you (and your marvelous reviews) were going to return this year, and I'm glad that you have.

Jan 17, 2013, 12:21 am

What a review! Good to see you again.

Jan 20, 2013, 12:05 am

Hanging in there for another year.

Jan 30, 2013, 5:01 pm

Another one here eagerly looking forward to your reviews. Nice to see you!

Editado: Maio 3, 2013, 9:53 am

Book One: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future: Volume XXVIII by K.D. Wentworth (editor).

Stories included:
Of Woven Wood by Marie Croke
The Rings of Mars by William Ledbetter
The Paradise Aperture by David Carani
Fast Draw by Roy Hardin
The Siren by M.O. Muriel
Contact Authority by William Mitchell
The Command for Love by Nick T. Chan
My Name Is Angela by Harry Lang
Lost Pine by Jacob A. Boyd
Shutdown by Corry L. Lee
While Ireland Holds These Graves by Tom Doyle
The Poly Islands by Gerald Warfield
Insect Sculptor by Scott T. Barnes

Essays included:
Story Vitality by L. Ron Hubbard
The Importance of Short Fiction by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Advice for a New Illustrator by Shaun Tan

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The twenty-eighth installment of the L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future anthology continues the tradition of showcasing the best science fiction authors whose work has previously not been professionally published. As usual, the stories in this collection are all pretty good, and some reveal authors who one could very easily see writing great stories in the future. The only thing that is a little disturbing about this selection of works is that although some of the writers included are young up and comers, there seem to be far too many older authors represented in their ranks. While the contest rules are clear, and the only requirement an author has to meet is that they do not have any previous professional sales, it seems to defeat the purpose of a contest titled "Writers of the Future" when middle-aged authors who have turned to fiction writing as a second career are featured.

One element that runs through the stories in the volume is that many feel like they should be longer stories, feeling oddly truncated or somehow incomplete. The first story in the book, Of Woven Wood by Marie Croke, displays this characteristic, told from the perspective of a magical construct named Lan made from wood full of internal containers used by the apothecary Haigh to store his supplies. But Haigh is dead, killed by a fire that destroyed most of his laboratory, and Lan is taking refuge with the apothecary's neighbor Jaddi. As the story opens, Lan's head aches, a condition which he attributes to the fact that his head container is empty. But none of his other containers ever hurt when they are empty, which confuses Lan. The story is complicated when visitors from the royal court arrive claiming that Haigh stole something valuable from the queen, although for most of the story they won't say what it is that they are looking for. The queen's emissaries leave for a bit, Lan cleans up Haigh's house, goes through his notes, and begins filling in for Haigh as an apothecary, and the story meanders along for a bit until the queen herself shows up and everything ties up in a little bow in the last few pages. The problem I have with the story is that the transition from the mystery of Lan's confusion to the resolution of the story feels incredibly abrupt, as if there were chunks of plot development left out of the middle. The premise and characters are interesting, and the world that the story takes place in seems interesting, but the plot just doesn't seem to be fully fleshed out. I enjoyed the story, but it needed to be developed more.

The Rings of Mars by William Ledbetter is another story that seems like there should have been more story, or at least there should be a sequel. A somewhat eccentric explorer on Mars named Jack has discovered a pattern of anomalies that lead him to believe that intelligent life left a message for travelers from Earth to find. For reasons that aren't ever really explained, Jack is being prematurely shipped home by the company sponsoring the expedition, and blames his friend Malcom at least partially for this turn of events. After a perfunctory tiff between the two, Jack and Malcolm patch up their differences to thumb their nose at the evil corporation that paid a fortune to transport them to Mars and explore the anomalies themselves. Helped be a cooperative sandstorm, the pair have just enough time to do some destructive archaeology and uncover the secret message left behind by the mysterious alien benefactors. Still intent on foiling the corporation that pays them and makes their explorations even possible, the story ends with Malcolm and Jack splitting up so that they can upload the message publicly to everyone. The story is a fairly standard alien archaeology story, albeit one that is told fairly well. But it seems like the middle of a larger, more complete story. The set-up, explaining why Jack is being ejected from Mars, and exactly why the corporation is supposed to be nefarious, seems to be missing, and the story just seems to end abruptly when things started to get really interesting.

Sometimes a story has an interesting idea, is well-written, has sympathetic characters and a coherent plot, and yet it still adds up to an unsatisfying read. The Paradise Aperture by David Carani is one of those stories. Jon is a photographer with an unusual talent: when he takes pictures of certain doors, those pictures then become doorways to other worlds. He has become rich off of this talent, but it also caused him to lose his wife when she retreated behind such a door picture to escape their burning house. Five years later, Jon searches the world with his daughter Irene looking for just the right door that will lead him into the pocket universe where his wife is trapped. The story meanders along, giving hints that there is a religious backlash against his ability, which eventually results in a government ban on him using his talent. For no apparent reason Jon decides to set up a pair of doors facing one another, and somehow this proves to be the secret to finding his wife, and results in the multiverse of hidden universes behind the door pictures shattering. Every piece of the story works, but somehow it adds up to less than the individual pieces suggest it should. The reason for Jon's power is never explained, nor is how his power works. He just "knows" which doors to photograph. The multiverse of pocket dimensions behind the doors is never explained or described in any way, and as a result when Jon does his "two doors facing one another" trick, it seems to come out of left field, because the reader has no reason to believe it would work, and no clue as to why it works. The story ends up being an example of a man's dedication to keep going in the hope of finding his lost love, but without any real indication as to how she got lost or how he found her again, the search feels almost pointless, and the resolution seems contrived.

The singularity, the concept that at a certain point artificial intelligence will become as capable as human intelligence, and will then rapidly surpass us as succeeding and increasingly sophisticated generations of new artificial intelligences are built, has become a fairly common science fiction trope in recent years. Fast Draw by Roy Hardin draws upon this well, and couples it with a story of love gone wrong as Jack, a relatively old AI that is still far superior to normal humans, is threatened by his human ex-girlfriend Gloria in a bar. Most of the story takes place in the time it takes for Gloria to draw her gun and fire, which is an eternity for the accelerated thought processes of an AI of Jack's capabilities. The story alternates between Jack's flirtation with a pretty bar patron as Gloria draws her weapon, and digressions explaining the development of powerful AIs and the resulting stratified society driven by the fact that AIs separated by more than a handful of generations have such disparate capabilities that they find it hard to interact directly. The story moves along until there is a fairly predictable twist involving the pretty AI that Jack is talking with at the bar, and then another more or less unexpected twist that comes out of left field. The story is decently written and readable but most of it is simply explaining how the singularity would work, and as a result it isn't particularly memorable.

Since the release of the Matrix movies, there seems to have been a modest trend towards Matrix -like science fiction in print. The idea of humans sleeping away their lives while controlled by some outside entity isn't new - I first encountered it when I was a teenager reading Dean Koontz' Wake Up to Thunder - but it does make for some good science fiction. And The Siren by M.O. Muriel, follows this tradition, and the resulting story is pretty good science fiction. Janie is a troubled teenager who wakes up one day in a strange coffin-like bed in a honeycomb of countless sleeping people. Through the course of the story it is revealed that this is the collective human unconscious, and everyone on Earth has essentially had their minds shut off so that an alien race of invaders can occupy our bodies. Janie's mind is "fractured" as a result of her schizophrenia, and as a result, she can dissociate enough to "wake up" in the collective unconscious and move about. She meets several other people with similar abilities, most of whom have various mental illnesses that fracture their minds. What was a disability in the "normal" world becomes a valuable attribute in the collective human unconsciousness that allows humanity to fight back against the alien interlopers. The Siren is told out of order, as one might expect from the somewhat jumbled mind of a schizophrenic teenager, and was yet another story that left me feeling like it was a truncated excerpt drawn from a larger one, leaving me wondering, for example, what happened to the aliens who were lured by Janie and disposed of. Even so, it is an interesting and well-written story, and one of the best in the volume.

Most alien contact stories place humans either as the technologically superior race interacting with a nation of supposedly primitive aliens, or as comparative barbarians faced with advanced and inscrutable denizens from afar. Contact Authority by William Mitchell manages to place humans in both positions at once, sandwiching his characters between the awesome might of the Alliance, and the almost incomprehensible Caronoi. Humanity is the most freshly minted member of the somewhat misnamed "Alliance", a vast interstellar community that evaluates every race when it achieves gravity control technology and either admits them as a member or annihilates them. The Alliance has handed humans the task of investigating the Caronoi, a new race that seems to be on the verge of discovering gravity control technology, but is a strange race that lives what seem to be pre-agricultural lives punctuated by massive singing sessions in which they hatch technologically advanced ideas and then execute them, such as building and sending out robot probes to explore their solar system. The story focuses on Jared, a special agent sent by the human Office of Alliance Liaison to investigate what appear to be premature contacts between the human observers and the Caronoi. His covert sleuthing is exposed and becomes an official inquiry, leading him to Rory Temple, the grandson of the man who had established humanity's contact with the Alliance and supposedly saved us from destruction. Jared discards Rory as suspect, and then comes back to him, and then learns what the Alliance really wants to know about both the Caronoi and us, and everything ends up turning on a couple of mathematical models that economists use to evaluate behavior. The story is an interesting twist on the traditional alien contact story that reminded me a little bit of that found in David Brin's Uplift setting. In the end, I wanted to read more about the Alliance and the aliens that comprised it, which seems to me to be an indication that the story was successful.

As I said earlier, several of the stories in this volume seem like they are actually novel length stories that have been squashed until they fit into a short fiction format. The Command for Love by Nick T. Chan definitely feels like a novel length story that has been compressed into a shorter work. The story centers on Ligish, an ancient war golem now serving the mostly senile Master Grey as a house servant. Ligish is concerned, because the homunculus that directs his subconscious has been giving him commands to love his master's daughter Anna. The plot is driven by an unwelcome marriage contract arranged by General Maul for Anna's hand, who it is implied took advantage of Master Grey's mental infirmity to force the contract into existence. Because the law in this world only recognizes men as self-aware beings, and thus all women, golems, and homunculi are required to obey them. Ligish sets out to prove Anna is self-aware, and ends up on a quest across the strange golem-shaped landscape to talk to God. The story is so densely packed that the reader is left wanting to know more about the elements that make it up. The story offers only tantalizing glimpses of the strange clockwork golem world,and its strange clockwork golem God, and the strange regimented society that inhabits it. The various characters are interesting, but the story has to rush by them so fast in order to get through the vast scope of the plot that they are given a short shrift. We are told that Master Grey is a beloved but doddering man, but we don't ever get to see him as such. We are told that Anna is a brilliant young woman, but we have only a limited amount of characterization in the story to establish this. The priest Ligish consults seems like an interesting character, but he's never developed. Maul is very villainous, but there really seems to be almost nothing to him other than sneering arrogance. In the middle of the story, Gabriel, the King of the Golems, drops in without any warning, or really even any indication that such a character existed prior to his intrusion into Ligish's story. If The Command for Love were a novel length story, all of these elements could have been explored, and when I was reading the story, I found myself wishing they were. The story as presented gives the framework for the achingly tragic love story that it intends to be, but everything about it felt truncated and incomplete. I liked the short story presented here, but I wanted to read the novel it yearns to be.

Some stories remind you of other stories you read previously, and make you think about those sotires again. My Name Is Angela by Harry Lang is one of those stories, because when I was reading it, I found myself comparing it to the Robot stories of Isaac Asimov. In this story Angela is an elementary school teacher, but she doesn't recognize her students and seems emotionally detached. She goes home to her companion Bruno who watches wrestling on television and doesn't seem to be able to recognize any of the participants. She cooks their food, irons their clothes, grades tests, and has sex with Bruno. And she hits him with an iron when she's mad at him. But even though she's human, she's product and so is her partner, manufactured to serve as a permanent underclass to handle menial tasks. And when one realizes this, one's mind recoils at the idea of creating people in this way for this purpose. Which is where the Robot stories come in. In Asimov's books, robots are given positronic brains that function as well as human brains with built in limitations, and are intended to serve as servants to handle menial and dangerous jobs so humans don't have to. But the moral question that confronts the reader in My Name Is Angela simply doesn't work into the Robot stories at all. Creating a race of self-aware slaves seems perfectly fine if they are made of metal and wires, but morally abhorrent if they are mentally limited constructs of flesh and blood. One wonders why this is. Is it because Angela cooks oatmeal for Bruno? Because she irons clothes and has sex? But this is the central horror of the story: what if a corporation did create human constructs to live among us. Angela isn't a person, but is rather property, and is treated as such. But Angela is human, with human desires and human aspirations, which collides with her manufacturer's goals. My Name is Angela is a sad, terrifying, and ultimately very human tale, and is quite good and truly frightening at the same time.

Featuring children left to fend for themselves after all the adults in the world have been overcome by an alien plague that encases them in hardened amber called "the crud", Lost Pine by Jacob A. Boyd seems to be somewhat reminiscent of a science fiction version of Lord of the Flies, with enigmatic aliens thrown in for good measure. The story features a pair of teens named Gage and Adah living at the Lost Pine Inn, having taken over when they found it abandoned after the encasement of its former owners. The pair are hiding from the mobs of lawless gangs that have taken control of the cities following the collapse of civilization. They are visited by another refugee, a kid using the pseudonym Monk, which raises Gage's suspicions, because he reasons that anyone who uses a pseudonym has something to hide. The three children work out an accomodation that they all can live with, and the story proceeds to unload some exposition on the reader, outlining where the crud came from, how Gage and Adah figured out how to fend for themselves, and Gage's obsession with opening a locked gun safe in the basement of the Lost Pine. After some twists and turns, the aliens themselves show up and the kids figure out their plan, which turns out to be potentially benevolent, but which seems almost insanely cruel by human standards. The story is decent, but with so much left unexplained, it seems like the first act of a story rather than a complete story in itself.

One of the oddest things about Shutdown by Corry L. Lee is that I enjoyed everything about the story except the actual story. The world that Lee imagines is interesting, with humanity threatened by a strange alien invasion of mechanical flora and fauna that the characters aren't even sure is actually an invasion. The character at the center of the story - an aspiring ballet dancer named Adanna who joins the military because she needs prosthetic fingers to realize her dream of being a professional dancer - is unusual, interesting, and fairly well-characterized. And the situation Adanna finds herself in where she is called upon to voluntarily shut her entire body down in order to avoid alien detection, is also interesting. But once Adanna succeeds in penetrating the alien habitat, causes some trouble, and then makes her escape, the what little there is to the plot more or less peters out. The nature of the aliens is never expanded upon. The importance of Adanna's actions is never elucidated. And Adanna, having accomplished enough to realize her dream of being in a professional ballet company decides to throw that dream aside for no particularly apparent reason. This is another story that felt like it should have been part of a larger story, probably serving as the expository prologue for whatever story that it was part of. And while what was delivered was interesting, what was delivered is ultimately a disappointment due to the unfinished feeling provided by the plot.

One recurring theme that crops up in science fiction is the use of high technology to emulate a more primitive time, usually to extol the virtues or wisdom of some particular culture. In While Ireland Holds These Graves by Tom Doyle, nanotechnology and advanced artificial intelligence has been used to transform Ireland into a sort of Irish Disneyland, with quaint pubs, twisty country roads, and the reconstructed personalities of Irish literary giants. Except that the reconstructed version of Ireland seems to have sparked a spate of Irish nationalism in the face of an apparently homogenized world society, to the point where non-Irish individuals want to come to Ireland and pretend to be Irish, and in response, the Irish government gets ready to close itself off from the rest of the world so that anyone who wants to stay in Ireland must commit to staying for an entire year. Dev, one of the architects of the literary AIs, arrives to try to persuade his lost love to give up Ireland, who happens to have been the other architect of the literary AIs. He meets up with James Joyce, wanders about and finds a couple incarnations of Yeats, and is eventually dragged to the girl he is looking for. After some perfunctory back and forth, Dev accomplishes his hitherto unrevealed objective and promptly kills himself, resulting in a boy seeks girl, boy finds girl, boy loses girl and commits suicide story that has a bit of a twist at the end that makes most of what went before seem kind of pointless. Though the idea of reviving literary figures as AIs seems somewhat interesting, the story that results is not particularly interesting, and it doesn't really go anywhere.

Another story that has an interesting premise, but a plot that is oddly unconnected with the background is The Poly Islands by Gerald Warfield. The story takes place on the "Poly Islands", large accretions of plastics floating in the Pacific Ocean than have been drawn together with signaling buoys. But the story itself only tangentially deals with this scenery, involving a young Chinese woman named Liyang fleeing the Hong Kong tongs after making off with large amounts of their money and a pile of advanced computer chips. Once she reaches the Poly Islands, Liyang finds a quirky multi-ethnic community of outcasts apparently led by an Indian guru called Crab. Some of the inhabitants are Chinese, and have organized into a pair of small Chinese tongs which both try to recruit Liyang to their ranks. Liyang sides with neither of the tongs, but more or less on a whim instead aligns herself with a man named Adam who turns out to be a researcher studying the structure of the Poly Islands. The story proceeds along two tracks: one path that is basically an extended piece of exposition in which Liyang learns about the structure of the islands, how they came to be, who Adam and Crab really are, and why her chips are important to their work, and a second, mostly irrelevant path in which the tongs vie with each other and with Crab for authority over the islands. The entire tong plot seems to be included mostly to break up the expository sequences, and turns out to be almost entirely irrelevant to the actual main plot. The resulting story is disjointed, with the reader left feeling like they read a good short story that had been padded out with a mostly pointless conflict to lengthen it.

The final story in the book is Insect Sculptor by Scott T. Barnes, an odd story involving the use of mind-sharing technology to use groups of insects to make sculptures. The technology posited in the story is interesting, essentially allowing a human to mentally direct, and if the humans is skilled enough possibly enter the mind of insects under their control, but the use the technology is put to in the story seems to be about the least interesting use one could come up with. Making termites gather together in a big mass to form the shape of an elephant or a miniature Taj Mahal is cute, but less interesting than all of the industrial or military uses that such technology could be put to. In this story, a man named Adam travels to Abidjan offer himself as an apprentice to the greatest insect sculptor in the world, the Gajah-mada. He is met by the Gajah-mada's assistant Isabella, who tests him and finds his skills wanting. But Adam is persistent and he eventually becomes part of the Gajah-mada's retinue of performers working at his cabaret style show. Adam, of course, has a problem he has to overcome, and he does so with Isabella's help, eventually learning her secret and becoming Gajah-mada's chosen heir. The story is serviceable, but has an interesting almost off-handed remark about how Adam and the Gajah-mada may have created an almost immortal intelligence, and frustratingly, like so much else in the story, the implications of this technology are simply skipped over. Insect Sculptor has so many interesting ideas contained in it that it is disappointing that the story Barnes produced using them was so pedestrian. This could have been a brilliant story, but unfortunately it is merely average.

There is something of a tradition in the Writers of the Future volumes of dusting off an old essay written by L.Ron Hubbard and inserting it into the book. I am not sure if this is a misguided attempt to honor Hubbard, or an easy way to make fun of him, because the essays are almost always hilariously awful. The Hubbard essay in this volume is Story Vitality, in which he pontificates on the importance of doing research for a story to make it have more impact. The story he chooses to highlight is a piece of nautical adventure about the commander of a Coast Guard cutter named The Phantom Patrol. Hubbard talks about how terrible the story was until he went and talked to some actual Coast Guard members, and then tries to illustrate how doing this legwork improved his story. The trouble is, the writing in the essay, and the selected passages from The Phantom Patrol are so poorly written that it is hard to imagine how bad they were before Hubbard "improved" them with his research.

Fortunately, the other two essays included in the volume are far less unintentionally hilarious, and are instead insightful and interesting. The Importance of Short Fiction by Kristine Kathryn Rusch discusses, naturally enough, short fiction in speculative fiction writing, coming out in favor of it as a starting point for new authors. Not because it is easy - Rusch makes clear that she thinks that writing good short fiction is much harder than novel-length fiction, but rather because it is short, and as a result an author can complete projects, get them on the market, and get feedback on a regular basis. There's not much more to Rusch's essay, but advice from one of the most business-savvy authors working today is always useful. The other essay in the volume is Shaun Tan's Advice for a New Illustrator, offering, naturally enough, career advice to young artists. Tan starts off by saying that no two careers are comparable, and so he can't offer any universal advice, but then proceeds to offer some universal advice that more or less boils down to keep improving your skills and finish projects that you get. Tan doesn't offer particularly revelatory advice, but it does seem to be sound, albeit fairly mundane advice.

As one might expect, the stories in this installment of Writers of the Future are all at least serviceable, with a few stand-outs here and there. All of the stories are by writers who clearly have some talent, but are all still clearly honing their craft. All of the stories show flashes of the superior writer each of the authors featured in this volume could become, with interesting ideas, character, and plots cropping up in several of the stories. In almost every case, however, all of the pieces for making the leap from a good story to a great story are not yet all together. Every writer in this volume could have an excellent career ahead of them, and almost all of them could crash and burn as well, or simply fade away. The only things that one can be certain of following reading this book are that Hubbard has a hilariously inflated opinion of the quality of his own writing, and both Rusch and Tan are capable professionals who are willing to offer clear advice to newcomers to the industry. This collection is, in the end, a very readable look into the creative minds of a collection of promising new speculative fiction authors,

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Mar 13, 2013, 11:10 pm

Book Two: Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #2: The Slither Sisters by Charles Gilman.

Short review: Robert and Glenn foiled Tillinghast's plans in the first book, but Sarah and Sylvia Price have been possessed by horrible monsters and have a plan to take over Lovecraft Middle School.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: The Slither Sisters is the second book in the Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series by author Charles Gilman. The story is a Lovecraftian horror story aimed at middle-grade readers, which at first glance seems somewhat inherently self-contradictory. Gilman manages to keep the story is somewhat Lovecraftian, so that it retains the creepy and lethal nature of his works, but is also toned down just enough to be acceptable for its intended audience. In some ways, the series occupies the same territory as the various light horror series by authors such as Bruce Coville and John Bellairs, and happily, it holds up well to the comparison.

Robert Adams and Glenn Torkells are students at Lovecraft Middle School, and they have troubles. In the first book they apparently learned that their school was built from the ruins of the physicist Crawford Tillinghast's mansion, and that it was apparently destroyed when Tillinghast delved too deeply into the secrets of the universe, opening a gate to an otherworldly dimension. Adams and Torkells stumbled across the truth: that the mansion still exists, but it was moved to another dimension. Having been built from this world's scraps of the mansion, Lovecraft Middle School is riddled with gates between the two places, and Tillinghast is using these links to try to stage an invasion of horrible Lovecraftian creatures so he can take over the world. Along the way, Adams and Torkells befriend a ghost named Karina who is tied to the school's location. Most of this background was laid in the first book, which is one of the weaknesses of this book. Gilman does a decent job of recapping this material in the early chapters of Slither Sisters, so reading the first book is not absolutely required, but I suspect it would make the story in this book much more enjoyable.

The plot revolves around the Middle School student council elections and the titular sisters, two twins named Sarah and Sylvia Price. It turns out that Sarah Price is running for student council president, which is something of a problem because Adams and Torkell know that she and her sister are not human at all, but rather merely shells that used to be the Price sisters, but which are now occupied by horrible monsters from beyond. Not only that, Adams is dealing with being the teenage son of a single mother who is struggling to help her only son deal with adolescence. But this is just a secondary plot point at best, the meat of the story is Sarah Price's run for student council president, which is part of a plan by Tillinghast to take over the school's student body. This seems to be a fairly impractical plan, since it relies upon the idea that all of the middle school students would follow the student council president like lemmings, which seems somewhat implausible. The plan is supposedly bolstered by the Price sisters being very popular among the student population, but it seems odd to think that getting elected as student council president (which is more or less just a popularity contest anyway) would make their popularity so much greater than it was already that the allure of any plan they proposed would be irresistible.

The implausibility of the plan aside, Adams and Torkell decide that Sarah Price's campaign must be derailed, but since her only announced opposition is the nerdy and disabled Howard Mergler, they have to come up with an alternate plan. After Adams and Torkell befriend the elderly Mrs. Lavinia, who turns out to be Tillinghast's resentful sister, she convinces them that Adams must run for student council president himself. Unfortunately, Adams is not a particularly popular boy, and so they have to figure out a way to make his public profile more visible to make his campaign viable. Mrs. Lavinia introduces the boys to her husband, and after he reveals that his own investigations have uncovered some disturbing events that have the potential to affect far more than just Lovecraft Middle School, he agrees to help with Adams' campaign.

The story winds its way through the eventful campaign, with the sisters attempting to foil Adams, Torkells, and Karina, frequently even issuing lethal threats, and everything eventually comes to a head at the school's annual Halloween dance. The ending of the campaign starts off fairly predictably, but then Gilman pulls off a twist ending, and then does it yet again, which is a pretty difficult trick to pull off. Given that this is a series, it should come as no surprise that this book sets up the plot for the next installment, but it does it without making this story feel incomplete. The Slither Sisters is a very enjoyable book that captures the distinct mix of fantasy, science fiction, and horror that made Lovecraft's tales so intriguing, and manages to put everything into a package suitable for younger readers.

This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Fev 21, 2013, 3:41 pm

Belated Review: Terovolas by Edward M. Erdelac.

Short review: Fresh after killing Dracula, Van Helsing travels to the Old West to deliver Quincey Morris' ashes to his brother. Once there, he tangles with a cult of Norwegians and wolves.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Terovolas is a book that mines a character out of one of the famous works of the past in order to create new fiction. This does not necessarily result in a bad book - after all, Philip Jose Farmer had a long career in which he made a practice out of doing just that, and Fred Saberhagen also got a decent amount of mileage out of the same trick. And when well-executed, the result can be a good book. The character of Abraham van Helsing, drawn from Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a potentially interesting character, and Terovolas details his continuing adventures after the death of the blood sucking Count. The resulting book is a fairly decent adventure story, somewhat hampered by the artificial story telling style that the author chose to present it.

The book opens with a brief forward in which a character called John Seward presents the premise: that the story he is about to tell is drawn from the collection of personal papers left to him by van Helsing. This conceit runs throughout the entire book, with the story told via the letters, journals, and newspaper articles of the various participants in the tale's events. And while this is handled reasonably well through most of the book, this method of storytelling becomes awkward and forced at times, with nearly illiterate characters sitting down and writing an account of their daily activities on a scrap of paper, or literate characters making sure to update their journal huddled around a campfire while on the run from insane murderous berserkers.

Once it gets going, the story proper has Van Helsing heading off to Texas to find Coleman Morris and deliver to him the personal effects of his late brother Quincey along with the news (and account of) the latter's death. Along the way he spends some time traveling with Callisto Terovolas, an almost supernaturally attractive Greek woman whose importance to the plot is given away by the fact that the novel is named for her. In an instance of amazing serendipity, Terovolas also happens to be heading to the same small Texas town as Van Helsing in order to meet her intended fiance, a transplanted Norwegian named Sigmund who coincidentally happens to have purchased the ranch immediately next door to the one owned by Coleman Morris. Van Helsing is immediately entranced by the Mediterranean beauty, as is pretty much every other male character that crosses her path in the book, which was probably a storytelling mistake. For reasons that become apparent later, it would have been much more thematically satisfying for Van Helsing and her intended husband to be the only men who found her particularly attractive while other men were either indifferent to or even repulsed by her.

After all of this improbable happenstance, one might suspect that the story will revolve around the dispute between Coleman and Sigmund with Terovolas and Van Helsing neck deep in the middle. And one wouldn't be far wrong, except that it turns out that Terovolas is mostly off-stage for most of the book and a drunken newspaper writer named Alvin Crooker takes the role of Van Helsing's sidekick for most of the book. Once Van Helsing shows up in Sorefoot, a Texas town drawn straight from a Hollywood movie set, he runs afoul of some local miscreants and some impromptu action breaks out before the brigands are imprisoned. Van Helsing's assailants are then broken out of jail in an amazingly bloody manner resulting in a posse tracking them down and killing them off. Having recovered from this sideline, the story chugs along and it turns out that Coleman has been having some trouble with the encroaching Norwegians that Sigmund has gathered to himself on his newly purchased ranch. Because the tension has been somewhat mitigated by their joint participation in the recent posse, Van Helsing is able to arrange something of a detente between the two when Terovolas invites him to a celebration of her nuptials. The tension ramps up again when Van Helsing unravels some of the Norsemen's secrets, identifying some carvings in Sigmund's household as being related to the legend of Fenris.

From there, things get somewhat predictable. The Norwegians are part of a cult devoted to Fenris who like to dress themselves up as wolves and work themselves into an unreasoning murderous frenzy. Why they felt the need to uproot themselves and move to Texas is fairly poorly explained, and the end result is that the book revolves around a Dutch doctor contending with Norwegian berserkers in Texas with a Greek woman hovering about the fracas. There are also a couple of ex-Confederates thrown in, and a Native American shaman named Plenty Skins tossed into the mix for good measure. The odd thing about the book is that despite moving all of these characters from around the world to Texas, the author doesn't really do much with the Texas setting other than what seems to be a mostly recycled plot from a B Western movie. And that is something of a shame. Because while I was reading the book I kept wondering why the story wasn't set in Norway, where there could have been a spooky northern atmosphere with ancient Viking ruins, or set in the Balkans among old Greek monasteries and Turkish fortresses. Instead we have ranch houses and tumble weed with transplanted characters fighting it out over what really seems like nothing in particular.

This doesn't mean that the action isn't fast paced and somewhat interesting. It is. It just seems like everything was more or less pulling from the standard Western collection of plot hooks with some fairly weakly defined weirdness thrown in. And the weirdness is mostly weird because of the improbability of it - Sigmund and his Norse followers turn out to be just religious fanatics who dress up in skins and wear metal claws on their hands, but they seem to be almost invulnerable to bullets when they work themselves into a frenzy, which seems odd considering they aren't supposed to be the least bit supernatural. Even the character of Plenty Skins, who seems to be the most interesting and mysterious element of the book and who might be able to either summon or shapechange into a giant wolf, mostly stands around looking mercurial between sessions of chanting. To a certain extent this book feels like the author couldn't decide what kind of werewolf legend he wanted to focus on, so he took the kitchen sink approach and threw in all of the ones he could think of.

Overall, the book is interesting, although somewhat disappointing when one considers what the book could have been. Each of the various elements of the book - the Norse Fenris cult, the Native American wolf shaman, and Terovolas herself - could have been the basis for an entire book by themselves if they had been fleshed out and fully developed. As it is, however, each of these elements seems rushed and incomplete, resulting in a book that feels like it should have been very good, but turned out to be merely average.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Mar 5, 2013, 10:43 pm

Belated Review: Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand.

Stories included:
The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon
Near Zennor
Hungerford Bridge
The Far Shore
Winter's Wife
Cruel Up North
The Return of the Fire Witch
Uncle Lou

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Errantry: Strange Stories is a collection of short fiction by Elizabeth Hand. The dominant theme of the collection seems to be melancholy and regret, and the stories mostly seem to occupy that netherworld that exists right on the edge between fantasy and reality. In many ways the stories in this collection reminded me of the stories from John Collier's Fancies and Goodnights, or perhaps Ray Bradbury's Medicine for Melancholy. The end result is a beautiful collection of strange and sad stories.

The opening story is The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon, a story about the kind of regret that comes with middle age, when someone realizes that the dreams of their youth have faded to grey while there is still a lot of life left in front of them. The protagonist is a widower raising his son following the untimely death of his spouse. He works a menial job to make ends meet and keeps loosely in touch with a couple of people from his halcyon days working as a security guard at the National Air and Space museum. This meager decades old connection results him setting out on an expedition to North Carolina's outer banks to fly a model of the titular aircraft in honor of a dying woman who worked as a researcher at the museum. The ties between the characters in the story are whisper thin, but they are all any of them has, so they engage in this crazy and quixotic quest. The only trouble with the story is that the fantastical element seems almost pointlessly thrown in and more or less irrelevant to the plot in any substantial way.

Near Zennor also deals with loss and a quest following a wife Anthea's death (a grief further compounded by the fact that their only daughter had previously died as an infant), but this time the protagonist, Jeffrey, goes in search of answers to a mystery that hovered about his spouse. It seems that his deceased wife was a fan of the obscure children's book The Sun Battles by the now disgraced author Robert Bennington. It seems that Bennington's reputation was tarnished by accusations of pedophilia, and his writing career was ruined as a result. But in looking through Anthea's effects, Jeffrey finds that she and three of her friends seem to have contacted the author when they were young girls. Searching deeper, he finds that they went to see him, and a something terrible seems to have happened that Anthea and her friends never spoke about. Jeffrey goes to England to search the area where Bennington lived, and where the mysterious event seems to have happened, and has a series of odd things happen. None of them are odd enough to definitively declare them to be otherworldly, but they do give the story and eerie and haunting quality. The story meanders at times, but the final pages are so creepy and effective that they make up for it.

Hungerford Bridge is a story that seems like it could have been written by John Collier, and it depicts a reality that could be our reality and we would never know it. The story is short, detailing the passing of a beautiful secret from one person to another. It is one of the few stories in the collection that doesn't deal with death and loss, but rather a shared knowledge, but it still manages to be melancholy. More fantastical than Hungerford Bridge, is The Far Shore, a story about an aging ballet instructor who moves into an off-season summer camp after losing his job with the ballet company he has been part of for his entire career. The story contains many themes, most of them about coping with injury, the loss of the dreams of our youth, and the inevitability of age, but it also contains the joy of finding a new love. The only thing that was somewhat disappointing about the story was that having a male ballet dancer turn out to be gay seems so predictable and stereotypical that the protagonist seem almost to be a caricature rather than a well-developed character.

Winter's Wife is a story featuring folk tale elements set in a rural Maine county. Told by a fatherless teenage boy who has struck up something of a foster relationship with a quirky nature-loving man named Winter, the narrative tells of Winter's conflict with a wealthy local named Tierny over a group of ancient trees in a nearby wood. As the title would suggest, Winter's wife, a tiny Icelandic woman who spends much of the story pregnant, features prominently in the plot. The story deals with the arrogance of wealth and how nature might respond if it had the power to do so. with the fate bestowed upon the villainous Tierny being poetic, albeit somewhat gruesome, justice. But the story is also about families, and how the family we choose is just as important as the family we are born into. Following immediately after Winter's Wife is Cruel Up North, the shortest and one of the most mysterious stories in the book. Taking up a mere three pages, the story tells of a woman's exploration through a city block and the odd discovery she makes.

The most perplexing story in the collection is Summerteeth, which seems to be an odd mixture of a mood piece and the first half of a summer horror film. Set on an island retreat frequented by artists and writers and told in punctuated and at times seemingly unrelated vignettes, the whole atmosphere of the story is one of confusion, loneliness, and despair. The story feels almost as if Hand was trying to convey the angst that an artist feels while immersed in the creative process, but layered over this are the hints of a mysterious danger stalking the individuals who sojourn on the island. Like several other stories in the volume there's nothing explicitly supernatural about any of the happenings that take place during the tale, but the odd happenstances give it an unsettling, albeit confusing air.

In contrast to the off-kilter reality of Hungerford Bridge, Near Zennor, and Summerteeth, The Return of the Fire Witch is the most unabashedly fantastical story of the bunch. In the tale a fungus witch named Saloona is roped into helping her neighbor, the fire witch Paytim, in her quest for revenge against the freshly crowned Paeolina of the Crimson Messuage. Paytim has acquired an extraordinarily powerful and lethal charm to accomplish this goal, but she needs Saloona's aid to pull off her objective. Unlike so many of the other stories in the collection which include only a sparing dash of fantasy or science fiction, The Return of the Fire Witch is filled with huge ladles full of magical elements. Both Saloona and Paytim live surrounded by magical charms, magical devices, and magical beasts to such an extent that these surroundings begin to seem almost mundane as the story goes on. Both of the women make their way to the Crimson Messuage, and begin to carry out their plan, although there are a couple complications and a betrayal along the way. In the end, this story seems to be a commentary upon the absurdity of many fantasy tales as well as the pointlessness of revenge.

As with many of the stories in this book, Uncle Lou is focused on the tiredness that comes with age. The titular character is an irascible old bachelor now retired from a long career of writing travel guides aptly named the "By Night" series because they tell people where to find the best night spots around the world. The story is told from the viewpoint of his favorite niece who seems to be a frequently caller upon the old man. Uncle Lou invites his niece to accompany him on a trip to night time benefit for a zoo. This being something of a modern fairy tale, the trip takes an unexpected course, although it seems that the unusual retirement that Uncle Lou enters into is one that he not only anticipated, but prepared for.

Errantry is at the same time the strangest and the most mundane story of the collection. A group of three friends, including a musician named Tommy who is obsessed with a fictional woman named "Estelle", set out on the trail of an unknown person they only know as "the folding man", so named for his proclivity for leaving little folded paper sculptures behind wherever he goes. None of the trio has ever actually seen the folding man, and they only know of him as a result of occasionally finding his creations in local bars and restaurants. The story details their pursuit of the mysterious origami aficionado through several venues until they wind up in an abandoned house in the countryside. Exploring the house only results in more mystery, as it seems that the long gone occupants hoarded everything, and most notably piles and piles of newspapers. Eventually they uncover something even more disturbing than piles of trash, which seems to connect to Tommy's obsession with "Estelle", although not in such a way that would confirm that anything supernatural was taking place. The story is somewhat unnerving, but not because of anything that might be definitely called magic, rather because it seems so close to what reality would be if seen through a distorting lens.

Filled with stories that seem to exist just to the side of reality and laced through with themes of loss, loneliness, sadness, and death, Errantry: Strange Stories is an engaging and sometimes disturbing collection. Every story in the volume is interesting, even if some of them seem simply inexplicably odd, and a few, notably Winter's Wife, Near Zennor, and Errantry, are excellent. Overall, this is a lovely collection of stories that will leave the reader feeling full of melancholy, full of sorrow, and full of wonder.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Jul 18, 2013, 11:44 am

Book Three The Legend of Broken by Caleb Carr.

Short review: A historical fiction set in a city that history doesn't have any record of existing revolves around a religion that never existed, two plagues that never happened, and a man who never existed who was willing to manipulate the politics of a nation that never existed to compel a woman who never existed to become his wife.

Long review: How much actual history does a book need to contain in order to be considered historical fiction? If a book deals with a period and a place about which we have no actual historical information of any kind, does that book still have a claim on the label "historical fiction"? Or is that book more properly classified as fantasy? This is a question that lurks behind The Legend of Broken which describes events that take place in central Germany during the post-Roman period between the fifth and eighth centuries in the fictitious city of Broken as they come into conflict with the equally fictitious forest-dwelling people of Bane. Through the book we are ominously told several times that this story is a tale of how the mighty city of Broken was laid low by its own internal contradictions, clearly an attempt to connect this work with Edward Gobbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but the story never actually pays off, instead sputtering out with an anticlimactic whimper about a jealous and powerful man who wants another man's wife.

Framing the main story is a supposed conversation between actual historical figures Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke discussing Gibbon's supposed discovery of the texts relating to Broken and Gibbon's scholarly treatment of them. In the conversation, Gibbon asks Burke's advice as to whether to publish the material, which Burke counsels against doing, although the reason for Burke's admonishment seems unclear. There isn't anything in the story itself that would seem to have been particularly offensive to eighteenth century sensibilities, and the fact that the document supposedly described a hitherto unknown culture in Europe seems like it would be something that would have given Gibbon even more fame than he already had. Burke's advice seems to be grounded in nothing more than Carr's need to provide a reason why this manuscript would not have been revealed by Gibbon. But this would have been an entirely moot point had the unnecessary framing story been simply left out of the book. But it is there, and because of the framing story, the book is filled with end notes, supposedly from Gibbon expounding upon the historic or cultural significance of various elements of the story, and every now and then there will be some expository material supposedly written by Gibbon inserted in between the plot oriented portions. This conceit feels forced and artificial, and doesn't add much to the book other than give it an air of faux reality that comes off as pointlessly pretentious.

Some years ago I (not entirely purposely) watched several weeks of the supernaturally oriented soap opera Passions. For the record, Passions was, quite possibly, the worst television show ever aired, or at least the worst television show I have ever seen. In any event, the portion I watched consisted of multiple parallel story lines that, we were repeatedly told, were all going to culminate when everyone met that night at a local restaurant named the Lobster Shack. This dragged on interminably, for weeks of episodes, with the story lines being dragged out to the point of tedium, clearly in an effort to pad out and lengthen a thin plot. It was also clear that the writers of the show thought they were being terribly clever by having this collection of competing story lines that were all going to tie together in one big plot collision. Instead of being impressed by the multiple plot threads, all I could think when watching the show was "get to the damn Lobster Shack already and wrap some of these loose ends up". When I was reading The Legend of Broken, I felt like I was back watching Passions. Carr starts the book shifting back and forth between a handful of story lines, first two and adding more as the plot branches out and new threads are added, following different sets of characters as they all work their way towards the completely unsurprising confrontations that tie them all off together. In this way, Carr takes what is a relatively simple plot and tries to make it seem intricate and convoluted.

The plot of the book is, when all of the artifice is stripped away, fairly straightforward. Broken is a small isolationist city-state in central Germany that is dominated by the worship of Kafra, a faith that insists that physical perfection is a sign of divine favor, and physical infirmity or disease is equated with sin. By systemically exiling any individuals who display any kind of birth defect or congenital disease to the nearby Davon Wood, the citizenry of Broken have created a despised diminutive race called the Bane to which the citizens of Broken attribute demonic prowess. The Bane, for their part, return the loathing for the people of Broken. But at the same time that they are repelled by one another, both the Bane and the people of Broken seem to be fascinated by one another as well, leading to the two peoples being locked into a mutually destructive cycle. With the worship of Kafra firmly entrenched in Broken and the city firmly controlled by the commercial interests of the Merchant Lords and the Bane ensconced in their hidden settlements of Moon worshipers in the Davon Wood, the story opens with the Broken army being sent to wage war in the near impenetrable forest against the diminutive yet deadly Bane.

The hero of the story, to the extent it has a hero, is the Broken military commander Sixt Arnem, a man who has improbably risen from the lower class "Fifth District" of the city to command its entire army. Being an egalitarian sort of person, he married a beautiful woman from the same district named Isadora and, despite the low regard in which the district is held, maintains his household with his numerous children there. The de facto ruler of Broken, and the villain of the book is the Merchant Lord Rendulic Baster-kin, who sets the Broken troops into motion in response to what is clearly a trumped up charge that the Bane had attempted to kill the deified religious leader of the city. Rendulic's own marriage to an exotic foreign woman is the result of a ploy to gain political power, and in a fairly blunt force application of poetic justice, has led to Baster-kin having to conceal a collection of terrible secrets. Running in parallel with the stories of the characters from Broken is the story of the trio of Bane foragers Keera, Veloc, and Heldo-Bah, which eventually leads to Broken bogey-man Caliphestros and his companion panther. Carr sets these various characters in motion in their own story lines and more or less lets the reader stand back and watch, building to what we are ominously told on more than one occasion is the climatic event that doomed the city of Broken.

But the problem with the book is that the oft foreshadowed downfall of Broken never really materializes because none of the characters really seem to take the world they live in seriously. We are repeatedly told that Caliphestros is regarded by the people of Broken as a frightening figure, a demonic individual who committed such vile crimes that he had to have the ultimate punishment inflicted upon him and then be abandoned in the Davon Wood. However, as he is leading Broken's army out of the city to wage war against the Bane, Sixt runs into a former acolyte of Caliphestros' named Visimar and, on a whim, decides to take him along as an adviser. For Sixt to do this is not particularly surprising, because it is an established part of his character that he is indifferent at best to the Kafran religion, but this decision is accepted by everyone around him with only mild objection. After building Caliphestros and his followers up as horrific monsters that terrify the Broken public, the story hand waves away Visimar's presence with the Broken army. And this is because everyone in the story who is not clearly identified as a villain - which for the most part means everyone who is not Rendulic - is incredibly reasonable throughout. Deep into the book, after Sixt's army has reached the edge of the Davon Wood and the Bane forces have rallied to oppose his efforts, the story seems to be moving towards what can only be described as a tragic confrontation. After all, Sixt and his forces have clearly been deceived by Rendulic and his cronies, and the Bane are merely defending their homes against Broken aggression. But rather than having a tragic pay off that leads to advancing the plot and developing characters, instead everyone sits down and hashes out the situation in a reasonable manner that results in the Broken soldiers and Bane soldiers joining forces.

We are told that Isadora runs great risks by continuing to participate in Moon worship, in contravention of Broken's laws, and at the same time provides healing services to those in the Fifth District, which would offend Kafra's priests if they found out. But through the course of the book it becomes clear that these assertions are essentially untrue, and even the high ranking members of the Broken political elite know that the Kafran priests are simply mouthing fairy tales. Despite the supposedly pervasive nature of the Kafran religion in shaping Broken society, it seems that none of the important characters in the story actually believe in its teachings, which makes Sixt's supposedly heretical attitude less iconoclastic and more ordinary. At no point does any character who is not marked as "evil' by the story make any decisions that are unreasonable or which are motivated by prejudice or religious dogma. In short, the book is entirely populated by reasonable characters, having reasonable conversations, and coming to reasonable conclusions, no matter what cultural or religious motivations that we are told they are supposed to have. Such considerations are simply set aside and the characters transform into calm, cool rational and enlightened thinkers whenever they meet someone with a differing background and set of beliefs, even if we had been told repeatedly prior to such a meeting that the two worldviews were antithetical to one another.

And this lack of ideological commitment from the various characters is the problem with the book, and why, despite Carr's obvious attention to the details of his imagined society, the story set within it ends up feeling flat and lifeless. The main difficulty appears to be that Carr, being an educated and intelligent man, seems to have a hard time accepting that any other intelligent person could actually accept the teachings of the Kafran religion of Broken or the Moon cult of the Bane. Consequently, all of the careful world development and lovingly detailed multiple plot lines are thrown over the side whenever adhering to them would be unreasonable from the perspective of a twentieth century observer. Even Rendulic, who is using the Kafran religion as the basis for his villainous plan, is using it in a cynical manner that indicates that it actually isn't important to him in any way. Despite a backdrop filled with odd religious practices and manufactured tribal animosity, the various plot lines of the book all tie together to reveal that the whole fracas has been about a somewhat insane man's desire to rekindle the flame with an old lover who had since married another man. This, winds to an anticlimactic conclusion that seems to affect absolutely nothing in Broken society other than causing a shift in political power out of the hands of someone who is something of a lunatic to some other, much more reasonable individuals. All of this action resulting in almost no effect makes the subplot involving a panther that acts in very human ways, including striking up an impromptu friendship with a legless man and seeking revenge for the death of its cubs for several years, seem almost reasonable. Plus, it's implausibility adds a bit of entertainment to the plodding story.

Even the underlying horror involving twin plagues that strike throughout all of the peoples described in the book seems to be almost irrelevant. One would think that a society built upon the idea that perfect health is a sign of divine favor and sickness and infirmity is a public mark of sin would be rattled to its core by a plague. And for a while, the book seems to be building toward this sort of development, like everything else foreshadowed in the text, this element fizzles out anticlimactically as Visimar, Isadora, and Caliphestros identify the source of the plagues and come up with ways to contain them. And instead of the response one would expect - namely resistance and obstruction from the Moon priestesses of the Bane and the priests of Kafra - the powers that be seemingly override such considerations in favor of halting the spread of the plagues in a relatively pragmatic manner. Or at least one assumes so during the relatively abrupt and unclear denouement. The issue of the twin plagues is not so much dealt with, as ignored, as it more or less drops out of the story when the jealous ex-lover plot takes over the entire book.

Quite simply, none of the events in the book seem to pose an existential crisis for the Broken political order or the existence of the Bane, a conclusion driven in part by the fact that none of the characters in the book see the events in that light to even the slightest degree. In the end, once Rendulic has been dealt with, the government of Broken is placed in the hands of improbably reasonable people while superstitious influences have been discredited, or at least muted. To the extent that there is any change that takes place in the book, it seems that Broken has been strengthened rather than weakened, as the insanity at the heart of its political elite has been removed, and the pernicious nature of its ruling religious class has been contained. With The Legend of Broken Carr has produced an imaginative "what if" setting that takes place in a place and time that is currently a blank spot in our knowledge, but he uses it to create a story that is uninteresting and then tell it in the most convoluted and overly lengthy manner possible.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Mar 13, 2013, 8:04 pm

Love the sound of that review!!

Mar 19, 2013, 2:26 pm

Belated Review: TV: 2000 by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg, (editors).

Stories included:
Now Inhale by Eric Frank Russell
Dreaming Is a Private Thing by Isaac Asimov
The Man Who Murdered Television by Joseph Patrouch
The Jester by William Tenn
The Man Who Came Back by Robert Silverberg
I See You by Damon Knight
The Prize of Peril by Robert Sheckley
Home Team Advantage by Jack C. Haldeman II
Mercenary by Mack Reynolds
Without Portfolio by James E. Gunn
The Idea by Barry N. Malzberg
And Madly Teach by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
What Time Is It? by Jack C. Haldeman II
Interview by Frank A. Javor
Cloak of Anarchy by Larry Niven
And Now the News by Theodore Sturgeon
Very Proper Charlies by Dean Ing
Committee of the Whole by Frank Herbert

Long review: TV: 2000 is an anthology of science fiction stories ostensibly tied together by the common theme of being stories about television. And while some of the stories are indeed science fiction stories about television, the theme seems to be more honored in the beach than in the observance. Even so, this is a fairly good collection of short fiction.

The first story in the volume, Now Inhale by Eric Frank Russell, kicks off the extremely tangentially television related stories. In this tale a human scout has crash landed on an uncharted alien planet and been captured by the local authorities. He is condemned to death, but due to a quirk of alien law, he is allowed to play a game before he dies. It doesn't matter if he wins or loses, when the game ends, he will be executed. So, of course, our hero picks a game that will take an interminably long time to complete, the better to give a relief ship the opportunity to rescue him. The only television connection in the story is that the contest is apparently televised for the populace to watch as entertainment, but that doesn't actually have any real bearing on the plot of the story. The story, like many other Russell stories, is darkly humorous and fun to read, but it isn't really about television, or the effect of television on society.

This being a collection edited in part by Asimov, one would expect an Asimov story to be included, and one is in the form of Asimov's Dreaming Is a Private Thing, which is another story that is not about television. Instead, the story is about "dreamies", a posited future technology in which people can experience the dreams of others as entertainment. The story more or less walks through the typical day of an executive running a "dreamie" production company as he negotiates with new talent, deals with old talent, and frets about the competition. There's not really much to the story other than the observation that the artists who create the product are more or less compelled by their nature to do so, unable to function in society due to their constantly overactive and vivid imaginations. The story is an interesting idea, but it isn't really developed into much more than a series of vignettes that discuss the idea and don't really go anywhere with it.

Unlike the first two stories, The Man Who Murdered Television by Joseph Patrouch is definitively about television, but it doesn't have much in the way of science fiction. The story takes the form of a dialogue between a father and daughter, with the father revealing that the reason humans have never heard from alien civilizations is that broadcast radio and television cause cancer, and smart civilizations figure this out and stop using it, while stupid civilizations don't and die off as a result. The narrator explains that he and some like-minded people that know about the connection between broadcast television and cancer have been trying to reduce the use of the medium. Unable to shut it down at the source, they have decided to reduce demand by intentionally making television programs worse and worse so no one will want to watch. This is an optimistic idea, but it seems more like fantasy than science fiction, given that the television viewing public seems to have demonstrated with shows like Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty, and Dance Moms that there is no bottom below which the quality of television programming could sink that would keep droves of people from watching.

The Jester by William Tenn is set on television, but it isn't really about television. Lester the Jester is a comedian on the down side of his career, so he acquires a robot named Rupert that is programmed to come up with original jokes. Lester's idea is to use Rupert's capabilities to acquire witty one-liners and revive his flagging career as a television personality, but Rupert's humor circuits work too well, and it turns out he is an uncontrollable practical joker. Things go poorly as Rupert first alienates Lester's fiance and then hijacks the television broadcast Lester is appearing on, but it turns out that Rupert's jokes are wildly popular, and before he knows it, Lester finds himself relegated to managing his metallic contraption's career. The story plays upon human fears of being replaced by a machine, but unlike a story like The Darfsteller, which portrays the dislocation of humanity as a tragedy, The Jester relates this story in the form of a bitterly satirical farce.

Another story that is only tangentially related to television is The Man Who Came Back by Robert Silverberg, which, to the extent that it touches on media issues, centers on the phenomenon of the media sensation. John Burkhardt, a colonist who has spent the last twenty years farming on a distant plant, has returned to Earth, becoming the first of those participating in this government program to come back. When it is revealed that he returned to win the hand of the woman he left behind all those years ago, he becomes a romantic hero. And when it is revealed that this woman is now a famous actress, he becomes a media darling. But the story takes a left turn into the real plot when it turns out that Burkhardt has picked up a little bit more than people suspect during his sojourn on an alien world, raising questions about the nature of love, free will, and, in my mind, rape. In short, if you mind-control the love of your life into loving you in return, how can it possibly be love, and isn't that a form of rape? The story is deeply unsettling, and clearly intended to be so, and the creepy nature of its plot has only become more so with the passage of time since the story's publication.

One of the best stories in the volume is I See You by Damon Knight, however the story is yet again, not really about television. Instead, the story centers on the development of a new technology that could best be described as a "time telescope" that allows the user to look backwards at any previous point in time, and pretty much at any point in space the viewer might select. The new technology spreads like wildfire, as people realize they can look back to learn the truth about mysterious historical events like unexplained shipwrecks. But before too long, people realize they can turn their time telescopes on their kids, their neighbors, their parents, and their enemies, and all privacy becomes a thing of the past. Children look back to watch their parents conceive themselves, the police look back to solve crimes, obsessed fans look back to watch their favorite stars or starlets have sex, and so on. But then comes the realization: people from the future are certainly looking back on the people of the present, and no one is safe. The story is both humorous and frightening.

Among all the stories in the book that aren't about television, one that was turned out to be remarkably prescient about the direction television programming would go in the future. Though it was first published in 1959, The Prize of Peril by Robert Sheckley seems to have predicted the rise of reality television. In Sheckley's imagined future, Jim Raeder is participating an the most popular show on the air: A reality show in which a single "ordinary" person agrees to be hunted by condemned criminals for the enjoyment of the viewing audience. The only catch is that if they track Jim down before the end of his week on the run, his pursuers will kill him. The story digresses to show Jim climbing the ladder of potentially crippling or deadly reality programs until he got his shot at the "big time". In a twist that also seems to be disturbingly prophetic, the viewing audience is invited to become part of the action, with the opportunity to help or hinder Jim, which seems to presage the behavior of audience members on shows like Do You Want to Be a Millionaire where some people will deliberately try to steer a contestant away from the correct answer if they can. Science fiction is not an attempt to predict what will happen in the future, but rather an attempt to tell enjoyable stories that may examine the effects of particular types of technology or social changes to the world, but in this case, Sheckley hits pretty close to home with an imagined reality that seems all too familiar, and all too depressing.

Another story involving the potential of death on television is the humorous Home Team Advantage by Jack C. Haldeman II, although the story isn't so much about television as it is about sports, and specifically baseball. In the story, a team of humans has lost a critical baseball series to a team from Arcturus, with the stakes being that the winner gets to eat the loser, all reported by a newscaster who seems remarkably similar to Howard Cosell. The fans vote on which human gets eaten first, and the entree selected is something of a surprise, but the story contains one even further final twist at the end. The story is somewhat surreal, and fairly funny. Haldeman has another story in the volume, the very brief What Time Is It?, which imagines a use for faster than light travel to indulge the nostalgic feelings of wealthy men who yearn for the television programs of their youth.

Continuing with the "at best tenuously related to television" theme, Mercenary by Mack Reynolds posits a future in which treaties have limited warfare to only those technological advances invented prior to the twentieth century. In a further oddity, this rather quaint albeit bloody form of warfare doesn't merely take place between nations, but also between corporations. In a final quirk, society in general seems to have reverted to nineteenth century sensibilities, and social class has become almost a caste system. The protagonist in the story is Joe Mauser, an ambitious veteran mercenary who has participated in numerous corporate engagements. He signs up with the Vacuum Tube Transport corporation, a company that is tangling with a larger and better financed rival, a decision that is seen as a bad move as Continental Hovercraft had retained the services of the legendary commander Stonewall Cogswell. But Mauser has a trick up his sleeve that he thinks will turn the tide of the battle in favor of the hopelessly outclassed Vacuum Tube Transport. The story is about television to the extent that such conflicts are apparently televised, but it is mostly about class conflict, and human ingenuity even in the face of severe societal restrictions. The story is one of the best in the book, but the television angle is so tangential, that one wonders why it is included in this particular collection. Moving from the field of warfare to the field of warfare by other means, Without Portfolio by James E. Gunn imagines what would happen if the functions of the Department of State were handed over to an advertising firm. The story imagines how international diplomacy might be conducted if one of the parties pursued it like a business, complete with propaganda, coupons, and discount offers. On the surface the story is merely a piece of satirical humor, but it also imagines a better future in which the relations between nations might be ruled by law and contracts rather than chaos and disorder.

The Idea by Barry N. Malzberg is definitely about television, but only to serve as a vehicle for the real story. A television producer named Howard has an idea that is described as "educational", but which is resisted by everyone he pitches it to. Eventually the idea is made into a television pilot, and it bombs horribly. Howard's wife watches it, curses him and leaves with his children. He is sued as the "man who almost destroyed America", and at the end his lawyer tells him that sometimes an idea comes before the world is ready for it, and the messenger is then vilified. And this is what the real story is about: what happens when an idea comes along that the world is not ready for, and what happens now that we have the means to distribute that idea widely. The story stops just short of really examining these questions, content to merely raise the idea that men with ideas ahead of their time are despised by those around them. The implications of the ability to rapidly disseminate information via television is explored more fully in Committee of the Whole by Frank Herbert, in which a rancher named Custer stumbles upon a new piece of technology that seems like it will revolutionize the world, and he uses a Congressional hearing on grazing rights to make it public. The actual technology at issue - easy to make and powerful portable lasers - alters the balance of power in the world from the group to the individual, but what makes the new technology capable of such a paradigm shift is that Custer is able to spread the knowledge of the advance in an egalitarian manner, and that is accomplished via live television.

Although And Madly Teach by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. isn't really about television per se, it is about the dangers posed by a society that relies too much on technology to replace human interaction. Mildred Boltz is a teacher from off-world who has returned to Earth to take a lucrative position. She discovers that she is expected to teach students via television, and she will be judged on her ratings. She is determined to actually try to teach her students, whereas many of her fellow teachers have resorted to providing nothing more than salacious entertainment for their students. But Boltz is determined to teach her students, and to do so she reintroduces classroom instruction, much to the dismay of her superiors. The story illustrates both the power of television, and its severe limitations. The story is not so much about television itself, but about how a tool is used, and why it is the user of the tool that is important and not the nature of the tool.

Interview by Frank A. Javor is a brilliant piece that is actually about television and how those who present information to us via that medium lie to us, and how advances in technology may make it possible for them to lie even more. Given the myriad ways that newscasters often dishonestly manipulate what they are reporting via selective editing, reverse cuts, and reordering clips, one has to be somewhat disturbed by the addition of the emotional manipulation technology imagined by Javor, and makes one wonder whether the disclaimer the broadcaster is required to give at the end of his piece would actually be imposed should such technology ever come to actually exist.

There are some classic science fiction authors who seem to be the darlings of the libertarian crowd. Heinlein is one of them. Larry Niven is another. And when I read their fiction I can't help but thinking that the libertarians aren't paying attention. In this volume, Niven offers Cloak of Anarchy, a story about what seems to be a libertarian's fantasy, but because Niven isn't an idiot, he presents the fantasy for what it really is: a nightmare. In the future, when cars are no longer useful, the San Diego freeway has been turned into a huge "free" park. The only rule is a prohibition on hurting other people, enforced by floating cameras that stun any participants in violent acts. People accept that they can do anything they want in the park, and it is a place for people to act out whatever desires they have, from merely having picnics, to strolling around naked, to throwing rocks at the cameras. But when someone disables all of the cameras as a social experiment, things are suddenly not quite as idyllic. Gangs assert their authority over the only sources of water, extorting favors in return for a drink. Women who had previously felt comfortable ambling through the park naked find themselves hunted by would-be rapists, and so on. The libertarian anarchist fantasy devolves into a dystopian terror in just a few short hours, and the fact that it does seems to be a clear message of Niven's thoughts: libertarian anarchist societies are no place that anyone would actually want to live.

And Now the News by Theodore Sturgeon is another story only tangentially related to television, but is even more insightful now in the age of the internet than it was when it was first written. MacLyle is an ordinary man who lives an ordinary life until he becomes obsessed with reading the news in newspapers, listening to the news on the radio, and watching the news on television. The overload of information drives him mad, although it is a very peculiar form of madness that is particularly polite. He makes provisions for his suffering wife and then retreats to the countryside to become a hermit. A well-meaning psychiatrist journeys out to find MacLyle and attempt to cure him. It turns out that MacLyle has lost the ability to speak or read, but via intensive work, he is cured, with somewhat disastrous results. With the volume of information pouring in to the typical person's head via twenty-four hour news channels, the constant stream of data from the internet, and updates via smartphones, it seems like most people are now in MacLyle's position, which is a somewhat disquieting thought.

In contrast to Sturgeon's story is Very Proper Charlies by Dean Ing, which focuses on attempts to cut off the flow of information purportedly in the name of security. Everett is a officer working for the FCC charged with attempting to prevent terrorists from getting their actions on television, with the government more or less operating on the theory that terrorism thrives on publicity, and therefore to starve them of publicity will cause terrorism to dry up. After being almost blown up in the course of his regular duties, Everett gets involved in a project to discredit the terrorists by putting on a program that makes fun of them while at the same time suppressing any real reporting on terrorist activity. The program more or less works, but it isn't without cost as the villains respond rather disagreeably, resulting in a back and forth of intrigue and violence. The story seems in some ways to presage the modern paranoid attitude towards terrorism, including the idea that the media needs to be reigned in in the interest of security. The only real difference is that rather than having the government's paranoia imposed upon them, the entire media apparatus essentially voluntarily agrees to be muzzled by the authorities, more or less drawing an equivalency between the threat of terrorism and the U.S. national mobilization for the war effort in World War II.

Overall, this collection is an interesting read, although several of the stories have been overtaken to some extent by developments in technology. Stories that have televisions and radios that require their vacuum tubes to warm up before they operate seem rather quaint now, but in most of these tales the form of the technology is not as important as the effect that technology might have on humans, both individually and as a society. And the insights that are presented here are, for the most part, still fresh and just as insightful and chilling now as they were when these stories were first written. Granted, a fair number of the stories in this book are only about "television" in the most tangential way, but the truth is that most good science fiction isn't really about technology anyway. Science fiction at its best is about us, and these stories, full of questions and speculations about how humans interact with one another through mass media, are definitely about us.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Maio 22, 2013, 12:13 pm

Book Four: Dark Dawning by Auguste Dinoto.

Short review: A nonsensical plot with a nonsensical central character. The ludicrousness is leavened with heaping helpings of misogyny and paranoia.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: In general, one can usually find at least one good thing to say about any book. For this book, here it is: This book is short. This is a merciful element, as the story is so awful it isn't even laughably bad, the characters are offensive, the writing is weak, and the setting is both ludicrous and poorly researched. In short, there are no redeeming characteristics of this book other than the fact that at 189 pages of large sized text it shouldn't take more than a couple hours to finish, assuming that one wants to devote a couple of hours to reading a really crappy book.

Dark Dawning aspires to be a near future techno-thriller set in the future in which a cataclysmic earthquake has caused the world's supply of oil to be dramatically reduced, resulting in a Fascist movement taking control of the U.S. government and declaring war on Mexico to gain control of its oil fields. Striding across this oil-free dystopian landscape is the protagonist Brick Saunders, a manly man who is so very manly that one wonders how he walks anywhere without tripping on his enormous manly penis. Brick is an investigative reporter living in San Diego, which seems to be one of the acceptable occupations for manly men, along with airplane pilot and football player. Oddly, Brick doesn't seem to much like his job, and it is implied that he was assigned the job by a government agency. This isn't entirely clear, because, like so many other elements of the book it is mentioned in passing and then never referenced again. Brick's job doesn't really matter much, since he doesn't spend a whole lot of time doing it, instead spending his hours getting drunk and high, trying to scrounge up gas so he can get out of San Diego, and having sex with almost every female character who crosses his path.

If one thinks that Brick seems a little bit like a Mary Sue character, then I would agree with you. However, Brick's manly wish-fulfillment nature is only a small part of the problem with this book. The book is riddled with typos, misspellings, and awkward or incorrect grammar. For example, several characters say "comon", when what what intended was for them to say "come on", or possibly, "c'mon". In addition to the poor quality of the writing, it is apparent that Dinoto simply didn't do much research when writing the book. The enormous earthquake that sets the stage for the book is reported as being a "15.5 magnitude" earthquake. The largest recorded magnitude for an earthquake was the 9.5 scale Valvida, Chile quake recorded in 1960, the equivalent of 2.7 gigatons of TNT. But the Richter Scale is logarithmic, meaning that each time one increases the magnitude of a quake, one increases the intensity multiple times. The largest quake that geologists think is possible is a magnitude 10 quake, which would be the equivalent to about ten gigatons of TNT. The Yucatan Peninsula impact that created the Chicxulub crater 65 million years ago and may have wiped out much of the life on Earth is estimated to have been the equivalent of a 12.5 magnitude seismic event, resulting in the release of the equivalent of 100 teratons of TNT. A 15.5 magnitude quake is virtually impossible, and even if it did happen, it would probably crack the Earth into pieces like a shattered egg. This sort of sloppiness and lack of attention to detail is evident throughout the book. At one point the reader is told that the Mexican forces have sunk a pair of the U.S. Navy's "two hundred thousand ton destroyers". The largest military ships ever built have been some of the U.S. Navy's supercarriers, which displace just over one hundred thousand tons. The largest ships ever built are enormous and clumsy oil tankers and bulk container ships, that have displaced more than two hundred thousand tons. Modern destroyers, on the other hand, generally displace between 7,000 and 10,000 tons. Given that the book takes place in 2036, it seems implausible that destroyers will grow twenty times as large as they are now. Several references are made to the use of "nuclear grenades", a weapon that seems like it would be as dangerous to the user as it was to the intended target, and as a result, adds a distinctly cartoonish flair to the story.

The story doesn't even seem to believe in itself. The cover quote says that the price of gasoline rises to $500 per gallon. References are made in the book to the price of gasoline rising into the tens of thousands of dollars per gallon. I suppose if all of the Middle-Eastern oil reserves were made unusable that this is marginally possible. But other than severely restricting consumption of fuel, the universe Dinoto created seems not to react at all. The government still uses tanker trucks to haul gasoline from place to place, people take gas, which costs upwards of a half a grand per gallon, and put it into cars to drive around. To conserve fuel, no one has hot water, and electricity is shut off every night. But most electricity in the United States is not produced using oil. Seventy-five percent of the energy currently produced in the United States comes from non-petroleum sources such as coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar. Losing access to oil would certainly have negative consequences, but the world would react in ways other than simply shutting down the hot water heaters. Why are people still shipping goods using trucks, which consume valuable oil? Why are they not using much more efficient diesel trains, or even pulling steam engines out of mothballs and shipping goods using coal power? Where are the electric cars? While renewable energy sources like wind and solar power might or might not be economically feasible right now, if the cost of oil skyrocketed as it is posited in this book, they certainly would be. So one has to ask, where are the wind farms and the solar fields? Why has the U.S. not embarked on a building program to bring numerous nuclear reactors on line? It seems that Dinoto didn't even stop to consider any of these elements in his rush to create an oil-shortage driven fascist government for the United States. The author didn't think through the implications of his own hypothetical future, leaving the reader to wonder why humans became idiots when the oil vanished.

But those are just background details, and the fact that Dinoto gets them hilariously wrong is only distracting, and not fatal. The author's lack of research shows in the political setting that is imagined to result from the oil shortage. As one might expect, the result was chaos, and apparently one man named Alib Deeds "shouted loud and long" for order, and as a result ended up in charge of the country. Not as President, but rather as Chairman of the "Oil Appropriations Committee". Given the name, one might expect that the OAC was a Congressional committee of some sort, which would make Alib a Congressman or Senator. But as the book goes on, it becomes obvious that Alib is not part of Congress, nor is the OAC a Congressional committee. Perhaps Dinoto meant for the OAC to be a powerful executive agency and just misnamed it a "committee" rather than a "commission" or an "administration". But that would place Deeds under the authority of the President, and that is decidedly not the case, as Deeds orders the actual U.S. President around any time the two of them show up together in the book. The OAC just doesn't seem to fit anywhere in the structure of the U.S. government, but since the actions deeds is supposed to have taken included federalizing all fuel producing companies, Dinoto seems to think it should. The OAC is supposedly backed by a paramilitary group called "Fledgling One", but they don't seem to fit in the government anywhere either. Late in the book, after the OAC has been overthrown, one of the characters remarks that the U.S. is "going back to a civilian government", but since the OAC is not the military, the U.S. never had a military government to begin with. The net result is that nothing about Alib Deeds' takeover of the U.S. government, the OAC, or Fledgling One makes any sense at all. It seems that Dinoto decided he wanted a fascistic government to take over the U.S., but he didn't understand anything about the U.S. government at all, and just came up with a lazy and somewhat silly story. And because the author clearly doesn't care enough about the story to strive for at least something plausible, or to give an explanation that is more than simply saying "Deeds waved his arms and yelled louder than anyone else", the reader doesn't have any reason to care about the story either.

Oddly, Brick isn't actually involved in much of the political machinations surrounding Deeds, the OAC, or the small coalition of Senators that forms to oppose them. Nor is Brick involved in any substantial way with the war between the United States and Mexico, other than living in San Diego near the border. Brick does some perfunctory reporting at parts of the story, uncovering the fact that the government is only pretending to ship oil to the San Diego fuel depot, and that the government is covering up the military successes of a particularly brutal Mexican general, but like pretty much everything else about the plot that involves Brick these revelations don't really go anywhere. Brick does decide to try to scheme his way out of San Diego, and much of the book involves his machinations aimed towards that goal. A cartoonish goon named Shlevert is provided as an obstacle, as is Cannon Leeds, who is ostensibly Brick's boss at the news station, but mostly exists in the story to harass Brick at work once in a while. And to be perfectly fair to Leeds, Brick is a pretty lousy employee: he spends most of his time at work sharpening pencils when he is not staring lasciviously at the female staff members, he shows up to work drunk or hungover multiple times in the book, he fabricates reasons to use the company vehicle. We're clearly supposed to side with Brick because Dinoto has painted "EVIL" on the ruling government in great big red neon colored letters, but the truth is that it is difficult to root for Brick because he's a horrible person.

Among Brick's many reprehensible qualities, the most glaring is that he is, bluntly, a misogynist in a book that wholeheartedly approves of his misogyny. Brick lusts after his beautiful coworker Tyra, and she is smitten with him as well. But when she suggests that maybe they should spend the night together as equals because, as she says "women are free", he glares at the stack of "feminist magazines" and turns her down before storming out to engage in an internal monologue about how women run society and whining about how men have to follow rules laid down by women. While still mooning over Tyra (and trying to figure out how to get her away from her "feminist magazines"), Brick fills in the time by having a drunken night of sex with their other coworker Blanchie, who reads romance novels, which seem to be on brick's list of acceptable reading material for women. A no-strings attached night of sex with Tyra is apparently offensive to Brick's "men's rights" sensibilities, but to show he is still a manly man, it is okay for him to have a no-string attached night of sex with the disposable Blanchie. But the misogynistic tone of the book reaches its height when Brick and Tyra scheme to get Shlevert out of the way in order to make their escape from San Diego. They cook up a plot that involves tricking Shlevert into an amateur sex club where Leeds' daughter Denise is a regular performer so they can take photos of Shlevert having sex with Denise to use as blackmail material. Of course, both the club's owner Roz and Denise find Brick irresistible, and he has sex with both of them. Apparently having sex with the boss' daughter is fine, so long as you don't get photographed doing it. Both Roz and Denise aren't so much characters in the story as they are two walking sets of breasts equipped with vaginas who exist to serve as wish fulfillment fantasies for the author and provide a plot point that turns out to be mostly irrelevant to the story.

And this last point highlights the final failing of Dark Dawning: Despite containing a lot of motion, the book doesn't contain a lot of plot. The various characters do a lot of things, but most of the things they do end up being more or less irrelevant to how events proceed. Brick, Tyra, Shlevert, and the rest of the characters in San Diego have no effect one way or another on the political struggle, or the war between the U.S. and its southern neighbor. Brick and Tyra spend a lot of time scheming to get out of the city, but in the end their plans collapse to "drive really fast in a car and shoot anyone who gets in our way". Despite the fact that the Mexican army is imminently going to sack and despoil San Diego, Brick isn't even able to manage the simple goal of broadcasting a warning to the citizenry. In the end, the only people who manage to leave before the incoming invasion are Brick and Tyra. And in a way that is a fitting end for this terrible book: A horrible self-absorbed narcissist flies into the sunset accompanied by the arm-candy he managed to browbeat out of considering herself to be his equal. In the end, Dark Dawning is a terrible book in almost every way that it is possible for a book to be terrible, with bad writing, a bad story, an implausible setting, and despicable characters that are somehow still two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. There is really no good reason for anyone who is not Brick Saunders to ever read this book.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Abr 24, 2013, 3:54 pm

Book Five: From Death Comes a Scribbler: A Tribute to the Master Edward Gorey by The Unknown Scribbler.

Short review: A short, illustrated tribute to the late Edward Gorey.

Long review: From Death Comes a Scribbler is a short illustrated tribute to the late Ed Gorey, a fact that is pretty much given away by the subtitle of the book "A Tribute to the Master Edward Gorey". Written by the "Unknown Scribbler", the book is more or less a picture-driven love note to the master of macabre and off-kilter illustration with a message that more or less amounts to "Thank you for inspiring me to draw" thrown in.

The text of the book is fairly short, and it is likely that this review will contain more words than the book does. But the meat of the book is not in the text, but rather in the Ed Gorey inspired black line drawn illustrations. The story that the illustrations tell is a fairly simple one: the Scribbler learns of Gorey's death, dreams she is visited by Gorey in a dream, receives a command that she continue drawing from him, and then dedicates her future to fulfilling that imperative. The story is clearly told with affection and love, and reads like a caring and heartfelt eulogy. Or at least a caring and heartfelt eulogy if that sort of thing included a visitation by the subject from beyond the grave.

Anyone looking for something more than a sweet homage to an illustrator's favorite inspiration will be disappointed. Taken for what it is, it is an endearing and creepily cute little book that serves as a fitting send off for one of the more twisted and surreal Gothic artists of recent history.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Jun 13, 2013, 1:14 pm

Book Six: Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg.

Short review: Andrew Battell sets off as a privateer and instead ends up as a prisoner of the Portuguese. He spends twenty-one years in Africa, when all he really wants to do is get home to England.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Take an obscure and brief report from a mostly unknown historical individual, flavor it with some styling reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson, throw in a dash of H. Rider Haggard and a sprinkling of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the end result is Robert Silverberg's foray into historical fiction about Africa: Lord of Darkness. The story contained in the book mostly takes the form a travelogue that follows the central character Andrew Battell as he endures his existence as an English privateer taken prisoner by the Portuguese and transported to Africa, where he doesn't so much adventure as he merely struggles to survive on a continent made doubly dangerous by the national animosity between himself and his captors that is coupled with the wild and inhospitable African landscape as well.

In the forward to the book, Silverberg recounts how a children's story titled The Three Mulla-Mulgars featuring three traveling monkeys entranced him as a child. That story included a brief interlude in which the monkeys came across a lone Englishman named Andrew Battle living by himself in a hut in the African jungles. This would have been little more than a childhood curiosity but years later Silverberg learned of a short first-person account from a seventeenth century Englishman named Andrew Battell giving a short overview of his extended sojourn in Africa. Connecting the dots, Silverberg concluded that the man in The Three Mulla-Mulgars and the historical Battell were one and the same, and also decided that Battell's story needed to be told. But, given that the only records of Battell's experience were he own brief account coupled with a handful of passing references by his contemporaries, leaving Silverberg with scant material to work with, meaning most of the story that came out of the effort was an invention built on a skeleton of truth.

The story that Silverberg came up with is that of a man who sets out for fame and fortune, but in the end only aspires to survive. Battell is a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth and a veteran of England's fight against the Spanish Armada. After a brief marriage ended by his wife's untimely death falls in love with a pretty young girl named Anne Katherine, and decides to sign on as a privateer to plunder England's enemies and secure a nest egg for himself and his intended. The expedition goes badly, and Battell and some of his shipmates are captured by the Portuguese in Brazil and find themselves transported to the colony of Angola in West Africa. And from there, the rest of the story is dominated by Battell's decades long effort to secure his freedom and return to England. Most of the story follows a fairly predictable pattern: Battell overcomes odd that are stacked against him, manages to eke out an existence and almost win his freedom, and then, because there is more book left, events around him conspire at the last possible moment to deny his liberation, resulting in Battell returning to square one, often in a worse position than he started in.

But to a certain extent, Battell's efforts to escape from Africa are not the main plot of the book. Rather, the main plot of the book is Battell's changing relationship with the Dark Continent. As a character, Battell engages in a lot of action, but makes relatively few actual decisions rather than merely being buffeted about by the winds of fate. The only decisions Battell really makes in the course of the book are deciding to turn privateer, purchasing the slave-girl Matamba, refusing Dona Teresa's continued advances, attempting to escape with a Dutch trader, and betraying Calandola to the Portuguese. Every other action Battell takes in the book is spurred by a desire to save his own life, in short, these were the only choices in the book where the alternative would not have been Battell's death. And because the primary character trait for Battell is that he is a survivor above all else, he almost always chooses the path that keeps him alive, making these other "choices" really non-choices. The plaintive cry of "I had no choice, what else could I do" is almost a mantra of Battell. One has to wonder how much of this sentiment was drawn from Battell's original narrative that inspired the book, and how much was the result of Silverberg being unable to figure out any other plausible way to continue keeping Battell trapped as a quasi-prisoner of the Portuguese in and around Angola.

The real meat of the story is Battell's four significant relationships with the women in his life. Anna Katherine spurs Battell to embark upon his career as a privateer, leading to his capture and the events of the book. And while Anna Katherine is offstage for much of the book, and is clearly idealized in Battell's memory, she serves as a reminder for him of his love for England as a whole: As Battell's memories of Anna Katherine fade, so do his memories of England. Once he is in Angola, Battell meets the exotic and duplicitous Dona Teresa, a half-Portuguese half-African beauty who takes up with Battell for fairly inexplicable reasons while he is being held as a prisoner in the Portuguese dungeons. Leaving aside the implausibility of the scenario in which a beautiful scheming social climber would jeopardize her affair with one of the most powerful men in the colony in order to have trysts with a prisoner she barely knows on the floor of a fetid dungeon, Dona Teresa serves to illustrate Battell's growing acceptance of his enforced exile and the rationalizations he makes to accept working with the Portuguese. Teresa, with enough European heritage to appear familiar, but still alien enough that it takes some time for Battell to warm up to her, is a transitional figure in the book, bridging the gap between the "normal" and the "alien". As a side note, there is a lot of sex in the book. Anyone coming to this book hoping for a rehash of Stevenson or Haggard should be aware of this fact before diving in and being shocked by the numerous references Battell makes to his "yard", a woman's curly "three-pointed patch", or the "starfish mouth" within it.

But Battell's life is one of constant change, and eventually he is required by his captors to pilot one of their ships northward, eventually finding himself purchasing the slave girl he calls Matamba. Battell's motivations for purchasing Matamba aren't fully clear, mostly because the idea is not his own, but is rather spurred by Matamba herself, who asks him to buy her to she may escape the slave pens. And although he doesn't purchase her with the intent of having a sexual relationship with her, eventually he does. While Silverberg tries to paint this relationship in the best light possible, and it is probably the most "equal" relationship Battell has with a woman in the entire book, it is still a thirty year old slave holder having sex with his sixteen year old slave girl. Perhaps it is a commentary on the society of the time, but I admit I did find it somewhat disturbing that the most balanced and loving relationship between a man and a woman was the one between Battell and Matamba, mostly because of the clearly exploitative aspects that Silverberg tries so desperately to explain away. To a certain extent Matamba is better off with Battell then she would be otherwise, a point made starkly clear when Battell is separated from her when he is sent away for punishment after an escape attempt and returns years later to find her in an abjectly miserable condition, but this only mitigates the situation, rather than justifying it. But Matamba is, in this regard, a perfect metaphor for the "mainstream" of Africans who spend the book being exploited by European powers beyond their control and only hope to emerge with as little suffering as they can.

The book reaches its climax during Battell's final significant relationship, with his Jaqqa wife Kulachinga. Except that Battell's relationship isn't really with Kulachinga, but rather with the ruler of the cannibalistic Jaqqa tribe the Imbe-Jaqqa Calandola. Abandoned by his Portuguese companions and fearing for his life, Battell finally throws aside the final vestige of his civilized European identify and joins the dreaded Jaqqa tribe, where his musketry skills earn him a place by Calandola's side as "Andubatil". Kulachinga is assigned to Battell by Calandola, and neither she nor Battell has any choice in the matter. She is wholly alien, covered with ritual scars and tribal decorations, and symbolizes the truly alien nature of where Battell has gone, and what he has become. But Kulachinga is almost not a character in her own right, and is merely the extension of Calandola's will. It is through Battell's relationship with Calandola (that becomes more than merely symbolically sexual) and some of the other leaders of the Jaqqa tribe that Silverberg makes his boldest statements, and although they are probably not historically accurate, they are interesting. The Jaqqa, for all their destructive and cannibalistic ways, turn out to be much more than merely mindless locusts swarming across the land, but have a philosophical bent that informs their actions. While they are foreboding and have a somewhat terrifying outlook, they are understandable. And making a tribe of marauding cannibals understandable and even somewhat relatable is what makes this book ultimately interesting. If Silverberg had merely jumped from Battell as a privateer to Battell living among the Jaqqa, they probably would have been too foreign to the reader's experience for any amount of explanation to be effective in making them human rather than monsters. But by taking his time to get to them, Silverberg was able to both increase the terror the Jaqqa engender and ease both Battell and the reader into being able to accept them on their own terms.

As a work of historical fiction, Lord of Darkness seems to be more or less equal parts history and fantasy. The broad strokes and most of the elements of Battell's own personal story are accurate, but it is fairly clear that everything else is a fantasy put forward by Silverberg to make a compelling and interesting narrative. And Silverberg succeeds in that effort, taking the bare bones of a historical account and fleshing it out to describe one man's journey from the familiar to the wholly alien, and taking the reader along for the ride. To a certain extent, Silverberg's efforts are so successful that the final chapters are required to bring Battell back from the wilderness and to allow the reader to take that part of the journey with him as well. While the journey might not be particularly true to the reality of sixteenth century Africa, it is an engrossing tale of survival against mountainous odds filled with interesting characters. And because of that, it is a story that lovers of historical fiction should find interesting and which should have gotten more notice when it was first published.

This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Maio 15, 2013, 10:08 am

Book Seven: The Forever Knight by John Marco.

Short review: Lukien is a knight who cannot die, so he takes a teenage girl as a squire and leads her into danger.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: The Forever Knight is a fantasy novel centered around the titular character, also known as Lukien the Bronze Knight, an apparently immortal warrior bound to Malator, the spirit of the dead wizard contained inside of his magic sword. The novel is a fairly standard fantasy story complete with a questing knight, a squire with a memory problem, an unscrupulous merchant, and a evil warlord with a sadistic henchman and an army of creepy half-dead soldiers. The story has definite strong points, with interesting set piece scenes that are generally interesting and well-executed, but has a few minor flaws, mostly involving some weak characterization and difficulty in transition scenes.

The book opens with Lukien busy hunting a Rass, a dangerous and giant snake-like creature, near the city of Jador. The difficulties of the hunt serve to define Lukien's somewhat lukewarm death-wish, and his odd love-hate relationship with Malator, and results in Lukien returning to the city victorious and in possession of the skin of a Rass. It quickly becomes apparent that The Forever Knight is the fourth book in the series, and that the collection of preexisting character relationships and established world-lore will shape Lukien's actions throughout the novel. Because the plot of this novel involves Lukien heading off into uncharted territory with only a preteen girl as his companion, this is not a huge issue, but early in the book the reader is confronted with a cast of established characters accompanied by little more than some perfunctory exposition as to who they are and how they fit in. And while there are glimmers that indicate that the story of how these characters got to this point might have been interesting, there is little in this volume that helps the reader feel the weight of that history. And this is unfortunate, because without that foundation, many of Lukien's actions seem to lack any sort of real motivation.

So, after returning to Jador, a city full of people who are immortal because the Akari, who seem to be somewhat mercurial guardian spirits, have elected to bind with them, Lukien moons over his lost love for a bit, and then meets up with his friends from the previous books and is told that he should go and become a knight-errant, probably in the Broken Lands because that's where there are adventures to be had and wrongs to be righted. Against the advice of Malator, Lukien decides to bring Cricket, a young girl from Akyre in the Broken Lands, as his squire. Cricket has lost her memory, and both she and Lukien think that taking her to the Broken Lands might unlock her hidden past. Malator, on the other hand, thinks that the Broken Lands are incredibly dangerous and it would be foolish to take a preteen girl into them. Based upon nothing more and a fairly undefined desire to do good deeds and a vague plan to restore Cricket's memory, Lukien packs up and hauls Cricket across the desert into the war-torn Broken Lands. And the somewhat ill-defined reasons motivating Lukien herald one of the recurring issues of The Forever Knight: Once Marco has gotten his characters to where he wants them to be, he is able to write interesting scenes, but transitioning from one scene to another frequently feels forced and artificial, with people taking actions for poorly defined and even more poorly articulated reasons. Lukien's fight with the Rass is interesting. The encounter between Lukien and Cricket and the desert caravan of Sariyah is interesting. Lukien and Cricket's brief stay in the city of Arad is interesting. But, by contrast, the links that move Lukien from one place to another are incredibly flimsy.

As a result, Lukien's character seems to drift through the plot of the book as events unfold around him. There is a good story here, featuring Anton the amoral merchant and his relationship with the tyrannical and power-crazed King Diriel which foments a war that draws in most of the Broken Kingdoms by the end. But Lukien himself seems to just wander aimlessly from place to place for much of the book. Lukien meets Marilius, a mercenary captain, who cryptically asks the knight for help, leading him to Anton, who cryptically explains that the merchant has been plagued by some sort of monster, which Malator had earlier cryptically warned Lukien about. lukien then heads off to confront the monster without much of a plan other than "ride up to it with my sword", a plan that somewhat predictably fails, because if that was a solid plan one would think that one of the dozens of mercenaries that Anton had hired to guard him might have been able to pull it off already. But this sort of floundering about without a plan seems to be standard for Lukien as he wanders about the Broken Lands. Lukien goes to meet Direl, and his creepy pedophile henchman Wrestler (who seems to have a fixation on Cricket), after tangling with the monster, Lukien thinks maybe he should investigate where it came from, and so on. One thing he doesn't do, and which he makes cryptic excuses for several times, is take Cricket to the one location in the Broken Lands that she seems to remember, despite her repeated requests to do so, and despite the fact that helping her recover her memory was the only actual plan Lukien had when he set out for the Broken Lands.

And this highlights the fact that Cricket isn't actually a character, but is rather a plot device. Cricket seems to exist in the story to be around to deliver some unexpected exposition concerning a strange piece of writing, and to provide Lukien with a reason to seek revenge against Diriel and Wrestler. This point is driven home when the mystery of Cricket's memory loss is solved and it turns out to have no bearing at all on the plot of the novel. Cricket is, for the most part, simply a convenient way to move Lukien about the countryside, and when her usefulness has expired, she is perfunctorily discarded from the narrative. To a certain extent this is also true of Malator, but since he is a spirit confined within a magical sword, the fact that he is a plot device is somewhat more justifiable. Malator seems to exist solely to provide Lukien with the necessary dribs and drabs of information required to keep the plot going, and to provide supernatural aid to keep Lukien alive when he runs hilariously dangerous risks. The problem is that other than the fact that the author doesn't want to let the reader in on information yet, there seems to be no reason for Malator to retreat into cryptic utterances when Lukien understandably asks what Malator's plan for him is, or when Lukien asks for pretty much any other information. This sort of cryptic adviser is a common trope in fantasy fiction, but, like here, it often doesn't make sense. There's no apparent character-driven reason for Malator to withhold what he knows from Lukien, other than perhaps a desire to annoy the knight that he purports to have such lofty plans for.

Fortunately, once Cricket leaves the story, the pace begins to pick up. Lucien, having meandered through the story up to this point, seems to focus on a goal, and takes an active role in shaping events, as opposed to his earlier pattern of indifferently allowing events to happen around him. When Lukien begins to take charge, the book seems to come to life and a pretty good fantasy war story is revealed, as he and his chosen side desperately try to scrape together friends and allies to confront Direl's larger army with its magically enhanced elite forces. There are a few puzzling plot contrivances even at this stage - for example, everyone seems surprised that Direl has been waging a successful war against their neighbors and Lukien seems to unravel the mystery of the deadly monster more or less by guessing, but these niggling issues are trampled under the hooves to the galloping plot as it rushes to its action-packed conclusion. Once again, the fact that this is the fourth book in the series comes in to play as fighting men arrive to aid Lukien in his endeavors, drawn by his reputation as a valiant warrior. But nothing Lukien does before these men arrive in this book would warrant such adulation, which means that anyone reading this book simply has to take it on faith that the aimless hero that wandered about for the first half of the book had done something worthwhile prior to that point.

I am somewhat concerned that my review of The Forever Knight may make it sound like it is a book I didn't enjoy. Let me be clear: This is a perfectly good fantasy book, with some decent characters, well-written scenes, and a plot that is interesting once it gets rolling. But throughout the book there seems to be the feeling that this is merely a placeholder for a series in transition. After the plot of this book is complete, Malator reveals to Lukien that the knight has a strange and unique power that has resulted from the loss of his own soul. The revelation of this power, it seems, is at the heart of Malator's purported plan for Lukien, and might have saved a lot of trouble had Malator revealed it to the hero earlier. In the end, it seems like this entire book has merely been a dilatory diversion intended to delay the introduction of the new and improved Lukien who will presumably be featured in future installments of the series. Even so, it is a reasonably enjoyable diversion that will entertain a fantasy fan. Those who have read and enjoyed previous books in the series will probably love this book. Those who have not should probably go and read them first before reading this one.

This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Jul 2, 2013, 10:09 pm

Book Eight: The Iron King by Maurice Druon, translated by Humphrey Hare.

Short review: Greed, adultery, and the lust for power all converge to start the pebbles sliding that will result in an avalanche that destroys the Capetian dynasty and sparks the Hundred Years War.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: In the forward of the The Iron King, George R.R. Martin states that this series of historical fiction books by French author Maurice Druoun served as one of the inspirations for Martin's now wildly popular Song of Ice and Fire series. And when one reads this volume, which takes place during the last few years of the reign of Philip the Fair, one can see that Martin's work does indeed have Druon's fingerprints all over it, at least as far as the bitter and deadly courtly intrigue is concerned. As Martin observes, despite the obscurity of the series in the English speaking world, it is wildly popular in France, and has been made into a television series more than once, in effect making it the original Game of Thrones.

As the book opens, France is strong and Philip is the most powerful man in Europe. He had transformed France from a disorganized feudal state into a centralized kingdom. His sons had been placed in powerful position, his daughter was married to the King of England, and his brother had been given the impressive sounding but mostly empty title of Byzantine Emperor. Philip had quarreled with the papacy and won, and the current Pope resided in Avignon and was beholden to the king. Starting with Philip in this enviable position of power and prestige, Druon's story follows three loosely related threads that tie together around what seems to have been the most important issue in medieval politics: money. Philip had already tried to keep the royal coffers filled by ejecting the Jews from his kingdom and confiscating their property, and then he condemned the Knights Templar, and took their property. But as is shown in The Iron King, coffers must be refilled, and the squabbling over income can bring even the mightiest nations to their knees and cause a generations long war.

The central plot revolves around Philip's three sons Louis, Philippe and Charles and his daughter Isabella, motivated by Isabella's dislike of her three sisters-in-law, Margaret, Blanche, and Joan, who she believes are cuckolding their husbands. She conspires with her cousin Robert of Artois to lay a trap for the three women and their lovers, sending him with some very pretty and noticeable purses to bestow upon the princesses. The plot winds along until it culminates with what has since become known as the Tour de Nesle affair as two of the princesses' dalliances and the third's complicity are revealed. This portion of the book is not compelling for the plot itself - after all, the disgrace of the three Capetian princesses is a matter of historical record so it really isn't a surprise - but rather the hidden elements that Druon imparts that fill in the gaps in the story. Margaret and Blache, the two princesses convicted of adultery, are shown as almost careless in their decision to engage in what for them is a treasonous act. The decision to take a lover is especially puzzling when one considers that Margaret is portrayed as loving her husband (whereas Blanche appears to have nothing but disdain for hers).

But the critical decision, and one that had the most implications for the future of France was deliberate: Philip decides to exile the three women rather than execute them. All three women remain princesses of France, although they are disgraced and sent away to imprisonment within nunnerys. This means that all three of his sons, who have one child between them, continue to be married, and are thus unable to take new wives and produce heirs to ensure the continuation of the Capetian dynasty. And the decision to exile the women is driven by money: Philip's sons derive income through their wives' holdings - Philippe is dependent upon his wife's holdings - and to execute their wives or obtain a divorce from them would hurt them all financially, and bankrupt Philippe. And so Philip makes what seems to be the expedient choice that preserves his sons' immediate wealth, but also sets the stage for a dynastic crisis that leads to the Hundred Years War and the virtual ruination of France. Against this scheming over money, the savage torture and dismemberment of the two young men who were unfortunate enough to become the playthings of the adulterous princesses is almost an afterthought.

Interwoven with the main plot are two smaller plots, both focused in their own way on the quest for money. Philip the Fair famously destroyed the Templar Order, arresting them and imprisoning them for heresy. The Templars were accused of a number of ecclesiastical crimes, and Druon follows Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Order, as he endures imprisonment, torture, and condemnation. It becomes clear that the torment is not because of any particular heretical actions that were taken by the Grand Master or his followers, but rather because they were wealthy, and the King needed money. Or rather, the king owed them a lot of money and didn't want to pay his debts. Given the chance by the ecclesiastical court to accept the charges against him in return for perpetual imprisonment, de Molay accompanied by one other Templar, Geoffrey de Cahrney, refuse, and instead Philip orders them burned at the stake. This leads to one of the legendary scenes from the history of the era as de Molay curses his persecutors, telling them that they will be called before "God's tribunal" within a year of his own death. Whether de Molay actually uttered such a curse or not is not particularly important, because it makes for great theater and a riveting scene in the book.

The final plot line in the book focuses on the business affairs of Spinello Tolomei, a merchant and banker originally from Sienna. After Philip had exiled the Jews in 1290 (and appropriated their property for the crown), Italian merchants had come to France to take their place. This story, like the others in the book, is about money, but it highlights he fine balance that the mercantile classes had to strike. The merchants and bankers have money, which the landholding nobility want to borrow to finance their activities, but the nobility often don't want to repay the loans they take out. Because they have political power, the nobles established a practice of borrowing money, and then figuring out a way to avoid repaying their debts - by exiling the Jews, or by destroying a crusader order for example - which means that in this story, Tolomei is painfully aware of the fine line he must tread. Throughout the story involving Tolomei and his son who he sends on business errands, this tension is readily apparent. And coupled with the resentment that the nobles around Philip express towards the non-noble civil servants such a de Marigny and de Nogaret that the king has placed his trust in, this story brings to the fore the changes happening in French society as the moneyed classes are just beginning to assert their power, and the reaction of the established political movers and shakers.

The book culminates with Philip's death, setting the stage for the chaos that ensues, driven by the serial exhaustion of the royal treasury and the uncertain succession following the Tour de Nesle affair. Druon's book shows France at the apex of its power, with an inflexible iron hand guiding the nation and exerting influence that extends across Europe, even holding sway over the Pope himself. But it also shows the cracks in the seemingly solid edifice presented to the world, revealing the deep flaws that will destroy the Capetian dynasty and undermine the French monarchy itself. The Iron King is the opening act that sets the stage for the events in the succeeding books, and as such, it does an excellent job of showing the apparently stable beginning, which serves to make the coming collapse that much more dramatic.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Jul 11, 2013, 9:09 pm

Book Nine: The Amazing Pitsville and the Beggar's Invisible Railways by Gabe Redel.

Short review: McGavin jumps through the clouds to a strange place named Pitsville that is full of strange people. He makes friends, gets married, and returns to our world. Then he goes back to Pitsville, tangles with a wrestling king, has Pitsville stolen from him, and wins it back.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: The Amazing Pitsville and the Beggar's Invisible Railways is a difficult book to evaluate, because it is so very different from most other books. This is both good, in that the book has a very original feel, and bad, in that at many points the story seems to consist of the author just throwing whatever off the wall serendipitous plot device is needed to move the protagonists along. The closest comparison I can think of would be a book like Norman Juster's Phantom Tollbooth, or possibly Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, but in those books the allegorical points being made by the authors are relatively apparent, while in The Amazing Pitsville, they were often incomprehensible, although still usually entertaining.

The story opens with the main character, a rather arrogant young man named McGavin, off with his friends at a cloud skiing resort. Cloud skiing is the practice of skiing on clouds, which is an indication that the story is a little off the wall. McGavin and his collection of accomplices spend their time eating cheeseburgers and making ski runs until McGavin notices that some professional cloud skiers have been using a particularly dangerous jump that is normally off limits, and decides he has to try the jump too despite an impending storm. After recruiting one of his friends to join him, he makes the run, ditches his friend on the slope, and leaps directly into the oncoming thunderhead. And then McGavin finds himself in a completely different place that he comes to know as Pitsville.

From here, the story becomes odder and odder. He tries to climb out of the hole he finds himself in and is menaced by a ferocious beast. Dissuaded, he wanders into the forest and finds a weeping butterfly who is sad because she doesn't have a husband, and then comes across a farmer perpetually plowing a field that never stays plowed. Hitching a ride to town with the farmer, McGavin finds himself in a store in which a dirty boy tells him he has to buy something but nothing is for sale. Eventually McGavin finds himself in an invisible house owned by a burly and humble lumberjack and courting a pretty lost girl named Sonia. McGavin marries Sonia, and they all settle down in Pitsville.

The book meanders from there, seeming more like a collection of linked short stories than a single coherent plot. Eventually McGavin and Sonia wind up back in the "regular world", and then they move around a bit, find themselves shunned by McGavin's former friends, then accepted by them, survive a fire, and then wind up back in Pitsville. Just about everyone in Pitsville gets together and forms a theater company, and everything goes swimmingly until the jealous King Dill of a neighboring kingdom sends his dragon to bring them back to his castle. Dill imprisons them, wants to wrestle, and then assembles his army of motorcyclists wearing Greek helmets to attack Pitsville.

About halfway through the book McGavin, Sonia, and a few of their friends find themselves in Pitsville again and the villain of the story finally makes his appearance in the form a Kemp the Beggar, a being that gains power over his victims when they give him what he asks for. The Beggar is using hidden extradimensional passages to move about the world to take things away from people and threaten the very existence of Pitsville. McGavin and his companions, of course, set out to stop the Beggar, recruiting an apathetic dog named Beagley and a soldier named Pops who can't seem to remember anything along the way. This leads to a convoluted story line that involves the beast that kept McGavin in Pitsville at the beginning of the story plus its offspring and eventually results in convincing the population of an entire valley to jump into a volcano.

If this doesn't seem to make much sense, that's because it more or less doesn't except in the context of the off-kilter world that Redel has constructed for his characters to live in. The trouble is that I am certain that most of the characters and events in the story are meant to have allegoric, symbolic, or metaphoric significance, but for the most part I simply had no idea what that might have been. I am also reasonably certain the the story was supposed to be something of a bildungsroman for McGavin, but I simply didn't much in the way of character development for him in the story. McGavin started the story with those around him seeing him as a bossy, thoughtless, and somewhat arrogant character, and ended the story with those around him talking about how he had developed into a a considerate and capable leader, but I didn't really see anything in McGavin himself that would support those assessments. I suspect that the problem is that there was simply not enough time spent establishing the "unfixed" version of McGavin for me to be able to read the rest of the story and say, "Old McGavin would have done this, but new McGavin has done that instead". This element of the story probably would have worked better had we gotten to see McGavin in his "old life" for more than a single chapter before he was whisked away on his voyage of self-discovery.

So what can one say about a story that was enjoyable but which you are reasonably certain contained heaping helpings of allegorical symbolism that you are reasonably certain you missed most of? As I said, I enjoyed the book, complete with all of its zany and off-the-wall characters and improbable plot points, but on the other hand, I always felt like I was missing some understanding that I should have been getting. I am not certain if I am simply not observant enough to comprehend what was intended, or if the references and symbols were simply too opaque, but either way what I got out of The Amazing Pitsville was a silly and convoluted story that was a diverting and imaginative fantasy, but not anything more than that.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Jul 17, 2013, 8:15 pm

Book Ten: Prophets of the Ghost Ants by Clark Thomas Carlton.

Short review: In the future humans have shrunk to the size of insects and tamed the ants. But they still have bloody wars over religion, wealth, and power.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: In the far future, humans have shrunk to the size of insects and now live a parasitical existence dependent upon the ants, roaches, and termites that are now comparatively the size of draft animals. All of the larger creatures have disappeared, leaving the planet to the insects and the now diminutive humans who coexist with them, but the same lust for power and wealth familiar to those living in the current world remains. Against this backdrop, Clark Thomas Carlton has crafted a story of love, betrayal, oppression, religious strife, and war that remains epic despite taking place in an area that is likely no bigger than a football field.

In the miniaturized future world Anand lives as a member of the midden caste, the lowest caste of the leaf cutter people in Mound Cajoria on the Holy Slope, enduring a life of hard labor and privation while the nobility and priesthood live in opulent comfort. It turns out that not only is Anand a member of the lowest caste, he is a half-breed, the child of a leaf cutter man and a woman of the roach people, who the leaf cutters find both fascinating and revolting, and as such he is the most despised member of the most despised social group on the mound. And from there Anand embarks on a journey that takes him from the lowest of the low to the height of power, although not in a manner or with the results that one might expect.

Early in the book, Anand is taken to meet his mother's people, where he discovers that his birth was not an accident, and the Roach people, or Britasytes as they call themselves, want him to serve as a bridge between their people and the Slopeites of Mound Cajoria. After Anand has been feasted and feted, he falls in love with a Britasyte girl named Daveena and pledges to marry her, but then he has to return to his life of drudgery and oppression in Mound Cajoria. He finds himself setting out for unknown territory with half of the mound dwellers when the colony splits, gets captured by a hitherto unknown group that call themselves the Dranverians, learns a new way of life that rejects the castes and the gods whose priesthoods enforce them, and then returns to Cajoria to liberate his people with the teachings of the Dranverites, only to find that war has come upon the Slopeites in the form of a new threat from the ghost ant-allied servants of the termite god Hulkro.

Through the story, Anand learns and grows, eventually ending up as the innovative war-leader of a movement of disaffected workers from the slope, collections of roach allied people, and the ally of the reluctant noble classes of the various Slopeite mounds as they confront the shared menace of the servants of Hulkro. In the end, victory on the battlefield coupled with the foolishness of his enemies and a political marriage brings Anand to a position he could have only dreamed of at the outset of the book. And yet everything does not finish with a fairy tale wedding. Yes, he marries the princess, but she despises him. Yes, he reforms his kingdom, but at the cost of thousands of lives. Yes, he implements some of the egalitarian reforms espoused by the Dranverites, but his means of accomplishing them causes the Dranverites themselves to reject him. Triumph, it turns out, is a mixed bag.

To a certain extent, the story of power politics and religious intolerance is only half of the point of the book. Slopeite society is unjust, but it seems that a large part of its unjust nature is driven by the symbiotic relationship humans have with the ants they live with. The ants have a rigidly structured society, and so the humans that live with them wind up with one as well, a pattern replicated throughout the various insect allied societies that show up in the game. Human society has become a reflection of insect society, and it should surprise no one that the strictures that insects live under seem ill-suited to humans. And humanity seems to have almost no other choice because humans have not so much domesticated the insects in their lives as they have simply fooled them into not noticing that they live among them by bathing themselves in the insect recognition scent.

Even after Anand has conquered and married the vain Princess Trellana to secure his political position, the stark fact remains that humanity is entirely dependent upon the insects they live among. Everything the humans eat comes from the insects they live with. The dwellings the humans live within are carved out of the nests of the insects they live with. The insects serve as beasts of burden and weapons of war for the humans. When wild insects show up to prey upon the humans, they need their insect allies to help fend off the predators. And so on. And each of the microscopic societies that make up the patchwork quilt of humanity seen in the book is markedly different, and the cause of this seems mostly to be that they have conformed their human lives to accommodate living among their insect companions. And even still the characters remain very human. The nobility exploits the lower classes. The priesthood lies to royalty. Wars take place over religious differences. And so on.

But despite the attention to detail in so many places in the book, there are other areas where physics and biology simply hand waved away. At the tiny scale the story takes place at liquids work work very differently from the way we are used to due to the fact that surface tension would become a significant issue, and yet this never seems to be accounted for in the book. Rain would be something of a natural disaster, causing what would be comparatively torrential flooding with even a summer shower amounting to a deluge that would submerge entire nations. The physics of the very small would fundamentally change the way that tiny humans interact with their environment. The reduced amount of mass for humans would mean that they could tall from a comparatively great height without fear of injury. One human punching another human in the face would be completely ineffective at that size, as their tiny muscles would be unable to generate enough force to cause damage.

The humans in the book seem unaffected by their small size other than the fact that they are now tiny, a development that seems more than moderately implausible. There isn't a direct correlation between brain size and intelligence - after all, some animals such as whales and elephants have larger brains than humans - but there does seem to be a minimum brain size below which one cannot go and expect intelligence, and the humans in Prophets of the Ghost Ants clearly have brains well below this size, and yet seem to be just as intelligent as full-size humans. Everything about the humans in the book other than their size seems to have been unaffected by this radical scale change. Despite the story being presumably millions of years in the future, humans still come in a variety of skin tones, and darker skinned humans are still discriminated against. For a portion of the book it seems like some humans have become enormously more fecund than humans are at present, but then it is revealed that this is simply a byproduct of the diet that they eat. Similarly, for a time it seems that some humans have developed an ability to prevent the spread of fungus through any mounts using their urine, but this too is revealed as a side effect of their diet.

The lack of attention paid to these details seems out of place in the book, because Carlton clearly spent so much time making sure that so many other elements made sense. The human interactions with the insects around them are controlled by using the insects' instinctive reactions to various pheromone scents. Carlton clearly understands how difficult it would be to harness the use of fire on this small scale, and how dangerous it would be as well. Though set in the far future, human technology has regressed to a primitive state in many areas, and this seems to be in large part because of the difficulties that would be inherent in using heat to generate electricity to power technology at such a tiny scale. The result is a fictional setting in which it seems that a fair amount of care has been taken to consider the ramifications of some of the conditions the characters find themselves in, but in which others seem to be simply hand-waved away without much thought.

These issues aside, Prophets of the Ghost Ants remains an engaging piece of fiction built upon an imaginative idea. Even though everything takes place on a very small scale, the scope of the conflict remains epic and the nature of the conflict remains quintessentially human. The book has so much packed into it - from an exploration of class divisions, to the religious hypocrisy of the ruling and priestly classes, to the causes of religiously driven wars, to a coming-of-age story for Anand - that any reader will almost certainly find multiple levels of material in it to interest them.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Jun 25, 2013, 9:58 am

Book Eleven: The Corin Chronicles, Volume 1: The Light and the Dark by Marvin Amazon.

Short review: A disjointed story that includes a conflict between anime style Gods leading to an interlude involving hard-boiled quasi-FBI agents followed by an epic fantasy quest.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: One thing that plagues the genre fiction field is the prevalence of the book series. When executed well, a series can allow an author to nurture and develop characters, layer together complex interrelationships, and weave together extended plots. But the problem is that so many authors who have never written a single book in their lives seem to think that they should start their writing career by embarking on a multi-volume epic series, and as a result, bite off more than they can feasibly chew. The Light and the Dark, the second novel by Marvin Amazon, bills itself as the first volume of The Corin Chronicles, and while the author shows talent, tackling such a huge and grandiose project right off the bat results in a book that feels disjointed and frustratingly incomplete.

The Light and the Dark is divided into four broad sections. The first involves a show down on the planet Corin between warring anime style gods that reads a little bit like Dragonball Z put into print form, with massive armies of "normal" warriors clashing, followed by increasingly powerful monsters thrown into the fray, until at the end, the various gods all transform into their "giant" forms and stride across the battlefield. Reading the descriptions of the gods changing from their "human" forms to their "battle" forms, becoming giant metal or stone figures with over-sized swords and so on felt a little bit like reading the carefully scripted animation sequences from something like Voltron where the giant robot reveals itself. Overall, this is the weakest part of the book, which is unfortunate, because this is also the opening section of the book. Overall, this part of the book serves as little more than exposition that sets up the remainder of the plot and probably would have been better if it had simply been left out and works in as a mythic background. In short, having the gods "on stage" reduces them from being actually epic and instead plants the image of a collection of Ultraman clones cool glowing swords.

Once the story moves on from the over the top anime style clash of the gods, the book improves considerably. There is an interlude detailing the flight of a woman named Selena and her strangely marked son as they attempt to escape Corin and find safety. Pursued by forces loyal to the god Auphora, who has decreed that the prophesied "Anointed One" must be killed, Selena has traveled via the "Shallows" to reach the planet Tyranis. One of the quirky elements of The Light and the Dark is that despite being a story of interstellar scope, the technology used by the various actors for the bulk of the book is decidedly medieval, with warriors carrying swords and spears, and travelers riding horses or winged beasts. This combination of space travel and sword wielding combatants mounted on horses only adds to the anime feel of the story, and given that there is no explanation for the retrograde technology, heightens the unrealism of these sections of the story. Despite this the tale of Selena's flight is still interesting, especially given that she seems to inspire a level of loyalty towards he from those she meets that seems almost implausible. And this implausibility raises the interesting question: Does this intense loyalty stem from Selena's convincing demeanor, or is it the result of the influence of her magically inclined child? No matter the source of the loyalty, it enables Selena to accomplish her lone goal, ending this portion of the book.

The next section of the book is the most interesting, involving the pursuit of an international criminal by what are apparently agents of the United States government. Veteran agents Karl and William working at the behest of a U.S. Senator have taken on the responsibility of tracking down a man they know as Siroco. In their pursuit, they are required to take on a rookie agent named Andrew, who serves as a means for the veteran agents to explain who they are and who they are looking for. As the story develops, it becomes apparent that the little organization is not exactly completely legal, and that Siroco is actually the "Anointed One" who had been the child in the previous section. So the reader is confronted with the "heroes" in this section of the story hunting down a "villain" who was the innocent child in the previous portion. This section is the most interesting of the book because Amazon has placed the viewpoint characters in the position of being opposed to the viewpoint characters of the previous (and as it turns out, the following) sections of the book. In effect, the three pseudo-government agents chasing Siroco hold the same position in the story as that held by the minions of Auphora who were relentlessly tracking down Selena in the previous segment. And that is the inversion that makes this book interesting: Despite the fact that we are told that the god Corin, and by extension his "Anointed One" are inimical to Earth's interests, we root for them when they are the downtrodden underdog protagonists. And when we follow Karl, William, and Andrew, we root for them, until it becomes clear who they are relentlessly tracking down, at which point our sympathies become confused. Unfortunately, this portion of the story more or less simply stops without any kind of resolution.

After the high point of the hunt for Siroco, the book leaves that story unfinished and moves back to the planet Corin where everything started. After Auphora locked the orb with one side in perpetual daylight from facing the sun while the other is held in perpetual night, those remaining on the day side of the planet have endured the torment of unending daylight. In an attempt to return the gods that Auphora had vanquished, King Oncelot of Corin
proposes to raise one of the "hyper-lords" by offering the eligible men of his kingdom to serve as potential vessels for a reborn demigod. After some twists and turns, he instead sends his son, Prince Ramon on a quest to the dark side of the planet to find Corin's "three philosophers" who he hopes will provide the key to returning the ancient gods to the planet. A fairly typical epic quest follows with brave warriors carrying swords, spears, and bows ride across the landscape, finding mystical portents and unexpected magical boons before vanquishing the dark side's vicious guardians and reaching their goal. The story has some court intrigue thrown in for good measure, but like the previous section, the story simply ends in the middle of the action with all of the plot threads left hanging open.

And this is the main problem with the book. Not the over-the-top anime style sequences. Not the quirky mixture of space travel and spears. Not the fact that every government agent and police officer chasing Siroco has the exact same personality and speech pattern. Not the fact that Prince Ramon's heroic companions are all virtually interchangeable, differentiated only by the weapons they carry. No, the main weakness of the book is that it simply doesn't have an ending. After four very loosely connected vignettes, the book simply stops. I assume that the various story lines will be picked up and continued in later books in the series, but for now the reader is expected to take on faith that Amazon will be able to effectively able to wrap up the many competing threads of the plot. The Light and the Dark is not so much a book as it is the first half of what should have been a longer book. And that leaves this volume on a fine balance between the handful of interesting plot elements on the one hand, and the unfinished feel of the book on the other, meaning that I find it difficult to recommend it without being able to read the others. Since the later installments have yet to be published, this book gets a cautious nod, with the caveat that any reader who picks it up should not read it expecting a full story.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Jul 9, 2013, 7:22 pm

Book Twelve: The Goddess's Choice by Jamie Marchant.

Short review: An aged king seeks a husband for his spirited daughter, a magically gifted peasant tries to overcome prejudice, and an evil duke schemes to seize the throne in a quasi-Celtic fantasy land.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: I must admit that I started The Goddess's Choice with some trepidation. The cover announces that it is the first book in a series. It is almost immediately apparent that the story is set in a quasi-Celtic fantasy land. The hero is a downtrodden farm boy blessed with inborn magical powers of healing. The heroine is a plucky princess with her own magical gifts and somewhat anachronistic notions of equality. Added together, the book had all of the ingredients to be yet another drab and uninspiring entry into the ranks of generic fantasy novels. But what Jamie Marchant proves is that even when you start with some fairly ordinary ingredients, if you have a creative and capable cook, you can craft them into something special.

The Goddess's Choice is, at its heart, a story of royal intrigue and power politics set in the quasi-Celtic fantasy kingdom of Korthlundia, a nation welded out of the two former rivals of Korthia and Lundia, held together in a somewhat uneasy peace by the long-reigning and even-handed King Solar. But Solar is aged and has only one heir, the teen-aged Princess Samantha, and royal succession being what it is, the suitors for her hand have lined up all the way around the castle. Samantha is a fairly stereotypical headstrong and spirited princess with two aces up her sleeve: Her unexpected (and somewhat unwanted) power to "see" people's auras, and the dour Horse Master who becomes her bodyguard Darhour.

Through Samantha's story is interwoven the travails of Robrek Angussstamm, a peasant boy who has the ability to heal animals. For this, and his unusual foreign appearance, Robrek is abused by his father, bullied by his brother, and shunned by the other inhabitants in his village, including the local village priest, who condemns Robrek as a "demon child". This is, from my perspective, the weakest part of the book - that in a world in which magic such as Robrek's actually worked, people like him, with demonstrable beneficent capabilities would be regarded as evil and treated like outcasts. The villagers who surround Robrek turn to him whenever they have an animal with a problem, and then universally stiff-arm him in all other situations. Robrek's own father relies upon his son to keep his farm running, and at the same time beats and abuses him. Granted Robrek's father has other issues, but it seems like an odd reaction. Many fantasy novels use this trope, because it is drawn from Western European history and the hunt for "witches". But the scapegoating of women who were accused of being witches in the real world worked precisely because those women didn't have any actual power, and thus could not defend themselves or offer any real tangible contribution to the community. But in a world in which magic is real and works, turning on someone who is able to wield magic seems akin to turning on your village butcher or blacksmith because they are good at their jobs.

Robrek's shunning is even more perplexing when one realizes that his alliance with a particular horse, specified as being a "Horsetad" is something that almost everyone who sees the Horsestad instantly recognizes as marking him as having the special favor of the Goddess Sulis. This, coupled with the fact that once Robrek walks out of his village everyone who comes into contact with him and sees his healing powers immediately understands just how valuable his skills are, so much so that one nobleman even tries some moderately heavy handed persuasion in an attempt to get Robrek to enter into his service. Other characters in the book deploy magic, in cases like Darhour's use, quite dangerous and deadly magic, and yet they are regarded as capable and valuable assets by the organizations that employ them. It appears that not only does the "everyone in the village shuns Robrek because he has magic powers" plot device seem counterintuitive, but the story itself seems to realize this. In effect, the reader more or less has to swallow the idea that a tiny zone of bigotry would exist within the confines of Robrek's home village and nowhere else in Korthlundia. This somewhat implausible anti-Robrek animus is unfortunate, because so much of the book is so well-done, and Robrek himself is an interesting and likable character. Robrek's character arc requires him to have a fair amount of resentment and anger lurking beneath the surface, other wise his development from a abused child to a confident and capable adult able to wield a sword, perform a courtly dance, and produce powerful illusions would not be as dramatic. The most interesting part of Robrek's story is his interactions with a trio of unusual horses, who guide his education from boy to man, and without his inner core of rage, this path would not have been as engrossing. Even so, this would have been much better had Robrek's cause for rage not felt so contrived.

Other than thise one quibble, the rest of The Goddess's Choice is brilliantly plotted. Much of the book is centered on the schemes and intrigues of the nobles of the land as they try to position themselves for a position in Korthlundia after Solar's death, and most of the scheming centers around the evil Duke Argblutal and his attempts to compel Samantha to become his bride and secure his claim to the throne. Thanks to Samantha's capabilities, she knows that Argblutal is horribly evil. If that wasn't enough to convince the reader of the Duke's vile nature, Marchant details how he enjoys raping and brutalizing women, and how he deals with followers who fail him by castrating them. When confronted with a means of controlling Solor that requires sacrificing three children, Argblutal simply lines the innocents up for the slaughter. The end result is that Marchant has crafted a despicable villain that gives the entire book a very real sense of menace. Argblutal is so over the top that at times he seems to almost be a cartoonish caricature of an actual villain, but every time he teeters on that precipice, Marchant is able to pull him back just enough to avoid having the story descend into silliness.

Samantha's story of vicious courtly intrigue is intertwined with Robrek's story of equally vicious village intrigue, loosely at first, and as the story progresses, more and more closely. At the beginning, the stories intersect only marginally, when the Princess visits a fair held in Robrek's village on a lark. After they return to their own independent stories for a while their stories again intersect when Samantha's horse is injured while she is traveling near Robrek's village, and further enmeshed when Samantha enlists Robrek's mentor's aid in dealing with a plot against her father. As the story goes on, Robrek's story and Samantha's story become braided together, and eventually merge, with his being subsumed into hers by the end. Along the way, Marchant mixes in some twists and turns which, while not entirely unexpected, add enough spice to the story to keep it from becoming stale along the way. The story builds to a satisfying climax, both romantically and politically, but there are clearly additional mysteries left open that will no doubt loom large in later books.

Although The Goddess's Choice feels at first glance like a generic fantasy story, and in many ways is a generic fantasy story, it is well executed, with interesting characters, compelling political intrigue and religious conflicts, and just enough innocent romance and exciting action to keep things moving. For anyone looking for an enjoyable fantasy story that offers a dynamic mix of intrigue, action, and romance, this book is a good place to find it.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Jun 26, 2013, 11:12 pm

Book Thirteen: Substitute Creature by Charles Gilman.

Short review: Robert Arthur and Glenn Torkells come across another plot by Tillinghast to take over the world for his Lovecraftian masters, this time involving a creepy substitute teacher and a freakish blizzard.

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Substitute Creature is the fourth book in the Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series detailing the adventures of students Robert Arthur and Glenn Torkells as they foil the attempts of Crawford Tillinghast and his otherworldly minions to take over the world. This installment, featuring a gruff janitor, a creepy substitute teacher, and a freakishly powerful blizzard, is a serviceable but somewhat anticlimactic addition to the series.

The book opens in media res with Arthur and Torkells on a tiny ledge on the fourth story of Lovecraft Middle School. After a brief explanatory background describing how the two found themselves hanging by their toes, the story returns to their predicament as they try to inch their way to safety. To make matters worse, it starts snowing while they are struggling along the ledge, making it slippery. The two are only saved when the school janitor Martin McGinnis shows up and hauls them the last few feet onto a balcony. Despite the "in the moment" excitement of the opening, it really doesn't seem to go any where, and appears to be in the book almost entirely to fill space and serve as a way introduce McGinnis to the reader. This opening sequence serves as a metaphor for the whole book: A lot of build-up and action that doesn't really seem to lead anywhere in particular, serving as nothing more than a set up for something that may or may not happen in a future story.

The blizzard that almost blows Arthur and Torkells off of their ledge in the opening chapters is forgotten for a short period when the boys try to figure out why the gate they found took them from one place in the school to another rather than Tillinghast Mansion, an effort that is stopped cold when they find out that their confidante school librarian Claudine Lavinia has been replaced by a somewhat odd substitute named Miss Carcasse. But the whirlwind of story pushes on almost as soon as Miss Carcasse is introduced, as the intensifying storm results in the entire town being shut down and the school evacuated.

From there the book moves quickly, but seems to have no particular destination. Robert Arthur and his mother are trapped at the school along with Miss Carcasse, Mr. McGinnis, a wealthy young boy named Lionel Quincy, and Arthur's ghost girlfriend Karina. Somewhat predictably Miss Carcasse acts more and more suspiciously, and on a couple of occasions worms drop out of her clothing. Mr. McGinnis discovers that the school's emergency generator has been sabotaged and Glenn Torkell's shows up half frozen after a long walk in the snow so he can give the somewhat redundant warning that Miss Carcasse is up to no good.

Given that this is a Lovecraftian story for young adults, the freakish blizzard is fairly predictably the result of Tillinghast's plotting, and Miss Carcasse has been helping things along, keeping track of her schedule on an odd gold watch. Arthur manages to uncover the goal of Tillinghast's scheming, and Miss Carcasse's role in it, but at that point the plot seems to almost vanish. Everything Miss Carcasse has done turns out to have been almost entirely irrelevant, and she herself is summarily tossed out of the story. After bringing a collection of voracious cold weather creatures from a frozen netherworld into our own, with Robert and the various other humans trapped in the school supposedly slated to serve as dinner for the ravenous beasts, Tillinghast pops into the story to divert the predators into another, completely different netherworld and have a little chat with Robert.

And that seems to sum up the book: The plot builds up like it is going somewhere, and then dissolves before leaping to something almost completely unrelated. After Miss Carcasse's unceremonious ejection from the book, Tillinghast essentially nullifies everything that happened prior to his appearance and sets the book on a completely different path in which he offers Robert a tempting moral dilemma. But, seemingly like everything else in the book, the moral dilemma is resolved without Robert actually doing much of anything.

On the whole, this book felt like a place holder that did little more than set up future books. Plot elements are introduced, and then don't go anywhere. Villains take the stage, and after preening for a bit, they walk off without doing much of anything. New characters are introduced and then excised without actually doing much with respect to the limited amount of plot that there is in the book. And the small amount of plot and character development that is in the book seems almost entirely aimed at setting the stage for future books. As a linking book between the earlier ones in the series and the books to come, Substitute Creature is an enjoyable interlude in the larger story. However, on its own, the book is slightly disappointing.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jun 18, 2013, 2:16 am

Oh I love that cover!!!

Jun 18, 2013, 8:00 am

Seriously creepy yet funny cover!

Editado: Jul 3, 2013, 4:31 pm

Book Fourteen: Mulogo's Treatise on Wizardry by Joseph J. Bailey.

Short review: A short humorous guide to being a wizard that mostly suggests keeping your head down and avoiding trouble.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Mulogo's Treatise on Wizardry is a short and humorous guide to how to survive as a wizard in a hostile world full of foes who want to kill you and take your stuff, and friends who want to place you in danger by asking you to help them accomplish their petty goals. The book consists of a collection of short instructional pieces giving advice to would-be wizards. Though the advice comes from the wizard Mulogo, the book is supposedly transcribed by his long suffering assistant Ludaceous Vaer Mordicanum, who inserts his own editorial footnotes throughout the text.

The advice, such as it is, is driven primarily by Mulogo's extreme sense of paranoia and desire for self-preservation above all things. While reading, it becomes clear that the reason the reader has never heard of Mulogo before despite this wizard's advanced age is that he simply avoids doing anything that would be particularly dangerous so as to avoid as much risk as possible, or noteworthy so as to avoid drawing any unnecessary attention to himself. For the most part, Mulogo's counsel seems to be "keep your head down, don't put your neck out for anyone, and remain as anonymous as possible", although the delivery is generally more specific and more humorous.

The pattern established in the book is a somewhat one-sided conversation between Mulogo and Luaceous. In each section Mulogo provides long-winded and fairly pretentious advice, and Ludceous offers some sarcastic rejoinders via the footnotes he adds. Through most of the book it appears that Mulogo is either unaware of the inserted footnotes, or too self-absorbed to care about them, which makes the "conversation" more or less one-way: Mulogo speaks, and Ludcreous figuratively mumbles under his breath in response, and the reader gets a front row seat. The exchange is made all the more humorous on those rare occasions when Ludcreous reveals his own self-absorption, or is dismayed to find that he agrees with Mulogo.

For the most part, that's really all there is to the book. Mulogo gives advice that amounts to saying "avoid danger" repeatedly, and Ludceous inserts footnotes talking about how Mulogo is unlikable, unliked, and selfish. The only weakness of the book is that there are only so many ways that one can say "be as incognito as possible" before it starts to get a little repetitive, and Mulogo's Treatise on Wizardry pushes right up against that line. It doesn't quite cross over to the point where the repetition becomes annoying, and so the humor remains solid through the entire volume. The end result is a funny and slightly silly take on being a wizard in a fantasy world that should provide a brief comical diversion for any fantasy fan.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jul 6, 2013, 2:23 am

Sounds rather fun!

Editado: Jul 24, 2013, 12:13 pm

Book Fifteen: Progenitor: Palak and the Sky Gods by Patrick T. German.

Short review: Two technologically advanced races battle in the Contest to decide disputes between them. Palak lives on a primitive planet ignorant of the forces around him, until one day he is pulled into the conflict.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Progenitor: Palak and the Sky Gods is a science fiction novel that has everything except for individually differentiated characters. Set on the primitive planet Medias that coveted by the technologically advanced Sucobers and Plamanics (albeit for different reasons), the story follows several native Median creatures as they deal with the changes to their world. The story is vast in scope, as the Sucobers and Plamanics both have galaxy-spanning interests, and at the same time extremely intimate in flavor, as Palak struggles to deal with the difficulties of feeding and defending his stone age extended family. Mixed in with these stories are interludes involving the genetically altered fauna of Medias, and frequent incidents of bloody, bone crushing violence.

The basic framework of the story is simple. Both the Plamanics and the Sucobers have star-spanning societies but very different ideas about how to use the resources of the galaxy. Rather than engaging in mutually destructive interstellar warfare to resolve disputes, the two races have agreed to settle their differences by means of trials by combat. To this end, they use one particular small featureless moon to deposit their chosen champions who have to fight to the death in unarmed hand to hand combat. The selection of the featureless moon, we are told, was in part to prevent any particular combatant from gaining an advantage in the ensuing combat, but as anyone who is reasonably astute will note, this merely results in the combat conditions giving in an advantage to combatants who thrive in a situation in which there are no obstacles, nowhere to hide, and no strategy other than punch harder and faster than your opponent.

Given that the Plamanics are half the size of the Sucobers, they cleverly inserted a provision into the agreement to mediate disputes via trial by combat that allowed the two races to select members of other species to represent them in these battles. Unfortunately, the Sucobers seem to have done a better job at recruiting and have won all of the recent combats on the strength of a creature named "the Captain". In the opening pages of the book, the Captain secures yet another win for the Sucobers giving them control of the planet Medias which the Sucobers want so they can strip mine it into oblivion and use the resulting resources to prop up their ravenous society. They turn the planet over to Lozerick, an individual who is apparently considered rapacious and unsavory even by Sucober standards, and for no real apparent reason give him the Captain and a collection of clones to help out.

The story then shifts to Medias where it introduces us to a collection of its inhabitants, including a tribe of "brunts", which are more or less like the neanderthals of our past, and interestingly, a collection of animals, including the bear-like brogar, the wolf-like hunz, and the lion-like linex. And this is the point where the novel seems to fall down just a little bit, because as the viewpoint shifts between this collection of diverse creatures, they all seem to think alike, and in most ways, behave alike. Being able to write characters each with their own voice is one of the more difficult things a writer has to do - some authors aren't even able to find their own voice when they write - but it is one of the most important. If the reader can't differentiate between the characters on the page, then there aren't really individual characters in the book. And once the various characters in Progenitor start making their appearances, the reader notices that not only do Lozerick and the Captain seem to think in exactly the same way, all of the inhabitants of Medias think almost the same way, and reason, evaluate, and react in more of less the same way too. They think about different things, because they are confronted with different situations, but they all seem to think about the things they encounter in the same way.

As the reader gets deeper in the book, and Euphenix the Plamanic shows up, the similarity in reasoning displayed by the featured inhabitants of Medias becomes explicable to a certain extent, but to the extent they have such similarities one would think the Euphenix's goal would be foiled. Euphenix, it turns out, had secretly visited Medias many years before and made changes to certain inhabitants in a effort to determine if any could be still further modified into a capable champion for the Plamanic race in the periodic trials by combat against the Sucobers. But Euphenix's program of modifying all of the various species that he has adjusted in more or less the same way seems to be kind of self-defeating, because what he ends up with are a collection of creatures that all seem to think in very similar ways, and are differentiated only by their anatomical characteristics (although all share similar looking eyes). But after making these changes, Euphenix had left them on Medias, subject to the vagaries of its untamed wilds, and of course, the possibility that his chosen incubator would be assigned to a Sucober mining operation that would strip mine the planet's core until the entire world was destroyed.

But both Lozerick's operation and Euphenix's experiments seem oddly slapdash. Lozerick, for his part, plays the role of god to overawe the Leeni tribe on Medias and get them to assist in his operation. But this seems like a poor choice, since he brought along fifty presumably much more technologically proficient clones to help him run his mine, and further, the mining work, to the extent the reader sees it, seems to be more or less completely automated. Why Lozerick needs the assistance of primitive tribesmen is unclear throughout the book. Lozerick also seems to go out of his way to needlessly waste the resources he brought, jettisoning all of the clones into space to make more space for cargo. One would think that he would have been better off using the clones on the planet for whatever he needed the Leeni for, and then abandoning them there when the planet inevitably broke up from the stress of having so much of its core extracted. Instead, Lozerick goes through a complicated charade with the Leeni, annoys "the Captain" for no apparent reason, and then kills off the crew he brought across the light years.

For his part, Euphenix's attempts to find a potential Plamanic champion seem to be haphazard at best. Given that he's already monkeyed with the genetics of the various creatures, one wonders why Euphenix simply leaves these presumably valuable test subjects on an uncharted and dangerous planet. Presumably the idea is to let the hazards of the wilderness challenge the chosen creatures, but one would think that the project would be far more successful (and far less politically dangerous) if Euphenix simply took the chosen subjects to a controlled environment and proceeded to test various options on them. Euphenix's testing process becomes especially perplexing when one realizes that the only true challenges for the genetically altered test subjects are the other genetically altered test subjects, calling into question the utility of leaving the subjects to be hardened by exposure to the harsh wilds of Medias.

In a certain sense, all of these elements: character, setting, and plot, are just a framework designed to support a collection of hand-to-hand combats. Every couple of pages, the plot stops so a couple of creatures can square off against one another in almost every conceivable combination, confrontations that are described in extended and lovingly bloody detail. Palak runs about bashing animals on the head while hunting. The brogar grabs animals and people for lunch. The hunz asserts his dominance over a pack of other unmodified hunz. The linex kills in pursuit of females to mate with, an effort that goes spectacularly awry. Eventually the creatures come into contact with each other and with the Captain. The brogar fights the Captain. The Captain fights Palak's unmodified adoptive father Urlak. The brogar fights the linex. Palak fights the brogar. And finally, Palak fights the Captain. If you are looking for a book that has a collection of people and animals clawing, bashing, and biting one another then this book will deliver exactly what you want contained within just enough plot to make the fights not entirely gratuitous.

In many ways Progenitor is a book that is smarter than it aspires to be. The focus of the book is clearly the bone crunching skinned-knuckles action that permeates the entire story. On the other hand, there are a collection of plot points that, if explored, would have presented interesting issues. One has to wonder why a valuable individual like the Captain was sent on an expedition with a fairly obviously untrustworthy individual like Lozerick. The Sucober method of mining planets, which is horribly destructive for story purposes, raises several questions, including the question of why mine planets like Medias at all given that it would be much easier to loot the needed resources from asteroids and other locations that would be easier to access than deep inside of a gravity well. But these questions are skimmed over in favor of creatures clubbing one another over the head. There is potentially more to the story than that, but to the extent this is true, it is not well-developed in this volume. Simply put, if you are looking for a collection of cage match style combats on a primitive world with somewhat interested technologically advanced observers, then this book is exactly what you have been waiting for.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Ago 1, 2013, 1:49 pm

Book Sixteen: Gemini Rising: Ethereal Fury by Jessica O'Gorek.

Short review: Mother Earth uses the spirits of humans who damaged her during their lifetimes to attempt to exterminate humanity. Humanity is defended by unpleasant and obnoxious priests. In the middle of this conflict, a spirit falls in love with a teenage girl.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Gemini Rising: Ethereal Fury is something of a love story between a magical being called Onyx and a sixteen year old human girl named Violette. The book is set against a backdrop in which the spirit of the Earth itself has turned against humanity for despoiling her surface, sending disembodied spirits called"Gemini" who have been charged with a single purpose: To destroy the human race. Somewhat clumsily opposing them are the men of the cloth, using a combination of church rituals and medical science to foil, trap, and they hope, destroy, the inimical foes that they barely understand.

The first chapter of the book gives a series of vignettes of the life of petroleum engineer and later oil executive Oliver Weldon as he figures out how to cheaply export oil extracted from the Niger River delta, resulting in large volumes of ecological damage. Because pointing out the fact that Weldon has presided over decades of oil spills and fires in Nigeria isn't enough to show the reader he is a villain, we are also told that he is a philandering husband for no real apparent reason. After a lifetime spent doing evil, Weldon has a heart attack and dies, at which point the Earth selects his spirit as a candidate to be resurrected as one of her minions bent on destroying humanity. Weldon is given the new name Onyx and essentially forgets everything about his former life, making selecting Weldon in particular for this purpose somewhat pointless. If the newly minted Gemini are going to have their memories wiped, why pick one dead human's spirit over another? It seems clear that choosing such humans to fill these roles is intended as a form of poetic punishment, but given the complete lack of understanding on the part of those serving and the utter irrelevance of their previous knowledge to their assigned mission, there just doesn't seem to be any purpose. In a sense, this element is like shooting an already dead body because you didn't like the person when they were alive. It is pointless and futile at best, and because one would assume they would work at cross-purposes to Earth's goals if they did become aware of their pasts, counterproductive at worst.

Arrayed against the Earth's disembodied assassins are the clergy, specifically in the case of this story, the clergy of the Catholic church who run a small school for orphaned children in Virginia. One of these children is the waifish and extraordinarily beautiful seventeen year old Violette, who naturally has purple eyes. Also living at the school is the slightly older Slate, who the priest Father Darius considers to be his protégé, and who Violette seems to have something of a crush on. The anti-Gemini organization in the area appears to be run by Bishop Phillips, who turns out to be a fairly unpleasant man. In fact, all of the clergy who show up in the book are fairly unpleasant. And this creates one of the more interesting conflicts in the book: does the reader root for the murderous Gemini who want to exterminate humanity, or does one root for the vain, petty, and vicious clergymen who have secretly undertaken the task of defending humanity against the Gemini? Other than Violette, whose main character trait appears to be that she is naive and innocent, and Slate, who is a moderately nice but mostly passive guy, there are no characters in the book who one wants to side with. Were it not for Violette, one might be tempted to simply say to hell with humanity and hope that the Gemini eliminate us all quickly.

As an aside, I have no idea why the chosen spiritual avengers of the Earth are called the "Gemini". In mythology the Gemini were the twins Castor and Pollux, and the name has become associated with twins ever since. But the Gemini in the book seem to bear no relationship to this meaning, as they certainly don't seem to be twins, and are only siblings in the loosest sense of the word. Perhaps the name is intended to signify that these chosen spirits are now brothers (or sisters) with the Earth, but if so, that wasn't particularly clear from the text. In the end, I am left wondering if there is any reason why they call themselves Gemini other than O'Gorek thought it seemed like an interesting name.

The book focuses on Onyx's assignment to infiltrate Violette and Slate's small religious community and destroy it by murdering every inhabitant, which is merely the next step in a campaign of wanton destruction that the Gemini have been waging against the religious strongholds of the United States. Perhaps it is a measure of the isolation of the inhabitants of the orphanage, but the extent of this campaign comes as a complete surprise to Slate when Bishop Phillips and Father Darius reveal it to him, even though widespread and unexplained murder and arson on the scale described would likely have resulted in screaming headlines plastered across all of the news outlets of the country. The twist in the story is that Onyx is distracted from his mission of vicarious vengeance when he becomes infatuated with Violette for what appear to be fairly weak reasons: She has a pretty singing voice, and she is pretty and innocent looking.

The ensuing creepy and odd romance, which is clearly intended to be the core of the book, was, for me, by far the weakest part of the book. O'Gorek sets up a strange love triangle involving Violette, Onyx, and Slate, made unusual by the fact that the only way Onyx can really interact with Violette as anything other than a disembodied smoky apparition is to possess Slate. Consequently, for much of the "courtship" between Violette and Onyx, she thinks that he is actually Slate expressing interest and falling in love with her. The romantic story line isn't particularly helped by the fact that there appears to be almost no reason for Onyx to become infatuated with Violette. She's pretty, and plays with her hair a lot, and we are told she is able to sing beautifully. And that seems to be about all that she is. She's fairly shallow, and doesn't seem to have much personality, which isn't particularly surprising given that she's a teenage girl who has been raised in what amounts to a cloistered environment. But even though her blandness is explainable, it doesn't leave any particularly compelling reason for Onyx to fall for her. One might say that her innocence and vulnerability would make Onyx want to protect her, but one could say the same thing of numerous characters that Onyx is dead-set on killing.

It is probably a sign indicating how good a paranormal romance novel is that one can be unconvinced by and uninterested in the flagship romance in the book and still find it enjoyable to read. And that's where Gemini Rising sits for me. The problem with the book boils down to the undeveloped character of Violette which made Onyx's risky infatuation with her simply inexplicable. I could understand why Slate would be interested in Violette - for him she was more or less the only available girl around - but for Onyx it just seemed implausible. If Violette had some content to her character more substantial than a singing voice attached to long hair and purple eyes then Onyx becoming smitten with her would have rung true. She could have been committed to living in harmony with the Earth, or shown some inherent good trait of humanity, or some other attribute that challenged Onyx's accepted truth that humanity is a plague that needs to be destroyed. But she isn't. She's just a pretty face attached to an empty brain that turned Onyx's head and nothing more. And that is simply disappointing.

But what makes the book interesting is not the romance between a teenager and the disembodied spirit of a middle-aged oil tycoon reincarnated as an angel of death. The real meat of the book is in the questions that it raises: Can humanity find a way to prevent the Gemini from killing the entire race? Can the Earth just keep creating new Gemini to replace the ones imprisoned or destroyed making human resistance pointless? Can a nonviolent resolution to the conflict be found? Is there a particular reason why all of humanity's defenders seem to be bullies and jerks? Why does the Earth like fish but hate humans? And so on. But the book doesn't resolve any of these questions, or even the high school romance that it focuses on, choosing instead to end more or less in media res. What story there is in Gemini Rising is good, but the plot lines all just stop mid-stream, leaving this book feeling not so much like a complete story, but rather like little more than a well-written prologue to the real story which will come in later books in the series.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Jul 31, 2013, 9:07 am

Belated Review: A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn.

Short review: Martians live among us, observing, and waiting for humanity to ethically grow enough to accept them. But can one observe without being changed in return?

Long review: The classic fairy story involves the protagonist leaving his home, journeying to the fairy realm where he encounters strange denizens, overcomes an obstacle, learns something about himself, grows a little, and then returns home. In many ways Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers, the 1955 winner of the International Fantasy Award for Best Fiction Book, follows this fairy story formula, but the exotic and dangerous fairy realm that the protagonist goes to is our world, the obstacle he must overcome is one of his own kind, and the strange denizens that help him learn about himself are us. Elmis, the central character of the book, does not intend to change himself, instead intending merely to observe, but he discovers the fundamental truth that the mere act of observation irrevocably changes both those that are observed, and more radically, those who do the observing.

In A Mirror for Observers Earth has been invaded by Martians who were fleeing their dying planet. It was something of a gentle invasion: No humans noticed it happen when it took place thirty thousand years ago. Now the Martians live sequestered in their hidden cities around the world bound by their strong sense of ethics to avoid interfering in humanity's affairs until humanity evolves its own sufficiently advanced ethical framework that would permit the Martians to reveal themselves and live openly among the Earthlings. Or at least most of Martians adhere to this view, and form a faction called the "Observers". A small handful of Martians called the "Abdicators" reject this, believing that humanity has proven itself to be irredeemably savage, and seek to tip the balance of human ethics in such a way that humanity destroys itself, clearing the way for the Martians to assume ownership of the planet.

The story of the book involved Elmis, an Observer, and Namir, an Abdicator, and their shared but competing interest in the development of a single twelve year boy named Angelo Pontevecchio who lives in the small and somewhat sleepy town of Latimer, Massachusetts. The two Martians focus their attentions on this boy because they believe that he has the correct intellectual capability and inclination to develop the kind of ethical system that the hidden invaders have been hoping for through the centuries. The problem is that while Elmis yearns for such a development to come to fruition, Namir wants to derail Angelo's education and set the stage for humanity to commit racial suicide. In the story, Angelo quickly demonstrates his precocious nature, already immersing himself in the writings of Socrates and Plato, but also displays the carelessness of youth, as he flirts with becoming involved with a gang of local ruffians in order to prove his manliness. And it is in this struggle, between the path of learning and accomplishment, and the path of macho posturing, that Elmis and Namir enter Angelo's life and begin trying to pull him one way or the other. Or rather, that Namir enters Angelo's life and attempts to set him on the road to juvenile delinquency while Elmis, for the most part, is constrained by his ethical beliefs to merely observe.

And this is the first point at which the real point of the book comes into play. The book is not actually about the conflict between Elmis and Namir, or about the development of a superior ethical system, or about Angelo. It is about how Elmir is changed by his contact with humanity, and how, perhaps, the allegedly advanced ethical system of the Martians may in fact be somewhat wanting. Because by doing nothing other than observing, Elmis leaves Angelo to be preyed upon by Namir. By refusing to take a side in this conflict, Elmis actually is taking a side and conceding Angelo's future to his ideological opponent. Noninterference in the cultural development of others is usually seen as a virtue, but in his slow, almost dream-like way, Pangborn quietly calls that belief into question, and poses a severe dilemma for Elmis, even though Elmis himself is mostly oblivious to the danger Namir truly poses. Ultimately, the denouement of this portion of the story is sad, tragic, and devastating, as Namir proves to be even more wily and ruthless in pursuit of his goals than Elmis could imagine.

Intertwined with the story of Angelo coming to grips with being a precocious yet somewhat undersized and fatherless boy while being led astray by an inimical agent, is the story of Angelo's relationship with Sharon, a young girl his age, and both of their relationship with music. Pangborn himself had been something of a musical prodigy in his youth, and for unexplained reasons gave up his musical career to the extent that people who knew him later in life didn't even know he could play an instrument. But in A Mirror for Observers, the artistry of music takes center stage. One human achievement that Elmis and most other Martians admire is music - Elmis himself plays the piano, although he is hampered somewhat by the fact that his alien hands had to be surgically altered to sport five fingers. For Angelo's part, he is also described as being a quite capable musician, but the true musical talent is Sharon, who Elmis immediately identifies as being prodigiously gifted.

And by focusing on music, Pangborn suggests that what makes a society "advanced" may not have anything to do with technology, but rather the art they produce, whether they appreciate the art, how they treat the artists, and ultimately how they treat each other. While Elmis is overwhelmed by the beauty of Sharon's musical gift, Namir pays them no mind at all. And even though Elmis is mostly content to sit on the sidelines and watch Angelo founder on his own with nothing more than a handful of conversations, the Martian is so moved by Sharon's music that he makes arrangements for her to receive proper instruction in her art. Art, it seems, is what makes a society worth having, but at the same time, it lifts us up to make us worth saving. Namir, whose life is entirely lacking in art, has become bitter and cruel as a result; a pattern that is repeated more than once in the book, as those who lack an appreciation for art end up full of hatred and self-loathing.

After documenting Namir's manipulation derail Angelo's life, the story leaps forward by about a decade and moves to New York. Elmis comes to the city because he believes that he will find Angelo there after searching for the boy for years. First, however, he runs across Sharon, who has matured into an accomplished concert pianist who performs in front of large and appreciative audiences. But her music is the one bright note in a dreary and desolate world. The Russians and the Chinese are at war. The Organic Unity Party, which is headquartered in New York, preaches a vicious form of exclusionary nationalism and is only opposed by the tepid Federalist Party. Elmis believes, based upon the scanty evidence of seeing a former youth gang member from Latimer in a photograph with the leader of the organic Unity Party, that Angelo has gotten himself involved in some way with this repugnant organization. This supposition turns out to be correct to a certain extent, and Elmis sets about subtly trying to convince Angelo to disentangle himself from his circumstances. Angelo, now calling himself Abe Brown, feels obligated to the disguised Namir and his prot&eactue;gés for the "help" they have given him - help that seems to have mostly been aimed as ensnaring Angelo into their sphere of influence and diverting his interests away from ethics.

Even though Angelo is the focus of Elmis' efforts, Angelo himself, and even his hoped for development of a superior ethical system, is merely a vehicle to tell the story of Elmis' own journey. As Elmis sheds his Martian ethic of noninterference and becomes more involved in persuading Angelo to take particular actions and pushing Angelo and Sharon together, he becomes less of an observer and more of a participant. Eventually the world enters into a crisis when , despite not actually intending to, the Organic Unity Party unleashes a worldwide epidemic of proportions akin to the 1918 influenza pandemic (which Pangborn himself would have lived through when he was a similar age to Angelo in the first portion of the book). Faced with this human catastrophe, Elmis discards any pretense of merely being an observer and becomes an active participant in events, working in a hospital to provide aid and comfort to the sick and dying. Symbolically, Sharon is struck down by the epidemic and loses her hearing, and in the chaos, Angelo finally does break from Namir's influence.

But all of this is a sideshow. The real story is in Elmis' own transformation. By observing, he is changed. Even though he starts the book with what he believes to be his own superior Martian ethic, the events of the book play out in such a manner that his assumptions are called into question. Through observing, Elmis is changed as much as he changes the characters by his own actions, even if he didn't necessarily realize that he was changing those he came into contact with. In many ways, A Mirror for Observers is about unintended consequences, both those unintended consequences that inure to those the instigator and those unintended consequences that redound back upon the original actor. Elmis intends only to observe Angelo, but by his very presence he alters the course of events, affecting not only the lives of Angelo and Sharon, but also his own.

In the end Angelo ends up living in a small town living a small town life with Sharon. Whether or not Angelo ever actually develops the humane ethic that the Martians desperately yearn for him to create is not a question that is ever answered in the book, and is a question that is more or less beside the point. The discovery in the book is that the Martian vigil may have been an exercise in vanity rather than a display of ethical forbearance. And while much of the novel seems to have a dream-like quality, at the end, it feels like Elmis, and possibly the entire Martian race, may be emerging from a self-imposed sleep to become ready to join or ultimately completely eschew the world they have secluded themselves from for so long. Overall, Pangborn's novel about how even our most innocuous actions change the world and ourselves is a fascinating read, and one that should be on every science fiction fan's reading list.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Ago 6, 2013, 10:15 pm

Belated Review: The SnarfQuest Graphic Novel by Larry Elmore.

Short review: Snarf sets out to try to gain riches and fame. He has a collection of adventures and finds both.

Long review: From 1983 to 1989, Larry Elmore wrote a comic strip of Dragon magazine called SnarfQuest, the tale of Snarf, a hapless zeetvah who sets out to finds riches and glory in the name of laziness. Eventually, the demands of producing a completed strip every month, when coupled with his other professional obligations to paint book covers and other artwork, became too much for Elmore to keep up with, and so he stopped drawing and writing the strip in the middle of an ongoing story line. In 2002, Elmore compiled all the existing strips together, and produced The SnarfQuest Graphic Novel, giving fans of the original comic strip the opportunity to read all of Snarf's adventures yet again.

Aside from a very brief one-page introduction by Elmore giving a little bit of background about the original run of the strip, the contents of the book more or less just reprint the original strips, complete with teaser boxes at the end of each "issue". The strips are presented in the same black and white format as they were in the original run, and contain no new panels or other content. If you have a sufficiently large pile of old Dragon magazines that you have the original print run of the strip and you are happy reading them in that format, then this volume is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, you missed an issue or two, or you never read the original run, or you just like having all of your SnarfQuest in one handy book, then this is a great compilation to have on your bookshelf.

The story itself is just as funny as ever. Snarf is a zeetvah, a snout-nosed creature with huge bat wing-like ears. At the opening of the book, Snarf's tribe's leader has died, and per their traditions, the zeetvahs will select as their new leader the zeetvah who manages to collect the most treasure and performs the most heroic deeds in the following year. Snarf reasons that if he just works hard for one year and becomes king he will be able to kick back and cruise for the rest of his life. With this in mind, our hero sets out to make himself a fortune in the outside world, resulting in a collection of absurd but always hilarious adventures as the fundamentally inept, cowardly, and somewhat dim-witted Snarf heads straight for any situation that promises riches and easily or safely obtained glory, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Though his efforts begin with an inauspicious start - Snarf steals a gemstone from a seemingly friendly passer by by convincing him that Snarf is a crazed killer - he quickly gets into more trouble than he bargained for when he attempts to infiltrate the evil wizard Suthaze's tower. Snarf seems to routinely bite off more than he can chew as his greed and tendency to exaggerate his own prowess lead him to get in over his head, at which point Snarf usually tries to run, fast-talk himself out of the situation, or, if worst comes to worst, actually act heroic. His adventures lead him to tangle not only with Suthaze, but also a dragon that thinks he's a duck (and later doesn't think he's a duck), a giant, and another evil wizard named Gathgor. Along the way Snarf also has to deal with a journey to the perpetual pit, a smitten princess and her prejudiced father, and a condition that makes him believe he is a bee.

As fun as the conflicts are, what makes the story interesting is the bizarre cast of characters that Snarf befriends in his journey, from a human prince transformed into a rat, to a beautiful woodland sorceress, to a dopey mercenary named Dorf, to the displaced robot that Snarf thinks is a weird wizardly knight with odd rituals and who he calls Aveeare because he can't pronounce the robot's real name VR-X9 4 M2 Galactic Probe Government Issue Robot. And there is also the insanely dangerous beast of burden that Snarf purchases named the gagglezoomer and its accompanying control mechanism that turns out to be a death leech. And finally, the beautiful and startlingly immodest Teleri, who Snarf falls in love with (which isn't much of a surprise, as Snarf falls for any pretty girl that he happens across), but who also seems to eventually fall for Snarf. All of these companions are allies after a fashion, and provide Snarf with help in his quest, but more importantly they also provide the story with a lot of humorous misadventures and misunderstandings.

A little more than halfway through the book the original story ends, which probably would have been a good place to end the strip. However, it was wildly popular among readers of Dragon magazine, and Elmore decided to continue Snarf's adventures. First Elmore wrote a short ten page interlude that featured Snarf and Teleri seeking adventure five years after the events of the first part of the book and getting sucked in to the travails of a small village that is plagued by a werewolf. A plan involving forming a rock band goes awry, and a follow-up plan involving making silver bullets for Snarf's pistol also fails, and in the end Teleri saves the day, as usual. The story is funny and silly, which is exactly what one expects from a Snarf story.

After this short side story, Elmore settles in for another long epic, as the pressures of being king get to Snarf and he decides to pass the reins of leadership on to another and join his friends on an adventure to the stars in the rescue ship sent for Aveeare. This second extended adventure transforms the setting from a fairly standard (albeit somewhat zany) fantasy world to a fairly standard (albeit, yet again somewhat zany) science fiction world. Unfortunately, this story line is not nearly as interesting or enjoyable as the first, feeling like something that was simply tacked on out of a sense of obligation. There is some decent development with respect to the relationship between Snarf and Teleri, and there are plenty of silly hi jinks involving bar fights, a hunt for gold, some native creatures who want to eat Snarf's pickup truck, and a race that features the gagglezoomer.

By 1989, the pressure of producing a monthly strip had burned out Elmore, and he decided to cut the story short. As soon as the characters made their way back to Snarf's home village, he inserted himself into the comic and explained that he was cancelling the strip. And just that abruptly, the run of SnarfQuest in Dragon magazine came to an end, and so does this volume. Even though the heroes return to find that a revitalized Suthaze is threatening to conquer the world while assisted by the magically enhanced death leech, that plot is simply left unresolved, and Snarf's adventures were put on hold. Elmore later picked up the series and printed new installments first in Games Unplugged, and then on his own website, and then in Knights of the Dinner Table. But none of these continuation strips are contained in this book, and as a result, the reader is left hanging in the same way fans of the original strip were.

With the exception of the rather unsatisfying inconclusive conclusion, The SnarfQuest Graphic Novel is a fun compilation. There is, after all, a reason that it was one of the most popular regular features that appeared in Dragon during the magazine's heyday. Snarf is, for all his faults, a fundamentally likable character and he, along with his supporting cast of misfits, provide plenty of humorous and entertaining adventure from the story's opening pages right up to the abrupt end.

This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Set 16, 2013, 10:59 pm

Book Seventeen: Doctor Who in Time and Space by Gillian I. Leitch (editor).

Essays included:
Event TV: Fan Consumption of Televised Doctor Who in Britain (1963-Present) by Andrew O'Day
Social Spaces: British Fandom to the Present by Andrew O'Day
Don't Call It a Comeback by Aaron Gulyas
Whose Doctor? by J.M. Frey
In and Out of Time: Memory and Chronology by Kieran Tranter
Effecting the Cause: Time Travel Narratives by Paul Booth
Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of Media, Public Relations, and Marketing in the New Doctor Who by Racheline Maltese
Nostalgia for Empire: 1963-1974 by Maura Grady and Cassie Hemstrom
A Needle Through the Heart: Violence and Tragedy as a Narrative Device by Lindsay Coleman
Everything Dies: The Message of Mortality in the Eccleston and Tennant Years by Kristine Larsen
"Ready to Outsit Eternity": Human Responses to the Apocalypse by Andrew Crome
A Country Made from Metal? The "Britishness" of Human-Machine Marriage in Series 31 by Kate Flynn
"Whatever You Do, Don't Blink!" Gothic Horror and the Weeping Angels Trilogy by David Whitt
Doctor Who's Women and His Little Blue Box: Time Travel as a Heroic Journey of Self-Discovery for Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Donna Noble by Antoinette F. Winstead
Spoiled for Another Life: Sarah Jane Smith's Adventures with and Without Doctor Who by Sherry Ginn
Chasing Amy: The Evolution of the Doctor's Female Companion in the New Who by Lynnette Porter

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Doctor Who in Time and Space is a collection of essays about the Doctor Who television series covering topics that range from the inception of the series to the present. The book focuses on Doctor Who fans, media perceptions, characters, thematic elements, and the history of the show. The essays in the volume are more than mere nostalgia pieces, but represent a serious attempt to put the phenomenon of the longest running science fiction show in television history into context and evaluate it and its adoring cadre of fans.

After an introduction by editor Gillian I. Leitch, the first essay is an examination of the evolution of Doctor Who fandom by Andrew O'Day titled Event TV: Fan Consumption of Televised Doctor Who in Britain (1963-Present), providing an assessment of how lovers of the show watched it over the years. describing the Doctor Who show as "event television" that people would make sure to watch, O'Day talks about how ardent fans of the series would go to great lengths to make sure they were able to view the show in the days before home video recorders, how fans would gather at conventions to view beloved episodes of the show that were otherwise inaccessible, how the development of the VCR changed not only how many times fans could watch a show, but also changed how they watched it to begin with, and eventually discussing the modern development of public viewings where fans gather to watch the show at pubs. The essay is an excellent start to the book, because it shows quite clearly how the fans' relationship with the show changed over the years.

Before I go any further I must make a confession that will, no doubt, damn me in the eyes of many die-hard Doctor Who fans: I have never seen an episode of the show that featured Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. Though I have seen a few episodes featuring William Hartnell, the earliest Doctor Who series I can say that I have watched a substantial portion of is that featuring John Pertwee, and my first exposure to Doctor Who involved episodes in which Tom Baker was playing the role. Prior to reading this book, I knew almost nothing about Troughton other than him being the guy who preceded Pertwee in the role, and had no idea how private and reclusive he was when alive.

The second essay in the book is Social Spaces: British Fandom to the Present also by Andrew O'Day, focusing on how Doctor Who fans have interacted with one another through the history of the show rather than how they have interacted with the show itself. The essay details how technological changes mostly resulted in the replacement of conventions and clubs with internet forums and the replacement of fanzines with webzines as the primary mediums of fan interchange. But O'Day also points out how these new methods of communication also served to enhance the older forms, revitalizing them even as they were being relegated to secondary status. This essay is less engaging than O'Day's first entry in the book, mostly because the bulk of it is merely recounting what conventions, fanzines, and websites there have been and who created them, but there is a brief discussion concerning the transformation of Doctor Who fandom from a mostly white straight male-dominated affair to one in which women, minorities, and gay people are now well-represented among its ranks. This element is only briefly touched upon, which is unfortunate, as it is the most interesting segment of the piece.

Also dealing with the relationship between fandom and Doctor Who, Aaron Gulyas' essay Don't Call It a Comeback focuses on the wilderness years between the end of "classic" Doctor Who in 1990 and the return of the show to television in 2005, an unsettled period for Whovians punctuated only by the Paul McGann movie in 1996. During this time the only source of new Doctor Who related material was a collection of non-television media such as novels, comics, and audio productions, leaving fans to try to decide what "counted" as real Doctor Who and what did not. This led to some rather furious infighting as different fans accepted certain things as "canon" while others vociferously rejected them and accepted others. As Gulyas points out, this was exacerbated by the Paul McGann movie introducing him as the 8th Doctor, a movie that tried to mollify old fans with several nods to the "classic" show, but managed to enrage many by not being enough like the old show to suit their tastes. As happens with so many fictional properties in the genre world, fans desperately wanted new material, but they also wanted it to be exactly like what had gone before. The dominant message that came through in this essay was that the overwhelming sense of fan entitlement, though an indicator of the deep love fans had and have for the series, was probably the biggest obstacle to getting the show back on the air, and it was only with deft handling, and leaving a lot of the details vague, that the writers of the new series were able to accomplish this feat.

J.M. Frey's essay is titled Whose Doctor? which highlights the many connections between Doctor Who and Canada, and then gripes that the Doctor has never had an adventure set there. The most obvious connection is Sydney Newman, the Canadian head of drama for BBC who originally brought Doctor Who to the screen. In addition, the television show is partially funded by Canadian tax dollars, through contributions made by CBC to the BBC for that purpose. But aside from a few oblique references here and there, Canada is entirely absent from the Doctor's universe. Frey also tries to argue that the character of the Doctor is fundamentally Canadian in nature, mostly by arguing that virtually every good characteristic that could be attributed to a people, such as a willingness to stick up for the little guy and respect for indigenous peoples, should be attributed to Canadians, while all bad attributes, such as a yearning for empire and a love of colonialism, are absent from Canadians. While I like Canada and Canadians as much as the next resident of the United States, I'm not sure that I'm convinced that the population is so unwaveringly admirable. This portion of the essay, attempting to claim all of the virtuous traits of the Doctor as being essentially Canadian at their root, is the weakest portion of the essay, and serves to detract to a certain extent from the true injustice of the complete absence of Doctor Who stories set in the country.

Kieran Tranter's essay Memory and Time attempts to explain the enduring popularity of Doctor Who by referencing the show's relationship to time. This makes sense, given that the show is about a time traveler, although most of the episodes don't have very much in the way of time travel within their narrative. The critical element of Doctor Who, Tranter writes, is that it is both timeful and timeless: The Doctor is a character out of time, who flits from era to era, crossing paths with himself and others, but he is also a creature of time, filled with memories of his own past and aging as the years go by. Tranter weaves together instances throughout the run of the show in which the time travel nature comes to the fore, and in which the passing of the years has an impact upon the Doctor and those around him. But Trantor also notes how the Doctor seems to be outside of time, with a special dispensation to alter it to suit his aims or merely his whims even though the show writers have tried to constrain him several times, with limited success. As the one long-running science fiction franchise that has time travel firmly at the center of its being, it is probably inevitable that this would be the attribute that is acknowledged as the source of the longevity of its popularity, and Trantor does a good job of explaining just why the Doctor's oddly paradoxical relationship to time, has made the show so successful.

Also dealing with the use of time travel in the Doctor Who series, Paul Booth's essay Effecting the Cause addresses some of the inherent contradictions posed by setting a narrative within the "wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff". Booth is primarily focused on how time travel and all of the odd paradoxes that come with it are dealt with in the show, or, in many cases, not dealt with at all. Booth focuses primarily on the "new Who", mostly because "classic Who" for the most part ignored the various paradoxes, time loops, and other issues that the ability to travel through time can present. Much of the essay relates to the relationship between the Doctor and River Song, as they travel more or less in opposite directions in time, and the episodes The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, which presented a looping narrative in which the Pandorica serves as both the cause of the plot, and the effect that is caused by it. Booth touches on a number of other issues - for example even though the Doctor speaks of eliminating the other Time Lords in the past - because it happened in his past - the reality of the narrative is that he eliminated them throughout time, resulting in a universe in which the effects of the existence of the Time Lords can still be seen and felt, but in which the Time Lords were never present to begin with.

Moving away from the use of time as a narrative device, Racheline Maltese considers the use of the media as another form of narrative device in her essay Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of the Media. Maltese considers how the writers of Doctor Who have used insertions of the media into their stories as a method of injecting verisimilitude into the fantastical. The essay focuses primarily on the "new Who", with only a scant nod to the "classic" version of the show, but it also presents commentary concerning the media portrayal in the Doctor Who spin off shows Torchwood, and The Sarah Jane Adventures, contrasting the way the media is presented in each show, and evaluating what that means in terms of the fictional tone that results. The most obvious contrast is between The Sarah Jane Adventures on the one hand, and Torchwood on the other, with the darker, conspiracy laden tone of Torchwood leading to a portrayal of the media as a means of spreading disinformation, whereas in The Sarah Jane Adventures, with a journalist as a central character, the media is presented as a means of disseminating truth. Doctor Who itself, on the other hand, sits in a middle ground, showing how the media can be used to verify factual accuracy, but also showing how the media can be manipulated for good, as it is in The Christmas Invasion, or for ill, as it is in The Long Game. But, Maltese argues, through all of this, the portrayal of the media is seen as an element that grounds the series for the viewer, giving them reassurance that no matter how fantastical the events become, if there is a reporter present, there is an air of veritas about the plot.

Doctor Who was originally created at a time when Britain was coming to grips with the dissolution of its empire and the loss of its position as one of the primary world powers. It should come as no surprise that during its early years the show reflected the resulting nostalgic national yearning, an issue that makes up the subject of the essay Nostalgia for Empire, 1963-1974 by Maura Grady and Cassie Hemstrom. Focusing on the episodes created during the tenures of the first three Doctors, Grady and Hemstrom examine how the series served to reassure British audiences that their English society was the pinnacle of civilization, emphasizing that their comfortable and familiar culture was superior to the alternatives. And at the same time, the evolving and conflicted attitudes towards indigenous peoples resulted in a show that ran from markedly chauvinistic to at least giving the appearance of concern for the colonized natives. Early in the show, even when the Doctor counseled caution when interfering with the practices of non-English cultures, such as in The Aztecs, such caution was couched in a way that although it was considered inappropriate to change the ways of the natives, everyone considered it to be obvious that they would be better off if the natives chose to adopt English mores. By the end of the period examined, the attitudes of the series had morphed to sympathy for, and at least mouthed respect towards the cultures of the natives, as reflected in episodes such as The Mutants. By placing the early Doctor Who years in cultural context, Grady and Hemstrom put the Doctor himself into context showing how the character evolved as England's relationship with its former possessions evolved and yet retained his central message that being British was special and valuable.

Lindsay Coleman's essay A Needle Through the Heart sets about examining how Doctor Who has used horror as a narrative device throughout its run. For its entire existence, Doctor Who has been something of a self-contradiction, being ostensibly a show aimed t children, but also a show that seems, through the years, to have scared children into hiding behind the couch. And despite the many exotic terrors that have appeared on the show, Coleman points out that the most terrifying, and the ones that drew the most criticism were those firmly rooted in the mundane world such as a child's doll, a plastic couch, and ultimately, the police in Terror of the Autons. In the classic version of the series, the horror seems to have ramped up to hit its high point during Tom Baker's first year, possibly peaking in Revelation of the Daleks with Tasambeker stabbing Jobel in the heart with a needle, and then slid backwards until the commencement of the new series. But the horror included in the series was required for the sort of moral balancing that the show aspired to put on display. Without it, there would have been no nobility in the Doctor's opposition, and that is what drove the show. Lacking the horror, the show devolved into comedy, then farce, then self-parody. As Coleman ably demonstrates in her essay, without horror, Doctor Who is simply not itself.

Kristine Larsen's essay Everything Dies focuses on the message of mortality during the Eccleston and Tennant years of the series. As Larsen points out, the series immediately began focusing on the theme of mortality with the episode The End of the World focusing on, naturally enough, the death of the Earth, and ultimately, the death of the last living human. As noted by a character in the very first new episode, death follows the Doctor like an old friend, giving the entire show a theme that has served to define the series. Even when a character manages to evade death, such as Jack Harkness who is returned from the dead by an overzealous superpowered Rose Tyler, there are consequences for defying one's mortality. In Doctor Who everything dies is a repeated mantra, and even the Doctor himself is subject to this maxim, dying on occasion and returning in a transformed state. Larsen makes a convincing case that the central theme of Doctor Who is not time travel, or aliens, or space, but rather coming to grips with the fact that everything comes to an end. And also that it is this that makes the show so compelling to viewers.

Ready to Outsit Eternity, subtitled "Human Responses to the Apocalypse", by Andrew Crome addresses how the series has dealt with the various doomsday scenarios that crop up so often in its episodes. After discussing how the series has incorporated apocalyptic themes in various ways, Crome gets to the meat of his essay and discusses how the Doctor features in averting, reversing, and even creating the various apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios that play out during the show, including how the Doctor has taken on an active role in most cases, a merely advisory role in others, and an almost messianic role in still others. Overall, the essay is quite good, and quite insightful, but since the topic seems to almost boil down to "how do people react when the Doctor saves the world" the scope is almost too large to do justice to in a single piece.

The most focused essay in the volume is Kate Flynn's A Country Made from Metal, which focuses exclusively on the relationship between Amy Pond and Rory in series 31 of the show, and limits its attention to the theme of the literal and figurative mechanization of the two. The essay is at its strongest when it focuses on Rory, probably because Rory is the less popular and more interesting of the romantic pair. Because the Doctor has to be presented as the dominant leader, Rory has to be more or less emasculated by the writers so as to not be a threat to the Doctor's position. But because they wanted him to be a love interest for Amy, he couldn't be completely neutered. Consequently the show worked to play down his masculine identity for much of the series - placing him in the traditionally female profession of nurse, giving him a ponytail, having Amy "choose" the Doctor over him as a partner, and so on. It is only after the human Rory dies and comes back as a plastic construct built from Amy's memories that he is able to assert himself, and even then, he must be separated from the Doctor to do so by spending a couple thousand years guarding Amy's prison while the Doctor takes the shortcut through time via the TARDIS. Flynn weaves all of these facts together to make a convincing case that the mechanization of Rory is a critical thematic element that helps hols all of the series together, but her attempts to argue that Amy is figuratively mechanized as a displaced Scot being forced to live within a stereotypically English village feel quite forced. In short, half of the essay is brilliant, and half seemed less than convincing.

Whatever You Do, Don't Blink! by David Whitt is another very focused essay, ostensibly about the three series episodes featuring the Weeping Angels. While the bulk of the essay is about Blink, The Time of the Angels, and Flesh and Stone, the essay does, however, offer some additional insight into the nature of Gothic horror and how Gothic horror themes have been used in Doctor Who. The essay then goes on to provide synopses of the three episodes and then sets out to show that they deserve the label of Gothic horror. As this is a somewhat trivial observation, and as the additional observation that the episodes are all fairly frightening is also somewhat less than surprising, the essay is more or less a banal exercise in defining a genre and then pointing to a couple examples that clearly fall within that genre.

Doctor Who's Women and His Little Blue Box by Antoinette Winstead discusses three of the Doctor's more recent female companions: Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Donna Noble, placing them into the wider context of companions in general, and evaluating how they are different from most of the companions that appeared on the classic version of Doctor Who. The most critical difference alleged between the women on the "new" Doctor Who and their predecessors is the the lack of schoolgirl naivete, which is replaced instead by a level of intelligence and drive sufficient to meet the Doctor on equal terms. Winstead references Miriam Polster's "heroine's journey", asserting that each of the new companions makes her way through this process during her sojourn with the Doctor, and then sets about evaluating each one's story in turn. Just the fact that Winstead can have a story arc to evaluate for these characters is a substantial indication of the difference between them and many of the companions from the classic version of the show and supports the truth of Windtsead's arguments. Overall, this is one of the most interesting essays in the volume, as it clearly marks how the new show took the original, kept the fundamental core of what it was, and then built upon it to produce a final product that was so much more than what went before.

Following Winstead's exploration of the changes in the nature of the Doctor's female companions, Sherry Ginn's essay Spoiled for Another Life focuses on the one companion from "classic" Who that was most unlike her contemporaries and most like the companions from the "new" Who: Sara Jane Smith. Ginn notes that Smith was a revolutionary character when she was introduced in 1973 - a woman who was not willing to simply be a damsel in distress, and gives a brief indication that this character trait was in part the result of Elizabeth Slaydon's insistence. But in her rush to gush over the character, Ginn glosses over the dismissive way that Pertwee's Doctor treated Sarah Jane, and only briefly mentions how her character devolved into a damsel figure during her tenure with Barker's Doctor. On the other hand, Smith is the only companion character to have two different spin-off series designed to showcase her, and is one of the few characters brought from the "classic" Who into the "new" Who, in large part I suspect because she is one of the few classic characters who would be considered palatable by the modern audience. Ginn's evaluation of Smith moves on to evaluating her character development in the context of Jean Piaget's Cognitive-Development Theory, fitting Smith's choices into this framework. Oddly, after singing the praises of an independent liberal woman, Ginn proceeds to explain how Smith's "wrong" choices led her to make compensatory choices in the course of the Sarah Jane Adventures, seeking a husband and surrounding herself with adoptive children. To fit Sarah Jane's life into an early twentieth concept, Ginn has to point out how the character had everything that made her unique stripped away, a fairly depressing observation.

The final essay in the volume is Lynnette Porter's Chasing Amy, which continues the analysis of the Doctor's recent female companions by focusing very closely on Amy Pond, one of the most recent and most sexualized companions. Porter traces Amy's story from the Doctor's first appearance in her backyard while she is a small child through her resurrection of the Doctor with the force of her memory at her wedding to to Rory. The essay focuses on how Amy is both like and unlike previous companions that have appeared on the "new" Who seasons, evaluating her character traits in light of her predecessors. Porter also comments on Amy Pond's more overt sexuality, and what she clearly believes to be the unjustified criticism leveled at the show as a result. When combined with the previous two essays, Porter's work gives a thorough and comprehensive overview of the evolution of the companion characters in recent years up through the end of the eleventh Doctor's first season. For any Doctor Who fan, this trilogy of essays should be required reading.

In fact, most of the essays in this book will provide illumination for even the most die-hard Doctor Who fan. Covering topics ranging from fandom, to themes presented through the show's history, to explorations of individual episodes and characters, the collection of essays contained in Doctor Who in Time and Space gives a wide ranging account of the series, although the focus does tend to be on the more recent incarnation of the show. However, even fans of the older version will find much to like here, and all fans are likely to find something new that they didn't know before, a thought-provoking angle they had not previously considered, or simply something interesting in this collection. The bookshelf of a Doctor Who fan would not be complete without this book on it.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Set 19, 2013, 9:26 pm

Book Eighteen: Everygnome's Guide to Paratechnology by Joseph J. Bailey.

Short review: A humorous book giving farcical tips on how to be a better gnomish paratechnologist and avoid blowing yourself up. Or blow yourself up with style.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Everygnome's Guide to Paratechnology is an incredibly silly book. This isn't a pejorative statement. Featuring discussions about how not to blow yourself up while experimenting, how to select what incredibly esoteric branch of inquiry to follow, including the development of hovering tool boxes, lintless shirts, anti-plaque dental force fields, and polymorphic, polychromatic, self-applying tattoos, as well as tips on proper beard and mustache care, Everygnome's Guide to Paratechnology is clearly meant to be a completely, gloriously, unreservedly silly book. And this book hits directly on the funny bone, resulting in an always absurd and frequently hilarious work.

The book is very similar in subject matter, tone, and format to Bailey's other book Mulogo's Treatise on Wizardry, consisting of a series of short, pithy pieces of advice for gnomish paratechnologists, who might best be described as diminutive mad scientists with access to magic, on topics ranging from "Making the Perfect Laboratory" to "Shiny Is Better" to the "Proper Disposition of Minions". Each mini-chapter is one or two pages long and written in a staccato style with short, punchy sentences laying out snippets of somewhat misguided advice, complete with frequent footnotes that serve to make the twisted advice even more twisted, and funnier.

Everygnome's Guide to Paratechnology is somewhat longer than Mulogo's Guide to Wizardry, and that is somewhat unfortunate because that means that the jokes wear thin before the end of the volume. There are only so many ways one can warn the reader against lab mishaps and give advice concerning odd beard grooming habits and devices before what were once funny lines become just a little repetitive. The book also suffers somewhat because the fictional author "Spreesprocket Goldulley" is not nearly as well drawn as the cowardly and somewhat duplicitous wizard Mulogo. Further, there is no equivalent to the character of Mulogo's assistant Ludaceous, whose somewhat contentious relationship with the egotistical Mulogo drove a large chunk of the humor found in the footnotes of the book. Without these two personalities to focus on, the book feels directionless at times.

Even so, this is a delightfully absurd book filled with piles of hilariously insane suggestions and comically obsessive interest in bizarre and probably completely impractical inventions. The final section of the book turns slightly away from this humorous tone and provides a glossary that outlines what appears to be an interesting fantasy setting, suitable for use as the backdrop for some interesting fantasy novels or for use in a role-playing campaign, making the book more interesting than it would have been if it were just a collection of farcical advice.

The final product is a book that aims to be funny that is, in fact, consistently funny that also packages some interesting world-building on the side. Excepting the minor caveat that the book runs just a little bit longer than the jokes stay fresh, this is a delightfully silly and enjoyable look into the comical side of a fantasy world.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Out 9, 2013, 8:37 pm

Book Nineteen: Hermione Granger Saves the World: Essays on the Feminist Heroine of Hogwarts by Christopher E. Bell (editor).

Essays included:
The Filmic Heroine by Julie Alexander
"I'm Hoping to Do Some Good in the World": Hermione Granger and Feminist Ethics by Atje Gercama
The Muggle Hunt by Elizabeth de la Torre
Unstoppable Force: Maternal Power and Feminism by Alexandra Hidalgo
Alohomora! Unlocking Hermione's Feminism by Sarah Margaret Kniesler
"Books! And Cleverness!": Hemione's Wits by Tara Foster
How to Do Things With Magic Words: The Scandal of the Spell-Casting Body by Li Cornfeld
Hermione Granger Goes to War a Feminist Reflection on Girls in Conflict by Helen Berents
Hermione Granger: Insufferable Know-It-All or Superhero? by Christine Klingbiel
From Teenage Witch to Social Activist: Hermione Granger as Female Locus by William V. Thompson
Is Hermione Granger the Real Chosen One? by Todd S. Waters

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Hermione Granger Saves the World is exactly what it says it is: A collection of essays examining the character of Hermione Granger from a feminist perspective and evaluating her place in the magical fictional world created by J.K. Rowling. The essays are grouped into four main categories, examining Hermione as a woman, a scholar, a warrior, and an activist. But the essays also reveal the truth that has been staring readers of the Harry Potter series in the face from the very first book - that the brilliant and interesting Hermione, not the clueless and obnoxious Harry, is the true hero of the books.

The first essay in the book, The Filmic Heroine by Julie Alexander, is, unlike the other essays contained in the volume, focused on Hermione as she is presented in the film series. Alexander examines Hermione's character by assessing how much agency she displays through the films, identifying a rising pattern through the first couple of films that ends in Goblet of Fire, but which resurfaces in the first Deathly Hallows movie. The essay then goes into a detailed almost scene by scene analysis of the first Deathly Hallows movie, discussing how Hermione claims the leadership role at times, and at others is supplanted by either Harry or Ron. This portion seems somewhat odd, because it seems to assert that feminism is tantamount to women leading, rather than women taking a place as equals. This quibble aside, the essay is a strong deconstruction of the film, and makes a convincing case that Hermione, despite all of the obstacles placed in her way by the filmmakers, is the key heroic figure in the story.

"I'm Hoping to Do Some Good in the World": Hermione Granger and Feminist Ethics by Atje Gercama approaches the subject by starting with the perceived ethical dichotomy between "justice" and "care", taking the position that Hermione emphasizes "care" in her interactions with others. The essay uses this lens to evaluate the somewhat disturbing inequalities found in the Potterverse, pointing out that while there appears to be widespread gender equality, the manner in which the wizarding community treats other magical creatures is decidedly unjust, and the status distinctions among wizards based upon their ancestry further exacerbate this. Gercama focuses heavily on Hermione's advocacy for the rights of house elves as an example of her acting for justice, and also caring for others, using this plot thread to illustrate the fundamental nature of Hermione's character as an active agent for change.

This theme is taken up by Elizabeth de la Torre in her essay The Muggle Hunt, which examines the pervasive issue of class and bloodline that dominates much of the conflict engendered by Voldemort and his Death Eaters in the Potterverse. After discussing the blend of fictional and actual history that Rowling used to explain the isolationism of the wizard world in her books, de la Torre delves into the stratified society that then built up in large part due to Salazar Slytherin's attitude towards those with magical talent but allegedly impure bloodlines. The essay then moves on to examining Hermione's reaction to, and interactions with the inherently unjust world, highlighting both the prejudice she faces from many of the members of the "traditional" wizard families that she encounters and the stance she and others take against the violent persecution of the muggle-born. There isn't much more to the essay than pointing out that in J.K. Rowling's world people like Hermione are persecuted because of their parentage, and Hermione and others (including, for example, both Molly Weasley and Albus Dumbledore) reject this and suffer for it while taking a stand in favor of equality.

Alexandra Hidalgo discusses Hermione in the context of the many surrogate maternal relationships Harry has throughout the books in her essay Unstoppable Force: Maternal Power and Feminism. First Hidalgo recounts the background in which Harry's birth mother Lilly sacrificed herself to save her son, but then the essay delves into a deeper examination of Lilly's character and relationships, including how she came to be married to Harry's father, her concern for the bullied teenage Snape, and her apparently strained relationship with her own sister. She then moves on to focus on the various surrogate mothers that had a role in Harry's life, most notably Minerva McGonagal and Molly Weasley, and evaluates them from a feminist perspective in general, but also how they influence the growth of Hermione, who, despite being Harry's contemporary, Hidalgo convincingly argues ends up taking a maternal role towards the titular hero of the series.

One difficulty a book that is so very focused on a single character in a single series of books is that the essays all cover much the same territory. This difficulty begins to become apparent in Alohomora! Unlocking Hermione's Feminism by Sarah Margaret Kniesler, which assesses Hermione in the context of feminist children's literature, and then proceeds to evaluate her in terms of her agency, androgyny, and the non-female friendships she maintains throughout the books. Kniesler's evaluation of Hermione creates a convincing case that rather than being the supporting character in Harry's story, she is the hero of her own story. This is, by now, a familiar refrain, and while Kniesler adds her own unique voice to the chorus and approach to the question, she ends up echoing many of the same points made in previous essays.

The essays shift focus slightly, moving on to "Hermione as Scholar" for their topic, and get directly to the point with "Books! And Cleverness!": Hemione's Wits by Tara Foster, which evaluates Hermione as a student, putting her undeniable dedication to her studies into sharp focus. But Foster's essay does more than merely recount how brilliant Hermione shows herself to be, but points out that what makes her such a compelling character is how she uses her considerable intellectual gifts, putting her book based knowledge into action in a manner that eludes several of the adult characters such as Professor Quirrell and Professor Lockhart. But Foster also points out that Hermione uses her knowledge to help others, and also makes sure to disseminate her knowledge to anyone who is interested. Hermione is, in short, not just the brains of the books, she is the intellectual catalyst that drives every aspect of the plot.

Although it is located in the "Hermione as Scholar" section, How to Do Things With Magic Words: The Scandal of the Spell-Casting Body by Li Cornfeld isn't so much about scholarship and learning as it is about the curiosity of a world in which language can be used to accomplish physical effects. Conrnfeld examines the magical world using the rubric of language developed by J.L. Austin, which put forth the idea of performative speech, or speech that accomplishes real word effects. The analogy is somewhat strained, because while a marriage vow creates a legal change, it doesn't actually create the kinds of physical changes that the crucio spell does in the world of Harry Potter. Cornfeld walks though Hermione's relationship to the language of magic in the books, examining how her use of wizard-specific words falls into the categories of performatve speech, locutionary acts, and illocutionary speech, giving a good overview of how a world in which the kind of magic that exists in the Harry Potter universe is real is also a word in which knowledge of language literally is power. The essay is interesting, but the framework Cornfeld uses as a structure to build it upon seems somewhat dubious.

The next section of the book is "Hermione as Warrior", and the first essay in the group is Hermione Granger Goes to War a Feminist Reflection on Girls in Conflict by Helen Berents. This essay, more than any other in the book, explicitly connects the events in the Harry Potter books to real world issues, exploring the experience of women in war, and pointing out that children, specifically girls, have become increasingly embroiled directly in the pursuit of war during the modern era. Berents then connects this reality with the story of Hermione's experience in the Harry Potter series, showing how her separation from her family is an all too common occurrence in the rel world, and how she constructs a replacement family with her battlefield comrades. To a certain extent the analogy is inapt, as there is almost no real comparison between the story of a fictional character in a young adult book and the experience of a twelve year old girl forced into combat in Angola, but on the other hand fantasy and science fiction are a means of exploring topics that are too harrowing to deal with directly, and this essay shows how J.K. Rowling does this brilliantly.

Hermione Granger: Insufferable Know-It-All or Superhero? by Christine Klingbiel explores Hermione's character in the context of fairy tale and modern superheroines. Despite the title, there is little commentary on the question of whether Hermione is an "insufferable know-it-all". Instead, the essay focuses on comparing Hermione with fairy tale characters such as Gretel from Hansel and Gretel, and the character of Beauty (also known as Belle) from both the traditional version and Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. Klingbiel then turns to modern superheroic fiction, pointing out that the fairy tale is, at its heart, a child's power fantasy, and then relating Hermione to the character of Wonder Woman, Emma Peel, and Ellen Ripley. The essay then backtracks and points out that in the Harry Potter world knowledge is power, and as the "cleverest witch of her age" Hermione herself is a power fantasy, a character with self-possessed agency who drives the story. Klingbiel comments on the negative aspects of the female superhero, but quickly disposes of them when she notes how Rowling managed to neatly sidestep them when creating Hermione. The essay makes a convincing case that Hermione is, in fact a female superhero, and as a result, an example of feminist agency.

The final section of the book, titled "Hermione as Activist" kicks off with William V. Thompson's essay From Teenage Witch to Social Activist: Hermione Granger as Female Locus. In the essay which focuses upon Hermione's place in the wizarding world, Thompson almost unintentionally highlights the reason Voldemort exists: The institutionalized racism of the magical world that even the "heroic" wizards fail to notice. At least, the heroic wizards other than Hermione and those that she touches. Starting with her creation of S.P.E.W. in a clumsy effort to help the much abused House Elves, moving on to helping Harry see the inherent unfairness represented by a statue of magical creatures in the Ministry of Magic, and finally defending her own status in the world as a sometimes despised "mudblood", Thompson shows how Hermione is at the forefront of social change in the Harry Potter series.

Building upon Thompson's essay, Is Hermione Granger the Real Chosen One? by Todd S. Waters is the final piece in the book, asserting that the key to victory over Voldemort was not Harry, but rather Hermione. Waters analyzes Hermione's actions using coordination theory, pointing out that it is only her ability to organize the forces opposed to the Death Eaters that allowed the heroes to win. Waters points out that while Harry Potter is merely a mirror image of Voldemort - little more than a reflection - Hermione is Voldemort's opposite. Although the essay somewhat peters out at the end, it makes a strong case that the instrumental actor in bringing down Voldemort's organization was not the solitary heroics of Harry Potter, but rather the efforts of Hermione to build a collaborative organization capable of challenging the institutionalized power of the dark wizard.

Overall, this is a moderately uneven collection of essays. Although every essay has interesting points, some have too little substance, stretching a minor point out to the point of belaboring it. This is a minor point, however, as as most of the essays are excellent from beginning to end and the sum of the essays in this work serves to paint a picture of an active and intensely interesting character, and very clearly a feminist role model. It almost goes without saying that Harry Potter fan would find this book an interesting read, but it is also a book that any fantasy fan interested in seeing a breakdown of how to craft a fully fleshed out female character with agency would find to be an enjoyable and informative read.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Out 29, 2013, 7:36 pm

Book Twenty: Food for the Gods by Karen Dudley.

Short review: After Pelops is resurrected from the stew his father cooked him in, he moves to Athens to become a celebrity chef and discovers that having the Gods think they owe you is something of a mixed blessing.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

When one thinks of mythic Greece, the first thing that comes to mind is not the travails of a once-cooked, previously dead, celebrity chef who must solve a murder mystery to save his business. One also doesn't think of melding tales involving the Greek gods and heroes with the somewhat crass commercial reality of Athenian history, ranging from the social climbing infighting between politicians and business men right down to dildos made from bread. But in Food for the Gods Karen Dudley manages to take this somewhat off-kilter set of premises and turn out not only a very entertaining story, but one that is also both hilariously funny and tragically sad at the same time.

The foundation of the story is the myth of Tantalus and Pelops. In the mythic story, Tantalus invited the gods to dinner and discovered that he didn't have enough food on hand to serve everyone, so he chopped up Pelops and placed him in the stew pot before serving him up to his guests. This didn't go over very well with the Olympians, and they banished Tantalus to Tartarus for eternal punishment and arranged to have Pelops resurrected, although he needed a replacement shoulder made from ivory as Demeter had absent-mindedly eaten some of the Pelops-stew. The mythic version of Pelops goes on to have other, somewhat unfortunate adventures, but in Dudley's hands, he takes what appears to be a side trek through Athens, where he becomes a celebrity chef, cooking for the dinner parties of the wealthy and powerful.

Although the myth of Tantalus and Pelops took place in a mythic period of Greece that can more or less best be described as "a long time before recorded Greek history", Dudley takes the story, and apparently all of the rest of Greek mythology, and inserts it into our real world history, contrasting the myths of the Greek gods and heroes with the reality of Athenian commercial culture. An off-hand remark about Pericles and the ongoing war with Sparta places the events of the book some time between 429 and 404 B.C., although I kind of suspect that the book (and any possible sequels) is set in "Xena-time", a meld of myth and history that grabs elements from wherever source needed to make a good story. But it is exactly this mixture of mythology, with its capricious and often childish gods, and pieces drawn from Athenian history, with its mixture of public piety, crass commercialism, and social and political status seeking, that makes Food for the Gods such an interesting novel.

The story starts with Pelops dealing with the consequences of having enthusiastic gods provide well-meaning but somewhat less than helpful assistance, driving the guests at a dinner party he is catering somewhat mad so that during their revelry they throw everything in the host's house out of the second floor window. Including Pelop's rented dishes. This is the high point of the book for Pelops, as the gods continue to meddle in his life and even though most of the time their meddling is either intended to be beneficent, or they are merely indifferent to Pelops' situation. And when the gods meddle in one's life, however well-intentioned they are, that always spells trouble. And Pelops winds up with plenty of trouble, most of which resolves in humorous ways.

The events of the novel take place during the Panathenaea, which is the high point of the Athenian social calendar, and the event during which Pelops hopes to cement his reputation as the top celebrity chef in the city. But he is beset by an angry crockery dealer, an arrogant and underhanded rival chef, a god who seems determined to get rid of all of his precious olive oil, and, most ominously, a mysterious client with rather specific and difficult demands and who seems to have the influence to get prominent Athenians to cancel their bookings with Pelops. As if that were not enough, Pelops lands right in the middle of a murder mystery that taints him by association and causes his embryonic catering business to crash to the ground, albeit with a little help from an insufferable rival spreading malicious rumors. More out of desperation than anything else, Pelops becomes an amateur sleuth, attempting to ferret out the guilty party in an effort to clear his own reputation and stop the nightly attacks of the Kindly Ones upon the populace of the city.

But Pelops' slightly humorous misfortunes, and the unfolding murder mystery are only part of what makes this book so good. The city of Athens of the 5th century B.C. serves not only as a backdrop for the story, but is almost a character itself. By highlighting the rapacious commercialism coupled with the inherently unjust nature of the city's laws and customs, Dudley gives her story an alien atmosphere that even overshadows the oddness of having gods, satyrs, and winged furies throughout the narrative. This element also allows Dudley to flex her classical knowledge and give the reader a view into the very different world of classical Athenian civilization, which, even though it was technically a democracy, it was one that not only tolerated but celebrated the practice of hiring prostitutes as entertainers at high-class dinner parties, the institutionalized discrimination against foreigners, and widespread slavery. By combining the tawdry reality of Athens, where purging the taint of a murder within one's house would be done by first feeding and then beating a homeless bystander until they fled the city limits, with the mythical version of Greek religion, in which a collection of winged demons would show up and randomly wreck havoc upon the populace of the city in retaliation for a murder while the gods stood by and neither knew nor cared to know who the actual guilty party was, Dudley manages to paint a picture of how very different the world was much more vividly than she could have if she had drawn upon only one or the other.

These multiple layers are what make Food for the Gods work so well as a novel. The character of the novel is best illustrated by the humorous advertisements that appear in between each chapter, promoting serious issues as how to correctly perform ritual purification and where to purchase devotional statues to glorify the gods, as well as more mundane concerns such as ribbonfish recipes and the availability of bread dildoes. But even when these poster or handbill style advertisements deal with the most serious of concerns, they are made humorous to our eyes by the juxtaposition of even the most sacred subjects with an aggressive form of marketing that seems alien to modern sensibilities. But this combination serves two purposes, allowing Dudley to keep her book feeling light and humorous even though it is about the business misfortunes of the protagonist and the murder of a young woman, while also bringing the historical reality of the era to the forefront of the story.

Food for the Gods is, quite simply, an excellent book in every possible way. Combining an interesting setting with an affable lead character who manages to be both favored by the gods and downtrodden at the same time while struggling to keep his catering business above water (literally having to defy Poseidon to do so) all centered on an intriguing murder mystery drawn partially from Greek mythology. If this seems like an eclectic stew of ingredients, rest assured that it is. But it is a stew that tastes delicious, just like Pelops' fig and cheese appetizers. Or, without using awkward metaphors, it is a delightful book that I predict would be enjoyed by almost anyone who picked it up.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Out 24, 2013, 10:29 am

Book Twenty-One: Nu Logic: Rise of the Neos by Bill Gourgey.

Short review: Dr. Janot wants to take over the world using the online game of Neology. The only ones who can stop him are a man lost in time, his leaderless followers, and a teenage girl.

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Long review: Set in a cyperpunk world with espionage, nanotechnology, time travel, and hints of space travel, Nu Logic: Rise of the Neos is an eclectic and interesting science fiction novel. A sequel to the novel Glide (which I have not read, although there is enough background information provided in this volume to piece together the events of the previous one), the novel picks up some time after its predecessor left off and continues the story with the return of most of the same characters and and a rekindling of their conflicts.

The story takes place in a world recovering from a dystopian future in which the Academy, under the control of the Prophet, wrecked havoc on the world in the name of order, and was stopped, or at least diverted, by the efforts of the brilliant Doctor Magigate, a kind of supergenius inventor who seems to have developed most of the technology that undergirds the post Academy world. Complicating this simple narrative is the fact that Magigate seems to have been in love with the Prophet, and that the Prophet may not have been such an awful person to begin with. But all of this is in the distant past when Rise of the Neos takes place, although since Magigate seems to have discovered an odd way of traveling through time, the past is more or less being played out in the present as well.

The primary villain of the book is Doctor Janot, who also goes by the names Janeuf and Diogenes, an expert in creating viruses that can spread through both organic and inorganic systems, who has a convoluted plan to take over the world. He's already accomplished the first step, which is to get a large chunk of the world's population hooked on his online role-playing game "Neology", which seems like a fairly roundabout way to start. To be perfectly honest, this was one part of the book that seemed extraordinarily improbable to me, as I couldn't see why anyone would want to start playing Neology other than perhaps that tiny handful of people who enjoy Eve Online, except that Neology seems like it would be less fun to play. For the most part, descriptions of Neology seemed like Second Life with the addition of the fun of trying to avoid becoming infected with computer viruses and a player base that seem to have little to do other than kill new players to pass the time. Granted, some people enjoy that sort of thing, but it seems unlikely that a third or the world's population would. But taking the fictional reality presented at face value and going with it, we have to accept that this is the basis of Janot's plan.

Much of the rest of the book is filled with the convoluted intersecting storylines of the various players as they try to either advance Janot's plans, or like the knights and Dr. Longe, try to foil them. In the middle, more or less oblivious to the dangers, is the heroine of Glide, a girl named Maddy who is the only person alive who contracted (and has been cured of) the "Rust", a viral plague that jumped from human to network and back that had been manufactured by Janot during his first attempt to dominate the world. Interspersed in the story are interludes of events from the past, which, given the somewhat elusive time travel element may be events happening in the present as well, and which feature Magigate, Janot, and the Prophet. The book is sprinkled with classical references, mostly to Greek mythology and philosophy: Janot calls himself Diogenes and quotes both Greek cynic philosophy and Sun Tzu. Magigate names his inventions after Greek mythological figures such as Epimetheus and Ariadne. The resistance group that morphed into Magigate's followers dub themselves the Knights of Los Acres. Their implanted enhancements that give the knights their edge are all prefixed with "Magi-", both a reference to Magigate who created them, and magical powers, which the enhancements almost seem to bestow upon the knights. One knight even explicitly interprets her magi- enhanced healing powers as a manifestation of the spirits of the Santeria faith. And so on. These elements don't make the story fantasy or myth, but they do put a mythic patina on the cyberpunk reality.

The story rotates between several different story lines, jumping from person to person to tell the increasingly interwoven threads that all come together in the final portion of the book as everything comes to a head. The only problem I had with the style of story telling is that it means that the book leads off by throwing a cavalcade of characters at you, all involved in different, as yet seemingly unrelated scenes with minimal overarching context. Had I read the first book in the series before tackling this one, this may not have been so disorienting, as I would have already been somewhat familiar with the characters and the world they live in, but coming into the story cold as I did, it made the early chapters of the book tough sledding. But if a neophyte to the series perseveres through the first hundred or so pages, the book does begin to coalesce nicely, and before too long the confusingly fine brushstrokes of the initial pages resolve into a cohesive whole. Throughout the novel, Gourgey employs tension extraordinarily well, ratcheting up the suspense from beginning to end, so that when the final confrontation takes place, it is a cathartic explosion of pent up nerves.

I really only have two quibbles with Nu Logic, and they are relatively small. The first is that in the early chapters, there are several points in which a term or a piece of technology is explained via a footnote. In my case, these notes only served to break up and slow down what was already the slowest and most difficult portion of the book to get through. While the information contained in them was clearly presented by means of this device, they were little more than bland infodumps and did little save to jar me out of the fictional reality I was immersed in. In most cases, it would have been clear from the context in which the term was used what it meant or what it was, and in the others, I can only think there had to be a more artful means of delivering the information to the reader. The second quibble is that in the scenes set in the past, there were several points in which the book was conveying material that was supposedly drawn from Dr. Magigate's written journal, and in those sequences the font was switched to a small handwriting-like font that made those sections more difficult to read. Switching fonts during a book rarely improves it, and this book was no exception.

Those minor quibbles aside, Nu Logic: Rise of the Neos is a very good (and possibly the only) cyberpunk time-travel story featuring the valiant attempts of a small band of committed individuals to stave off a dystopian nightmare. Most of the characters are very well written, with motivations that make their actions for good or ill make sense. Even though the story is convoluted, with many twists and turns throughout, none of the intricacies of the plot are superfluous. If it is a mark of success for a book is that it makes you want to read more from the series, then for me this book is definitely a success.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Nov 13, 2013, 11:19 pm

Book Twenty-Two: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Short review: Bilbo goes there and back again, and assists in killing a dragon and restoring a dwarven kingdom along the way.

Long review: The Hobbit is a book that is difficult for me to review, as it is wrapped up in hazy and happy childhood memories. I remember my father reading me part of the book over a summer when I was about seven or so, covering a page or two a day before petering out and leaving the book unfinished when school started again. I remember watching the Rankin-Bass animated version of the story when it was televised shortly thereafter. I remember listening to the album version of the tale narrated by John Huston, playing it almost every day for months while living in Tanzania. And finally, I remember one night during the summer in between my fourth and fifth grade year, starting the book, and reading straight through until I reached the end of the book in the early hours of the next morning. In many ways, this book is what made me into a fantasy fan.

Against this background, it is not an easy task to write a review for The Hobbit that is not clouded by nostalgia. This task is further complicated by the fact that I have read many of Tolkien's subsequent works - the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Silmarillion, and various other sundry and related works including J.E.A. Tyler's Tolkien Companion, David Day's Tolkien Bestiary, and Humphrey Carter's biography of Tolkien. The end result of this lifetime of reading material by and about Tolkien and Tolkien's work is that it is difficult to separate the book from the mythology that surrounds the book, and consequently difficult to review this book solely on its own merits. The end result is that any review of the Hobbit is bound to be influenced by a mixture of fond memories and extratextual knowledge that is bound to produce a review that is not so much a review, as a melange of information both about the book, but also about the personal history and Tolkienian mythology within which it resides.

All that said, The Hobbit is a fantastic book, both as a piece of Tolkienian myth and on its own merits. The story of Bilbo and his thirteen dwarven companions has a somewhat idyllic tone, almost like a Victorian travelogue, even though it involves nearly getting roasted by trolls, an escape from the clutches of goblins, an encounter with massive spiders intent on eating everyone in the company, a sojourn in the elven king's prison cells, a suspicious and malevolent dragon, and finally a bloody and terrible battle between five armies. And of course, the focal element of the story is Bilbo's encounter with Gollum resulting in the famous riddle-game and the acquisition of the ultimate MacGuffin in the form of the One Ring - which seems to transform Bilbo from being a bumbling misplaced grocery store clerk into a competent and capable burglar, mostly be allowing him to become invisible at will. But the story feels like a vacation at times, with Gandalf talking about looking to replace lost luggage, or the entire party stopping off to take extended hiatuses in the homes of those they come across in their travels. On the whole, much of the book has something of a quaint feel, with the author interspersing asides in the narrative to tell the reader that some particular event that just happened will become important later on, or to make some sort of ominous declaration, and so on.

And this almost precious tone that crops up throughout the book makes clear that the book wasn't really intended to be the start of a series. It, of course, did end up being the opening act that led to The Lord of the Rings, but the transition from The Hobbit to the following series is a bit ragged at times, both in terms of story and style. Those who read this book after reading (or viewing) the Lord of the Rings will find Bilbo's use of the One Ring to be incredibly cavalier. He pops it on whenever whimsy strikes him, keeping it on for days and weeks at a time. The tenor of the writing and the way that Tolkien treats plot elements like the Ring shows quite clearly that this book was not written as the prologue for the larger story that followed it, and was only loosely connected to the mythology that he had been writing since his time in Britain's armed services during World War One. This distance gives The Hobbit a charm and character that is substantially different from any of Tolkien's other works, but is still recognizable as his. The book is also laced with an often gentle humor that is simply lacking in many of Tolkien's other books: To fool the reclusive Beorn into accepting a large company of somewhat less than welcome houseguests, Gandalf misleads him with a meandering story to comic effect. Biblo huffs about, forgetting handkerchiefs, breaking the buttons on his coat, and creating silly rhymes to taunt spiders. But the humor is also dark as well, such as when Gandalf keeps a trio of trolls arguing among each other in a blackly humorous sequence. Even the goblins get into the spirit, making macabre jokes about the dwarves they and their wolf allies have trapped in a group of fir trees.

The level of violence in the book is also quite muted for the most part. The party appears to carry no weapons at the outset of their journey, and only acquire a couple of armaments after Gandalf tricks some trolls to death. The rest of the journey they spend their time running away from every threat they come across, at least until they are captured by giant spiders at which point they engage in an epic battle for their freedom armed with rocks, sticks, and pocket knives. It isn't until the Battle of Five Armies that Thorin and his company engage in armed combat arrayed for war, and when they do so it costs Thorin and two of his companions their lives. Despite being an adventure tale, the story isn't about brawn, but rather wits mixed with a whole lot of serendipity. Despite Gandalf's involvement, the entire expedition seems haphazardly organized: The dwarves seem to have only the vaguest idea of how to get from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain, relying upon those they meet along the way to give them directions as to which road to take, and what hazards they might face while traveling. They need to be resupplied twice by the kindness of strangers. They need Elrond to tell them how their map and key to the mountain works, and once they reach the mountain, they have no real plan for how to deal with Smaug other than "send Bilbo in to purloin a bauble or two". On the whole, the entire affair seems more like a lark than a serious attempt to reclaim the dwarven kingdom, and the only reason they protagonists seem to succeed is blind luck.

At its core, the subtitle of this book, There and Back Again, is what this book is about. It is Bilbo's journey that the entire story hinges upon. The doings of dwarves and goblins, of kings and heroes, and of wizards and dragons, are all entirely secondary to the story of a hobbit who ran out of his house without a handkerchief and wound up returning home more than a year later a changed man (er, hobbit). Events move along at a steady pace after the background has been presented in the opening chapter, with the band of fourteen travelers and one wizard moving from adventure to adventure at a rapid clip, with a new situation coming up in each chapter, and usually being resolved by the next. The story never leaves Bilbo's viewpoint, filling the reader in on events that take place out of his sight only when he becomes aware of them. Because the reader's window into Middle-Earth is filtered through Bilbo, the workings of this fictional world can be explained without feeling forced or artificial. And because Bilbo is something of an everyman, albeit a version who is an English country gentleman, the reader is both encouraged to root for him, and identify with him.

Unless, of course, the reader happens to be female. The one serious criticism that can be leveled at this book, and alarge portion of Tolkien's oevre is the lack of female characters. And in The Hobbit, the absence of women is almost complete. Other than some elvish maidens frolicking in woodland feasts and anonymous Laketown women hustled onto boats to row away with the children while their menfolk fought Smaug, women simply don't appear in the book at all. Tolkien's fantasy world as presented here is an exclusively male affair - manly men doing manly things while other men gaze in wonder at their accomplishments.

But this quirk of Tolkien's aside, The Hobbit remains a classic foundational work of fantasy literature. With an action-filled linear narrative detailing the travels of a likable and more or less ordinary protagonist and his mostly interchangeable dwarven companions through a fantastical landscape, the book is an entertaining and engaging read. This is the book that made me a fantasy fan in general, and a Tolkien fan specifically. It is hard for me to conceive of a fantasy fan who has not read this book, but if there is, they should read this. If one chose to read only one of Tolkien's works of fiction, this would be the one I would recommend. In short, The Hobbit is a must-read for any fantasy fan.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Nov 9, 2013, 5:48 am

Consider me sold on Food for the Gods! And I'm an old Hobbit fan from way back, I hope you enjoyed it as well.

Editado: Jan 15, 2014, 9:15 pm

Book Twenty-Three: The Sandman Vol. 7: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman.

Short review: Delirium wants to find Destruction, so Dream decides to humor her. But Destruction means change, and for the Endless, change is dangerous.

Long review After spending six volumes establishing the permanence and indispensability of the Endless, Gaiman reverses field in Brief Lives with a story that suggests that the Endless may not be necessary at all, and not being necessary, may not be eternal. The story itself takes the form of a travel tale, with Dream and Delirium setting out on the road (literally) in search of their long lost brother Destruction. Along the way, the pair come across some individuals that we might count as extraordinarily long-lived, but for Dream, Death, and the other Endless, are merely ephemeral beings of minor consequence.

The volume starts and ends with Andros, the patriarch of the family charged by Dream with the task of guarding his son Orpheus' severed but immortal head. For him and his clan, their vigil has been interminably long, but it becomes clear that for Dream, their watch has been nothing more than the blink of an eye. The book shifts away from the main story several times to interludes featuring those who walk among mankind living lives that span vast numbers of generations of ordinary people. But as Death remarks when the fifteen thousand year old Bernie Capax finally dies and looks to her for reassurance that he managed to do well by living so long, he only got what everyone else gets - exactly one lifetime. Compared to the supposedly serene and unchanging lives of the Endless, no matter how long a mortal lives, one life is pretty much just as brief as another.

But Dream's journey in this book calls this alleged truth into question. In a moment of odd clarity, Delirium manages to gather her thoughts enough to start trying to seek out the missing member of the Endless, first asking Desire and Despair to help her, and when they refuse her, she turns to Dream for help. Even though she does not expect him to consent to aid her, Dream is in a funk after being dumped by his most recent love, and decides to use the quest to find Destruction as a diversion from his moody misery. And so this odd, but strangely well-matched pair set out on the road in the waking world.

Although Dream is most often matched with Death in the Sandman series, probably as a reference to the Greek myth that posits dreams as the only thing that makes sleep something different than a temporary death, pairing him with Delirium seems to be the natural match-up. The somewhat random free-association that Delirium engages in seems to be very much like the chaotic and bizarre landscape that most people find in their dreams. The two of them together find the mundane waking world to be a strange landscape, and react in very different ways. Dream regards all of those he encounters with disinterest and mild disdain, while Delirium wanders through like a careless child caught up in the excitement of a strange new place. But hidden within their characters is a common callousness, as Dream's concern after the death of their guide Ruby is that some force may be trying to impede their quest rather than remorse for the woman's death, while Delirium's only reaction is the gleeful realization that she will be allowed to drive their car. Later, Delirium's casual cruelty manifests when she off-handedly condemns a police officer who was doing nothing more than his job to a life of torment, an action that Dream does nothing to prevent or ameliorate. To the Endless, mortal lives are of no import.

The key to the story, however, is the mortal characters that populate the story. From the guardian Andros, to the long-lived but ultimately unlucky Capax, to the diminished deities Ferrell and Ishtar, to the ambitious and ill-fated Ruby, to the disembodied Orpheus, and even to the melting chocolate lovers left on Delirium's plate when she decides she isn't hungry, it is the frantic and hurried actions of the mortals that create meaning in the world. And that is the secret that Destruction seems to have discovered, and the truth that Dream knows but does not want to acknowledge - the mortals do not need the Endless, but the Endless need the mortals. Destruction is change, and Dream fears change as evidenced in this volume by his extended brooding over a love-affair gone wrong. Despite this, Dream is forced to acknowledge change, resorting to meeting with his son Orpheus for advice, even after he said he would never see him again.

Ruby, short-lived though she is, serves as a metaphor for the entire book. Despite her very short existence, she is one of the few individuals in the book who express a desire to actually do something more than continue to exist. Despite his fifteen thousand years of life, Capax has left almost no mark on the world. When he senses danger approaching, the Alder Man is content to erase his own existence in order to ensure his personal survival. Ishtar lives on faded memories of a distant past. And so on. Only Ruby wants something more than she has, wants to do something with her life, because she realizes that she only has so much time to accomplish something, and that gives her actions a sense of urgency. Despite her untimely death, she is one of the few characters in the book who seems to have truly lived instead of merely existing.

And this is what Destruction has come to understand - he isn't necessary. Humans can live their lives without the need for him to manifest change and guide their destinies. This reality is what disturbs and unnerves Dream, because if Destruction is not needed for change to happen, then Dream is not needed to make humans dream. Similarly, without Death things would still die, and without Desire, humans would still indulge their passions. But if the Endless are not necessary, that means that they can be eliminated without damaging the fabric of the universe. And this fact serves to turn the entire series upon its head, because it means that the Endless might not be as endless as the reader had been led to believe to this point.

This volume marks an important turn in the Sandman series. Dream ends up killing his own son - at his son's request - but in doing so he finally kills one of his own family members, which is what some of his siblings have been goading him to do in previous stories. We see what Delirium looked like when she was Delight, and combined with the knowledge that what had been described as the responsibilities of the Endless are not so dependent upon the existence of the Endless, the book foreshadows change in the offing. Not only that, but change that Desire, Despair, and even Dream fear. But most of all, as its title implies this volume highlights that it is not the Endless who are the critical forces in the universe, but rather it is those like Andros, whose lifespans are measured in finite numbers of days, months, and years.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Jan 16, 2014, 2:31 pm

Book Twenty-Four: Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross.

Short review: A beautifully illustrated, but ultimately unsatisfying story exploring the nature of heroism using the Book of Revelations as a framing device.

Long review: There can be no denying that Kingdom Come is a beautifully illustrated book. The artwork that is used to tell this Revelations-inspired story using super-heroes as a metaphor for divine and infernal powers is, in a word, stunning. Unfortunately, the story that these illustrations tell simply isn't worthy of being told with such beautiful images. The subtitle on the cover says that this is "The Greatest Super-Hero Epic of Tomorrow", but while it is clear that the authors intended to write a grand and epic tale, they seem to have been given only enough space to tell a median range story, and the strain of packing the amount of story intended into the space available is apparent on almost every page, to the detriment of the book.

The story, such as it is, is told through the eyes of Norman McCay as he is whisked from event to event by the Spectre to serve as a mostly unseen and unnoticed observer to the doings of the mighty beings that walk across the Earth. In this future world, the cadre of super-powered heroes that DC comic fans are familiar with has mostly died, retired, or withdrawn to the sidelines, and a new crop of meta-humans has risen to replace their forbears. But these new super-powered beings, unlike their predecessors, seem to have almost no regard for the fragile and weak humans they share the world with, and their uncaring demeanor makes their internecine fights terribly dangerous for their mundane neighbors. Against this backdrop of random conflict, the Spectre shows Norman how the chaos is swirling towards a dangerous and destructive conclusion.

But the book simply isn't substantial enough to tell the full story that would do justice to the idea behind it. The story, concerning the return of Superman to the world stage, the resurrection of the defunct Justice League, the taming of the miscreant younger meta-human generation, the plots against the meta-humans as a whole, and all of the other sweeping epic elements, is stuffed into too few pages to actually tell a coherent tale. Not only that, because the story is set into the future, the book must also spend time establishing the landscape of the super-hero world of tomorrow, and at the same time explain how the present DC universe got there. As a result, the book isn't so much a coherent tale as it is a collection of climactic highlights. But without the build up to support them, the climaxes that the reader is treated to simply fall flat. Without needed context, the reader simply doesn't care who Magog is, and it is simply difficult to be concerned when the incarcerated pseudo-hero Von Bach is struck down.

Superman is the centerpiece, and in many ways exemplary of the problems with, this book. Most of the plot hinges upon Superman withdrawing from the public eye for an extended period of time, and then after a crisis occurs, returning to try to set things right again. But while Superman's withdrawal to a virtual farm is talked about several times, it is explained in a brief handful of panels that give only the most cursory outline of the circumstances that led him to turn his back on humanity. And Superman's decision to return is covered in a similarly brief set of panels and is similarly glossed over. Further, the critical interregnum during which Superman is absent from world affairs takes up a relatively tiny portion of the book. As a result of the cursory way that these portentous events are described, Superman's supposedly momentous decisions to leave and then return seem almost to be careless in nature. By covering only the decisions themselves, and failing to provide more than an outline of the context in which they take place, the book drains any potential weight out of these choices.

In many ways Kingdom Come feels more like a well-illustrated outline of a story than an actual story. Time and again the reader is presented with the end result, often via a brief flashback or one character telling another what happened, rather than being allowed to see the story unfold for themselves. After he returns, Superman goes to visit a retired Bruce Wayne, who is presented as a man confined to an exoskeleton who enforces a draconian order in Gotham via security robots. How Wayne got to this point is never explained. We are told that Wonder Woman had been stripped of her royal status and ambassadorial post by her Amazon sisters, but instead of seeing this as part of the story, we are told of these events by means of a conversation between Clark and Diana. We are told that the new generation of meta-humans has run riot over the world, and we are even shown a little bit of the mayhem they have caused, but the story of how these meta-humans got to the point where nearly all of them felt free to engage in wanton destruction is skipped over. Over and over the book jumps past telling an actual story and simply tells the reader the ending instead.

Even when the book give the reader some actual story to read, it does so in the most perfunctory way. Magog precipitates the crisis that results in Superman's return by devastating and irradiating Kansas, but this entire plot takes up only a few panels. Lex Luthor has organized many of the DC universe's super-villains into the "Mankind Liberation Front", but we only get a scant glimpse of their machinations via a handful of board meetings. Superman restores the Justice League and converts or incarcerates the new generation of meta-humans, almost magically waving a wand to create a prison to keep them in, but this radical transformation of the world is dealt with mostly by offstage fiat. We are shown that Luthor has brainwashed Captain Marvel, but the book takes little more than a single page to show this. Bruce Wayne sides with Luthor, reassuring Luthor of his good intentions by saying little more than "trust me", and then Luthor is shocked (and unprepared) when the former Batman turns on him. There is a lot of plot crammed into this book, but it is unsupported by the amount of story necessary to contain the volume of moving pieces that are presented, and the resulting product is disjointed and unsatisfying.

It is clear that Waid and Ross had an incredibly expansive vision for a story, and for some reason decided to box that story into a contained that was simply too small to tell it properly. And so instead of seeing Superman unable to stop the Joker murdering his way across Metropolis and finally assassinating Lois Lane before the Joker is himself executed by Magog, we are told that these events happened in a flashback to the trial of Magog that followed. Instead of seeing the back and forth cat an mouse game between Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor as they engage in cloak and dagger intrigue, we see Bruce ally with Luthor on one page, and see him announce that he's figured out Luthor's plan and betray his erstwhile ally on another. Instead of giving the reader a story, the authors gave the reader plot points. The book is, in effect, the skeleton of a story entirely lacking in any flesh or muscle.

Even though they confined themselves to nothing more than plot points, the authors gave a short shrift to some of the most interesting questions raised in the volume - even though we are told that Lois died, this is not the catalyst that spurred Superman to withdraw into seclusion. Rather, the acquittal of Magog for the Joker's murder was the crucial event. But given that Lois (along with the presumably deceased Ma and Pa Kent) was a critical humanizing influence on Superman, shouldn't her loss have meant something more to the Man of Steel than it seems to have? Given that Superman dances around the idea of, and eventually enters into a romantic relationship with the stern and warlike Diana, why does this not affect his ideals? Why is it that without Superman the world inexorably devolves into chaos? Kingdom Come wants to cover some of the same territory that Alan Moore covered in The Watchmen, specifically the responsibility of power, and how to keep a nearly omnipotent being from ruling over the world according to their personal moral code - as Superman does in this book once he returns from his self-imposed exile. But although Kingdom Come wants to raise these subjects, unlike The Watchmen, it doesn't want to make any statements about them, or even really explore them, confining itself to saying little more than "Superman is humble and self-critical, so no one would ever have to worry about his unstoppable power". While the story glosses over many of the plot developments that it presents, it completely ignores many others, leaving the reader wondering why such seemingly critical elements were alluded to if they were simply going to be passed over.

Kingdom Come is a masterfully drawn and incredibly ambitious failure. There is an epic story to be told here, and the reader is given a collection of excellent storyboards outlining that story. There are interesting questions involving competing visions of morality and justice that are raised here, but which are never really dealt with in any meaningful way. By attempting to cram this epic story into a two hundred page graphic novel, Waid and Ross created a stunted and incomplete work that doesn't actually tell a story, doesn't allow its plots or characters to develop, and doesn't deal with the huge questions that it raises. There was a really great story to be told using the ideas that are represented in this books. Unfortunately, this book doesn't actually tell that story so much as it merely outlines it, and as a result, it isn't anything more than average.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.

Editado: Jan 22, 2014, 6:31 pm

Book Twenty-Five: Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Short review: Twenty-three years of illustrated letters from Father Christmas to the Tolkien children.

Long review: Before The Lord of the Rings, before The Hobbit, when Middle-Earth itself was nothing more than an embryonic idea that manifested as a handful of unpublished poems, Tolkien was writing for an eager audience. Like many children, Tolkien's offspring wrote letters to Father Christmas every year, but unlike the experience of many other children, Tolkien's offspring received letters back. Beautifully written and illustrated letters that tell tales of whimsy, adventure, and love. Most of these letters and all of the paintings and drawings that accompanied them are collected in this volume, meaning that Tolkien's labor of love and affection can be read and enjoyed by everyone else.

The letters themselves span the period between 1920, when Tolkien's oldest son John was three, and 1943, when his youngest child Priscilla was fourteen. In between, Tolkien crafted a masterfully creative series of characters and adventures to delight and entertain his children, starting with simple missives showing Father Christmas and his house next to the North Pole, but quickly escalating to silly tales involving the Great Polar Bear of the North doing well-meaning but rather foolish things and Father Christmas cleaning up the resulting mess. The letters respond to what would seem to be typical concerns expressed by children in their letters to Father Christmas: Letting them know what gifts had been brought for them, answering questions as to Father Christmas' home and appearance, and so on. But Tolkien was not content to write only about such mundane matters, and went on to craft increasingly elaborate stories involving an increasingly large cast of characters. And although the Tolkien children probably mostly looked forward to the model trains, books, and other toys, it is these stories that were the real treasures in their stockings.

The first letter is quite short, more or less just telling John that Father Christmas is on his way to deliver gifts to Oxford and includes a picture of both him and his house at the North Pole. But the letters quickly became more elaborate - within five years the annual letter included a story involving the Great Polar Bear climbing (and breaking) the North Pole to retrieve Father Christmas' hat, and in the process wrecking "Christmas House", prompting the construction of a new dwelling for Father Christmas perched upon a conveniently nearby cliff resulting in the name "Cliff House". And from this beginning the stories and accompanying cast of characters grew every year. Father Christmas soon had a gardener - the Snow Man. The Great Polar Bear soon had a name, Karhu, and mischievous nephews underfoot - Paksu and Valkotukka. Eventually Father Christmas had red gnomes helping him package gifts and fend off goblins, and enlisted an elvish secretary named Ilbereth to help him manage his household. Eventually even penguins briefly join the menagerie, having swum from the South Pole to see if there is anything they could do to help out.

An interesting element to these letters is that they were written before the modern mythology surrounding Father Christmas has solidified, giving Tolkien a little bit of room to define the character as he wished. Hence, Father Christmas is aided by Karhu the polar bear, and the reindeer, while needed to pull his sleigh, aren't named at all, and for the most part do not show up in the stories as active characters. Even the count of reindeer is not set, as the letters suggest that Father Christmas varies the number of reindeer hitched to his sleigh, and that he prepares several different sleighs for Christmas so as to be able to handle the enormous volume of presents to deliver. Eventually Father Christmas had an array of helpers, and also the black goblin adversaries, some of which rode giant bats to attack Cliff House, and while the Polar Bear served as a powerful guardian, Father Christmas also got into battle, firing off gunpowder rockets at his enemies - a decidedly different vision of the character than current lore presents. Many of the elements that show up in Tolkien's vision of Father Christmas and the magical North Pole landscape he inhabits are clearly the seeds of things that ended up in later works such as The Hobbit. As an interesting aside, despite his obvious love for Father Christmas and his attendant mythology, Tolkien, unlike C.S. Lewis with Narnia, resisted inserting the character into his secondary world of Middle-Earth.

The letters end on something of a melancholy note. In addition to the sadness of the last of the Tolkien children growing older and leaving behind the wonders of childhood, the last four years worth of letters were written in the shadow of World War II. Among the most touching letter is a short note dated December 23rd, 1940, in which Karhu assures Priscilla Tolkien that Father Christmas has received her note letting him know that she had moved. Given the timing of the note, it seems possible that the Tolkien's had left their home to escape from the specter of German bombers (although there is no evidence one way or the other that this was the reason for their move). But from 1939 through 1943, the letters are clearly the effort of a parent to reassure a bewildered child who was attempting to make sense of the overwhelming insensibility of a world at war.

From the very first letters and illustrations to the very last, Letters from Father Christmas is a testament to the love of a father for his children. The care, attention, and affection that is evidenced in this collection is touching and endearing. The imagination and creativity that fills the pages shows Tolkien's mastery of myth, language, and storytelling which is all woven together into an adorable and engaging twenty-three year long story. Without even knowing it, merely by trying to entertain his own children, Tolkien ended up writing one of the best Christmas books ever put on paper. Tolkien's children were exceedingly lucky because they got to read this story before anyone else, but now that the letters have been published in this volume, the rest of us are now lucky enough to be able to enjoy them as well.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.