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If you like non-supernatural fantasies with lots of sword fighting (most with words, some with swords), witty dialogue, vivid descriptions, charismatic characters, explorations of power, politics, and honor, you should give Ellen Kushner???s Swordspoint a try. (It even features a perfect parody of a Jacobethan revenge tragedy.)
The setting of Swordspoint is an Elizabethan or Jacobean-like city comprised of the Hill, atop which the power-scheming and pleasure-partying nobles live their lives of privilege, and Riverside, the lower district of derelict mansions where the riffraff (rogues, whores, pickpockets, and swordsmen, professional duelist-assassin-bodyguards who sell their swords to aristocratic contracts) live their sordid lives.
Kushner creates appealing and flawed characters, among them Richard, an illiterate, intelligent, usually self-possessed swordsman, Alec, an aristocratic, sardonic, occasionally suicidal ex-scholar, and Michael, a callow gigolo Lord who wants to be taken seriously. Their intertwining stories are absorbing and unpredictable. All of her characters feel like real people, with pasts and ambitions, loves and hates. And gird your loins for a seductively human and frank (though never sensational or graphic) homosexual romance.
About the ???illuminated??? audiobook (with author Kushner reading everything, except for certain intense scenes for which different readers read different characters??? voices, and with some sound effects being used for things like doors opening, footsteps sounding, swords clashing, and fires burning, etc.), I liked it, but that may be due to my liking Swordspoint. That is, I wish Kushner had read everything without sound effects OR a cast of readers had read everything with sound effects, but I like the novel and various readers so much that I enjoyed the audiobook. And the music used to introduce or conclude intense scenes or chapters was well done.
Neil Gaiman describes Swordspoint as being what Jane Austen would write if she wrote fantasy, but Kushner???s worldview is more violent and morally ambiguous, her interests more political, and her writing more modern than Austen???s. But it is interesting to imagine Lord Darcy and Henry Tilney falling in love with each other rather than with Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Morland!
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).
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.
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