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ex libris reviews

1 July 2001


For his own part, Mr. Fellowes had preferred to keep the full length of the gangway between himself and the quarterdeck ever since a memorable day in Simon's Town, when the Commodore had had a private word with him, if private is quite the term for an explosion of honest rage that resounded from the after-cabin to the cutwater, filling the ship's company with mirth, glee, and apprehension, equally mingled.
Patrick O'Brian


Contents


In This Issue:
Flashing Swords

I recently read an article in an on-line periodical about the upcoming Lord of the Rings movie, and about the lasting affect of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. The writer said, in essence, that Tolkien invented the modern fantasy novel, that all that have come since must pay him homage, and that before him was just a vast wasteland.

Now, I love Tolkien's work dearly, but this is a bunch of hooey. Long before Lord of the Rings hit the popular scene, the sub-genre of fantasy called "Sword & Sorcery" was alive and well in the pages of authors like Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard. And unlike many of the more recent practitioners, Leiber was a skilled fencer and actually new how to use a sword.

I came across a number of Leiber's books while nosing about my bookshelves the other day, and reflected that it was high time I renewed my acquaintance.

Leiber wrote a number of novels, but he loved short stories; and many of his short stories concern two thieves, partners in crime, adventure, and general carousing: Fafhrd, a large northern barbarian, and the Gray Mouser, a small city-bred aesthete. Together, the pair of them had an astonishingly wide array of adventures, most (but not all) taking place in the fabulous world of Nehwon, and some (but not most) taking place in the city of Lankhmar.

It was my memory of the city of Lankhmar that made me pause while I was browsing the shelves. There aren't many cities in fantasy fiction that don't owe at least a small debt to Lankhmar; it's the archetypal vaguely medieval, vaguely renaissance big fantasy city, with cobblestone streets, guilds of thieves, assassins, and so forth, low taverns with colorful names, and all of the related hustle and bustle. Ray Feist's Krondor comes to mind, and Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork began life as a straightforward Lankhmar parody. Indeed, two jokers named Bravd and the Weasel appear prominently in his early Discworld books.

I'll have the details about Leiber's books below, but as I read them it occurred to me that Leiber had something that many more recent fantasy authors have lost, and that is a sense of mystery. It has become commonplace to build fantasy worlds scientifically: that is, a place like Feist's Midkemia or Robert Jordan's world of "The Wheel of Time" has its own logical set of rules, and abides by them. In short, much fantasy is simply science fiction taking place in a world with different natural laws. I suspect that some of this tendency comes from the popularity of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, where every little aspect of the game world needs to be tied down in rules; Midkemia, for example, was evidently the setting for a prolonged series of RPG campaigns before Feist wrote any novels about it.

Leiber's fantasy, on the other hand, takes us back to a pre-scientific age, a time when most natural phenomena were poorly understood, a time when anything could happen and probably did. The world of Nehwon may run on hard and fast rules, but if so Leiber felt no need to communicate them to the reader--and they are clearly of little interest to Nehwon's denizens. As with Patricia McKillip's book (see the review below), Nehwon is at least on the borders of Faerie.

So you'll find three of Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books reviewed below; along with Terry Pratchett, Charlotte MacLeod, Gordon Dickson, the next Patrick O'Brian, and a few other choice morsels, including some reviews by Stuart McAra that should have been printed last month, and would have been but for a screwup with my e-mail.

Enjoy!

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Thief of Time
By Terry Pratchett

I read this book to myself last month; this month I read it to Jane. We've read most of Pratchett's books aloud, but some work better than others. In particular, we often have trouble getting started in them if Jane's feeling tired (and she's currently in her eigth month of pregnancy, so that's a given.

We had no such troubles here; Jane enjoyed it from start to finish, and badgered me (gently) to keep reading. (I know when she's not enjoying a book, because she doesn't badger.)

Recently I've begun keeping my PDA with me while I read; and any passage that particularly strikes my fancy (for example, if I feel compelled to repeat it to Jane) I copy it down. In Pratchett's books, it happens so often as to become almost (but not quite!) tiresome.

See last month's issue for more.


Stuart's Recent Reading

by Stuart McAra

This review covers the last couple of months reading. I didn't have the time last month to write up the books I'd read. I've finally been able to read the two books I've been promising for ages; having given up on getting them back from the friend I'd leant them to I went out and bought them again in a moment of weakness in Waterstones which saw me leave with 5 books in my bag and a big dent in my wallet.

Icon
By Frederick Forsyth

The thing you have to keep reminding yourself while reading this book is that it was written in 1995. The first half of the book jumps about in time a lot covering events in Russia in late 1999 and also giving a huge amount of back plot concerning the main character, Jason Monk, and his work for the CIA since being recruited after the Vietnam War. The details of his life mean that once Monk enters the Russian story about half way through the book you understand a lot of what he's going through, why he does things the way he does and how he feels about the situation.

The central plot of the book is the political climate in Russia in late 1999 (this is where the reminder bit comes in as Forsyth's predictions about the intervening four years are remarkably accurate reading it now). After the death of the President, there is to be an election and one of the candidates is the right wing Igor Komarov. Just how right wing he is is discovered when a secret document is stolen from his office and given to the British Embassy. The reopening of the Gulags, extermination of all the Jews in Russia, and reannexation of the former communist states of Europe (Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, etc.) are merely some of his plans.

The received wisdom in the west is that if he won the election it would be a disaster, but that officially there is nothing that can be done about it. Hence the recruitment of Jason Monk out of retirement and the organisation of a non-government sponsored plan to destabilise Komarov's campaign or to force him to show his hand early, leading to the same result.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the level of detail is remarkable, and the plot gripping and very clever. You genuinely will not be able to put it down.

Quite Ugly One Morning
Country of the Blind
By Christopher Brookmyre

These are Brookmyre's first two books. I haven't read his other three yet, but I'll get there.

The central character in both books is the rather unconventional investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. Both books have a lot of swearing and a rather obsessive amount of detail regarding vomit and excrement, and are frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

Quite Ugly One Morning opens with the police discovering a mutilated corpse. The scene described is absolutely foul, it has been a vicious, depraved crime, but I haven't laughed so much at a piece of writing in quite some time. The body it turns out is one Dr Ponsonby, who was formerly a doctor at George Romero hospital, a geriatric unit in central Edinburgh. He was also Parlabane's neighbour.

The rest of the book sees Parlabane along with Sarah Slaughter, another doctor and ex-wife of the corpse and Jenny Dalziel, detective inspector, lesbian, doing the usual murder mystery book thing, finding out who killed the doctor, why etc. Along the way they uncover massive corruption withing the National Health Service, and Jack and Sarah fall in love.

That all seems fairly standard thriller stuff, but what sets Brookmyre apart is the quality of the writing. The Edinburgh setting and the wonderfully written dialogue in vernacular appropriate to each character sets the book apart as more realistic than many I've read.

Country of the Blind is set 18 months later; Jack and Sarah are living together and engaged to be married. This time the high profile corpse is Roland Voss, a Dutch media mogul who owns a number of British newspapers and satellite TV stations. Voss had been staying at Craigurquhart House, a stately home in the Scottish countryside. Four men caught leaving the house, one covered in Voss' blood, are arrested for the murder and the case seems closed.

However, when a Glasgow lawyer, Nicole Carrow, starts producing documents which cast doubt on the four men's guilt, the four men swear blind that they were only there to rob the place and one of Parlabane's friends, a security consultant at Craigurquhart, is murdered in a police station Jack begins to suspect that something is not quite as it seems.

During a prisoner transport, the four suspects escape and a massive manhunt starts. A conspiracy is uncovered which reaches to the very heart of the government, and it's up to Jack, Sarah and Nicole to prove it.

The dialogue in Country of the Blind is even better than that in Quite Ugly One Morning, and the social commentary, political wrangling, and ranting against the tabloid press are startling in their accuracy and insight. If more people thought like Brookmyre about politics and journalism in the UK, maybe we wouldn't be in quite the mess we're in.

A lot of the content of these books is particularly British and specifically relates to Central Scotland, I don't know quite how well they'll travel, but they come with my highest recommendations.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
By Roddy Doyle

I read Doyle's Barrytown trilogy a few years ago (The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van) and thoroughly enjoyed them. I'd been looking to get a hold of A Star Called Henry, but it wasn't in stock so I bought this instead, as I'd heard good things about it. At times I found it immensely satisfying and at others it was incredibly difficult to read. There are no chapter breaks and the whole book is written in the first person by Paddy Clark, aged 10. It is pretty much stream of consciousness stuff, going off at wild tangents at that breathless pace that many wee boys speak in. One minute he'll be describing a game he was playing with his friends, then mention briefly a fight his parents had last night before talking about the boy who farted in class, and how everyone laughed and the teacher shouted at them.

The two main themes I picked up going through the book were Paddy realising that the world around him was bigger than he thought and trying to find his place in it, and the gradual breakdown of his parents' marriage and the things he did to try to keep the family together.

I found it worked best if I read it quite fast using (in my head only) an Irish accent. The words seemed to flow better when you put those kind of stresses and emphases into the words.

It's an odd book. I'm very glad I've read it, but I don't know if I'd hurry back to it.

Captain Correlli's Mandolin
By Louis De Bernieres

This has been one of the books that virtually everyone seems to have read over the last couple of years. Of course it's recently been released as a film, but I read the book before seeing it in the cinema, and was very glad I did. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Paddy Clark, the average chapter in this book seems to be about 4 or 5 pages long.

The story revolves around the Italian occupation of the Greek Island of Cephallonia during WWII, and the forbidden love affair that develops between the Italian Captain Correlli and local girl Pelagia.

The book is very intricately put together with different chapters being written from the standpoint of different characters. And throughout it is very funny in an understated clever way.

The beginning is a bit annoying as it takes more than 100 pages to get to the point where the Italians arrive on the island, but it does mean that you have much greater understanding of and sympathy for the main characters when you've got so much background information to base it upon.

A beautifully written book, only a fraction of which was captured on film. I won't spoil anything but if you've seen the film, everything that happens after the war is different in the book, much more poignant and realistic.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Mauritius Command
By Patrick O'Brian

Each month I'm reading and reviewing one book from O'Brian's justly acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin series. This is the fourth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April Issue.

Having been on-shore for a year or so following his marriage to his beloved Sophie, Jack Aubrey is becoming extremely restless. His cottage is drafty, his twin daughters seem to be not quite all there (they are not yet a year old), his cabbages are consumed by green worms, and his infernal mother-in-law, Mrs. Williams, has come to live them and has brought her finest furniture which they must never use lest it become worn. He has taken up astronomy, building his own telescope and grinding his own mirrors by hand, but he mostly uses his observatory for watching the shipping in the distant harbor.

Meanwhile, things are becoming unpleasant for England in the Indian Ocean. England's prosperity depends on the continued flow of merchant vessels to and from Bombay and Calcutta, and France has sent a squadron of powerful frigates to the island of La Reunion and its close neighbor Mauritius. Situated a thousand miles east of Africa, and blessed with good harbors, in French hands the two islands are a formidable base for harrying British shipping.

The islands must be taken from the French, and with (one guesses) the aid of his friend Stephen Maturin, Jack Aubrey is given command of a small squadron and the rank of commodore. It is his first taste of high command. A captain on the deck of his ship is semi-divine in his powers with respect to his crew; while unequivocally in charge and to be obeyed on pain of court-martial, a commodore in command of a squadron is but little more divine than his subordinate captains and must treat with them appropriately. In this case he has been given a rare set of captains to manage: a martinet, more interested in polished brass and clean decks than skillful gunplay, whose ship is on the verge of mutiny; a slender aesthete with a lust for glory, a penchant for telling absurdly self-flattering and obviously untrue tales about himself, and a secret grudge against his commodore; and a plain man with no imagination whatsoever and a running quarrel with the aesthete. Balancing all of their needs would try any man, however experienced.

Moreover, a commodore is ever aware that his rank is temporary, for the duration of the mission only, and that failure or incompetence will meet with grave repercussions from the fully-divine admiral from whom he received his orders. The admiral in this case is one Admiral Bertie, in command at Simon's Town in South Africa. Bertie is keenly interested in the outcome of the mission; not only does he share in any prize money, but he (or his wife) greatly desires to win a title from the crown. Aubrey thus has two reasons for haste: to take Mauritius and La Reunion both before the French do too much damage to British shipping, and before Bertie takes it into his head to sail out to Mauritius and supersede him, thus claiming not only a share of prize money but most of the credit as well.

Next month: Desolation Island.

Song for the Basilisk
By Patricia A. McKillip

Years and years ago I first read McKillip's The Riddle-Master of Hed and its sequels, and enjoyed them considerably; and then I read her The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and liked it somewhat less; and then I more or less forgot about her until I ran into a couple of newer books at the bookstore. This is the first of the two, and I'm not at all sure what to say about it.

It's a fantasy, to begin with. The land in which it takes place consists of a capital city, surrounded by "the provinces". North of the "provinces" is the island of Luly, where the Bards are trained, and north of that are the Hinterlands, where things get strange indeed. The flavor of life in the provinces and the capital city seems vaguely Renaissance, but they exist in a vacuum; no other countries are mentioned or seem to impinge on this one in anyway, a most un-Renaissance-like thing.

Some thirty-seven years before the main action of the book, Arioso Pellior, head of one of the four great houses of the country, slaughtered prince Raven Tormalyne and all of his family, and took the princely throne for himself. Arioso's a real piece of work, well-named the Basilisk after his family's mascot. Every year, on his birthday, he holds a festival for the people of the city, to celebrate the peaceful times they live in--now that he's killed anyone who would oppose him.

But the laws of narrative causality dictate that the evil usurper never kills quite everybody...there's always some ember that can be blown into a blaze. And usually, of course, there's that one child, son or daughter of the rightful prince, who somehow escapes being slaughtered....

If that were all there was to this book, I'd have less trouble categorizing it. But it's not just a book about the politics of the sword and the torch; it's also about bards and musicians and music and the power of song; about opera, and singing, and dimwitted lovesick girls and generational evil.

On top of that, this is one of the few books I've read recently that catches the true spirit of fantasy--of Faerie, as J.R.R. Tolkien describes it in his essay "On Fairy Stories". Most fantasy these days is simply soft science fiction in which the laws of magic have replaced the laws of nature. Tolkien knew, and McKillip knows, that Faerie is not to be tied down in that way. It has its own laws, but they are not such as can be comprehended by mortal men. In the present book, Faerie is as good a word as any for what our hero Caladrius discovers in the Hinterlands.

So I've got a certain amount of respect for McKillip, and for this book. And at the same time, I'm afraid it left me mostly unmoved. Ah, well.

The Bilbao Looking Glass
By Charlotte MacLeod

Poor Sarah Kelling has been having an exceedingly unpleasant time of it. In the past five months she's found an unexpected body in the family vault, lost her husband, had at least two tenants murdered, and witnessed another murder first hand. The only bright spot has been her budding relationship with her tenant, Max Bittersohn--and even there, the memory of her late husband is keeping from moving very quickly.

So what happens when she and Max move up to the Kelling family's seaside home for the summer to get a little peace and quiet? The old yacht club crowd welcomes her with open arms and Max with disgust ("He's not your kind, you know. He's one of those....Jews.") And of top of everything else....well, this is the fourth book in a series of murder mysteries.

Looking back at that description, I wonder if I've made Macleod's lighthearted book seem too dreadfully dire. It isn't; instead, it's a farce, and of course in a farce everything gets blown all out of proportion for comic effect.

Silly but good; I liked it.

The Convivial Codfish
By Charlotte MacLeod

Many of the same comments apply to the subsequent novel in the Kelling/Bittersohn series, The Convivial Codfish. This is the first book in which Max and Sarah are married; it is also the first book told from Max's point of view. As a result, of all of the books in the series to date, this one probably most resembles the classic whodunit, with a sleuth roaming about questioning everyone who was there. Sarah on her own never had time for that; she was always too busy coping with her outrageous relatives.

Sarah's family is involved only peripherally this time. Her salacious Uncle Jem (more bark than bite after all these years) breaks a hip falling down the stairs, so Max goes to the Tolbathy's party in his place. And then someone poisons the caviar, and, well, it's another typical Macleod mystery, complete with trains large and small, odd members of the upper crust, and a scale model of a fire breathing dragon, complete with tie.

The Plain Old Man
By Charlotte MacLeod

If The Convivial Codfish was Max Bittersohn's book, this one is all Sarah Kelling's. Alas, I didn't enjoy it as well as its predecessors; it failed to hold my attention.

To be fair, I was working fairly intensively on a project while I was reading this; it got what little attention I had left over, usually when I was already tired. But I think there's more to it than that.

The setting is the town of Pleasaunce, home of Sarah's Aunt Emma and her troupe of players, the Pirates of Pleasaunce. Each year the Pirates put on a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, with this year's selection being "The Sorceror". Naturally, the cast members are the principle suspects. Unfortunately, while Macleod gracefully explains the plot of the operetta to those who are unfamiliar with it, the members of the cast are introduced in about two paragraphs. It takes most of the book to figure them all out. I suspect that this added to my distraction.

On the plus side, we finally get to meet Sarah's unspeakable Cousin Mabel, detested of everyone we've met in the previous books--and she's every bit as nasty as we'd hoped.

The Recycled Citizen
By Charlotte MacLeod

Prior to this month I'd read most of the Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn novels at least twice; this one, I had somehow never gotten back to. Consequently, it was fresher than the others, and I enjoyed it.

Way back in the first book in the series, Sarah's wealthy cousin Dolph, no spring chicken, fell in love with and married an elegant woman of similar age who had fallen into reduced circumstances. Which is to say, living on a fixed income, she found it necessary to scavenge for recyclables in the streets of Boston in order to make ends meet.

That was no longer necessary after the nuptials, but together she and Dolph opened a Senior Citizen's recycling center, to ease the way for other men and women in a similar situation.

As the book opens, one of the members of the center has just been murdered, for no discernable reason. There follows an unlikely tale of skulking, skulduggery, betrayal, tabloid journalism, and well-deserved mayhem. Much fun.

Swords Against Death
By Fritz Leiber

See 'In This Issue', above for an introduction to Fritz Leiber and his work.

When I acquired these books, back in the late 1970's, there were six of them all told. Most consisted of previously published stories, along with new material to tie the old together. Since then a seventh was written, and since that the complete set has been republished by a different publisher and with different names (which I, naturally, am unfamiliar with). Should you be interested in them, your best bet is to do an author search at Amazon.com or some other bookstore. Anything of Leiber's you find in print will be worth reading.

As I say, there were six books in the edition I bought, and I've mislaid the first one (which, however, I never much liked anyway). Swords Against Death is thus the second. Our heroes spend much of this book trying to forget their lost loves, slain by the perfidy of the Lankhmar Thieves' Guild (although thieves themselves, our heroes are strictly freelance). In the process they seriously disrupt the Guild's upper management, travel across the Western Ocean to the evidently not-so-mythical Western Continent, take service with those difficult wizards Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, and eventually travel to the land of Death himself. (This is the first modern fantasy novel I know of in which Death plays a role, however minor--another debt Terry Pratchett owes to Leiber.)

The stories in this book were written across a great span of time, and the quality is spotty--some, indeed, are mere bits of connective tissue. But others, particularly "Claws from the Night" and "The Bazaar of the Bizarre" are by themselves worth the price of admission.

The current edition includes a book called Thieves' House that more or less corresponds to this one.

Swords In The Mist
By Fritz Leiber

No longer haunted by the memory of their lost loves, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are now free to indulge in adventures with all gusto and much pursuit of pretty girls. (Pretty girls who have reached a certain age, that is; the language has changed since these books were written.) Contrary as ever, and what with things being unpleasant in Lankhmar at the moment, the two friends come to a parting of the ways. Fafhrd gets religion and becomes a follower of the prophet of Issek of the Jug, a minor deity far down Lankhmar's Street of the Gods; Mouser becomes an enforcer for a local boss. As the boss's interest lies in extorting protection money from the various temples on that street, and as with Fafhrd's help the Temple of Issek moves seriously upscale offering-wise, the two naturally come into conflict. After a number of altercations and a visit from the diety, the two find it best to patch up their friendship and get out of town. Seeking the aid of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, they become lost in the labyrinth of tunnels surrounding his lair and come out not in the desert east of Lankhmar, but rather near the Sidonian harbor of Tyre in our own world.

It soon becomes clear that they are under a curse, when lust's first kiss turns the girl in Fafhrd's lap into a large sow. Fafhrd blames the Mouser for this at first, but it soon becomes clear that any girl that Fafhrd kisses turns into a porker, and the Mouser simply isn't that good at wizardry. The Mouser is rather smug until a girl he kisses turns into a disgustingly large snail....

Clearly a wizard is responsible--and the only thing to do is to find him, and to take him down.

Swords Against Wizardry
By Fritz Leiber

Our heroes find mention of massive gems, left over from the creation of the stars, hidden at the top of the Northern Waste's tallest mountain, Stardock. Bold adventurers that they are, there's nothing for it but to hie them there, climb the mountain (which no one, not even Fafhrd's mountain-climbing father, has ever managed, and claim the jewels. There are two little problems: they have some competitors, and Stardock is inhabitated by wildcats, giant furred serpents, and less savory things, including a kind of invisible flying manta ray. And, of course, there are Sky-King's daughters...

Back in Lankhmar, our ever-so-modest heroes are denuded of their treasure by "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar"; and in disgust each takes service, unbeknownst to the other with one of the strange and unwholesome "Lords of Quarmall".

For some reason I didn't like this book much when I first read it; I think I didn't have enough patience, because it went down quite delightfully this time.

Look for more tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser next month.

Dorsai!
By Gordon R. Dickson

After rediscovering Fritz Leiber this month, I decided to trawl through my bookcases for other neglected classics, and pulled out this one, an early novel from Dickson's "Childe Cycle".

Unfortunately, it hasn't worn as well as Leiber's work. It's the tale of Donal Graeme, mercenary from the planet Dorsai, and the product of exceptional bloodlines. In Dickson's world the discovery of an FTL space-drive lead to quick colonization of many different planets. Like banded with like, leading to many Splinter Cultures, each taking some aspect of human culture and genetic heritage to the extreme. The Dorsai has specialized in independence and military endeavor; the Exotics of Mara and Kultis in the powers of the mind; Newton and Venus in high technology; the Friendlies in religious zealotry. Descendant of generations of Dorsai, and grandson of two Maran women, Graeme brings two of these streams together, and becomes, as he matures, an "intuitional superman", the first (in Dickson's terms) Responsible Man. He makes it his job to unite the Human Worlds in a way that will benefit all of them. He is opposed in this by, or, rather opposes himself to, Prince William of Ceta, a business magnate intent on uniting the Worlds under himself.

Donal Graeme is, by definition, more intelligent than anyone now living, and this presents a basic problem. It is extremely difficult for an author to write convincingly about a character much smarter than himself. You can tell the reader how smart the character is, but you can't show it--except by stacking the narrative deck in the character's favor. In this book, the stacking is a little too evident, and Graeme's powers insufficiently convincing. In part, that was unavoidable; the point of being an "intuitional superman" is that Graeme knows the right answer without having consciously worked it out or necessarily knowing why it's the right answer. Consequently, Dickson can't put plausible explanations in Graeme's mouth.

This was an early effort; perhaps if Dickson had written it later, he'd have done a better job of selling it.

Tactics of Mistake
By Gordon R. Dickson

The good news is that Tactics of Mistake is a much more satisfactory book, and a ripping yarn to boot. It's an interesting book to read alongside Dorsai!, because it's consciously intended (I must assume) to prefigure the events of that book. It takes place about a hundred years earlier, when the first waves of colonization are just past and the Human Worlds are still dominated by Old Earth. Earth herself is dominated by two warring governments, the Alliance and the Coalition, and the out-colonies, still young and in need of aid, are aligned with one or the other. And as has happened so often in history, the rivalry between the Great Powers are played out on foreign soil.

Into the mix steps a man named Cletus Graham--a soldier and military theorist with a vision. He's the precursor, both as ancestor and as archetype, to Donal Graeme. He's one smart cookie, and he's realized that the out-planets will never throw off the shackles of Old Earth so long as they are dependent on Old Earth military aid. After bringing a long running brushwar on Mara to a quick conclusion, he emigrates to the Dorsai, a small poor world that exports the only wealth it has: the bodies of its men as mercenaries. They're good--but nothing like as good as they'll be after Graham gets through with them.

As I say, this book is clearly intended to prefigure Dorsai; like Donal, Graham meets his opponent on board a starship, sitting at table with a Dorsai officer and his future wife. Like Donal, though a zero as far as politics are concerned he sets himself against his opponent, Dow de Castries, baiting de Castries in a variety of ways until he has to take notice. And like Donal, he snatches ultimate victory from defeat when de Castries least expects it.

What makes this analysis interesting is the difference between the two men. Cletus Graham does what he does after long thought and careful analysis. He is a thinker, and a planner, and he does what he does because he chooses to. When he presents himself at Dow de Castries' table en route to Mara, he knows very well what he's doing; he's a decorated soldier, and an instructor at the Alliance War College.

Donal, by comparison, starts his book as a young adult, highly skilled, but unsure of himself. He gets involved with Prince William of Ceta seemingly by accident...but really because, being who he is, he cannot avoid it. He does the right thing in any situation without the need to think it out--and without the need to understand that that is how he operates.

Of the two, I'm afraid I find Cletus more interesting.

User Friendly
Evil Geniuses in a Nutshell
By Illiad

"User Friendly" is a daily comic strip featured in a number of non-profit and student newspapers, as well as on the web at http://www.userfriendly.org. It concerns life at a small ISP called Columbia Internet, and I suppose one might call it the Doonesbury of the Internet Geek Generation. The strip is rife with internet, programming, and operating system humor. If you've never heard of it, and it strikes you as appropriate and amusing that O'Reilly and Associates should publish a book of comic strips called Evil Geniuses in a Nutshell, then you need to check it out on the web. And after you've done so, maybe you'll want to go buy these two books.

Here's a hint: I found them not in the humor section but in the computer section of our local Borders Books and Music.

Death By Field Trip
By Bill Amend

This is simply the latest book of cartoons from the Foxtrot comic strip. What can I say; I like comic strips.


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.


Home : Ex Libris : 1 July 2001
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