Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pavane - Keith Roberts

1966; 277 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Alt-History; Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    In an alternate timeline, Queen Elizabeth 1 is assassinated, the Spanish armada conquers England, there is no Protestant Reformation, and the Vatican is the unquestioned ruler of all of Western civilization for centuries thereafter.

    Until the present.  Now, in 20th-century England, the seeds of revolt begin to take root.

What's To Like...
    Pavane was written in the 60's when Alt-History was mostly simplistic pap.  So it is a quantum leap forward for the genre.  Keith Roberts creates a dark, somber England, where only a privileged few are wealthy and everyone else is happy just to be able to put food on the table.  The Church has outlawed electricity and gas-powered engines, so Pavane is a also kewl forerunner of the Steampunk genre.

    The book consists of six short stories (musical "measures" in a pavane), which cover several generations of a family as they gradually begin to question and then resist the absolute authority of Rome.  It is much in the style of How The West Was Won, if you've ever seen that movie.

    There is some action (particularly in the last story), but not a lot.  The emphasis is on the people, and their evolving mindset, not on blood and gore.  Mass communication is done by a kewl Semaphore system (is this where Terry Pratchett got his idea for the semaphores in the DiscWorld universe?).  The "good guys" are well-developed, but the "bad guys" are mostly without redeeming values.

Kewlest New Word...
Bumph : Reading materials that you must read and deal with, but which you think are extremely boring.

Excerpts...
    It was odd; but now, he felt he could talk to the old man.  Now he could explain his hopes, his fears...  Only now was too late; because Eli was dead and gone, six foot of Dorset muck on his chest.  Was that the way of the world?  Did people always feel they could talk, and talk, when it was just a bit too late?  (pg. 26)

    "Yes", she said.  "It's like a ... dance somehow, a minuet or a pavane.  Something stately and pointless, with all its steps set out.  With a beginning, and an end..."  She tucked her legs under her, as she sat beside the fire.  "Sir John," she said, "sometimes I think life's all a mass of significance, all sorts of strands and threads woven like a tapestry or a brocade.
    "So if you pulled one out or broke it, the pattern would alter right back through the cloth.  Then I think... it's all totally pointless, it would make just as much sense backwards or forwards, effects leading to causes and those to more effects... maybe that's what will happen when we get to the end of Time.  The whole world will shott undone like a spring, and wind itself back to the start..."  (pgs. 247-48)

Time is forever and scurry and bustle can wait.  (pg. 62)
    Pavane starts slow, and the early lack of action will be off-oputting to a lot of Alt-History fans who pick up this book.  A lot of readers also didn't like the ending (the "Coda"), but I thought it completed the story beautifully.

    If you're looking for a slash-and-bash Alt-History tale (and I for one enjoy those), then it's best to skip Pavane.  But if you want to observe how the mindset of a populace slowly-but-steadily learns of, accepts, and finally embraces rebellion (which is historically true in most revolutions.  A single act, such as Bunker Hill, is simply the flashpoint), then you may find this to be an excellent novel.  7½ Stars.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Drawing of the Three - Stephen King

    1987; 463 pages.  Genre : Thriller.  New Author? : No.  Book #2 (out of 7) of the Dark Tower series.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

   Roland (aka, "the Gunslinger") is ready to continue his quest to find the Dark Tower.  But first it is predestined that he open three doors - three portals in time, and probably to a parallel universe as well.  There are people he needs to meet ... and experience.

What's To Like...
The Drawing of the Three is a quantum improvement over Book 1, The Gunslinger, reviewed here.  The writing is better; the story is more coherent; and by now Stephen King has learned how to write a thriller.

    An Introduction is included, which revises the early version of Book 1 to fit it better into this story.  Since by chance it was the early version that I had read, this was much appreciated.

The people that the Gunslinger meets via the doors are not paragons of virtue.  One's a junkie; another's a schizo; the third kills for thrills.  There is loss (two fingers and a toe); there is action; there is romance (with a whole new meaning given to the term "threesome"); and there is time-travel, which I'm always a sucker for.  There's even a neat little tribute to Rosa Parks, one of my personal heroes.

Finally, there is some humor to offset the suspense, particularly the Gunslinger's confusion as he tries to understand our world and mis-hears its vocabulary.  So we get "astin", "magda-seens", tooter-fish", "tach-sees" and "fotter-graffs".  I'll let you work out what these are. 

Kewlest New Word...
Rugose : wrinkled; creased; ridged.  (Runner-Up was "Lobstrosity", a great portmanteau.)

Excerpts...
    "It's ka," he said, facing Eddie patiently.
    "What's ka?"  Eddie's voice was truculent.  "I never heard of it.  Except if you say it twice you come out with the baby word for sh*t."  (pg. 205)

    Roland felt a tired exasperation.  Someone - it might have been Cort but he rather thought it had been his father - had had a saying: Might as well try to drink the ocean with a spoon as argue with a lover.  If any proof of the saying were needed, there it stood above him, in a posture that was all defiance and defense.  Go on, the set of Eddie Dean's body said.  Go on, I can answer any question you throw at me.  (pgs. 348-49)

I looked at what he built, and to me it explained the stars.  (pg. 135)
    TDot3 is of course just part of a larger, much longer series; but it is a story-within-a-story, with a discrete ending.  I like that.  It is not, however, a stand-alone book.

    There is some great character development here, but it comes at the cost of there not being a lot of progress to the tale. After 463 pages, about all the Gunslinger has done is picked up some quest-companions.  I'm presuming they play important roles and will be around for a while, but that's not a given.

    TDot3 is a fast-paced, easy-reading page-turner, and a primer on how to keep readers on the edge of their seats.  The books start getting longer now, and all-told there are 4600+ pages in the series, of which I've read about 700.  I don't know if I'll read all seven books, but I'm definitely committed to the next one, The Waste Lands8 Stars for The Drawing of the Three.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bears Discover Fire - Terry Bisson

1993; 250 pages.  Genre : Anthology; Short Stories; Fantasy.  New Author? : No.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    19 short stories from the imaginative mind of Terry Bisson, and published in various Sci Fi magazines in 1990-93.  They vary in length from 3 to 45 pages.

    The title story, Bears Discover Fire, is the best known, and won all sorts of awards : the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Sturgeon.  They're Made Out Of Meat is also famous, and was a Hugo nominee.

The Best of the Lot...
    Over Flat Mountain.  A gigantic upheaval raises the Appalachian Mountains 100,000 feet.  Yeah, the wear and twear on a semi trying to get over that hump is staggering  But it's all worth it when the driver picks up a young boy hitchhiking. 

    Press Ann. ATM options like you've never dreamed of.  Two Guys From The Future.  The good news for a struggling painter is that she's going to become famous.  The guys from the future say so.  The bad news is they're here to collect/preserve some of her works that she hasn't even painted yet.

    The Shadow Knows.  The last, and the longest of the stories.  SETI worked!  We've heard back from beyond the Solar System.   But not in the way we expected.

Kewlest New Word...
Importunate : persistent to the point of being annoying and/or intrusive.

Excerpts...
   "It all boils down to this," I said.  "Why did God give George wings only to have them cut off?"
    The minister told me that the ways of God were strange.  "Why does He give man life," he said, "only to take it away again?  Why did He create the sky and not allow the fish to see it?"  He continued in this vein for several minutes, and then concluded, "You know in your heart that the doctor and I are right - the child's wings must be removed."  (pgs. 74-75)

    "But we were trying to obey the law!"
    "That makes it even worse.  The law is a just master, but it can be harsh with those who try to sabotage its spirit by hypocritically observing its letter.  However, I'm going to delay sentencing on Conspiracy and Hoarding because we have an even more serious charge to deal with here."
    "Sentencing?  We haven't even been convicted yet."
    "Young lady, are you splitting hairs with me?"  (pg. 85)

If a lion could talk, we couldn't understand it  (Wittgenstein)  (pg. 206)
    The stories have different themes and settings; but each has a Bisson-trademarked "twist" in them.  This is Fantasy, and there is a lot of Surrealism, and very little Terror.

    The story Bears Discover Fire is a wonderful example of this, and a microcosm of Bisson's full-length novels.  It's set in Appalachia (Bisson's home ground), but then tickles your mind with a bunch of bears making bonfires, holding torches, and sitting around campfires eating newberries.

   But that isn't the story's focus; it's just the backdrop.  The main emphasis is a warm, interrelationship of a backwoods family.  And like them, you the reader are expected to just accept the ursine unnaturalness.  Weird, eh?  That's a typical Bisson technique, and he excels at it.

    Only a few of the stories seemed so-so, and your opinion of which ones are "meh" and which are "teh" won't match up with mine.  My generic advice re reading Anthologies applies here : read a couple per session; if you try to finish it in one sitting, it dulls the enjoyment.  7½ Stars, but only because there's a limit to how high I can rate any Anthology.  If you've never read any Bisson before, BDF is a nice way to get acquainted.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Lost Burgundy (Ash #4) - Mary Gentle

1999; 330 pages.  Book #4 in the "Ash - A Secret History" series.  Genre : Fantasy.  New Author? : No.  Rating : 9*/10.

    Oh, Ash.  You and your band of mercenaries are holed up in 15th-century Dijon.  Actually, you command all the forces there, about 2,000 fighters all told.  Unfortunately, there are 15,000 Visigoths besieging you. 

    They have catapults, Greek fire, and giant stone Golems that are nearly indestructible.  You don't.  They have food; you don't.  They have reinforcements on the way; the northern armies you were counting on have been annihilated, with their leaders' severed heads tossed on your doorstep.  The author has made it clear - there will be no deus ex machina.  Whatcha gonna do, Ash?

What's To Like...
The siege has been going on since 1/3 of the way through Book #3.  A lot of Book #4 is more of the same.  Mary Gentle keeps it interesting, even though Ash is at her best when she's hacking and slashing, not hunkering down behind city walls.

    The Alt-History is realistic and fascinating.  Mithraism is a major religion.  The Turkish Saracens come off as un-stereotypically noble-minded.  Ms. Gentle even deftly weaves the modern-day issue of gays in the military into the storyline.  The constant detailing of every weapon and piece of armor may be off-putting to some, but I thought it enhanced the believability of the novel.

Kewlest New Word...
Grotty : very unpleasant or miserable.  A corruption of "grotesque".

Excerpts...
    I think that I had almost come to believe in Vaughan Davies's theory out of sheer desperation - that there actually has been a 'first history' of the world, which was wiped out in some fashion, and that we now inhabit a 'second history', into which bits of the first have somehow survived.  That Ash's history was first genuine, and has now been - fading, if you like - to Romance, to a cycle of legends(pg. 783)

    White showed in his priest-cropped hair, as well as his beard.  He reached for his Briar Cross with his free hand; large, capable, and scarred.  A workman's hand.  His eyes were dark as the sow's, and each detail of his face was clear to her, as if she had not seen him for months and now he suddenly was before her.
    "You think you'll always remember the face," Ash whispered, "but it's the first thing to go."
    -You think there will always be time.
     "You try to fix it in your mind..."  Ash stirred, on the mattress.  Like water sinking through sand, the clear dream of Godfrey Maximillian in the snow sank away.  She tried to hold it; felt it sliding from her mind (pg. 984)

"You hunted a myth.  I made it real."  (pg. 780)
    Burgundy Lost is Book #4 of the Ash Chronicles, but I never did find it.  Instead I came across a copy of the British edition, which is a 1200-page, all-in-one tome.  The page numbers in the Excerpts reflect that, as does the book cover image.  British readers apparently have longer attention spans than us Yanks.

    The pacing is a bit uneven.  Book #3 covers only two days, and a large chunk of Book #4 stalls on Christmas Day, 1476.  There is a second storyline, the present day, told via e-mails.  A lot of people didn't like this, but I found it to be an effective set of entr' actes, nicely separating the chapters.

    Then there's the ending.  What a fantastic way of wrapping up an epic!  This is a spoiler-free blog, so we'll refrain from giving details.  But it truly is an innovative resolution of what to do with our doomed heroine.

    You can call this series (or 'this book' if you're reading it in England) Alt-History, or Historical Fiction, or just plain, old Fantasy.  It excels in all genres.  9 Stars, and that applies to both Burgundy Lost and the series as a whole.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Witches of Chiswick - Robert Rankin

2003; 400 pages.  Genre : Humor; Fiction.  New Author? : No.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Holy anomaly, Will Starling!  Is that a digital wrist-watch you see in that 19th-century painting by Richard Dadd?  But they weren't invented for another 100 years!

    Or so we've been told.  Hmmm.  Maybe that explains why those Terminator-type automotons are killing everyone who answers to the name "Will Starling".  Perhaps you should chrono-hop to Victorian England to straighten things out.

What's To Like...
    There are conspiracy theories galore.  There is lots of time-travel.  And none of that "Prime Directive" crap where you're not supposed to change anything while visiting the past.  The whole point here is to change things.  The events of the future affect the past.

    There are some kewl characters to get to know; some historical; some fictional.  Among them are Queen Victoria; her secret lover, Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes, Tesla (his kewl inventions anyway); Hugo Rune; Count Otto Black; The Elephant Man; that talented novelist, Lazlo Woodbine; and last but not least, Barry the Guardian Sprout.

    You have the typical Rankin zaniness, witty dialogue, and running gags.  The Witches kinda get short-shrifted, but that's okay.  People die, but they don't stay dead.  The "4th Wall" comes into play at times.

Kewlest New Word...
Athame : a double-edged witch's ceremonial knife, usually with a black handle.

Excerpts...
    The interior of the Shrunken Head was rough: it was dire, it was ill-kempt and wretched.  The management was surly, the bouncers were brutal.  The beer, a pallid lager called Little, was overpriced and underpowered.  It was everything that a great live-music pub should be.  (pg. 56-57)

    "I have been programmed to destroy you," said the evil automoton.  "And I have also been programmed with the entire Dimac manual.  And those of Karate, Ninjitsu, Kung Fu and Baritso."
    Will spun once more upon his heel and kicked it once more in the face, and the black-eyed monster once more repositioned his jaw.
    "And macramé," it added.
    "That's not a martial art," said Will.
    "It's a hobby," the thing replied.  "I will knit a plant pot holder from your beard, as soon as I have torn your head from your shoulders."  (pg. 343)

"It doesn't blow the snits out of your gab-trammel, if that's what you mean."  (pg. 58)
    At times, it feels like Rober Rankin loses control of the dizzying, convoluted plot twists, chrono-hopping, and historical alterations.  At times there's a bit too much talking and not enough doing.

    But the plotlines all come together nicely in the end, and witty dialogue is a major reason there is a devoted following of Rankin readers, including me.  If you've read other books by this author, The Witches of Chiswick will not disappoint.  If you haven't read anything by Rankin yet, this is as good of a place to start as any.  8½ Stars.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Druids - Morgan Llywelyn

1991; 400 pages.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Historical Fantasy.  New Author? : Yes.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Life is good for our hero, Ainvar.  He is the Chief Druid for all of Gaul.  He has the most talent for magic seen in many generations.  Kings and warriors listen carefully to his counsel.  He is the soul-brother of the famed Vercingetorix.  And he gets to practice sex magic with all sorts of women.

    But there is a black cloud on the horizon.  It wears a red cloak and is named Gaius Julius Caesar.  It doesn't take a ballista-scientist to divine his aims.  To subjugate all the Gallic tribes.  And exterminate the Druids.

What's To Like...
    The characters are well-developed.  The women characters are just as strong as the men.  Indeed, some even join the front ranks of the battles.  The historical portions (Vercingetorix's struggles against the Romans) are accurately detailed.

   Historically, very little is known about the Druids themselves, and most of it comes from the biased Romans.  So Morgan Llwelyn has free rein to develop a believable druidic system.  She's creatively superb at that, and it's when she's detailing the spells, propheecies, out-of-body erperiences, etc. that the fantasy part of the novel arises.  That's okay though, cuz New Age (so-called) Druids will eat it up.

    The magic is potent, but not all-powerful.  I'll put up with the sex magic, although the idea of a promiscuous priesthood seems a bit far-fetched.  And I'm okay with the uneven subject treatment (the Gauls wear the white hats; the Romans wear the black ones).  If you want to cheer for the Romans, go read Caesar's Gallic Commentaries.

Kewlest New Word...
Vates : Soothsayers; bards; prophets; poets.  Usually refers to Celtic practitioners of these arts.

Excerpts...
    If I could only reach the grove I thought, in my panic, that I would be safe.  The grove was sacred, everyone knew that.  Even the animals of the forest were said to revere it; surely the wolves would not kill me there.
    Surely.
    At fifteen, one believes any amount of nonsense.  (pg. 8)

    The chief druid never made an awkward gesture, even when he scratched himself.  Every movement was fluid, celebrating the ability to move.
    I was so impressed, I even believed he farted musically.  (pg. 23)

    "Don't waste your effort on smoke and sacrifice, Ainvar," he said harshly.  "We're winning through our own strength, not because of some dubious druid magic."
    Winners, my head observed, believe they succeed on their own merit.  It is only losers who require gods to blame.   (pgs. 341-42)

Death is a cobweb we brush through; not the last thing but the least thing.  (pg. 153)
    Druids is a nice blend of history and fantasy.  It is to Morgan Llywelyn's credit that neither overwhelms the other.  The writing is well-done and the pacing is good.  But this is also a tragic tale. 
The outcome is inevitable.  "Veni, vidi, vici."

    The ending is therefore sad, but not maudlin.  The Romans win; the Gauls are conquered; the Druids are scattered; and Ainvar is forced to flee for his life.  That may seem like a major downer, but be of good cheer.  There is a sequel.  9 Stars.