Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Going Postal - Terry Pratchett

Before I discovered the joy of Goodkind-bashing, I hadn't really heard much about Ayn Rand, beyond a vague mental image of some shrill old Russian-American harridan, some Simpsons gags and a line in a Paul Simon song. Objectivism never made much headway this side of the Atlantic, which is why it's slightly odd that Pratchett chose to ridicule it in Going Postal - like most Brits, I missed the references on my first read, and had to go back once I found out I might appreciate more of the jokes.

Going Postal is the tale of the Ankh-Morpork Post Office, belatedly revived by the Patrician after a long period of inactivity. It seems a strange time to be doing this, as the semaphore technology of the "Clacks" now spans the continent, making a postal service somewhat redundant - however, this turns out to be a cunning plan to break the monopoly of the new clacks magnates, whose corrupt practices have made the service unreliable, expensive and downright dangerous to its operators. To this end, the unfortunately-named ex-conman Moist von Lipwig has been dragooned into the role of Postmaster; he will have to brave the dark mysteries of the Post Office interior, somehow expose the magnates' corruption, and avoid getting killed in a number of interesting ways...

The main storyline is fine and good, but unfortunately it doesn't stretch to an entire book, which means that Pratchett has had to pad it out with crappy tiny subplots which try to take up more space than they deserve. Nasty assassin Mr Gryle and the quantum sorting machine are both very lame inventions that could easily have been left out with no detriment to the plot, or reduced to comic cameos to avoid clutter, but as it stands they just make the story look messy. The same with the talking letters, which seem to be little more than a long build-up to a disappointing punchline. One thing Pratchett used to be very good at was the little setpiece gags that sat just to the side of the plot, but now they seem to be getting too big for themselves and interfering with the action, while not actually being that funny.

The Objectivist references are provided by a Mr Reacher Gilt, business leader and lover of freedom, who resents the governmental interference into his private business of extortion and embezzlement. While the idea of a comic fantasy novel about telecoms regulation is pretty funny (that's sort of my job), the satire is fairly heavy-handed; Moist's constant musings about "the freedom to take the consequences" do labour the point somewhat. Biting social comment it ain't - as comic creations, the other blundering buffoons of businessmen work a lot better. There's some more preachiness, too, in the character of Adora Belle Dearhart, the waspish Janeane Garofolo-esque love interest, whose smoking habit repeatedly and unnecessarily disgusts Moist - just say no, kids!

Again, I seem to have given Pratchett a scathing review, but I did enjoy the book. Are my expectations too high? Am I just trying to punish the guy for not being as good as he used to be? Or just overreacting to the fawning hype that surrounds his every missive? Not consciously, that's for certain, and that's the best I can do. The book is very good in places, and the ending is excellent, but much of it really annoyed me, which I don't find with his older books. Still, once you get through the teeth-grinding moments, it's still worth reading.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Even Cowgirls Get The Blues - Tom Robbins

This is going to be a hard book to describe. The basic story is strange but straightforward - Cissy Hankshaw is born with oversize thumbs, which inspires her to take up hitchhiking; after many years of this, she marries a frail New York aesthete, but is unable to settle down; on a photo-shoot in the Dakotas, she finds herself at the Rubber Rose Ranch, a health & beauty spa in the process of being overrun by cowgirls, and falls in love with both a young cowgirl and an old Japanese hermit; then a flock of endangered whooping cranes takes up residence near the ranch... but reducing this book to the mere plot details is like describing the Grand Canyon as a big ditch. The main point of this book is not the story but the style.

New York City. June 21, 1972. Eight-thirty in the evening, according to the position of two mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial. Mars is in the house of Virgo, Jupiter is in the House of Values and Venus is in the House of Pies. The weather: hot hokey puppy poopie with billows of industrial paranoia at 600 feet. Manhattan smells like the litter box for the Kitty of the World. It has twisted its body into the dog-shit asana. Close by but far away, in a world beyond odors, ghosts of the original inhabitants are laughing their feathers off, remembering how they'd stuck the white devils with this doomed piece of real estate for some very chic beads and a box of Dutch Masters. The Big Apple, polished with Rockefeller spit and wiped on the tight pants of a multitude of Puerto Ricans, is ready for the chomps and nibbles of Friday-nighters from everywhere. Junkies are stirring in their warrens, pizzas are primping in their ovens, Wall Street is resting its bloody butthole and the Statue of Liberty wears a frown that won't quit. As City College professors, disgruntled over martinis, talk about dropping out and farming rhubarb in Oregon, neon signs all over town rejoice because it's the shortest night of the year. Headline on the front page of the New York Daily News: THE CHINK SUMS IT UP, SAYS LIFE IS HARD IF YOU THINK IT'S HARD. New York City. In progress. Not a cowgirl in sight.

Hanging from the bones of the story are all kinds of weird and wonderful things. The brain argues with the thumb over who is more responsible for the evils of civilisation. Sentences introduce themselves and announce how proud they are to be part of the Only Cowgirls Get The Blues team. The author enters the story, both as the psychiatrist Dr Robbins and as the omniscient Voice of the Author, who calls out warnings to mice when a character throws a stone off a cliff. There's poetry and philosophy and some barbed snipes at the government. There are smiles and more than a few laughs. And, um, there are vaginas.

Many men believe that if they had boobs, they'd do nothing but play with them all day; Robbins seems to be taking a similar view here of the naughtier bits. The prurient references to all things vaginal are inescapable, though only sporadically pornographic - Cissy advertises douche products; her employer is terrified of the smell; the Rubber Rose ranch is (initially) dedicated to matters of intimate hygiene. Tom Robbins in real life may well be quite well-adjusted on the subject, but you'd never guess it from this book. Was it really daring and shocking in the seventies? Possibly, but I found it more of an irritation, like trying to enjoy a concert in a hall full of mosquitoes.

The constant vagina references were probably the book's biggest drawback; this was closely followed by the device of Cissy's huge thumbs, which never really had me convinced. Other than that, though, it was a fine read in an interesting style. The relentless whimsy does become slightly wearing at times, but there are enough changes of pace and switching of setting to ensure that the boring bits never last for long. I've heard the film's rubbish, but the book's certainly worth a read.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Lord of the Flies - William Golding

Well, having had the plot spoilt for me by Ansen Dibell's book, I thought I'd better read the real thing. It does seem a bit presumptuous to be writing reviews of award-winning literary classics, but hey, I'm just a person with a blog who likes writing about the books I've read, so I can just about justify this to myself. Besides, there's no reason that classics should be immune from bloggery, even if a zillion GCSE students have trodden this ground before.

I think everyone knows the basic story, as it's been a staple of popular culture for decades - bunch of schoolboys stranded on a desert island, struggle for leadership, descent into savagery and a sticky end for the fat kid. The reviews on Amazon are pretty essay-tastic and waffle on in exam-friendly ways about the imagery and use of metaphor, but there's no need for that here. Yes, the plot is well structured, and the book has valuable things to say about the human condition, but, well, it's a kids' book. It may be darker and more brutal than most kids' books, but it still suffers from the drawbacks of that genre.

Now, don't get me wrong, I like reading kids' books - one thing that usually distinguishes them is that they have great stories, because that's what kids want. However, they are often also marked by a certain shallowness, and a tendency by authors to fudge the details and skimp on the characterisation, and both of these flaws are apparent in Lord of the Flies. The background is full of nagging inconsistencies - not just the classic moment where the myopic Piggy, in defiance of basic physics, uses his (concave) glasses to start a fire, but it also raised questions like "Why is a group of British public schoolboys, age range 6-12, flying across the Pacific? Why do hardly any of them know each other? If the only animals on the island are pigs, why are there so many fruit trees?" Kids don't care about that stuff, but I do, and the omissions really bugged me.

I was going to go over the weakness of the characterisation now, but thinking about it, it wasn't actually that bad. One thing that stood out, though, was the overt labelling of the characters as "X personality-type" rather than showing it - for example, Piggy was constantly described as the intelligent one, and yet never really did anything particularly clever, he was just an annoying lazy fat kid. The character who rises furthest above the cardboard-cut-out level was Ralph, the main protagonist, but he is only just redeemed from Golden Boy ideal-hero cipherdom by his earlier predilection for mucking about, and his initial dislike of the eminently dislikable Piggy. Ralph's rival Jack was more interesting, in the way that bad guys often are, but he was a fairly stock bad-guy archetype for all that, only distinguished by the fact that he was twelve.

As a story, Lord of the Flies works really well; as a great work of literature much less so. I can't help but feel that its original impact was mostly down to the shock-value of showing kids as the little bastards they really are, which was probably quite a revelation in the 'Fifties. Published today, most people would probably be sceptical about it taking so long for the savagery to begin. Decades of earnest high-school analysis has put this book on a pedestal that I'm not sure it deserves; I wonder if in fifty years' time, the same thing will have happened to Harry Potter?


The Blood of the Trick - Goodkind Halloween Special

It’s Halloween and three friends have stopped to rest a moment after some successful trick or treating. Edd is a fat boy, he is dressed as a vampire, Sharon is dressed as a princess, and Paul is dressed as a zombie.

Edd: Let's go to that house at the end of Midland’s Road.

Sharon: The haunted mansion? I dunno, my parents told me to stay clear of Rand's Hall.

Paul: You chicken, or what?

At the word chicken to group of children feel that the air has gotten colder around them.

Sharon: They tell scary stories about that place.

Edd: They tell scary stories about Ligotti House, King's Palace, and Joe's Hill too, and the people there were nice and gave us candies.

After some discussing the three friends decide to try their luck with the allegedly haunted Rand's Mansion. On their way they pass in front of Jeff and Scott Thomas Rare Books, where they manage to collect some more candies to fill their bags. They spy other groups of children; some escorted by an adult others, like themselves roaming alone in the cool autumn night. When they pass beside the Tropics, an old fashioned bar with a mural painting inside portraying a tropical beach, they meet Mister Ford, who smiles at them the sad smile of those who miss their childhood nights of Halloween.

Paul: Sharon, your parents, what did they tell you about the house?

Sharon: My mom told me that it belonged to a sour old lady, who lived there for many years, always angry with the world. When the lady died the place was abandoned but now it seems that someone must live there because they hear noises.

Paul: Cool!

Edd: Yeah, cool!

Paul: Maybe it’s the old lady’s spirit that has never left the place.

Sharon: Oh, please.

When the three kids arrive to Midland’s Road the festive spirit, somehow restored by the reassuring sights of their little town dissipates as the ancient Mansion emerges in front of them, surrounded by a chilly fog.

Edd: Now I'm not sure we should go.

Paul: Chicken.

Paul strides fearlessly into to yard and his two friends reluctantly follow him. The house is dark and they can feel the cold that the place exudes but Paul is a brave boy and he has come here to have some candies but even more than this, he has come here to be scared. Adolescence is near and he feels that soon all the magic of nights like this one will be lost to the cynical bravado of youth. He knocks at the door feeling adrenaline surging by his veins, his heart hammering against his chest. Paul knows that Edd and Sharon have followed him and this makes him happy.

Then the door opens and a tall man dressed in black emerges from the complete darkness of the house. He stares at them raptor like, his eyes filled with cold fury.

Richard: Who are you and what do you want?

Paul: We are...

Edd: Trick or...

Sharon: Treat.

Paul raises his bag filled with candy but the man seems unimpressed.

Richard: I don't do weirdo cultural diversity.

Paul: weirdo what?

Richard: And your begging sickens me.

Sharon: We are not begging, we are just asking for candy, it's Halloween.

Richard: Asking for candy at people's doors is begging. If you want candy work for your candy, fight for it, earn it.

Edd: But we are not asking for candy because we don't have money. Look I have money; I mow lawns in the neighbourhood.

Richard: You beg for candy because it's the way your parents have to brainwash you, to make you become Altruistic, to make you ready to expect other peoples help, to choose death and not life. You are dressed as Death, had you chosen life you would be dressed as Noble Goats, Mud People, or maybe friendly Gars, not as Zombies and Vampires as you are. You live in a system that has raised you to be mere parts of a giant organism that wants to destroy your individuality.

Richard goes on and on for a long time and the kids seems unable to escape. Being polite children they have been taught not to allow people to finish what they are saying. Time passes and the night seems to be darker now, they know that they are being late and that their parents are going to be very worried but the man keeps talking and talking about moral vegetables and things equally strange. Finally he stops to catch his breath.

Paul: So you are not going to give us candies.

Richard: No!

Sharon it's really angry. She has waited for more than an hour for this man to stop talking and now he is not even going to toss a few mint sugar free candies in their bags. She does the first thing that comes to her mind, she sticks her tongue.

The man looks at her with hatred; it's as if some thing had suddenly grown in him. Then he kicks at her face.

It's Edd who saves Sharon. He grabs the back of her coat and pulls her back. The man's boot passes a few inches from her nose as they fall down to the muddy ground. Then the man turns to Jason who is still standing paralyzed. The man reaches behind him and a long and ugly looking machete appears in his hand, the word Truth engraved on its rusty blade.

Richard: Blade be true this day.

Paul can see that the man has two words tattooed in his knuckles; Life in his right hand, Death in his left. His eyes are looking at him, mesmerized by the moonlight reflecting on the rusty blade.

Sharon: Run Paul!
Sharon and Edd have managed to arrive to the gate. Then Paul turns and runs, he runs and the man follows him brandishing his machete, cutting the air closer and closer to his back.

Richard: Bringer of Deathhhh!!!

And now Paul is in the street and the three kids run screaming and do not stop for more than ten minutes, even if they know that the man has stopped pursuing them long ago.

They do not talk, they just stare at each and do not care that they have dropped their bags filled with candies in the dark front yard of the evil Rand’s Mansion. The last harvest of their childhood is lost to the dark secrets of the mad world of some adults. They part their ways when they arrive to their street, Paul is the last one, his house being the last one in the street. He covers the last meters to the comforting lights of home with his heart beating fast in the most abject terror, expecting the man with the rusty blade emerge from every shadow, remembering with horror the last sight of Rand’s Mansion, when he was running he looked back to see if the man was still following. It was then when he saw the woman, dressed in white, looking down at him from one of the windows of the ancient mansion. She was smiling evilly at him.

- Agulla

Richard Hood and his Merry Mord Sith

Richard Hood, Richard Hood, riding through the fields
Richard Hood and the Mord Sith, holding their agiels
His enemies are bad
His allies are good!
Richard Hood!

*Twangg!* Another perfect shot from Richard, the arrow pierced the acorn balanced on the head of the squirrel, ricocheted off a nail, knocked the teeth from a passing 8-year-old (leaving a melon-sized hole) and whizzed past the eyes of his adoring Mord Sith outlaw band before ricocheting off a passing cart and heading back towards him. He grabbed it from the air effortlessly, to polite applause.

These merry outlaws were the scourge of Sherwood Forest. Their leader, the notorious Richard Hood, was an ex-woodsman who turned to crime after a revelation he had while on the Crusades. Realising that 1) everyone was stupid 2) good intentions lead to bad results 3) you need to deserve victory 4) Richard is always Right 5) blah 6) blah blah 7) etc, he had formed his band of torturers and begun to ravage the countryside around Nottingham. These merciless women (men were only allowed if they were old, weak or stupid, so that Richard wouldn't be shown up) would track down and destroy all followers of Bad King Jagang, stating that only the return of his brother, Good King Richard, would end their lawless ways. They stole from the rich and... well, the poor had chosen to live in squalor, and giving them the money would only encourage them to be weak, so they mostly spent the money on haircare and exciting leather underthings.

Richard's broad shoulders strained against the soft (yet masculine) fabric of his War Outlaw outfit, a light breeze catching a lock of his hair as he struck a dramatic pose. Here was a figure of true manliness, the ideal to which all should strive - his clean-shaven jaw, jutting from a masterful visage where dwelt an aquiline nose of noble proportions. Raptor-like eyes shot out from under eyebrows that were harsh but fair, and shone with the clear light of one who has seen the truth. His mighty and muscular thighs were clad in tight black leather, and were full of the strength of many men. His chest shone with the glow of manly sweat, and, excuse me...

...ahem. Richard towered over his bride, as he was taller than her; she, being but a woman, was shorter than Richard, a tall man whose height was greater, though she was tall for a woman, but not as tall as her husband. She was still known as Maid Karion, having managed to maintain her virginity despite several attempted rapes. Richard didn't like to stop the abductions, as he would get his kicks from watching the preliminaries, then step in to rescue her before anything got too serious. Richard had "issues" when it came to women, and despite several overtures from his beloved, still refused to sleep with her. Karion had brought a message from Sister Verna, the fat, tonsured nun whose deadly skill with a quarterstaff had ensured her entry to the outlaw band, despite her not being young, attractive and big-breasted.

"Sister Verna says that Sister Bobby Mae and Sister Joleen have been captured! The Sheriff will execute them if you don't surrender!" said Karion breathlessly. Richard's mind raced. One problem with the gang's outfits was that the red leather was very conspicuous in the green woods, and they tended to get captured all the time; it also hindered their robberies as their victims could see them coming a mile off.

Richard decided he couldn't be bothered with an elaborate rescue attempt. "I choose life!" he roared. "My life is more important than theirs, and if I try to rescue these nuns, then I am not being true to myself! To stay here and sit on my arse is the only moral thing to do!"

Karion tried again. "But they'll be executed! You have to do something!"

"No, you see, it's OK," said Richard, through teeth clenched in anger, "The Sheriff eats hamsters, which means he's the bad guy; as long as I don't do anything as bad as that, I'm the good guy, so all my decisions are necessarily correct. It's simple logic!"

Karion couldn't argue with that, so they all went and had a picnic.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Throne of Jade - Naomi Novik

This is the sequel to the excellent Temeraire, which takes us a bit further into the dragon-infested alternate history that Novik created for the first book. The Napoleonic war is still raging, but the powerful Chinese empire have sent delegates to demand the return of Temeraire, whose egg was intended as a present for Napoleon himself. Reluctant to offend so formidable a nation, and hoping for preferential trade concessions as a reward for compliance, the British government has agreed to return Temeraire to his native land. Obviously, Lawrence has no desire to be separated from his dragon or from his country, but as refusal would mean a hanging for insubordination, he is obliged to accompany Temeraire in the hope they can persuade the Chinese to reconsider.

Will Temeraire be seduced by the wiles of Prince Yongxing and leave Lawrence for a more worthy Imperial companion? Well, obviously not, and despite the dragon's growing dissatisfaction with his standing in British society, the idea that he might defect to China is never made plausible enough to add any suspense. This makes the plot rather less exciting than it should have been, and the Imperial politics of the final section don't do much to alter that; the ending is also fairly weak. However, the plot of the first book was nothing special either and that still managed to be enjoyable - could the same be true for Throne of Jade?

Well, a lot of the fun of Temeraire came from the gradual unveiling of the world, and the reader coming to appreciate Novik's concept of dragons and their place in her society. With a second book, this is harder to do, but the use of different geographical locations made it quite successful. We hear about dangerous wild dragons in the interior of Africa, sea-serpents in the Indian Ocean, and of course the dragon-centric society of China, all of which combined to make Novik's world fascinating and exotic. Unfortunately, there is very little screen-time given to the dragons themselves, and Temeraire is almost reduced to a minor character while Lawrence takes centre-stage; there are also fewer memorable characters.

The book certainly isn't awful, and I fully intend to buy the rest of the series, but this instalment was a pretty workaday affair. It's essentially a long sea journey followed by some simplistic political machinations, and while the world-building is sound, it needs more characters and more plot to liven it up. Worth reading for the background details, but nowhere near as much fun as the first one.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Wintersmith - Terry Pratchett

Another wintery book about dark forces bringing down the cold - we need a few of those round here at the moment! This is the third of Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books, young-adult Discworld novels about a trainee witch. Like most of his recent books, the plot is what could charitably be called "recycled," meaning that, to go with the Sam Vimes Plot Format ® and the Susan Death Plot Format ®, we now have a standard Tiffany Aching Plot Format ® - Tiffany unwittingly gets involved with some brand-new supernatural forces that we've never heard of before, and with the surreptitious guidance of Granny Weatherwax has to become all responsible and witchy and sort them out; meanwhile, the Nac Mac Feegles act the part of comedy Scotsmen and drink and fight a lot. Yes, we've seen it all before, but in spite of all this, it's still an entertaining read.

Stories about trainee witches have been a staple of children's literature for a long time now - from The Worst Witch to Harry Potter, the kids can't get enough of 'em. Tiffany Aching does at least deviate from this norm in that her training doesn't involve a whole lot of magic - this is in line with the Discworld concept of witches, who generally depend on common sense and basic psychology a lot more than they do on spells. The more showy and magical aspects of witchery are generally disparaged in the books by contrasting Granny Weatherwax's common-sense style with the inferior methods of other witches, and this book is no exception - as Granny's protegé, Tiffany is unofficially pitched against the pupil of Granny's high-magic-loving rival Mrs Earwig, with the inevitable result that down-to-earth witchery wins out once more and the kids are taught the value of good, honest hard work, probably. However, by that stage, witch politics are the least of Tiffany's problems.

The Dark Morris Dance was introduced in Reaper Man as the autumn counterpart to the spring morris dances, celebrating the dying of the year and maintaining the balance between life and death. The focus has changed slightly here, and the balance is now between Winter and Summer, so when Tiffany gives in to a stupid impulse and joins the dance, the balance is upset and she becomes entangled in the complicated relationship between the Wintersmith and the Summer Lady. The Wintersmith, previously an elemental force, now finds himself trying to be human to match his dancing partner, and Tiffany, having usurped the Summer Lady's place, gains god-like powers but has no idea what to do with them. Somehow she will have to sort this out in time for spring, otherwise the snow will never stop and the world will end...

This is all an intriguing premise, but the execution is rather clumsy. Apart from the opening scene, I didn't feel that the elemental force of winter was conveyed very well at all, being tangled up with the intra-coven rivalry and bad jokes about mustard. There were too many ideas that were not developed or integrated properly, all jostling for space, particularly with the late reference to the Persephone story that seemed to be tagged on at the end, and just an excuse for the Nac Mac Feegles to do something after sitting around idly for most of the book. The character of Tiffany, too - while not quite as insufferable as Johnny Maxwell from Pratchett's other Young Adult series, she still comes across as a cipher whose purpose is to Show The Kids How To Behave Responsibly.

And yet... I still enjoyed the book. I've been buying Pratchett in hardback for about 13 years, and while the declining quality over the last few has made me consider waiting for the cheaper paperbacks, I have yet to follow through on this resolution. Regardless of the similar plots and the decreasing number of laughs, the Discworld novel factory can still keep me turning the pages.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ghost Story - Peter Straub

Me? Reading ghost stories? Hmm, well. I know, ghosts are really crap and boring, but I'd heard that this book was genuinely scary, and I kind of hoped there wouldn't be any actual ghosts in it. Given the title, that's a pretty bizarre expectation, but I thought it might be a red herring concealing something more interesting. Luckily, that wasn't too far from the truth.

After a flash-forward prologue, featuring the kidnap of a little girl who may be more than she seems, we zoom back in time to a meeting of four old men in the small town of Milburn, NY - the "Chowder Society", who meet fortnightly to exchange ghost stories. The cold days of late autumn are drawing in, and it's been a year since the death of the Chowder Society's fifth member. There are hints that this death was not of natural causes, and hints of some terrible secret much further in the past, which may now be back to wreak revenge - of course, the dark secret remains hidden until near the end, which maintains the suspense, if only because you're desperately hoping it's worth the build-up. As the blizzards rage and the town is cut off, something has started killing the animals, and soon it moves on to people...

Ghost Story was written during the big horror boom of the late seventies, shortly after Stephen King's rise to fame. Comparisons with King's work are inevitable, but at least this is comparable to King at the height of his powers - it's rather like a colder and slightly less colourful version of Salem's Lot. Straub's writing style is very good, and it's an original touch to have the central characters as four old men, so it's a shame that the plot is so formulaic - I was constantly expecting it to be better than it was. There were some interesting ideas about the nature of the horror being driven by the Chowder Society's stories, but they seem rather tacked on and don't really fit with the main plot - and that, unfortunately, is nothing special.

What Straub does do well is atmosphere, and the claustrophobia of the small town as the snow closes in is very nicely evoked; he also does a good job with the sinister characters in the flashback chapters. However, the way the story jumps back and forth in time is quite confusing, for example when Straub (as narrator) lists all the deaths for the next two months but doesn't get to the details until several chapters later. Stephen King definitely wins out as a storyteller - he does pace, vivid characters and basic scariness much better than Straub - but if you're not expecting anything too original, there's still plenty to enjoy here.


COLUMBO: The Yeard is Deceitful Above All Things

Written, Directed, and Produced by Zap Rowsdower


Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo


Terry Goodkind as Richard Rahl

The night was cloaked in blackness- it was not just coffee black, nor was it the blackness of spilled ink; rather, the night could be said to be as black (or blacker) than the dark heart of a two-bit whore craving her next hit of cocaine as she eyes your filled-to-bursting-wallet with an evil glint in her eyes, and clutches a heavy waffle iron behind her back, just itching to bring it down on your head.

And it was in this blackness that crime! flourished. This thought pleased Richard Rahl. It pleased him mightily. So pleased was Richard with the thought that his luxurious yeard began to bristle in every direction. A fierce grin, almost a rictus, enslaved Richard’s face as he crept through the darkness’s black shadows. Thoughts of goats and walrus danced like sugar plumbs in his head.

Richard crept across the silent lawn, pale green under the brilliant moonlight, towards the sprawling mansion. Richard’s legs walked past the white picket fence, and Richard’s arm had to resist a masculine urge to tear off a tree branch and clack-clack-clack it along the wooden posts while his mouth cried Callooh! Callay!

After a period of time, Richard managed to creep stealthily up to a window, which he pried open using his trusty Sword of Truth. Richard scampered into the open window and found himself inside a child’s room. Toys and stuffed animals lay scattered willy nilly across the floor. Richard thought this was likely the result of a debased Collectivist upbringing.

Richard’s entry had not gone undetected. There was a bed in the corner. The bed was long, like some vile centipede. On the bed, a small form stirred and rubbed its eyes. The little girl stared, Sindy Lue Who-like at the gangly, yearded man who had broken into her room.

Recognition ignited like lighter fluid in a firestorm. “You shouldn’t be here!” the little girl stated, in what Richard found to be an ear gratingly un-Moral voice. “Daddy said if you ever dragged your stinking yeard across our property, he’d sue your ass back to the stone age.

Litigious little bitch, thought Richard, as he advanced on the bed. In terror, the little girl drew her blankets to her chin. Richard’s breathing increased and his heart pounded in his ears while his eyes danced the Light Fandango and his tongue did a nosedive into the back of his throat. Richard was excited. The time had come.

The little girl opened her mouth to scream for help. Richard brought his boot upward and connected it with the jaw in one swift motion. The jaw shattered like fine china. Her own teeth had severed her tongue and the sudden gush of blood drowned all of her subsequent screams.

Richard watched in satisfaction as the rapid loss of blood brought the girl’s struggles to an end. The body twitched once more and then lay completely still. Richard took a moment to savor his triumph before he took the steps necessary to complete his crime. Once finished, Richard slipped out the window and disappeared into the night.


Sirens wailed like a banshee with a stubbed toe and broke the silence of the morning like a one armed juggler would break a cabinet full of fine china. A dozen or more police cars and an ambulance had pulled into the driveway of the mansion. Policemen ducked in and out of the front door while a pair of paramedics wheeled out a stretcher. The form on the stretcher was quite small and concealed entirely by a bed sheet. From inside the home came the inconsolably cry of a bereaved mother.

Richard Rahl observed all this from the balcony of his palatial estate, situated adjacent to the scene of the crime. Excitement beat against Richard’s breast as he stroked his yeard. All was going according to plan. No doubt the police, dullards though they were, would be able to piece together the clues Richard had so considerately sprinkled throughout the scene of the crime. But Richard was not one to let events shape themselves; great men shape events and Richard was a great man. Of this he was certain.

Richard wasted no time and soon found himself striding up the driveway of his neighbor. He was intercepted by a young policeman who tried to bar his way. Richard’s eyes glared a glare of hate and the young officer visibly wilted.

“I’m sorry, Sir,” stammered the officer. “I can’t let anyone through the cordon. There’s an investigation underway.”

Grinding his teeth in rage, Richard affixed the officer with a raptor like gaze. The man paled. “Get out of my way,” grated Richard, between clenched teeth. Finally, the officer acknowledged Richard’s masculine superiority and stepped aside. Richard was not at all surprised. Richard possessed a naturally imposing stature which was enhanced by his outfit. Before Richard had left his home, he had carefully selected him most threatening war wizard outfit.

Draped from head to foot in form hugging black leather, Richard Rahl looked like a shiny black shadow. Zippers, buckles and metal studs adorned the outfit and glittered with a metallic sheen. In addition to the outfit itself, Richard wore a black leather mask that engulfed his entire head. Only the eye slits and the zippered mouth opening allowed Richard to see and speak. The general effect of the outfit was devastating. Men and women alike could not help but gape in hopeless awe as Richard strode past them, his skin rubbing against the leather and producing a sound eerily similar to that of flatulence.

Richard gained the door and did not even pause. Simultaneous to his entry, Richard began barking orders. Richard met every questioning look with a raptor like gaze that cowed all opposition. With grand hand gestures Richard directed the police operation like he was directing the symphony of the universe. Richard strode through the crowd in his leather bedecked majesty.

The only problem Richard had was when he encountered the bereaved parents. The man and woman stood in a large study where they were questioned by a tactful police lieutenant. The woman, racked with sobs, was held tightly in her husband’s arms.

As Richard strode into the room, the man looked up in shock and dismay.

“Rahl, what the Hell are you doing in my house? I thought I told you I’d fill your yeard full of buckshot if you ever set foot on my property again.”

Richard ground his teeth. “Don’t piss me off. I’m here to help.”

Suspicion and confusion waged a brutal battle across the man’s face against the forces of gratitude and curiosity. Suspicion and confusion leapt from the trenches and made a made a mad dash toward the enemy lines. Both gratitude and curiosity had been stunned by the initial artillery barrage but had quickly snapped into action as soon as the deafening explosions came to an end. Peering over the top of the trenches they took aim and picked off the attackers one by one. The withering hail of gunfire tore into the enemy like an avowed carnivore tore into a double decker ham sandwich dripping with mustard and relish after spending a month long vacation in Vegetarian Hell. Whoops and cheers erupted from the trenches as suspicion and confusion was slowed, halted, and then routed. As they fled back toward the safety of their lines the defenders mounted their own counteroffensive. Crawling out of their trenches and foxholes, gratitude and curiosity pursued the foe not only on foot but on great land ironclads. Belching smoke and gunfire, the metal behemoths trundled across the battlefield, ripping through barbwire with relentless ease. The ragged remnants of suspicion and confusion reached the safety of their own lines only moments before the cataclysm. Too late to take up defensive positions, suspicion and confusion were slaughtered like so many prize pigs. Crushed, shot, and bayoneted, there were few survivors. Those who did survive were captured, and marched hands clasped behind their head to the nearest POW camp. The Powers that Be were pleased and medals and promotions were handed out with two fisted abandon. It was their finest hour. Period. Paragraph.

“Help? What do you mean?” asked the husband whose name happened to be Jagang “Lovechild” Zabladowski. A former hippy turned yuppie Jagang, had made and lost several fortunes within his own lifetime. As the 60s drug induced haze had faded, he had joined the Peace Corp and toured the world singing folksongs to various ethnic children with the help of his trusty tambourine. He had quaffed vegemite with the Aborigines of Australia, chewed the raw and bloody heart of a great boar brought down by blood brother tribesmen of sub-Saharan Africa, and slain a giant squid hellbent on sinking a North Sea oil rig in the teeth of a hurricane. Wanderlust sated, Jagang returned to the States and sought his fortune within the steaming jungles of Florida. Within the swampland he dug a mighty mine in the face of a mountain. He struck gold. With a gunnysack full of precious metals clutched between his teeth, he dived in the fetid swamp and began the long journey back to civilization. Kill or be killed. Fight or flee. Fang and claw. The law of the jungle. He found a hidden civilization deep within the swamps of Florida populated solely by the descendants of runaway slaves who had tried to flee North on the underground railroad only to have their efforts foiled by their abysmal sense of direction. He saved a voodoo princess from being sacrificed to ancient and forgotten gods. She was a wild and lusty wench and he carried her out of the swamps in his arms, his gunny sack of gold still clutched between his teeth. Free of the jungle, they collapsed on white sands of the beach. They made love under the tropical sun while the surf crashed against their writhing forms. They married and moved to Nevada, where it was warm in the winter, cool in the summer and the skies were always smiling. He lost his multimillions in the dot com bust of the late ‘90s. With a single penny, he rebuilt his riches by investing heavily in the false moustache industry. A sudden surge in stock prices solidified his finances. A few corporate takeovers later, Jangang found himself the leading rubber yak and animatronic narwhale tycoon in America. In all his travels and trials, no disaster had ever wounded him as deeply as the loss of his daughter. And that was why he was willing to accept help from an asshat like Richard Rahl.

“I intend to use the power of my staggering intellect to solve this crime!” declared Richard and smugly hooked his thumbs into his belt. Silence rang throughout the room. With a furious yell, deep from the bottom of his feet, Richard charged out of the study and towards the little girl’s room.

Jagang and his wife exchanged puzzled glances before they scrambled after the leather clad dynamo. The police lieutenant watched them leave. He took a moment to tap the ash from his cigar before he followed at a more sedate pace.

***commercial break***

- Zap Rowsdower

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Bimbos of the Death Sun - Sharyn McCrumb

No, it's not what you think - this is actually a novel about science fiction's embarrassing excesses, not an example of them. It's nominally a murder-mystery set at a SF/gaming convention, but this is a comic novel, and its main purpose is to poke affectionate fun at the con-going fraternity. It's a very silly book, and full of cheap jokes, but let's face it, taking the piss out of people in Spock ears never loses its appeal.

Jay Omega is a young engineering professor who knows very little about science fiction; to his chagrin, his first novel, a serious exploration of gender-specific mental illness caused by solar radiation, has just been published as "Bimbos of the Death Sun", and now he has to go to the con to promote it. His fellow guest author is the notoriously unpleasant Appin Dungannon, writer of heavyweight Celtic Fantasy novels, who judges the costume competition based on cleavage, insults his fans and generally acts like an utter bastard; no-one is terribly surprised when he is found murdered in his hotel room. It then falls to local copper Lt Ayhan to find the killer from among the mail-clad roleplayers and the political intrigues of the wargamers... could it be the long-suffering con organisers? The spurned would-be writer clutching his battered manuscript? Elusive über-fan Chip Livingstone? The money-grabbing agent?

We also have:

  • the Star Trek wedding
  • the obsessive fans who dress as monks, warriors, pixies
  • the large female fan who relies on seducing a shy male virgin so she has somewhere to sleep
  • the antisocial unwashed wargamer who's a decade too early for his spiritual home on the internet (Bimbos... was published in 1987)
- all the standard SF stereotypes are present, and though the brush-strokes are very broad, the characters are just about human enough to be believable. McCrumb plays fast and loose with viewpoint discipline, so most of the characters get some screen-time, even if it's just a paragraph or two inside someone else's chapter. This is pretty sloppy writing, but it doesn't really matter; this was never intended to be great literature. The one character that does stand out is also the most obvious candidate for Author Self-Insertion - Jay Omega's girlfriend Marion, an English professor with a background in SF, who understands the genre but is still made quite uncomfortable by the fans' obsessions and the ghetto mentality. If this is McCrumb in disguise, it would certainly explain her knowledge of the subject, and provides a viewpoint that most SF readers will be able to relate to.

As mysteries go, it's actually pretty crap - the ending in particular is messy and contrived. However, it works pretty well as a comic novel - though a lot of the jokes are obvious and the targets sitting ducks, it's still very funny. McCrumb obviously knows her stuff, as evinced by the accuracy of some of the jokes, even quite obscure ones about D&D procedure. However, as a "serious" author, she now seems to be ashamed of her geeky past - despite winning an award for Bimbos..., there's barely a mention of it on her website. Not to worry; she did her job, and twenty years later, Chip Livingstone is still going to conventions...


Goodkind Mauling

By Special Request...

It had been well over an hour since they had come out of the trees [They were special, hollow trees, perfect for hiding and petting in], climbing steadily upward, into the sun. [Richard lived to defy natural laws.] They were heading east on the ledges before the trail cut back to the west later. [Basically just going back and forth, but never mind that. Logic exists only at Terry's mercy.] The men, if they had followed, would have to look into the sun to see them. [And what did mum say about staring at the sun? Richard was nothing if not sly and delightfully cruel.] Richard kept them crouched as low as possible and checked over his shoulder often as they climbed, scanning for any sign of the men. When he had seen them by Trunt Lake they were staying well hidden [although apparently not hidden enough], but it was too open out here for them. He saw nothing, and started to feel better. [Zedd had always taught him that what he couldn't see couldn't hurt him.] They weren't being followed; the men were nowhere to be seen, and were probably miles down Hawkers Trail by now. The farther from the boundary and the closer to the town they got, the better he felt. His plan had worked. [And what a plan it was. Go from boundary to town. Keep pants on.]

Seeing no sign that they were being followed [other than that Goodyear Blimp], Richard wished they could stop for a rest, as his hand [and a certain something else] was throbbing, but she gave no sign that she needed or wanted a break. [Perhaps she didn't know the universal inter-boundary sign language? Unlikely.] She kept pushing on as if the men were right on their heels. Richard remembered the look on her face when he had asked if they were dangerous, and quickly rejected any thought of stopping.


Conquest: Fighting like War Wizards

Peter Woodward: “Today our team will learn how to fight and conquer as a War Wizard. One would thing that being a War Wizard is easy but it’s far from it, it takes a very special kind of person to be a War Wizard. Are they ready? We will find the answer in today’s episode of Conquest!”

The images show a cave and Peter Woodward appears dressed in a black outfit, he has a sword strapped across his back. Suddenly the other members of his team; a bunch of men and the blond girl surround him. They are dressed as soldiers, protected by plate and mail, the girl is dressed in red leather.

Peter’s Voice: "Our War Wizard is surrounded by many enemies and his situation seems hopeless but this soldiers and the evil Mord Sid have made a terrible mistake."

Suddenly Peter Woodward unsheathes his sword, whispers something, and starts fighting and “killing” his enemies.

Peter’s Voice: "What these imperial Order scum ignore is that they are acting as a collective thing, like a centipede and they are easy picking for a full trained War Wizard."

Peter kills the last of the soldiers and then turns to the camera: “It’s been easy; in fact everything is easy if you are a War Wizard, you only need moral clarity.” Peter helps the members of his crew, who were playing death to stand.

Peter approaches his crew, they are dressed in modern clothes, around them there are a few training props.

Peter Woodward: “Hello, today you are going to train as War Wizards, first of all you need a war wizard outfit.”

He hands them black outfits and few seconds later they appear dressed in black. All but the girl who is dressed in a long white dress.

Peter Woodward: “Good, now you look the part. Here you have the War Wizard weapon: a common sword that you must carry across your back. This sword is special; it has the word Truth engraved on it. Now pay attention to this.”

Peter Woodward unsheathes his sword and says: “Blade be true this day.”

The members of the crew start practicing this move. In a few hours they have managed to master it and can move to more complex things.

Peter Woodward: “What makes a War Wizard so terrible in battle is not his training, as you already know a War Wizard does not train, his knowledge is absorbed by a complex non magical osmosis from his sword. A War Wizard sword has surely belonged to other War Wizards and it’s their fighting ability what seeps into you. Where the first war wizard got his knowledge from if he did like you is a question that we are not going to answer.”

Peter Woodward makes sweeping gesture with his sword and continues.

Peter Woodward: “The problem is that you have to find the way to channel these powers, the very energy that will allow you to conquer your enemies. For this you will need moral clarity and being terribly angry.”

Peter leads his pupils to an area were several manikins representing small girls have been placed. The manikin’s faces are made of porcelain.

Peter Woodward: “Now you must place yourselves in front of these representations of a spoiled little princess and wait for your “thing” to rise up. When you manage to do this you will be able to...”

Peter kicks the manikin that he has in front of him in the face and breaks it. Now he looks very pissed proving that he is a great actor. The member of his team follow suit and, after getting angry, smash manikins’ faces.

Peter surveys his pupils as they train. When they are done he takes them to another place where they meet a scary looking man.

Peter Woodward: Surely you thought that kicking little girl’s faces was hard but this is just the beginning. By now you will have understood that a War Wizard does not use weapons because He is the weapon. I want to introduce you to John (A man is shown but his face is hidden, edited under the trademark granulated imaging of History Channel). John has done some nasty work with the SAS and he will teach you a very special War Wizard move: ripping spinal chords with your bare hands! Time to get dirty.

Peter’s crew learns the basics of ripping spinal chords with their bare hands under the wise guidance of a man who calls himself John. They use dummies filled with animal entrails and finally understand why War Wizard outfits are black: to better hide the bloodstains.

Now there is a Commercial Pause.

After the ads there is an advancement of the following documentary: Battleground, also dedicated to Richard Rahl. It shows, with state of the art computer graphics (the art of 1998), the D’Haran victory over the Imperial Order. There are images of Jagang haranguing his troops (the twelve of them) and Richard doing the same (the three of them but you can see a woman dressed in white and a man dressed in the same clothes that wore the guy who played Gandalf in the shoddy History Channel documentary dedicated to the Lord of the Rings). All reconstructions have the granulated look that History Channel fans have learned to love. They even show that image of the Egyptians riding horses (the horror) in the battle of Kadesh and of course the fat guy who played Ramses II.

There is also an ad for the documentary: Richard Rahl in the Bible.

The Commercial Pause ends and we are back to Peter training grounds. Peter is teaching his crew the War Wizar stretching technique.

Peter Woodward: this technique can be very useful should you find yourselves surrounded by say a hundred heavy armoured Imperial Order soldiers. Making them think that you are stretching you can get hold of a sword and proceed to kill them all.

In the following five minutes Peter’s crew learns how to steal a sword with this lame technique.

Peter Woodward: “Now you have gone through your war wizard training and it’s time you prove that you are a real Objectivist Avenger. Your final test will be hard; I imagine that you expect the fight of ones against the others in this series’ usual fashion but no. This time you will be facing something far more terrible in a war wizard mind than mere soldiers. This time you will be facing peace protestors.”

In front of them a crowd of hippies is formed, they wear flowers in their heads and chant “All we are saying is give peace a chance”.

Peter Woodward: “I know that this won’t be easy; your democratic upbringing will tell you that these peaceful hippies are in their right to protest if favour of peace and you are right, but here you are not actors or stunts, you are war wizards and your duty is to conquer and destroy those who lack moral clarity. You have to let your thing grow inside you and then attack.”

The camera zooms on Peter as the members of his team beat the crap out of the peace protestors in the background (it all make believe but it’s quite impressive nonetheless).

Peter Woodward: “Today our team has learned how to fight and conquer as war wizards. Join us in the next episodes when they will learn to fight like Dothraki Screamers, Water Dancers and Dwarfish Ninjas.”
- Agulla

Friday, October 13, 2006

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig

I wasn't planning to read this book; it was just a random one of Ben's I grabbed on the way out one morning, and I didn't really know what to expect. I'd heard of it, obviously, but knew nothing more than the title, which wasn't promising - I don't have a motorcycle to maintain; Zen (from a Westerner) implies some new-age hippy claptrap, and the overall impression is that it's going to be some self-help nonsense like Chicken Soup for the Soul. The back-cover blurbs said helpful things like "A book of profound importance" - yeah, thanks. Worse, a quick skim through reveals horribly dated language like "square" and "groovy" - yikes! With all these misgivings, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it immensely.

But but but, what's it actually about? Well, it's many things, but the skeleton of the book is a road trip taken by Pirsig and his 11-year-old son Chris, from Minnesota to the west coast. The narrative has the chatty and accessible feel of a diary, and he gradually begins to introduce his philosophy in ways that relate to the events at hand - for example, his own attitude to bike repair compared to his friend John's, which exposes two opposing modes of thought, the arty versus the technical. Pirsig treats the story as what he calls a "Chautauqua," which has a rather obscure meaning but is essentially a sort of friendly lecture - it succeeds in gradually introducing quite complicated concepts without the reader losing interest or feeling patronised.

An added dimension to all this comes from the backstory of Pirsig's mental illness, and the character of "Phaedrus". This is the name he gives to his previous personality, which was excised by electro-shock therapy after a mental breakdown. He has few memories of his life before the breakdown, and has had to piece together a picture of his life from conversations with his old friends and colleagues, and from notes and papers he wrote at the time. The journey westwards takes him through his old haunts, which helps to stir his memory, and his philosophical discussions also take him over ground covered by Phaedrus, whose obsession with a particular concept is what drove him to insanity in the first place. Both the philosophy and the background are very skilfully unveiled, and provide a nice counterpart to the journey and Pirsig's uncertain relationship with his son.

I have a tendency to write philosophy off as a load of irrelevant waffle, but Pirsig's down-to-earth manner makes this an excellent introduction to the subject - it even explains why philosophy's important. I can't really comment on Pirsig's (or Phaedrus's) own philosophical views, because I don't care enough to form an opinion one way or another, but it's all presented in an accessible and common-sense fashion that substantially raises my opinion of the subject. I'm not sure I'd describe this revelation as "profoundly important," but it's a good read nonetheless.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

News from Tartary - Peter Fleming

In the summer of '96, I was travelling round China on what was left of my student loan. In an effort to get away from the well-worn backpacker trail and the grey communist-bloc architecture of the Chinese cities, I took a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit Kashgar in the far west; from Xi'an, already in the west of "classic" China, the round trip was a 4000-mile journey. It took me two weeks. After the first leg, fifty-seven hours of gruelling sleeplessness in a crowded hard-seat train carriage, I thought I'd pretty much earned my stripes as a hardcore traveller - until I read Peter Fleming's account of the same journey in 1936, which puts my meagre achievements to shame.

In the mid-30s, China was seething with civil wars and occupations. Japan had the northeast, the Communists were active in the southwest, Russia had its eye on the far west, and Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang had its provisional capital set up in Nanjing. News from the troubled western provinces was practically unobtainable, and with this in mind, Times Special Correspondant Peter Fleming set out westwards, aiming to get across to India and pick up as much news as he could en route - and at the same time get a really cool journey out of it. He was joined by Swiss journalist Ella ("Kini") Maillart, who had similar aims in mind, and they set off with the vain hope of being able to negotiate their way through rebel armies, deserts and countless checkpoints to gain access to that forbidden region.

Beyond the pass we were in the Tsaidam basin. The mountains became, and for the next five weeks remained, a backcloth only. We left on our right the tents and mud walls of a small settlement called Karakhoto and went forward into desolate dunes. Round Karakhoto there was a crude irrigation system, and the crossing of one channel gave us trouble. The camels floundered gawkily, imperilling the loads; on the faces of the Chinese amusement alternated with acute anxiety, and it was easy to tell whose goods were carried by which beasts.

As travel writing goes, this is some of the best. Fleming's style is beautifully descriptive but also doesn't take himself too seriously, and the anecdotes about the state of the expedition and his various travelling companions are just as interesting as the descriptions of hazardous mountain passes and bleak marshland. He makes a point of not over-dramatizing the journey - for example, the constant rumours of bandits are treated with good-natured contempt, rather than emphasised for the sake of an exciting story - but the realities of life on the road are very convincingly evoked, with a good eye for detail and a dry sense of humour. It's very much a tale of the journey, not the destination.

If there is a flaw, it's probably the result of the trip's "official" purpose - the News. Obviously mindful of his employers' requirements, Fleming does occasionally interject speculation about the chaotic international politics of the region, which is much less interesting now than it must have been at the time. There is a particularly dull passage in the middle where he leaves off the travel narrative to ascribe all sorts of nefarious motives to the Moscow government, and to propose some rather far-fetched conspiracy theories. Thankfully, though, this is quite short, and for the most part doesn't interfere with the travel tales; I've now read this book so many times I can safely skip through the boring bits.

It's hard to imagine now a world where it would take seven months to get anywhere, much less a journey crossing only one country. Most of what Fleming describes has now vanished forever - the nomadic caravans on the Qinghai plateau, the exiled communities of White Russians, the remote and stiff-upper-lipped outposts of the British Empire - and it's strange to think that this was just seventy years ago. Cheap flights, Lonely Planets and the "global village" are all very nice, but you can't help feeling envious of a time when travel was like this, a real adventure.


Don Ricardo de la Mancha. The War Wizard of the Sad Countenance

(An adaptation from an English translation)

The story so far: Don Terry a Castillian small nobleman has lost his senses reading so much fantasy books and has convinced himself that he is a war wizard. His family and friends are worried and decide to take stern measures with the culprit: Don Terry's well stocked library.



They all went in, the housekeeper with them, and found more than a hundred volumes of big books very well bound and some other small ones. The Curate directed the barber to give him the books one by one to see what they were about, as there might be some to be found among them that did not deserve the penalty of fire.

"No," said the niece, "there is no reason for showing mercy to any of them; don Terry always told us to expect no mercy, they have every one of them done mischief; better fling them out of the window into the court and make a pile of them and set fire to them." The housekeeper said the same, so eager were they both for the slaughter of those innocents that they truly acted as if they were hippy peace protestors but the curate would not agree to it without first reading at any rate the titles.

The first that Master Nicholas put into his hand was "The Lord of the Rings." "This seems a mysterious thing," said the curate, "for, as I have heard say, this was the first book of High Fantasy ever printed and from this all the others derive their birth and origin; so it seems to me that we ought inexorably to condemn it to the flames as the founder of so vile a sect."

"Nay, sir," said the barber, "I too, have heard say that this is the best of all the books of this kind that have been written, and so, as something singular in its line, it ought to be pardoned."

"True," said the curate; "and for that reason let its life be spared for the present. Let us see that other which is next to it."

"It is," said the barber, "the books of Shannara,' the unlawful sons of The Lord of the Rings."

"Then verily," said the curate, "the merit of the father must not be put down to the account of the sons. Take it, mistress housekeeper; open the window and fling it into the yard and lay the foundation of the pile for the bonfire we are to make."

"These that comes next," said the barber, "are 'the Dragonlance Saga' and, indeed, I believe all those on this side are of the same Fantasy lineage."

"Then to the yard with the whole of them," said the curate; "for to have the burning of Tanis the half elf, and the magician Raistlin, not to mention that horrid kender, and the bedevilled and roleplaying style discourses of his authors, I would burn with them the father who begot me if he were going about in the guise of a knight of Solamnia."

"I am of the same mind," said the barber.

"And so am I," added the niece.

"In that case," said the housekeeper, "here, into the yard with them!"

They were handed to her, and as there were many of them, she spared herself the staircase, and flung them down out of the window.

"Who is that tub there?" said the curate.

"This," said the barber, "is The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb."

"The author of that book," said the curate, "was the same that wrote 'The Liveships Trilogy and not happy with it keep writing,' and truly there is no deciding which of the books is the more truthful, or, to put it better, the less lying; all I can say is, send this one into the yard for a swaggering Fool."

"These that follows are, Malazan Books of the Fallen'" said the barber.

"Señor Erikson here?" said the curate; "then by my faith he must take up his quarters in the yard, in spite of his worldbuilding and visionary adventures, for the powergaming silly named characters deserve nothing else; into the yard with him and the other, mistress housekeeper."

"With all my heart, senor," said she, and executed the order with great delight.

"This," said the barber, "is The Wheel of Time.'"

"A long series," said the curate, "but I could only find reason for clemency for the first volumes but as things stand; send it after the others without appeal;" which was done and so the niece continued her duty with so many paperbacks and valuable hardcovers.

In carrying so many together she let one fall at the feet of the barber, who took it up, curious to know whose it was, and found it said, "A Song of Ice and Fire"

"God bless me!" said the curate with a shout, "A Song of Ice and Fire here' here! Hand it over, gossip, for in it I reckon I have found a treasury of enjoyment and a mine of recreation. Here is Don Jaime Lannister, a valiant knight, and his brother Tyrion, and the knight
Loras a much religious man who like to pray, with the battle the bold ser Bronn fought with ser Vardis, and the witticisms of the Queen Cersei, and the loves and wiles of the widow Queen of Thorns, and the Sansa in love with the Hound—in truth, gossip, by right of its style it is the best book in the world. Here knights eat and sleep, and kill and rape innocents, and die in their beds or in battle, and make their wills before dying, and a great deal more of which there is nothing in all the other books. Nevertheless, I say he who wrote it, for deliberately composing such fooleries, deserves to be sent to reading galleys for life. Take it home with you and read it, and you will see that what I have said is true."

"As you will," said the barber; "but what are we to do with these little books that are left?"

"Burn them all!" said a powerful voice. They all turned to see don Terry who gazed them raptor like. Don Terry was dressed in a ragged monk mendicant black outfit and carried a rusty broadsword across his back. He was flanked by Kahlanea, the whore from El Toboso, and his loyal Zencho, the village fool.

“But we thought that you liked them,” said the niece.

“Yes, Don Terry, we wanted to cure you of your delusion of being a fantasy writer.” The Curate explained.

“I don’t write fantasy and I’m not Don Terry any more, my war wizard name is Don Ricardo de la Mancha, Zencho just explained me my misterious origins and told me that I’m fated to be a war wizard”. Now Don Ricardo was eyeing them dangerously and the Barber, the Housekeeper, the niece and the Curate slowly backed.

“I would have burned all of them anyway, well not all of them, those Wheel of Time books are signed first editions and I planned to sell them to Lord Stego. But the rest I wanted to burn, I’ve discovered Ayn Rand now and I don’t need any other book”. Don Ricardo unsheathed his rusty sword.

“Then we were just doing what was correct, right?” Said the Barber.

“No, I wanted to burn them myself. It’s not the same thing. I can burn them and it will be a right thing but if you do it will be wrong because you lack moral clarity”. And then he whispered. “Blade be true this day”.

And the rusted blade broke.

The Curate laughted, the Housekeeper laughted, the niece slapped the Barber’s back and laughted and all, including the whore and the village’s fool, laughted. All but don Ricardo de la Mancha who crying charged.

“Do not flee cowards, it’s just one war wizard the one that attacks you!” But so great was his fury that it blinded his already dazed senses and he tripped with the two volume Subterranean Press edition of A Storm of Swords that was carelessly lying on the floor. Don Ricardo fell with such bad fortune that he was completely knocked out.

(In the following chapters the Barber, the Curate, the Housekeeper and the niece dress themselves as Mord Sith and, using sexual tortures, manage to convince Don Ricardo de la Mancha to repend his ways and in the future live his fantasies as a writer.)

- Agulla


The crowd gathered below Rahl Weyr muttered angrily and stamped their feet. Last night's Threadfall had destroyed hundreds of acres of prime farmland; the small band of gar-riders had tried their best to slow the fall with their bloodflies, but they had been hopelessly outmatched without their leader. The horrible collectivist Thread had fallen unchecked, killing bunnies, ickle babies and saintly grandmothers, and had left melon-sized holes in any number of noble goats. Even worse, it had caused millions of dollars' worth of damage to the Northern Pern economy, and the industry leaders had assembled at the weyr to demand an explanation. But R'chard, the weyrleader, was nowhere to be found. Where could he be?

"But why don't you want to fight?" pleaded Kahlessa. Her sky-blue eyes wandered around the mountain cave where she was staying with R'chard and his gar Teruth. "Don't you agree that Thread must be stopped?"

R'chard growled as he tried to restrain his anger. "Those industry leaders simply don't understand! It's not enough to hate Thread, you have to hate all that it stands for!" He touched his sword to access the Thesaurus function. "A pernicious, virulent pestilence, the homogenous spores of a fungoid parasite that will assimilate all individuals into one collective mass! Until they fully appreciate the danger and agree with my every word, I'm staying in this cave and not coming out!"

Teruuuuuuth luuuuuuug R''''''' chaaaaaaarg said Teruth.

He turned his back, and instantly Kahlessa was kidnapped and almost raped. Luckily her gar, Confeth, appeared and rescued her in the nick of time, and she flew off with her white dress billowing behind her. She arrived back at Rahl Weyr in time to see R'chard's half-brother, M'chael, make a moving speech.

"I'm an orphan!" he sobbed. The crowd went ahhhhhhhhh. "My mother was killed! Killed before my very eyes! She choked on... CELERY!"

The crowd gasped. "Oh no!" they said in horror. "Ban celery now!" They took up the cry and stormed off to the celery fields carrying burning torches and pitchforks. M'chael smirked evilly, then stopped when he saw Kahlessa watching. She knew she had to let R'chard know that his celery plantation was in danger. Using the powers of her mind, she summoned Teruth from the cave, and he came flying at once.

"STOP" shouted R'chard. The crowd stopped. Quickly, R'chard grabbed a boulder and whittled a statue of celery. The crowd fell to their knees and wept at the beauty of it.

"Don't you realise that celery is our only hope against the Threads?" R'chard asked, his voice gentle now that everyone was agreeing with him. "No collectivist fungus can destroy such a noble plant. We must arm ourselves only with moral celery and individually we can defeat this menace! We'll start by going to the Red Star and attacking the Threads' families and servants. Then, when they are completely disheartened... well, I'll work out the rest of the details later."

Something seemed wrong, but no-one was about to disagree. "R'chard, you're a genius!" said the crowd. "How do you do it?"

"Well," said R'chard, "I am a Weyrleader, you know!"

Kahlessa laughed. M'chael laughed (evilly). Then all the men laughed.

The Sword of Truth (non-fantasy version)

Note: Terry Goodkind has often claimed that he doesn't write "fantasy," as the fantasy elements in his books are not essential to the story. We tried to imagine what the books would be like if the fantasy elements were removed...
"I'm sorry sir, but you can't take that sword on board. Please put it in the box with all the other corkscrews and nail scissors."

"What?!" bellowed Richard. "But I have to go to the Midlands and save the people from their evil dictator! I am the Seeker of Truth!"

"You're a bloody nutter is what you are. If you don't leave the sword behind, you're not coming through."

"Never fear! I shall summon my red dragon Scarlet, and she will carry me! SCARLET!"

There was a swoosh of wings. "Scarlet want a cracker!" said Scarlet, and nibbled at a sunflower seed on Richard's shoulder. Richard rather sheepishly handed over his sword and boarded the plane to Birmingham.


Richard took up his position outside Selfridges and began his speech. "People of the Midlands!" he cried, "You are being oppressed! Join me and we will overthrow the evil dictator who oppresses you!"

A few shoppers paused and shot him irritated glances. His humble woodsman's outfit looked out of place in this bustling hive of commerce, but he had passed a shop selling war wizard outfits earlier on, and thought that might suit him - he'd pop back later and see if they'd accept Westlands money. He had hoped to win the allegiances of these people by teaching them to fix their roofs, but it seemed they already knew how to do that. Now he was short of cash - his grandfather had paid for his journey but had given him no funds for support, and no instructions on how to get back again. Later he'd have to find a forest and hunt for some game, but hopefully he wouldn't have to - once the people heard his message, they'd take him in and give him free food and lodging out of gratitude for his moral clarity.

He tried again. "Noble Midlanders! There is nothing greater than the spirit of a man! Live your life, be free! Moral celery is your only hope! Freedom is the right of all individuals! Life is freedom! Life is for individuals! Individuals are free! Celery for all!To be less than free is to be a slave, and to be a slave is to deny freedom! Free the slaves! Live the dream! Free to live life indivually like a free celery goat gargle bargle rhubarb..."

His words trailed off as he saw a beautiful woman approach. Her dress was long and white, and her hair came down to her waist. A name-tag attached to her bosom declared her to be "Kahlan Amnell - Security". Her eyes rose to meet his, then words issued forth in the harsh Midlands accent.

"You'll have to move along or we'll have you ejected. Several customers have now come in looking for the free celery that you're advertising. Please set up your stall somewhere else." She glared at him until he moved away.

Dejected, Richard made his way out of the shopping centre. A small girl nearby said loudly "Mummy, why does that man smell?". Richard's thing rose in him and he turned, kicking the child in the jaw.


Richard's companion in the jail cell was a large, burly, muscular man covered in tattoos. His bulging muscles rippled as he flexed his muscular, tattooed arms.

"Right, pretty boy, it's your lucky day" said the man. Richard wasn't worried, though, as rape was just an exciting thing that happened to women, and they enjoyed it really, and the good girls always got rescued at the last minute after some titillating nakedness and foreplay. Besides, his sword used to belong to some good fighters so he must have picked up some skills from that, right?


And here we draw a veil over the scene, leaving Richard to his well-deserved fate.

Conclusion: Sword of Truth without the fantasy elements is like The Sopranos without gangsters.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Greatest Show On Earth - Daniel Scott Buck

Reality TV. As a target for satire, it undoubtedly falls into the "fish in a barrel" category; it's so ludicrous that it's barely even worth mocking any more. Still, it's such a pernicious and pervasive phenomenon that you can't blame writers from taking on the subject, despite the difficulty in finding fresh approaches to the stale and overused source material. This book doesn't entirely succeed in creating a bitingly original satire, but it's a good effort, and it doesn't fail completely either.

The Greatest Show On Earth is not a professionally-published book, but a Print-On-Demand one from iUniverse. Not the sort of thing I'd normally read, but I saw it recommended on the POD-dy Mouth review site and thought I'd give it a go. For a self-published book it's surprisingly good, and it's a damn shame Buck chose to go this route when the services of a decent professional editor would have sorted out the main problems the book displays - despite some excellent bits of writing, it does have quite an unpolished feel.

The story is told from two viewpoints - Frank, the long-suffering boyfriend of a psychotic drama queen, and Carol, a quack therapist who specialises in repressed memories, past-life experiences and multiple personality disorders, and generally drives her patients to drug addiction and suicide. Both viewpoints alternate chapters, and use the first person - unfortunately, they seem to have exactly the same voice. There is nothing in the style to distinguish the two and so the start of each chapter saw me scrabbling for textual clues about who was speaking this time. Frank is also a much more believable character than Carol - it's much easier to relate to his troubles with histrionically-inclined girlfriend Meme, than with an unscrupulous therapist who views her clients' suicides as little more than an inconvenience.

The character of Carol is one of the biggest weaknesses in the book. The fact that she sounds exactly like the world-weary and cynical Frank is problem enough, but it's also very unclear as to whether she really believes in her therapies, or if she's just in it for the money. Buck seems to be trying for both, but the ambiguity of this is never played out and ends up just being slightly irritating. Her areas of "expertise" also strike a wrong note - yes, Reality TV, modern satire, check. But repressed memories of satanic abuse? Another fish-in-a-barrel topic, and one that doesn't even have the excuse of being current - it gives the book a distinct feel of having missed the point.

The story begins very simply - a circus showman type is putting together a reality TV show about Carol's insane therapy techniques, and Meme, fresh from failing an audition and feeling the need for fame, is recruited as her test subject. Carol then proceeds to instill Meme with a whole new set of neuroses, the show is a terrific success... and then everything becomes rather more surreal. Frank finds that the national obsession with the show has spilled over into all aspects of life; eventhe police and emergency services are now working for the show. This is the hook, this is the element that would make this book more than just some lazy jokes at the expense of cheap TV and its attendant attention-seeking freaks... if only it wasn't handled so clumsily. The subtle shift into surreality clashes with some brash and obvious jokes and some moments of downright weirdness (Meme's father turns into a pig? Does he really?) and it ends up missing the mark by some margin, though the intention was sound.

It's a real shame, as this should have been a much better book than it was. It still managed to be more enjoyable than a lot of professionally-published books I've read, but overall it just seemed like a first or second draft. Better luck next time!


The Ayn Rand Code, Part 2

(quick summary, the police have run off to deal with the threat of the demonic plot device that is Le Poulet qui n'est pas un Poulet, Richard and Sophie are trying to decode the following message:

15 42 23 8 16 4
Why A Dad Warlord Loll Nutty?
Nor Oil Dance Diva

The Ayn Rand Code : Chapter 2 - "Let us not go to the Louvre, it is a Silly Place"

“Sophie, what is your analysis of the writing?” Richard asked.

“I’ve been thinking about the Numbers, but I can’t see what that ordering symbolises.” Sophie replied. “The only significance I can see is that numbers are the coefficients of the famous Valenzetti equation, which I know Rahl was fascinated with, but they are out of order and I can’t see the relevance to the murder case.”

“Out of order,” Richard muttered to himself as he stared at the writing, his brain working furiously.

Breaker of Codes.

Suddenly enlightenment dawned. “The numbers aren’t significant, but the fact that they’re out of order is, he’s trying to tell us it is an anagram, in fact if you rearrange the letters they take on a whole new meaning – ‘What Would Randyll Tarly Do? Leonardo Da Vinci’. Obviously it is a reference to the famous painting by Da Vinci of Randyll Tarly, which I believe is in this very gallery.”

“Yes, it is over there,” Sophie pointed to the far side of the gallery.

They walked over towards it, on the way Sophie looked around to check they were still alone then leaned towards Richard. “There is something you need to know, Reno didn’t tell you everything; there was originally a fourth line of text that they erased before you arrived.”

“What did it say?” Richard asked.

“My star, find Robert Landgon.” Sophie said. “Reno jumped to the conclusion that Jacques Rahl was naming you as the murderer, he just ignored the first bit of the text, but I know what he meant was that you could help me find his murderer. Reno invited you here hoping you’d incriminate yourself, but I don’t think you are the sort of the man who would be capable of violence.”

Richard reflected that Sophie obviously didn’t know him very well. “But why do you say it was a message to you?” he asked.

Sophie looked sad, “Jacques Rahl was my grandfather, he raised me after my parents and brother died, we had been estranged for many years and no-one in the police knew that. He used to refer to me as his ‘little star’, I think the ‘my star’ was a reference to me; he must have known I would be told about the writing because the numbers would be sent to the cryptography department to decode. When I saw the Numbers I knew it was a message to me, he was always fascinated with the implications of those numbers, he even won the lottery using them once, although he claimed the win always gave him bad luck.”

Richard thought about the message as they arrived at Da Vinci’s picture. He said, “I think the ‘My star’ may mean more than just being a reference to you. I think Jacques Rahl may have been referring to the ‘Priory of Mystar’.”

“The Priory of Mystar? What is that?” Sophie asked.

“The Priory of Mystar is an ancient organisation founded millennia ago to protect one of humanity’s biggest secrets. Leonardo Da Vinci was once grandmaster of the Priory, he was a great believer in its purpose and included references to it in many of his works, included ‘What Would Randyll Tarly Do?’ Look here,” Richard pointed at an animal in the background of the painting.

“A goat!” Sophie exclaimed. “But what does that symbolise?”

“The goat is an ancient symbol of nobility, and was used as the unofficial logo of the Priory. Of course, there is also a much bigger connection in this picture, since Randyll Tarly is intimately connected to the secret the Priory protects, as is this woman,” Richard pointed at the woman standing next to Randyll Tarly, gazing at him adoringly.

“Who is she,” Sophie asked, “I’ve always wondered who she was and why she was in the picture?”

This was the sort of question Richard loved. It gave him a perfect opportunity to reveal some little-known symbolism in a long-winded explanation.

Explainer of Things.

“That’s Mary Magdalene,” Richard said, “if you look at her portrayal in the painting of “The Last Supper” and then look here, you’ll see she is the same woman in both. Leonardo is trying to let us in on the secret, that Randyll Tarly and Mary Magdalene were married.”

Sophie argued, “But, Mary Magdalene isn’t in the…”

Richard interrupted, “Long story, you should read my long-winded book on the subject, or if we happen to run into an English academic while we’re on the run we can get him to explain it to you. Anyway, the revelation that they were married is just a hint at the real secret – that Randyll Tarly and Mary Magdalene were both disciples of Jesus and were his choice to lead the Church and guide it in its true role as a bastion of Objectivism. Of course, you’ll never have heard any of this - the other disciples lacked the moral clarity to see the truth of objectivism and seized control of the Church. There was a struggle between the different factions for the next couple of centuries, initially the Objectivists were winning, they had Randyll Tarly on their side after all, but after he died of old age in 184AD they were defeated by the forces of moral cowardice. At the Council of Westeros in 325AD convened by the Emperor Erzuile to decide the future direction of the Church the Bishops Werthead of Camulodunum and Mindonner of Sandstorm succeeded in removing all mentions of Objectivism from the Bible, against the objections of the popular preacher Mystar the Great. After that Mystar found the Priory that bears his name, ever since then there have been a small number of people dedicated to preserving the memory of Randyll Tarly and Mary Magdalene and their beliefs. Leonardo Da Vinci was a big admirer of Randyll Tarly, he is known to have remarked in a letter to a contemporary that Tarly was “harsh but fair”

“Wow”, said Sophie, “that was a long explanation, isn’t this story meant to be a thriller? Less talking, more car chases?”

“This isn't just a cheap thriller,” Richard said, “This is a story about the triumph of human nobility which means the author can put in huge slabs of exposition if he wants. Anyway, as soon as we’ve decoded the message Jacqeus Rahl left us by this picture, we can probably have a car chase which completely ignores the real geography of Paris. That should liven things up a bit, and it will look good in the inevitable but disappointing film adaptation.”

They started to study the picture intently.

(to be continued (maybe)...)

- williamjm

Thursday, October 05, 2006

White Time/Black Juice - Margo Lanagan

True to my word, after reading Singing My Sister Down I tracked down and purchased both of Lanagan's short story collections, White Time and Black Juice. Both books are a very quick read - the stories are sort, and there are less than a dozen in each volume - but they're certainly not a ripoff; there's an astonishing amount of atmosphere and strangeness crammed into a very small space.

Lanagan doesn't waste any words on infodumps or exposition; each story is told from the inside, usually from the viewpoint of a child or a character with a similar air of innocence. The story then becomes as much about revealing the details of the world as it does about the more obvious plot events that are happening. For this reason, it's hard to summarise any of the stories without spoiling the experience, but they cover a huge variety of strange and wonderful themes - escaped elephants searching for their trainer, a sniper hunting clowns, ordinary people trying to survive in cities torn by horrific wars or subjected to bizarre elitist occupation.

Some of the ideas work better than others, and the more successful ones are normally those where the background stands up to closer scrutiny; where the world would still work if the story were much longer. Quite a few of the stories are not built on solid ground, and seem somehow ephemeral - the setting is only believable for the duration of the story, and you know you could destroy it by looking too hard, or trying to work out exactly what is going on. The stories are so short that they don't actually need to have a strong background, and the lack doesn't make them any less atmospheric, but the impact is much greater from the ones with the stronger internal logic. This is why Singing My Sister Down works so well, and there are more stories in here that almost match that quality.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Temeraire - Naomi Novik

Dragons in the Napoleonic Wars! Not the most obvious subject for a book, you might think, but Susanna Clarke managed to mix magic and Napoleon quite nicely in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and Novik succeeds just as well here. This comparison is rather misleading, however, as the books are at quite the opposite ends of the genre spectrum, sharing little more than the setting. Clarke's book is a darkly whimsical doorstop of a novel that has received a lot of attention from the mainstream literati; Novik's is a short, light fantasy adventure with no pretentions of being any more than it is. While all of the main characters are adults, it has the feel of a book for older children - nothing wrong with this at all, and it makes for a quick and entertaining read.

Temeraire opens with a sea battle; Captain Laurence and his crew have just captured a French frigate carrying a precious dragon egg across the Atlantic. Dragons are crucial to the war effort, almost as much as ships, so this great prize is transported back to British waters as quickly as possible to be handed over to the Aerial Corps. Unfortunately for Laurence, the egg hatches en route and the dragon, Temeraire, chooses him as its rider. He is forced to abandon the naval career he loves to join the peculiar community of dragon-riders and take part in the hazardous business of aerial warfare. There isn't actually that much action in the book, as it focuses mostly on Laurence's training, his bond with Temeraire and how he adjusts to his new life, but that doesn't stop it from being a page-turner as the society and the dragonlore is gradually revealed.

The concept of dragons here is the main original idea in the book. They are not psychic, mystical or monstrous, and are treated as just another natural creature that happens to have been domesticated. Much like dogs, each country has developed its own breeds of dragons and a large part of the war effort is devoted to strengthening bloodlines for dragons faster, stronger or more deadly than the enemy's breeds. The hints throughout of the history of dragon breeding are quite intriguing - first domesticated by the Romans, perfected by the secretive Chinese, practiced across the world by Turks and Incas as well as the Europeans - and I'm very glad to hear that more of this will be explored in the sequels. The intelligence of the dragons is not a new idea, but adds a lot to the story and particularly Laurence's relationship with Temeraire.

The book is not groundbreaking, but the fluid pace and able storytelling make it extremely fun to read. Highly recommended if you're not after anything too deep; I for one will certainly be picking up the sequels.


The Dark Is Rising Sequence - Susan Cooper

Over Sea, Under Stone
The Dark Is Rising
The Grey King
Silver on the Tree

I'm getting a bit tired of reading crap. The stack of unread books is not getting any smaller, but Otherland and the Higson books have drained much of my enthusiasm for exploring dangerous new territory. So, I'm temporarily back on familiar ground to remind myself what good stories look like. This is a series of Young Adult books that I first encountered at the age of about 10, and happily snapped up the omnibus edition when I spotted it a few years ago. I'm pleased to say that they are just as good as they ever were.

The first book is probably the weakest - it's a Famous Five-like adventure where three children and a dog search for the Holy Grail in Cornwall. This may be a slightly more supernatural angle than Blyton ever used, but the principles are the same: plucky children, secret passages, treasure maps, oblivious parents and menacing bad guys. Fortunately, the second book more than makes up for this. From the very start, with its sinister images of rooks wheeling in a bleak December sky, a dark scuttling tramp and a strange warning from the farmer, it's clear that this book is going to be much darker and more interesting than the previous one.

"The Walker is abroad," he said again. "And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining."

The three children from Over Sea, Under Stone do not appear in this book - instead, the main character is Will, youngest in a large Buckinghamshire family, who finds he has come into strange powers on his 11th birthday. As part of the circle of Old Ones, it is his task to gather the six Signs of Light for the battle against the Dark. This is no Harry Potter tale of wizard school and broomstick rides, but an intelligent journey through the old rituals of winter and the dark side of folklore, and stands up well against any adult fantasy on a similar theme.

Greenwitch goes back to Cornwall, and unites Will with Simon, Jane and Barney from the first book. This is a lighter and more straightforward book than the previous one, but is saved from Blytonness by the rituals of the Greenwitch, a springtime offering to the sea, and the hints of the sea's own chaotic magic which threatens the plans of both the light and the dark. The ending is a little trite, but luckily the quality of the series picks right back up again in the final two books.

The Grey King and Silver on the Tree are both set in Wales, and link together all the glimpses of Arthurian myths with the final battle against the Dark. Cooper returns to the wonderfully sinister tone of the second book, as the final artifacts are gathered and the battle-lines drawn. While the idea of some children saving the world is a little hard to swallow, it's sensibly arranged for the most part, and disbelief hardly gets in the way at all.

If you missed out on this as a child, it's not too late to read it now. If you've already read it, I can pretty much guarantee that you won't be disappointed with a revisit. This is a great book and deservedly a classic.