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Thursday, November 7, 2002

I've mostly stopped reading new books by Mercedes Lackey, but Take a Thief looked like it might be acceptably mindless lunchtime reading, so I took it out of the library. When we first met Skif in Arrows of the Queen, there was a throwaway comment about his past that suggested there was more to him than was immediately apparent. Take a Thief tells that story, describing Skif's life as a, well, thief, and his first experiences as a Herald-Trainee.

I actually finished this almost a week ago, but I've been very busy and haven't had time to log it. Of course, that busyness is probably why I came home early with a cold (not an ear infection, according to the doctor, which is something at least). Anyway, this was almost a perfectly serviceable book. The first half or so is the sort of how-to that I find oddly soothing, even if it's "how to survive on the street by stealing." The second half is sort of a how-to as well, "how to seek revenge while starting at Herald's Collegium." And it's less twee than much of Lackey, though the big temptation scene at the end is badly overdone.

However. I hate, loathe, and despise dialogue written in dialect. And almost every spoken line in the first half is, well, here's a sample from a random page: "What's doin's?" "Dunno fer certain-sure. Summun sez a couple toughs come in an' wrecked t'place, summun sez no, 'twas a fight, an' ev'un sez summun's croaked, or near it." There's more to that exchange, but I can't bear to type it. If I wasn't an accomplished text skimmer, I would never have made it through this, and I can't say that I'd recommend it to anyone over the age of 13.

And now the cold pills are starting to kick in, so I think I'm going to go lie down and read something else.

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Saturday, November 9, 2002

Sherwood Smith's Wren Trilogy (Wren to the Rescue, Wren's Quest, Wren's War) ought to be really good, but it isn't, and I can't put my finger on why, which is annoying. (And no, it's not just the cold pills, because I started reading these before the cold.) These are YA novels that appear to be comprehensively out of print; I got them out of the library.

Wren is an orphan who dreams of adventure. At the start of the series, she discovers that someone in the orphanage is really a princess in disguise—her best friend, not her. Tess (Princess Teressa) has been hidden in the orphanage because a wicked ruler threatened to kidnap any child of her father's. Now, her parents think it's safe to start bringing her out of hiding. They are, of course, wrong. Tess is almost immediately kidnapped, and it's (you guessed it) Wren to the rescue. Along the way, Wren discovers she has an aptitude for magic. In the second book, Wren goes questing for her family. As an adopted kid, I'm rather sensitive to treatments of this topic, but it's handled fairly well here. Meanwhile, back at the ranch [*], the court is experiencing an unusual level of tension; not only that, but Wren and Connor, her companion, find themselves pursued by sinister types. In the third book, there is indeed a war, though it's not only Wren's.

Wren is a great character, unaffected and full of cheerful pragmatism. She very vaguely reminds me of Lyra in Pullman's His Dark Materials books, only less feral (bearing in mind that it's been a while since I read those). Tess isn't bad either, at least at first; I started disliking her towards the end of the second book, because while all the characters make mistakes, hers towards the end of the second and in the third seemed particularly stupid to me. The other two main characters are Tyron and Connor, who help the rescue in the first book and end up becoming friends with Wren and Tess. (Connor, in the usual fashion of inbred royal families, is also Tess's half-uncle. The family tree in the front of the books is pretty scary at first glance, but it's there for a reason.)

So there's a good lead character, magic, and intrigue; what's wrong with these? I wish I could say. I think it might have something to do with their incluing. (As in, how they clue a reader in. Jo Walton's term.) A number of times I found myself saying, "Where did that come from?" Sometimes I'm not the most careful reader, but I'm pretty sure that I would have noticed these things if they'd been mentioned earlier. Parts of the plot aren't sufficiently in the foreground, perhaps. I can't quite articulate it, which inability is perhaps making more annoyed with these than I ought to be. Anyway, much as I enjoyed the Exordium series, I can't really say I recommend these.

[*] There's a lot of transitions of the form "just as X was doing Y, Z was doing Q elsewhere" in these. Normally, I would never notice this, but thanks to Lemony Snicket, every time I came across one, a voice at the back of my skull said, "Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . . "

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Tuesday, November 12, 2002

I knew I had to read James D. Macdonald's The Apocalypse Door right from its opening paragraphs:

When Dante Alighieri wrote his guided tour of Hell one of the stops was the infernal city of Dis: the home of Pandemonium, all of the demons. Dante's a great source if you want to figure out whether being an adulterer is better or worse than being an oathbreaker, but he doesn't have the authority of Gospel. Dante said that the lowest circle of Hell is frozen, for example. Me, I don't believe it.

Newark, New Jersey, isn't the City of Dis, but it could play the part on TV without having to spend a lot of time in rehearsals. By day, Newark's crowded and noisy and polluted, full of too many people going places too fast in pursuit of money or power or pleasure. By night it's all that and dark as well, with danger waiting in the shadows to catch the unwary.

I'd just finished a job in Canada, checking out a report of Black Masses being celebrated, and was on a get-well tour in New York, staying in a midtown Manhattan hotel and waiting for the stitches to come out. Breakfast was Eggs Benedict. When I'm on the Temple's expense account I don't spare my coronary arteries.

Yeah, I'm a Knight of the Temple. We didn't go away in the fourteenth century, no matter what Philip the Fair tried to pull. The Order has a mission and we're carrying it out. To protect holy places, travelers in holy places, and certain relics. Straightforward. You'd think that people would let us just get on with it.

I read the first chapter on the author's website, and when I hit "Yeah, I'm a Knight of the Temple," I said out loud, "We are so buying this." And we did.

Chad beat me to reading it, the day it arrived from Amazon, by the simple expedient of picking it up while my back was turned to check my e-mail. I see from the comments to his booklog entry that a couple of people have already decided to check this out. If you weren't hooked by the opening or Chad's review, let me take another shot at convincing you that you really do need to read this book.

The initial setup should be fairly obvious from that quotation: the story is narrated in First Person Hardboiled by Peter Crossman (not his original name), a warrior priest in the innermost circle of the Temple. He gets tapped to investigate a longshot lead in the disappearance of some UN peacekeepers: a warehouse in Newark with unusually serious security. It's expected to be an easy job; it's even going to serve as an on-the-job evaluation of a new Knight. When they break in, they don't find the bodies of the missing peacekeepers; what they do find, growing in a crate, is something like mushroom stalks. That bleed when broken and recoil at the sign of the Cross.

This book is impressive because it manages to come up with wacky situations like eeeevil fungi (at one point while reading, I got up for a drink of water and commented to Chad, "Running the good cop/bad cop on a talking brass head . . . !") while still taking its characters seriously. The warrior priest thing isn't just a gag (or the assassin nun thing either—did I mention Sister Mary Magdalene of the Special Action Executive of the Poor Clares?), but part of the characters all the way down. Crossman gets caught in an ethical bind when his would-be assassin tells him, under the seal of the confessional, that she intends to kill him; discovers that giving last rites to someone who's has his face sliced off is somewhat awkward; and asks if the dead people who just tried to kill him made good confessions earlier in the day. As you'd expect from a good sf writer, the implications of the setup have been thoroughly worked out. Which is not to say that there isn't a joke in it sometimes.

I glanced over at Maggie. "Say, Mags—if this doesn't work, when I get out of Purgatory do you mind if I look you up?"

She took my meaning. In Heaven there's no marriage or giving in marriage, but no one ever said that there isn't any fooling around.

I should also note that there's a backstory thread interwoven with the present-day chapters. It does actually have a point, so stick with it at least the first time through. (I admit that when the point arrived, I wanted to pat the character on the head and say, "Don't worry. It's all ineffable," but I suspect that the character hasn't read Good Omens.)

Finally, it has a nifty cover (big image at Amazon, which is being weird again and claiming it's not yet published.). At first glance, it looks like a fairly standard action/mystery cover: guy in shadow holding big guns against a vaguely flame-like background. Look closer, though: that's a priest's collar and a crucifix, not a tie, and a cathedral in the background.

The Apocalypse Door is a short, fast, tight book that's just a heck of a lot of fun. Go read it. (And then read the Mageworlds books too, while you're at it.)

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Sunday, November 17, 2002

While we were out picking up the extended DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring, we also got a copy of Tales of the Knights Templar, edited by Katherine Kurtz, which has the first Peter Crossman story, "Stealing God." Unlike The Apocalypse Door, this one is co-written by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald. (I think it was a mistake to read this story after spending several hours immersed in the extended version of FotR and appendices; Crossman was briefly looking like Viggo Mortensen in my head, which is particularly wrong considering that Mortensen once played Lucifer.)

Because this is a short story, I really noticed all the allusions that made me say, "Huh?" Among the things I googled on after reading it were the Cathars and Rennes-le-Château ("I was working the security leak at Rennes-le-Château when the word came down. The Rennes flub was over a hundred years old, but the situation needed constant tending to keep people off the scent. That's the thing about botches. They never go away."). It makes me wonder what references I was missing in The Apocalypse Door. I also looked up the Meditation Room at the United Nations, where, according to Crossman, that big hunk of rock is actually the Grail: "We could never hide the fact that there was a Grail, or that it was holy, but for a long time we tried to get people to go looking for dinnerware. Then someone talked. Somehow, somewhere, there was a leak. And blunders, like I said, never go away."

All the crunchy goodness of The Apocalypse Door is present here in smaller form: ancient secret societies, double-crosses, danger and dead people, assassin nuns (okay, just one, but that's enough), and Crossman's First Person Hardboiled Narration. I feel sort of guilty for not reading the rest of the anthology, but I'm just not interested in the Knights Templar as a general proposition.

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Over breakfast this morning I read The Wide Window, the third book in Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events." There's really not much to say about these once you've read a few, so I'll refer you all to Pam's review and leave you with some legal advice:

Stealing, of course, is a crime, and a very impolite thing to do. But like most impolite things, it is excusable under certain circumstances. Stealing is not excusable if, for instance, you are in a museum and you decide that a certain painting would look better in your house, and you simply grab the painting and take it there. But if you were very, very hungry, and you had no way of obtaining money, it might be excusable to grab the painting, take it to your house, and eat it.

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Friday, November 22, 2002

I was going to start talking about The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by saying that it was good bedtime reading for when one is vibrating with stress and going crazy because one is overworked. And it is. However, while I am still (presently) overworked, I really don't care today, because

I passed the bar exam!

*bounces up and down some more*

(I've been doing that all day, off and on. I found out this morning, waiting for the elevators at work; one opened up and disgorged a bunch of my co-workers going off to Special Term (court, that is). One of them said "congratulations"; I said, "what—wait—no, I don't believe you." He told me they were online and went off to court, and I waited for the next elevator (having missed theirs in my bogglement) and checked for myself. It's not that I thought he was lying to me, but I couldn't believe it until I saw for myself.)

Anyway, back to booklogging. By coincidence, the first story in Memoirs is possibly the work of fiction most often cited in legal documents. I speak, of course, of "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" and the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. (Not only does it get cited all the time, but I could swear that I once read a judge's opinion that chided people for thinking that the dog in question was the eponymous Hound of the Baskervilles. However, a quick Lexis search doesn't seem to turn it up.) It's a pretty good story, though I have my doubts about just how anonymous a horse like Silver Blaze could be made to be. (Speaking of citing, I'm not really clear why it's usually cited as just "Silver Blaze"; my edition is a facsimile reprint of its first publication in The Strand, and the title there is "The Adventure of.")

I'd like "The Adventure of the Yellow Face" considerably better if it didn't have such a completely idiotic premise. It's included as an example of Holmes being just dead wrong, and that's lovely. However, the "right" conclusion is so factually absurd that he probably couldn't have figured it out regardless, which does detract from the effect. As a general matter, though, I find it vastly amusing when Holmes refers to Watson's printed reports, complaining that he gives the wrong impression to his readers and so on. It's a level of self-referential irony that I hadn't expected to find in these.

Of course, I do get the sense that Doyle was just making it up as he went along. For instance, in "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter," suddenly Holmes sprouts a brother—not even an estranged brother, but one who refers cases to him occasionally. And then there's Professor Moriarty, who, I suspect, was created just to give Doyle a chance to kill Holmes off. That's a pity, because I think more Moriarty stories would have been entertaining (after all, the Zeck sequence in the Nero Wolfe books is, and Zeck certainly owes a lot to Moriarty).

Those quibbles aside, these were useful and enjoyable ways to unwind for the evening. Now, I must go and think about what restaurant to choose for tomorrow night's celebration.

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