There's an epic origin story behind Stephan Zielinski's Bad Magic (alluded to here), but it's not really mine to tell. It does end happily at least: the book is now in print, and I picked up a copy very shortly after it came out, and interrupted The System of the World to read it. How could I not bump it to the head of the queue when it boasts a tagline like:
There are some things people weren't meant to know. Some people know those things anyway. Sucks to be them.
This is the story of a very dark world not unlike our own, in which vast, cosmic, evil forces have the upper hand, only most people have no idea. Only a very small number of people can open their third eye, and see the magic going on around them, and they mostly don't last very long. Particularly in San Diego.
The book follows a San Francisco-based cell of the dwindling resistance to the dark forces known as the Incumbents, through a series of very odd adventures battling evil. Magic in this book is a kitchen-sink sort of thing, with elemental magic, totemist shamans, alchemists, and synesthetic mages coexisting uneasily.
The setting sounds pretty dark, but the whole thing is written with a bizarre humor, as in this exchange that Nathan is sure to love:
"Okay. So we're dealing with people who accelerate personal and social decay."
"Boy, that narrows it down," mutters Arbeiter.
"The obvious place to look is a center of personal and social decay."
"What, Los Angeles?" queries Rider.
Whitlomb snaps his fingers. "No! Of course, why didn't I think of it before? Stanford!"
There are a number of quirky things about the writing that may not be to all tastes-- the entire thing is written in present tense, for example, and there are a couple of odd narrative intrusions. There's also a very strange (but funny) academic appendix about zombies, which doesn't connect all that directly to the main story. The whole thing has some ragged first-novel edges, but it's certainly a fresh and distinctive voice.
Really, this is one of those books that just isn't quite like anything else. If you think you might like weird urban fantasy with a dark edge but a lot of humor, I highly recommend this book. If that doesn't sound quite like your thing, well, I'm probably not doing it justice, so check it out anyway.
Posted at 6:09 PM | link |
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When I wrote about Gene Wolfe's The Knight, I said that I wanted to reserve judgement on it until I got a chance to read the second half of the story, The Wizard. Well, it's out now, and I've read it, so I need to say something about the story as a whole.
It's still not exactly easy to give an opinion of the book(s). There are enough mythological references thrown in that I'm half convinced there's something really Deep going on that I don't quite follow, but on the surface, the story is pretty straightforward: a young boy whose real name will not be a huge surprise (but I won't give it here) is transported from our world into the magical world of Mythgarthr, where he is transformed into Sir Able of the High Heart, and becomes a knight of great reknown. When last we saw him in The Knight, he had ascended from Mythgarthr to the world of Skai, and the hall of the Valfather. In this book, he's back, to finish various tasks that were left undone, and to earn the chance to be with his love, the Aelf queen Disiri. The story ranges from Skai all the way to the lowest world of Niflheim, and is centered around two royal courts: the court of the giants in Jotunland, and the human kingdom of Celidon.
This volume of the story is sort of oddly paced, with some fairly uneventful bits near the start feeling awfully drawn out, while the hugely eventful ending feels sort of rushed. The weird pace is partly explained by the fact that the story is framed as a "letter" from Able to his brother Ben in our world. This device means that the whole thing is subject to the unreliable-narrator games that Wolfe is so fond of, and there are odd omissions and minor distortions throughout, and as a result many important events are skipped over fairly lightly.
It's a very rich story, though, and it's easy to forgive the pacing. There's everything you could really want from a fantasy novel here: mythic resonance galore, fights, tournaments, and battles, powerful and subtle magic, and epic clashes of supernatural beings. It's also loaded with moral lessons-- in many ways, it's a book-length meditation on ideas of courage and leadership and honor.
I think I even understand what went on at the end, though I have a nagging feeling that I missed something (in part simply because it's a Gene Wolfe book). It does make me sort of want to re-read both books, just to have a better feel for the story as a whole (my memory of the first volume isn't all that complete), though I don't have time.
I'm being awfully vague, I know, but I don't want to spoil the plot (I'll be happy to discuss it in comments, though). I also probably need to think about this a little more, but my immediate impression of the story is very favorable indeed, and I definitely recommend it. Whether you follow the mythic stuff or not, the main plot is more accessible than many of Wolfe's other books, and the writing is superb. He's one of the best authors around, and I think this will stand up as one of his best books.
Posted at 8:12 PM | link |
In a weird way, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell feeds very nicely into James Gleick's Isaac Newton. There's more than a little of Newton in Gilbert Norrell's attempts to completely dominate English magic, and his petulant responses to any challenge or criticism.
This is a very short book for a biography of such an eminent scientist-- less than 200 pages of text, plus another sixty-odd pages of notes and citations. It's also a very impressionistic sort of biography. Gleick doesn't go into a great deal of detail about any phase of Newton's life, giving only brief sketches of how and where he lived, focussing instead on the evolution of his ideas, and the big picture of his contributions to science. Descriptions of his interactions with other people are pretty much limited to excerpts from the innumerable pissy letters Newton wrote to other natural philosophers of his day. He may well have been, as Gleick puts it, the "chief architect of the modern world," but the man appears to have had the social skills of a rabid weasel.
Gleick does an excellent job of sketching out Newton's ideas, and showing just how revolutionary they were for their time. It's sort of amazing to realize what a dramatic change these things were, as Newton's Laws have so completely been internalized in modern society. Students in my intro mechanics classes are generally unimpressed with the whole business, and it's hard to get them to appreciate what a big step these things were. This book gives a good sense of the magnitude of the changes Newton wrought.
It's also amazing to realize the bizarre and fanatical dedication he had to his work. This is a man who worked a knife in behind his own eyeball, just to see what would happen, and who nearly blinded himself by staring at the Sun, in hopes of gaining new insight into the nature of light. That sort of approach was probably necessary for his success, but also probably goes a long way toward explaining his many personal issues.
Anyway, it's a fascinating book, and should serve well as a bridge between Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Stephenson's The System of the World, which is next in the queue.
Posted at 4:23 PM | link |
I was just going to mention The System of the World, which I'm currently in the middle of, and where I'm getting my tutorial in Newton and his social skills, or lack thereof. This particular Newton is Newton the head of the Mint and wannabe alchemist, as filtered through Stephenson, but he still comes through as a brilliant, touchy bastard.
In a way that avoids spoilers, I'll just say that Stephenson's portrayal of Newton is more complex than it initially appears.
From Stephenson, I disliked the approach to Newton, ignoring Barrow (I am a bit fanatic, check my homepage for some hints); and also the approach to alchemy, seems to me not completely documented. Check for instance "Alchemy tried in the fire" for another approach to the same.