Friday, December 31, 2010

Favourites of 2010

It is now 2011 and everyone seems to be putting down what they enjoyed reading most in 2010, so I thought I'd join the party.
Because I have two different streams of reading (general SFF stuff and the list of 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels) I think it's only fair that there be 2 favourite lists. Yes, Travels Through Iest always going that extra mile for it's readers.

Please note: these didn't all come out in 2010.My budget doesn't always stretch to the hardcover or trade paperback of just released books. I'll include links to my original review as well.

This is going from 4 - 1. Maybe I'm a hard marker, but I could only find 4 books I though deserved to make the list.



4) Gil's All Fright Diner - A. Lee Martinez
This was my introduction to the marvelously versatile imagination of A. Lee Martinez and also his debut novel. It's not very long, but the few hours it takes to read is a fun time. The author takes the staples of Urban Fantasy: vampires, werewolves, zombies and ghosts, turns them on their head and adds in an evil teenage sorceress just to make things even crazier. My only real complain is that Mr Martinez has so far not written a sequel.



3) The Black Lung Captain: A Tale of the Ketty Jay - Chris Wooding
Chris Wooding's first tale of the Ketty Jay; Retribution Falls, was one of the buzz novels of 2009. Could lightning strike twice? Chris Wooding pulled it off with The Black Lung Captain, this hard to categorize second novel in the series was a thrill ride from start to finish and continued to flesh out his world and characters. The 3rd book in the series: The Iron Jackal, is one of my most hotly anticipated books for 2011.



2) Feed - Mira Grant
Mira Grant is the pseudonym of Seanan McGuire, author of the October Daye Urban Fantasy novels, and Feed is a zombie apocalypse novel mixed with political thriller. It sounds insane and it kind of is, but it's well written, cleverly realised with a remarkably believable future world. The personal relationships is what this book is all about and I came to care about the characters. Feed made me laugh and it made me cry. Very much looking forward to the 2nd book of the trilogy; Deadline, due out in May of 2011.

And drumroll please...Travels Through Iest's favourite SFF novel of 2010 is:



1) I Shall Wear Midnight - Terry Pratchett
I don't think Sir Terry Pratchett is capable of putting out a bad book. I Shall Wear Midnight is the 38th Discworld novel and it remains every bit as fresh and surprising as in 1983 when a naive tourist by the name of Twoflower teamed up with the inept wizard Rincewind in The Colour of Magic. A thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience and one I heartily recommend to everyone.

Now for the challenge favourites list. I could include a few, but I refuse to put anything I'm rereading in there, because I know what I'm going into when I pick the book up. I've also only got as far as the D's and read 23 of the 100 on the list. Of the 23 I've read without including the rereads the one I had the most fun reading was:



The Land of Laughs - Jonathan Carroll
I went into this expecting not to particularly like it and as I read first found myself getting wrapped up in the mystery of the reclusive and secretive author Marshall France and liking the central characters of Thomas Abbey and his quirky girlfriend Saxony Gardner. As the story went on it became less of a mystery and more of a fantasy novel. It deserves more attention than it's been given. A true classic of the genre.

As reading years went 2010 was a good one. Hoping for more of the same in 2011 and peeking at some of the releases planned it looks like being a great year for fantophiles.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Richo



It is stated at the very beginning, the first chapter in fact, that this is not a normal football book. Journalist Martin Flanagan got that right, probably just as well, because his subject was not a normal footballer. Over 282 games and 17 seasons Matthew ‘Richo’ Richardson alternately amused, amazed and annoyed supporters, coaches, players and commentators. Quite often he did all 3 in the one game.

Martin Flanagan doesn’t just talk about the man they called ‘Richo’, that’s because the book is not just about him. It’s got all his facts and figures, it describes some of the games, it talks about the great moments of his career, but there’s so much more in this book.

‘Richo’ is a celebration of the game and the people around it. There are stories about Matthew Richardson’s life, the history of his family and some of the people who have been with him on his incredible journey, but then there are stories that Flanagan just seemed to dig up. Little bits of history, musing on the state of the game then and now. Stories about the club that ‘Richo’ gave his life to; the Richmond football club, stories about players from other clubs, those clubs themselves and from outside of the AFL itself.

I think what makes ‘Richo’ work is that it’s a book about someone who loves the game, by someone who loves the game, although they come from separate worlds. Matthew Richardson was a player, one of the greats and Martin Flanagan was never able to play the game at the top level, but has devoted his life to writing about it. I was pleased when I found out that Martin Flanagan was the journalist who was going to write ‘Richo’s’ story. I’ve always enjoyed Flanagan’s everyman way of looking at the game and writing about it. Martin Flanagan is not like many of his contemporaries who are ex-players or objective journalists, he’s a storyteller and this is a great story.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Habitation of the Blessed Volume 1



This is Travels Through Iest's first ever guest review. I'll explain how this came about. I was really looking forward to Cat Valente's The Habitation of the Blessed. I first heard about it at Aussiecon and then I read the author's Hugo nominated Palimpsest which made me even keener, however I only ever saw one copy of it on the shelves here, and it was gone the next time I visited the shop. It was also going to increase the ever growing TBR pile, and who knew when I'd get around to reading it? By chance an eloquent, well read friend of mine on a message forum mentioned that she had a copy of The Habitation of the Blessed, which she was about to read. She graciously accepted my invitation to write a review and allow me to post it here.

This is how Mylene saw The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherine M. Valente:

Let me start with the superficial: this is a very well made book. The cover art actually matches the contents. The book is made of thick, very smooth paper, that feels soft to the touch. The edges are crafted to look as if the pages have been ripped out of another spine (or are they on the verge of decaying? Read on to understand the origin of this question) – and the ink does not smear. Night Shade Books put some effort into the appearance, which is pleasing to the eyes and fingers of the reader from the first touch.

When I started to read, I needed more than 2 hours for the first 30 pages and suddenly became aware, that I was not enjoying this: I kept looking for hidden meanings, foreshadowings, prohecies, intrigue and it then became clear to me, that I have been doing this all wrong. So back to page 1 – reboot – and just relax, let Mrs Valente (yes, she’s married now) take the lead and just enjoy the ride she’s about to take you on.
And what a ride it was.

The Habitation of the Blessed describes the end of Hiob’s journey, sent out by his church to follow the Indus to it’s source, bringing back news of riches for the church to exploit, preferably the hidden kingdom of Prester John – and while at it, do some missionary work – in the form of Hiob’s written confession, dated 1699.

In a village in the province of Lavapuri, Hiob’s dwindling party finds the first word to their goal. A woman takes Hiob to a tree on which grow books. He is allowed to pick three. He spends the following day(s) and night(s) reading them in turn, translating and transcribing them. Soon he learns, that the books are decaying rapidly, like fruit – which leads him into a reading frenzy.

The first book contains the story of John, the last letter of who in 1165 details his 'kingdom‘, thusly leading to Hiob’s expedition; chronicled by his wife Hagia, a blemmye (a people that have their faces on their chests).

The second book tells Hagia’s own story.

The third covers the tale of Imthithal, a Panoti (a people with very large, white ears), nurse to the royal children.

All three interweave in the history of John reaching Pentexore after having crossed a sea of sand, the Rimal in a powerful prose – every word just so – spilling out an overflow of imagination that borders on madness, sweeping you along to the point where you start eating that damn Mango you had lying around for a couple of days, only to realise that the smell that has been disturbing you for a while wasn’t from your fruit – it was her’s, the written ones, slowly decaying.

The beauty of Mrs Valente’s writing defies being put in words. Strand for delicate strand she unravels belief, religion and the benefits of life eternal in slow, moving sentences – almost poetry. Here’s an artist, the likes of which we are not going to see anytime soon again.

This volume ends with all three of the books already rotten to mush. It leaves you wanting more, and soon. According to Mrs Valente, her husband checked her into a hotel somewhere in the wilderness of Maine, so she was closeted to wrestle this beast down. He might have to do so again – well, I certainly wish both of them all the best – but if it takes a little isolation for Mrs Valente, so I can lay may hands on the next volume – I’m not going to stop her husband.

Monday, December 27, 2010

I Shall Wear Midnight



In 1983 a book called A Colour of Magic hit the bookshelves. It was a strange little volume about a disc shaped world, supported on the backs of 4 elephants, who in turn were standing on the back of a space turtle, and the largely insane and magical inhabitants of said world, which came to be known as Discworld. That was 27 years and 38 books ago. Discworld's creator; Terry Pratchett has become one of the world's most loved fantasy authors and been knighted for his efforts.

Over the years the Discworld series has evolved into a number of separate threads (Rincewind, Death, The Witches, The City Watch, etc...) depending on which character or character grouping the books deal with. I Shall Wear Midnight is the 4th of the Tiffany Aching novels, because Tiffany herself is a witch and the books feature some of the other Discworld witches such as Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, the Tiffany books belong to The Witches category, but they're also rather more YA in tone than the other Discworld books, probably because Tiffany is a young adult (nearly sixteen in I Shall Wear Midnight) and they feature a tribe of mad, little blue creatures called the Nac Mac Feegle, also known as the Wee Free Men. So Tiffany kind of occupies a category all of her own.

In The Wee Free Men, an eleven year old Tiffany goes into the world of the elves with her friends the Nac Mac Feegle in order to rescue her baby brother and this is when she first becomes interested in following in her grandmother's foot steps as the witch of the Chalk. Even then the Feegles were calling her the 'big wee hag' (hag is their word for witch).

In A Hat Full of Sky Tiffany finds out that even a witch can be corrupted and has to fight off the malevolent presence of the Hiver. Death comes in rather handy here.

The last time we saw Tiffany in Wintersmith she was trying to prevent an eternal winter along with the Feegles and Roland; the son and heir of the local baron.

When I Shall Wear Midnight opens, a fifteen year old Tiffany Aching has largely taken on the duties of the witch of the Chalk by herself. Presumably at some stage either Granny Weatherwax or Nanny Ogg will come by to see how she's doing, but she seems to be handling herself just fine. That is until the ailing baron dies while Tiffany is easing his pain, and she finds herself accused of causing his death and stealing from him in the process. To complicate matters even more an evil presence of a long dead witch hunter is preying on people near to Tiffany and trying to kill her. Tiffany has to deal with that, put the new baron; Roland, on track, while trying to understand her own feelings for the boy she grew up with and now has to see married to the somewhat scatter brained and spoiled Letitia (who may herself be a witch, even though she's totally unsuited for it and doesn't understand), try and keep the Feegles under control, live up to the responsibilities of being the Chalk's sole witch and see to the regions well being. It's a lot for a fifteen year old girl to handle, but if any girl on Discworld or anywhere else can do so it will be Miss Tiffany Aching, the 'big wee hag' o the Chalk.

Sir Terry Pratchett is in vintage form in I Shall Wear Midnight. One page the reader is chortling away about tales of dangerous cheeses and the antics of the Feegle and the next weeping at the situation the town drunk finds himself in after having nearly beaten his own daughter to death. Although the Tiffany Aching novels tend to be classified as YA, I Shall Wear Midnight transcended that label and became a fully fledged Discworld book. Tiffany even took a trip to Ankh Morpork and dealt with the City Watch, mostly their Feegle guardsman; Wee Mad Arthur.

Terry Pratchett has always had an amazing skill with words. He somehow seems to make them say exactly what he wants and go beyond that function. The following two passages are, to me, an example of that:

'The girl was sitting on her bed, twisting a handkerchief - a clean one, Tiffany was pleased to see - and looking worried, which was to say more worried than her usual expression, which was that of a hamster that had had its treadmill stopped'

'But generally speaking when Nanny Ogg came out with a silly, embarrassing comment by accident, it was because she had thought about it very carefully beforehand. Tiffany knew this,and Nanny certainly knew that Tiffany knew, and Tiffany knew that too. But it was often the kind of way that witches behaved, and it all worked perfectly if nobody picked up an axe.'

I Shall Wear Midnight contains the authors signature footnotes, the appearance of Death (he seems to be limited to one appearance per book these days, maybe his fees got too steep), an amusing Feegle glossary written by the very proper Miss Perspicacia Tick (she describes pished as meaning tired) and an author's note which explains where one of the books key concepts came from.

I can't speak highly enough of this book and I am stunned that Terry Pratchett hasn't even been nominated for a Hugo, let alone won a rocketship, yet. 2011 could be the year. He'd be a very popular and worthy winner.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Hunger Games



I first became aware of Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games at Aussiecon when every YA panel mentioned it as the hottest property on the market. Sparked by the buzz, I decided to have a look at it.

The Hunger Games is set in a post apocalyptic United States called Panem. What happened is never directly referenced, but the reader can pick up that something fairly catastrophic took place. The country is divided into 12 Districts, controlled from the Capitol. The people of Panem are kept under control by being kept poor and hungry, and they seem to exist in an almost pre industrial society. There is some technology however and TV exists, so they have access to electricity. Once a year the Capitol puts on a blood sport for the entertainment of the masses, this is the Hunger Games. Each District sends 2 tributes; one male, one female. All the participants are between the ages of 12 - 18 and are chosen at random by ballot, every inhabitant between the age of 12 - 18 is entered into the ballot. Although the risks in the Games are great, the rewards are also substantial. The winner never has to work again and their district will also benefit from the victory.

The story is narrated by Katniss Everdeen; a tough, jaded, 16 year old, who volunteers to take her younger sister's place in the Games, when the 12 year old's name is chosen from the ballot. The story is not only told in first person, it's also told in the present tense. I can't last remember when I read an entire novel written that way and at times it was kind of odd. Suzanne Collins was a script writer for TV, and it shows in the book, a lot of it is written very visually. One thing Collins excels at is action, she does these sequences, and there are a lot of them, very well. Her romance and human interaction scenes are often painfully clumsy and they'd need to improve in future books.

The Hunger Games is very reminiscent in both concept and execution to the Japanese film Battle Royale and the Arnold Schwarzenegger hit The Running Man (based on a Stephen King story). The participants in Battle Royale were all teenagers and it took place on an island, the rules allowed for one winner, the lone survivor. The battle was also televised. In The Hunger Games, all the participants are aged between 12 - 18 and there can only be one winner, 24 enter the arena, one walks out, the arena is a large environment controlled by the Gamemakers, and it is televised all over Panem. The host of the Games; Caesar Flickerman, was not dissimilar to Richard Dawson's sleazy Damon Killian in The Running Man. You know that Katniss, being the heroine, will somehow survive, it's just how she'll do it and at what cost? Collins builds suspense well and is very good at ending the chapters on cliffhangers. She's got some clever ideas and some very nasty tricks, including genetic mutations, used by the Gamemakers to make the whole thing more interesting for the viewers and harder for the unlucky participants, however some of the names she gives her monsters are laughable, eg: tracker jackers (poisonous wasps with an internal tracking system) and muttations (genetically enhanced wolves). Giving a scary monster a stupid name somehow makes them less threatening to the reader.

The Hunger Games is the first of a trilogy, although it is relatively self contained. Katniss is a rebel and an individual and Panem's totalitarian regime doesn't like that. I can see the next two volumes being about her fight with the Capitol. The Hunger Games doesn't quite justify the hype, but it's an entertaining and involving action adventure and I'd like to see where Suzanne Collins takes it in the next two volumes as she fleshes out the world and the characters she's created in this first book.

The Compleat Complete Enchanter



The first of the ‘D’ challenge books. This one is a bit of a cheat as these stories weren’t written by one writer, but two. They were the result of a long term collaboration by friends and fellow authors; L. Sprague De Camp and Fletcher Pratt. Fletcher Pratt is best known in SFF circles for his work on the Harold Shea Incompleat Enchanter stories. He unfortunately passed away at the tragically young age of 59, just as his books had begun to hit the best seller lists. L. (Lyon) Sprague De Camp had a 60 year long career as a writer, spanning over 100 books, he was best known for his sword and sorcery novels and this collaboration with Pratt, the World Science Fiction Society awarded him the title of Grand Master in 1976, he won a Hugo in 1997 for his autobiography and won the Nebula as a Grandmaster in 1978.

People tend to think that ‘funny’ fantasy began with Terry Pratchett, however De Camp and Pratt predate the great British author by around 40 years, they began working on the Harold Shea stories in 1940.

Harold Shea is an occasionally reckless and generally eccentric pyschologist. He comes up with a form of mathematical magic which he believes can transport him from this world into ages of myth and magic. In The Roaring Trumpet he begins by trying to send himself to the Ireland of Cuchulainn and Queen Maev, but instead finds himself in Asgard rubbing shoulders with Odin, Thor, Loki and Heimdall.

One thing that was a little disconcerting was how long it took for Harold; he appeared to have a strong working knowledge of a number of well known mythologies, to work out where he was, despite knowing what Odin was supposed to look like and even after hearing the name Heimdall, he still didn’t work it out until it was spelled out to him.

Harold has the great misfortune to arrive in Asgard not long before Ragnarok and accompanies his godly companions, and their servant Thjalfi on a quest to reclaim Thor’s hammer and Frey’s sword from the giants. The depiction of the gods was very much as anyone with a decent knowledge of the myths would expect, however the giants were different. They looked and acted like the warlike barbaric characters they are, but they spoke using a mid 20th century American slang. I have to admit that I quite liked this innovation. Harold manages to use his psychological knowledge and his modern day sensibilities to get himself and his companions out of a number of scrapes and finds his way back to his own world and time just before Ragnarok really kicks in.

It’s a fun romp and a very promising start to what became a classic series.

The second of Harold Shea’s adventures; The Mathematics of Magic takes place directly after his unexpected journey to the Asgard.
 
Harold tells best friend and colleague Reed Chalmers about what happened and how. Initially Reed thinks Harold is mad, but goes along with it to humour Harold before realising that the theory behind what the younger man did is at least sound. Harold still wants to visit the Ireland that he tried for the first time, but Reed convinces him to instead shoot for the world of Spenser’s epic poem; The Fairie Queen. This time, possibly because Reed is helping Harold, they get to their intended destination.
 
I’m nowhere near as familiar with the world of The Faerie Queen as I was with Norse mythology, so a lot of what Reed and Harold saw was new to me. It seemed a little fresher, definitely funnier and better written all around. It may have been that De Camp and Pratt were more comfortable with what they’d created the second time around.
 
The story improved with Reed along for the ride, it gave Harold someone to talk to and bounce things off. Reed also tends to counsel his younger friend and prevent him from making ill considered moves that could have disastrous consequences for all concerned. I’m not sure who’s idea it was to include the program for the wizard’s convention in this, but that had me laughing out loud. It was expertly done and a nice dig at conventions in general.
 
Reed decided to stay in the world with Florimel and Harold inadvertently got transported back, taking the object of his affection; Belphebe, with him.  It will be interesting to see Belphebe make the transaction from 15th century epic poem warrior woman to 20th century girl about town.
 
One criticism is Harold’s treatment of Gertude Mugler. Gertrude works with Harold and his friends Reed Chalmers and Walter Bayard. Gertrude appears to carry a bit of a torch for Harold, she was the one who hired a private detective to investigate his disappearance when he went missing one his first adventure, and yet Harold dismisses her when he speaks about her and quite happily flaunts Belphebe in front of her at the end of The Mathematics of Magic. Maybe I’ve read it wrong, but Harold needs a smack for that behaviour.

The third of the Harold Shea adventures: Castle of Iron, begins with Harold being quizzed by the police about the disappearance of his wife Belphebe. Harold is convinced that she’s somehow been sorcerously removed from our realm and so is his other colleague and friend Walter Bayard, however Gert reported the incident to the authorities. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, eh Harold?

Before things can get too unpleasant for our hero, he, one of the policemen, Walter Bayard and another colleague Vaclav ‘Votsy’ Polacek, also known as the Rubber Czech, are whisked off to the court of Kubla Khan as imagined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his epic poem. While Harold is trying to work out how this happened and get back to his own world he and Votsy are removed from the court and find themselves in another realm. At least this one has two familiar faces in it; Harold’s good friend Reed Chalmers and Reed’s lady love Florimel from the Faerie Queen.

Apparently Reed had an issue with Florimel. She’s made of snow and won’t last unless they can find a way to make her enchantment as a lady more permanent. In order to accomplish this Reed has transported himself and Florimel to the land of Orlando Furioso as that is not dissimilar to the Faerie Queen. In fact Orlando Furioso is believed to have inspired Spenser’s epic work. In doing this Reed also managed to remove Belphebe as the character of Belphegor is analogous to that of Belphebe. He brought Harold along for extra assistance and Vaclav was a total accident.

I wasn’t greatly impressed by this installment. I wasn’t familiar with the work, but that didn’t present a problem with the Faerie Queen and De Camp and Pratt take significant liberties with the source. To the best of my knowledge the Astolph or Astolfo in Orlando Furioso was not an adventuring English duke with knowledge of this world’s 20th century, nor was he a friend of Merlin’s. I felt that this one was a little formulaic. Harold is transported to a fictional world, he uses his psychological knowledge to personal advantage and amazes the inhabitants with his knowledge of sword play, gets in and out of scrapes by the skin of his teeth and often does it in the most incredible of ways. It may be that I’ve read a number of works inspired by these ones and it’s become a bit tired to me. The other problem was Votsy. He was the stereotypical socially awkward, sex obsessed nerd. There didn’t seem to be much of a reason to have him there really. He may have been included as comedy relief, but I found him irritating and hope he doesn’t reappear.

The Wall of Serpents finds Harold and his lady love Belphebe adjusting to married life in modern day Ohio, however they are concerned about their friend, the laid back Walter Bayard and the detective Pete Brodsky, whp are still stuck in the court of Kubla Khan as imagined by Coleridge. To get them back Harold needs a high powered enchanter. He decides that Vainamoinen from the Finnish epic The Kalevala is what he's after. He manages to get himself and Belphebe into the epic, but not to Vainamoinen, they instead find themselves dealing with the boastful and lecherous Lemminkainen.

After the duo equal Lemminkainen with sword and bow he agrees to help them and true to his word does transport Walter and Pete to the world of The Kalevala. They find themselves having to help the magic using warrior. Both Bayard and Brodsky prove themselves of worth. Walter, being of an extremely practical mind, can see through any magical illusion and Pete is a dab hand at jiu jitsu, claiming that any detective who has worked in Chicago needs it.

Walter's attempt at magic gets them tossed in a prison and held for execution. Harold transports them before things can get worse and this is how they end up in Cuchulainn's Ireland and The Green Magician.

The story was much the same as all the others. The skills of the adventurers are strange and useful to the natives of the story they find themselves in and they have to put them to use to save the hero, before managing to get back home. I read some of the Cuchulainn stories as a kid and I have to admit I wasn't happy with his portrayal in this story. He was an unpleasant bully and sexist, he also had the strange habit of referring to male companions as darling.

The character of tough detective; Pete Brodsky, was these stories comedy relief. He was less annoying and more useful than Vaclav Polacek, however I found much of his dialogue almost unintelligible, littered as it was with, to my eye, anachronistic mid 20th century street slang.

The stories were enjoyable and easy to read, although I felt they hit a high point in The Mathematics of Magic that they never attained again. They are however well worth reading as an example of the evolution of the SFF field and proof that even in the 1940's the field had developing sub genres.

I haven't read a lot of fantasy where the protagonist enters works of fiction, but one that I can heartily recommend is Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, especially the first book; The Eyre Affair. If you like Harold Shea, you'll love Thursday Next.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon



Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus; the wise cracking fourth level djinn, first appeared in the Bartimaeus trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye & Ptolemy’s Gate) in 2003. The YA trilogy was extremely successful and was enjoyed by both its intended audience and adults alike. Since wrapping up the trilogy with Ptolemy’s Gate in 2005, the author has worked on other YA projects. I hadn’t heard anything about another Bartimaeus book in the pipeline, but as I found the trilogy a lot of fun I was very happy to see The Ring of Solomon.

The Bartimaeus books are set in an alternate history where magic, magic users and various magical entities, including spirits (imps, djinn, afrits, etc…) are active and almost common place. The Ring of Solomon is referred to as a prequel to the original trilogy, concerning the djinn’s activities in Solomon’s Jerusalem circa 950 BC.

Bartimaeus’ master was tricked into breaking the barriers that protected him from his magical servants and was subsequently eaten, as punishment Solomon gave Bartimaeus and a number of his fellow djinn (including Faquarl who will be familiar to readers of the original trilogy) to Khaba the Cruel; a magician renowned for his ability to tame difficult djinn. By accident Bartimaeus saves the life a young female assassin; Asmira, who entreats Khaba to free the djinn. Khaba takes the opportunity to rid himself of the thorn in his side that Bartimaeus has become, but only succeeds in making even more of an enemy of the djinn, who teams up with Asmira to gain control of Solomon’s fabled ring; the source of his power.

The style that Stroud employed for the trilogy was to tell the Bartimaeus chapters in first person and chapters concerning other characters, or using their point of view, were related in third person. The same applies for The Ring of Solomon. As always, the Bartimaeus chapters were the most entertaining, and the funniest. The djinn has a very amusing, boastful spin on things and he footnotes most of his chapters extensively. The footnotes are often the funniest thing about them, as well as helping to establish the alternate history in which the books are set. Stroud has said that Bartimaeus is his favourite character to write and it shows, both writer and readers have a huge amount of fun with him.

I was both delighted and concerned when I first saw the book. Delighted because I enjoyed the first 3 books and wanted to know more about Bartimaeus. Concerned because I felt by the end of Ptolemy’s Gate the spark had largely gone from the story and maybe there wasn’t a lot more Bartimaeus had to share. Too often these days I find authors go back to their most popular creations and disappoint the second time around. I need not have worried, changing the setting to an Arabian Nights type story injected a good deal of freshness into the concept and the character of Bartimaeus himself, the 5 year gap between stories probably also helped readers to remember him fondly and eagerly accept a new story of his adventures. Although The Ring of Solomon is described as a prequel it’s really a standalone story set in the same world and with some recurring characters. It can be easily read with no knowledge of the trilogy and it’s open ended enough that if Jonathan Stroud wishes to share more of Bartimaeus’ dealings in the human world with his readers then he can do so.

I was a fan before and this book ensured that I will remain one. Heartily recommended to anyone who wants a laugh and likes their fantasy on the funny side.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Doppelgangster



These days when someone talks about influences on a newish Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance series the two names that most readily spring to mind are Charlaine Harris (author of the Sookie Stackhouse series on which the HBO hit True Blood is based) and Laurell K. Hamilton (author of the Anita Blake series), one name that doesn’t really come up is Janet Evanovich (author of the Stephanie Plum whodunits), however the heroine of Laura Resnick’s Esther Diamond series owes far more to Ms Evanovich’s feisty New Jersey bounty hunter than she does to Charlaine Harris’ mind reading Louisiana waitress or Laurell Hamilton’s reanimator cum vampire slayer.

Doppelgangster is actually the 2nd book in the series. The first one, the amusingly named Disappearing Nightly (Esther is a struggling actress) was originally published in 2005 and the author has since changed publishers and agents after the publisher of Disappearing Nightly (Luna) dropped the series due to disappointing sales of the book. Disappearing Nightly will be reissued by new publisher (DAW) in the near future. It’s not really necessary to have read the 1st book to pick up on this one. Esther gives a neat pr├ęcis by way of introduction.

The cancellation of Esther’s current stage show (Sorceror!) forces her to find work as a singing waitress at a Little Italy establishment called Stella Bellas which is frequented by wiseguys from two feuding mob families (the Gambellos and the Corvinos). Esther sees a double of one of the hitmen and very soon after witnesses the man’s death. She becomes caught up in the aftermath of this, which also causes some interesting twists and turns in her relationship with homicide detective Connor Lopez. As more doubles keep popping up and the threat of a full scale mob war escalates Esther teams up with old school Gambello hit man Lucky Battistuzzi, her friend Max Zadok; a 350 year old magician, (Max was also a major character in Disappearing Nightly as was Lopez) and Max’s conjured up familiar; Nelli. Mayhem ensues and the phenomenon of doppelgangers are renamed doppelgangsters due to Lucky’s inability to correctly pronounce the accepted name. Can Esther, Lucky, Max and Nelli find out who’s behind it all in time to prevent an all out mob war, save themselves and Esther’s fast disintegrating romance with Detective Lopez? Can Esther do this and land a guest role on a popular TV cop show at the same time?

I found Doppelgangster a fun romp, yet another Urban Fantasy novel that proves you don’t need vampires or werewolves to succeed, although the doppelgangers were a little bit zombieish at times. Max’s attempts to understand Lucky’s ‘Goodfellas’ dialog were extremely amusing, and the presence of Max at a mob sit down trying to act like he was a wiseguy had me laughing out loud throughout the sequence. Nelli was also comedy relief and tended to remind me of Mouse from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Esther herself is an engaging narrator and tells a fast moving, action packed story. The one weak link I found, and I have seen this mentioned elsewhere, was the romance angle. It just didn’t seem believable. I put it down to the character of Lopez. He was simply too good to be true: good looking, sensitive, intelligent, understanding, he came across as if he just stepped out of a B grade romance novel (Laura Resnick used to write romance so maybe he did), he was incredibly bland, it didn’t help that he was rarely if ever referred to by anyone, including Esther, by his first name. He was always Lopez or Detective Lopez. I really had to hunt to find out what his first name was. As Resnick seems to reuse her characters from book to book in this series I'm hoping that Max and Lucky will reappear in the next book.

That criticism aside I had a good time with Doppelgangster, will be keeping an eye out for the release of Disappearing Nightly and also look forward to adding the 3rd Esther Diamond adventure: Unsympathetic Magic to my bookshelf in the near future.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fables: Witches



Witches is the 14th collection of Fables, it comprises issues #86 - #93.

I’m happy to report that it appears as if The Great Fables Crossover was a blip on the radar. It should have been confined to the spin off book starring Jack, but for some reason bled into the parent book. You could do yourself a favour by skipping The Great Fables Crossover altogether and going straight into Witches. The Great Fables Crossover gets only the briefest of mentions and you can easily understand the events in Witches without having any further knowledge of the preceding volume.

The first chapter is from the villains point of view. Mr Dark tells readers the story of how he came to be captured and why he was discovered in a treasure filled crypt. This is important background and also a well told war story.

The main part of Witches is split into 2 stories. One concerns the battle going on in the now disconnected Woodlands building and the other how the Fables, specifically the former inhabitants of level 13 of the Woodlands building; the magic users, are handling their enforced exile to the farm now living in their pumpkin house, another great touch by Bill Willingham and regular series artist Mark Buckingham. I’ll talk about each story separately.

Bufkin, the flying monkey was trapped in the Woodland building when it got shut off from this plane of existence. His only real company was Frankie (the head of Frankenstein that Bigby liberated from the Nazis during WW II) and the magic mirror. He also had a number of the wooden soldiers heads. The earthquake that cut the Woodland building off also freed the dangerous witch Baba Yaga and the djinn that the Fables had in the building. Bufkin attempts to warn the deadly duo off, but as he just looks like a monkey in armour, carrying a sword that’s too big for him they laugh at him. The mirror advises him to use the knowledge he’s gleaned from centuries of reading the books in the building’s extensive library to fight back. Never get on the bad side of a flying monkey, especially not one that reads EVERYTHING. Bufkin tricks the djinn back into a bottle and with the help of the wooden soldiers and a brave band of recently grown Barleycorn Brides (they’re used as mates for the largely male dominated Liliputian society on the farm) Bufkin also manages to defeat Baba Yaga, although his victory is won at great personal cost.

Back on the farm King Cole is concerned about the Fables lack of money and tells Frau Totenkinder about this. The old witch makes a decision and believes that she can relieve the financial squeeze, but she’ll have to go back to the Homelands to do it. She gives the garment she seems to have been endlessly knitting to Sheriff Beast. Her uncanny prescience was right again, Beauty is pregnant. Interestingly the jumper (?) has more than the accepted number of limbs and it’s also too large for a newborn. Someone did once ask Bill Willingham what it was Frau Totenkinder was always knitting and one of his answers was: babyclothes for Beauty and the Beast’s child. Maybe he wasn’t joking. She knew Beauty was pregnant before anyone else, maybe she got it right about what the child will be, too.

Once in the Homelands she finds Mr Dark’s crypt and magically transfers the money back to the farm, then she goes in search of the warrior wizard who designed the box that trapped the evil creature in the first place. The Fables aren’t taking Dark’s slight to them laying down. They’re going to fight back.

Frau Totenkinder’s absence sets the young looking witch Ozma thinking. It’s about time the Fables witches and wizards had a change of leadership, and she’s just the girl to do it. She takes charge and bullies the others into voting for her as their leader. It would appear just in time. The former Adversary; Gepetto, has climbed out of the grave some of the Fables buried him in and done a deal with the great oak in the forest on the farm to make a play for the leadership of the Fables. His dryad guardians warn anyone who wishes him harm off, and the wily old man may just win over the support of enough Fables to regain his position of power. That’s when Ozma steps into the game. She displays her power by turning the fox Reynard into a man and allowing him to transition between the 2 forms (man & fox) whenever he wants…forever. When this fails to impress Gepetto, she plays her trump card…and in flies the Blue Fairy and she is p’ed off! That’s where Willingham hung the cliff and left me waiting for collection #15.

The other story was a two parter set in Flycatcher’s realm. The first part was a Fables style rewriting of Ernest Thayer’s baseball poem Casey at the Bat. Unfortunately the winning team’s pitcher; a goblin, got drunk and ate a squirrel on the way home. It took some pretty fast thinking by Fly to serve justice and at the same time prevent a rebellion from tearing his fledgling kingdom apart. The story ended with a significant advancement in the relationship between Fly and Red Riding Hood. Haven may soon be getting a queen.

Ignore The Great Fables Crossover. Witches is indicative of Fables and the magic is back!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Last Dragonslayer



I’m a Jasper Fforde fan. I have been ever since I stumbled across The Eyre Affair and was instantly hooked by his inventive and quirky way of writing. I’ve recommended The Eyre Affair to everyone I can and regard it as one of my top 10 favourite books ever. Fforde first started to move away from the alternate 1985 he had created for the Thursday Next adventures and the related world of Bookworld with the first of a new trilogy: Shades of Grey The Last Dragonslayer continues that progression, moving into the ever growing field of YA literature.

Jasper Fforde is the most recent successful SFF adult author to write for YA, the number is growing rapidly and it’s no longer just the prerogative of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett to write books for a younger audience. Aside from the book being a Fforde and also a departure from his best known work, I found it interesting, because I hadn’t heard anything about it and had virtually no knowledge beyond being familiar with the author’s work.

The Last Dragonslayer is set in a typically ‘Ffordeian’ world. An alternate England, this one is called the Ununited Kingdom and the country seems fragmented into a number of kingdoms and duchies along the lines of counties and shires. Magic works in this world, although it’s on the way out. Fforde has also populated it with some of the odd flora and fauna that he’s fast becoming known for. Marzipan appears to be a drug and a source of power. I defy anyone not to fall in love the quarkbeast, a small, feisty, fiercely loyal creature with five rows of razor sharp teeth and the seeming ability to ingest almost anything. The central character is fifteen year old Jennifer Strange. Jennifer is a foundling brought up and cared for by the Sisters of the Lobster, and as such was indentured out to the Kazam magical agency some years ago, she has 4 years of her indenture left. Despite her tender years she’s a remarkably capable girl and is largely running the agency on her own, she later gets another foundling assistant; the improbably named Tiger Prawns. Jennifer was very much like a younger version of Thursday Next, she had Thursday’s outlook on things and handled events and people with the same no nonsense approach. The big sister, little brother relationship between her and Tiger was, for me, one of the book’s highlights.

Jennifer inherits the title and responsibility of being the UK’s one and only dragonslayer, as the last dragon is the mighty Maltcassion and Jennifer has been prophesied to kill him on Sunday, she’s also the last dragonslayer. It’s not a responsibility the girl asked for or wanted and unless she can think on her feet and stay one step ahead of the people that want to use her, largely everybody from King Snood IV down, then she could also usher in the end of the world as she knows it.

This was a lot of fun and I enjoyed navigating through the new world Fforde created for his YA romp. In some ways it’s actually better drawn than Thursday’s world. At times it seems like our world (Einstein existed and so do Volkswagons) and at other times it is so far removed (carpets fly, magic works and then there are the quarkbeasts). The dragons owe more to Naomi Novik than they do to JRR Tolkien. I finished it and was satisfied with the end, I thought it was a standalone, it was only when I did a bit of research for the review that I discovered it’s the first of a trilogy. Like the works of Pratchett and Gaiman, while The Last Dragonslayer, was written with a younger audience in mind, it does not talk down to it’s readers and can be read and enjoyed by the author’s grown up fans and in fact anyone who’s fond of clever and fun SFF.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Elegy Beach



In November I read a little oddity originally published in 1983, this was a minor cult classic called Ariel by Steven R. Boyett.

Elegy Beach is the sequel to Ariel, published 27 years later. The action picks up roughly 30 years after the end of the first book. Humanity seems to have settled down into a form of existence after coming to terms with their technologyless existence. Where Ariel was the story of 'change' survivor Pete Garey, Elegy Beach is the story of his teenage son; Fred, so named after Pete's original samurai sword.

Fred works for a trader and magic caster, an elderly Greek man, commonly referred to by most of the residents in the beach community of Del Mar, California, as Paypay. What minor magic Paypay teaches Fred, he promptly shares with his best friend; Yanamandra 'Yan' Ramachandani, son of the local 'doctor'. What Pete Garey experienced in Ariel, and on his journey westward to try and make a new life for himself and his family have left him both mentally and emotionally scarred.

While Fred is happy to learn as much as he can from Paypay and discover the brave new world of humanity, Yan wants more. Eventually Yan's obsession with returning humanity's former dominance over the world by means of technological supremacy causes a rift between the two, and Yan is banished from the beachside community.

Yan's actions in the world outside bring an old friend back into Pete's life and a small band are forced to leave their home and bring the now immensely powerful Yan to heel, before it's too late for everyone.

In the 27 years between the publication of Ariel and Elegy Beach Steven R. Boyett has matured both as an author and a person, and this is obvious in the sequel to one of his best known works. There's a lot more magic in Elegy Beach than there was in it's predecessor, and he's developed an interestlingly explained magical system that works rather like computer software (the author calls it spellware). There was nothing like this in Ariel, the magic worked just because. The post 'change' world is a little more completely realised, although I still felt there were too many well preserved remnants of the modern world in a society that had been removed from that lifestyle for nearly 3 decades. As with the young dragon slayer George (get it?) in Ariel, who seemed like he was in the book, because he was a good idea at the time, there's a foul mouthed teenage girl called Avy in Elegy Beach, she gets the band of merry adventurers out of a few scrapes, seems to form a relationship with Ariel and Fred, then disappears the same way George went back to his family. In fact Fred seems to develop a few tentative liaisons with girls, but they're never followed through on.

I've felt given the setting Boyett has created for these 2 books that he's missed an opportunity to really explore magical creatures. In Ariel we got to know a lot about unicorns as seen by one, and griffins, manticores and dragons were also mentioned, but we never really saw much of them, although the idea of dragons being full of gas, thus enabling them to fly and breathe fire, was pretty cool and logically thought out. In Elegy Beach we hear about sea serpents and rocs, but the readers actually see centaurs. To a large extent the centaurs are the bad guys, taking the place of the necromancers hired thugs in Ariel. There is of course one soft hearted centaur by the name of Bob, who is slightly different from the rest of his warlike race. I quite liked Boyett's depiction of centaurs as somewhat alien creatures very different from the usual image of a person with a horse's body that is seen in most literature featuring centaurs (Harry Potter, Piers Anthony's Xanth series, etc...). It also made me wish that Raymond E. Feist had written more about the Thun (centaur like inhabitants of Kelewan) in his Midkemia books.

As with Ariel, Boyett writes action very well, and his fight sequences obviously drew on his martial arts experience and were the better for it. Like Ariel the ending was bitter sweet. There's scope for further novels, but I doubt that Boyett wants to write them. It did take him 27 years to write Elegy Beach after all. Elegy Beach can be read as a standalone novel, it is not necessary to have read Ariel, although it's a good read too, and a chapter of Elegy Beach is devoted to covering the events of Ariel as background for the story that will take place

It's a good, fun adventure novel and does make you think occasionally how you would deal with life if all the technology we take for granted suddenly ceased to exist. I don't regret the time spent reading it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

TGIF

As everyone starts to wind down for Christmas there's not so much to blog about, but the internet always has things to bring to people's attention.

A couple of months ago Pat St Denis from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist announced that he was considering the blog's future, he has now made his decision and you can find out what he decided here

I've been a bit late on this, but Patrick Rothfuss has started up his charity initiative Worldbuilders on his blog again You can bid on special editions, signed books, even get your manuscript professionally assessed. check it here It may be too late this year, but think about it for next year.

For those who are interested in HBO's A Game of Thrones adaptation, GRRM has posted a preview on his LiveJournal, here. This is capital A Awesome.

Mark Oshiro isn't just reading anymore, now he's watching as well, see his unique take on Joss Whedon's cult sci-fi western Firefly here