ex libris reviews
1 April 1998
'Million-to-one chances,' [Granny Weatherwax] said, 'crop up nine
times out of ten.'
Compared to last month's glorious diversity, this month has been much more focussed: I've mostly been reading. Pratchett is one of my favorite authors; the only author I recommend more often is , and that's just because I only recommend Pratchett to people I know read fantasy and science fiction. (I'll recommend O'Brian to casual passers-by.)
Most of Pratchett's books are set on the Discworld, a flat earth supported on the back of four elephants, themselves standing on the back of Great A'Tuin, a giant turtle swimming through the stars. Discworld is a magical place by necessity (it's far too poorly designed for normal physics to function properly) and the setting for the longest, funniest series of books I know (21 at last count).
Given how much I like the series, it's surprising that I've read many of the books only once, in the wrong order, and never to myself. At least half of them I've read once, aloud, to Jane. I've read them in the wrong order because that's how they were published in this country. Wonder of wonders, I now have all but the latest book (still in hardback in England and not yet published in the U.S.) in my possession, and have embarked on a grand adventure: I'm reading the series from start to finish. I hadn't intended to. I started with The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic a couple of months ago, and last month went on to Equal Rites and Mort. This month it seemed natural to continue, as you'll see below.
Discworld is an unusual series; in particular, it's not the kind of series one finds all too often these days: one incredibly long story told over three, four, five, or ten volumes. Each book in the series can be read on its own. Nor is it the continuing adventures of one or two characters. It's more like the old series of yore, L. Frank Baum's Oz books, or Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars series: a collection of loosely related tales sharing a common setting. More than that, it's like a long-running comic strip--Peanuts, or Doonesbury, say.
As anyone who reads comic strip collections knows, comic strips evolve. It's usually a year or two before the drawing settles down into its final form; Charlie Brown's head was originally oval, rather than round. The characters become more themselves over time, as their personalities coalesce. New characters are introduced as old characters depart. In a strip like Doonesbury, though, old characters never really depart; they just show up for cameos, and occasionally even take center stage for a while. Over time the characters become familiar; you feel like you know them, and understand how they will behave. They live not only in the comic strip, but also in your head. And yet, really, everything one knows about them appeared for the first time in one particular day's strip. When did Snoopy first dance, or take a nap on top of his dog house? When did Uncle Duke first engage in a fire-fight with the police? It's fascinating to re-read the old cartoons, and watch them take shape.
That's very much the feeling I get re-reading the Discworld novels. New characters are introduced, show up in cameos in later books, and occasionally get books of their own. My intent, as I discuss Pratchett's books this month and next, is to highlight the characters: when did they first appear, and how have they evolved. To do this properly, I'll need to go back to the first four books in the series.
The Colour of Magic is really four short novellas about Rincewind the inept wizard, and Twoflower, the Disc's first tourist. Here we first see the city of Ankh-Morpork, Rincewind's home and site of Unseen University, the Disc's premiere school of magic. Here we meet Twoflower's a sort of homicidal trunk that follows Twoflower about. We also meet Death for the first time. Death--the Grim Reaper--is actually one of Pratchett's more entertaining characters. Whenever anyone perishes, for any reason whatsoever, Death is invariably there to collect them. The dead often complain about their fate, but Death takes it in stride: THERE IS NO JUSTICE, he says; THERE'S ONLY ME. Death isn't fully developed in this book; he's a little too vindictive, and perhaps a tad too proactive. The Disc's geography is also rather fuzzy.
The Light Fantastic continues the story of Rincewind and Twoflower, and introduces the great, the brave, the bold, the famous, the old and toothless Cohen the Barbarian. Don't sell him short; he may have trouble eating anything but soup, but he's still practically undefeatable. We also meet Death's adopted daughter Isabel, a young girl who would make Wednesday Addams seem normal. Finally, the Librarian makes his first appearance. The Librarian is in charge of the library at Unseen University, a quite dangerous position indeed. Books of magic are themselves magical, and can become quite restless. A magical accident at the beginning of the book transforms the Librarian into an orangutan (indeed, we never see him as a human being). Unseen University goes through some trying times in next few decades, but the Librarian remains a constant, having refused all efforts to change him back into a human. (The extra long arms are useful for shelving recalcitrant books, and the ape's greater strength is useful in brawls. The Librarian likes brawls.) Equal Rites introduces Granny Weatherwax, a witch from the town of Bad Ass, high in the Ramtop mountains, and takes her from her home on her first trip to Ankh-Morpork. Granny is a no-nonsense witch; she'll cure you of your ills as soon as look at you, but you'd better be respectful. Other than Granny, though, the book seems to exist in a world of its own. Granny's usual co-stars are missing, and relatively few of the people she meets in Ankh-Morpork survive into later books. This is perhaps explained by the events of Sourcery. Rincewind makes a brief appearance as the Librarian's assistant.
In Mort, Death takes center stage for the first time. He's hired a young apprentice named Mort as company for his daughter Isabel, who has gone from being spooky to being snobbish and petulant. Death's character assumes its final form in this book. I'm not sure, but I think this is also where we first meet Death's horse, a gorgeous white charger named Binky. This is also our introduction to the Sto plains, which lie between the Ramtop Mountains and Ankh-Morpork, and the cities of Sto Lat and Sto Helit.
In Times to Come
During the next month I'll be starting"House of Niccolo" series, as well as continuing with the Discworld and "Sharpe" series.
And now, on to this month's reading!
-- Will Duquette
Hogfather is the latest Discworld book but one. Jingo, the latest, is only out in hardback in Britain; and Hogfather is only out in paperback in Britain. Neither is out in the U.S. yet, but we've got a truly great local bookstore, and somehow they got a copy of Hogfather.
Hogfather is set mostly in Ankh-Morpork on the eve of Hogswatch, a winter holiday in which the Hogfather, in his sleigh pulled by four boars, visits all of the children of the world and gives them presents. But someone has taken out a contract on him. Will the Hogfather ride this year? Death is determined that he shall.
This is also the fourth "Death" book, following Mort, Reaper Man, and Soul Music, and is the best yet. One scene alone is worth the cover price, all by itself: Death posing as the Hogfather in a department store in Ankh-Morpork. HO, HO, HO. The usual suspects are in evidence: Susan, Death's granddaughter, Mustrum Ridcully and the faculty of Unseen University, Corporal "Nobby" Nobbs, and so on.
In Equal Rites, a wizard who can create new magic spells is called a "sourceror" (because they are a source of new magic). Such folk are rare. A young student is described as being a potential sourceror, and thus an important person. Either they were mistaken or Pratchett changed his mind, because in this book we learn that sourcerors aren't good to have around.
The eighth son of an eighth son naturally becomes a wizard (eight is the magic number on the Discworld). The eighth son of a wizard becomes a sourceror. This is one reason why wizards seldom marry; the Discworld is a fragile place, and the surge of new magic which emanates from a sourceror is hard on the upholstery of reality. In addition to that, the presence of a sourceror makes wizards act like a bunch of damned fools, as Rincewind, the Luggage, and the Librarian find out to their dismay. Death makes a number of appearances, as does Cohen's daughter, Conina the barbarian hairdresser. As for Unseen University....let's just say that there's quite a shakeup at the upper levels.
Since the demise of the monarchy some thousands of years before, Ankh-Morpork has been ruled by a series of dictators from the noble and mercantile classes; these dictators are titled Patricians. Sourcery marks the first mention of Lord Vetinari, who holds the office throughout most of the series. Indeed, he may have taken power as early as Mort, though the Patrician in Mort is unnamed. We don't actually meet him until Guards, Guards. His first recorded action was to cut the crime rate in Ankh-Morpork by legalizing the Thieves' Guild and giving them a quota.
Here's where Pratchett really hits his stride. Granny Weatherwax returns, with two companions, ribald Nanny Ogg (who has more grandchildren than anyone in town) and young Magrat Garlick; these are the "wyrd sisters" of the title. Most of the action takes place in the kingdom of Lancre, where the adequate King Verrence has just been killed by Duke Felmet and his pushy, ambitious wife. The whole book turns Macbeth and other Shakespeare plays on their heads and inside-out. After all, the witches are the good guys.
This book also introduces the Fool's Guild in Ankh Morpork (a humorless place if ever there was one).
Pyramids concerns Teppic, the heir to the throne of Djelibeybi, a small country that has bankrupted itself building grand tombs for their kings and everyone else: the pyramids of the title. Djelibeybi is a place that prides itself on its unchanging tradition. The need for funds sends Teppic to Ankh-Morpork, where (following in his uncle's footsteps) he joins the Assassin's Guild. No sooner has he graduated from the training than his father dies, and Teppic is forced to return to Djelibeybi, where is ideas on modernizing the country are not well received.
I didn't enjoy this one much when Jane and I first read it, but it's better than I remembered. The Assassin's Guild sequences are particularly good.
Ankh-Morpork starts to assume its final shape in this book, which introduces such characters as Captain Samuel Vimes, Sergeant Colon, Corporal Nobbs and Corporal Carrot of the Night Watch, street-vendor Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Lady Sybil Ramkin, breeder of swamp dragons, and Detritus the troll. We also get to meet Lord Vetinari the Patrician for the first time.
The first of the "Guards" books, it tells how Carrot, the strongly-built, excruciatingly honest, six-foot-tall adopted son of the King of Dwarves, is sent to Ankh-Morpork to seek his fortune as a member of the city guard. The Night Watch had fallen on hard times as a result of Lord Vetinari's policy on thievery (those who stole over their assigned quota or without a Thieves' Guild membership soon found the full weight of injustice on their heads), and was no more than a bad joke... except to Carrot, who knows more about the Ankh-Morpork civil code than anyone else, including the Patrician. Carrot starts his career by arresting the head of the Thieves' Guild, for example. I enjoyed Guards, Guards much more this time than I did when we first read it.
Rincewind and the Luggage return in this extremely short book, which answers a number of questions about the creation of the Discworld, and highlights the importance of having Luggage which will follow you to Hell and back. Literally.
Alas, this is probably my least favorite Discworld book. The Guild of Alchemists (mostly known for discovering loud explosions) discovers how to make movies...or do they? They appear to be under the influence of an ancient buried temple located in the Holy Wood, thirty or forty miles from Ankh-Morpork. Not surprisingly, this one is full of Hollywood references. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler plays a large part, as does Detritus the troll. This book also introduces Gaspode the Wonderdog, and Mustrum Ridcully, the latest Archchancellor of Unseen University. Indeed, the faculty of the University takes its final shape in this book, with such notables as the Bursar, the Dean, and the Lecturer in Recent Runes. Ridcully is (I believe) the only Archchancellor so far to survive more than one book.
In Mort, Death takes a short holiday; in Reaper Man he is retired, and indeed becomes mortal, due to a plot by the nebulously defined "auditors of reality" (they feel Death has developed too much personality). The upshot is that things (people, rats, cabbages) stop dying--or rather, they die but they don't go away. All of that accumulating life-force has to go somewhere..... This book introduces the Death of Rats, and that most dreaded of lifeforms: the Mall. Sgt. Colon has a cameo, as does Lord Vetinari, and the wizards of Unseen University are at the forefront.
The Discworld is a poorly constructed place, surviving only due to its strong magic field, and it has to take whatever physics it can get. Among other things, it is subject to the laws of narrative causality. Narrative causality ensures, for example, that when a character says, in the extremity of disaster, "It's a million-to-one chance, but it just might work!", that it does. Provided, of course, that it really was a million-to-one chance. Put another way, narrative causality dictates that stories work themselves out. Put an enchanted sleeping princess under a glass dome on a bier in a clearing in the forest? Some prince will be along eventually. A twister drops a house out of the sky? It's bound to drop on a witch (and is Nanny Ogg annoyed!).
This book reunites Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick when another local witch, Desiderata Hollow, dies and bequeathes her Fairy Godmother's wand to Magrat. Magrat finds herself responsible for a young girl in Genua named Emberella. Ella's other fairy godmother (on the Discworld they come in pairs) is bound and determined that she will go to the ball, fall in love with the Prince, and run off at midnight leaving a glass slipper behind. The three witches must stop this somehow, before Ella suffers a fate worse than death.
It's fair to say that Terry Pratchett is rather cynical about religion; his cynicism shows forth most strongly in this book, which discusses the Eigth Coming of the Great God Om. Unfortunately, belief in the trappings of the Omnian religion has nearly supplanted belief in Om himself. Discworld Gods are only as strong as the faith of their believers, and the best Om can manage is to come back as a tortoise. Fortunately, he has one faithful believer in Novice Brutha, the one man with no fear of the Holy Quisition.
Despite its cynicism, it's a remarkable look at the tendency for tradition, rules, and rituals to be added to a faith year after year, until the original faith is almost completely cloaked by religion. It's also reasonably funny.
Despite its name, this novel takes place mostly in Peru, where Stephen Maturin is fomenting rebellion against the Spanish. The attempt is ultimately unsuccessful (as any history book would verify), and after several years and several volumes Jack and Stephen finally head home to England.
This was my second time through this book, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Action, suspense, adventure, humor, pathos; it's all here. Jack is finally recognized by the Admiralty, and given a squadron of ships. His nominal mission is to harry slavers on the coast of Africa; his real mission is to destroy a fleet of French ships en route to Ireland. Meanwhile, an enemy of Stephen's threatens he and his followers Padeen and Clarissa with emprisonment and death, and Stephen must somehow take them, his autistic daughter Bridie, and his treasure to Spain.
This book was published in hardcover sometime in 1996. All of my Patrick O'Brian is in softcover, so I waited until sometime in 1997, and bought it as soon as the paperback was released. But the Aubrey/Maturin novels follow closely upon one another, and I wanted to read The Yellow Admiral in context. 17 books and many months later, I finally got to it, and it was good.
The "Yellow Admiral" of the title represents Jack Aubrey's greatest fear: of being promoted from post-captain to rear admiral...but to rear admiral of no particular squadron. The Royal Navy was nominally divided into three squadrons, blue, white, and red, each of which had an admiral, vice admiral, and rear admiral. Promotion was nominally by seniority alone, but by this time it was not uncommon for senior post-captains of little ability or interest to be promoted to rear admiral but not assigned to any of the three squadrons. Such a "yellow" admiral must needs remain on shore, drawing his half-pay, an embarassment to himself and his acquaintance.
Jack does not suffer this fate in this book; in fact, he's not really senior enough to worry about promotion for a few more years. Nevertheless, he does engage in a number of shenanigans that do not endear him to his superiors, and which decreas his future chances.
I liked this book, which had some especially good passages, but on the whole I felt that O'Brian was filling time--giving Jack and Stephen something to do while the history of the Napoleonic Wars caught up with them.
This is the first of Cornwell's tales of British officer Richard Sharpe. I picked it up as the result of recommendations from diverse sources, and from interest in the period; Richard Sharpe's adventures on land are parallel with Jack Aubrey's and Horatio Hornblower's on the sea.
This particular novel takes place in Spain in the early days of the Peninsular Campaign against Napoleon. Sir John Moore's defeated army is retreating, leaving for England, when the 95th Rifle Battalion is smashed by a French Ambush. Lieutenant Sharpe, Quartermaster of the battalion, is the only surviving officer. Lieutenant Sharpe is an anomaly: he started as Private Sharpe, and rose through the ranks, being promoted to Lieutenant after saving the life of Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Lord Wellington) in India. Sharpe is a man of the people at a time when virtually all officers were gentlemen, and his first task is to gain the respect of the men he must now lead. It isn't easy. He must also deal with Don Blas Vivar, a Spanish Royalist who wishes to call down the blessing of Santiago, Saint James, upon Spain that the French might be defeated.
It's an enjoyable read, slightly better written than the Hornblower novels, but not as good asepic. But then, what is?
At last, at long last, I finished this book, just in time to squeak into this month's issue. The Boer War is an excellent, thoroughly researched, extremely detailed account of the war between the British Empire and the free Boer republics: the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The Africaners of the Free State and the Transvaal had left the British-controlled Cape Colony on the Great Trek during the 19th century, and founded their own countries beyond the Orange and Vaal rivers. Shortly afterward, gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand. The Rand, as it became known, is one of the richest gold deposits in the world. Foreigners--the Uitlanders--flocked to Johannesburg from all over the world to work the mines and get a piece of the profits, soon outnumbering the rural Afrikaners.
And then came along an ambitious fellow named Milner, the Governor of the Cape Colony. He had a vision of a united South Africa, the home of Britons, not of Afrikaners, united under his governorship. And he set out, in cold blood, to bring the British Empire to war with the Afrikaners, confident that Britain would win. It sounds like an overstatement, but it seems clear that without Milner the war would not have happened when it did, and perhaps might not have happened at all.
Britain won the war after three bloody years and many tens of thousands of deaths. The Boers surrendered when they had exhausted all other options, losing the war...but, lacking any significant amount of British immigration to South Africa, won the peace. The whole world knows the result.
The book is primarily a military history, which is not all my kind of thing; nevertheless, the Boer War occupies a special spot in history. It was the first war fought between opponents armed with modern rifles and smokeless gun powder; the trench warfare tactics used in World War I were pioneered in South Africa.
The Boer War is a dry book, and not one I would recommend to the casual reader, but its coverage of the topic is excellent. I found it well worth the time I spent on it.
More Of The Straight Dope
Return of The Straight Dope
The Straight Dope Tells All
The Straight Dope is a newspaper column in which people ask Cecil Adams questions and he provides the answers. It's also available on-line, at http://www.straightdope.com. The books listed above are collections taken from the weekly column. The questions address every topic under the sun, and the answers are usually detailed, accurate, and very funny. The later three books are better than the first; when answers spawned comment or further questions, the complete threads are presented.
It was rather over the top to read all four is close succession, but it's like eating peanuts or potato chips: it's hard to stop.
Dave loves this book; at least, he loves it when I read it. Apparently Jane doesn't make the sounds properly, at least, not to Dave's satisfaction. (I try not to let it go to my head.) Recently, Dave gets more animated in response to this book than any other we read to him.
Anyway, Mr. Brown can make a whole host of noises, which the reader of the book is required to attempt. Rain, for example, goes "dibble dibble dopp dibble dibble dibble dibble dopp dopp dopp." It's typical Dr. Seuss, meaning that the pictures are fun and the words rhyme and scan quite well. Most authors manage to get the rhymes right, but the scansion is sometimes lacking; there's no such problem here. Highly recommended; but then, it's Dr. Seuss, so you already knew that.
Frank Murphy had this to say:
I haven't read Daughter of Time, but last fall I read The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir, which discussed the murder of Richard III's nephews. It was rather good, I recommend it to you if you haven't already read it. Weir is of the opinion that Richard III did know of the murders, & that though he may not have done the deed with his own hands, he planned it & allowed one of his knights to carry it out. She makes it sound convincing. (She also thinks Richard murdered King Henry VI, one of his predecessors; and perhaps he had a hand in the death of his own brother Edward IV.)
Meanwhile, I received an unusual request from John Leach. In George MacDonald Fraser's book McAuslan in the Rough, which I reviewed some time ago, there's a story about a trivia contest. The final question involved football (i.e., soccer). How can a team score three goals without their opponents once touching the ball? It seems that John had read this once upon a time, had left the books behind during a move, and could no longer remember just how it worked. Endeavouring to give quick service, I plucked the book off of the shelf and looked it up for him. John went on to say,
I enjoyed browsing your page. It's not often one sees reviews on PG Wodehouse and SJ Perelman on the same page. Incidentally, it's no surprise that SJP reads a bit like Groucho Marx; he was one of the senior writers for the Marx Brothers movies. If you enjoyed his essays may I suggest you try reading Alan Coren a humorous essayist who now writes for the times of London and has published many books which in a similar style to SJP.
Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.