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The Phantom of the Temple by Robert van Gulik is one of his later Judge Dee mysteries. van Gulik was a Dutch polyglot who translated, among other things, a traditional Chinese detective story, Dee Goong An. He then went on to write sequels to it in English. These stories revolve around Judge Dee, a Chinese magistrate of the seventh century A.D. (during the T'ang Dynasty). Each story begins soon after Judge Dee is assigned to a new post, and starts investigating an unsolved mystery. Here he has just relocated with his wives and officers to a town on the border near Tibet, where an old Buddhist monastery was recently suppressed because of sexual perversions said to be practiced there. It's now thought to be haunted. A decapitated body is found near the deserted temple, and a head; but when Judge Dee follows up the local apothecary's sloppy forensic work, he discovers the head and body aren't from the same corpse. The plot gets only more complicated from there.
Jingo by Terry Pratchett (Harper Prism, 1999) is another fine Discworld novel. Many of the Discworld stories stand alone, but this one is a sequel to the sequence Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms and Feet of Clay. Here Commander Vimes and Captain Carrot investigate the attempted assassination of a visiting Klatchian ambassador. Someone is apparently trying to start a war between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch. There is also the matter of an island which has risen from the sea between the two countries, and is claimed by settlers from both. Assorted fun and mayhem follows.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962) was a near-future sf story when it was written. The first part tells of a few days in the life of a teenage gangster hight Alex, and ends with his capture by the police. In the second part he accepts an offer to undergo an experimental treatment to cure him of violent tendencies so he can get out of prison early. To say more of the plot would involve spoilers. The atmosphere is dark throughout. The language of the book is the teenage (nadsat) sociolect of its narrator: very well developed, better than the near future language of most sf novels, but it makes the book hard reading at first. In later editions a glossary by Stanley Edgar Hyman is printed in back.
Incognita: or, Love & Duty Reconcil'd by William Congreve (1692) is a delightful novella set in Renaissance Italy; a tale of young love, arranged marriage and mistaken identities. There are more self-referential jokes than I usually find in stories this old, but then this was written only thirty-odd years before Tristram Shandy.
Overlook Press has reprinted in one harback volume The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton, with an introduction by Betty Ballantine (probably the same introduction that graced the Del Rey paperbacks that someone borrowed from me and never returned). Here is the review of the tetralogy I wrote when I re-read it in 1997.
The same publisher has also reprinted Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright. Here is the review I wrote when I first read it in 1999. Three cheers for Overlook Press!
I've posted my comments in The Connection #258. The Connection is an amateur press association I'm been a member of for about a year.
I started but did not finish Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Here is a review by Amy Welborn. Up to the point I read, I can agree with her assessment.
There are several very good stories in the October 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I had read Alfred Bester's "The Pi Man", Theodore Sturgeon's "The Man Who Lost the Sea" and Avram Davidson's "Dagon" in their collections, but I had not previously encountered "Operation Incubus" by Poul Anderson, a fun alternate world honeymoon horror story, or "And a Little Child..." by Zenna Henderson, which involves a little girl who sees some lost baby animals which are too big for the adults around her to notice. This issue also contains part 1 (of 2) of Starship Soldier by Robert Heinlein, the original serial version of Starship Troopers. Isaac Asimov's science column, "The Height of Up", deals with the development of the three temperature scales in use now, the invention of accurate thermometers, and the question of whether there is a maximum possible temperature: fascinating stuff, as always.
Time and the Riddle: 31 Zen Stories by Howard Fast (1975) is a collection of mostly fantasy stories, with a few sf and mainstream stories in the mix. His afterword tells how he got interested in Zen Buddhism and what relation some of the stories have to Zen. Most of the stories are slight, but fun. A few suffer from excessively heavy moralizing, but there are some real gems here, especially the novella "The Trap", about a project to raise a group of orphan children cut off from human history and culture and see what sort of culture they develop. I could compare it to James P. Hogan's Voyage from Yesteryear: neither of them is ultimately plausible in its portrayal of "pristine" human nature, but they are enjoyable, thought-provoking stories. Other unusually good stories here are "The Martian Shop", "The Cold, Cold Box", and "The Movie House".
Year's Best Fantasy, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Eos, 2001), is a top-notch collection; nearly all the stories are worth rereading. "The Golem", by Naomi Kritzer, tells of a female qabalist who creates a golem to protect the Jews of Prague from the Nazis. In "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O" by Michael Swanwick, Crow, an immortal archetype, finds a way to bring his lost mortal love back to life. "Mom and Dad at the Home Front" tells a traditional story of children visiting a magical world at intervals (Oz, Narnia, etc.) from the viewpoint of the parents who are missing their children. There are twenty other good stories here. Unfortunately the weakest story - a standard sword and sorcery novella by Terry Goodkind - is also one of the longest; that space could have been used for two or three better short stories. But maybe Terry Goodkind is an acquired taste.
I've updated my personal information page, added a couple of talk outlines to my miscellaneous writings page, and added some descriptive text to my main index page.
Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886) is a collection of humorous essays by Jerome K. Jerome, the author of Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog. These pieces are a lot of fun; Jerome knows how to tell a story that tells against himself while seeming not to notice, when to meander away from his ostensible topic, and when to come back to it in the most surprising way. Stage-Land is a collection of sketches describing each of several stereotypical characters in Victorian drama; he has a quasi-sociologist's manner, as though he were describing typical inhabitants of a foreign country. They are enjoyable, but perhaps more dated than those in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. Or, if not more dated (you can clearly tell that the Idle Thoughts date from the late 19th century), they maybe suffer more from being old: our modern film and drama has plenty of absurdities in conventional character and plot, but they aren't entirely the same as those of Victorian England, so some of the jokes here fall flat when read now, unless you've read a lot of 19th century plays (I've read only a few). The Idle Thoughts, in a clearly recognizable historical context, poke fun at eternal (or anyway long-lasting) absurdities of human nature. Dreams, Clocks, and Evergreens are three long essays that were bundled into one volume with Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and Stage-Land by A. H. Burt & Co. (no date on my copy). They're not as laugh-out-loud funny as the Idle Thoughts, but there are funny bits embedded in these prose poems.
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (Macmillan UK 2000; Del Rey, 2001) is amazing. I haven't seen more thorough or surprising worldbuilding in quite a while, and the story, characters and prose style are all well above average. In the prologue we meet a traveller arriving by boat in New Crobuzon, a dense, populous city clustered at the juncture of the rivers Tar and Canker. He seems obsessed with wishing he had an aerial view of the city, and upset with himself for thinking about such a thing. In the first numbered chapter we meet the other two main characters: Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a human scientist, and Lin, a khepri sculptor. (The khepri look like human women with the heads of giant beetles. Their males are purely insectoid and non-sentient. They're one of many 'xenian' races that inhabit New Crobuzon; on the whole not as well-designed as the best science-fictional aliens, but far above average for fantasy.)
Lin is offered a commission to sculpt a life-size statue of a criminal boss named Motley, who has had himself Remade as a composite of many species. Isaac is approached by a garuda, one of a winged humanoid race, whose wings were cut off as punishment for some untranslatable crime. He, Yagharek, the traveller we met in the prologue, wants Isaac to figure a way he can fly again, and he has plenty of gold to fund the research.
There are plenty of surprises which I don't want to spoil by talking any more about the plot, so I'll talk mainly here about how amazing the city of New Crobuzon and the world of Bas-Lag are. Perdido Street Station is a great piece of work, world-building on a medium scale, midbetween the huge scale of The Lord of the Rings and the small scale of Gormenghast (to which it has been compared). We see New Crobuzon in wonderful detail through the eyes of a wide variety (but not a too unmanageable number) of characters; the rest of the world we learn about only obliquely, as it affects the inhabitants of the city.
The humans and xenians of New Crobuzon use an eerily convincing mix of 18th-20th century technology and forms of magic that aren't quite like anything in other fantasies. The militia control the dirigibles and the skyrails, while a system of trains carry plebian passenger traffic throughout the city. Those convicted of various crimes under the ample penal code are Remade in the punishment factories, often into cyborgs with steam-driven mechanical limbs. Coal-fired difference engines assist scientists and bio-thaumaturges in their work, and control the motions of household cleaning robots.
New Crobuzon is governed as a parliamentary oligarchy; only the rich automatically have votes, but a random subset of the poor win the Suffrage Lottery each year. The political parties have strangely sinister names: Finally We Can See, the Fat Sun Party, Diverse Tendency.
The various neighborhoods and features of the city are too many to describe here; I'll just mention one that sticks hauntingly in my mind. In Bonetown there is a plaza where the ribcage of some giant creature lies partially buried:
The Ribs rose from the earth at the edges of the empty ground.
Leviathan shards of yellowing ivory thicker than the oldest trees exploded out of the ground, bursting away from each other, sweeping up in a curved ascent until, more than a hundred feet above the earth, looming now over the roofs of the surrounding houses, they curled sharply back towards each other. They climbed as high again till their points nearly touched, vast crooked fingers, a god-sized ivory mantrap.
This is probably at the top of my Hugo ballot, followed by either Passage or The Chronoliths, then American Gods. I'll think on it more and probably re-read parts of them before I vote.
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (his third novel, originally serialized 1838-9) is not as funny as The Pickwick Papers or as horrific as Oliver Twist, but it's probably a more balanced novel than either. The opening chapter tells the story of two generations of the Nickleby family, ending with the bankruptcy and death of Nicholas's father. Nicholas, his younger sister Kate, and their mother go to London to ask for help from their father's brother Ralph, who is involved in various shady financial dealings. Ralph is annoyed at the sudden appearance of his poor relations, but he uses his influence to get Nicholas a job as usher (teacher's assistant) in a private boarding school in Yorkshire run by Wackford Squeers, who owes him (Ralph Nickleby) money, and Kate a job with Madam Mantalini, a milliner who owes him money. They are both soon miserable but don't let on to each other or their mother about how awful their job situations are. For different reasons, neither job lasts long, and they go on through various other adventures through sixty-odd chapters to finally find true love and vast wealth.
The minor characters are much more convincingly real than the main characters; Nicholas and Kate are admirable heroes, and Ralph Nickleby is a hissable villain, but they're not as interesting as the minor characters, especially the Squeers, Kenwigs, and Crummles familes.
I don't know for sure that this is objectively better than Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, but I certainly enjoyed it more than any of Dickens' other books I've read except Bleak House and The Pickwick Papers.
L'Homme aux Quarante Ecus by Voltaire is a mixed bag. It's a novella-length sequence of dialogues and monologues, mostly involving André, a small farmer with an income of 40 écus a year (hence the title) and his friend, a geometer with political ideas. The early chapters mostly deal with the new tax scheme by which only farmers pay taxes, and they about half their income, which comes near ruining André. Later dialogues deal with embryology, sexually transmitted diseases imported from the New World, the putative evils of monasticism, the joys of reading, and various other topics. There's a very thin thread of plot connecting them, but they stand or fall as Platonic dialogues - and mostly they fall, in my opinion. Some of them are very witty (especially the one on medical ignorance and weird theories of human reproduction), but most of them are pretty lame compared with Voltaire's other work.
You can probably find it in one of the several collections of translations of Voltaire's short works that's in print now, but I didn't see it in the contents listed on their Amazon pages.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Morrow, 2001) opens with Shadow about to get out of prison after three years. He is looking forward to being with his wife again - they've talked on the phone pretty frequently and she's visited him several times. Then, just a couple of days before he is scheduled to be released, the warden tells him his wife has been killed in a car crash. They let Shadow out early.
On the way home to his wife's funeral, he meets an old guy with a glass eye who offers him a job. He refuses at first, but the old guy is persistent. Strange things start happening to him and get only stranger when he accepts the job offer. He soon finds that he's working for Odin in preparing to fight a war between the old gods and heroes who came over with the immigrants and the new emergent gods that have been spawned by Americans' worship of automobiles, television, computer networks, and so forth.
The tension builds strongly and is well-resolved in several climactic chapters. The mixing of mythologies, and the way Gaiman gives the reader time to figure out who new characters are before he tells you their names, are reminiscent of James Branch Cabell's best fantasies. My Dad has compared American Gods to Tim Powers' novels, and it's not totally unlike Earthquake Weather, but it doesn't quite seem to have the underlying seriousness of Powers' best work. Still, it's an engrossing story with several layers, worth reading and re-reading.
I'm trying to read all the Hugo nominees before the ballot deadline. I'm reading Perdido Street Station by China Miéville now, but haven't acquired a copy of The Curse of Chalion or Cosmonaut Keep yet.
May 11 to June 8 archive
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