Fanservice

“She’ll keep you up long past your bedtime,” Stephen King once said about Mercedes Lackey, and it’s appeared on numerous of her books since.  It’s true enough, considering that I stayed up a bit late last night to finish Beyond World’s End, and even later to start this post.  But some things are worth missing a bit of sleep for.

Beyond World’s End is the first Eric Banyon book after he spent some time living Underhill with the elves, learning how to really use his power as a Bard.  This book, coauthored with Rosemary Edghill, was published in 2000, and takes place right around the turn of the century.  CDs are in, computers are becoming important, but cell phones are not vital to everyday life yet.  They do exist, and they’re well, not nearly as small as they would be within a few short years.  If you wanted to do more than phone calls, you’d have a Blackberry.

This is the first in a set of books that sees Eric as an adult, laying his ghosts to rest and making a place for himself in the world.  These books also are the focal point where most of Lackey’s urban fantasy meets each other.  There’s a number of references and even a cameo or two hidden throughout as different groups meet.  Things never quite reach fanfiction levels of main characters getting to know each other in depth, or, thank goodness, shipping.  Still, it’s quite entertaining.

I followed that up with Spirits White as Lightning, the second of the once-modern-day Eric Banyon books.  This one came out in 2002, so it’s already a bit dated.  Witness that our main character does not yet have a cell phone.  This book concludes the drama begun in Beyond World’s End and begins to set up characters for the following books.

What I really enjoy about these books is that they build on the foundations of the earlier series (plural) and expand the world and the way we see it with each new volume.  It’s always fun to see how Lackey and her coathors can unfold new and more interesting situations, events, and characters.  These later Eric Banyon books are more intertwined than most of the rest of the novels set in this world, and truly function as a series in and of themselves.

It’s much harder to read only one of this set of books in particular, given how closely they all tie together.  The 80s/90s books do tie in, but there’s not nearly as much foreshadowing and stage-setting.  An entire small section of Spirits White as Lightning is devoted to establishing the character Ace, who won’t become a main character until the next book, Mad Maudlin.

I also appreciate the fact that, with this world of books in particular, the more I read and listen and learn, the more references I catch.  When one character asks another “How are you at dealing with dragons?” I cannot help but think OH MY GOD SOMEONE HAS READ PATRICIA C. WREDE!  Dealing with Dragons is the first book in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, a series from the 80s that I adored as a kid.  I remember in sixth grade, I think, there was some kind of assignment that involved illustrating a fictional character, and I chose Kazul from Wrede’s series.  I still have pencil underlines in that book where I had marked physical descriptions for later use.  It’s probably best not to get me started about how many references suddenly made a lot more sense after someone dumped a large pile of They Might Be Giants mp3s on me in college.

I don’t read a lot of books that cater to fans in subtle ways, mostly because so many of them are set elsewhere.  Those that are set in our world tend to either be a lot more obvious about name-checking or ignore it entirely and focus on the story (or they choose to reference things I am unfamiliar with).  So the slight nods here and there make me super happy.

Also elves are weird.  If they weren’t, Kory and the microwave popcorn wouldn’t keep coming up.

About Omnibi

After Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, the immediate follow-up has to be Summoned to Tourney, the continuing adventures of Eric Banyon as written by Mercedes Lackey and Ellen Guon.  This book is from 1992 (it’s predecessor was published in 1990) and so I generally take it to be the very dawn of the nineties, as opposed to still in the eighties. Not that it makes a big difference.  Floppy disks are still a thing regardless.

Seeking out books that are almost thirty years old is always a bit haphazard, and my own reluctance to look things up means I’m never quite certain how many books are in a series (or part of a series).  I had a copy of Bedlam’s Bard for a while, but it was just an omnibus of Knight of Ghosts and Shadows and Summoned to Tourney.  Therein lies the other problem of older books – a lot of them get rereleased in omnibi, and I really don’t like discovering I paid for a new copy of books I already own.  It’s one thing if I deliberately invest in a second copy.  It’s another to make a dumb mistake.  And it wouldn’t be the first time either.

As you can assume from what I’ve just written, I much prefer to have separate volumes of books instead of omnibi.  In most cases, I may not always choose to reread all the books.  Not to mention that omnibi of late tend to be hardcover or oversized, and so much more of a pain to drag around.  For example, I wouldn’t own a copy of Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice if it wasn’t in an omnibus of the first three books.  The same for Black Powder War by Naomi Novik in the Temeraire series.

On the other hand, I have The Annotated Chronicles and The Annotated Legends from Dragonlance, which are large omnibi (with a LOT of commentary) that weigh in at five and four pounds respectively.  They’re up on the left end of the cover photo above, though that shot really doesn’t do them justice.  When Margaret Weis was at one of the local cons, I brought her a stack of books to sign (the Dragonvarld trilogy) and then, after those, I said “wait a minute” and reached into the bag sitting on the floor to bring out the other two.  “Ah,” she said, “the doorstops,” and signed those too.  Seriously, if one of the authors is calling them “doorstops”, we’re talking large, heavy books.

Plus I find it easier to take stock of what books I actually have by collecting individual volumes.  Then again, I enjoy being able to see all of my books easily, hence I will not ever put books in front of books.  I can live with turning them sideways so I can fit more on a shelf.  I can’t stand not being able to see titles.  Except for manga.  I do have a significant collection that is jammed in with more consideration for space and less for viewing.  But, then again, manga series are a bit different, and I’m only rarely going to pick up a single volume to reread.  Since they’re shorter, I’ll probably pull out the whole stack of a series anyway, and sit there reading next to the cupboard they came out of.  Even manga come in omnibus volumes nowadays though.  Viz calls them “VizBig” editions, and they combine three of the shorter volumes into one.  I guess they’re more cost effective, but those are usually reprints of series that, if I wanted them, I already collected individually when they were new.

Anyway, I started Beyond World’s End during lunch today.  Still Eric Banyon, but a lot has changed…which I’ll tell you about tomorrow.  See you then!

80’s Ho!

Well, after mentioning it last post, I decided to reread a bunch of Eric Banyon’s adventures, starting with the first, Knight of Ghosts and Shadows.  It’s the 80’s, it’s California, and there are elves.  Lots of elves.  And one has a purple mohawk because it’s the 80’s.

I always forget how fast this book goes.  We spend a lot of time being introduced to the world, to the elves and to magic, and to Eric’s abilities as a Bard.  He already knows how to play the flute, but using his music to do magic is a lot of what he learns in this book.  It is, in every salient way, an origin story, the first in an ongoing series.  In fact, Eric Banyon has a lot in common with comic book characters.  It seems that he pops up in every decade in a different setting, sometimes with old friends, sometimes with new ones.  We get to see him grow and change, not just taking charge of his life in Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, but as his power matures and he learns how to use it better.

Plus the villains get both weirder and more normal, depending on which book you’re talking about.

It’s that continuity yet separation between the different groups of books starring the same character which makes me think of comic books.  You even have different coauthors at different points in time.  The overall quality is still high, but the different eras do have different tones and textures.  I have a friend who is much less fond of 2000s Eric Banyon than 80s Eric Banyon, and that’s okay.

As I mentioned, Eric is from the same world (universe?) as the SERRAted Edge.  They even have a cameo in one of the later books that makes me grin like a fangirl.  More importantly, that means that magic and elves and Underhill (the magical realm where elves and so much more live) work the same way in all of these books, and you can apply what you learn in one to another and not have any major holes in the system.  You may have guessed, Mercedes Lackey likes elves.  She also likes music and horses and hawks.  Most of her books are going to involve at least one of the four and oftentimes when reading a new book I know little about, I smile and relax as soon as I spot one of the classic Lackey tropes.

The woman may describe herself as “a competent hack”, but that doesn’t change the fact that most of her books give me the same feeling as sitting down with a PB&J sandwich, a cup of hot chocolate, and a movie I’ve loved forever.  So many Lackey books are relatively short, smooth reads (in my library, at least, I do read faster than most people) that are just comfortable, reassuring old friends.

I’ll probably continue with Bard Banyon for the time being.  I do have some preorders that will be coming in over the next month and a half, which will certainly involve a lot of rereading, especially once I start prepping for the new Safehold novel.  I’m fairly certain that I’ll be done with Banyon by Yom Kippur though.  Unless if something unexpected happens.

Unsurprisingly Good

When I saw there was a new novel of the SERRAted Edge, I of course made a note to read it.  And I picked it up at the library this weekend.  Now, I know this is Lackey with yet another new coauthor Cody Martin, but after the 90stastic books that Mark Shepherd wrote on his own (ElvendudeSpiritride, and Lazerwarz – and let me tell you I have things to say next time I read those), I was certain that Silence would be a good read.  To the point where I have avoided reading any kind of information about this book.  The inside cover, the synopsis, anything.  I wanted to see how much I could pick up on my own.

It’s easy enough to identify elves, if you’re familiar with the tropes and the previous books in the series.  And you can guess at elvensteeds too, and which characters are Seleighe and which are Unseleighe.  I felt almost like I was playing bingo with the book, but I was having a ton of fun doing so.  Is it sad that I can still tell you off the top of my head that SERRA stands for South-Eastern Road Racing Association, or something very similar?  It’s a private racing club that the elves made.  Because elves like racecars and motorcycles in Lackey’s books.  Because why not?

The main character remarks at one point that she feels like she’s in a Stephen King novel, having moved to a small town in Maine where things are just wrong (thank you Unseleighe elves).  I also appreciated all the background geekery as someone who knows what BESM and Shadowrun are.  It’s also nice to read a SERRAted Edge book that is not 90stastic, but also not heavy on abused and homeless children PSAs.  Of all Lackey’s “Elves on the Road” books, this reminded me more of the old Eric Banyon volumes, like Knight of Ghosts and Shadows and Summoned to Tourney than the original SERRAted Edge books.

This was an enjoyable read.  It’s nice to have my hands on a new book that I didn’t need to check or verify before reading, and that I didn’t have to read up to.  It really is rare that I can pick up a book I know nothing about and be guaranteed to have a good read out of it.  For this, I am most grateful to Mercedes Lackey.

Of course, now I am tempted to go back and read some of the others set in this world…but pretty much all of Lackey’s urban fantasy shares this world…which gives me so very many choices.

Word Porn

“[He was] talking confidentially to his best friend who just happened to be the whole world.”

Doesn’t that quote just perfectly describe internet culture?  After all, that’s what I’m doing right here and now, writing this blog post for anyone who cares to read it.  And I have to treasure quotes like this, which so beautifully and succinctly put the world into perspective.  I despise being pulled out of a story by typos and grammatical errors.  But give me a line like that, and I will stop and marvel before continuing on with the story.

I think I’ve made clear my opinion on Stephanie Meyer and the Twilight saga.  So when I say that I’d rather read Anne Rice instead, I mean it.  That quote is from Prince Lestat, the latest entry in the Vampire Chronicles.  And yes, I am quite aware that while these books are not not marketed as porn (unlike some of Rice’s other work), they are still most definitely porn.  Well-written porn that defined the paranormal romance subgenre decades before such a thing existed.  Except, of course, that these books are for adults and paranormal romance is a young adult thing.  (Seriously, stop subdividing young adult.  It’s just making things worse as far as producing crap books goes.)

I haven’t read a lot of Anne Rice, but I do enjoy her Vampire Chronicles for the most part.  I own almost all of the series and have read every book in it at least once.  Prince Lestat has probably become my favorite entry.  I’m not entirely certain why, but I’ve borrowed this book from the library at least three times, and this is either the fourth or fifth time I’ve read it.  Yes, I really should get my own copy, but I’m hoping to wait long enough to get a mass market paperback instead of an oversized one.  I do have a couple of hardcovers of the Vampire Chronicles, but they fit rather well where they are now, and Prince Lestat is simply too large to be jammed into that space.

In many ways, this newest book is the culmination of the entire series thus far, filled with so many characters who were minor or merely mentioned in previous books, and touching on aspects of most of the previous volumes.  And, as I’ve previously mentioned, it is beautifully written.  Please understand, my standards for good writing are a little different from poetry and the like.  I appreciate a writing style that is invisible to me, that is to say, the text doesn’t interfere with my reading of the story.  I also truly love good lines like the quote above.  If I can think back and remember that line days, weeks, months, and years later, it is very well-written.  Most of my favorites at this time come from Tanya Huff.  If I haven’t made her standing clear, Huff generally ends up as one of my second-favorite authors, behind Mercedes Laceky.  Anne Rice is not even close to these two, but this does not diminish her considerable skill in any way.

The way the world works, I feel like I should count the Vampire Chronicles as a guilty pleasure.  It’s porn, as I said, and everyone knows it.  But…I don’t really feel guilty.  Firstly, most of the world reads porn of various types.  And no, being asexual does not mean I won’t read it.  Asexuality, combined with a familiarity with classic tropes, just means I really despise forced romances and sex scenes that exist for the sake of sex and do nothing to further the plot.  Secondly, I find the actual stories Rice writes to be very interesting.  Sometimes I do think that she’s pushing things a little too hard, but that happens.  Mostly I am genuinely interested to see where things are going.  So I truly enjoy these books, and there’s no guilt in that.  I like most of the Anne Rice I’ve read.

Lastly, I understand that I don’t need anybody else’s approval or judgement on what I choose to read.  If I can find as much enjoyment in rereading Phoebe Gilman’s Something from Nothing as I do in Prince Lestat, who cares?  Just because something is marketed for kids doesn’t mean adults can’t also find value in it, or vice versa.  Oh the Places You’ll Go is just as much a part of a child’s Dr. Seuss library as it is one of the most popular graduation presents.  At least I’m being honest about what I’m reading.  Like I said, Anne Rice writes porn.  But, like so many things, I’m much more interested in it because of the supernatural skin it’s wearing.

Comic Potpourri

I declare today to be comic book day, at least as far as reading is concerned.  I finally managed to get over to the store to pick up whatever was new in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and Pink.  Luck was with me, for not only did I get Pink #3 and MMPR #6, but also MMPR #7!  So I figured today would be a good day to sit down and read through a number of series.

First up was Pink, since I had found issue 2 to be a predictable letdown, so I didn’t want it to be the last thing I read.  And, well, it definitely got better.  I’m a little leery, thinking that it might be an odds/evens thing, where the odd-numbered issues introduce some cool plot, but the even-numbered books have more predictable resolutions to the plot points.  Regardless, after the stereotypical elements of the second issue, the third was more engaging, though there is far too much betrayal amongst bad guys.  I mean, seriously.  We were all waiting for that to happen.  “I am betraying you!”  “No, what you didn’t know is that I was already betraying you!”  Seriously guys, enough.

I think I may stop rereading MMPR from the beginning considering that I’ve now read issues 0-2 at least five times now.  I don’t want to wear out my enjoyment of the books.  Anyway, issues 6 & 7 continue upping the ante with one of the direst threats I’ve seen the Power Rangers face.  We are most definitely in new territory here, unconfined by the established canon of the TV series, and I am quite interested to see where this goes, aside from the predicted happy resolution.  I mean, Pink takes place afterwards, so obviously things end well enough.  Aside from satisfying my impatience, I am enjoying collecting the individual issues for their cover art.  I don’t ever see myself as seeking out the collectible covers that comics sometimes feature, but that won’t stopping me from appreciating high quality, dynamic art in general.

Then I moved on to something different, that I’d not read much of before.  This is Otis Frampton’s Oddly Normal.  I first heard of it while watching How it Should Have Ended on youtube earlier this year, and they had a plug saying that one of their group had a comic that’d be available as part of Free Comic Book Day.  So I figured I’d pick it up and see what it was.  Free is the best price of course.  The free book was intriguing enough that when I was confronted with a couple boxes of $1 kids comics at Counticon, I snagged a few issues of the series.  It’s a cute little story of a girl who doesn’t fit in in the real world, nor even in the not-exactly-real world of Fignation (which is apparently short for being a figment of your imagination).  Oh and she has a quest, but that’s taking a back seat right now to trying to fit in.

Oddly Normal is a great entry into the selection of books that are intended for all ages – and I mean it.  Sure, kids will find it quite relatable, what with the main character being 10 years old and attending school, but adults can still appreciate the solid characters, worldbuilding, and story.  It’s made me smile, it’s made me laugh, and it’s made me want to share this with my friends.

Sadly, I won’t be collecting more than the 10 comics I now own, because Oddly Normal is no longer being serialized in this format.  The trade books, however, will still be released and I fully intend to tack on the third (would-have-been issues 11-15) to my next amazon order.  I may even end up replacing the comics one day with the first two trades, depending.  For now, I appreciate owning the individual issues, as not only can I appreciate the cover art, but some have variant covers.  I definitely appreciate the fact that the back covers show only a preview of the next (nonvariant) cover, and no ads whatsoever.

The last comic series I’ve acquired recently is Samurai Jack.  This series is partially an adaptation of the cartoon, partially an avenue for the team to explore new stories, and partly a conclusion that wasn’t seen when when the series originally aired.  I’ll say right now that while there is a conclusion, there is little detail or climax, which I am sure the upcoming season will elaborate on.  In fact, there’s a note at the back of issue 20 from one of the writers that if Genndy Tartakovsky wishes to animate any of the stories in the comic, he’s welcome to do so.

I’ve been a fan of Samurai Jack since its TV movie premiere on Cartoon Network in 2001.  Not only was it an interesting story, but Tartakovsky’s animation and design is breathtaking.  It’s stylized, but it lets the medium speak for itself as well.  There are long scenes in many episodes without a single line of dialogue.  And yet, I’ve heard the creators say at one point that they always have something moving on the screen, even if it’s just a piece of fabric blowing in the wind.  It’s a gorgeous show to watch, and one that I don’t rewatch as often as I should, as it’s a crime to give anything less than my full attention.

Aside from the initial volume being a retelling of the premiere movie (and theoretically the final issue probably being related to the finale of the show, when it’s released), the majority of the comic is filled with new stories.  Some of them involve old characters, but each is an intriguing, entertaining read.  “The Scotsman’s Curse” was hilarious, and any piece of writing that can make use of the phrase “frosting malfunction imminent” gets my approval.  Not to mention the man who speaks for janitors everywhere as he curses the very existence of confetti.

Needless to say, the comic run of Samurai Jack reminded me of everything that I loved about the tv series, and has me looking forward to the upcoming fifth season.  Of course, then there’s some of the down points to comics.  Issue #1 is 68 pages long, but a full dozen of those pages are ads, leaving only 55 pages of story.  Now, I’m familiar with ads for other comics and the like at the end of the book (and my goodness does IDW pack them in all the other volumes), but this was not only excessive, it was obnoxious as in some sections I couldn’t even read more than three pages of story before seeing another ad, or worse, another two page spread of ad.  There’s one for trade over comics I guess.  It doesn’t ruin the story per se, but it did make for annoyance warring with my enjoyment.

Anyway, that’s all for today.  I’ll probably start on a library book tonight, but next post won’t be ’til tomorrow at the earliest.  41 issues of comic books is enough for one day.

The Other Way Around

After the dense and intense read that was Golda Meir’s autobiography, I wanted something more relaxed, and preferably back in my preferred genre of fantasy.  And while I didn’t want to resort to one of my old favorites quite yet, I wasn’t keen to read another brand new book.  So instead I chose a book that I’d only read once previously.

Well, only read once.  But this is the novelization of the miniseries The 10th Kingdom.  I remember watching it live on TV when it first premiered in 2000, and being utterly captivated.  I have mentioned my love of fairy tales – well here’s a couple of ordinary New Yorkers who find themselves transported to the magical realm of the Nine Kingdoms and have to find their way home again.  The Nine Kingdoms aren’t just full of magic though.  Our fairy tales are their facts and history.  Prince Wendell just so happens to be the heir to the House of White, Snow White’s grandson.

I’m sure that my mom picked up the book because of the TV series, but I couldn’t honestly tell you when it was, other than also in 2000.  I know I saw the video before I read the book though.  The book may have come in a box set with the tapes (yes, VHS tapes), but it doesn’t matter.  I’ve watched those videos a number of times in the intervening years, and even acquired the DVDs when they were rereleased just a few years ago.  So, like Harry Potter, I don’t often feel the need to reread The 10th Kingdom.

And, like The Princess Bride, this is a story that I can’t help reading in the characters’ voices, and visualizing scenes from the miniseries as I go.  In fact, it’s worse, because while The Princess Bride was adapted into a screenplay and had a great deal cut out, The 10th Kingdom, being a novelization, has almost exactly the same content as the miniseries.  The only addition is that we do actually get to see the characters’ thoughts, but since the body language is quite good, viewers can usually guess at what readers know for certain.

If I was to recommend only one version of The 10th Kingdom to others, it would probably be the miniseries.  Not just because that was the originally intended production and the book was simply another way for Hallmark to make money, but because I think so many scenes are better when you can see and hear what the book describes.  It’s not a “show, don’t tell” issue, but simply an acknowledgement of atmosphere.

I mentioned a while back that the movie Watchmen is an amazingly faithful adaptation of the graphic novel.  What you might not know if you’ve never read it is that some of the songs used in the movie were actually quoted in the book, overlaying their relevant scenes.  The creators may have hoped that the readers would have the songs playing in their heads as they read, but you can’t guarantee that it would be so the way you can with a movie, by dropping the audio track over the video.  I usually am a proponent of the book being better, but in this case I not only have to go with my first exposure, but the acknowledgement that the book came later.

Also with a movie I can just read through the scenes that drive me crazy, most namely Little Lamb Village and Kissing Town.  Seriously, least favorite parts of the story.  I just despise liars.

The Past is an Open Book

If I doubted the veracity of Michelle Novak’s Venice, I have absolutely no doubts as to the believability of the book I’ve finished today.  The seventeen page index that I only noticed when I was a third of the way in and wanting to know how much more there was to go may have something to do with that, but most of the difference is subject matter and author.

Today I finished My Life by Golda Meir.  As you might have guessed, I rarely touch biographies and autobiographies.  Nonfiction in general is not my first, second, third, fourth or fifth choice of reading material.  But when I was at the Newberry Library’s annual book sale this summer, I felt that spending $3 on a large hardcover wasn’t a bad choice.  After all, I knew who Golda Meir was, and while I don’t often dwell on the thought of personal heroes, I have long admired the woman.

Fun fact, almost all of the items I bought that day were related to Judaism in some way.  But, that’s what happens when the thing opens to members on Thursday, the public on Friday, and I can’t get there until Saturday – all the good sci-fi/fantasy and kids books are long gone by Saturday.

My education about Meir has always been haphazard.  I never wrote a paper on her or even did research for the fun of it, so what I knew I picked up here and there.  Sunday school, regular school, mentions in books and documentaries, etc.  Then there came a real turning point: the one-woman play Golda’s Balcony came to Chicago in 2006, and my parents got tickets for the four of us.

Sadly, I don’t remember a lot of the experience (considering that it was ten years ago), but I remember how much I enjoyed it and how much I learned.  Reading this autobiography has brought back a number of memories from that night, of “ah, yes, that part was in the play” and such.  I wish that I could see it again.

When Meir titles her book My Life, she is not at all kidding.  She discusses all of it, though condensing some years and decades and touching on the highlights and important events.  From her birth in Kiev all the way through to resigning as Prime Minister, I feel I have a much better understanding of who she was as a person, and of the Israel she helped create, whose echoes I can see in the modern state today.

My Life was a dense read, especially in comparison to what I’ve been reading most recently, but I have no regrets whatsoever.  I always knew Golda Meir was an inspiring and powerful woman, but being able to read her own words has magnified my respect exponentially.  The book also hammers home the words I always say when discussing Israel in today’s world with people: I may not always agree with their choices, I certainly don’t always understand those choices, but nothing can change what Israel and its existence means to me as a Jew.  It is a land that is greatly beloved by its people, who take care to nurture and protect it, and who are dedicated and determined in their tasks.  Yes, the Middle East is a mess and not always safe to visit, but I have been to Israel twice during armed conflicts, one of which broke out into actual war, and have never felt unsafe.

This book will always be linked in my head to the modern day Israel I’ve visited, as I mentally change spellings to the transliterations I am most familiar with, mentally place things on maps, and recall sites I’ve personally visited.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad, or simply a fact.

I found Golda Meir’s autobiography to be a fascinating and gripping read.  Yes it’s history, but through her eyes, I found myself on the edge of my seat as as World War II came to a close and yet Israel’s existence was still to come (May 14, 1948).  It’s always interesting to see other sides of the story – the Israeli view on Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union and others.  Meir emphasized that while history paints Richard Nixon in an unflattering light, he kept every promise he made to Israel.

My Life will become a permanent part of my personal library, and I’m proud to own it.  It doesn’t matter that I picked it up for a measly $3, I feel that this book is well worth the $20+ price a hardcover merits, and I’ll recommend it to anyone I feel would find it as engrossing as I did.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Amidst the novels and short stories, there’s a type of tale that’s often overlooked and forgotten about.  It seemed to be more popular twenty years ago, though you still occasionally see new ones.  This is, of course, the Choose Your Own Adventure, a page-turning classic adventure that puts the reader in the driver’s seat.  If you’re unfamiliar, a CYOA presents the reader with a bit of story, ranging from one paragraph to several pages, and then offers options.  Each choice they could make directs them to a different page, and a different path the story can take.  It’s a more interactive type of book, having much in common with the old text-based adventure games.

Most of the CYOA’s I’ve read have a specific goal in mind, and story paths that don’t lead there end up in dead ends, sometimes even in death for the viewpoint character, requiring that the reader start over again, or at least try to remember where to go back to and attempt a better choice.  Some will have battles, requiring the reader to roll dice and determine injuries.  Others will have an inventory, limiting the reader to a few items out of a number of choices (unless if they decide to cheat and assume they have whatever is necessary at any given moment).  A CYOA ends up being a one-player game, and that’s no bad thing.  Before I give you any information on today’s book, let me make it perfectly clear that I have a great deal of respect for anyone who can and has taken the time to assemble the multi-threaded adventure that is a CYOA.  It’s a lot of work to keep everything straight, particularly when multiple sections lead to the same result, and to not have overlapping information and events within any one thread.

This particular book, titled Venice and written by Michelle Novak is self-published.  It came, oddly enough, from the Renaissance Faire.  Honestly, you find some of the weirdest booths there.  This one in particular advertised “Books & Art”, with some decent art prints, some very short retellings of classic fairy tales for kids, and Venice.  It was clear the tent had been a deal between Novak and a friend, as she was the only author featured, and all the art had clearly come from a single hand.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with such a choice, these are just my observations.

Opening Venice for the first time, I was struck with immediate disdain for the page format.  The margins on the outer and bottom edges are far larger than they need to be, emphasizing the fact that this is a self-published book.  It also falls prey to the self-publishing trope of needing another read-through by an editor.  Multiple grammatical errors and a typo have caught my attention as I’ve read.  Spellcheck may confirm that all words are spelled correctly, but those might not be the words the writer intended to use.  I’m also under the impression that Novak is not an especially experienced author or reader herself.  There were a number of explanations, translations, and notes in parenthesis.  It’s not a bad technique every now and then, or in a blog like this, but it doesn’t work well in the context of a story, even a CYOA.  Commas would be more sophisticated.  Or rephrasing things to incorporate whatever text would have been in parenthesis.  Instead of saying “an English poet (Lord Byron)”, say “the English poet Lord Byron”.  This particular exerpt wasn’t a list of poets, so it would have worked quite well.

As for the actual content, the book notes on the back cover that it is “historical fiction/travel”.  I don’t know that the historical notation is useful at all, considering that the book, a mere year old, takes place in present time.  During the Carnevale, true, but this could be this year, last year, next year, but not too far into the future or past.

Venice, I feel, has a very specific target audience.  Namely, women around the same age as the author, whom I estimate to be in her mid-forties.  I like travel and while I’ve not yet been to Italy, I’d certainly be happy to get to Venice myself.  (Yes, that is where the entire book takes place.)  However, if I did go during Carnevale, I would not bother dressing up in Baroque women’s fashion.  I don’t do elaborate costumes, I am not a fan of spending money on impracticalities (books are totally practical), and I really don’t care for crowds.  Anyway, I don’t imagine there are that many men out there who would appreciate an entire section about how much of a pain in the ass it was for women to dress in the 1700 and 1800s.  Not to mention all the makeup this woman puts on with her costumes!

I also feel like I can’t take all of the information in this book at face value.  I’ve read fantasy set in Venice – it is, coincidentally, the Heirs of Alexandria series by Eric Flint, Dave Freer and Mercedes Lackey mentioned last post – and I feel like I can trust the information in there much more than Novak’s book.  Novak may be an amateur historian, but there is no proof, one way or another, that many of the specifics in this book are factual.  So I’m inclined to doubt.  According to the back cover, Novak has an M.A. in Speech & Interpersonal Communication.  Not the sort of person you’d expect to be an expert on a specific European city within a particular timeframe.  Sure, I believe she did a fair bit of research on the issue of Venice sinking, but some of the other factoids thrown out seem suspicious.

Then there’s the viewpoint character herself.  Now, the point of a CYOA is to put the reader in control and allow them to be a part of the action.  However, this character does not even have a name!  Now, this is not the first time I’ve encountered such a creation, but the last time was a parody of CYOA and roleplaying games and was designed to be ridiculous while still functioning as a CYOA.  Garth Nix is a man of many talents.  But in this case, I couldn’t help thinking of books where the main character is left so very blank and bland that they end up being wish fulfillment for the reader.

This book made me think that Twilight would have been even more popular if it was a CYOA.  Think about it.  What if those Team Jacob fans were able to choose for Bella to end up with the werewolf?  Can you imagine the insanity that could ensue?

(No, I’ve never read Twilight.  I will never read Twilight or anything from Stephanie Meyer.  I would sooner read and reread every book by Anne Rice, including the Jesus ones, and you know my opinion on those type of books.  At least she knows how to write properly.)

I’m pretty sure Michelle Novak owns all of Twilight. Based on what I’ve read in Venice, it seems likely.  By the way, I swear that the viewpoint character should have been raped or mugged multiple times.  Of course, she could never possibly come to any danger in this book.  But if a man can have his pocket picked in the souk in Jerusalem hours before Shabbat begins, a woman traveling alone in Venice is a prime target.

I’ve read the book twice now.  The first time, the words “THE END” came upon me swiftly and unexpectedly.  The second time I had more clues that this story thread was wrapping up.  I have to admit that both threads I read were fairly unique and had little tying them together.  As for the quaility of the story…it was mediocre.  Marred by the spellcheck errors and the persistent feeling that Novak would happily be the next Stephanie Meyer.  Venice was, at least, something different, and not an anthology.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sell it for more than a pittance, or fob it off on a friend.  I don’t know that many people who fantasize about wearing elaborate costumes in foreign cities.

It’s a Fantastic Anthology

There are a number of DAW anthologies that are “[insert term here] Fantastic” and based on what I’ve read, they’re generally good.  So when I saw Fate Fantastic on a bookstore shelf, I had to pick it up.  Running through the authors, I saw quite a number of names I recognized, including Julie E. Czerneda, Mike Resnick, Sarah A. Hoyt, Alan Dean Foster, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Irene Radford, Kate Paulk, and Dave Freer.  So, that covers about half the stories already.

Admittedly, I was actually pretty excited.  I didn’t think I’d read any short fiction by Dave Freer before (this was incorrect, I have a short story he coauthored with Eric Flint in Bedlam’s Edge) and I hadn’t really read any from Irene Radford yet.  Oh sure, I have a short set in her Merlin’s Descendants universe, but that’s still a part of a series, not a standalone short story.

After reading Fate Fantastic, I have mixed feelings.  There are some stories that are quite impressive.  Usually by authors whose names I recognized, by some magic of coincidence.  There were several stories that were simply disappointing and others which were mediocre.  So, I guess we can theorize that good authors are invited to contribute to more anthologies, and are more likely to have published novels or be able to do so.  It seems a reasonable assumption.

There are enough good stories to more than justify keeping this particular collection.  And I really should look into more by Dave Freer.  I recognized his name because he is one of the three authors responsible for the Heirs of Alexandria series (along with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey) and the only one to write a solo book in that world to date. For some reason, that particular volume is much less likely to turn up on shelves, and I have a friend who is in desperate need of it, and unwilling to risk my ire by damaging one of my paperbacks.  (Trust me, I am far more protective of my paperbacks than my hardcovers.  But I do lend both out on occasion.)

One surprise is that, despite the connotations of the word “fate”, a number of these stories are science fiction.  Several additional tales blur the lines between fantasy and sci-fi, but there are stories which are purely the latter.  There’s not a thing wrong with this, it simply defied expectations in a good way.

As I’ve noted before, it’s hard to talk about short stories without spoiling them, and on this note, I kind of wish I hadn’t read all of the introduction.  A few of the story premises would have been better if I hadn’t had a preview of what was to come.  But I have only myself to blame in that case.  But how can you put it in front of me and not expect me to read it?

I think my next selection will be a novel.  As nice as short stories are, I have read a number of anthologies fairly recently and need something a bit more extended.  There are a number of choices in The Pile, of course.  (There are also more anthologies, oh dear.)  I’ll be doing a lot of rereading in the next two months, as there will be a number of new releases in existing series, so I am inclined to read something new before I get lost in rereads.  And we’re talking a lot of rereading…David Weber’s got a new Safehold novel out on Election Day and I want to be ready for it.  If you are unfamiliar with Safehold or think I’m exaggerating, just scroll up.  Volumes 2-8 are shown in that cover photo (the first book is paperback).  I’d say more, but we will be getting to them soon enough.