Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Wrath of Zar - Shayne Easson

Cover artists (and the publishers who love them) have a lot to answer for. I know it's wrong to judge a book by its cover (look at the dreadful cover art on Erikson's US editions, for example), but this one definitely set alarm bells ringing. The title, too, is rather ominous - the Wrath of Zar? Who is this Zar, before whose wrath we should tremble? I'm not a fan of silly fantasy names anyway, so putting one in the title was an unfortunate move, compounded by the book's first sentence, where we meet "Gnith". But still, titles and covers are a product of the publisher, not the author, and silly names are often a matter of taste, so I gave Easson the benefit of the doubt and read the whole thing. It wasn't quite as bad as I expected, but that's the best I can say about it.

A long forgotten dark lord arises; demons (the Demons of Destiny, no less) roam the land carrying out the Evil World Domination Plan; champions are chosen by the Forces of Good; a hero of humble origins goes on a quest and makes friends with a dragon. Sounding at all familiar so far? That's not to say there's nothing original here at all; there's an interesting bit of backstory about the previous band of Noble Warriors, now the fathers of our current batch of heroes, all retired and bitter about their previous failure; it's also a nice touch to have main hero Adan be an incompetent weakling, on a quest not to save the world, but to find his missing brother. Probably he'll figure out how to use his fancy Dragon Sword eventually, but until then he's at least slightly unusual, despite the Humble Boy Done Good character arc.

Regarding Adan's humble origins, then; is he a farm boy? A blacksmith's lad? A squire? Well, the exact nature of these humble origins is a mystery, as no-one in his village seems to have a job; they also seem to lack basic knowledge of the town's geography, despite it being small enough for everyone to know each others' names. Someone in the village brews famous beer, even though it's in the middle of a forest with no apparent fields of malt or hops; hunting seems to be a popular pastime, but characters see nothing wrong with heading out on a difficult journey with no food or water. This lack of attention to detail occurs throughout the book, and the frequency of stupid anomalies is very distracting. A rapid-fire crossbow, with unlimited bolts, that works even when wet? An abandoned cottage containing a half-full bookcase? An inn called the "Tooth and Tavern", which has "a special delivery arrangement with ale producers"? It looks like Easson has tried to do the standard fantasy-mediaeval setting, but rather skimped on the research.

The one major point in the book's favour is the structure, which is solid, and saves the whole thing from collapsing under its own errors. The story may be unoriginal and rather daft, but it's well-paced, and would have made for quite a decent novel if the writing had been less patchy. For the most part, the writing is serviceable if not particularly great, but every few pages there will be a passage or two of eye-bleeding awfulness. Easson has avoided a lot of the usual rookie pitfalls (thesaurus dialogue is notably absent) but the writing really lacks polish; there are awkward moments of purpleness ("her red, swollen eyes betrayed her grief") and entire pages where every sentence is the same length (10-15 words); there are even a few sentences that make literally no sense at all. His small publishing house probably doesn't have a huge editing budget, and it really shows.

I wouldn't write off Easson completely - there's obviously some talent there for storytelling, and with a bit more practice (and research, and originality) he may be able to nail the other problems in time, too. However, The Wrath of Zar is not a book I'd recommend. With so much great new talent on the fantasy scene bringing in fresh ideas and excellent writing, I don't think anyone needs to read another farm-boy-and-pet-dragon-defeat-the-dark-lord trilogy. It's stuff like this that gives fantasy a bad name.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Separation - Christopher Priest

What if...? is, of course, the question famously asked by science fiction authors, but the same is even more true for alternate history. What if World War 2 had ended in 1941? Now, What Ifs related to WW2 are quite common, and usually come with two diametrically opposed outcomes - 1) Our Universe, where Hitler is defeated in the usual manner, hurrah for the Allies; and 2) The Other Universe, where the Nazis win and spread a reign of darkness and evil across the earth. Priest takes a more interestingly ambiguous view, where the alternate outcome is not necessarily better or worse than the actual one; finding out more about this, and how it came to happen, is the intriguing mystery at the heart of this war story.

1999, in the alternate universe. A popular historian is researching the last days of the war, and keeps coming across the name J L Sawyer, who was either a bomber pilot or a Conscientious Objector, or, incomprehensibly, both. His investigations turn up the material that makes up the bulk of the book - a series of memoirs, letters and other documents from the war, that detail the lives of twin brothers, both called J L Sawyer. The documentation is full of strange contradictions, and it soon becomes apparent to the reader that these two were part of some as-yet undisclosed flashpoint of history, where the timelines split many ways, and the brothers ended up in different legs of the Trousers of Time (© Pratchett).

The historical detail is worth reading in itself, with brilliant descriptions both of bombing raids over Germany and the experience of the Blitz, but the main attraction here is the gradually-revealed details of the new world created after the 1941 ceasefire, and the mystery of exactly what occurred to end the war so quickly. Priest bravely avoids the easy answers, and even after the final picture is revealed, there are still plenty of loose ends, contradictions and uncertainties. If you're after a linear story with a clear resolution then this may not be for you, but for any fans of parallel-universe tales or 20th century history, this comes highly recommended.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury

Scary circuses, freaks and geeks, and a whole lot of allegory. This is another in the Fantasy Masterworks series, though it's essentially a supernatural horror story. I mainly picked this up because it was referenced by Stephen King in Danse Macabre and sounded like it would be a good, spooky read. It certainly is; as well as being seriously creepy, it's also very poetically written and wraps the whole defeat-the-bad-guys storyline in one big metaphor of age, time, growing up, and the paradoxical innocence and wickedness of childhood; no mean feat for the much-reviled horror genre.

Somewhere in smalltown America, sometime in the twentieth century. Next-door neighbours Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway are about a week away from celebrating their 13th birthdays - Will's on October 30, Jim's on Halloween. A travelling lightning-rod salesman passes through, and warns that a storm is coming; that night, a mysterious carnival arrives and sets up outside the town. Both the boys are eager to go, but Jim more so than Will - Will is the nice kid, open-hearted and talkative, whereas Jim is more fascinated by dark things, and something about this carnival is calling to him, even after seeing the terrible things it can do to its other customers. The carnival wants Jim, and it's up to Will to save him, even though Jim also sort of wants the carnival...

The boys' names and close birthdays are only part of the broad imagery used here, and all through the book, I found myself metaphor-spotting like an earnest GCSE student. The nice elderly teacher who sees her younger selves reflected back at her in the mirror maze; the carousel that can increase or decrease your age; even the fact that Will's father is self-conscious about being many decades older; all this is obviously about the fear of old age, contrasted with the boys' desires to grow up more quickly... It was all blunt enough to be deliberate rather than clumsy, but I rather wished I hadn't felt the need to analyse so much, as it stopped me enjoying the story a bit. It was rather like the experience of watching a David Lynch film for the first time; you're so busy trying to fit together all the analogies and work out the author's Message that you miss out on some of the fun.

That said, once you stop worrying about the grander themes, there's a good and scary story lying beneath. The buildup is very atmospheric and Bradbury has a nice sense of the grotesque without needing to resort to blood and gore; the parade of freaks in the street and the night-time visit by the carnival balloon are some of the most unsettling scenes I've read. The writing is also very stylised, which fits in well with the exaggerated themes in the plot, and makes for a very lyrical read once you get into the flow of it. I'm not sure I prefer this approach to the more straightforward and prosaic horror of, say, Stephen King, as it still looks a little stilted and artificial, but it was still a fine book to read, with plenty of food for thought.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Mousehunter - Alex Milway

This delightful and well-presented little book was written and illustrated by an ex-colleague of Ben's, and combines a couple of elements that you can hardly go wrong with - mice and pirates! The world of the Mousehunter is one where the nautical mouse-trade reigns supreme; mousehunters compete to discover new species, and hordes of collectors pay premium prices for rare or unusual mice, to the extent that it seems to drive the entire economy. The mice themselves can only squeak, but still have various social roles to play, from the huge dung-mice who produce a valuable fuel, to the boffin mice that make great lab assistants. As you may gather, this is a book for children, where it's possibly to be rather more cavalier with the rules of biology and economics, but it still has a cracking story.

Emiline is the young mousekeeper for the famous mouse collector, Isaiah Lovelock. She has always dreamed of going to sea and becoming a proper mousehunter, so leaps at the opportunity to join the privateer Drewshank, who is dispatched to hunt down the notorious pirate Mousebeard. But, after a journey beset by sea monsters and mysterious fog, they finally meet Mousebeard and find out that all is not what it seems. After battles and betrayals, only Emiline is left to save the world's mice from a terrible fate... The battles are bloodthirsty enough to satisfy even the most hardcore Roald Dahl fan, and the bodycount is surprisingly high for a kids' book, but there's also plenty of sweet description of the mice.

Each chapter starts with an excerpt from the "Mousehunter's Almanac", with a picture and description of one of the many species of mouse, for example the Sharpclaw Mouse or the dreaded Nosferatu Mouse. It was quite a shame that there weren't more illustrations; these were generally restricted to the front and end pages, as well as the chapter heads. In contrast to the great pictures, the writing isn't brilliant, and sentences clunk quite a bit, but the story sparkles and is full of action. It's slightly below the age limit that would appeal to most adults, but for kids who are at the stage of Lemony Snicket or The Hobbit, this is almost guaranteed to please.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Long Way Round - Ewan McGregor & Charley Boorman

This is the second motorbike-related book I've reviewed, which is odd for someone who's never actually been on one. This is, of course, the book of the brilliant TV series, where Boorman & McGregor ride from London to New York via Mongolia and Siberia. I have a strange fondness for Central Asia and I love this sort of travel-adventure tale, so despite already owning the DVDs I had to buy the book as well, in case they'd missed anything out. As it turned out, there wasn't a lot of new detail in here, but at least it had the advantage of being more portable than a DVD player so I could read it on the train.

The awesomeness of the trip just about makes up for the crappiness of the writing, but it was a close call. I wasn't expecting great literature, but this is clumsy ghostwriting at its worst, with a stilted narrative obviously cobbled together from interviews, and dialogue copied down from the film footage. I appreciate it can't be easy to take a rambling verbal travel tale and mould it into some kind of structure while still sticking to the actual words spoken, but the result was often tooth-grindingly bad; ghostwriter Robert Uhlig is no Peter Fleming.

The tale was told from the alternating viewpoints of Boorman and McGregor, though obviously with the same writer doing both, it was hard to tell the difference between them. Generally there wasn't much overlap, making the story strictly linear, though occasionally when the viewpoints switched, you'd get the same quarrel viewed from both sides - always entertaining. I was hoping for more of that but unfortunately it was rather precluded by the structure. Still, it was great to go through the journey again, from their rather whingy rookie-traveller beginnings to the river-crossing adventures on the Road of Bones. I'd still prefer to watch the DVDs, but for when that's not an option, the book is an adequate substitute.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland - Diana Wynne Jones

I've recently become quite interested in the TV Tropes wiki - partly because they keep linking to my Goodkind pages (thanks guys!) but mainly because I do love to see cheesy stereotypes pulled apart and mocked. For those who share my inclinations, you could do a lot worse than this book by Diana Wynne Jones, a glorious journey through fantasy's worst clichés, written in the form of a tourist guide.

Sewers. Despite the presence of so much REFUSE and SQUALOR, most CASTLES and CITIES seem nowadays to have Sewers. Their use, apart from the obvious one, is to provide access to or escape from the interior. Be warned. Many Tours make use of Sewers in preference to SECRET PASSAGES. Opportunities for WASHING afterwards are not always provided. Do not worry, though; most often, within half a day, all trace of stench will have vanished from you and your CLOTHING, almost as if the Management had forgotten about it.

Obviously, there's plenty of this to be had for free on the internet, from Evil Overlord to the Fantasy Novelists' Exam, but Wynne Jones is a proper writer and not just an internet parodist, and it's nice to have an entire book of well-written mockery. It's hit-and-miss in places, especially when lampooning fantasy clichés that have fallen out of fashion (for example, the frequent references to eyrie-dwelling clans, which may well have been a staple of mid-90s' fantasy but are not something I've seen much of), but there's still plenty to enjoy.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Jack of Ravens - Mark Chadbourn

Suspension of disbelief is a tricky thing. As a die-hard genre geek, I'd say I'm pretty good at it, but every now and again I come across a book that I just can't believe. It's not necessarily the implausibility of the setting, or the plot-driven actions of the characters - these are certainly problems, but I can name plenty of books that contain these flaws and that can still get me hooked. It's just something intangibly... missing. Jack of Ravens lost me right from the word go; I tried very hard to hoist my disbelief up again, but it stayed resolutely grounded. The whole thing just seemed ridiculous. Maybe this is how non-fantasy readers feel all the time?

The book opens with the ludicrous contrivance that first killed my disbelief: Jack Churchill, archaeologist from our time, suddenly finds himself in the middle of a battle in Iron Age Cornwall, lacking his memories but armed with a glowing blue sword. He kills a giant (leading everyone to call him "Jack, Giantkiller", which annoyingly never lost that extraneous comma), then finds he is the leader of the Brothers and Sisters of the Dragon, who have the power of Existence, and protect humanity from the gods and other supernatural nasties. Then he's whisked off to Faerie, then back to Roman Britain, where his new team has to fight the Army of the Ten Billion Spiders... if this was all written as Conan-like cheese, it would have been a lot more fun, but it takes itself entirely too seriously, and is full of miserable people with raven-black hair pining for their lost loves, and suchlike. Yawn yawn yawn.

By the time the self-confessed deus ex machina turned up a third of the way through, I was thoroughly bored; I tried a few more times to continue, in case I'd just been in the wrong frame of mind first time round, but barely made it to the halfway point. The Large Amount of Unnecessary Capitalisation just added to the dreary pompousness of it all; the book was in danger of defenestration every time a character said something like "But who is this Fragile Creature?". I didn't care about the characters and their boring save-the-world quest; I didn't even find any of the historical stuff interesting. Chadbourn did try to make the locations sound exotic, with all kinds of fairy-tale tweaks and dark inventiveness, but the writing was so dry and bloodless that even that couldn't hold my attention. As usual, with crap January reads, this was a Christmas-money impulse-buy; maybe one day I'll learn to be a bit more discriminating in the New Year sales...


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hunter's Moon - David Devereux

Consider the humble dinobot. It's a ROBOT that turns into a DINOSAUR! If you're Grimlock, you're also a T-Rex with a cool name. If you're Slag, you don't get the cool name, but you can breathe fire. If you're Sludge... um, you've got a crappy name, and you can turn into a giant, slow herbivore with a brain the size of a walnut. The point is, combining cool stuff with other cool stuff is a delicate art, and easy to get wrong. Devereux's black-magic black-ops black comedy walks a narrow line between Grimlock and Sludge; it works well enough as an action-packed thriller, but only because it's fast and brutal enough to skate over most of the cracks.

The opening sequence is the best part of the book, with protagonist Jack on a straightforward infiltrate-and-sabotage mission that is soon revealed to be rather nastier than your usual spy stuff. I say "protagonist" rather than "hero", as Jack is an amoral, cynical, stone-cold killer. Actually, that makes him sound too cool; he's just a shit, and quite an annoying one at that. Devereux has aimed for a Magnificent Bastard vibe but just slightly missed the mark; something about Jack's super-wizard-assassin persona seems forced, and the glimpses of his more human side are not really enough to make him likeable. The details of his mission don't help much, either.

In keeping with the testosterone-(over)loaded theme, Jack's task here is to bring down an evil female-supremacist black-magic lesbian sex cult*. Yes, that's right. Our villainesses are, naturally, filthy dominatrix nymphomaniacs*, using their sex power* in a lame plot to murder the Prime Minister, which adds a nasty undercurrent of misogyny worthy of Ken Russell, or even The Duke himself. Jack is back-up man to the female agent (Annie) sent to infiltrate this cult, but once things inevitably go wrong, it's up to him to go in and sort things out. Yay for men, etc. All this just serves to emphasise the overdone blokey blokeness of it all, especially when we get to the macho-worshipping wankfests* of the Super Badass American Black Guy and the Hard SAS Squad. I've met David Devereux and he seemed like a nice bloke, (despite being a "professional exorcist"), and I know his main character is supposed to be an arsehole, but the whole message of pervy-women-are-evil-so-torturing-them-is-OK left a very bad taste in my mouth.

The writing has pace but lacks polish; Jack's first-person narrative is full of the hard-boiled callousness you'd expect, but the amount of British swearing just makes it sound like a cheesy Britflick, probably featuring Keith Allen. We just can't do noir like the Yanks. In fact, this is the equivalent of a Channel 5 made-for-TV Britflick; entertaining enough in its way with plenty of action, kinky sex and slightly underwhelming evil plan (the idea of the PM's assassination leaves me strangely indifferent), but lacking anything deeper. Jack's character is as shallow as they come and his uncharacteristic attraction to Annie felt more like a plot device than anything genuine. There's a touch of overexplanation, too, with Secret Agent codewords and acronyms being unnecessarily spelled out for the reader's benefit, though given the book's likely lowest-common-denominator reader demographic, that may have been a deliberate move. Hunter's Moon is short, vicious and dirty, but that's about as far as it goes.


*I expect these phrases to boost my Google rating considerably

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Thousandfold Thought - R Scott Bakker

A long walk followed by a big fight. Bakker's analogue of the Crusades finally approaches its destination, the Holy City of Shimeh, and Kellhus draws closer to the father he was sent out to kill. Actually, all I really wanted to see from this book was some more righteous unleashing of the Gnosis, and in that I wasn't disappointed, but overall it was a bit of a letdown after the awesomeness of Book 2.

With Kellhus now in (almost) undisputed command of the Holy War, we move away from his viewpoint for the most part, and the bulk of the story is carried by Achamian. While Akka's character is far more interesting now that in was in the first book, he unfortunately doesn't have that much to do for most of this one, beyond generally being heartbroken, so his viewpoint chapters are duller than they should be. Cnaiür's chapters have more action in, but now he's away from the main plot, guarding the disgraced Ikurei Conphas, and I didn't find his mad ramblings particularly convincing. Conphas himself was an evil delight as usual, but again, his distance from the Holy War proper made his storyline seem a little irrelevant. Esmi, now the prophet's consort and spymaster, looked fine and strong from other peoples' viewpoints, but once we were in her own, she was disappointingly wet and whiny.

After the slow progress down to Shimeh, full of political intrigue, bickering Schoolmen and assassination attempts, we finally get the last assault on the city. This is where the action all took off, but I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I had no idea what was going on for the most part. The strange and confusing names of characters, nations and factions were less of a problem earlier in the march, where you could figure out from context what was going on, but when all of them were embroiled in the same huge battle, there were pages and pages where I had no idea who was doing what to who(m). Death came swirling down a lot, but it was difficult to tell whose. I could probably have found out by consulting the 150-page glossary at the back, but I didn't realise this was there until I was caught short by the ending, expecting at least an hour's more reading than was actually available. Be warned!

The ending was also inconclusive as it only wrapped up the Holy War storyline; there's no further progress on the bigger tale of the impending Second Apocalypse - unless it was all resolved in the middle of the battle, but I'm sure I'd have noticed. Probably. Obviously, this leaves the field open for Bakker's next trilogy, currently under construction (as far as I know); for all my complaints here, that'll be a must-read when it comes out. All in all, this series has been quite hard work but very rewarding; despite the slow bits and the opaque battle sequences, it's more than worth it for the intelligent writing, the unusual setting and the snippets of philosophy. And if you've already read this far, of course you're going to read Book 3. Now all I need to do is wait for the next one.


Truthborn: The Final Order

Rahlsier had heard stories.

Heard, not read. Books were for the other revolutionaries, who lived in worlds of fantasy, who thought their ideals could substitute for experience. They had failed. All of them. Not Rahlsier. He was different. He was an individual.

He had heard stories, but he hadn’t actually listened. What did it matter what the world had been like before the sky rained ash, the plants turned brown, the nambles roamed the mist at night? Before the skaa had let themselves be enslaved by the promises of altruism? Rahlsier knew these things were irrelevant, like dreams and fantasies. He knew that the Final Order needed to be destroyed, and that he was the only man who could do so.

The sun was setting now. Soon the mists would rise, and the nambles would come out. Rahlsier had nothing to fear from them: he knew they had little interest in such as him. But the skaa cowered in their hovels, terrified of being savaged and eaten by the hulking beasts.

Rahlsier laughed at the idea. I'll have to cure them of that someday. The women especially. He smiled his secret smile, and entered one of the larger hovels.

Silence. The skaa stared at him in rapt attention, and why not? He was taller than most skaa, though not all, and his yeard was the envy of all the men (and a few of the women). They looked up at him in awe and wonderment…but something was missing from their stares.


A young girl stood near him, unaware of Rahlsier’s thoughts. She stood there, unknowing, as he pulled a lump of pewter from his pocket and tried to swallow it. She made a face as he gagged on the metal. Foolish girl.

Rahlsier greeted the room of skaa with a kick to the girl’s chin. Normally, such a blow would have shattered her jaw, maybe even severed her tongue. He was digesting pewter, though, the allomantic metal for strength, and so his kick tore her head clean off. It landed across the room, in a pot of boiling soup. Rahlsier laughed at the coincidence.

Silence. He coughed expectantly.

The men at the tables laughed. The women in the kitchen laughed. The children laughed. All of them laughed together, expect for one woman sobbing hysterically in back. What a stuffy bitch, Rahlsier thought.

When the laughing had gone on long enough, Rahlsier silenced them with his raptor-like gaze.

“Greetings,” he said. “I have come to free you from the Lord Ruler’s oppression.”

“Really?” one of the men asked.

“Really. Also, I brought food!” Rahlsier hefted the heavy sack he had slung over his shoulder, and tossed it onto one of the tables.

The skaa all grabbed for it. Like lemmings, Rahlsier thought. One upended it, hoping to have first pick of the food inside.

Ash spilled out. They all looked back at Rahlsier, accusingly.

“I lied. Don’t you see? You can’t expect to be given food or freedom. You have to rise up and live your lives. Take freedom for yourselves! Rebel!

“But…” a skaa stammered. “They’ll kill us all!”

“Not if you fight.”

“Especially if we fight,” an older man said. “You know as well as I do, boy, the Lord Ruler cannot be beaten.”

Now Rahlsier was growing angry. How dare they refuse him? He was only trying to help them, to give them the strength to…

Wait. “Help” them? “Give” them the strength? That was altruism speaking. That was the enemy working its way into his thoughts. The skaa had to choose rebellion for themselves…but these had already chosen death.

His thing rose inside him. He drew the Sword of Truth and ran his tongue down the length of the blade. Tiny particles of metal made their way through his mouth and down into his stomach. Not pewter for strength, or steel for dexterity, or even tin for charisma. This metal had no name, but its allomantic property did: deus ex machina.

Rahlsier exploded into action.

Bringer of death.

Spines were torn out through stomachs. Limbs were severed at wrist and knee, elbow and thigh. Heads flew. Another landed in the soup.

The room was soaked in blood when Rahlsier finished. He took a moment to savor it all, and then left the hovel as swiftly as he had entered.

Morning would see him back in the capital. There was work to be done.

- diabloblanco18

Con Dar Night

Presbyter Zedd hauled his ancient frame up the stairs to Dick's turret, at the top of Deepgate Temple. The young angel was flapping his raptor-like wings and merrily torturing his snail collection. But it was time he learned of his Objectivist heritage.

"Dick," said the old priest, "you are the last of the Objectivists. You have a holy duty to our Temple of Reason, to stand firm against the menacing hordes of Commies. Obviously, we don't need you to do any fighting, cos you're a bit of a wuss, but as long as the people know there is still an Objectivist in the Temple, they will stand firm against the forces of discord."

Dick looked longingly at the sword over the fireplace. Its shiny blade, the word "Truth" lovingly written on its handle in some kind of bendy wire. All he wanted to do was take it down and slaughter some Commies, but the priests didn't want him to hurt himself. They wouldn't even let him outside the temple, in case he tripped over his own feet and fell into the abyss.

Zedd continued. "Tonight is Con Dar Night, so we need to make sure you are protected. As you know, once every month when the moon turns dark, the ancient beast Kahnival roams the town. Legend has it that hundreds of years ago she was once an Objectivist like you, but got so fed up with being kidnapped and almost raped that she went mad, and now she comes out every month to feed. She will find a good, loyal capitalist, then make him cut off his own testicles and eat them, while she munches popcorn."

"Yes, but she has big boobs, right?" asked Dick, earnestly.

Zedd nodded. "Yes she does, so there may still be hope for her. Oh look, here's your new protector!"

A small girl walked into the room and gave Dick a sardonic glance. "Hi, I'm Rachel," she said.

Dick was appalled. He'd been expecting a huge, bronzed warrior, possibly wearing only a loincloth. "But she's only, like, 8!" he cried in horror.

"Eight-year-old girls can have terrible power; it is wise never to underestimate them," said Zedd, wisely. "Besides, this particular girl has been trained in all kinds of arcane terminology, and can give speeches that last for several pages."

The girl nodded brusquely. "I am well versed in representational designs involving lethality," she said, "and I've also cut down at least four dozen Commies with my bare hands, as well as being the custodian of the fearsome but entirely pointless Stone of Tears. The only thing that scares me is the Ghostey Gobblies."

"So, that's settled then," said Zedd, hobbling off to carry out some priestly duties.


Some time later, their holy body-disposal ceremony was suddenly interrupted by the Arch Poisoner, Alexander Darken. Clutching the Boxes of Orden, he cackled wildly as he opened one of them.

"Now I am invincible! Mwahahahaha! All I have to do is open the other... oops!" And with that, he tripped over and dropped the remaining boxes into the Abyss.

"Curses!" he spat. He grabbed Presbyter Zedd and flew off in a stolen airship to plot his next move, pausing only to kick a cute little goat, demonstrating his evilness. Rachel and Dick couldn't believe it. Why would he have kidnapped a man? That was the job for women! Dick sighed with disappointment at the missed opportunity for an almost-rape scene.

"We have to find some way to defeat Darken, before he builds up his Commie army and comes back for us! We need those other Boxes of Orden!" cried Rachel in despair. "I can't go down there, it's all dark and full of ghostey gobblies!"

Dick's mind raced. Given that he still couldn't manage to pick up his sword without cutting himself, there was only one person strong enough to venture into the pit and find the boxes.

"We have to find Kahnival," he said solemnly.


Using Rachel as bait, they finally managed to track down the vicious Kahnival. She listened with interest as they told her of the magical boxes that they needed to find. The force of Dick's words moved within her. Something about him made her regret her centuries of castration. Maybe it was time she chose life. And she could always cut his balls off later if need be.

"I've always wanted to visit the bottom of the abyss," said Rachel, leaping into the pit. Dick stared after her morosely. Of course, he had wings, so he should probably go and catch her before she splatted on the bottom, but that would be to deny his Objectivist heritage, and any obligation to save her life would make him into a slave. Kahnival, however, lacked his moral celery, and flew down quickly to catch the prepubescent warrior. Now Dick was free to make his own choice, he followed with a lighter heart.

Meanwhile, Darken had arrived at the evil hippy commune in the desert, and was conversing with their leader, Jagang. The hippies all hated Deepgate because they were enemies of life itself and wanted to destroy all that was good in the world, in the manner of hippies everywhere. They gladly agreed to Darken's plan, and formed a huge Commie army that marched towards the city like a giant fighting centipede. Deepgate's Swedish grandmothers were in for a tough time.

Meanwhile, Kahnival was regretting her earlier act of altruism. It was a long way to the bottom of the pit, and her arms were starting to hurt. She was glad when they finally reached the bottom and she could let go of Rachel.

As they walked along, the ground crunched strangely beneath their feet. Rachel bent down to investigate. They had landed on a huge pile of celery!

"Those callous pit-dwellers!" cried Dick. "Instead of nobly consuming this celery, they have left it here to rot! What kind of monsters could they be?"

"We'll find out in a minute," observed Kahnival "Cos here they come!"

"It's the ghostie gobblies!" cried Rachel, and passed out in a fainting swoon.


They awoke to hear low, cackling laughter from outside their cell. A grotesquely fat man with distinguished grey hair was watching them, smoking a cigar and holding a box-like object in prominent view.

"Ha ha ha ha ha," he laughed, with a sinister laugh. "I am Bill Clinton, the God of Altruism, and you are my prisoners! My altruist army will enjoy feeding and looking after you - for ever!!"

He shuffled off, only to be replaced by a couple of his altruist minions. They leered patronisingly at their helpless captives.

"Everything all right in there? Do you need a cup of tea or anything?" they asked gloatingly, safe in the terrible knowledge that by treating their captives well, it removed their free will and turned them into slaves, or something.

Kahnival had an idea. "Oh, altruists, could you just unlock this door for us?" she asked, in her best pleading voice. "We're completely helpless, and if you help us, we'll be even more helpless."

"But of course!" they cried, and instantly Kahnival and Rachel were free and had killed them to death.

"Stupid altruists," said Rachel, spitting on their corpses. But where was Dick?

Dick was lying on the floor, not moving.

"Oh no!" cried Rachel. "All his life, he's been helped and protected by other people, who have stopped him from rising up and living his life! He has been turned into a slave by all those servants attending to his every whim! And now he's so helpless he can't even move! What can we do?"

Just then, her eyes crawled across Dick's sword, which he'd still never gotten round to using.

"Hurry up," said Kahnival urgently. "The publishers need this book to be finished before the weekend, so we need to get a move on!"

Instantly Dick's hand shot out and grabbed his sword, which blazed with a blaze of light, like lightning blazing from a sword. He rose up and lived his life. Bringer of Death. Freedom good, slavery bad. Bill Clinton had accidentally dropped the Boxes of Orden as he walked off, so Dick opened it and, um, they were all saved, and Jagang's Commie army fell into the pit and squashed all the altruists.

The End.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis - Tony Hawks

No, not the skateboarder - this is the Tony Hawks of Morris Minor and the Majors fame, purveyors of novelty pop in the mid-80's. Since sales of Stutter Rap have probably dropped off a bit in the last few years, Hawks has changed his career to that of humourous travel writer, usually with some kind of bizarre twist to liven up the standard travelogue format. In this case it takes the form of a drunken bet, made during a World Cup match, that he would be able to beat the entire Moldovan national football team at tennis. Rather than backing down in the cold light of sobriety, he actually bothers to go to Moldova to track them all down for tennis matches, armed only with a list of names. Hawks was once a bit of a tennis pro so has few qualms about his sporting abilities; the real challenge is dealing with the bureaucracy and infrastructure of this strange, backwater country.

It sounds gimmicky, and it is, but Hawks has an infectious enthusiasm for his ridiculous quest, and the sections on Moldova itself are absolutely fascinating. The book was written not too long after the collapse of Communism, and so we get a great portrait of a poor country still struggling with Western concepts, where only the worst aspects of capitalism have taken hold, and the old Party officials are still clinging on to power. There are corrupt businessmen, rich gipsies, untrustworthy customs officials and a whole cast of ordinary Moldovans, stoically ploughing through the obstacles for some kind of normal life; there are also eleven rather baffled footballers, as Hawks painstakingly tracks them down across distant parts of the country, even heading to Israel at one point after one is transferred.

With so much interesting material, it's not hard to make an entertaining travelogue, though Hawks does try a bit too hard to add in some unnecessary jokes; really, the setting speaks for itself, and the forced humour is quite jarring at times. The tale is at its best when he tells it straight. Even if, like me, you have little interest in tennis or the Moldovan football team, this is still worth a read; it's a rare portrait of a little-visited corner of Europe, and despite the awkward gags and overuse of cosy homilies, the story of his interaction with his Moldovan host family is genuinely heartwarming.