Out of Time

By Lynn Abbey

To start with, Out of Time is part one, of three, but it doesn’t say so anywhere that I could find. That’s rather sneaky, because there are plenty people like me and Irina who never buy trilogies if they can help it. Trilogies nowadays are almost inevitably over-written, overly detailed, rather boring romps through enough plot for a novelette padded and stretched into three volumes.

  • Author: Lynn Abbey
  • Title: Out of Time
  • Pages: 311
  • Published: 2000
  • Publisher: Ace
  • ISBN: 0-441-00751-1

And Out of Time is no different. Yes, there are spots of action, but they are far and few between. The central conceit — daughter has inherited magic from disappeared mother, but only finds out when she’s almost too old to learn — is a bit trite. There’s a nice, budding romance between the old woman and a young man, but at the start of the book I was struck by the idea that Lynn Abbey probably hasn’t written this book for men.

Not just because of the overly detailed descriptions of the nice, new-agey house of the main character, Emma Carrigan, but the deep delving in the mechanics of guilt trips — and the automatic assumption that when a woman feels guilty about something, it’s really a man who has both forced her to feel guilty, and who has done that for which the woman feels guilty.

Anyway, it’s easy enough a read, but nothing outstanding, and I don’t look forward to part three — I haven’t grown fond enough of the rather insufferable, prudish Emma Carrigan, to want to know whether she’ll date with young computer whiz Matt in part II and marry him in part III.

Oh, and as a random parting shot: this book does what many other books do, too. Writers nowadays get told that the first line, the first chapter should immediately grip. Action is off the essence — even if that action is just coping with a little adverse weather. One shouldn’t start at the beginning and then slowly build up. Bertram Wooster has commented on this tendency, too.

But most stories have a beginning, and that begin is seldom in the middle. So, what does the obedient modern author do? He grabs the start of chapter 3, the first two pages or so, moves them to the begin of the book, and then, when the action has grabbed the reader, continues with chapter 1, in the form of a long flashback. And Out of Time is no exception.

Grunts

By Mary Gentle

Time and again I try to read something by Mary Gentle. Her Usenet persona is so engaging — even though also a little bit tactless and clowning — that I figure her books must be great. And others do think them great,
definitely.
So there must be good stuff in them.

  • Title: Grunts
  • Pages: 464
  • Published: 1995 (1992)
  • Publisher: Roc/li>

So far, I’ve tried Ash and Scholars and Soldiers. I stopped reading Ash about where the young heroine gets pissed on by her future husband — literally. I tried a few sneak peeks in later parts (Ash is in four parts because the US publishers thought it was a bit too fat; us Europeans get it in one hefty volume), but couldn’t get the thread back. Scholars and Soldiers was slightly more grabbing, but none of the people appealed even a little bit to me, and, well, if I read a book for the language alone, I’ll read Wodehouse.

So my hopes weren’t too sanguine when Irina came home from a book buying spree with a second-hand copy of Grunts. Still, one wants to do the decent thing, so I gave it a try.

Grunts is the proof that Mary Gentle can do different kinds of books, even though her writing style is always immediately recognizable. Grunts is a bit ‘Let’s take Two Towers, and invert a few things, add some ‘realistic’ gore, and, hey — instant slapstick. The idea is not too be-whiskered, seen from the right angle, I think.

But I didn’t find it very funny, not even the famous Orcball game…

Perhaps I simply do not belong to the class of readers who appreciate something good when they read it, maybe I belong to the class of readers who want their mind-candy sweet instead.
But I often think when reading reviews on Emerald City that people who prefer ‘realistic’ literature — even when it’s SF (or fantasy, but that almost never qualifies) do so because it gives them a feeling of superiority: they are the people who go about with their eyes and mind wide open, because they recognize how bad everything is. Because, if it ain’t bad, it ain’t realistic, innit?

I think that C19 definition of ‘realistic’ out-dated baloney, to tell the truth. There’s fun, too in life, and love, and that’s just as realistic as all the starkness, and perhaps even more.

Anyway, no more Mary Gentle for me.

Mairelon the Magician

By Patricia C. Wrede

This is the book that comes before Magician’s Ward. In some respects, notably typesetter’s accuracy, Magician’s Ward is a better book — this is the famous book where a C19 housemaid exclaims ‘Cool!’ when she hears about a burglary, instead of the ‘Coo!’ the author intended…

In other respects, it’s a much simpler book, too. (Not unreasably so, of course, it is a light and somewhat fluffy YA book.) The plot isn’t particular convoluted, being of the ‘find all pieces of of the broken MacGuffin’ variety.

Both beginning and ending are very good, the begin gives a good sense of atmosphere, the end is, as the protagonist remarks in the privacy of her own head, pure theatrical farce. The middle is less vivid, and about and around the scene where protagonist and her mentor chase a coach on foot, I tend to slip, and put the book aside to read something else, like Usenet.

It is interesting, too, to notice how a re-reading that starts with the second book shows up the formation of the first, and then the second book. There were places where I thought ‘dash it — this is where the author went into another gear and made the plot bigger’. And conversely, there are, especially in the first part, hints of things as yet unnamed that, when taken up, peter out into nothingness.

Anyway, everyone reading this book will know that Merrill and Kim are going to marry; and fortunately they do, but only at the end of the second book.

Nice magic system, too.

Magician’s Ward

By Patricia C. Wrede

Magician’s Ward is the sequel to Mairelon the Magician. I bought the latter first, as is fitting, and just before I started with Fading Memories. At the end of Mairelon the Magician I was quite sure that Kim, the ward, would end up marrying Mairelon in something very close to the classic King Cophetua stunt.

Magician’s Ward indeed, and I don’t think I’m giving away spoilers, ends with Kim marrying Mairelon. Magician’s Ward is still an interesting YA book; more so than Mairelon the Magician. It is more clearly set in the world of Sorcery and Cecilia, a C19 Europe of lords, ladies and milords with magic thrown in. A very familiar world, in a way, to readers of Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics or Caroline and Patricia’s collaboration Sorcery and Cecilia.

The book is more interesting than Mairelon the Magician because it feels more like a unity; this partly because it keeps more unity of place (just London, instead of London and peripatetics around the countryside), and because the main character, Kim, has grown up a bit.

Of course, the wallowing in C19 richnesses like balls, dresses, libraries and coaches is part of the interest of the book, as is the contrast with the London underworld. Being a YA book, I didn’t expect the same depth as Sarah Waters achieves in Fingersmith, but there is still plenty of nicely researched detail.

De brief voor de koning

By Tonke Dragt

I’ve noted before that I’m not really all that fond of the works of the very well known and very highly regarded Dutch author Tonke Dragt. Neither her style in illustration, nor her stories have ever held me spell-bound.

Except when they are read to our children by my wife, Irina. Because she is very fond of them and succeeds in conveying that fondness in the way she reads the story. The rather stiff and cardboardy characters come to life, and the rather stiff and stilted dialogue begins to flow.

In fact, when she’d finished reading this story about a young knight-to-be who gets enticed away from his pre-knighting vigil by a mysterious stranger, goes on a long journey, picks up a love and a friend and delivers the letter the title refers to, I tried to read the sequel myself.

After a few pages I decided I’d just wait until it turns up in the to-read stack…

Meester van de zwarte molen (Krabat)

By Otfried Preußler

Otfried Preußler is one of Germany’s best known children’s books authors; others are of course Michael Ende and Erich Kästner. And there is little doubt that Otfried Preußler’s masterwork is this book, Krabat, rather limply translated into Dutch as Meester van de zwarte molen, “Master of the Black Mill”.

  • Author: Otfried Preußler
  • Title: Meester van de zwarte molen (Krabat)
  • Pages: 216
  • Published: 1988 (transl. 1972, orig. edition 1971)
  • Publisher: Lemniscaat
  • ISBN: 90 6069 128 8

This time I read this book to my children, aged 8, 8 and 9 — and the eight-year olds were maybe too young for it. There were quite a lot of words they didn’t know, for instance those to do with water mills, and I don’t think they didn’t grasp all the subtleties of the plot, which the 9-year-old-soon-to-be-10 did. But at least it didn’t curse them with nightmares, which could easily have been the case a year ago.

Meester van de zwarte molen is, after all, a very dark book in many ways. The perfect antidote for children overfed with Harry Potter magic — here magic is dark and will cost you. Your friends, your soul, your love. No nice, innocent spells that will repair your glasses. Every step you set on the path of magic will bind you closer to the Master — and to the devil.

For someone who’s read his Frazer, Meester van de zwarte molen contains much that feels familiar. I guess that Preußler knows what he is writing about, has done his research, but in the way of folk customs, folk religion and history.

One of the differences with the last time I read this book — ten years ago — is that I have celebrated Easter myself many times in the most involved way possible. That personal experience made the reading of this book deeper; and the same held for my daughters. Because Easter holds a meaning to them, the Easter scenes in this book are much stronger than they would be for someone without that experience.

Apart from the slightly overtranslated title, Meester van de zwarte molen has been excellently translated. It was a joy to read aloud. The different people really have different speech patterns, making it easy to distinguish between them. Sometimes, and I guess this is a change in spoken Dutch, because I’ve noticed it with other books dating from the seventies, too, I had to transpose a sentence-final verb to a more fronted position…

An Oblique Approach

By David Drake

Baen’s Free Library is a great institution. Lots of titles from Baen’s back catalog are available in html, word or another format, freely downloadable, freely readable. No conditions, nothing. And since I don’t usually read (the covers tend to be somewhat off-putting…) what Baen publishes, this is the perfect way of making the acquaintance of what their authors write.

  • Author: David Drake
  • Title: An Oblique Approach
  • Published: 1998
  • Publisher: Baen
  • ISBN: 0671878654

An Oblique Approach is the first in a series of five. The first three books are avaible for free, the fourth and fifth can be partially sampled, but if your appetite is whetted, you’ll want to buy dead-trees copies.

And it is quite possible that you’d get an appetite for the series. There are many faults, but the story is exciting, the writing is fast-paced and there are a lot of very likeable characters. The scope is wide, much of the history is familiar, even though it is twisted a bit here and there, and perhaps none too accurate in other places.

In this first book, Belisarius, the famous East-Roman general, receives a mysterious intelligent jewel from the future, recognized by leading Church authorities as the Talisman of God. This jewel warns him for the impending invasion by an Indian empire, an invasion led by an evil computer from the future. All this leads to battle, politics, strife and general plot. Fun, therefore.

Less fun is the writing style in places: infodumps about arms and tactics, every battle ends with ‘horrendous bloodshed’ and ‘sheer carnage’ and things like that. Jokes get repeated a bit too often, some characters are perhaps slightly too invincible, enemies perhaps too stupid.

And I found the constant digs at Orthodoxy irksome, naturally. But it’s true that the history of the relationship between Orthodoxy and Monophysitism has been very unpleasant, for most of the times. Nowadays we enjoy full intercommunion with the Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches, not sure about the Egyptian Church, though.

Download at: Baen Free Library

Castle Crespin

By Allen Andrews

Apparently, Allen Andrews is one of those one-or-two book authors that surface, get published and then disappear. That’s a very great pity, because Castle Crespin has a lot of good in it.

  • Author: Allen Andrews
  • Title: Castle Crespin
  • Pages: 238
  • Published: 1982
  • Publisher: Tor
  • ISBN: 0-812-53097-7

The story is not very complex: somewhere in Poitou in 1225 A.D., there’s a castle, a few farms and a large wood. The animals in the wood form one society, the humans another. The two only meet through a small group of friars, a simpleton and a beagle. When a templar gone robber knight visits the castle, things start happening, leading to a not unqualifiedly happy resolution.

Castle Crespin, at least in this edition, has been cursed with completely silly cover. But that’s the worst of the book. The writing is inspired in many places, and light and touching in other places. If theology is your thing then you’ll find lots of good Franciscan theology all over the place.

The society of animals is depicted in a way that feels related to the old Fox Reynard stories that we were given to read in Middle Dutch in secondary school, but with a twist. The exploits of the fox Fulgent are very well done, but the best bit must be the meeting between the beagle Rupert and the hare Lulu. That section alone was worth the price of the book — which was heavily discounted.

Castle Crespin is a sequel to The Pig Plantagenet, was published in 1982, before the internet, in other words, and is now only available through antiquarian resources. Well worth the hunt.

The Fox Woman

By Kij Johnson

The American Book Center in Amsterdam is a great shop. They have lots and lots and lots of books. There SF and Fantasy shelves are so packed that it becomes almost impossible to find anything amidst the trilogies and other polylologies. And they’re not too expensive, if you buy one of then ten-percent-off cards. Without one of those cards they are more expensive than W.H. Smith, also in Amsterdam. But, and this is important, so follow me closely, they also have two big bookcases with second-hand and ramsj fantasy and sf books. Better and cheaper than the English Book Exchange, also in Amsterdam, which is in itself a pretty nifty place. So, in preparation for the before-mentioned holiday to Greece, I went to the American Discount, and bought books.

  • Author: Kij Johnson
  • Title: The Fox Woman
  • Pages: 382
  • Published: 2000
  • Publisher: Tor
  • ISBN: 0312875592

Because they were so cheap — around the one/two euro mark, I bought a bunch of books I’d never have bought otherwise. One of these was The Fox Woman by a certain Kij Johnson. (You might have noticed that the authors name above is a link. If you click on it, you are instantly transported to her homepage and won’t be able to read the rest of this notice. Be warned by all means to not read her ‘journal’. Gosh, she’s a whiner. That someone who has written a book like The Fox Woman can also write utter dross like that journal of hers and dare publish it on the Internet. It defies comprehension.)

Er, right. I think I’ve already given my opinion of this book. But to restate: The Fox Woman, a story about a fox who falls in love with a Japanese nobleman, is wonderful. The writing is a pleasure to gape at, let alone read. The book is structured as an interleaving diary, and it’s so well-done that the different voices (fox, man and his wife) are apparent from the text. You don’t need the headings, even. The attention to cultural detail is meticulous. The relations between the various protagonists stays interesting. The sorcery involved is both horrifying and fascinating.

I’ll investigate the rest of her work; but I’ll check before buying that they are in the vein of The Fox Woman, and not that of her web-page…

Wee Free Men

By Terry Pratchett

Still catching up on the reading from before the holidays… I had bought this book to take to Greece, but both Irina and I had finished it before we departed. Wee Free Men is the second (if you don’t count Eric) children’s novel Terry Pratchett has set in the Discworld. It tells the tale of how young Tiffany Aching becomes a witch, the successor of ther grandmother in the fight against the queen of elfland, with a little advice from a more experienced witch and the very useful help of a clan of small, blue persons.

  • Author: Terry Pratchett
  • Title: The Wee Free Men
  • Pages: 318 (but it’s a very big font)
  • Published: 2003
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN: 0-385-60533-1

Any Discworld novel is by now a feast of recognition. It must be terribly hard to get into the series nowdays for those poor people who haven’t followed it from, say, Mort. Pre-Mort, the books were written in quite a different style, even though it is undeniable that Terry Pratchett’s output has kept developing both in style and substance ever since. (Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t weak entries in the list.)

So, even though this is ostensibly a children’s book, and only the second or third children’s book in the Discworld series (depending upon whether you count Eric, as I said above), it is full of internal allusions and references. Add to that Terry Pratchett’s tendency to forego the joys of subcreation, electing to nick from the rich store of the folklore of the British Isles, and you have a book that is not quite as literal and simple-minded as the average Blyton.

Terry Pratchett also rather sneakily uses his humoristic podium to teach his readers about life, the universe and the rest; indeed, books like Small Gods seem to me more an exercise in school-marming by a humanistic preacher than novels. This tendency, so pronounced in his novels for adults, is never very subdued in his children’s books. But that’s all right, because most children like moralizing, even to a fault. I would like it too, if Terry Pratchett’s morals were more like mine. (See: my apologia.) In this tendency, Terry Pratchett falls firmly in the Great British Tradtion of Enid Blyton or Lewis Hough.

However, Wee Free Men contains more action and fun than preaching, and quite a few interesting characters. Tiffany Aching is an interesting young girl with an opinion. One would imagine she would have become an engineer had she been born in 1978 in Liverpool or thereabouts. The baron’s son, in contrast, is a weak character, both in the book, and in writing. Not interesting at all. The Wee Free Men from the title, strong, boisterous, blue, wild, thieving pictsies are a great invention. Many readers, including me, were glad to see them back, and playing a bigger role. One does wonder what the showcasing of their matriarchal society is supposed to mean. It is just mentioned, not really worked out — even if it does play a role in the plot.

I won’t say anything about the story: I never seem to do, partly because I really dislike summarizing, and partly because anyone who wants to know what happens should read the book for themselves. It is fairly coherent, rather nightmarish (or dream-like) for the greater part, and in the creation of fairyland, Terry Pratchett shows his ability very well. It’s on a par with the Dreamlands of Unknown Kadath, if that rings a bell to you.

Anyway, to sum up: the writing is as fluid as ever (even though I remember the days of Pyramids, when Terry Pratchett could be relied upon to put any number of completely ungrammatical sentences on
paper, not in dialogue where they might be excused, but in his expository prose. Terry Pratchett is a very intrusive author, very authorial, or is that auctorial — always giving his own view of things, and often quite preachy), there is a fine story present, and an interesting protagonist.