Dragons and Elves

Obviously the middle part of the brick is Dragons of Winter Night, the second part of the trilogy.  And I keep thinking and wondering.  I mentioned that I was specifically interested in rereading about Tanis Half-Elven, our supposedly main character.  Because, of all the characters, his is the story I remember the fewest details about.  I mean, I remember that he’s torn between Kitiara and Laura romantically, I remember that he has a magic sword from a dead elf king, and I remember that he’s the leader of the group.  But why can’t I remember anything more about who he is?

There was an annotation in Dragons of Autum Twilight wherein Margaret Weis was having trouble wrapping her mind around Tanis’ character.  Tracy Hickman told her that he was equivalent to Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise…but I never really agreed with that sentiment.  Tanis is far too serious and conscious of dignity to be Kirk.  That doesn’t stop him from doing things like wade through sewers or have buildings fall on him – because these are things that happen to adventurers – but those don’t generally seem like situations for Kirk.

I’ve been thinking that one of the problems with Tanis is that he’s present for what he is.  The balanced party needed a half-elf ranger.  Sure, this means we have to explain that he’s a child of rape, but his…uncle?…I don’t care enough to figure it out.  The Speaker of Suns took him in and raised him alongside Porthios, Gilthanas, and Laurana.  So for all his bastard halfbreed blood, Tanis has high level connections to the Qualinesti elves.  But this is all stuff about Tanis, and doesn’t really speak to the man himself.

In terms of character, Tanis is one of the least developed as far as the main party goes.  He pretty much exists to provide a viewpoint and narration for the reader.  He’s old enough and experienced to know a fair bit, is the trusted leader of his friends and therefore is able to go off and speak with any of them in private.  He can give orders, but doesn’t generally outside of tense situations.  More than anything, he instinctively understands not to give an order that won’t be obeyed.  But he’s an archetype.  We, as readers, are meant to inhabit Tanis, which means he can’t have much of a personality else not all readers can wear his skin.

Which is pretty awful.  I mean, there’s so much potential.  But you can’t remember much about Tanis because there is nothing to grasp onto.  It’s incredibly frustrating especially given the tears that the second book ends with.

I guess that’s as good a transition as any into the plot.  Dragons of Winter Night does not pick up directly after Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  There’s another adventure or two that happens in between the books and the authors left those stories out for length and whatnot.  But, Dragonlance being Dragonlance, you can read about them elsewhere.  (I kid you not, there are so very many annotations saying “for this story, go to this book!”)

Our massive and unwieldly party is finally split into smaller groups by authorial intent, by happenstance, by circumstance.  One portion travels through once-beautiful Silvanesti, the other up to Solamnia.  And the book becomes kind of like The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien where you can almost divide the thing into halves based on which group you’re following.  We find out that elves are far from perfect, that there are good dragons to face the evil dragons, and there are tears.  Many tears.  More on tears later.  We also meet the tinker gnomes who are amazing in every single way.  As proof, let me share with you the annotation (pages 794-795) that Tracy Hickman won me over with.

“In an early draft of the story, we explained the gnomish efforts to invent a lighting system for the long tunnel that connected the exterior of the volcano to its large open interior.  Concerned that the human knights of Solamnia could not see in the dark as the gnomes could, they built the following:
Action: They placed long steel rods running the length of the corridor, the ends of which were lowered down into the molten magma of the volcano below.
Result: The hall was lit but the heat roasted anything that attempted to pass through Krynn’s first toaster oven.
Action: Plumbing of ice-cold water down from the mountain glacier lake at the top of Mt. Nevermind to cool the space between the rods.
Result: The pipes leaked.  This made the corridor both hot and cold at the same time and filled the corridor with an impenetrable fog.
Action: A gigantic mechanical fan was set at one end of the tunnel to blow out the fog.
Result: The tunnel was freezing cold, burning hot, impossible to see in, and filled with a roaring wind that made it impossible to hear–but, by Paladine, that corridor was LIT!”

Just…seriously.  Is that not beautiful?

THE REST OF THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!

I said there were tears and I’d talk about them.  One of the major events of this book, which happens almost at the very end, is the death of Sturm Brightblade, Knight of Solamnia.  And this is the biggest reason why The Annotated Chronicles should not be anyone’s first exposure to these books.  Because the annotations give away this major plot point early on in the first book.  I mean, they also give away that Kitiara is a Dragon Highlord, but that’s so much less important.

Sturm’s death is major.  He’s one of the main characters and has been from the very beginning.  He’s not a new addition for this trilogy like Goldmoon and Riverwind.  He’s not a latecomer like Laurana or Gilathanas.  He’s one of the core characters, even if he doesn’t usually do much more than stand straight and live for honor.  I mean, that’s basically his whole character but you know that he’s an honorable man who lives his life as strictly as he wishes everyone else would, though he’s experienced enough to know that very few people can be held to those standards.

According to the notes, the authors got lots of letters, probably even some hate mail, over killing Sturm.  He was a fan favorite and they accused the pair of not caring about him.  But no, the authors admitted they cried when writing his death, and again with his funeral.  They cared about him that much.  Hell, I feel it too.

But I don’t feel that same sense of care about Tanis and if he’s supposed to be the central character…it just doesn’t work.  That’s where they didn’t care.  I mean, not even like when Margaret Weis hated Elistan and would have written him out of the book if possible (Hickman made her put the man back in and promised she could kill him in Legends).  Tanis is just…there.  Like a lump that has basic emotional and narrational capabilities.  And it hurts because you know he could have been so much more.  Here I am, eyes watering as I remember how a fictional character gave his life for honor, buying time for his friends, allies, and soldiers, and then I think of another character in the same book and there is…nothing.  Or rather, there’s the expectation of something, but nothing comes along.

It’s infuriating and while I know these are first books, it’s still annoying to realize.

A Doorstop

It’s been a while since I did a mid-book post.  Although it’s only mid-book because the book is a brick and an omnibus.  Or maybe I should call it…a doorstop?

That’s right, I’m once again rereading The Annotated Chronicles of Dragonlance by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.  Today I finished Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first of the three books contained within my brick.  And since I’ve been largely distracted from reading, I figured I might as well make a post for the first book.

Really, only the first book, since I managed to turn the last page as my lunch hour ran out.  This puts me in a position I’ve never actually occupied before; being able to sit back and think on just the first book.  I mean, sure, I do remember a lot of things that happen in the other two.  But it’s at the vague remove of “it’s been a couple years since I last reread this”.  Which in and of itself is surprising.  I had forgotten that I do have a blog post on this already.  But it’s…short.  Very short.  And doesn’t really do a lot of talking about the story.

But before I get into that, there’s a bit more I want to get through.  Two main points.  Firstly, that yes, I have just had this book (and Tanis) on my mind again, until the urge to reread it became nearly overwhelming.  I swear that it has nothing to do with constructing a fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons character for a campaign starting next month.  (Although I am super excited and my poor character is going to be absolutely miserable.)  But for some reason I always find Tanis’ story the hardest to remember even though he’s kind of the main character.  Kind of.

The more relevant point is a reminder that this book is annotated.  Most spreads will have at least one comment from one of the authors, the illustrator, the guy who wrote the poems and songs, etc.  I have only read these books annotated and have never experienced them without these additions.

There are three types of notes, to my mind.  There’s notes that are informative, adding information to what was in the final draft.  There’s notes that are random, such as how Bupu’s lizard cure translated into real life for Tracy Hickman.  And there’s notes that I personally consider pointless, which include much of the early chapters and center around how the story is gathering together our well-balanced party of stereotypical character classes.  I suppose if you’re less familiar with tabletop roleplaying games or fantasy tropes these might be less annoying to you.  But for me, they prompt excessive eye-rolling.

So let’s talk book.  Chronicles was the first Dragonlance trilogy written, and it was created concurrently with a set of AD&D modules telling the same story.  Weis & Hickman’s annotations say that for this first book in particular they stuck fairly closely to the modules, but as they became more experienced authors they loosened up over time.  Although the notes about how some of these actually played out with testers are hilarious and fascinating.

It takes place in the world of Krynn, the continent of Absalon, I think.  The authors are prone to using the name of the world over the continent (a failing they admit to), which does play some games in a reader’s head in terms of size.  The story proper opens with a group of adventurers meeting up at the Inn of the Last Home five years to the day after they parted ways.  They were trying to dig up information about strange new religions, find signs of the old gods, and figure out what’s going on in their world.  They’ve just gotten settled and made some new friends (sort of) when everything goes to the Abyss and they’ve got to run for their lives.

The group is led by Tanis (Tanthalas) Half-Elven, who is oldest save for Flint Fireforge (dwarf).  There’s Caramon and Raitslin, the twins, and the kender Tasslehof Burrfoot.  Sturm is the Solamnic Knight (paladin) and he shows up escorting Goldmoon and Riverwind, barbarians of Que-shu who will soon join the party.  There’s also Kitiara, the twins’ older half-sister, but she sends a message instead, saying she won’t be coming.  She doesn’t appear at all in this particular book, but her absence is felt.

Our adventuring party has to make a quick exit because the Seekers have specifically been looking for the staff Goldmoon carries.  Riverwind found it as proof of the existence of the old gods.  It’s a staff of healing, as they all learn.  And it seems that someone, or something, does not want the old gods to rise again.  At least not the ones who offer healing to all.

It becomes clear that the group must head towards Xak Tsaroth, an ancient city destroyed by the Cataclysm.  There they can learn more about the staff and the gods. And then the second half of the book involves a prison break of sorts and Elven city of Qualinost, Tanis’ childhood home.  A lot happens, I should say.

I did have to wonder, as I read, if this is what Oliver Bowden was using as inspiration for his Assassin’s Creed books; the ones where I could clearly see all the save points, upgrades, etc.  Because, again, the authors stuck very closely to the module for this volume.  Of course, my impression isn’t helped at all by the fact that the annotations are full of bits about the D&D structure.  There’s a lot of discussion in the notes about what level each spell is, how powerful a caster Raitslin is or isn’t, how learning magic or spells works in this world…yes, most of the technical notes relate to magic.  Not all of them, but a significant number.

Yes, the notes can bog down the story a bit by getting into the nitty-gritty.  Yes, the notes contain spoilers for the later books, as well as hints that if you want to read a particular backstory, there’s another Dragonlance novel or short story to read, and includes the title and author.

Overall though, the story comes through loud and clear and still more than engaging enough that I’m ready and willing to continue on through my brick.  And no, I can’t really imagine not reading the notes.  That’s why they’re there, after all.

Comics and Questions

There is something truly joyous about crossovers. Or at least, that’s what I like to think after reading Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #2-3. At this point we’ve reached the halfway mark and, well, this is silly and delightful and I love it. I mean, it started out intriguing with Tommy and the Foot. Then you’ve got your obligatory heroes fighting heroes.

And then someone drops a comment about how they hope the green ranger hasn’t turned evil again and it turns out that Donatello is a fan of Bulk & Skull’s Ranger Station? And then Zack and Michelangelo are comparing pizza toppings and the world is ridiculous and I love it. But also there’s plot and you can’t have a crossover with only the Shredder, and so we’ve got to have Rita show up as well and you know, none of these people exist in a void. Ranger Station on YouTube, the Technodrome and its tech from another dimension…word gets around. If you want it to.

And then there’s the third issue where we’re getting down into it. It’s the low point in the story, when our heroes are nearly down for the count unless they can figure out how to pull a new victory from the brink of defeat. And what they’re (of course) going to do is absolutely ridiculous and yet it’s exactly the sort of thing you want to see from a crossover.

I really can’t say more than that without getting into spoiler territory, and there’s still two issues yet to be released. There’s still something that feels a bit dated when it comes to the Turtles, but I do expect that for a thirty-year old property.

…the Power Rangers are over twenty-five years old. Ugh, does that make me feel old.

But speaking of things that aren’t exactly new, there’s a book that’s been on my mind for several days now.  For multiple reasons, in fact.  Recently, because it’s another book that involves Fairy Kings and Queens and reading Megan Mackie’s second novel brought it to mind.  In a more general sense, it’s because I’ve been meaning to reread it for some time now…so that I know if I’ll be keeping it.

It’s been a couple years at least since I last brought it up, but it’s time again to talk about Orson Scott Card.  I was first exposed to him in highschool, through Ender’s Shadow, and soon had read a dozen or more of his books.  Mostly in the Enderverse, but a few others.  And then, several years back, I read Gatefather and I finally lost my shit.  I could no longer give the man a pass on his religion and politics for being a good writer.  I went and purged most of his books from my personal collection, posted a scathing review of Gatefather on Goodreads, and made a note that most of the books I did keep at the time would have to be revisited to be certain of whether they’d remain or not.

If you’re wondering, the only Enderverse books I’ve kept are the main four (Ender’s GameSpeaker for the DeadXenocide, and Children of the Mind) and Ender’s Shadow. The only other book that was a sure thing was Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus and probably my favorite work from the man.  Of the other books I’m still holding onto, well, there’s three that I still have no interest in rereading…so it’s very possible that I may ditch them when I need to make space for having no inclination to ever return to them.  Or maybe I’ll find myself in the right mood after all, there’s no way to tell.

The last book, the one I reread today, is Magic Street.  As these things go, it is the absolute newest book of his I own.  You may recall what I’ve said before, that there’s a turning point where Card’s views became common and public knowledge and he decided to stop beating around the bush in his books.  And the newer books are just…not worth it to me.  I do not read fantasy and science fiction to be preached at.

Which puts Magic Street on the cusp as far as I’m concerned.  There’s definitely some opinions here, such as no sex before marriage, and some religious influences…but they’re not as annoying to me in the same way that Gatefather infuriated me.  Rather, what makes me uncomfortable about this book is the fact that all of the characters are African American.

Now, that’s not a bad thing, although it’s not necessarily helpful to me.  Part of why I had a difficult time with Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky is because it was very hard for me to relate to it.  That book spoke very strongly to an African American audience to the point that I think anyone else would find it as obstructionist as I did.  I’ll also admit that I’m sure parts of Children of Blood and Bone went over my head because I am pretty white.  Just, you know, not Christian.

So what makes me uncomfortable with a full cast of African American characters is that Orson Scott Card is as white as I am.  And I have to ask…should he have written this book with these characters?  Leaving out everything else about OSC…is it okay for a white man to write an all-black cast?

Me being a white girl, I am not the person to actually answer that question.  But given how things have changed, including my own views, in the past fifteen years I have to ask.  From my limited understanding, it doesn’t seem like the characterizations are done poorly.  I find it believable.  But again, I am not the best judge in this case.  You can ask me how I, as a Reform Jew, feel about a portrayal of a Jew in fiction and I can give you my opinion.  But that’s because I know something of what it is to be Jewish.  I don’t know what it is to be African American.  I’ll never know, regardless of if I want to or not.  So it’s not for me to answer any questions about that.

But what about the story?  Our story takes place in the Southern California neighborhood of Baldwin Hills, a black neighborhood.  One day a baby is magically born from a woman who seriously was not pregnant an hour earlier.  She never remembers, but her husband and son do…though they tell no one.  A couple hours later, a neighborhood boy finds the baby in a plastic grocery bag in an empty lot at the base of the neighborhood hill.  He brings it to his mom, who tells him to take it to the nurse next door, and she ends up raising the boy as her own.  The boy who found the kid becomes his babysitter, big brother, and almost-father as well as making a conscious choice to do good with his life.

Mack Street grows up the child of pretty much everyone on the street, in and out of all their houses…and their dreams.  Though he learns pretty early on that he does not want to let those dreams – cold dreams, he calls them – finish or some gruesome things will happen.  You know, like wishing on a monkey’s paw.  Things start getting really odd when he discovers the Skinny House, which is hidden between two families’ lots and can only be seen out of the corner of your eye.  The backyard of the Skinny House is Fairyland and things get very, very strange then.

I have always thought that Magic Street had a lot of interesting concepts, especially in the relationship of Fairyland to LA.  And I’ve never forgotten the twists at the end either, which does speak to how memorable a read it is.  And yeah, there’s a point where Mack insists he will not have sex without marriage and that’s definitely OSC putting his two cents in, but I don’t feel like this book is going too far overboard with the religious messages.  That’s not to say there isn’t religion here.  These are good Christian people who attend church on Sundays and all that.  But it’s an African American church and mindset, which is almost certainly not the same as where the author goes or how he thinks.  So for me it comes off as less preachy and more “this is how these people believe and worship.”

Really, the part that makes me uncomfortable today is the white man writing the black people.  It reminds me of when I tried to read Jody Lynn Nye’s Mythology 101 and could not stomach the white male privilege displayed throughout the first hundred pages.  I didn’t chuck the book at the wall, but I put it down and got it out of my home for good.  Magic Street has the advantage of my having read it before I became more aware of the questionability of these things.  So because I read it first when I could accept those aspects more readily, I am more able to push through and get to what I consider the most interesting scenes.

I think I’ll continue keeping this book.  I will admit, there are problematic elements.  But this is true for so much literature.  And at the end of the day, it wasn’t that difficult for me to push through and read to the end.  I still think it’s an interesting set of concepts.  And maybe one day I’ll look at Mack Street and see a Gary Stu.  But right now I’m enjoying the book enough that it’s not that important.  After all, no one’s denying that OSC is a skilled author.  It’s his personal views that people question and make us ask where we draw the line.

So, that’s my Saturday.  Comics and questions.  At least I’ve reread this thing, so I shouldn’t have to think about it that intensely for another decade or more, right?  And I can start figuring out what I want to read tomorrow.

Dreaming Awake

There’s always a book, or often more than one, that you see around.  Maybe not everywhere, but often.  And you think “I should read that”.  But either it’s not actually in stock, or you don’t feel like paying full retail price, or the price tag is just a bit higher than you’re really feeling, or you’ve already bought a bunch of books, or whatever.  And you don’t buy it.  But you saw it again and you remember it and remember that yes, you should read this book.  Until at long last it falls into your lap.

Or maybe you see a mass market paperback in a box lid under the table at a library sale for 50¢ and it’s yours before anyone else even realizes it’s there.

So it was for me and The Ocean at The End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.  And I really am talking about seeing it a number of places.  It was an extra book at Book of the Month…just before I first joined.  I’ve seen it around, mostly in hardcover, which is generally not my preference.  This is actually the first time I’ve noticed it in paperback.

I knew nothing about this book going in.  Frankly, it’s probably better this way.  Sure, there’s a scene or two that can warrant a trigger warning…but this is Neil Gaiman.  It could be the entire book, like that damned mountain one.  I really hated that.

In contrast, I really enjoyed this one.  I’m never surprised to find a left-of-center-reality story from Neil Gaiman, where it seems like the normal world, but there’s something else just around the corner, and maybe only the main character and the people he meets there know about it.  And the story had a very dreamlike quality to it, so that when I turned the last page I felt like I was waking up, or maybe resurfacing from the ocean in which I’d been plunged.

Sure, some of the scenes would be better called nightmares, but who wants a story that’s only light and fluff?

Our protagonist, a man whose name I don’t think we ever learn (or if we do I don’t remember it), is back in his childhood town for a funeral.  I assume a parent’s, but it’s never stated.  And after the service, he goes driving on his own.   He’s due to go to his sister’s house where he’ll be expected to spend time with people, like a shiva I guess, but he wants to be alone for a while.  And he ends up driving down to the end of the lane where his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock lived with her ocean.

Oh sure, you’ll say.  It’s a duck pond.  But to a child it can be an ocean.  Isn’t that what we all did as kids, what that nineties tv show Rugrats showed us?

Gaiman would say that’s just one way of looking at it.  Your perception.  And sure, it is a duck pond.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also an ocean.  Maybe you just can’t see it.

The bulk of the story is the protagonist reminiscing about his childhood, about how he met Lettie Hempstock, what they did together, and how it was.  Like I said, the book has a very dreamlike quality, where what’s real can change in a moment depending on perception.  It was…exactly the kind of book I wanted today, even if I didn’t know that’s what I wanted.  I mean, my only disappointment is that it’s not even two hundred fifty pages and so I ran out of book before I ran out of lunch.  Which is not the end of the world but is mildly annoying.

I did message a friend with the rest of my lunch, and she said she didn’t care for it as much.  I can see and understand that, as Neil Gaiman can be a hit-and-miss author for me too.  Or I can see it with myself and Terry Pratchett – I have respect for the man and what he did, but I cannot stand reading any of his books.  The times I’ve tried I was miserable and that did include Good Omens.  And it just happens.  My favorite books (such as I can claim them) are someone else’s most hated, I’m sure.  That’s just the way personal taste works.

It’s also why reading for school is so awful.  Just because books have won awards or are considered to be great literature doesn’t mean everyone’s going to like them.  It doesn’t even mean a majority of people will like them.  I think students would be better off if teachers had more freedom in what books they taught, and a better idea of what reading trends are current for the age group they’re teaching.  I mean, there’s reasons why many of these older books are still being read today, but a lot of these kids would consider the books I read at their age to be equally old and equally boring.  As I recall, some of the books I had the most positive experiences with as a student were more recent.  Things like Wonder When You’ll Miss Me and Ender’s Shadow.  Sure, I think I benefited from studying a bit of Shakespeare and some of the other novels like Frankenstein and The Great Gatsby, but I know I never connected with any of those on a similar level.

Well, that took a detour.  But speaking of “classics”, there’s another detour to take.

I stopped at my local comic shop on Wednesday, when the new comics came out for the week.  They had another sale, but there were no graphic novels I wanted.  So I stuck to my comics.  And was given a couple coverless ones as per usual.  I recycled Usagi Yojimbo because, well, I just don’t like it.  But I figured I’d give the other a shot.

You know the first word in the first text box of the first page?  It tells me exactly what I’m reading.  Because “Barsoom” isn’t a name that comes up outside of the John Carter of Mars stories.  Not that he’s in this series, at least not that I’ve seen here.  Turns out this is Dejah Thoris #1.  I do not know who Dejah Thoris is, or rather who she was before her family apparently lost power, but I’m sure she was significant.

Of course, I’ve read very little John Carter.  Nearly naked men rippling with muscles does nothing for my interest level.  I know there’s story and plot – lots of different stories – but I’ve never cared to seek it out.  But, given my reading habits, it’s no surprise that I have turned up at least one tale of Barsoom before.

I promise you, I’m not getting nearly as much out of this comic as they’d like.  My lack of intimate familiarity means I have no understanding of what was before.  I can understand that regimes have changed in more than one political entity, and that where factions wished for peace before, now they seek war.  I also understand that the planet is cooling and a bad year may actually be the start of planet-wide starvation.  So as a first issue this is not a terrible jumping off point.

But it’s also something I’d never pick up on my own because, again, I’d want to have a better understanding of the world I’m supposed to be returning to in this.  I’m clearly supposed to know who the titular Dejah Thoris is, but I obviously don’t.  But the art’s decent, the comic manages to convey a lot about the past while focusing on the present and foreshadowing the future, and it’s not badly written.  I’m just not a part of the target audience through my own lack of reading in this world.

If I was given the opportunity, would I read more about John Carter and Barsoom?  Maybe.  I’m leery of the oldest stories, as they’re likely to be a product of their time and it can be touch-and-go for me.  I’m leery of other stories just because John Carter is a male power fantasy and that alone is not enough for me.  But…sure.  If I found something recent enough that I felt I wouldn’t drown in sexism, something that seemed like a good introductory volume, I’d give it a fair shot.  Beyond that, I never make promises.

I think that’s all the brainpower I’ve got tonight.  I do have more comics of course – the ones I actually spent money on – but they’ll keep.  Some of them have been keeping for several weeks of course (you know me and Power Rangers), so we’ll see if this is the weekend I get to them.  And there’s still the rest of the Pile.  And, well, there’s a reread I’ve been considering.  So I’ve got all the options for the morning.

Opening the Door

I seem to have a weird knack.  This is the second time in recent months that I’ve decided I should read more by an author, picked up a book at random that I found used, and said volume turned out to be their first.  I mean, starting at the beginning is never a bad thing, but for this to happen twice now is…unusual.

Last time it was Janny Wurts’ Sorcerer’s Legacy which didn’t sound great from the synopsis but was totally enjoyable.  This time it’s The Door into Fire by Diane Duane.  I didn’t buy this one because of previous familiarity with the author, but rather because she was the Author Guest of Honor at Worldcon in Dublin and I figured I should investigate.  But, there was always something more interesting to read and in the end I opted not to get her to sign it, since I’d only read a couple pieces of her short fiction by that time.  And no, I don’t regret that decision.

So let’s talk about The Door into Fire.  My copy is from Tor’s second printing, which means (according to the author’s note) that this is the revised version.  Yes, Duane realized after she wrote The Door into Shadow, book two in this series, that The Door into Fire needed some reworking if it was going to properly lead into and foreshadow the next book.  And when Tor obtained the rights to republish it, Duane was able to make the necessary changes.

As I’ve said on previous posts with other books published in multiple versions, I have no intention of seeking out the original.  Sure, it could be interesting to make the comparison.  But I don’t see that being worthwhile.  It’s probably harder to find the original text than the reprint anyway.

But let’s talk about the actual book, the story and characters.  Our protagonist is Herewiss, son of Hearn, from the Brightwood.  The whole setting of the world is a section of continent wherein we find the Middle Kingdoms.  And no, the Brightwood is not one of the kingdoms, though it is of course affiliated with one – Darthen specifically.  And as Hearn is Lord of the Brightwood, Herewiss is his heir and a prince.  But he’s also a sorcerer, and born with the Flame within, though he’s not yet managed to wield it.  In fact, Herewiss is the first male to be born with such a talent in a thousand years…and it’s his goal to wield it properly before magic burns out his life force.  It’s a known fact that magic users die young, just like Herewiss’ mother.  She was just twenty-eight.  He’s twenty-eight now.

Herewiss is lamenting yet another failure when he receives a message by homing pigeon from Freelorn.  Lorn is the son of the last King of Arlen, though he’s not yet been confirmed as Heir or even the next King, though his father’s been dead six years.  He’s got a bad habit of getting into trouble and then asking his best friend Herewiss to get him out once more.  And though the stakes have been gradually raised (Lorn is under siege by eight hundred Steldene soldiers this time), they’re still the best of friends.  And lovers.

That is one of the joys of this book originally published in 1979.  Folk (at least in the Brightwood) have an obligation to procreate.  A man must father at least one child and a woman must bear at least two.  But with that being done…love whom you will, as long as they love you in return.  And really, what more can you ask than that?  So it is that Herewiss and Freelorn are and have been lovers for years.

The last main piece of the story is that Herewiss acquires a fire elemental companion unexpectedly.  Which makes the above even funnier.  I mean, you’ve got this sexless entity, for whom copulation means death, and it’s trying to understand human relationships.  It doesn’t understand gender, and then when it gets a vague idea of that, it doesn’t understand why Herewiss would want union with someone he can’t procreate with.  It was at this point that I realized I was truly going to enjoy this book.

I mean, to be honest, I picked The Door into Fire today because it looked like schlock, and schlock is generally an easy read.  I wasn’t in the mood for an anthology, and I still had the Lucky Devil books on my mind (okay, kind of still do at that).  I wanted something different, but not something that I’d be unable to give enough attention to, distracted as I am.  And so I didn’t expect much from Diane Duane except a decent way to pass the day.

I certainly didn’t expect to be planning my acquisition of the rest of the series, preferably in order.

But the author’s note at the start makes it quite clear that this was a planned series, that this is simply the opening chapter, and that there’s far more to come.  I’m going to guess that we are likely to change viewpoint characters in the next book (The Door into Shadow) as we continue.  Either way, I laughed, I teared up, I became attached to and invested in these characters and I do want to know how their story ends.

Again, this is not at all how I expected the day to go.  But I can certainly see why Diane Duane is still writing, forty years later.  Who wouldn’t want more like this?

More Mackie

The Lucky Devil series, as it currently stands, is two novels and two novellas.  The latter take place during and after the former if I’m figuring timelines correctly.  Not that it truly matters.  One of them is labeled as just another story in the series, but one is labeled as a romance.  And that brings me back to how I got around to reading Megan Mackie.

You see, I’d been thinking about how I should really do the thing before the convention, so that I might buy more when it was convenient upon a positive response.  But that says nothing about the party.

A friend of mine had a birthday party the weekend before the convention, hosted by a pair of mutual friends.  And while I was relaxing, I happened to notice The Saint of Liars on one of the bookshelves.  When I had a chance, I asked the hostess about it, and how much she’d enjoyed the first book.  Well, I learned a lot.  For example, just because I know Megan as an author, it seems she is also a massage therapist.  And more power to any author who has a day job and still manages to produce books within a few years or less per volume.

Anyway, my friend loves the series.  She was particularly exited to tell me about the romance novella.  The premise is that an immortal falls in love with a middle-aged woman.  Because it makes no sense that someone who’s lived so long would want a teenager that knows nothing of real life.  And knowing that this story was to come helped motivate me to actually get to it, and buy the book.

Before I actually get to that book though, let’s examine the premise first.  I have to agree, it does make sense for an immortal to be more attracted to the mind of someone older.  As for physical attraction, well, pedophiles don’t have to be mortal.  So we’ll skip that.  But I can, interestingly enough, think of a similar relationship that I’ve read before.  It is, of course, from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and I’m going to continue the detour to examine it.

So, we’ve got Lestat.  Brat Prince of vampires and all that.  He’s no fledgling by any means, but I wouldn’t consider him the most mature of vampires.  For someone over two hundred years old, he’s spent a surprising amount of time asleep, which definitely adds to the impression of immaturity, not aided by his impulsive nature.  Now, after the events of Queen of the Damned, he did stop by and visit David Talbot, Jessie Reeves’ superior in the Talamasca who first set her on this vampire assignment and then desperately tried to pull her off of it when she got in deeper than he ever expected.  Lestat then starts playing cat-and-mouse with David, who is an elderly statesman of a British man.  They form a relationship based on mutual respect, although Lestat does somewhat violate trust a bit at the end of The Body Thief.  To be fair, I would have expected him to turn David into a vampire much sooner.  And Talbot in the thief’s body was probably too much to resist, given how much younger and more able it was.  Of course, that led to some strain on the relationship, but in the end they got over it and love each other as much as Lestat does any of his other fledgling-loves.

Why is this important?  Because that’s what was running through the background of my mind as I read Death and the Crone.  It’s a relatively simple story in comparison to the main series.  Less than half of a full novel’s length for Mackie and not even a hundred fifty pages.  It opens with a young man escorting an old, homeless woman into his apartment.

In fact, although I can clearly recognize the young man from The Saint of Liars, no names are used until chapter two, when Elias is summoned to attend his shop beneath the apartment.  The old woman has only just learned his name, but he reveals that he already knows hers, Margaret, though she didn’t share.

It’s an engrossing read, though also interesting to analyze.  Between the description I was given and the fact that the book is labeled as a romance, I could feel the tension rising every time the pair came close to having sex, but stopping just short.  On the other hand, I was also noticing the breadcrumb clues Mackie laid out as she went.

I definitely enjoyed it, though for far more than a good read.  It helps flesh out the world a bit more, answers a few questions that rose up in the second book, and Margaret is a very interesting character.  Plus it’s good to learn a bit more about Elias, who, like St. Benedict, seems to thrive on being mysterious and distant.

Then we get into the second novella, Saint Code: Lost.  A series reader may recall (because I don’t remember if I mentioned it when talking about The Finder of the Lucky Devil) that there were three actual Saints in that first book.  St. Benedict, who is one of our main characters, St. Rachel who works for the same boss, and St. Augustina, who does not work for the same boss.  That last kind of got lost in the shuffle at the end of the first book and hasn’t been seen again until now.

As I understand it, Saints are humans augmented with technology.  Cyborgs in a sense.  But becoming a Saint is a long, painful process that no one would ever volunteer for.  And not every candidate survives to bear the title.

St. Augustina is sitting in a diner, waiting for her client.  The client wishes to offer her an outrageous sum to complete three tasks.  And the very sum is a warning that this is almost certainly a job she doesn’t want to take.

But not taking the job could cost her very life.

Saint Code: Lost is a deep dive into the mind and foundations of what makes a Saint.  It also shows that yes, these people are still human, with human wills and inclinations.  It’s what was done to them that was inhumane.

I’m a little sad because now I’ve run completely out of Lucky Devil books to read.  And I don’t have a clear plan for what comes next, although that’s true more often than not anyway.  Still, I am very glad that I went to that party.  And maybe I’ll learn a lesson; after all I’ve got some other books I bought last weekend.

But is He Lying?

As I’ve said, I spent the latter half of last week wandering around a convention, talking to people (the horror), playing games, and buying books.  There were several books I’d determined to buy ahead of time; one new release from a friend and everything else Megan Mackie has written.  You’ll remember her as the author of The Finder of the Lucky Devil, the book I finally read last week, just before the convention started.  And I did time that rather intentionally.  I wanted to make sure I read it before the con so that if I did like it I could get the rest.

Which brings me to The Saint of Liars, book two in the series.  Two months have passed since the first book and while Rune is no longer being hounded by the mortgage company, that doesn’t mean she’s free and clear yet.  Alf is still split between being a good barkeep and an asshat, Ally is very carefully not serving alcohol because she’s a minor, and Rune is trying to do what she can about the fact that Maggie’s spells are continuing to fail as time goes on.

Then her cousin Elias shows up to sort of complicate things but also to be a new tertiary character who knows a lot more about magic than Rune.  Oh, and Calvin is still alive, somehow.  And I was not expecting him to be a major character in this book, but, well, that happened.  And I kind of loved it.  There’s something so wonderful about a redemption story.

We also get a bit more digging into backstory.  The Masterson Files weren’t really resolved in the first book and while they’re not resolved in the second either, they are far from out of play.  In fact, they’re more important than figuring things out about Elias.

This is the challenge of books and series as they go on.  To talk about them without dropping spoilers for the current or previous books.  And it’s hard.  So let’s try a different tactic.

I said before that Rune and St. Benedict are strong characters, fleshed out and solid in a reader’s mind.  Some of the more minor characters rely more heavily on tropes for their characterization, but it works.  Ally, for example, is easily understood between her youth and the nature of her magic.  Alf, by contrast, is much older and more crotchety.  The two play off each other well.

Of the characters introduced in book one besides main characters, it’s Calvin Harrison who’s fleshed out most in this new book, although Lady Trella gets some development as well.  And Calvin is just a perfect example of Mackie’s writing talent. He started book one as a total ass, a bully who didn’t care that he was working for the Bad Guy so long as it put him above others, like Rune.  Near the end, we saw him desperate, afraid, and forced into a corner by his own choices and lack of empathy.  Book two starts with him confused, afraid, and trying to survive, clinging to what he once knew.  He’s no longer totally detestable, but as we see him learn and grow over the course of four hundred pages, he becomes someone we can cheer for just as much as Rune.

I don’t include St. Benedict in the above because half the point is that we can’t ever be certain of him.  He is the titular Saint of Liars for several reasons.  I still harbor a number of suspicions about him, but Mackie refuses to confirm them.  St. Ben continues to deny them, but since we already know he’s a liar that doesn’t actually mean a thing.  That’s really what we do know about him.  He’s an augmented human, a cold-blooded killer, and a damned good liar.  Also far too sexy for his own good, let alone any shirts.  Or at least, this is what I’m told by Rune’s attraction to him.

I suppose that’s something else I appreciate about the books.  There is most definitely attraction and chemistry between our two leads, but very little has happened to date.  Oh sure, there’s plenty of good in-universe reasons for it, but that doesn’t make me appreciate it any less.  I don’t object to romance in general, just excessive and forced interest, such as you get from most movies nowadays.  So while St. Ben and Rune could easily climb into bed, their relationship (or lackthereof) is developing naturally.  They’re definitely friends, even if one of them won’t admit it, and they care for each other.  They certainly trust each other and have been through some fairly hair-raising adventures together, so there’s a good basis for that trust.  But any further developments between the two will have to wait for subsequent volumes and I’m perfectly content with that.

I do know for a fact that Megan is working on the third novel, though I don’t know when it’ll be availabe.  I’m sure I’ll hear about it though, and surely get myself a copy to devour eagerly.  However, I’m not done with the Lucky Devil books quite yet.  There are a couple novellas and I picked them up along with book two.  Actually, one of them already sounds intriguing to me and according to the author’s suggested reading order, it’s next.

And the only reason I’m not starting it tonight is because I’m still running a sleep deficit from the convention and I’m hoping to get to bed early. Well, that and the fact that I don’t want to stay up late just to finish a novella when I will almost certainly finish it on lunch tomorrow if I wait for the morning.  I mean, these look a little longer than Brandon Sanderson’s novella and that one barely makes it to lunch.

Anyway, time to shelve a book.

David Does Superheroes

Now let’s talk about the actual Marvel Cinematic Universe.  After all, the last book I read is not the version that may or may not be part of it.  But this book?  Oh, yes, yes it is.  This is the novelization of the movie that created the MCU.  You know what it is.  Iron Man by Peter David.

First and foremost, yes, I definitely picked up a pair of Peter David novelizations of Marvel movies the weekend before last.  It was all I bought from Half Price that day.  And while I may (or may not) have more Peter David novelizations on my shelf, I’m not going to go three in a row.

Secondly, yes, it’s taken me this long to finish a little three hundred page book.  There was, as I mentioned, a convention over the weekend and while I will always bring my book with me, that doesn’t change the fact that reading in front of people is antisocial.  And if I’m hanging with friends, I don’t want to be antisocial.  And then when I got home last night, I was far too exhausted to consider finishing the last half of the book.  I was more interested in getting to bed early and trying to do something about my sleep deficit.

So, Iron Man.  I think everyone knows the story, in its very obvious three-act structure.  So the real question becomes “how is the book different from the movie?”  And that’s an interesting answer.

As expected, we do get into characters’ heads.  We even get names for several of the terrorists.  We have a better idea of how long Tony Stark was a captive and a bit more on how some of the weird tech actually works.  But we also get an idea of how the screenplay changed between Peter David getting a copy and the cut being finalized for theaters.  Not to mention some lines that were probably improvised on set.  The film has much snappier dialogue and the final confrontation makes a lot more sense as you watch the action unfold.  I tried to match remembered visuals to the text with mixed success.  I do love that David mentioned the climax looked “like something out of a Michael Bay” movie as the two armored figures were fighting on the street.

I do appreciate the character nod in the book too, where Tony admits, at least to himself, that the alternative to what he’s choosing to do is to climb into a bottle.  Stark’s alcoholism is a subject that the comics have tackled, though I have not read those and cannot speak to how well or poorly it is portrayed.

Really, the absolute best thing about the book is Pepper’s backstory.  It’s a simple thing, of how she and Tony met and how she became his personal assistant and even how she got her nickname (her legal name is Virginia Potts).  It’s a great encapsulation of the characters, of their relationship, and the trust between them.

There’s also, as per usual, a few scenes that didn’t make it into the movie and I totally agree with cutting them.  They don’t add enough to the story to justify keeping them, and the plot is tighter without them.

The book does, however, do a lot more clue-dropping concerning the Mandarin, though he’s never mentioned by that name.  Now, understanding that I have only a passing familiarity with Ironman as a character and his backstory, let’s talk about that.  The Mandarin is one of Ironman’s main villains.  He’s Asian and commands the Ten Rings.  They’ve existed for a long time.  In some incarnations, there is magic involved, as a contrast to Stark’s tech expertise.  (Although in some incarnations Stark incorporates magic into his suit?  I really, really do not know much.)  The Mandarin is supposed to be a shadowy and mysterious imposing figure – not at all like that crap in Ironman 3.  Although there was that bonus scene…bah.

It’s clear that someone was trying to set up the Mandarin and the Ten Rings for future Ironman movies, but I guess that got lost along the way for some reason.  I hope it made sense to somebody.

In this case, the novelization Iron Man loses to the movie on every single level.  Pepper’s backstory is the best thing in the whole book.  The movie’s got the visuals to help you track what’s going on, it’s got witty retorts, it’s got a soundtrack, and it’s got RDJ and Gweneth Paltrow to bring our main duo to life.  If you find the novelization for cheap and you’re like me, you might find it an okay way to spend time.  But the movie is superior in every single way and nobody should spend an excess of time or money on the book.

Comparisons

Let’s talk about Marvel.  And their movies.  At this point we all know about the cinematic universe they’ve been pouring all their attention and money into for over a decade.  But there’s some other movies that aren’t part of that.  That have been done, and redone in various ways.  You might even recall there was one movie that was remade a mere five years after the first.

Yes, today we’re talking about everyone’s favorite rage-filled giant, the Hulk.

As I mentioned, there were two Hulk movies released a mere five years apart.  There’s The Incredible Hulk from 2008 which I guess is sort of part of the MCU even if it’s not the same actor.  That shows a Bruce Banner living in hiding, trying to keep a low profile after, well, becoming the Hulk.  From what I understand (the Hulk is not a character I know a huge amount about) this is the movie that makes more sense as far as character origins go.

And then there’s Hulk.  The 2003 movie is a real origin story and posits that David Banner, Bruce’s father, did illegal experimentation upon himself and passed it on to his son, although it’s not until the gamma radiation becomes involved that Bruce really becomes the Hulk.

Anyway, this latter and earlier movie is what we’re going to be talking about today, because that’s the novelization I picked up last weekend.  Coincidentally, this is the only one of the two movies I own as it’s the one from Universal, meaning it’s not as difficult to find.  I’m told you can get The Incredible Hulk if you get one of those MCU sets…but I am not spending that kind of money, especially when I already own most of those movies.  That’s all beside the point.

Hulk is another novelization by Peter David, making it the fourth such I’ve read.  The other three were Spider-Man and its sequels, the originals.  You may recall I was pretty pleased with them for the most part, though each still had the weaknesses of the films and David clearly doesn’t appreciate the relationship between Eddie Brock and the symbiote.  However, I am much more familiar with Spiderman than Hulk so I can’t judge it on quite the same level.  The writing itself is still good and it once again follows the screenplay, so again, any weaknesses the movie had are still present here.

Reading this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that the plot of this story was far more complicated than necessary.  So here’s the breakdown.  David Banner is a sociopath who experimented on himself in the name of science, but kept this secret, even when he noticed abnormalities in his son, whom he came to regard as his personal creation and experiment.  His military bosses discovered the human blood he was studying and fired him.  He left, but not before triggering a massive explosion on the site.

The military realized there was something off about Bruce and while they locked David up, they put Bruce up for adoption, though his new mother is actually an agent meant to report on anything unusual.  Then Betty’s possessive and utterly immoral ex pulled strings to ensure Bruce and Betty were working together in the same lab.  He’s trying to do…something unspecified and probably illegal…and there’s an accident and Bruce is exposed to gamma radiation while protecting Betty and a coworker who’s only in two or three scenes.  David Banner is free and starts making contact with his son and realizes that what gamma radiation did for Bruce, it should also do for him because genetics.  Cue rampaging Hulk scenes followed by Hulk vs. David to end the movie.

Like, there’s so many levels.  It’s not enough that Bruce is a scientist who has an accident and is exposed to gamma radation, I guess.  There has to be something already in his blood from his unethical father to be triggered.  And even after that although he may consider it a normal life it’s actually him being watched 24/7 by shadowy groups for Reasons.  And then asshole Glen Talbot who at least gets his just desserts.

I think one of the strengths of the best comics out there is their ability to distill a story into its very essence.  To keep it tight, contained, and yet with all the relevant information the audience needs.  Complications can be useful to add depth…but they can also be pointless and unnecessary.  It’s a balancing act that you see in a lot of movies today, where they adapt something that really isn’t meant to fill a two or two and a half hour movie, and so they add a bunch of filler that is pointless, contributes nothing, and just wastes time.

Eoin Colfer was talking (at his Worldcon reading) about the books he and his friends read as kids.  There was a perception that longer was better.  And then one day one friend came over with this really little book.  It didn’t look particularly special compared to the bricks the group had been reading.  Just a little thing called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  But the boy assured the group that, short or not, this book was great and well worth reading.  So Colfer and his friends read it and fell in love.

I think this applies to movies just as much as to books.  It doesn’t matter if you make it an eight hundred page monster because that’s what’s popular.  If you don’t have the content to make each and every one of those pages count and contribute to the overall story, you are just faffing around, wasting everyone’s time and money.

I don’t think Hulk is a bad movie or a book.  I think the story they tell has some notable problems, but the core is solid.  Again, I don’t know how this particular version of Hulk’s origin compares to the comics and what the most common canon is, but it makes enough sense to be enjoyable.  I just wish that they’d cut out at least one of the subplots for best effect.

As it’s a con weekend, I’d better get moving and figure out what book I’m starting next.  I do have options as per usual, but I want to make sure it’s something I’m okay with stopping and starting a lot.  That’s why I picked the noveliztion of a movie I’m fairly familiar with; my previous exposure helps me keep track of where I am.  Maybe I should continue that theme…

Anyway, I need to get going.  And, you know, buy some more books today.

Stop Talking Zane

You know, I think Zane Obispo would have less difficulty with deadlines if he’d talk less and listen more. There are several instances in The Fire Keeper when he has a limited amount of time to talk, question, and otherwise exchange information. And the boy ends up squandering a significant chunk every single time.

As part of the finale to The Storm Runner, Zane and his family and friends now get to live on an isolated tropical paradise of an island, one shielded by Ixtab’s shadow magic so that nobody knows he’s still alive. And while it’s isolated, it’s not that remote. They’ve got internet and tourists, what more do you need to live comfortably?

But nothing’s perfect. Oh sure, the first book dropped a couple gloomy portents that maybe didn’t perfectly match any of Storm Runner‘s plot points, but that’s not something a teenager’s going to care about. Rather, Zane’s more concerned for his father, the creator god Hurakan, who’s now imprisoned for his crime of, well, fathering Zane. So it’s our hero’s goal to save his dad. Kind of like the end of Disney’s Hercules. Except don’t mention the Greeks around the Mayans because hoo boy do they not like that.

That’s when Zane and Brooks discover that the shadow magic protecting them from the gods’ knowledge is also a shield keeping them in. You know, “safety is a cage” and all that. And that’s before a rowboat washes ashore with a girl inside, a girl who, it turns out, is also a Mayan godborn. She read Zane’s book!

I have to say, I really, really like what Cervantes did with this. The vast majority of books in these series are first person narration. Percy talks about the crazy stuff that happens to him, Sadie and Carter make audio recordings that Rick Riordan then transcribes, etc. Now, it is noted with the Kanes that they made a mystical locker that kids born to their mythological world can open and this is mentioned at the start of the second book, where their House is full of new kids. But that’s about it.

Zane’s book is a continuing point of discussion, contention, and interest throughout the book. Not just because it turns out to be the reason why several other Mayan godborns have awakened to their heritage and in turn been abducted. But also people discuss, well, the book as a book. Zane’s skill as an author and all that. To the point where one character offers writing lessons and Brooks is insulted by the idea of him describing her for the world to read.

It’s not even breaking the fourth wall because everything is still legitimately within the book’s universe. I just appreciate that what started as a basic “where does this story come from” turned into something that carries weight within the tale it’s actually telling.

So yeah, there’s the two basic things Zane wants to accomplish in this book. Rescue his dad and save the other godborns. But…neither of those actually has anything to do with The Fire Keeper. Which is very interesting when you think about it.

The first book is titled Storm Runner and he is Zane Obispo. The title was what the ancient Seer gave to the one who would free Ah-Puch, although it does also tie into his being Hurakan’s son. After all, Hurakan is god of wind and storms among other things. You could say that the first book is the story of Zane becoming the titular Storm Runner.

But The Fire Keeper is very different. As characters go, this is a minor one. And it’s probably better to ask what fire is being kept. But it’s still definitely a side quest when all’s said and done. I suppose you’ve got the appeal of a deceiving title. We know Zane’s skill lies with fire, so it’s easy to assume that he’s the Fire Keeper. But the more I think about it, the more the choice bothers me. It’s wholly possible that this side quest will prove important in future volumes – that is generally how things work in series – but I feel like there were better choices, even without giving away major plot twists.

Also I just didn’t like the titular character in and of himself. Even if his pet is kind of epic.

The Fire Keeper is, frankly, not as good as The Storm Runner. I spent a lot of time being annoyed with little things, like Zane’s inability to shut up at times, Rosie refusing to follow commands, the titular character, etc. Still, there’s a lot going on and as I said, Cervantes has some very interesting ideas and concepts. I suspect the next book will be more interesting, especially as we’ll have more characters. But also there seems to be a countdown of sorts and if there’s anything I know, it’s that these pantheon-based stories like running down the clock until the very last minute.

The question now becomes…what book do I want to be reading at the convention? It starts tomorrow and so it’s wholly possible I won’t be posting again until Sunday, assuming I’m awake enough to do so. Which means not only do I need to pick a book, I also need to figure out what’s coming with me. So the book can wait a little bit. Maybe even until tomorrow morning. But there are, of course, so very many options.