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What a bleak, awful, hopeful, and beautiful book is Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006). It takes the post-apocalypse genre and pares it to the core, burning away almost all flora and fauna from the world, obscuring with ash earth and sky, sun and moon, making each day darker and colder than the last, and setting in that "dead to the root" wasteland a father and his young son to travel "the road" for days "uncounted and uncalendared" through mountain passes and ghost cities and past derelict houses and charred forests south to the coast. A handful of people yet exist in this world: bands of cannibal savages and, possibly, some "good guys" who manage to survive without eating people.
The descriptions of the landscape are spare, apocalyptic, and vivid, like when the father and son walk past cars once caught in a conflagration, "The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts." The ubiquitous ash. The fallen husks of dead trees and the weeds falling to dust. The bones of animals, birds, and people. The colorful memories that are dangerous to recall and the awful nightmares that cannot be recounted aloud.
The journey of the unnamed father and son through the "shoals of ash" is mesmerizing. The father believes the son to be a kind of angel or son of God, though that may be the wishful and hallucinatory effect of starvation and illness. "He knew only that the child was his warrant." The relationship between the father and his son is almost unbearably poignant. The father fears and hopes so much for his precious son in such an extinct world. The son is dependent upon his father for life and companionship and learns vital things from him and in turn guides his father with his pure moral heart. They interact with honesty and love, "each the other's world entire." From the start of the book the father is wracked by a blood-spraying cough, and he wastes and weakens as the journey proceeds, and yet he always finds the strength to lead his son down the road. As he thinks at one point: "No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy, I have you."
The moments when the son forces his father to partake in some miraculous treat like a can of coke are moving. The scenes when the father tries to prevent his son from seeing some horrible sight, like a headless baby roasted on a spit, because "the things you put into your head are there forever," are harrowing. The moments when the son is upset and the father tries to reassure him and make him talk are powerful. The scenes where the father meticulously searches a house or boat for salvage are suspenseful: he could unveil a hell (a cellar full of naked people waiting to be eaten) or a "tiny paradise" (a storeroom full of stacks cans of food waiting to be eaten).
The novel is dark, yet it expresses desperate love and hope: the bond between parent and child, the need to do what is necessary without complaint, the wonder of doing good without context or reward, and the strange beauty amid horror: "Human bodies. Sprawled in every attitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotted clothes. The small wad of burning paper drew down to a wisp of flame and then died out leaving a faint pattern for just a moment in the incandescence like the shape of a flower, a molten rose. Then all was dark again.”
McCarthy's book stands apart from other post-apocalypse novels in its severity, its beauty, its darkness, its isolated father-son relationship (most other genre works depict a community maintaining and or rebuilding some form of civilization), its lack of explanation (most other genre works explain their holocausts as nuclear and or viral) and its idiosyncratic style. McCarthy writes elliptical, biblical, poetic prose marked by short sentences without verbs and grounded with simple words and afire with unusual ones (like "gryke," "illucid," "entabled," and "discalced") and illuminated by unexpected similes, such that any "like" may be a lamppost for epiphany, whether ironic ("They wandered through the rooms like skeptical house buyers") or sacred ("All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them"). And the dialogue is laconic, repetitive, and precise, because accurate communication is a matter of life or death and because anything the father and son say may be their last words.
We're going to be okay, aren't we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
Because we're carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we're carrying the fire.
If there is a flaw in the novel, it may be that McCarthy doesn't seem to think much of women. The father and son have been abandoned by their wife/mother, who despaired and committed suicide: “I will not. I cannot.” And the man's memories of her are somehow unconvincing. This is a masculine book. But the man acts both father and mother for his son with great courage, resourcefulness, and tenderness.
Tom Stechschulte's reading of the novel is masterful: reading The Road as a book moved me, but listening to the audiobook made me cry.
I recommend The Road to parents or to people who want to imagine being parents, to people who like the post-apocalypse genre and condensed epic novels, to people who like style as much as story, and, of course, to fans of McCarthy.
Fyre (2013), the seventh and last book in Angie Sage's entertaining Septimus Heap series, enriched and disappointed me. The main story begins a short time after the events of the sixth book, Darke, during which Septimus and company managed to stop Merrin Meredith's Two-Faced Ring-guided Darke Domaine. Now Marcellus Pye, reinstated Castle Alchemist, is secretly restarting the great Fyre beneath the Castle for the first time since the Great Alchemie Disaster 500 years ago. ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand is keeping the dangerous Two-Faced Ring in a magically Sealed Cell as she waits for Marcellus to become ready to DeNature the artifact. The two Darke Warrior Wizards trapped in the Ring are threatening to escape to extinguish Princess Jenna's line. Marcia's Apprentice Septimus Heap is still equivocating between Alchemie and Magyk. Septimus' oldest brother Simon (now fully redeemed after his year in the Darke) and Lucy Gringe are getting married in a well-attended ceremony. Sarah Heap is feeling happy because for the first time all eight of her children are together, but also stressed because the gifts for Jenna's impending Coronation are piling up. Jenna's biological father Milo is working on a secret project, while her biological mother’s ghost is still waiting for the right time to Appear. Jenna is missing the easy relationship she had with the old Beetle, and, worse, is fearing that the Dragon Boat is dying. Aunt Zelda, the Keeper, is forgetting things, but luckily her Apprentice Wolf Boy is becoming ever more confident and capable. And the Wendron witches are still hoping to bag a trophy princess.
For the first part of the novel Sage lovingly tours the Castle (and its Palace and Wizard Tower) with her quirky characters, as if preparing herself and her readers to say good-bye to it all. Then, as in most of the books in the series, mind-boggling adult blunders lead to complications for her child heroes (now 14) to deal with. As in other books in the series, Sage introduces appealing new characters, in this case the Drummins, Alchemical salamander-dwarfs with shiny dark eyes, suckered digits, a complex system of burrows, a lyrical sign language, an affinity for Fyre, and the ability to hibernate for centuries when cold. The Fyre, which feeds on water and calms under coal, is a sublime creation: living, beautiful, powerful.
In a Sage-ian page-turning and humorous way, the story attempts to tie things up, but in this novel Sage also writes more sublime descriptions than in her other books, making it often quite wonderful and pleasurable to read. When Marcellus opens the sluice gate to pour water into the reservoir of the Fyre, when Marcia opens the Sealed Cell to show Septimus the Two-Faced Ring, when Jenna massages the heart of the Dragon Boat, when Septimus and Beetle gaze at the Wizard Tower at night, when Jenna holds out her hand for the ghost of her mother to touch, when Septimus senses the "quiet and purposeful process" of the living Fyre and sees its huge red eye, when the ten-foot tall Warrior Wizards in their iridescent green carapaces and Darke cloaks direct their red eye beams onto the surface of the Fyre, when Aunt Zelda goes into the forest with her storm petrol brother and leans against her large tree brother: all such moments create a vivid, new magical world. And Sage achieves this even when describing non-fantastic things: "One of those bright forest mornings, when the sunlight filtered down through the leaves, and danced across the forest floor like reflections on water."
Sage does occasionally yank the reader out of her fantasy world with jarringly inappropriate writing, as when she compares two hapless Heap uncles to slow motion pinballs, or when she has Marcia quote a person she really admires, Sherlock Holmes. But such moments are outnumbered by delightful and apt touches like this: "In the very center [of burning houses and shops] stood the Alchemie Chimney with a massive plume of black smoke belching from it, like a Witch Mother on a midnight moot conducting her acolytes as they danced around her." Such moments have ever been my favorite parts of the Septimus Heap series (elevating it above the Harry Potter books), and the times I have been disappointed by Sage's work have usually been when she neglects her numinous imagination for too much page-turning action.
It struck me in reading this last book that many rules regulate life in Sage's fantasy world: Queen Rules, Ghost Rules (e.g., an ExtraOrdinary Wizard Post-Living Handbook), Wizard Tower Code of Conduct, Wizard Induction Oath, Spell rules, and so on. And yet despite all the rules, in the Septimus Heap series (unlike Le Guin's Earthsea cycle or Butcher's Harry Dresden books) there is never any discussion about the nature of magic--what it is, where it comes from, how much derives from study and how much from innate gift, what happens to the world when it is used, etc.
The main thing that disappointed me in Fyre is Sage's under use or misuse of potentially interesting characters like the Darke Wizards, Merrin Meredith, Arthel Mella, Jim Knee, Queen Cerys, and ESPECIALLY poor Syra Syara and over use of uninteresting characters like the all-too Ordinary Apprentice Rose, whose interactions with Septimus ("I'll pick you up later?" "Yes.") and reactions to wonderful things like the Dragon Boat ("Wow. . . . That is just so . . . wow.") are banal.
Gerard Doyle, who capably reads books two through seven, finally nearly made me forget Allan Corduner (the superb reader of the first book); I've always liked his gruff Beetle, and really enjoyed his high-pitched Drummin voices.
Readers who like young adult magical fantasy stories, should like Sage's series and this concluding novel, which is full of original and vivid fantasy writing, humorous and moving moments, and plenty of restoration and renewal.
The opening line of Darke (2011), "It is a Darke and stormy night," recalls Bulwer-Lytton's infamous line while using a capital D, an extra e, and bold font to evoke a different Darke. Readers who have made it to this sixth book in Angie Sage's engaging young adult magical fantasy series about Septimus Heap know that the Darke is a selfish, evil use of magic opposed to the selfless, good kind called Magyk. This novel is both a journey into the Darke and an invasion of the Darke into the light.
As usual in Sage's books, adult blunders make plot complications for her young heroes. This one begins with ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand accidentally banishing the avuncular ghost of her predecessor Arthel Mella to the Darke Halls when she intentionally banishes the malevolent ghost of Tertius Fume. Still worse, Merrin Meredith, pimple-faced wearer of the Darke Two-Faced Ring, has been enabled by the obtuseness of Sarah and Silas Heap (biological parents of ExtraOrdinary Apprentice Septimus and foster parents of Princess Jenna) and by the oversight of Marcia (who has never bothered to deal with Merrin) to covertly reside for eighteen months in the Palace attic, where he has made a Darke Domaine. And tomorrow will be Septimus and Jenna's fourteenth birthdays, crucial landmarks in their lives: he will go on his Darke Week, officially to test his relationship with the Darke and unofficially to rescue Alther, while she will gain some new rules, responsibilities, and privileges. In addition to Jenna and Septimus, Sage gives key roles to Simon Heap (still trying to prove that he has left the Darke), Beetle (still trying to find a satisfying job), Stanley the Rat (still trying to run his Message Rat business while taking care of his four teenage ratlets), Marcia (still trying to protect the Castle), and Marcellus Pye (still trying to convince Marcia that Alchemie has a vital role to play with Magyk). Perhaps to make her plot manageable, she removes from it Jenna's biological father Milo, Septimus' jinnee Jim Knee, Snorri and her NightCat Ullr, and Wolf Boy and Aunt Zelda.
Sage writes plenty of great scenes in the novel: Beetle and Jenna visiting Gothyk Grotto, Septimus visiting the Room of DisEnchantment, Marcia setting up the Quarantine and Safety Shield around the Palace, Jenna telling Septimus that she'll keep her real Darke witch's cloak, Spit Fyre dueling a six-eyed and six-winged giant Darke Dragon, Septimus finding a clean little skeleton in the Darke Halls, and Beetle finding out about Wolf Boy's family. I am glad that FINALLY Sage is writing some real teenage feelings of resentment and jealousy between Beetle and Septimus.
And as usual she writes plenty of spicy lines, like "One princess is as bad as a dozen wizards" and "There goes your Coven, Jen." And plenty of vivid, magical descriptions, like: "As if on cue, a spurt of Darkenesse puffed in through the keyhole with such force that it looked as though it had been blown in with a pair of bellows," and "The air begin to buzz with Magyk once more. It was exhilarating, like walking through the aftermath of a storm with the air fresh and tingling and dusted with faint sparkles of light rain drifting in the breeze."
Audiobook reader Gerard Doyle continues to grow on me and does a fine job.
Notwithstanding all that, I found this book to be the least enjoyable of the series so far. It should, perhaps, be less charming and funny than the previous books, being about the Darke and all, but. . . To try to evoke suspense Sage often forces her characters into contrived and irritating arguments. Jenna and Septimus, Septimus and Simon, Sarah and Marcia, Marcia and Marcellus, Marcellus and Sarah, Marissa and Jenna, and so on argue noisily or lengthily when silence or time is vital. And to try to generate suspense Sage makes characters like Jenna, Marcia, Marcellus, Septimus, and Stanley briefly despair which, because we know they should know better, actually decreases suspense. And Sage too often makes her plot work by unpleasant or inconsistent character actions, as when Septimus is so preoccupied with his impending Darke Week that he doesn't take Jenna's bad feelings about the strange Palace attic seriously (after five books of strange feelings being confirmed and dangerous things happening, you'd expect him to take her concern seriously). And a personal kvetch: as an ailurophile, I dislike what happens to the Castle cats.
Finally, despite all the Darke stuff going on in the novel, I left it feeling not much wiser about the nature of the Darke and its relation to Magyk. There is said to be a delicate balance between the Darke and Magyk, but what practically does that mean? Is it that there is a neutral magic that becomes Darke or Magyk depending on how you use it? Or are they different types of magic deriving from different sources in the world? And is the goal to balance them evenly or to do Magyk mainly and Darke Art occasionally? And shouldn't things like using Darke Suspension Under Water spells or traveling the Darke Halls for hours and miles or being slashed with the talon of a Darke Dragon leave some lasting mark on you (as when the Nazgul's stabs Frodo)? Sage's main characters seem strangely unchanged after their walks on the Darke side.
Despite my complaints, the story is compelling and there are many great moments in Darke. I think that readers who have made it this far in the Septimus Heap series should read this one, too, though readers who haven't started the series should (of course) begin with the first, Magyk.
A Civil Campaign (1999), maybe the ninth space opera novel by Lois McMaster Bujold about Miles Vorkosigan, begins a short while after the events of the previous novel, Komarr (1998), during which Miles fell in love with Ekaterin Vorsoisson, an unhappily married woman, witnessed her become a widow in traumatic fashion, and solved his first case as Imperial Auditor. Now Miles and Ekaterin are back on their home world Barrayar, in its capitol Vorbarr Sultana. Having suffered through ten years of psychological spousal abuse, the widow has no interest in remarrying, so Miles initiates a campaign of covert courting: hire her to design a new public garden by his estate, appealing to her landscaping interests, helping her start a new career, and spending a lot of time with her. What could go wrong?
Into that plot, Bujold interweaves many other civil campaigns. Miles' clone-brother Mark and Kareen Koudelka, for instance, have just returned to hidebound, patriarchal Barrayar after a year as lovers on the advanced, anything goes Beta Colony. Will Kareen's family accept Mark as her potential husband? After all, he is a clone who was created and trained as a weapon to destroy Miles, and who is now the unstable manager of four, torture-created sub-personalities, Grunt, Gorge, Killer, and Howler. Will Kareen be able to find a way to be with Mark and to be herself on Barrayar? Still more. To Barrayar Mark has brought (bought?) Dr. Enrique Borgos, a nutty bio-chemist professor who breeds genetically modified butter bugs to eat any flora and regurgitate it as highly nutritious curd. Will Mark be able to turn this into a successful business? And Captain Ivan Vorpatril, Miles' unambitious cousin, is trying to avoid any difficult work while dreaming of reuniting with a former lover. Meanwhile, the progressive and conservative Barrayaran Counts are jockeying for power, as it has recently come to light that Count Rene Vorbretten is half Cetagandan (Cetaganda being a bitter enemy of Barrayar), while Lady Donna Voruttyer has been trying to find a way to succeed her recently deceased brother as Count when "The prick's always been the most important qualification for a Countship." All of these sub-plots occur in the context of the impending politically-charged marriage between Emperor Gregor of Barrayar and Dr. Laisa Toscane of Kommar.
The sub-title of the novel, "a Comedy of Biology and Manners," then, is quite apt. In addition to comical and moving romance on Barrayar, biology plays an amusing role, from the genetic engineering of the butter bugs to the changing cultural and social milieu on Barrayar (uterine replicators, sex changes, clones, and the like). Here be no epic battles involving fleets of star ships belonging to various alien and human civilizations. There is a suspenseful fracas in a parking area involving stun guns, a kick to the groin, a vibra-knife, and a bottle of liquid bandage, as well as a zany melee involving multiple tubs of butter bug curd, two foreign policemen, two spunky Koudelka daughters, one hunky undressed House Vorkosigan Armsman, and one gormless scientist.
As usual, Miles is fun to watch, being brilliant, energetic, charismatic, and, because of his dwarfish stature, overly driven and prone to finding himself in sticky situations from which he tries to extricate himself by "forward momentum," escalating impromptu bold moves and BS, though his talents may not work so well in his first courtship. Ekaterin is a good match for Miles: intelligent, creative, dignified, and excited to find her soul since the death of her husband.
As usual, Bujold writes many great lines:
--"The Countess was to obstacles as a laser canon was to flies."
--"So, hope staggered upright again, like a newly revived cryo-corpse, dizzied and squinting in the light."
--"Yes, if anyone was going to crawl around on the floor hunting bugs alongside Ekaterin, it would be him, dammit!"
--"Well, it could have been worse. I'm glad you didn't have him watch Hamlet."
--"Intimacy of the flesh seemed easy, after the far more terrifying intimacy of the mind."
As usual, Grover Gardner gives an engaging, no frills, spot on reading of a Miles Vorkosigan novel; I can't imagine any other reader doing it.
For all those good things, some things in A Civil Campaign are less good. The Barrayar aristocratic imperial system and Miles' use therein of his connections (like his war-hero parents Aral and Cordelia, Emperor friend Gregor, and former ImpSec boss Simon Ilyan) are a bit disconcerting. (A code card giving immediate comm link access to the Emperor is sure handy!) Although the book affectingly exposes the negative aspects of male dominated societies (where being female is "a legal disease"), I also wish it had more serious investigation of the motivations, implications, and ramifications of things like gender change and genetically engineered invader insect species. As much as I like watching Miles on his homeworld as it becomes less insular, feudal, and patriarchal and more "galactic," I miss his former mercenary entrepreneur life as Admiral Naismith away from Barrayar. And the climax of the novel relies too much on the too unsubtle behavior of a too obvious villain.
Finally, A Civil Campaign IS entertaining, witty, and character and culture driven space opera, one great, amusing scene after another (until, perhaps, the climax). Readers who would want to read Jane Austen doing romantic and political sf comedies would like this book.
If Mark Twain wrote science fiction, it might resemble Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s The Sirens of Titan (1959). The novel is narrated by someone living nearly a century after our own time of "gimcrack religions" and exploration of outer space at the expense of inner truth, an exploration that yields only "empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death." To illustrate what people were like before becoming able to find the meaning of life within themselves, the narrator tells a "true" story "from the Nightmare Ages," which took place between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression.
In the story, Winston Miles Rumfoord is a Newport, Rhode Island millionaire who, nine years ago in an act of upper class "gallantry and style," accompanied only by his dog Kazak ("the Hound of Space") flew his private spaceship into a "chrono-synclastic infundibulum" near Mars. As a result, master and dog became scattered through space and time as wave phenomena, pulsing from the Sun to Betelgeuse in a spiral that overlaps the earth for a few minutes every fifty-nine days. In addition to no longer being "punctual" (that is, no longer existing moment to moment like normal life in the universe), Rumfoord has become able to read minds and see the future (because for someone like him everything that has ever happened, will happen, and vice versa). During one of his "materializations" on earth, Rumfoord gives some unpleasant news to the richest man in America, Malachai Constant: in the future he will mate with Rumfoord's wife Beatrice on Mars, producing a son called Chrono, and will end up living on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Needless to say, neither Beatrice (a woman who strives to remain cleanly aloof from life) nor Malachai (a hedonistic womanizer who because his name means messenger expects to bear a message from God to someone equally distinguished) want to make a baby together on Mars! But will they be able to do anything to avoid Rumfoord's future? And could Rumfoord be masterminding a "series of accidents" to bring about that future? And if so, to what end? For that matter, what is the purpose, if any, of life?
The Sirens of Titan is a strange novel: comic, tragic, horrible, beautiful, silly, philosophical. . . Although probably the meaning of life comes down to "some people are lucky and some are not," although probably we are just victims of a series of accidents as we go through our lives, although, who knows, perhaps an ultra-advanced civilization of machines 150,000 lightyears away from earth has been warping every human action in history, although surely the universe is "not schemed in mercy," and although, generally speaking, humanity "is a scummy thing" (people being superstitious, selfish, violent, and ignorant), Vonnegut, Jr.'s novel does offer some truths to cling to: it's better to be used by somebody than not to be used by somebody, and human life has a purpose: "to love whoever is around to be loved." Despite its mockery of humankind (particularly its religious, martial, and business aspects), Vonnegut Jr.'s novel is also infused with his love of "lucky" losers (like Malachai, Beatrice, Boaz, Salo, and even Rumfoord), with his fertile imagination (like the machines of Tralfamadore, the harmoniums of Mercury, and the bluebirds of Titan) and with his knack for witty, vivid description, like the following:
"Bobby Denton spitted his audience on a bright and loving gaze, and proceeded to roast it whole over the coals of its own iniquity."
"There was no sign in the face of any intermediate stages in the aging process, no hint of the man of thirty or forty or fifty who had been left behind. Only adolescence and the age of sixty were represented. It was as though a seventeen-year-old had been withered and bleached by a blast of heat."
"The Wilburhampton Hotel was a frumpish, three-story Tudor structure across the street from the Magnum Opus Building, standing in relation to that building like an ummade bed at the feet of the Archangel Gabriel."
"The child's hair was jet black, bristly--and the black bristles grew in a violently counter-clockwise swirl. . . . And his eyes were luminous under their black-thatched eaves. They glowed with an unshared rage."
Jay Snyder reads the audiobook well, especially Rumfoord's "genial and yodeling" voice and that of Salo, the machine from Tralfamadore.
The Sirens of Titan is science fiction, but, despite the "appallingly beautiful" rings of Saturn ("dazzling bands . . . forty thousand miles across and scarcely thicker than a razor blade"), the Tralfamadorians, the harmoniums, an interplanetary war, and a 36-million-year space voyage mission, it is about exploring the human mind more than about exploring outer space. As Constant puts it (in reference to the shrines of Saturn and its moons made by his son Chrono), "It was all so sad. But it was all so beautiful, too."
The title character of Laurence Sterne's unique classic The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) was ill-conceived when his mother asked his father an ill-timed question (“Did you wind the clock?”), which led to Tristram's “Homunculus” fretting inside the womb without his full compliment of animal spirits for nine months, which led to his becoming the “perpetual sport of fortune,” a prey to "a thousand weaknesses both of body and mind, which no skill of the physician or the philosopher could ever afterwards have set thoroughly to rights." Best not to mention the accidents attendant on his delivery, christening, and circumcision! In nine books and umpteen chapters (some consisting of a single sentence), Tristram uses the story of his unfortunate begetting and birthing as an excuse to entertain us with spicy digressions, irreverent opinions, and rich character studies, which, told with a lively wit and a deep humanity, evoke eight parts mirth and two parts pathos so as to relieve us from the hard life we must live in "this scurvy and disastrous world of ours."
Tristram says that in writing he’ll not confine himself "to any man's rules that ever lived," because, after all, rules should follow a man and not vice versa. He writes a chapter on chapters, a digression on digressions, a preface on prefaces, a dedication on dedications, and, I suppose, a novel on novels. He "writes" blank spaces, black pages, marbled pages, blank chapters ("I look upon a chapter which has only nothing in it with respect"), and a torn out chapter. He archly conceals risque matters behind asterisks and dashes and draws a set of squiggly lines representing the "progressive digressive" plots of his books before drawing a perfectly straight one that he (falsely) promises will structure the next book as "the path-way for Christians to walk in!" He tells his reader, “Do anything, only keep your temper.” It's hard to lose it with Tristram, "child of misfortune," because he maintains a "just balance betwixt wisdom and folly" in writing his "Shandyian book," believing "That every time a man smiles--but much more so when he laughs--it adds something to this Fragment of Life."
Through the follies, wisdoms, and kindnesses of his father and uncle and their cronies, Tristram parodies and illuminates philosophy, psychology, politics, war, love, health, education, procreation, writing, story-telling, and so on. The characters are rounded and winning caricatures: Tristram's whimsical, unpredictable, philosophical, frustrated father; his benignant, humane, groin-wounded, Lillabullero-whistling, hobbyhorse-riding Uncle Toby; his long-suffering, normal mother (who escapes her husband's intellectual foibles by acquiescing to them); the loyal, commonsensical, advice-giving Corporal Trim; and the humane, waggish "enemy of the affectation of gravity" Parson Yorick (descended indeed from THAT Yorick). Even that "whoreson" of a gossiping and none-too-competent Doctor Slop and his nemesis the maid Susannah are fun to encounter. (In effect, all the characters ARE Tristram, who, as a character is absent from his own story.) The novel "ends" when Uncle Toby's climactic "amours" with the Widow Wadman are interrupted by a digression about Tristram's father's bull and a servant's cow.
Although we do not learn much about matters like Tristram's life after infancy, the fate of his elder brother Bobby, or the identity of his "Dear, Dear Jenny," we do learn amusingly much about knots, noses, eyes, whiskers, britches, chestnuts, conscience, in utero baptism, love, learning, and the like. There are comic erotic moments to enjoy, like a Christian knee rub and a sausage-making marriage proposal. Even when catching himself babbling, Tristram entertains: "But this is neither here nor there--why do I mention it?--Ask my pen,--it governs me,--I govern not it." And of course he writes many witty lines about life:
--An eye is for all the world exactly like a cannon, in this respect; That it is not so much the eye or the cannon, in themselves, as it is the carriage of the eye--and the carriage of the cannon, by which both the one and the other are enabled to do so much execution.
--'It is with Love as with Cuckoldom'--the suffering party is at least the third, but generally the last in the house who knows any thing about the matter.
--What a jovial and a merry world would this be, may it please your worships, but for that inextricable labyrinth of debts, cares, woes, want, grief, discontent, melancholy, large jointures, impositions, and lies!
Tristram Shandy is an encyclopedic novel, as is evidenced by its incorporation of many branches of knowledge and its many lists of everything from Roman footwear, scholarly child prodigies, excommunicating curses, and auxiliary verb conjugations to apothecary treatments for illnesses, elements of fortifications, attributes of love, and traits of tutors. Such pleasurable lists, along with the rich style, the bracing irreverence, the fertile imagination, the comedy and tragedy of life, and the sheer pleasure of the writing so evident in the reading, all prefigure works like Moby-Dick and Ulysses.
With his appealing voice and manner, Peter Barker gives a fantastic reading of the novel, deftly handling pauses and emphases, moments of incomprehensible whispering when Sterne hides juicy bits with asterisks, French and Latin, and even things like this: "Ptr...r...r...ing--twing--twang--prut--trut--'tis a cursed bad fiddle." Barker audibly breathes and turns pages, but such sounds only enhance the conversational book, as if we were listening to a witty, creative, and live man progressively digress.
Because much of the pleasure of Tristram Shandy derives from Sterne's typographical play and 18th-century punctuation, while listening to the audiobook it might help to have the actual book handy.
People interested in comic digressive epics or unique classics should read Tristram Shandy; my only regret is that I waited to do so until after my father, who loved Sterne's novel, died.
Syren (2009), the fifth book in Angie Sage's entertaining and magical Septimus Heap series, begins about two days after the end of the fourth one, Queste. While Beetle, Jenna, Nicko, Snorri, and Ullr are in the far Trading Post being entertained on the Cerys, the splendid ship belonging to Jenna's biological father Milo Banda, Septimus is getting ready to fly there on his dragon Spit Fyre to pick them up. Newly promoted to Senior Apprentice of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand, the boy would like to dramatically finish his Queste by flying his long-lost older brother Nicko home to their parents at the Castle. As usual in Sage's books, things don't go quite according to plan. As Spit Fyre and Septimus are flying over a set of seven beautiful islands en route to the Trading Post to pick up his friends, the boy falls into a half-dreaming state and hears, perhaps, someone call his name. And mightn't some people prefer a leisurely ship voyage to an uncomfortable dragon flight? And just what's inside the old chest that Milo has secretly bought and sealed in the hold of the Cerys? Milo proudly tells Jenna that the contents of the chest will keep her safe in the Palace forever. Is Milo yet another of Sage's well-meaning but ignorant, feckless, obtuse, and otherwise flawed adults who cause so much trouble to her kid characters?
Meanwhile, other characters are engaged in sub-plots of their own. Wolf Boy is on an initiation mission to the Port Witches' Coven, which, if he survives, should make him Aunt Zelda's Apprentice Keeper (the first boy to ever be one). What will happen when Wolf Boy asks the Witches to let him feed the Darke, tentacled Grim? Simon Heap is missing Lucy Gringe, who has vanished in the port; has she dumped him for another boy? Merrin Meredith, AKA Daniel Hunter, AKA Septimus Heap, is still lurking about the Palace, gorging on licorice snakes and banana bears, growing ever more greasy haired, pimply, and obnoxious, and performing none too reliably at his new job in the Manuscriptorium. Will he learn a lesson about the dangers of shaking down little boys and opening their fancy scent bottles? Aboard the large, black fishing boat the Marauder, the skipper Theodophilus Fortitude Fry (ex-ship wrecker, ex-pirate) and his two thuggish hirelings the Twin Crows (one fat, one thin, both identical) are up to something shady. Is the rumor going round that Fry was plain Joe Grub until he came into some money by selling himself to become a ghost's BondsMan true? Speaking of ghosts, Tertius Fume, "no friend of the Castle," is suspiciously absent; can he be up to some new nefarious scheme?
Sage's unpredictable plot will have all those characters becoming involved with one another in one way or another, along with Syrah Syara, a slim, 500-year old former Senior Apprentice; Jim Knee, a jinnii with an outre hat; Barney Pot, a spunky little terrier of a boy; Jakey Fry, the lonely son of the unpleasant skipper; Miarr, a cat-man lighthouse keeper; and Syren, an ancient Possession Wraith. In this book, even the scream-prone Lucy Gringe becomes an interesting and capable character: "a smarty-pants boy and a tantrum-prone cat-man were not going to stop her from getting even with two murderous thugs and their skipper."
This novel may have fewer rich descriptions and more exciting action than Physik and Queste. And Sage is still apt to suddenly do something inconsistent or unconvincing with a character, as when she has Wolf Boy, who grew up wild with wolverines in the forest and who loves living in the Marram Marshes with all their creatures, wax squeamish about having to grab a live toad door knocker on the witches' door. And she needlessly attempts to evoke suspense by making Miarr's submarine have to launch in 60 seconds as Wolf Boy and Lucy equivocate over whether or not to get in it. And the climax suffers a bit from Deus Ex Machina. And Sage still, I think, overuses fairy tale superlatives like "the longest corridor Barney had ever seen."
All that said, there is plenty of fine and fun writing here. Cool descriptions like "She heard the loud swoosh of a dragon's wing, a noise not unlike the flapping of a hundred striped tents full of ghosts being blown away in a ferocious gale." Nifty Young Army rhymed sayings that Septimus and Wolf Boy (formerly Boy 412 and Boy 409) mouth to irk Jenna, like "Use your head or you are dead." And Jim Knee's mock formal and grand addresses to Septimus, like "O Excitable (or Exigent or Desperate or Displeased etc.) One" are funny. And Sage is good at writing unpredictable plots in which her appealing characters and her repulsive characters entertainingly collide. Syren also introduces some sf elements: a submarine, a palm-activated elevator, and a long-vanished culture from the Beyond based on science and technology rather than Magyk.
Reader Gerard Doyle does fine. I particularly like his cat-man Miarr, his Marcia in high-dudgeon, his lilting Snorri, and his Indian or Pakistani Jim Knee.
Probably my favorite book in the series so far has been the third, Physik, and the fourth, Queste has many more impressive descriptions than Syren, but this book has its moments: the unorthodox dance (swinging his arms like a windmill in a gale) that skipper Fry does when trying to locate some invisible interlopers on the deck of a ship; the uncanny clockwork dance that Syrah does when possessed; the view from inside Miarr's Red Capsule of the eerie undersea world; the reading of Syrah-Syren's diary when Jenna feels "like I watched someone being murdered"; Jakey Fry yearning to join the nighttime silhouettes of kids playing on an island. Fans of young adult magic-fantasy should give Sage's series a try.
The plot of Queste (2008), Angie Sage's fourth novel in her seven-book Septimus Heap series, begins about six months after the events of the third book, Physik, which ended with Septimus and Princess Jenna returning to their present without their brother Nicko and his increasingly significant other Snorri Snorrelssen, who remained trapped 500 years in the past. Septimus has been trying to get the 500-year-old Alchemist Marcellus Pye (who, thanks to the tincture of eternal youth Septimus made for him, now appears to be a handsome thirty-year old man with a "funny haircut") to remember what Nicko and Snorri learned 500 years ago about the House of Foryx, "the place where all times do meet." Jenna wants to find the House so she can save Nicko, while Septimus' father Silas wants to search for the boy in the forest by the Castle. The oldest of the seven Heap sons, Simon, who went bad in the second book of the series and is now living with Lucy Gringe, wants to leave the Darke and return to the Castle. The ghost of the first Chief Hermetic Scribe, Tertius Fume, seeks to foment trouble for Marcia Overstrand (ExtraOrdinary Wizard and Septimus' master), while Merrin Meredith (the Darke Wizard Dom Daniels' former apprentice who thought he was Septimus for ten years) seeks to Darken the Destiny of Septimus. When Fume and Merrin make a deal, the titular Queste kicks in, connecting the others. Originally supposed to be a reward for outstanding Apprentices, the Queste is a curse, for none of the twenty Apprentices to attempt it over the centuries has ever returned. Septimus, at twelve only halfway through his apprenticeship, tries his best to avoid becoming the twenty-first to embark on the Queste.
As in each Septimus book so far, in this one Sage introduces appealing new characters, especially the expert Conservation, Preservation and Protection Scribe Ephaniah Grebe, who works in the Manuscriptorium's network of basement cellars and lives there away from other people because he is at least half-rat, while developing old characters, especially Merrin Meredith, who discovers the pleasures of freedom, power, pseudonyms, and candy and is an entertainingly repulsive anti-Septimus. Ephaniah and Merrin both have moments alone at night before the beautiful Castle lights, realizing that they represent "normal" people living without any awareness of being watched by an outsider. As for Septimus, although he is improving his magykal abilities, his ten years as Boy 412 in the fascist Young Army are still in his blood, he feels excluded when Jenna speaks nostalgically of her childhood in the warm happy Heap family, and he is coming to believe that he'd rather be a physician than a wizard.
I'm getting used to Gerard Doyle as reader of the Septimus audiobooks; his voice and style do enhance the story. He does a fine gruff, good-natured Beetle and a convincing Ullr meow. I noticed but one mistake, when he reads "Marcellus fixed her gaze on Septimus" and it should be "Marcia."
Sage freshly treats the tired fantasy quest, delaying its actual start for nearly thirty chapters while subtly showing that in a sense it began in the prologue (if not before), and playing with quests and free will, adventure, and change. And she again in this novel interestingly explores time. And she writes many rich descriptions to magically vivify her fantasy world:
--"Marcia breathed in the smell of old leather, decayed spells and paper dust."
--"As the panther slept, Ephaniah saw the orange tip on his tail expand and grow, the bright color traveling across the creature like the sun chasing away the shadows."
--"Far away to the left they could just make out the spindly outline of a structure leaping high into the air and disappearing into the fog. It looked beautiful--a delicate tracery of fine lines like a spider web suspended in space. And then the fog closed over it once more and it was gone."
--"They linked arms and together they stepped into the slow, muggy vortex of candle smoke and time."
Sage also writes many comical encounter scenes (usually involving Merrin), as well as many witty and memorable lines:
--"She looked like an exotic bird roosting with a troupe of scruffy sparrows."
--". . . just when she needed a practitioner of Darke Magyk, he had decided to reform."
--"You are no longer on the donkey cart of Time, forever trundling onward."
The occasional playful references to our world (e.g., "Gothyk" fashion trinkets and romance novels) are all right, but the many Gross Foods (e.g., Ma Custard's licorice snakes, slug sherbet, and spider floss, Stanley the rat's meal of old shepherd's pie topped with crunchy toenail clippings, and Silas' witches' breakfast of cereal and caterpillars) curry too much kid reader favor. And Sage overuses superlatives: e.g., "the loudest clatter," "the pointiest toes," "the most beautiful sled," "the smoothest ice," "the tallest trees," "the strangest place," "the deepest chasm," "the longest walk" he/she had ever heard/seen etc.
Although I can accept things like Jenna's biological father Milo Banda being absent for two straight novels, because Sage likes having her kids challenge difficulties on their own, Queste has a few too many unpleasant or unconvincing character actions that smack of plot contrivance: Jilly Djinn is way too obtuse; a ghost like Tertius Fume would never be given an important post; Jenna and Beetle would try to tell someone about Fume and Merrin; Sep wouldn't conceal the Questing Stone; Jenna wouldn't be so down on Snorri or dense about Ephaniah being Inhabited; etc.
Sage's often rich and magical style makes up for most of my kvetches, and people who like the first three Septimus Heap books would probably like this one.
The third entry in Angie Sage's seven-book Sepimus Heap series, Physik (2007), begins with Septimus' feckless father Silas the Ordinary Wizard and his coarse "friend" Gringe the North Gate Gatekeeper (two of the many fallible adults whose mistakes make life interesting for Sage's child heroes and readers) "UnSealing" a Sealed room in the palace attic so that Silas may keep safe there his prized colony of sentient board game counters. By opening the Sealed room, the clueless men release two malevolent Substantial Spirits, the ghost of the wonderfully named Etheldredda the Awful, who has been waiting with her pointy chin, pointy ears, pointy shoes, and disapproving expression for 500 years to become Castle Queen again, this time forever, which may involve getting rid of any troublesome princesses in her way, and the ghost of her pet Aie-Aie, a red-eyed, snake-tailed, single-toothed creature with a penchant for spreading disease. Thus begins an exciting and unpredictable plot of multiple point of view characters and two time streams, one in the present and one 500 years in the past.
Sage introduces neat new characters, like the 14-year-old Hanseatic League Northern Trader Snorri Snorrelssen, who's come to the Castle of the Small Wet Country Across the Sea for the first time, partly in search of the ghost of her father. Snorri is great, with her attractive Scandinavian lilt, Spirit-Seer abilities, spunk ("No one told Snorri Snorrelssen what to do"), "white-blond hair," "translucent blue eyes" (Sage's fantasy world is quite white), and feline protector Ullr, a small orange cat by day and a powerful black panther by night. And the Last Alchemist Marcellus Pye, a selfish, decrepit, and senile 500-year-old who only breathes once every ten minutes and shuffles around under the moat at night looking for gold coins, is creepy and sympathetic.
Sage develops former characters in neat ways, too, like Uncle Alther and Alice Nettles, whose cross-existence romance is wistful and sweet. She does a bit more with the ghost of Jenna's mother, the assassinated Castle Queen, who is still not ready to Appear before her daughter. Spit Fyre, Septimus' pet dragon, is growing apace, needing more food, producing more droppings (and burps, farts, and snot, Sage indulging the child reader's sense of potty humor), and learning how to ignite his gassy breath. Sage's protagonist Septimus Heap, seventh son of a seventh son, the Apprentice to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Marcia Overstrand, grows, too. He is covertly interested in Physik, which Marcia believes is too close to the dodgy (if not Darke) Alchemy. In this novel the boy will learn everything he ever wanted to know about such subjects, in addition to Time.
Sage interestingly plays with time: "Time Glasses" through which people may step (or jump or fall) into "the liquid cold of time" and end up elsewhen; the vertiginous and identity-threatening aspects of suddenly finding oneself in the distant past; and the debilitating effects of living forever without youth. She also makes explicit the Rules of Ghosthood. Spirits must stay for one year and a day in the same place where they died, after which they may move around, but only to places they visited when alive. They may only be seen by people they choose to Appear before. And although they may pass through anything or anyone and vice versa, they intensely dislike the nauseating experience.
Sage writes a lot of witty lines (especially in context), like: "Ghosts must put up with the bad habits of the living," and "Even Alchemy Scribes had to sleep some time." And she writes many vivid and evocative descriptions (Sage's writing is more magical to me than Rowling's):
--"The barge was decked out in flags that fluttered in a wind that had died long ago."
--". . . the lingering smells of decaying spells …"
--"The low yellow stone building was ablaze with light, its wide lawns spread out before it with their fresh snowfall like a crisp white cook's apron."
--". . . there were things--soft, squishy things--floating in the water; he could feel the ends of his oars touching them."
Such rich writing outweighs Sage's few missteps, like similes whose anachronistic vehicles violate her fantasy world, as when Spit Fyre moves his tail back and forth "like a great windshield wiper," or as when Etheldredda's voice "has the penetrating quality of a dentist's drill."
Sage writes an archaic style to estrange the Castle of the past from her characters and readers. Although some of it sounds dodgy, like "Now, hie thee to the Great Gates, thee to the stables and thou, fools, take thy great flat feet to the river" (thee, thou, and thy should maybe be for singular cases), it often sounds fine, like "Whereupon Mary didst wail, like the pigs do wail when they see the meat cook's cleaver."
The reader Gerard Doyle is good, especially with Snorri's winning accent, Etheldredda's nasty voice, and Ullr's orange meow, but I still prefer the reader of the first book in the series, Magyk, because Doyle tends to put too much stressed out whining in the voices of the kids. This audiobook includes Sage's fun epilogue, "Things You Might Like to Know More About," to recount the fates or backgrounds of several characters.
Readers like me who were put off by the manufactured action and unpleasant character development and lack of consistency and charm of the second book, Flyte, should try this third one, because Physik is excellent. Moments like Jenna rescuing a plucked duckling from a scalding orange sauce and later falling asleep with it are charming; moments like Septimus walking into the Great Hall of the Wizard's Tower 500 years ago and deceiving himself that he's in his own time are moving. Readers who like imaginative and humorous YA magical fantasy with a Darke streak should enjoy Physik and the series in general.
The alien, looking like a giant spider and speaking English stereophonically out of his two leg-mouths, arrives at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) in Toronto and asks to see a paleontologist. The alien explains to Dr. Thomas Jericho that his name is Hollus, that he is a Forhilnor from the third planet of the star Beta Hydri, and that he came to the museum to study earth fossils like the ROM's current special exhibit of the Burgess Shale fossils from the Cambrian period. Hollus is "a visiting scholar" traveling through space with a handful of fellow scientists and seeking intelligent species on other worlds, not to prove the existence of god (which they've already done to their satisfaction), but to find out why he/she/it has been tinkering with sentient life forms in the universe.
Hollus shares plenty of "evidence" for the existence of god. The fact that the five mass extinctions of species in earth's history have occurred on Hollus' world and that of the Wreed, another sentient species the Forhilnors encountered before arriving at earth, all at the same relative times in the histories of their worlds, is too unlikely to be coincidental. Moreover, each of five forces (gravitation, electromagnetism, weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, and repulsion over distance, the fifth one that humanity has not yet discovered) is necessary just as it is for stars, planets, and life to exist. Hollus tells Jericho that the chances of the chain of parameters all happening just right in just the right order are less likely than winning the lottery every day for a century. So someone has fine-tuned the universe. Indeed, Hollus has trouble understanding why Jericho is so stubbornly set in his atheism. That said, the Forhilnor believe that god takes no interest in the doings of any particular individual, so they have no religion and do not pray.
The novel consists of Jericho's first person journal covering his time spent with Hollus discussing things like the history of the universe, evolution, life, and the existence of a "master designer." Into this Jericho interweaves his relationships with his wife, adopted son, and fossils in the context of his treatment for terminal lung cancer. Into all this Sawyer (or whoever is editing Jericho's journal into the book we're reading) introduces a pair of fundamentalist Christian abortion clinic bombers who would like to introduce the aliens to the Son of God: "The aliens may believe in God, but they haven't yet found Christ."
Calculating God is a novel of ideas. For one thing, there is the conundrum as to why sentient species in the universe at a certain technological stage of development tend to destroy themselves or abandon their home worlds. For another, the Wreed have no concept of mathematics because they have 23 fingers, a prime number, unlike the human ten and the Forhilnor six. The Wreed believe that God has been calculating the future of each individual in the universe by photons, like playing chess several moves ahead, spend half of their lives trying to communicate with him/her/it, and base their morality on intuition rather than on logic. They also believe that because cancer is part of the fabric of life in the universe, it must be part of God's plan, whatever that is.
But Calculating God is more than a debate between designers and evolutionists and more than a tear-jerking cancer story, because it packs plenty of humor. Sawyer satirizes the dumbing down of contemporary culture via the ROM, which has become ever more "user-friendly," to the degree that the museum is promoted as being "run by an eight-year old," which means closing the planetarium, producing Star Trek events, and making hands-on displays. More comically, Hollus's experience with American TV shows about aliens leads him to appear on earth as a holographic projection while his real body remains safely aboard the Forhilnor star ship, to joke about not capturing humans for anal probing, and to humorously prevent a pair of Canadian FBI equivalents from taking him into custody for interrogation etc. Also amusing are Jericho's many popular culture references: The Day the Earth Stood Still, X-files, Star Trek, Star Wars, Inherit the Wind, and so on.
In his preface, Sawyer mentions that his novel has upset both atheist evolutionists and fundamentalist creationists, and I can see why that is. His god-believing advanced alien species whose worlds and DNA share so much with earth and humanity may seem like too much designer deck-stacking, while his exposure of Stephen J. Gould's theory of evolution by "punctuated equilibria" as a slick play on language may seem off-putting, and his focusing on "intelligent" life forms to prove intelligent design may seem exclusive. On the other side, devout Christians may not want to be linked to clinic-bombing, museum-hating ignoramuses, and may not appreciate Sawyer setting up "god" as a super alien without any connection to Jesus. Finally, while I enjoy the play of ideas in the book and like Hollus and his relationship with Jericho, I feel that Sawyer spends too much time on the crazy creationists plot strand, which at one point turns Jericho's journal into a suspense-action movie.
Jonathan Davis gives his usual professional and appealing reading of the novel, doing cool alien voices (the Wreeds' voice via computer translator is particularly neat).
Calculating God does what good sf does, explore what it means to be human (here, to be fragile), and it has interesting things to say about language, morality, and love. People who like Star Maker and Childhood's End would probably like this book (though those books are more affecting and less humorous).
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