Jumpdrives & Cantrips

Grit, as Writ

I’ve been thinking for a while about grit in the SF genre, especially in fantasy. You can’t go more than a few reviews or browse more than a few book covers in a store without the use of “grit” somewhere. What is grit, and what’s the appeal?

LOOK! Boys wanted to sell GRIT! Continue reading

More Book Sale Madness

I love book sales. I love being able to search through piles of books and pick out the treasures, and sometimes find treasures for other people.

This past weekend I managed to hit part of the Children’s Hospital Book Sale–which is a bonus, because all profits go to a good cause as well. And you know something? As much as I like reading classic SF, I can’t always bring myself to shell out the $11 per book that it costs. I am a cheap person, and looking back at some of these book prices… I mean, for god’s sake not much more than twenty years ago, paperback books were still under three dollars! Talk about craziness, eh?

Of course, I managed to pull out some treasures this time around: two novels by James Tiptree, Jr. which I am sure are out of print, a pile of Leigh Brackett, a not-quite-so-battered copy of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Clarke’s Childhood’s End since I have always managed to miss it, the second and third books following Kate Elliott’s Jaran, an omnibus of the first three books in Diane Duane’s Wizard series, and a copy of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself for $4 in trade paperback. I suppose given that I now have Abercrombie’s first book, I’ll be able to find out what all the fuss and bother is about.

One of the other things I love about book sales is looking at all the different covers over time for certain books. Stranger in a Strange Land is particularly good for this, but it’s neat to see how design ideas change (or don’t) over time. And sometimes finding odd notes in the books used as bookmarks. I once found a letter apologizing to a lover after an argument; but I commonly find more prosaic things like grocery lists, or classified clippings from the automotive section. I always wonder about the people who read the books. Did they ever finish, or did they just stop?

And just a reminder: if your book smells like vomit, please don’t give it to a book sale. I don’t care if it’s immaculate and has never been touched by projectile body fluids. If it smells like someone puked on it, I will not buy it. Not even if it was a first edition of some extremely famous literature. Not even if I could auction it off for a small fortune (a large fortune I may consider in special cases, and while using a hazmat suit).

Anyhow, largely I enjoy the smell of books. But, you know… there are limits.

If you’re wondering what’s up next, I’m currently reading Sandra McDonald’s The Outback Stars and Grimspace by Ann Aguirre.

The Dancers of Arun

The Dancers of ArunNot all that long ago I wrote about Elizabeth A. Lynn’s Watchtower, the book that won the 1980 World Fantasy Award. It was also the first book of The Chronicles of Tornor, and The Dancers of Arun is the second volume of the trilogy. Trivia: both books were nominated for the 1980 World Fantasy Award. If you go in search of this book, there are many versions of it–but for whatever reason, the same image keeps popping up. Inevitably, it includes a dancing (mostly) nude man under the moon in a forest. This isn’t a key moment in the novel, so its persistence puzzles me.

Lynn follows the story of Kerris, an orphan living in his uncle’s keep, and Kel, his older brother who practises chearis–a dance-related variation of aikido. Kerris has been linked to Kel’s mind most of his life, and then one day Kel comes with a group of friends to Tornor to take Kerris to meet his Southern family. You can think of The Dancers of Arun as a coming-of-age sort of book: comparatively not much happens beyond character growth. It’s the purpose of the book, and by golly, it sticks to its purpose well.

Kerris’ coming-of-age involves acceptance of his newly-explained powers, which are desirable in the “witch town” that he and his brother travel to. More centrally, though, Kerris’ emotional and sexual maturation are a large part of the novel. He also must integrate his family into himself (I’m tempted to make a tasteless joke here involving him and his brother, but will opt not to), learn to live with lacking an arm, and decide what exactly to do with his life. Kerris vacillates between different levels of maturity, which can become annoying at times, yet true to making the transition to adulthood.

The Dancers of Arun deals with gender and sexuality issues, including modes of sexuality beyond hetero, as well as incest. Out there on “the internets” I noted many complaints about the so-called gratuitous homosexual erotica, but I found that the sex itself was depicted tastefully and wasn’t graphic at all. Lynn focuses more on the love–sexual and otherwise–experienced by the two brothers, and treats her topic with more depth than in Watchtower. Lynn refrains from making statements of judgement, but offers consideration. For example, the gradients of sexuality scattered in the book have no morality attached in the world of Arun; they just are.

Lynn forces her readers to consider sameness: in gender, families, sex matches, cultures, thoughts, perceptions, and so on. Kerris and Kel, while definitely not alike in many ways, functionally mirror each other. One serves as a balancing point and context for the other within the novel’s structure. The themes of relativity and “comparative comparativeness” in this book form an exploratory route rather than a focused one. This necessarily reduces the importance of plot, instead focusing on social interactions and mundane actions.

In this book, the writing improves by increasing the detail present in Watchtower, with a continuation of the same sparseness and simple prose. I felt The Dancers of Arun flowed better than Watchtower did, though Watchtower had more plot to unpack than this volume. Despite the improvement, I do have some complaints. I wasn’t entirely convinced of the resolution between the village and the nomads, which seemed more simple than it should have been. Also Lynn’s voice as a writer sometimes conceals more than it reveals: by this, I mean her tone overrides the characters’ individuality, and everything (characters, places, etc.) merges together to create a mostly-uniform environment.

Elizabeth A. Lynn is not the ideal writer for someone searching out the “grit” found in today’s de rigeur fantasy novels. Her writing makes for a definite break from the current stylistic mode, reminiscent of family sagas of the Icelandic tradition. The Dancers of Arun is a social fantasy, one wherein character development is the story and love is interwoven with all actions, violent or otherwise. While the Tornor series is not your standard epic fantasy trilogy, it looks more at change to differing people over time, taking a historic view of a culture, and with it, a philosophic view of society.

Lynn, Elizabeth A. The Dancers of Arun. 1979. New York: Berkley Books, 1980. 275 pages. $0.50 (Canadian), bought used.

The First Betrayal

The First BetrayalI’ve got to admit, Patricia Bray‘s The First Betrayal was one of the books on my pile o’ shame ever since my dad–also a fan of SF/F–insisted I borrow his copy. He rarely ever recommends books, so it went on the TBR pile. And there it stayed for some time, until now.

The First Betrayal begins slowly with Josan, a scholarly monk who has been exiled to a distant lighthouse to regain his health after suffering a debilitating fever that garbled most of his memories. Take note: Prince Lucius has been missing and presumed dead since Josan’s mysterious fever. This is a little like the gun on the mantle mentioned in chapter one of a mystery novel. Josan realizes he and Prince Lucius share Lucius’ body, but not before he gets recognized and plunked in the centre of a conspiracy plotting a bloody revolt as addendum to the failed revolt some years ago.

Ambition and personal power are two thematic threads that Bray emphasizes throughout the novel. While Josan/Lucius serves as an example of attempting to resolve inner conflict and competition, Lady Ysobel looks to cause conflict on an international level to benefit her homeland, Seddon. As a foreign trade diplomat, she was sent to aid a revolt to disrupt Ikaria’s trade, leaving additional ports ripe for new trade agreement with the Seddon Federation. Her communiqués and intrigues (she first notices Josan and brings news of him to Ikaria’s capital) move the novel along while Josan/Lucius is swept along by other people until the very end. Because of this I found pacing sketchy in parts and the story’s ups and downs never absorbed me enough to keep my attention fully.

Before getting into the fantasy groove, Patricia Bray wrote regency romances and a need to understand character motivation and emotions informs her writing. The First Betrayal is a story of political interactions on personal levels told by multiple characters, some who inhabit and contest the same body. She deftly describes the inner aspects of her characters, though at times the book suffered from telling more than showing. This came up especially in relation to the co-conspirators and fleetingly with Ysobel, though this was only a minor irritation and potentially a stylistic choice.

Unfortunately at times I found the voices of different characters merged with Bray’s own voice, overriding the characters’ individuality in the multiple POV format. While it’s a great thing for a writer to have a strongly developed voice, Josan the peaceful scholar and Lucius the arrogant prince muddled together when differentiation struck me as the intended effect.

Bray uses many common plot devices from fantasy to good effect, and I was impressed that the ending was not the requisite heroic coup. Instead, Josan/Lucius maneuver into a sacrifice for the greater good that is really the result of being backed into a corner. I want to know what happens next, though I’m hoping Josan/Lucius take on more personal impetus in further volumes, as here they don’t really do all that much. Those who want a nice heroic finish will not be impressed with the ending of The First Betrayal, but I suspect (hope) things will pan out differently over time with the next two books.

The First Betrayal never manages outstanding, but overall, Patricia Bray tells a good story. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon, especially if you want more intrigue than swords, and more inner conflict than magic. For some reason I kept getting flashes of Robin Hobb while I was reading–more to do with content than style. In any case, I certainly recommend this series as a tangent to epic fantasy, nicely contained in smaller portions than the mega-tomes that seem so common these days.

Bray, Patricia. The First Betrayal. New York: Bantam Spectra, 2006. 343 pages. $9.99 (Canadian).

Magic Burns
April 11, 2008, 2233
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

Magic BurnsMagic Burns by Ilona Andrews is one of the fastest reads I’ve had in a while. This urban fantasy book is the second in a series (following Magic Bites) featuring kickass-heroine-with-a-sword™ Kate Daniels. “Ilona Andrews” is actually a husband and wife writing team, and they are currently contracted for a novella and two more books in the series according to their site. Which I’m happy about, because they’ve hit on something good here. Magic Bites was a nice read, but not outstanding. Magic Burns is a definite improvement.

In Magic Burns, Kate Daniels shares time as a Guild Mercenary and a member of the Order (think of them as oft-magical knights with swords, books, sometimes guns, and an interest in helping people). Rampant gods, weres, vampires, undead, witches, and other magical sorts show up as Kate tries to protect a young street girl with a rare magical talent. And figure out why a disappearing crossbow-bearing thief keeps stealing the Pack’s maps. And find the missing witch coven. And survive the magic flares.

…And pay the bills.

Kate is nothing if not pragmatic. She’s not a genius, but she can figure things out with persistence and she has street-smarts. I love this, because it always annoys me when characters figure things out for no apparent reason. She is tough, and much as in the first books, her big mouth and impulsive nature gets her in frequent bouts of trouble. While she is far from perfect–especially emotionally speaking–her fighting ability and super-human ability to wield magical Words of Power sometimes seemed a bit much. Kate’s mysterious magic-laden past gets some air-time, but only teasers so we never really find out her full history.

As in Magic Bites, one of the main pleasures in this book is the world-building. Magic returns to the world after humans push things to the technological end of the spectrum (Andrews describes it as a pendulum in the book), but it flares in unpredictable waves that knock out some technology as this change occurs. Sometimes the magic works better, sometimes the tech does. But the magic keeps getting stronger. This makes for a neat plot device and also adds tension. The story takes place in a magical yet crumbling Atlanta. It has an apocalyptic feel, peppered with ruined skyscrapers and slums in areas with unstable and dangerous magic.

Two other things grabbed my attention. Most notably: the witty banter between various characters. It was paced well and often warranted at least a chuckle. The second is Kate’s love life, or lack thereof. Kate is a loner, and while she has hormones she is definitely afraid to listen to them. The well-constructed sexual tension between Kate and her main love interest, who just happens to be the Grand High Muckety-Muck of the Pack, is thick enough to plunk into a Jello mould and save for dessert. Which, in a way, makes me hope it doesn’t get consummated because it is so delicious.

However, while the book was a quick read, it kept speeding up in terms of action and events. It was as though there wasn’t enough time to unpack everything that happened in the last portion of the book. I understand some of the story needed to be cut for length, but I found things flying too fast and furious–except for an odd section that dragged as Kate tried to elicit a plot-turning gift from another character. I suspect the flow would have benefited from a slightly higher proportion of description to action in some parts to break up the action. I also would have liked to see more of other characters, especially Julie, the girl Kate spends her time protecting, and Kate’s colleague Andrea.

The fight scenes didn’t parse well for me; the flash and shine in the words felt as though it concealed a lack of knowledge and detail. For instance, Kate (who is kickass™ and all) suddenly decides to wield two swords instead of one, and I’m not sure she’s that kickass. From my limited experience wielding one sword is plenty hard enough to do without chopping off your own leg, much less two, and using both would be a lot more tiring if Kate doesn’t regularly train for it–which is something we never see as a reader.

Despite its faults, the words fly by and Ilona Andrews presents engrossing characters in a fascinating world. Magic Burns really caught my attention and held it despite the lulls. This is one urban fantasy series that pulls the scattered mythos of urban fantasy together into a cohesive mosaic. I’m curious to see where this series takes Kickass Kate™.

Andrews, Ilona. Magic Burns. New York: Ace Books, 2008. 260 pages. $6.99 (Canadian).

Airs and Graces
March 17, 2008, 1110
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

Airs and GracesAirs and Graces certainly has a young adult feel to the cover, with the fluffy pink clouds, graceful castle, and the girl and her horse. Nonetheless, Toby Bishop’s sequel to Airs Beneath the Moon has some mature content despite the cover, just as the first did. Toby Bishop is actually a pen name for Louise Marley, who makes a departure from her feminist social science fiction to the realm of more traditional fantasy in this series. There’s no surprise, then, that books in the Horsemistress series have a feminist bent with a little of the “dark side” mixed in.

The Duchy of Oc is notable for its winged horses, who only tolerate children and women who have not borne children as bondmates and riders. This gives horsemistresses a lofty status, and they are normally chosen from noble families. Airs and Graces picks up shortly after the first book when Larkyn witnesses the Aesks, a Northern barbarian society, raiding one of Oc’s villages. Larkyn, our unlikely country-bred heroine, must rise to the occasion with her bondmate Tup–more properly called Black Seraph–to make the duchy aware of the attack. Phillipa Winter, who is the assistant headmistress of the horsemistress academy, takes a more central role in this book in dealing with the Aesk raid and the resulting politics. This leaves Larkyn’s story in the background, even though she mysteriously ends up involved in nearly every major plot point.

One of the main problems I have with this book is that evil Duke William is evil just for the sake of being evil, it seems. He continues to plot ways to breed winged horses who will tolerate men, which wouldn’t really be all that bad if he wasn’t a sadistic psychopath. He spends an awful lot of time trying to quash Larkyn for no real reason other than he dislikes her, which makes his antics tiresome. He also uses magic potions so the winged horses will tolerate him, with the side effect that he physically becomes more female. The villification of this “unnatural” process bothers me on many levels.

Bishop/Marley makes the Aesks one big oversimplification despite their importance to the story. The raid is written twice: both in the prologue and in a redundant first chapter. The Aesks come, they raid, rape and pillage, they take a couple kids, they’re barbaric, and they’re from the North. And so we have another simple viking-type analogue in fantasy, which is pretty tired by now. For some reason slaughtering the entire group of Aesks is first choice and no one bothers to try diplomacy or discover why they attacked after so many years of no contact (which in and of itself seems dubious). One character wonders if the Aesks might not have attacked if Oc had somehow supported them, but never goes any further than to say a barbaric land makes a barbaric people. The oversimplification and generalization present in this book hurts my head. If they are mobile enough to try and raid, one might think it would make more sense to try and settle elsewhere if they are so poorly off. It doesn’t really make sense the way it’s written–even viking society didn’t work that way.

The book focuses on the Aesk issue for the first half then moves on to Duke William and his political manouevres for the second half, abandoning much of the themes from the first portion. The plot felt divided once Oc took their revenge on the Aesks, and the book stagnates after this point. I suspect if the two portions had been structured concurrently this problem would not have occurred. Despite a nice flow to the prose, the story itself just never really felt important. Bishop/Marley wrote a nice story that took no chances; in that respect, it failed for me because there was no emotional impact.

While Airs Beneath the Moon was a middling to good read, sadly Airs and Graces does not match its quality or take the story and characters far enough to prevent retreading the same ideas. The author’s knowledge of equine drills and the intriguing world from the first book fell flat in the second book for mainly structural and logic reasons. Frankly, I was disappointed and expected more from the author, given Louise Marley usually writes with much more thematic structure and thoughtful worldbuilding in her other works.

Rabid fans of the first book or those who are horse-crazy could still enjoy this sequel, though it doesn’t have the same focus on horse and rider that Airs Beneath the Moon did. I would continue on to read the last book in the series, but with the sincere hope that it manages to bring plot and characters together again into a more fulfilling whole.

Bishop, Toby. Airs and Graces. New York: Ace Books, 2008. 346 pages. $10.99 (Canadian).

Dun Lady’s Jess

Dun Lady’s JessDoranna Durgin‘s Dun Lady’s Jess first made it to print in 1994, and it was Durgin’s debut novel plus a winner of the Compton Crook Award. And it has, sadly, been out of print for quite some time up until this past year. While Durgin has gone on to write a number of other books, including mysteries, suspense novels, media tie-ins, and other fantasy novels, I’d always wondered about her first book. And the Star Ink/Red Deer Press reprint has some big names attached to it as well: Julie E. Czerneda was the editor, and Elizabeth Moon penned the foreward.

On first glance, the book looks like one more book in the long line of girl-and-horse fantasy that pops up occasionally. However, there’s a big difference between a girl-and-horse story and a horse-made-human story. The author has a wealth of experience with horses (being the rider of a Lipizzaner plus other horses) and clearly doesn’t hold out. Though I don’t know much about horses, I know enough to know when someone else does.

The titular character, Dun Lady’s Jess (Lady in horse form and Jess as a human), is a courier’s horse who is simultaneously transformed to a human and transported to Earth when her rider triggers an experimental spell to avoid capture. She appears naked with her riding gear in a park, where she is found and taken in by a group of friends, but we soon realise the situation is more complicated than that. Jess has to learn to be human, but she also has to evade the minions of an evil wizard trying to get the spell her courier was transporting–that of travel between worlds. And without the “checkspells” of Jess’ world to limit forbidden spells, all sorts of nasty magic can be unleashed on Earth–and all of Earth’s violent technology can be used in a world innocent of it.

Despite all the action, the core of the book is Lady/Jess and the people around her. Jess must learn language, how to walk on two legs, and how to manage the complexity of human emotions. She doesn’t always succeed–she kicks people when angered, spooks until calmed, sees no point in clothes, and has an obvious affinity for horses that makes her new-found friends suspect that she just might be what she says she is: a horse made human. Their involvement in her journey is part of what makes the book so worthwhile. Not to mention it’s fascinating to read about the details involved in Jess’ equine behaviour.

Dun Lady’s Jess offered me an examination of transformation, not just from horse-to-woman-and-back perspective, but also that of two worlds colliding in novel ways. It looks at what changes a person, and how that change moves through others. Durgin also has themes of choice: can, and even should, Lady/Jess choose what she wants? What changes beliefs, and how is choice involved in the interplay? What about when you have no choice in what happens to you, or even others?

To be perfectly honest, some of the fantasy world logic didn’t always work for me, and seemed to be there just so that a world with wizards and magic was around. For instance, why are wizards stationed in solitary isolated keeps if they are generally co-operative? How are checkspells determined? And why, if magic is such a wonderful technological advance in the area of cleanliness and health and interworld travel, are humans limited to horses for transport of a spell’s hardcopy form? There may even be answers to my questions, but they did not show up in this story.

Despite the unexplained areas, the plot moves along at a nice brisk pace and the writing flows well enough that it didn’t matter much. To be honest, the nit-picky thoughts were interesting in their own right. The characters in the story engage you quickly, and experience their own transformative experiences throughout the book.

Overall, Dun Lady’s Jess is a notable book, and one that deserves to be reprinted. The themes that Doranna Durgin presents resonate deeply, and demonstrate her deft words and clear perception of humans and horses alike. Dun Lady’s Jess is one of the best shape-shifting stories in the genre, and certainly one of the most thoughtful. Which makes me hope she will return for another sojourn in fantasy…

Read an excerpt and download the first chapter from Doranna Durgin.

Durgin, Doranna. Dun Lady’s Jess. Calgary, AB: Red Deer Press, 2007. 295 pages. $22.95 (Canadian), trade paperback.