A weblog, mostly of book reviews, by Jim Henry

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7 July 2002

The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust (Tor, 1991) is a fun heroic fantasy, set in the same world as his Vlad Taltos novels. The action is set a thousand years before Vlad Taltos' lifetime; it begins with four young Dragaeran nobles meeting on the road to Dragaera City, all intending to join to Phoenix Guards, the newly crowned Emperor's elite fighting force. They become friends and join the Guards together. Soon they are involved in Court intrigues.

The style is unlike that of Brust's other novels (he has a wide range); patterned to some extent after Alexandre Dumas, it's ornate in the descriptive passages, and delightfully bantering in the dialogue. The dialogue is the most memorable and attractive thing about this novel, closely followed by the dizzyingly complex plot and the descriptions of swordfights.

This might not be the best introduction to Dragaera; probably Taltos or Jhereg would be the best place to start, if you haven't read any of Brust's Dragaera novels before. In the Vlad Taltos books Dragaeran customs are explained from Vlad's human viewpoint; here, we're immersed in an alien culture from the start. The Phoenix Guards stands alone well, but there is one sequel so far, Five Hundred Years After, and another, The Viscount of Adrilankha, announced as forthcoming (as yet unwritten, last I heard). Even if you have read some of the Taltos novels and didn't enjoy them, give The Phoenix Guards a try; it's very different.

Thirteen Phantasms (Edgewood Press, 2000) is James P. Blaylock's first short story collection. It collects 17 stories with first appearances dating from 1977 to 1998. Some of the pieces are straightforward narratives, with a fairly clear if not linear plot, such as the title story, "The Ape-Box Affair", "Two Views of a Cave Painting". In most of them (e.g. "Bugs", "Nets of Silver and Gold", "The Shadow on the Doorstep") the plot is mostly underwater, and the reader must infer the shape of it from the bits that stick up in sight at low tide. A few seem to be mood pieces with not much plot ("Red Planet", "The Pink of Fading Neon"), but no less enjoyable for that. Though I would rank most of these lower than his novels - he works best at novel length - they're nearly all worth re-reading.

A second collection, In for a Penny, is supposed to be forthcoming from Subterranean Press.

I generally spread out one-author short story collections over several months; I took 10 months to read all the stories in Thirteen Phantasms, for instance. Anthologies and fiction magazines I'll generally read faster; I bought the 2000 Year's Best Fantasy in early April and finished it in mid-June. Lately I nearly always spend several days reading short stories and poetry from various collections, magazines and anthologies in between novels. Most of the books piled on my bed and bedstead are short story collections, with a couple of essay (Montaigne) and poetry (Christina Rosetti) collections.

It is a frequently remarked-upon problem that most readers can remember only the plots, not the authors or titles, of short stories they've read. I'm not entirely immune to this, but I've gotten better at remembering. I find it helps some, after finishing a magazine or anthology, to skim over the stories again. Writing reviews might help, but I haven't been doing it long enough to tell for sure. (Until I started writing this weblog I mostly reviewed only novels, with a few nonfiction books.) I can remember the title and author of many of many of the best stories I've read in the last few years; but I can't necessarily remember which book or magazine each appeared in. Hopefully writing this review log will help with that too.

Another problem less frequently remarked upon, perhaps because it is good for publishers and authors, and doesn't fit the standard model according to which paper publishing is doomed and sf publishing doubly so, is that when bookworms who are used to not having much money graduate from college and get a Real Job, they tend, unless other factors interfere, to start buying new books far faster than they can read them. I already had a queue of about 30-40 unread books, plus 80-odd unread fiction magazines (mostly from a big box of old F&SF I bought from Joseph Fleishmann at DragonCon in 1997), when I graduated from college. When I counted the unread books and magazines on my shelves in about August of last year, there were well over 200. (I've forgotten the exact number, and I may have lost count on the magazines.) "There's no sense in this", I said to myself. A queue of 50 unread books should have plenty of variety so I can read next whatever kind of book suits my fancy at the moment. 200+ is a surfeit; they haven't fit on only two bookshelves for some time. So I devised a scheme to limit my book purchases in proportion to how many books I read. It's gone through several changes; at first I allowed myself (theoretically) to buy one book for each two that I read. Soon I stopped counting re-reads or etexts either way; a bit later I switched to accumulating 1 point for every 100 pages in the books I read, and spending 1 point for every 50 pages in the books I buy. I've thought about adjusting it further for the different wordage per page in hardbacks, mass market paperbacks, and digest-sized magazines, but it doesn't seem worth the trouble, when I'm not paying any attention to the scheme anyway. Yes, I note the page count on books I read and buy, and keep a running tally, but the point count is usually negative, and that doesn't stop me from buying books that I really want to read and fear I won't have an opportunity to buy later. About the only effect this system has is that I won't make a special used-bookstore or library sale trip when the point count is negative. Which is most of the time. Which means I'm mostly buying new books by favorite authors, new Year's Best collections, the Hugo nominees, and so forth. Right now the point count is somewhere around minus 160, but never fear, Worldcon dealer's room denizens: a lucky several of you will still be going home with some, maybe a lot, of my money. But the Book Nook won't be seeing me until November, if then.

(As you can tell from the above, I've decided to diversify and write bloggish personal ramblings about my reading habits as well as reviews of everything I'm reading. If my so far hypothetical readers like this change, or if you don't, you can let me know.)

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