Saturday, January 30, 2016

Fires of Alexandria by Thomas K. Carpenter

   2013; 327 pages.  Book 1 (out of 7) in The Alexandrian Saga series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Alternate History; Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It is not the best of times for Heron.  She’s trying to take care of her late brother’s machine-shop business, but he’s run up so many debts that she can barely pay the interest on them.  To boot, her teenaged niece, Sepharia, yearns to be free to travel the dangerous streets of 1st-century Alexandria, and feels Heron is being overly-protective of her.

    Heron’s got her own perils.  Since it’s a man’s world, women running businesses is a no-no.  So she is impersonating her late brother, hoping nobody notices her somewhat slight build and high voice.  And there’s the small matter of her addiction to lotus powder.

    But Heron is an inventive sort, and her “magic machines” are in high demand by the local temples, whose local patrons demand the gods provide miracles on a regular basis.  Well, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.  And you can give a priest a mechanical marvel, but if he’s slow of wit and clumsy while operating it, then the audience goes away disappointed.

    And temples don’t pay for failed miracles.

What’s To Like...
    Fires of Alexandria is the first book in an Alternate History series set in Alexandria, Egypt around 100 years after the time of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.  The city chafes under Roman rule and its high taxes, but is reluctant to face the wrath of the still-potent Roman army.

    Thomas K. Carpenter presents a gritty picture of everyday life there; one that includes cussing, torture, fear, drugs, and a myriad of temples dedicated to a myriad of gods and goddesses, all vying for power and money.  I especially enjoyed Carpenter’s keen insights about the priorities of any religion.

    Heron’s challenges are threefold: somehow raise the money to pay off huge loans her brother ran up; build war machines for the mysterious, but well-funded Agog; and find out who was responsible for the fire that heavily damaged the Library of Alexandria almost a century ago.  These are all resolved, but in one-after-another fashion instead of all woven together for a  high-tension climax.

    I liked that this is not another “save the library of Alexandria” plotline; lord knows I’ve red enough of those.  There are also some way-kewl inventions by Heron (safety goggles, a self-trimming oil lamp, the aeolipile, and quite a few more), a goodly number of which Heron actually did devise, as detailed by the author in a fascinating “Afterwards” at the end of the book, and confirmed by the Wikipedia articles on “aeolipile” and “Hero of Alexandria”

    This is a standalone novel, despite also being the first entry in a 7-book series.  The setting felt “real”, and was free of any clunky info-dumps that one runs into all too often in the Alt-History genre.

Kewlest New Word…
Aeolipile (n.) : a simple, bladeless steam turbine.  (per the Wikipedia article; our protagonist is generally credited with inventing it)
Others : Weregild (n.)

    The patrons of the temple harassed the priests in violet robes on the stairs.  He gathered from the hurled insults that the temple had been faring poorly in exciting its followers.
    North or south, once a god had a building to maintain, Agog found them to be quite insistent about tithing and finding the means to encourage it.  He preferred the gods and goddesses of the woods and streams.  They required nothing more than a simple word and the occasional burnt offering.  (loc. 259)

    Heron first looked to sea.  Distant sails rose and fell upon the waves as they rode toward Alexandria.  At that place, Heron felt like the center of the known world.  Even more than Rome, which styled itself its capitol (sic).
    While Rome had its senators and tales of oration and armies and roads, Alexandria had its Lighthouse and Library.  Rome used its powers to control its Empire.  Alexandria used hers to invite the world to her doorstep.  (loc. 3682)

Kindle Details...
    Fires of Alexandria is free at Amazon.  The other six books in the series are in the $3.99 to $6. 99 price range.  Thomas K. Carpenter has a slew of other e-books available, ranging from $0.99 to $6.99, as well as several short stories for free.

“Hortio is a prickly man.  He’ll promise the stars and the sun, but in the end, hand you a bucket of dung and call it even.”  (loc. 1430)
    There are a couple quibbles, the most serious of which is the freeing of all slaves in Alexandria at the end of the story.  Although I agree that this is a completely repulsive concept nowadays, 2,000 years ago it was an accepted practice in all societies.  If slavery becomes the number one theme of this series, okay fine, I withdraw the quibble.  But here it is incidental to the storyline, and therefore its abolition negatively impacts the authentic feeling of the historical setting.

    There is also the matter of a spy in Heron’s workshop.  Whoever it is, they are a major disruption of Heron’s efforts, yet they are never caught and identified.  They just get conveniently written out when Heron sends everybody home for their own safety.  Plot threads are meant to be resolved.

    The writing is adequate, but not compelling.  I can’t say that any of the characters reached out and drew me in.  But the storytelling makes up for all these quibbles – there are no telling/showing issues, no slow spots, the action is plentiful, and there’s just enough dry wit and humor (miracles running amok) to balance the gruesome realities.

    8 Stars.  Subtract ½ star if you always liked the historical Roman Empire.  If you know who the Hamilcar in this blog’s title references, you’ll understand why I really liked this story.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Good, The Bad and the Smug - Tom Holt

   2011; 344 pages.  Full Title : The Good, The Bad and The Smug – A Novel Beyond Good and Evil.  Book 4 in Tom Holt’s Doughnut series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; Contemporary Humor.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The Good.  Efluviel is an elf, and all elves are good, aren’t they?  She’s an aspiring journalist, but currently finds herself unemployed, when Mordak the goblin king, buys her newspaper and fires everyone.  She can have her job back, but it will mean compromising some of her ideals.

    The Bad.  Mordak is a goblin, and all goblins are bad, aren’t they?  But lately he’s been proposing some radical changes to goblin protocol.  Things like making peace with the dwarfs (heresy!), and even – dare we say it – cooperating with the elves.

    The Smug.  He seems to go by several names, and has this really nifty spinning wheel that can turn straw in to gold.  But the weird thing is, he doesn’t seem to want anything in return.  Just bring him the straw and he’ll convert it into gold and give it right back to you.  He has to have some angle, but what?

What’s To Like...
    The Good, The Bad and The Smug is the fourth book in Tom Holt’s “Doughnut” series, of which I’ve now read numbers 2 through 4.  In a nutshell, think of the hole in a doughnut as being a portal to another reality.  Holt uses the dimension-hopping to deal with all sorts of topics, and here, as the title implies, he examines the concepts of Good and Evil, and their relativistic nature.

    To a certain degree, this is a sequel to book 3, The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice (reviewed here), which I very much enjoyed.  But don’t fret that this might be a rehash of that tale; Mordak is the only major character that carries over, and the settings, themes, and tone are totally different here.

    There are multiverses and donuts, and some gentle pokes with items like YourTubes, FaceBooks, Multisoft, Wickedpedia, and my favorite, The Fount Of All Knoledg.  Goblins have now made the jump into our world, where their bodies morph into human form.  But they’re still goblins at heart, and the only gainful employment they generally find is in the movie-making industry, as extras (playing goblins, naturally).

    Mordak and Efluviel make for a great pair of adventurers, and Holt keeps introducing you to all sorts of interesting supporting characters - Archie, Art and his cohort, and the hilarious Unconventional Sisters to name just a few.  Even the Dark Lord has a certain charm about him.

    As always, Holt addles our brains with a bunch of seemingly unrelated storylines (Mordak/Efluviel, Archie, Rumplestiltskin, and the Dark Lord), and as always he brings them all together at the end for a satisfying ending.  There’s a fair amount of adult language, but that’s true of any Tom Holt book.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Skive (n.) : an instance of avoiding work or duty.  (a Britishism)
Others : Menisci (n., plural); Insouciant (adj.);

    Generally speaking, when (Goblins) lose a war, they retire into their deep, dark underground lairs, which no enemy has ever penetrated (no enemy has ever wanted to), lick their wounds, regroup, execute their king and replace him with a new one, and set about gearing up for the next war.  A simple and reliable approach, which had always worked well; and yet, Mordak thought, one that could be improved upon, particularly if you were the king.  (pg. 69)

    Oglak had a little troll,
    Its coat was stiff as wire;
    So every time it scratched itself,
    It set its bum on fire.  (pg. 239)

 “Be it never so dark, damp, deep, musty and littered with yellowing bones, there’s no place like home.”  (pg. 144)
    The Good, The Bad and The Smug is another read-worthy effort by Tom Holt that I liked almost as much as its predecessor.  But not quite.  It was nothing major, just a couple minor things.

    For starters, there are less fairytale characters than in the previous book, and more time is spent in our mundane dimension.  The secondary theme here, which we (and Rumplestiltskin) can aptly label “Economic Growth”, is somewhat dull by nature.  The disparate plotlines seemed a bit harder to follow, and seemed to stay confusing longer than usual.  And I never did figure out if Ozork and Archie are one and the same.

    But I pick at nits.  I’ve yet to be disappointed in any Tom Holt book; it’s just a matter of dividing them into “good” and “great”.

    8 Stars.  Add ½ star if you think Economic Systems are a wonderful topic for discussion, thank you very much.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Secondhand Souls - Christopher Moore

   2015; 336 pages.  Full Title : Secondhand Souls – A Novel.  Sequel to A Dirty Job (2006).   New Author? : No.  Genre : Contemporary Fiction; Dark Humor.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Charlie Asher misses his seven-year-old daughter, Sophie.  That’s understandable, since Charlie’s dead.  But he’s not really gone; his soul – including his consciousness – has been transferred into a different body.

    Well, not a regular body.  Charlie Asher now stands knee-high, and has the head of a crocodile and the feet of a duck.  He wears a purple satin wizard’s robe under which is slung his ten-inch schlong.  So he’d just as soon avoid a face-to-face encounter with his daughter.

    But now that Sophie is greeting people on the telephone with “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds!”, and Charlie realizes there’s only one thing to do.  Well, two, actually.  Find someone who can transfer his soul into another body.  And then find someone who’s willing to let him have use of theirs.

What’s To Like...
    It took Christopher Moore nine years to pen the follow-up to his most excellent 2006 novel, A Dirty Job, but it was worth the wait.  Secondhand Souls catches you up on a lot of the characters from ADJ, both good and evil.  Rivera and Cavuto are back, so is the Emperor of San Francisco and his canine cohorts, Bummer and Lazarus.  Aunt Jane and Aunt Cassie are caring for Sophie while Charlie deals with his identity crisis, Minty Green is back, and even the nasty but laughable/likable Morrigan return.  But there are new characters as well – a guy who paints the Golden Gate bridge, several ghosts and meat puppets, and a banshee with a penchant for stun guns.

    As usual, Christopher Moore spins all sorts of threads at you (I counted six of them here), then steadily builds the literary tension before tying everything up neatly at the end.  There’s even a short “whatever happened to” epilogue.  Moore has lost none of his edginess, wit, and storytelling abilities.

    There’s a nice assortment of beasties to confront you, and a little bit of romance for the female readership.  One or two good guys die along the way; I like when that happens.  The pace is crisp, and there are a couple of plot twists along the way to keep you on your toes.  There are even some music references and some French thrown in; those are always a plus for me.  There is some cussing and adult situations; if you don’t know that about Christopher Moore’s writing, this is probably the first time you've read one of his books.

Kewlest New Word…
Doofuscocity (n.) : its meaning is obvious, and it’s a made-up word.  But I think it’s freakin’ great.

    “That’s why I called.  You help me find a body, then I help you fix whatever the banshee is warning us about.”
    “Like a corpse-type body?”
    “Not exactly.  Someone who is going to be a corpse, but before they become a corpse.”
    “Doesn’t that describe everybody?”  (loc. 590)

    The big V-8 rumbled and the four chrome ports down each side of the hood blinked as if startled out of a nap, then opened to draw more air into the infernal engine.  The tail of the Buick dipped and the grinning chrome mouth of the grille gulped desert air like a whale shark sucking down krill.  Far below the crusty strata, long-dead dinosaurs wept for the liquid remains of their brethren consumed by the creamy, jaundiced leviathan.  (loc. 1873)

Kindle Details...
    Secondhand Souls sells for  $9.99 at Amazon right now, which is about right for a new release by a top-tier author.  The rest of the Christopher Moore e-books are in the $9.99 and $11. 99 price range.

 “I commiserate.  I can go from zero to comiserable at the speed of dark.”  (loc. 443)
    Secondhand Souls is a standalone novel, but just barely.  You can forget a lot of details when there is a nine year gap between books in a series.  I read A Dirty Job six years ago  (the review is here), and I had only a hazy recollection of what went down in it.  Moore recognizes this, and works the backstory in in piecemeal fashion, but it felt clunky at times.

    To boot, once you get back up to speed in the series’ storyline, you realize there’s a lot of repeat here.  The foes are more-or-less the same : Morrigan and the Ultimate Evil against Charlie and Sophie; and the fate of the world once again hangs in a San Francisco setting.

    But these are minor quibbles.  This is still an enjoyable story, and maybe the long waiting time makes the repeated things seem fresh.  Also, there are those who might not mind a Bay Area rematch between the forces of Light and Darkness.

    8½ Stars.  With all the threads tied up so well, there is not a lot of room for a third book in the series.  But I would’ve said that after the first book as well.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Weaveworld - Clive Barker

    1987; 704 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Epic Fantasy; Horror.  Laurels : Nominated for the 1988 World Fantasy Award (Best Novel).  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Calvin Mooney has caught a glimpse of Wonderland.  Funnily enough, it was as he was climbing a wall while chasing down one of his errant pigeons.  He glanced down at an old, threadbare carpet that a couple of movers were taking out of an empty house.  The vision was only there for an instant.  After the blink of an eye, it returned to being just an ordinary carpet again.

    So maybe it was all in Cal’s head.  A trick of the eyes, an overactive imagination, a short-lived hallucination, or something he ate for lunch that disagreed with him.  Yeah, that’s probably it.  The movers who took the carpet away certainly didn't see anything unusual, other than a crazy man chasing a bird.

    Except, then why are a pair of strangers pursuing him so diligently and so ruthlessly, demanding that he tell them where he’s hid the carpet?

What’s To Like...
    Weaveworld is an interesting blend of fantasy (hidden worlds, magic powers, giddy fruit) and horror (monstrous beasties, evil spells, undead spirits), with a bit of romance thrown in, but only a bit.  At first glance, this would appear to be a difficult mix, but Clive Barker makes it work.

    The story is set in Liverpool – the author's home turf – and several other areas of central England.  I particularly liked Barker’s ability to paint descriptions of both the real world and the fantasy one.  Yeah, one person’s “flowery” is another person’s “vivid”, but I found it captivating.  I also liked the book’s structure – there are sections (13 of them) which contain chapters, which in turn contain sub-chapters.  It was nice to be able to easily find a convenient place to stop at just about point while reading this 700-page opus.

    Our two protagonists, Cal and Suzanna, at first seem overmatched against some rather formidable baddies, but that’s how horror stories are supposed to work.  Both sides gain some friends and allies along the way, and that keeps the storyline fresh.  Quite a few characters get killed, so don’t get too attached to any of them.  But cleverly woven into all the action and bloodshed are some serious topics – the dangers of blind faith, the interdependence of belief and reality, and of course, the strength of love.

    The tension builds nicely to a great good-vs-evil ending, although it is stutter-step in nature.  Onr first ending comes about 500 pages in, another at page 690, and a third one – short but critical – finishes off the book as a 10-page epilogue.  This is a standalone novel, and lots of R-rated stuff – cussing, sex, and bloody deaths.  But hey, isn't horror supposed to be that way?

Kewlest New Word...
Bowdlerize (v.) : to edit (text) by removing or modifying passages deemed to be vulgar or objectionable.
Others : By-blow (n.; Britishism); Louring (v.; Britishism); Incantatrix (n.; Latinism)

    It was not an empty sleep; far from it.  There were dreams.  Or rather, a particular dream which filled both their heads.
    They dreamed a noise.  A planet of bees, all buzzing fit to burst their honeyed hearts; a rising swell that was summer’s music.
    They dreamed smell.  A confusion of scents; of streets after rain, and faded cologne, and wind out of a warm country.
    But most of all, they dreamed sight.
    It began with a pattern: a knotting and weaving of countless strands, dyed in a hundred colors, carrying a charge of energy that so dazzled the sleepers they had to shield their minds’ eyes.  (pg. 128)

    It was just before eight in the morning when Cal got off the bus and began the short walk to the Mooney residence, and everywhere along the street the same domestic rituals that he’d witnessed here since his childhood were being played out.  Radios announced the morning’s news through open windows and doors: a Parliamentarian had been found dead in his mistress’s arms; bombs had been dropped in the Middle East.  Slaughter and scandal, scandal and slaughter.  And was the tea too weak this morning, my dear? and did the children wash behind their ears?  (pg. 298)

“Serves us right for trusting weavers.  Clever fingers and dull minds.”  (pg. 135)
    Weaveworld is a good book, but not a perfect one.  There are some spots where the plotline drags, particularly the chapters where Cal and Suzanna are on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.  The main storyline is pretty straightforward and untwisty; you can see what it’s building to from a long way off.  And the intricate world-building was a mixed blessing – I really felt “immersed” in the worlds Clive Barker created, yet it made for a lengthy read.

    But I quibble.  Overall, this was a witty and entertaining read, with fantasy and horror blended in just the right proportions.  This was an early Clive Barker book effort, and AFAIK, he didn’t set any of his subsequent stories in this fascinating world.

   Which is quite the pity.

    8 Stars.  This was my introduction to Clive Barker, and the word is it’s one of his tamer and “lighter” efforts.  I think I may have to pick up some more of his books.