The Library of Babel: June 2003

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for June of 2003.

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July 31, 2003

Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson. This is another import book purchased from Glen Cook, who remarked "These just keep getting grimmer..." when I handed it to him. When Glen Cook is calling a book grim, that's really saying something.

This is the third in Erikson's series of Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen (projected to be ten books), and Erikson continues to push the limits of book-binding technology: Gardens of the Moon, was a respectable 700-odd pages in paperback; Deadhouse Gates, the second volume, weighed in at an impressive 960; but this book tops them both, with an astounding 1200 pages. I'm amazed that they managed to hold the thing together physically, let alone contain the plot.

As the third volume in a series, it's hard to say much about the plot without spoiling things. It's even difficult to sensibly discuss the larger themes of the work as a whole so I'll defer to John Novak for that (the link is to John's review of the third book-- scroll down for the first two. He's also got a review of the fourth book, because he's willing to pay to have the trade paperbacks shipped in from Britain...). I basically agree with his comments, thus saving myself a lot of typing...

As the details will mean nothing to those who haven't read the first couple of books, I'll just say that this volume picks up more or less where the first left off (the second takes place on a different continent, at roughly the same time as the first). The armies that were fighting each other in the first book have joined forces to take on a nihilistic religious empire to the south, the Pannion Domin, a deeply insane and fearsomely destructive force fueled by dark sorcery. Erikson deals with the classic high-fantasy problem of the unsustainability of Evil Empires (Who supplies he food for Sauron's orcs?) by frankly admitting that the Domin can't hope to sustain itself. This leads to the Tenescowri peasant army, a howling mob of cannibals that fuels the empire's expansion, and their description is one of the most genuinely chilling things I've read in a while.

Of course, this is Epic Fantasy, so that war, impressive though it is, is only a proxy fight for the larger plot that just has to be there. This involves legions of incredibly powerful beings-- gods, Elder Gods, immortal sorcerers, Ascendants (beings on the edge of godhood, who haven't quite made it yet), and at least two races of ancient undead warriors. And, of course, the obligatory all-consuming evil that threatens all of existence.

The character list ends up looking like the sort of thing you get from a bunch of 13-year-olds playing D & D-- "My 57th-level Elven Fighter/ Magic-User draws his +17 Vorpal Blade of Smitingness..."-- but somehow Erikson makes it work. Mostly because everyone in the book is insanely powerful, and he's not afraid to brutally crush the merely mortal players when the plot requires it.

To give you an idea of the scale he's working on, one of the characters introduced in the Prologue (which takes place 120,000 years before the main action) laid waste to an entire continent out of spite. And when he reappears in the main action, he's only the third or fourth most powerful person with the army. And, to give you an idea of the tone of the book, two other characters are powerful necromancers who murder dozens of people, and raise an undead army to protect themselves from battle-- and their primary purpose in the story is to serve as comic relief.

If this sounds thoroughly ridiculous to you, don't read these-- that description barely scratches the surface. But if that sounds interesting, definitely pick these up. Erikson dances along the edge of self-parody (particularly with his character names ("Anomander Rake," "Caladan Brood"), which strain for ponderous grandeur, and narrowly miss being utterly laughable), but three whopping huge books into the tale, he's still keeping it together. This book reveals a lot more about the underlying structure of the world, and the overarching plot of the series, and I found the whole thing fascinating. It also manages to be a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end, which is sadly rare among epic series these days.

I don't quite like these enough to have the next one shipped in from the UK (for one thing, their sheer length means that they take forever to read), but I'll definitely pick it up when I see it.

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July 20, 2003

Dead Air by Iain Banks. I bought an import copy of this from Glen Cook at Readercon-- to the best of my knowledge, it's not available in the US yet (save through

This is one of those books where it's awfully tempting to describe it by analogies to other books. You might call it Crow Road 2: Electric Boogaloo, or "Iain Banks writes High Fidelity" or even "Wonder Boys by Iain Banks." It's got elements of all those things, wrapped up with characteristically Banksian wit and black humor.

The book tells the story of Ken Nott (nee McNutt), a Scottish shock-jock DJ in London, who's sort of bumbling along through a life of outrageous publicity stunts, mixed with lots of recreational drugs and casual sex. He eventually starts up a torrid and extremely secret affair with the wife of a brutal gangster, which kicks off a series of increasingly messy escapades that culminates in him finally getting his shit together (sort of).

Parts of this book are strongly reminiscent of each of the works cited above. The illicit affair subplot is somewhat reminiscent of Wonder Boys, both in the way her husband can wreck the narrator, and also the way Ken's serial idiocy brings things to a head. The other sexual relationships in the book have a very High Fidelity sort of feel to them, in their desperate immaturity. And the book is very much like The Crow Road in that it bumbles along episodically for a while, until the last third, where you can imagine the author saying "Shit! I need to wrap this up!", stubbing out a joint, and banging out the ending in a rush. It all wraps up very abruptly, with some of the trademark Banks ultraviolence, but the ending is, on balance, a happy one.

That's the good part. Unfortunately, Ken's shock-jock job provide a platform for a large number of DJ rants-- indeed, the sheer bulk of DJ material occasionally makes it seem like that's the primary reason the book was written. Given Ken's position and inclinations, these bits consist largely of extended rants about political matters, from a very leftist position (UK leftist, that is-- not the sort of mealy-mouthed centrism that gets tagged "radical" in the US).

On several occasions, I've half-seriously wished for a liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh, or the talk-radio ranter of your choice. Ken's rants provide a nice demonstration of what (a mild version of) that sort of thing would be like, and it's not pretty. There are some entertaining rants, but the overall tone is a little too polemical, and as a whole, it didn't really work for me.

In some ways, it's nice to find that my aversion to excessive politicking in fiction isn't an inside/outside fandom problem-- Banks's liberal ranting bugs me as much as Heinlein's libertarian ranting, and I agree with more of what Banks says. If you're not put off by that sort of thing, Dead Air is a very good book, but personally, I didn't like it as much as The Crow Road, which had a very similar plot, with fewer screeds.

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July 13, 2003

Songs of Earth and Power by Greg Bear. This is really two books-- The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage-- republished by Tor some years back in a single volume.

It's always painful to see a favorite author succumb to the Brain Eater, and worse still when you find that the effect was retroactive-- that older books you used to like have apparently been tampered with by some maniac with a Prose Portal, leaving you a volume of unreadable crap with a familiar cover, and a vague wish for Jurisfiction to restore the original. This happened with Robert Heinlein, whose books I used to enjoy, but now find nearly unreadable, and after reading Greg Bear's latest, I feared the same thing might be happening to him. Vitals read like an unfortunate hybrid of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, and Darwin's Radio wasn't a whole lot better.

As a result, I was hesitant to pick up this book, as the original two volumes meant a great deal to me, back in the day. It would've been painful to discover that this one had been eaten. Happily, when I was moved to pick it up after finding myself thinking about classical music (music figures prominently in the plot, as you might guess), I found it still intact.

The original two books are Bear's only fantasy novels, and as such, are radically different from the epic hard-SF disaster novels he's mostly known for. It's not quite as dramatic a difference as you see with John Barnes-- they're still disaster novels, in a sense, with the cause being magical, rather than scientific-- but it's a dramatic change in tone all the same.

Songs of Earth and Power follows the story of Michael Perrin, a teenager from Los Angeles who befriends Arno Waltiri, an aging composer of film scores, then finds himself caught up in magical events that determine the fate of whole worlds. Following directions given to Waltiri by the David Clarkham, a sinister and mysterious former collaborator, Michael stumbles across a boundary between worlds, and finds himself in the Realm of the Sidhe. Stuck in a world that's actively hostile to humankind, he must learn enough to keep himself alive, and ends up doing far more. By the end of the second book, he's not just trying to save himself, he's trying to save the whole world from disaster, as the Sidhe return to Earth.

There's some wonderful stuff here. Bear's vision of the Sidhe is not at all the stuff of generic-Celtic fantasy-- the Faer are powerful and incredibly cruel, and have been at war with humans for millions of years. He lifts elements from all the usual legends, but spins a vivid and unique world out of them. The punishments visited on their enemies by the victorious Sidhe are horrifyingly baroque (as, for that matter, are the weapons wielded by the humans who battled them millions of years ago). It puts an entirely different spin on the whole Celtic mythos, and I've never read pseudo-Celtic stories the same since.

The scope of the books is impressive, and the tone is handled very well. Among everything else, the Sidhe are also a decadent race, well past their best days, and this is reflected in the writing (in some subtle way that I can't entirely put my finger on). The magic is suitably magical (a recurring theme in my comments here), and there are lots of scenes with great special effects, as it were.

And if nothing else, I'd enjoy these books just for a line dropped in passing which is as poetic a description of Quantum Mechanics as you'll ever find: "All is waves, with nothing waving, over no distance at all." There are a number of other nicely evocative little turns of phrase scattered throughout, but that one stands out.

As I said above, these books meant a lot to me back when I first read them-- my paperback copies are impressively battered from multiple re-reads. It was a huge relief to see that these still hold up.

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July 7, 2003

Crossfire by Nancy Kress. Nancy Kress is in the extremely selective category of "Authors I Started Reading After Their Work Was Assigned in Class." The membership is limited to Kress, Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried was assigned in a class on Vietnam), and, um...

In her case, the Nebula-winning short story "Out of All Them Bright Stars" was assigned in a class I took one January on Science Fiction. It's a terrific story (you can buy it cheap on the web) and a well-deserved award, and I've kept an eye out for her stuff ever since. I haven't liked anything else as much as "Out of All Them Bright Stars," but when I see her name on a book, I look it over. And, in this case, check it out of the library.

This one's a First Contact novel, of sorts. A mysterious billionaire with a dark secret in his past has arranged a colonization expedition to a distant planet, and attracted an eccentric collection of colonists fleeing an Earth which may or may not be on the brink of disaster. The new colony has exiled Saudi royalty, would-be Cheyenne who want to get back to living in tune with nature even if they have to move to another planet to do so, coldly calculating rich folks, New Quakers seeking a simple life, and a small contingent of military men to run the colony ship and provide security after arrival.

Not long after the colony is established, though, they find a small settlement of furry tool-using aliens. They live in thatched huts, and use stone tools, but DNA and other evidence suggests that they're not native to the planet. While they're trying to solve that puzzle, a second bunch of aliens turns up in a starship, and trouble erupts everywhere. The human colonists suddenly find themselves as pawns in an interstellar war between two groups of incomprehensible aliens, and they're forced to make some difficult choices.

This is a good book, and exactly what I was looking for when I headed off to the library. The colonization program and associated technology are sketched out in enough detail to be believable, but not so much detail as to risk looking silly. The alien cultures are nicely, well, alien, and more is hinted at than is actually described. The human characters are well drawn, and their interactions are generally realistic.

On the other hand, though, the book sets lofty goals for itself, and comes up just short. The interstellar war is used to set up what is meant to be an agonizing moral choice for the human characters, but the two unpalatable options are not balanced enough for the choice to be as difficult as it should. One of the two options is clearly preferable to the other, which undermines the impact of the decision. The ending strives to have the same sort of emotional impact as the end of The Sparrow (a book which has no sequel), but comes up short.

In the end, though, that's almost nit-picking. It's a very well-done book, and the only real failings are through overreach (the dark secret of the billionaire was also underwhelming). It's an engaging story, told well, and even if it fails to pack as much punch as it might, it's still a good read, in the best tradition of SF.

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July 4, 2003

McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon.

As things associated with McSweeney's tend to do, this book comes with a manifesto. Or, at least, a manifesto-ish foreword from the editor, in which he decries the current dominance of "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story" in short fiction. This anthology (which grew out of an issue of McSweeney's that Chabon guest-edited) attempts to provide an alternative to that, namely, a collection of plot-driven short stories in the general vein of the great short stories of the past (Chabon lists "The Monkey's Paw," "Rain," "The Most Dangerous Game," and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" as examples).

I'm sort of torn about the whole thing. As you can easily demonstrate by scanning the archives of this book log, I'm a big fan of plot-driven stories. On the other hand, though, I tend to prefer my thrilling tales without manifestoes attached...

The end result is something of a mixed bag. For the most part, the authors selected for this volume (those I recognize, anyway) pretty much do what they would've done anyway. Kelly Link turns in a bizarre little fantasy story, Glen David Gold submits a story about murderous historical entertainers, Elmore Leonard adds a cops-and-robbers tale (with a tip of the hat to High Noon), Steven King cops out by using a chapter of a forthcoming Dark Tower book (a move designed to piss me off), and Dave Eggers contributes a present-tense tale about an introspective thirty-something world traveler. Neil Gaiman and Harlan Ellison aren't stylistically consistent enough to really be said to have "typical" material, but their contributions aren't especially surprising in form or content.

Some of these are also practically indistinguishable from "plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory stories"-- the Eggers and Gold stories are surprisingly slow for stories in which a fair bit happens (an ascent of Kilamanjaro in the Eggers story, and several murders in Gold's), and there's really not much to Michael Crichton's "Blood Doesn't Come Out" or Aimee Bender's "The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers." I was also disappointed in Gaiman's ghost story, which didn't seem to really hang together, and Chabon's own contribution is the sort of alternate history that really annoys me (cameo appearances by recognizable real-world people several decades after the point of divergence from our own history). Rick Moody's "The Albertine Notes" is good, but suffers a bit from working the same territory as David Brin's "A Stage of Memory"-- having read and enjoyed Brin's story years ago, I wasn't blown away by the concept of a drug that lets you relive old memories. Moody goes in a different direction with his story, but I think it would've worked better if I hadn't seen the central idea before.

There is some good stuff here, though, much of it from authors I haven't read before, or whose other works bear little similarity to what they offer here. Nick Hornby's "Otherwise Pandemonium" is a great Twilight Zone sort of story, and the stories by Carol Emshwiller and Laurie King are very effective. Michael Moorcock also contributes an alternate history with real people (a famous British detective is asked to clear Hitler of a murder rap in 1931), but pulls it off with enough panache that it was entertaining rather than annoying.

In the end, it's a pretty good collection of stories-- the ones that work are very good, and the ones that don't work for me might for someone else-- but there weren't any stories here that really blew me away, the way that, say, "Erase/Record/Play" by John M. Ford and "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang did when I read the first to Starlight anthologies. If you're a fan of any of the authors included, it's probably at least worth checking it out from the library, but I wouldn't expect this collection to overthrow the contemporary literary order and banish plotlessness forevermore.

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July 3, 2003

Foursome by Jeremiah Healy. Another John Francis Cuddy novel.

This one follows close on the heels of Shallow Graves. Cuddy finds himself in a foul mood, stressed out by the private-eye grind, and thus agrees to take on a case referred to him by his girlfriend, DA Nancy Meagher. The case concerns a gruesome triple homicide in a small town in Maine: three annoying Yuppies who had built a vacation home on a local lake were slaughtered in a manner which appears to implicate the fourth. The problem is, he says he didn't do it, and Cuddy believes him.

These continue to be Robert Parker novels inhabited by actual human beings. The plot structure is very Spenserian: Cuddy takes the job, decides the accused is innocent, and commences poking around. After a lot of detecting, including a good deal of snappy banter and one gratuitously violent sidelight, he stumbles on the solution to the case more or less by accident. Then there's a climactic showdown, in which the killer ends up dead, without the bother of having to go to trial.

They're somewhat formulaic (as my reviews of them are becoming), but the characters are well done, and they read briskly. They continue to be great time-wasters, otherwise, I'd stop reading them.

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July 1, 2003

Two books for the price of one: Phoenix and Athyra by Steven Brust. Continuing the Vlad Taltos re-read, I read both of these in a long, lazy afternoon lying in the back yard recovering from the Vegas trip.

Phoenix is a direct sequel to Teckla, more or less. A little time has passed, but the situation is basically the same as at the end of Phoenix-- Vlad's marriage is on the rocks, Cawti's involved with cant-spouting Marxists, who are organizing for something, and there's a good deal of tension between the Marxists, the Jhereg, and the Empire. Then Vlad's patron Goddess, Verra (the "Demon Goddess" to Easterners), hires him to commit a regicide ("If you know the name of the king being killed, press '1' now..."), and everything explodes.

Like Teckla, this is a necessary book. Vlad really couldn't continue to do what he was doing, but it would take something dramatic to shake things up and get him out of his normal routine-- Phoenix provides the necessary dramatic break with what went before.

Unlike Teckla, it's actually a very readable book. The plot has a little more heft, the personal crises somehow aren't quite as wrenching, and Vlad doesn't make as much of an ass of himself. It's also somewhat like Issola, in that there's a fair bit of meditative material, talking about the nature and ethics of godhood, but it all goes down very easily. (I'm fond of the line "I think when a god does something reprehensible, it's still reprehensible.") I don't re-read this one all that often, because it sort of needs to follow after Teckla, but it's a good book.

Athyra has been aptly described as "normal people experiencing Vlad." It was the first book to show him from the point of view of another character-- in this case, a young Teckla peasant named Savn. Almost the entire book is written from Savn's POV (the exceptions being a prologue and epilogue in a detached third person, and occasional bits from the POV of one of Vlad's jhereg companions), which casts Vlad in a very different light.

This may be the first time I've re-read this book. Vlad's First Person Smartass narration is one of the main attractions of the early books in the series, so the switch in viewpoint characters for this volume was sort of off-putting. I didn't care for this one that much when I first read it, but on re-reading, it's actually quite a nice bit of work. You can actually spot a lot of the places where Vlad's usual wiseass remarks would go, and see where he's talking with Loiosh, and sort of construct how he would've told the story in a more flattering way.

But he's not telling the story, so it comes out very differently. You get to see the havoc Vlad wreaks through his arrival in a peaceful farming area, and, somewhat indirectly, the next important step in the evolution of the character.

There are lots of clever little touches in these two books, some of which hark back to earlier volumes, and others which change or conflict with the interpretation of events in the Paarfi books (I can expand on that, but it involves spoilers for other books). This is undercut a little bit by the fact that each book also contains one pointless scene of cute in-joking (coded references to SF publishers in Phoenix and cryptic references to friends and bandmates in Athyra), but you run that risk with an author who's fond of winking self-reference, and they're a minor irritant at worst.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001