Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis

There are these children’s classics that you read as a child and then again as an adult and you find something different to appreciate with them both times around and can see why they’re regarded the way they are. The Hobbit and Alice In Wonderland are two such examples.

I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a kid, I actually read the entire Narnia cycle, and I loved it at the time. I reread the whole thing years later as an adult and didn’t get that same feeling of wonder.

Over recent years there’s been a bit of debate about how to read the Narnia books. Although The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first published, it doesn’t actually begin the cycle, that’s the second last book published; The Magician’s Nephew, and The Horse and His Boy takes place in between The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the second published book; Prince Caspian, yet it wasn’t published until after the 4th book; The Silver Chair. You can buy sets of the books and even an omnibus which has the books in chronological as opposed to published order. I prefer published order, personally, although the first time I read them I think I started with The Dawntreader, which was the 3rd book published and read them any old how.

Reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as an adult, after having read the book as a child is an interesting experience. When I read it as a kid it was just a good old fashioned magical adventure story with talking animals. I didn’t know about C.S Lewis’ religious beliefs, or see that the story was a Christian allegory. As an adult that message and the parallels with the bible hit you with sledgehammer subtlety. It’s not just that, either. I used to think lack of editing was a recent thing, but after I’d read for the fifth time in the early chapters that shutting oneself in a wardrobe was both silly and dangerous I started to wonder.

At heart the book is an adventure and I think it embodies many children’s fantasies in that the Pevensie siblings (Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter) not only find themselves in a magical land full of talking animals they become kings and queens, have many adventures and even manage to get back home in time for tea.

As a child Lewis enjoyed Beatrix Potter’s work, and the talking animals of Narnia reflect that, his knowledge of mythology and legend is also on display with the many mythological creatures that populate Narnia, everything from dwarves and fauns to minotaurs and centaurs abounds in the land.

When reading the first book one gets the sense that there is a much richer history behind it all, and this was later covered in the following books which moved through Narnia’s history, both back and forward. As a cycle the books cover the entire history of the land from it’s formation in The Magician’s Nephew to it’s eventual end in The Last Battle, where all the children who have played an important part in Narnia’s history, except for Susan who stopped believing, come together to be there at the end. Despite that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can be read as a standalone, although Lewis probably had the ideas for the other 6 books right from the beginning.

The four kids in the opening volume are very much a product of their time and reflect many wartime British children. I would have preferred they be more like the Hodbins in Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear, but they were for the most part well behaved and spoken and therefore rather bland. Lucy is the heroine of the piece, but I always found her a bit too good to be true, her brother Edmund, who often battled with a darker side to his nature was far more interesting to me.

If you have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and want to read more there are the other 6 Narnia books. For something along the same lines, but more intended for older readers, and much more modern there’s Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which has a concept of children’s books set in a magical land called Fillory, which is clearly based on Narnia. For younger readers there’s also Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair books which have the same idea of children visiting magical lands from our world by means of enchanted tree in the Faraway Tree books and a flying chair in the Wishing Chair books.        

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Witchling by Yasmine Galenorn

I kind of missed Witchling altogether when it first came out in 2006. I’d say that’s because this book is classified by the publisher as paranormal romance, although it’s far more urban fantasy as the author herself states. I didn’t really start getting into urban fantasy, Dresden aside, until Seanan McGuire led me astray with the Toby Dayes in 2010.  

I happened to see the cover of one of Yasmine Galenorn’s Otherworld novels, of which Witchling is the first, and the premise on the back cover blurb intrigued me. However a determined search turned over hide nor hair of Witchling, and as I had plenty of other stuff to read I didn’t really worry about it. I was lucky enough to see a copy of Witchling at a local book store a few weeks ago and decided to the give the series a try.

The premise is not dissimilar to many other current urban fantasy series ever since Sookie Stackhouse and Anita Blake broke ground. Magical creatures exists, they’re in our world, and we simply have to deal with it.

There is a twist to this one. It does feature vampires and weres, but along with every other magical creature in the Otherworld series they’re from faery, which is generally referred to as Otherworld.

Witchling is narrated in first person by Camille D’Artigo. Camille is a witch and one third of a trio of half faerie sisters. Delilah is a werecat who has the alarming tendency to turn into an attractive tabby cat when she gets stressed and Menolly is a vampire, who despite having been undead for the last 12 years still doesn’t really have the hang of it. Camille’s powers aren’t quite what she’d like them to be either, she can call lightning into her hands, which kept reminding me of Sookie Stackhouse’s ability in the True Blood TV show, but other spells don’t always work out how she intended. Fortunately the side effects are generally embarrassing rather than life threatening.

The girls, as well as holding down day, or in the case of Menolly night, jobs work for OIA (Otherworld Intelligence Agency), and this is where the action comes in. An OIA operative, Jocko; a rather smallish giant (he was 7’3”) has been killed and unless the girls and their allies; one of Camille’s former lovers the Svartan Trillian, a kitsune who also has designs on Camille, Morio, and the handsome, but somewhat clueless FBH (full blood human) OIA agent Chase, can find out who killed Jocko and stop them both worlds are in major danger.

Yasmine Galenorn really gave her imagination full reign with this one. There’s hardly a magical creature that doesn’t crack it for a mention, and I like the way she’s taken known concepts and twisted them a little to fit her story. Camille is an engaging and informative narrator, and she doesn’t info dump, which with a concept like this is not easy to avoid. It’s modern and fast and a welcome addition to the field.

A couple of points. Witchling is narrated in first person by Camille. The sequel Changeling is told by Delilah and I assume Darkling is from Menolly’s point of view. I quite like this approach and it’s an excellent way of allowing the reader to get to know the three central characters inside and out. There are currently 11 Otherworld books in print with more to come, they’re also known as the Sisters of the Moon series, so I’m not sure what happens with the narration after Darkling. The other thing is what genre are they? This one seems to get asked more with this series than others I’ve seen. The publisher classifies them as paranormal romance, so that’s where the bookstores keep them. The author says they’re urban fantasy, and there is no HEA (happily ever after), nor does romance drive the story. There is sex, and it is explicit, but unlike Anita Blake it’s not more important than the story, and let’s face it that’s what people do. I think they’re urban fantasy, but they have a bit of paranormal romance in them to spice things up a little.

Some of the things in Witchling don’t quite work at times, but with a new series, even by an experienced author that can happen, and it doesn’t detract on a major level. I’ve read an excerpt of Changeling and I really liked Delilah as a narrator, so I’ll be picking that up when I see a copy of it down here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Swords & Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber is a collection of his first few stories featuring his characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

The archetypal sword & sorcery character is Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and he’d had been written about for many years and inspired a raft of similar characters and imitators by 1970 when Fritz Leiber introduced Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

I’d heard about the two characters and their adventures, but I’d never actually read any of the books featuring them. I’d always been under the impression from what I’d heard that Fafhrd was the big dumb muscle and the Mouser a cunning little character who used his companions physical size and strength to protect them both and carry out some of his plans.

It’s not like that at all. Leiber absolutely wrong footed me there. Fafhrd is big and strong, but he’s not at all dumb, in fact he’s rather a Renaissance man in his icy wasteland home in the world of Nehwon. The Mouser is small and has some magical training, but he’s not half as clever as he thinks he is and even before he meets Fafhrd he can handle himself in a fight, he’s particularly skilled with his sword; Scalpel. While I’ve uncovered that name: Scalpel? Really? The author couldn’t dream up a better, more lyrical name. I kept thinking of him duelling with a short, sharp surgical instrument.

There are 3 stories in Swords & Deviltry. The Snow Women introduces Fafhrd. The Unholy Grail is the Mouser’s introduction and Ill Met in Lankhmar is how the duo met and teamed up, and the unforeseen but tragic consequences of their first adventure together.

I really liked the duo and the way they bounced off and complemented each other. I also found myself liking Fafhrd more than his smaller companion, which is odd for me. It was a wonderfully drawn world and something very fresh in what was becoming a rather tired sub genre. There was also a lightness and humour to the stories that was lacking from many of the contemporaries.

For me though, the fun ended in the first collection. I did try to read on, but the freshness was gone in the later stories. I’m not sure what it was, but they seemed less inspired, and the characters became more what I’d expected when I first opened the book and not what they were in Swords and Deviltry which made me like the two so much.

If anyone liked Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and wanted something similar I would point them in the direction of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. I’d often seen comparisons between this work and Leiber’s duo, and the inspiration is clear. I was often reminded of Jean Tannen and Locke Lamora while reading about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and if Camorr isn’t a direct child of Lankhmar, it is it’s more sophisticated cousin.     

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal (Guest review)

This cold I have has meant I've read a little less than usual, but my wife recently read Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamour in Glass and was moved enough to review it, so with her permission I'm posting it here.

I've just finished reading Glamour in Glass this evening, and I don't usually review books (mostly cos there's many other places that review books so much better than me), but I really enjoyed this and wanted to burble about it a bit.

This is the second in the Glamourist Histories (not sure if I like this as a series title, but it is descriptive, I guess), I bought & read the first one Shades of Milk and Honey last year, I'm trying to remember where I found out about it.  I think I may have I heard about it at Aussiecon4, as according to my book-list last year, I read it at the start of July.
Anyway, the premise of Shades intrigued me - think Jane Austen with added magic, and I really enjoyed that, so was very happy to see that there was a sequel.

The thing about this book that was particularly interesting to me was it tackles the idea of what happens in the "after" of the "happily ever after" that ends Jane Austen-type romances (or most romances, for that matter!).  I guess it's especially true of period romances, in that they generally end on the wedding, and you never see the life afterwards.

With this book, you know that the two main characters love each other, but they don't know each other very well yet.  Jane is constrained by the society values of the time, which means that her skill at glamour (the magic system) is thought to be an excellent accomplishment to have (like painting or playing music) but not something to pursue as a career.  And it also is a dangerous thing to perform whilst pregnant - an extra fun thing to have to worry about on top of all the "normal" problems that can be associated with child-bearing of the time!

Jane is worried that she is becoming a burden on David and his work when he seems to be deliberately excluding her from a commission they have received from an english emigree in Brussells (they're in Belgium for their honeymoon just before Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo), and he's terribly secretive about what he's doing and who he's seeing.  And David doesn't seem to realise that he's hurting her feelings when he does this.  She also starts to doubt her abilities as a glamourist as David dismisses her suggestions for the commission without much thought.
All-in-all, there's lots of misunderstandings between the two of them before things are resolved happily (again)

It's not just about the "after" of the "happily ever after", as the story is set in Belgium just before the Battle of Waterloo, there's stuff about leading up to the battle; the development of new ways of working with glamour; spies on all sides of the conflict.

This will go into my "books to stay on the shelves" - of which I and my husband have many, but still have piles of books on the floor of the library! - and will look forward to others in the series.

And as an aside, I loved the cover of the book.  The woman in period costume with the soap bubbles around her head is something that jumped out at me from the shelves.  Possibly because I bought this at a local SF/Fantasy/Comics/Pop Culture shop, and a historical cover is more likely to stand out in that particular instance.

I like Larry Rostant's cover-art-photography-work, and when I googled images, I was amazed at how many of the books he's done the covers for we have at home.  I first became aware of him becuase he did the covers for the issues of the Elizabeth Chadwick historicals I have.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Flashman in the Great Game - Impressions

I have to admit that I'm not all that fond of Flashman in the Great Game. It has some good bits, as do all the books, but it's set in a pretty blood soaked time and it's atrocity piled upon atrocity, that becomes a bit tiresome at times.

I never understood Harry's fascination with the Rani. She's undeniably attractive and often very cultured, but she's far from the first woman Harry has met with those qualities, and he didn't fall for them the way he did Lakshmibai.

Harry also acted in some pretty unFlashmanlike ways at times, which was unusual for George MacDonald Fraser as he was nearly always consistent with Flashman and his venal behaviour.

The book does get points for Ilderim Khan, who I have always loved and his demise rarely fails to move me, as does the end of poor Scud East.

Chapter 13 is an absolute highlight with Harry tallying up his conquests and then having one of his bizarre fever dreams about them.

It was also nice to see Harry get the VC and his much longed for knighthood.

The mention of the book that inspired the series at the end is also a nice touch.

Flashman in the Great Game - Chapter 14

Given the events in Chapter 13 you could wonder why this chapter even exists. Surely everything's been wrapped up.

It starts off that way with Harry letting people know what happened to the major players on both sides. Nana Sahib seemed to get away, he vanished somewhere on the frontier and they never seemed to catch up with him. I guess there have been shades of that in the more recent Afghan conflict, too.

Flashman visits the shrine that her people have set up to Lakshmibai, and she does enter the books roll of honour along with Lola Montez and Elspeth as women that Harry Flashman has genuinely been in love with. Lakshmibai is rather unique in that it's highly like Flashman never actually slept with her. The woman he met and had sex with earlier in the book was probably a nautch dancer or courtesan.

He also says that he did encounter Ignatieff again, but quickly adds that both times were diplomatic bunfights, for which he was grateful. I doubt he would have survived any other sort of meeting with the wily Russian.

Whilst waiting to go back home Harry reflects rather glumly that with titles and honours being handed out right left and centre he hasn't received so much as a commendation. He believes this is because Lakshmibai was killed and part of his mission was to get her out alive.

He receives a letter from Elspeth (most welcome) along with a book that Cardigan gave her and asked her to send on to Harry. Elspeth said she didn't much care for it, but sent it anyway, and doesn't seem to know why Cardigan wanted to make Harry a gift of it anyway. Harry stows it in his luggage and doesn't give it a second thought.

During a meeting with Campbell and Lord Canning Flashman is presented with a Victoria Cross, he's barely recovered from that shock when Lady Canning refers to Elspeth as Lady Flashman, which indicates that Harry is now Sir Harry Flashman. A knighthood is all that Harry has ever wanted. His life is almost complete now.

On the way to Calcutta he's bored so picks up the book and starts to read through it. The book is of course Tom Brown's Schooldays, and Cardigan sent it to irritate Harry, which it does. This packet ends with him threatening to sue Thomas Hughes, challenge him to a duel, horsewhip him...

Some of that last passage had a couple of possible continuity mistakes. Flashman indicates that he has not seen or thought of Brown since Rugby. Yet he meets Brown face to face in Flashman's Lady, which although it was published after Flashman in the Great Game, takes place before. He would have remembered the meeting because it was the catalyst for one of his strangest adventures. He also says that he would never admit to being the Flashman in the books, but mentions that he was once asked by Ulysses S. Grant, a fan of the book, if he was the same person, and he replied that yes he was and just to throw Grant referred to his times at Rugby as 'capital' days. I'm not sure which book that happened in. I think it would be either Flashman and the Redskins (book 7) or Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (book 10).

There are two appendices which concern the Mutiny itself and the Rani. Neither of them really add anything to the story, but clear up some of Flashman's errors and confirm other points made.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Flashman in the Great Game - Chapter 13

This, the lucky thirteenth chapter of Flashman in the Great Game starts the close of the whole crazy adventure. It's also one of the best chapters in the book in my opinion. It contains sections I've remembered better than a lot of others in this fifth of Harry's escapades.

Flashman is imprisoned at Gwalior on Lakshimibai's orders, although I think she expected Sher Khan to treat him better than he was. The soldier basically ignored Flashman for the entire two months he was held captive in a tiny cell in the dungeon at Gwalior, only occasionally checking to see that he was still alive.

While Harry was incarcerated the mutiny ground to a halt as the superior British forces began to clean up the few remaining hold outs and pockets of resistance. Flashman was unaware of this as he only rarely saw Sher Khan, and he didn't get any news.

To prevent madness Flashman had heard of prisoners performing mental exercises in their heads. Some remembered hymns or poetry, others did mathematical theorems. Harry freely admits he's not much for religion or mathematics, and the only poem he had ever committed to memory was one Arnold made him remember as a punishment for farting in church.

What Harry does is try to remember every woman he's ever had. From a maid when he was fifteen to a half caste at Cawnpore. His final tally is four hundred and seventy eight. It's a total that impressed even Flashman, especially as he wasn't counting return engagements. He was in his mid thirties at the time, and I'd be willing to bet that by the time he died in his 90's he'd probably more than doubled that amount.

Possibly due to this Flashman had one of those marvelous nightmares that George MacDonald Fraser wrote so magnificently. He was hosting a ball for all of the ladies aboard the Balliol College. John Charity Spring conducted the orchestra and Elspeth danced with Lord Palmerston. Also in attendance, and mentioned by name were Lola Montez (Royal Flash), Josette and Judy (Flashman), The Silk One (Flashman at the Charge), Susie Willincks (Flash for Freedom!), Baroness Pechmann (Royal Flash) and even Nareeman (Flashman).

It's not long after that little trip down memory lane that Harry is taken from the dungeon because Lakshimbai wants to see him. There's a description of a battle at this point, and Fraser does do these very well, he seems to capture the chaos and confusion of a fight, and it all centres around his narrator. The Rani gives Harry his freedom, but he doesn't take it and sees her enter the battle, and is by her side when she dies. Harry doesn't elaborate on how she received her fatal wound, but the Notes indicate that it's believed to be the result of a bullet.

Worse is yet to come for Flashman. He's knocked unconscious during the battle and wakes to find himself strapped to the barrel of a cannon! I don't think this was the preferred method of execution, but a number of mutineers were killed this way. It's barbaric, but the soldiers seemed to think it was fitting revenge for the depredations of the mutineers in killing and cutting up British women and children. Harry manages to catch the eye of a lieutenant and have his gag removed. He knows one of the officers; a captain from the 8th Hussars, who was in the Charge of the Light Brigade with him, and displays enough knowledge to make them believe his claim to being the famous Harry Flashman. He then demands that the other mutineers be taken down and set free.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tricked by Kevin Hearne

The fourth instalment of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles actually begins with the ‘death’ of the main character. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and James Bond know that a good creator will never truly let their title character kick the bucket unless they’ve got a good out.

It’s certainly an audacious way to begin a book, and the shocks continue to come throughout the narrative. Hearne put it into 4th gear and left his foot pressed to the floor the entire way through Tricked, and there’s rarely a chance for the reader to draw breath. Once Atticus is ‘dead’ he’s got the Norse gods off his back (they’re still ticked off about the whole Thor and Odin thing in Hammered), but he’s had to relocate and a key component of his ‘death’; Native American trickster god Coyote (hence the book’s title), wants a favour, and this is something that draws Atticus, Oberon and the druid’s apprentice Granuaile into what is possibly the most dangerous escapade of all four books.

I’m going to split this review into two sections: The Good and The Not So Good, because that’s largely how I read this. Half the time I was grinning and chuckling, and the other half frowning and shaking my head. It’s highly likely that because I’ve ‘shot gunned’ the Iron Druid’s I’ve od’ed a little, and that’s coloured my view of Tricked.

The Good:
Lots of Oberon, the witty wolfhound was absent for a lot of Hammered and my enjoyment of the book suffered as a result. More Oberon, always more Oberon. In fact on his behalf I’d like to know why these books aren’t called The Irish Wolfhound Chronicles?
More of Granuaile. I really like Atticus’ apprentice, and since being introduced in Hounded, she seemed to be sidelined in Hexed and Hammered on the grounds that she can’t necessarily protect herself. In some ways she’s more dangerous than Atticus himself.
Coyote. I like the trickster god and his habit of referring to Atticus as Mister Druid and Granuaile as Miss Druid, not to mention bringing sausages for Oberon is highly endearing.
The use of Native American mythology. One of the series’ strengths is Hearne’s way of viewing the better known mythologies and his willingness not to confine himself to those. I haven’t read a lot of urban fantasy that strays too far from the European mythologies and this was a welcome change.
Some of Atticus back story. One thing that has bugged me about the earlier books was that for a 2,100 year old man Atticus doesn’t seem to have much of a back story. He sprinkled famous historical names about the place, but that was about it. His story in Tricked actually allowed readers to get to know him a little better and that was appreciated.

The Not So Good:
Oberon got hurt L.
I don’t like what’s happened to Leif, and unless it pays off in a future book I’ll be asking myself why this was done.
No, Mrs McDonagh. Okay she was in it, but in a vastly altered form, and I liked her before.
I always thought Atticus’ cranky arms dealing neighbour Mr Semardjian had comic potential, but he was pretty much dropped in Hexed and hasn’t returned, although he was mentioned in Tricked.
Atticus himself bugs me a little. The Irish college boy humour and manner worked in Hounded, and to a lesser extent Hexed, but it’s becoming rather tiresome now, and I prefer reading about Granuaile and Oberon.
Atticus’ character inconsistencies remained.
I’d just gotten used to him being based in Tempe, Arizona and then he ups stumps to Kayenta.
Atticus is becoming a little too indestructible.
I think my biggest issue with Tricked is that at only 4 books in the books are becoming a little formulaic. However Tricked does seem to be an end to the opening character arc, and the sneak peek I read of Trapped confirmed this and I think it may take the series in a slightly different direction.

I once said this about the Dresden Files, and I think it applies even more here. The Iron Druid books are a little like the literary equivalent of fast food. They look appealing and they’re easy to digest, fine in moderation, but you wouldn’t want a steady diet of them. Despite my criticisms I am hooked, and by the time Trapped appears on book shelves I’m sure I’ll be ready for some more of Atticus and Co.  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea was one of those books on the list that I had read before. However I read it many years ago when I was a child, more than once I believe, but I couldn’t remember a huge amount of it, beyond that the main character was called Sparrowhawk and he had attended a school for magic.

This time around it was a lot gentler and less exciting than I remembered. As it was originally written for a younger audience it does seem rather light in tone, not big on the description, but there’s a lot of darkness in it, and Sparrowhawk himself is not a particularly likeable protagonist for much of it, although he does pay a heavy price for his earlier hubris and does his best to put it right.

The plot is simple and easy to follow. A young man grows up in a remote community, shows some aptitude for magic is initially instructed by a local female, and then fostered by a gruff old wizard, eventually being sent to a thriving metropolis to a college where he can hone his abilities. He unleashes a darkness upon the world and spends the rest of the book trying to put right what his actions have caused.

It’s very much a coming of age book and it deals with complex and interesting characters who are neither all good or all bad, but a combination of the two. It’s deeply atmospheric and Le Guin uses her words with economy. The book is one of those that can be read by young or old alike and appreciated for different reasons.

The world was, for the time, rather unique. Earthsea is a collection of islands of varying sizes with their own histories, languages and cultures. Geographically it reminds of the Philippines or Indonesia. Further books explore more of the islands and their culture.   

At the time when A Wizard of Earthsea was published (1968) not many genre books wanted to stray too far from the ground broken by earlier writers. Le Guin dared to do this with her Earthsea concept and it was a welcome change. I rate A Wizard of Earthsea as importantly in the genre as The Lord of the Rings, and I think it’s been almost as influential.

It’s take a long time, but over the last 20 years authors have begun to look to A Wizard of Earthsea for inspiration as much as they used to look at The Lord of the Rings. If you wanted to read more of Earthsea, A Wizard of Earthsea is often thought of as a trilogy along with The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. A fourth book; Tehanu, came along in 1990, 18 years after The Farthest Shore, and it does largely complete the story begun in A Wizard of Earthsea, although all the books can be read as standalones. Although Tehanu is titled The Last Book of Earthsea, two further books; The Other Wind and Tales from Earthsea (a collection of short stories) came out in 2001. Many say that Harry Potter was significantly influenced by A Wizard of Earthsea, and the idea of a magical college is certainly present, although I think Hogwarts owes it’s creation as much to the British novels of the early to mid 20th century that spoke of boarding school life (Elinor Brent-Dyer, Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton were prominent authors of this type of work) as much as it does to A Wizard of Earthsea. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind contains a section at a magical college which reminded me very much of the same scenes in A Wizard of Earthsea, and Lev Grossman’s Magicians also takes place in a magical college. The latter two are fairly recent publications and owe a great debt to Le Guin’s ground breaking work.  

Friday, August 10, 2012

Disappearing Nightly by Laura Resnick

Before reviewing Laura Resnick’s Disappearing Nightly I need to give a quick explanation as to why despite having enjoyed the previous Esther Diamond adventures I’m only reading the first one now in 2012, rather then in 2006 when it was originally published.

Disappearing Nightly first came out in 2005, and was published by Luna. For various reasons Luna and Esther never really clicked, and she didn’t find another home until DAW picked up the series a few years later. The series has gone from strength to strength under DAW, beginning with Doppelgangster, continuing with Unsympathetic Magic and last years Vamparazzi (I believe the 5th book; Polterheist, is due out later this year). However Laura Resnick didn’t get the publishing rights back to Disappearing Nightly until fairly recently, then DAW had to repackage it to fit with the rest of the series, and so it didn’t find it’s way to me until a couple of weeks ago.

I’d always been eager to read Disappearing Nightly, as although Esther quickly recapped the events from the book in Doppelgangster, this was where the actress met her friend, the 350 year old European magician Max Zadok, and her on again, off again love interest; Connor Lopez. Both Max and Connor are pretty major parts of Esther life and her adventures so seeing how they first came onto the scene is important for any fan of the books.

Esther was happily working as a wood nymph, understudying the lead actress, in an off Broadway (way off) production called Sorcerer! when the lead actress, a former teenie pop star with the ridiculous stage name of Golly Gee (Lopez refers to her as Gosh Darn at one point, and I didn’t buy his explanation that he was only joking), quite literally disappears. Because Esther is her understudy, and therefore gains from the disappearance she’s considered a suspect, and then she starts receiving warning notes, cryptically signed MZ.

Other people start disappearing, and before Esther can say abracadabra, she finds herself teamed up with Max, a team of highly enthusiastic drag queens, a conjuring cowboy and his perky daughter and a young banker who has been rail roaded into the financial industry by his family, when all he really wants to do is perform magic. They all think they’re helping. Lopez is of the opinion that what they’re doing is hindering his investigation and if he could find grounds he’d arrest the lot of them, except maybe Esther, who he wants to date.   

Because I’d already read the later books in the series I already knew who was behind the disappearances and roughly why, so the mystery of trying to work out whodunit wasn’t there in this one. It didn’t however detract from my enjoyment of the book. The fun of the Esther Diamonds is with Esther herself and the somewhat combative relationship she enjoys with Lopez. He was better drawn in this than I feel he has been in some of the later books, in this one he wasn’t afraid to make gentle fun of Esther and being openly disbelieving of her, not something he still does. Considering that some of the seemingly less likely things she suggests actually come to pass, this may be why he isn’t as skeptical of her now.

The books have a knack of introducing one off characters that intrigue me, this time it was Max’s boss, the Anglo Indian Lysander Singh from that well known hotbed of evil; Altoona, PA. He kept reminding me of the officious Nigel from The Watchers Council in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season 5, Episode 12, Checkpoint. Oh yes, I know my Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It was highly amusing to watch Max and Esther simply ignore most of what he said and blunder on regardless. Like Lucky Battistuzzi (Doppelgangster) it’s unlikely he’ll appear again, but he is there waiting in the wings if the author decides he’s required.

The Esther Diamonds are a little hard to classify, they’re definitely urban fantasy and the Lopez/Esther relationship kind of strays into romance territory, although there’s not a lot of it. The author herself refers to them as comedic urban fantasy, so I’ll go with that, I kind of like it as sub genre classification actually.

I think I’ve said this with nearly every review I’ve done of the books, but no one seems to be paying attention to me, so I’ll close by saying it again. These books are simply screaming to be made into a TV show. Someone please make this happen!      

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Book of the Damned by Tanith Lee

Ahhhh Must Read list your selections so often amuse, surprise and on occasion frustrate me. The K’s had Anna Kavan’s Mercury and the L’s bring me Tanith Lee’s The Book of the Damned. I’ll say right off the bat that I thought The Book of the Damned was more readable and enjoyable than Mercury, but it’s still an odd selection.

Tanith Lee has written right across the spectrum of SFF, she’s a moderately important writer, but I’m not sure why they chose the first book of her Paradys series to represent her on the list. It’s not really fantasy, more gothic horror, but I didn’t make the list, I just read it.

The Book of the Damned is 3 stories, they’re novella or novelette length. The three stories:  Stained with Crimson, Malice in Saffron and Empires of Azure are all vaguely linked by being set in the city of Paradys and in the themes that they deal with.

All of the stories seemed to deal with gender switching, in some cases it was real, other cases imagined and I think there was one actual hermaphrodite.

Tanith Lee uses her words well and carefully and paints a vivid picture with them. Paradys; a dark, alternate version of 19th century Paris, is extraordinarily atmospheric and it’s a wonderful setting for these gothic tales of damned individuals, it’s even possible that the city itself is some sort of hell dimension, it’s certainly devoid of simple enjoyment.

The stories overall seemed however to have very little plot, and I did find myself asking more than once what was the point of it all? The characters are both unlikeable and shallow, so make it hard to engage with them or feel much sympathy for them.

There are apparently 3 more books that make up the Paradys series, but I have the feeling they’re all like The Book of the Damned, and not something that would hold my interest for another 3 books, nor do they have a huge amount of appeal for me.

I kept thinking of two other authors or books while I was reading The Book of the Damned, one was Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, the subject matter is vastly different (Carter’s book retold fairy tales in a rather dark way), but the use of words and creation of atmosphere is not dissimilar. It also made me recall The Serpent, the first book of Jane Gaskell’s Atlan series, mainly because of the gender switching, as this was also a key theme of The Serpent, with the main character occasionally altering her gender mentally and emotionally, if not physically.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Tinker by Wen Spencer

I'd seen Tinker and picked it up a few times before I finally purchased it, and I think that purchase was driven by seeing a new entry in the series, so I thought it would be worth trying.

I think the concept is excellent. A part of our world (Pittsburgh) in this case ends up in another reality where elves and other magical creations are real and regularly interact with humans. The concept and setting are an interesting mash up of science fiction, urban fantasy, fantasy and paranormal romance. In some ways it's not dissimilar to Nancy A. Collins Golgotham duology (Right Hand Magic and Left Hand Magic), and I did enjoy that, so I thought Tinker might be fun.

This sort of mix of styles and genres can work really well if done right, however if not the results are pretty dire. Unfortunately Tinker falls into the latter. I did like the idea behind the book, and I thought both the elves and their enemies, the Asian influenced onis, were well drawn and handled overall. The elvish society was also slightly Asian influenced, the naming conventions (one family or tribe/clan all had a reference to wind in their name, another flames) became a little tedious and was overdone.

Where Tinker fell down was in the writing, a lot of it was really clunky, the action was done competently, but descriptions were often overly flowery, the sex scenes read like something I'd expect to find in a trashy romance, and sometimes the description went over the top. The dialog was frequently short and choppy, rather like a TV script filled with lines the writers thought were snappy and snarky.

The other thing that was really off were the characters. I loathed Tinker, she was one dimensional and perfect, except when the plot needed her to be stupid. For someone with her upbringing and life style she was remarkably naive. The transition of the cop Nathan from concerned local law enforcement to aggressive, abusive boyfriend was also completely unbelievable and very ham fisted.

There's a blurb on the front of the book from a Publishers Weekly review that fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would find a lot to enjoy. That's a pretty lazy comparison, it's also totally inaccurate. A lot of Tinker (the execrable romance and sex scenes aside) reads like an off the wall Saturday morning cartoon. It has largely the same amount of character development and dialog.

The author has done a few sequels, so they must have a readership. It didn't work out for me. If anyone did like Tinker, or the concept, I'd advise them to give Nancy A. Collins Golgotham books a try, a lot of what Tinker got wrong, it does right.