Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Infernal Aether - Peter Oxley


    2014; 348 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book One (out of three, plus a novella) in “The Infernal Aether” series.  Genre : Steampunk; Dark Fantasy; Paranormal; Dark Gothic Fantasy (so sez the author).  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    London nights during the Victorian Era can be very dark.  The fog comes on little cat’s feet, sits looking over the harbor and city on silent haunches, then moves on.

    Lately, according to those Londoners who have to walk the streets alone late at night, the darkness has become dangerous.  There are rumors (or, “rumours” in this book) of some of the “working girls of the night” getting snatched up and disappearing into thick air, never to return.

    Of course, any news about a few hookers going missing never reaches the ears of the gentry, and Augustus “Gus” Potts is one of those, albeit one whose financial situation has fallen upon some troubled times.  But even he can see that the darkness has become, well, a lot darker lately.  And eerier.  Who knows what evil might lurk inside it?

    Gus’s brother, Max, is a scientist.  He admits the night’s blackness seems more pervasive lately, but he finds it to be fascinating, not frightening.  He thinks something’s been added to the darkness, and he calls it “the Luminiferous Aether”.  He wants to study it.  After all, it might some sort of communications medium between here and another dimension.

    Well, there’s only one time to do such scientific testing – at night.  And Max seems to be blissfully unaware of the dangers of being out in the Aether, so Gus tags along.  This turns out to be quite prudent when, on their first night out “sciencing”, they came across a guy who’s just been mugged a huge brute of a creature.

    Maybe we should call it “The Infernal Aether” instead, Max.

What’s To Like...
    The Infernal Aether is a nice blending of the Steampunk and Horror genres.  The action starts quickly and the pace is fast the entire way.  I don’t recall any slow spots.  The story is told in the first-person POV, Gus’s.  There are 43 chapters covering 348 pages, and those chapters are further broken down into 8 “parts”.  The first seven parts are pretty equal in length, each one comprising 4-5 chapters.  The final part, the thrilling ending, is about twice as long.

    The book is written in English, not American, which I always enjoy, so you encounter words like storey, sceptical, despatched, glocky, and meagre.  I had fun trying to suss out some of the phrases, such as: “Old Bill” (the London police force), “Burke and Hare” (which reference a series of 16 murders in Scotland in 1827-28 - Wiki it);  and “Cocking a Snook” (detailed in the Kewlest New Word Section, below).

    I liked the how Peter Oxley developed the characters.  I wouldn’t call them “deep”, but what made them stand out was their “grayness”.  Our protagonist, Gus, borders on being an anti-hero.  And the main antagonist, Andras, may be a demon, but he does have a couple - just a couple, mind you – of redeeming qualities.  I don’t recall any of the secondary characters being all-white or all-black, although none of them were “half-and-half” either.  Even the “magic sword” is gray – it can slice through anything, but it overheats if you use it for too long of a time.

    There’s a nice variety of critters to meet and flee from, most of which can rip us puny humans to shreds.  The settings are all in Great Britain, mostly around the greater London area, except for one stay in Yorkshire (where they don’t think much of city slickers), and one excursion clear up to Scotland.  I particularly delighted to visit Seven Dials, (to which I was introduced to in a book I read earlier this year), and Windsor Castle (I’ve been there!), as well as the nods to Fermat’s Last Theorem and the infamous and historic “Window Tax”.

    The overall themes were pretty standard – Deal with the beasties that are wreaking havoc in the Aether, shoo them away, and somehow get everything back to normal again.  You might think that sounds kinda trite, but Peter Oxley has put a fresh spin on it, and tosses in just a smidgen of Goethe’s Faust to spice things up.  I thought it all worked rather well.

Kewlest New Word . . .
Cocking a Snook (phrase) : The posture of holding a spread hand up to one’s face, with the thumb on the nose, preferably with crossed eyes, waggling fingers, and any other annoying gesticulation that comes to mind.  (A  Britishism.  The Yankeeism equivalent is “the five-fingered salute”.)
Others : Glocky (adj.; Britishism); Cove (n. Britishism); Peaky (adj.; Britishism); Louche (adj.) Preternatural (adj.).

Excerpts...
    “Oh come on!” she said.  “You must have heard the rumours about the creature that stalks the streets in the early hours, picking off girls when they’re on their way home?  They say it can jump over buildings and walk through walls.”
    “If it can walk through walls, why go to the effort of jumping over buildings?” I asked.  “Sounds like quite a waste of-“  (loc. 557)

    Lieutenant Pearce, though, greeted the man like a hero from his favourite book.  “I have heard so much of your exploits,” he said.  “I did not truly believe that it was you we were going to meet.”
     Freddie glared at him.  “Young man, have I really slipped so far from the danger list as to warrant the respect of Her Majesty’s finest?  Time was, my name inspired fear and loathing.  Such happy days…”   (loc. 4285)

Kindle Details...
    The Infernal Aether sells for $4.99 at Amazon, as do the other two full-length books in the series.  The novella goes for $2.99.  Or you can buy the boxed set of the four books for $7.99, which is a significant savings.

”I don’t have the time for this.  I have some intense moping around to do.”   (loc. 1563)
    The quibbles are minor.  I never did see any reason for one of the characters to scamper off all the way to Scotland, other than to induce a time crisis for our heroes.  Then again, I’ve seen Steve Berry pull this same stunt and get away with it, and I must admit it generates an impressive amount of tension.

     Second, although it's true that the primary and secondary characters aren’t totally black or white, the fact that they all “lean” one way or the other makes it easy to slot them into the proper “good guys/bad guys” category, and quickly spot any potential double-dealers.  Yes, I’m picking nits about the shades of grey.

    The ending is an ambitious one: it’s reasonably exciting, somewhat twisty, completes the immediate story, and sets up the sequel.  Overall, The Infernal Aether falls into the “purty durn good” category, and I’m surprised Peter Oxley hasn’t written any more Dark Gothic Fantasy series since completing this  one. 

    8 Stars.  Add 1 Star if Steampunk novels float your boat.  Subtract 1 star if reading books written in English make you want to cock a snook at them.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card


   1985; 324 pages. Book One of the Ender’s Game” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Dystopian Fiction; Military Sci-Fi.  Laurels : Nebula Award – Best Novel (1985); Hugo Award – Best Novel (1986); NY Times Bestseller – Mass Market Paperback (2013); Publishers Weekly Bestselling Science Fiction Novel (2012); and a bunch of readers polls.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    You could call it a “Goldilocks” situation.

    All of the kids in the family showed promise.  The military tested the oldest son first, Peter.  He had talent, but unfortunately was pathologically too mean.  He’d kill too many people, or they'd kill him, before he could be fully trained to be a leader.

    So next they tested the middle child, Valentine.  She was equal in talent, but simply too nice.  She’d be friends with everyone else in a group, and we all know a good commander can't be pals with the soldiers under him/her.

    In desperation, they tested the youngest son, Andrew.  Just six years old, he’s a little young to be giving orders to a fleet of starships, while the fate of humankind rides on his performance.  Yet all the monitoring shows that he’s their best choice – a happy medium between the psychological profiles of his two older siblings.  Not too mean; not too nice; he’s just right.

    It’s a pity then, that in order to mold him into the perfect leader, the military's going to have to crush him, both mentally and emotionally.

What’s To Like...
    Ender’s Game is an insanely popular sci-fi book from the mid-1980’s.  It garnered all sorts of awards when it came (some are listed above in the header), then did it all over again in 2013 when the movie came out.

    The book chronicles the life of Andrew Ender from age 6 to 20, as he undergoes grueling military training.  The main plotline is, of course, saving the universe, but Orson Scott Card also offers some interesting insight about bullying, screwing with people’s minds, problem-solving, leadership qualities, the importance of family, and the risks involved in any “first contact” scenario.

    The majority of the book involves Ender playing war games, at first on a computer, and then for an extended time excelling in what I can only describe as “Laser Tag in Zero Gravity”.  This may seem ho-hum, but it was cutting-edge technology back in the 1980’s.  I’ve played Laser Tag once or twice, and personally, I think it would be a fascinating endeavor to try it in a weightless atmosphere.

    Ender’s Game is a quick read, but not an easy one, due mainly to all the tactics that Ender has to come up with for his team to keep winning against increasingly stacked odds.  There are 15 chapters covering 324 pages, plus a 26-page (!) introduction by the author, which I skipped.  Each chapter starts with a dialogue by the military manipulators, discussing how they’re molding and warping Ender’s fragile mindset.  There is some cussing, which surprised me, but no sex, booze, or drugs.  I liked the childhood game of “Buggers & Astronauts”; it reminded me of a similar game we played as kids reenacting the battle of the Alamo.  For the record, I always chose to play on the “Mexican” side.

    The recruitment portion of the story reminds me of John Scalzi’s fantastic novel, Old Man’s War, which is reviewed here, except here kids are pressed into service, whereas Scalzi's story used geezers.  I also liked the “Locke/Demosthenes” thread; it is eerily applicable to our present-day problem with Talking Heads on the internet using Fake News to fleece uninformed listeners.

    A word to the wise – if you find the storyline starts to drag because game-playing is not your shtick, stick it out.  The ending has a couple of twists that are, in a word, fantastic.  The book is both a standalone story and a set-up for the rest of the series.  I was completely unaware that this was anything more than a one-and-done story.

Kewlest New Word ...
Philotic (adj.) : concerning the interconnection of all sentient beings in the universe.  (a made-up word in the book)
Others : Hegemony (n.)

Excerpts...
    “The sister is our weak link.  He really loves her.”
    “I know.  She can undo it all, from the start.  He won’t want to leave her.”
    “So, what are you going to do?”
    “Persuade him that he wants to come with us more than he wants to stay with her.”
    “How will you do that?”
    “I’ll lie to him.”
    “And if that doesn’t work?”
    “Then I’ll tell the truth.  We’re allowed to do that in emergencies.”  (pg. 16)

    “This isn’t just a matter of translating from one language to another.  They don’t have a language at all.  We used every means we could think of to communicate with them, but they don’t even have the machinery to know we’re signaling.  And maybe they’ve been trying to think to us, and they can’t understand why we don’t respond.”
    “So the whole war is because we can’t talk to each other.”
    “If the other fellow can’t tell you his story, you can never be sure he isn’t trying to kill you.”  (pg. 253)

 “Me? I’m nothing.  I’m a fart in the air conditioning.  I’m always there, but most of the time nobody knows it.”  (pg.  42)
    I had a couple quibbles.  First, it is a fact that Orson Scott Card is a Mormon, and so I was not totally shocked to see a little bit of his religion sneaking into the storyline, along with a couple other biblical quotes.  I think I counted three of these little spiritual plugs and they were all awkward fits.  But there were none after about page 100, so maybe he got it out of his system.  Because, let's face it, if you’re going to inject religion into your science fiction story, the proper course is to invent one.

    Second, is anyone else tired of the baddies in sci-fi novels always being either robotic or insectoid?  I recognize this is so sensitive young minds don’t get too upset about we noble humans splattering extraterrestrial innards all over the universe.  But just once, I’d like to see Earthlings have to mow down an invading army of ruthless and murderous Ewoks.

    Finally, and this is more of a bit of advice than a quibble: I enjoyed Ender’s Game a lot more once I started reading it as a piece of Dystopian Fiction.  As a Sci-Fi novel, the book is rather blah.  We already have most of the technology presented in the book, so there simply isn’t much fiction to be entertained by.

    But as an examination of a dystopian world, the book shines.  There are strong deterrents for anyone wanting to have more than two kids, and Ender suffers from being a "third".  The government can insert “monitors” into the heads of small children to see if they have qualities befitting a military leader.  And while they can’t unilaterally take a promising kid away from the parents, they are permitted to give the tyke a sales pitch about leaving the family for a multi-year education at Battle School, where they can totally mess up his psyche.  I was fascinated by all this.

    8 Stars.  I found Ender’s Game to be much more akin to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than to H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds.  For me, that’s a huge plus.  And I never did figure out why the protagonist’s name changed from Andrew Ender to Ender Wiggin when he entered Battle School.  Perhaps it was too late at night when I read that part.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Lion In The Valley - Elizabeth Peters


   1986; 418 pages.  Book 4 (out of 20) of the “Amelia Peabody” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Mystery; Murder Mystery; Crime Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    It’s a new year, and for the husband and wife team of archaeologists, Amelia Peabody Emerson and Professor Radcliffe Emerson, that means heading back to Egypt from their home in England to explore a new pyramid – two of them, actually.

    This is going to involve crawling around in stifling, bat-infested corridors of the larger of the two pyramids, and mucking through the muddy, flooded burial chamber of the smaller one.  There’s also the challenges of the Saharan heat, the blowing sand, the omnipresent dust, and the Bedouin tribesmen roaming the nearby dunes, all the while trying in vain to keep track of their eight-year-old son, Ramses, a youngster who has a phenomenal talent for getting in trouble, getting lost, and always finding a tenable defense to justify his antics.

    Still, things can’t help but go better than last year, when the Emerson family crossed paths with the notorious “Master Criminal” (nobody knows his true name), and only survived due to some heroics by Ramses.  Surely that’s all over and forgotten now, and this year they can concentrate on the excavations.

    Yet it is a curious fact that Amelia and Radcliffe never need to go looking for trouble.  It always seems to find them.

What’s To Like...
    Lion In The Valley was my introduction to Elizabeth Peters and her Amelia Peabody Historical Mystery series.  This story is set in 1895/96 when Egypt was a British protectorate.  Amelia gets top billing, primarily because the story is written in the form of a journal, in the First Person POV, and being penned by her.  But her husband and son play equally prominent parts in the story.

    The book is a vocabularian’s delight.  Amelia writes in a flowery style, and young Ramses delights in awing adults around him with his fustian.  Wikpedia correctly terms this a “Historical Mystery”, and it was fun to see Elizabeth Peters insert real archaeologists from that time period (including Howard Carter, ho of King Tut’s Tomb fame), and real archaeological sites, such as the Dahshoor (“Dahshur” if you want to find it in Wikipedia) pyramids that our protagonists are about to dig into.

   I would classify Lion In The Valley as a Cozy Mystery.  Yes, there are two bodies to be discovered, but we aren't witness to the actual killings.  Radcliffe might let slip an occasional “damn”, but Amelia is there to nag him into eschewing such language in front of Ramses.  Amelia the diarist is also resourceful in finding tasteful words to describe her and Radcliffe’s frequent “bouts of passion”.

    There are a bunch of Arabic expressions sprinkled throughout the text, and that was a treat for me.  The ending has a couple neat twists in it, and is suitably suspenseful, but also has a WTF which makes it somewhat hard to believe.  Lion In The Valley is a standalone story, as well as part of a series.

    Elizabeth Peters is the pen name of one Barbara Mertz, who also wrote under the name of Barbara Michaels.  She received a PhD in Egyptology from the University in Chicago in 1952.  All of which means she paints a very realistic picture of life in Egypt in the 1890’s.

Kewlest New Word ...
Contumely (n) : insolent or insulting language or treatment.
Others : Gazette (as a verb); Haut Monde (n.; phrase); Syllogism (n.); Ensorcelled (v.).

Excerpts...
    As we waited for the workmen to arrive, Emerson said, “You were restless last night, Peabody.”
    “So would you have been had you been wakened hourly, as I was, by someone prowling round the tent.”
    “You talked in your sleep.”
    “Nonsense, Emerson.  I never talk in my sleep.  It is a sign of mental instability.  What did I say?”  (loc. 2646)

   “Peabody,” he said.
    “Yes, my dear Emerson?”
    “Are we surrounded by hostile Bedouin on the verge of a murderous attack?”
    “Why no, Emerson, I don’t think so.”
    “Did a shadowy figure creep into the tent, brandishing a knife?”
    “No.”
    “A mummified hand, perhaps?  Slipping through the gap between the tent wall and the canvas floor, groping for your throat?”
    “Emerson, you are particularly annoying when you try to be sarcastic.”  (loc. 3766)

Kindle Details...
    Lion In The Valley sells for $8.99 at Amazon.  The other 19 books in the series range in price from $1.99 to $9.99.   Individual books in the series are frequently offered at temporarily lower prices, usually $1.99.  Your local digital library is another good place to find copies, both in electronic and "real" formats.

 “Watch your dipthongs, Ramses.”  (loc. 547)
    There were some things that I was mildly disappointed in.

    First of all, both adult protagonists are archaeologists, so I was looking forward to digging and scraping and uncovering and cataloging.  But the storyline is virtually devoid of archaeological details.  Our heroes go off towards work, almost always get sidetracked by visitors or malefactors, and almost never find time to do the excavating they came to Egypt to do.

    The second issue is the Murder-Mystery portions.  If you’re hoping to solve the crimes alongside Amelia, you’ll be disappointed.  Things do eventually get resolved, but it doesn’t come via sleuthing, and its outcome is conveniently tailored to fit in with the personal storylines, not the crimes themselves.

    Finally, Ramses can get very annoying quite quickly with his adult-like vocabulary, convoluted lines of reasoning, and all-around obnoxiousness.  Simply put, his character isn’t believable for an 8-year-old..

    But hey, this was my introduction to Elizabeth Peters.  Lion In The Valley is an early entry, so maybe things get more believable as the series progresses.  Or maybe I haven’t yet grasped the tone and style the author is aiming for here.  That has happened before, with Ruth Downie’s Medicus series, and I eventually warmed up to her books.  We shall see.  I have at least two more Amelia Peabody books on my TBR shelf.

    7 Stars.  Add 1 star if you like Lilian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who ...” books.  The structure of the Historical Mystery in Lion In the Valley is very similar to that used by Ms. Braun and frankly, IMO, Elizabeth Peters does it much better.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls - David Sedaris


    2013; 278 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Essays; Non-Fiction; Anecdotal Humor.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Here's a writing assignment for you.  Compose a 10-page essay on getting a colonoscopy.  There’s one catch, however.  You have to make it entertaining.  Something readers will chuckle at, and that will make them want to immediately read more essays by you.

    After that, write four more essays on these topics: Being robbed while in Hawaii; Litterbugs (in the UK); People ahead of you in lines at food places who won’t stop chatting with the cashier; and Kids throwing temper tantrums in stores.  Remember to make all of them amusing.

    When you’re finished with those, try to think of another 21 topics from your personal experiences to pen essays about.  Make sure that your readers will still find all of them witty and that the stories will resonate with them.

    Now that you've got all these personal anecdotes done, go out and buy David Sedaris’s book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, and see how his tales compare with yours.  I’m guessing you’ll have gained a much greater appreciation for just how challenging it is to write books of this genre.     

What’s To Like...
    Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls is David Sedaris’s seventh book of anecdotal stories about his life, and I’ve read all the previous ones.  There is an eighth one, Calypso, that was just released this past May, but I’ll wait until the hoopla (and price) dies down before snagging it.

    The lengths of the essays are fairly consistent – about 10 pages each (26 chapters covering 278 pages).  Normally, David Sedaris closes these books with a longer narrative, but here the final chapter was a collection of short-&-silly poems about all sorts of breeds of dogs.  I don’t recall the author offering any of his poetry before, and I found these bits of doggy doggerel hilarious.   My other  favorite chapters were:

    08.  Easy, Tiger.  Learning foreign languages (Mandarin and German).
    09.  Laugh, Kookaburra.  Feeding kookaburras and turning off stoves.
    18.  #2 To Go.  Eating "real" Chinese food.
    22.  Day In, Day Out.  Keeping a diary.
    23.  Mind the Gap.  An essay written in English, not in Yankee.
    24.  A Cold Case.  Losing your passport and wallet in Hawaii.

    The book’s contents follow the usual pattern – all the stories are personal experiences, and not in any order - chronological or otherwise.  David Sedaris is a writer by profession, gay, grew up in a crazy family, travels extensively promoting his books, and has lived in various parts of the world, including New York, North Carolina, England, France and Italy.  A couple of the chapters were written in wingnut style, and one was written in Britspeak.

    I delighted in the details. In one chapter, he recounts spending some time in a city called Brindisi, a place I’d never heard of.  His insights about living in France  were LOL funny.  I shuddered while reading the chapter on colonoscopies since I’m overdue and avoiding my first one.  It was neat to see he’s familiar with Edith Pargeter’s (aka, Ellis Peters') Brother Cadfael novels.  And the chapter about his compulsion of picking up litter resonated with me; for a while we had a guy in our neighborhood who did the same thing, at 5:30 every morning, even when it was pitch black outside.  I know because I’d see him every morning as I left for work.

    You should keep in mind there are R-rated words and adult situations in the book.  Art Linkletter would have a cow.  Misogynists and homophobes should steer clear; David Sedaris is unashamedly married, and unashamedly gay.  Finally, in case you’re wondering, the titular owls show up in Chapter 17; but the diabetes never appears.  Wikipedia gives a brief explanation for the title.

Excerpts...
    Shaun’s father, Hank, was a psychiatrist and sometimes gave his boys and me tests, the type for which there were, he assured us, “no right answers.”  He and his wife were younger than my parents, and they seemed it, not just in their dress but in their eclectic tastes – records by Donovan and Moby Grape shelved among the Schubert.  Their house had real hardcover books in it, and you often saw them lying open on the sofa, the words still warm from being read.  (loc. 559)

    There wasn’t a lot of familiar in China.  No pork lo mein or kung pao chicken, and definitely no egg rolls.  On our first night in Chengdu, we joined a group of four for dinner – one Chinese woman and three Westerners.  The restaurant was not fancy, but it was obviously popular.  Built into our table was a simmering cauldron of broth, into which we were to add side dishes and cook them until they were done.  “I’ve taken the liberty of ordering us some tofu, some mushrooms, and some duck tongues,” said the Western woman sitting across from me.  “Do you trust me to keep ordering, or is there anything in particular you might like? (loc. 1818)

Kindle Details...
    Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls sells for $11.99 at Amazon.  David Sedaris's other collections of anecdotal essays are all available, and in the $8.99-$14.99 price range.

Did I just refuse to marry my mother?  (loc. 469)
    Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls is another solid installment in the life-&-times of David Sedaris, but I wouldn’t call it my favorite.  This is mostly due to the tone of the book, at least at the start.  For me, the best David Sedaris stories are the ones written in a self-deprecatory style.  But here his mood in a number of them is that of a grumpy old man.  He rants about parents no longer disciplining their kids enough, moans about how crappy of a person his dad was, and whines about having to take swimming classes as a kid.

    If these topics had been tackled with the author’s usual amount of insight and wit, things would’ve been fine.  Unfortunately, here he just seemed like he wanted to vent.

    Maybe he was being too subtle for my dense brain, or maybe he was in a bad mood when he penned some of the chapters..  In any case, he finds his groove about halfway through the book, the wit returns, the tone gets cheerier, and it’s smooth sailing thereafter.

    Or perhaps I was just in a better mood when reading the second half of the book.

    7½ Stars.  One final note.  David Sedaris at long last reveals his secret for coming up with interesting past experiences to write about in book after book.  He’s been keeping diaries, making entries every day, for the past 35 years.  Whenever he needs a new memoir for his next book, he just opens one of the many volumes of his diaries.  Holy OCD-ness, Batman!

Monday, July 23, 2018

Gardens of the Moon - Steven Erikson


   2013; 446 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book 1 (out of 10, not counting the prequels) in the “Malazan Book of the Fallen” series.  Genre : Epic Fantasy; Sword & Sorcery.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Someone has it in for the Bridgeburners.

    Well, that’s not surprising since they’re an elite fighting squad in the Malazan Imperial Armies, and commanded by the legendary Sergeant Whiskeyjack, he who was once the commander of the whole Second Army.

    But he’s been demoted, probably at the behest of the Empress Laseen, who came to the throne under somewhat suspicious circumstances, who no doubt questions whether his loyalty is first and foremost to the Empire itself, or to the previous Emperor.  Popular military heroes can be a threat. And so can the soldiers they command.

    So if the war calls for a suicide mission, guess which squad always gets picked?  During the recently completed siege of the city Pale, they were given the task of tunneling underneath the defensive walls and laying explosives.  But tunnels tend to collapse unexpectedly, and the majority of Whiskeyjack’s men were lost.  Now there’s only half a dozen or so left alive.

    And guess what?  Their next assignment has just been issued.  They’re to infiltrate Darujhistan, the next city in the path of the Imperial invasion and lay more explosives underground.  Duty calls, the Empress commands, but after this mission, there may be no more Bridgeburners left alive.

What’s To Like...
    Gardens of the Moon is the first story in a completed 10-book series in one of my favorite genres, Epic Fantasy, and it truly lives up to its billing.  Both the world-building and the character development are incredible, there’s lots of both action and intrigue, and buckles are swashed.  There are heroes and villains, and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart, as they are all my favorite color, “gray”.

    There are war-weary warriors, mages and mage-killers, and churlish thieves and assassins.  I was impressed by the number and variety of non-human races, wowed by some magical crows, and delighted that several dragons showed up late in the tale.  I have a feeling the latter will have more significant roles in subsequent books.

    I especially liked the god-building.  The ones here are indeed powerful, but they’re neither omnipotent nor omniscient, and they are at times subject to the whims of fate and luck.  The ones that no longer have worshippers are rather sad cases, and, like the humans, they are mostly “gray” in alignment, falling into the “gods behaving badly” category.

    There are two maps plus a Dramatis Personae at the start of the book, and a glossary listing various titles, peoples, gods, critters, and geographic locales in the back.  Bookmark both sections, because you’re going to be referring to them a lot, since you’ll be crossing paths with a slew of people and places.  Steven Erikson treats the reader like an adult; he expects you to look new stuff up in those reference sections, and is thereby able to forego bogging things down with a backstory.

    A fair number of characters die in the book, but if your fave is one of them, keep a stiff upper lip, not all of them stay dead.  Tarot Card enthusiasts will love the potency of the decks that are used here.  And I found soul-shifting to be quite the neat trick.  The book’s title is explained on page 531, and I liked the euphemistic cuss phrases used here, such as “Hood’s Breath” and “Shedunul’s Mercy”.  A pantheon of gods means a mortal has so many more ways to take their names in vain.

    Everything builds to a superbly exciting climax, and without giving away any spoilers, I’ll only say that any author who can create a thrilling ending using a social gathering as the backdrop can certainly be described as “gifted”.  Some of the storylines are resolved; others are left open for the sequels.

Kewlest New Word ...
Woad (n. or adj.) : a yellow-flowered European plant of the cabbage family, or the blue dye obtained therefrom.
Others:  Febrile (adj.); Arbalest (n.).

Excerpts...
    “Tell me, Tool, what dominates your thoughts?”
    The Imass shrugged before replying.  “I think of futility, Adjunct.”
    “Do all Imass think about futility?”
    “No.  Few think at all.”
    “Why is that?”
    The Imass leaned his head to one side and regarded her.  “Because, Adjunct, it is futile.”
    “Let’s get going, Tool.  We’re wasting time.”
    “Yes, Adjunct.”
    She climbed into the saddle, wondering how the Imass had meant that.  (pg. 325)

    “Do you stand alone in this, Anomander Rake?  Do your people approve?”
    “They care not,” Rake said.  “They accept my commands.  They follow me.  They serve Caladan Brood when I ask them to.  And they die in the mud and forests of a land that is not their own, in a war not their own, for a people who are terrified of them.”
    Baruk sat forward.  “Then why?  Why do you do all this?”
    A harsh laugh was Rake’s response.  After a moment, however, his bitter amusement fell away and he said, “Is an honorable cause worth anything these days?  Does it matter that we’ve borrowed it?  We fight as well as any man.  We die alongside them.  Mercenaries of the spirit.  And even that is a coin we scarcely value.  Why?  It doesn’t matter why.  But we never betray our allies.”  (pg. 486)

“It’s a bad smell when sorcerers panic.”  (pg. 5)
     The quibbles are microscopic.  The main map was hard to read and doesn’t cover the full world.  Some cities, countries, and even continents are cited that simply aren’t shown, and I searched for them in vain.  However, it must also be said that all the places that are visited in the story, at least the terrestrial sites, are on the map.

    Also, it took me a while to figure out what the main storyline was.  Was it the siege of Pale?  No.  How about the suicide mission to Darujhistan by Whiskeyjack and his merry band?  Not really.  Perhaps it’s the overthrow of the Empress Laseen.  Uh-uh.  But somewhere around mid-book, things got clarified, so this is a non-issue.

    Last, and least, the bits of prose that start off each chapter, although a nice touch, generally didn’t do much for me.  But I pick at nits.

    9½ Stars.  Highly recommended.  I’ve been meaning to give Steven Erikson a try for quite some time.  My expectations were lofty, and Gardens of the Moon fully met them.  I’m now facing a gazillion pages to read if I want to pursue this series, plus there’s a 3-book prequel that Erikson hasn’t finished yet.  And I still have one more epic fantasy author on my list to try: a fellow named Stephen R. Donaldson.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Fridgularity - Mark A. Rayner


   2012; 395 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Humorous Science Fiction; Satire.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Blake Given’s refrigerator talks to him.

    Okay, it doesn’t vocally talk to Blake; that would be silly.  But it is a web-enabled model, with a web browser and a monitor screen embedded in the freezer half on the front door.  It uses that screen to communicate with Blake.

    Which isn’t as amazing as it sounds.  For one thing, the refrigerator doesn’t know squat about syntax.  For another, it doesn’t address Blake by his name.  Instead, it refers to him as “THAT HUMAN PERSON”.  But worst of all is its insistence on typing everything in capital letters (doesn’t it know that means it’s yelling?!), and its extremely poor taste in fonts.

    Still, it seems to learn from its gaffes.  And when it subsequently shuts down the entire Internet, then follows that up by a worldwide power outage, it becomes evident that ZAHIR (for that is its name) is a threat to civilization.  I’d ask ZAHIR to be my Facebook friend, except for one thing.  Since there is no Internet, there is no Facebook.

    And without my Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Etsy, and all those other online socializing sites, I’m not sure life is worth living anymore.

What’s To Like...
    The Fridgularity asks the question: what would happen to our world if suddenly all electronic activity disappeared?  No internet, no cellphones, no TV or Radio, and in its most extreme cases, no electricity.  S.M. Stirling has devoted a 15-book alternate-history series (“The Emberverse”) to exploring this concept, now Mark A. Rayner tackles it in a more satiric, absurdist fashion.

    The book is broken into two sections, “The Big Crash” and “A Cold Reboot”, each comprising of 25 chapters.  At 50 chapters for 395 pages, this means it's always easy to find a good place to stop for the night.  The setting is Landon, Ontario, Canada, apparently a takeoff of London, Ontario, which I'm embarrassed to say I’ve never heard of.  I’m pretty it is the author’s stomping grounds.

   I liked the literary nods to Siddhartha and Neal Stephenson.  Ditto for the reference to playing blindfold chess, which I've actually done a few times.  I also learned some new acronyms: LARPing (“Live Action Role Playing”) which is real; and TARFU (we’ll let you decipher that one) which I think the author made up.  I never did figure out what the “Big Lebowski Effect” was, which is not surprising since I’ve never watched that movie.

    Beneath all the absurdity, Mark A. Rayner offers some interesting insight as to just how messed up we’d all be without our electronic devices and associated social media.  His portrayal of how such upheavals to our everyday life can lead to the rise of religious nut-jobs and blind-faith followers was rather sobering.  Then there’s the slightly scary concept of a sentient “Emerging Intelligence” in our electronic gadgetry, aka the titular “The Singularity”.

    There is a moderate amount of cussing, and a roll in the hay near the end of the book, but this all fit in nicely.  Everybody’s sense of humor is different, so some readers won’t find The Fridgularity funny at all.  Personally, I thought it was hilarious.

Kewlest New Word ...
Pong (n.) : a strong, unpleasant smell.  (no, not the old arcade game.)
Others : Numinous (adj.).


Excerpts...
    “Look at this, none of it working.  Even this, my lifeline,” he said, brandishing his expensive and glossy little portable touch screen phone that was de rigueur in the Creative Department, even if you didn’t really need it.  “I can’t do anything.  No texts, no tweets, no updates, no apps, pokes, prods, prons – nothing!  I can’t see my blog.  I can’t comment on anyone else’s.  I’m totally cut off!  We’re cut off, dude.  I can feel it.  We’re FUBAR. TARFU and FUBAR!  TARFUBAR!  Oh, that’s good!  I wish I could tweet that!”  (loc. 337)

    It was a feeling similar to the one he sometimes got as he drove to work.  Did I leave the oven on?  Even if he thought about it for another few minutes he’d never be able to remember, so he’d have to turn back to check; objectively, the oven is either on or it’s not, but if you stop your commute to check, you’re guaranteed that it will not be on.  This is a form of quantum mechanics, the Schrodinger’s Cat corollary for major kitchen appliances.  (loc. 4325)

Kindle Details...
    The Fridgularity sells for $6.99 at Amazon, although I got it years ago, probably when it was discounted or free.  Mark A. Rayner has five other e-books at Amazon (including a non-fiction biography novella), ranging in price from $2.90 to $6.99.


Then, as is inevitable at pre-apocalyptic poetry readings, someone threw the first punch.  (loc. 503)
    The quibbles are nitpicky.  Our hero deduces ZAHIR’s mood by which font he uses, but in the Kindle version only uses one font for everything, so that cute twist loses some of its impact.  I have the feeling that this was due to whatever program or self-publishing software was used to convert the MS-Word manuscript to a Kindle-friendly format.

    Second, although there's not much of a plot beyond the "protagonist versus UE" (Ultimate Evil), conflict.  But I happen to be a huge fan of Tom Holt, whose books are similarly short on plotlines and long on satiric humor.  So this style didn't bother me.

    Finally, while the ending is adequately resolves the "good-vs-evil" issue, it leaves a lot of threads dangling.  Indeed, I tassumed there was a sequel, but ANAICT, that isn’t the case.  Mark A. Rayner has written several more novels since The Fridgularity came out in 2012, but I don’t believe any of them carry on the tale.  But not to worry; this is still a standalone novel.

    7½ Stars.  In case you’re wondering, there really is such a thing as a web enabled refrigerator.  Fry’s Electronics sells them, so does Best Buy; you can even order one through Amazon.  Heck, Wikipedia has a post about them, although there they call it an “Internet Refrigerator”.  I’d never heard of such a thing; I thought the author was goofing on me.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

A Brief History of the Druids - Peter Berresford Ellis


   1994; 480 pages.  Full Title : A Brief History of the Druids.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; World History; Celtic History; Druids.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    A question: What pops into your mind when you hear the word “Druid”?

    If you’re like me, it’s a mental image of the Gandalf dude from Lord Of The Rings.  Pointy hat, floppy robe, magic staff, and the obligatory ZZ-Top beard.

      Alternatively, if you’re from the British Isles, you might envision some bald-headed dude, still in the floppy robe, and working his magic in the middle of Stonehenge.

    But if your European History knowledge has a Continental drift, then maybe your Druid would be standing in an oak grove doing his thing.

    If you’re an ancient Greek or Roman, you won’t think of anything so noble.  For you, a Druid is some heathen zealot who burns human sacrifices to propitiate the gods,  often en masse by means of “the wicker man”.  Because Emperor Julius Caesar told you so.

    Finally, if you’re a New Ager, a Druid to you is probably some hippie, sitting on top of one of the stone structures at Stonehenge, smoking a joint, and digging on the sun as it rises on the morning of the Summer Solstice.

    Petter Berresford Ellis would probably give you half-credit if you included the oak grove in your image, and zero credit for any of the other details listed above.

What’s To Like...
    Peter Berresford Ellis makes it clear at the very beginning: Any serious book about the Druids is going to involve a lot of conjecture.  The Druids themselves didn’t write anything down, and those “foreigners” who did were conquerors, such as Julius Caesar, who had a vested interest in denigrating anyone who held a position of power in the Celtic tribes he had just subjugated.

    The author bases his set of educated conjectures on the following hypotheses:
    a.) The Druids were not limited to being mages.  They were the Intellectual Caste of the Celtic world: Priests, Seers, Doctors, Poets, Leaders, and much more.
    b.) Greek and Roman sources can’t be trusted.  Ellis relies mostly on early Irish and Welsh writings.
    c.)  The Druid Caste is akin to the Brahmin Caste in India.  This commonality stems from a long-hypothesized Indo-European root language, from which most Eurasian tongues are thought to have come.

    I liked the book’s structure.  Ellis devotes the first part (pgs 1-156) to the generic characteristics and origins of the Druids.  Part 2 (pgs 157-250) enumerates the specific roles Druids played in the Celtic tribal hierarchy.  And Part 3 (pgs. 251-281) analyzes the modern surge in popularity of the Druid mystique, and how the hippies came ended up at Stonehenge.
 
    The Druids is a history buff’s delight, and I happen to be one.  Some of the details were familiar to me: Taliesin, the Aes Sidhe, the Tuatha Da Danaan, Tara, Stonehenge, Cruachan, Boudicca, Finn McCool, and my favorite Gnostic magician, Simon Magus, who, FWIW, gets some ink in the biblical Book of Acts.

    But I learned about a lot of new things too, such as: Fidelma, the Red Branch, the Irish Ogham alphabet, the origin of the words “Danube” and  “boycott”, and the Druidic origin and long history that hunger strikes have as a way of protest in Ireland.  I also liked the literary nod to Morgan Llywelyn’s historical-fiction novel, Druids, which I’ve read and is reviewed here, and being reminded that Rome, the Eternal City, was once sacked by the Celts, way back in ~390 BC.

    The book is written in English, not American.  So you have neighbours and jewellery, you’re advized to wear woollen  clothes, and if you’re one of the élite, you have a rôle to perform.  I liked this, but spell-checker is going nutzo as I write this review.  The book is part of a 16-volume (at the time of printing) historical series, which uses the “A Brief History of…” format.  There are some neat photos in the middle of the book, including one of Winston Churchill being installed at a Druidic lodge.  Make no mistake about it, reading this book will be a learning experience.

Kewlest New Word ...
Peripatetic (adj.) : traveling from place to place.
Others : Micturition (n.; who knew there was a word for this!?); Proscription (n.)

Excerpts...
    This destruction of native Irish learning, compounded by the Penal Laws of William III, saw the rise of a new educational phenomenon – the Irish Hedge School.  During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Irish teachers were compelled to teach the children secretly and usually out of doors in some secluded spot, often in the shelter of a hedge – hence the name.  One pupil was placed at a vantage point to give warning of the approach of English soldiers or informers, when the class would be disbanded at a word.  (pg. 160)

    The basis of the Celtic idea of immortality of the soul was that death was but a changing of place and life went on with all its forms and good in another world, a world of the dead, the fabulous Otherworld.  When people died in that world, however, their souls were reborn in this.  Thus a constant exchange of souls took place between the two worlds; death in this world took a soul to the Otherworld, death in that world brought a soul to this.  (pg. 176)

Kindle Details…
    Curiously, there is no e-book version of A Brief History of the Druids.  Various dealers at Amazon have the paperback version for sale, which is what I read.  It sells for anywhere from $7 to $40.

 “Worship the gods, do no evil and exercise courage.”  (pg. 168, and the Druids’ chief maxim.)
    The book was a slow read for me, and with 20 chapters and sub-chapters for 281 pages, finding a good place to stop for the night often proved problematic.  It is written in the old-fashioned “scholarly” style and, as some reviewers at Amazon have noted, it can be quite dry at times.  The frequent and lengthy studies of the etymologies of various Irish and Gaelic words also contributes to this dryness.

    The “scholarly style” also means Peter Berresford Ellis can be confrontational at time.  In particular, his views quite often differ from those of  one Nora Chadwick, who is apparently also a Celtic historian.

    Despite all this, I still enjoyed A Brief History of The Druids, and came away with a much greater appreciation of why the Irish were so fiercely resentful of English occupation down through the centuries.

    Just don’t be expecting it to be in the style of Sarah Vowell or Erik Larsson.

    7 Stars.  Peter Berresford Ellis also writes a historical fiction/murder-mystery series under the pen name Peter Tremayne.  Its protagonist is a  “Sister Fidelma”, and I gather it is set in Druidic times.  By good fortune, my local digital library carries one of these books, and I’m a big fan of the Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series  I suspect I’ll be trying this series out in the not-too-distant future.