ex libris reviews
1 October 2005
Vimes had never got on with any game much more complex than darts.
Chess in particular had always annoyed him. It was the dumb way the
pawns went off and slaughtered their fellow pawns while the kings
lounged about doing nothing that always got to him; if only the pawns
united, maybe talked the rooks around, the whole board could've been a
republic in a dozen moves.
Thud!, which I'm currently reading to Jane; more on that next month. But I'm almost as interested in the companion book, the not yet released Where's My Cow? It's children's book about animal noises, which Sam Vimes reads to his son every night at precisely 6 o'clock. We don't get to see most of it in Thud!, though, and I'm quite curious to see what comes after "The hippopotamus goes HRUUUUUGH!"has a new book out,
Over My Dead Body
In The Best Families
Trouble in Triplicate
Three Doors to Death
We have here six volumes of mastermind and sleuth Nero Wolfe, containing twelve tales, and there isn't a bad nut in the set.
I'm not going to wax rhapsodic about these books, although I justifiably could. And I'm not going to spend paragraphs telling you how Nero Wolfe is an interesting character, with his bed temper, his rudeness, his gourmet appetite, and his orchids, but that Archie Goodwin, now, Goodwin the wise-cracking sidekick, is the real hero of the books, and a completely sufficient reason for reading them. Even though it's true.
Suffice it to say that if you enjoy mystery novels, and you've not read any of Stout's books, you've got better things to be doing than reading this review when Amazon's just a click away.
And now, a few notes about these particular books.
Fer-de-Lance is the first of the Nero Wolfe novels; I like it, but it isn't the best of the series. The maguffin's a little over-complicated, and Wolfe isn't quite himself--at maybe 99%, he's more himself than most long-running characters are at first appearance, but not quite himself.
I fear I read In The Best Families out of order (I was just picking the books off of the shelf in whatever order I found them, which wasn't chronological). There are three Nero Wolfe novels for which the sequence matters; this is the third, in which Wolfe has his final showdown with that mastermind of crime Arnold Zeck.
Over My Dead Body's an interesting little tale, involving fencing, murder, Balkan politics, and, most remarkably, Wolfe's long-lost daughter from Montenegro. As Wolfe dislikes women intensely, much comedy ensues. We learn quite a lot about Wolfe in this one, some of it good.
The remaining three books are all triples; apparently Stout wrote three shorter Wolfe tales every year, which (IIRC) were always published in a single volume just before Christmas. I won't say too much about these except that in each tale you get the distilled essence of Wolfe and Goodwin, and that's no bad thing.
Recently someone asked me whether I'd read any Alan Garner. I had, of course, but not in over twenty years.
I first encountered Garner's fantasy novels when I was in college, and had an odd reaction to them--or, rather, to three of them; one, Red Shift, I simply didn't like. But the other three I read and enjoyed; and yet, although I've kept them all these years I'd never been moved to re-read them. That's extremely odd; I can't imagine that there are many books I've had for so long without re-reading them at least once.
Anyway, now, as then, I decided to start with Elidor. Going in my memories of the book were exceedingly faint, consisting mostly of two impressions: that I'd liked it very much, and (somewhat paradoxically) that there wasn't much to it. And now that I've read it again, I can see why I retained those impressions.
What the book is, is a somewhat contrarian take on an old chestnut: the story in which children from our world are magically transported to another which desperately needs their help. The children usually adapt quite marvelously to their new surroundings, and (except for Eustace Clarence Scrubb) have little difficulty understanding the folks they meet. Culture clash simply isn't an issue, and the strangeness is embraced with joy. Garner's tale is grittier, and quite likely more realistic.
The story takes begins in London, at a time some short while after World War II when entire neighborhoods laid desolate by German bombing are still standing. Four children, Nicholas, David, Helen, and Roland, are exploring the ruins when they are drawn into another world. There they meet a strange figure named Malebron; they speak his language, somehow, but they don't really understand him or his world--how could they, after all? He persuades them to rescue three treasures from an ancient evil vault, and return with them to England for safe-keeping. It's an interesting answer to the question, "Why should children from another world be needed so desperately?" Precisely because they are from another world, and can return there.
That's about all I remembered of the plot from the first time I read it, and there's little enough to it. The remainder of book takes place in England, and it's a doozy, almost more of a horror novel than a fantasy. There are strange goings-on and peculiar manifestations, and although good triumphs in the end, due in no small way to the children's actions, there's much that remains strange, fantastic, and unclear. The result is both compelling and oddly unsatisfying. We haven't seen the whole story, and we know it; we've been on the edge of things, and will never see or understand the center.
As I say, it's a contrarian approach to a classic plot, and probably the way things would actually be if a story like this could actually be true. I'm not surprised that other authors haven't followed Garner's line, here, though.
This book is set in the same world as Modesitt's earlier book Archform: Beauty (not that you'd know it from anything on the cover), and pleasantly enough it has a more intelligible plot than its its predecessor. It's set in a near future Earth in which genetic experimentation and high-tech are starting to divide the human race into distinct classes (indeed, there are intriguing hints that Modesitt's Adiamante might be set in the far future of this same world, in which case we're seeing the birth of the "cybs"). Beyond that, it's basically a competent thriller.
Although they didn't hinder my enjoyment, there are two things about the book that annoyed me. The first is the maguffin--the Evil Multinational Corporations Are Trying To Take Over The World. It reminded me too much of some of the overheated rhetoric I've seen on the 'Net over the last few years.
The second--and considerably more annoying--is Modesitt's handling of place names. Our hero, for example, lives in the major metropolitan center of "Denv"--the city we know as "Denver". Similarly we have "Minpolis" for "Minneapolis", and "Epaso" for "El Paso".
Now, it's a long-time game of SF authors to have fun with mutating place names over long periods of time. The thing is, there's usually some kind of return to barbarism involved. The names were transmitted orally, and the language and pronunciation shifted over time, and when civilization and writing returned the names were written down as they had come to be spoken. There's no such reversion and regrowth in this case, so far as I can tell--which means that the name changes were a conscious choice on somebody's part, and I just can't see it. In fact, I can't see it either way--I can't see "Denver" mutating into "Denv" through oral tradition, and I can't imagine anyone thinking that "Denv" is a nicer name than "Denver". And why on earth would you choose to go from "El Paso" to "Epaso"? It's not even easier to say, and it looks funny too. Ugh.
This appears to be a remarkably good look at warfare and how it has changed through the ages. I say "appears to be" because I'm no authority on the subject; Keegan's version of history could have massive holes in it, for all I know. But it tallied with what I've read in the past, though there were some surprises. It's a complex subject and difficult to summarize, but I'll give it a go: chariots, horses, bows and arrows, walls, cannon, small arms, bayonets, trenches, tanks, airplanes, atom bombs.
The book is not without its faults. The first section is an extended reflection on Clausewitz' blind spots, the moral being that Clausewitzian total war is necessarily self-destructive. The author hopes that perhaps we've progressed beyond all that (the book was written in the peaceful years after the first Gulf War), and expresses a touching faith in the saving power of the United Nations, a power that in recent years has become rather tarnished by the oil-for-food scams, the presence of nations like Syria on the UN Human Rights committee, and such like. And his discussion of warfare in primitive societies seems more authoritative than is warranted by the scarce data.
On the whole, though, I found this to be a fascinating book, and well-worth the time I spent with it.
The War God's Own
This is a trio of fantasy novels; the first two were written in the mid-'90's, and the third was published a month or so ago. All concern an unlikely hero named Bahzell Bahnakson--unlikely because...but hold that thought.
A thousand years ago, the continent of Kontovar was the home of a vast and sophisticated civilization. Humans, elves, dwarves, and hradani lived together, and mostly in peace. Then came a war in which the black wizards tried to take over Kontovar. Wizards aren't much good as foot soldiers, even assuming they feel moved to try, and so the black wizards magically enslaved the wise, peaceful (but immensely strong) hradani and turned them into fierce berserkers.
The black wizards lost in the end, but the war ruined Kontovar. The survivors fled to another continent--including a small contingent of hradani, no longer enslaved but still subject to fits of berserk Rage. Hated and hunted for their role in the war (though it was no choice of theirs) and with hair-trigger tempers (and you really don't want to see them when they are angry), the hradani have since scraped out a barbarian living in lands no one else wants.
A thousand years later, the hradani are still hated and feared by the other four races of men. Bahzell Bahnakson is a hradani.
He's also the son of the most progressive of the Hradani lords, and in addition to being large even for a hradani (who are the tallest of the races of men) he's somehow acquired a strong sense of justice. As a political hostage to another clan, he surprises the eldest son of the clan lord on the verge of ravishing a serving girl. Rape is practically unheard of among the hradani--their women are not subject to the Rage, and hence are highly valued--and rapists are dealt with harshly. Bahnak cannot turn aside, and so he thrashes the evildoer, ties him up, and then to save his own life (and that of the girl) takes it on the lam.
After securing the girl's safety, Bahnak must go forth into exile; having been a hostage, he cannot go home without forcing his father to renounce the treaty under which he was held and starting yet another war. And as he travels he starts having dreams. It develops that the War God wants Bahnak to be one of his Champions, to sally forth righting wrongs and so forth. Bahnak wants no part of it--the gods have never done anything for the hradani, and so the hradani want nothing to do with the gods. But the War God is persistent, and the result is a foregone conclusion.
Oath of Swords contains the part of the story I've described so far, up until Bahnak's eventual capitulation; it's a delightful picaresque and goofy fantasy, and it made my laugh frequently. The War God's Own continues the story as Bahnak learns what it means to be one of the War God's Champions; there are Dark Deeds Afoot, and the War God has Champions to thwart them. The goofiness continues, and indeed it's rather surprising how much fun you can have following an extremely competent, dedicated paladin around and about. In fiction these days, paladins are supposed to be stuffy pantywaists who can't get the job done because they insist on following the rules. Bahnak follows the rules and gets the job done too.
Windrider's Oath, on the other hand, was something of a disappointment. The book suffers from the same bloat as the latest Honor Harrington novels. The plot is adequate, but the pacing is lousy; too little happens, and it's related in so much detail for so many points of view that the suspense cannot be maintained. (I'm beginning to think of this as Weber's Disease.) The book would have been much better at half the length. Worse, the goofiness that made the first two so endearing is largely gone.
If Weber writes another book in this series, I'll read it; I like the characters, and I'm curious about what happens next. But I begin to fear that Weber has jumped the shark.
Suppose England had had a glorious history of magic and magicians; suppose indeed that the North of England was ruled for 300 years by the mysterious Raven King, the first and greatest magician of England's golden age of magic. Suppose that paths to the land of Faerie had once been commonplace throughout the English countryside.
Suppose that magic is now sadly faded, and though studied by a few, is in actuality practiced by no one; that Napoleon is ravaging the Continent and that only England stands against him; that the glories of English Magic are suddenly, miraculously, about to be reborn...
...and that Jane Austen wrote a book about it all.
That, in a nutshell, is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
The book was published to great acclaim; indeed, it won the 2005 Hugo award, which is no small potatoes. It was an interesting read, and was, indeed, novel in its subject matter and presentation; Clarke has done the remarkable job of creating an alternate history for England that feels plausible. I enjoyed the book, more or less.
But I fear I didn't love it. The narration maintains an air of detachment; and one loves none of the characters, and rather cordially dislikes several of them. Momentous events occur (at one point an entire city--Brussels, if I recall correctly--is transplanted to the Great Plains of North America for a short while), but they are described matter-of-factly, and with no fanfare.
I'm not sorry I read it; and I'm curious to see what Clarke might come up with next. But I'm not entirely sure why it got the Hugo.
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