Haldeman, Joe. The Accidental Time Machine. NY: Ace, 2007.
This is kind of a departure for Haldeman, but I can’t blame him; time travel stories are such fun to write, no matter which direction you’re traveling. As a semi-trained scientist, though, and presently an adjunct professor (of writing) at MIT, Haldeman hews to the more scientifically defensible position (at the moment) of not allowing travel back through time. All those paradoxes, you know. We’re all traveling forward in time already — at the rate of one second per second — so that’s what he deals with (although I have my own problems with the notion of a predestined future). It’s 2053 and Matthew Fuller is a graduate assistant at MIT, working at not working on his Ph.D. in physics, when a chronon-measuring instrument he built himself goes wrong in a particularly unsettling way. Pressing the “Reset” button makes it jump forward in time a couple of seconds, and laterally a milimeter or two. The next time he presses the button, it jumps forward about twelve times as long (and sideways twelve times as far), and further button-presses proceed exponentially. Naturally, Matt recognizes that this is going to pile up time and distance pretty quickly, but since he’s just lost his girl and his job on the same day, what the hell. Besides, he has visions of a Nobel Prize. Of course, things don’t go at all smoothly, with both near and far future societies having developed in unexpected (and often unpleasant) ways. The appearance of Jesus doesn’t help, either. Will Matt ever find a way to return to his own world from the far future? And what about Martha, his own theosophical graduate assistant? This is a fast read and a lot of fun, and the speculative physics is so well explained, you won’t even have to bleep over it. (9/30/07)
Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Local Custom. Decatur, GA: Meisha Merlin, 2000.
Having discovered this marvelous series only recently, I’ve been reading the individual volumes every which way rather than in internal chronological order. This one pairs up with Scout’s Progress in telling the back-story of the two foster brothers who head the two Lines that make up Clan Korval, one of the most powerful families on Liad. Er Thom yos’Galan, the older brother (though his younger brother is Delm, or boss, of the clan as a whole), who is being pressed to do his duty by producing an heir through contract marriage. Trouble is, he had an offworld affair a few years ago with a Terran woman, Dr. Ann Davis, a linguistics professor. He’s never forgotten her and he feels the need to see her one last time, so off he goes — to discover than Ann had a child by him, a very bright little boy named Shan. Of course, to Er Thom, this changes everything — maybe. Thus begins a tangled love story about misunderstandings on both sides of cultures not one’s one, of clan politics and xenophobia, of the nature of duty in Liaden life. While it’s a bit schmaltzy at times, the authors show great skill (as always) at painting multidimensional portraits both of their characters and of an extremely foreign society. (9/28/07)
Pratchett, Terry. Interesting Times. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.
Rincewind, a notably unsuccessful wizard but a very successful survivor (nearly always by running away at top speed), was the protagonist of the first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, and has appeared in several more books since. I can’t say he’s my favorite character, but this one is pretty good anyway. Lord Hong, a schemer after power in the Agatean Empire (pictured as a mixture of Chinese and Japanese culture) that makes up the Counterweight Continent, has sent to Ankh-Morpork for “The Great Wizzard” (yes, with two Z’s), a figure in ancient legends. It’s all part of his convoluted plan to become emperor when the current one dies (with Lord Hong’s help). As it happens, Rincewind, who acted as guide to Twoflower, an Agatean tourist in his first outing, is the likeliest candidate for Great Wizzard and off he goes to the Empire. Where, of course, because of his pre-emptive karma, he quickly becomes caught up in the power struggle, gets saddled with a not very convincing cadre of underage revolutionaries, loses The Luggage, and crosses the path of the Silver Horde. The latter is a group of six geriatric barbarians led by Cohen the Barbarian (a/k/a Genghiz Cohen), an occasional character in several other Discworld books. Here, Pratchett uses the very straightforward barbarians — who have gotten to be very old precisely because they’re very good at what they do — as a balance to the scheming, underhanded, poison-preferring, untrustworthy Agateans. And Twoflower reappears, too. Not a great book, but perfectly readable. (9/27/07)
Pratchett, Terry. Jingo. NY: HarperCollins, 1998.
Among Discworld fans, it’s a well-known rule that you musn’t read his stuff on the bus. People tend to regard as strange those among their fellow passengers who giggle as they read. Giggling is always a hazard with Pratchett, as is interrupting other people’s activities and forcing them to listen to you reading a passage out loud. This one features Commander Sam Vimes and Vetinari the Patrician, two of my favorite recurring characters, as they try to deal (each in his characteristic way) with a territorial dispute that wants to become a war. Klatch, only a short distance across the sea, is a sandy country full of turban-wearing camel-riders who also invented astronomy and vindaloo, which gives the author lots of opportunities to show up rampant nationalism for the insanity it is. (I suspect he was thinking of the First Gulf War here, as well as British attitudes toward immigrant Pakistanis, but there is also considerable relevance to the present war in Iraq.) Vimes vehemently resists being a military man (cops are NOT the same as soldiers) but finds himself involved anyway. And Vetinari has no use for the social and economic waste of war. Plus, there’s the political sub-plot, and Corp. Nobbs’s search for a lady friend of his own, plus the questionable ability of Leonard of Quirm (inventor and artist extraordinaire) to deal with the so-called Real World. Pratchett is a genius of comedy — in the sense of the Human Comedy. (9/24/07)
Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Scout’s Progress. NY: Ace, 2000.
This is a separate novel set in the Liaden universe (not part of the Agent of Change arc), but it still involves Clan Korval, most powerful family unit on the planet. The focus this time is a generation earlier, the story of Daav yos’Phelium, delm of Korval, and Aelliana Caylon, mathematician and victim of a cruel and overbearing brother. (Daav and Aelliana will later become the parents of Val Con yos’Phelium.) Aelliana quite unexpectedly wins a spaceship in a card game and becomes liberated, step by step, as she passes the hurdles required of prospective pilots. She’s added in this by Daav, who likes to unwind by doing common repair work at a facility run by his old Scout comrades, and whose clan affiliation she doesn’t discover until the very end. We get to see the less glamorous side of the highly stratified and stylized Liaden society through the eyes of a lesser family that largely depends for survival on its ability to place its daughters in contract marriages for the purpose of producing children — something demanded of every male Liaden. It’s primarily a love story, and there’s a flavor of Jan Austen here, or perhaps Cinderella. Not as galaxy-spanning as some of the other Laden novels, but not bad at all. (9/19/07)
Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. I Dare. Atlanta: Meisha Merlin, 2002.
This is the fifth and concluding volume in the story arc that began with Agent of Change, and it’s a rip-roarer. Each of the volumes has focused of a separate individual (or couple) in Clan Korval and this time it’s Pat Rin yos’Phelium, a professional gambler and supposed ne’er-do-well — but he’s still Liaden to his marrow, and still Korval. Plan B has sent the scattered clan into hiding all across the galaxy and Pat Rin, in planning his revenge on those whom he erroneously believes have murdered everyone else in his family, settles on Surebleak as a base of operations — the very world where Miri Robertson, lifemate of Pat Rin’s nephew, Val Con, was born. The methods by which Pat Rin begins taking the place over are fascinating and illuminating in the differences between Liaden and Terran psychology. And, of course, Pat Rin acquires a love interest of his own. Meanwhile, Shan yos’Galan and his now-armed trading ship on the one hand, and Val Con and Miri and their mercenary contacts on the other hand, are pursuing their own somewhat divergent courses in suppressing the Department of the Interior. And there are always the Clutch turtles, following their own alien path. We also meet Daav yos’Phelium, Val Con’s long-missing father, who hears about what’s going on and comes back to the clan from whom he had separated himself decades before. It’s all a very satisfying and very well thought-out wrap-up — especially the climatic appearance of the many branches of the family in orbit around Liad. (9/17/07)
Gaiman, Neil. Death: The High Cost of Living. NY: DC Comics, 1994.
For me, as for many fans of the “Sandman” series, the best character is Death. Gaiman conceives her not as a frightening figure in a cowl and carrying a scythe, but as an exceedingly perky young woman who wears black jeans and leotards and sports rather Goth-y makeup. She likes people — she meets everyone eventually — and for one day per century she takes human form, just to keep in touch. This time, under the name of Didi, she hooks up with a depressed sixteen-year-old named Sexton, who is contemplating suicide. Sexton witnesses her interaction with Mad Hettie, who is 250 years old and wants her heart back, and with the Eremite, who tries to gain power over her, and with Hazel, the pregnant lesbian who appears in volume 5 of “Sandman.” Sexton observes that Didi somehow never has to pay for anything, not even cab fares. Death is particularly winning in this outing, taking interest in everything and pronouncing it “Neat!” At the end of the volume is a reprinting of the groundbreaking six-page comic, “Death Talks about Life,” a straight-up warning about AIDS and STDs generally, with a brief lesson (using a banana) on condoms. I don’t know if it won awards, but it should have. (9/14/07)
Gaiman, Neil. Fables & Reflections. (Sandman, v. 6) NY: Dell Comics, 1993.
To me, this is one of the best volumes in the series. It’s a collection of eight separate stories of varying lengths, almost all with an historical connection. (To more or less real people, that is.) And there’s no frame story for a change. “Three Septembers and a January” is a lovely piece about Emperor Norton, the deluded mascot of San Francisco for several decades in the 19th century, while “Thermidor” is a somewhat less successful piece about Lady Johanna Constantine and her search for the living head of Orpheus (who is also the son of Dream). Much later in the volume (oddly placed) is “Orpheus,” about how he lost his bride and then his head. “The Hunt” is about werewolves, sort of, and it’s cute but kind of a minor work. “August” is a fascinating and well-conceived story about the first Roman emperor’s habit of going out into the city in disguise one day a year, just to think. “Soft Places” is an okay story about a lost Marco Polo’s meeting in the desert with Fiddler’s Green. “The Parliament of Rooks” is about Cain and Abel and a visiting Eve telling stories to a small child — again, not that great, except for Eve’s own story about Adam’s three women. Finally, “Ramadan,” a near-masterpiece about Haroun al-Rashid, with artwork by P. Craig Russell reminiscent of Little Nemo. It’s literally a flying carpet story about the sultan and his golden city of Baghdad — and there’s a jarring ending that will bring you back to the present in a hurry. (9/13/07)
Gaiman, Neil. World’s End. (Sandman, v. 8) NY: Dell Comics, 1994.
Rather than a continuous narrative, this volume is a collection of short pieces with distinctly different artistic treatments. The frame story is that there’s an inn just outside space and time, where travelers just might find themselves marooned for awhile when a reality story hits. There not being much else to do, they take turns telling stories, Canterbury-style. Some, like “Cluracan’s Tale” and “The Golden Boy,” are quite good. Others, like “Hob’s Leviathan,” are just kind of pointless. For me, this is one of the less satisfying entries in an excellent series. (9/11/07)
Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Plan B. NY: Del Rey, 1998.
This is the fourth volume (out of five — I think) in a first-rate space opera story arc, set in the Liaden Universe, that began with Conflict of Honors. It’s all about Clan Korval, one of the wealthiest and most powerful trade families around, and the people in it, and their growing struggle with the Liaden Department of Interior (which has plans for running things their own narrow-minded way), and with the Juntavas (a sort of galactic Mafia), and their relations and alliances with various Terran groups and individuals. Key to the multiple plots are Val Con yos’Phelium — who becomes a Scout and then a spy, and then goes determinedly on the lam — and his lady-love, Miri Robertson, a talented ex-mercenary who thought she was Terran (and still mostly thinks that way) but who has discovered she’s actually a lost member of Clan Erob, a smaller Liad family that is closely allied with Korval. Val Con and Miri, now lifemates, have gone to Erob to get her accepted back into the family, and things are moving along well. But what they don’t know is that the attempts by Clan Korval, back home, to locate Val Con (who is supposed to take over the family’s leadership, whether he wants to or not), have led to an unhealthy interest in Korval by the Department of Interior. “This means war,” as they say. The current First Speaker, Nova yos’Galan, invokes “Plan B,” which can be summed up in two words: “Everybody scatter!” The family’s flagship is even outfitted as a battleship — and a very powerful one, too. And then all hell suddenly breaks loose, with an attack on Erob’s world by the dreaded Xytrang (a combination of Huns and Mongols, with a dash of Klingon), and Miri is suddenly pushed to the forefront, her mercenary experience in great demand. But things get even weirder when Val Con is able to recruit an Xytrang Scout-equivalent to fight on his side. There are loads of interwoven subplots here, plus interestingly developed personal relationships, and lots of classic military ground action. Don’t even think about trying to read this volume first, because you will have no idea of what’s going on; start at the beginning of the arc — but keep all the volumes handy because you won’t want to wait to start the next volume! (9/10/07)
Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Carpe Diem. NY: Del Rey, 1989.
This is the third volume in a story arc that began with Conflict of Honors, and it picks up right where Agent of Change left off, with Val Con yos’Phelium and Miri Robertson apparently marooned by circumstances on an interdicted (pre-spaceflight) world. Much of the book is taken up with the pair learning about and adapting to the local culture. As a Scout, Val Con is used to this, but Miri is essentially uneducated and has to flounder a bit before she learns about her own talents. Their use of music to fit themselves in is a nice theme. But there’s also the search for their missing kinsman being carried on by the Korvals — which draws the notice of the Department of Interior, which you don’t want to do. Again, the romantic element gets a bit out of control, but not too badly. And you want to have the next volume ready to hand when you finish this one! (9/08/07)
Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Agent of Change. NY: Del Rey, 1988.
This semi-sequel to Conflict of Honors is set about eight years later in the Liaden universe and focuses on Val Con yos’Phelium scheduled to become head of Clan Korval, cousin of Shan yos’Galen, skilled pilot, “First-In” Scout (responsible for investigating newly discovered worlds), and now a spy unhappily in the employ of Liad’s extremely secret Department of Interior. The Department adheres to a program of racial purity and Liaden supremacy, and they neither like nor trust the Korvals. He becomes involved, quite happenstantially, with Miri Robertson, a Terran (except she’s not) from a “ghetto” world, an ex-mercenary sergeant and ex-bodyguard who is on the run from the Juntavas, a kind of interplanetary Mafia. The romance element this time, unfortunately, is somewhat overwritten, but you can *bleep* over some of the mush in favor of the authors’ delightful depiction of the “turtles,” a truly alien race with whom Val Con has a deep and extensive history. The adventure proceeds apace! (9/07/07)
Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Conflict of Honors. NY: Del Rey, 1988.
Having read the latest two novels set in the Liaden universe first, I’m now having to go back and do it right. In this one, the first of a series of four, Priscilla Mendoza, having been declared persona non grata on her own world at the age of sixteen, has come up in the world and is now a skilled ship’s cargomaster — except she’s just been abandoned again, essentially left for dead. Shan yos’Galen, captain of the flagship of one of Liad’s most ancient and powerful houses — and also a Master Trader and a trained Healer — takes her on for his own reasons, having to do with Balance against another family. It’s high quality space opera combined with romance, with a strong vein of sociological SF reminiscent of C. J. Cherryh, and a touch of mysticism as well. (9/06/07)
Turtledove, Harry. Kaleidoscope. NY: Del Rey, 1990.
There are some authors whose comparatively least successful work is still far above the average — authors like Cherryh and Le Guin and Powers. But most writers go from superior to execrable, with the average being pretty, er, average. Turtledove, unfortunately, is one of those. This collection of thirteen of his short stories shows it isn’t just a matter of being better at longer or shorter length, either. A couple of these stories are among his best, like “And So to Bed,” a Pepys pastiche about the survival in the New World of australopithecines, and what their existence alongside homo sapiens might say to an intelligent man about natural selection. And there’s “The Road Not Taken,” in which most alien species discovered antigravity and hyperdrive early on, so that the invaders arrive in spaceships with cutlasses and flintlocks in hand. And the much-anthologized “The Last Article,” an alternate history story in which the victorious Nazis who conquered British India have their own way of dealing with Gandhi’s passive resistance. And there’s “Crybaby,” a well-written little piece of horror (which the author’s wife refuses to read, and no wonder). But most of the remaining stories are thoroughly mediocre, especially the two Dunsany-like fantasies. Even the “The Girl Who Took Lessons,” which isn’t SF at all, reads like a Redbook reject. (9/05/07)
Turtledove, Harry. Noninterference. NY: Del Rey, 1987.
The first thing you’ll think of reading this minor novel is “Prime Directive,” even though it has nothing to do with Star Trek. The Survey Service keeps an eye on pre-technological civilizations, with a strict hands-off policy, but a member of one team takes pity on the personable ruler of a Sumer-like culture and gives her something to cure her cancer. Unfortunately, when the next survey team comes back 1,500 years later, they find the queen is still alive and her kingdom is far ahead of where it reasonably ought to be. The Survey Service has political enemies who would like to see it shut down, and this is all the ammo they would need. And at that point, this turns into a lightweight version of a John Grisham chase story, with a bloodyminded bureaucrat committing mass murder to protect her budget. Speaking as a professional semi-bureaucrat myself, the author is way over the top on this one. I didn’t find it believable at all, not even on its own terms. (9/03/07)
Moore, Alan. Watchmen. NY: DC Comics, 1986.
When this epic first appeared in book form twenty years ago (and I first read it when it was new), it singlehandedly revolutionized the meaning of “comic book” and invented the “graphic novel” as we now know it. There are as many intertwined plotlines here as in a thousand-page blockbuster novel. At the opening of the story, the setting is the U.S. in 1985 — sort of. Richard Nixon appears to be in his fifth term, thanks to a constitutional amendment and the Vietnam War was won with the assistance of a handful of costumed adventurers, only one of whom has actual super-powers. In fact, much of the story is taken up with examining what happens to caped and masked crimefighters when they get too old to do their thing. (It’s a well-worn theme now, but this book invented it.) And it’s beginning to seem as if someone is arranging the disposal or de-fanging of the masked ones. The narrative is not only broad, though, it has considerable depth, including the backstories of all the major heroes and heroines, how they got into the business and why, what they have in common psychologically, and allowing them to be aware of just how oddball they are, compared to the rest of society. The artwork is realistic (which I prefer, frankly), with enormous subtlety in the flow and the continuity — beginning with the cover illustration and ending with the last page of the last chapter. Neat little details peek out from the corners of many of the panels, bits of earlier dialogue come to mind later on, and Moore knows the value of modified repetition in telling a story effectively. This is a book you will want to reread every few years, and I guarantee you’ll discover something new every time. A true masterpiece. (9/01/07)
Card, Orson Scott & Keith Ferrell (eds). Black Mist and Other Japanese Futures. NY: DAW, 1997.
I enjoy fiction with a Japanese setting, whether written by a Japanese author or not, so I had high hopes for this collection of five original stories. Alas, it’s not nearly as good as it might have been. Richard Lupoff’s title story, a murder mystery set in a Japanese research station on the Martian moon of Phobos, is perhaps the weakest in the volume. The characterization is shaky, the solution to the “mystery” is obvious almost from the beginning (I thought this was a red herring, but no), and a number of not entirely connected plot threads are left dangling (like the business with the “face on Mars”). “Tea from an Empty Cup,” by Pat Cadigan, set in a cyberworld that has little resemblance to what we actually ended up with, has been reprinted several times, and while it’s an interesting read, it’s far from being her best work. The best thing here, actually, is Paul Levinson’s rather short “A Medal for Harry,” a sly and disturbing piece about the nature of political truth. “Niagara Falling,” by Jack Dann, is a rather disconnected piece about a wealthy, newly-married young couple from Australia on their honeymoon at a Niagara Falls you won’t recognize, in a future where Canada and the U.S. are in serious trouble — though it’s not clear why. There’s nothing explicitly Japanese in this story, just a few bits of the background, and it’s equally “Arab” in its setting, so I’m not sure why it’s even in this collection. The best-written piece (or maybe just the most “literary”), though the plotting is a bit confusing, is “Thirteen Views of Higher Edo,” by Patric Helmann. This one is about an artist living and working in a manufactured orbital world conceived and populated by those who were bullied (ijime) on Earth. It’s interesting in places, especially in its delineation of the protagonist, Yukio, who only wants to be left alone to perform his job growing protein and to pursue his art on his own time, despite the mercantile demands of his world’s governing council. Altogether, though, this collection is a serious disappointment. (9/01/07)
Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Crystal Soldier. Atlanta: Meisha Merlin Publishing, 2005.
Somehow, I only discovered these authors’ “Liaden” series of very well written space opera with Balance of Trade. And this new one was written after that, so I seem to be working backwards. The protagonists this time are, first, M. Jela, a “generalist” and a very unusual sort of soldier, working to try to defeat an ancient enemy that has decided the universe would be a much tidier place without so many people and star systems in it. And it’s not at all certain they can be defeated. Second, caught up in this struggle entirely against her will is Cantra vos’Phelium, a very specially-bred human and a ship’s pilot of very considerable talent and ability. They come together by accident, join forces by necessity, and gradually come to depend on each other, and it all happens in an entirely believable way. Then there’s the third member of the crew — an intelligent and telepathic tree, rescued from a dying world by Jela. All this seems to have taken place in the distant past, incidentally, as seen from the perspective of Balance of Trade — which makes it a prequel, sort of. The dialogue — both spoken and unspoken — is skillfully done and the descriptions are crisp and vivid. The plotting is also nicely thought out. My only complaint is that this is the first half of a two-decker and the ending is very abrupt. I HATE cliffhangers! (Patience, patience. . . .)
ADDENDUM: Okay, having subsequently read all the earlier novels set in the Liaden universe, I now understand that Jela and Cantra are the near-mythic founders of Liad itself, Cantra being the captain of the ship that transports the refugee clans to their new home — all this subsequent to the action in Crystal Soldier (maybe in the second volume), but a thousand years in the past from the perspective of the Agent of Change sub-series. (8/30/07)
Pressfield, Steven. Gates of Fire. NY: Doubleday, 1998.
This wasn’t the author’s first novel, but it was the first of his now highly regarded military historical novels set in the classical world. The “gates” refer to the narrow series of passes at Thermopylae on the Malian Gulf, where three hundred Spartan warriors and a few thousand of their allies held out for three days against a hundred times their number of Persians and other Asian troops (and some conquered Greeks) under the personal command of Xerxes. The latter had designs on the whole of Europe, all the way to Gibraltar. The Spartans knew they had no chance of beating the Persians, or even of slowing them up significantly — but they also understood the value of setting a courageous example to the rest of Greece. The narration is by Xeones, a boy who comes to Sparta as a refugee after his own small city is destroyed by Argos. He hopes for revenge by the greatest soldiers in his world, and eventually becomes squire to Dienekes, one of the champions of Sparta, but also something of a philosopher (though he would have cringed at that Athenian designation). Through his eyes — as he tells his story to a Persian official historian following the battle at Thermopylae, which he has temporarily survived — we discover just what it is about the Spartan system that enabled it to produce such fighters, and which also made it such a relentlessly undemocratic and oppressive society in so many ways. Very few residents of Sparta were actually citizens, of course, and life as a helot was little better than slavery. (Athens could never have produced such an invincible heavy infantry, but Sparta could never have produced such a humanist culture.) Pressfield does a splendid job of delineating his characters at all levels, and of pointing out the differences between the Greek and Asian mindsets. And, through Dienekes, he explores in great depth the meaning of “courage” and “fear” in war. I don’t know what Pressfield’s military experience may be, if any, but this book is now required reading at the U.S. Military Academy. And his descriptions of what a soldier’s mind is like will ring true to any reader who has ever been under fire. (8/28/07)
Fairbairn, Neil. A Traveller’s Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. London: Evans Brothers, 1983.
This is generally a pretty good series for the traveler (or just the reader) who wants to get into various aspects of British history in more depth. This volume is a bit disappointing, though. It lists seventy-nine battles in British history, from Ashdown in 871 AD to Culloden in 1746 — and then it actually covers only forty-seven of them. The others, they say, are omitted “either because they are not immediately rewarding to visit or because access is in some way restricted.” In other words, the average package tour might find them boring? Please. And among those omitted are Stamford Bridge, Evesham, Stirling, Bannockburn, Neville’s Cross, St. Alban’s, and Edgehill, all of them important engagements in the nation’s military and political history. For those battles it does include, the coverage is pretty decent, with simplified unit placement maps overlaid on present-day maps, a selection of photos (all in black-and-white, unfortunately), and a pretty good summary of the whys and wherefores of the battle itself. (8/26/07)
Davies, Roger J. & Osamu Ikeno (eds). The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 2002.
Both editors are professors at Ehime University in Matsuyama, both working in fields relating to English language education, and they have put together a collection of twenty-eight relatively brief essays — all written by fourth-year students and then polished with the help of the faculty — on such key attitudes, patterns of behavior, traditions, and social underpinnings. These include group consciousness, the Japanese and ambiguity, personal space, childrearing, the Japanese sense of beauty, male/female relationships, seniority, and other topics that often are puzzling to Westerners. The writing is uniformly clear, even when explaining complex concepts, and there’s a detailed bibliography (much of it to works in Japanese, however). A very informative resource for any American trying to figure out the Japanese. (8/26/07)
Miller, Frank. 300. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 1999.
There’s been a lot of attention paid to this comic book series since the movie was released based on it, and I have to say I don’t know what all the excitement was about. Generally speaking, I like Miller’s work, both his writing and his drawing style. But this thing is just silly. Historically, in fact, it’s a bad joke. Both the Persians and the Greeks mostly look Moorish, not Aryan at all. And Xerxes (who appears sub-Saharan) is a travesty, with piercings all over his face. The hoplites seem to have no food, no baggage, and no spare weapons, which is unhistorical. Nor was facial hair allowed. Also, hoplites were heavy infantry — emphasis on “heavy” — and they most certainly did not fight near-naked. The Immortals are pure Hollywood in appearance. The Phocian wall, where the heaviest fighting took place, was not built for the occasion but was already a centuries-old old frontier fortification. Not to mention — where exactly is the Spartan phalanx? And on and on. . . . Thermopylae is a great subject for a graphic novel, but this treatment of it is just dumb. (8/24/07)
Velez, Ivan. Dead High Yearbook. NY: Dutton, 2007.
I picked up this sort-of graphic novel because it looked promising, but I have to say I was disappointed. It’s a collection of nine short horror stories, all set in the inner-city high school culture, and while there are a few good bits — especially the story about gung-ho Clara, who just can’t quit when it comes to acing the S.A.T. — they’re just not enough to justify buying the book. The art is derivative (reminds me of Craig Thompson), the plots are reminiscent of Tales of the Crypt (you can practically hear Vincent Price playing organ in the background), and the dialogue simply tries too hard. If you’re older than twelve, save your money. (8/23/07)
Byrnes, Pat. What Would Satan Do? NY: Abrams, 2005.
Cartoons of the New Yorker variety are a long way from comic books or most newspaper comic strips when it comes to social commentary. Byrnes is a well-known practitioner of the slightly cynical cartoonist’s art, often giving the reader pause: “Wait — What did he just say?” Like the businessman asking on the phone, “What’s our policy on honesty?” Or the magnate remarking to a younger manager, “When I lost my sense of humor, I lost my sense of compassion, which is how I got where I am today.” And sometimes his commentary is sharper, such as with the parents in front of a family camp-tent addressing their youngest child: “I’m sorry, Tommy, you’ve been voted out.” (8/23/07)
De Mente, Boye Lafayette. Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the Rules that Make the Difference. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1990.
In Japan, as visiting foreigners keep discovering — if they’re paying proper attention — “etiquette” means a great deal more than simply knowing which knife and fork to use. (Or, in this case, what not to do with your chopsticks.) Japan has been a deeply and subtly ritualized and mannered society for millennia, and even with the postwar easing of some rituals and the introduction and acceptance of certain Westernisms — and even though the Japanese are generally tolerant of minor faux pas on the part on non-Japanese — the foreign visitor still needs to be very aware of the expectations of those around him. However, this book is also an excellent source for the non-visitor who simply has an interest in Japanese society and culture. The author has both been a periodic resident and been otherwise closely involved with Japan for going on six decades, and he’s also a very observant and thoughtful writer, which makes him an ideal guide for the westerner on all things Japanese. He not only tells you what to do, what not to do, and what you can get away with, he provides the historical background, the psychological rationalization, which not even some Japanese are really aware of. This will help you to extrapolate your behavior in other situations, and will assist you toward an understanding of why the Japanese are the way they are. Those shallow-thinkers who consider the Japanese simply “inscrutable,” alien, and beyond American understanding should definitely read this book. (8/23/07)
Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Balance of Trade. Atlanta: Meisha Merlin Publishing, 2004.
It may be a matter of prejudice, but when I first encountered this superior example of “social” science fiction, I had considerable doubts whether it would be worth reading. Any novel worth publishing will be snapped up by a large commercial publisher, right? So why was this one coming from somebody’s kitchen table (so to speak) rather than Tor or Baen or Ballantine? Well, I still don’t know the answer to that one, but I’ll definitely be hunting up the rest of this series. It’s basically a Bildungsroman starring Jethri Gobelyn, a young but talented Apprentice Trader on his family’s merchant ship, which ekes out a more or less comfortable living between planets. At one port, however, shortly after he’s been informed he’s being apprenticed to another ship (a notion he doesn’t like at all), he becomes the victim of a con artist. But the con involves a (completely innocent) Master Trader of the Liaden, a society whose trading skills are legendary and whose attachment to ritualized etiquette approaches the Japanese in intensity. It’s very easy to insult a Liaden. Jethri suddenly has the opportunity to apprentice instead to the Master Trader in question, and he naturally jumps at it. From there, Jethri becomes our guide in the complexities of Liaden culture and psychology — and a fascinating journey it is, too. The authors do a deft job developing all their characters, and they also show real skill at dialogue and delightful turn of phrase. The plot is complex but clear, and they leave room for a direct sequel. (The rest of the series appears to be separate, independent stories set in a shared future.) (8/22/07)
Pressfield, Steven. The Virtues of War. NY: Doubleday, 2004.
This superior historical novel really ought to be read before his latest one, The Afghan Campaign, which enlarges on one of Alexander’s later campaigns, and from a different perspective — but they’re really two separate narratives, so no harm done if (like me) you read them in reverse order. The narrator is Alexander himself, outlining the history of his conquest of Asia for the benefit of one of the cadets who study military science in the king’s tent while on campaign. He begins with his early life and his succession to the throne after the assassination of his father, Philip, himself something of a military genius. But Alexander is a prodigy, being everything his father was and far more, with the ability to look at the ground and foresee the battle that will take place there and to foresee the enemy’s battle plan. He also possesses an extreme degree of charisma; his troops adore him, even when (as later in the conquest) they fear his altered personality. By the time the Macedonians have passed through Persia proper and have completely changed their approach to warfare to suit the guerilla action in Afghanistan (the king’s doing again), and have reached the frontier of India, they’re tired to the soul and want only to return home. But Alexander dreams of standing on the shore of the Eastern Ocean, which he’s sure can’t be far beyond the Ganges. This is the story of Alexander’s mental evolution, from semi-barbarian king holding sway in the remote north of the Greek-speaking lands to Eastern potentate who has acquired a taste for all things Persian. But Pressfield also describes the major battles along the way, especially Gaugamela, in fascinating detail. You can see the action, really see it, and understand why each side does what it does, and why the results are what they are. In that regard, this is almost a classical military science textbook. An excellent piece of work. (8/19/07)
Kwitney, Alisa. The Sandman, King of Dreams. NY: DC Comics, 2003.
From the fall of 1987 to the beginning of 1996, Neil Gaiman worked mostly on the “Sandman” series of comics, . . . which became trade book collections, and merchandise, and fannish websites, and spin-off books by other writers. Morpheus gave it all up in the end, but the readers haven’t. One of the best spin-offs is this overview, or commentary, or summation, of the series, from the first issue to the last, by one of the assistant editors with whom Gaiman worked. She’s gone on to other things, too, but she obviously can’t leave the Endless behind any more than the paying readers can. It’s nice to be able to revisit, all in one place, the wide range of artists who worked on the series and to read Gaiman’s brief comments on the origins of certain story arcs and the interconnections between others, not all of which were intentional. And, as Kwitney says, if you’ve picked up this book without having read about the Sandman, . . . well, now’s your chance. (8/17/07)
Tan, Terry. Culture Shock! Britain. Portland, OR: Graphic Arts, 1992.
I’ve read several books in this series and this is, frankly, one of the least useful. The author is a native of Singapore (presumably ethnic Chinese) who moved more or less permanently to Britain in the early 1980s, but he seems still not to quite get it. There are also more than a few generalizations regarding non-Anglos that border on racism. In surveying the regions of the island, he mostly notes which famous authors came from there, or set their novels there. He seems to assume that various aspects of the British psyche will be very difficult for foreigners to understand — things an American wouldn’t give a second thought to, especially anyone who watches BBC programs on PBS. Perhaps it’s just that Brits and Yanks, most of them, have a language in common. And there are numerous errors which should have been caught by an English copyeditor. No, “vicar” and “rector” do not “mean the same thing.” And a vicar is not “sometimes known as a parson.” He also seems to confuse Thomas Cranmer with Thomas Cromwell. And you “psych” yourself up (not “psyche”); there are lots and lots of minor but off-putting blunders like that. He also feels it necessary to explain how to use a place setting at table (the order of forks and spoons, etc). It’s not the author’s fault, obviously, that a fifteen-year-old book can’t take into account the vast changes in Tony Blair’s Britain, nor that the Royal Family has changed considerably. But Orin Hargraves’s book on London in this series, published in 1997, is far more astute (and less fawning and bedazzled) about the British than Tan. (However, like all the books in this series, the index is downright pathetic.) (8/16/07)
Pressfield, Steven. The Afghan Campaign. NY: Doubleday, 2006.
I hadn’t read anything by Pressfield since Gates of Fire, but this one looked interesting and I have a long-time interest in Alexander, so I picked it up at the library. I was put off at first at the appearance in the first few pages of fake soldierly slang — how likely is it that the Macedonian infantry referred to themselves as “Macks”? — but I stuck with it and quickly became absorbed in the author’s detailed depiction of the Greek attempt to conquer a country extremely unlike theirs. It’s pretty obvious Pressfield wants you to draw comparisons between Alexander’s attempted conquest and the American attempt 2,300 years later, and he makes it clear that not much has changed in terms of the Afghan psyche. Not even the adoption of Islam has made that much fundamental difference; the Afghans were the way they are many centuries before Mohammed. The character of young Matthias, a glory-seeking recruit, is similar to that of young soldiers today, especially regarding the shock of his first kill, his admiration of the enemy coupled with his profound lack of understanding of them, and his adhesion to his mates, for whom he would readily die. Shinar, the local girl with whom he becomes tragically involved, is also carefully and very sympathetically drawn, as are the portraits of Lucas, his best friend from home, and Flag, the veteran sergeant for whom he develops a close regard. (8/16/07)
Bantock, Nick. Urgent 2nd Class: Creating Curious Collage, Dubious Documents, and Other Art from Ephemera. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004.
Bantock is probably best known for his “Griffin & Sabine” saga, consisting of slightly warped three-dimensional collections of fictional correspondence, and it’s the sort of art he incorporated into those works that he discusses here. I’m a stamp collector myself with a special interest in heavily engraved 19th century stamps from countries and colonies most people have never heard often featuring obscure subjects. Likewise, as a professional archivist, I also have a fondness for old letters and their postmarked covers, old bureaucratic documents with seals, rubber stamps, and arcane endorsements, and antique maps of places that may no longer exist. All of this is grist to Bantock’s mill and the imaginative ways in which he incorporates such elements (sometimes into collages, but not always) are perfectly fascinating. Since this isn’t a manual on how to draw or paint with oils, the actual instructions are few; he simply shows you intriguing examples and says, in effect, “Here’s one way you can do it.” It’s more a source for inspiration than a manual. But it’s a neat book. (8/15/07)
De Mente, Boyé Lafayette. The Japanese Have a Word for It: The Complete Guide to Japanese Thought and Culture. Chicago: Passport Books, NTC, 1997.
The Japanese have a much more complex, almost religious, relationship with their own language than speakers of European languages, and they tend to believe that no non-Japanese can learn it. (The fact that some do tends to upset them, as being out of the natural order.) There are many words and phrases in Japanese that encapsulate attitudes and built-in beliefs and the author selects 230 for investigation and explanation, relating them to attitudes and actions by Japanese-speakers and explaining how English-speakers can best deal with the situations they relate to. This includes numerous aspects of the Japanese dependence on form and formality, cultural control and conformity, group-think as opposed to individuality, group responsibility and social guaranty, reverence toward government, and other parts of the Japanese psyche that are difficult for foreigners to understand. In most cases, he also discusses the applications of a concept to business negotiations, but the possibility of the reader becoming enlightened about all things Japanese is much wider than that. This is a book you should make notes in. (8/15/07)
Reed, Walt. The Illustrator in America, 1860-2000. 3d ed. NY: HarperCollins for the Society of Illustrators, 2001.
In music, I’ve always preferred chamber music, a woodwind quintet, over a full-blown symphony orchestra. Similarly, ever since high school I’ve been fascinated by book and magazine illustration over Rembrandt and Picasso. I’ve built up quite a collection of illustrated books and magazines, plus covers and jackets, ranging from Leyendecker and Rockwell to Frazetta and the Hildebrandts. This volume is less a history of American illustration than an encyclopedic catalog of some 650 of its practitioners, from the Harper’s Weekly “special artists” of the Civil War period to modern artists of science fiction paperback covers. There’s a brief bio sketch for each with an example or two of their work, organized by decade — though placement within a decade is somewhat arbitrary for those with lengthy careers. All my old favorites are here, like John Held (I used to work with his grandson), Gordon Hope Grant, Hannes Bok, N. C. Wyeth, Winsor McCay, Donald Teague, Floyd Davis, and many, many others. I also discovered many artists whose work I had seen but whom I knew nothing about. Besides being a first-rate reference book, this is a great time-sink, and it will have a permanent place on my art shelf — if I can every bring myself to put it down. (8/14/07)
Heinlein, Robert A. Assignment in Eternity. NY: NAL, 1953.
The four novelettes in this collection were originally published in magazines between 1941 and 1949, and some have worn better than others. “Gulf” starts out as a secret agent adventure, but then settles into a straw-man argument for elitist rule by superior men (or in this case, intellectual supermen) — for our own good, of course. Also, it reads like the first half of a typical Heinlein semi-juvenile adventure novel, but the second half has been crammed into a couple of pages at the end. “Elsewhen” is a more freewheeling and speculative yarn in which a college professor enables a group of his students in “speculative philosophy” to jump out of our world-line into other times or places, or both. (Naturally, the most successful transplants are the engineering students.) “Lost Legacy” is hard to classify. It starts out as less fiction and more a Socratic dialogue on the nature of the mind, then morphs into a sort of “secret history,” New Age plot (in 1941 . . .) involving Ambrose Bierce and Mount Shasta, then turns into a fight between Good and Evil. “Jerry Was a Man” is the most straightforward story in this volume, about genetic manipulation as a way to “uplift” those species just below homo sapiens in intellectual development — in this case, a chimpanzee named Jerry. But it’s really about the definition of human-ness, and it’s a pretty good story. All in all, this is not even close to Heinlein’s best work, but it’s worth reading. (8/13/07)
McCall, Bruce. All Meat Looks Like South America. NY: Crown, 2003.
This is McCall’s fourth book and I own them all, having been a fan of his work since he first began appearing in National Lampoon more than thirty years ago. His art is satire of a particularly sly sort, taking things to unreasonable extremes — planes that are too huge or too heavy to fly, but which helped win the war, etc — and his style combines realism with absurdities of scale. He’s not above being political, either, as “Mr. Bush Has a Dream” will show. McCall produces grins rather than wild laughter, but that’s okay with me. He’s the reason the word “wacky” was invented. (8/10/07)
Heinlein, Robert A. The Puppet Masters. NY: Doubleday, 1951.
This is not only one of the best alien invasion yarns since H. G. Wells, it’s one of the best horror stories of the last fifty years. Sam (not his real name) is an agent for a very, very secret department of the U.S. government — so much so that not even the government’s other secret agencies know about his outfit. The Old Man (his boss) calls him in one day to go and investigate a purported flying saucer landing in Iowa, together with another agent, a stunning redhead named Mary (not her real name, either). Needless to say, the landing ain’t a hoax — though the invaders try to make it look that way. But the aliens are parasites the size of a dinner plate who attach themselves between a human being’s shoulderblades and hook into the spinal cord, thereby putting themselves in complete control of the host. It’s going to be a very nasty, very paranoid war. And Heinlein is in top form telling it, especially the section in which Sam himself becomes a victim. This novel, though now more than half a century old, reads better than most of the author’s other books from that period, and I was puzzled for years why it was never made into a film. Well, that happened in 1994, but the result was pretty crappy — almost as bad as the film version of Starship Troopers. Let’s have a good film based on this book! (8/09/07)
Heinlein, Robert A. Between Planets. NY: Ace, 1951.
This is an expanded version of a story that originally appeared in Blue Book Magazine, but it still reads in a somewhat hurried way; at 190 pages, it would have benefitted from being expanded even farther. Still, it’s a workmanlike juvenile about young Don Harvey, born out in space to a Terran father and a Venusian colonial mother — who are now working on Mars in any case. He’s attending school on Earth as a colonial rebellion is breaking out, finds himself an “enemy alien,” and just manages to get off-world. He’s also an unwitting courier for a shadowy, underground political group his parents are involved with. His adventures build as he gets caught up in events and the story is a straightforward adventure, better told than many of Heinlein’s later books. (8/07/07)
Pessl, Marisha. Special Topics in Calamity Physics. NY: Viking, 2006.
When a first novel by a new, young author receives as many glowing (not to say fawning) reviews as this one has, especially by people like Jonathan Franzen, I’m willing to make a considerable effort to stay with it, just to see what all the fuss is about. But wading through this volume is like slogging through shin-deep mud, uphill, with a seventy-pound pack on your back. I made it through page 107 before finally giving up. Pessl is smart, well educated, very well read, and observes people and situations very closely indeed. And she makes sure you’re aware of it with every single sentence she writes. A little less pushy erudition — okay, a lot less — would have improved the prose. Less literary showing off would have helped, too. And the gimmick of supposedly witty inline citations got very old very quickly. Blue Van Meer might be an interesting person to know (her father much less so, I imagine), but if she presented herself the way Pessl presents her, she wouldn’t have many friends. Likewise, Hannah Schneider is an intriguing character — even though you’re told only a few pages in that she’s going to die rather badly, which I think was a strategic error on Pessl’s part. Oh, there’s some nice writing here, some cute turns of phrase, but not enough to balance out the sheer preening weight of the thing. (8/04/07)
Heinlein, Robert A. Job: A Comedy of Justice. NY: Ballantine, 1984.
Heinlein uses “comedy” in the Dantean sense, and his tour of the workings of both heaven and hell caused a number of evangelical preachers to fulminate against this book for “blasphemy” when it first appeared. Good for RAH! He does indeed do a sly number on organized religion, of which he was never a fan. Alexander Hergensheimer, assistant director of a large Christian money-raising organization in Kansas City (which is definitely not a charity), takes a vacation to Tahiti and makes the mistake of letting himself be roped into attempting a fire-walking. Not that he’s injured by the experience — but his world has subtly changed. When he gets back to his cruise ship, he finds that he’s now Alec Graham, that the world is suddenly a great deal more free-wheeling in moral terms, and that there’s not a thing he can about it. While fitting himself very gingerly into his new role, he also falls in love with Margrethe, the starboard-side stewardess. But his trials and tribulations are just beginning. Every time he and his girl take a step back toward Alec’s roots, something happens: The ship strikes an iceberg (in the South Pacific), a Mexican town is destroyed by an earthquake (twice), their tourist cabin disappears (taking their small store of money with it), and on and on. It’s Job’s experience all over again — literally. Alec is a thoroughgoing bigot, a narrowminded Protestant who has little patience with Papists, wonders whether it’s time for some kind of “final solution” for the Jews, and regards “Blackamoors” as inherently inferior. But the whole North American Union is like that, so Alec is largely a product of the worst side of the American mentality. Eventually, the Rapture does come and Alec is taken off to Heaven — but it’s not at all what he was expecting. (In the Heavenly City, there’s only one Commandment left: R.H.I.P.) The really interesting (and unsettling) thing, though, is that the Christian political platform of Alec’s organization, which the author obviously meant the reader to perceive as very extreme (the death penalty for abortion, no votes for women, no legal divorce, mandatory religion in schools, etc), are now — barely twenty years later — part and parcel of the real platform of the real Christian Right. And if that doesn’t give you pause. . . . (8/02/07)
Spiegelman, Peter. Black Maps. NY: Knopf., 2003.
I saw good reviews of the third novel in this series, and not being the sort of person to start in the middle of something, I went back and found this one — apparently his first novel of any kind. And as a first, it’s not bad. The protagonist is John March, born into a moderately wealthy New York banking family (all his siblings work for the company his grandfather founded), who fell in love his senior year in college with the daughter of an upstate sheriff, followed her home after graduation, and became a deputy for his father-in-law. Then she was killed — the author was right not to overdo the backstory — and March came back to Manhattan, where he became a PI. Now three years have passed, he’s still not really over the trauma, and he’s sort of floating through life. Through a lawyer friend, he gets involved in a blackmail case involving a collapsed bank (think international money-laundering on a huge scale) now in liquidation. The plot is well thought out, due undoubtedly to the author’s own background in international banking and the design of financial software, and the complications are nicely explained for the uninitiated. The pace in the early part of the book is rather slow, though, and except for a couple of isolated scenes, it doesn’t really pick up until eighty percent of the way through. Then he really lets out the clutch. The dialogue is well done, as are the characters, though Spiegelman could spend less time describing each passing individual and their attire in such minute detail; at least he stops short of quoting the laundry instructions tag. It’s a very promising beginning, though, and I’ll be following this series from now on. (8/01/07)
Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman: Endless Nights. NY: DC Comics, 2003.
After the 11-volume “Sandman” series had been completed, Gaiman came back and wrote these seven stories, one for each of the “Endless,” partly because he wanted the opportunity to work with each of the artists involved. Unfortunately, the result is not entirely successful. Milo Manara, one of my absolute favorite artists of any kind, contributes a very nice rendering of Desire’s story (natural), and Glenn Fabry does likewise for Destruction — though the story here is not nearly as strong — but Bill Sienkiewicz’s work on Delirium is confusing and Barron Storey on Despair is just a postmodernist mess. (7/30/07)
Gaiman, Neil. Brief Lives. (Sandman, v. 7) NY: DC Comics, 1992.
This is one of my two favorites in the 11-volume “Sandman” series, which has proven Gaiman to be a genius storyteller. Three centuries ago, Destruction — one of the seven Endless, who existed even before the gods — abandoned his responsibilities, left his realm, and went off to do his own thing. Essentially, he ran away from home. Not that the world has lacked for destruction since then, but he’s not behind it, anyway. Delirium, who has roughly the persona of a three-year-old combined with a drugged-out-flower child — but is a very sweet person for all that (well, . . . not “person” . . .), misses her big brother and tries to find one of her siblings to help her look for him and convince him to return. Dream (the Sandman) finally agrees to accompany her, but for his own reasons, and the quest brings in a number of innocent bystanders (who suffer, as bystanders do), as well as an assortment of ancient but now out-of-work deities. A number of neat ideas are tossed out casually, too, like the notion that a few thousand people still exist on Earth from the very earliest days of civilization, or even from the dawn of the species. Bernie the lawyer, killed by the collapsing wall of a derelict building, tells Death, “I did okay, didn’t I? I lived fifteen thousand years. That’s a pretty long time.” To which Death, a pragmatic sort who resembles a Goth girl, replies, “You got what everybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more, no less.” Great stuff. (7/29/07)
Gaiman, Neil. A Game of You. (Sandman, v. 5) NY: DC Comics, 1991.
This is one of my two favorites in the 11-volume “Sandman” series, which has proven Gaiman to be a genius storyteller. I think I like this one especially because it’s a full-length continuing story, not a collection of short pieces, and because the characters are terrific (all of them are just ordinary people, including the witch and the princess), and also because Gaiman is a master of poetic dialogue. The story begins in a New York tenement for mostly women, all of them genuine characters, and several of them with connections to characters in earlier volumes. Then Barbie — Princess Barbara — is threatened and three of her friends set off on the Moon Road to help her. But Barbie is on a quest of her own, to seek out and defeat the Cuckoo, through a land of her own dreams and imaginings. The Endless are actually rather minor characters this time, but the story doesn’t suffer for it. (7/28/07)
Gaiman, Neil. Preludes & Nocturnes. (Sandman, v. 1) NY: DC Comics, 1988.
This was the beginning of one of the great comic series of recent decades, which became one of the best-selling graphic novel series as well. It’s not Gaiman’s best, not by a long shot, nor is the art even up to the quality of the script, but you can see what’s coming down the road. The first few chapters detail the capture and imprisonment of the Sandman, the Dream Maker, the lord of the world of imagination, and one of the Endless — a pantheon of Gaiman’s own devising, but based on a variety of classical mythological threads. The artwork, though, can’t help but remind you of the Crypt-Keeper in the old EC Comics. Which is interesting for us old-timers, but dated. What’s most jarring, though, is the intersection of the Dreamer’s quest to recover his possessions with characters from the Justice League comics. Later volumes in the series will snap that bond, fortunately. (7/28/07)
Heinlein, Robert A. Starman Jones. NY: Scribner, 1953.
I believe this is the first science fiction novel I ever read — shortly after it came out, when I was in 4th Grade. It certainly hooked me on adventure stories about space and aliens, and it increased my interest in future technology, . . . as it was understood at that time, with slide rules and printed logarithm tables, and with huge “computing machines” filled with wires and tubes. Max Jones, the hero of the story, is a self-confessed hillbilly who yearns to get into space. (The author seems to feel the animal-powered cultural isolation of the Ozarks in the mid-20th century would continue into a time of extra-solar colonization, in a rather hidebound society run by inherited guild membership.) He comes under the questionable influence of an ex-spaceman and, through forgery and chicanery, gets his wish as a low-ranking steward’s mate on a commercial star liner. But Max also has considerable talents as a mathematician — plus a very handy eidetic memory — so he’s shortly being pulled up the ranks into the ship’s control room itself. And as the emergencies begin to stack up, Max, naturally, becomes a hero, even as he confesses to his earlier fraud. It’s a better-than-average yarn, with good dialogue, a worthwhile moral, and engaging characters. Even with the lack of “modern” technology, it’s still worth recommending to adolescent readers. (7/27/07)
Scalzi, John. The Android’s Dream. NY: Tor, 2006.
Scalzi is nothing if not original. He’s best known for the “Old Man’s War” military series, but this off-the-wall yarn is quite different, being a combination of spy fiction, interplanetary conspiracies, deliberately created theology (by a third-rate science fiction author-slash-con man, no less), a satirical treatment of federal bureaucracy, some intriguing future computer applications (involving a resurrected infantryman turned semi-superhero) planet-busting space fleets, and through it all a cynical, dour humor and some great dialogue. And every now and then, the laughter freezes in your throat when the plot shows its teeth. A good weekend’s read. (7/26/07)
Indriðason, Arnaldur. Silence of the Grave. NY: St. Martin, 2006.
When I first began reading this author’s first translated novel, Jar City, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it. Then I got caught up in it and it’s stayed in my mind ever since. This second novel featuring the dour, laconic Detective Erlendur Sveinsson of Reykjavik, isn’t as gray in tone and texture as the first one, but it’s just as unsettling, . . . not unlike an Icelandic saga, in fact. Again like the first book, the plot hinges on a crime committed long ago, revolving this time on the identification of a body found in a foundation excavation in a new housing subdivision. The story shifts between the present day, in which Erlendur has to deal with a university archaeologist who has undertaken to excavate the body (their forensics expert being on vacation in Spain at the moment), and the days of the Allied occupation during the 1940s, when an entire family is living in continual fear of domestic abuse. Because, even though the cover rather erroneously calls this a “thriller,” it’s really a story about strained family relationships and all the variations that situation can take. Erlendur has a very iffy relationship with his pregnant, drugged-out daughter, and a twenty-year nonspeaking relationship with his ex-wife. One of his detectives is in the middle of a crisis with his live-in girlfriend, who wants commitment. A vicious wife-beater has a sick relationship with everyone in the house. Another possible victim whose body it might be had a series of troubled relationships with fiancé and family. And on and on. Anyone who has read Henning Mankell will see a resemblance in Erlendur to Kurt Wallender. (Maybe it’s a Scandinavian thing.) So, don’t expect a lot of cop-type action here, but do expect a very well-written novel. (7/23/07)
Swanwick, Michael. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. NY: Avon, 1994.
As he showed so expertly in Jack Faust, industrialism and medievalism are two sides of the same rusty coin. Jane is a mortal changeling, kidnapped by the powers of a very unpleasant version of Faerie to be a “breeder,” producing half-elf pilots for the iron dragons. Until she’s old enough for that, though, she’s put to work in a dragon factory, working twelve hours a day and living a dreary, dangerous existence with other children, none of whom are human. But that’s just the beginning of her life, which will take her through a sort-of high school and then to the university in The Gray City, and which will turn on her talents as a thief, her carefully nurtured cold-bloodedness, her discovery of sex, and especially on her relationship with a slightly insane rogue dragon. While it’s common enough for female authors to create thoroughly believable male protagonists, the reverse, for some reason, is much less often the case. Swanwick, however, does a first-rate job with Jane and with the supporting cast that haunts her life. A bleak, disturbing, and mind-grabbing book you will reread periodically — I guarantee it. (7/22/07)
Wessex, Edward, Earl of. Crown and Country: a Personal Guide to Royal London. London: HarperCollins, 1999.
This gorgeous coffee-table volume is the outgrowth of a TV series created by the most artistic of the HRHs. While the book has certain problems, it’s nevertheless easy to lose a whole Sunday engrossed in its beautiful photography and anecdotal history. From the Saxon kings on, London and the monarchy have had a very close relationship — though not always a friendly one. Edward’s goal here is to explore the physical remnants of that relationship, from the assortment of present and past palaces (not only Buckingham Palace, but Hatfield House, Whitehall, Westminster, Kensington, Hampton Court, and many more), other structures assorted with the Sovereign (the Tower, Blackheath, St. Paul’s, Kingston-upon-Thames, etc), and, naturally, the River Thames itself. The problem is, whoever the principal editor was (probably not Edward himself) didn’t do a very careful job. Often the same descriptive sentences are repeated in the text, then in the sidebar in the same spread, and then often in the photo captions as well. (One would think there would be plenty of other nonrepetitive things to say.) There are also an unsettling number of awkwardnesses and infelicities which lead the reader to stumble. Often the capsule history of a location jumps around chronologically, causing one to say, “Wait — what?” Finally, the fact-checking is rather sloppy for a royal who took his degree in history: Christopher Wren did not use “dynamite” to demolish the ruins of Old St. Paul’s after the Great Fire, . . . dynamite having not been invented until the 19th century by Alfred Nobel. Still, it’s a lovely book. (7/20/07)
Heinlein, Robert A. Orphans of the Sky. NY: Putnam, 1964.
The idea in this Heinlein juvenile is a good one. In fact, it’s the prototype for a much-used plot by later writers: A colony ship headed for Proxima Centauri disappears and is never heard from again. The ship is capable of maintaining essential systems indefinitely, however, and over the generations, the passengers and crew devolve into a “village” society with scientists at the top of the pyramid and peasants at the bottom, just trying to raise enough food to survive. Naturally, they have no idea they’re all inside something. To them, the Ship equals the universe. But Hugh, a bright young man consumed with curiosity, gradually finds out different. Unfortunately, Heinlein throws all this away by telegraphing the entire plot in the very first lines of the first page, and the action is often sketchy in order to get to where the author wants to be for his next set-piece. And he tosses out various observations on this closed society (like the subordinate position of all women) without ever discussing the whys and wherefores — which is very un-Heinleinian. Even the dialogue is rather colorless. Originally two separate magazine novelettes, this 187-page volume is basically a tailoring job. Still, it’s almost an outline for what should have been a book of two or three times its length. (7/19/07)
Gaiman, Neil. Season of Mists. (Sandman, v. 4) NY: DC Comics, 1992.
As everyone knows who reads his stuff, Gaiman is as original as. In this installment, the Lord of Dreams (one of the Endless, all of whom begin with a “D”) goes to Hell prepared to do battle with Lucifer in order to obtain the release of an ex-lover he condemned there some ten thousand years ago. But Lucifer surprises him by evicting everyone from the underworld, shutting the place down, locking it up tight, and handing the Dreamer the key. What happens in a Creation with no functioning Hell? For one thing, the dead come back (not “to life” — just back). For another, a great many deities from an assortment of pantheons, not to mention the evicted demonic tormentors, want to get their hands on the vacant property for their own reasons. As I said: Extremely original. And very well worked out, too. Another strong hit from a true Big Leaguer. (7/19/07)
Heinlein, Robert A. & Spider Robinson. Variable Star. NY: Tor, 2006.
I picked up this book with some trepidation, for two reasons: A novel begun (or, in this case, heavily outlined) by one author and completed by another “as” (in the style of) the first author is almost always a bad idea. And, while I have nothing against him, I’ve never been especially drawn to Spider Robinson’s work, no matter how many awards he’s won. My tastes just don’t run that way. However, I’m a longtime Heinlein fan, so I had to find out if this book was worth the reading. And, well, it is — if you don’t expect too much. It’s several centuries in the future and Joel Johnston, college student, talented sax-man, and son of a Nobel-winning physicist, is involved with a girl with a mysterious past, to whom he proposes. And then finds out she’s the granddaughter of one of the wealthiest men in the Solar System. Granddad assumes he’ll give up all his own plans to train to take over the family empire, and Joel responds by getting drunk and then shipping out on a colony ship, the voyage of which will take twenty years. I.e., there ain’t no going back. Most of the story is about his experiences and personal development within the ship’s microcosm and it’s interesting enough, but it’s really not very Heinlein-ian. However, just when you’ve settled in for the ride, the real story rises up and smacks you in the face. Robinson has set this thing a couple of generations after the end of the Prophets’ reign, and Coventry is still in use, so it’s one version of RAH’s “Future History,” though the author has the sense to move it sufficiently far in the future that readers a few years from now won’t have passed it by. (Heinlein set most of the events in his own stories in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.) The dialogue is good and Spider throws in plenty of his patented puns and cultural side-glances, but the result is still not great Heinlein, nor (I think) great Robinson. (7/18/07)
Gaiman, Neil. Dream Country. (Sandman, v. 3) NY: DC Comics, 1992.
Gaiman is an original in every sense of the word. The first couple of volumes I read in the “Sandman” series didn’t impress me all that much, I have to admit. At least, not uniformly. But the average quality in this one is very high indeed. The four stories all share the theme of dreams, from a novelist enslaving Calliope the muse to provide ideas for his books, to a cat’s revelation of what the real world used to be like, to a piece about a woman who only wants to die but can’t (the only “comic book” story you’ll find here, and the least successful, in my opinion), and the award-winning story of the first performance by Will Shakespeare’s company of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — for an audience from Faerie (and that one alone is worth the price of the book). (7/16/07)
Heinlein, Robert A. Citizen of the Galaxy. NY: Scribner, 1957.
Heinlein was a master of the noncondescending juvenile SF novel, and this is, in my informed opinion, the very best of the dozen or so he wrote during the 1950s. In fact, it’s one of his two or three best novels, period. Thorby starts out a slave, purchased on a distant world by an old beggar (who, of course, is more than he seems) and becomes intimate with the underworld — then finds himself aboard a Free Trader vessel with an extremely complex social structure, where he’s adopted in and makes a new life for himself — then finds himself a very junior enlisted man on a “space patrol” ship, where he makes another new life — then finds himself the long-lost heir to an enormous fortune back on Earth, where the various plotlines come together and (yes) he has to try to make a new life for himself. Thorby is nothing if not adaptable. The narrative is straightforward, moving along at a nice pace, and there’s very little of the overwritten preachifying RAH was prone to in his later work. The characters are based on ‘50s archetypes, so today’s kids will undoubtedly be amused by the state of gender relations, and they’ve probably never seen a slide rule, but, hey — read and enjoy. (7/16/07)
Geary, Rick. The Case of Madeleine Smith. (A Treasury of Victorian Murder) NY: NBM Comics Ltd, 2006.
Geary does what might be called documentary graphic novels, the best known of which is his series of true crime stories. This one is set in Glasgow in the late 1850s and involves an overly-romantic young gentleman and the young-ish daughter of a prominent architect who carry on a clandestine love affair — until Madeleine gets tired of the whole thing, takes up with a man her father approves of, and then has to keep her paramour from outing her. Enter arsenic. The ex-boyfriend dies in great pain, the government brings murder charges, and a trial ensues. Even though their styles are nothing at all alike, Geary always reminds me of Edward Gorey — the sly depiction of violence, the sense of inevitability, the decorous text. This is great stuff. (7/15/07)
Wood, Brian & Becky Cloonan. Demo. San Francisco: AiT/Planet Lar, 2005.
I read a lot of graphic novels — actual stories, not just compiled superhero comics — and I rarely come across anything this literary. Most of these twelve stories could easily have been published, without pictures, in a “little” magazine somewhere. The intriguing thing is how they evolve, first to last, from “NYC” and “Bad Blood,” which actually are about not-necessarily-super powers with a Rod Serling twist, to “One Shot, Don’t Miss” and “Breaking Up” and “Damaged,” which will stay with you a long, long time. And the last panel of the last story will truly grab you by the throat. Amazing writing. (7/15/07)
Moon, Elizabeth. Liar’s Oath. NY: Baen, 1992.
This is the second half of the prequel to the “Deed of Paksennarion” trilogy, which also comes around at the end and bites its own tail. Where Surrender None was about Gird and the peasant revolution he led against the mage-lords, this one begins with Gird’s death (just before it, actually) and focuses on Luap, previously “the luap,” Gird’s assistant and sort of aide-de-camp. Luap is half-mage himself, the bastard of one of the kings before the one Gird killed, and he’s infected with a lingering sense of entitlement that will eat away at him all the rest of his long, long life. He’s not evil, just weak — just human, as Gird was, but in a much less heroic way. Moon gradually builds multiple character portraits with her rather slow-moving narrative, including those of the first two proto-paladins, an aging mage-priest, and a large supporting cast. None of this will make a bit of sense unless you’ve read the previous volume — and preferably the whole trilogy — so don’t even think of starting here. (7/14/07)
Stern, Jane & Michael Stern. Roadfood. 6th ed., revised & updated. NY: Broadway Books, 2005.
I remember reading a much earlier edition of this guide, probably the original not-thick volume published in 1978. I’ve always traveled a lot, doing genealogical and local historical research, and that pursuit takes one more often into small towns than big cities. Everyplace you go now, it seems, the fast food chains have completely taken over, but there actually are plenty of mouth-watering one-of-a-kind eateries left, if you get lucky — or if you read this book. This edition includes some 600 establishments (200 more than even the last edition, even though another hundred have been dropped), most of them in the categories of joints, diners, parlors, and drive-ins. The idea is to find restaurants that cater to locals, that represent the essence of their region or locality, and that are low in price. Naturally, I went looking for places I had eaten myself and I found many of my favorites: Hoover’s and Threadgill’s in Austin, Krause’s Café in New Braunfels (the best chicken fried steak in the world comes from the German heritage of the Texas Hill Country), Sonny Bryan’s and Gennie’s Bishop Grill in Dallas, the Frontier in Albuquerque, Pasqual’s in Santa Fe, Lynn’s Paradise in Louisville, the Moonlite Bar-B-Q in Owensboro, Kentucky (where some of my ancestors lived, right across the river from Indiana), and the Camp Washington Chili Parlor in Cincinnati (which, in my opinion, produces the best Cincinnati-style five-way chili in the city). Here in Louisiana, New Orleans alone accounts for five listings — and that doesn’t even include the haute cuisine, high-dollar restaurants for which NOLA is famous. (Of the places they list, Mother’s is a regular stop for us when we’re in the city.) But there’s also Boudin King over in Jennings, Middendorf’s in Pass Manchac (forty-five minutes from my home; we go there three or four times a year), Brenda’s down in New Iberia, and Prejean’s over in Lafayette. Admittedly, there are a few other places I like, and which fit their criteria, but which aren’t included; no place at all in San Antonio, for instance. But the Sterns are anxious for recommendations from their readers, so I’ll probably send them some suggestions. This is a great car book when you travel — and especially when you leave the Interstate. (7/14/07)
Moon, Elizabeth. Surrender None: The Legacy of Gird. NY: Baen, 1990.
This is sort of the back-story to Moon’s “Deed of Paksenarrion” trilogy, set some five hundred years before the time of the mercenary companies, a time when Gird is a hero, almost a demigod. But Gird is an ordinary enough farmer at the beginning, lover of cows and children, who wants only peace to raise and reap his crops. But the magelords, workers of magic, who came into the northern lands several centuries before his own time, have become increasingly oppressive to the peasants as they have lost their powers. Gird, who is a big, strong boy, tried to become a solider, a member of his lord’s guard, but his horror at having to witness a bloody punishment for a child’s act of mischief ends that career. And, later in life, as his friends and family are mistreated and starved and raped and killed, Gird finds himself outlawed, like so many others. But here he begins to change, and he uses what basic military skills he once learned to convert other outlaws into the basis of a rebellious peasant army. You know where all this is going, right? But even Gird the Marshal-General wants peace, not mere vengeance, and he spends as much time thinking about and learning the law as he does learning strategy. It’s a morality play, Good against Evil, and a pretty good one. And because Gird is very human, with a temper and a tendency to drink too much, this isn’t exactly a fairy tale, either. (7/12/07)
Stroud, Martha Sue. Gateway to Texas: History of Red River County. Austin: Nortex Press, 1997.
I have family connections to early Red River County and I did my graduate history thesis many years ago on the demographic development of the county, so I always pay attention when a new book is published on the subject. The author is a Claiborne by birth, a descendant of one of the early settler families, and she has apparently never strayed far from her roots. Her style is clear, though not scholarly, and she’s careful to footnote all statements and conclusions, so you can easily trace her sources. While I didn’t find much here I wasn’t already aware of, it’s nice to have so much information all in one place, especially since she quotes and extracts many unpublished sources at length. A very useful volume. (7/11/07)
Sutcliffe, Anthony. An Architectural History of London. Hartford, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
I’m a long-time fan of pictorial books on the history of structures of a particular place — not because I have any training in architecture, but because I’m very big on local history and buildings constitute the most prominent “physical anthropology” of any place. In the case of this particular volume, I’m also fascinated by London and its history, from the Roman town and William’s White Tower to the reclamation of the Docklands. Lots of relatively new discoveries are depicted here, including the newly identified Roman victory arch, and many lesser known buildings are discussed, including the Staple Inn, the Panopticon prison plan, and the old Caledonian Market Clock Tower. And if you’re a student of Wren’s post-Fire churches, or of Buckingham Palace, there’s lots here to interest you, too. An engrossing book. (7/11/07)
Kirino, Natsuo. Grotesque. NY: Knopf, 2007.
Kirino has published something like sixteen novels in Japan and has won a number of awards, but this is only her second book translated into English. It’s quite different from the first one, which was a dark, almost Hitchcockian comedy-mystery about a group of Japanese housewives and factory workers who go into the “disposal” business, eliminating people for a fee and getting rid of the bodies. In various ways, it was quite superior to this somewhat messy double narrative. Two sisters have a Swiss-Polish father and a Japanese mother, the former being a bully and the latter a doormat. The narrator the older one, is short and dumpy and plain, like her mother, whose lack of assertiveness she despises. She’s thoroughly self-centered (as much in self-defense as anything) and studies hard to get into a top-rated private girl’s high school. On the other hand, Yuriko, the younger sister, is so overwhelmingly beautiful, even as a small child, that she leaves people breathless. Naturally, the narrator loathes her sister. But this family is a great deal more dysfunctional even than that, with the father having a pregnant Turkish mistress only a couple years older than his daughter, and a suicidal mother, and a grandfather who is a convicted swindler on probation. “Grotesque” is certainly the word. The plot has to do with the murders of Yuriko, who became a prostitute while still in high school, and another girl, also a prostitute and a classmate of the narrator — but that’s really just the framework upon which Kirino hangs her meandering, unformed exploration of highly abnormal psychologies. The author produced her own translation into English, but she would have been well advised to employ an editor to clean it up; the narrative is frequently jerky and non-colloquial, with peculiar word choices and phrasings that I suspect were translated literally, all of which make this a . I don’t recall whether she also translated her first English-language publication, but it certainly read much more smoothly than this one. (7/09/07)
Turow, Scott. Limitations. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006.
I’ve been a fan of Turow’s legal mystery novels since Presumed Innocent, many years ago. Among other things, I like the way time passes in Kindle County at the same rate as in our world. Rusty Sabich, protagonist of that first novel, is now Chief Judge, and George Mason, the hero of this relatively short book, has gone from criminal defense lawyer in Personal Injuries to senior appellate court judge. I also like the way Turow’s book titles always turn out to have several meanings in terms of the plot. First, there’s the current case facing the appellate panel, a high school rape case that occurred half a dozen years before in which the fifteen-year-old victim was drunk and passed out and didn’t know she had been raped — until the videotape the perps had made of it surfaced. Does the tape make a difference in the way the trial judge interpreted the statute of limitations on opening the prosecution? What about the fact that she was a minor? At the same time, Judge Mason has been getting threatening emails and text messages, and neither the chief of court security nor the FBI can handle on who’s doing it — but everyone suspects a thoroughly evil Latino gang boss presently in solitary at the supermax prison. (Being locked away wouldn’t impede his actions that much and they all know it.) Mason is a very fair person, and he works hard at it, but under threat we all have our personal limitations, too. And then there’s his wife, Patrice, under treatment for thyroid cancer, which adds even more mental strain. And will he finally decide to send in his petition for a second ten-year term on the bench? He has lots of competitive colleagues who want to know the answer to that one. As always, Turow is a master of plot and of making the legal ins and outs comprehensible, but even more, he creates fully realized characters, people you can believe exist and whom the reader cares about. His style is economical, not a wasted word anywhere. This is one of the very few authors whose new work I always grab with no hesitation, even when I’m in complete ignorance of the plot. I know he will never be less than stellar. (7/07/07)
Doctorow, Cory. Overclocked. NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007.
Doctorow is one of the hottest young science fiction inventioneers of the past decade. He’s done three novels, all of them groundbreaking in various ways, and one previous collection of short stories. The six stories in this volume all are treatments of extremely contemporary information technology (the author likes to say he specializes in “predicting the present”). “Anda’s Game,” which appeared in Best American Short Stories, is about the real sweatshops that have recently appeared to serve the virtual gaming industry — very weird stuff indeed. (I don’t think even Gibson, much less Heinlein, could have imagined such a thing.) “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” is a paean to the people who guard the cyberverse — and therefore the “real world” — from Evil. “Printcrime” is a very short piece written for Nature, about the hobnailed boot planted in the face of informational freedom. “After the Siege” is a much longer and rather chilling exploration of the same theme. (Doctorow has very strong opinions about the recent trend in strengthening copyright and patent law in the West to the detriment of the developing world.) “I, Robot,” which was nominated for a Hugo, is both a riff on Asimov’s classic Three Laws and an exploration of a weak point in the Good Doctor’s work: The lack of market competition in robotics. “I, Row-Boat” (yes, indeed, Robby the Row-Boat) is the weakest piece in this volume, though even it’s pretty good, exploring what happens after most humans have left the planet to live in outer virtual space (sort of) and the AIs left behind have to learn to cope. (7/06/07)
Moon, Elizabeth. Oath of Gold. (The Deed of Paksenarrion, Book 3). NY: Baen, 1989.
This final volume of the 1,500-page trilogy is a rip-roarer, right enough. Paks, having been left in a state of profound fear and trembling after her experiences with Evil — and which everyone equates with cowardice — comes back to the Kuakgan’s grove and begins her healing. The gods need her to be a paladin and they see to it that she becomes one, never mind that she didn’t finish the training. And from that point, the story becomes (as several of the characters themselves point out) a classic “lost prince” fairy tale. Many of the plot points refer back to events that might have puzzled the reader in the earlier volumes, but it’s all well handled. (You should read these volumes straight through, one after the other, though.) (7/06/07)
Moon, Elizabeth. Divided Allegiance. (The Deed of Paksenarrion, Book 2) NY: Baen, 1988.
The middle, “bridge” volume of a trilogy is often its weakest point (the original Dune trilogy is the classic example of that), but it’s not the case here. In fact, this epic reads like a single 1,500-page novel that was broken into three parts only for convenience in marketing. This section is rather more episodic, though. Having become a valued soldier in Duke Phelan’s mercenary company, Paks finds it necessary to leave shortly after the great victory over the forces of Evil, because the Duke’s necessary alliances included behavior on behalf of a budding tyrant that she couldn’t approve of. So she goes off with a vague idea of re-crossing the northern mountains and perhaps visiting her family home, works her way as a caravan guard, takes up with a not entirely trustworthy half-elf (rather less than half, actually), defeats another evil force in an underground sequence that reads almost like a D&D script, becomes acquainted with the Girdsmen (with whom her Duke has had a longstanding quarrel) and with other clerics, and undergoes training at Fin Panir with the idea that she might become a knight in a few years. But (naturally) her destiny holds far more than that, and this volume ends at the lowest point in Paks’s young life. The plot continues to build — not always in ways that are obvious until later — and even the author’s slight preachiness regarding Good and Evil aren’t too annoying. This is meant to be Heroic Fantasy, after all. This is obviously Moon’s masterwork. (It certainly deserves less amateurish cover art, though.) (7/02/07)