2007: 4th Quarter [ 36]

Cherryh, C. J. Destroyer. NY: DAW Books, 2005.

Bren Cameron, the paidhi-aiji to the leader of the atevi, and two years before appointed Lord of the Heavens so he could be sent out to deal with the unknown aliens at a distant Pilots Guild-run space station, is looking forward to a long vacation when he and his staff break out of hyperspace near the atevi home planet. But the returning starship finds things chaotic on the station, and it’s all because a coup took place shortly after their departure and Tabini, the aiji, hasn’t been seen for months. Is he dead? Or just waiting for the ship to return? Because Bren, after long, hard thought, has to admit that much of the cultural tension that led to the revolt (assisted by rival clan ambitions) was indirectly his fault. The conservatives don’t like all the changes their society has undergone, nor the speed with which it has all happened. But Bren also knows that none of that could be helped, not if both atevi and humans were to survive. But to make his case, he has to get himself, the dowager (Tabini’s slightly scary and very astute grandmother), and the aiji’s young heir down to the planet and over to the mainland. Among the atevi, a leader has to lead from the front, and that’s where Bren has to be while he tries to make contact with his boss — if he’s still alive. This seventh volume in the saga has overtones of a parachute drop behind enemy lines in World War II, with stolen farm trucks, allies picked up as they can, and a firefight at the climax. The politics — which Cherryh lays out in very great detail — can be difficult to follow, and will probably bore readers with less patience, but I enjoy the sociopolitical cut-and-thrust and the paidhi’s struggle to understand the web of clan allegiances and the effects of man’chi (a kind of emotional loyalty rooted deep in the atevi brain) on alliances. An absorbing series. One small annoyance, though: Michael Whelan, whose work I have always enjoyed, has been doing all the cover paintings, but for this volume he has, for some reason, changed the style considerably. I liked the somewhat stylized rendering of the atevi on the earlier covers — but now, suddenly, they have faces of a different shape and their hair is in corn-rows, for chrissakes. (12/31/07)

Cherryh, C. J. Explorer. NY: DAW Books 2002.

This is the final volume in the second trilogy of what is becoming Cherryh’s magnum opus — and this is only the halfway point. Having been told by the late Senior Captain Ramirez just before his death that Reunion Station wasn’t destroyed after all, only damaged, and that the autocratic, xenophobic Pilot’s Guild is probably still in charge there, the starship Phoenix knows it must return, not only to rescue those left behind, but also to destroy anything that might lead “the other aliens” to the atevi world. Not only that, the aiji is sending his grandmother, the formidable Ilisidi, to represent him, as well as his six-year-old heir, and Bren Cameron, the human paidi, will accompany the atevi party on its two-year mission. And there will be a contingent of Mospheiran humans, as well. Lots of ways things could go wrong with that many disparate elements, and many of them do, but they also learn to cooperate. And Bren gets to practice his original trade as translator in dealing with the ship they find parked near the damaged station, and he does a very creditable and ingenious job, making full use of his atevi resources — including a highly cinematic grenade-delivery via the heir’s toy cars. I particularly like the way the Good Guys get around the station’s control of communications by printing up full-color illustrated brochures! Line up the next few volumes and just keep going! (12/26/07)

Cherryh, C. J. Defender. NY: DAW Books, 2001.

This is the middle volume of the second trilogy — roughly forty percent of the way through the projected twelve volumes, and events keep piling up on top of events. Bren Cameron, the human paidhi who now dreams in the atevi language, is called back down by the aiji from the space station, where the starship Phoenix is being refitted and fueled, to attend a sort of memorial service for the ruler’s late father — late because Tabini almost certainly had him assassinated. Which isn’t an untoward turn of events in atevi society. Bren wonders why he’s there, though. And almost the moment he returns to the station, Senior Captain Ramirez, not in good health since the abortive rebellion of a few years before, has a final collapse and dies — just after imparting a deep secret to Jason Graham, very junior captain (and also a junior-level paidhi by training in an earlier volume), to the effective that the second station out at Reunion wasn’t completely destroyed by the unknown alien menace but was, in fact, still being held by survivors of the presumed attack. Now, suddenly, the Phoenix is going to break station and go and rescue them. And Ilisidi, the aiji’s extremely formidable grandmother will accompany them — and so will the aiji’s young son and heir. And so, he discovers, will Bren Cameron. Yes, it all sounds almost baroquely complex, and it kind of is, but it’s also a deeply involving, extremely well thought out saga of interspecies relationships and misunderstandings and the continual efforts of a diplomat/translator to keep things running as smoothly as possible. This volume, being a sort of “bridge” volume in the plot, is a bit shorter than the others — but it’s really all one enormously long novel anyway. In fact, this may be Cherryh’s magnum opus. (12/22/07)

Ellis, Warren. Ocean. La Jolla, CA: WildStorm Productions, 2006.

This is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in some time. It’s pure science fiction, set on a UN research station orbiting the Jovian moon of Europa. Under the carbon dioxide ice, there’s a free-water ocean, and in the deeps of that ocean the researchers discover a vast number of sarcophagi containing alien bodies that have been in suspended animation for a billion years. But there are also robotic weapons down there, extremely dangerous ones, and they’ve been armed — maybe accidentally, maybe not — by the only other space station in the vicinity — one owned by a highly independent multinational corporation that develops new weapons. Hence the arrival of Special Weapons Inspector Nathan Kane to see what can be done before someone blows up a planet. The writing is very high quality with considerable wittily cinematic dialogue, and the artwork is also of very high quality. This could easily be converted into a film (maybe by Peter Hyams, writer-director of Outland). (12/19/07)

Willingham, Bill. Fables: Homelands. NY: DC Comics, 2005.

This is number six in the series and it’s a considerable improvement over number five. The first story concerns Jack’s aborted career in Hollywood after leaving Fabletown in possession of a large quantity of stolen loot. As a talented con-man, he turns out to be a natural in the movie world and his first project — a LOTR-like trilogy about his own fairy tale career — is enormously successful. But he’s still a louse, which is why the miniaturized Jill rats him out to Mr. Beast, Fabletown’s new sheriff, and he finds himself on the road again, the least unpleasant option available to him. Then we go to the adventures of Boy Blue as he treks through the enemy-occupied Homelands in pursuit of Red Riding Hood, and to return the dead wooden body of his best buddy, Pinocchio, to Geppetto. And maybe he can do something about The Adversary while he’s at it. Turns out Blue had a more-colorful-than-expected earlier career as a swashbuckling sword-swinger — but things don’t turn out quite as he expected. Then we return to the Farm, upstate, where Mowgli (a “tourist,” i.e., undercover secret agent working abroad) has come back to try to spring Bagheera from the pokey. Then it’s back to the tribulations of Boy Blue for a temporary resolution. There’s a lot of good storytelling in this arc. (12/18/07)

Willingham, Bill. Fables: The Mean Seasons. NY: DC Comics, 2005.

Storywise, this fifth volume in the series is not terribly successful. After two dozen issues of the original comic book, the author appears to be getting a little desperate. There are two independent stories, plus the continuing arc about Fabletown in general. The first story is a somewhat pointless teaser about Cinderella, apparently an underling of The Adversary, and her tryst in Paris with Ichabod Crane, who is enamored of her. (Crane is a deliberate literary creation, though, not a “fable” like all the others.) He’s willing to sell out his people if he can jump Cindy’s bones. It doesn’t work out that way, of course, with Bigby Wolf showing up at the last minute to turn everything on its head. But what’s with the hyper-American French-hating spew at the end? Why would centuries-old fables give a damn about current U.S. politics? The second story (under the heading “War Stories”) is kind of a take-off on Sgt. Rock or G.I. Joe, with Bigby Wolf as a behind-the-lines civilian assisting an Allied squad during World War II in taking out a German secret research project at Frankenstein Castle. Yes, indeed, it’s Frankenstein’s monster vs. the Wolfman. But I thought Wolf said he had been head of Fabletown security in New York without interruption for two hundred years. Kind of lame. The third section is the best, though it requires you to know about earlier events. King Cole is voted out of office by Prince Charming, Beauty replaces Snow White as city administrator, Mr. Beast replaces Wolf as “sheriff,” Snow White has her baby by Wolf — more of a litter, actually — and Mr. North Wind shows up at the farm upstate. After the first couple of volumes, this one is definitely a let-down. (12/17/07)

Willingham, Bill. Fables: Legends in Exile. NY: DC Comics, 2002.

This is the first volume in an award-winning series and it’s certainly an original concept. The characters of the classic fables — fairy tales and stories — of European folk literature are real “people” (some are not human in appearance) and they were driven out of their “homelands” by a force they know only as The Adversary. Now they get by mostly on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, living under the radar and dealing with their own affairs in their own way. King Cole is Mayor-for-Life but doesn’t deal much with day-to-day affairs, which are the province of Snow White. Bigby Wolf (“Big B.,” get it?) is the dour and uncompromising sheriff, or head of security, and many of the stories in the series focus on him. Prince Charming is a leech with three ex-wives — Snow White, Rose Red (a/k/a Sleeping Beauty and Snow’s estranged sister), and Cinderella (Cindy also works undercover for Wolf). Jack (of the beanstalk) is a mediocre con-artist, and etc., etc. Once you catch on to the method behind this tongue-in-cheek madness (which takes about two pages), the stories are (mostly) a lot of fun. This first one concentrates on the apparent murder of Rose Red. No body has been found but there’s way too much blood at the scene. Actually (hint, hint . . .), if you examine the scene closely when you first encounter it, perhaps you can work out the mystery for yourself. And the big reveal (the “parlor scene”) is kind of neat. Can the author keep up this level of fun? We’ll see. (12/16/07)

Cherryh, C. J. Precursor. NY: DAW Books, 1999.

Since this is the fourth volume in a nine-volume (soon to be twelve-volume . . .) epic, I won’t attempt to summarize even the main plot points so far. Suffice to say that Bren Cameron, padhi to the atevi aiji, comes back from a brief vacation back home on the human-occupied island of Mospheira to discover he needn’t even unpack his bags: His boss is sending him straight up to the derelict orbiting space station on the next morning’s shuttle flight (only its fourth) to negotiate with the crew of the Phoenix, the starship which has reappeared after an absence of two centuries with warnings of another alien species out for blood. The Phoenix has the technology — more even than the castaway Mospheirans ever had — but the atevi, who are natural geniuses at anything involoving numbers, have the resources, technical ability, and manpower to repair the station, and to refuel and re-outfit the Phoenix. And the aiji will do all that at no charge — but he’s keeping the station for the atevi as their own access point into space. Bren now works full-time for the aiji, trying to balance atevi needs against those of the two human factions. But there are factions within the ship’s crew, too, and things get very dicey for awhile. The padhi’s security team is marvelously competent at keeping him alive and competitors at bay, but even they can’t control the air supply in space. And just when things are coming to a lethel head, who should arrive on the next shuttle flight but Ilisidi, the aiji’s grandmother, an impressive and often rather daunting character, and a major political force in her own right. If you’ve gotten this far in the story, you should have a pretty good understanding of what makes the atevi tick — as good as any human is going to get, anyway — and you’ve already got your favorite characters (mine is Jago). Keep the next couple of volumes ready to hand and just keep going! (12/15/07)

Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

I’ve been interested in popular Japanese culture for a long time, so I was pleased to see this new exploration of the interface between Japan and America, . . . though I was somewhat put off by the use of the pejorative word “invaded” in the title. That seems to have been a marketer’s contribution, though, because the half-Japanese author, who has become something of a professional explainer of Japanese and Americans to each other, seems not to reach value judgments about the wide popularity of manga and anime in this country, nor about the much more longstanding popularity of everything American in Japan. It’s largely a generational thing, though; most Americans over the age of thirty have no idea what Gundam is, nor what “otaku” and “cosplay” mean. And while anime has become increasingly popular in the U.S., it remains deeply Japanese. There’s really no such thing as “American anime.” Though he comes to no strikingly original conclusions, Kelts does a good job of explaining things to those who are new to the subject. (12/10/07)

Cherryh, C. J. Inheritor. NY: DAW Books, 1996.

This is the third — but far from last — volume in the author’s explication of the “Foreigner” universe. The human colony on the usland of Mospheira, isolated by the treaty that ended the War of the Landing, and the government of the atevi (under the aiji) on the western part of the mainland, have been getting along, more or less, for a couple of centuries, through the interface provided by the padhi, the official translater and “explainer” for each side to the other. At the moment, that’s Bren Cameron, a very ernest diplomat who worries that he tends more to sympathize with and trust in the atevi he knows than with his own government back on the island. But then the ship that had dropped the humans on the atevi world in the first place returned — and seemed as willing to deal with the atevi as with the Mosphei humans. The ship drops two more padhiin, one to each side on the planet, and much of the book concerns Bren’s attempts to teach and indoctrinate a young man who not only has no experience of dealing with nonhumans, he even fears the open horizons of a planet, never having experienced any environment except the ship. On top of that, conservative, anti-atevi elements on Mosphei are trying thard to start another war, Bren’s mother and brother are being harrased by the government, and the aiji has his own fish to fry. Cherryh posits a species that has no concepts of love, friendship, or trust in the human sense of those words, substituting instead “manchi,” for which all lifeforms on the planet are biologically and psychologically hardwired, from lizards and riding animals to the atevi themselves. That’s what governs relationships and loyalties, and even Bren, with all his experience, often has difficulty tracing its influence. Keep in mind that the second and third volumes aren’t really “sequels.” This series is actually a single, very long novel, divided into volumes mostly for marketing purposes; i.e., don’t even think of trying to begin anywhere but at the beginning. But if you enjoy highly detailed and convoluted social, psychological, political science fiction, as opposed to shoot-’em’ups (although there’s some of that, too), these books are challenging but also very, very enjoyable. (12/09/07)

Thompson, Tommy. America’s Lost Treasure. NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.

The loss of the U.S. Mail Steamship Central America in a hurricane off the Carolina coast in 1857 still ranks as the nation’s greatest peacetime disaster at sea — 425 lives were lost (most of them passengers from the California gold fields) as well as an unbelievable amount of gold in the form of newly minted coins from the San Francisco Mint, assay ingots of many types, raw nuggets, and dust. Thompson, a multi-disciplinary “research engineer,” spent years searching methodically for the deep-water wreck and finally located it and began recovering materials from it in 1989. Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea told that story in technical detail; this is the pictorial version, and a gorgeous volume it is. In addition to all that gold in all its many forms, the researchers used a robot to bring up passengers’ trunks, discovering books and newspapers that were still readable and clothing that had faded but still maintained its structural integrity. A fascinating work in marine archaeology. (12/07/07)

Cherryh, C. J. Invader. NY: DAW Books, 1995.

This is the second volume — the “bridge” volume, which are notoriously difficult to write — in what originally was meant to be a trilogy but which is now a nine-volume epic. A couple of centuries ago, a human colony ship went badly astray and was forced to land on an already inhabited world. The native atevi were on the edge of an industrial revolution but have now been yanked into a much more advanced culture with the aid of slowly doled-out human technology. Following a war that resulted from profound misunderstandings between the two species, a treaty restricts the human population to the island of Mosphei and permits — requires — a single human in the atevi local capital as padhi — the translator and mediator between natives and foreigners. Bren Cameron is that lone human, far more talented than any of his predecessors, anxious to understand the often bewildering atevi psyche, willing to like and even love his hosts. But now the human ship from which his ancestors descended, and which had left the planet’s vicinity shortly afterward, has returned unexpectedly and wants to refurbish the abandoned orbiting space station. They expect humans to provide unquestioning labor but don’t realize how much things have changed, and Bren has to deal with the sudden change from two-sided relations to a triangular situation between atevi, Mosphei humans (including a rival padhi supported by an anti-atevi faction), and the ship. Cherryh is a master in the explication of very alien psychology and politics. This isn’t “space opera,” it’s a very thoughtful, very detailed study of human-alien relations. Which means it won’t appeal much to fans of sword-swinging fantasy and shoot-’em-up fiction, but more intellectual sf fans are gonna love it. (12/06/07)

Cherryh, C. J. Foreigner. NY: DAW Books, 1994.

Cherryh is often compared to Ursula Le Guin, and with good reason; by the time I’d gotten a couple of chapters into this first volume of a lengthy epic, I was thinking of the similarities of its set-up to The Left Hand of Darkness. Mostly, it’s because the protagonist is a lone, isolated human diplomat surrounded by aliens whose very near-human appearance makes it easy to forget just how deeply alien their psychology is. Five hundred years ago, a human colony ship came out of hyperdrive impossibly far from where it should be, so far the ship was completely lost. After many years, its crew and party of settlers make it to a system where there is a habitable planet — which is already taken by an almost industrial-level species called the atevi. They build a space station and some of the settlers (or their descendants) land on the planet, trying not to mess up anything. But they can’t help thinking in human terms, and after a century or two of technological uplift by the humans, the atevi attack, driving them back to the island where they had originally landed. The eventual peace treaty establishes the office of paidhi, a human interpreter who will live among the atevi and facilitate communications. Another couple of centuries pass and Bren Cameron is the current paidhi, at the court of the regional ruler. He tries hard not to make mistakes or assumptions in gradually passing on human technical knowledge — the price of the treaty — but his carefully constructed complacency is shattered when he’s packed off to a distant mountain fortress. Not until late in the story does he find out the reasons for this inexplicable treatment, and then he knows humans on his world have as much to fear as its original inhabitants. The author does an extraordinary job of allowing the atevi to explain themselves through their actions instead of simply telling the reader what’s going through their minds, as she did in both the Chanur and Kes’rith cycles. There are now nine volumes in this new cycle, and they’re all lined up on my reading shelf. Beautiful stuff. (12/01/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Maskerade. NY: HarperCollins, 1995.

Magrat Garlick has left witching to become Queen of Lancre, leaving only Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, which they both know won’t work; two witches is an argument, while three (Maiden, Mother, and Crone) allows one of them to make peace between the other two. The best candidate for the No. 3 position is Agnes Nitt, whose considerable bulk has limited her love life in any case — but Agnes has gone off to Ankh-Morpork to try to make it with her extraordinary singing voice. (She can sing harmony with herself in thirds.) It happens that Nanny Ogg, well known libertine, has also written a book called The Joy of Snacks, which is a bestseller, but not being good with money, or numbers generally, she doesn’t realize the publishers owe her a bundle. Well, Granny and Nanny will just have to head for the Big City themselves to do a bit of stealth recruiting, and to hit on the publishers for royalties. Agnes — or Perdita, as she prefers to call herself — has been hired for the chorus at the Opera House, which has recently been taken over by a retired cheese magnate, and which just happens to be afflicted with a letter-writing, mask-wearing ghost. Pratchett has a lot of fun working up a plot that rivals the convoluted, often nonsensical plots of operas themselves. But his is actually a pretty good murder mystery. And he hasn’t lost his touch with the language, either. When Nanny admits she sent in her book manuscript under a pseudonym, Granny replies, “Why dint you put your own name on it, eh? Books’ve got to have a name on ‘em so’s everyone knows who’s guilty.” Later, when Nanny protests that the money isn’t that important to her, Granny tells her firmly, “You’ve been exploited.” “No I ain’t.” “Yes you have. You’re a downtrodden mass.” And in describing a witch’s innate ability to jump to conclusions on thin evidence, the author notes, “sometimes there wasn’t time to do anything else but take a flying leap. Sometimes you had to rush to experience and intuition and general awareness and take a running jump. Nanny herself could clear a quite tall conclusion from a standing start.” Great stuff. (11/26/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Lords and Ladies. NY: HarperCollins, 1992.

Here I go again, reading Discworld novels out of order. It usually doesn’t matter, since each novel is pretty much a standalone story, but this one actually comes between Witches Abroad, in which the three visit a very New Orleans-like Genua, and Carpe Jugulum, in which Magrat Garlick, having become Queen of Lancre, has been replaced by Agnes Nitt. Anyway, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat have returned from eight months spent in Foreign Parts to discover a small group of witch wannabes have been dancing around a stone circle (called, appropriately, the Dancers), the real purpose of which has been to keep sealed a “thin” place between the human world and the world of — don’t say it out loud — the elves. But elves are beautiful, elegant creatures who love music, right? Yeah, and they also have zero empathy. They’re the sort of creatures that will stake out a puppy on a ant hill, just to see what happens. The elves are definitely not the good guys here. But they can cast a glamour that only the presence of iron or a thoroughly witchy mind can counter. “They’ve got style,” as Granny says. “Beauty. Grace. That’s what matters. If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are.” And then a poorly conceived play, staged near the stone circle in celebration of Magrat’s imminent wedding to King Verence, makes it possible for the interlopers to cross into our world. Meanwhile, among the guests arriving for the wedding is Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully from Unseen University (accompanied by young Ponder Stibbens and the Librarian), and it develops that Ridcully, in his salad days as a visitor to Lancre, had an aborted fling with a local girl — and you’ll never guess who she is now! Ridcully, by the way, is one of the best-realized of Pratchett’s wizards, I think: “It wasn’t that Ridcully was stupid. Truly stupid wizards have the life expectancy of a glass hammer. He had quite a powerful intellect, but it was powerful like a locomotive, and ran on rails and was therefore almost impossible to steer.” There’s also a lot of speculation about the multiverse, mentioned in passing in the earlier books, about an infinity of worlds in which any possible outcome of an action will have occurred. Thus, Esme would actually have married Mustrum in a number of other possible worlds. But not this one. But the standout character this time is Magrat, who finally Finds Herself and realizes she has had enough. So she dons a winged helmet and rusty chain mail, grabs a battle ax, and goes looking for the elf queen who has kidnapped/hypnotized her royal fiancée. Taking out an elf with a crossbow bolt fired through a keyhole — wow. (11/23/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Sourcery. NY: HarperCollins, 1988.

Everyone knows the eighth son of an eighth son is a born wizard — but now we find out that the eighth son in the next generation is born a “sourcerer,” so called because he doesn’t just wield magic, he’s a source of it himself. (There’s a reason wizards are more or less celibate.) The inhabitants of Discworld have long considered wizards merely slightly amusing fuddy-duddies, but that’s because magic has been largely suppressed. There’s also the question of why wizards don’t rule the world, and it’s because wizards aren’t naturally cooperative. In fact, “deep in his heart, every wizard knew that the natural unit of wizardry was one wizard.” A few thousand years ago, there were lots of sourcerers around and the Discworld very nearly destroyed itself by thaumaturical warfare. And, as rival towers go up in Ankh-Morpork and Klatch and Quirm, those days appear to have come again. And the only one who might be able to save the world is (alas) Rincewind. This is one of Pratchett’s earlier works and, like all the Rincewind sub-series, it’s not entirely successful. The narrative seems to wander and even stalls occasionally, and the metaphors and similes (most of them admittedly funny) are simply packed in too tightly. Finally, there appears to be an unresolved continuity error, in that there’s a lot of destruction in Ankh-Morpork and Klatch — and Genua is completely destroyed, for that matter — that simply isn’t accounted for in the later Discworld novels. (11/19/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Wintersmith. NY: HarperCollins, 2006.

This is a very satisfying conclusion to the adventures of young Tiffany Aching, witch-in-training, and her protectors, the Nac Mac Feegles. She’s apprenticed to Miss Treason, aged 113 years (well, only 111, really), who gets her witchy bits from a novelty catalogue and starts rumors and myths about herself, just to make sure people understand she’s a witch. Like all witches, Miss Treason knows in advance when she will die, and Tiffany has to deal with it all — including the going-away party. But it really starts when Tiffany makes the dreadful error of jumping into the middle of the Dark Morris Dance that heralds the coming of winter. The Wintersmith — one of the seasonal elementals — confuses her with the Summer Lady, with whom he was supposed to dance, and after that it’s all troubles and misunderstandings. The Wintersmith wants to become human but has only a limited understanding of what’s involved. And Roland, the baron’s son from back on the Downs, must become a Hero (under the tutelage of the Feegles) in order to help set things right. As always, Pratchett’s style is extremely readable and his descriptive powers are definitely at their peak. This trilogy is officially supposed to be for Young Adults, but don’t let that stop you. (11/14/07)

Pratchett, Terry. A Hat Full of Sky. NY: HarperCollins, 2004.

It’s two years after the first book in the trilogy, Tiffany is now eleven, and she’s looking forward to going off to “witch school.” Unlike the formal institution of Hogwart’s, however, witch-training in the real world (on the Discworld, that is) really means an apprenticeship to an older witch. Tiffany’s mentor is Miss Level, an ex-circus performer, whose idea of witchcraft seems to consist mostly of looking after everyone in the neighborhood who needs assistance. As Tiffany discovers (and as the author has pointed out in his other books), the main thing about learning magic is learning NOT to use it. This time, Tiffany is being stalked by an ancient, parasitic non-intelligence that can’t be killed, but which is guaranteed to send its hosts insane. The Nac Mac Feegle are back, of course, and their special skills are essential to Tiffany’s eventual success. Granny Weatherwax, who appeared only in a cameo in the first volume, is a much more important figure in Tiffany’s gradual education, and the view we get of her is much more nuanced — and much stronger — than in the author’s other “witches” novels. Pratchett’s style has become far more mature and more subtle than his early work thirty years ago, which some of his fans don’t appear to be able to accept, but I like his more recent work even more than the earlier stuff. A beautiful book. (11/11/07)

Pratchett, Terry. The Wee Free Men. NY: HarperCollins, 2003.

Nine-year-old Tiffany Aching lives on a farm on the downs, surrounded by sheep instead of trees, and she’s really good at cheese. But what she really wants is to become a witch, even though witches aren’t much tolerated in their world. Her late grandmother was the soul of the chalk hills and may have been a sort of witch (even though she didn’t wear the pointy hat), and Tiffany feels a call to take her place. But first she has to deal with the encroachment of Faerie into her world, and the theft of her toddler brother, armed with her trusty iron frying pan. (Well, it worked against Jennie Greenteeth.) She succeeds partly because she doesn’t realize how frightened she ought to be, and partly because she has deep talents she’s only beginning to discover and exploit. And partly because she has the enthusiastic assistance of the Nac Mac Feegle, six-inch-high redheaded, blue-tattooed “Pict-sies” who wear kilts, speak in a brogue, and delight in fighting, drinking, and stealing. But Tiffany has temporarily become the clan’s kelda (leader) and what she says goes. While this first volume of a trilogy is technically a Discworld novel, it’s in a semi-independent subseries and there’s a distinct lack of the sort of freewheeling lunacy that so hilariously infects most of his work. I noticed this, too, in the award-winning Amazing Maurice; perhaps Pratchett is unsure of the humorous sophistication of his younger readers. But he shouldn’t be. As he piles up the books, though, his command of the language and his descriptive skills only get better and better. Sentences like “From up here the flocks of sheep, moving slowly, drift over the short turf like clouds on a green sky. Here and there sheepdogs speed over the grass like shooting stars.” Lovely stuff. There’s a reason this book appeared on everyone’s “Best of the Year” list. (11/09/07)

Pratchett, Terry. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. NY: HarperCollins, 2001.

While this is technically a Discworld novel (even Death makes a cameo appearance), it’s really an independent story intended for young adult readers. However, Pratchett (like Heinlein) writes books for younger readers that actually appeal to all readers. The thing is, the wizards of Unseen University have a toxic spell-dump behind their institution that often has unpredictable effects on living (and previously nonliving) things. In this case, the rats that live and take their meals there find themselves with suddenly advanced intelligence. They learn to think, to act in concert, to read, to wear selected clothing and use weapons, and to dream of a utopian future. However, Maurice, who has also become intelligent, is a cat with imagination and the soul of a con man, and he organizes a Pied Piper scam with the aid of the rats and a stupid-looking young musician named Keith. And they’re making good money, until they choose as their next target the town of Bad Blintz, where a mysterious and very dangerous force is at work among the rats and rat-catchers. As his fans know, Pratchett understands the feline psychology, and Maurice is a hoot: “Cats are good at steering people. A miaow here, a purr there, a little gentle pressure with a claw . . . and Maurice had never had to think about it before. Cats didn’t have to think. They just had to know what they wanted. Humans had to do the thinking. That’s what they were for.” But it turns out he also knows a lot about the social life of rats. (He read “more about rats than is good for me,” he says in the Afterword.) Among the rats, there’s the practical engineer with a military bent, the old-fashioned boss who distrusts change, the nearly blind intellectual mystic, the politically astute lieutenant (and tap dancer), the loyal young female — all the characters you would expect in an epic. The dialogue is believable (and not nearly as off the wall as in the “mainstream” Discworld novels), the characterization is spot on (especially Malicia, the mayor’s daughter, who considers life just one long fairy tale and packs accordingly), and Pratchett never hesitates to bring in a bit of shocking truth. An excellent book. (11/07/07)

Lindsay, Jeff. Dexter in the Dark. NY: Doubleday, 2007.

This is the third book about Dexter Morgan, Miami forensics technician and very personable psychopath. The first volume was very good, the second was mostly good except for a truly terrible ending, and this one is, . . . well, good in parts. Dexter is preparing for his marriage to Rita and is easing into the role of stepfather to ten-year-old Astor and her younger brother, Cody — in whom Dexter has recognized himself at an early age and has taken in hand the boy’s training to become a successful killer and survivor. But then, quite suddenly, the Dark Passenger, the demon inside Dexter that makes him nonhuman in all important ways, disappears. For the first time in his life, Dexter finds himself really, truly alone. That’s an interesting plot idea and it could have led in various directions. Lindsay, unfortunately, chooses the science-fictional option: The predatory Passenger is another sort of being entirely, predating complex life on this planet, and those of its species (?) have learned to take over other life forms, especially humans. In other words, it isn’t really, entirely, the serial killer’s fault for doing what he does, it’s the fault of the thing riding around inside him. (I thought immediately of Heinlein’s Puppet Master.) If this were a series of horror novels, fine, some people would enjoy them. But I wouldn’t read them. I was drawn by the well-thought-out descriptions of what made Dexter the serial killer tick. I’m not drawn by an alien invader. Bad mistake on the author’s part. Bad, bad mistake. (11/04/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Witches Abroad. NY: Penguin Books, 1991.

This is easily the best of the Discworld novels that centers on the three witches, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick. This time, another witch who works as a fairy godmother on the side dies without having trained a replacement, and Magrat gets nominated as her successor. This means journeying to far-off Genua, a very South Louisiana kind of place, to make sure that the hidden princess, Ember Ella, doesn’t marry the prince. But the plot is a lot more complicated than that, with a family feud, a voodoo woman and a zombie (both of whom, naturally, are more than they appear), a cat temporarily turned into a man, and a delightfully stirred-together collection of fairy tales. Because, as Granny keeps pointing out, stories have a life of their own. Actually, the book divides into two parts, with the hilarious trip to Genua giving the author the opportunity to haul out every cliché known to little old British ladies traveling in foreign parts. After they arrive, the plot shifts gear to a more sophisticated level of conflict and relationships. And you will have to wonder whether Granny — always one of the Good Guys — doesn’t have a deep-down streak of Bad in her. Pratchett’s command of the language and highly inventive turn of phrase are especially on display this time: “The wages of sin is death but so is the salary of virtue, and at least the evil get to go home early on Fridays.” But he can come up with thoughtful insights, too: “Genuan cooking, like the best cooking everywhere in the multiverse, had been evolved by people who had to made desperate use of ingredients their masters didn’t want.” (He’s right. Think gumbo.) (11/02/07)

Pratchett, Terry & Paul Kidby. The Last Hero. NY: HarperCollins, 2001.

This is an excellent Discworld novelette with marvelous illustrations that will fix in your mind what some of your favorite characters really ought to look like. When we last saw Cohen the Barbarian (a/k/a Genghiz Cohen), he was emperor of the Agatean Empire, having conquered it with the aid of his geriatric, six-man Silver Horde. Never one to rest on his laurels, however, Cohen and the Horde are on their way up Cori Celesti, the sky-scraping peak at the center of Discworld, to Dunmanifestin, the home of a multitude of gods. They’re intending to return the fire stolen from the gods by Mazda tens of thousands of years before, in the form of an extremely potent batch of Agatean explosives. Meanwhile, Lord Vetinari, Patrician of far-off Ankh-Morpork, having discerned that such an explosion would derail magic at the Hub and thereby bring about the end of the world, has put his pet genius, Leonard of Quirm, on the case, as well as the talents of the wizards of Unseen University: Cohen must be stopped. Without Kidby’s wonderful artwork — especially his reproductions of Leonard’s musings with a pencil — this would be simply a good story about some of the denizens of Discworld. But with them, it’s in another league altogether. I especially like the view of the Kite soaring beneath the world and between the legs of the elephants that support it, and the detail of the cabin of the great spaceship. Marvelous stuff. (10/28/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Carpe Jugulum. NY: HarperCollins, 1999.

I’ve read nearly all the Discworld novels and I have to say this is one of the strangest. It’s not very funny, for one thing, being much darker and with a more brooding tone than the others. It’s in the witches subseries and it’s about vampires (the title means “Go for the throat”), but unlike the teetotaling Black Ribboners in the other books, these creatures are downright evil in the classic 19th century fictional mold of the undead. The vampires come, of course, from Uberwald, and King Verence of Lancre (the Fool that was), in a spirit of evenhanded humanity, has invited them in for his daughter’s naming ceremony. Of course, the only way vampires can enter a home is by invitation, and in this case, the king’s “home” is the entire country. And they have every intention of making themselves comfortable. Granny Weatherwax, not having received her invitation, goes off in a huff, especially since Magrat, the youngest witch (the Maiden) has been replaced by Agnes Nitt of the split personality. Magrat, now the Queen, is also a mother (or the Mother), which means Nanny Ogg is set to be the Crone — which doesn’t please her at all. Anyway, there’s also a phoenix, and a singleminded Master of Falconry, and a doubting priest of Om, and Igor the driver (it’s still his name at this point; he hasn’t yet become “an Igor”). And we get to meet the Nac mac Feegle, the six-inch-high “wee free men,” who paint themselves blue and love to fight, drink, and steal cattle. (Well, they are Pict-sies. . . .) Pratchett is a highly original master of the language, with such gems as “I understood every word in that sentence, but not the sentence itself.” He’s also a master of stealth philosophy: “This was a test. Everything was a test. Everything was a competition. You had to make choices. You never got told which ones were right. Oh, some of the priests said you got given marks afterward, but what was the point of that?” Also: “Sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.” But, while there’s some good, thoughtful stuff here, it’s still a strange book. (10/27/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Making Money. NY: HarperCollins, 2007.

I’ve recently been re-reading a lot of the earlier Discworld novels, so coming now to this brand new one makes apparent Pratchett’s ever-upward development as a wryly funny and extremely enjoyable writer. When last we saw Moist von Lipwig, highly talented ex-con-man (forcibly reformed by Lord Vetinari, the Patrician), he had turned his considerable ingenuity to reforming Ankh-Morpork’s moribund post office, which had been put out of business by the invention of the Grand Trunk semaphore network. Having succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations — and inventing philately while he was at it — Moist is put in charge of the Royal Bank, which also houses the Royal Mint. The Patrician has great plans for the city (“the Undertaking”) and he’s going to need a reformed system of finance to pay for it. Lipwig conceives the idea of replacing the gold standard with paper money — especially since the ten tons of gold that is supposed to be in the Bank’s vault — and for which he signed a receipt — has gone missing. Then there’s his fiancée, Adora Belle Dearheart, champion smoker and tireless worker on behalf of the Golem Trust, whose quest for unfreed golems has unanticipated consequences. And the mutually litigious Lavish family, whose bank it used to be and who want it back. The pacing seems a bit off this time, moving rather too slowly in the first three-quarters of the story, as if the book should have been twice as long — but the author makes up for that in the last few chapters. On the other hand, Pratchett has never been more quotable, scattering gems like “the girl could flounce better than a fat turkey on a trampoline,” and “he’d reached the point where he was so wet that he should be approaching dryness from the other end.” Who else would describe dark organ music as “Cantata and Fugue for Someone Who Has Trouble with the Pedals”? Regarding the Patrician, one of the characters muses that one cannot plan the future. “Only presumptuous fools plan. The wise man steers.” Marvelous stuff. Oh, and there are hints about what Vetinari has in mind for Lipwig’s future, so one hopes there will be a third installment to look forward to. (10/23/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Wings. NY: Delacorte, 1990.

This is the wrap-up volume of the author’s “Bromeliad” trilogy (the title of which has to do with tiny Amazonian frogs living in tree-top flowers, who know nothing about the world at large, or even that it exists) — though it runs parallel, actually, to the second volume, which followed the exploits of Grimma and the nomes who stayed behind at the quarry while Masklin and a couple of others went to investigate the nearby airport. Now it turns out that, in their quest for the Ship waiting for thousands of years somewhere out in space, the three bickering adventurers have managed to stowaway aboard the Concorde and have gotten to Miami and then to Cape Canaveral. There, they meet other nomes, much more widely traveled than themselves (thanks to migrating geese), get close to a rocket launch, and make use of the Thing to contact the Ship. As always, Pratchett tells a delightful, very humane story with lots of humor (the nomes tend to be VERY literal), while at the same time commenting on subjects like interspecies relations, religious dogma, and the whole point of society. Written for adolescents but enjoyable for any thinking reader. (10/20/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Diggers. NY: Delacorte, 1989.

In this second volume of the “Bromeliad” trilogy (the title of which has to do with tiny Amazonian frogs living in tree-top flowers, who know nothing about the world at large), the focus is on Grimma, the somewhat feminist love interest of Masklin, who led the four-inch-high nomes out of The Store to safety in a small hillside quarry outside the town. While Masklin and the other two leaders of the community go off to the local airport to investigate the possibilities of further escape, humans show up at the quarry and post signs that make it clear the operation is to be reopened — threatened the nomes’ existence once again. The hard part is Grimma’s gradual realization that the humans aren’t out to get her people — they don’t even know they’re there. It’s a human world and the nomes appear to be irrelevant in it. Finally, as the only alternative to starving in the dark, Grimma organizes the capture, Gulliver-style, of the human watchman, while Dorcas, their scientist/tinkerer, rehabilitates an aging backhoe to facilitate a second escape. As always, the author also has some astute observations of what it means to be human — or nome. And the ending is a real cliffhanger, so be sure you have the third volume ready to hand. (10/19/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Truckers. NY: Delacorte, 1989.

Pratchett is best known for his off-the-world Discworld yarns, but he also has produced a number of highly engaging, wryly funny, and thoroughly humane novels for younger readers. This one, the first of the “Bromeliad” trilogy, introduces the “nomes,” four-inch-high people (well, humanoids) who live on highway medians and under the floors of buildings. They live fast (ten years is a very advanced age for a nome) and humans strike them as slow and stupid. Masklin, in escaping danger in the back of a truck with the last remnants of his tribe, finds himself in the Store — “Arnold Bros. (est. 1905)” — where there are thousands of nomes. These are divided into contending tribes by store departments, live a good life in the Food Hall, and worship Arnold Bros. And then he becomes aware that the store is about to be demolished. The strength of the story is Masklin’s struggle to convince everyone else of the danger when most of them don’t even believe in the existence of Outside, and then to organize an exodus by stealing a truck and learning to operate it. (Think lots of long levers, pulleys, and bits of string.) But the nomes turn out not to be “little people” at all. The nomes’ interpretation of the signs they see will give you thoughtful pause, as will their unthinking belief in a nome-centered God in the sky. Or on the top floor. Pratchett fans will enjoy this, regardless of their age. (10/16/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Wyrd Sisters. NY: Penguin, 1988.

This is the first in the “Witches” sub-series of Pratchett’s screwball-genius novels about Discworld. Granny Weatherwax, stern and generally right about everything, is the resident witch of Bad Ass, a village high up in the Ramtop Mountains, in the small, nondescript kingdom of Lancre. Nanny Ogg lives in the town itself, where things are happening and where she can rule her enormous, sprawling family — to the disapproval of her colleagues, who believe a witch should reside in a proper witchy cottage. (Gingerbread is optional.) And then there’s young Magrat Garlick, unsure of herself and trying to establish her credentials, and a believer in crystals and vegetarianism. But the plot itself begins with the murder of King Verence by the usurping Duke Felmet, who is pushed into it by his Valkyrie-like wife. The king has an infant son and heir (though, oddly enough, nowhere in the book is there ever any mention of a queen . . .), whom the witches happenstantially rescue, and they send him off with a traveling company of actors for his own protection. And then it gets complicated, what with the Fool who hates his job, and Hwel (pronounced “Will”), a dwarf playwright, and the fact that the kingdom itself quickly gets fed up with the duke. (Not the people, the actual kingdom.) Throughout, Pratchett waxes droll and commits puns and generally keeps you giggling, while also making some serious points about authority and power and when to wield them and when not to. And the mid-air, long-range broomstick-refueling sequence alone is worth the price of admission. (10/16/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Equal Rights. NY: HarperCollins, 1987.

It’s a fact of life on Discworld that wizards are always men and witches are always women, and most of both wouldn’t have it any other way. But that was before a certain eighth son of an eighth son, imbued at birth with magical powers by a dying wizard, turns out to be a daughter instead. Granny Weatherwax, the local witch (and whose first appearance in the series this is), tries to train young Eskarina as her own successor but finally realizes the girl will need the full training available only at Unseen University — where no girl has ever been admitted. And on the way, she hooks up with Simon, a sort of wizardly Einstein — who, along with Esk, is never seen again in the series. (Why?) This early in the Discworld series, Pratchett was still working out the details of his world, so that one can actually swim in the Ankh River (instead of walking across it, as in the later books), and various details of the University are also at variance with the later books. And it’s not really clear what happens to Esk in the end. As always, it’s all lots of fun, though. (10/14/07)

Cherryh, C. J. Rimrunners. NY: Warner, 1989.

This one is set in the author’s “Alliance-Union” universe, but unlike most in that series, it’s less about big politics and more about the personal trials and tribulations of Elizabeth “Bet” Yeager, a twenty-year Marine veteran, now unintentionally separated from her ship and just trying to survive as a machinist without the necessary papers. Though she can be deadly when she needs to be, she seems to prefer trying to fit in wherever she finds herself, up to and including sleeping with almost anyone who asks her. Then she finds herself aboard a spy ship operating for the other side and closely involved with NG (“No Good”) Ramey, whose mind is the worse for having been denied the necessary drugs for staying sane during hyperdrive, and making both friends and serious enemies among the crew. Because there’s a strain of malevolence among the watch officers that bears watching. This isn’t one of Cherryh’s best novels, but it’s an interesting character study. As always, she doesn’t stop to explain things to the reader (just like real life, in other words), but you’ll soak it up as you go. Unfortunately, the deus ex machina ending is rather abrupt, almost hurried. (10/13/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Hogfather. NY: HarperCollins, 1996.

I know this is one of the most popular and highly-regarded of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but I can’t decide whether that’s despite or because of the fact that the plot is so difficult to get a handle on in the first two-thirds of the book. The Hogfather is more or equivalent to our Father Christmas, but with more explicit ties to Paleolithic religious beliefs. And the four huge hogs that pull his sleigh through the skies on Hogswatch Night are a far cry from Donder and Blitzen. But this year, the Hogfather is strangely missing and Death decides to takes his place, temporarily, in order to uphold people’s belief in him. Why is the not-so-jolly figure in red missing? Well, that comes back to the felonious plans of Mr. Teatime, a extremely bent assassin whom even the Guild of Assassins aren’t thrilled about. The other major player is Death’s adopted granddaughter, Susan — a genuine duchess working as a governess — who has special powers that will come in very handy. Plus, there are the wizards of Unseen University, a thinking semi-machine called Hex, the Death of Rats, Medium Dave Lilywhite and his brother, Banjo, and a raven with a fixation on eyeballs. As always, there are some truly hilarious scenes, such as Death/Hogfather at the mall, giving children (and Corporal Nobby Nobbs) what they actually want for Hogswatch. Not one of Pratchett’s best, but even his less successful efforts are way ahead of most writers’ best. (10/11/07)

Sonder, Ben. The Legacy of Norman Rockwell. NY: New Line Books, 2006.

It’s not always a popular position, but I’m a longtime fan of Norman Rockwell’s highly representational style of illustration. (I generally prefer book and magazine illustrators to “classic” artists.) But I’m a bit puzzled why this book even exists. Some of the works illustrated are repeated with no explanation, some of those discussed at some length in the text are never illustrated at all, and the captions often misinterpret Rockwell’s obvious (and long-recognized) themes or intentions. And there are more than a few typos and misspellings. If you want only one large pictorial treatment of Rockwell’s seven decades of work, this ain’t it. Instead, go with one of Thomas Buechner’s several classic treatments from the 1970s, all of which have been reprinted several times — and which Sonder himself even recommends. (10/10/07)

Thompson, Jill. Death: At Death’s Door. NY: DC Comics, 2003.

Thompson is sort of a fellow traveler of Neil Gaiman’s highly regarded and highly influential “Sandman” series, and she’s not at all a bad artist — though in a slightly annoying and inconsistent manga-esque kind of way. But the trouble is, there’s very little in the story here that’s original. The plot is really just a retelling of events in Gaiman’s Season of Mists (Sandman, vol. 4), most of it from Death’s viewpoint. Now, Gaiman’s version of Death is completely unlike anyone else’s picture of the Grim Reaper. This Death is a rather winsome, always perky, very pretty girl apparently in her early 20s, who always dresses in black (generally jeans and sexy tops, though sometimes mini-dresses or leotards), always sports an ankh (her sigil), and genuinely cares about the people she gathers when they cross from life into her domain. She’s as conscientious about her job as her brother, Dream, though in her own, more humane way. For all these reasons, the author made a good choice of protagonist. I only wish she had been able to come up with a new story, as Gaiman himself did in Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: The Time of Your Life. (10/03/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Feet of Clay. NY: HarperCollins, 1996.

Probably I should have tried to read the Discworld novels in proper chronological order, instead of however they happened to come to hand, but my slightly more chaotic approach is perhaps more in keeping with Pratchett’s style. Especially the “Watch” subseries should be read in order, because there’s an evolutionary progression in its organization and the lives of its characters. Feet of Clay immediately follows Men at Arms, in which Capt. Sam Vimes of the Watch became Commander Sir Samuel, and the Watch itself began to expand from three or four coppers to a couple dozen watchmen of all sorts and species. That process continues here, with the incorporation of a number of trolls and dwarfs, as Vimes tries to figure out who’s attempting to poison Lord Vetinari, the Patrician. As always, there are various parallel secondary plots, including the budding romance between Capt. Carrot, who is also the hypothetical king of Ankh-Morpork (but who knows better than to try to enforce his inheritance) and Angua, a werewolf of uncertain desires who is the best tracker the Watch has got. The introduction of golems lets the author explore the question of how we define human-ness, and the conspiracy against Vetinari brings up the problem of legitimacy in government and whether kings are of any use whatever. (Pratchett may not be a card-carrying republican, but he doesn’t seem to have much use for royals generally.) Also as always, his turn of phrase and ironic observations are both pertinent and very, very funny. (10/06/07)

Pratchett, Terry. Men at Arms. NY: HarperCollins, 1993.

There’s something to be said for reading a series in chronological order, but it seems somehow more in the spirit of Discworld to just read them however they come to hand. This one features the Night Watch (my favorite sub-series) on the cusp of becoming the reorganized and expanded City Watch. Carrot is presently a corporal and trolls and dwarfs are just being added to the roster in the spirit of affirmative action. Captain Sam Vimes is facing both imminent retirement and imminent marriage to Lady Sybil Ramkin, both of which have put him into a strange state of mind. And on top of all that, there has been a mysterious series of murders of guild members, committed with an unknown weapon. Carrot, a six-foot-tall adopted dwarf, gets a lot of play this time, with special attention to his special talent: Everyone likes Carrot because he truly thinks everyone is basically decent underneath it all. As always, Pratchett, a master of stealth philosophy, combines off-the-wall humor and bent puns with thoughtful and humane digressions on the nature of right and good vs. wrong and evil, and what makes a good copper. (10/03/07)

Published on 20 November 2009 at 8:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

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