Gaslamp

After an anthology edited by the lovely Ellen Datlow, I decided to follow it up with a second anthology, this time adding her partner-in-crime Terri Windling.  Fun fact: it’s been close to twenty years since I first read an anthology from this pair.  They edited A Wolf at the Door, a set of retold fairy tales I picked up through a Scholastic Book Fair.  (Ah, those halcyon days when books came to you and all you had to do was take the catalogue home and show your parents everything you wanted.)

These stories, however, are not fairy tales.  Indeed, this is the oft-overlooked very small subgenre of “gaslamp” fantasy.  Not steampunk (well, only one story is steampunk), but the Victorian era, generally speaking.  To the point where the book is titled Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells.  It’s actually the title of the first (and one of the best) stories of the lot, by the ever-talented Delia Sherman.  Although the story itself is set in modern times as the dedicated scholar examines the title volume, seeking the secrets of the great Queen’s life.

Some of the stories are far more fantastic than others, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  After all, fantasy encompasses that “left of center” reality that cannot be proven to be one thing or another.  And then there’s stories like Tanith Lee’s steampunk contribution that retells Frankenstein in a different manner.  That was one where I asked myself if that was really where this was going and well, yes, that’s exactly what she chose to do.  Of course, the end is far less predictable, but one does wonder.

Then again, I’ve read a number of Alice in Wonderland retellings, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  Indeed, I should be shocked at how rarely I spot Frankenstein.

Another notable entry is “Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes, an author I am wholly unfamiliar with.  Of all the stories here, this is the true horror tale.  It, combined with one of the stories from Blood is Not Enough reminds me that the most horrific stories are the ones with the most minimal elements of the fantastic.  The more rooted they are in reality, the scarier they are.  And it’s terrifying to think what kind of working conditions factory employees endured before they birthed the unions to argue for better conditions and pay.  It’s the downside to the picturesque Victorian upper-class we usually think of.

The last story worth mentioning in detail would be “The Vital Importance of the Superficial” by Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevermer.  Told entirely through letters, it’s a charming and compelling tale of lost property, magical mishaps, and a bit of sappy romance.  I always have mixed opinions on stories told in this fashion, through supporting documents.  Some are incredibly well done, and others just read as bland as you can imagine.  This is one of the better ones, and is interestingly enough, not the only example in this volume.

We’ve also got stories from Elizabeth Bear, Gregory Maguire, and Jane Yolen, for names I’ve seen before.  I do like the note where Yolen is often called “the American Hans Christian Andersen” but says it’s more “Hans Jewish Andersen”.

Overall, it’s a decent anthology.  There’s only the three stories that truly stand out for me, but each of them alone would be worth keeping the book, and that’s no bad thing.

I may have stolen a couple more books from my parents’ house last night (not that they’d deny me any, especially books that neither has any intention of reading or rereading), but neither of them is striking me as something that must be next.  I’m heading into the city tomorrow for the Gerbert Hart Library’s book sale, although I don’t honestly know how I’ll fare there.  It’s a LGBT+ library, which is awesome, though I can’t be sure how that’ll affect a fundraiser like this.  After all, library book sales aren’t entirely or even mostly books removed from circulation.  They tend to be made up of donations, and the proceeds help support the library and its programs in the coming year.  So while I know the collection is rather specific, the sale is not limited in the same way.  Eh, we’ll see.  Hopefully it won’t be pouring all day long.

I am expecting a box to arrive sometime today, and it does have books in it.  One of them I know I’m not at all ready for yet, and the other is…a possibility.  A standalone by an author I’ve enjoyed in the past.  Although I’m considering rereading a different standalone…hmm.  Decisions, decisions.

Plus chores.  So I better finish up this post and be (semi) productive.

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A Little Horror

There’s something very saitsfying about picking up a book out of the Pile and finding it just as good as you hoped it would be.  This is one of my newest acquisitions, from Half Price the Thursday before I left for the weekend, and one of the books I’d stuffed in my bag against finishing Spinning Silver.

Some names I just take note of, even if they seem to come in pairs.  In this case, I was surprised to find an anthology (of course it’s an anthology) edited by Ellen Datlow, missing her partner in crime Terri Windling.  Then again, I was looking in the horror section, which probably explains the lack.  Yes, the two together have a tendency towards horrific fairy tales, but Windling is more fantasy and Datlow is more horror.  And if you know anything about me at all, you know that this anthology I pulled from the horror section is about vampires.

The title, Blood is Not Enough, is a dead giveaway there, but that and the editor alone weren’t why I picked it up.  The cover said I’d find stories from (the late great) Harlan Ellison and Fritz Leiber, and the inside cover added Tanith Lee, as well as that other standard pairing of Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois, whom I hadn’t realized also wrote fiction, in addition to editing anthologies.  Oh, and Joe Haldeman also contributed.

I’ve read more authors here than that, of course, and it was very interesting to see which names are in my database multiple times as I went though, including Gahan Wilson (whom I last encountered in a fascinatingly visual story that started off Unnatural Creatures, edited by Neil Gaiman), Garry Kilworth, Harvey Jacobs, Edward Bryant (someone I originally read in Immortal Unicorn), and Steve Rasnic Tem.  That’s ten out of seventeen stories, and a fairly normal percentage for me.  Enough to have familiarity, but still room to find new names.  After all, every one of the authors I listed was new to me at one point and, as you know, the more I see a name the more likely I am to actually reach out and pick up a book based on that strength.  Well, maybe not a novel in most cases, but still, it adds weight to an anthology I’m considering.

As the title implies, Blood is Not Enough features more than just the traditional vampires.  Vampirism can take many forms, and there are stories here to showcase a multitude.  In fact, while most of the tales were written for this anthology, several are earlier works – much earlier in one case.  No date is provided to Leonid Andreyev’s “Lazarus”, which paints that Christian miracle in a much darker light.  The second oldest story is Fritz Leiber’s “The Girl With the Hungry Eyes” from 1949 which captures a mediocre photographer’s growing fascination and horror with his model.  “Try a Dull Knife” by Harlan Ellison dates back to 1968 and it, in contrast, manages to capture one man’s panic and frenzy as he tries to lose the shadows in his mind.

The other older stories are all from the eighties, including Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann’s contribution, “Down Among the Dead Men”.  Now that is a story that I will almost certainly remember forever for its chilling imagery and impposible question of right and wrong morality.  Datlow’s note preceeding the story mentions that this story was rejected by the major science fiction magazines of the time (1982) because of the subject matter.  I can understand that, but I feel this is a tale that shouldn’t be forgotten.  It is a vampire story, true, but it’s also a Holocaust story, and kudos to the men who wrote it.

Another tale that stuck with me is “The Silver Collar” by Garry Kilworth.  It may have been inspired by his daughter’s wedding jitters dream, but he wrote a hauntingly compelling tale around it that evokes Dracula in almost every scene.  I do appreciate that in addition to the editor’s note introducing each story, there’s also an author’s note following, talking about where the idea came from, what the author sought to accomplish, or just what comes to mind as they revisit a story years later for this collection.  A real best of both worlds scenario for me.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Harvey Jacobs’ “L’Chaim!” being the Jew that I am.  He may call his vampires “yuppies”, but the story was still good even when I saw what was coming.  It’s on the shorter side, but well worth the inclusion.

It was “A Child of Darkness” by Susan Casper that gave me flashbacks to Sabella by Tanith Lee, rather than that own worthy’s contribution.  Scott Baker’s “Varicose Worms” was as disgusting as promised and Edward Bryant’s “Good Kids” took a turn for the interesting as I read.

I suppose I could go on with a sentence about each and every inclusion, but I’ve hit all the high points by now.  The fact is that I do like a well-written vampire story and it’s a creature that works as well if not better in short fiction as in long.  I just need to keep reminding myself that not all horror exists to make you jump up and scream, that much of it’s psychological and knows how to tell a good story.  I’ve never liked scaring myself just to feel fear and I can’t stand horror movies.  But literature is a different creature and I need to be better about remembering that.

Mostly I’ll just sit back tonight and appreciate the wonder of reading a book of stories I’ve never experienced before and thoroughly enjoying myself.

And no, I’m not adding a horror category.  It may be listed as a separate genre in bookstores, but for me it falls under the banner of science fiction/fantasy.

Back into Books

I started reading comic books in college for a few reasons.  This included having Watchmen and Sandman foisted on me in digital format as well as discovering the original V for Vendetta.  And someone in the school’s library acquisitions had good taste, because that’s where I first read Green Lantern: Blackest Night, one of the major events in the DC universe.

So when I came across Blackest Night: Tales of the Corps last night, I thought it the best possible book to use my 50% off coupon on.  I didn’t bother rereading the other two Blackest Night books I have because I know the basics.  More importantly, it’s often hard to tell ahead of time, when looking at the trade collections, where everything fits in.  Oh sure, I could turn to the internet, but that takes effort and I can be very lazy.

As implied by the title, Tales of the Corps is an anthology book with stories from each of the various lantern groups.  Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and black are all found here to a greater or lesser extent.  Some of these tales are backstories that dedicated fans had probably long desired to see.  Others read as prequels to the actual event.

I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of this goes over my head, just because I don’t have an especially deep understanding of the DC multiverse.  And the very idea of the multiverse can be, well, brain-breaking.  Similar to how I have issues with time travel.  But I can follow enough to get through the stories.  Although I do have to wonder if some of this was altered when compiled into trade from the individual issues.  There’s a section of William Hand’s thoughts (aka Black Hand) about the various aspects of the emotional spectrum that would probably make the most sense if inserted at the end of the related short stories, instead of being a separate section.  Watchmen (and now Doomsday Clock) does that, with the miscellaneous papers, advertisements, articles, etc. at the end of each comic issue relating to what just happened and foreshadowing what is to come.

Overall, it’s not a bad collection.  It just suffers from my being more interested in the plot of Blackest Night than the multitudes of characters involved.  One shot comics are very short, which makes it difficult for me personally to have much investment in them.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still keeping Tales of the Corps, it’s just much less likely to be reread than my other Blackest Night trades.

I’m Tired

After the disaster that was Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh, I felt I deserved something better.  Something I knew I’d enjoy.  So I gave in to temptation and reread Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik.

Yes, it took me a lot longer this time.  It’s been a busy weekend, I was out of town and, more importantly, I was the one driving.  So not nearly as much time to read as you might think, especially when you figure in actually socializing.  But that’s not a bad thing.  I already adore this book, so it was a decent choice in every way…except format.  I could’ve done without the added weight of a hardcover.

I have even less idea of what I’m reading next than I did on Friday, when I arbitrarily shoved a couple of the books I bought at Half price on Thursday into my bag.  (I had a coupon and an excuse to be in the area.  So sue me.  I was back there today with an even better coupon.)  I’m sure I will read them at some point, I just have no idea if any of my newest books will be next.

Well, there are some books new to me that won’t be next.  Or even read.  I was at my parents’ house briefly today, and I came away with a set of antiques.  Three old prayerbooks and an old bible.  I don’t know dates on everything, but the pair – a prayerbook and the bible – are both from the late fifties.  The prayerbook that’s mostly in its original shrinkwrap is probably from the same trip, as I’m quite certain all three of those are souveniers from a trip to Israel.  The other prayerbook has a publication date of 1897 and is the most fragile of the lot by far.

So the one with the (probably) fake ivory is The Form of Prayers for the Feast of the New Year According to the Customers of German and Polish Jews, ie a Rosh Hashanah prayerbook.  The set is a bible and an everyday prayerbook (only the bible still has a box), and I’m assuming the last is another everyday prayerbook.  The ones I’ve actually seen and handled outside of boxes are lovely, especially in comparison to the rather plain and undetailed ones I know today.  I do seem to have something of a prayerbook collection at this point, as a way of further connecting with my heritage. I am finally getting a set of High Holy Days Mishkan T’filah soon, so I’ll have that to pair with my old Gates of Repentence.  I don’t have an everyday copy in that set, but that’s mostly because I’ll have to spend actual money if I want one.

Anyway, I don’t really have much else to say because my mind is wavering between going everywhere at once and desperately wanting to fall into bed.  I’ll probably figure out my next book in the morning.

Try Something New

It’s called Foreigner, and did I ever feel it whilst reading.

After a lot of fantasy, I wanted some science fiction.  And after a conversation at RenFaire this past weekend, my vague sci-fi yearnings settled on a book that’s been in the pile for over two years; Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh.

It’s a lengthy series, with new books still coming out last I noticed.  I picked up this first volume at the SFWA event in Chicago.  That is to say, the Science Fiction Writers of America, who give out the Nebula awards.  Cherryh was made a Grand Master, so she was obliged to be present, even if that meant traveling halfway across the country.  And, of course, signing a number of books.  She had a few on the table that we could take as freebies, and as Foreigner was the only one of the lot I didn’t already own, the choice was obvious.

You know, I never actually read the synopsis on this one.  But it never really called out to me with interest, a feeling that hasn’t much changed since finishing the book.  You can tell how much it didn’t engage me by how many days it’s taken me to read a mere four hundred twenty-three page novel.

I think my first problem is the fact that there are two prologues.  Technically, the novel is divided into three books and the first two are very short.  I feel like the events of one or both could have been summarized in an exposition dump and then things would be less…random?  Confusing?  Let’s look at the actual book.

The first section is that of the ship Phoenix as something goes horribly wrong on their journey to establish a space station by a distant star.  They come out of…ftl, whatever it’s called in this universe…at a very wrong destination where they can’t actually stay.  After refueling, they continue onwards.

Book two is some unknown number of years later.  Enough for there to be grandparents at least.  There is a space station above a habitable world, and people have just begun moving down to the surface.  A surface which is already inhabited by sentient beings who have steam power.  This is the story of first contact, although it’s very brief and abruptly cuts itself off.

Some two hundred years later are the events of book three.  And it’s not until about forty-five pages into this third section that we get a brief overview of the events between – talking about the abandoned space station, humans limited to a single island on the planet, the treaty, the war, etc.  I can understand the desire to throw a reader directly into action with the assassination attempt that seems to kick off the entire plot, but I was already flailing around with two time jumps and then to have a third combined with a very alien culture and mindset that our human protagonist Bren Cameron is surrounded by?  It was a bit much to swallow.

And because the atevi remain so incredibly alien throughout, it remains difficult to read.  Again, credit where credit is due, other sentient species have no reason to think as we do and their culture and instincts are likely to vary greatly from ours.  It just makes it very difficult to get a grip on the people Bren is surrounded by.  Let me make it clear: there are no other humans in the third book.  It is Bren’s job to be an interpreter; not just of language but of culture and intent.  As such he’s one of the very few humans to live off the island and he often walks a thin rope.

At the end of the day, I still have very mixed feelings about Foreigner.  I can’t say that I liked it because it made me feel the foreigner to a point that I don’t know I can ever fully appreciate the book.  I can’t say that I hated it because I could always follow what was going on and even if I didn’t always understand it, I knew there was always logic to it, even if I couldn’t see it.  But I’m reminded of the unspoken rule: I never enjoy everything an author has produced, unless if they haven’t written much.

Usually, I add books to my database when I finish them, before I write the blog post.  However, I’ve been known to put that off in cases like this one, where I’m not certain whether or not I actually want to keep the book.  I was hoping that rambling on about Foreigner would help me clear up my feelings towards it.  Unfortunately, nothing has really coalesced for me.

I will admit to a mild curiosity about the second book.  I wonder if it picks up right where this one leaves off.  If so, I might be interested to see what happens next.  According to isfdb.org, book two is Invader, and the synopsis indicates that it probably does pick up roughly where Foreigner ends.  So there I have it, what I asked for on a silver plate.  I can go and see if the library has a copy and read it for myself.

But I don’t think I want to.  I don’t think I want to struggle through yet another one of these books, even though there’s likely to be more humans in the next.  And that’s telling.  Subconsciously, I don’t think it’s going to be worth the time investment to actually find out what happens next…and I don’t think I care about those events.

I’m not certain I can say this is a disappointment, because I didn’t have much interest in this series in the first place.  I picked up the book because it was free and I was there.  I hadn’t had any interest in reading the books in all the previous years I’d seen them around, and I still don’t.  I’ll put this in a pile to be sold at some point in the future, or given to a friend.  May they have more joy of it than I did.

Fantastic Day

I do believe this is the first time I’ve ever read House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones.  It seems to me that I saw it for sale at a convention, realized it was the third Howl’s Moving Castle book, and bought it, but never read it.  Because I have no memory of ever encountering these characters or situations before.  Well, at least I have it.

Once again the story begins in a different land with a different protagonist.  We’re off to Norland to meet Charmain Baker, a bookworm who is quite possibly worse than me.  I mean, I don’t usually skive off on chores to read.  And I know how to do those chores like laundry, cleaning, and how to cut up my vegetables before cooking them.  You might recall that Norland was briefly mentioned in Castle in the Air as the homeland of the elderly Princess Hilda, one of the far too many princesses featured in the previous book.

Charmain’s story gets an abrupt kickstart by her Aunt Sempronia who volunteers the girl to look after her great-uncle William’s house while the wizard is away.  Having led an incredibly sheltered life courtesy her mother, Charmain has never really enountered magic before now and, as you can reason, a house of many ways is a rather magical building.  And just as she’s beginning to adapt to staying in the house, one Peter Regis comes along to be our bumbling assistance for the novel.

There’s also a dog, Sophie Pendragon coming to visit her friend Hilda and help with a rather unspecified problem and as many shenanigans as any other book in this series.  Like the other two books, especially Castle in the Air, I found that House of Many Ways was another exasperatingly slow start that gradually picked up speed until it was flying by the climax.  I suppose it’s not a bad way to write, but it does make those first chapters something of a pain to get through each and every time.

It almost makes me wonder if the authors who write in this fashion have never heard the supposed wisdom of the first hundred pages needing to be the strongest in the book.  It’s not a bad strategy, but really, the whole book should be strong.  It shouldn’t fade off after a hundred pages, but it also shouldn’t take a hundred pages just to get interesting.

Overall, I found House of Many Ways to be an enjoyable addition to the world.  Any issues I have with it tend to be consistent for the entire series, but it’s still a good book.  Like the second book, it’s one of those where you remember that the author doesn’t present you with unnecessary information or characters, and all the answers are there if you stop and think about it.

Everyone knows by now how very excited I’ve been to read my next book, which is undoubtedly why I managed to burn through its four hundred sixty-six pages in a single day.  Admittedly, today’s another nice and lazy day at home (which yesterday wasn’t), but here it is not even dinner time as I type.

You know the story.  I was looking at the Book of the Month selections for July and saw a typical fantasy cover that stood out starkly from the other four books which were so incredibly modern in their design.  Fantasy covers, by contrast, try to evoke an older time, while still being fresh and new in comparison…to other fantasy covers.  And books in the same series, world, or by the same author tend to have a similar feel and design, allowing a reader to easily select more of the same.

I knew instantly that this cover’s format was the same as Uprooted‘s.  So it wasn’t a surprise to find it was Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik’s new book.  If you’ve been following along, you’ll recall that I fell head over heels in love with Uprooted when I read it.  We all know I’m a sucker for fairy tales, but I am most familiar with Western European folklore, and my familiarity gets a bit weaker as you head outwards from there.  With a title like Spinning Silver, you can bet my first thought was the tale of Rumpelstiltskin and the miller’s daughter who must turn straw into gold.

I opened the book and my excitement jumped for another very different reason.  You may think me strange, because there was a single word that caused it – moneylender.  Which is an unusual reason to be excited, yes?  Why would a moneylender in a fairy tale please me so?

Because Naomi Novik’s world is a variant of our own, and that means (one of) the protagonist(s) is Jewish.

See, Christians aren’t allowed to lend money.  Or weren’t in the old days.  So that task fell to the Jews to provide loans and banks for the communities.  It’s so nice to read books that include my people because I can look at Christian imagery ’til my eyes rot in so very many books.  The religion is so prevalent and forceful…it’s everywhere, and doesn’t leave much, if any, room for any other beliefs in so many cases.  Even in fairy tale or fantasy settings, if religion is mentioned it’s generally just a generic “the church” which is still taken to mean Christianity even if no names are named.

Representation matters.  It matters in gender, it matters in sexuality, it matters in romantic orientation, it matters in ethnicity, and it matters in religion.

Back to the book.  Spinning Silver reminded me of the later parts of The Twelve Kingdoms, those novels that had an anime based on them.  The last major arc translated into English features three different young women: the King of Kei, the former princess of Shou, and a kaikyaku from Tai.  These three have adventures that help them to grow and learn before they’re able to come together at the end and help stop a battle or war.  Spinning Silver is not so different.

First is Miryem Mandelstam.  Her father is the village’s moneylender, and also has lent money out to most of the farmers in the area too.  He’s a soft heart, and will lend out any coins they have…and when he tries to collect on debts, withers and leaves at the first sign of resistence.  Her mother simply endures, though her own father is a far more successful moneylender who runs an actual bank.  The story begins with Miryem taking up her father’s duties and not taking “no” for an answer.

Second is Wanda Vitkus.  Her father is a poor pasant farmer near the village where the Mandelstams live.  He has a bad habit, since her mother’s death especially, of drinking away any coin he has.  Wanda, though she doesn’t even realize it, lives a poor and deprived life doing much of the work around the farm and trying to avoid her father’s wrath.

Last is Irina, daughter of the Duke of Vysnia.  She is the only child of the Duke’s first marriage, a plain enough girl who is only likely to get a decent husband because of her father, his money, his men, and his power.  Her mother is said to have been a granddaughter of the Staryk, the fairy people who live in winter, hunting for mortal blood and gold.  Irina does have two young brothers now from her stepmother, but she often seems as quiet and remote as the winter from whence her ancestry springs.

Through the book we see these three young women forced out of the lives they’ve always known, see them grow as they learn their own worth and power, and see them come together and move apart.  I made some predictions earlier in the book, and was surprised to see how Novik moved down other paths from what I had foreseen.  Of course my guesses got better the further in I went, but that’s only to be expected.

I thoroughly enjoyed Spinning Silver, and appreciated how, like Uprooted, it took me in different directions than what I would have expected for a story based on fairy tales.  As with that one, I cannot speak too strongly as to what was drawn directly out of folklore and what was created wholesale.  If Uprooted was Polish, Spinning Silver is Russian, with the terminology in particular to prove it.  Not to mention that in Russia, winter truly can be another enemy, and one far more implacable than an army.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say again that the more I read from Novik besides Temeraire, the more I like her.  Of course, that could just be because I can read fairy tale fluff all day, even if it’s incredibly predictable, and historical fantasy just gets old much quicker.  Or maybe it’s that these fairy tales don’t really touch on actual historical figures or events, just using the settings and culture.  With Temeraire, once the Napoleonic wars were ended, Novik just had them explore every nook and cranny of her reimagined world and the plot conveniences necessary to get the protagonists to those corners got weaker and stupider with every successive book.

Plus there was that science fiction short story that I kind of love.

On reflection, I guess that means the weakness of the Temeraire books is that Novik went too far and too long with them.  If she’d stopped just as the novelty wore off, the series would be stronger for it.  And that is a warning sign.  I can only hope that her new series of fairy tale books doesn’t push the bounds so far.  It’s good that each so far is a different locale with a different cast of characters and no references to the other.  If she keeps to that pattern, she can probably produce as many of these as she pleases.  Problems are more likely to crop up if she starts belatedly weaving them into a connected web, especially given that the two thus far have satisfying endings that shouldn’t need to continue.

With that shadow of warning, I’m still happy with this day’s reading.  I’m not sure what’s next up, but I have plenty of options as per usual.  I did get to speak to some of my bookworm friends the other day, and I came away much reassured by the size of my Pile.  After all, if someone else can have dozens of books they haven’t yet read and still choose to go out and buy more, then I don’t have to worry about my Pile taking up less than an entire shelf.

I do have to worry about how I’m going to rearrange the shelf with much of my young adult books so that all my Novik can stay together.  Better take care of that now.

Adaptation Away

In 2005, it was the Summer of Christian Bale.  Batman Begins was released, I saw Newsies for the first time…and another, smaller movie hit theaters.  A little number called Howl’s Moving Castle, from Studio Ghibli.  With Christian Bale voicing Howl.  And so many other skilled and notable actors, but it was the Summer of Christian Bale, not of Billy Crystal or anyone else.  I was just getting deep enough into anime at the time that I not only knew about the movie before it got to theaters, I insisted on seeing it on the big screen.

A few weeks later, I was idly browsing the spinning racks of young adult books at the library when a familiar title caught my eye.  Howl’s Moving Castle.  I’d had no idea until that moment that Miyazaki’s lastest masterpiece was based on a book!  I grabbed it at once.

It wasn’t until years later that I picked up my own copy, but I’ll never forget my shock at where the black doorknob led to.  But over time, my memory’s become fuzzy.  Not helped, of course, by the fact that I’ve seen the movie far more times than I’ve read the book.  It’s been a while, and since I found myself putting the disc in earlier this week and had a bit of time before my new book arrived, it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit the original book.

Part of my thought process is because Miyazaki put his own spin on the movie.  There’s this shoehorned subplot about the country being at war with another country whose prince is missing.  But…that’s not what’s going on in the book.  War noises are being made, but the prince is from Ingary, the country where most of the story takes place.  He’s being sought because, aside from having gone missing, he’s the king’s best general.  The sort of person you’d like to have around if you think you might be going to war for any reason.

Miyazaki also added a number of crazy flying machines due to his own interest in aircraft, remodeled the moving castle into something sort of froglike, and made Calcifer much cuter.  Truth, I prefer the movie’s Billy Crystal Calcifer to the book’s version.  In the book, the fire demon has hair.  Curly green-flamed hair.

There’s positives to both versions, book and movie.  Yes, Miyazaki changed the Prince’s subplot…but he also tightened up the rest of the narrative a great deal, which makes the ending much more cohesive and less confusing.  The character designs are great, and Howl is less of a creeper when he first appears.  Really, the movie is a wonderful experience and I do love it.

The book goes in some different directions.  There’s more characters, and characters who barely got lines in the movie are far more fleshed out, if only because Sophie takes some time to reflect on her situation and theirs.  Nothing in the movie indicates our protagonist is the eldest of three sisters (though one of them appears onscreen and the other is vaguely mentioned), and the background to her not-evil stepmother is mostly dropped.  There’s a second missing person, the Wizard Suliman, and Mrs. Pentstemmon (Howl & Suliman’s teacher) is a separate entity.

Oh, and Howl has a sister, a niece, and a nephew.

I genuinely can’t say that I prefer one version over the other.  They’re both entertaining and well done, although the book is clearly geared at younger audiences and doesn’t have quite the same spark as the young adult fiction that holds my interest so well.  I think I overlooked that when I first read it, so excited I was to find the book and so intrigued by the differences between it and the movie.  I believe that, when push comes to shove, I’ll be more likely to pop in the movie for two main reasons.  Firstly, because 90 minutes is much shorter than 330 pages.  Secondly, because the movie is a full experience, with great visuals, skilled voice actors, and an expressive soundtrack.  I own the soundtrack, which does make me more aware of it in general.

But there is one thing the book has that the movie doesn’t.  Sequels.

The second book is Castle in the Air and it can be somewhat jarring.  It opens in Zanzib, a Middle-Eastern inspired country far south of European Ingary and our new protagonist is Abdullah, a young carpet merchant.  He lives modestly, within his means, and spends all of his free time daydreaming, building castles in the air.  Then, one day, his dreams start coming true.

Diana Wynne Jones did like her wordplay.  She explains the origin of her title right on the first page of the book…and yet that’s not the only meaning it has.  Of course, you could also title the book Be Careful What You Wish For because, after all, you might get it.  And, having gotten it, it might not be the form you desired.

The best part of Middle Eastern folkore, for Jones’ purposes, is that of genies and djinns.  They’re two separate types in this book, both with great power.  And genies in particular grant wishes.  We’ve also got a magic carpet and a whole lot of adventure for young and somewhat naive Abdullah.

Without saying too much about the plot, I would like to note that Jones’ books are often set up like mysteries.  You can call them quests, but that’s the fact that the characters have a goal to accomplish or an item to obtain.  These books are mysteries in terms of characters.

The thing is, mysteries have very few characters.  Your detective, your criminal, and maybe a few others.  But the core cast is very tight and even if you don’t know the criminal until the final reveal, you know it has to be someone introduced in the story, because it’s no fun if the reader has no chance of figuring out the mystery on their own.  I suppose that’s the same of many types of stories, any time you have a hidden villain.  Not that the villain of Castle in the Air is actually concealing himself.  He’s just making sure that it’s hard to get to him and his, ah, booty.

Once I get past the hump of foreignness (where are my beloved characters from the first book!?) I can appreciate Castle in the Air on its own merits.  And it’s just as good as its predecessor.  With the added bonus of not having a movie version to compare. I think the movie will forevermore make Howl’s Moving Castle difficult if only because they each have aspects the other performed better.

And yes, I did say sequels.  Plural.  There’s one more book in this series.

Short Fiction Contemplation

As I hinted yesterday, I’ve had some books sitting in my Pile for months, several of which are from one convention or another.  And as I don’t always care to tote oversized books around, today seemed like a perfect day to finally get around to reading one of those.  I picked it for the authors, I’m sure, but I don’t remember what more drew me to it other than an inclination to spend money on something I hadn’t read before.  What I got…is so much more than I realized.

Paula Guran is not an editor I’m familiar with, but I may have to keep an eye out for other of her anthologies in the future.  Her Swords Against Darkness is not a mere themed collection, not at all.  This book is an education about Sword & Sorcery as a genre.  She uses her introduction to explain the phrase as it has applied in the past in contrast to the present, discusses the origins, etc.  She then presents each story in this context.  The book is divided into three sections the first being devoted to stories that shaped sword & sorcery into the tropes we know, stories that acknowledged what the tropes had become and worked around or against them, and modern stories that use those old methods as launching points to go in entirely new directions.

This is an anthology where I’m going to have to take the time to actually discuss certain stories in and of themselves for a number of reasons which will become clear.  I will start by saying that this book has three distinct categories of authors for me: those I know and love, those I’ve heard of and/or know by reputation, and those who are completely new to me.  And there’s an author of each type in each of the three sections, which is rather intriguing for me as a somewhat jaded reader.

The first story in the entire book is “The Tower of the Elephant” by Robert E. Howard.  This is also the first Conan story I’ve ever read.  Sure, I’ve heard of Conan the Barbarian, or Conan the Cimmerian as he’s also known, but what is there about him to appeal to me?  A big overly muscled man going around chopping his enemies with a giant sword.  And me, a small, nominally female reader who’s seen this trope done to death.  But, of course, Conan was one of the first.  If not the first.  And Howard’s stories deserve their place in history.  “The Tower of the Elephant” wasn’t a bad read at all, and I more questioned the character motivations than anything else, which is not a bad thing.

Written in 1933, it’s the oldest story featured in this anthology, but not by much.  I can see how its elements became tropes over time, a legacy that influences so much of what I read today.  It resembles what I know of some of the oldest superhero comics, which isn’t surprising as the two came out of the same world and mindsets.  What this really read to me as was escapist wish fulfillment for the male audience.  Conan’s a big, strong guy who is going to come out on top due to strength, skill, and smarts.  He doesn’t seem to have too much of a personality based on the one story I’ve now read, which is all the best for the reader to slip himself into the Cimmerian’s thews.  I’m still not going to seek out any Conan stories, but I won’t avoid them when they’re in anthologies like this one.

Next up is “Hellsgarde” by C.L. Moore, and this one has a more convoluted backstory for me because this is the one story in the entire book that I’ve actually read before.  When I first saw the title I wondered to myself if it was the tale I knew, but then I read Guran’s introduction and saw the name Jirel of Jorey, which confirmed it.  This goes back to what I’ve said before about Mercedes Lackey (who also contributed to this book but we’ll get to her later) being a gateway author.  I’ve talked about her CD, Magic, Moondust and Melancholy and the songs inspired by various books she’s read and recommends.  “Jirel of Jorey” is one of the tracks on that disc and it does discuss the redoubtable lady’s encounter in Hellsgarde.

A few years back, I actually picked up a book titled Jirel of Jorey which was a collection of C.L. Moore’s short stories.  I read through it and decided that it wasn’t that great.  I didn’t keep it.  But I also didn’t examine the book as thoroughly as I could have.  Guran’s informative text dropped an important fact which I hadn’t known and probably should have – this story, the last Jirel story, is from 1939.  Which makes a world of difference when you’re judging literature because so very much has changed over the past eighty years.  I thought, based on the book I bought, that these stories were from the sixties or seventies.  But now knowing their true age paints them in a very different light.

I think, if I had understood that one fact then, I would have kept the book.  As it is, it just goes to show that there were women writing badass female characters even before science fiction and fantasy came anywhere close to mainstream publishing.

There are several stories in here that are questionably defined as fantasy.  If it takes place on another planet, is it automatically science fiction?  Even if it reads as straight-up fantasy despite that fact?  Not that it’s an important question, given the ages of most of the tales that provoke such a question.  Fantasy wasn’t a marketing category then.  Sword & sorcery was as close as you might get.  On that note, I did enjoy Leigh Brackett’s “Black Amazon of Mars.”

There’s a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, a duo I’m not familiar with.  There’s an Elric story, a character I have read before.  A Tanith Lee story that seems to hit many of the same notes as Conan, but with her typical twists.  There’s a C.J. Cherryh short story that worked as short fiction, which I appreciate.  When I first started reading Cherryh, my local library had a massive tome of her short fiction that I checked out.  It’s where I first read Sunfall, but after those stories, I began to notice that she just…isn’t great at short fiction.  She works best when she has a wider world and backstory to build off of, which certianly comes across here in “A Thief in Korianth.”  Guran says this was later expanded into a novel, and I’d certainly give that a read.

I read a second of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane stories – though I’d plum forgot I’d read a first until I was inputting these tales into my database – and thought it a nice, dark adventure.  If you told me Neil Gaiman had read this when it was fairly new, I’d believe you, as it’s got that same twisted darkness so many of his works possess.  This one is “Undertow.”

Mercedes Lackey contributed a Valdemar story, one with a title I didn’t recognize, which is somewhat noteworthy.  Even more so, I rushed to look it up in my database and realize that here is a Valdemar story I’ve never read before.  Best of all, there are no Scooby Doo ripoffs or self-inserts in this one.  And, to put a cherry on top, it’s probably one of the best Valdemar short stories I’ve read from her in years.  “Out of the Deep” came out of the depths of the unknown for me, and I couldn’t be happier for it.

John Balestra’s “The Swords of Her Heart” is the only story that was written specifically for Swords Against Darkness but it is potentially just the first of many Brimm and Snoori tales.  I thought it an enjoyable buddy comedy adventure and wonder if more of these will cross my path in the future.  The trope of two friends, whether they start that way or not, going off on continual adventures is quite common in sword & sorcery, and no few of the stories in this book fit into that category.

“First Blood” by Elizabeth Moon reminded me that I really should read some of the woman’s novels, not just her short fiction and coauthored books.  I usually think of her in terms of science fiction – actual science fiction, not just from an era before fantasy – because that’s generally what I have on my shelves from her.  Or so I think. The books she wrote alone were part of that chunk of my dad’s library I absconded with and I haven’t made time to read them yet.  But she did several books with Anne McCaffrey, some of which I’ve read.

There are twenty-three stories in this book, and they’re all fairly good.  Some I had issues with, such as the one that switched viewpoints with no warning or section breaks.  One was just…very confusing and kind of boring.  But most are good and some are quite powerful, and not just because their protagonists are muscular either.  And Guran accomplished her goal in part, as I haven’t really sought out much of the oldest science fiction.  I feel that I have been educated and now better appreciate what those pioneers produced some eighty years prior.  The editor selected these works with care, and I’m sure she aimed to choose stories which would be less offensive to modern sensibilities.  (This book was only released last year, so you can imagine that yes, Guarn was quite aware of what those sensibilities would be.)  I consider Swords Against Darkness to be money well spent and my day well-used for reading it.

And then, since I finally got to the comic shop yesterday, I have more Power Rangers.  More Shattered Grid in particular with Go Go Power Rangers #10-11 and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers #28.  I also found a surprise in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: 25th Anniversary Special which was a series of shorts featuring various ranger teams but not as a part of Shattered Grid.

As for the event, it’s moving forward and raising more questions, as well as bringing in more classic rangers.  It’s interesting to see which ranger(s) they’ve chosen to feature from each team, and does show a healthy balance of character choices.  I was quite intrigued to see which Lost Galaxy ranger they chose, as that raises a number of interesting plot points for the future…if they choose to make this something of a main character.  Of course, the fact that there’s so many season I haven’t seen does tell against me and I can’t readily identify who is present, let alone which season the outfits belong to.  In fact, there’s a lot of confusion going on for the characters as well, and a lot of “I’m not telling you about the future.”

Obviously I didn’t feel the need to do any rereading given that I last read these comics quite recently.  I don’t regret that decision because while there’s a lot going on here, they can only fit so much into each individual issue.  Frankly, I’m hoping they don’t plan to wrap up Shattered Grid too soon, because there is so much that needs to be resolved at this point, and we’re still revealing vital information.

In other news, I got a box today with a magazine holder.  I don’t store my comics in conventional boxes or bins because of how often I pull them out.  Also because it’s easier for me to store magazine holders on top of my metal bookshelf than to stick boxes in a closet, or worse, somewhere I can trip over them every day.  I’d noticed when I put the other Power Rangers issues away that it was getting difficult to stuff them in, so I went and ordered another holder.  This should see me through for the rest of the year, given that it’s wider than the holder MMPR was previously resident in.

I may give in and get one of those boxes at some point…but only when I have enough issues from completed (or cancelled) series to fill it.  I really don’t want to be digging in a box on a monthly basis.

All right, that is, thankfully, all for today.  My tracking on my book of the month hasn’t updated in a couple days, but it should be here tomorrow, Saturday at the latest.  Which means I definitely need something to read tomorrow, but not necessarily anything that lasts longer.  Unless if I decide to have an attack of common sense overrule my eagerness and don’t take a hardcover book with me to the Renaissance Faire.  We’ll see what happens.

Sadly Unfinished Series

And then there’s Elvenborn, the last of the Halfblood Chronicles by Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey.  The book that built my hopes up so high, only to be crushed when the mistress of science fiction passed away.  While Elvenblood expanded the world and introduced new allies and enemies, Elvenborn returns to the lands claimed by the pointy-eared bastards.

We have a new protagonist this book, who has some features in common with previous noteworthy individuals…such as Valyn and Sheyrena.  This book we’ve got Kyrtian V’dyll Lord Prastaran, a minor and provincial elven lord for whom politics is a traditional avoidance.  He’s of an age with our other main characters in most respects, although he is Lord in his own right, with his mother as an able assistant to the greatest secret of his family.

On the Prastaran lands, humans are not slaves.  Yes they serve their elven overlords, but it is out of love and loyalty, not cruelty and domination.  Which means Kyrtian would make an excellent ally for the wizards and dragons…if they could make contact and be certain they can trust him.  This becomes more problematic and important when he finds himself thrust into the realm and politics of the Great Lords, set against the Young Lords’ Rebellion that has followed the Second Wizard War.

However, the kerfuffle of the Rebellion is no more than a surface issue as Elvenborn goes on and delves deeper.  In truth, there’s a great mystery to the history of elvenkind in this world.  Oh sure, it’s common knowledge that they originally came from another world through a Great Portal, and that other place is known as Evelon, but much has been forgotten in the centuries since then.  In the way of things, their ancestors have been made out as brave pioneers, going forth into a new world, rather than refugees fleeing something not recorded in any books.

And this is where the true crime of the series end is found.  It’s clear that Lackey and Norton were set to explore beyond the bounds of the humans’ world, to reveal something of Evelon itself, and those who remained behind when the Portal was opened.  But now all we have are these tantalizing hints and clues that will never be followed up.

I may have given the impression that Elvenblood is a nothing of a book.  It’s not.  But between The Elvenbane‘s epic establishment of the world and Elvenborn‘s closing cliffhanger…it’s merely average and acceptable.  Not as startling or memorable as the first or third installments, which is a shame.

I desperately wish that this series had been continued.  There have been series with coauthors or even new authors picking up where the old left off – I’ve even read some of those and discussed them on this blog.  Most recently is The Witches of Karres by James H. Schmitz and The Wizard of Karres by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and Dave Freer.  That revisitment turned out quite well, so I would hope that if Lackey chose to revisit this world and answer some of my questions it could go as smoothly.  Hell, Jody Lynn Nye continued Robert Asprin’s Myth series after his death, having coauthored several of the books with him.  It could happen.

Given that today’s a national holiday, there is no mail, and any packages I’m waiting for likely aren’t moving.  I’m expecting things Friday, but that does leave me with the rest of today and all of tomorrow, and not many plans to fill the intervening time.  So there’s a couple brickish books in my Pile that I should strongly consider.  Especially since I admit that their very bulk is part of why they’ve languished for so many months.  I’ve no objection to carting them around my home, but lugging them around in my workbag does put some strain on my shoulders that can become unpleasant after a few days.  I’m willing to endure it for certain tomes, but these aren’t anything nearly as important as Safehold or the Stormlight Archive.  So I suppose I should get off my lazy bum and actually read those books I bought back at Windycon.

We’ll see how long it takes me to get through them.  And when my book of the month finally arrives.

Breathing Room

There’s something quite lovely about having the freedom to stay up as late as necessary to finish your current book and not having to worry about work on the morrow.  True, there’s a very good chance that my body won’t allow me to sleep in, but that’s a personal problem.  For the moment, I’ll simply exult in my freedom to push bedtime as far off as I choose, given that I have no plans for most of tomorrow.

The Elvenbane is a strong book that tells a complete story and stands on its own.  But, if you take note at the very end, there is room for more.  In fact, it’s the first book of the Halfblood Chronicles, and Elvenblood is book two.

The wizards have a truce treaty with the elven lords and are making a new home out in the wilderness beyond elven lands.  The elves would like people to think they rule the world, but in fact there aren’t nearly enough of them to make such a feat feasible.  The books aren’t incredibly clear, but I suspect the elves together control a country’s worth of land.  There’s expansive regions beyond their control for various regions, and I am certain the world has other continents as well.  In none of the books is the ocean mentioned, so the elves are landlocked and have no commerce with other continents.

Out in the wilderness are humans who live free of elven control.  Some have been fortunate to escape and stay free, but others live free by luck and design, as they have for generations untold.  Their lives are foreign to those of our protagonists, but not in a bad way.

We also have a new addition to our protagonists, Sheyrena an Treves, a young elven maiden.  She was briefly spotted in The Elvenbane, but here becomes her own woman in every sense of the word.  She also opens up new avenues of magic, that of the elven women that is so often looked down upon by their male counterparts.

Elvenblood is not nearly as epic as its predecessor, but that’s not a bad thing.  Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey have, at this point, established the world and the current state of events.  Here they have a chance to flesh out more than just the small area we’ve focused on to date.  You could say that much of this book is about character development, a breather between two much larger scale novels.  And you wouldn’t be wrong.

In fact, the only real complaint I could have about Elvenblood being a shorter, less involved book is that there are only three books in the series.  Published in 1993, 1995, and 2002, they represented a fascinating collaboration between two skilled authors.  Unfortunately, Andre Norton passed away just a few years after the last book was released and given that it’s been sixteen years, I doubt Lackey is going to be continuing the series on her own.  It’s a damned shame, but that’s the way things go.  It certainly won’t be the only series I own that I wish had continued.