No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, August 05, 1994

The Black Gryphon -- Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon

The Black Gryphon is set in the same fantasy world as Lackey's best-selling Valdemar series, but no previous experience is necessary; the action of this novel takes place fifteen hundred years before the events described in The Heralds of Valdemar. Urtho the Good, and those who espouse his cause, are locked in combat with the mage Ma'ar (implicitly the Bad) and his dark armies. The war, 'like a creature with a huge appetite', has dragged on for years, and slowly but surely Ma'ar seems to be winning. This isn't that sort of book, though.

The novel centres on four characters. Skandranon, the eponymous black gryphon, is an aerial warrior with immense fighting skills and an ego to match. His friend Amberdrake is a kestra'chern, a kind of therapist who uses sensual massage, sexual healing and a generous dose of Empathy and Healing skills to soothe and heal the mental and physical wounds inflicted by the war. Both Skandranon and Amberdrake have their female counterparts. Zhaneel is a female gryphon who appears to be a mutant, an unwanted by-product of Urtho's magical genetics program. Winterhart is an emotionally repressed healer who remains in a dysfunctional relationship with the mage Conn Levas, unable to accept that she is capable of more. Both must come to terms with who they are and accept their roles in the conflict.

On one level this novel is a simple good-versus-evil fantasy, where the forces of good fight for what they believe in, and pledge their loyalty to Urtho, while the Makaar and other creatures of Ma'ar are motivated by fear and loathing, and demonstrate their moral repugnancy by stooping to torture and foul play. On another level, Lackey and Dixon (her husband) deal with moral and ethical issues such as therapy, emotional dysfunction, betrayal, genetic engineering and child abuse. A light fantasy novel is not the best place for this; while the authors never trivialise these subjects, depth has been sacrificed to simplification.

The Black Gryphon is a book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys Anne McCaffrey's later Dragon books. That is, it's good, positive, happy fantasy, where the images and ideas are drummed home in case you missed them the first time round. The style is occasionally marred by clumsy phrasing ("this plan didn't have the chances of a snowflake in a frying pan of working"), but it's readable enough, and will no doubt please Lackey's existing fans.

Tuesday, August 02, 1994

Death: The High Cost of Living / Sandman: Fables and Reflections -- Neil Gaiman

Death: the High Cost of Living is the tale of Didi, an orphaned teenager who befriends a suicidal geek and makes him see the value in life. It is also the tale of Death’s day of mortality; one day in every century she must take on mortal flesh, ‘the better to comprehend what the lives she takes must feel like’. Sexton (the geek - a peculiarly apt name for Death’s mortal companion) thinks Didi’s cute but unhinged. And Mad Hetty thinks Didi will help her find her heart - which she’s hidden so well from Death that she can no longer remember where it is (but then, she is over two hundred years old).

Nowhere does Gaiman state that Didi really is Death, one of the seven Endless who are older than the gods. Sexton’s suspicions could be perfectly valid. But Didi swans through New York, bathing in the life of the city, as though she owns the place; people give her things, let her into gigs for free, look after her. But life isn’t all roses. There are people out there who know her for what she is, and want her power for themselves. This day of life is a hunted day - but still, it’s life, and Sexton finds himself appreciating it again.

Didi gives Sexton the last of her cash - two pennies - and suddenly she is dead, her last words a plaintive, ‘No. Please. I ...’ Later, she says ‘ I wish it didn’t have to end like that’. And Death, her alter ego, says ‘It always ends. That’s what gives it value’. The artwork, particularly in the meeting between Didi and Death, is superlative, and uses strong but subtle symbolism to get inside the reader’s head.

This volume also contains the piece ‘Death Talks About Life’; Death presents a show about safe sex and AIDS, which is tastefully and wittily done, and may yet influence people who find Government health warnings meaningless and cold.

Sandman: Fables and Reflections is a collection of single-issue stories, each illustrating a simple moral in an innovative and sometimes unsettling way. There’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from dreams, and from Dream. Some of the tales are stronger than others, but each displays a quality of storytelling, mythmaking and symbolism (both graphic and verbal) which is rare.

‘Three Septembers and a January’ is based on the true story of Joshua Norton - Norton I , self-declared Emperor of the USA Here, he is a pawn in a family squabble between the Endless. But Norton’s tale is also that of a dignified man of principle, whose dreams keep him alive - and, as Dream says of him, ‘His madness keeps him sane’.

In ‘Thermidor’, Johanna Constantine (ancestress of the more famous John) is retained by Dream to recover the head of his son, Orpheus, from a crypt in Paris during the Terror. Robespierre wants this ’object of superstition’ destroyed - but there is more to this myth than mere superstition. Orpheus becomes the nemesis of those who would destroy him.

‘The Hunt’ is a tale told by an old man to his impatient, modern granddaughter (who would rather being watching the television). Dream makes only a fleeting appearance in this tale, of a young man who earns a favour from Dream. But, as Dream knows, it is a double-edged boon - ‘Wishes are sometimes best left ungranted’. There’s an unexpected twist in this story which invites the reader to re-read with more understanding.

‘It’s mid-day. Only mad dogs, Britons and beggars stay out in this heat’ says the dwarf Lycias to his companion, the disguised Emperor Octavius, who is hiding from the gods and planning the future of the Roman Empire. There are two possible futures for Rome - and in this tale, ‘August’, the reader learns - as the dwarf does not - why the Emperor has chosen one future rather than another. This is one of the more unsettling of the tales in Fables and Reflections; Gaiman’s view of history is intriguing and can’t be faulted on historical grounds - and there is a disquieting ring of truth to the Sandman’s actions.

‘Soft Places’ offers, almost as an aside, a glimpse into a part of the Dreamlord’s history which is, as yet, undocumented. A young Marco Polo is lost in the desert, but he is also lost in dreams, and not all of them are his. The desert is a place where reality is thin, a ‘soft place’ , and Marco Polo, as an explorer, is to blame for the gradual loss of these places where a different reality can be glimpsed. Nevertheless, he is returned to his own place, rewarded for an act, the significance of which he will never understand.

‘Orpheus’ is the tale of the wedding of Dream’s son to Eurydice, and the true tale of what happened afterwards. The wedding is a true family affair; all of the Endless make an appearance (including the first appearance of Death and Dream’s missing brother...) and act according to archetype. Although this is Orpheus’ tale, we learn a lot about Dream’s character, the flaws that have often been apparent but have never been discussed. The Sandman is not without honour, but ‘Orpheus’ illustrates that honour is not always enough.

In ‘The Parliament of Rooks’, little Daniel (the son of a superhero) wanders into Dream’s realm and is entertained by some of its older, and odder, denizens. Eve tells a tale of Adam’s wives; Cain teases Abel - and the reader - with an invitation to ‘tell the story of the lily that wanted to be an eye? ... or the girl who could drink only tears, and how she fell in love with a woman who had never learnt to cry?’ Abel ignores his brother (never a wise move). Instead he tells a charming tale of how he and Cain came to Dream’s realm when Death and Dream were just children. ‘Children? They didn’t even look remotely human. None of us did back then’, Cain interrupts scornfully. Despite this possible inaccuracy, the pastel artwork is hilariously kitsch; it may not fit with ‘dinosaurs and cavemen’, but who ever said there could be only one truth?

The last story, ‘Ramadan’, is a tale drawn from the world, and the art, of the Arabian Nights. . Haroun al Raschid, wise and wealthy ruler of Baghdad, is uneasy. He fears the future, and summons Morpheus to preserve something of his city’s present idyllic state. Morpheus is no man’s servant, but perhaps a compromise may be reached ... Again, the twist in the tail throws a new light on the story; but this may be the weakest tale in Fables and Reflections.

Like all myth, however, each tale in this volume can be read in several different ways. This is not comic art, but a book of stories set within their own illustrations; the quality of both text and artwork is high, and many readers may find these short, contemplative pieces more satisfying than the ‘Sandman’ graphic novels.

Monday, August 01, 1994

Men at Arms / Soul Music -- Terry Pratchett

After Terry Pratchett’s initial glory as fantasy’s answer to Douglas Adams, he’s carried on producing novels at a stupendous rate (‘more than two a year’, to quote a recent feature). One could, however, occasionally be forgiven for thinking that having found a successful formula, he’s stuck to it at the expense of original thought. Take one hero (or, less frequently, heroine) with enough personal flaws that even the most pathetic reader can feel superior to him or her; immerse this character in a milieu of stereo/archetypes with a humorous dark side to them, and make a lot of jokes (ensuring that the really awful ones are signalled well in advance). Throw in a stock happy ending without anything too distressing happening to anyone important, and you’re laughing. So are the readers. Why knock it? It works.

Recently, though, Pratchett’s work has become more varied. His books seem to alternate between relatively light-weight retellings of myths old and new (the yokel who is actually heir to a kingdom, the detective who no one believes) and deeper, more philosophical works with an underlying darkness that’s far closer to traditional fairytales.

Men at Arms and Soul Music, taken together, provide an excellent illustration of this trend. Men at Arms is another tale of the City Guards of Ankh-Morpork. Nothing is sacred these days; Lord Vetinari has decreed that the Watch must reflect the ethnic makeup of the city, and ‘affirmative action hiring procedures’ have brought in some dubious new recruits. There’s Corporal Detritus (token troll), Lance-Constable Cuddy (token dwarf) and Lance-Constable Angua (well, she must be the token woman, Corporal Carrot reasons. She’s female.) A motley crew to track down the latest menace to society - a soon-to-be-serial killer who has left no clues behind him (or her), except for a small card with the word ‘Gonne’ lettered on it ... Meanwhile, Captain Vimes is preparing to hang up his sword and badge and retire to a life of wedded bliss with Lady Sybil Ramkin, dragon-breeder, socialite and ‘a woman out for all she can give’. Life is seldom that easy, however, and things will get worse before they get better.

Angua is introduced to the Dog Guild, in charge of scavenging rights, sunbathing spots and night-time barking duty, via Gaspode, a dog who has slept huddled up near the walls of Unseen University once too often and now is lumbered with the undoglike trait of rationality and speech. (Nobody listens, though. They hear his words as their thoughts). Angua is alarmed by the dog’s interest in her; and it’s getting around to that time of the month for her - full moon ... Just because you’re tough and independent and know how to use a sword doesn’t mean you can escape your nature.

And somewhere out in the city there is the Gonne. An invention, or discovery, of Leonard of Quirm - "I had this strange fancy I was merely assembling something that already existed" - the device has found itself a tame person and made it clear who’s boss. This is the Discworld, after all, and the Gonne has ideas of its own - it is determined to reinstate the long-defunct monarchy of Ankh-Morpork, whether the monarchy likes it or not.
Hidden in the rollicking farce, there’s a thoughtful side to this novel. Pratchett is, as usual, gleefully inventive; his ideas may be couched in flippant language, but they are not merely frivolous. For instance, ever wondered why trolls are so stupid? "Trolls evolved in cold places. Down on the muggy plains the heat build-up slowed them down and made them dull. It wasn’t that only stupid trolls came to the city. Trolls who came down to the city were often quite smart - but they became stupid."

There’s a few neat observations about the social life of gargoyles, the Fools’ Guild, and landscape gardeners (Bloody Stupid Johnson, a man who had difficulty distinguishing inches from feet. Check out the Triumphal Arch some time. They keep it in a box.)

Men At Arms has an underlying theme of tolerance and acceptance, whether it’s between troll and dwarf, dead or undead. It’s never more than a theme, though; it never gets in the way of the entertainment.
Supercooled trolls and landscape gardening are all very well, but what happens when an anthropomorphic personification is smitten with existential angst? Soul Music sees Death with the blues, sloping off to get away from it all. Death’s granddaughter Susan is enduring her education at the Quirm College for Young Ladies, her only peculiarity being an ability to escape attention - to the extent that she can sit and read philosophy books while economics lessons happen to other people. Susan’s a rationalist, so naturally she doesn’t believe that big white horses like Binky forget to come down when they jump, or that the nice young woman with the ladder and the pliers is really the Tooth Fairy. It’s only a matter of time, however, before - as her grandfather’s heir - she herself is being mistaken for the Tooth Fairy, and worse. Then, in the course of her Duty, she discovers Music with Rocks In.

Music with Rocks In? Take one troll (Lias), one dwarf (Glod), and one human (Imp), struggling musicians, with - respectively - a set of rocks, a horn, and a strange six-stringed instrument acquired in one of those shops that’s been there for years, but wasn’t there yesterday. Let them unite in the face of adversity and high Guild membership rates. Thus Music with Rocks In is born, and suddenly Ankh-Morpork is host to a new kind of music - music that’s very definitely Live.

And, of course, Music with Rocks In has a disturbing effect on angst-ridden adolescents of all ages. Playing ‘Pathway to Paradise’ and ‘Sto Helit Lace’ to the impressionable audience of the Mended Drum can only lead to trouble - people painting their bedrooms black, slicking back their hair with bacon grease and wearing modified leather coats with ‘Born to Rune’ picked out in silver studs ... and trying to build - ‘no, I just put it together’ - machines hitherto seen only in the notebooks of Leonard of Quirm (of Gonne fame). As Susan says of the guitar, "It’s not supposed to be in our history." But the music doesn’t mind. It’s the heart beat, the back beat. It’s alive again.

Meanwhile, Buddy (formerly known as Imp) has become a slave to the rhythm, a channel for something that’s been around for a very long time. (What was the sound before the birth of the Universe? "One, two, three, four ..."). Nothing in Susan’s sensible, practical upbringing has prepared her for this. At least she has help; the Death of Rats is accompanying her on her tours of Duty, proffering frequent informative SQUEAKS; there’s a raven who refuses to do the ‘N’ word, and Death’s assistant Albert is unwillingly broadening her world view no end. It’s not a world view that Susan has much patience with, though. All the good dying horribly, and the bad living to a ripe old age - it’s not fair. Now, of course, she has the power to interfere and change things for the better. Rules? Made to be broken. And while Death is behaving in an unnecessarily teenaged fashion - the ultimate rebel without a cause? - Susan has a career opportunity that any idealistic (if sensible) teenage girl would jump at - the chance to Do Good and make the world a better place. Of course, the world may not want to be a better place ...

Both Soul Music and Men at Arms play with the idea of an anachronistic cultural artefact being dumped on the Discworld by an Act of God (or The Author) and promptly taking on a life of their own, the Discworld being what it is. Soul Music is by far the more serious book; its moral dilemmas (amusing as they may be) make the mean streets and ethnic conflict of Men at Arms look pleasantly simplistic. There’s less of the farce, more of the tragedy, to Soul Music - perhaps because it cares less about people’s inadequacies, and more about the Big Questions. To say that Pratchett treats those questions seriously in a comic novel may seem a contradiction in terms; but there’s a depth, and a sense of tragedy, to this novel which is lacking in Men At Arms.

The Forest House -- Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Forest House is based on the plot of Bellini’s screechy opera Norma, which may account for some of the grand gestures and dramatic agonies to which its characters are prone. Eilan, daughter of Druids, falls immediately and irrevocably in love with the half-Roman Gaius after meeting him in a boar-pit. To her father and foster-brother, however, Gaius’ heritage makes him a symbol of the hated Roman empire, a threat to the British way of life and to Druidic traditions that have been passed down unchanged from their Atlantean ancestors. Eilan, in short, may not marry Gaius. Heartbroken, she accepts an invitation to enter the Forest House, a sanctuary for Druid priestesses. Embroiled in the internal politics to which even a feminist idyll is sometimes prey - and empowered by her experience of the Goddess - Eilan finds no more than a few moments to mourn the loss of her lover. She can’t believe that they will never meet again - and neither, it must be said, can the reader.

Bradley’s historical research seems impeccable; her Roman Britain may have fantastical elements, but it is rooted in fact - although there’s a tendency to be either pedantically precise or mystically vague. For example, although no date is given for the events of the novel, it’s relatively easy - given the references to people and events outside the scope of the narrative - to place it around 80 AD As a historical novel, however, The Forest House is not wholly successful. Perhaps this is because it is not entirely focussed within the Romano-British world which is its setting. There are many informative asides - two girls walking through ‘the thick, uncleared forest that still covered much of the south of Britain’. And Bradley’s characters occasionally appear to be no more than mouthpieces for authorial comments on current concerns - deforestation, ethnic cleansing, female priests - which seem not only anachronistic but largely irrelevant to the events of the novel.

The flow of time in the novel is unsettlingly uneven - several years may pass in the space between chapters, unremarked until Eilan or her cousin Dieda begin to reminisce. It’s a perfectly valid plot device; but in a novel focussed so closely on the emotions and reactions of its protagonists, it interrupts the empathy which is built up between the reader and the characters

Despite these flaws, though, The Forest House has its share of enchanting and mystical moments. Eilan’s encounters with the Goddess, and her initiation, reflect a spiritual truth; they are neatly balanced by Gaius’ initiation into the masculine art of battle. A tragic and romantic tale, which mounts to an oddly satisfying conclusion.

Barrayar -- Lois McMaster Bujold

Barrayar continues the story of Cordelia Naismith Vorskigan (mother of the more famous Miles) which was begun in Shards of Honour. Cordelia has retired from her command in the Betan Expeditionary Force to marry Lord Aral Vorskigan, commander of the opposing forces during the Betan-Barrayan wars; she has returned to Barrayar with him, and now she’s homesick, frustrated and pregnant. Barrayar’s society is primitive, almost feudal, compared to Beta Colony; medical science has a lot of catching up to do, and the weather isn’t too great either.

Yet there is plenty to distract her. All is not well with the House of Vorskigan. Lieutenant Koudelka, a nerve-mangled veteran, is finding it difficult to cope with the attraction between himself and Drou, Cordelia’s bodyguard. Aral’s father Piotr makes no secret of his contempt for his daughter-in-law’s newfangled galactic notions. And Bothari is having bad dreams, a result of the heavy-handed therapy typical of Barrayan military medicine. Meanwhile, Aral has become Regent and is acquiring personal and political enemies on every side. It’s only a matter of time before this begins to change Cordelia’s life.

Bujold’s competent, chatty style is not altogether suited to a plot as action-packed as this; she has a tendency to skip from in-depth characterisation to violent episodes so urgently described that the reader has to flip back to check they really happened. There are many unexplored allusions to events in the previous novel, which can be discouraging for the first-time reader; perhaps some of the apparent non sequeteurs in the plot would make more sense if a little more of the background was explained.

Despite this, Barrayar is an entertaining read. Bujold’s characters are deftly-drawn and sympathetic, and her space-age feudal culture rings true. A fast-paced, action-packed adventure novel suffused with wit and tinged with romance; great holiday reading.