Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How to Shit in the Woods (Meyer, Kathleen)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1989
Genre: Nonfiction / Outdoors
Read again? Yes, at need

"An environmentally sound approach to a lost art."

This isn't a sit-and-read book so much as a humorous instruction book for hikers, campers--anyone who will be out in the wild. Meyer explains things in a straightforward fashion. Yes, yes, yes, you think you know how to drop one now--it seems as simple as just dropping trou and assuming the position, right? Well, no.

What if you're on a steepish rocky hillside? Do you want 'em rolling down to the camp?

What if you're riding the rapids and there will be others who want to enjoy the place without looking at your poop in the river?

What if you're trying to find drinking water up in the mountains--but someone dropped one too close to the stream you find? Do you want to risk Giardiasis? Cryptosporidium?

Meyer, a former river guide, first takes us through her process of picking the best word for the book. She didn't want to go for the clinical euphemism (eliminate, defecate, stool); or for zoological-sounding terms like scat, chips, and pellets. I like her direct approach of "calling a crap a crap." I wouldn't be surprised that some prissy, over-protective type would want this book banned because their precious snowflake shouldn't be exposed to such vulgarity...but everyone shits, even the tight-assed.

I must admit, I'd never given the process of wilderness-poo much thought (my Boy Scout troop didn't do wilderness). Find some bushes, find a tree, hunker down between the car doors on the side of the highway. But I don't know what poison ivy looks like, and who wants to clean up with that?

Next, she discusses the humble hole. You don't want to just leave it in the open, but you don't want to put it too deep, too shallow, too close to water (this is why you don't want to drink from that clear mountain spring without boiling the water first--and why the Ganges River in India is a festering cesspool). Like housing, it's all about location, location, location, finding a spot where your leavings will decompose without messing things up for other people (or for yourself, should you come back that way again). She also introduces some typical parasites you might encounter; the more people fail to clean up after themselves, the more such critters will be a problem for everyone else.

Can't dig a hole? Hanging off the side of a cliff? Pack your poop and take it with you rather than bombing the folks far below. Meyer recommends a few models of washable, re-usable carry-out containers for those who wish to just buy one (wanna spend $540 for a top-of-the-line model? I don't, but if you're dealing in volume it probably makes sense), but for the more enterprising and creative there's a do-it-yourself item that uses 4-inch PVC pipe and a few fittings to make a 12- to 25-inch personal poop tote.

Next on the tour: how to protect yourself with water filtration/purification systems. You can't assume that that clear mountain stream is clean, anymore. Giardia will break you from both ends, and all the other little parasites and bacteria lurking out of sight will at least make you miserable.

The women's chapter: "How not to pee in your boots." It's a quick lesson in undergarment selection, a little about going standing up, and finding a good spot for the less-adventurous who need to get closer to the ground (either way, it seems that you need some strong leg muscles). It turns out that Tupperware bread-savers are useful for more than bread!

Finally, there's a chapter for cleaning up. You could use toilet paper, but what if you're caught out without? Just remember: the solution grows on trees. Yup: Leaves. Meyer points out that you don't need to take a botany class--but you must learn your bad plants: poison oak, poison ivy, stinging nettles, sumac. I don't remember a damn thing about those plants from my Scouting days--but then, their idea of "wilderness" was a canoe and camp trip on a local river, and we roughed it by digging a hole and hanging a TP roll off a convenient stick next to it. Our 2-week camp at Camp Euchee was even less barbaric than that: each campsite had a latrine shed, complete with plumbing and TP rolls.

It's not just a dry how-to manual; Meyer tells a few tales of people who made a mess--the man who inadvertently pooped in his poncho hood; the miniature rock-slide caused by pooping on a slope (it really does roll downhill!); the woman who went outside in the snow and ended up with "the soggies" because every layer of clothing caught some snow. As long as you're not some Victorian prude, this crass little book is worth the ten bucks.

Back to the Future (Gipe, George)

Rating: 4/5
Year: 1985
Genre: Sci-fi, comedy
Read again? In another 20 years...

Writing-up the DeLorean book put me in the mood to read this; finishing that thrice-damned "Brightly Burning" settled it. I'm all Mercedes Lackeyed out.

I think I've read BTTF only a few times (three, maybe four), and all back in the year or so after the movie. I remember not liking it, and that's probably because movie tie-in books never match their movies the way I used to expect them to. Sometimes it's tolerable (or at least bearable); other times it's something Alan Dean Foster butchered back in the '80s (three "Alien" movies, "The Thing," and more). The worst one I can think of off the top of my pointy head is "Ghostbusters," in which Richard Mueller sanitizes all the dirty words and most of the humor from the story.

It's 1985. Marty McFly is a 17-year-old kid who wants to be a rock star. Emmett "Doc" Brown is the resident kook about town.

Marty is summoned to the Twin Pines Mall early in the morning to witness an "important experiment." What he finds is Doc and a modified DeLorean, a time machine! Our boy ends up back in 1955. He ends up being a crush for his own mother (Lorraine), and it's up to him and a much younger Doc Brown to get Lorraine to fall for the proper guy--the massively unpopular and nerdy George McFly. The story is well-paced and follows the movie for the most part.

Gipe plays McFly as a freaking Marty MacGyver; the kid escapes detention by:
--grabbing the lens from a slide projector (conveniently unattached to the projector?)
--grabbing a rubber band and book of matches from his notebook pen-pouch (matches?!)
--getting a stick of gum and chewing it, then sticking it to the back of the matchbook
--using the rubber band to shoot the matchbook at the ceiling, next to a convenient smoke detector
(Gipe is careful to mention the school's sprinkler system a few pages back from this; of course McFly sticks it on the first try)
--focusing the afternoon sunlight through the stolen lens to light the matches (while his nemesis Principal Strickland is closing the blinds for no obvious reason), setting off the alarm and sprinklers, and making his escape!

This smells of Steven Spielberg's love of Rube Goldberg-like gimmicky stunts, and I wouldn't be surprised if this was actually in an earlier draft of the script. Back in 1985, this opening for the book pissed me off, both because the stunt wouldn't work and because it's nothing like the movie's opening. I was really picky about that stuff--to the point of hating the ghost-written "Star Wars" novelization (as I understand it, Alan Dean Foster ghosted the book for Luca$). Don't expect a writeup on that one anytime soon (or any other Foster book). Nowadays, I don't passionately hate this McGyver scene--but it and a few other sucky spots earned a point off (Gipe drags out the "I am Darth Vader, an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan" gag past the point of being funny).

Gipe's style isn't too bad; a big bonus is that he's not fussy in the least, and doesn't commit even the slightest Lackeyism. I'm willing to let certain plot-points and such go mostly because he's probably not the guy who came up with them (we can blame screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and maybe Spielberg). Gipe does have some strange ways of putting things--for example, Marty isn't in a rock band, he's in a "group." Some of his other word choices seem clumsy. Maybe not the best movie tie-in you'll ever read, but definitely not the worst. This book isn't literature; strictly lightweight reading, and just what I needed to help me get over the Lackey headache.

Valdemar 07: Brightly Burning (Lackey)

Rating: 3/5
Year: 2000
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Not likely

Book 7 of the rather long Valdemar series. Only 19 more to go. This is one of the few stand-alone books. I'm glad it's not a trilogy. I don't think I could handle two more books this boring.

*grumble* This book takes its time getting started. Lavan Chitward is the second son to a prosperous textile merchant. The family has just recently moved to Haven, the capital of Valdemar. He doesn't want to be in the family business, so his parents enroll the 16-year-old in a fancy private school--and that's where the trouble starts. One would think that this formula would be so well-known that people wouldn't pick on the New Kid, because Bad Things Happen. Guess these kids never saw "Carrie."

The school's administrator is more interested in the parents' money than in doing well for the kids; the teaching staff are paid according to test scores, and there's no real incentive for them to maintain discipline. This is left to the oldest students. What could possibly go wrong?

Lavan quickly becomes a target for the gang of thugs who rule the younger classmates, leading ultimately to his being beaten with a cane--and four of them die in a blast of fire caused by their tormented victim. Sadly, by that point, I still didn't care enough about any of the characters to feel anything for them. It was too obvious that we're supposed to hate the bad guys, too obvious that we're supposed to feel oh-so sorry for the poor, innocent kid.

*more grumbling* Wow, does this thing drag. Almost 450 pages, and the four punks don't die until around page 129. In the meantime, we are clubbed into submission with Lackey's heavy-handed approach: he's unhappy. He's not happy. He's not happy. He is not happy. He's not happy. He is in no way happy. He is not happy in the least. Did I mention he's not even slightly happy? Happy, he is not. He's also lonely.

On top of that, Lackey has pulled out all the stops for vocabulary! If there's a long-ass way to write a sentence or piece of dialog, she does it. I think she could have cut this book in half just by tightening everything up. She must have been paid by the word--either that, or she's fallen into the "I've sold millions of units--I can do no wrong!" trap that keeps Metallica in the studio. Guys, "Load" was a load, and "Death Magnetic" just isn't cutting it. You've got your money--you can relax.

Then there's the characterization. Everyone's a cardboard cutout from Central Casting: the emotionally-distant, Social Climbing mother; the emotionally-unavailable "yes-dear" father; all the Heralds are such nice people; the bullies are faceless, without much humanity; the King could be played by Sean Connery's body double. There just aren't any actual people in the book--and people are what stories are supposed to be about. Even Lavan is a stereotype: he's got wavy, red-brown hair to further evoke the whole fire-starter image.

Maybe it was a contractual obligation. Maybe she's running out of ideas. Maybe she's as tired of writing Valdemar books as I'm getting of reading them. Maybe she's just not happy in the least...but this is by far the worst of the Valdemar books--"The legendary story of Herald Lavan Firestorm," according to the subtitle. Bleah.

Don't get me wrong; there are a few good scenes scattered amongst this otherwise steaming pile, but they're not enough to save the book from being forgettable. I'm just glad it's over.

The book starts off with an unintentionally funny dedication: "To all the unsung heroes who stood by on the evening of December 31, 1999 to ensure that we crossed into the year 2000 with our safety, security and peace intact." Me, I was stocking the cooler where I worked and completely missed the end of the world. "O noes! Our toasters will stop working!!"

Nickname Watch (strangely, only a few this time):
Lavan (the main character): Lan (LAN? Will there be a kid named Wi-fi next?)
Samael (older brother): Sam

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Quickie: DeLorean: Stainless Steel Illusion (Lamm, John)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1983
Genre: Nonfiction
Read again? Yes, at 88 miles per hour

My first real look at a DeLorean was in 1985, in a movie theatre, where Marty McFly watched as Doc Brown backed a modified car out of his van. More than 20 years have gone by, and those sleek steel cars still quicken my pulse and awaken the same desire as when I was 18.

The theatre's a megachurch now, the original company is long gone, and John DeLorean himself is dead. But I still want a DeLorean. I bought the "Back To The Future" booklet as soon as I found it--lots of pictures of the people from the movie, yes, but who cares about them (well, aside from Lea Thompson)? The only thing I really cared about were the photos and Ron Cobb's drawings of the car, from which I tried to make my own scale drawings of an unmodified DeLorean. Cobb's drawings weren't accurate, and I was left with working things out as best I could all through 12th Grade. I'm still pretty proud of a 3D-ish technical drawing I made of it--given the lack of accurate source material, I did a good job.

At some point in 1988 (if I remember right), I found an ad for this book and waited impatiently for the thing to arrive. I wasn't disappointed. I'd have to say that having the book is the next best thing to having the car.

You can't tell the story of the car or the company without the story of the man's rise in General Motors and fall in a drug scandal. But I didn't care about that. I was all about the car! I wasn't disappointed there, either. From the earliest stages of design, through the high-tech assembly line, to the disappointing end as the last one rolls out in December of 1983, there's plenty of material.

Photos and illustrations are mostly black & white, but there are some truly stunning color pages featuring aftermarket-painted cars in black, red, and yellow as well as stock stainless-skinned beauties.

A must-have book for a DeLorean fan.

Valdemar 06: Magic's Price (Lackey)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1990
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

Book 6, with 20 more. Last of the "Last Herald-Mage" trilogy.

It's been 9 years since "Magic's Promise." Vanyel's an elderly 34 years of age (nitpick--Lackey doesn't seem to be able to keep track of Vanyel's age. First he's over 36, then under; but I'm going by her own descriptions of events in this and the previous 2 books and calling it 34).

King Randale is dying. No one--Healer, Herald, or Hack--has been able to slow the progression of the wasting disease that has been taking his life by inches for 15 years. His partner Shavri (a Healer) hasn't been able to do more than make the pain bearable for him.

It's been nearly 20 years since the death of his beloved Tylendel; Vanyel has become more reserved, avoiding getting too close to others because he doesn't want anyone else to become a target: Vanyel has made some powerful enemies.

Vanyel's nephew Medren--nearly finished with Bardic training--has found a solution to both problems: an 18-year-old Bardic trainee named Stefen who can (conveniently) sing pain away--and whom is also into the boys. Stefen's pain-soothing Gift brings him close to the King--and to Vanyel, who has taken on more and more responsibilities as Randale grows ever weaker. Medren had been trying to get Stefen and Vanyel together for months. But once they meet, Vanyel manages to continually--and deliberately--miss or misinterpret the signals the Bard is putting out. It wouldn't be any fun if they just fell right into bed right away, would it?

As if all this wasn't enough, the number of Herald-Mages has dwindled to four. There haven't been any new trainees in years. The remaining few Herald-Mages are picked off one by one until Vanyel is the last. It falls to him alone to protect Valdemar from a powerful enemy far to the north.

By now I've fussed enough about her fussy, Protocol Droid-like delivery, with all the unnecessary qualifiers ('in no way,' and like that) and wordiness. It's a style thing, but it's her style thing, so I'll just have to grit my teeth and keep reading. It's only 20...more...books. Besides, she does tell a good story, and I'm not the most patient of readers. This book does drag, though. It's the final book in a trilogy, so there's all the loose ends to tie up, and some setting up of plot points for future books. Just...don't try reading the last 80 pages or so when you're in bed with the flu. Took me most of the weekend to finish it off. Also, it's not as much fun as the second book. Granted, things are more serious in the Realm than they were a decade before.

Spoiler: Remember Ma'ar, the evil mage from the first book? He has returned as Leareth. For several decades, he's been systematically killing Heralds and Herald-Mages and preparing an invasion. As I remember things, he was also Krebain, the bad guy Vanyel kills at the end of the first book, which doesn't really jibe with what Lackey gives for background on Leareth.

Nickname watch--amazingly few new ones:
Treven (a Herald): Trev
Stefen: Stef

Valdemar 05: Magic's Promise (Lackey)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1990
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

Fifth book of Valdemar, with 21 more. Second in the "Last Herald Mage" trilogy.

It's been 12 years since the end of "Magic's Pawn" (could be called "Magic's Pwned," for that matter, given how asswhipped the boy was). Vanyel Ashkevron is 27, and the most powerful Herald-Mage in the realm--the most powerful Herald-Mage ever. He's just come back from a year-long tour of duty along the southern borderlands of Valdemar, dealing with incursions from Karse. He's gotten quite a reputation by now as a bad-ass. Ordinary people--and even other Heralds--fear him. Songs are written about him. 'Demonsbane,' some call him, and Shadowstalker, and the Hero of Stony Tor. But now Vanyel faces a horror greater than all the demons and mages of Karse combined.

It's long past time for a well-earned vacation--and for him to visit his family. For several weeks, if not longer.

It is well-known that he's gay, but he knows his mother will still throw eligible women at him, hoping one will stick. His father will watch to see if Vanyel tries to seduce any of the boys or sheep. The family priest will scold everyone about proper manly behavior. The Armsmaster who used to beat the snot out of him trying to make a "man" out of him will try to pick fights.

It'll be just like old times!

But Vanyel quickly finds himself in the middle of a feud between the Mavelan and the Remoerdis clans. Everything hinges upon the guilt or innocence of one small boy, Tashir, whose entire family was torn to shreds by evil magic.

This is probably my favorite of the trilogy. Vanyel's no longer the snot-nosed teenager of the first book, and there are some truly touching scenes in which he at least makes peace with some personal demons from back home. That bullying Armsmaster turns out to be an okay Joe, and Vanyel makes serious inroads towards peace with his parents.

My favorite scene has him mind-screwing the family priest, who has never liked him. Father Leren starts in on him, implying something between Van and a young boy. Vanyel plays the gay card, lisping and all: "He is a sweet child, don't you think? But still, a child. Not company. ...I prefer my companions to be--somewhat older." (takes a step meaningfully toward the priest). "More masterly. Commanding. Now someone like you, dear Leren--" The priest runs away. Bahahahaha!! I love it. Even better, that preacher-boy's uppance does come--twice.

As with the previous book in the trilogy, the Lackey style isn't as irritating as in later works. Keeping in mind that Lackey didn't write the series in chronological order, we'll see if the books become more or less annoying as I get to the newer stuff.

Still, there's one bit I need to rant about. The Heralds have a thing called "Truth Spell" which can be used to detect falsehood or force the subject to speak the truth. I'm cool with that, but not with her weak explanation of the basic spell:

"Vanyel set in motion the spell that called the vrondi, the mindless air elemental that could not abide the emotional emanations associated with falsehood."

Wow, what a prissy-sounding bit of word salad. This feels almost as clumsy as Luca$' "midiclorians" rationalization for the Force. Here's this critter that exists on a different plane of reality from ours, and it'll come to you if you feed it a little magic, but it cannot abide falsehood. Is that any falsehood, or just human falsehood? Does it get equally unabiding of little white lies versus "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"? Eh. I just don't like it. I mean, are there other air elementals out there that can't abide the emotional emanations of anger? Grief? Happiness? Sexual arousal? Wait, those last two are just fundies.

Hell, if we could get a few falsehood vrondi and some that cannot abide the emotional emanations of child-molesters, we could wipe out the Vatican and the Preachercrats in the Republican party all in one sweep.

It's Mercedes Lackey, so of course there's Nickname Watch. I'm not going to list those from the previous book, just new ones:

Randale (King of Valdemar): Randi (no, he's not Amazing)
Tantras (a Herald): Tran
Yfandes (Vanyel's Companion): 'Fandes
Radevel (a cousin): Rad (was Radev in the previous book)
Melenna (girl who's hot for Vanyel): 'Lenna

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Blog's Got a Name!

I've been listening to early Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcasts over the past few weeks. One word that seems to pop up is "pareidolia" (or "paradolia"), defined at Wikipedia as:

"...a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant." Examples of this would include that Mary-on-Toast a few years back. It seems like people are constantly finding Jesus in more than just the mundane religious manner.The old boy crops up in wood grain, reflections from shiny objects (including a car hubcap), you name it. Considering that the cold & flu season is just passing away, I'm surprised there's not a used Kleenex (tm) with such an image blown from someone's nose.

It obviously requires imagination. Can you find it here?

At any rate, I've been thinking that this blog needs a title, and it seems that there's a form of pareidolia in reading in that I form a mental image of scenes and people as I go. Or in music, for that matter, given that what I imagine from the lyrics and mood might not be anything like what the writers and players had in mind.

I dig the irony of a skeptic using the word in a more ironic sense. I don't buy the holy stuff, or the bigfoot stuff, or the UFO stuff, or ghosts (to name but a few of the many species of irrational junk to which people devote so much of their time.

It's given me some ideas for enlarging this Blog to include more than just book reviews and style analysis, including local restaurant reviews (could even tie it to the Book Blog--is there sufficient light for reading? Sufficient room for a laptop for reading e-books? Is it quiet enough?) and some other stuff. Maybe even bring in other people to share their own book, music, and restaurant reviews.

Hell, maybe I'll pick up another two or three readers! *snort*

Saturday, March 7, 2009

51 High-Tech Practical Jokes for the Evil Genius (Graham, Brad & McGowan, Kathy)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2008
Genre: Nonfiction, tech/electronics
Read again? Yup.

They're baaaaack. I see this as a companion book to Graham & McGowan's "101 Spy Gadgets for the Evil Genius" because many of the the spy toys could easily be re-purposed to serve practical jokes.

This is a book of little mechanical gimmicks that go bump in the night, make random cricket noises, or jump out of a box and scare the living crap out of you. It's good for all year 'round, but what Halloween display is complete without a brain in a jar?

What about a stink machine that can be hidden in a victim's room?

Some of the projects require basic electronics skills; others require some basic woodworking. With some creativity, anything in this book will give you ideas for your own evil projects.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Roach, Mary)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2003
Genre: Nonfiction
Read again? Yes.

If you're fascinated by medical shows or just want to know what dead people do when they reach the final lay, this is your book!

Did you know that your plastic or reconstructive surgeon can practice on an unembalmed cadaver head in a roasting pan? It's an excellent way to learn the structures one encounters during surgery.

That's just the first chapter. From there we get glimpses (well, descriptions) of cadavers in the 2004 Gross Anatomy lab at the University of California, where students hold memorial services for the dead people they've dissected during the course. Then it's back some 3,000 years to Egypt and mummification, then the University of Tennessee's Medical Center and its body farm. Think of a sunny hillside, birds calling, lush green grass...and dead people in various stages of decomposition scattered about.

Like maggots? Sloughed-off skin? Bad smells? This is your chapter!

We continue with cadavers-as-targets for new Springfield .30-caliber rifles in 1892 to study the difference between stopping (i.e., making him stop shooting at you) and killing (i.e., making him stop shooting at you) the enemy, and why sheep's brains and bears' knees are used instead of humans' these days.

There's the crucifiction--er, crucifixion--angle, a discussion of the shroud, an entire chapter on knowing whether you're dead or not, one on what happens when a head is guillotined (takes 'em a few minutes to stop rolling their eyes and grinding their teeth) or frozen for posterity.

It's creepy, spooky, fun, funny, disturbing as all hell, and definitely worth a read.

101 Spy Gadgets for the Evil Genius (Graham, Brad & McGowan, Kathy)

Rating: 5/5
Genre: Nonfiction Tech/Electronics
Read Again? Yup.

This is one cool book, a combination of build-it-yourself projects and simple hardware hacks broken down into 15 sections.

Wanna see how to make a parabolic microphone out of a wok lid? Page 12.

Wanna hack a rifle scope to make a telephoto lens for your digital camera? Page 48.

Wanna build a robot that uses some of the other stuff the authors introduce, including a panning camera mount, night vision, radio control, a microphone, and payload drop? Page 219.

We find out how to modify everyday items into sneaky spy tools: a magic marker becomes a camera; a stuffed animal becomes a nanny-cam; a soft drink can becomes a room bug.

If you think you're being spied upon, there are some nifty gadgets for you! A laser pointer can toast a night-vision camera. Hack a cheap camera and re-purpose the flash unit into a 1,000-volt shocker (either portable or mounted on something you're trying to protect).

For the computer-hacking folks, there's a hardware key-logger that plugs in between the keyboard and computer. Kind of bulky-looking, but who looks behind their computer all that often?

All around, it's a fun and interesting read for the hobbyist, tinkerer, and nosy curtain-twitcher in us all.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

New forum settings!

I had it pointed out to me that only people with some species of Google account could post comments here. That's been fixed, now.

Mind you, only 5 people read this blog. Well, 6 if we're including me.

Back to the Valdemar reading. You ought to see how many are left.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Quickie--Valdemar: Heralds and Valdemar

As promised, a quickie entry for Valdemar and the Heralds. This is all off the top of my head; once I get to the books in which these things are fleshed out more, I'll revise my notes as needed.

The nation of Valdemar was founded about 1,000 years after the Cataclysm in which Urtho destroyed himself and his evil enemy Ma'ar.

Valdemar is named for a man who led a band of freedom-seekers into the West, fleeing the reach of a great Empire. His followers named him King, and he and his closest advisors asked the gods for help in ensuring that only good, honest people become future leaders of the young nation.

The gods answered by sending forth magical creatures that look like pure-white horses with blue eyes and silver hooves, creatures called Companions. They are at least as intelligent as humans--and probably more so, given that they are god-touched (and, we find out later, they're usually reincarnated Heralds).

The Companions Choose individuals who are to become Heralds, the best of the best. Heralds aren't Chosen by class, social standing, education, religion, or other similar qualities, but rather by traits that will make them good Heralds, and therefore good representatives of the government and people of Valdemar. There are civilian members in the government in Council and advisory positions, but only a Herald may become King or Queen.

Heralds are kind of like the Jedi Knights in "Star Wars"--they're a little bit of everything. Some Heralds are assigned as circuit-riders; it's their job to ride from village to village, bringing news and information about new laws and passing judgment on disputes or criminal matters. This duty is typically assigned to trainees as their final 'exam'--they ride the circuit with an experienced Herald, first observing how things are done, then taking the reins and doing it themselves.

Other Heralds become advisors; for example, the Herald second in rank only to the monarch is called the King's Own (or Queen's Own) Herald. This person is close to the monarch--a confidante, a friend, the one person the King or Queen can talk to with absolute trust. It's not unusual for the Monarch's Own Herald to be a spouse.

Other jobs would include spying, diplomacy, or messenger relay.

In times of war, Heralds are attached to the military both as fighters and leaders. Much of their training centers on tactics, strategy, and fighting with common weapons (swords, knives, archery, etc.) or magic (if they have such abilities).

For some 500 years after the end of the "Last Herald-Mage" trilogy, there are no Herald-Mages--just "plain" Heralds. The difference in the two is, of course, the use of classical magic (spells and manipulation of magical energy) over what Lackey calls "Mind-magic" (think ESP-type stuff like telekinesis, fire-starting, Mindspeech, and ForeSight for example).

Valdemar 04: Magic's Pawn (Lackey, Mercedes)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1989
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

Book the Fourth of Valdemar, with 22 left, and being the first book of the second trilogy in the set, "The Last Herald-Mage." Yep, each of the trilogies is subtitled. The first trilogy was "The Mage Wars," I think. I'm not getting up to go see--I'm done with those three until the next time I read them. Nyah.

This was my "gateway" book into the Valdemar series, thanks to the same unlamented ex who let me borrow several other Mercedes Lackey novels. The books are about the only worthwhile thing to come of that relationship, and the scribbles I wrote in my own copy of this one are embarrassing now--"I'm so alone!" and such crap. Yeah, I meant it in 1995. But nearly 15 years later, I don't feel the same way. She just wasn't that good--but the books are.

It's been 1,750 years since the great Cataclysm in which Urtho destroyed himself and his evil enemy, Ma'ar. The lands have long since changed, nations formed and gone, new nations taking their place. These are people who have never seen a gryphon, and for whom the battle of great mages is folklore, ancient history.

Our point-of-view character is a 15-year-old brat named Vanyel Ashkevron, first son of Lord Withen Ashkevron. His father has some very strict notions of the sort of man Vanyel must grow up to be--especially since the boy is supposed to be his heir. Withen tries having his Weaponsmaster Jervis beat the manliness into his son. Vanyel just wants to be a Bard, a minstrel, a musician.

Withen ultimately concedes defeat and sends the boy off to Haven, the capitol of Valdemar, where Vanyel's aunt is to see him schooled and prepared for rule. Aunt Savil is a Herald-Mage (I'll write up a few entries on the Valdemar stuff to explain things like that--if I do it here, I'll have blog posts as long as Lackey's freaking novels!)--a Herald-Mage, and she resents having this spoiled, rude, arrogant prettyboy foisted on her and her three trainees.

We've been clubbed over the head with it by the time Vanyel figures things out, but he falls in love with Tylendel, Savil's star pupil whom everyone knows is gay. That ex of mine warned me about that before I started reading the book; we'd only been dating 2 months and she didn't know whether I'd be offended by the gay-love theme. Lackey handles it like any other relationship between two people in love. She lets us know that they're bumpin' uglies, but she doesn't give us the Bloodhound Gang's "vulcanize the whoopie stick / in the ham-wallet" breakdown ("Foxtrot, Uniform, Charlie, Kilo"). Oooo, la la!

This reminded me that I've tried to classify this series' target age group for some time now. Sometimes Lackey's writing style makes it seem as though she's writing for the young-teen girl market, but then she throws in sexual stuff--including rape--in pretty graphic detail that seems targeted more for older teens/young-twenties. I don't subscribe to the notion that children are fragile snowflakes who must be protected and managed, but I'd be wary of kids reading certain "Valdemar" books because of sexual violence. Even so, the books might be aimed more at a female market, but the story is damn good, and it'd be a shame for guys to skip it. Hell, you can skip the sappy, syrupy romance parts--or you can man up and just read the damn thing without worrying about what other people will think.

So Vanyel is happy for the first time ever, in love, but we all know that that's not going to last. Wouldn't be an interesting book, otherwise. In the course of one awful night he loses Tylendel and gains a Companion (a magical being that looks like a pure-white horse) named Yfandes. The same events that brought Tylendel's death have awakened Vanyel's own magical powers, fearsomely strong, possibly the most powerful mage in the Kingdom.

This does bring us a really nice father-and-son moment, where Vanyel knocks Pops on his ass using only magic, and keeps knocking him down to make a point about bullying.

'Nother spoiler.
Vanyel finds redemption in the end by fighting an evil mage whom we've encountered before: Ma'ar--though he's taken the name Krebain in this incarnation. We don't find out how Ma'ar has come back for another 15 books or so. [correction--Krebain isn't a reborn Ma'ar; Leareth is].

In all, Vanyel goes from snot-nose to responsible grown-up by getting knocked around in a good way--before, he was taking lumps for not fitting someone else's notions of what he should be. Now, he's taking them in defense of innocents, and doing it for the right reasons.

Nickname Watch:
Vanyel: Van.
Mekeal (Vayel's younger brother): Meke.
Radevel (Vanyel's cousin): Radev.
Lissa (Vanyel's older sister): Liss.
Tylendel (Vanyel's boi): 'Lendel.
Jaysen (a Herald): Jays.
Andrel (a Healer): Andy.