Saturday, April 30, 2011

30 Days of Genre - Who Is Your Favorite Character?

Once again, it took me longer to get to this than I wanted. Life is annoying and gets in the way. Anyway, Day 2 of the 30 Days of Genre:

Dominic Flandry, Agent of the Terran Empire

As with most of the questions for this meme, this one is difficult for me to answer because there are so many good possible choices. I have always been a huge Andre Norton fan, and many of her heroes share a lot of the same characteristics - independent-minded clever protagonists who are often traders or just ordinary people thrown into adventures and making their way by their wits. Of all the Andre Norton heroes, the most quintessential in my opinion would be Murdoc Zern who is the focal character in the two book series consisting of The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars. But Zern, a free trader who acquires a mysterious gem and a strange alien companion before having to deal with commercial rivals, the threat of arrest by the Patrol, and the threat of death at the hands of religious fanatics and space pirates, is just one character of many among Norton's oeuvre. So Zern is more of a representative of a group of favorite characters than a favorite character by himself.

Another possibility I considered was Lorq von Ray, the central character in Samuel R. Delany's Nova. He's also a resourceful merchant living by his wits, although instead of being an almost rootless free trader he is the scion of one of the two most powerful mercantile families in the galaxy. But he has the added bonus of being involved in a bitter rivalry with Prince Red, the scion of the other powerful mercantile family, the end result of which will result in one or the other having effective control of humanity's future. And the audacity of Lorq von Ray is that his chosen path to victory against his rival is to adopt a strategy that involves flying directly into a star that is going nova (hence the title of the book). However, what makes Lorq so fascinating is probably the story he's in and not him as a character,

I could have picked another independent-minded merchant and go with Poul Anderson's recurring character Nicolas van Rijn - an irascible, hard-nosed, practical, trader featured in numerous books set in Anderson's Technic History including Trader to the Stars and The Man Who Counts. However, van Rijn is just a little too amoral to be my favorite. But considering van Rijn led me to Poul Anderson's other long-running recurring character Dominic Flandry, and everything crystalized. The ultimate interstellar agent is my favorite genre character.

Flandry is an agent of the Terran Empire and appears in the books Ensign Flandry, A Circus of Hells, The Rebel Worlds, A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, A Stone in Heaven, The Game of Empire, Agent of the Terran Empire, and Flandry of Terra. Flandry, unlike the other candidates I considered, is not a merchant, but rather a spy. Like Zern, von Ray, and van Rijn he is a cunning and resourceful individual who survives by his wits. He's also dashing, ruthless, and self-interestedly heroic. Though his father is a minor nobleman in the Empire, Flandry is an illegitimate child and must rise on his own merits. Though Flandry knows the Terran Empire is doomed to fall at the end of its long struggle with the Merseain Empire, bringing on the "Long Night", he fights for it anyway hoping to stave off the collapse until after his own death. But by fighting against the coming of the night, he manages to make the lives of many who live in the Empire immeasurably better due to nothing more than his own self-interested actions.

One might describe Flandry as a James Bond type character moved to a space opera setting, but Flandry predates Bond. He shares with Bond a rakish charm, and a penchant for womanizing. Unlike Bond, he's not a clueless moron half the time. Anderson was also a better writer than Fleming, and was better at coming up with intrigues and mysteries. Because all great heroes need a foil, Anderson also created a long running antagonist for Flandry in the form of his Merseian counterpart Aycharaych a crafty and able opponent that Flandry is only able to overcome by adopting the tactics of his adversary and more, including blackmail, seduction, deception, and even the destruction of his own child. Despite these traits (or perhaps because of them), Dominic Flandry, a man struggling against a defeat he believes is inevitable, is my favorite genre character.

Go to Day 1: What Was Your Very First Genre Novel?
Go to Day 3: What Genre Novel Do You Think Is Underrated?

30 Days of Genre     Home

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Follow Friday - Louis the Sixteenth

First off, I'm going to say this has been essentially a lost week for me. I started the week with big plans: finish and review A Game of Thrones, begin reviewing the episodes of the HBO Game of Thrones series, watch and review The Gamers,  put up a bunch of posts for the 30 Days of Genre, throw a post up on my other blog Playing in Other Worlds, and write up a post for The Arcane Hour. But between work, school, helping my daughter with her science project, and trying to mow the foot deep wet grass, and other exigencies of everyday life, exactly zero of that got done. I hope next week is better.

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Marla at Starting the Next Chapter.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Keeping with the dystopian and apocalypse theme that seems to be running rampant on, I have one very hard question for you: If you were stocking your bomb shelter, what books would you HAVE to include if you only had space for ten?

This is a tough question for me. As of my last count, I had just over 5,800 books, so you can pretty much guess that narrowing this down to ten would be quite painful. But assuming that we are talking about fiction, and not books on agriculture, engineering, and practical skills to rebuild civilization, I'd need to bring (in no particular order):
Go to previous Follow Friday: The Ides of Fridays
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Seventeen Is a Prime Number

Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

2011 Clarke Award Nominees

Location: Sci-Fi London at the Apollo Piccadilly Circus in London, United Kingdom.

Comments: One of the most interesting things about the Clarke Award is that it honors works that are first published in the United Kingdom, regardless of the nationality of the author of the work. Many other "national" level awards are aimed at authors of a particular nationality. For example, the Ditmar Awards are only open to authors and other individuals who are from Australia. For the Clarke Award, the national origin of the author is unimportant, so in 2011 it could be won by South African author Lauren Beukes for her novel Zoo City.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Declare by Tim Powers
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers
Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

What Are the Arthur C. Clarke Awards?

Go to previous year's nominees: 2010
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2012

Book Award Reviews     Home

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Review - The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games by Michael J. Tresca

Short review: An academic look at fantasy gaming tracing its roots from Tolkien through wargaming, table-top role-playing, CRPGs, MUDs, MMORPGs, and LARPS.

All use Fellowships

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Evolution of Fantasy Role Playing Games is an academic look at the development of fantasy role-playing across multiple gaming platforms from its earliest iteration as a variant on table-top wargaming, through pen and paper role playing games (RPGs), to computer role playing games (CRPGs), to multi-user dungeons (MUDs), live-action role-playing (LARPs), and massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). He even delves into the somewhat obscure topics of play-by-mail games and interactive fiction (such as the Choose Your Own Adventure books) As one might imagine, this is an enormously broad range of topics to cover over a fairly substantial period of time. In many ways, the book tries to cover too much, and as a result, is only able to give a fairly perfunctory examination of any one subject.

Tresca starts the book by introducing his primary theme: the idea of role-playing games as a vehicle for playing in the form of a "Fellowship", as described by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring. The major theme of the book is identifying how roleplaying games built themselves upon the idea of a diversified team of individuals of differing backgrounds and disparate skills working together towards a common goal. And to this end, Tresca works his way through the full panoply of game types and assesses each in turn, devoting a chapter to each overall area. But because he devotes only ten to thirty pages of text to each topic, he is only able to cover the history and development of each one in a modestly superficial manner. For anyone who is a gamer already, the treatment given to these topics will probably be only moderately informative, covering material they probably mostly know, and for anyone who isn't a gamer the limited amount of material is likely to flash by so quickly that they won't be able to understand what arguments Tresca is making.

The book has a few other niggling problems. One is formatting, which I hope will be fixed in the final version: there are several references cited in the text, but they are merely cited by author and year, omitting the work that the reference cites to which is quite frustrating. The book also contains a fair number of pages discussing fantastical races and professions in role-playing games (heavily slanted towards the ones found in the Dungeons & Dragons game), which seemed to me like a poor use of the space. This section seemed somewhat unnecessary, and it meant that less space could be devoted to discussing the historical development of role-playing games. It seemed clear to me that Tresca was trying to support his Fellowship theory by including these descriptions to show how the differing roles players could take would complement one another, but the book is too short to fully explore this and give a historical overview of the development of gaming. Either the book should have focused on one or the other, or it needed to be substantially longer to cover such a broad range of topics.

One final weakness, which also turns out to be a strength of the book is the intensely personal nature of much of the experiences related by Tresca. Interspersed throughout the text are anecdotes about his personal gaming experiences or the gaming experiences of people he knows personally. Tresca also includes some fairly extended discussion concerning his experiences with RetroMUD, a MUD that he has participated in as a player and an administrator for several years. This adds a level of immediacy to the text without which might have been a dry and uninteresting experience to read. The drawback is that by relating these very idiosyncratic experiences, Tresca runs the risk of having the reader wonder exactly how generalized the applicability of his observations might be. After all, it is very interesting on a personal level that Tresca has spent many years helping keep a MUD going, but MUDs are fairly rare now, and even at the height of their popularity were not all that common a form of gaming. On the whole, this element enhances the effectiveness of the book, but it does come with some drawbacks.

But these moderate problems do not detract from the fact that the book identifies exactly why so many popular presentations of gaming so completely misrepresent it. By focusing on the element of collaborative play, Tresca has identified and explained the element that makes role-playing games different from so many other endeavors, and what makes them such a valuable experience for so many of the participants. In most popular fiction, where role-playing games are presented, they are usually presented as being turned into some sort of competitive sport - as an example, a scene in The X-Files in which a collection of D&D players were placing wagers on whether one of them could roll a natural twenty on his twenty-sided die - as if the writer could not imagine a game in which the players worked together towards a common goal. This is not to mention those somewhat deluded religious zealots who imagine that the players participate in order to derive some sort of occult prowess, once again the idea that people would play a game in order to work together collaboratively and for no other reason seems to be beyond the ken of non-players.

For anyone who is looking for a definitive history of the development of role-playing games, this book is likely to be a little bit of a disappointment. For anyone looking for a comprehensive treatment of the social aspects of role-playing games, this is also likely to be a bit of a disappointment. This book is neither of those things. It is a kind of hybrid that gives a rough outline of the history of role-playing games, and a brief glimpse of the social framework that these games engender. This book is more the first salvo in the effort to take on role-playing games as an academic subject, rather than the final word. As a launching point for a more complete treatment of either, this is an excellent beginning.

Michael J. Tresca     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Follow Friday - The Ides of Fridays

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Cait at The Cait Files.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What is on your current playlist right now?

Right now, Led Zeppelin is getting some pretty heavy rotation, as is Pink Floyd. And as always, REM, which is the soundtrack to my life. Def Leppard and Judas Priest are on the back burner right now, but as soon as I am back into running shape, they'll be in regular rotation again. Yes, I know I am horribly conventional and boring in my musical tastes.

Go to previous Follow Friday: A Fortnight of Fridays
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Louis the Sixteenth

Follow Friday     Home

30 Days of Genre - What Was Your Very First Genre Novel?

First off, this is a day later than I wanted it to be, but last night my brain basically stopped functioning and I fell asleep in front of the computer. That's what happens when you burn the candle from both ends all the time. Anyway, enough kvetching. On to Day 1 of the 30 Days of Genre:

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Leaving aside nursery rhymes, dumbed down sterilized fairy tales, and picture books, I suppose that The Hobbit (read review) should be considered my first genre novel. When I was eight or so my family moved from Illinois to Washington, D.C. I remember during that summer my father would read me a couple of pages from The Hobbit every night. We didn't even read an entire chapter at a time, just a couple pages. We also didn't make it all the way through the book, although the years have made the memories hazy I think we got to Beorn's Hall before summer ended and we stopped. Fast forward to November of that year, and the Rankin-Bass produced animated version of The Hobbit with voice acting by Orson Bean and John Huston aired, giving me the entire story in broad strokes. The next summer we moved to Tanzania, and everything changed.

When my family moved to Tanzania, the world was still not well-connected. Tanzania was isolated from mass media. There were no television stations, no radio stations, and the only news of the rest of the world that could be gotten was via magazines that arrived at least a month out of date. This was also the best thing that could have possibly happened to me. Because with nothing to distract me and being the new kid in a foreign country, during my fourth grade year I began to plough through books at a prodigious rate. My parents had acquired an array of books from the "Companion Library", a series consisting of a couple dozen volumes with two books per volume, including most of the classics handed to young readers: Tom Sawyer, Toby Tyler, Little Women, Little Men, Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Heidi, Hans Brinker, Five Little Peppers, Treasure Island, and so on. Each volume had a front cover on each side, and you flipped the book over to read the second book. This may be the reason I always make sure to have two books with me wherever I go, but I digress. And I started at one end, and over a year worked my way through them. But this collection also included genre type books like Robin Hood, The Jungle Book, King Arthur, Gulliver's Travels, Arabian Knights, and Grimm's Fairy Tales. I suppose if one counts these as genre novels, then one of them would be the first genre novel I actually read. But I would suggest that even though the myth of King Arthur (for example) has inspired dozens of genre novels, I don't know if I would call the compiled stories a genre novel themselves. The book on this list that I would consider to actually be a genre novel would be Gulliver's Travels. So maybe that was my first genre novel.

But maybe not. Because I was blessed with parents who thought this was important, we had lots of books, including two Danny Dunn books - Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine and Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint. In the first, Danny and his friends get hold of a computer in their home that they program to do their homework for them (so very science fictiony!), and in the second Professor Bullfinch discovers a paint that, when activated properly, repels gravity. Danny Dunn, of course, accidentally launches the space ship that they are building with the paint and our heroes drift about the solar system trying to get back home. I'm reasonably sure I read these both at some point in this time period, but I have no idea if I read them earlier or later than any of the other books listed here. The same is true of the Henry Winterfield book Castaways in Lilliput, which I also remember reading, but don't remember exactly when. As I said before, the memories as to which books came first are hazy now.

For me, it all comes back to The Hobbit though. My parents acquired the album version of the Rankin-Bass production, narrated by John Huston, and I listened to it all year. To this day John Huston is the voice of fantasy fiction to me. And one night, in the summer between my fourth and fifth grade year, I opened up my father's copy of The Hobbit and began to read. And I didn't stop until the sun began to come up the next day. And I only stopped then because Smaug was dead, the Battle of the Five Armies was over, and Bilbo had come home to the Shire. And even though I knew the outlines of the story by heart, the book captivated me. The song the dwarves sing about the Lonely Mountain had more stanzas, the riddle-contest with Gollum had more riddles, Mirkwood had more dangers, Smaug the Golden was more terrible, the Battle of Five Armies had more strategy (and it had an enraged Beorn to boot). In short, though I had thought I knew the story, only by reading the book did I fall completely in love. And I was hooked. Within a week I had consumed the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, and was looking for more. Before the year was out, I had read The Silmarillion, and then I was on to Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Narnia, Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series, and before too long, anything by Andre Norton I could get my hands on. And then Asimov, and Heinlein, and Niven, and well, you get the idea.

But it was The Hobbit that started it all.

Go to Day 2: Who Is Your Favorite Character?

30 Days of Genre     Home

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Meme - 30 Days of Genre

I haven't really done any memes before except the Follow Friday Hop, but after I saw Mageamanda at Floor to Ceiling Books start posting using this meme I had to join in. Basically, Ria at Bibliotropic has put together a list of thirty days of genre fiction with one genre fiction oriented question for each day. I'm starting out a few days behind the curve, but I don't think that matters too much. In any event, the thirty days are as follows:

The 30 Days of Genre:

Day 1: What was your very first genre novel?
Day 2: Who is your favorite character?
Day 3: What genre novel do you think is underrated?
Day 4: What is your guilty pleasure book?
Day 5: What character do you feel you are most like (or wish you were)?
Day 6: Who is the most annoying character?
Day 7: What is your favorite couple in a genre novel?
Day 8: What is the best fan soundtrack?
Day 9: What is the saddest scene in a genre novel?
Day 11: What is your favorite genre series?
Day 12: What genre novel should everyone read?
Day 13: What genre novel have you read more than five times?
Day 14: What is your favorite book trailer for a genre novel?
Day 15: What is the cover of your current or most recent genre read?
Day 16: What genre novel has the most intriguing plot?
Day 17: Who is your favorite antagonist in a genre novel?
Day 18: Who is your favorite protagonist in a genre novel?
Day 19: What genre novel world or setting do you wish you lived in?
Day 20: What is your favorite genre?
Day 21: What genre novel has the most interesting character interactions?
Day 22: What genre novel sequel disappointed you?
Day 23: What genre novel haven't you read, but wish you had?
Day 24: What is your favorite classic genre novel?
Day 25: What genre novel do you plan on reading soon?
Day 26: Who is the best hero in a genre novel?
Day 27: What is the most epic scene ever in a genre novel?
Day 28: Who is your favorite publisher of genre novels?
Day 29: What genre novel you did think you wouldn’t like, but ended up loving?
Day 30: What is your favorite genre novel of all time?

Who I Am     Home

Monday, April 18, 2011

Event - A.S. King at Hooray for Books!

A.S. King and me. She's the pretty one.
Here's what I did last Friday: I went to Alexandria to see the incredibly awesome A.S. King at Hooray for Books. (For the record, the full name of the store is "Hooray for Books!" with an exclamation point, but including that piece of punctuation every time makes the text look weird, so just imagine its there). For anyone who has been living under a rock, A.S. King is the author of Please Ignore Vera Dietz (read review) which I have read, and Dust of 100 Dogs, which I have not (an oversight I ope to correct soon), and the forthcoming Everybody Sees the Ants (which I am anxiously awaiting).

Anyone who knows me knows what it takes to get me to go to Alexandria, which is deceptively far from where I actually live. Looking at a map it looks like a short jaunt, but since this is D.C., the straight route is a traffic nightmare, and the roundabout route is only slightly better. Plus, since I don't go to Alexandria very often, I have to rely on Google maps or Mapquest to figure out where I am going and, well, I ended up in Maryland this time. So, after crossing and recrossing the Woodrow Wilson bridge we finally made it into Alexandria, found the right street and actually located a parking spot. From there it was a short walk to Hooray for Books, an independent children's bookstore tucked into the bottom floor of a cute brick building on King Street. And we were only about a half hour late. (And by we, I mean me, my son, and my daughter. Yep, I dragged them all along with me).

So we walked over to the back of the store and there she was, sitting with a circle of rapt listeners holding court talking about Vera Dietz, writing, living in Ireland, the long years of writing before she got published, her personal path to publication, the dangers of the Border's bankruptcy, and where her book titles came from. And I immediately began regretting that we had not made it on time because in addition to being a superlative author who wrote the best book I read in 2010, she is an incredibly interesting and funny speaker. Among the things I found most interesting was a discussion about the process of selecting a publisher for Vera Dietz (if I remember correctly, she said that no fewer than seven publishers expressed interest), and the many different alterations that their respective editors requested. This led to commentary about the conventional wisdom of Young Adult book publishing - conventional wisdom that Vera Dietz gleefully and repeatedly flouts: Teens only want to read about teens, having a Pagoda as a character is a bad idea, and putting flowcharts in your book won't work. Well, okay, those last two are conventional wisdom only in the sense that Vera Dietz included them and editors thought that was weird. To that I'd add my pet peeve nugget of conventional wisdom: boys will only read books with male protagonists (which Vera Dietz also flouts). And she also talked about how Dust of 100 Dogs, with its math based structure, and Everybody Sees the Ants, which includes the protagonist's grandfather as a significant character, also violate those "rules".

And what becomes clear when listening to A.S. King (and talking with her later), is that she is all about breaking rules, and that's what makes her stories so very compelling. As she stated, she wrote seven novels over fifteen years before she got one published, and the one that was the first one published was one she had given up on as too strange to ever see print. But it turns out she has even more deliciously weird novels completed, including one in which chunks of the novel are told via crossword puzzles and cryptograms (and even though she is probably right that it is nigh unpublishable, how I want to get my hands on that book). And she talked about the serious topics that fill her books: Teen suicide, abuse, alcoholism, the draft lottery, and so on. And she talked about the dangers of having most of our reading selections dictated by a single entity such as Barnes & Noble. I could probably sit and listen to her talk for hours about anything. And she could probably write the phone book and make it interesting.*

Mrs. King's stories about her travails in settling into an office dedicated to allowing her to write was both funny, and demonstrated the reality of writing as a profession at the same time. Apparently, she has fixed up a room to be a beautiful office for her on more than one occasion, and each time she has completed the work and has the office set just the way she wants it, she gets pregnant and the child ends up taking over the room intended to be her office. She now works in a basement with a ceiling so low that she has to hunch over to walk to her desk. First, I'd like to say I hope that if she has another child they build an addition on to the house rather than giving the new baby her current office space, because otherwise that child will resent Mrs. King and probably demand therapy. Second, this highlights the truth about writing - it is a solitary experience that requires a willingness to sit down in a basement by yourself and keep pounding on the keys until you have several tens of thousands of words. Which you will then edit. And edit again. Of which you will throw away huge chunks. And then you will rewrite some more. And then you have at least a couple books that are unsalable, so you go back and start a new one. By yourself. In your basement. And keep at it until you have something that can be published. And I, for one, am supremely glad that Mrs. King is just the sort of stubborn person who will endure this misery and enjoy it enough to turn out books that are so very worth reading.

After the more or less "formal" discussion was done, Mrs. King announced that she was going to sign some books, and then made my day by hopping up to give me a hug, recognizing me from my blog and letting me know she stops by to read it now and again (by the way "Hi! Hope you like this article. If I got anything wrong, let me know. Love your writing!"). She met my daughter, who immediately asked if Mrs. King was a famous person (my answer "Yes", Mrs. King's answer "Not really"). She even laughed at my bad "Shetland people" joke, and later offered to scrunch down for a picture (note to Mrs. King: Almost everyone is taller than me, that's why I am a Shetland person, I expected to take a picture with your head higher than mine). In short, she showed over and over again that not only is she brilliant, insightful, funny, and a fantastic writer, she is also incredibly cool and nice. The only down note of the entire evening wasn't her fault: Hooray for Books ran out of copies of Dust of 100 Dogs before I could buy one, so my personal library is still sadly lacking this book. That was a small hiccup in what was otherwise a fantastic evening.

If you have not gone out and gotten and read a copy of a book by A.S. King, you should go out and rectify this situation immediately. If you ever have the opportunity to go to one of her appearances, you should cancel all other plans and go. In the meantime, you can check out her website, find her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.

*And now she's probably going to try to incorporate a phone listing into one of her future books. If she does, you can blame me for putting this idea into her head. I apologize in advance.

A.S. King     Events     Home

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Follow Friday - A Fortnight of Fridays

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Marie and Brie at Romance Around the Corner.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Do you have anyone that you can discuss books with in real life? Tell us about him or her.

I am blessed to have many people I can talk to about books. My father is a historian and a long time science fiction aficionado. My best friend is also a huge science fiction buff. I have several other friends who I play role-playing games with who talk science fiction and fantasy books with me. For the most part, I have surrounded myself with people who share my love of books, and in many cases, who share my love of speculative fiction. And for having those people in my life, I am always grateful.

Go to previous Follow Friday: A Baker's Dozen
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: The Ides of Fridays

Follow Friday     Home

Review - The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Short review: Lee blunders. Stuart joyrides. Longstreet broods. Meade does little. Chamberlain fights. Pickett charges. Hancock destroys Pickett's division. The South throws away any chance it had of hoping to win the war by trusting to the leadership of a cavalier who belongs to an earlier age.

On a rural field
Lee and Meade's vast armies meet
Decide nation's fate

Full review: The Killer Angels is probably one of the best historical novels about the U.S. Civil War. It is certainly the best historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, which it details from Lee's initial decision to turn East and move his army towards Washington D.C. in his second invasion of the Union, to the aftermath immediately following the breaking of the ill-fated Pickett's Charge. In between, the largest land battle to ever take place on the North American continent took place, and the result sealed the fate of the Confederacy. The novel also spawned the Ted Turner movie Gettysburg, which is both quite good and remarkably faithful to the book, although as a result it is really long.

Although this book is listed as the middle book in a trilogy, the other two books (Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure) were written years after this one by Michael Shaara's son Jeff Shaara following the elder Shaara's death. Unfortunately, Jeff is not quite as good a novelist as his father, so there is a danger that someone reading them in "order" will read Gods and Generals and decide not to continue the series. That would be a mistake. This novel is masterfully executed and stands head and shoulders above the other two novels in the trilogy.

While some historians consider the Battle of Gettysburg the pivotal moment in the U.S. Civil War, after reading Bruce Catton's excellent three volume history of the war - The Coming Fury (read review), Terrible Swift Sword (read review), and Never Call Retreat (read review) - I have come to the conclusion that it was instead the last desperate gasp of a defeated nation - a huge gamble against long odds that had little hope of success. This view seems to be borne out by the characterizations in The Killer Angels: The one dominant feeling one gets from most of the Confederate characters is a feeling of exhaustion. The soldiers are tired, Lee is tired, his minuscule staff is tired, and Shaara conveys this feeling perfectly. The lone exception to this is the exuberant General Pickett and the prodigal J.E.B. Stuart, but Pickett's exuberance against this background of overall malaise the rest of the Confederates seem to share makes his confidence seem even more misplaced and makes Stuart's energy seem juvenile. On the other hand, many on the Union side are exhausted by their travails during the unfolding events, but few of them have to deal with the relentless pace of the battle day after day.

The novel is told from a shifting limited third person viewpoint, jumping from person to person as the events of the battle move about. This storytelling style allows Shaara to give the reader a comprehensive view of the battle, while also giving insight into the decisions and difficulties each of the featured individuals would have faced. Reading the novel and knowing the history of the events of late June and early July 1863, one gets a sense of impending doom as a tired Lee lacking reliable intelligence about his enemy and relying on faulty assumptions and erroneous information works to convince himself that the incredibly stupid is actually the correct choice.

The novel makes clear two things. The first is that the Confederacy was already on its last legs, even though the war would drag on for almost two more years. As noted before, the Confederates portrayed in the novel seem almost universally exhausted, but they are also clearly lacking in basic supplies and out-manned by their opponent. The second is that placing too much faith in a single leader can exalt a military organization, but only so long as that leader makes the correct choices. When such a leader is wrong, or places his trust in subordinates who are unequal to the tasks given them, placing him upon such a pedestal results in there being no checks against his poor judgment. The Confederacy was both blessed and cursed with Lee as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and this book drives this home with a series of hammer blows that highlight both his obvious strengths as a leader, and his not so obvious but still quite serious flaws.

In the end, this book is probably as close as anyone alive today will come to seeing inside the minds of Lee, Longstreet, Buford, Chamberlain, and Armistead. It covers much of the battle, and covers it quite clearly. Shaara's choice of selecting critical viewpoint characters gives an intensely personal perspective on the battle, but it does limit the book as history as it limits the range of events that can be covered. For example, choosing Buford as his Union viewpoint character for the events of the first day limits Shaara's ability to detail the events of the day that took place after Buford left the main engagement. Similarly, by focusing on Chamberlain on the second day, Shaara is unable to cover the attacks that took place on the right flank of the "fishhook", as well as the attacks even on Big Round Top and the front side of Little Round Top. As a result, the fierce fighting in the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, and Devil's Den gets limited attention. Such compromises are probably necessary to make an account of a three day battle fit into a single novel length work, so these are probably minor quibbles. Despite this, this is an excellent book, and a must read for anyone who wants to understand the U.S. Civil War and the men who fought it.

Michael Shaara     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review - How I Survived My Summer Vacation by Bruce Coville

Short review: Stuart Glassman goes to a movie summer camp, meets a ghost, and has trouble with the locals.

Camp Haunted Hills brings
Stuart ghosts, monsters, good friends
Plus silly hijinks

Long review: How I Survived My Summer Vacation is the first installment of Bruce Coville's Camp Haunted Hills series. Like the other Camp Haunted Hills books, this volume takes the kitchen sink approach to storytelling, throwing just about everything into the mix and shaking it up until some sort of silly, funny adventure falls out.

In this volume was are introduced both to Stuart Glassman, a kind of nerdy movie fanatic, and Camp Haunted Hills, a summer movie camp run by a man known for making scary special effects laden horror movies. This is, of course, heaven for Stuart, who immediately gravitates to Harry Housen, the special effects teacher and gets involved in making special effects for the Camp movie. Along the way, Stuart runs into the usual cast of characters that inhabit books aimed at younger readers: the pretty camp counselor that he has a case of puppy love for, the cool camp counselor, the jerky camper, his friend the nerdy but nice camper, and so on. Stuart also makes friends with Robert, the Camp's resident ghost (and the reason why the camp is "Camp Haunted Hills"), who only he can see or hear. This, of course, causes Stuart no end of trouble, which is amusing for the reader as Stuart tries to explain why he always seems to be talking to himself.

The book sort of wanders along with some typical summer camp hijinks until the final stage in which the campers set out to make a movie as their final summer camp project. Stuart is selected to play a bigfoot type character, which results in him getting into a rather hairy situation. It turns out that being friends with Robert has benefits after all, and the camp counselors have to mount a rescue effort to extract Stuart to safety. This being a humorous book aimed at younger readers, all is well that ends well, and everyone gets home safely.

While there isn't anything particularly deep about this book, it has the usual Coville message that being nice to others is a good thing, and good friends are the most valuable thing one can have. This being a Coville book, this message is also surrounded with an array of silly and supernatural elements. Unfortunately, like the other Camp Haunted Hills books, this book seems to try to pack just too many elements into one hundred and six pages, and the result is somewhat unfocused and disjointed.

Subsequent book in the series: Some of My Best Friends Are Monsters

Bruce Coville     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Review - Realms of Fantasy (February 2011) edited by Douglas Cohen and Shawna McCarthy

Stories included:
The Swan Troika by Richard Parks
Thirteen Incantations by Desirina Boskovich
Magpie by Mark Rigney
No Tale for Troubadours by Pauline J. Alama
The Time of His Life by Scott William Carter

Full review: Although Realms of Fantasy has had a somewhat uncertain future over the last year or so, with the February 2011 issue of the magazine it seems that there is reason to hope that its troubles are behind it. This is the first issue published fully under the direction of the magazine's new publisher Damnation Books, and it seems to be a fairly good start for them. Gone are the collection of formatting errors that plagued the last issue, and in their place is the Folkroots feature, which had gone temporarily AWOL. Although it is probably too early to say for certain, it seems that Realms of Fantasy is finding its way out of the unstable swamp waters it had found itself on, and back to solid ground.

The featured artist in this month's Artist's Gallery is Dominic Hardman, notable in my opinion as the artist who provides the excellent cover illustrations for Naomi Novik's Tremeraire series. However, as the article demonstrates, Hardman's artwork can be seen on the cover of The Amber Spyglass, The Hellbound Heart, Swords and Dark Magic, and numerous other books. Hardman's artwork is clearly influenced by Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta, but has both a more realistic and more magical quality about it. You can see his art on his website Bleeding Dreams. As noted before, this issue also sees a return to the print version of the magazine of the Folkroots feature, which goes into the history and lore of the femme fatale. Though the article draws upon a wide range of mythology and historical examples of the femme fatale, it never seems to come together and left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Perhaps the fact that the subject matter wasn't a classic element of folklore, like vampires, werewolves, or fair folk, served to undermine the article for me. In any event, though I was glad to see this regular feature back in the magazine, this particular iteration struck me as a subpar example.

However, the femme fatale article does lead to the first pieces of fiction in the magazine: The Swan Troika by Richard Parks, featuring a classic Russian folklore version of the trope - the rusalka. Pyotr, the narrator of the story, comes across one of these spirits of drowned women in the winter while traveling in his sleigh carved with swan decorations upon it. Because it is winter, the rusalka's river has frozen over, preventing her from dragging him to a watery death, and allowing him to convince her to accompany him to his great aunt's estate. Though the tale seems like it is going to involve a romance between a somewhat naive young man and a deadly spirit, it instead turns into a tale of tragic decisions, sad consequences, bitter regret, and finally retribution.

A tale of friendship, young love, and witchcraft, Thirteen Incantations by Desirina Boskovich captures that awkward age where an adolescent is still figuring out how to navigate their way through the minefields of adult relationships. Layered on to the story is the contentious relationship between a mother and a daughter, and undertones of almost incest as a child uses her mother's magically enhanced perfumes to unwittingly recreate the journey that led to her now slightly deranged mother and her long absentee father falling in love in their youth. In that way the story manages to be both a coming of age story and a reflection on lost innocence. Another coming of age story that comes full circle is Magpie by Mark Rigney. The story starts as Cath, an orphaned and lost waif, is taken in by Jackdaw, a mercurial magical thief, and then follows her life as she hones his twin crafts and journeys with him about the countryside. The story is about growing up, growing old, and eventually, renewing a cycle. Interestingly, while most such stories try to show how the actors have gained wisdom through their travails, in Magpie it seems that the message is that the cycle goes on fueled by little more than petty selfishness.

No Tale for Troubadours by Pauline J. Alama is the most "traditional" fantasy story in the issue, featuring a retired swordswoman called back to battle an encroaching band of trolls because there is no one else to turn to. Drawn by the legends of her exploits generated during her crusades against the infidel to seek out Ursula, also known as the "Maiden of Revie", a village priest finds instead a reluctant mother tired of the violence and horrors of war. While persuading Isabeau, her estranged former sorceress companion (who has since taken up vows as a nun) to join her, Ursula must come to grips with her past, her contentious relationship with Isabeau, and the indignities of getting older. Though the underlying fantasy setting - a post-crusades Europe with magic and monsters added in - is fairly conventional, the story is at least somewhat original and has an interesting resolution. The creepiest story in the issue, and also the best, is The Time of His Life by Scott William Carter. A man pressed for time finds a seemingly miraculous solution for his problem. The solution turns out to come with a price tag that seems obvious in retrospect, but transforms the blessing into a horrific curse. And like all of the most awful curses, this one turns out to be self-inflicted. A story of how dreams can turn into obsession, and the struggle to balance reality with perfection, it is scary, sad, and a little hopeful all at the same time.

The February 2011 issue of Realms of Fantasy is definitely the best issue in recent memory. In fits and starts, the magazine which has struggled so much for so long seems to be finally pulling together. With four good and one very good pieces of fiction, a strong featured artist and the return of the Folkroots column, plus the usual assortment of movie and book reviews, the magazine seems to be firing on all cylinders. Having been given up for dead twice in the last year, Realms of Fantasy seems to be back, and finally returning to form.

Previous issue reviewed: December 2010
Subsequent issue reviewed: April 2011

Realms of Fantasy     Douglas Cohen     Shawna McCarthy     Magazine Reviews


Saturday, April 9, 2011

Review - It's Not Funny If I Have to Explain It by Scott Adams

Short review: It turns out it often is funny when Adams explains it.

Dilbert is funny
But it's even funnier
If Adams explains

Full review: It's Not Funny If I Have to Explain It is a compilation of Dilbert comic strips selected by Scott Adams for inclusion. As he says in the foreword of the book, he mostly picked those strips that he thought were the funniest, but also included strips that particularly offended some people, or were actually somewhat "naughty" (in Adams' estimation) but somehow slipped by the censors and the morality police. Since this is a Dilbert book, the title has to be somewhat ironic, and it is: each strip also includes commentary from Adams in which he does, in fact, explain every comic strip, often explaining why it is funny. This, despite the name of the book, often turns out to be very funny.

As usual for Dilbert the strips are filled with bitter, incisive, biting, and brutal satire about thew social ineptitude of nerdy engineers, the inanity of clueless bosses, and the evil of household pets. But through it all is the insanity of the modern workplace, which is lampooned and parodied mostly by simply showing the workplace pretty much as it actually is in reality. Okay, Adams' throws on a few flourishes here and there, like having an evil cat as the human resources director, or a megalomaniacal dog as a business consultant. But when one stops and thinks about human resources directors and business consultants, these characterizations don't necessarily seem all that far off.

The full panoply of recognizable Dilbert characters is here: Dilbert (of course), Wally, Asok, Alice, the Pointy Haired Boss, Dogbert, Catbert, and Ratbert. Even Phil the Prince of Insufficient Light makes an appearance, as do the Elbonians. Since the strips are drawn from the entire run of Dilbert up to 2004, when the book was published, almost every topic that has been covered by the strip crops up at least once - Dilbert's strange inventions, Dilbert's clueless dating attempts, Dogbert's schemes to rule the world, Ratbert's empty-headed optimism, the Pointy Headed Boss's constant buffoonish attempts to exert control over employees whose actual jobs he simply does not understand.

But this wide range of strips is also the biggest weakness of the book - because the strips are pulled selectively from the run of the comic, there are no ongoing story lines or common elements that run through any group of strips (except for those that crop up by accident because Adams returned to a particular comedy trope more than once). As a result, all of the strips featured in this compilation have to stand on their own, and the result is somewhat disjointed. Even though most comic strips have runs where all of their strips are stand alone strips, most (including Dilbert) have runs of between a handful to a couple dozen strips that form a single combined storyline. Because of the nature of this collection, this aspect is entirely missing from the strips presented here.

However, this is somewhat of a minor point. In compensation, the strips are almost all among the funniest strips created by Adams, and the commentary which accompanies each strip often serves to enhance them further. In some cases Adams merely states why he thinks a particular strip is funny, points out some quirky minor aspect of a strip, or expresses his amazement that a particular strip got by the editors given its somewhat scandalous content. Adams also talks about how people misinterpreted some of his comics (often leading to angry letter), or simply didn't "get" the jokes (leading to more angry letters), or how often he recycled the same comic idea, or even the exact same joke (which apparently didn't lead to angry letters). In short, Adams gives a small glimpse into the mind of a cartoonist, and in the process, enhances his already brilliant output.

For any fan of Dilbert, or any person who has ever had to deal with the soul destroying ennui of the cubicle farms, or anyone who has worked for a desperately moronic boss, this book is sure to provide hours of enjoyment. The only people who might not enjoy this book are likely Pointy Headed Bosses themselves, and thus immune to humor to begin with. Of course, it will hit so uncomfortably close to home, that most people will find themselves disturbed by how close to their actual workplace Dilbert seems, probably resulting in tears of anger along with the laughter.

Previous book in the series: Don't Stand Where the Comet Is Assumed to Strike Oil
Subsequent book in the series: The Fluorescent Light Glistens Off Your Head

Scott Adams     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Follow Friday - A Baker's Dozen

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - My Keeper Shelf.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Do you judge a book by it's cover?

While a good book cover can enhance a book, I usually don't pay much attention to the cover. Perhaps this is a consequence of reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy, because there are lots of books in those genres that have simply godawful covers and if one were to reject books (or even try to evaluate them) based upon their covers, well, you'd miss out on a lot of books.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: A Fortnight of Fridays

Follow Friday     Home

Review - Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge

Short review: Jackal is the chosen scion of an insane government, gets railroaded for a crime she did not commit, and is subjected to experimental punishment.

First Ren is a Hope
Then Ren is a prisoner
Then she finds herself

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Ren Segura, also known as Jackal, is the Hope of Ko. The fact that she is a Hope is the first indication that the world in which she lives in has gone insane. This is because the way that the nations of the world selected their respective "Hopes" is by choosing a child born on the first second of the first day of a predetermined New Year. In other words, an accident of birth results in a child be catapulted into a position that results in status, authority, and unrelenting pressure. That a child such as Segura would be placed in this position and left to be raised by a mentally unstable mother, and an indifferent father seems almost incredible. And it turns out that the insane selection criteria based upon birth time was not merely suggested, but mandated to such an extent that being born six minutes later is a huge issue sufficient to pose the risk of a ruinous scandal. So Segura starts the novel as a woman who has been placed on a pedestal for no real reason, subjected to the whims of her jealous and unstable mother, and placed under tremendous pressure to handle projects more suitable to someone with decades more experience and training than she possesses. One has to wonder why she had not cracked before the "scandalous" information about her birth is revealed. Though the novel is ostensibly about Ren's imprisonment and subsequent mental afflictions, it seems that the circumstances of her early life were damaging to begin with. In effect, Segura is already a broken person when she enters her solitary confinement.

The fact that she is a citizen of Ko, the first corporate state, is another indication that the world Segura lives in has gone insane. While it is a staple of cyberpunk to have giant multinational corporations wield enormous power and influence, it is fairly rare to have them treated like independent nations. And Ko seems to serve as an example why. Despite appearing to be a benevolent master, Ko is ruthless and, as one might expect from a corporation, displays almost no loyalty to any of its citizen-employees. In many ways, Ko is a beautiful dystopia, lovely on the surface, but horrible underneath. When a lifelong Ko employee objects to what turns out to be an inhumane project, he is quickly cashiered and his entire family stripped of citizenship to be dumped in an alien land with limited resources and a toxic resume. While the other characters express shock at this development, they all assume this is perfectly legitimate for Ko to take this action - but it highlights how a nation differs from a corporation, a nation cannot simply strip someone of their identity as a member of that nation on a whim. And a collateral question is exactly who controls Ko? Nations have governments, and in many nations the government is selected by something akin to a democratic process, giving the citizenry a say in how their nation is run. But corporations have Boards of Directors, and those Boards are selected by the shareholders. But who are Ko's shareholders? This is never really defined. A further question is exactly what sort of charter does Ko operate under - corporations are creations of law, defined by their Articles of Incorporation that are usually dictated by statute. But if Ko is a corporate-state, where do its articles of incorporation come from? On what base are they rooted?

The meat of the book does not deal with the lunatic nature of the nascent world government, or the inherent contradictions in the existence of a corporate state, but rather the life of a single individual caught in this cheerful dystopian meat grinder that consumes and nearly destroys her. Through a series of coincidences, Segura is at the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of killing hundreds of people. Ko immediately shows its true callous and ruthless nature, coercing Segura into agreeing to plead guilty to the charges by threatening to ruin her family by revealing that her parents knew of the deception concerning Segura's birth (which Ko was complicit in, but Ko has conveniently doctored the records to hide this fact) in order to appease the Chinese government. And once again the dangers of a corporate state raise their head: Ko provides Segura with a lawyer. When it turns out that all of the exculpatory evidence that might exonerate Segura (and corroborate her version of events) has mysteriously disappeared, Ko pressures Segura to accept a plea bargain, which her attorney (paid for by Ko) also recommends. But Segura's attorney has a clear conflict of interest here: if she is beholden to Ko, and could be stripped of her citizenship and dumped into a hostile country with nothing for going against Ko's instructions, how can she give effective legal advice to Segura if Segura's interests and Ko's interests diverge? And who is going to watch over this to discipline her lawyer if they do behave unethically? In short, Ko's position as both corporation and government creates an almost inherent conflict of interest with respect to Segura's representation, but since Ko also presumably regulates that, they can hand-wave it away despite its readily apparent unfairness.

After railroading Segura, Ko secures her place in an experimental project in which prisoners are "locked" inside their own minds in accelerated solitary confinement. This was, ironically, the project Segura was to work on as project manager had circumstances not transpired to transform her into a non-citizen prisoner (and which the employee who was fired earlier in the book objected to on humanitarian grounds). So Segura exchanges forty years of conventional imprisonment for eight subjective years of solitary confinement, which will only take a handful of months of "real" time. This, it turns out, may or may not have been a wise decision. All of this is set up for the meat of the story: Segura's imprisonment and its aftermath. Despite seeming modestly benign at first glance - since it would allow the prisoner to discharge subjectively long sentences in objectively short periods of time - it seems difficult to come up with a more destructive form of incarceration. The prisoner is locked in complete isolation within their own mind, with no possibility of contacting anyone should the ordeal of being isolated from all of humanity prove to be too much to bear. Once inside the mental prison, the inmate is confined to a grey windowless cell with nothing but a cot, a view screen that plays bland, meaningless scenes, and a self-replenishing cupboard with a small amount of fairly bland food. And this tiny, completely isolated existence is to be endured for days, weeks, months, and years, with no possibility of a respite until the sentence has been completed. And if something goes wrong, there is no help. In short, it is a process almost guaranteed to mentally destroy the prisoner. And, of course, most of these details are concealed from the prisoner when they are asked to decide whether they want to participate in the experimental program (and of course, after they have been placed into solitary mental confinement, it is too late for them to change their mind).

Which leads to Segura's ordeal in prison, which Eskridge tells in a series of vignettes, taking the reader through the stages of the breakdown and reconstruction of Segura's psyche. Despite all of her advantages, Segura enters prison as a profoundly broken person: already cracking under the pressure of her status as Hope, distraught at her role, however innocent, in the death of her closest friends, estranged from her parents, thrown to the wolves by her nation, and even cut off - albeit voluntarily - from her lover. And yet Segura proves to be amazingly resilient when imprisoned, for the most part. Segura turns her training to disciplining her subjective days in order to prevent her mind from decaying out of disuse. And even so, despite her training and her rigor, Segura nearly goes insane and lets the despairing portion of her mind (which she personifies as "the crocodile") destroy and consume her. But Segura eventually overcomes this, and although the experience certainly damages her, it also heals her. Eventually, Segura unexpectedly accomplishes something that becomes her secret, and the thing that keeps her sane: she breaks out of her cell, and finds the island of Ko as her playground. Though it is uninhabited (as it is entirely within her mind), she is able to wander out of the minuscule grey cell she had spent years in to that point. It is this almost miraculous transformation of her environment that proves to be the key element of the remainder of the book.

Because, as with most prison sentences, Segura's ends, and she has to transition back into the real world as felon convicted of a notorious mass murder. But her sentence was also cut short because of unexplained and somewhat mysterious complications that arose (which an astute reader might link back to the objections to the project that led to the firing of the employee early in the book). And also, though it had been more than six subjective years for Segura, it had only been a matter of months for the rest of the world, so the terrible crime which had become attached to her was still fresh in the minds of the public. This means Segura returns from her isolation into a world in which she is ostracized, reviled, prohibited (as a felon) from living or working in most places (even if she could actually find an employer willing to hire her). But she does have something of a guardian angel that allows her to eschew the coercive offer to serve as a human lab rat. Eventually she makes contact with others who had been subjected to the same experimental isolation she suffered in a bar named Solitaire. And it is here that Segura learns that the line between reality and unreality is blurred via the psychological trauma of "aftershocks" which throw her and other veterans of the solitary experiments back into their mental cells seemingly at random. Now calling herself only Jackal, Segura must navigate her way back to real life, establishing herself with a circle of acquaintances that now consists of other criminals, pathetically desperate groupies, and the lover she thought she had lost.

In the end, Segura's story winds in on itself and leads back to the beginning. Though perhaps not intentional, the depiction of Ko in Solitaire is a brilliant case study in why corporations should never be accorded the status of nation states, as it acts unethically and inhumanely with no apparent meaningful check on its underhanded, deceptive, and coercive actions. Those who wonder at the mysteries of the events surrounding Segura's conviction are bound to be disappointed. Those who are only satisfied with a book in which poetic justice is served to the wicked will be dissatisfied. Because this book is not about happy fairy tale endings. It is about the harsh reality of an unjust system and an individual trying to find her way through it the best she can. In the end, though many questions remain unresolved, Segura is able to establish an uneasy truce that may allow her to do some lasting good. But even her work, which would be undeniably beneficial in the short term if successful opens the door to wider application of the technology in question, a proposition of dubious morality.

Solitaire is, if such a thing is possible, a beautiful dystopian vision of the future. Though seemingly cheerful and happy at first glance, as one delves deeper, the dysfunctional nature of the world in which Segura lives becomes apparent. Even the title "Hope", a word normally symbolizing something optimistic, is a status that warps and crushes Segura and those around her. The story, much like the name "Solitaire" is multilayered with multiple levels of meaning, and loaded with thought-provoking questions. In many ways, one of the most important elements of good science fiction is posing questions, and Solitaire raises so many sharp and incisive questions that even at the end the reader is left unsettled by how many are left lingering. Though the story is dark and depressing, in a strange sort of way it is cheerfully so. More to the point, it is a brilliant and brutal look at a deceptively happy dystopian world, combined with a vivid exploration of the inner workings of a mind isolated from the rest of humanity.

2003 Nebula Award Nominees
2003 Locus Award Nominees

Kelley Eskridge     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, April 4, 2011

Review - The Circle Cast by Alex Epstein

Short review: The tale of Anna, also known as Morgan, between Gorlois' death and Morgan's return to Britain from exile in Ireland.

Anna is no more
She has gone to Ireland
But Morgan returns

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The myth of King Arthur is probably the most pervasive myth in the English language. It has been told and retold in a myriad of different ways, each reflecting the era in which the writer lived: Arthur was written into the Mabinogion, he was the subject of the classic medieval romance of Thomas Malory, he was used for political satire and comedy by T.H. White, and authors like Catherine Christian and Bernard Cornwell have attempted to posit a "real" Arthur and write historical fiction featuring him and his various companions and enemies. Arthur shows up in retellings of Robin Hood (connecting him with the other pervasive English myth), in science fiction epics, in bad movies like First Knight, and in decent ones like Excalibur. The arena of Arthurian myth retellings is a crowded one.

So when a new entrant in the field shows up, it has to either be brilliantly written or approach the subject matter from a unique angle in order to stand out. And finding a unique angle is getting harder and harder to do. So when he decided to write about the life of Arthur's primary antagonist Morgan le Fay, Alex Epstein was embarking upon an uphill task to make his story stand out. Even his slightly unusual angle, telling the story from the perspective of Morgan le Fay, has been more or less done in The Mists of Avalon.

Morgan is an interesting and somewhat enigmatic character in Arthurian legend. In the standard tale, she shows up as Gorlois' daughter as set dressing behind Uther's betrayal of Gorlois and seduction of Ygraine to father Arthur. Then she disappears until showing up again to have incestuous sex with her half-brother, conceive Modred, and instigate the overthrow of Camelot. But there is almost nothing in the myth about what Morgan was doing during the interstitial decades while Arthur grew to adulthood. Into this gap steps Epstein with The Circle Cast to fill in the blank years with Morgan's story.

Epstein takes a quasi-historical approach with his retelling. Gorlois is a post-Roman governor in a Britain struggling against encroaching waves of Saxon invaders, and Anna is his beloved daughter. From there, the story dances along the line between historical based fiction, mythology, and fantasy. The tone of the story seems to be "almost historical fiction", as it takes place in a Britain and Ireland that seems like it could be close to what they were like in the "real" Arthur's time, but they also seem to a be, to a certain extent, somewhat inconsistently idealized. The Irish eschew armor, not because it is expensive and most of the Irish are poor, but rather out of bravado. The Irish approach war like a giant football game, until the consequences of the battle come forward, and then they kill all of the enemy warriors, take their women as slaves, and plunder their property. They are hopelessly honorable at some times, and hard-headed realists at others. But this seems to be the result of trying to walk the fine line between a "historical" version of the myth, and the effort to capture the myth and its chivalry, romance, and magic. And for the most part, Epstein manages to walk that line successfully enough that the reader is carried along into the quasi-historical version of the story he presents.

For the period where it intersects with the basic Arthur legend, the story treads a fairly standard line: Uter lusts after Ygraine. Gorlois and Uter go to war, which ends badly for Gorlois. But while the war was underway, Uter persuades Merlin to disguise him as Gorlois so he may have a tryst with Ygraine and father a child. But beneath this story, Epstein begins to stake out the differences as Ygraine leads the women of Gorlois' army in a magical circle to call upon the divine power of Celtic goddesses to protect them and lead them to victory - and Morgan realizes that her mother's invocation failed, and of course, this is seen as contributing to Gorlois' inevitable defeat and death. But like all of the the magic described in the book, it is so ambiguous that Epstein leaves open the possibility that it is merely in the minds of the characters that magic works, and they are living in a purely mundane world. But to Anna and the people around her the magic is real, and so whether or not it is actually real is not particularly important.

It is after Gorlois' defeat that the book really gets going. To keep her safe from Uter, Ygraine send Anna to Ireland accompanied by a disgraced soldier, a Greek, and her Irish slave and nanny. And Ygraine gives Anna a new name: Morgan and tells her to find Ygraine's kinswoman in an Ireland full of warring clans, mercurial druids, and Christian missionaries. And so begins the newly-named Morgan's long circular journey that takes her out of and back into the Arthur myth. But through it all, Morgan burns for revenge against the man who killed her father, forced himself upon her mother, and drove her into exile in a wild and uncivilized country.

Once in Ireland, Morgan is confronted by an alien culture which she has to navigate, first as a princess, then as a slave, then as a cloistered resident of the budding Christian community, and finally as a revered and feared princess and queen with magical influence and presumed fairy blood. One element that runs through the entire book is Morgan's status as an outsider. Even at the beginning of the book when she is in her father's fortress she is set apart by her understanding of the forces of magic that her mother calls upon, but is unwilling to accept. Once she flees to Ireland, she is a Briton in a country not her own, which immediately makes her an outsider, and before long she is taken as a slave and becomes the property of an outsider in the form of a village wise woman who is mistrusted and despised by the people who depend upon her expertise. And when Morgan takes refuge among the Christians, she is again an outsider, as she remains a pagan despite residing among the faithful. Even when she is taken as a princess and then a queen, her alien knowledge derived both from reading her father's books and from her connection to the pagan traditions learned from her experience as the slave of the wise woman sets her apart from her subjects. Even when she returns to what was once her home, she remains apart, much more so than when she left.

Perhaps it is her continuous separateness that makes Morgan the antagonist to Arthur's vision of Britain. Whereas Arthur heads a community symbolized by their "all are equals" Round Table, Morgan is a perpetual outsider, set apart from those around her. But through all of her lonely wandering Morgan has her hatred of Uter and her tie to the magic of the land to keep her going. But the story also shows exactly how much her desire for revenge cost her, which sets this story apart. In most versions, Morgan is set upon a course of destruction that puts her at odds with the knights of Camelot, but she merely appears as a force of wooden evil, opposing Arthur merely because she is opposed to Arthur - in one version she even tries to justify herself with the line "in Chess someone has to black the black pieces" - but here one sees every possibility laid before her that she spurned in order to pursue her desire to kill Uter, although her true enemy, and the true architect of her misery, is Merlin.

And each of the options that Epstein lays before Morgan is tempting, but not enough to replace the anger inside her. Neither the prospect of a peaceful life as a Christian, or the potentiality of being the queen of a united Ireland and mother to children with a man who loves her can turn her aside from the terrible fate that the reader knows awaits her if she pursues her course of vengeance. Of course, since the end of the story is already known, each time Morgan seems to settle in to a happy future, the reader knows that this is only an illusion that will be set aside so that Morgan can move on to her appointed destiny as the downfall of Camelot.

But despite her best efforts, the experience in Ireland changes Morgan, in ways that seem to soften her as much as they harden her. When she returns from Ireland and finds her mother had been tacitly complicit in Uter's seduction, Morgan finds herself forgiving her, perhaps a nod to the time she spend with the Irish Christian community. But when called upon to face an encroaching band of Saxons, her lessons in war making learned from her father and years spent putting them to practical use advising her husband Conall make her step into the role of a war leader seem natural. And because he has made it clear that magic is real to the characters, even if somewhat ambiguous to the reader, when Morgan unleashes her final spell, it seems real to everyone in the book, and believable to the reader.

In a crowded field, Epstein has managed to take an unusual central character, approach the subject from a somewhat unique quasi-historical angle and produce a very readable and enjoyable book. For anyone who has ever wondered how Morgan le Fay became the woman she is, this book fills in those blanks. The only weakness is that it ends too soon, just as Morgan is about to unknowingly meet her brother, leaving the reader to wonder how she gets from where she is at the end of this story to the point where she is the mother of a bastard child by her own brother and the foil for all her sibling stands for. Even so, this book is an interesting and enjoyable addition to the Arthur myth, and definitely worth reading.

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