Thursday, February 26, 2009

Musings: Comparing Magic--Transportation

My first introduction to magical transportation was Zelazny's "Amber" series. There are two poles to reality: Amber, which represents Order; and the Courts of Chaos, representing Chaos. Each of these poles is represented as a kingdom in its own right, with a source of Power available to those who can use it. Amber has her Pattern. Chaos has its Logrus.

Between these two poles of reality are Shadows, which you can consider as an infinite continuum of worlds, more orderly toward the Amber end, more chaotic toward the Chaos end, and encompassing all that exists--including our own Earth. Each Shadow is separate from its neighbors, with its inhabitants normally unaware of any other reality but their own.

To those with the ability to use (or be used by) those Powers are accorded the ability to move through and amongst those worlds at will in three different ways. One can begin in Amber and simply walk or ride a horse (for example), using their will to change aspects of the world around them until they've arrived at their destination. This takes the longest of the three, but might be the only way to get somewhere.

A much-more grueling version of Shadow-walking is the Hellride, where one's concentration must be complete. It gets you where you want to go more quickly than a Shadow-Walk.

The next way is by use of a Trump, something along the lines of a Tarot card. If you've been to a place or know a person well enough to draw them on a blank card, you can make a Trump for that place or person. Then you look at it, concentrate on it, exert your will to make it real, and if you've done it right you get a little window onto that place or person, and can step through (or bring the other person to you). In the first five Amber books, the Trumps are treated as something exclusive to the Royal Families of Amber and Chaos, but in the second set we find all sorts of people using them.

The third way is the hardest, and seems to be used more by those initiated into the Pattern. You must walk along the Pattern to reach its center (I'll discuss this in a later entry, but it's a horribly grueling contest of your Will against ever-increasing resistance); then you imagine where you want to be and command the Pattern to send you there.

The next series to come along was Robert Asprin's "Myth" books. Like Zelazny, Asprin's universe is a continuum of parallel worlds, but he calls them Dimensions. Just about any reality you can imagine is out there, somewhere--and all you need is a way of getting around.

If you can use magic and know your way around, you can cast a spell for shifting from your current Dimension to another one. You've got to know your target Dimension well enough, though, or you might end up somewhere else--and it might be a world where magic or Demons (Dimension travelers) aren't welcome.

The other method is mechanical--a pre-spelled ring, for example, or something called a D-Hopper, which I still think is pretty cool. It's a rod, maybe a foot long, and with several dials along its length. Set the dials for your destination, press the button, and *ZAM* you're there.

The most-recent series I've really gotten into is Mercedes Lackey's "Valdemar." Her approach to magic is by far the most complex of the three, but there's only one way of using magic to get around (not including the levitated barges some of her characters use, since the barges are still pulled by horses or mules). We only ever see the one world--no parallel realities to speak of, unlike the other two authors' works.

A Gate is a quick, but energy-expensive, portal between two places. To cast a Gate, the mage must know their destination well enough to form a mental image of the place, and only the highest class of mage can summon and use the Power needed to invoke the Gate's spell and hold the construct open long enough to use it.

One really neat aspect of Lackey's approach is that magic energy affects the world around it--for example, opening a Gate can trigger spectacular and violent thunderstorms.

Musings: Comparing magic, etc. (start of a new series)

I've been hoping to do a series ever since my first ideas for the Bookblog several months ago. What I wanted to do was more than just reviews of books--I wanted to compare stuff like how each author uses magic, technology, or whatever. For something like that, "Star Wars" could be considered Fantasy rather than Science-Fiction, because the Force is essentially being used for the same sorts of things that magic does--reading thoughts, shielding against an attack, throwing people or things.

I wanted to gather such a comparison because of a series of books I want to write. I've got ideas for as many as four in the series, but only one book is complete--and I haven't really done anything with it since 1996. Much of my inspiration comes from the same authors and their worlds that I'll be reviewing in the blog--Roger Zelazny's "Amber," Mercedes Lackey's "Valdemar," Jim Butcher's "Dresden," and George R R Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" being the big ones. Oh, and "Star Wars." I probably won't be discussing my own book(s) very much for some time. Currently that project's in deep limbo while figure out whether I'll even write it.

Quickie: A Song of Ice and Fire (series; Martin, George R. R.)

Rating: 5/5 (all)
A Game of Thrones (1996)
A Clash of Kings (1998)
A Storm of Swords (2000)
A Feast for Crows (2005)
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? HELL yes.

George R. R. Martin has firmly established himself as my second-favorite author, period (Roger Zelazny being Number One), with this series. Each of the books is freaking huge, and Martin uses every inch of every page to tell a big (and perhaps disorienting at first) story.

He changes point-of-view characters at need (25 by the end of the 4th book)--but don't get too attached to them, because once the fighting starts people start dying. That said, how the hell do I summarize it?

I'll try, but I can't do it justice. This is a Quickie, after all.

Everything starts on the continent of Westeros, with its Seven Kingdoms. The Seven were brought together under the rule of King Robert. When Robert dies, the Kingdom is rent asunder and the seven families go to war to claim the Iron Throne.

At the same time, to the north, there's a great Wall that stretches 300 miles, from the west to the east of the continent. It stands 700 feet high, built of ice and rock, and is a barrier between the Kingdoms and a fearsome enemy known as The Others. The Others are something akin to ice-zombies: once a man is killed by one of these creatures, he may very well rise against you.

And then there's the third main plotline, far to the east on the desert continent of Essos. We follow Daenerys Targaryen, the last of the original family that ruled in Westeros, as she comes into her own power and moves toward taking the Iron Throne for herself.

This is pretty sketchy, yeah, but it's going to be several months before I'm ready to read these four brutes, mostly because I'm right in the beginnings of Mercedes Lackey's "Valdemar" series. Assuming one week per book (considering work and other stuff I want to do), that's another 22 weeks (at most!) after the one I'm reading now--it's February 26, 2009, so that puts it in the last week of June, 2009. I doubt it'll take that long--maybe 3 or 4 days per book is more realistic.

It's been all too long since I waited impatiently for the next book in a series. The last time it was for the second half of Roger Zelazny's "Amber" series in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

I highly, HIGHLY!! recommend this series.

Valdemar 03: The Silver Gryphon (Lackey, Mercedes & Dixon, Larry)

Rating: 4/5
Year: 1996
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

Last book of the first trilogy in the 26-volume epic of Valdemar. Only 23 to go. Yes, I will keep count like this all the way through. If I am going to endure the entire series, you can endure a countdown. You can also buy me a Sobe when I'm done.

Another 12 years have passed, so now it's 22 years since the Cataclysm in which Urtho took out the evil Ma'ar, his great and final enemy, before snuffing it himself. The resulting explosion of mage-energy disrupted magic for nearly two decades afterward, and only recently has it returned to normal. The City of White Gryphon flourishes and is a valued ally to the Black Kings far to the south.

For this novel, Lackey changes her main point-of-view characters away from Skandranon and his contemporaries to their offspring Tadrith and Silverblade. "Tad" and "Blade" (Lackey just adores nicknaming everyone with shortsie versions of their names) are young and itching to get away from their famous parents. Tad is the very image of his father, the Black Gryphon. Blade is the very opposite of her father, Skan's old friend Amberdrake. Both of them are in the city's police and military force, the Silver Gryphons.

The two get their dream assignment, a posting to a far-off outpost for a few months--and for quite a few pages it's not clear how many months, bouncing from "3 months" to "6 months" and back. I'm guessing it's "six months," since it'll feel like I've been reading these books for that long by the time I'm done.

Remember, these books are relationship-driven, so it takes nearly 100 pages for the story to get to Tad and Blade lifting off to fly to their assignment. The book doesn't seem to drag up to this point, so I can't really complain about taking a fourth of the book before things get going.

So they're on their way--and a mysterious magical force brings them down somewhere in the rainforest, both injured. The two are conveniently injured; that is, some bruises, cuts, abrasions, one broken wing for the gryphon, and a broken collarbone for the girl. Just enough to make things inconvenient for them, but convenient for the story. Not as annoying a plot convenience as the all-too-regular solar eclipse of "The White Gryphon." All their magic-powered items (including their communications equipment) are drained of power--and now they're being stalked by unseen predators. The rest of the book (about two-thirds) has them in "Man Vs. Wild" survival mode, living off the land and hiking to a safer camping spot to wait for rescue. They don't get a look at their stalkers until almost the end of the book. Most of the tension/suspense until then is of the fear-of-the-unseen sort. It's workable, but feels longish and draggish and let's-get-this-over-with-ish a good bit before it gets endish. Gotta take a pointish.

I finally came up with a description of Lackey's style while reading this book. Imagine the prissy See-Threepio droid from "Star Wars"; there would be just the right emphasis on filler-phrases such as "in no way."

Nickname Watch:
Tadrith: Tad.
Silverblade: Blade.
Keenath (Tadrith's brother): Keeth.
Amberdrake (Silverblade's father): Drake.
Skandranon: Skan.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Valdemar 02: The White Gryphon (Lackey, Mercedes & Dixon, Larry)

Rating: 4/5
Year: 1995
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes.

Book 2 of the first trilogy in the 26-volume Valdemar series. Only 24 to go. By the time I'm done, Lackey will probably have written another dozen novels for the series.

It's been 10 years since the cataclysmic ending of "The Black Gryphon." Bleached out by magic energy, the Black Gryphon is pure white.

The rag-tag band of survivors have made their way to the sea far to the west of their former home. They've built a great city in a limestone cliff--and they've named it for their leader and war hero, Skandranon, the White Gryphon.

The city is visited by envoys of one of the Black Kings far to the south. White Gryphon has been built on their turf, and the Emperor wants to see these strange white folks and their talking animals for himself.

There's a murderer on the loose in the Kingdom, one who wants to frame the White Gryphon and his friends. Conveniently, the Haighlei are so utterly regimented in thought and action that the killer and his accomplices have a ridiculously easy time. At one point the three of them dress as servants, and it's effective because no one who isn't a servant would think to dress as one--and the cops would never suspect such a thing! The Haighlei are strictly ranked by caste, each born into the job they will perform their entire lives, and even criminal acts are bound by ritual and tradition. Very convenient.

Lackey has a knack for hinging plots on conveniences. In this one, it's right on the eve of a twenty-year eclipse (I like that, a regularly-occurring eclipse that never pops up again anywhere in the series). Only on the day of the eclipse, the Haighlei culture allows for change. Of course the delegation from White Gryphon shows up just in time, and of course things happen that depend upon that eclipse. It just feels cheap to have such a weak major plot point, so I've got to have the great Moon-Goddess take a one-point bite out of the five-point Sun. She didn't even run with the notion that the Emperor sent his own delegation and invitation with the eclipse in mind, hoping to bring change to his people, which would have made the entire thing a bit of devious planning on his part--especially since the Haighlei had known about the settlers for some time before even approaching them. So there's that and the eclipse itself--regularly-occurring, never seen again, never so much as mentioned. Maybe the moon was later blown out of its orbit by an explosion in a lunar nuclear waste facility? Oh, yeah, wrong genre.

The only other stylistic troubles for me are the usual "quites" and "in the leasts" and "in no ways," and her general fussiness and wordiness. I think she could have whittled--in the least--one 400-page books' worth of words out of the entire series by tightening up her prose. Then I'd only have 23 more to read after this one.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Quickie: A Legacy in Brick and Stone (Weaver, John)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2001
Genre: Nonfiction, History
Read again? Yes.

Subtitle: American Coastal Defense Forts of the Third System, 1816-1867

I've been a fort junkie since September of 1999, when I visited Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida. At first, I just wanted to make maps of it to build a deathmatch game level for the "Star Wars: Jedi Knight" video game. But as I measured and sketched, I got more and more curious about the history of the place. This turned to fascination and a desire to learn and see as much about these buildings as I possibly can.

Mr. Weaver did a short but enjoyable presentation at Fort Pickens around the time his book came out--and I had to have a copy. "Legacy" takes us briefly through the history of each of 42 forts built between 1816 and 1867, all intended to defend the American coastline against assault by sea.

He begins with a short overview of the systems of fortification, then explains some key terms and structures in the science of fort-building and fort-destroying, weapons, and politics.

Then it's on to the individual forts, going from the Northern Frontier, intended to keep those nefarious Canadians from invading via the Great Lakes and various rivers. Then we go from Maine south along the Atlantic coast to Key West, Florida, along the Gulf Coast, and finally Forts Point and Alcatraz in San Francisco, California.

Illustrations include photos from the author's own collection, maps of the general areas, and line drawings. The only down-side to the illustrations is that they can't convey how very large and beautiful these structures are.

Valdemar 01: The Black Gryphon (Lackey, Mercedes & Dixon, Larry)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1994
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

The first book of the first trilogy in the 26-volume Valdemar series. Only 25 books to go. With this first trilogy, we're seeing how things were 1,000 years before the founding of the nation of Valdemar.

This is turning out to be a difficult book to write a review for; it's not an "action" story so much as "interaction"--lots of dialogue, lots of self-examination on the part of key characters, and lots of relating to one another. Don't get me wrong, people and creatures die, but Lackey doesn't spend a lot of time on that. So it's sort of difficult for me to relate what it's about. I like action. I liked "Without Remorse," with its over-the-top revenge. I suppose we could say that Lackey's style is at the other end of the spectrum from George "Don't worry about the acting, I'll fix it in Post" Luca$, who is all about the action and eye candy and to hell with meaningful relationships and people. He should join up with Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer. With his help, they could make a worse film than "Armageddon." Then he could get one of his sucky "Star Wars--New Jedi Order" writers to do the movie tie-in book, and I can write another review. That man keeps me motivated.

We begin with the Black Gryphon himself, Skandranon, on a spying mission in a camp of the evil mage Ma'ar. There's been warning that Ma'ar's men have a new magic weapon, something regular troops can employ, something that could bring defeat to Urtho, the Mage of Silence and his people. The war has been grinding along for a decade, and Ma'ar has inexorably made his way closer and closer to the seat of Urtho's power. We don't see more than the occasional glimpse of the war-in-progress; instead we see its progress in the emotions of the characters. Everyone is tired, worn down, but determined that Ma'ar and his men will pay in blood for each inch of land they take.

The final act of the book sets up the two sequels, but it also sets the stage for the entire remaining series. Urtho's great Tower and the Palace that Ma'ar has conquered are the two pivots upon which the final trilogy will turn.

I highly recommend reading the series in story-chronological order (which is how I'm reviewing it) rather than by published date. You don't really have to, since each of the trilogy sets and singles stands on its own well enough while fitting into the larger story, but it's more satisfying having the little bit of knowledge in the back of your mind and maybe forgetting about it only to "rediscover" it as the characters do 2,000 years later.

For whatever reason, Lackey's style isn't as irritating in this book as it was in the Tregarde stories, but that could easily be the difference in "worlds," given the Tregarde books' "real-world" setting. She does tend to wordiness and some fussiness in word choice, things that don't seem to fit the "voice" of certain characters, but in the more "pure fantasy" setting of the Valdemar books, it could be overlooked as a cultural trait. The story flows well and doesn't seem to drag despite that lack of action--but then, stories are supposed to be about people.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Quickie: Ranma 1/2 (series, Takahashi, Rumiko)

Rating: 5/5
Genre: Martial Arts comedy
Read again? Hai!

I first got turned on to the animated ("Anime") version of this back in 1996. I'd say the Anime version is somewhat funnier, but both are driven by slapstick violence and physical gags.

There are some 36 volumes in the novels ("Manga"), each divided into nearly stand-alone "chapters." Think of them as episodes in a sit-com, where you don't really have to watch everything to understand a story in the middle. But it does help, especially with Takahashi's insane list of characters.

We're introduced to up-and-coming teen-aged martial arts master Ranma Saotome and his father Genma. They're scrambling through the streets somewhere in Japan, beating the hell out of each other. Well, actually, we meet a red-haired girl and a giant panda beating the hell out of each other.

Then we cut to the lovely home of Soun Tendo and his three teen daughters Kasumi (the domestic one), Nabiki (the schemer), and Akane (the martial-arts badass). Soun is excited, for today his old friend Genma Saotome and his son will return from a long trip to China, where they learned the secrets of Chinese martial arts--and today, Ranma will be given the chance to choose his wife from one of Soun's three daughters.

As he's explaining this to the girls, there's a loud racket at the door--the guests have arrived! Well, a red-haired girl and a giant panda have arrived!

Turns out that these are the very guests Tendo has been waiting for; Genma turns into a panda when he's hit with cold water. Ranma--macho, arrogant Ranma--turns into a red-haired hottie. Hot water turns them back. They fell into cursed pools somewhere in China.

Takahashi has an excellent hand--I really like her drawing style. Granted, the stories and situations are aimed more at the teen and twentysomething market, and many of the stories are romantic comedies, but Takakashi's also taking a swipe at martial arts as a whole, because just about everyone is a martial artist in these books. You've got martial arts figure skating. Martial arts pizza-making. Martial arts gymnastics. Martial-arts hair care products. Martial arts cheerleading.

Then there's the cast of characters; in addition to those mentioned already, some of the most memorable are:

Happosai, a martial arts master and panty thief.
Ryoga, the guy with no sense of direction, and who turns into a potbellied piglet.
Shampoo, the Chinese girl who must marry Ranma or kill him. Turns into a cat.
Tatewaki Kunou, the guy who wants Akane and girl Ranma--and wants to kill boy Ranma.
Kodachi Kunou, the girl who wants boy Ranma--and wants to kill girl Ranma.
Ukyo, one of three Ranma fiancees, who can kick your ass with a spatula!

The interactions of these seemingly insane people are what drive the story and make me willing to pop for ten bucks per book.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Quickie: Star Wars: New Jedi Order (series, various)

Rating: 1/5
Years: 1999-2003
Genre: Sci-Fi
Read again? HELL no.

Yeah, I know I just finished saying you shouldn't look for a "Star Wars" review anytime soon. Changed my mind--because this series is one of the reasons (aside from Luca$) I don't want to read "Star Wars" books. There may be spoilers without warning--this is a series I will not recommend to anyone.

It is a dark time for "Star Wars" fans. Although he's raking cash in at a phenomenal rate, the money-crazed Lord Luca$ isn't happy with destroying the franchise in film. He spreads his grasping tentacles outward into the book market.

Hiring hacks who vomited some of the worst "Star Wars"-affiliated crap to ever grace the page, he and his agents set forth to deliver the coup de grace to what was once a treasured childhood world.

I first encountered this "New Jedi Order" series with book #4, "Hero's Trial." Chewbacca is dead. Han Solo is utterly wrecked. On first reading, I thought it a reasonably good book, and it made me want to read the others to see how Chewie bought it.

I got that chance in January, 2007. For three full months, I slogged through the series from start to finish. Oh, man, did I slog. And there are only maybe 3 of the 19 books (plus short stories/novellas) where I wasn't groaning "Oh, for F*CK'S SAKE!" every other page. Few of the writers have any sort of grasp of the characters and "feel" of Star Wars. They could all have learned from Timothy Zahn, who wrote the best damn "Star Wars" novels, period, with his Thrawn trilogy. I can live with the inevitable continuity issues from one author to the next. But idiotic plots and crappy dialogue are unforgiveable.

In a nutshell, a race of beings with living technology invades the galaxy, killing and destroying anyone and everyone who oppose them. Droids are anathema. Any technology that comes from a non-living source is anathema. They are capable of growing anything they need--ships, weapons, communications, clothing. Even their human disguises are a living skin.

Basically, they waste everyone. Chewie dies. Han and Leia's boy Anakin (inexplicably named after his evil grandfather) dies. The freaking Hutts die. This all sounds cool, but I know damn well there are better writers out there who could have made this turd into something pretty.

This series runs entirely too long--and it brings us back into contact with characters and situations from the worst "Star Wars" novels ever written, such as Dave Wolverton's "The Courtship of Princess Leia" (which is some unholy melding of crappy Harlequin romance complete with hunky prince Fabio type trying to woo the Princess away from Han) and Roger MacBride Allen's Corellian trilogy (where we find that Han Solo has an evil twin cousin with access to a super weapon that will rule the...yeah. Crap.). Yeah, they bring Fabio and the Evil Twin back, and both are still the same after some 20 years.

The worst of it is, I went to Wookieepedia shortly after beginning the set. The write-up makes the series sound good. That's false advertising, isn't it?

Read this series at your own peril. I know of one person who actually liked it, so your mileage may vary.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Quickie: The Dresden Files (Series; Butcher, Jim)

Rating (series): 5/5
1. Storm Front (2000)
2. Fool Moon (2000)
3. Grave Peril (2001)
4. Summer Knight (2002)
5. Death Masks (2003)
6. Blood Rites (2004)
7. Dead Beat (2005)
8. Proven Guilty (2006)
9. White Night (2007)
10. Small Favor (2008)
Genre: Fantasy/Detective
Read again? Absolutely!

To fill in space between the weekly-or-so posts where I review a single book, I'm going to try doing a "quickie" review of a book or series. No idea if it'll be a daily thing, since I'm about as erratic as any other blogger, but *shrug*.

So we begin with Jim Butcher's freaking cool detective wizard, Harry Dresden of "The Dresden Files." If you've seen the very short-run series that the Sci-Fi network squeezed out a few years back...please don't judge these books by the bad coverage. TV and Hollywood types--and especially the Sci-Fi folks--can't seem to stick to a book very well. They changed an awful lot, and it didn't work as well as they hoped.

They should have left damn good enough alone.

Harry Dresden lives in Chicago. He's the only wizard in the phone book, and the only wizard who's trying to make a living as an actual wizard. Much of his work is detective-type stuff, and he fits well into the hard-boiled mold made by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I can't really see Humphrey Bogart as Dresden, though Dresden is as much of a wise-ass as Bogey ever was. He makes his pennies finding people's keys or lost dogs, and he makes his dollars doing freelance consulting for the Chicago Police Department's Special Crimes unit, where all the weird, unexplained crimes get sent. "Weird" and "unexplained" ends up meaning "supernatural."

Each book features a different supernatural or mythical critter, and you can get an idea of which ones they are by the pun in the book title. Butcher throws in plenty of little pop-culture things (which could really date the series in 10 years, but that's okay), movie quotes, and truly funny moments--for example, while he's about to be clubbed to death in a Wal-Mart garden center by a demon that's taken form by collecting plants and earth, Dresden's busy trying to come up with a name for the damn thing, just because it's good to know what killed you. He names it a "Chlorofiend." His buddy the lady cop kills it with a chainsaw.

Even better, each book builds on the ones before, so there's plenty of room for character development and relationships. And there are lots of interesting regulars: Karrin Murphy, the lady cop; "Gentleman" Johnny Marcone, the local Mob boss; Bob, the talking skull and magical database; Mister, Dresden's enormous gray cat; Mouse, his even bigger dog; Michael, an honest-to-god Knight; Billy the Werewolf; Thomas the vampire; and Susan, his girlfriend who happens to be a reporter.

1. Storm Front (2000): Grisly murders happen during powerful thunderstorms--and there's no physical evidence. Dresden quickly finds himself the target of police scrutiny as people he's spoken to end up dead. Then the killer goes after him--and so does an enforcer of the White Council of mages, who is convinced that Dresden is the killer!

2. Fool Moon (2000): Werewolves! Something is tearing people apart. But is it a) the werewolf whose family was cursed centuries ago by the Church; b) the college werewolf kids who happen to be forming their own pack; or c) something else? Or--as Chicago PD thinks--is it Dresden?

3. Grave Peril (2001): Ghosts! Something is torturing the ghosts in Chicago; something wants revenge on Dresden. Dresden gets invited to a vampire party--and shows up dressed as a cheesy Dracula.

4. Summer Knight (2002): Faeries! Bad things are happening in Faerie land; war is approaching, and it will affect the Faeries and our own world. Can Dresden find the killer of the Summer Knight before the White Council decides to kill him?

5. Death Masks (2003): Demons! Remember the "thirty pieces of silver" story about Jesus? Well, there are thirty silver coins, each one with one of the Fallen Angels in it. One who takes up a coin becomes a murderin' badass. This book has one of the most awesome "interrogation" scenes between Dresden and a guy named Cassius. You'll know it when you read it.

6. Blood Rites (2004): Vampires! Would you believe incubus porn? Not the band, the creatures that feed on sexual energy. Bow-chicka-wow-wow.

7. Dead Beat (2005): Zombies! A head-to-head competition between three black magic practitioners, with the world as the prize. The Big Battle features Dresden riding a zombie T. Rex to fight the bad guys.

8. Proven Guilty (2006): Movie monsters! Harry goes to SplatterCon, where the movie geeks are unreal...and the movie monsters are all too real!

9. White Night (2007): Witches! Someone's been killing witches. And the vampires are back!

10. Small Favor (2008): Billy goats Gruff! First, they're small...Harry defeats them. And each time, their bigger siblings come calling to set him straight. Can Harry survive the biggest Gruff of all?

A quickie review can't do the series justice. But it's going to be several months before I get to it, considering that I'm still one book into the huge Valdemar series. There's a new Dresden coming in April 2009, too.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Man on the Moon (Chaikin, Andrew)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1994
Genre: Nonfiction, history, space
Read again? Yes!

Subtitle: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts.

This is the book that ultimately spawned Tom Hanks' "From the Earth to the Moon" HBO miniseries.

I'm definitely an Apollo geek, though I came late to it. The only memories I have of it might not even be real--I seem to remember TV footage of one of the lunar buggies kicking up dust some 250,000 miles up, but I was 4 or 5 at the time. I envy those who got to see it all, from the first Sputnik to the last Skylab. My space ship was the Columbia shuttle--and cool as that was, it's just not the same.

Chaikin garnered interviews with people who were there--on the ground, in the capsules, on the home-fronts. He certainly delivers the goods, too. Each section of the book has enough technical info to satisfy the space geek in me without being boring.

We're taken through the manned missions in sequence, getting a short biography of each set of three men who would take the coolest ride ever. We begin most appropriately--and most briefly--with the deaths of Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967. The mission wasn't even to be called "Apollo 1." It was just another test flight (AS-204), but the unmanned Saturn I-B and Saturn V shots that followed now became Apollo 4, 5, and 6.

Apollo 7 and 8 launched on October and December 1968, respectively, and that second mission brings one of my favorite moments in the book. After Frank Borman got messily space-sick, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell spent the rest of the mission dodging Space Puke. We're treated to Anders' recollection of a green, pulsating glob floating along, splitting up, and going after and smiting a cornered Lovell. At this point, we're barely 100 pages into nearly 700 pages of book (nearly 600 pages of following the missions, and another 100 of appendices and notes).

Each mission gets a good bit of the remaining space, and Chaikin's straightforward style keeps our attention where it belongs.

You might want to have wrist supports on when you read it, though. The book is a heavy beast even in paperback, and as much as I enjoy reading, I have to admit that I was glad to be done. If you only want a Cliff's Notes version, you can see the story in 12 easy pieces by watching "From the Earth to the Moon."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Places to Go...

There's one very good site I'd recommend enough to write a post about it:

They have a short blurb about each author which includes known pen-names, a section of whatever's expected for release soon, and a main list of titles arranged by series. To the right side is a mosaic of book cover pictures.

Each picture or book title is linked to a separate page (if any) that goes a little more in-depth on that title.

And here's a short list of places to look for e-books:
Universary of Pennsylvania Online Books
Project Gutenberg
Brookings Institute Free Library
Electric Library
Internet Public Library
National Academy of Sciences Free Library
MIT Free Course Library

I don't know much about the others, but Gutenberg has a massive amount of public-domain stuff, like the complete works of Mark Twain and Shakespeare. Everything's in plain-text.

Google recently started offering entire books and magazines available online:

Their interface is okay, but I seem to remember that it irritated me a few months back when I first checked it out. When you're still on dial-up in a high-speed world, it's easy to be irritated.

Edge: 01 The Loner (George Gilman)

Rating: 3/5
Year: 1971
Genre: Western
Read again? Maybe.

"The Loner" is the first in the Edge series.

It's June of 1885. The Civil War is over. Captain Josiah Hedges is a Union officer who comes back home to his Iowa farm to find his younger brother tortured and murdered. He takes the time for a proper burial and heads out to demolish the men who did it.

This is a straightforward revenge story, and man-o-man is it massive violent! The kid brother--Jamie--is the second to die (the dog was first). The bad guys tie him to an oak tree--all but his right arm, which they secure by long nails hammered between and then bent over the fingers. This brings us to a good line:

"You got four fingers and a thumb on that right hand, boy. You also got another hand and we got lots of nails."

Bad guy has already told Jamie that his big brother ain't comin' home, that he's dead and owed the bad guys money. They've already ransacked the house and barn, stolen most of the horses, and set Jamie up for a little talkin'.
He says there's no money. *BLAM* There goes his thumb.
Now he's too busy screaming to answer properly. *BLAM* there goes his index finger.
One of the other men takes a shot, making a cut on Jamie's cheek. Jamie wets himself.
Then the drunk one tosses his empty whiskey bottle aside, pulls out his pistol, shoots from the hip, and plugs Jamie right between the eyes.
The gang leader blows off the drunk's junk and leaves him there to die.
Then he and the remaining baddies burn the place and high-tail it out of there.

Josiah shows up the next day and buries his little brother. After a preamble about parents and religion, the eulogy is simple, straightforward:
"Rest easy, brother. I'll settle your score. Whoever they are and wherever they run, I'll find them and I'll kill them. I've learned some special ways of killin' people and I'll avenge you good."

They did leave their junkless drunk behind for Hedges to find; he knows these men. They served with him a 'way down South, kickin' Dixie's ass. And he knows pretty much where they're headed.

This sounds promising--you've got the senseless murder, greedy outlaws, and a reason for revenge. But much of the rest of the book seems to be written with an eye toward getting Edge into situations where he kills someone: a fake preacher, a nervous kid, a dancing girl. We find out he's half-Mexican when he educates a sheriff in race relations. He doesn't kill everyone he meets, but he spends so much time glowering that Clint Eastwood should sue for infringement.

Another great exchange:
"You wouldn't shoot an unarmed man!"
Edge: "They're the easiest kind to kill."

Gilman's style is adequate, if clunky and wordy and irritatingly passive in voice, but we're not talking Shakespearean sonnets or flowing streams of prose, here. This book and its brothers are about men who need killin', and the man who kills 'em. There's not really much character development. Edge is homicidal right out of the box and all the other people are just sketches from Central Casting. No twists in the plot, either--Edge goes to [blank], he encounters [blank], he kills [blank], he leaves [blank]. Then he travels a chapter or two to reach the next [blank]. Everything's a straight line, and it's not like that's a bad thing. I do hope that Gilman develops the character in the later books. If not, there's not really much point in writing more books.

Star Trek: TOS #48--Rules of Engagement (Morwood, Peter)

Rating: 4
Year: 1990
Genre: Sci-Fi
Read again? Eventually.

Book set somewhere between Trek I (The Motionless Picture) and Trek II. On the "exciting" meter it's closer to I than II.

The Enterprise is diverted from R&R at Starbase 12 to deal with UFP people being kicked off a planet by the new government. It would normally be a diplomatic matter, but this planet--Dekkanar--happens to be part of a Distant Early Warning line that monitors the Neutral Zone between the Federation and Klingon (and Romulan?) space. Losing access to this planet means losing the command post and operations hardware for the 'Firechain.'

Some plot conveniences: No weapons, shields, active scanners (for diplomatic reasons) and no transporters (the planet's star is conveniently in a sunspot phase at just the right convenient frequency to scramble transporters, thereby requiring shuttles to get the Federation people off the planet).

As all this is developing, we're taken to a Klingon spacedock where an experimental D-7 battlecruiser is being readied for its proving flight. This ship will have no crew on-board--instead, it is controlled via a tether from a scout-class Bird of Prey (like the ship Kirk and crew go back in time with in the 4th movie). Hakkarl will be able to fight while cloaked and can pull maneuvers no crewed battlecruiser could manage.

The Klingons are in the same vein as John Ford's "The Final Reflection." [it differentiates between the Klingon language Ford used and that developed by Marc Okrand]. Don't like Morwood's take on Klingons; they're fine on the surface, but seem "off" in some ways--too human-like, prissy (mentally fussing over the smell of a space suit?). Like so many other authors' inability to "get" Vulcans, Morwood doesn't seem to really "get" Klingons.

The Klingon baddie Kasak was aboard the ship the tribbles were beamed to in the TOS episode "The Trouble with Tribbles." His fortunes suffered with the rest of that crew and Koloth, their captain. When he finds out that he's facing the evil James Kirk and his notorious ship, he wants revenge, but he goes about it in a whacked-out, convoluted manner.

Book seems to drag. There are good moments, but this isn't an exciting book, nor is it really engaging like "Strangers From the Sky" or "Spock's World." Still it's much better than "Windows on a Lost World." The ending is a bit weak, with the suddenly-insane Kasak bringing about his own downfall in time for the book to end. Locking phasers on a point. Man, am I ever tired of "Star Trek" right now.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Valdemar (Mercedes Lackey)

Over the last couple of days I've been thinking of starting on Mercedes Lackey's "Valdemar" fantasy series. I'm kind of dreading it, because there are at least 26 novels, spanning some 2,000 years in the history of a nation. It'll take me about that long to finish off the 26 I've got.

It's a really impressive series, and Lackey is crazy prolific. But I have a feeling that I'm going to have some of the same problems with this series that I did with her Diana Tregarde books. She can tell a story, but at times she's shrill, overbearing, and fussy. If you're going through a break-up or you're in the aftermath of one, you need to read something else or some of the books will cut you to pieces with their love stories and lost loves.

Oh, and most of her point-of-view characters are women. There are a few male POV's, and some of them are straight, but many of her guys tend to be gay. In this Utopian fantasy world, most people don't seem to care about that, but those who do tend to be protrayed as the stereotypical homophobe.

As far as characterization, the entire series is strongly character-driven. Real people and their interactions are complicated, imperfect, fragile, petty, and irrational, and Lackey develops her stories with this in mind. These same ideas shape each character, too--they don't all have the same interests or abilities.

The series is broken down mostly into trilogy sets:

Mage Wars 1-3:
01 Black Gryphon, The (w/ Larry Dixon)
02 White Gryphon, The (w/ Larry Dixon)
03 Silver Gryphon, The (w/ Larry Dixon)

The Last Herald-Mage 1-3:
04 Magic's Pawn
05 Magic's Promise
06 Magic's Price

Lavan Firestorm:
07 Brightly Burning

Vows & Honor 1-3:
08 Oathbound, The
09 Oathbreakers
10 OathBlood (Short Story collection)

Alberich 1-2:
11 Exile's Honor
12 Exile's Valor

13 Take A Thief

Talia 1-3:
14 Arrows of the Queen
15 Arrow's Flight
16 Arrow's Fall

17 By the Sword

Mage Winds 1-3:
18 Winds Of Fate
19 Winds of Change
20 Winds of Fury

Mage Storms 1-3:
21 Storm Warning
22 Storm Rising
23 Storm Breaking

Darian 1-3:
24 Owlflight
25 OwlSight
26 Owlknight

I don't know if I'm up for a cover-to-cover coverage of the whole set. For the blog's purposes, it'd be better if I broke it into the trilogies and singles, with something else in between to get me through the Lackey fatigue.