Sharing Anew

I’ve mentioned previously the sheer number of shared world series I’ve encountered from the eighties, and I know there’s probably more that I don’t know or am less familiar with.  Or just wasn’t thinking of at the time for the previously listed reasons.  However, the concept of multiple authors contributing to a single world and storyline hasn’t gone away, it’s just been less obvious in later decades.  However, what I’ve got today isn’t even ten years old.  Published in 2011, this is Exiled: Clan of the Claw.

Bill Fawcett has created a different what-if scenario than we’re accustomed to seeing.  This isn’t “what if the Confederate States won the war” or “what if Hitler won” or anything like that.  To create a very different Earth from any we’ve ever known, Fawcett asks “what if the asteroid didn’t hit and didn’t wipe out the dinosaurs?”  Following this logic, the saurians would continue to evolve and eventually become the dominant intelligent species on the planet.  This includes the reptiles’ ability to paralyze prety with their gaze, expanded into powerful mental skills to oppress and subdue others.  They call themselves Liskash.

Of course, the reptilian domination wouldn’t prevent mammals from evolving either, and though they are not in charge, they develop their own intelligence to deal with the balance of power.  These catlike creatures call themselves Mrem, and they are the protagonists of this story.  Because of their fur and greater resistance to cold, Mrem are more heavily concentrated in the northern regions, as compared to the Liskash in the hotter, southern regions.  Although, of course, some intrepid pioneer Mrem have steadily expanded southward for more territory and greater challenge…

As things go the ice age is ending, the glaciers are retreating, and sea levels are rising.  The unthinkable happens when the waters surge through a gateway into a large, fertile valley, turning it into the New Sea.  (On our human maps, you might notice this listed as the Mediterranean Sea.)  Now those Mrem who are south of the new body of water find themselves vulnerable, cut off from the bulk of their species and likely to be easy prey for the Liskash.  And so they undertake a great Trek, intending to roam around the New Sea and make it back to safer territory.

Exiled: Clan of the Claw features four stories by five well-known authors, each telling a small anecdote of the Trek.  And really, I picked up the series on the strength of the authors’ names.  S.M. Stirling, Harry Turtledove, John Ringo, Jody Lynn Nye, and Michael Z. Williamson are all skilled writers whose contributions are credits to their names.

Like many shared worlds, the stories here go in chronological order, which can be noted by casual references to previous events.  Each story focuses on a different set of Mrem and Liskash, relieving authors of the need to be true to characters created by another.  The tales differ slightly in tonality and focus, but the overall quality is such that these are subtle and not jarring.  In fact, the only truly jarring note in the whole book was the random obviously gay Mrem.  I suppose I can appreciate his inclusion, although it just seemed overly heavily emphasized.  I have nothing against gay characters, I just felt that the guy was something of a stereotype used to hammer home the point that He Is Gay.  Kind of like the “teenage girl” in that story who is a self-centered brat with a hardcore crush that is really played up.

In the end, these are fairly minor complaints.  I enjoyed Exiled: Clan of the Claw and I’m glad I was finally able to find a copy, having had book two for some time now.

One note: I’m classing this under science fiction because while the most proper designation is probably historical fiction, I have a hard time mentally considering this as such because it’s prehistory for us.  It’s very human-centric of me, but that’s what I am.  And as for fantasy versus science fiction, the mental powers that are displayed (magic, if you will) feel more fantastical than scientific.  But what Exiled really reads like is one of the older books from before fantasy had its own genre, where there were no real hard and fast divisions between the two, and a book could have elements of both.  So, in light of that, I will count it as science fiction for the sake of my categories.

Image-Driven Day

Some days you carefully plan to read an entire manga series.  Some days you plan to burn through a single novel.  And some days you lie in bed longer than you had planned and end up rushing around all morning long to go hang out with your friend at a predetermined time so you read your new comics without rereading anyting.  Luckily, it doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference this time.

So, I read Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers #19, wherein the rangers are still dealing with Finster’s…art.  He is a sick artist, for the record.  There’s also some glimpses of the normal lives the teens are attempting to lead on the side when danger doesn’t call.  And that lady I suspect to be a villain is still around, the issue ending on a shocking revelation about her.  It…doesn’t prevent her from being a villain, but it may force me to reevaluate my reading of the character.

Go Go Power Rangers #4, on the other hand, continues a story that is likely a sage warning by the time MMPR starts.  The plot thickens and I’m beginning to see that what I thought would be a simple “don’t do this” is going to be far more elaborate, far-reaching, and mentally scarring.  This issue is essentially buildup towards the eventual climax of the current story arc.

But I got to hang out in the city today and take a trip into Wicker Park and Myopic Books!  I had a few errands to run and some books to attempt to sell.  Good news: they took one of the two books I wanted to get rid of.  Better news: the store credit I got totally covered one of the books I found.  Best news: the book I essentially got in trade is a book one for a book two in my Pile!  So I may look into reading those soon. But they aren’t nearly as interesting as the other book I bought.

Now, the best way to get me to watch a movie that I’m not interested enough to seek out is to sit me down and say “we’re watching this.”  That’s what happened back in college when my friend introduced me to Mirrormask for the first time.  I was enthralled.  I was blown away.  I was determined to own it for myself one day, and I jumped when the chance arose.

I never thought to see it in book form.  But that’s exactly what I found today.  And there was a name on the cover that, on reflection, I really should have expected to find.  After all, I have enjoyed a number of Neil Gaiman’s works before.

Why didn’t I know that Gaiman was one of the writers behind Mirrormask?  Probably because I’m not always observant.  But on reflection, the film reminds me strongly of The Dark Crystal and Neverwhere, and it makes total and complete sense. (Mirrormask was produced by the Jim Henson Company, at least in part.)  It probably would’ve reminded me of Labyrinth over The Dark Crystal if I’d actually seen the former as a child instead of, again, someone sitting me down in college and making me watch it.  The same person as Mirrormask, actually.  But I’m getting off track.

Mirrormask the book is written by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, the director of the movie.  I’d call this a novelization, as the screenplay came first, but I’m not sure the term actually applies here.  You see, this is more of an illustrated book.  Not a graphic novel or a picture book, but definitely not text on a page either.  I didn’t pick it up solely for the memory of the movie, but also because Mirrormask remembers that there are no laws saying books have to be mere words in lines, nor even that those lines have to be justified type running from left to right.  It plays with font and size and space.  It changes alignment and sometimes ignores lines entirely.  Everything, from the images to the letters, is designed to evoke the mood and scenes of the movie through the medium of the book.

More proof that this falls into the “novelization” category is the fact of the movie stills used in place of some illustrations, to better illuminate the world.  Or at least the real world.  Most of the other world is shown through illustration, in the style of Helena’s drawing.

I suppose not everyone reading this post has seen Mirrormask.  It’s even possible that some people have never even heard of it.  I hadn’t, when I first saw it.  It’s not a very high profile movie.  So let’s talk a bit about the plot.

Helena Campbell is a British circus brat.  Her parents run the show between them; her father in the ring and her mother behind the scenes.  Helena, being a teenager, is having a number of problems with her parents, namely that she wants a Real Life.  After an argument with her mother, everything seems to go wrong and Helena’s mother ends up in the hospital.  Things seem to be falling apart until Helena wakes up in another world.

Unfortunately, this other world seems to be in as much or more trouble as her normal life, and it’s up to Helena to do what she can to put both back in balance.  It’s a Hero’s Journey, sure, but with those strange, twisted tones that Neil Gaiman evokes in all his work.  You may not ever know exactly how you feel about what you’re seeing, and you may not be completely comfortable, but you cannot stop watching or reading and have to find out what happens next.

Mirrormask the book is quite short at a mere 80 pages.  It retains almost all of the essential moments from the movie while reducing them down to their purest forms.  I feel I am not quite satisfied, having finished the book, but I think putting on the DVD will solve that problem nicely.  Which is a shame, because it means I have to tell you that reading Mirrormask is no substitute for watching the movie.  The book is perfectly fine, but it won’t give you the full experience, and I highly recommend that you not settle for anything less.

Stop Trying Time Travel

Why do I always seem to grab the mediocre time travel books?  Last Chance for MagicA Walk in Wolf Wood, the Acorna books…the list goes on.  And today let’s add The Book of Kells by R. A. MacAvoy.  I picked this up on a whim at the Newberry Library’s book sale over the summer.  It was only a dollar and since I tend not to find many sci-fi or fantasy books there, I figured I’d give it a shot.  After all, I have an art degree and the title is the same as one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts in the world.

I always knew it wasn’t going to be a great book, but I had hoped for something more enjoyable than what I got.

I have to sit back and wonder, though, if time travel is just too complicated to do well.  I’ve had issues with time travel as a mechanism before – it was the Acorna books that made it obvious.  I mean, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern used time travel and it got silly, but I had far too much invested in that series to put it down.  With Acorna, I’ve read every book in that and the sequel series, Acorna’s Children, once.  Only once.  I think it was the fourth book of the first series that saw Acorna’s boyfriend/husband/mate/male partner time traveling with the immortal shape-shifting cat-thing that kept fathering new species on every planet?  Also R.K., the cat Roadkill, revealed that he could talk telepathically and became the best character in the series for real.  I think that was all the same book, but I have no intention of going back to figure it out.  The point is, even though I felt obligated to read the whole series, it was Acorna that made me swear off reading any more McCaffrey series involving time-travel.

So, time-travel as an issue is nothing new in my reading.  And The Book of Kells did something that I always find illogical no matter the circumstances – it implied that these two time periods were linked, that time ran equivalent and so spending one day in the past meant a day had passed in the future.  Which makes no sense when you think about it.  It didn’t make sense in Inu-Yasha or Power Rangers Time Force either.  It would make far more sense if either no time had passed between when the characters left one time for the other and their return, or if some bizarre amount of time had passed.

Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series involves movement through time at one point.  (Okay, at several points, but I’m focusing on one in particular right now.)  Artemis, boy genius that he is, is told to focus on returning himself and the people with him to his particular time.  (Artemis is the only human around and so much shorter-lived than anyone else.  IE, his time or his lifespan encompasses a much smaller number of years on the vast timeline.)  As I recall, he gets back about three or four years after he left, which is a remarkably small margin of error, all things considered.  Now, The Book of Kells doesn’t actually say how many days passed in present day while the characters were gallivanting through the past, but it is implied that it’s a day for a day.

I suppose I should actually touch on the plot, not just the author’s chosen device.  John Thornburn is a Canadian living in Dublin because an Irish friend with a much more forceful personality convinced him to.  He’s happy enough because the Book of Kells is a powerful inspiration for him as an artist, but his life is rather empty.  When a bulldozer turns up an ancient cross in a bog, John volunteers to render it.  However, when tracing the last of the many spirals covering the carving, a doorway between times is opened and a young woman falls through, bleeding and desperate.  Failing to understand a word of her Gaelic, John calls Derval, the woman who got him to Ireland in the first place.  After tending her wounds, the three go back to the Ireland of 985 CE, and have an adventure.

If you guessed this book was published in 1985, making the interval exactly 1000 years, congratulations, this book is that predictable.  It’s also trite, overly obviously romantic, has no real plot motivating half the characters, and takes serious liberties, especially with time-travel itself.

I cannot emphasize enough that The Book of Kells is not worth anyone’s time or money.  It wasn’t like A Walk in Wolf Wood, which was to me a better version of Last Chance for Magic and had some nostalgia therefore.  It wasn’t like The Crystal Warriors which was so bad it was good, but actually well written.  And it wasn’t like Dhampire which just a trainwreck of a book – filled with things I really would rather not have read, but I just had to find out what it was all leading up to.

There are two books that I may choose to reread now, based on what I’ve just finished.  I could go with Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus which also involves time travel, but done much much much better.  It happens to be my favorite novel from Orson Scott Card, and it understands that if you are changing the past, you are erasing the future as you know it.  The other book is The Witches of Eileanan, first in a series of six (or nine if you include the sequel series).  This sees a very Scottish or Irish (please don’t ask me which, I am not an expert with accents or word choice) world of witches, fairies, magic, and more which is about to undergo a serious regime change in many sense.  It’s an epic series, even without the extra three books, that has it’s own share of fascinating elements, including a bit of time travel.  I first picked up those books around 2000 or 2001 (I remember seeing the fourth book new on the shelves, and it was released in 2001, so I’d obviously finished the first three books by that time) and Pastwatch was on a summer reading list in highschool a few years later.  Needless to say, if those books have stuck with me this long, they are far better than The Book of Kells.

“Why don’t you just stop reading it?” my coworker has asked me the past two mornings.

Because I’m a masochist when it comes to books, and my pride won’t let me stop trying unless if I’m literally having trouble comprehending what I’m actually reading.

Very Happy

I wanted to read a story.  Something I’d never read or experienced before.  Not a series, because I’ve got a couple first books in the Pile but nothing from the rest of either series.  I just wanted a full and complete story.  And hopefully not another one which would make me question my intelligence and life choices.

It was with great trepidation that I chose Tanith Lee’s The Storm Lord.  And I couldn’t be happier that I did.

The Storm Lord didn’t make me think quite as hard as Sabella, nor did I feel as lost as with Delusion’s Master.  But, being the third and final Tanith Lee book I purchased that day, this novel was like a gift instead.  Not as thought-provoking, not at all difficult to read, just an great and encompassing story.

It’s only 350 pages long, but The Storm Lord is a true epic nonetheless.  The protagonist travels all over the continent, touches the lives of many people and ties so many smaller stories together.  Sure, there’s a number of points that are skimmed and barely mentioned, but do they truly need to be fleshed out?  I’ve mentioned before that there are many books today which seem to be long for the sake of length, that their authors seem to be under the impression that a longer book will have a higher quality, despite the fact that this is patently untrue.  Again, I have read and will continue to read bricks that are excellent, but that just means they’ve been written by skilled authors who know what they’re doing.

Tanith Lee knew what she was doing, and was able to compress so very much into such a small package.  I am truly satisfied by The Storm Lord.  It didn’t give me that frission of something special, but I didn’t need it to.  All I wanted was a good, solid story that I enjoyed from beginning to end, and that’s exactly what I got.

I suppose a small synopsis is in order.  Very small, to avoid too many spoilers.

The story opens with an old King, the entitled Storm Lord traveling far from his home.  He is a lustful man, influenced by the red star of the night sky, like all of his people.  The indigeneous villagers seem unaffected by such lust, but when the Storm Lord calls for a young woman, a priestess, she comes to him willingly enough.  In the morning, the Storm Lord is found dead and the priestess claims to be pregnant.  By the ancient laws of his country, the Storm Lord’s heir is his last-conceived son, borne by this outlandish priestess.  And, of course, it is the child who is the main character. He has to grow up, leave his home, and become a man in the normal course of things.  Of course, that’s far from all that happens, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the book.

I am so happy to have read this book.  My interest in acquiring more Tanith Lee had been with some reservations – that I wanted to know more about the two worlds I’d read, but was afraid that all of her books would make me feel inadequate and stupid while reading them.  The Storm Lord reassures me that not everything is written at such a high level, and encourages me to continue picking up books on the strength of author’s name alone.

I’m not sure what to read next, because I doubt anything else in my Pile is going to live up to that high.  I could always go for something with rather low expectations to contrast, or I could consider rereading something.  Plus there’s those comic books I should get to at some point.  We shall see.

Why oh Why

Today I finished one of the books I found at the Newberry Library’s sale over the summer.  I may have mentioned that this is a rather massive sale, featuring hundreds of thousands of books and other media items divided into six variously sized rooms and dozens of categories.  One of those categories is “Judaica” and it is a rather fascinating mixed bag of books, ranging from prayer books to educational books to things that happen to be in Hebrew.  I always poke around just to see what’s available, and this year, among other things, I found The Jewish Book of Why by Alfred J. Kolatch.

As someone who is more knowledgeable than many about my religion, I figured I’d pick it up and see what I could learn.  No harm done.  Of course, when I opened it up to take off the book cover (in such nice condition, I didn’t want to damage it in my work bag), the odor told me this hadn’t been opened much in decades.  Which inspired me to check the publication date.  1981 seemed…less than promising.  But, it wasn’t a super long book, only about three hundred pages, so I should be fine, right?

Well, mostly.

I would not recommend this book to anyone who is trying to learn about Judaism for the first time, as there are a number of concepts and terms that you need some background beyond what’s provided to understand.  I also would not recommend this book for anyone with my level of knowledge or higher.  I feel I learned very little of practical use in today’s world, as many of the questions concern customs I have never heard of before and they sound rather outdated.

It is interesting that, for a book that talks about religion, there is as little religion as possible within these pages.  The questions and answers focus on customs and actions for the most part and the author presents what his research indicates to be the beliefs which prompted such actions and customs.  He actively tries to keep his own opinions out of the book, which is admirable.

One of the things I found annoying was just the fact that the common transliterations have changed over time, and the author favors different spellings from what I prefer.  Transliteration, the act of spelling words in one language from a foreign language that uses a completely different alphabet, is never perfect.  But there are commonly accepted spellings, as well as a widely varied number of acceptable spellings.  So, nobody wins.

One thing that bothered me was when Hebrew or Yiddish words were used and not translated literally.  He keeps referring to the Shulchan Aruch as the Code of Jewish Law but it actually translates to “The Set Table.”  I’m not saying he needs to call it that every time, but to actually translate it literally once would have been nice.  (It’s a document from the 1500s that was written to be the definitive Jewish law.  Of course, then someone wrote commentary to represent certain regions whose customs were left out…because let’s face it, Judaism is all about commentary.)

This wasn’t a particularly interesting or even good book to read.  I did learn some things, had a few others clarified, but mostly I had no interest whatsoever in what I was reading.  As I mentioned, a lot of the questions answered concerned customs I’ve never heard of before and doubt many people (at least in this country) follow today.  I’ll probably give this book to my dad for Hannukah; he’s old enough that he’s probably more familiar with those obscure customs.  He’s also less educated about our religion than I am, and enjoys learning more about it.  He probably won’t find it as dry as I did either.

I am definitely reading a novel next.  Not sure what, but it will be a real story.

Convention Time

You may recall that I live in Chicagoland.  Well, today I went to the largest comic book convention in Lake County.  That’s right, it’s Count-i-Con!  For all you people who are unfamiliar with the region, let’s explain it quite simply.  The city of Chicago takes up most of Cook County.  Lake County is just north, between Cook County and Wisconsin.  So, the largest comic book convention in Lake County is, well, not very large.  Only $10 to get in on a Saturday, even after the new $5 parking fee.

I’ve gone the past few years now and seen the price gradually rise, but it’s not overly expensive for what it is yet.  As conventions go, Count-i-Con is mostly a dealer’s room.  There’s some events, like a costume contest, some games and demos, and a couple other things (so I’m told), but most people are only there to shop and see the other people.  The tables range from local stores and artists to those who sell at all sorts of conventions throughout the region.  The items range from brand-new top-of-the-line to vintage and then to handmade.  The art ranges from “aren’t you a little too skilled to be at this dinky little con” to “oh, sweetie, you need to practice.  A lot.”  Regardless, there’s something for everyone in a variety of price ranges.

It’s not the sort of convention I can go to with something specific in mind unless if I want comic books that are at least five years old.  Again, it is primarily a comic book convention and so almost every booth will have a box of back issues for cheap mixed in with everything else.  Today I found some DVDs, some adorable buttons, and a manga volume.  Then, because the owner of my preferred comic shop was so friendly (they had the first booth in the whole place and a great sale on games that my friend took advantage of), we stopped at their brick and mortar store on the way back so I could pick up the new Power Rangers comics.  Again, Count-i-Con is not the place to go for brand-new comics.

I had a lot of fun wandering around, talking to people I know, and seeing the wide variety of costumes.  The best by far was Yondu, from Guardians of the Galaxy.  Complete with angel wings and a lyre.

But this post is about the manga I bought.

It was the very last booth my friend and I visited – in the corner near the entrance and easy to overlook given the mass of people crowded into the Lake County Fairgrounds building.  It was also the first booth I saw that had anything like a decent manga selection; most only had a few volumes.  The prices were…not great until I saw the $10 box with a collection of Rebirth, volumes 1-3.  It was an easy sell.

I first encountered Rebirth years ago in highschool.  One of the librarians happened to be the advisor for the school’s Anime Club and she was working on building the manga collection.  Combine that with a last period study hall that I usually spent in said library, and I read through quite a few of the books on shelf.  Not just the manga, but also Les Miserables (abridged), Anne Rice, and a lot of Year’s Best Science Fiction.  The school had, as I recall, about twelve volumes of Rebirth.

It is, commonly enough for me, a vampire story.  A manhua (manwha? transliteration sucks either way) technically, Rebirth is created by a Korean artist known as Woo.  Deshwitat L. Rudbich is a dark, brooding loner of a protagonist who is abruptly resurrected with a virgin’s blood more than three hundred and fifty years after being sealed away.  Even worse, he may be all that stands between the world and oblivion, thanks to certain events and people in his past.

He is…less than thrilled about this.  Unless if it means he’ll finally get to destroy the person who took everything he loved from him, in which case he’s all in.  The only problem is that, as a vampire, Deshwitat’s power lies in darkness.  His enemy is of the light, and as such Desh is at a real disadvantage.  Now he seeks to wield the power of light as well, in order to finally defeat his enemy.

The school only had so many volumes, but the story was quite obviously far from over.  However, with Tokyopop as a publisher, there seemed to be problems with all the books getting translated into English and to this day I don’t think the series has been officially completed for American audiences.  Several years ago I remember looking it up on a scanlation site and finding more, but the group producing the scanlations had a note up saying they needed help – a translator or a scanner, I think – if the series was ever going to be finished by their team.

It’s a shame, because even when I idly grabbed the first volume off the school library’s shelf I could tell that beneath the fan service, whiny Korean girl, and silly jokes there was a real story to be read.  I always hoped to get the manga, but either there were other books I wanted more, or the volumes I could find were random numbers it made no sense to collect out of order, or they were just too expensive for what they were.

Is Rebirth a great manga?  Definitely not.  It has a host of issues stemming from the author outwards.  But I’m willing to look beneath the surface and put on my nostalgia glasses to enjoy it all over again.


I do not have what is commonly called a “classical” education.  I’ve never read the Iliad or the Odyssey, though I spent a year translating parts of the Aenied.  I’ve never read Le Morte d’Arthur or Bullfinch’s Mythology or The Golden Bough.  I’ve never read Chaucer or Joyce or so very many the authors and books that have influenced the many stories I myself devour.  And I’ve never looked up Tam Lin.

Usually my ignorance isn’t a huge problem.  Even if I’m not getting all the underlying hints and symbology, I can still follow what’s going on.  I know enough to get the basics out of the scene and life moves on.  Today, however, I feel that anyone who hasn’t read even half of the books mentioned within the actual story, not to mention the ones listed in the following essay, will be at something of a disadvantage.

Today was Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.  I picked this up last year, along with several of the other Jones books I’ve read in the past eleven months, at a convention.  It had occurred to me that I liked Diana Wynne Jones as an author and I should probably make an effort to read more by her.  I’d known enough then to realize what a loss her death had been to the literary world, but the more I read the more I begin to truly understand.

If that wasn’t enough, the introduction to Fire and Hemlock was penned by no less a name than Garth Nix, shortly before she passed.  And he lists it as one of his favorite works by Jones from the time it was first released.  His introduction is no less fascinating than Jones’ own essay following the story: “The Heroic Ideal – A Personal Odyssey.”  Between the two, I was able to fill in enough of the gaps the novel left me.

Fire and Hemlock is the story of Polly Whittacker, who has come to realize she has two sets of memories.  Most of the tale is told in flashbacks as she prods the hidden memories into the light and works to understand them and why they were stolen away.  At first, everything seems harmless and fun, though with a dark undertone lurking in the shadows.  Not too unusual for a story with a ten year old protagonist.  But Polly doesn’t stay ten forever and the book grows more intense as the years pass until we return to the climactic present.

Part of what defines Polly’s joy in life in the earlier years is reading, and there are quite a few notable books name-dropped in those chapters.  As I said, I’ve read very few of those classical works.  In fact, my favorite classical book isn’t even listed once!  (I guess not everyone else loves Les Miserables?)  Anyway, I very much get the impression that, given the way Polly assigns the characters from The Three Musketeers to real-life figures, the various books listed can give a discerning reader clues as to where the story is going.  It makes me wonder if I should give some of these classics a try.

Of course, then I remember a scene from Children of the Night (by Mercedes Lackey of course) where Diana Tregarde is helping some college students get a better background in religion for their roleplaying game.  She pulls out The Golden Bough and describes it as being a rather dense book.  Probably literally as well as figuratively.  Between that fairly vivid recollection and my own experience in school, I am more than a little leery of attempting to read “the classics.”

If you don’t recall, I observed a while back that it might be the poorly-written textbooks students are subjected to that kept me from reading nonfiction for years.  I don’t remember having any particularly bad reactions to nonfiction outside of textbooks and others I needed for projects, but my point stands.  I will say that I have had problems with actual classics that I read for class – which may or may not have influenced my reactions.  I have enjoyed some books that I read in Language Arts and English classes, but most were just…words on pages.  And a few were truly horrendous.  The awful ones, to my mind, include Huckleberry Finn and A Prayer for Owen Meany.  I have never wanted to burn a book quite as badly as I did the latter.

I tried reading Jane Eyre once, but I never could muster the interest to get more than a few pages in.  The same for The Swiss Family Robinson and The House of the Seven Gables.  I’m a bit afraid that if I try one of the other classics that has so influenced my favorite authors, I’ll either won’t be able to read it, or reading it will feel like work, making the whole experience unenjoyable.  Books are my free time, my escapism, my joy and happiness, and I don’t want or need them to be extra assignments, even self-imposed.

Of course, when it comes to books originally written in foreign or older versions of languages, part of what makes or breaks the novel is the translation.  I can manage Shakespeare once I get in the right mindset to translate for myself, but I might not be as partial to Les Miserables if not for the modern translation.  (To be fair, I first read an abridged version from the school library that may have been older than I am.  But when I bought the unabridged version it was the well-translated snark that made it a treat.)  And I know I’d find even the Aeneid less work if I wasn’t doing a poor job of translating it myself.  Though I’m still not keen on Dido whining and moaning for a hundred lines…

I guess what I’ve been trying to say in my rambling way is that the amount of literary history in Fire and Hemlock, a book that theoretically suits ages 12 and up, makes me feel intimidated and inadequately educated.  I could blame the US curriculums which, from what I can see, have been moving further away from these classics.  In my highschool, only the AP class senior year (which I was clearly not in) actually studied English Literature, older works from across the sea.

The point is, nobody ever forced me to read these types of books and as an adult I find myself reluctant and scared to try.  In its own way, Fire and Hemlock is every bit as intimidating as Delusion’s Master.

Tour Time

Sometimes, you can look at the title of a book and just know what kind of ride you’re in for.  When I was in the used bookstore in the basement of Block Thirty-Seven, I spotted Dark Lord of Derkholm on the shelf and knew instantly that this book was going to be somewhat absurd.  After all, it’s by Diana Wynne Jones, and she wouldn’t give something such an obvious title if it wasn’t meant to be over the top.

Needless to say, I was right.

In a fairly standard fantasy world, everyone on this particular continent is united and working together.  In fact, that’s what their contracts stipulate.  After all, everything must be perfect for the tourists.  Mr. Chesney, a man from a world much like our own, runs a profitable business known as Pilgrim Parties.  Tourists from his own world adventure as the Forces of Good and experience a six-week holiday to the extreme as the seek to topple the Dark Lord.  What they don’t know is that most of their experience is staged for their benefit by the residents of the world.

This is why the world’s inhabitants work together, because if Mr. Chesney is disappointed in his customers’ experience…there will be consequences.  For forty years he’s been the unspoken ruler, but those he extorts and manipulates have had enough.  Which is why those in charge start their own adventure by visiting the Oracles…

You may remember that one of the books I devoured on my vacation last December was The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel.  Published eight years after Dark Lord of Derkholm, I am reasonably certain that today’s novel was the inspiration for the guidebook.  In fact, I am tempted to take a more thorough look at the tongue-in-cheek glossary to see if there are any clues linking it to the Pilgrim Parties.

Well, this is interesting!  The biography included in The Tough Guide says I have it backwards, that the Guide inspired Dark Lord of Derkholm.  There’s a note on the inside back cover that further supports this, saying the Guide was begun in 1994, when Jones was laid up for a time.  And here I see where my mistake came from – my edition of the The Tough Guide was published in 2006, but the first edition came out in 1996, two years before Dark Lord of Derkholm.  In my defense, I was looking the date up on my library database, not the internet as a whole.  Note to self: next time!

Another element to Dark Lord of Derkholm is that of the hero’s journey; the young protagonist setting out and finding their own way through the world.  If Derk, this year’s Dark Lord, is the title character, the person whose viewpoint we see through most often is his son Blade.  After all, it was in searching out a teacher for Blade who didn’t hail from the University (where most wizards are trained) that drew the pair of them into this year’s mess.  (Derk had some…disagreements in his time at the University and doesn’t want his son subjected to the same.)

So in addition to the amazingly well-oiled machine of making the Pilgrim Parties happen, we also get to see Blade and several other youngsters of comparable ages growing up and finding their places in the world.  Sure, some things are predictable, but that’s not a bad thing.  And while I may call this a “fairly standard fantasy world,” there are enough unique elements that I couldn’t fully extrapolate all the causes and effects.  Each world has its own rules, and only the author knows them all.

Dark Lord of Derkholm is a fun adventure, with a lot of smiles, a lot of laughs, and yet still tells a meaningful story and shows a family’s love for each other.  I got my the somewhat ridiculous read I was expecting, but I also got a whole lot more out of it.

Shared Worlds

There must have been something going around in the eighties because I keep encountering shared worlds originally published in that decade.  These include Merovingen Nights, Heroes in Hell, Dragonlance, Thieves’ World, Magic in Ithkar, and now Liavek.  Now, I’ve read more in certain of these series than others, and there are those which I haven’t chosen to (or haven’t wanted to) dip into just yet, so my definitions may be off.  But a shared world, from what I’ve seen, is a common location in which multiple authors tell stories.  Later tales may reference earlier tales and characters may show up in multiple entries, but aside from that, the stories may not have any real relation to each other.

Liavek is one of those series which reads more as an anthology, where each story in the book is the contribution of a different author.  From what I’ve seen in some of this book’s stories in particular, I suspect that, like some of the Valdemar anthologies, later Liavek books will continue several of the tales.  These are the stories that have endings, yes, but chapter endings, not conclusions for the characters.  Of course, the only way to know for sure is to find more Liavek.

This book came to me from a friend who can be described as a “pusher”.  Except, instead of drugs, she pushes books on people.  I admit, I wasn’t certain what to think of Liavek when I found it thrust into my hands, but I left it in my Pile until the time should come to read it.  And one thing I noticed early on was that this wasn’t my first exposure to the city and world of Liavek: I had read “Rikiki and the Wizard” by Patricia C. Wrede years ago.  This book offered me a wider view of the world which has a blue chipmunk for one of its gods.

Lest you think my growing enthusiasm was unwarranted, let me list for you the authors in this particular volume.  Jane Yolen, a different story by Patricia C. Wrede, Nancy Kress, Gene Wolfe, Steven Brust, and Will Shetterly were immediately recognizable. It turns out I’ve had previous experience with Emma Bull, Kara Dalkey,  and Megan Lindholm as well.  And I swear I’ve heard of Pamela Dean before, though I can’t remember the context.  So the only author I had no prior knowledge or experience of was Barry B. Longyear, and he wrote “The Fortune Maker”, one of the strongest stories in the entire book, to the point where it’s no surprise they positioned it last.

Well, last but for the Appendices.  But I don’t usually read deeply into appendices.  If I have questions, I’ll go to the section that will (hopefully) provide answers, but I am not about to invest the time to read the dry facts of worldbuilding in most cases.  I think that makes me more prone to watching special features and extras on my DVDs than I am to read the appendices.  I know I’ve spent more time watching The Lord of the Rings with commentary than I have reading the Appendices there…

Long ramble short, I’m glad that my friend shoved Liavek at me and I shall have to read more of it as it turns up in my book hunts.

Asexuality in Valdemar

Winds of Fury is the last of the Mage Winds trilogy, and it sees our focus shift from the Pelagiris Forest near the Dhorisa Plains back to Valdemar and its environs.  It’s the end of the war with Hardorn, the end of the return of magic to Valdemar, and the prelude to the much more engaging Mage Storms trilogy that has been foreshadowed and hinted at throughout.

This last book is also my least favorite of the Mage Winds trilogy, which says a fair bit considering how unenthusiastic I am towards all three books.  There’s nothing inherently objectionable in it, I just don’t find it interesting.  Especially Elspeth as a character.  She’s just so…bland.

So let’s talk about asexuality in Valdemar books.  Mentioned a few times in this book and in the trilogy as a whole are the Shin’a’in Swordsworn, the Kal’enedral.  These are individuals who dedicate their lives to the Warrior aspect of the Shin’a’in’s four-faced Goddess, giving up all pretense of a “normal” life including sexuality.  And people in the real world call them asexual and, well, they’re not wrong.  But the Swordsworn are “rendered sexless” as Lackey has written.  Their celibacy is a choice and the Goddess has merely made it an easier vow to keep by removing sexual inclinations from Her servants.  I view it as a bit of cheating, and more along the lines of real-world monks and priests who would take (and keep) vows of celibacy.

To my mind, the real asexual character is the one that comes into her own in this trilogy, despite being present in several earlier books.  That is Need, the magic sword that Kerowyn got from her grandmother Kethryveris, passed to Elspeth and then on to Nyara.  Back in Winds of Change, Need shares her own memories of how she became a sword, having once been as human as anyone else.  A mage-smith in a religious order, she herself observed that “she’d never found any man whose attractions outweighed the fascination of combining mage-craft with smithery.”  True, Need is less fond of men in general than of women, but that doesn’t make her any less asexual.  She finds men less interesting than her craft and appears to have no urges or inclinations driving her towards them.

I guess what I’m saying is that, of all the asexual characters in Valdemar, Need best embodies my asexuality.  It’s not a matter of choice, it’s simply something that doesn’t even begin to factor into her thought process.  And then she ends up becoming a sword which makes any further effort along those lines moot.

What I’m trying to say is that asexuality and agender don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.  Need is very strongly female despite her noninterest.  The Swordsworn are rendered asexual and also androgynous, although it may simply be that gender is less an issue with their people in general and similarities can easily confuse outsiders.  You can write whole essays, multiple ones, about nonheteronormative people and sexualities in Lackey’s books, which is no bad thing.

Now, I could go on to reread Mage Storms which would then make me want to reread Owls.  But, I’ve just finished rereading four books (and beta reading a fifth) and I think I just need something new and different at this point.  Especially since, as I’ve mentioned, there’s a library sale this weekend and I hope to add to my Pile.  Meaning I should go stare at it and decide what I’m taking to work tomorrow.