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ex libris reviews

1 September 2005


"I have an appointment," I said, "at nine o'clock Thursday morning, in Washington, with General Carpenter."

Wolfe's brows went up a millimeter. "Indeed?"

"Yes, sir. At my request. I want to take an ocean trip. I want to get a look at a German. I would like to catch one, if it can be done without much risk, and pinch him and make some remarks to him. I have thought up a crushing remark to make to a German, and I would like to use it."
Rex Stout


Contents


In This Issue:
One Hot August

My backlog of reviews keeps getting longer; I made an effort to write some this month, and it really seems like there should be more, but there isn't. If I hadn't pushed, I wonder how many I'd gotten written.

Craig Clarke is back this month with a couple of reviews as well.

-- Will Duquette


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Worlds of Honor #4: The Service of the Sword
By David Weber et al

This is the fourth (and to date, the final) anthology in Weber's "Honorverse" series; this time, Weber shares the stage with Jane Lindskold, Timothy Zahn, John Ringo, Victor Mitchell, and Eric Flint.

"Promised Land", by Jane Lindskold, is the story of a young Grayson girl, the daughter of spacers, whose ship is captured by Masadan pirates. Her parents are killed; she is taken home by the Masadan captain, who in the fullness of time marries her. Masadans view women as property, and are also polygamous, so Judith becomes a very junior wife in a rather unpleasant household. But Judith has a secret weapon--though her "husband" doesn't know it, her parents had already taught her how to read. She plans to escape...and finds some surprising allies. The story takes place at around the same time as The Honor of the Queen, and adequately explains (if any further explanation were necessary) why Manticore chose to ally with the Graysons rather than the Masadans. As a story, it's OK; I enjoyed it mildly.

"With One Stone", by Timothy Zahn, concerns Honor Harrington's executive officer, Rafe Cardones. It appears that somebody has been testing a secret weapon in the Silesian Confederacy--a device that can take down a ship's gravity wedge at a range of millions of kilometers. In Weber's universe, a ship's gravity wedge is its chief source of propulsion, and also its best armor. Such a weapon would turn the world of naval tactics upside-down in an instant, especially if Haven had it and Manticore didn't. Cardones gets dragooned by Naval Intelligence to help look for it. Again, not a bad story; it's got some quite nice bits in it. But Zahn's portrayal of Cardones wasn't particularly interesting.

"A Ship Named Francis", on the other hand, is quite good fun. Over and over in the Harrington books we meet naval officers and crews who are strong, resolute, and adept at their duty, with a handful of bad apples to give the plot some savor. Given Sturgeon's law, that implies that there are a lot of screw-ups, idiots, fumble-fingers, and general incompetents hiding somewhere out of sight. According to John Ringo and Victor, that place is the Grayson Space Navy's ship Francis--and an appalling picture it is, too.

Ringo continues this theme in "Let's Go To Prague", in which two Manticoran spies, members of the elite Covert Insertion Teams, decide to take their vacation time on the planet of Prague--a planet which happens to be under Havenite control. Much robust and ribald comedy ensues, and our heroes (if that's the right word for them) are lucky to escape with their skins and careers intact.

"Fanatic" is by Eric Flint. In Worlds of Honor #3: Changer of Worlds, Flint introduced us to a young man named Victor Cachat, a man committed to the principles of the Rob Pierre's revolution, a man, indeed, far more deeply committed to those principles than Rob Pierre or his cronies. Victor works for the Office of State Security; and being both competent and politically correct, he has become one of the OSS director's fair-haired boys. And so, in the wake of Esther McQueen's failed coup, Victor is sent to the La Martine sector, there to take over and purge the Havenite naval and OSS forces stationed there of undesirable elements. Of course, his notion of which elements are undesirable might be a bit different than his boss's....

Victor Cachat remains a lunatic, but he's an extremely skilled lunatic, and I enjoyed this story thoroughly; it's worth the price of admission all by itself.

Finally, Weber contributes "The Service of the Sword", a story of the first ever midshipwoman in the Grayson Space Navy. We met Abigail Hearns briefly during her time at Saganami Island in Ashes of Victory; here we get to ride along on her middie cruise. We also get to meet Captain Michael Oversteegen, a delightful character we'll see later on in Crown of Slaves (review forthcoming). The story itself is entertaining enough; but it wasn't particularly memorable.

Crown of Slaves
By David Weber and Eric Flint

Hold on to your hats, it's old home week in the Honorverse.

Crown of Slaves is the first full-length novel set in Weber's Honorverse that doesn't directly involve Honor Harrington herself. Coincidental in time with War of Honor it involves a grand pageant of characters from all over the Honorverse with a plot that's really too complicated for me to even attempt to explain it.

Anton Zilwicki is sent by Queen Elizabeth III as Manticore's envoy to the funeral of the Solarian League's leading opponent to genetic slavery. The funeral is to be held in the star nation of Erewhon, which makes things tricky. Erewhon is one of the charter members of the Manticore-led Alliance against the People's Republic of Haven, but the government formed by Baron Highridge at the end of Ashes of Victory has been doing its darnedest to alienate all of Manticore's allies--at least it seems that way--and Erewhon has recently been flirting with Eloise Pritchart's new Republic of Haven. With Zilwicki go his wife, Cathy Montaigne, formerly Countess of the Tor, his daughter Berry, whom he adopted at the end of "From the Highlands" in Worlds of Honor #3: Changer of Worlds, and also by Ruth Winton, daughter of Prince Michael's wife Princess Judith. Remember Judith? She was captured by the Masadans as a young girl and led a successful exodus of women off-planet--with Prince Michael's help.

Zilwicki and his charges travel to Erewhon in a ship provided by--for all intents and purposes--the anti-slavery organization called the Audubon Ballroom, a group his wife has supported for many years, and also a group that helped him rescue his daughter Helen from the Scrags under Old Chicago.

Of course, fanatic revolutionary Victor Cachat had a hand in that rescue as well; and he's come to Erewhon as the envoy of Havenite President Eloise Pritchart. And Manticoran Captain Michael Oversteegen is in-system as well, just to keep an eye on things.

Of course, there's a plot by Manpower Unlimited, working with a group of Masadan terrorists and the aforementioned Scrags, to kidnap Princess Ruth; an amoral and ambitious Solarian officer who's taken to playing power politics of a particularly dirty kind; and and an Amazon of a Solarian Marine Lieutenant who thinks that Victor might just be her cup of tea.

There's a lot to like about this book; it's wickedly funny in spots, the action sequences are good, and it's completely unpredictable. Both Weber and Flint are good spinners of tales, and it was fun watching them work together. On the other hand, a number of the characters, notably Victor Cachat and Lieutenant Thandi Palane, are (not to put to fine a point on it) monsters. They are on the right side, mostly, and are fighting against the Bad Guys, but there's too much moral ambiguity and sick violence in them for them to really be Good Guys--and yet, the authors mostly treat them as Good Guys. If they are monsters, one can hear them saying, then at least they are Our Monsters. There's a thin line between encouraging the reader to identify with seriously flawed characters and praising those characters for their monstrosity. Weber and Flint don't quite cross that line--at least, I don't think they do. But this is an uncomfortable book in places nevertheless. praising

Time Traders
By Andre Norton

Two things happened almost simultaneously a couple of months ago. The first was that my brother pointed out that I hadn't read any Andre Norton in years, judging by my published reviews, and that I should do something about that, especially since a number of her books were come back in print just now. And then Ian Hamet reviewed Time Traders on his weblog, and that was the final nudge.

I did read quite a few of Norton's books many, many years ago, most of them while I was in my teens. Some of them I liked, some I didn't; her "Witchworld" series was famous, for example, but I was never able to get through the first book. And over the years, I gradually got to thinking that I'd outgrown her. But with two folks pushing me from two different directions, I decided to give her another chance.

Time Traders is actually two complete novels, The Time Traders and Galactic Derelict; both were written in the late 1950's. A lot of the Norton re-prints currently in the stores are similar, packaging two or three of Norton's classic novels, so be warned.

The Time Traders is quite good; indeed, it's surprisingly good. It concerns a street kid and small-time criminal named Ross Murdock who's caught and given a second chance, working as a volunteer on a top-secret government project called Operation Retrograde. It seems that the Russians have found the secret of time travel, and have somehow found a source of superlatively high-tech gadgetry somewhere in the past; the Feds are resolved to find it and acquire the gadgetry for themselves. They've got a time machine, but they need agents to go back in time and hunt for the Russians. The agents need to be highly mobile, but they also need to fit in; in short, they need to masquerade as traders, in whatever form trade takes in that era.

It's good, old-fashioned science fiction; and if it isn't as rich in detail and setting as the science-fiction being written today is, it's pretty darn good for the late 1950's. And as Ian points out in his review, Norton predicts the break-up of the Soviet Union with surprising accuracy.

Galactic Derelict is a sequel of sorts; Ross Murdock and his boss are present, but the viewpoint character is different. It seems that the Feds have discovered a derelict spacecraft in the remote past. It's abandoned, but as our heroes discover it's still in working order, and they get taken on an unexpected tour of the galaxy. Of course the derelict was found in the distant past, and it commenced its journey shortly after it was brought forward to the present day, so the galaxy is a little different than when the ship was built....

I didn't like this one as well. It lacks the depth of its predecessor; and though the places they visit have a certain "gosh, wow" quality at first, they aren't all that interesting in the long run. I don't feel I wasted my time, on it though, and the book's worth buying for The Time Traders anyway.

Gods and Androids
By Andre Norton

Like Time Traders, Gods and Androids is an omnibus of two novels, Android at Arms and Wraiths of Time. In this case, though, the two novels share a theme rather than a narrative thread. The theme is a common one in Norton's work: a person stumbles into another world, a world very different from his own, where in order to survive he must take the place and identity of someone who has just died. Of the two, Wraiths of Time is the better tale; it's also one I remember reading and enjoying when I was kid. Android at Arms has the feel of a failed experiment--the plot flails around in odd ways, and doesn't deliver on all of its promises. Neither of them are particularly deep, but the writing was pretty good; in places, Android at Arms reminds me strongly of Jack Vance

The poorly named Android at Arms is the tale of Andas, the heir to the throne of the planet of Inyanga. He wakes to find himself in a cell in a strange prison. The power fails due to a lightning strike, and with it the lock on his cell. He finds that he has been incarcerated with half a dozen other people, all of them notables on their respective planets, all apparently captured (no one knows by who) at a pivotal moment in their planet's history.

And though it seems like yesterday to each of them that they were last at home, the last date each remembers are many decades apart. Clearly, some of them have been on ice for a very long time.

A supply ship comes eventually, and Andas and the others manage to take the ship and escape. Naturally they each wish to return to their home planets, and Andas does manage to make his way back to Inyanga--where decades have indeed gone by, and a man with his name and face is on the throne. Who is he? Is he an android, put in place after the real Andas was captured? Or is our Andas, he who escaped from prison, is he an android, part of a plot that never came to fruition?

It's at this point that the plot takes a dramatic right turn, and while the denouement is entertaining enough, we never do find out where the other Andas came from.

Wraiths of Time is more satisfying than Android at Arms; the characterizations and settings have a depth and solidity and Andas' tale lacks.

Our heroine is Egyptologist Tallahassee Mitford, who is asked to identify an ancient African artifact that's recently been discovered. It's not quite like anything found before; on top of that, it's quite radioactive. Tallahassee tentatively ascribes it to the ancient Empire of Meroe, a Nubian offshoot of the civilization of Egypt. Peculiar events ensue, and Tallahassee finds herself in another world, in (unsurprisingly) the Empire of Meroe--but a Meroe not of the distant past but of the present day, a world in which ancient Meroe was nearly destroyed but was reborn and is now one of the dominant world powers. She has been brought there by accident, and the act has proved fatal to the one who brought her, a priestess/princess named Ashake. Fortuitously, Tallahassee, who is black as any Nubian, is Ashake's double, Ashake as she was in our world. She can touch the ancient artifact, a thing of great power, just as Ashake could--for Ashake died to bring the artifact back to her world.

Politically, Ashake must not be dead; Tallahassee is compelled to take her place.

All in all, not a bad book; I rather enjoyed making Tallahassee's acquaintance once again.

At Death's Door
By Robert Barnard

I usually like Barnard's stuff; this one was adequate--I mean, I've read much worse--but there really wasn't anything about it that grabbed me. It's your basic whodunnit, and there are some nicely drawn obnoxious characters, but that's really about all there is to say about it.

Nothing to see here, let's move along.

Mutineer's Moon
The Armageddon Inheritance
By David Weber

While I was on this David Weber kick, I figured I'd re-read some of his older non-Honor Harrington books. These are two that I enjoyed the first time I read them, and I picked them up again with great expectation.

The premise is high space-opera, to say the least. Earth's Moon is not, in fact, a moon; it's a giant warship disguised as a moon. It entered the Solar System about 50,000 years ago, at which time there was a mutiny among the ship's crew. Shortly before the mutineers would have captured the bridge, the captain invoked certain special programs in the ship's Central Computer which drove all crewmembers, loyalists and mutineers alike, off of the ship and locked the door behind them. Central Computer was to repair the damage to the ship, and only when systems were fully functional were any crewmembers to be allowed back on board. Any loyalist crewmembers--mutineers who approached the ship after leaving were to be summarily destroyed.

That was 50,000 years ago; and guess what! The descendants of the loyalists and mutineers are still here. That is, we are they. But, in fact, the ringleaders of the mutiny are still here too, in person, thanks to high technology, time spent in stasis, and a penchant for moving their brains to new bodies as the old ones wear out.

Oh, and a swarm of xenophobic aliens will be swooping down on Earth in five years or so, and destroying all life they find.

Our hero has to somehow manage to break the power of the mutineers, which is still considerable, acquire a crew, and defeat the oncoming swarm; and it isn't going to be easy.

There's some fun stuff here, and if you like space opera it's worth taking a look at; but they really are pretty light-weight, and I didn't enjoy them nearly as much this time around.

Warlock
By Andre Norton

Here's yet another Norton omnibus, of three novels in this case: Storm Over Warlock, Ordeal in Otherwhere, and Forerunner Foray. The first two are directly related and take place on the planet Warlock; the third is only loosely related to the first two. All three were pretty good, especially Forerunner Foray. Ironically, I tried reading the latter two when I was a kid, and didn't get very far into either one.

The main difference between Norton's work and the science fiction being published today, it seems to me, is primarily one of length--science fiction and fantasy novels have gotten much, much longer over the last fifty years, to the point where it takes two or three of the older novels to fill out a paperback to a respectable length. As a result, current novels are richer in detail and description, and to some extent in character development as well, without necessarily adding anything more in the way of plot or imagination. For example, it's become clear to me that most of Norton's science fiction takes place in a single consistently realized future. She doesn't really call attention to this, and it's a big enough future that we rarely meet the same characters twice, but the connections are there if you look for them.

Anyway, I enjoyed these; it was especially nice discovering that Forerunner Foray is a good read after all.

In This House of Brede
By Rumer Godden

Phillipa Talbot, head of a department in the British Ministry of Trade and Information at a time when women simply did not hold such posts, is poised for a promotion when, instead, she resigns her position and seeks admittance as a postulant to Brede Abbey, a house of Benedictine nuns. What follows is an amazing tale, to which I simply cannot do justice.

To begin with, it's a novel.

When you go to the bookstore, you see the fiction divided by category, which the publishers miscall "genre". In fact, the genre is the form of the work--the novel, the short story, and so forth. To publishers, the word novel means simply any book-length work of fiction. In fact, there two classical book-length forms: the novel and the romance. Tales of adventure, of derring-do, of space opera or feats of arms, indeed any book in which the primary action and conflict and movement is external is a romance--and the fact is, that's what I usually read. In the novel proper, the primary action and conflict and movement is internal. Accustomed as I am to speaking of premises and plots and all the wonderful externalities of fantasy and science fiction, I am usually somewhat nonplussed when faced with writing about a proper novel. Sure, I can write about the externalities, but to do so is to misrepresent the story. And yet, I don't have the vocabulary to speak about the internals with any assurance. Bear with me, please.

In addition to this basic problem, there is the difficulty of conveying the feeling of Brede Abbey, the peace that lingers about it and fills the book from one end to the other, the voices of the nuns raised in plainsong as the canonical hours pass day by day. To do so I would need to tell you about stern Dame Agnes, skillful Dame Maura, quiet Dame Catherine, staunch Sister Cecily, ladies of great faith and holiness--but I can't. Godden reveals them herself, so well, so deftly, little by little filling in each portrait until the whole is revealed that I should feel like a vandal if I were to attempt to summarize Godden's prose and so reveal details out of order.

But I have to say something, or why bother reviewing the book at all? So here are a few points.

There are a number of crises in the book, involving fiscal mismanagement, bad vocations, controlling parents, sudden illness, and the like, with which the abbey community must contend, and Sister Phillipa must, of course, do her part. But the crises, and the times of peace in between them, are not the story; the story is about Sister Phillipa's giving of herself to her Beloved Lord bit by bit and piece by piece. It is about redemption; sacrifice, self-denial, submission, hard work, and a joy and a peace which passes understanding.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Some thanks are in order. I first heard of the book on the 25 of August, 2000, five years almost to the day before I actually opened a copy and began to read, from an e-mail correspondent named Rachel. She wrote me again in 2001, and again in 2002, each time prompting me to give the book a try. And I did look for it, but never found a copy; it had gone out of print. (Yeah, I know, I could try the library; somehow, I never do that.) And then Amy Welborn of the blog Open Book began working with the Loyola Press on reissues of a series of classic Roman Catholic novels, one of them being In This House of Brede. I ordered a copy on-line, and it arrived, and after a couple of weeks I picked up and devoured it.

So thanks to Rachel, and thanks to Amy; I hope I can repay the favor some day.


Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Murder in the Aisle
By Ed Gorman

Tobin and Dunphy have a love-hate relationship as movie critics on a syndicated television show. One night, tensions rise to the point that a fistfight breaks out between the two during filming. Later on, Dunphy shows up at Tobin's door and falls into his arms, a knife in his back. Of course, others show up at Tobin's apartment soon after and things don't look good for Tobin, as he has to find out who the real killer is.

This mystery is much lighter in tone than Gorman's Jack Dwyer private eye novels (previously reviewed here: The Autumn Dead and A Cry of Shadows), and in general Murder in the Aisle is a lot of fun. It's a quick read at 160 pages and not much attention needs to be paid to keep up with the plot (which is really too flimsy to support even this length). Plus, it's so obvious that Gorman is having such a great time with his obvious Siskel and Ebert clones that it's impossible not to enjoy it along with him.

Death Ground
By Ed Gorman

Ed Gorman writes my favorite kind of Western, at least as far as I can tell from the example of Death Ground. I really enjoy dark fiction like horror and hardboiled crime novels, with characters that are unrepentantly operating by their own sets of rules. This is the first Western I have read that didn't appear to be peopled entirely with noble characters are trying to do the right thing.

Everyone's motives in Death Ground are questionable. Even the protagonist is a bounty hunter named Leo Guild who is more interested in collecting the reward for returning the spoils of a bank robbery than in bringing the robber to justice -- although that would be okay, too, as long as the reward is worth it.

Gorman puts enough plot into the book's 157 pages to fill a much longer novel. At least four characters undergo some type of change, a cholera outbreak wipes out half of a settlement, and all the bad guys are punished, usually with a bullet or six. Somehow, Gorman manages to make each individual sympathetic (like the priest who isn't really, two brothers with an incredibly dysfunctional relationship, and a murderer who adopts an orphan) in an emotionally touching narrative. With the existence of sequels to help ease the transition via familiarity, Death Ground also acts as the ideal introduction to Westerns for the dark fiction fan.


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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