Saturday, April 25, 2009

Valdemar 09: Oathbreakers (Lackey)

Rating: 4
Year: 1989
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

Book number 9, second in the "Vows and Honor" trilogy, and 18 left.

Tarma and Kethry have been with Idra's Sunhawks, a mercenary company, for two years--all part of their continuing mission to accrue a reputation, make some money, and get themselves set up with a place where they can establish a school for fighting and mage-craft. Tarma's the head of the scouts; Kethry's managing the mages and Healers.

The Hawks and the other merc companies on their side of a messy succession dispute are working to quickly bring the fighting to an end. As soon as the stalemate is settled, Captain Idra announces that she must leave. Her father, the King of Rethwellan, has died, leaving a muddled succession of his own. Idra will be the one to give the nod to the rightful heir--but she doesn't yet know which of her brothers will make a good king for the country.

Several months pass--the last two with no word from Idra. Tarma and Kethry ride north from the Sunhawks' winter quarters to find out what happened to their Captain. What they find will shake Rethwellan to its core once the truth comes forth--and will bring the Sunhawks in all their fury to see justice done!

This is a damn good story, probably my favorite of all the books, and it's good to read another one that I haven't found much to complain about at length. Lackey keeps it tight, and once again I have to wonder if her later books are so hefty because she lost her grip on just telling the story.

Unlike its predecessor, "Oathbreakers" has more of an all-in-one feel; the first book felt like a series of short stories strung together. That's not a bad thing, mind you, given that "Oathbound" was such a good read. There's one truly glaring bit of convenience, though. There's a setup conversation on page 187 in which a pair of supporting characters are discussing a bad-guy magical critter. The guy who knows about these critters mentions that there's only one way to defeat it (throwing a handful of a mixture of salt, moly, and Lady's Star into its mouth and eyes). He goes on to mention that ever since he heard about these mage-made things, he's carried a pouch of the killer remedy with him everywhere. Then, on page 203, damned if the bad-guy mage Kethry is fighting doesn't cheat and manifest exactly that critter. Good thing the guy who knows was with her and Tarma, huh? Got to take a point off just because the setup was so obvious and so close to the plot point it was setting up. Stuff like that just mars what is otherwise good storytelling.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pareidolia Goes Global!

I've decided to expand the blog a bit. The BookBlog will stay put--same link and all that--but stuff like the blogs list will migrate over to the main site to get rid of some of the clutter.

The main site will be devoted to the standard blogger stuff--random thoughts, rants, and all that. But the main thing will be music: a Song of the Day, a Riff of the Day (bass or guitar, with TAB notation), a rip on some particularly stupid country song I heard at work. Bad jokes.

Get over there and have a look, you four!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Valdemar 08: The Oathbound (Lackey)

Rating: 5
Year: 1988
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

Back to the Lackey. Number 8, first in the "Vows and Honor" trilogy, with 18 to go--

Oh, CRAP. I just re-counted. I said there were 26...there are 27 that I've got (knowing her she's already scribbled a dozen more books in the past week)...which means 19 more to go.

Okay, okay...deep breaths...don't's just*huff huff huff* Think positive's not 19 Alan Dean Foster books in a's not the entire 19 books of "Star Wars: New Jedi Order"...okay, I feel much better now.

Tarma shena Tale'sedren (Tarma, of the Hawk Clan) and Kethryveris of Pheregrul are on a long, slow, wintry ride back to Tarma's homelands, the Dhorisha Plains. Thankfully, we're not expected to remember those names, and can call them "Tarma" and "Kethry." This is a Lackey book, so "Kethry" gets the shorty-nickname of "Keth." Someone always seems to get a shorty-nick. We can pretend that it's along the lines of "John" for "Johnathan" and like that, but it always feels fake when Lackey does it, for some reason. Maybe it's because that's usually the only nick-name anyone gets in a Lackey story, other than affectionate descriptives--"Peacock" for a vain young man, "Greeneyes" for Kethry, but we rarely see something crass like a village butcher named "Muttonchop" or a sheep-herder nicknamed "Shaggy" for the one time he got caught. Tall men don't get nicknamed "Tiny."

So anyway, it's winter, and they're headed south to the Plains so Tarma can reclaim her Clan's banner. She's the sole survivor of a vicious raid: every man, woman, and child died at the hands and swords of a band of robbers. Her Goddess gave her the means to avenge herself and her Clan, making her one of Her Sword-Sworn. Tarma set out to find the robbers, met Kethry, and the two of them teamed up and killed all the bad guys. Now, it's been more than a year since Tarma took up her sword, and she must soon raise her banner...or her Clan will be declared dead.

Kethry is the other half of this odd couple; she's a mage and sworn blood-sister to Tarma. Her magic sword "Need" carries a compulsory spell: its bearer must help women in distress. To that end, the sword will make a non-fighter into a master swordswoman, grant some magical protection to a non-mage, and heal an injured woman of life-threatening wounds. But Need serves only women.

They make it to the Plains--but both soon realize that Tale'sedren will not flourish as a Clan of two. They need to make a reputation--and money--for themselves and their Clan so the right sort of people will want to join them. They return to the road to work as freelance mercenaries.

From there, the book is a straightforward "road" story; they move from job to job, mostly as caravan guards or escorts for wealthy travelers. Need awakens several times, forcing them to ride to the rescue of a woman wrongly accused of murder, then to face a powerful demon seeking godhood. One of my favorite parts is a scene where Kethry dispenses justice on a murderous rapist by casting an illusion upon him, making him look like the sort of woman he and his band of thieves would victimized. She keyed the illusion to the senses: anyone touching him would see, feel, and hear a woman.

Then she released the bastard--without telling him a thing. He returned to his camp and received the same treatment from his own men as his victims did.

Nice bit of justice, that.

After reading the two "Back to the Future" and two "Alien" books, Lackey's almost a relief. It helps that the "Vows and Honor" books are amongst her better efforts. She's not quite as fussy (it seems like the more recent books are the worst in that regard), but there are still plenty of the "in no way" qualifiers that define her style. The story flows well, the characters are interesting and compelling, and the book isn't too long--these are things "Brightly Burning" lacked in spades. There aren't many short books after "Vows and Honor" in the Valdemar series--just the "Talia" trilogy a few books along from here. After that, we go from 300 pages to around 500 per book.

About the only issue I've got isn't really an issue. The book has a feel of being a series of short stories tied together--some mild continuity lapses, sometimes flowing, sometimes a stumble when Lackey stops to remind us of things, but not enough to matter.

Nickname watch:
Kethry (Keth)
Kavinestral (Kavin), Keth's brother

World's Most Evil Men, The (Blandford, Neil & Jones, Bruce)

Rating: 4
Year: 1990
Genre: Non-fiction
Read again? Maybe

For such an all-encompassing title, this is an amazingly thin book, given all the evil men History has known, but it does make for good reading. Each evil man is given at least a page, just room for the highlights without making a list of every evil deed. Think of it as "entry-level" evil--you read this, you're interested and want to learn more, but if you're not you're only out the cost of one book. Since this is supposed to be the "most" evil men, you won't find lesser evils.

"Most Evil" is broken down into 6 chapters, each telling of a different class of evil:

Twentieth Century Tyrants. Your basic tin-pot dictators, gunboat diplomats, and megalomaniacal emperors for life--Idi Amin, Pol Pot, "Emperor" Bokassa, Papa Doc Duvalier, Joe Stalin.

Merciless Despots--Atilla the Hun, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane the Great, Ivan the Terrible, the Ottoman Sultans.

For God, King & Country--the Borgias, the Conquistadores, the Buccaneers (English pirates Morgan & Kidd), Marat & Robespierre of the French Revolution, Jim Jones of Jonestown

The Nazis--Hitler's rise, the SS & Himmler in the Ghettoes, Heydrich and his camps, Eichmann, Klaus Barbie.

Evil is Big Business--the Mafia, Jimmy Hoffa, Gambino, Galante, Murder Incorporated, Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel

Blood Lust--Caligula, Vlad the Impaler, Gilles de Rais, the Beane cannibal family, German vampires Kurten & Haarman, Chicago's Torture Castle, Marquis de Sade.

Given that evil men seem to ooze out of various worldly orificies (orifi?) at odd times, there is ample room for a second edition--I note that George Luca$ apprently wasn't evil enough for the first edition.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Quickie: Valdemar--the Shin'a'in and Tayledras

Now that I'm done with Foster for the time being, it's back to the grind with the next set of three Valdemar books. Time for a little history and a bit on the Shin'a'in and Tayledras, who will be figuring a good bit in the rest of the books.

It's about 200 years since the days of Lavan Firestorm (which, ironically, took about 200 years to read), about 1270 years since the Founding of Valdemar, and 2270 years since the Cataclysm.

The twin explosions of the great Cataclysm were centered on the strongholds of Urtho and his nemesis Ma'ar. Urtho was the more powerful mage, or at least had more power invested in his Tower, and upon his death the explosion carved a crater many miles across. Ma'ar's own end was brought about by a device Urtho sent to him in care of the Black Gryphon. This explosion was much smaller and its crater formed what later became Lake Evindem.

The explosions also did weird things to magical energy; in the two millenia since the Cataclysm, there are still wild lands where twisted magic makes for great danger to regular people. This area is known as the Pelagirs, a great forest along the western border of present-day Valdemar.

At some point after the fireworks faded, the remainder of Urtho's followers wandered back toward his Tower and found the crater instead. They were divided--some of the Clans wanted to keep using magic, the rest wanted no part of it. The magic-users went West, and were charged by their Goddess with using magic the cleanse the Pelagirs of wild magic (and bad mages and twisted creatures), taming it so regular folks could move in and live in peace. These are the Tale'edras or Tayledras, the "Hawkbrothers." They breed enormous birds of prey which are highly intelligent. The Hawkbrothers keep themselves hidden away from much of the rest of the world, living in luxurious man-made valleys--Vales--and storing the magic they gather in a Heartstone.

The remaining Clans were charged by the same Goddess with keeping the secret of Urtho's Tower: it wasn't completely destroyed and still contained powerful artifacts and weapons. She remade the entire crater into a vast grassland, the Dhorisha Plains, and set the people to guarding it against any who would intrude. These are the Shin'a'in, the "people of the plains." They breed horses that are the envy of riders everywhere and are known to be fierce warriors.

Aliens (Foster, Alan Dean)

Rating: 3.5
Year: 1986
Genre: Sci-fi / Horror
Read again? Maybe in 57 years

It's been 57 years for Ellen Ripley. She and Jones the Space Cat have been adrift in the Nostromo's shuttle ever since their escape from that first alien.

She finds herself even more alone. Her daughter died at 66, older than Ripley is now: Rip van Ripley spent those 6 decades in a sleeper capsule.

Some things haven't changed, however. The Company--the same Company that owned the Nostromo and her cargo--is still there, inevitable, like death and taxes.

The dusty little planetoid where Nostromo's crew set down, answering what they thought was a distress signal, is now home to a colony of Terraformers. They've built massive atmosphere processors to make the unbreathable breathable.

There's a little problem, though.

Contact with the colony has been lost. Space Marines are being sent to check it out, and the friendly Company Representative wants Ripley to go along as a consultant. Just in case.

We all know what's gonna happen.

Still not ready to go back to Lackey. I probably shouldn't be reading Foster back-to-back, either, given that it took more than a week to hike through 270 pages of molasses. But I had to know: was "Alien" simply the most tolerable of Foster's books? I already know that his worst is the hideous "Alien 3," which is so full of misspellings that one English teacher would make the pages run red with ink.

My biggest beef--and the first thing I noted--is that Foster doesn't like "dirty words." He uses "heck" and "horsepucky" instead. Holy shoot, he sanitized the entire goshdarn book! Inexplicably, he leaves a single "fuck you" intact. I'm guessing he missed this one, since he wiped all the others out. He even clipped Ripley's famous, "Get away from her, you bitch!" to a much weaker and clumsy-sounding, "Get away from her, you!" I'm gonna cuss away one point for that, and another half-point for being such a prissy wanker. The list is below, for your amusement.

Pacing is quicker than that of the first book. Twenty pages in, people are actually doing things that advance the story. Things slow down after the first big firefight between the Marines and the aliens; the book plods at near-idle speed at times. It's still not as boring as the first, but Foster doesn't seem to write for suspense. There are times when his style reminds me of the stilted, overly-formal-yet-overly-friendly announcers of 1950's movies; at others, he sounds like a bad door-to-door salesman who just can't get the pitch right. Then there's his knack for picking the wrong word for the job:

"Airborne particles of sand and grit had corroded much of the steel plate."

What about "eroded"? He's using a word for a chemical process to describe a physical process. By his use of the word, we could say that the Grand Canyon was formed by corrosion over millions of years. That's some strong river water.

Oh, well. In the first book he described the alien's acid blood as "caustic"...which describes the action of a base, not an acid. I suppose we could shrug and claim literary license, but I won't shrug. I demand better from a writer if it's SCIENCE fiction. So there.

"Dirty Words"
This is the entire list, not cherry-picked. He sanitized the damn--sorry, darn-- story!

heck: Ripley, p. 5
whattheheck: Ripley, p. 8 (yes, one word.)
horsepucky: Ripley, p. 13 (thinking to herself; she even sanitizes her own thoughts?!)
heck: Simpson, p. 30
heck: Russ Jorden, p. 36
heck: Ripley, p. 45
lazybutts: Apone, p. 53 (a Marine Sergeant who euphemizes cussin'?)
poontang: Wierzbowski, p. 55 (maybe Foster doesn't know what this means)
fuck you: Vasquez, p. 59 (I wonder if he forced himself to type it, then felt dirty afterward?)
screw you: Hudson, p. 112 (after 53 cuss-free pages, Foster really unwinds!)
pendejo: Vasquez, p. 133 (does Foster know Spanish?)
mierda: Vasquez, p. 145
ass: Vasquez, p. 175
bullcrap: Hicks, p. 204
fu--?: Hudson, p. 208 (maybe Foster was all fugged out by this point)

All in all, Foster isn't the mediocre hack, the destroyer of stories, the towering inferno of ineptitude that I remembered. I was wrong about him being the male Mercedes Lackey: he's just not a great writer, and she tells a much better story. Usually.

At least he's not George Luca$.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Complete Introduction to Drawing, The (Barber, Barrington)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2007
Genre: Nonfiction/Art
Read again? Yes

I stumbled upon this at Barnes & Nobles' bargain bin. Ten bucks!

What sold me on it was something different from many of the beginning drawing books: Barber takes us through some basic line and shape exercises, things that are very important to overall technique, but don't seem to get much coverage. Or at least they didn't get covered in a way that turned on that little light bulb in my head.

This is a satisfyingly heavy paperback, about 300 pages, and well-illustrated with sample drawings.

The first forty pages are basics--lines and shapes, posture, materials, composition, shading, all the things I never quite "got" in that 10th-Grade Art class.

From there, we go to still life and object drawings, beginning with basic shapes and working up in complexity. Everyday items such as trees and binoculars, books and sneakers are shown first as very simple line drawings, then as completed illustrations--and it's done in such a way that you can see the process and the progress.

Each chapter builds upon the previous ones, of course, with chapters on lighting & perspective (including an eye-popping metal saucepan that almost looks real!); nature (waterfalls, trees, oyster shells, landscapes, and animals); human figures (basic shapes & proportions, poses, skeletal and muscular forms, shading of skin, and foreshortening); and composition.

The final third of the book has chapters on setting up landscapes, still life, portraits, and figure drawing; developing a style; and learning from all those old guys like Rembrandt, the cubists, abstracts, and more.

Given the depth of coverage, this should be a first pick for anyone interested in a do-it-yourself approach to drawing or a full-fledged art class.

Alien (Foster, Alan Dean)

Rating: 3.5
Year: 1979
Genre: Sci-Fi/Horror
Read Again? Maybe.

** New material added 4/14/09

Yet another short book before diving back into Lackey Land. I've been an unrepentant hater for a couple of decades where Alan Dean Foster's movie tie-ins are concerned, and in the interest of fairness I wanted to see if I was remembering things right.

A few pages into "Alien," I decided that Foster is the male Mercedes Lackey, only not as good. Both of them tend to pad out their prose, as if they're paid by the word. Good writing doesn't need padding; style shouldn't call attention to itself over the story. It should be subtle. But where Lackey favors "in no way" and other passive fill, Foster goes for the thesaurus (i.e., why use "contact" when "apposition" has more syllables, and therefore sounds more science-fictiony?).

I've wondered about this "technique" (having seen it in other writers) from time to time--is it just boredom? A desire to seem smarter? An attempt to make the prose more technical or complicated sounding (it's SCIENCE!-fiction, after all)? It's never seemed effective to me, either in writing or in the real world. The principal at my high school did the same thing, trying to sound highly educated and upper-crusty, yet incapable of pronouncing some of that multisyllable word salad pouring out of his pie-hole. I've heard cops, management, politicians, and other "authority" types padding out a statement with extra syllables or words that don't see much common usage. But if you can't do it effectively, it just sounds phony--and your audience can see through it.

Some readers won't give a rat's about that; I went to the Google and asked it if Alan Dean Foster sucked. Computer said "no." I was shown interviews with him, articles about him, and the word "suck" wasn't attached to him. I also tried "crap" and "hack," but by far the praise outweighed the pans. Gotta say, I just do not get it. I don't hate his style like I used to in my firebrand teenager days (when I knew everything); I just find it distracting from the story. I just HAD to include these two samples:

'The captain had assembled a metal tripod from short lengths of metal.' (page 83; Dallas, Kane & Lambert have found the derelict ship; Kane's about to take his trip down into the belly of the beast). As opposed to a metal tripod made from pieces of paper?

or dialogue like this:

"The emergency lies elsewhere--specifically, in the uncharted system we've recently entered. We should be closing on the particular planet concerned right now." (page 28; Dallas is briefing the crew on the reason for coming out of hypersleep).

Who talks like that? A good bit of the dialogue is strangely formal and everyone sounds like Foster himself, especially within the first 50-60 pages.

That said, Foster does stay faithful to the script, but we're a third of the way into 270 pages before Kane actually meets the face-hugger (p.96). We don't see the chest-burster for nearly 80 pages after that (p.171). It's an easy enough read, but the true crime of this book is that it is boring and plods along, and even the actiony stuff isn't actiony so much as boring. Gotta pour 1.5 points of acid alien blood on it.

On to the story:

The space tug Nostromo is on a return leg to Earth, towing a load of petrochemicals in a massive refinery barge. The ship is diverted to answer a supposed distress call. They leave their load in orbit and run down to investigate. Of the three who go hiking across the face of a rocky planetoid, two come hiking back, carrying the third...and a passenger attached to his face. Hey, guys! Let's try to cut it off of him! Acid for blood? Okay, it can stay.

Seven against one, right? Well, six against one. The passenger chews its way out of its first victim and skitters away. Little thing like that should be easy to catch with six people working on it...

Well...five. How'd it grow so fast?!

Four? Flame throwers and motion-detectors are no match for a 7-foot tall alien, kid.

Three. This one doesn't count--he was a murderous android, and it was self-defense. He was trying to keep the alien alive.

Two. Oh, I forgot the cat. THREE, then.


Ultimately it's Ellen Ripley and the ship's Space Cat, Jones, who face off against the alien, holed up in the Nostromo's shuttle.

How does it stack up against the movie? The movie's pacing is much better, given that they need to get us into the suspense more quickly and keep us wondering who the critter's going to kill next. This book would have been much better had Foster gone the same route. I could even deal with his oddball choices of words if the book wasn't so boring.

There's not a lot of character development. Foster's Dallas comes across as an ineffectual nonentity (Tom Skerritt plays him as an actual man who is tired of your shit, now get back to work). Only Ripley seems to care about chain of command or proper procedures--and only Ripley and the Space Cat get out alive. Foster throws a few weak hints about Ash the Mandroid, but it all amounts to "he's different." Wow. Ian Holm played him much better: creepy guy who just doesn't seem to play well with others. The quiet one that you really should watch out for.

The most amusing thing for me is the back-cover blurb: "This was not their galaxy." NOWHERE in the book or movie is it mentioned that the Nostromo is traveling outside the galaxy, just between star systems. When they're brought out of hyperspace to investigate the "distress" signal, they're roughly 6 to 10 months from Earth. But we all know that cover-blurb writers are insane and incapable of summarizing a book properly.

Maybe I've mellowed out: I was locked & loaded, ready to nuke Foster from orbit (it's the only way to be sure), but he's not as awful as I remembered. Bad, but not awful.

Watch the movie instead.

Back to the Future II (Gardner, Craig Shaw)

Rating: 3.5
Year: 1989
Genre: Sci-fi, comedy
Read again? Not even for a DeLorean.

Going into this one totally blind. I know I've read it once before, but I couldn't say when that was. More than a decade, less than two. I really just don't want to go back to Lackey Land, so I'm looking for some shorter books to fill in before I go diving back in.

Doc Brown grabs up Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer for a quick trip to 2015 to fix a problem with their kids. Of course things don't go as planned, and bad guy Biff Tannen manages to steal the DeLorean. He goes back 60 years to 1955 to give himself a gift that'll change the world: a sports almanac for 1950 to 2000. Biff gets filthy rich and ruins the future Marty just fixed! So now it's up to Marty & Doc to go back to 1955, get the almanac from Biff, and return things to the way they were. The ending is a cliffhanger--this and Part III were filmed back-to-back and released a year apart.

Gardner's take on the story isn't as smart or tight as Gipe's. If Gipe played Marty McFly as a junior McGyver, Gardner makes him as an idiot who learned nothing from his recent adventures. This could easily be the fault of the screenwriter (story by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale, screenplay by Gale), trying to go for goofball comedy. Unfortunately, this one's not as much fun as the original. Much of the 2015 arc of the story depends heavily on gags from "Back to the Future": the skateboard chase of 1955 becomes a hoverboard chase. Marty's son Marty is another George McFly, and Biff's gransdon Griff is the king bully who makes the kid's life miserable. The story feels like a cheap knockoff of the original. That's worth a point.

Gardner's style puts me in mind of an over-actor hamming it up for the audience. He had more fun in writing this book than I did in reading it. I do have to wonder, though, whether he has a spelling dictionary around, and how it would recommend the spelling for "gigawatt"...which Gardner consistently spells as "jigowatt" (but at least he's consistent). His own original stuff--the Ebenezum trilogy, the Wuntvor trilogy, and the Cineverse trilogy--are highly entertaining, and I don't really know what went wrong. Half a point.

I have no idea how this book compares to the movie; I saw it once years ago, but don't remember anything but Michael J. Fox in drag as Marty McFly's daughter in 2015.