Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Red Wolf Conspiracy - Robert V S Redick

This one's all about the setting. The backdrop is a nautical empire with its various seafaring allies, enemies and subject states, and most of the action takes place on a great big ship, the Chathrand. The book opens with a newspaper article bewailing the presumed loss of this ship in Mysterious Circumstances; what we then get is effectively a book-long flashback showing us how it all came about. The Chathrand is purportedly on a mission of peace to the empire's ancient rival, but shady political machinations are in the offing; there are dark magics at work and Imperial assassins at large; there's also an irascible first mate, some jolly tarboys and an ill-omened captain. Ah, but are there pirates?, I hear you ask. Yes, indeed there are.

The nautical flavour goes a long way towards disguising the rather average progress of the plot. The political scheming is interesting enough, but it rapidly becomes clear to the reader that there are more traditional things afoot, namely the quest by Dark Forces to retrieve the Deadly Artefact of Awesome Deadly Power, long since passed into legend etc etc. The main characters also stray into the waters of stale cliché, from the Orphan Boy with Special Magic Powers to the golden-haired tomboy princess, they rarely achieve more than two dimensions. Luckily, there are plenty of unusual side-characters with ambiguous motives to distract from our bland leads, and all sorts of strange little details (for example, the concept of Woken animals, and all the semi-magical races) to keep it all feeling fresh.

The writing isn't brilliant - it's fairly clunky in places, and Redick has a slight tendency to overexplain (including a couple of bizarre footnotes by "the Editors" that looked jarringly out of place, and didn't provide any information that we couldn't have gleaned from the text anyway). One of the most awkward things is the names of characters and places, many of which look suspiciously like bunches of random syllables strung together, and caused my reading flow to violently derail on more than one occasion. Redick is apparently a linguist, and it's a shame he didn't make more of this skill, beyond giving his main character a magic gift for languages; none of the languages here seem to have much internal consistency. The dialogue flows quite nicely among the adults, but I'm not sure he's quite nailed the voice of the teenage characters; mostly they end up sounding much younger than they should. Still, for a debut novel this was pretty good and very readable, and I'll certainly be picking up the sequels.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Gaea: Beyond the Son - P D Gilson

From the cover, you'd think this was a spin-off novel from some all-new American sci-fi series - well-drawn but incredibly cheesy pictures of our favourite characters in a variety of action poses. There's no series as yet, but the truth is not too far off; apparently this is a new shared-world franchise known as the Gaea Universe, brought to you by new publishers Helios. The basic premise, as far as I could gather, is that of a near-future Earth where water resources are incredibly scarce; Earth's only hope is the Gaea Project, designed to use a distant watery planet for manufacturing water-purifiers. During the 6-month shakedown mission for Gaea-02's maiden voyage, Earth erupts in nuclear war, leaving the ship stranded in space. The crew decide that their best option is to continue the project regardless, even though this will mean abandoning Earth for many decades, and leaving behind their loved ones, including Our Hero's young son who he'd promised to return to...

This is all standard pulp stuff, but at first it didn't seem too badly written. A casually-dropped phrase about an "overstretched desalination plant" in Florida gave a good, concise show-don't-tell picture of Earth's water problems. Unfortunately this was undermined a few pages later with an extensive infodump telling us the same thing, and matters didn't improve from there. The prose rarely became actively bad, and in fact was pretty competent for the most part, but the dubious plot and the shoddy detail rapidly dragged the whole thing downhill.

Now, I'm no physicist or military tactician, but I've read enough SF to know when the science bit is being thoroughly bungled. You don't plan a twenty-year journey at .71C and not even bother to mention time dilation. You don't send a trained crew and billions of dollars' worth of space equipment on a twenty-year mission without first checking that your experimental cryogenic system works properly. You don't plan the exploitation of a brand-new planet without even considering the possibility that it may be inhabited, and arming your crew accordingly (it wasn't, but that's not really the point). You don't land on said planet, breathe the air and drink the lovely clean water without first testing it. And, while we're about it, how come this barren ice world has a breathable atmosphere? It's like an episode of 60's Star Trek; all we're missing is the bouncing boulders. Some of the errors may well have crept in through the gap between the book's author and the franchise creator, but a bit of fact-checking or just basic common sense would not have gone amiss.

If it weren't for a couple of minor giveaways (the blasé attitude to satellites, for example), I'd have no trouble believing that this had been written anything up to 50 years ago. The racial stereotypes are awful - the two white, English-speaking men are heroic pilots; the Japanese girl is a spiky-haired robot-building manga chick; the non-English speakers are flaky and untrustworthy; the black guy is hulking, silent and obedient. Not to mention the fiendish Chinese enemies, armed with their dragon-handled knives. In the traditional mould, our hero is the only one of his monumentally stupid crew who has any idea what's going on, as they bumble through one set-piece after another, in a disjointed plot that ends in a clumsy resolution. The Gaea Universe is going to have to do rather better than this if they want the franchise to take off.


War Wizards break Writers' Strike

Objectivist commando manages to put an end to the cruel writers' strike.

In an unexpected turn of the events, one that not the most imaginative writer would have dared to think, the writer’s strike has been terminated. Yesterday when a group of writers was demonstrating in front of their studios a surprise twist in the plot happened. A gang of several individuals appeared and their leader, a ponytailed and bearded man with a raptor like gaze who was taller than most men but not as tall as some of the men that were with him, addressed the strikers and demanded them to put an end to that he called a “death choosing strike”. “By not writing the episodes of the great series “The Sword of Truth”, you are putting a lie to my existence in TV, you jackals of evil”. Said the man, he added that since he already existed the writers were committing a terrible crime: contradicting reality, because of that the only moral thing to do was to eliminate all of them.

The writers booed what they considered to be a “deux ex machina” twist in the thrilling story of their heroic strike and refused to return to their keyboards, which angered the ponytailed scab. He said something like “blade be true this day” and charged at the head of his followers, some of them known to those familiar with Los Angeles S&M scene.

Unfortunately for the writers, they were armed with just their hatred for moral clarity while the dark and gold clad strike Pinkerton was armed with some fine medieval re-enactment tools that allowed his forces to prevail in a short and brutal battle. “Frak, these toasters are tough!”, said a writer from some unspecified Sci-Fi show referring to the scabs, “I don’t know why but they always manage to take us by surprise”.

After having broken the demonstration, the ponytailed one, who named himself Richard R. Cypher, gave a three hours speech that was much celebrated by his followers. Then, in a show of writing powers he proceeded to punch the whole “The Sword of Truth” series in matter of minutes using an ergonomic keyboard. Those who have read it have been converted to Richard’s faith.

The former writers on strike, now hidden in the underground have admitted that the whole point of the strike was “not to write that horrible series. It had nothing to do with the money”.

Terry Goodkind, the author of the best selling non fantasy series, The Sword of Truth” has declined to comment about these events but has explained that he expected “something like this to happen”.

It’s expected now that most of the series will continue and it’s been hinted that some others are now on the works, like a biography of the famous singer Shania Twain. Some other series, like one that HBO was planning, have been cancelled on the grounds that they didn’t have a clear hero who wasn’t killed and that they were far too complex.

- Agulla

Friday, November 09, 2007

It - Stephen King

I dug this one out again for a bit of Halloween reading. While this is in many ways a typical Stephen King book (Set in Maine? Check. Hero is a horror writer? Check), he's gone for something a bit larger than his usual provincial ghoulies this time, with an almost Lovecraftian Elder-Gods backdrop to the smalltown horror. The town is not Castle Rock, but Derry; opening with two mysterious deaths in the town thirty years apart, we get the immediate impression that there is something horribly wrong with the place. Like Sunnydale with its Hellmouth, it's no coincidence that Derry has a bad reputation, and there's something nasty lurking in the sewers.

"...Of course, he didn't know what Derry was really like. He thought he did, but he hadn't been here long enough to get a whiff of the real Derry. I kept trying to tell him, but he wouldn't listen."
"And what's Derry really like?" Reeves asked.
"It's a lot like a dead strumpet with maggots squirming out of her cooze," Don Hagarty said.
The two cops stared at him in silent amazement.
"It's a bad place," Hagarty said. "It's a sewer. You mean you two guys don't know that? You two guys have lived here all of your lives and you don't know that?"

The Buffy parallels are obvious, though of course this was written long before she slew her first vamp; it's the band of geeks and losers (librarian included) who land the unenviable job of beating the monster. The story is written in two parallel strands - one in 1958, where seven children set out to find and kill the monster that's feeding on their friends, and one in the present (well, 1985) where the survivors return to Derry as adults to finish the job they started. These adults are also only just recovering their memories of what happened back then, so we get the tale as a mixture of flashbacks and recollections, as well as the as-it-happened version from the summer of '58. The build-up is genuinely creepy, and there's a great contrast of impending doom with growing friendship as the gang slowly comes together.

As it turns out, Derry is the home of It, a shapeshifting monster from Outside, who usually appears as the infamous Pennywise the Clown, but will also take the form of whatever his victim fears the most. This makes for some interesting psychological horror, as the children and the monster try to use each other's beliefs and fears against each other. It also ties in suspiciously well with King's non-fiction book Danse Macabre, an overview of the horror genre published shortly before It, and in many ways is a fiction version of his analysis of the different horror archetypes and the differences between kids' and adults' reactions to fear.

The story is nominally split between our seven protagonists, who cover a comprehensive range of outcast-stigmas (the kid with a speech defect, the fat kid, the speccy smart-mouth, the asthmatic mummy's boy, the token Jewish Kid, Black Kid and Girl), but it's clear which one of these is supposed to be the Hero, and unfortunately he's one of the least interesting. This is Golden Boy Bill (the future horror writer, of course), quietly handsome and a natural leader, but relegated to the Geek Squad by his crippling stutter; it's author self-insertion at its worst. I'd have much preferred one of the others to take centre-stage, but unfortunately the supporting cast, while likeable and entertaining, they're two-dimensional at best, and King hasn't even bothered to keep their back-stories straight (for example, Richie Tozier appears to be both Methodist and Catholic depending on which chapter you read).

Still, the interplay between the characters is very pleasant to read; it's the theme of Great Childhood Friendships that King also used in his novella The Body (better known in its film incarnation Stand By Me). It's obvious that King had enormous fun writing this and didn't want to stop; the whole thing clocks in at over 1100 pages, much of which doesn't contribute directly to the plot but provides some good and scary horror set-pieces. While it's easy to see why he often gets accused of flab, there's not much of this I'd cut out - the exception being the execrable pre-teen gang-bang, often rightly cited as one of the worst scenes ever written, and a really pointless addition to the story.

As well as being a fine storyteller, King is also adept at building atmosphere and writing gory setpieces, but he's not so great at the nebulous horror needed for his Elder-God antagonist. The sense of dark mystery is substantially reduced by letting It have a couple of cheesy viewpoint chapters, and if you've got a monster that can apparently cause minor characters to go instantly insane from the sight, you'd probably want it to manifest as something slightly scarier than a 50's B-movie werewolf. I'm not even sure that King initially intended it to go quite so Lovecraftian - the fact that Pennywise introduces himself, inexplicably, as Robert Gray, makes me suspect that the original plot was something rather more prosaic and just got out of his control. These quibbles aside, however, It is an extremely compelling read that provides some quality chills, and certainly deserves its reputation as a horror classic.


Dick and Zedd's Objectivist Adventure

Swirly lights. Jangly music. People wearing shiny clothing. Yes, this is the future. Some men sit in a circle as a mysterious object drifts to the ground. Many of them have yeards.

"It is time," says the leader. "Their separation is imminent."

A man in a long leather coat and a yeard steps forward, and puts on some wraparound shades to complete the mid-life crisis look. He strikes a pose.

"Passion rules reason," he declares, and steps into the mysterious booth.

"Pity for the guilty is treason to the innocent," says the leader, and they both strike poses again. Lights flash and the booth disappears into the ground.


Our yearded narrator now speaks to the camera.

"Welcome to the future. We love it here. Everyone talks in speeches and meaningless platitudes, and almost-rape is the normal courting procedure. Vigilante killings are way up, charity contributions are way down. It's a great place to live... but it almost wasn't..."

[cut to two adolescents mucking about in a garage, talking into a video camera]

The skinny one in the robe brandished a wand. "I'm Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander, Esquire..."

There was a quick scuffle while he swapped places with the tall one, who was taller than most men, though not as tall as some men, who then raised a sword and declared, "And I'm Dick Richard Rahl... and together we are... the Seekers of Truth!" They both struck poses and waved around their chosen implements, until Richard's sword caught on the video camera and sent it crashing to the ground.

"Whoah," said Dick.
"Bagus," said Zedd. They nobly mooched outside.

"How are we going to get people to choose life if we can't even get our Sword'n'Sorcery show to work?" asked Dick.
"Well, we can't get it to work unless we include some Real Human Issues," said Zedd, stuffing his face with food.
"But our Real Human Issues don't make any sense unless we make everyone choose life!" argued Dick, sternly.
"And that is why we need to make our swords and sorcery work!" said Zedd. They both grinned at each other and struck noble poses, like they were posing for statues of themselves.

"Whoah!" said Dick, suddenly. "We're late, dude!"
"For what?" asked Zedd.
"School, dude!"
"Oh yeah!"

They rushed off.


The history class was a washout. Dick's brain was far too full of Real Human Issues to take any notice of what the teacher was saying, and his suggestion that Napoleon's victory was achieved by stripping naked and painting himself white caused the class to fall about laughing. The two teenagers were glad when the bell rang, but not so glad when the teacher, Mr Billington, asked them to stay behind for a moment.

Dick's attempt to head his teacher off with a cunning speech failed. Mr Billington glared at them from beneath his eyebrows.

"Boys, your performance in this history class has been abysmal. Your views on battle-tactics, and your opinions that history has been entirely the work of "individuals" rather than societal movements, have little basis in actual historical fact, and yet you continue to make speeches about it in every single class without doing a scrap of research. I'm afraid that if you don't pass tomorrow's History Report, you'll be flunking out of school. That is all." He turned back to his books.

"Bagus," said Zedd, once they were outside and such foul language could no longer be heard by the teacher. "We're in trouble now. Let's go back to my place and wait until we deserve victory."

Just then a red convertible pulled up, driven by a stunning blonde with massive hooters. It was Nicci, Zedd's young stepmom!

"Wanna ride, boys?" she asked, suggestively
"Whoah!" said Dick. They piled into the back of the car and drove off, with a camera shot of the "NICCI" numberplate as the car sped away.


Part 2

The boys' attempts at studying at home had been thwarted - Zedd's dad, Nathan, had been so distracted by the boobies of his nubile young wife that both Dick and Zedd were instantly thrown out of the house.

"Your stepmom is hot, Zedd" said Dick, on the way down the stairs.
"Shut up, Dick" said Zedd
"Remember when she was the mistress of death and we were her prisoners?"
"Shut UP, Dick!"
"Remember when you tried to almost-rape her at the prom?"
Dick, finally (and uncharacteristically) realising that this was not the time or place for a speech, struck a pose instead, and they headed outside.

Like good capitalists, they continued their research at the local convenience store, the D'Hara K. Surely anyone spending their good, American money in the defence of freedom would have all the information all they needed to pass their history report. So far, from asking random customers, they had gleaned the information that every other country in the world was an oppressive police state, and every non-American spoke something called "jibber-jabber". This was all very interesting, but not much use for their report, and they were about to move on to the next convenience store when a phone booth shot down from the sky and instantly landed in front of them. Pine needles tumbled from the trees.

"Whoah," said Dick.
"Strange things are afoot at the D'Hara K," said Zedd.

The door opened and the yearded man from the prologue stepped out, striking a manly pose.

"Hi, I'm Terry Goodkind," he said. "I'm here to help you with your history report. My phonebox can travel through time!"

The boys gaped at him in awe. Zedd's brows furrowed with a sudden thought.

"Time-travelling phoneboxes? Haven't I heard of that from somewhere else? Doctor something? And while we're on the subject, a couple of dumb slacker metal kids seems quite familiar too... Someone's World?"

Terry's brows furrowed with sudden anger. "What are you talking about? This can't possibly be compared with anything else, because this is the work of an individual, and all individuals are different! Unlike Commies, individuals can never be compared with each other, because they have no similarities - that's why we call them individuals. If you can't understand this simple concept, you're obviously too young or you hate goodness because it exists. Besides, I've never even heard of any of that other stuff, and I don't own a TV and I've never read a book or been to a film."

Dick's mind raced. "How do we know you're telling the truth?" he asked. He felt as if he were in a dream. But he wasn't.

Terry froze for an instant and then unfroze. "Why don't you ask them," he suggested, as another phonebox rocketed to the ground. Out streamed two other boys who looked exactly like Dick and Zedd. The other Dick was taller than most men, but he wasn't taller than Dick, and he wasn't shorter than him either, because he was exactly the same height.

"Listen to this guy Terry," said the other Dick, "He knows what he's talking about."
Zedd's eyes radiated suspicion. "What number are we thinking of?" he asked suspiciously.
All four boys looked at each other. "Sixty-seven!" said the two from the future, just as the other two said "seventy-six!"
Ignoring the glaring continuity error, they all struck manly poses in delight.

The future Dick and Zedd headed back to their phonebox, leaving Terry smiling at the present-day boys who smiled back. This was a man they could trust. They climbed into the phonebox beside Terry and he dialled a number. Suddenly it was flying through time!

The phonebox landed in a ruined village. Obviously this was in the middle of a war, but both Dick and Zedd were surprised at the lack of slaughtered rape victims that they imagined would be there.

"This is Napoleon's invasion of Russia," said Terry. "Look over there and you'll see him leading his naked troops to victory!"

The boys peered through the mist, the white fangs of death. Fangs of white steel ripped into flesh and death squeals poured from the mist as soldiers fled from the white death. Fearless men tasted fear and ran heedlessly onto cold white steel. What wasn't wet from the white mist was soaked with red blood.

"Whoah," said Dick. "Totally unglamourous war, dude."
"Yah," agreed Zedd. "Most non-overwritten."

Terry was making notes; Zedd looked over and saw the words "...the white steel fangs now were coated with blood and gore; white snow became a soggy mat of red splashes...". He finally put down his pen and said "Right, let's get you back to San Dimas then!"

"Dude, this must be how he makes his battle-scenes so realistic!" whispered Zedd. Dick nodded.

The phonebox landed back in San Dimas. They all got out. Terry looked at them. They looked back at him.

"Now remember, time exists, and has its own identity, which can only go in one direction, and that's forwards, even if you go back and forth in time in the meantime. You have to get to your history report on time, and time will keep going forwards until you do."

Dick and Zedd didn't quite understand that, but before they could ask him to explain, Terry had entered the phonebox again and it vanished into the ground. Another one instantly shot from the sky and landed where it had been, followed by the sight of Napoleon crashing to the ground beside them. He had been caught in the time-field. And now he was here.
In San Dimas.
In the present.

They looked at each other. A plan was slowly forming in their minds.

"Dude," said Dick, slowly, as the plan formed in his mind, "Why don't we go back and, like, grab us some historological figures? That way, we wouldn't have to do any actual work!"
"Awesome!" said Zedd. "First, let's dump this Napoleon dude off with your brother, and then we can get going!"

Dick's brother Michael was not impressed with Napoleon. The French general was shorter than most men. Some men were even shorter than Napoleon. But not all of them. Most men were taller.

"Michael, take Mr Napoleon out on the town tonight and show him a good time," said Dick, unaware of any innuendo in his words.
Michael sulked. "Don't wanna!" he bawled. "I was going to ban fire tonight, you know that, you big meanie!"
Zedd gave him a cuff round the ear. "Shut up kid, and do as you're told."
Michael's shifty eyes shifted evilly. He squinted sideways at his big brother with an evil glint in his shifty eyes.

The two boys headed back through the house.

"Wait right there!" called the ominous voice of Darken, Dick's evil dad. "Dick, if you get kicked out of school tomorrow, I'll have no choice but to send you to Commie Camp! In Siberia!"

"Whoah," said Dick, his face a wooden mask of horror. "Dude, we have to pass this test!"


Part 3

"So, this phonebox can travel through time," said Zedd, recapping the plot for readers who are a bit slow on the uptake, "and we've just decided to go back into history and kidnap some famous dudes to do our homework for us." He turned to face his friend. "If we fail, you will get turned into a commie by your evil dad!"

"Yah," agreed Dick. "Where shall we go first, dude?"

"How about... a time when men were men, and women were whores." said Zedd. His voice took on a ringing tone. "Where individuals walked proud along noble streets, and the fruit of their labours was shared with no other. A time of heroism. A time of individuality. The Wild West, symbol of all we hold dear!"

Dick, already striking a noble pose at this catalogue of individual nobility, tried to make it even nobler, but he couldn't suck his gut in any further. He picked up the phonebook and dialled a number. The phone box began to travel.
Through time.
Into the past.

The old gnarly cowboy entered the outhouse and prepared to "do his business". He could hear the smells and sights of his Wild West town through the door; all was the normal way that it usually was. He hummed idly to himself, when suddenly a mighty crash rang out from next to where the outhouse was. What could it be? he wondered. He burst forth from the wooden door and stared with horror at the shiny glass box that had suddenly landed. Two strangely clad boys, glowing with inner nobility, stepped forth.

"Whoah," said Dick.
"Excellent!" said Zedd.

They sauntered across to the bar, making sure they didn't step in the authentic horseshit, though it was probably a bit late for that. Ordering some beers with manly flair, they looked around the dingy bar and tried to decide which cowboy would be best to bring back with them.

"Dude, maybe we could teach one of them how to make roofs," suggested Zedd in a whisper.
"How can we do that if we don't know how to do it ourselves?" Dick said.

Just then, a young, handsome, yet rugged man stepped into the bar. It was the famous outlaw, Chase the Kid! "I need two men to play cards!" he declared.

Dick knew a lot about representational designs involving poker. And he knew no fear.
"We're with you, Mr the Kid!" he said. Zedd nodded.

A game of cards is like a battle. When you are surrounded on all sides, you have no option but to attack! In this case, it involved cheating. Dick's wooden poker-face gave away no hint of his emotions, even when he was trying really hard to act, but Zedd was not so fortunate. His bushy eyebrows could not contain their excitement at the sight of so many aces, and their scheme was rumbled.

Chase the Kid, like any good Objectivist, instantly saved himself by choosing life and jumping out of the window. Dick and Zedd were not so lucky. A menacing crowd backed them into a corner. The crowd was full of menace. They smiled cruelly as they closed on the two boys. Dick's mind raced. How could he escape from this terrible fate that the men wanted to do to him?

But then Zedd spoke. "Look out, all your testicles have vanished!" he shouted. Instantly there was confusion. Men grabbed at their crotches in terror. Fear was etched onto every face. Dick and Zedd seized the moment and ran for the door.

"I can't believe they fell for that," said Zedd.

Chase was waiting for them outside, and together they ran for the phonebox.


Part 4

The next person on the list was the First Philosopher, Socrates. Zedd looked him up in his book.

"Listen to this, Dick," he said. "'A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.' That's so deep! And how about this one: 'False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.'"

"Whoah," said Dick. "Dude, this So-crates sounds like our kind of dude. He hates moral relativism and likes truth, like we do! Let's bag him."

A group of elderly philosophisers were sitting around in the place where they usually went to do philosophy. Dick and Zedd approached, admiring all the marble statues that surrounded the plaza. Socrates was in the middle of a speech, and they stopped to listen for a moment.

"What's he saying, dude?" whispered Dick. Zedd craned his ears.
"Don't know, dude. He's not speaking American. It sounds like some kind of jibber-jabber!"

Dick's expression of horror was interrupted by Socrates himself, who gestured for him to speak. Dick cleared his throat. This was the chance he had been waiting for, to impress these old men of learning!

"Life is there to be lived, so rise up and do the living with your life, and bow not down to the brute forces of mean little men who want to destroy life because it is good, who will offer you not a bowl of soup but the empty promise of a full bowl of soup provided by someone else; life cannot be divided, and what about a child's laughter? You can't divide it up, you just make more laughter!"

Tears of passion glistened in his eyes as he made this moving speech. To emphasise his final point, he started to laugh. Then Zedd laughed. Socrates laughed. All the philosophers laughed, until tears were running down every cheek. Obviously they were overcome with joy at his dazzling insights, thought Dick, and ignored all the rude gestures made in his direction. These were simple folk from an earlier time, and clearly had unusual ways of appreciating deep philosophy.

Socrates was so overcome with laughter at Dick's attempts to philosophise that he was easy to grab, and the two boys bundled him into the phonebox and sped away. They were going back.
Back to the future.
Though not actually the future, just what would have been the future from where Socrates was. Because he lived in the past.


Part 5

The phonebox touched down in a forest. It was an odd-looking forest, full of grubby peasants; goats and chickens lived together in harmony, in defiance of the laws of nature and morality.

Dick, Zedd, Chase and Socrates stepped out of the box. Dick looked strong. Zedd looked confused. Chase and Socrates looked at each other.

"Where are we, dude?" asked Richard, chewing on a hunk of meat that he'd found somewhere, just to show he wasn't a girly vegetarian and was a real man.
"Mediaeval England," said Zedd, "and these dirty poor people are probably known as Mud People, or something."
That sounded logical to Dick. "Mud people!" he declared. "Show me to your king!"

An old man pointed to a large castle immediately behind them, that Dick had somehow failed to spot. Dick looked up. He thought the roofs looked leaky. This could be the opening he was looking for. He was just about to explain his awesome roof-repair plan to his friend, in painstaking and mind-numbing detail, when his Seeker-senses began to tingle. Tearing his raptor-like gaze away from the roof, his eyes lit upon.... boobs!

Zedd had seen them too. A couple of scantily-clad princesses were strolling along the battlements. The two boys looked at each other. Without saying a word, they both knew what the other was thinking. However, this didn't stop Richard from unnecessarily saying it out loud.

"Dude, those are babes. And they're from history. And we're collecting people from history. And we like babes. So why don't we collect the babes. We can pretend to each other that we're doing it for our history report, when actually it's just because we like looking at their boobs."

The slower readers thus enlightened on the plan, the boys sneaked into the castle, by pretending to stretch and stealing some suits of armour. Zedd, being the clumsy comic relief character, tripped over his own feet and tumbled down some stairs. Dick ran down after him, and was just in time to see an iron-clad Mudman stick a sword into Zedd's prone back.

Dick was suddenly blind with rage. He could feel the white-hot anger rise within him. The rage roared through him like thunder. His ire was blindingly hot. The heat of his anger was blinding him. With fury darkening his eyes, he roared "YOU KILLED ZEDD, YOU MEDIAEVAL DICKWEED!", and thrust his mighty sword into the body of his enemy, ripping out his spine with one fell swoosh. The man recovered, and raised his sword to attack Dick back with, when Zedd rose up behind him and clunked him on the head with a bough of mighty oak.

Stepping over the rapidly-cooling corpse, Dick grabbed his friend in a totally non-homoerotic embrace. "Dude, I thought you were dead!" he cried, tears of pure manliness running down his raptor-like cheeks. They let go of each other and struck noble poses.

"No way, dude," said Zedd, "That was just, um, a spell or something. Don't worry about it. Anyway, let's go and find those babes!"

They found the babes in the garden. One of them was tall, though not as tall as Dick, and had a long white dress and long brown hair. The other was scrawny and quite old; she would do for Zedd. Dick had never been this close to a real woman, and didn't know what to say. His mind was blank. He tried to remember his favourite lines from Ayn Rand, but his mind was blank.

"Wizard's rules, dude!" whispered Zedd, "Quote them some rules!"

Of course! Dick cleared his throat. "People are stupid!" he declared. "I deserve victory! Passion rules reason! What exists, exists! Contradictions do not exist, either in whole or in part! Passion doesn't rule reason! Good intentions have bad results, sometimes! If you fear or hope that something is true, it probably isn't! Er... passion rules reason, again!"

The babes gasped with delight. "You have to help us!" cried the tall one with the boobs. "Our evil father wants to send us off to a nunnery, where we will be forced to do good works and help the poor and sick! What kind of life is that for a princess?"

The horror overwhelmed Dick. He and Zedd grabbed the girls by the hands, and were about to run off with them, when pine needles fell from the trees ominously and King Henry appeared.

Zedd struck a pose. "Greetings, your highness, I am Ruben, the earl of Rybnik."

Ruben Rybnik! That was always the name that Zedd used when he needed a disguise. Dick's mind raced. He needed a disguise too!

"I am the Duke of Ruben Rybnik," he declared.

King Henry was not impressed. "Torture them!" he cried.

The two boys looked at each other with glee, and struck poses.

"On second thoughts, execute them!" said the king.

"Bagus," said Zedd, as they were dragged away.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Empire of Ivory - Naomi Novik

The fourth volume in the Temeraire series has been published with auspicious timing, given that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Temeraire's mission to liberate Britain's dragons from their semi-slave status now coincides with the other abolition movement, and even features appearances from my only famous ancestor, William Wilberforce (hurrah!). This is more backstory and setting than plot, but it provides some interesting historical colour to Lawrence and Temeraire's journey to Africa, seeking a cure for the flu-like disease that is decimating the dragon population. The French forces are not yet aware that their enemies are so incapacitated, but it can only be a matter of time; if no cure can be found, then not only will all the dragons die, but Napoleon will also have his chance to invade...

The first third of the book is largely set in England, as the extent of the crisis is shown and the backstory laid down. This was definitely my favourite part of the book, with Novik's dragon-populated world dovetailing nicely with established history. The style was a delight to read as always; Novik slips effortlessly into the Regency vernacular, and it's always fun to see Lawrence struggling with the different moral values of the Aerial Corps, and Temeraire's earnest questioning of matters such as treason and religion. Then the expedition heads south to Cape Town, and the tale gets rather less interesting; the humans fall afoul of a strong Botswanan tribe who have incorporated dragons into their ideas of ancestor-worship, making this section of the book little more than a boring routine of capture-and-escape. The ending is rather better, but the whole effect is just not convincing; you end up wondering how, if this tribe is indeed so strong and so organised, the slave trade ever managed to get a foothold at all.

As always with these divergences from actual history, it becomes harder and harder to see how this alternate-historical world ever came to look so nearly like our own, if major historical movements such as Napoleon's war and the slave trade can have their courses so easily altered. I still love reading this series, but its loosening grasp on the real world is making the premise more and more difficult to accept. The next book promises us "NAPOLEON'S INVASION OF ENGLAND!" - it will be fascinating to see how that pans out, because the Europe-based parts of this series have always been the best, but I'm hoping the tale doesn't drift too far - without the anchor in actual history, it could end up looking like just a load of fluff.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Monarchy - David Starkey

Starkey is a good popular historian, probably most famous for his recent TV series on Elizabeth I and Henry VIII's wives. Here he takes on a much larger and more daunting task, the entire tale of the monarchy from Henry VII to the present day, and with only a short book in which to do it. The effect is startlingly like a time-lapse video - with the narrow focus and accelerated timeframe, what emerges is a fascinating picture of the evolving British monarchy, as it twisted and turned across the centuries in response to pressures both internal and external. Rather than the usual in-depth biographies, this book takes a broad view of each monarch's reign and looks specifically at how each of them treated and developed the institution that they belonged to. It's a fresh and interesting approach to British history, and worked extremely well.

The book opens with the War of the Roses, where the crown passed bloodily back and forth between the ruling houses, and the succession was largely determined by battle and murder. With the dubious legality of Henry VII's ultimate ascension to the throne, it was very much in his interests to protect the crown from any similar threats in the future, and much of his reign was spent breaking the power of the rival dukes to leave the ruling family unopposed. The subsequent Tudor monarchs continued on this path towards despotism, but never managed the absolutism of their European counterparts, not because of powerful royal rivals, but because of Parliament.

From the Stuarts onwards, the balance of power began to swing back and forth between Crown and Parliament, with violent consequences. From the Civil War through the Protectorate, Reformation and Glorious Revolution, a great tug-of-war ensued for the reins of authority; Starkey pinpoints the reign of William and Mary as the moment when Parliament really took the ascendancy. The Dutch king relied heavily on Parliament to uphold his authority, and in return they received enough power to begin ruling in their own right. His reforms gave the monarchy enough flexibility to weather the revolutionary storms that soon battered France, and Britian emerged as a major world power. Thus, despite the incompetence and unpopularity of the Hanoverian kings, the crown was able to survive in parallel to the actual government, and produce our current "royal republic" with its incumbent crop of vacuous weak-chinned toffs...

One thing I like about Starkey's writing is his ability to give interesting new perspectives on established thought. One of the surprises here was how nice he was about Queen Anne's reign - she normally gets a rough deal from historians as a sickly and weak woman surrounded by favourites, but Starkey shows that in the context of the monarchy's survival, she actually did a fine job, and her reign was characterised by lasting innovations such as the Bank of England. He also sheds a different light on the relationship between Victoria and Albert, showing him as a cold disciplinarian, modernising the crown while bullying his lively wife into submission. I wasn't entirely convinced by his upbeat analysis of the monarchy's future, with Prince Charles as some benevolent charity benefactor who will fill the holes in the welfare state, but I was only in this for the history, anyway, and the history here is top-notch. Recommended.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Warrior-Prophet - R Scott Bakker

This book has been sitting in the To Read pile for a while, and I finally got round to picking it up last week. It is, of course, the sequel to The Darkness That Comes Before, and the new title gives a lot away about the book's change of focus - as you'd expect, there's less infodump, more Kellhus. The Holy War has started its long grind southwards towards the sacred city of Shimeh, and Kellhus knows that in order to survive, he needs to build a following among the crusaders. This he achieves with his characteristic amoral manipulation, gradually setting himself up as a prophet while avoiding murderous attacks from Consult spies and jealous lords. Meanwhile, the sorceror Achamian, suffering through his inherited dreams of the First Apocalypse, is convinced that Kellhus is the harbinger of the Second, but is strangely reluctant to turn him over to the Mandate, and instead takes him on as a pupil. There's more of the political scheming between the various commanders and the sorcerous Schools, amid huge and bloody battles, sieges and massacres; more is revealed about the Consult and the No-God, and we even get to see some magic in play. In short, this was a very fine follow-up, much more enjoyable than the first book, and I rather wish I'd read it sooner.

Unlike the previous episode, there's no long build-up to slow down the action, and instead we get straight into it as soon as the book opens. I've always had a big soft-spot for intelligent and amoral villains and Kellhus fits the bill quite nicely, despite being nominally on the good side - there's a beautifully chilling moment about halfway through when we find out exactly how he views the "defective" humans that he's manipulating so efficiently. The Consult themselves, the real bad guys, are a bit too mwahahaha-we're-just-evil-for-its-own-sake to take entirely seriously, but Achamian's memories of the First Apocalypse show the true horror of the No-God with bleak efficiency; not needing a catalogue of atrocities, Bakker takes barely a page to sum up what's at stake, and it's enough.

The characters are also more fleshed-out here than in book 1, particularly Achamian himself, with some glorious No More Mr Nice Guy unleashing of power that show us exactly what it means to be a Mandate Schoolman. The female characters are still a bit weak and uninteresting, but at least this time round they have an excuse (being under the spell of Kellhus), and we do get to see a bit more of Esmenet and find out what really happened to her daughter. Of course, this new rapport we have with the characters gives the opportunity for some truly heartbreaking moments later on; and the character interaction provides the plot-detail missing from the long slog south.

For all the (very) Tolkienesque maps in the front, the setting has a rather unusual Middle Eastern feel to it; the place-names, too, seem a hybrid mix of Tolkien and Biblical (Golgotterath, Asgilioch). The strangely-accented character names are less annoying than I thought they'd be, and in fact give the book a refreshingly different feel. Aside from the frequency with which death comes swirling down, the language Bakker uses is evocative without being too purple, and much less dry and opaque than in the last book. This was a very enjoyable read, and now I start to see what all the Bakker fuss is about; it won't be long before I get onto Book 3.