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Listening to Charlton Griffin's reading of Richmond Lattimore's translation of The Iliad was a wonderful experience.
Griffin is good at modifying the pitch and tone of his voice to evoke the different genders and ages and moods and agendas of the various characters. He brings the epic to life. He even makes fascinating the 90-minute introduction by scholar Herbert J. Muller. And the sound effects (ravens cawing over a battlefield) and Greek mood music introducing and concluding the 24 books of the epic immersed me in its world.
As for Homer's story, an epic focused on a short slice of a long war, a tragedy with plenty of humor, it is rewardingly rich, depicting the appalling heroism and horror of war, the full range of human nature (from bravery to cowardice, brutality to mercy, destruction to creation, and hatred to love), the richness of ancient Greek culture, the pettiness and power of the gods, and the mortality and wonder of life. Among the most impressive moments are Hector's meeting with his wife and baby before going out to fight, Hephaestus' crafting of a shield with the heavens and earth and all of human endeavor animated upon it, and Achilles' inability to embrace the ghost of Patroclus in a dream. I hope the following quotation will give an idea of the excellence of Lattimore's translation and the depth of Homer's vision:
As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity,
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.
In conclusion, I thoroughly savored this audio version of The Iliad, often smiling with appreciation for Homer's story, Lattimore's translation, and Griffin's reading. I highly recommend it.
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).
In late 12th-century England the wounds of the Norman Conquest are still raw. The victorious Normans are scorning the vanquished Saxons as bestial bumpkins (“Saxon porkers”), while the Saxons are resenting the Normans as interloping despots and still hoping if not scheming to throw off their “feudal chains.” After the failed Third Crusade, King Richard Lionheart has been imprisoned in Austria, leaving his venial brother Prince John ruling in his stead, giving the Norman lords free reign to rob, rape, and dispossess the Saxons. The “far more manly and expressive” Anglo Saxon tongue is limited to the oppressed class and has gradually merged with French to produce English, though the Normans continue ruling in French. Both Normans and Saxons hate and persecute the Jews, whose special history, culture, and nationless state confine them to finance and medicine, earning them more hatred and persecution for usury and “witchcraft.”
In this context of intercultural conflict Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel of medieval chivalry and romance, Ivanhoe (1820), opens in a Yorkshire forest with a comical pair of Saxons, a swineherd called Gurth and a fool called Wamba, kvetching about the fact that Saxon swine and oxen become Norman pork and beef, when a formidable party of Normans appears, led by the Epicurean voluptuary Prior Aymer and the scar-faced, haughty Templar commander Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, freshly back from Palestine, where he is reputed to have killed 300 infidels. When the Normans demand directions to Rotherwood, the seat of the local franklin Cedric the Saxon (Gurth and Wamba's master), the fool sends them off on a false trail. Fortunately for the Normans (and for Scott's plot), they run into a palmer who leads them to Rotherwood, where Scott depicts Cedric's proud refusal to conform or bend to Norman customs or rule, the beauty of his ward, Rowena (the last descendent of King Alfred), the prejudice against the Jewish money lender Isaac of York, de Bois-Guilbert's hatred of Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Cedric's disowned and banished son), and the mysterious Palmer's detailed knowledge of Ivanhoe.
Then follows a rousing, humorous, and gripping story that presents a large set of interesting historical and fictional male and female characters, evokes a convincing and rich vision of a past period and place, depicts a variety of exciting action (jousts, melees, sieges, ambushes, kidnappings, etc.) with a variety of narrative strategies (straightforward real-time, after-the-fact summary, eye-witness play-by-play, etc.), pays more than lip service to pacifism, and explores bigotry and tolerance among different cultures and classes of people.
Scott's "villains" are interesting. From the conflicted dark star de Bois-Guilbert to even relatively minor characters like the fanatical Grand Master of the Templars and the cruel lord Front-de-Boeuf, they are depicted more complexly than they would be in novels by lesser writers. In fact, despite giving his name to the novel, Ivanhoe is rarely on stage with his own point of view and remains something of a cardboard, battle-eating, melee-breathing, glory-seeking chivalrous prig compared to the other more complex figures.
Scott writes pithy lines: "When do you ever find Folly separated from Valour?" He incorporates neat songs, of romantic love, of fraternal drinking, of doom cursing, of comic widow courting, of roving friars, and more. He begins each chapter with apt epigraphs from Chaucer, Pope, Homer, Shakespeare etc. He often addresses the reader: "Our history must needs retrograde for the space of a few pages, to inform the reader of certain passages material to his understanding." Despite frequent reversed order in syntax and elision of the verb "to do" ("What means this?" and "I know not!" etc.) and archaic expressions ("Go thee thither" and "Laugh if ye list" etc.), Scott's prose in its early 19th and late 12th-century contexts feels natural and reads easily. That said, a few of his many extended descriptions of architecture, attire, physiognomy, and character, though vivid and well-written, seem too exhaustively detailed.
I was surprised by how funny Scott's novel is, particularly in any scene involving Wamba the Fool or the Clerk of Copenhurst (aka Friar Tuck). Perhaps the scenes involving Isaac of York are more uncomfortable than funny because Scott often makes Isaac haggle a bit too much during life and death crises. He also perhaps strives too hard for comedy relief with a late, excrescent passage about a resurrection, which, although quite funny, makes the novel perhaps forty pages longer than it had to be. But Ivanhoe made me chuckle far more than groan.
There are inaccuracies in Scott's historical depiction. For instance, his Richard speaks fluent English in addition to French, when really he spoke only French, and seems concerned about the state of England (being "no stranger to the customs of his English subjects"), when really he just saw the country as a source of revenue for his foreign wars. But overall Scott succeeds in evoking a believable and interesting historical period far removed from the present of his writing,
Michael Page does an outstanding job reading the novel, making it more natural, lively, and exciting. This audiobook, however, lacks Scott's many interesting historical and cultural notes, as well as the “Dedicatory Epistle” by his pseudonymous alter-ego Laurence Templeton to his fictional friend Dr. Dryasdust explaining why he wrote a historical novel set in the late 12th century.
All in all Ivanhoe deserves its classic status and should be read by fans of chivalry, historical romances, Robin Hood, and the middle ages.
On the fourth day of February a "stranger [falls] out of infinity into Iping Village" in the Sussex countryside and rents a room at the local inn. His body swathed in clothes, his face wrapped in white bandages, his eyes hidden behind a pair of big blue spectacles, he cuts a bizarre figure. The local "yokels" speculate that he must have suffered some kind of accident. Or that he must be a disguised criminal on the run from the police. Or an ashamed mixed-race piebald hiding his appearance. Or an anarchist working on bombs. Or a lunatic. He claims that he's an "experimental investigator." Surely he's unpleasant and irritable, possessing "A bark of a laugh that he seemed to bite and kill in his mouth," upsetting dogs and boys, and rebuffing all attempts to get to know him with curses so that he may be left undisturbed to do his work. No one even knows his name. About when wags begin walking round the village imitating the stranger by pulling down the brims of their hats and pulling up the collars of their coats and kids begin singing a Bogey Man song whenever they see the stranger, events take a surreal turn when the vicar's house is burgled and the locals put two and two together and send the constable to arrest the stranger, who then disrobes and disappears, for, it turns out, he is the Invisible Man.
Most of H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1897) concerns the efforts of "the writer" to collate and interpret the testimony of various witnesses to the Invisible Man's "reign of terror" in the British countryside after the fact. Told from the points of view of countryside denizens like the proprietress of the inn and her husband, the village clock-jobber, general practitioner, reverend, and constable, and even a bachelor tramp, much of the story is a mysterious comedy of class or manner or place. When we finally learn the stranger's name and get his story from his own mouth over half way through, the tale shifts into a study of the alienated mad scientist. Even this is at a remove, however, for his monologue is narrated from the point of view of his university acquaintance Dr. Kemp, who interrupts his story now and then with questions and comments. Wells thus distances us from his scientist until, perhaps, the end of the climax of the short novel.
The Invisible Man explores themes that appear elsewhere in Wells' work: unknown wonders and terrors in the world/universe caused or explained by science may appear at any moment; people fear extraordinary things; men of science who cut themselves off from community become "inhuman"; "contemporary society" is marred by "desecrated fields" and "dank, squalid respectability and . . . sordid commercialism." It is interesting to read the novel with Wells' great short story "In the Country of the Blind," in which a sighted man enters a village of blind people and thinks to rule them, while here an invisible man thinks at first that his condition will give him wonderful advantages over the common run of sighted humanity, permitting him to perpetrate any crime and to do anything he wants.
Perhaps Wells stacks the deck against his scientist. If he had become invisible in the summer instead of the winter, if he'd been a man of calmer temper, if he'd used a different palliative than strychnine, if he'd had more money, if he'd found a less "miserable tool" than the wonderfully named Thomas Marvel, if he'd met Dr. Kemp earlier, and so on, things might have turned out differently. But because the brilliant man is self-centered, irritable, anti-social, and amoral and has become "ruled by a fixed idea" (that his experiments are the only reality), has "lost his human sympathy," has come to believe that "the common conventions of humanity" like not robbing people in their own homes "are all very well for common people," and has imagined schemes for using the "commoners" around him instead of for improving their lives, for all those reasons Wells relishes making things difficult for his scientist.
As in most of his work, Wells' writing here is concise, clear, amusing, terrifying, and literary. He provides reality-establishing scientific explanations involving optics, physics, dynamos, and chemicals for invisibility. He writes comical and vivid descriptions: "His mottled face was apprehensive, and he moved with a sort of reluctant alacrity." He applies irony liberally: "'An invisible man is a man of power.' He stopped for a moment to sneeze violently." And he is capable of harrowing prose: "Down went the heap of struggling men again and rolled over. There was, I am afraid, some savage kicking. Then suddenly a wild scream of 'Mercy! Mercy!' that died down swiftly to a sound like choking."
James Adams reads the audiobook perfectly.
People interested in the history of science fiction (this is one of the first sf stories about invisibility), in studies of criminal intellectual pride, or in compact philosophical novels, should read this book.
Ex-Airborne Ranger Jane Carver, a "bad-ass biker chick," has a reform-school past, a two-strike prison record, and a problem with authority. She has sent Hollywood screenwriter Jason Long her true story on cassette tapes, offering to let him publish it and split any profits 50-50. Long tells us that Jane (not her real name) is about 6'2" with broad shoulders and "rugged good looks." Her story begins when she accidentally kills a sexually harassing jerk and, while fleeing the police, hides in a cave, touches a strange artifact, and is teleported to another world, aptly named Waar, populated as it is by fearsome predators and bellicose humanoids. Witnessing a massacre perpetrated by one faction of purple people on another, she befriends the survivor, Sai-Far, whose betrothed Wen-Jhai, daughter of the ruler of Ora, the greatest nation on Waar, has just been bride-napped by a powerful rival, Kedac-Zir. Thus begins Jane's pulpy adventure, involving "savage" four-armed, lizard-tailed, dread-locked tiger-centaurs, "civilized," purple-skinned, hyphen-named people, and a non-stop series of raids, brawls, duels, death matches, battles, disguises, pursuits, captures, incarcerations, enslavements, entertainments, amorous advances, romance counselings, and more as she tries to help the gormless and spineless Sai reunite with his true love so he may marry her so that her father may grant Jane access to another artifact with which to return to earth where she believes she wants to be.
Needless to say, Long is affectionately riffing on Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter. Both A Princess of Mars (1917) and Jane Carver of Waar (2012) begin with the reality-claiming conceit that the heroes have given their first person stories to the authors. Both heroes wake up naked on an alien world where they have super strength and jumping ability due to earth's stronger gravity. Both encounter exotic and dangerous flora and fauna and bad organized religions. Both catalyze Big Events. Both become caught up in page-turning action that devolves into absurdity if you catch your breath and coldly examine it. (The frenetic fun of Long's book is signaled by the one-word exclamation-marked titles of the chapters, like "Hunted!" "Monsters!" and "Captives!")
That said, Long is not rewriting A Princess of Mars with a female lead. For one thing, he avoids what was one of the most interesting parts of John Carter's life on Barsoom (learning the local language) by having the artifact that transports Jane to Waar automatically make her fluent in Sai's tongue. Unlike John Carter, Jane adventures not to win her own true love but to help another person win his. For that matter, while John Carter is heterosexual, Jane is a "switch hitter," and Long explores gender and sexuality more than Burroughs. Although Burroughs seems preoccupied with race (red, black, white, yellow, and green Martians), he elides the vile nature of slavery (John Carter having been on earth the "good" master of white myth beloved by his slaves), while Long explores it. And Jane (at first) has a humane reaction to killing, unlike John Carter.
The biggest difference between Burroughs/Carter and Long/Carver lies in their writing styles. The "swamp trash country girl" Jane has a cruder and more colloquial voice than John Carter, one that comically jars with the "elegant" speech of the local nobles. Jane: "I just saved your life, pal. I'll talk to you anyway I damn well please." Sai: "Tease me not, tormentor." Long also inundates Jane's narration with American pop culture references, especially similes, as in "It looked like the inside of Liberace's brain with Elvis doing the catering." Jane similarly alludes to Ty-D-Bol, the Jolly Green Giant (twice!), Angeline Jolie, Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Frankenstein, Spider-Man, Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote, Xena, Hulk Hogan, Justin Beiber, Elton John, Arkansas jail cells, Johnny Cochrane, Andre Agassi, Mark McGwire (twice!), the Packers (twice!), linebackers (thrice!), cheerleaders, CIA cover-ups, Larry Flynt, and more, with the result that Long's novel seems very much of its culture and era, while Burroughs' work, lacking such allusions, feels more universal and timeless. (Surprisingly, she never compares anything to John Carter.)
Some references/similes seem neat: "The silver of the rooftops against the deep black of the alleys made it all look like some huge, cubist black-velvet painting." Some seem lame: "It was as beautiful as a movie." Some seem more Long than Jane, e.g., vintage references to the likes of Steve Reeves, Clark Gable, Mae West, Heckle and Jeckle, and '50s hotrod magazines and coarse and sexist references like, "I was sweating like a whore on dollar day." Jane's language is much raunchier than John Carter's, as with "Where the f*ck have you dumped me now, you f*cking f*cks?" Given her character, that's understandable, but at times I felt that when Long's female characters talk about sex they sound like male fantasies of women rather than like real women. Jane describes light and graphic porno tableaux and often feels horny, and a female pirate captain says, "Right now I need a fat c*ck to fill my c*nt and empty my brain," while a noble woman says, "Oh yes! Harder! Don't stop! By the Seven, don't stop!" Finally, the problem is that the many pop culture references decrease the exotic experience of another world and its alien culture by making them too vividly recall ours.
The reader, Dina Pearlman, does a fine job, modifying her voice slightly for different characters, speaking clearly and convincingly. And she does a great villain-laugh.
Jane Carver of Waar (2012) is a fun, guilty pleasure that I'd only recommend to fans of the John Carter books or of female fantasy/sf characters who kick ass and talk dirty.
Anthony Ryan's epic fantasy novel Blood Song (2011), first in what I hope is only a trilogy in progress, begins with Lord Verniers, the Imperial Chronicler of the southern Alpiran Empire, recounting the time he met the legendary war hero of the northern Unified Realm, Vaelin Al Sorna. Among Vaelin's many names is Hope Killer, for in battle he killed the Hope of the Empire, the Emperor's chosen successor from among his people and Verniers' best friend (at least). For that "murder," Vaelin has spent the last five years in an Imperial dungeon, and has only now been released so that he may face certain death in a duel against the champion of the Meldenean Islands. For their part, the Meldeneans want to watch Vaelin ("the Spawn of the City Burner") die because when his father was Battle Lord of the Realm he torched one of their cities along with its men, women, and children. Verniers' italicized first person narration beginning each of the five parts of Ryan's novel reveal the Chronicler's scornful view of Vaelin's "savage" culture and his hatred of Vaelin. Verniers is also fascinated by the man with "an innate inability to be diminished" and can't resist asking Vaelin to tell his life story so he can write it down as they sail towards his impending doom.
The five parts of the novel, then, narrated in third person from Vaelin's point of view, appear at first to be Verniers' version of Vaelin's story, but the farther the novel progresses, the more it becomes apparent that Vaelin is hiding things from Verniers. . . This raises uncomfortable questions the novel may not answer: why does Ryan begin by making us think Verniers is telling Vaelin's story and then suddenly reveal that he's not, and if he's not, who is?
Be that as it may, the bulk of Blood Song is the account of Vaelin's life from age 11 when he was put by his father into the monkish Sixth Order of the Faith, the Order dedicated to smiting the enemies of the Faith and the Realm. Vaelin is shaped like tempered steel into a Brother of his new "family" (the Brothers are supposed to sever all ties to their former biological families), undergoing harsh martial training, bonding with his fellow young initiates, and gradually learning more about his biological family, about the seven Orders, about the Faith (based on ancestor worship), about its "heretic" Deniers, about realpolitik, and about his "blood song," a gift or a curse that warns him when something bad is going to happen and helps him read people. Vaelin is a compelling protagonist, a person of courage, sensitivity, empathy, morality, and kindness, as well as an instinctive, skilled, and fearsome fighter, able to kill unthinkingly and then to feel his soul soiled by the act.
Ryan writes many great lines. Pithy ones: "War is always an adventure to those who have never seen it." Humorous ones: “The smell was enough to make Scratch get up and slink away.” Ultra violent ones: "[Vaelin] heard rather than saw the geyser of blood painting the ceiling and walls, as the headless corpse continued for a few steps before collapsing." Numinous ones: "He wondered if he would dream of wolves." Sublime ones: "It was the strangest and most unfamiliar landscape he had seen, a broad expanse of mostly bare rock pocked by small pools of rainwater and rocky tors rising from the undulating surface like great deformed mushrooms." And one recurring line of intense pathos, when Vaelin protests too much: "I have no father."
Stephen Brand has an appealing and affecting slight northern England accent, by which the "o" in words like love, up, and some becomes "oh," which expresses Vaelin's "barbarian" speech as heard by a "civilized" Empire listener like Verniers. In general, Brand's voice is quite appealing, intelligent, raspy, British, and sparse, a perfect match for Ryan's text. He modifies it for different characters, as with Frentice's street cockney, but never egregiously, not even when doing voices of female characters or children.
Blood Song has plenty of elements typically found in the heroic epic fantasy genre: different histories and cultures in conflict; small-scale and wide-screen graphic violence; supernatural abilities or gifts; a natural born leader hero with prodigious fighting ability, strong moral code ("I'll kill but I won't murder"), sensitive conscience ("I am a murderer"), and vital destiny; a brilliant and beautiful princess chafing in her role; a mysterious evil entity with occult evil minions; a melting pot world (no elves, dwarves, or orcs, but plenty of hunter gatherers, pirate captains, European-esque knights, British-esque longbowmen, Chinese-esque merchant princes, African or Arabic-esque nobles, etc.); and so on. But Ryan tells his story with such humane conviction, complex characters, spare prose, skillful revelations, exciting and horrifying violence, modern political vision, bracing imagination, and unsentimental pathos, that reading Blood Song was a page-turning pleasure I didn't want to end. Ryan's world creation, fantastic imagination, and narrative approach are not as weird and unique as something like J. M. McDermott's Last Dragon, but Blood Song is authentic and compelling, and fans of heroic epic fantasy should enjoy it.
The promising conceit of Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Or on the Segregation of the Queen (1994) is that Mary Russell, who possesses deductive powers and mental brilliance the equal of Sherlock Holmes, met the great detective in 1915, when she was fifteen and he fifty-four, became his apprentice/confidante, began helping him solve mysteries as a fully equal partner, and now as an old woman in the 1990s is writing her memoirs about her relationship and experiences with Holmes. King cleverly has Russell explain at the outset that because Holmes became a figment of Dr. Watson's imagination, because Watson's stories about him had taken on a life of their own, and because now people are writing their own stories featuring Holmes, her detective may differ from the one in the reader's imagination. She also points out that her version will be more accurate than Watson's, because the good doctor always viewed his friend from a position of inferiority, whereas she was never awed by Holmes' deductive powers, possessing them herself to an extraordinary degree.
The "tall, sardonic recluse" and the "gangling, be-spectacled girl" met on the Sussex downs after Holmes had seemingly "retired" from detective work to live on a farm where he could keep and study bees, and Russell, whose parents and brother had been killed (and she emotionally and physically scarred) in an accident, had begun living with an unloving aunt on a nearby farm belonging to her mother's family. Both being "blessed or cursed with minds of hard brilliance that alienated all but the most tenacious" people, they felt an immediate affinity. The plot gets going in earnest a few years/chapters later, after Holmes has tempered, tested, and trained Russell, who has also been studying mathematics and theology at Oxford University, and they take on a kidnapping case that "reeks of failure."
Jenny Sterlin gives a fine reading of the novel. I like her Holmes, slightly deeper than Russell, and superiorly wry. Missing from the audiobook is King's cute preface in which she writes about receiving a trunk full of Holmes and Russell artifacts, including the manuscripts for all the stories written by Russell, as if she (and not King) were their author.
King writes plenty of cool lines one can imagine Holmes uttering:
--"My life has been plagued by criminals with instinct but no sense."
--"Guessing is a bad habit brought on by indolence."
--"Reading that drivel of Watson's a person would never know I've had any real failures."
Russell also has plenty of good lines:
--"Holmes, this is Russell you're talking to, not Mr. Watson or Mrs. Hudson."
--"No! I refuse to accept a gallant stupidity in place of rational necessity. Go."
--"Reminders of my femininity always took him by surprise. However, I could not hold him to blame, for they always took me by surprise as well."
And King writes plenty of pleasurable sentences, as in this passage: "Sherlock Holmes had invented his profession, and it fit him like a glove. We watched in admiration that verged on awe, as his love of challenge, his flair for the dramatic, his precise attention to detail, and his vulpine intelligence were called into play and transformed his thin face by putty and paint into that of his brother."
However, she also writes a few melodramatic clunkers:
--"Eccentricity had flowed into madness as malignant as a poisonous spider."
-- "I was struck again by the size of that man's [Holmes'] heart."
And Holmes stroking Russell's hair to soothe her to sleep once let alone twice seems a bridge too far in character revision. And Russell and Holmes diss Watson a bit too often. And a certain Holy Land "excursus" may not be entirely meet.
[SPARSE SPOILER ALERT]
Worst of all, the climax is unfortunate. After King has the criminal genius nemesis of Holmes and Russell go to so much effort arranging elaborate crimes, traps, and tricks to toy with them, and has our genius heroes go to so much effort figuring out the purpose and identity of their nemesis and setting up their own elaborate trap for her, to then have the climax come down to the Scene of Triumphant Gloating followed by the Scene of Diving and Scrambling for a Loaded Gun felt disappointing. For that matter, despite being an unobservant and illogical person, I guessed the nature, gender, and identity of the nemesis before Holmes and Russell do so, which made me think that a mystery story involving genius detectives has somehow failed.
I did enjoy the relationship between Holmes and Russell. I do like a 90-something woman writing her memoirs, because it adds a fine melancholy to everything that happens. I am intrigued by her provocatively signing her "author's preface" M. R. H. Fans of pastiches and fiction featuring Holmes should like this book.
A day in the life of Eric Packer, 28-year-old "hyper-maniacal" self-made billionaire genius asset manager and founder of Packer Capital, may not sound so promising as the subject of a novel, but "Maybe today is the day when everything happens." Eric's day begins after another night of insomnia. "What did he do when this happened? He did not take long walks into the scrolling dawn. There was no friend he loved enough to harrow with a call. What was there to say? It was a matter of silences, not words." He walks through the 48 rooms of his triplex apartment, "past the lap pool, the card parlor, the gymnasium, past the shark tank and screening room," before tracking currencies and examining research reports and descending in the one of his two private elevators that plays music by Satie. Leaving the 89-story residential tower, Eric enters his anonymous white limousine, telling his chief of security, Torval, "I want a haircut," though the destination lies across NY City through a vast traffic jam caused by a visit from the President of the United States. As Eric's limo crawls across town in stops and starts, he is serially joined for meetings in the car by his top aides (chief of technology, currency analyst, etc.), and at one point a doctor's associate even enters the car to give him his daily health check up and rectal prostate exam. Occasionally Eric leaves the stopped limo, to visit his mistress art dealer or to eat a meal with his wife of 22 days, Elise Shifrin, banking fortune heiress and poetess, who realizes for the first time that he has blue eyes and refuses to have sex with him because the energy involved in poetic creation is "precious."
Aside from sleep increasingly failing Eric, strange things seem to be happening today. His chief of technology assures him that "our system's secure. . . we're impermeable." Why then does Eric catch a glimpse of himself in the limo spycam running his thumb along his chinline one or two seconds before he runs his thumb along his chinline? All factors must lead the yen, which he has been borrowing in massive amounts, to drop in value. Why then does it continue to rise? Eric has read a line in a poem about a city under siege that goes, "a rat became the unit of currency." Why then do grey spandex-clad anarchist performance artists start popping up waving dead rats around in the air? He believes that "Data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process," and that "the master thrust of cyber capital" would be "to extend the human experience to infinity, a medium for corporate growth and investment." Why then does he feel so much in his body and want to live in "meat space"? And a "credible threat" against his life has manifested itself. Why then does he feel so unconcerned and alive?
Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis (2003) explores the mind of a cyber capital potentate and by extension our contemporary world, dominated as it is by "the investment banker, the land developer, the venture capitalist, the software entrepreneur, the global overlord of satellite and cable, the discount broker, the beaked media chief." But it also speculates on the human condition in general, on love, memory, identity, pain, doubt, randomness, fate, and knowledge, all influenced by metropolitan life.
DeLillo packs into this April 2000 day in the life of Eric Packer philosophical ideas (e.g., "But how can you make words out of sounds? These are two separate systems that we miserably try to link," like "Mirrors and images. Or sex and love"); speculations on "obsolete" words (e.g., skyscraper, office, and ATM); quirky characters (e.g., the stalker Benno Levin); funny and pointed conversations (e.g., "That's not why I'm unemployable." "Then why?" "Because I stink. Smell me." "Smell me."); and bizarre and vivid set pieces (e.g., a movie scene shot in the middle of the night featuring a horde of nude people lying as if stunned or dead in an intersection). DeLilo also writes many neat descriptions, like this one contrasting people and advertisements ("Stunted humans in the shadow of the underwear gods that adorned the soaring billboards. These were figures beyond gender and procreation"). And many pithy lines:
"Poems made him conscious of his breathing."
"Money is talking to itself now."
"The logical extension of business is murder."
"What did he want that was not posthumous?"
Will Patton gives a great reading of the novel, craggy and tender, a high point being the intense stream of consciousness fugue before the climax wherein Eric ponders a closed door in a derelict building.
Not all of Cosmopolis works for me. For instance, there's a long scene of a grandiose funeral for a sufi-rap star that feels forced and unsuitable for Eric's character. But readers interested in the contemporary human condition, in cities, or in dense, rich, short novels should like this one.
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