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21 May 2005

The Book of Night With Moon by Diane Duane is set in the same world as her series beginning with So You Want to Be a Wizard, but, though characters from that series appear, most of them play only minor roles; this novel stands alone pretty well. The story revolves around a group of wizard-cats who maintain the teleportation gates in Grand Central Station; something is going wrong with several of the gates, and they are requiring adjustment more often than they ought. Then they discover evidence that one of the gates has been used and its access log deliberately erased; and, about the same time, they find a badly wounded kitten, who turns out to be a potential wizard. Enough about the plot; the world is pretty interesting, and I can talk about it without spoilers.

In this world, there are wizards of every sentient race; a few human wizards and one dog wizard also play major or minor roles, but the cats are on center stage here. (Wizards of several species of whale appear in Deep Wizardry, the second and maybe the best of the Young Wizards series.) These wizards are recruited by the Powers — angels or demigods — to stymie the Lone Power, the Power that invented entropy and death. (It's not terribly hard to figure out who the Lone Power is supposed to be, when we read how the wizards traditionally greet him/her when they meet: "Eldest, Fairest and Fallen... greeting and defiance.") At least two of the novels set in this world involve wizards on mission helping a young sentient species make their Choice, which they are presented with when the Lone Power discovers them and makes them an offer that's hard to refuse (much as in Perelandra).

Duane is a good storyteller and a pretty good writer; these books are often hard to put down. They aren't as good as Lewis and Tolkien's best work, but they're far better than some of the wretched stuff that passes as Christian fantasy these days; and, I reckon, probably more likely to be enjoyed by evangelicals than the works of Gene Wolfe or Tim Powers. Diane Duane is not quite as subtle as Lewis, or anywhere near as subtle as Tolkien, Powers, or Wolfe; but, still the background and message (mostly) don't get in the way of the stories. Overall, I can recommend this and the first five of the seven Young Wizards books (I haven't read the most recent two). There's also a second cat wizards book, To Visit the Queen, which I haven't read yet.


The Graveyard Game and The Life of the World to Come by Kage Baker are the fourth and fifth novels (so far) in her time-travel series; there's also a short story collection, Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers, which reprints most but not all of the short stories set in the same world. The story arc heats up here; these two (and the third volume, Mendoza in Hollywood) don't stand alone as well as the first two, In the Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote. It would be hard to say anything very specific about these two without spoiling some major elements of the first and third volumes, and the short stories; so, though it's been a couple of years since I read the first three, I'll just talk here in general terms about the series as a whole.

Time travel has been discovered (supposedly in the early 24th century) by a wealthy, secretive corporation, Dr. Zeus Incorporated. Naturally they want to make money on it. It seems impossible to change recorded history, but with a little experimenting they find they are pretty free to act in place-times about which nothing is known. So they plan to make their next several trillions by rescuing lost art objects, manuscripts, the DNA of extinct species, and so forth, just before they are lost, and selling them in their own 24th century. But time travel is extremely expensive; to save the expense of going back and forth so much, they find a use for their immortality technology (which, as it only works on children, and has unpleasant side effects, hasn't been used much): they recruit small children in the ancient past, who would have died if not rescued by Company operatives, work the immortality process on them, and put them to work. These immortal cyborgs live through history in real time, rescuing and hiding for later retrieval various valued things that would otherwise be lost, and periodically rescuing children to be recruited into the Company.

The series begins in In the Garden of Iden when a four-year old girl, Mendoza, is rescued from the Spanish Inquisition by a 20,000-year old cyborg named Joseph. After being turned into a cyborg and trained, she's sent (along with Joseph and several other Company operatives) to England at the beginning of Queen Mary's reign. This is where (in spite of a favorable impression going in due to having read several of her short stories in Asimov's) Baker almost lost me: the virulent anti-Catholicism and ahistorical portrayal of England in Mary's reign made In the Garden of Iden hard to finish. Baker gets most of the details right, as far as I can tell, but the way she portrays the relations between Catholics and Protestants in England at the time seems almost totally wrong, based on all the history I've read; she seems to accept the official portrait of "Bloody Mary" uncritically. Besides this, there are some minor infelicities of the kind one expects and allows for in a first novel, and some major strengths: the characterization, the portrayal of the secret cyborg subculture, and above all the humor; this is a very funny book, as is the second volume, Sky Coyote. There are funny parts in the later books as well, though I wouln't describe any of them primarily as comedies.

The anti-Catholic strain doesn't appear again in the later books. Sky Coyote is hard to take seriously, but is primarily a comic interlude between the tragic ending of In the Garden of Iden and the high adventure of the later books. Joseph and Mendoza are reunited on another mission in 1699, as part of a team that's to make a documentary about an Indian tribe on the coast of California that's soon to be wiped out by smallpox. If possible, they're also to try to persuade them to migrate to a secret Company base to avoid the smallpox. To this end, the various cyborgs on the mission disguise themselves as various gods — Joseph as Coyote, for instance. Baker has great fun transposing stereotypical Californian characteristics onto this lost tribe of Indians; it's hysterically funny, but suspension of disbelief fails.

I won't say anything specific about the plots of the latter three books. I would recommend that if you like the first two at all, you should read the short stories and the later novels, as they get better. The short stories might be the best place to start, though maybe some of them have minor spoilers for In the Garden of Iden; I can't recall for sure. You should definitely read the stories in Black Projects, White Knights and, if you can find it, "Son, Observe the Time", before reading the latest two novels, The Graveyard Game and The Life of the World to Come. I'm not sure why "Son, Observe the Time" wasn't included in the collection; it's more important to the story arc than some of the others that were included, and it was a Hugo nominee. It appeared in Asimov's, May 1999, and in The Year's Best Science Fiction, Seventeenth Annual Collection (2000) edited by Gardner Dozois.

According to Kage Baker's own home page, there are to be at least two more Company novels: The Children of the Company is scheduled for later this year, according to Amazon.com, and she's currently working on a seventh novel tentatively titled The Machine's Child. Another collection of Company stories (surely including "Son, Observe the Time"?) is supposed to be coming as well. FYI, in case you prefer to wait until a series is finished before you start it. (That's usually my preference as well, but here I got sucked in by the short stories and found it hard to stop, once I got past the annoying parts of the first novel.)


A Warning to the Curious and other stories is a collection of ghost stories by M.R. James (1863-1936). Many of them are framed as discoveries of old manuscripts; in most of them, the culmination of the supernatural events must be inferred by the reader, as no one survives to tell the narrator what happened directly. The settings (mostly in small villages in rural England) are evocatively described. Most of them are very effectively creepy, with amusing bits early on that fade as the horrifying supernatural events progress. A couple of them (e.g., "Number 13") have a comic tone throughout, which makes them enjoyable in quite another way. This mix of stories makes for a better collection than would a set of purely horrific stories. Based on what I've read of his work so far, I would rank M.R. James above H.P. Lovecraft and just below Clark Ashton Smith as a writer of supernatural horror. I definitely plan to acquire and read more of his collections.

14 May 2005

Lawrence Watt-Evans is serializing The Spriggan Mirror, a new Ethshar novel, on his website. It's something of a sequel to With A Single Spell, but appears (from the four chapters posted so far) to mostly involve different characters, so you shouldn't hesitate to jump in even if you haven't read that book or any of the other Ethshar books (which stand alone pretty well). Mr. Evans is accepting donations by check or PayPal, and posting another chapter once a week or whenever $100 in donations accumulates.

Gresh is the only son of parents with thirteen children. Several of his sisters have taken up various branches of magic; Gresh himself has made a reputation for finding obscure things needed as spell ingredients, and has a successful business finding and selling them. In the opening chapters, he is approached by a witch (Karanissa from With A Single Spell) who wants his help finding an enchanted mirror, which she says is the source of spriggans:

Spriggans had started appearing a few years ago, without explanation; they had just been there, getting underfoot, poking into everything, babbling nonsense.

In the next couple of chapters Gresh begins investigating where this mirror might be, by capturing and interrogating a spriggan (promising to set it free after it answers twenty questions in payment for spilling an expensive vial of dragon blood). The family dynamics among Gresh and his sisters are interesting, and Gresh's interrogation of the spriggan is quite clever. It's too early to say much about The Spriggan Mirror, but, given the enjoyable quality of the earlier Ethshar novels and how this one reads so far, I had no hesitation about pitching in some money toward the next installment

Update 2005/10: LWE finished The Spriggan Mirror recently, and the first draft remains on his website. A second draft, slightly expanded, is supposed to appear in trade paperback awhile hence from FoxAcre Press.

Overall I would say it's one of the better Ethshar novels, though not the best. The mirror puzzle and its solution are intriguing and satisfying, and the relations among the main characters get more interesting over the course of the story. The novel does stand alone tolerably well in the sense that you shouldn't be confused if this is the first Ethshar novel you've read, though the characters from With A Single Spell have a far more major role than I expected they would after reading just the first few chapters, and it contains serious spoilers for that earlier novel (as well as The Spell of the Black Dagger).


It's been over a year since I last posted here; I don't guarantee I'm going to start posting reviews regularly again, but I'll start with a few brief comments on some of the books I've read in the last few months, and see how much time I have for longer reviews in the next month or two.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett is one of the best of the Discworld novels so far, which is saying a lot. But it doesn't stand alone as well as some of the others; it's another in the subseries begun with Guards! Guards!. Samuel Vimes and the City Watch are tracking down a psychopathic killer, when a magical accident during a chase across the roofs of Unseen University sends Vimes and his quarry back in time. It soon becomes obvious that they have started to change history for the worse, and Vimes resolves to do whatever he can to put things back on course — until an opportunity arises to, perhaps, make things turn out better this time... for everyone but himself.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens is perhaps the weakest of his novels that I've read so far, but still very good. Parts of it are famously annoying (large chunks of the the main plot thread about Little Nell and her grandfather), but the other plot threads, about Daniel Quilp, the sadistic dwarf usurer, Dick Swiveller the young law clerk, and Kit Nubbles, Nell's friend, more than make up for that.

Steven Brust's The Viscount of Adrilankha, a novel in three volumes (The Paths of the Dead, The Lord of Castle Black, and Sethra Lavode) is primarily a sequel to The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After, but it also ties in to the Vlad Taltos books and Brokedown Palace, set in the same world in different periods. It's one of his better novels, but not a good place to start reading his work, since it seems to presuppose some knowledge of Dragaeran history; Jhereg or The Phoenix Guards would be better novels to start reading the Dragaera books with, and a stand-alone novel like To Reign in Hell or The Sun, the Moon and the Stars might be the best place to start reading Brust.

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