Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Imagine a classic, cliché fantasy beginning; now imagine it being turned upside down, inside out, twisted, altered, and finally you’re left an alien hallucination flavored with almost recognizable myths from the world over. This is a good start for realizing The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams.
Like so many of the better genre novels being written right now, The Crooked Letter starts with almost no back-story. We are thrown right into a pursuit to eventually figure out that it is a feud between two mirror-twin brothers, Hadrian and Seth, who are traveling through Europe. What is the genesis of this feud – their female traveling companion, Ellis, whom both brothers love in their own way.
Within the first 20 pages Seth is brutally murdered in front of Hadrian in mysterious circumstances. Later, Hadrian awakes in a hospital with the memory of Seth’s death. It slowly dawns on him that things are not normal and he flees the hospital and police to find the city around him abandoned, powerless, and haunted by strange creatures – the Cataclysm has begun. Not knowing who (or what) to trust, Hadrian finds a guide who turns out to be a Goddess as the world suffers the affects of the Cataclysm.
Seth’s death is only a beginning as he enters the Second Realm – an alien afterlife hinted at by the religions of the world. Confused, scared, and under attack by resident creatures, Seth is rescued by a monstrous, once-human guide. He gets a crash course on the three realms humans exist in through their lives and the Cataclysm that threatens to shatter the barriers of the realms, bringing an end existence as it is known.
Both brothers strive to set the world right and end the Cataclysm they barely understand from opposite sides of the grave, but a truer motivation is to save their love, Ellis, as they come to terms with who they are.
The Crooked Letter tells us the story of the Apocalypse, without ever describing it as such and the heart of the tale is the sibling rivalry between to twins, one dominant, as they both come to terms with self. It is as dark and gritty as a Miéville novel, as strange as Steven King, and more accessible than either.
Sean Williams’ writing style is particularly readable considering the strange, parallel worlds he takes us to. However, at times the descriptions get confused in the unfamiliar setting, leaving the reader as lost the twins. Mixed in are a few editing errors that, while minor, can be annoying.
The Crooked Letter is the first book in the series, The Books of the Cataclysm, but it stands alone quite well, with a conclusion that is satisfyingly well-done. The series will continue with The Blood Debt in October. On my 10-point rating scale, The Crooked Letter rates 7.0 – 7.5; Sean Williams is an author to watch…and read.
Friday, August 25, 2006
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Well, I've said that I'd post a few pictures from the travels, so here they are. These made the cut from the 200 hundred or so that were taken as a nice summary of the trip.
St. Goar along the Rhine in Germany from the Rheinfels castle.
The central square in Olomouc, Czech Republic. A very nice little city that is totally off the tourist map.
The Prague Castle.
Monday, August 21, 2006
After the hearty meal of The Name of the Rose, His Majesty’s Dragon was the dessert that I needed. It was a rather light, fun read that I devoured in essentially one sitting.
His Majesty’s Dragon, or Temeraire in its UK printing, takes a rather unique approach to dragons in what is almost an alternative history world. Dragons are an ancient, powerful, and intelligent group of many species and breeds and humans have learned to ‘domesticate’ them. The military use of dragons is of particular importance and in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain is overmatched by France’s superior Aerial Corps
Laurence is the captain of HMS Reliant and has just seized a French vessel carrying valuable cargo – a dragon egg. The crew rejoices in their prize, imagining their share of the spoils, however the captain realizes all is not so simple – the egg is about to hatch. A newly hatched dragon must bond with a human before its first feeding or it will never be tamed – Britain cannot afford to loose even one potential war dragon. The officers must draw straws to see who will forfeit their life and join the distant and queer Aerial Corp. The dragon makes its own choice, and Laurence is forced from the life he loves to the strange and demanding life of the Aerial Corp.
Laurence names the dragon after the great naval vessel, Temeraire, and discovers that Temeraire is a rare Oriental breed, unique in Europe. Laurence and Temeraire are relative outcasts as they train for war in Scotland and get thrown into the greatest aerial battle yet fought in the war.
His Majesty’s Dragon is Novik’s first effort, and a rather good first effort at that. This is not the book that will further arguments of literary speculative fiction, but it is great fun in a new wrap. Novik’s take on dragons is as refreshing as her inclusion of them in the Napoleonic Wars as she balances characterization and action well in a book that I would describe as a page-turner. The timing is a bit off, but I would call it an ideal beach book.
On my 10-point rating scale, His Majesty’s Dragon rates a 7.5 for the entertainment it provides. This book is the first in a series, and sequels Throne of Jade and Black Powder War are available, books I intend to read.
Imagine if you can a story about Sherlock Holmes, only he is not a 19th century English gentleman but a 14th century English monk. This Sherlock’s Watson is a young novice monk of a different order from Germany. At this point we have the beginnings of the backdrop for The Name of the Rose – a string of mysterious murders in a remote abbey in the mountains of Italy.
While Brother William of Baskerville clearly shows parallels to Sherlock Holmes, he is much more than an intelligent monk with the past of an inquisitor. William plays a key role in the building 14th century conflict between the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope, now using Avignon as his center of power.
We begin with Brother William and his novice assistant, Adso, arriving at the unnamed abbey. William is representative of the Holy Roman Emperor at a neutral meeting between representatives of the Pope and the Minorities as the Minorities battle for official recognition in the church. The mysterious death of a young monk plagues the abbey, and the Abbot pleads for William’s aid in solving this death before the arrival of the Pope’s envoy, which could threaten his authority in his abbey. More deaths occur and the heart of the mystery is the greatest library in Christendom; a labyrinth whose secrets are known only to the librarian, his assistant, and the abbot.
We see this murder mystery and tale of division in the medieval Catholic Church through the eyes of the young novice, Adso. He struggles in circumstances beyond his modest self, with temptations, and with the horrors of the medieval church.
The Name of the Rose is a classic mystery wrapped in the intrigue of the Catholic Church. Eco writes with an almost academic prose that is at once beautiful and powerful, but not easy. The book takes time to read; time that is rewarded.
I know no Latin and very little of the history of the Catholic Church, and I still enjoyed this book. However, I am left with the impression that I could have appreciated the book much more if I had known something of those. The mystery still remains, the fascinating library is nothing short of wondrous, and the tragic end is still painful, but I’m still left with the impression that I missed something.
The Name of the Rose is a great book, but not an easy book. I can easily recommend it highly, but with the caveat that it is not for everyone. On my 10-point rating scale, The Name of the Rose rates a 7.5.
For whatever reason, the below quote feels like it captures what I was left with at the end of the book better than my own words can, so I choose to end the review with it.
And it is a hard thing for this old monk to know whether the letter he has written contains some hidden meaning, or more than one, or many, or none at all.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Well, I’ve left the Czech Republic. Yesterday I flew from Prague to Frankfurt and I am there for a day before heading home on Wednesday. The work has been interesting and exhausting for me, but certainly good experience – another ‘war story’ and nice addition to the resume. However, the insane schedule left me almost no time to enjoy being in Europe – all told I will have been here for 4 weeks, and in that time I’ve had only 3 ½ days off.
Yesterday evening I walked through Frankfurt in search of the Irish pub I spent New Year’s Eve at 8 years ago. I think I found it, but it seems my memory is hazy for some reason. Anyway, I had a few beers and noted some oddities. First, the ‘house beer’ at this Irish pub was a local German pils – I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since the price is less, but it still seemed a bit wrong. And second – this one was really odd – I watched a local order a pitcher of Guinness and instead of a glass, he asked for a straw. Afterwards I had to ask the bartender if this was a common way of drinking it and he emphatically said no and then got a bit more derogatory about Germans not appreciating their beer properly.
I anticipate that I’ll finish The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco on the plane tomorrow. No promises on when I’ll get a review written and posted – probably next Monday. On a side-note, it looks like I’ll be doing an occasional review over at Fantasybookspot. Yes, in some ways, it’s little more than a blatant move on my part to get free books, sometimes before they are released. But, I’m happy to be on the team over there. I’ll mention any review I do for them here.
Highlights of the trip include:
- A boat ride up the Rhine
- Olomouc – a really pleasant Czech city
- 2 days in Prague
- Visiting a monastic library and seeing a dried dodo bird
- Driving adventures in rural Czechia and Prague
- Having lunch cooked for me by Satan over a campfire on the jobsite
- Oddities in a Frankfurt Irish pub
I’ll post some pictures sometime in the future.
Friday, August 04, 2006
We’ve heard for months now of Jay Tomio’s efforts at starting a new e-zine devoted to a more critical view of speculative fiction. Now Jay’s vision has been pulled off very well with Heliotrope. Go read it! The first issue contains articles by Jeff VanderMeer, R. Scott Bakker and Heidi Wessman Kneale. Jeff explores the novella, Scott philosophizes about the role of fantastic literature and failings of the literati in allowing interpretive monism to flourish, and Heidi ponders the past and future of science fiction.
There is short fiction, poetry and reviews as well – I haven’t had time to go through any yet, but I expect to enjoy them.
With Emerald City closing down, Heliotrope is arriving just in time.
Well, my ‘weekend’ break in Prague will be cut a bit shorter than initially planned (no surprise to me), so on Saturday it’s off to Olomouc again for a day. Then back across the country to another site on Sunday.
Prague has been wonderful. I spent yesterday walking around by the castle and in Hradčany then down across the bridge into the old town. The castle is so crowded that it’s hardly worth it – since I’ve been there before I didn’t stay long.
I visited the Strahov monastery and library – this just might be the best thing I’ve visited so far. It is incredible to see a library where 400 year old books are nothing of particular note since there are rooms full of books much, much older. This visit is all the more timely since I’m currently reading The Name of the Rose by Eco; I was inspired to read for an hour or so in a park shortly after the visit. At least as interesting (to me) as the books was the collection of dried/preserved animals. Have you ever seen a dried stingray? They look utterly alien – it was way cool. Even better than the stingrays was the dodo bird – yes, they have a dried dodo bird on display. Very weird looking.
In the evening I did a pub walk with one of the local tour groups. It was nice and good to interact with people. There’s just something about drinking in 600 hundred year old basements. As I said, it was great fun.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Well, work has continued to be very busy, but now I finally get a break – for the last 3 weeks, I’ve only had about 1 day off and the typical work day has been somewhere between 10 and 14 hours long. So, this is a much needed break.
After a week over in laid-back Olomouc, where it was hot; and a few days in a small, way more laid back village kind of near Plzeň called Mirošov, where it was pleasant (even cool); I’m now in crowded, hectic Prague. Don’t get me wrong, it is immediately clear why this is such a popular place, but it is a big change from the rest of the Czech Republic.
I’ve been to Prague before – about 8 years ago (back in the college days) some friends of mine and I traveled through for a few days in January. The city was relatively empty, very cheap, laid-back, and simply a wonderful time. Well, Prague in summer is crowded and expensive compared to what I recall. I had a nice meal this evening on the main square – yes, I expect it to be relatively expensive there, but the price still surprised me. I could have eaten very nice meals in Olomouc for a week for the price I paid at this café. Of course, the price was for the setting, not the product, and it’s very difficult to find a nicer setting.
So, for the next 3 days I get to hang out in Prague. It will be fun and a needed break, but a bit lonely. It’s nice to make the wife a bit envious, but her company here would make things much better.
On the spec-fic front, it’s also frustrating. It looks like I’ll miss Jeff VanderMeer’s appearances here in Prague by just a couple days. Any regular readers out there going to be in Prague this week? First round is on me.
Well, bare with me as I continue with the travel blog – reviews will come again, I promise. I just need some reading time. I’ll also post a few pics when I get back to the States and can download the photos from my camera.