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ex libris reviews

1 June 2005

OK, you're a cab!
Cosmo Brown


In This Issue:
Big Changes

It's been an interesting month around our house; we just got the house re-plumbed--over Memorial Day weekend, how fun is that!--plus I've finished up one project at work (seven years in the making!) and started another very different project. Not surprisingly, the new project is taking a great deal of my attention. I managed to get a modicum of reading done, and there are four books I've read that I've not yet managed to get reviews written for yet; you'll get those next month.

Craig Clarke did a modicum of reading as well. Enjoy!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Flashman at the Charge
By George MacDonald Fraser

This is the fourth Flashman novel in the order of initial publication; I skipped the two intervening novels because this one brings us back to Central Asia and the lands of the Great Game.

The book begins with a lengthy explanation of how Flashman, always content to play the devil around London, is dragooned into going to the Crimea as a galloper for General Raglan. The Crimean War was one of the few times when the 19th century cold war between Russia and Great Britain actually turned hot, though the cause in this case wasn't the possibility of a Russian invasion of India, but of a Russian invasion of Turkey. The Ottoman Empire was still a "power" in those days; I use scare quotes because it was rather a senile and incompetent power, right on the verge of collapse. But nobody in Europe wanted to deal with the mess that would follow the breakup of the Ottoman Empire--and rightly so, it finally broke up with the first World War, and we're still picking up the pieces even today. Anyway, England want to war with Russia to prevent Russia invading Turkey, and much tragedy ensued.

It was an extremely bad day in Balaclava for our Harry; a determined coward, he was forced to participate in the Thin Red Line (when a thin line of British troops held off a Russian cavalry charge), the Charge of the Heavy Brigade (when a brigade of British cavalry charged a much larger force of Russians--uphill--and somehow survived the experience), and the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, Exhibit A in the annals of stupid military decisions, where for no good reason a brigade of British cavalry charged down a long, narrow valley lined with guns on both sides and the far end and were largely blown to bits.

Flashman survived, naturally, but was captured by the Russians. He later managed to escape, was captured near the Caspian Sea, and was imprisoned in the same cell as a rogue named Yakub Beg, leader of the armies of the city-state of Khokand. After their escape, Flashman is forced to help Yakub put paid to a Russian army which is trying to conquer Khokand and surrounding regions so as to pave a way to India.

Yakub Beg's an interesting character; Peter Hopkirk's book The Great Game doesn't have much to say about his earlier career, during which he would have met Flashman, but later on Yakub conquered the city-state of Kashgar, across the Pamir range from Khokand, and set up a little kingdom for himself there at the western end of what was then called Chinese Turkestan. As its ruler, he was to play a major role in the later period of the Great Game.

Anyway, "Flash Harry" is in his usual form throughout. He tells a good tale, but otherwise goodness has little to do with it.

On Basilisk Station
The Honor of the Queen
The Short Victorious War
Field of Dishonor
Flag in Exile
By David Weber

As I noted a while back, when I get sick I reach for old favorites like Watership Down or I reach for a not terribly deep series that I can chain-read. You get one guess which of those this is.

These are the first five books in Weber's "Honor Harrington" series. Honor Harrington is a starship captain in the navy of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. She's a skilled strategist, a brillant tactician, devoted to her duty, a natural leader, and nearly indestructible. Also, she has a knack for getting into difficult situations that require indomitable courage and steely resolve.

I've written about these before; click on Weber's name in the title for links to my earlier reviews. For the most part they held up pretty well on third (or is it fourth?) reading; on the other hand, a couple of them had sections that I simply skipped.

Calvin and Hobbes
By Bill Watterson

Sometimes ya just gotta return to your roots, ya know?

Flashman in the Great Game
By George MacDonald Fraser

From the title, you'd think that this was a book about the "Great Game" that I've mentioned several times over the last month or so--the Anglo-Russian cold war of the 19th century. And it is, sort of, in an alternate-history sort of way; but not really.

What it really is, is the story of our Harry Flashman caught smack in the middle of the Sepoy Mutiny. The Mutiny was the watershed event in the history of British India. Prior to the Mutiny, India was "ruled" by the East India Company; after the Mutiny the British Government stepped in, Queen Victoria became the Empress of India, and the classic Raj was born.

The Company had subdued the Indian subcontinent with a little scheming, a little bribery, and the help of the Royal Army; but it had its own armies as well, which but for a small corps of British officers were composed entirely of native troops, both hindus and muslims. It was these troops that mutinied, and horrible atrocities were committed upon British men, women, and children all over India. These led to fierce reprisals and counter atrocities, and eventually the Mutiny was put down.

The origins of the Mutiny are murky. There had been signs of unrest for some months before the Mutiny began; indeed, these signs are the reason Flashman is sent to India in the present book. Rumors had spread that the British were going to require native troops to use gunpower cartridges greased with cow or pig fat. This was untrue, but it was a potent rumor nonetheless--anything related to pigs is anathema to muslims, and cow fat was even more dangerous to devout hindus, as touching it could break your caste.

Fraser works the Great Game in in two ways. First, the players of the Great Game often traveled through Central Asia in native guise, and though Flashman never gets anywhere near Central Asia in this particular book (unlike Flashman at the Charge), he does spend quite a bit of time in native guise. And second, Fraser feigns that the Mutiny and related uprisings were fomented by Russia, and in particular by the sinister Count Ignatiev, a Russian great-gamesman of note. And that's why I say this book is about the Great Game in an alternate-history sort of way--it's precisely the sort of thing the Russians would have done if they could have. By this time they'd already launched a couple of abortive strikes on India, never getting farther than Afghanistan, and in each case their plans had included a native uprising which, with the help of the Russian Army, would sweep the British out of India for ever.

But practically speaking, it's not at all clear that the Russians were involved in the run-up to actual event; and as for Count Ignatiev, genuine historical figure that he is, I believe he's included in the current book mostly as a bogey-man for Flashman, who had "met" him in Flashman at the Charge.

Anyway, this is a fascinating book, and worth reading...but I have to admit, it's not much fun--the Mutiny is just too grim a topic.

Guardian of the Horizon
By Elizabeth Peters

I finished this book almost two weeks ago, and I've been sitting on it instead of writing a review...mostly because I'm not sure what I think about it. It's an Amelia Peabody novel, but with a difference. Heretofor, every book in the series has represented a chronological advance. In this case, Peters has jumped back to the years prior to the first World War--which is to say, back to those years when Ramses was still stressing over whether to tell Nefret how he felt. Not a time period I was with child to revisit.

And then, it's a direct sequel to Peters' homage to H. Rider Haggard, the very odd The Last Camel Died At Noon. It's been about ten years, and the Emersons and sundry go back to the Lost Oasis and the lands beyond. There's bluster, derring do, adventures, arch comments, surly villains, and all manner of colorful atmosphere--all very promising.

But it takes a long time to get started. And though there were bad guys galore, there was never any great sense of danger. And the denoument seemed both too simple and a little contrived.

I dunno. I suspect Peters had fun writing it, and I found it mildly entertaining, but she's capable of better than this.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
By C.S. Lewis

Prince Caspian is Jane's favorite Narnia book, but The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is mine. I remember reading it for the first time, sitting in a little blue folding chair on the back porch. What's odd is that I have no idea why I was sitting on the back porch; it wasn't a very pleasant place for sitting (it still isn't), and I don't remember doing such a thing at any other time. Out on the front patio, sure, but the back porch never.

But I digress.

I just finished reading it to my two boys, and while I'm not sure how much of the ending they really got, I enjoyed it thoroughly. It's one of those books that deepens each time I read it. The boys, for their part, were considerably amused by the Dufflepuds.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

The Anderson Tapes
By Lawrence Anderson

The Anderson Tapes was mystery and suspense novelist Lawrence Sanders' debut novel. Presenting itself as a true story, it chronicles the events leading up to and following John "Duke" Anderson's last big heist.

It's a different kind of novel in that it tells its story purely in the form of recorded transcripts of, statements by, and interviews with the participants, with little intrusion (mostly introduction or explication) from the author. I thought that this would hinder the storytelling power Sanders showed in his later novels, but this method in fact lends the proceedings a sense of immediacy (not to mention voyeurism, especially given that Sanders' penchant for kinky sex is already in full bloom here) that had me turning pages at a newfound speed. I finished its 240 pages in close to two hours, doubling my usual page per minute.

Fans of Sanders' Deadly Sin series will be interested to know that the hero of those books, Edward X. (nickname not printable here) Delaney makes his first appearance in these pages. It is basically a cameo, since the focus here is on the crime and the criminals, but it is always fascinating to see where a popular novelist got his start, particularly since, with The Anderson Tapes, it is apparent that Sanders was off and running.

Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man
By Lawrence Block

Faithful readers know that we are big fans of Lawrence Block here at Ex Libris. I've read more than the average fan should be expected to, including two of his four Chip Harrison "mysteries." Really just erotic comedies with a crime-themed plot, they are nonetheless entertaining due to Block's way with words. During a recent reading of Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print, I came across mention of an early novel originally written under a pseudonym called Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man. Now, how could I not want to read something with that title?

When Laurence Clarke ("'Laurence' with a 'u', 'Clarke' with an 'e'") loses his job, his best friend, and his wife (to his best friend) all in one day, he takes revenge into his own hands. Though he has been unable to write for what seems like months, manipulative letters effortlessly begin to flow from his typewriter. He has nothing to lose, so why not go all the way, right? This leads to a lot of joy for the reader as Laurence describes the adventures he goes on with all of the free time he has, corresponding with his wife, his ex-wife, his best friend, his ex-boss, the boss's secretary, and so on.

Block has said that he wrote the entirety of Ronald Rabbit in four days. The fluidity of the prose affirms his statement that "one letter kept leading to another." This sort of entanglement of epistles could only happen properly if allowed to be totally organic. It's not for the kids, as a good portion of the letters detail his sexual escapades. Whether the events in the letters are true is left up to the reader's imagination, making it almost an interactive experience. Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man shows yet another side of the mind of Lawrence Block. It may be a little rude, but that doesn't make it any less fun.

The Autumn Dead
By Ed Gorman

Ed Gorman's series private eye Jack Dwyer (first introduced to me in the story "Eye of the Beholder" from his collection Such a Good Girl) is a reluctant hero. He doesn't carry the stresses of the job well because he takes things personally, making his girlfriend Donna worry about their relationship when he won't open up and talk about it. But all this makes him all the easier to identify with -- he's a "soft-boiled" sort of detective; being shot at actually frightens him!

When a high school flame comes back into his life, he doesn't jump back into the old patterns; in fact, his feelings are so strong that he avoids her until she hires him to pick up a suitcase for $1000. Of course, nothing is ever so easy and this gesture leads Jack to a series of events involving more school "chums", a stranger in black on a motorcycle, and the hidden potentials of several people.

The Autumn Dead is very unassuming. Had it not been recommended to me, I likely would not have finished it; I'm used to faster-paced gumshoes than Jack Dwyer. It was not until the story was over that I realized I couldn't get the character out of my head. I wanted to know what happened to him after the story. It has sneaked its way in through the back door of my mind and now I can't wait to read the follow-up, A Cry of Shadows (especially since it was recommended in the same sentence as The Autumn Dead).

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.

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