Home : Ex Libris : 1 March 2006

ex libris reviews

1 March 2006

The importance of light can never be overstated.
Bryan Peterson


In This Issue:
Photografee 2

I'm still pursuing photography; if you'd like to see some of the pictures, you should pay a visit to my blog; from time to time I post one or two. There are reviews of several more books on photography this month as well.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Golden Fool
By Robin Hobb

This, the sequel to Fool's Errand, is possibly my favorite Hobb to date...possibly because Hobb's hero, FitzChivalry Farseer, finally seems to be gaining some wisdom. The book advances the plot tolerably well for the middle book of a series, and leaves me quite curious to know how the story turns out.

One word of caution: there are some spoilers in this book for Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy, of which I'd only read the first volume when I read Golden Fool; The Liveship Traders books are still in print, and you probably should read them all before this one.

Ship of Magic
By Robin Hobb

This is the first volume of Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy, which is set in the same world as the FitzChivalry Farseer books. Between the Six Duchies and Jamaillia, far to the south, lies the Rain Wilds and on their edge the Cursed Shore--a stretch of coast long avoided by ships. To land there is to court madness; and the water from the Rain Wild River sometimes runs with acid that will burn through a ship's hull.

Some time in the past, a band of desperate emigrants from Jamaillia came to the Rain Wild River, and endeavoured to settle there despite all of the difficulties. Today their descendants live in Bingtown on Trader Bay, near the mouth of the river; it said that anything that is can be purchased in Bingtown. There are many mysteries in Bingtown, but the greatest involves wizardwood, and the liveships that are constructed from it. Such ships are always more nimble than normal ships, and after generations of service such a ship actually comes to life and can assist with its own sailing. Each liveship belongs to one of Bingtown's Old Trader families; a liveship will only serve willingly if a member of "their" family is on board.

The action centers on the liveship Vivacia, newly come to awareness on the death of her third Captain, Ephron Vestrit. By rights her third captain should have been one Althea Vestrit, Ephron's daughter; but Althea's family judged her not ready and passed Vivacia to Althea's sister, to be captained by Althea's sister's husband Kyle Haven. Kyle is an experienced captain; but he's no Bingtowner and has no appreciation for the odd creature that is a Bingtown liveship. Much trouble will ensue from his foolishness. Trouble for him, trouble for Althea, and trouble for his despised son, Wintrow, a priest-in-training, who is forced to join Kyle on his voyage since Kyle is not of the blood of the Vestrits and Vivacia requires such a one.

Outwards of the Cursed Shore lie the Pirate Isles, where those who are unwelcome in any of Jamaillia, Bingtown, or Chalced scratch out an existence preying on merchant shipping. One such, Kennit Raven, is working to unite the Pirate Isles under his own rule. Kennit is a shallow man, a foolish man, but an extremely lucky man--he will do anything to see his ambitions realized, he will ride the moment like a surfer no matter where it carries him. One of the pleasures of the book is the increasing discrepancy between how Kennit really is, and how he is perceived due to his actions.

In short, this is a complex book with a cast of thousands, lots of complex relationships, and pots of action. I had to read it slowly; as always, Hobb is extremely hard on her characters, and small doses go down better. It's ultimately rewarding, though, and I'm curious to see how it all plays out.

By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This, yet another installment in the ever-expanding saga of Recluce, is the immediate sequel to Wellspring of Chaos, which I reviewed last year. It's a typical entry in the series: order wizard discovers his powers as he fights (nearly single-handedly) an increasingly nasty series of battles with chaos wizards, vanquishing all of them in his own peculiar style. It is, alas, a well-worn formula. The book (with its predecessor) stands out from the rest of the series in two ways: it's set in a part of the world we've not seen before, and our hero's order magic is rather different than that of any of Modesitt's previous heroes.

In short--it's an enjoyable enough tale if you've enjoyed the rest of the series, but there are few surprises here.

Witch World
By Andre Norton

Recently my brother challenged me to give Andre Norton another try, as a lot of her stuff is back in print. And I have, and I've been reasonably surprised--there's more to her work than I had remembered. More embarassingly, it's become clear that the reason I didn't like some of her books on first attempt is that I was too young (and too impatient) to appreciate them. Now, the series for which Norton is best known is her "Witch World" series; my siblings had a number of books from the series, including the present title, and though I had tried to read it several times I never got very far. The blurb was interesting--a man from our world, a fugitive, is transported to a strange land in another universe, a land of magic and witches. But somehow the book itself never grabbed me.

Whilst visiting Portland last fall, with all of the riches of Powells Books spread before me, I decided it was time to give Witch World and its sequels another try.

Simon Tregarth, soldier of fortune, is being hunted by some men who have betrayed him. Expecting to be taken at any time, he stops for one last fine meal--and is contacted by a man who offers him a chance to escape, forever. If he will but sit on an ancient stone, the Siege Perilous, it will transport him to another world...and not to any world, but to the world where he will best fit in. He arrives in a desolate location in time to save a young women from the fangs of the Hounds of Alizon. She, it develops, is one of the nameless witches of the land of Estcarp. He adopts her land as his own, and devotes his skill at warcraft to defending Estcarp from its many enemies.

There's more here than I remembered, and less than I had hoped. Norton is a consummate storyteller, and writes with a spare and lean voice in which every word tells. It's easy to see why I didn't like the book as a kid; I was a voracious reader, but I see now that I wasn't a good reader. I surfed along the top of the paragraphs, catching the gist of the story and leaving behind everything that didn't advance the plot--or that didn't fit my preconceptions of what the book was supposed to be about. You can't read Norton like that; she doesn't tell you twice, and she doesn't rub your nose in what's going on. You must read her prose carefully, or you'll miss things.

That said, I found the book to be rather pedestrian--if it's better in the small details than I remembered, it's by no means her best. Still, I liked it well enough to return to Powells and pick up three more from the series. More on those another time.

Creative Nature & Outdoor Photography
By Brenda Tharp

The difficulty in reviewing non-fiction books like this one is to know how to describe the content more pithily than the title does. With Tharp's book I must concede defeat; it really is about creative nature and outdoor photography. Contrarily, books on photography are easier to judge than most, as they are generally filled with the author's own photographs; her credentials are evident on every page. By that measure, Tharp writes whereof she knows.

The book is, I confess, a little too advanced for me. She writes for users of the traditional film SLR camera, and assumes they are familiar not only with basic photographic technique but also with the more esoteric features of their cameras--as a result, this should not be your first book about photography. On the other hand, she has a great deal to say about composition and the use of light that applies equally well to film and digital photography, and on that front I might have learned a thing or two. It's a book I'll want to come back to when I've a little more experience.

In the meantime, I still recommend Bryan Peterson's Understanding Digital Photography, and also his Understanding Exposure which I've been reading simultaneously with this one. It covers some of the same ground, and goes into much more detail about how to use your camera.

(Side note: I've been lucky in my choice of books--there are a lot of duds out there, and somehow I've managed to spot some of the better ones. A little research pays off.)

Understanding Exposure
By Bryan Peterson

This is the book that explains how to do the things that Brenda Tharp takes for granted in Creative Nature & Outdoor Photography. Peterson covers generally the same range of topics here as he does in Understanding Digital Photography, but he goes into considerably more detail; I now understand the process of metering the light far better than I did beforehand, for example. Peterson writes clearly and engagingly, and as always his enthusiasm is infectious. Best of all, the book is filled with delightful images--and for each he explains in detail just how he set up, metered, and exposed each shot. This is definitely a book I'm going to come back to again and again.

If you've got a digital camera, and you've any curiousity at all what you can do with it, by all means get a copy of Understanding Digital Photography. If you're like me, the book will inspire you to go out and take all sorts of truly wretched pictures, and probably some very good ones. Then, if you're still having fun, get this book and keep shooting; it will take you to the next level.

Web of the Witch World
By Andre Norton

This is the second of the Norton's "Witch World" books, and it has precisely the same strengths and flaws as its predecessor, being essentially the second half of one complete story: the battle of the people of Estcarp against men of Kolder. Like Simon Tregarth, our hero, the men of Kolder are from another world; and like Tregarth, their home world is one of science, indeed, one where science is greatly advanced over that of Earth. Tregarth's knowledge of science gives him an edge, and with the help of his wife, Jaelithe, and the mind powers they share, the Kolder-men are eventually destroyed.

It's not a bad tale--certainly it kept me turning pages--but it feels rather dated. The "super-science" of the Kolder-men hasn't worn well, and their very name, "Kolder", i.e., "colder" is a little too obvious. The result is a tale that seems plenty deep and satisfying as one reads it, but appears much less substantial on later reflection. It's a tale well-told, but there's something lacking. Or is there? I'm really not sure. All I can say is, there's something of substance there while I'm reading it, but it fades away with the dawn.

Year of the Unicorn
By Andre Norton

This is the third of Norton's "Witch World" novels, at least according to one publication scheme, and it has an entirely different flavor than its predecessors.

Across the ocean from Estcarp lie the dales of High Halleck. The dalesmen have just concluded a war against the Hounds of Alizon, Estcarp's neighbors and enemies; they have done so with the help of fell warriors called the Were-Riders, and now it is time for repayment. Thirteen virgins of the Dales must willingly go with the Were-Riders as brides, never to return to High Halleck.

The story is told from the viewpoint of one of the chosen thirteen, a young lady named Gillan. Gillan is an orphan of the war; and it soon becomes clear that her parents were of Estcarp, for she has strange powers (powers she wisely keeps hidden), and can see the Were-Riders as they are, rather than as they seem. This leads her into danger great danger.

The difference in tone between this book and its predecessors is vast. The narration is first-person rather than third, with the result that our immersion in Norton's world is enhanced. The tale is told purely as a fantasy, rather than as an uncomfortable mixture of fantasy and science fiction. Most important, Gillan's voice is much richer than the flat, transparent third-person prose of the Simon Tregarth books.

I don't know where these three books lie in Norton's overall output, but it appears that between the second and third something clicked.

Mad Ship
By Robin Hobb

This is the second of Hobb's "Liveship Traders" trilogy, following Ship of Magic. In that volume we discovered the city of Bingtown, which perches on the Cursed Shore near the mouth of the Rain Wild River. We also discovered the Bingtown "liveships", ships made of rare wizardwood from up the Rain Wild River that with time actually come to life and can speak and move for themselves. (The face of a liveship is its figurehead, naturally.) We met a range of people, including Althea Vestrit, who was cheated of command of the liveship Vivacia and wishes to regain it; her nephew Wintrow, priest-in-training, who is forced against his will to travel with Vivacia; his sister, Malta, who is young, callow, melodramatic, ignorant, and rash; and Kennit, a pirate captain who wishes to be a pirate king.

We also met the mad liveship Paragon, who twice set out with a full crew and returned later (years later, in one case) capsized and empty. When he returned the second time, his face hewn with an axe so that he could no longer see, his owners beached him. For many years, Paragon has been chained above the high watermark so that he can never float again.

Now Kennit has taken Vivacia, and Althea's only chance to recover her is to restore mad Paragon to service. Meanwhile, war is brewing with Chalced...and very odd things are happening far up the Rain Wild River.

In general, I like this book rather better than its predecessor; we actually begin to learn a few things about the origin of the liveships and a number of other mysteries, and at this point in the story arc the more childish of the principal characters have gained a pleasant taste of maturity. I confess that I picked up the third book in the trilogy, Ship of Destiny, no more than an hour after laying this one down.

As a side note, the author's biography points out something I hadn't previously noticed: Hobb has also written under the pen name "Megan Lindholm", including one book (The Gypsy) with Steven Brust

Learning To See Creatively
By Bryan Peterson

This book contain's Peterson's take on the subject of photographic composition. It's considerably more freewheeling than Grill & Scanlon's book on the subject, and covers the ground rather differently. There was little in it that was surprising--the main points are all touched on, though in less detail, in Peterson's other books, Understanding Digital Photography and Understanding Exposure. I enjoyed it, though, and I expect to read it again later on, when I've more experience under my belt.

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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