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ex libris reviews

1 October 2006


"He's derived the Turing-Lovecraft Theorem from first principles. Not many people can do that."
Charles Stross


Contents


In This Issue:
On and On

Not much to say this month; just enjoy the books!

-- Will Duquette


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Conqueror's Moon
By Julian May

Prince Conrig of Cathra is heir to the throne of one of the four kingdoms of the Isle of Blenheim, an island in the far north of its world, beneath the glow of the northern lights, an island where magic is a little closer to home than in more southerly climes. The four kingdoms were once one, the heart of the great empire of old; and Conrig is determined to unite them once more. He'll have the help of an interesting crew, including his brother, the alchymist Vra-Stergos, Princess Ullanoth of Moss, daughter of the Conjure-King, and Deveron Aubrey, the prince's squire. Aubrey is a "wild talent", one to whom certain kinds of magic come easily. Arrayed against him are Ullanoth's brother Beynor of Moss, the king of Didion and his sons, and some opportunistic folks from down south. Although, it's clear that there's more going on than meets the eye.

I usually like Julian May's work. She's creative, and she's got quite the imagination. And there are quite a few neat, innovative bits in this book, especially as regards the system of magic in use in Blenheim, which is middling rare for a book of epic fantasy. At the same time, it didn't really float my boat. Few of the characters really captured my sympathy, and I lost interest in how it was all going to work out.

That said, it wasn't awful; I may, at some point, pick up the sequels. But I'm not going to be in any rush.

Imperium
By Robert Harris

Here is another fruit of my dalliance with Simon & Schuster: a novel of Ancient Rome. To be precise, it's a novel about the political career of the Roman orator Cicero from his early adulthood until his election as one of the two consuls of Rome. It is filled to bursting with political skulduggery, along with a fair dollop of historical detail. It takes place at a fascinating time in Roman history, when the forces which would bring down the Roman Republic were starting to build. All of the players are here: arrogant Pompey, great general and lousy politician, bound (and determined) for glory; Marcus Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, who pursues the worst government money can buy--if it suits his ambitions; mad, bad, violent Catilina; a certain puppet master named Julius Caesar. And, of course, Cicero himself: the great speaker, the consummate politician, the man for whom winning the next election is sufficient reason to deal with any number of devils.

It all ought to be fascinating, and indeed there is much here that is good. I've done a fair amount of reading about ancient Rome, in both historical fiction and straight history, and (bearing in mind that I Am Not An Expert) I didn't see anything that was obviously wrong in the historical details.

Still, something isn't quite right. It's a vibrant, violent era, and yet the book seems oddly bloodless. This may be the fault of the narrator; the book purports to be a Life of Cicero written by Tiro, Cicero's private secretary. Tiro's a genuine historical figure; he's remembered chiefly because Cicero speaks of him, and because of his invention of a new species of shorthand that let him transcribe his master's vast speeches verbatim. Unfortunately, as Harris draws him he's rather a dull stick--the sort of viewpoint character that exists only to watch the protagonist. He's not a complete cipher, but there isn't much to say for him either.

Then there's the language--Harris is no Robert Graves, and this is no I, Claudius. Graves did a fine job of producing a book that sounded like it might have actually been written in ancient Rome. Tiro's vocabulary is sometimes strikingly modern; the worst howler is when Tiro describes one of Cicero's rivals in the consular election as a "religious fundamentalist". We all know what he means, but it's not a term that Tiro could possibly have used--even if it really meant what Harris uses it to mean. (Note for the clueless: properly speaking, Fundamentalism is a particular school of Christian thought based on dispensationalism. Using "fundamentalist" to mean "religious conservative", "fanatic", "zealot" is ignorant; applying it to members of non-Christian religions, as the media so often does, and as Harris does here, is simply absurd.) Another modern term that shows up is "Special Prosecutor".

One gathers (not least from the blurb on the dust jacket) that Harris is trying to draw parallels between the Rome of Cicero's day and our own recent history; if so, Harris' manner of doing so is ineffective.

If you want to read about Rome, there are better books out there; if you want to read about Roman politics, there are still probably better books out there; if you want to get a handle on that slippery fish Cicero, this might not be a bad starting point. Cicero always struck me as a political opportunist, and so he is here, in spades.

It's by no means a bad book, and I'm not sorry I spent the time with it; and I might even cock an eye at the sequel that Harris is clearly planning to write. But I didn't cordially love it, either, and it lacks some breath of life that I can't quite put my finger on.

Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy
By Stephen Leacock

This is very old book; it was published in 1915, and as it is a collection of magazine pieces most of the material undoubtedly pre-dates that by a fair amount. I picked it up...well, I was reading Chuck Jones delightful memoir, Chuck Amuck. When he was a kid he lived in Southern California in a series of rented houses. And in those days, if you rented a furnished house, one of the things it came furnished with was books. From his point of view, his family would move into a house, read all of the books in it, and then move on. And, he says, he read everything, voraciously. It didn't matter, so he says, whether it was good or bad; he sneered through all of Horatio Alger, and laughed his way through all of Stephen Leacock.

Hmmm. Stephen Leacock. Chuck Jones thinks Stephen Leacock is funny. Chuck Jones thinks Stephen Leacock is funny. Hmmm. He might be worth looking into.

So happens, we have a neat new-and-used bookshop not too far away, one that specializes in genre fiction; and as they cater to collectors they've quite an amazing selection. And, in fact, they had some of Leacock's books, of which I chose this one.

Verdict? He's funny, but he's no P.G. Wodehouse. He's got some very funny ideas and some really good lines; I especially liked his bit about a literary agency that exists to read the latest novels and serials for industrious millionaires who have no time for reading. But if I read more of him I think I'll have to get him from the library (assuming they have him), for while he's funny he's a little too expensive to buy in first editions.

The Atrocity Archive
By Charles Stross

Now this is simply fabulous...though it might not be your cup of tea. Here's a check:

"He's derived the Turing-Lovecraft Theorem from first principles. Not many people can do that."

If the very idea of a Turing-Lovecraft Theorem makes you giggle, you're squarely in this book's target demographic, and should immediately go buy a copy. Don't bother reading further, just go get it. The rest of you, read on.

The walls of our universe are more tenuous than most people realize. Just outside, in the universes next door, lurk things of cosmic evil, eager to slide through and eat your brain. Within the walls of a dingy London office building work a cadre of people whose job it is to prevent this happening. Within those walls, they confront evil on a daily basis, evil of all sorts. Unspeakable, nameless horrors. Foolish mathmeticians whose dabblings might open a path for the Great Old Ones. And worse things. Bureaucrats. Auditors. Pointy-haired bosses!

Stross has put together a delightful tale of cosmic horror, secret agents, and organizational chaos, like an unholy mixture of Lovecraft, Dilbert, and Len Deighton, with vast dollops of computer geekery and secret history stirred in for flavor. It's all good, really, even the scary parts--and there are some very scary parts.

I'm going to be keeping an eye on Charles Stross; he's good. He's clearly read all the right books. And I bet he'd be a grand fellow to share a pint of beer or two with. Here's to more like him!

Island in the Sea of Time
By S.M. Stirling

The main problem with this book is that it reminds me strongly of Eric Flint's 1632, except not nearly so rollicking.

The premise is simple: an ovoid space containing the island of Nantucket, a fair amount of ocean, and the Coast Guard's training ship, a three-masted windjammer called the Eagle, all vanish from our time and reappear in 1250 B.C. No explanation is given. Once there, of course, the islanders have to learn to adjust. The usual activities follow: growing food, rationing irreplaceable 20th century goods, recovering sustainable technologies (i.e., steam engines), instituting a government, and generally learning how to survive. A number of people go nuts, reasonably enough; a few simply fail to adjust and get themselves killed. Most buckle down, dig in, and survive.

The captain and crew of the Eagle figure largely in the story. To a ship like the Eagle the Atlantic isn't much of a barrier, and Nantucket soon sends an expedition to Britain to try to trade for grain and other supplies. It arrives at the beginning of an invasion; the Sun Folk, a proto-Celtic tribe, is moving in from the continent and attacking the Earth People, the Fiernan Boholugi. (That is, the Fir Bolg. Neat.) The Sun Folk keep slaves and view women as property; the Earth People do not. Naturally, the Nantucketers decide to support the Earth People.

Meanwhile, one of the Coast Guard officers, a charming and ambitious sociopath named Walker, decides that with a few 20th-century weapons, some text books, and some skill at fighting (skill he possesses), he might carve himself out a pretty nice empire somewhere in the vicinity of the Mediterranean. He enlists several like-minded islanders, and steals a bunch of stuff and a couple of large sail boats, killing several people in the process. The good guys are going to have to get him...and hope he doesn't recruit too strong an army first.

Thematically, the book is similar to Dies the Fire: decent, hardworking, honorable folks have to defend themselves against evil folks who downright enjoy exploiting folks weaker than they are.

All in all, not a bad tale, although as I say it is rather overshadowed by 1632--which, interestingly, was published three years later. I believe there are sequels, and I'll be keeping an eye out for them.

Now, having given the book its due I have a few additional comments to make, particular in light of the foofaraw that was launched by my review of Stirling's Dies the Fire. If all you're interested in is whether the book's an enjoyable read or not, feel free to stop reading here. If you're interested in intersections between the book and the on-going "Culture Wars" in American society, read on.

First, regarding Wicca. There's a scene in this book where a Wiccan, a woman who really believes that the Wiccan tradition dates back to antiquity, is brought face to face with some real pagan rituals...and loses her lunch, along with her illusions, if I recall correctly. It's a bit part (the woman is "on stage" only the once), but it appears that I can't really accuse Stirling of being soft on Wicca.

Second, Stirling really knows how to push my buttons. Captain Alston of the Coast Guard ship the Eagle is a closet lesbian. There are a number of romances in the book, but inarguably the most important one involves Alston and a young woman of the Earth People whom the captain rescues from slavery and frees. The young woman, Swindapa, is devoted to her savior, as who wouldn't be (the Sun Folk who enslaved her had also gang-raped her). In her culture there are few beds to go around, so you usually are sharing one; and it's considered impolite to share a bed with someone without offering them sex if they are so inclined. Male/female liaisons are the usual thing, but lesbian relationships are apparently not unheard of. So Swindapa is definitely off men, grateful to the captain, and happy to show it. Alston, on the other hand, is reluctant to out herself, and also reluctant to take advantage of Swindapa, for whom she feels responsible, but to whom she is strongly attracted.

I don't want to go into the whole question of gay rights and gay marriage here; it's a complex issue that generates quite a lot of heat and to which I'm unlikely to add very much light. If it's a matter that concerns you, you've probably heard most of the arguments before now anyway. It's enough to say that I think that gay sex is spiritually (and often physically) harmful to those involved, and that I am troubled (there's that word again) at seeing it presented as (at worst) a morally neutral choice when I think the reality is far otherwise. There's no reason why the characters in Stirling's books need follow my rules, of course. But because it troubles me, the whole subplot mars an otherwise enjoyable book. I'll hasten to add that it doesn't read as though Stirling's pushing any kind of agenda; he simply treats with dignity all his characters who exhibit decency and honor in areas he finds important.

I wouldn't have brought this up at all, except that I've got another of Stirling's books waiting in my queue; and I'm really wondering which button he's going to be leaning on in that one.


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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