Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Contrary to what the title probably immediately suggests to the modern reader, this does not concern the most famous murder in the Tower of London, of Richard III's royal nephews; this story takes place several generations and two dynasties later, during the time of James I, son of the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots (of Royal Road to Fotheringhay and Captive Queen of Scots fame; I find to my surprise that I've not yet read the latter! Oh no, I'm reading a series out of order!). James is, though, of relatively minor importance to this narrative, which concerns itself with one Frances Howard, who becomes Frances Carr by marrying a favorite courtier of James'.

Frances is nobly born -- a member of the almost-royal Howard family (descendents, all of Edward I via a younger son) -- young, and, most importantly for this story, very, very pretty. But whereas the other pretty young girls whose Plaidy accounts I've read this last year or so (Mary, Queen of Scots and Lucretzia Borgia) were pathological people pleasers, Frances Howard is only interested in pleasing herself. Married at age 12 to the 14-year-old Count of Essex, she is considered too young to live with him as his wife and so the Count is sent off to France to get some more education and she, being young and pretty and nobly born, gets to hang out at the royal court, where within just a few years she has seduced and discarded no less a lover than Henry, Prince of Wales and then set her sights on the king's favorite, the very good-looking and charming Robert Carr. Who, let us just observe, knows how to play a fish when he has one on the line.

But then Frances is a very strong fish, determined to pull Robert into the water with her by any means necessary, including witchcraft and poison. Ulp.

And also, perhaps, forgetting to wear a top?

Carr, by the way, emerges as almost as unlikeable as Frances, a spoilt young man who exploits his status as King James' bestie (there's only a slight homoerotic subtext here) pretty ruthlessly and is glad to take the position as King's secretary even though he's barely literate, the Renaissance equivalent of a dumb jock, knowing he can just find some underling to do the actual work for him. Enter poor Thomas Overby, who effectively becomes Carr's ghostwriter and thus gets ensnared in Frances' sordid machinations to become Carr's wife instead of Essex's.

Then there's this guy:

 Trust me. Or at least, trust my brow ridges!

Simon Forman, astrologer, fauxsician, womanizer and all-around scoundrel, probable father of Frances' friend Anne, sees ducat signs and all the gossip he can eat when this beautiful brat crosses his threshold. His appearance in this novel is by far the best thing about it, and comes just in time, at a point when this reader had come to the realization that she hated pretty much everybody of any importance in this story (note, this does not include poor Elizabeth Stuart, the future Winter Queen, who barely shows up here, alas) and was ready for someone to make them all miserable. Alas, there is not nearly enough Simon Forman in this novel, but one takes what one can get, no?

Before long there is a giant conspiracy to off anyone who stands between Frances and her chosen husband, and yes, that includes her original husband. Some plots work, some don't, and soon we see poor, poor Frances (heh) not enjoying her rewards one bit, haunted by guilt and suspicion, waiting for the day when her crimes are discovered and her downfall enacted. After many chapters of watching her scheme and step on toes, this is is pretty satisfying, especially since Plaidy didn't even try to whitewash this frankly awful woman.

This doesn't quite qualify as a hate read, because the storytelling and the prose are quite good, as one expects from Plaidy, but it comes close, just because its two main characters are so thoroughly unappealing. Heh.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


The character of Philippa Somerville pretty well stole my heart in the second half of the prior Lymond novel, The Disorderly Knights, as I watched her turn from passionate Lymond-hater to grudging Lymond supporter largely via her well-developed sense of fair play. You've got to enjoy any character who can not only admit she's wrong, but take all the necessary steps to redress the wrongs she's done in thought or deed. Philippa is, in other words, a character with character. And she's not even a grown-up yet as that novel ends!

In Pawn in Frankincense, she is still quite young* but that doesn't stop her doing exactly what she wants, which in this case is to take off in search of Lymond that she might continue to make up for her earlier bad opinion of him by helping him in his current quest in a way that, she has decided, only she can. Even though she really doesn't know nothing about nursing no babies, as it were.

Babies? Yes, babies. For it turns out that Lymond is a daddy, having apparently fathered an illegitimate son on the lovely but perhaps slightly foolish Oonagh O'Dwyer in between bouts of derring do back in Queen's Play. Which son, partly through Oonagh's own questionable choices and partly through the machinations of Graham Reid Mallett, revealed last novel as the Moriarty to Lymond's Holmes, has been hidden away somewhere in the Ottoman Empire (!) and, as Pawn in Frankincense opens, is basically being used as the titular pawn by Mallett. Lymond, of course, claims not to care all that much about a mere by-blow but he'll be damned if anybody gets used as a human shield by his enemy. Philippa, though, dear Philippa, is not fooled, and bullies her way onto the team solely by means of her advanced emotional intelligence, even though she has no idea how she can really be of help. So she just starts learning stuff along the way. Like, oh, Arabic and Turkish, for a start. Go, Philippa, go!

Meanwhile, another remarkable woman has shown up on the scene, the fabulous and enigmatic Marthe, who is attached to Team Lymond as the assistant to the builder of the world's most expensive spinet, which TL is charged with delivering on behalf of the King of France (remember, Lymond's prior exploits on behalf of the current Queen of Scots who is also the Dauphine of France have landed him a French title even though he's Scottish) to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Thus giving TL the perfect cover for looking for the baby McGuffin.

But back to Marthe. Marthe, Marthe, Marthe. She is blond and blue-eyed and comes off as kind of cold hearted and genuinely doesn't care if other people think poorly of her and devastatingly cunning and intelligent and manipulative and cynical and... sound like anyone we know? I mean, Sebastian and Viola called, they want their bit back, amirite?

No, seriously, amirite? Because all we get are hints that somehow, this French woman with a French name might possibly be, somehow, rather closely related to Lymond. Whom, by the way, she cannot stand. Um, wow. Just wow.

And it all ends, bizarrely and very excitingly, in a live chess (but not Doctor Who live; in this case, live means "people used as pieces" not "currents of electricity running through the pieces") game deep in the seraglio of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. And things get tense and tragic. And also weirdly satisfying in a way I totally did not see coming.

I now already want to go back to the first book and read all these again -- and I'm not even finished with the series!

The blurb for the next Lymond novel, The Ringed Castle, indicates that his next adventure is largely in Russia. But with things as they've ended here, I cannot imagine how that's going to come to pass. But I don't have to. The brilliant, the wonderful, the mind boggling Dorothy Dunnett done it for me.

*But turns out to be not quite as young as I've been thinking. Lymond speaks of her and treats her as younger than she is for a variety of good, if irritating, reasons, and since a lot of the fun of reading these books is being misled by Lymond, well, there you go. At any rate, as becomes clear in this novel, Philippa is 15 going on 16, so probably newly nubile, and given the adventures she has, it's probably just as well that most everybody believes she's still a kid -- though, of course, the concept of the teenager had a few centuries before it really became a thing. As such.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Leonard Richardson's CONSTELLATION GAMES

I've kind of overdosed in historical fiction lately, what with my Napoleonic War summer and all, and felt myself in need of an antidote to all of that highly mannered costume drama. I found it (Oh did I find it!) in Constellation Games, a book on which I've had my eye since I first spotted it at publisher Candlemark and Gleam's website really just based on that cover. So eye catching, even before one realizes it's actually depicting an exotic video game controller!

And I do mean exotic. For this is a first contact novel, and as far as our protagonist, game designer/blogger Ariel Blum (a male) is concerned, the only interesting way for two cultures to make such contact is via the sharing of video games past and present. And the Constellation, which is an Ian Banks Culture-style* conglomeration of all sorts of alien species, has millions of years of gaming history to share, all ready to be ported for human tech. At least as much so as stuff developed for wildly divergent sensory organs/sizes/number and type of limbs/utterly alien worldviews can be.

So of course our man Ariel seizes on this right away, and is chosen to be one of the lucky few who get to experience this contact directly. Before we know it, he's hanging out with an Alien otaku, who is not only obsessed with gaming, but also with an extinct and bizarre culture from his home world to the point of painstakingly recreating a period correct crappy apartment where an Alien like him once spent most of his life playing video games. Come on, this is every sci-fi nerd/gamer's dream, right? Aliens show up and they want to sit around your house and shoot the breeze and tell stories and talk about crappy awesome games from their youth and exciting new games under development and passing the controller around and making plans to port your stuff to their systems and vice versa? It can't just be me, you guys!

All this and there is a plot, too. For of course while our crowd is nerding it up, government types from Earth and sort-of-government-ish-but-really-more-hive-overmind-avatar-like from the Constellation are dealing with bigger matters. Like how an advanced civilization has shown up on humanity's doorstep to observe that it's a very nice planet and maybe humans should stop trashing it and hey, we can help clean it up if you want. And how certain factions on Earth don't like that idea one little bit, not in their backyards, they can have my non-existent global warming when they pry it from my cold dead fingers. But on the other hand, it is nice to have a space program again and while you scared the crap out of us when you blew up part of the moon, that is a very nice base you built up there. Mind if we do some of the experiments we had planned to conduct before we let our space program decay into kipple?

All of this is told in a wonderfully wry narrative voice in the vein of David Wong's "David Wong" in John Dies at the End. Except -- and this is my only quibble about this fantastic, fantastic book -- said voice mostly comes to us via his blog, making Constellation Games a 21st century epistolary novel, which is not my favorite narrative style even when it's done the way it should be, in exquisite and grammatical 19th century prose as rendered by a writer who cares very about that sort of thing and has created a character who also cares about that sort of thing. Ariel's blog posts are very casual and while not totally ungrammatical, well, they're a little too note perfect as blog posts. Fortunately, they are very funny blog posts, and really do fit the story and all of its wonderful little nuggets, like when Farang visitor/representative/gamer who has been dropping F-bombs right and left because hey, that's how Ariel talks, learns what F-bombs actually are and turns around, matter-of-factly, to inform Ariel that he swears too much. Hee.

What's really, really excellent about this book though, is that the aliens are really genuinely alien, as in not Star Trek humanoids with face wobblies, and so are their games, which really do make a wonderful lens through which to view a culture, and herein, like the aliens themselves, are really alien. And not just in that David Cronenberg bio-port/umbi cord way (though hey, I love me some eXistenZ as much as anybody!). For instance, one member species' individuals are essentially two individuals in one body, with the male mind "in charge" part of the day and the female for the other part. Their games are those a weird combination of cooperative and competitive and, incidentally, something that I would really like a chance to play someday. And no, that's not an unsubtle hint to any aliens who may be snooping on my blog. Although wouldn't that be awesome?

And now I'm off to read a story Richardson wrote for Strange Horizons a few years ago, "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs." Sample dialogue: "Humans won't pay to watch dinosaurs ride motocross bikes forever." YES. I think I love this Leonard Richardson person.

*A bit less anarchic, but basically it is the Culture, in all the ways that matter. The Culture with all kinds of bug-eyed monsters and other wildly alien life forms.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


There is so much science fiction in High Wizardry, the third book in Diane Duane's wonderful Young Wizards series, that it barely counts as fantasy. Which is entirely awesome; this is the Diane Duane whose name I saw with pleasure and anticipation on those Star Trek novels of my youth, except even more cosmic. More cosmic in every possible way.

I've praised Duane's scientific/mathematical approach to magic before, but little did I know just how scientific and mathematical it was yet to become. For, as the focus shifts from Nita's and Kit's explorations of the powers and responsibilities of wizardry to Nita's astoundingly precocious and fierce little sister Dairene's, Duane adds an important new tool to the mix: computers. As in when Dairene starts investigating this amazing new world that her sister finally had to come clean about in Deep Wizardry, her version of the Wizard's Manual shows up on the family's new Apple computer, which Dairene of course already knows how to put together and program even as her parents are carefully sorting through what order in which to Read the Fine Manuals.

Lickety split, Dairene has taken the Oath (every wizard must promise to protect life and delay entropy with all his or her power, with her very life if need be) and is programming spells of genius-level complexity. The world all but quakes; the younger a wizard is, the more raw power he or she can command, and Dairene is the youngest, smartest wizard ever. The youngest, smartest wizard, with a fixation on outer space and Star Wars and finding her own Darth Vader to fight. Which means soon she is computing her way to and through outer space, with each jump getting progressively farther and farther from home until she's in another galaxy -- with her danger growing at each jump.

Nita and Kit and their mentor wizards' red and blue macaw, Picchu (wizards' pets get strange over time, and Picchu is something of a sibyl) more or less to the rescue, but by the time they catch up with Dairene, she is on the verge of having things pretty much under control. Having discovered a planet that's one giant computer chip, awakened it to sentience and taught it to create artificial life and all. You know, nothing but a thing. Except oh, there's her Darth Vader, except her Darth Vader is a million times craftier, more subtle and, yes, more powerful. Gulp. Okay, maybe a little help.

So again, it kind of drives me nuts that the Harry Potter books, with their elitism, their ugly "muggles vs magic" divides, their contempt for the world, were the ones to get popular, and these have remained as obscure as they have. In the universe next door, which I so long to visit, these got made into big CGI blockbusters and all the kids strive to emulate Nita, Kit and Dairene by cultivating their intelligence, exercising their imaginations, and thinking their way out of problems. Ah, me.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Some more seriously cool shorter fiction

It's summer again, a time when I'm torn  between whatever "theme" reading I've drifted into (this summer has turned out to be all about the Napoleonic wars, by land and sea) and some big sprawling reads (moar Lymond! Also an abortive re-read of Infinite Jest which I've had to abandon since because it now just reads like a giant suicide note and my mental health can't cope with that right now) and yet also seem to have a diminished attention span, so once again I've been taking breaks between novel-length works with some fun shorter fiction by my friends.

Once again, these are all cheap ebooks, and extraordinarily high value for the money, or I wouldn't be talking about them here.

John Urbancik's Zombies vs Aliens vs Robots vs Cowboys vs Ninja vs Investment Bankers vs Green Berets is the ultimate kitchen sink fantasy meets Paul Hardy's Last Men on Earth Club. The archangel Gabriel has blown the trump of doom and the end of the world is here. The question is, which end will prevail? For every world-ending power that is, seems to be reacting as though the signal was just for them. The dead start rising from their graves. Big mother ships full of aliens start herding the living into food processing plants. A mad scientist unleashes his self-determined automatons on a quest for vengeance against an uncaring and un-understanding world. Investment bankers in what amount to Jaegers are out to save themselves. And cowboys (and ghost cowboys, some of whom find themselves, deliciously, fighting the zombie versions of their former bodies), ninja and green berets are mankind's only hope. Meanwhile, the angel and our narrator just want to watch the show and get drunk on good scotch. You might have more fun binge-watching Venture Brothers or something, but I still say this would give any such activity a run for its silly, over-the-top money.

Jodi Cleghorn's River of Bones is a little bit more serious in tone, but offers its own kind of genre-mashing fun. On the one hand, we have the lost and decrepit town of Elyora, which is mysteriously stuck in the year 1974; on the other, we have a down-on-their-luck rock band, on tour and on the verge of breaking up when their road takes them into said town for a pit stop. Romantic tensions erupt even before they meet up with the creepy townspeople, and soon the slightly prosaic surface of this story is chipped away to reveal its roots in classic gothic horror (as in Castle of Otranto et al): all identities collapsing in on themselves, ghosts, regret, and everywhere decay, decay, decay. But where in classic gothic fiction this decay is largely a matter of centuries of damp, here its decades of pitiless Australian sun and dust and, just possibly, a sinister government something-or-other at work "across the river." Also as is common in gothic fiction, not everything is explained. Which is as it should be. Though it's a bit maddening. Why 1974?

J. Daniel Sawyer is a San Francisco writer through and through; he can't not write stuff that feels like crime noir, even, as here, he's exploring more supernatural themes. His Lombard Alchemist Tales, of which this one is my first but his fourth, center around a pawn shop in a sad old gambling town (which town reminds me of, say, Central City, CO but without the amazing opera house CC has), from which all manner of fascinatingly weird and sinister objects emerge. On the strength of The Serpent and the Satchel, I'm going to go ahead and read them all. In this tight little story we explore the dual implications of a satchel that grants subconscious wishes and sends its new owner on a phantasmagorical jungle safari through an ordinary city park, and the parallel adventure of an innocent little box python named (what else) Monty after his owner-friend falls asleep in that same park. Pith helmets are involved. And excitable little kids. And park rangers. And bullwhips and machetes. More quality cheap thrills!

Then there's Hugh Howey's little number, The Plagiarist, my first non-Silo read from the man. And it's about as un-Silo as a story could possibly be, except in that it has more than a tinge of regret and melancholy. We deal here with an academic whose specialty is in plumbing computer-simulated worlds for new literature, which he painstakingly copies out (he has an eidetic memory) in the real world and publishes as found classics. Quite conceptually dazzling and fraught with implications, eh wot? But wait, there's more, because our man has become quite attached to one virtual world in particular (one world out of a whole galaxy of simulated worlds), and, moreover, to one virtual woman living on that one virtual world. And his focus has narrowed to this world, this woman, to the exclusion of all else. Including the real world threat posed by all of the real world artists and writers who are getting crowded out of the field by the products of the ultimate infinite monkey/infinite typewriters experiment, and have decided that they know just what to do about it. Boom. And while yes, the twist ending is a bit telegraphed, it's all handled very satisfyingly. Bravo, Hugh!

And now I'm come full circle back to zombie fun again, this time with Jake Bible. Bible is another go-to guy for me when I want some plain old fun. He's perhaps best  known for his Apex Trilogy, in which he combines everything one might love from the mecha (as in giant robots piloted by people) and zombie genres -- answering that eternal burning question of what happens if a mech pilot dies while in his mech and is reanimated as a zombie therein (answer, OMG what doesn't happen?). In Let Old Friends be Forgot, Bible goes a somewhat more traditional route, delivering a series of journal entries penned by a survivor of the zombie apocalypse. This could just be grim and dreary (especially since the zombies in this story are a lot like the Reavers in the Firefly universe, in that their preferred method of killin' is rapin' ya ta death), but fortunately, this particular survivor is a bit of a wit, with a dry sense of humor, waxing lyrical over a peaceful vista one moment, then wishing for a diminished number of monsters ravening at the edge of that vista. Our narrator is definitely the kind of guy I'd want with me in a crisis, if only for the quips, though of course he's also pretty handy with the weaponry and the strategizing and stuff. This one also gets bonus points for a hilarawful ending.

So there you have it. Lots of fun for very little money, and my requisite ending asking myself why I don't make more of an effort to read short fiction when smaller bites are totally what my lifestyle seems to call for these days!

Monday, July 15, 2013


I'm realizing anew, this read-through of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, how much this series really depends on its fascinating array of guest stars, of which there are two in The Mauritius Command, both of great and sad importance: Captain Corbett, a vicious "flogging captain" whose idea of discipline is severe even by the standards of Nelson's navy, and Lord Clonfert, with whom Jack once served as a youngster but who hasn't done quite as well as Jack since. So, um, uh oh. We see trouble before we even meet the gentlemen in question.

We meet them on Jack and Stephen's latest mission, to take charge of a frigate, hang a commodore's broad pendant on it (thus signifying that Jack is, at long last, to command a squadron!) and head out to the African islands of Mauritius and La Reunion, there to take these potentially highly strategic islands away from the French, who are doing rather a half-assed job of using them as a base for action in the Indian Ocean. Consult a quality atlas if this confuses.

The action in The Mauritius Command highlights better than any we've seen so far just how much military vessels of this time period and since served as vast mobile artillery batteries. How else can ships take on an island? Float around and around in that effortless-looking way and unleash hell with the big guns on anything that looks like it might contain Frenchmen. Boom! And if the French are so bold and impetuous as to send out ships of their own to put a stop to this harassment, well, Commodore Lucky Jack Aubrey knows how to take care of those. This all goes off tolerably well, but for a couple problems, problems intimately tied in with the personalities of the two guest star captains I mentioned above. The trouble with Corbett is pretty straightforward; his crew are tired of getting fifty lashes every time a bit of tar plops down to mar the perfection of Corbett's decks and thus grow mutinous. The trouble with Clonfert....

Ah, Clonfert. Lord Clonfert is one of the most fascinatingly tragic characters O'Brian has written. A son of the Irish aristocracy -- who are not considered Irish by the Irish and are not considered real aristocrats by the rest of their class in the U.K. -- he's already got a chip on his shoulder before Jack shows up on the scene. Once Jack does, Clonfert pretty much loses it (and he's bi-polar to boot, I should mention; his crew are used to his mood swings and tolerate them because sailors "dearly love a Lord", but Stephen and Clonfert's own surgeon spend a lot of the novel shaking their heads over Clonfert's case) and mounts an all-out campaign to prove that he's just as good as his old shipmate, with disastrous results.

Fortunately, even as Jack is dealing with the consequences of having Corbett and Clonfert under his command, he is also working closely with an army colonel that is an infantry version of Jack himself, the capable and vaguely Sharpe-like Colonel Keating. Together they manage to overcome most of the obstacles created by the fractious captains. Most of them.

For of course, no officer, however capable, has any control over what his superiors say or do, or where they show up, just in time to steal his thunder. Feeling outraged on Jack's behalf is, however, all part of the fun of reading these novels.

And fun they most certainly are!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hope Mirlees' LUD-IN -THE-MIST

Of course, I come to this novel via Tim Powers, who quoted it quite tantalizingly and memorably in Last Call as one to which Scott Crane and his late wife often referred to in their intimate shorthand with one another. At one point Susan's ghost, or at least the chthonic spirt-of-alcohol that is impersonating Susan refers to "a blackish canary" ("canary" as in the sense of "a shade of yellow" rather than that of the bird of that name) as a way of commenting on Scott's refusal to grasp what is really going on and his dismissal thereof as really pretty unimportant anyway... Such a strange phrase, that, I've always wanted to see it in context and see where it came from.

Well, now I know. And its source is just as intriguing and maddening and wonderful and mind-bogglingly cool as I had hoped it would be.

Lud-in-the-Mist is one of those open secrets by which real fantasy fans of a certain wistful, thoughtful, poetic type know each other, I think. Originally published in 1926, it dates from the same era that gave us H.P. Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith, and shares some of the dreamlike qualities of the best of those writers' work, but has none of the menace and horror. At least not overtly, though, and I rejoice to say it, Mirlees' version of fairies and Fairyland is quite, quite uncanny.

At first the book reminded me more than a little of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast works, the first of which, Titus Groan, I am about halfway through reading but may not ever finish not so much out of dislike as exhaustion with Peake's "fantasy of manners" and its glacial slowness and hypnotic stolidity* and its near lack of action. But soon I realized that this was an altogether sprightlier work, for all its early chapter concerns with a politically and socially powerful father who regards his son as a mere adjunct or appendage of his own identity.

But then the book comes into its own just as Nathan Chanticleer's young son is suddenly revealed to him as a whole 'nother human being when he stumbles into confessing that he has broken the city of Lud-in-the-Mist's single greatest taboo: he has eaten fairy fruit. Fairy fruit being something between a narcotic and a food exported by the nation that borders Chanticleer's own, that being Fairyland. You know, where fairies are, and magic and stuff. Stuff that has been expunged as thoroughly as possible from memory and consciousness by the middle class of Lud-in-the-Mist as part of their socio-political coup that rid the city of its irrational hereditary aristocracy and its feudalistic ways.

Of course, in ridding the city of its old masters and replacing them with rational, vaguely meritocratic,profit-minded new ones, much was lost, and many did not give it up lightly. Thus a sort of cult in which the last Duke, Aubrey, is basically an avatar of the Green Man, still quietly flourishes in Lud-in-the-Mist and its environs, and lots of secret doings can be traced back to this cult and its adherents, witting and un-. Which is how, of course, the youngest Chanticleer winds up eating fairy fruit and in so doing turn everything possible on its head.

The rest of the plot winds up being almost a cozy mystery as Nathan tries to track down how this unspeakable thing has happened to his (belated) pride and joy. A cozy mystery with truly wonderful grace notes, including astonishingly lovely prose and wonderful insights into the nature of truth, the power of belief, and the limitations of reason. ""Reason, I know, is only a drug, and, as such, its effects are never permanent" says one city father to another. "But, like the juice of the poppy, it often gives a temporary relief."

A lot of Lud-in-the-Mist deals with just that kind of careful construction of reality in which each of us is constantly engaging in our heads, construction that involves careful choices about what to let in, what to ignore, and what to abhor as impossible or otherwise unreal. The nature of the Law comes in for special scrutiny; as the most unusual and interesting variety of consensual delusion, it is the perfect foil for the delusions and unrealities of (pardon me for using such course language, but sometimes one must, to get one's point across) Fairyland.

If at times Lud-in-the-Mist feels a tad too allegorical, the effect is of short duration. One is quickly distracted from this jaundiced view of the book by the characters and their surroundings, that glow with vibrant color and come to such vivid life one might think one has been slipped some fairy fruit onself. Or wish to have been.

*If anyone ever tries to make a feature film of these books (I understand there was a BBC miniseries early this century), I insist Werner Herzog get first crack at it, and that he hypnotize his cast every shooting day like he did for Heart of Glass and has them perform so entranced. But we don't need that to happen, really, because we have Heart of Glass.

Friday, July 12, 2013


While I regretted last time around that I had not encountered Diane Duane's Young Wizards books when I was a young'un, this time around I'm pretty glad I didn't, because if I'd come across Deep Wizardry when I was the age of its two young protagonists, I would have required extensive therapy afterward. Look, I'm not going to get into this much, but man, I could have used a trigger warning because


I'm having trouble breathing after just having typed those words.*

Fortunately, I'm a grown up now, and have evolved and developed coping techniques for dealing with scenes like the


and am thus somewhat capable of admiring that scene for the majestic and badass bit of action writing that it is. Somewhat. I'm still very glad I put this book down to sleep last night well before the advent of the


or I wouldn't have slept at all and would probably have to be hauled off to a mental ward like one of H.P. Lovecraft's less strongly-constituted wus-heroes.

All that aside, Deep Wizardry is a remarkably wise, thoughtful and lovely book. We start up not long after Nita and Kit saved the world from the "Lone Power" in So You Want to be a Wizard, with Nita's family (and Kit along for good measure) vacationing on the beach and Nita and Kit exploring the delights of ocean swimming along with their budding powers and responsibilities. Soon it's those responsibilities -- as I observed last time around, Duane's version of magic has a heavy ethical/ecological bent and literally preserves the world -- that come crashing to the fore like a tidal wave when the duo meet up with a badly injured humpback whale, who turns out to be a young wizard herself, and who has just lost her mentor at the worst possible time.

Soon Nita and Kit are drawn into an awesome round of ritual and rite of passage upon which the fate of the eastern seaboard depends -- the Lone Power they defeated and sealed off last time around is always finding new and old ways to attack the fragile living cosmos these kids and their kind are sworn to defend and preserve -- and into a frame of reference that is startling in its maturity, as they have to spend much of the novel contemplating death quite seriously and personally.

Adding to the shivery archetypal dread of this story is the magnificent giant white "Master-shark" (as in the biggest Great White Shark that ever lived, so old -- possibly thousands of years old -- and vast that he is actually all white, like a deadly ghost slicing through the water), Ed** (short for Ed'Rashtekaresket), who pretty much steals the novel. Ed is a giant slab of uncanny, inhuman awesome, utterly believable as both shark and sentient, at home in his role as the "ender of distress" and full of bleak, harsh and yet still oddly compassionate wisdom in his dealings with Nita and Kit, who assume the forms of a humpback and a sperm whale, respectively, for their dealings in the deep. And while they might therefore be a little bigger than Ed, his lordly, dreadful power keeps them and us in awe through their every dealing with him.

Really, were I at all a reasonable person, I'd be much more afraid of Ed than of the


but anyone who knows me or even just reads my blog at all often probably already knows that if there is one thing I am not, it's a reasonable person. As it is, well, Ed versus the


is one of the most thrilling and seat-wetting passages I've ever encountered in literature. Holy crap, you guys?

And but so, Duane has published seven more of these Young Wizards books to date, and another one is due later this year. Could she ever possibly top this? Or even come close to hitting its (pardon me) high water mark? I dunno. But I'm ready to find out.

After some milk and cookies and soothing music to cure me of my lingering horrors from the


and the after-effects of some truly tragic content as well.

Deep and powerful stuff.

*My greatest childhood phobia was that a giant squid was under my bed and gonna attack me from the watery ocean depths that were also under my bed and yes I knew at the time this was quite impossible given that said bed was some 6000 feet above sea level not far from the Continental Divide but that's what phobias are, you guys. They're as powerful as they are irrational.

Monday, July 8, 2013


One of the many, many things I love about Philip K. Dick is how he can make fantastic science fictional scenarios into studies of utter human banality (and yes, despair) but still make me want to live in them. Martian Time-Slip, for instance, also feels like it could, and likely would, be marketed nowadays under a title like Real Housewives of Mars. Except they're mid 20th century type housewives, so they actually, you know, fix lunch for their children and whatnot.* So maybe it's really more like Mad Men on Mars.

At any rate, these housewives and their husbands live in United Nations-controlled human colonies clustered around the canal systems of a Mars that is not too terraformed (I'm still not sure if an atmosphere has been induced, or if neighborhoods are domed or what, but they're not walking around in pressure suits anyway), but is habitable enough to where everybody has a vegetable garden and even attempts a flower bed here and there, with varying success. No lawns, though. That would be a suicidal waste of water, a lawn would. Just like it is somewhere else, although so far our climate has been forgiving enough to tolerate a certain amount of waste. Sort of. For now.

But water isn't really the issue in Martian Time-Slip. It's preciousness is perhaps a symptom of the larger issue, namely that it's really, really tough to live on Mars -- especially if you insist on trying to replicate the suburban California lifestyle of the mid-twentieth century. It allows certain types of people to seize and wield an almost despotic power, and that type of person is the repairman. Hence all-powerful on this world is the Water Workers' Union and its leader, one Arnie Kott, who lives like the ruler of an ancient Wittfogelian hydraulic empire, or at least like the Dean of the Air Conditioner Repair School on Community. When life utterly depends on gadgets, you utterly depend on the guy who can keep the gadgets working. Or the water flowing. Kott is, kind of, both.

But this is not enough. When is it ever? For Kott's path has crossed with Jack Bohlen's, and Jack is the nexus of a whole lot of intrigue, for all that he's kind of a nebbish himself. Jack's father, see, is at the spearhead of the next big wave of land speculation on Mars, and stands to make a killing if his inside information is correct. And Jack himself is a talented repairman and also, importantly, a recovering schizophrenic, and Kott has become convinced that exploiting certain fanciful traits of schizophrenics is the key to his next move: outmaneuvering speculators like Jack's father.

But it's not Jack himself with the talent required; Jack is just to be the builder of the machine that can connect an autistic child, Manfred Steiner, with Kott, and let Kott see what he believes Manfred sees. For in this novel, everyone is pretty sure that the autistic are the way they are because they experience time profoundly differently from the rest of us. To the autistic, in this novel, the rest of us are sped up like a life-long time-lapse film. And, as we learn from Manfred's point of view interludes, to him the rest of us are sped up towards decrepitude, decay, gubbish, like in all of those little films Oliver and Oswald are making in Peter Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts:

Thus Manfred sees into the Tomb World familiar from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and other Phildickiana, which, interestingly, one of the minor characters immediately recognizes. We're all living in it; we've just deluded ourselves that we look and feel alive and whole and undecayed. But deep inside us are the bacteria that will rot us from the inside out once our bodies can no longer fight off that action.

I really, really hope that this is not the world that actual autistic spectrum sufferers experience, because it sounds like a never-ending horror. As explained by one of the Bleekmen, an aboriginal Martian race so closely related to humans it's been decided that the two races come from the same colonizing stock from millions of years ago:
"This boy experiences his own old age... decades from now in an old persons' home which is yet to be built...a place of decay which he loathes beyond expression. In this future place he passes empty, weary years, bedridden -- an object, not a person, kept alive through stupid legalities."
That's pretty much everyone's nightmare, isn't it? And Manfred lives it all day long, if the Bleekmen are to be believed.

How all of this comes together to blow up in the lives of Arnie Kott and Jack Bohlen is ponderous and depressing and terrifying and awe-inspiring and, as is usually the case with PKD, a complete joy to read. Martian Time-Slip as a novel title seems toward the beginning to refer to a account of man-hours worked on Mars, a slip of paper on which an employee records his time, which is pretty nifty for a little science fiction story right there, but then the other meaning of slip, as one does on a banana peel, comes into play and what SJ refers to as the "Dick Click" happens and it all turns into a marvel.

I spent a little chunk of time just now trying to imagine how someone might go about presenting this story on film, and all I could think of was we'd need Richard Linklater and his roto-scoping again, because we would need a visual ghost of Manfred's awful reality sort of steroscopically overlapping the rest of the visual and auditory presentation. And now, even though it would be ugly and frightening and soul-destroying and brain-punishing, I want to see that film very badly indeed. Although I just did, in my head while I read the book. So why do I feel this way?

Ah, PKD.

*Note, I have never actually watched an episode of any of those shows, so I'm just guessing that their stars don't really do any traditionally "housewifey" things based on the promos I occasionally see for them. If I'm wrong, well, mea culpa. I guess. I'm a misanthropic hater of the glass teat and I don't really care.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S ESCAPE

I am now officially obsessed with the Lines of Torres Vedras. Which is hilarious, since I'd never even heard of the Lines of Torres Vedras until a few weeks ago, when I read a highly fictionalized/romanticized version of one possible way those amazing fortification/lines of defense/great big military things were built and paid for in Sharpe's Gold. Now in Sharpe's Escape, I get a closer look at what they were for and how they were intended to -- and actually did -- work.

The principle, basically, is this: build two all but nation-spanning lines of forts and earthworks and walls that keep your enemies from reaching a desirable target, say, the city of Lisbon, and then, quickly before said enemy arrives, practice the most severe scorched earth campaign you possibly can. There must be no food or potable water of any kind anywhere. Armies march on their stomachs, and Napoleon didn't like big bellies so made his armies raid for their suppers. No big vulnerable supply trains from France for Boney! His soldiers must root, hog, or die. Which makes them vulnerable to a plan like the Lines of Torres Vedras, which is basically meant to starve them out if they can't be killed any more quickly. Phew!

And this is not just historical color here, for the plot of Sharpe's Escape is intimately concerned with this plan. Sharpe starts off the novel with an encounter with a Portuguese officer and the officer's brother and their stash of contraband flour they've been planning to sell to the French; he makes a grudging admirer of the former and a bitter enemy of the latter when he foils this plan and destroys the flour. Because what Sharpe needed most of all was another enemy, and this one a great big ruthless brute of a man, a true bastard who could almost be a combination of Sharpe himself and his giant Irish Sergeant, Pat Harper. Except, you know, not funny. Subsequent acts repeat and enlarge on this theme as it turns out the Portuguese duo, even though their country is being invaded by the French and the British are their allies in trying to fight the French off, have an even bigger plan to provide the French with even more food!

It is in the midst of foiling that second, bigger version of this novel's treason plot that Sharpe finds himself in need of an escape, which takes him through a Roman sewer that is still in very foul and recent use in the company of his old friend Jorge Vincente (a Portuguese good guy), Sgt. Harper, a feisty Portuguese woman they've saved from rape, and a pretty Englishwoman who used to be a tutor to the children of the bad Portuguese officer and who Sharpe has also spared from rape. She doesn't like Sharpe too much at first, but ah, doesn't he know how to show a girl a good time?:
"Something strange had happened to her in the last few minutes, as if by undressing and lowering herself into a sewer she had let go of her previous life, of her precarious but determined grip on respectability, and let herself drop into a world of adventure and irresponsibility. She was, suddenly and unexpectedly, happy."
 And now we know the secret of the old Sharpe charm. I wonder how many unacknowledged little Sharpes there wound up being in addition to the daughter he had with Lady Whossername from Sharpe's Trafalgar? I'm sorry, it's lazy and shallow of me, but Sharpe's Chicks are legion and I'm not in the mood to sift through the roster just now.

Anyway, there was nothing in this novel to contradict Dave Slusher's Sharpe Trek theory, and that's fine with me. These are fine adventure stories, and I continue to love and fear their hero devotedly. But no, I would not be one of Sharpe's Chicks. Not in the days before penicillin and whatnot.