Library Life

In the corner of the dealer’s room of most of the conventions I’ve been to is Larry’s Books.  Sadly the man himself passed away a couple years ago, but I’ve seen his wife twice since then, still selling books.  They don’t let you pay with a credit card unless the purchase is at least $30 (or is it $35?  I forget).  So sometimes I need to find another book (or two) to hit that limit.  It’s not always a challenge, especially if it’s only Friday night and the best selection is still available.  (They generally don’t bring that many copies of each book.)

So last Windycon when I was picking up classics like Life of the Party: the Realities of an RPG’er and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for Beginning Readers, it just so happened that they didn’t quite hit that minimum.  I glanced around, hoping for something else to attract my attention and my eye fell upon a rather bold spine.  The title certainly seemed up my alley, and I’d had a good response to the editor before.  Yes, I picked up an anthology.  Ex Libris: Stories of Librarians, Libraries & Lore.

The editor is Paula Guran, the woman who helped futher my understanding of the sword & sorcery subgenre in Swords Against Darkness.  This book is not nearly as thick as that one, for all the number of stories is the same at twenty-three.  And, of course, I do love me a book about books.  Which is why I’ve been mentally comparing Ex Libris to Shelf Life throughout the whole read.  After all, both books exist to celebrate a love of books.  Even if one does it through libraries and the other through bookstores.

Like Swords Against DarknessEx Libris is a collection of previously published works instead of stories written specifically for this anthology.  This is rather obvious when you consider that this book came out in 2017 and features a story by Ray Bradbury.  The surprise is that Bradbury’s is not the oldest contribution, having been originally published in 1996.  Most stories are from the past ten years though, and about half of the authors are new to me.

Which makes it all the more hilarious to find that the very first story in the book is the only one I’ve read before.  Not that I objected to revisiting Ellen Klages’ “In the House of the Seven Librarians” because it is a good story.  I just find it quite amusing to open a book and recognize the first story right off the bat.

The contents of Ex Libris range from fantasy to science fiction, feature a variety of settings and protagonists, and can be anything from comforting to horrifying.  There’s not a single tale here I disliked or would avoid rereading.  Each and every story touched some kind of chord within me as a reader, and that’s no small thing.  Oh sure, some are predictable, some fall into tropes, and I have to wonder why two of them reference Asterix comics, but that’s beside the point.  The point is that this is a very good anthology.  And I may have to make sure my librarian friends (I have a lot of librarian friends and not a one of them works at a library I visit) keep this in mind for their own future reading.

I could go through and talk about the stories, but there’s twenty-three and that’s quite a lot to even do a single sentence about each.  I could stick to the “highlights” but frankly, there are so few stories that wouldn’t get highlighted that it wouldn’t be fair and then I’d end up doing them all anyway.  It’s official, Paula Guran is an editor I need to find more of.  I’ve been as impressed or moreso with her work as I have been with Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling and Esther M. Friesner.  (Friesner is one of the contributors here too.)  I just think Ex Libris is a great encapsulation of the many types of library stories that can be told, and told well.

As a contrast to Safehold, this was definitely a good choice as something completely different.  I’m not sure what I’ll choose to follow it up, but I’m thinking another thick volume.  There’s a storm watch on and the odds seem good for at least half a foot of snow.  Which is as good a reason as any to stay home and read.  Still, we’ll see what happens next.  There’s a fair jumble of stuff in my Pile and who knows what kind of mood I’ll be in tomorrow.

Advertisements

Keeping Time

The new Safehold book, Through Fiery Trials, has been an interesting study as much as a read.  There’s a lot going on, as always, and in so many ways.  At the Sign of Triumph saw the end of the war that had dominated the series to that point, which is why I will consider those nine books a single arc.  Through Fiery Trials, in contrast, feels like a breather.  A book that ties up some loose ends from the previous entries, sets up some storylines for future volumes, but mostly is there to occupy time.  David Weber felt there were enough important events to fill a book before the next major installment, and I suppose he wasn’t wrong.

Several books ago, Paityr Wylsynn, the Intendent of Charis and only Scheulerite priest in the inner circle, revealed a promise that had been made to his family.  Presumably from the Archangel Scheuler himself, there was a promise of return a thousand years later.  Because Safehold’s calendar was restarted after the War of the Fallen – when Shan-Wei was murdered and Kau-yung took his revenge on Langhorne – our protagonists have calculated that a thousand years after the Day of Creation would be Year of God 915.  At the Sign of Triumph ended in 899, so there’s definitely room to go.  And yes, Through Fiery Trials takes us up into 916.

Whereas all the previous books, excepting the opening bits of Off Armageddon Reef, have covered roughly a year, this new entry does in fact cover more than fifteen.  Which is something of a welcome change, given how microscopic Weber’s focus could seem at times.  There was a scene in the ninth book where he showed two infantry troopers slogging across a field of mud and I couldn’t help but relate to how I felt slogging through several of the books in this series.

Of course, part of the more varied focus is likely because Charis is not involved in a single war throughout this book.  I mean, technically I guess Desnair (or was it Delferahk?) and Charis are still at war, but that’s because the nation in question is not important enough to warrant actually signing a treaty.  The two main regions of violence here are the Harchong Empire and Siddarmark.  The first was a predicted problem before given that the Harchonegese have been living off the backs of their serfs for centuries, and turning a couple million serfs into an effective army may lead to social issues.  The second is that the Sword of Scheuler operation of Zhaspar Clyntan’s has had several ongoing effects that help no one, and there were several setbacks in Siddarmark.

Frankly, neither of those are huge focuses.  After all, our primary characters and the inner circle are so rarely involved.  Instead, they’ve spent the course of this book having babies.  Lots of them.  And getting married.  Oh, and Weber has also been keeping time by informing us of important deaths that have happened.  Given how many of them happen in the first five years, I at first suspected a plot against our protagonists by taking out so many of their allies.  But then I realized that heart attacks are a common excuse when Weber doesn’t want them to have horrible or debilitating deaths, or cancer.  Sorry, do I sound bitter?

Anyway, let’s move on to one of my bigger issues with the book: editing.  That’s right, I’ve caught a number of errors, several of which are fairly major.  And the first one is right after the introduction.  For those unfamiliar with a Safeholdian novel’s layout, it is separated out into months, which helps a reader understand the logistics involved with the scale and just the fact that it’s not possible to travel or even send news across a planet that quickly.  Each of these sections is opened with a largely blank page featuring the month above “Year of God” and the number of the year.  So when the very first section is marked as “November: Year of God 890”, we’re going to have a problem.  See, At the Sign of Triumph ended in February 899.  And the main portion of Off Armageddon Reef opened in May 890.  And anyone who’s been reading the series would know the conversation starting At the Sign of Triumph was impossible in 890 for so very many reasons.  Seriously, there were five words on that page – four and a number – and you made a typo on the number which is one of the two most important pieces of information shown.  That is…pathetic.

Nor was that the only typo.  Just the first, and one of the worst signs I could have seen.  The second major one – I’m overlooking a couple others such as a missing space between two words and the like – I found on page 392.  It’s a paragraph where Weber waxes eloquently about how many residents of North Harchong have died since the region went to hell in a handbasket.  He’s listing out province names and Tiegelkamp shows up three times in this one paragraph.  Except that the third time it’s spelled Tiegelcamp.  To me, this stands out quite boldly simply because of the repetition.  I found a similar error, again with a proper noun, in a much later paragraph.  And again, this says nothing of those which I consider less obvious.

I get as excited about upcoming releases as the next person.  I did preorder Through Fiery Trials and while it might not have been quite as far in advance as others, I still did it.  But I would be happy to wait another few months if it meant that the book got one last readthrough to catch as many of those little errors as possible.  This is from Tor Books and it reflects poorly on everyone from the editor to the publisher when typos make it into the final product.

Given my reflections comparing Safehold to Dread Empire, I’ve been seriously considering dropping the series after these ten books.  Certainly I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to reread it from beginning to end.  Although I should be able to use Through Fiery Trials as a new jumping on point.  Because I cannot, absolutely refuse to give up on the series after that conclusion.  It only took six pages.  But oh dear gods, David Weber, you and your cliffhanger epilogues!  What am I to do with this?  Is it going to be another two years before I find out what happens next?  This has definitely put the cat among the birds and I simply have to know.  Not immediately, of course, but there is no way I won’t be preordering the next entry.

Perspective

November 2016 was a slog for this blog.  The new Safehold book from David Weber, At the Sign of Triumph, was released that month and I did what I always did; reread the series from the start.  It was utterly exhausting in a way I hadn’t really experienced before, and not just books four and eight.  The whole month was somewhat miserable as I struggled to make it through books that, lengthwise, should have taken me half as long as they did.

I haven’t touched that series in over two years.  But…there’s a new book out.

I made the call this time to only reread At the Sign of Triumph.  It was, after all, the climax which Weber had been building up for a decade, and I’d only read it the one time previously.  There’s so many things in my to read Pile that I didn’t want to make myself miserable rereading the entire series again.  I figured that, since I have a good memory for books, I should be okay.

Well, I was less okay than I thought, but for very good reasons.  Let’s start off by explaining the series for those who don’t know or have forgotten in two years.  Safehold is another planet.  It is, to the best of our knowledge, humanity’s last planet after a war with the aliens known as Gbaba.  Previously destroyed colonies seem to have been hunted down by their emissions, so Safehold’s culture was designed to be a stagnant, pre-Industrial one with plenty of food, decent medical care, and no betraying emissions.

But…humanity is a race of fighters.  We don’t like to back down and give up.  So a robotic body known as a Personality Integrated Cybernetic Avatar wakes up seven hundred fifty years later to start propelling humanity forward again.  However, there’s a big obstacle in the way and it’s called the Church of God Awaiting.  It virtually rules the planet from the background, and the Strictures were laid in place to prevent industrialization.  So the PICA, now calling itself Merlin Athrawes, needs to find ways around those Strictures, break the Church’s hold on the planet, and get back to the stars.

When I say we’re dealing with a planet, I mean exactly that.  It’s not as widely settled as our own – not yet – but its politics are just as detailed, especially when dealing with religion.  So the vast majority of this series has been a war between the Church and an island kingdom called Charis where some of the original settlers remembered a little document called the Declaration of Independence, which has influenced their culture.

At the Sign of Triumph is the end of that war.  And that is such a relief.  Now, I’ve called parts of the series a slog before.  For years even.  But it wasn’t until I read Glen Cook’s Dread Empire series that I truly understood what Weber’s been doing wrong.  I’ve always known he was a military nut.  I’ve known that he loves naval warfare – to the point that I cannot read his Honor Harrington series because I read Safehold first.  (Honor Harrington is essentially 18th century naval battles in space, from what I saw in On Basilisk Station.)  I’d previously compared Safehold to Elizabeth Haydon’s Symphony of Ages, because the maybe four hundred pages of The Hollow Queen contains the War of Ages.  All of it.  As compared to Weber’s books, many of which are roughly twice as long.  I said it was because Haydon doesn’t like writing about war and Weber does, and that’s probably still true.

What I’ve learned is that David Weber has a hard-on for war.  There is so much gratuitous description that it really is pornography.  A battle, a smallish battle, will be set up, with viewpoints on both sides, someone begins the attack, the battle is joined, the Charisians come up with some infernal new weapon or technique, the opponent is appalled or disgusted or resignedly impressed, people die, cut to the aftermath.  And it’s pages and pages of this.  Throughout the book.  I suppose it’s neat to watch the series slowly progress from 18th century battles all the way up to World War II, but I am not that much a student of military history.  I can barely remember the different types of rifles once they’re all breechloaders, and I certainly couldn’t tell you what their real world equivalents are.

I don’t take issue with showing battles, or even with showing how bloody and awful they can be.  But when I compare Safehold to the tight, sparse narrative Cook told…it’s clear which one I’d rather read.  And again, this has barely touched on the other problem of having to keep track of an entire planet’s worth of politics.  There are so very many characters and yes, rereading the whole series would give me a better idea who the minor players are, but in the end, they’re not actually worth it.  Sure, I’ll remember Sailys Trahskhat who was a baseball player back in Off Armageddon Reef and is now a comissioned officer in the Siddarmarkian army, but I’ve also read the first book roughly ten times over the years.

As a note, At the Sign of Triumph was running late for publication two years ago, so there are some typos to be found and no cast of characters.  Considering that book eight, Hell’s Foundations Quiver, features one hundred eleven pages of characters, plus a glossary…that’s no small thing to exclude for time’s sake.  And don’t get me started on the number of maps, or lack thereof in a particular book.  That’s a different rant entirely.

I’d say my perspective on Safehold is vastly changed by reading a different and older brand of military fiction, and I know it’s had an effect on rereading this book.  The real question is how it will affect me as I dive into Weber’s new brick.  But…there’s a whole host of other questions, starting with how much time has passed between the end of At the Sign of Triumph and the beginning of Through Fiery Trials?

I’m off to find that out.

Titles Various

There’s nothing like starting the weekend with a bit of light reading.  And snow, which Chicagoland has been notably deficient in thus far this winter, but that’s besides the point.  Still, there’s nothing like curling up in the warmth with a book on a cold day.

Besides, I may have forgotten about the weather as I returned to the world of Blue Exorcist.  With the new volume in hand, I read 19-21 today and oh my are things getting intense.  19 and 20, as you may recall, are breather volumes.  We see the wedding at Myoddha and the Christmas/birthday party.  Also Lewin Light, aka Lightning and Suguro’s (Bon’s) master has been investigating some old and dark secrets.

It’s at the end of volume 20 that things take a turn for the intense, leaving readers gaping and demanding to know what happens next.  And 21 answers…maybe two of those questions.  At best.  The world turned upside down in this new book and I’m left with more questions than answers.  Oh sure, there’s been the big ones from the start such as where the Okumura brothers came from, how it is that they’re Satan’s sons, etc.  But those questions weren’t brought into the forefront very much as we settled into a semi-school manga about kids growing and learning.

Now Kazue Kato has pulled the rug out from under the readers and shit’s getting real.  You can’t trust anyone it seems and I just…I really don’t want to spoil things for anyone.  Spoiling a good book to someone who may just pick it up is one of the worst crimes in my world.  So I’ll just say that it’s going to be a very long time until September anytime I think on what happened here in the last couple volumes of Blue Exorcist.

While I was out this morning, before the snow had started, I had an errand that took me near Half Price Books.  And what sort of self-respecting bookworm would I be if I didn’t pop my head in?  I didn’t find much, nothing that I was really looking for, but I did suppose there was one book I should pick up if they had it.  Which they did.  And that is Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar.

It turns out this is the middle of the three books, and Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger is actually the third, published six years after this one.  I guess it makes sense – here’s where I find out why the school was closed at the beginning of the other book.  And where the cow in Miss Zarves classroom came from.

Not having read this as a child, I can tell you Wayside School is Falling Down ended up being my least favorite of the books.  Even so, there’s elements I liked.  I kind of adore Kathy’s version of “London Bridge,” one of the lyrics ending up as the book title.  I also love any children’s song that uses the phrase “blood and gore.”  Because I’m a twisted person like that.

As someone who’s always enjoyed Miss Zarves and the nonexistent nineteenth story, I love that there are three chapter 19s in this book.  Of course, the chapter after that is 20, 21, & 22 – about the three Erics.

I don’t know, I guess part of what irks me about this book is that it feels more connected to the real world than the others.  There’s a computer in one story.  A reference to Charlotte’s Web.  One of the kids in the class gets a tattoo.  Which is something I seriously question because these kids have got to be somewhere between ages 6 and 9.  I also dislike the new illustrations.

But there’s a dead rat with a line of dialogue and that was funny.

I’ve got mixed feelings.  There’s no nostalgia to rescue Wayside School is Falling Down, but there’s still elements I liked about it.  It’ll just never stand up to my childhood memories of the other two.

So, before the snow started really coming down I went over to the library where my hold on The Superior Spider-Man: Superior Venom had finally come in.  So of course I had to read both that and the following volume, Goblin Nation, as well today.  These are the last two volumes of this particular arc and it’s interesting.  We see Doc Ock continuing to lose control of the narrative, Venom is actually Agent Venom and his human identity is none other than Flash Thompson.  Also apparently Flash’s real name is Eugene…why do so many characters hate that name?  (Looking at you, Tangled.)

Anyway, Doc Ock is getting the full Spiderman experience.  Everything spirals out of control, your enemies are at the gates, and they know exactly who you are.  It’s actually rather hilarious – Ock had been determined to show the world that he was a better Spiderman than Peter Parker and by the end of his run he’s doing more reacting and less planning, just as Peter would.  And not because of any lingering reactions from Peter’s personality, just being pulled in too many directions at once and some of them tug at his heartstrings.

I think my tolerance for Ock as Spiderman is distinctly lower than Peter.  That superiority complex is not something I enjoy and I can only take it in smaller doses.  There’s just too many times when I want to slap the man silly.  I mean, yeah, Peter is one of the most emo superheroes ever created, but that’s a little different.  But yes, it can be just as annoying.  At least Peter is a smart mouth and usually has some good lines while he’s moping around.  But that’s because he usually has good lines for anything and everything.

Still, Goblin Nation had a good conclusion to this saga as well as payoff for all the buildup Osoborn’s been getting throughout the series.  On a storytelling level I have no complaints.  I think I’m glad I didn’t need to spend money to read this.  On the other hand, I think I’ll continue with the new Superior Spider-Man comic series for a little bit and see where it goes.  And I may have to track down at least parts of the Spider-geddon event they had to figure out what exactly happened with Ock.  Maybe I’ll go over to the comic shop tomorrow.  The snow will be over by then, and I can return my library books on the way.

Of course the question now is…what to read next?  There’s several options, but there is one big question.  And that question is am I read for more military fiction?  It won’t be from Glen Cook this time…

An End to Dread

Twenty-four years is a long time.  It’s long enough for a child to be conceived, birthed, and graduate college.  Long enough to encompass six presidential elections and twelve Olympic Games.

It’s also the span between the publications of An Ill Fate Marshalling and A Path to Coldness of Heart.  Not the largest gap I’ve seen and featured on this blog, but still notable.  And I can only imagine what it must have been like for fans of the series in the eighties, to have to wait two dozen years for the finale.  As I’ve said before, I’ve waited twelve years myself for a promised book to be released.  I’ve no idea if this was promised at the time or not, but I’d guess it was planned.  There’s too much left undone at the end of An Ill Fate Marshalling for it to be the last book in the series.

I should mention that this is the oddest gap I’ve seen.  Again, I don’t know what was said back then, but all the other books released decades later were sequels to standalone novels.  Except for Bard’s Oath, but that was a bit different.  I was able to keep track of it for a few years through Joanne Bertin’s website, and I got the feeling that life just kept throwing speed bumps in front of its publication.

The delay does mean I have to ask how the writing compares between the original series and the concluding novel.  A lot of authors’ styles change over the years, which can make revisiting old works awkward.  And Glen Cook is no stranger to change.  That doesn’t make this a bad book.  But I’ve been saying from the start that the Dread Empire books are dense reads that take me far longer than other books of comparable length.  In contrast, A Path to Coldness of Heart went as quickly as any normal book.  Which is a little disappointing in some ways, but a relief in others.  If it had been in Cook’s old style I probably wouldn’t have finished it tonight.

Yes, I did have other inklings besides the way the page count climbed so quickly when I bothered to check.  There are many scenes here that probably would have been cut in the eighties because they don’t had a significant amount to the overall story.  I found myself thinking how much tighter and sparse Cook’s writing had been two decades prior.  Again, this is no complaint about the last book.  I have no problems with books that I whisk through in a day.  It’s just a major contrast to the rest of the series.

And yes, this is the conclusion.  I knew that ahead of time because I checked on isfdb.org to make sure I was putting my accumulated volumes into the correct order.  There’s the collection I still need to acquire, but I don’t even know where “Soldier of an Empire Unacquainted With Defeat” fits into the timeline.  Probably because I didn’t know or care about the timeline when I first read it.  I will revisit that sometime this year.

I do appreciate that Cook must have known what his readers were fantasizing about because the big confab I was half hoping for really does happen.  The character who dropped off the face of the earth at the end of A Cruel Wind reappears and there’s a remarkable number of characters who are supposedly dead, or as good as, or might as well be.  It gets a little confusing sometimes, but in a good way.

And yet, the ending does leave room for a little bit more.  I don’t know if that’s been explored in any of the short fiction, but I have no problems with Cook leaving himself a bit of room.  All the books he’s written have been quite interlinked, so while the world itself does have an extensive history he could explore, I’m not so certain that he would choose to go elsewhere on the timeline.

Of course I liked the book.  But the ending did leave me a little unsatisfied, mostly because there’s no denoument.  The climax finishes one page before the end of the book, leaving no time to show the reader that everyone lived happily ever after.  I mean, we know that’s not actually practical – this book has made it a point to prove that happily ever after isn’t – but it would be nice to see the characters settling back into some semblance of normalcy.  Or establishing new lives, independent of who they were expected to be before.  That was something I did like about Green Lantern: Wrath of the First Lantern.  The event ended with some nice little shots of where the main characters ended up, years later.  You can also argue that conclusion was retconned in one or more ways just in the next event, but that’s beside the point.  The point is that I feel a little robbed by the entire series ending rather suddenly.

All in all, I’m glad I found the Dread Empire.  These books are a type I’ve read for years and yet a kind that I’ve never really read before.  Given that I’ve stopped rereading as heavily as I used to, I really do value the novelty of finding something new worth rereading.

But I still, really and truly, despise those eighties schlock covers.

Less Empire, More Headache

Two truisms came to mind as I read through An Ill Fate Marshalling.  The first is “there’s no fool like an old fool” and the second being “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  But before we get into that, let’s start by setting the scene.

Most of An Ill Fate Marshalling takes place concurrently with Reap the East Wind.  However where the latter focused mostly on Ethrian and Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i, with hints of Nepanthe, the former is almost exclusively looking at Bragi Ragnarson.  Which is not wholly surprising, considering that he’s been a key character in every single book to date, even if the book’s focus was elsewhere.  Of the main characters from the prequels, he’s the only one still around and active.

But he’s not young.  At a guess, he’s up around fifty now and while he’s still fit and active, a lot has changed mentally over the years.  He spends much of the book at war with himself, torn between the caution that tends to mark older characters and the recklessness that’s seen in the young.  Or we could just say both are of older characters, because there are those who take more risks as they age simply because they can’t find any other excitement in life.

To be fair, Bragi has plenty of excitement.  Also intrigue and plots and doom.  Kavelin is barely holding it together and Ragnarson keeps playing increasingly long odds.  His luck is absolutely phenomenal – possibly due to his mother’s witch blood – but the people are less and less willing to stand for it.  Hence the old fool.

There’s other changes going on across the continent.  Down in the desert, El Murid’s forces are stirring for the first time in years on a large scale.  Part of that is because the Shinsan general in the region provoked them, but another part is because El Murid’s daughter, his preferred heir from back in the day, has come home and is taking charge.  And in many ways the situation is reminiscent of when her father was first building his power.  And then there’s the Duke of Greyfells in Itaskia, still a thorn on everyone’s side.  Even though I’m pretty sure it’s not the same Duke from the earlier books.  Pretty sure that one died at some point in A Cruel Wind.

An Ill Fate Marshalling, combined with Reap the East Wind, reminds me a lot of The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I remember reading that for the first time – after I had seen the first movie – and being surprised to find that it’s actually two books.  One follows Merry and Pippin, the other Frodo and Sam.  And because that’s the order the two were in, I really had to force myself to read the second half of the book because I just didn’t find it anywhere near as interesting as the first portion.

I really hated watching Bragi Ragnarson make a fool of himself, so An Ill Fate Marshalling was not the most pleasant reading experience.  There was still plenty to distract me of course, and this doesn’t make it a bad book.  I just wanted to shove Bragi’s face in all the mistakes he was making so that he could be less stupid about them.

The other reason to draw a comparison with The Two Towers is that An Ill Fate Marshalling distinctly felt like the middle book of a trilogy.  I don’t remember if October’s Baby felt like that when I read it, but I suspect that I didn’t perceive it as such simply because I was reading the omnibus straight through.  I’m not even certain I can easily remember the divisions between the books without looking them up.  I treat omnibi as single books except when I choose to only read one or two sections, and thus tend not to think of their contents in the same way as individual volumes.

There is one book left.  Or at least, one novel.  And the last volume I have of Dread Empire at this time.  I can’t wait.

Lots More Dread

The next book in the Dread Empire series from Glen Cook is Reap the East Wind.  It directly follows All Darkness Met, the last volume contained in A Cruel Wind.  And unlike A Fortress in Shadow, the Dread Empire is all over this book.  In fact, one of our main characters this time is Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i, a Tervola.  They’re the wizard-commanders of the Dread Empire, and some of them are key figures in its rule.

The other key player here is Ethrian.  He’s the son of Mocker and Nepanthe, and was kidnapped along with his mother to ensure his father’s cooperation on behalf of the Pracchia.  And, in case you had forgotten, that means he’s a certain wizard’s grandson.  Mocker may not have shown any magical talent, but blood will tell.  And an ancient power of the desert has cast its eye on Ethrian.  He’s a boy, though he has power, and could be easily manipulated.  Especially if this ancient power can find what he’ll hate most and want revenge on.

Reap the East Wind is a definite continuation of the political and military situations seen at the end of A Cruel Wind.  Some questions, such as what happened to Ethrian, are answered.  Other questions are raised.  There’s a great deal we don’t know about the world of the Dread Empire, especially the further removed from the present we go.  Even the Dread Empire’s records only go back so far, and those key characters don’t seem to have access to the most detailed accounts of what could be lurking out in the desert.

It’s a time of change for the Empire too.  The Demon Prince and the Dragon Prince are dead.  Princess Mist lives in Kavelin, but has not completely forsaken her heritage.  O Shing is not in the picture this book, but that means little.  There’s a great many plots boiling all throughout the upper ranks of the Tervola, and so far none of them have come out undisputably on top.  Not to mention that their armies are stretched thin at the moment.

At best, Reap the East Wind covers a mere four years, with a flashback to five years previous from the present of the majority of the novel.  It’s the first time I’ve read a Dread Empire book that wasn’t in an omnibus, so I find myself floundering slightly because not nearly as much has happened here as in the other physical books I’ve read.

I do also want to mention how much I prefer the reprints.  The omnibi, the reprints, all of them have far better covers than the originals.  Those are just eighties schlock.  Believe you me, if I was looking to buy only based on appearance, those covers would not get a penny from me.  Below you can find a photo of all my Dread Empire books at this point, including the ones I haven’t yet read (spoilers, I’m not done with the series yet).  And you can see how the new editions more clearly evoke the contents.  A Fortress in Shadow is about the wars that helped mold the key characters in A Cruel Wind.  There we saw the beast that is the Dread Empire begin to awaken and turn its attention towards its neighbors.  I haven’t yet read the last book, A Path to Coldness of Heart, but I assume the cover is just as evocative.  By contrast you can see that Reap the East Wind and An Ill Fate Marshalling feature muscular barbarians brandishing swords.  And…I’ve seen it.  We all have, if we’ve been paying attention.  It’s trite and standard.

Frankly, I am very tempted to find newer copies of those two books.  Not just for the sake of better cover art, but also for the satisfaction of shelving the entire series together.  But really also because those covers are so cringeworthy in comparison.  Call me spoiled, but I think it would be well worth the investment.  Especially if I can buy them from the author himself next month.  I just…bah.  I haven’t taken such issue with a cover since The Wizard of Karres and that wasn’t because the cover was bad, it was simply because it was the wrong cover for its contents.

So, that’s where things stand.  An Ill Fate Marshalling is up next, and I’m pretty sure I won’t have time to finish it today.  It may be just over three hundred pages, but most if not all of the rest of these have been two hundred or less and they weren’t guaranteed to be one day reads (the individual books within the omnibi).  Until next time.

No Dread

I said I’d find more of Glen Cook’s Dread Empire, and that’s exactly what I did the last time I was in Wicker Park.  Today I finished A Fortress in Shadow, the other Dread Empire omnibus I was able to find.  This collects The Fire In His Hands and With Mercy Toward None.  Now here’s where it gets interesting.  Chronologically, these are the first two books in the series.  Publication-wise…these are books three and four, following the contents of A Cruel Wind.  Which means that I am, completely unintentionally, reading the series in publication order, minus the one short story that drove me to find them all.  I like to think that the world is actually cooperating to my benefit for once.

As previously stated, the Dread Empire books are very dense.  There’s no wasted words, and a lot happens on every single page.  So it’s no surprise that a book – an omnibus – of less than four hundred pages took me two days to get through.  It’s not a slog, just…very dense.

These novels cover the rise and fall of El Murid, the desert prophet.  He’s not actually that important a character, more as a symbol and a pawn.  What is important is the characters who find their formation in the El Murid Wars: Haroun bin Yosif, Bragi Ragnarson, and Mocker.  In A Cruel Wind we see the latter two rise and fall and rise again, with many references to the events of years past but only enough enlightenment as is necessary for the story.  Haroun is a much more shadowy figure, more a presence of memory than an active player in most cases.  Here he’s far more fleshed out, is the King without a Throne, and we see how he gained his crown.

All three start out as boys in their late teens for bulk of the book.  There’s some scenes with a far younger Haroun as El Murid begins his rise to power.  The truly formative years don’t come until the The Disciple begins to really stretch his power and armies out beyond his desert homeland.  And, of the three main characters, Haroun is the only one from that same desert, which gives him a somewhat different perspective.

Bragi is the most straightforward of course, and so his story is the easiest to track.  Haroun begins to show signs of what he will become, and then there’s Mocker, who only makes so much sense at the best of times.  I think it’s a good thing that he’s a minor character who doesn’t even show up until With Mercy Toward None.

Because I enjoyed Bragi so much, and a bit of Mocker, in the original three books, it was easy to find myself sucked into A Fortress in Shadow.  There is absolutely nothing about the actual Dread Empire in here, save one or two references and that damned old meddler on his flying horse.  But I’m okay with that because I was interested to see some origin and formation stories.

Reading A Fortress in Shadow really does bring home the differences between sequels and prequels.  These books were written to explore the early years alluded to in the first three.  They were not written to hint at what would come.  So when Mocker has a throwaway line about who he might have been born to be, readers of the day would have known how right one of those seemingly absurd guesses could be.

I bring this up because it’s very easy to get caught up in the trap of a prequel having to set up and explain everything in the original book or series.  And it’s true that the author does have to be careful of their continuity and not create conflicts of timeline, character, etc., but there’s still a lot of freedom if you know what you’re doing. Cook clearly does, because I think you could still get almost as invested if these were your first Dread Empire books as someone who’d read these in publication order.  I mean, if you knew nothing about the world you’d probably still be very confused as to why the series is called Dread Empire, but the books themselves are solid prequels.

When it comes to prequels, I always think to The Hobbit movies.  Those leaned so heavily on being made as prequels to The Lord of the Rings movies that it became impossible to view them in any other context – you can’t even watch them as an independent trilogy.  So thank goodness this book wasn’t at all like that.

I think that’ll be all for tonight.  In summation, I’m continuing to enjoy the series.  Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Conclusion and Nostalgia

This blog post was begun late Saturday night, the minutes before Sunday officially began.  Because that’s when I finished Inkdeath.  But if you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll notice that I really don’t want to make more than one post a day.  I’d much rather hold that post unpublished until I’m sure I won’t be finishing any more books that day.  And so while I started this before bed, it’s almost a full day later that I’m posting it because there’s got to be Sunday’s reading included.  Right?  At least, that’s what the self-imposed rules of the blog tell me.

What you didn’t know is that the day I started off with The Superior Spider-Man comic book, that started in bed.  Around 3:30am, when I woke up, couldn’t get back to sleep, and opted to read the single comic issue I had as something short but engaging enough to help me get back to sleep.  But before I went back to bed, I grabbed my tablet and started that day’s blog post.  I’d actually forgotten about that by the time the post was published, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

So, Inkdeath.  The finale of Cornelia Funke’s trilogy.  My friend says it’s their favorite entry, or at least the first couple thirds are.  They also say the ending is…not great.  Which I understand.  I feel like a lot of books can fall apart at the end when authors hastily try to tie up all the loose ends and give all the heroes their happy endings.  Or not, but usually so.

I will never forget the movie Stranger Than Fiction which has some elements in common with this trilogy.  The story is meant to end one way, but the author decides to change it even though everyone, absolutely everyone, agrees the original ending would be better.  And I’d thought of several ways the book could have a proper ending, one of them being the technique Frank Beddor used at the end of The Looking Glass Wars.  And yes, I’m trying hard not to spoil things.

I think, for me, Inkdeath began going downhill when Resa decided to be a more prominent character, not just the pregnant wife who can be threatened with violence to compel the protagonist.  I’m also not sure how I feel about Dustfinger after…well, after.  Things definitely change a person and he feels rather hollow afterwards.

And Fenoglio is still an ass.  Orpheus is an even worse one of course.

The very last bit of the conclusion though, that was well written.  I don’t think it makes up for the muddle that preceded it, but credit where credit is due.

In the end, yes, these books tell a solid story that is more interesting than Inkheart made me fear.  And I’ll even keep the whole trilogy, although I seriously doubt I’ll ever reread the first book unless if I can spend decades forgetting how much of a frustrating slog it was.  I don’t often get that pissed off at fictional characters, so, good job Funke?  I also see no purpose in looking up more of the author’s work.  There’s better things to waste my time and money on.  At least there is a bright side; these books are rather large for their contents, so reading them has cleared a decent amount of space in my Pile.  Sure, there’s still a number of books in it, but most of them are much smaller, simply by formatting.

And now that I’ve finished this chore, there’s a reward in my future.  Unless if time has betrayed my memory…

That’s right, this is an old book.  The text is from 1947, the illustrations from 1957, and this particular edition is from 1987.  It’s also likely the most damaged book in my library that is meant to still be read.  (There’s a prayerbook over a hundred years old that is worse off, but I wouldn’t be reading that anyway.)  This is Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, with illustrations by Hilary Knight.

Now, I’ve known this book was in bad shape for years, even though it’s been well over two decades since I last revisited the world of the eccentric, child-loving Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  The damage is a large part of why I haven’t reread the book in so long, as most of the pages like to slip away from the spine.  It’s a shame, and I loved this book so much that I’ve decided I need a new copy.  Well, not a new copy.  There’s a more recent edition with new illustrations, but those aren’t the ones I’m accustomed to and, more importantly, I always felt Hilary Knight’s images perfectly captured MacDonald’s story.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is like a fairy godmother or Mary Poppins come to life, but without any actual magic.  She’s a little old matron, a widow, who lives in an upside-down house in a small town in 1940s America.  She loves children and make-believe and making chores fun.  And she knows how to deal with all the bizarre behaviors a child can come up with.  The book has eight stories inside.  You could call them chapters, but they really are more a collection of short stories featuring Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  The first, of course, introduces the character to reader and town, and the other seven are some of her famous cures for behavioral afflictions.

My personal favorite, for reasons still unknown to me, is “The Radish Cure”.  In this story, a little girl suddenly refuses to bathe.  Her mother calls several of the other local mothers, but all of their children love bathtime.  In desperation, she turns to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  Now, sometimes the strange woman has a special kit that she will lend out to the poor mothers, but this time all that’s needed is a pack of radish seeds.  When the dirt on the child’s skin is about a half inch thick (isn’t that disgusting?) from not bathing, the mother is to plant the seeds on the girl.  Once the radishes show three leaves, they are ready to be plucked.  There’s even a dad joke in this one, once the child realizes what’s going on.  It’s a simple story, but quite entertaining and memorable.

All of the stories are along those lines, but that’s no bad thing.  And there’s no actual magic involved with any of them, meaning that it’s wholly possible to implement these “cures” in real life.  Your success may vary, of course, because life is not a story. (OR IS IT?  Thanks Inkheart.)  But it’s nice that for all there’s an element of the fantastic, these stories are still so down to earth.

Now, what about the fact that they’re seventy years old?  To be honest, there’s not much here that’s problematic from that perspective.  Yes, they use the word “Indians” instead of “Native Americans”, but that’s one thing that I’m generally willing to overlook, especially if there’s nothing harmful meant in it.  And a friend of mine pointed out that “The Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker Cure” is essentially a starvation diet, but on the other hand the kid is really doing it to themself with no encouragement needed.

There’s something wonderful about reading a book I loved as a child and realizing that it’s just as wholesome now as it was when it was first published.

The other Betty MacDonald book I have is Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm.  By this time Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, for reasons not elucidated in any of these five stories, has moved out of her upside-down house and onto a farm outside of town.  She has a whole host more animals than before and now finds it easier to help children if they’re brought to stay with her for a while.  Certainly the parents find it easier to not have their obnoxious little brats at home while they’re being helped into a more useful attitude.

Interestingly enough, the pictures in this volume are by none other than Maurice Sendak, famed author of Where the Wild Things Are. I never liked them as much as Hilary Knight’s illustrations.  In fact, I never enjoyed any of the stories in this book anywhere near as much as the first one.  Maybe it’s because my life was far too suburban to be able to relate to spending any amount of time on a farm.  Maybe it’s because these stories are longer but have less Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle in them.  Or maybe they’re just not as good.  And at this point I’m not just going off vague memories more than twenty years old, I’m going off the fact that it just wasn’t nearly as fun to read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm as it was Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  I suppose that could simply mean that you can only use the idea so many times without it getting old or that I really shouldn’t read that many children’s stories in a single day.

Let’s just say there’s probably at least one very good reason why this book is in perfectly acceptable condition and the other isn’t.

Now, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books weren’t the only ones on this shelf of children’s books that caught my eye with nostalgia.  It’s an interesting shelf, including books that my parents had as children as well as ones they bought for me.  And this next book is just as silly, if not a bit stranger.  It’s from the fertile mind of Louis Sachar, whom you may know far better for writing a book that’s become standard reading in gradeschools across the country as well as a movie starring a young Shia LaBeouf.  But I don’t need to reread Holes because it hasn’t been two decades or more since I last touched it.  No, today we’re talking about Sideways Stories from Wayside School.

I’ve always loved the premise of Wayside School.  For some reason, the builder built the place on its side, so that instead of thirty classrooms in a row, the school is thirty stories with one classroom on each floor.  They’re all cute, brief stories too, some shorter than others.  I’ve always loved the nineteenth story.  “There is no Miss Zarves.  There is no nineteenth story.”  It’s like the same prinicple of positive and negative space that fascinate me in my art and design.  (No really, I’m being perfectly serious.)

There was a lot I’d forgotten about, such as the thirtieth story’s first teacher Mrs. Gorf, especially when contrasted with the second teacher Mrs. Jewls.  And the dead rats.  How could I have forgotten about the dead rats?  I did remember about Maurecia’s ice cream though.

I think I may have reread this a little more recently than Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, but it’s hard to remember because it has been so very long.  I did finally take the Borders sticker off the back of the book though.  More stores should use those kind – the ones that peel off cleanly even decades later.

Of course to finish off the lot I did have to continue with Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger.  I guess it’s a little weird that I only have two each of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Wayside School books when there are more from both.  And as much as I enjoy and fondly recall (certain parts of) these books, I never was interested enough to seek out more from them.  Although I suspect I picked up Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger from the school book fair, having seen it and been super excited about another Wayside School book.

I should mention that while the original Sideways Stories From Wayside School was published in the eighties, Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger didn’t come out until 1995.  What I’ve got is a gimmicky copy from 1996 that is so typical mid-nineties I don’t know how I can stand it.  Like, the word “stranger” glows in the dark.  Nothing else, and it has nothing to do with any of the stories in the book, but there you have it.  Also, it’s advertised right on the cover that the thing glows.  Because gimmicks.

Something I’ve always liked about these books is that while they’re episodic in nature, there’s references to earlier stories and ongoing consequences in several cases.  The second book is more of a complete story than the first, which was really just a set of vignettes, but it still amuses me when Sachar keeps to his own internal rules, such as goozacks and the disappearance of anything that goes to the nineteenth floor.  Where Miss Zarves has been teaching for thirty years.  Also there is a cow in her classroom.  I kind of love Miss Zarves.

I have to admit, I am now mildly curious about whether or not Wayside School is Falling Down presents any kind of conclusion.  I mean, after Mrs. Jewls goes on maternity leave, there’s a lot of substitutes for her class on the thirtieth floor.  Some are worse than others, but there’s adventures in dealing with all of them.  Also there was a deplorable lack of dead rats in this book, but I wonder if they specifically haunt Mrs. Jewls, not her classroom.

Regardless, it’s clear why the Wayside School books have also become standards of early chapter books.  The stories are simple and easy to read, but fun and relatable, even if the circumstances are a little absurd.  I know when I first read them that I knew they were complete fiction, but that didn’t stop me from loving them all the same.  It was well worth revisiting these children’s books after finishing Cornelia Funke’s trilogy.  Even though Inkspell and Inkdeath were better than Inkheart, none of the books made a warm glow inside the way my childhood classics do.  Which made them a better reward for getting through the trilogy.  Because sometimes you just have to treat yourself with something you already know you love.

Onward

Well, Inkspell is definitely a more interesting book than Inkheart.  The characters have more agency, things actually happen, there’s a lot more to like.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t still have to force myself to continue reading or that I couldn’t have put the entire trilogy down forever happily.  But I was overall less frustrated and annoyed by most of the characters.

Although the in-universe author, Fenoglio, became so much more obnoxious in this book as compared to the last.  But there are some characters that you’re just not meant to like, and I suspect he’s one of them.

Most of Inkspell takes place in what characters from our world refer to as the “Inkworld”, IE the world of Inkheart as the book written by Fenoglio.  You know, it’s like that movie Inception except here we’re talking about books within books within books, instead of dreams.  It is very easy to think far too hard about these things.

From what I gather, either Dustfinger was the main character of the in-universe Inkheart, or else just the most universally beloved character.  Because everybody seems to know him in particular and want to keep him safe.  Even when Basta finds a man called Orpheus (talk about some heavy-handed symbolism) who is another Reader, able to call people and objects out of books…or send them back.  Which he does for Dustfinger, happy to help his favorite character.

And here’s the first big decision Funke had to make concerning her fictional world’s fictional world.  Ten years have passed in the Inkworld, just as in the real world.  Ten years since Dustfinger had disappeared without a trace, along with Capricorn and several others.  So the fire-eater’s first mission is to find out the current state of things, what’s happened since he unwillingly left.

Life gets complicated when Farid, the boy read out of A Thousand Tales, is desperate to follow Dustfinger.  He’d latched onto the man from the beginning, become his apprentice, and seems to not know what to do without Dustfinger in his life.  So he convinces Meggie to read him into the Inkworld as well.  And, Meggie being a strongminded protagonist, wants to read herself into the place.

And she succeeds.

But, as any bookworm can tell you, fictional worlds aren’t perfect.  They aren’t all happy endings and joy.  If there was no conflict, there wouldn’t be a story.  Or rather, it would be a boring story that no one wanted to read.  So you can imagine that life is just as unsafe in the Inkworld as it can be in our own.

And it seems that Fenoglio is there, alive and well, and still writing…

It gets a bit messy, then ends on a cliffhanger.  I can’t say I’m surprised because Funke tells us clearly that it will be “many years” before Meggie returns to her own world, and “many years” before Elinor sees her again.  I mean, that’s not even foreshadowing there, that’s blatantly telling the readers in a mysterious and spooky tone of voice what’s going to happen.

I’m not sure what I think about Inkspell.  It’s hard because I had such a negative reaction to Inkheart, but I think I did genuinely enjoy more of this book than the other.  But then again, I like to read stories of transformation.  Of people becoming something else, or something more than they were.  It’s not just physical changes, like growing up or becoming a werewolf.  It’s the mental changes of accepting this is my life, this is what I want to do, this is the person my loved ones need to me to be.  That sort of thing.  And the seeds of transformation are sown in Inkspell and that, above everything else, is what makes me want to read more.

Also because I promised myself I’d revisit some old books after this trilogy, and only after.  And I really do want to reread them.  Although I’m a little afraid because one book is not in good shape at all.  I could use a bookbinder like Mo to repair it.  Or I can make a mental note to keep an eye out in the used bookstores.  The problem is that I would only want a “new” copy of the same edition, not one of the new reprints with different illustrations.  But that’s a problem for another day.  For today, it’s time to move on to Inkdeath, my friend’s favorite part of the trilogy.