June 21, 2004

Keep on the Borderlands, Ru Emerson

Friends of mine used to share a plywood palace on the outskirts of town and called it the "Keep on the Borderlands". I am given to understand that the starter adventure for D&D was called this; I don't see any reference to D&D or Gary Gygax on the copyright page here, but who knows where Wizards of the Coast, Inc., mined their ore?

People talk of the .com rage as a phoenix, a comet; but WoTC was even more sudden and surprising in both its rise and its fall.

Anyhow. This particular novel, judging by its first sixty pages, has no good parts that aren't done better by Barbara Hambly, particularly in The Witches of Wenshar &ff. That also has a failing empire, monster-troubled wastes, comrades in arms drawn from distant lands, and a blonde icy swordswoman, all at least as convincing. The swordswoman in Hambly is a lot more convincing; her qualms and weaknesses are more neatly drawn from her background, and she doesn't whimper about them to her men-at-arms, which really I don't find likely. I've just reread the first three Patrick O'Brian Aubrey-Maturin novels, so have just seen really well-done examples of commanders hiding or failing to hide their weaknesses from the crew.

ISBN: 0786918810

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June 17, 2004

The Lion and the Unicorn, Richard Harding Davis

These short stories aren't as good as Davis' novel Soldiers of Fortune; they'd be better if read separately, but together they're too predictable. They're like early or tepid Rudyard Kipling.

Fever dreamAccordingly, the best stories are the ones that depend for substance and effect on the horrors of war; On the Fever Ship and The Man With One Talent.

Reproach at the dinner tableThe latter is mildy educational or corroborative or depressing given international politics. A man who knows how awful conditions in Cuba are thinks he's convinced a powerful, eloquent Senator to visit Cuba and make its plight understood. The Senator's financial backers convince him not to go; they invite the man to a luxurious dinner to break the news gently; he reproaches them. When he dies mutilated in Cuba, they take it as evidence that their views were sensible.

The Spanish-American War was even more confusing than that, of course; it was supported by USians who thought it would be good for trade, led to the invasion of the Phillippines against the will of the Filipinos, and was politically or psychologically useful in the US partly because the nationalism it inspired papered over the North-South tensions left from our Civil War.

Although these illustrations are very Gibson-like, they're by Howard Chandler Christy. Christy looks like an example of the practicality of art as a get-out-of-Hicksville career a hundred years ago, when there weren't as many entries into the urban middle class as there are now. I have puzzled friends, and quite fairly, by referring to art as a plausible careerist path, and the Civil War to WWI era is what I was thinking of. I would guess, in a randomly-informed way, that business was a proportionally worse bet when more businesses were privately held and family managed, leaving fewer rungs from clerkship to management. Artists and engineers with no connections might have had a better chance of eventual independence. Dunno. Cf. New Grub Street and, for the predictable Anthony Trollope reference, The Three Clerks.

I'm clearly going in circles enough to make mine a small world: from The Vagrant,

"I should have felt [grateful] that way toward Mrs. Ewing more than anyone else."
"I know, 'Jackanapes,'" remarked Collier, shortly; "a brutal assault upon the feelings, I say."

I've read Jackanapes and it's startling to see it compared, is it is here, to Lewis Carroll. Fame comes and goes.

Project Gutenberg etext #1620

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June 14, 2004

Soldiers of Fortune, Richard Harding Davis

One of my grandfathers was an engineer (civil, geophysical) who knocked around Central America and the Middle East, mostly, going in without maps and leaving roads and wells behind him. He and my grandmother eloped from her finishing school on midnight of her eighteenth birthday, were married the next morning in the next state, and went off to put sweat equity into a ranch in Colombia. Their stories got more dramatic from there.

All these tales of my grandparents ought to be taken with a lot of salt, as they were told me long after the fact, the art of the raconteur was an art my grandparents cherished, and I was a romanticizing little kid. But this is how I remember it.

They gave the impression that this was the sort of thing anyone did in the '30s, certainly anyone with nerve. Of course, all the expats they met had had wild lives, by definition, so I can see why they thought so after the fact. I have just been struck by how likely it is that they had read Richard Harding Davis' novels and been seduced into the belief that everyone had such a life before they chose to follow it. I haven't, to my massive relief, yet recognized a specific anecdote my grandfather told, but I'm pretty sure he used some of the jokes. And the physical copy I picked up for 25¢ is part of a 1907 Collected Edition, glazed cloth, six greyscale illustrations by C. D. Gibson himself; all this strongly suggests that libraries and uncles and used bookstores made Davis available to any plucky boy in 1925, when my grandfather was fourteen.

This particular novel is about three Soldiers of Fortune in a Ruritania-class South American republic. Only one is a professional soldier; he left some British regiment under clouded circumstances and is the head of the guard of the modestly-corrupt President. The other two are engineers, one a US orphan the other probably a US citizen but of Scottish extraction. The orphan Clay, especially, is a sharp-shooting natural leader of men, cunning and courageous, who does the work of twenty and loves with a pure heart. It's not a subtle novel.

It ameliorates the flaws of its kind. The worst is the unthinking racism of the whole plot; the Americans, soi-disant white men (Irish are still navvies with the Negroes), don't just build a mine and railroad but oversee the successful resistance to a dastardly coup. The mitigation is that all this exists to provide the heroes with noble work, not to let the reader delight in spite and cruelty. Bolivar is clearly a great hero to Clay, whose father died trying to free Cuba; he knows the local citizens want to defend their constitutional Republic, he just thinks they need leadership (and a call to the Great White Fleet) to do it.

The other plot is the Romance, which was much more surprising. The perfect débutante we meet on the first page, who has never quite been satisfied with the rich and titled men who offer for her, whose newsmagazine picture Clay has been carrying long before he met her—she doesn't marry him. He becomes gently disillusioned. He falls in love with her excellent little sister, who is informed about and fascinated by engineering. Little sister gets to rescue the hero, carriage-horses at the gallop, gunshots flying around her! The older sister has been ruined by social conformity, see. This is sort of delightful, and unconvincingly suggestive of Watch and Ward, and extremely suggestive of the upcoming Woman Question; their daughter is going to grow up knocking around the world with two competent parents, and it's no wonder she'll go back home and demand college degrees and the Vote.

On the other hand, the near-coup has been financed by a freelance professional insurgency-profiteer, Clay's evil twin. He loses this round, but the second engineer didn't get the girl (he's Scottish) and therefore must go off and become a revolutionary, sort of Locksley Hall. He starts with big theories about how grand it will be to free many oppressed little nations, but we know he's working with the conscienceless profiteer.

Clay says, as though everyone knows it, ...it takes two thousand bullets to kill a man in European warfare.... Contemporaneous supply-train knowlege? Useful explanation of how almost everyone survives the battle-scenes?

Dead comrade, Gibson The pictures are odd. The women are a bit out of drawing, although they are as sumptuous and languid as we expect from Charles Dana Gibson. The men are as noble and clean of limb as Arrow shirt advertisements, but they have tiny heads and hands and feet. This probably suggested their natural aristocracy, but it looks funny now.

Davis also wrote a bunch of stories about New York/London stylish high life, all valets and footlights and Delmonico's; I haven't liked those at all.

Project Gutenberg text #403. PG has lots and lots of Richard Harding Davis.

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My Life in Orange, Tim Guest

I lived in Portland, Oregon, just after the Bhagwan Shree Ragneesh's commune fell apart, and Oregon was still shivering at the combination of happy, creepy, creepily happy, and outright exploitative behavior rumored to have flourished in Antelope. No single view of the whole thing is either established or dispelled by Guest's autobiography of a childhood spent in various Ragneeshi communes. Clearly his parents were well-meaning but too caught up in their own lives. Many of the people and some of the systems in the communes were loving and caretaking, but there was always a threatening, cruel-ecstatic vein in the practice. The cruelty and games and venality expanded until the whole endeavor collapsed, to the advantage of a tiny few and the amazed sorrow of some.

Guest is a little bit distant in the whole narration; clearly he was a weird outsider little kid even in a nest of outsiders, and maybe he's maintained that his whole life. He reports that at least one child died in a Ragneeshi commune, and more were damaged, but it's also believable when he says that he's met fellow kids who had very different experiences and still remember it fondly.

Guest was there because of odd parents; his mother was way too eager to find connection, possibly related to a family so traditional that they threatened to kill her for getting pregnant out of wedlock; and his father seems awfully disconnected, possibly connected to a personality that went off to Silicon Valley and became a successful programmer in the 1980s.

The strangely almost-happy ending is that Guest's mother is well-married to someone she met in the commune, who was a good parent to Guest. They used psychological knowledge they'd learned there to apologize to Guest, and repair the three of them as a family. The parents are still happiest when wandering; Guest roots.

ISBN: 1862076324

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June 11, 2004

Crampton Hodnet, Barbara Pym

This is much like The Other Side of the Fire, but longer and a touch more cruel and more constantly funny. The funniest bit is probably the tutor pitching himself into an affair with a student, mostly out of bored vanity, and then being horrified at the thought that divorce would make him so uncomfortable; he doesn't see that she isn't interested in anything but talk:

She knew exactly how she ought to feel, for she was well read in our greater and lesser English poets, but the unfortunate fact was that she did not really like being kissed at all.

The introduction is written by Hazel Holt. Now I see why Holt's cosy mysteries are unsatisfying; her sees-all character is nice where she should be kind. The classic characters see the foibles of their neighbors and are kinder because of it, avoiding the cruelties that a true innocent would say unknowingly.

Anthony Trollope isn't cruel even when he's dissecting a really hopeless character, as in Cousin Henry. I wonder how. I wonder why.

ISBN: 0452258162

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The new Seattle Public Library

I don't like it. It will grow on me, if only from a Pavlovian association of the place with its contents. The librarians will be clever and thorough in mitigating its navigation problems by providing maps and signs. The Architecture, though, is maybe a fifth part an interesting try at a Machine for Information, maybe a fifth part actively stupid, and more than a fifth humorous because it's already so dated. It was instantaneously passé when the third Matrix movie was a disappointment.

The aesthetic dorkiness has its charming side, though. I'm fond of Seattle partly because we're a provincial, optimistic, overambitious, pratfall of a place; very homely, even when tremendously annoying. The library and the sports stadiums will be our cultural bookends to the fortunate 1990s, reminding us what we spent and what we thought would save us.

I also look forward to no-budget dystopian films being made in the library, with Blöödhäg soundtrack.

What specifically don't I like about it? From the outside, the pompous, looming approach on 4th, in which the entry has all the appeal of a pore. Seattle doesn't need to shade its streets, and the high overhang won't protect that door from much rain. (Next visit, I'll start on 5th and see if that feels better.) Then the navigation is hideously, hilariously bad, so that the librarians have already taped up (tidy and color-coördinated) copier notices explaining where to go and how to get out. There's all this whooptedo about the easy navigation and the spiral of books, but (postponing the question of whether the Dewey line is really how we access books) you don't walk in and meet the books, you walk into a sort of distant-concierge hotel lobby on 5th or a crowded industrial arrangement of dead ends on 4th. The lobby on 5th presents vast vertical space with no books. The children's and multilingual books are on floor 1; 2 isn't public; 3 is other fiction (all of it?); the spiral is floors 6 to 9. You don't get to see the spiral when you walk in (I didn't find a good overview of it anywhere). The building doesn't invite you into the knowledge of the ages, rather it does more to hide the books than I would have thought possible in an open-plan, glass-walled building.

I suppose many people will be more comforted by the "mixing chamber" combined reference and information desk than I am, and I am content in the expectation that the librarians will make a good thing of it and make it an abstract introduction to the Horn of Plenty. All that concrete isn't abstract, and I disdain it for disdaining that spiraling horn.

It isn't the modernism I dislike; I enjoyed the temporary library, which spent the interim years in an authentically construction-surfaced installation in a convention-center building.

Just plain dim details: the stairs in the book spiral are incredibly noisy. The boxed-in stairwells are of a different material and aren't noisy, so I suspect the noisy ones were chosen because they look cool. There are what seem to be water sprays (for fire suppression, I can't remember the name) that are boxed in most of 300°, by the glass wall of the escalators on one side and by their heavy brackets on the other. Maybe they pop out and wave tentacularly in event of a fire. The continuous ramp concrete floor of the spiral is ribbed with cast-in-place level supports for the bookcases , etc. Where there aren't bookcases, these 1" or 2" teeth extend into the corridor floor a few inches; enough for me to trip on, as the corridors are narrow enough that I hug the wall going around corners. The verticals next to these teeth are mostly sheetrock, e.g. boxes around supports or stairwells, and it's slipshod that the teeth and the sheetrock don't match.

The lower end of the purportedly-important Book Spiral has already been commented on by one of our newsweeklies; it stubs out without ceremony or explanation, facing yet another drop filled with I-beam supports (which are covered with rough black fire retardant, to bolster the cheap-SF-movie effect), with no way in or out visible. I don't like the top of the spiral much better; you finally pass the Special Collections which are in a glass-walled Don't Touch city. Again, an actively disinviting transition from finding materials to using them.

I'm dubious about whether this is really a "light-filled" library. There's a lot of inaccessible space with an angled glass wall above and below, and maybe this will bring in comfortable indirect light year-round, and maybe it will be a wearying greyness all winter. I like grey, I go west and wetter from here to relax, but a building to concentrate that would be a bit much even for me. I hope someone did extensive solar modelling.

I liked the floor in the multilingual section a lot. Making the organizational principle of the books the spine of the building is a pretty idea. I sort of like the perpetual keyhole views through the grid-skin. The book-transport system is cute. I, mmm, I hope I'm more cheerful on my next visit. I don't like not liking my library. (I love the Capitol Hill design, although I think it should have more room for books, and I was horrified when the roof leaked catastrophically last winter.) The popup power strips and wireless access at the study tables aren't as good as the stunning blue leather and brass scholar's fitments at the British Library Reading Room, but they are attempts at being as useful (I should check whether the desks are comfortable for non-computer work.)

Back to the Dewey spiral... There are good reasons why our book-ordering systems map to the number line, but I don't think that's a good map of how we use them. (I Am Not A Librarian. Ignorant Pontification Ahead. Not Much Worse Than Everything Else So Far, Though.) Trotting up and down the spiral, making constant use of the rubber markers in the floor, I really, really noticed that books on related subjects aren't usually next to each other in Dewey. The back-and-forth pattern in boring old rectangular stacks is okay because you don't have to go the length of each bookcase, and sometimes you luck out and everything is on the same physical corridor. So the perfect Library is arranged with an infinite number of petals, extensible as their subjects grow, but all opening to the student in the middle: the one corridor collapsed to a point: the one place we want a Panopticon. (The BLRR catalogue tried, eh? but the actual books were elsewhere. I wish I could find a picture of the desk furniture.)

A spiral could have the elevators as the single point, stretched out by mere physical necessity; but I don't think this one does. I didn't stop at every stop but the elevator mostly doesn't face books, that I recall.

Well. More later. May this embarrass me a decade from now when it's obvious that the library is the help and pride of the city.

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The Battle of Evernight, Cecelia Dart-Thornton

The inventive language of the first volume has petered out in this one, but the plot ticks along satisfactorily, with event and pageantry and an ambiguous conclusion.

There's one very odd thing in the plot. The heroine did a terrible, destructive, stupid thing in the second volume, against clear instructions from a reliable source. I don't think she's ever chastised for it. She does suffer another haunted hike through thorny jungles, as in the first volume; maybe that's the sentence, but it isn't an obvious penance like that of, say, Psyche. I would have expected the bereaved survivors of the disaster to tell her off, especially since they have to slog along with her.

The oddity in the telling is an exhaustion in retelling. She's still using a good tasty stew of mostly-Irish fairytales as her figured background, but two of them, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market most noticeably, appear as tales told by other characters. Rossetti's wonderful Tale is long out of copyright and easily available, but Dart-Thornton gives it back in truncated and imitative prose; not an improvement.

ISBN: 0446528072

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The Other Side of the Fire, Alice Thomas Ellis

Dignity, I admit, will not keep you warm in winter, but it is a little something to cover the nakedness.

How English. I can't think of an American author, not a living one, with that characteristic combination of dissection and affection. Ellis' characters are pathetic, in that they inspire pathos, not that they know it. They're all suffering under a microscope, not playing on a stage.

And yet, stupid as the sweet ones are, right as the clever ones are to put no faith in those who love them, it turns out pretty much all right in the end. Dignity means not talking about it, so making no errors that can't be kindly ignored.

There is a funny (ha-ha) subplot about talking about far too much because one is a Writer.

ISBN: 1888173858

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June 10, 2004

Girl Genius, issue 11, Phil Foglio, Kaja Foglio, Laurie E. Smith


ISBN: 1890856282

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either an experiment, or a state of risk. A usefully obnoxious word, as it could probably put two people out of four into a state of dither, annoyance or puzzlement, just because it sounds as though it must be obscene.

I found it in Tristram Shandy, of course, great winking shaggy-dog tale that that is, and in an anecdote that really is risqué.

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June 09, 2004

Tristam Shandy, Laurence Sterne

The anfractuous chronology—Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is presented in such a welter of flashbacks and interruptions and aposiopesis that it must be some kind of Modernist, Mina Loy kind, maybe— is probably in some fascinating but long-since unimportant way a result of codex printing-and-binding technology. Similarly, it's a perfect PDA book. In any five-minute span, either the plot will tergiversate or the dentist will see you now. You do not need to keep all the oddities ordered in memory, as having your stack popped for you is one of the pleasures.

This is a relatively early PG transcription, and the ASCII-versioning is rougher than it really needs to be; they short-sheet a joke by leaving out asterisks, and don't transliterate Greek but instead put in "(Greek)", which has the same first-order effect for those of us who don't read Greek, but I still regret it. Some layout jokes survive well, though, in parenthetical comments like (Blank page crossed by a diagonal line); which was as funny in context as I always find mentions of 4'44".

I can't remember if Quicksilver or The Confusion allude to Shandy, except in their truncated hero. There's little other parallel, since the later books are actually quite linear and monolingual and explanatory when compared to the earlier. I suppose I was waiting for a second shoe to drop when I had only imagined the first one.

The rest of this is really for my memory, a list of the bits I bookmarked:

Thou enviedst no man's comforts--insultedst no man's opinions--Thou blackenedst no man's character--devouredst no man's bread: gently, with faithful Trim behind thee, didst thou amble round the little circle of thy pleasures, jostling no creature in thy way:--for each one's sorrows, thou hadst a tear,--for each man's need, thou hadst a shilling.

The seriousness is lost here, it struck me by following so much mockery.

the great saint Paraleipomenon

(P~, "things omitted", or two Biblical books)

Poo! poo! answered the king--there are more ways, Mons. le Premier, of bribing states, besides that of giving money--I'll pay Switzerland the honour of standing godfather for my next child.--Your majesty, said the minister, in so doing, would have all the grammarians in Europe upon your back;-- Switzerland, as a republic, being a female, can in no construction be godfather.--She may be godmother, replied Francis hastily--so announce my intentions by a courier to-morrow morning.

Consider the behavior towards the uppity republic in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and be glad to know that Switzerland holds her own in this exchange.

When Fate was looking forwards one afternoon, into the great transactions of future times,--and recollected for what purposes this little plot, by a decree fast bound down in iron, had been destined,--she gave a nod to Nature,--'twas enough--Nature threw half a spade full of her kindliest compost upon it, with just so much clay in it, as to retain the forms of angles and indentings,--and so little of it too, as not to cling to the spade, and render works of so much glory, nasty in foul weather.

(that for my Soils class)

Quanto id diligentias in liberis procreandis cavendum, sayeth Cardan.


O! there is a sweet aera in the life of man, when (the brain being tender and fibrillous, and more like pap than any thing else)--a story read of two fond lovers, separated from each other by cruel parents, and by still more cruel destiny--

each ignorant of the other's course,
Amandus taken captive by the Turks, and carried to the emperor of Morocco's court, where the princess of Morocco falling in love with him, keeps him twenty years in prison for the love of the his Amanda.--

And more similar. Perfect summary of the continuing low pleasures of novel-reading it is, and I should blog the collection of truly awful ancient Greek and Roman novels with lorn hero/ines and lecherous goats.

In the alphabetical list in ch. 4.XXXVII, the entry for I contains "(there is no K to it)" and the next entry is for L. Surely the J was formally recognized by then, so is it left out because it's near the middle or as a symbol of truncation? There is no eyebrow-wiggling suggestiveness I would put past Shandy.

My father, whether by ancient custom of the manor, or as impropriator of the great tythes, was obliged to keep a Bull for the service of the Parish...

The Bull is there for Shandy to wiggle eyebrows at, but I put it here to give the poor overworked creature a rest. No, actually because I thought it was an interesting example of traditional balances of rights and responsibilities. Having to keep one bull per cow would make milk fiendishly expensive, and beef nearly as much so. Very sensible to expect the person with the best fences and the most trading connections to keep the regional bull. I expect the local monastery fulfilled the obligation in the honestly medieval period, but it does seem a bit much to ask of the vicar.

I've read that keepers of very rare breeds of chicken mail their roosters around in rota every few years, to keep their flocks from getting inbred. The USPS, if I remember correctly, would rather not stay in the small-stock-transport business but the chickenbreeders and the beekeepers of Maine, who need new queens every year, have so far pled to keep the service running... Rights & responsibilities.

Project Gutenberg etext #1079

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The Sky So Big and Black, John Barnes

Everything I remember fondly from Heinlein's novels is in here, including a much more interesting Podkayne as well as Mars; but not the trivialization and flattening of enemies and the weak that weakened RAH's arguments fatally, and his stories frequently. (Not always; not in Podkayne....)

It's also a good noir detective or psychological story and leaves room for an entire philosophical sequel built around AI and disease evolution.

ISBN: 0765342227

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June 02, 2004

Frodo Hill, Maria-Susannah Cleland

Everything that failed in Ill Met by Moonlight's fan-ficcery of Shakespeare is done gloriously well here. Alas, the better work is unlikely ever to see print, let alone hardback, because it uses characters from The Lord of the Rings.

Well, and also it's naughty, naughty, naughty; Frodo Hill is outright slash. But tasteful! for which it deserves great commendation.

Now, the obvious charm of the work is its consistent writing style:

But to my story -- You must know, that at the time when Gondor and all the lands of Men were under Seige by the Creatures of the Dark Lord, that our fair Country of Ithilien was then nothing like it is now in these happier Days. Now the blessings of Peace smile upon the Land; then the God of War strode angry across it; now Ithilien is a Garden; then it was a Wilderness; now it basks in the Light of Gondor; then it lay in the shadow of Mordor. Nay, Ithilien itself had been long abandon'd by all decent Folk, and was the abode of foul Wraiths and of the wretched Things who served them. No Men would have walked those haunted Woods were it not for the Courage of the soldiery of Gondor. Led by the young Captain Faramir, their Daring knew no Bounds, for in frequent Raids they harried the Enemy even to the very Gates of the City of the Wraiths.
Yet even the greatest Courage will falter with constant and unvarying Exercise; and no Soldier, however bold his Spirit, will continue in the same happy Condition without occasional Rest. And so it was that Captain Faramir and his men would oft resort to the city of Osgiliath and to such Recreations as that Place could afford.

Setting Fanny Hill, q.v., in Osgiliath is an act of minor but undeniable genius. Providing Tolkien's characters with sex-lives as we understand them is clearly not at all a stretch for the modern imagination; plenty of people have more trouble imagining a world without modern sex-lives. But that wasn't all that was missing from J. R. R. Tolkien; he had written something like an England without London, even a Europe without cities. I remember hardly any makers and traders; Gondor certainly seemed to me like an institutional city, all government and ceremony. This is no fault in Tolkien; he wasn't writing realism.

Gondor would have to have an economy if it was realistic, but the trades need not have been in the (confined and expensive) City itself. If Osgiliath was the Other Bank for Other Ranks, Osgiliath had the corner shops and tanneries and Times Square and all; so also brothels; so Fanny Hill.

If this sounds amusing, but you don't like explicit sex scenes, I have doublechecked that the first webpage/chapter is strongly suggestive but not explicit. The whole has great fun with suggestiveness, including the extended tease in which   Letter the Fifth  is followed by Letter the Fifth-and-a-Half, then Letter the Fifth-and-Three-Quarters; finally   Letter the Sixth; and even the Sixth and climactic appears in a PG version directly, and a NC-17 version only if you ask. (I think the PG version is better.)

URI: http://members.aol.com/Brumblepop/fics/fh/index.html

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Ithanalin's Restoration, Lawrence Watt-Evans

My first thought was that this has much in common with Howl's Moving Castle but carries a smaller emotional charge. My second thought is that it has a smaller charge because the young-adult heroine isn't so preposterously crippled by timidity, and that's fine.

However, because she has a pretty good idea of what her failings are and how to fix them, there's not a lot of suspense in the plot; I'd have liked more play with the Society of Mind accident. (Which Howl's... has also, and doesn't use much more.)

ISBN: 0765300125

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Digital Fortress, Dan Brown

Laughably but not lovably bad, unlike SOS at Midnight, which was lovable.

There are four things going on in Digital Fortress: characterization like mid-era Carolyn Keene, some actual sex and violence to update it, a haphazard rehearsal of the privacy vs. gov't knowledge arguments, and a gormless attempt to use cryptography in the plot mechanics. The last provides most of the humor.

I am, for instance, hardly sure that a NSA manager wouldn't carry unauthorized assassination reports around in clear; or that the NSA has no important bottlenecks controlled by one unaudited person. If those are likely, then the parts of the story that hinge on the NSA'a gold-plated caution and brilliant techno-wheezery are less believable, so Brown loses me either way. Characters are also good or incompetent at specific skills at the convenience of the plot.

But the actual giggles were all in the climactic scene, in the countdown to disaster; we are to believe that a roomful of cryptographers and chip-wizards, many of them military,

  • are amazed when a sequence of four-letter strings contains 64 letters—a perfect square!
  • can't think of any numeric meaning for the word 'element' in the context of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs
  • describe a letter sequence starting 'quis' as "a bunch of random letters"

There were a couple other howlers, but those linger.

There was one interesting character, but he was dead the whole time. The plot revolves around his being immeasurably cleverer at math and/or psychology than the rest of the NSA. I can't tell if this is supposed to suggest that he was right in combating the NSA's plans to surveil us all. I think it more likely that Brown wrote him as another MacGuffin and failed to notice that he was not just smarter than the rest of them, but the only character who repeatedly acted on painful and examined moral considerations.

ISBN: 0312263120

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In a frenzy of deleting comment-spam, I think I deleted at least one possible non-spam; at least, it seems to have pointed to a reputable software house. I don't know anything about it but that. Oops; sorry.

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June 01, 2004

Ill Met by Moonlight, Sarah A. Hoyt

Nice idea, annoying characters, tone-deaf prose.

The idea is that Will Shakespeare actually met the fairies; that his wife was abducted and they had to wile their way back to the mortal world, through Court politics that provided inspiration for his love poetry and his dramas. Terry Pratchett has done half of it much better, but there's room for another try.

The prose makes my eyes roll so hard I can't focus, though; that and the direct-from-anime hermaphrodite fairy prince:

A prince, he thought he looked, a wronged prince, the color of his attire the external expression of his inner tumult.
Yet, how should a prince look who knows his brother has murdered their parents and now sits, remorseless, on his stolen throne?

There's more 'attire' in the second para, but I can't bring myself to repeat it. It's not the feebly precious words that slay me, it's the murder they do to the rhythms of the sentences.

Will and Nan are much better characters, earthy and foolish. Nan gets the best prose, sometimes plain sometimes not:

Will! He stood at the edge of the river, but in the mortal world, so that his feet sank in the mud to the ankle. The rain that fell soaked his poor wool suit, and made him look like a wet cat, when all its fur—the ornament and grace of its state—clings to its poor frail frame and leaves the cat nothing more than a bag of bones, pitiful and pitiable.

ISBN: 0-441-00860-7

Posted by clew at 07:29 PM | TrackBack
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