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Newsletter #45 March - May, 1999

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        J. V. Jones' newest fantasy novel, A Cavern of Black Ice ($24.95, due early March), is supposedly set on the same world as her very popular series that began with The Baker's Boy. But except for a brief reference to the knights far to the south, there isn't any connection in this first book of a new series to the earlier trilogy.
        Centuries before this book began, men from the south pushed aside the Sull and grabbed some of their land. The Sull are fierce warriors and mysterious magic users, and they seemed to have given up this particular section of land too easily (perhaps because of the evil something lurking beneath one of the mountains). But they have sworn never to give up any more land, and anybody foolish enough to challenge them on this, dies. But farther to the north are The Badlands, full of valuable minerals and sparsely populated by a bunch of non-Sull clans that often fight among themselves but unite against outside threats.
        The Surlord of Mask Fortress has a two-pronged plan for grabbing more land. First, he has adopted an orphan girl who he believes can be used to tap the mysterious evil force deep in the mountain under his fortress, giving him great magical power. Second, he plots to get the clans fighting so viciously among themselves that they won't be able to unite against his forces when he marches north to take their land. But the orphan girl starts to figure out that she'd better escape from her step-father, a young man of the clans starts to figure out that something is very, very wrong about the current wave of fighting among the clans, and some outsiders decide to try to disrupt the Surlord's plans. This book is a promising beginning to a new series by a talented fantasy author.

        I had already read a couple of books by Robert J. Sawyer, and found them to be good Analog-style hard sf novels, so I picked up Illegal Alien ($5.99). A small group of aliens enter our solar system and make contact with the humans. Their ship was damaged passing through the outer part of our solar system, and they can't repair the ship without human help. The aliens will swap technology for the replacement parts, and lots of high-tech firms are eager to bid on the job. A small group of humans are working with the aliens on improving understanding and implementing the technology transfer, and everything seems to be going smoothly until one of the human team members is murdered in a very messy manner. Who killed the human? Was it another human on the team? Was it one of the aliens, and if so, which one? Why was the human killed? The LAPD moves in, and the rest of the plot is advanced during a murder trial, during which we learn much, much more about the aliens, their culture, their religious beliefs, and eventually why they came to Earth and why the human was killed. Although I had some minor problems with the trial (where the top-notch attorneys on both side are constantly being amazed by what witnesses are revealing) and with details of a mad dash for clues to the Northwest Territories late in the trial, I thought that overall the trial format was an interesting and fairly successful way to tell the story.
        I enjoyed Illegal Alien enough that I next picked up Sawyer's Frameshift ($6.99) and found it even better. Pierre Tardivel is a French-Canadian scientist who moves to the University of California, Berkeley to do post-doctorate work at the Human Genome Project. Pierre has a 50% chance of having the genetic disorder (Huntington's disease) that killed his father, but has not been tested because he doesn't want to know if he's going to get the disease. But he meets Molly (who also has a genetic disorder that plays a major part in the plot), they fall in love, and she explains American health insurance to him. He's about to lose his Canadian coverage because he's been living in the U.S. for too long, so he learns more than he ever wanted to know about American health insurance and fills out paperwork. Not long afterwards, a neo-Nazi tries to kill him. Between his research at the genetics lab and his personal life with Molly (and eventually a daughter with a strange genetic background that also becomes part of the plot), Pierre decides to become an amateur sleuth and discovers that lots of people in the Bay area with unusual genetic or health problems have been killed mysterious in the last few years. This novel works well as a cross-over novel, both hard sf and mystery. The major characters seemed better crafted and more likable than in Sawyer's earlier books, and the plotting was much smoother than in Illegal Aliens. Frameshift was a Hugo Award nominee, and it certainly deserved to be on the ballot.

        I'd been hearing good things about To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis ($6.50), so I gave it a try. This is a humorous time travel story that takes place in England next century, in the 1940s, and especially in Victorian England. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but those who are more familiar with Victorian literature seemed to enjoy it even more than I did--they probably got some jokes that I missed.

        I've been a big fan of Charles de Lint since Moonheart ($13.95) came out almost 15 years ago, so I'm not sure why it took me so long to pick up Trader ($6.99), which came out in hardcover about 2 years ago. I think Trader is one of de Lint's most enjoyable books.
        Max Trader's father had been a cabinet maker and came from a long line of cabinet makers, but Max was interested in music and took what he learned from his father about working with wood and used that knowledge to start building musical instruments. After training with an old master woodworker, Max set up his own shop for making and repairing guitars and eventually became very well known and successful. Then, he woke up one morning in the body of Johnny Devlin, a minor con-man and sleaze-ball. Johnny Devlin has somehow taken over Max's body, Max's business (without any knowledge of how to operate it), Max's bank accounts, and Max's apartment. Max has inherited Johnny's body and all the problems (and enemies) Johnny has created for himself.
        What makes Trader so enjoyable are the characters. They are all very well crafted, very individual, and (except for Johnny) very likable. Getting to know the characters better is the primary joy of reading the book. Zeffy is a shy but talented musician working as a waitress. Her roommate Tanya is a former model, former actress now working with Zeffy as a waitress, and Johnny was her latest mistake in the boyfriend category. Jill is another waitress at the same restaurant, as well as an artist. Nia is the misunderstood (by almost everybody but Max) 16 year-old who lives with her single mom in the apartment above Max's, and she immediately know's that it's not Max in Max's body any more, but she jumps to the conclusion that the pod people have taken over Max--and when she sees her mother kissing another woman, she decides that the pod people have taken over her mother as well--so she runs before the pod people can take her over, too. Bones is a Native American who tells fortunes in the park, knows how to travel to the spirit world, and is the Coyote character in the story. We all know that the plot will move along and eventually reach a conclusion, but I was in no rush to have the plot move along because I was enjoying the characters so much. Highly recommended.
        I enjoyed Trader so much that I picked up Someplace to Be Flying ($6.99), which like Trader and several other de Lint novels, is set in the imaginary city of Newford but is a completely independent novel with a brand new set of characters. Hank drives a "gypsy cab", an unlicensed vehicle that is fast, bullet-proof, and available for hire only if you have the right connections. A high roller heading to or from a gambling casino up on the reservation might want Hank's services, as might a hit man who flies into town to do a job in the local underworld, or a member of the local underworld who doesn't want to have an unfortunate meeting with some out-of-town talent. Hank spends a lot of time driving around the bad part of town, usually late at night, and is supposed to mind his own business unless he's paid to become involved. But one night Hank sees a guy beating up a woman in an alley and decides to intervene. The guy doesn't like Hank's interference, immediately shoots him in the shoulder and then walks over to Hank to finish the job. Suddenly two punk-looking teenage girls appear from nowhere, kill the guy, magically heal Hank and the woman, and then vanish. The woman has no idea why she was attacked--she had heard stories about "animal people" and was wandering the night hoping to find some to photograph. As a character remarks much later in the book, things start to go "from odd all the way over into seriously weird." Really nasty stuff is coming down between two groups of immortal "animal people", and a bunch of ordinary humans--and people who think they are ordinary humans--are about to be drawn into the mess.
        Someplace to Be Flying is much darker and much more convoluted than Trader. There are many more characters to keep straight while reading Someplace, and I never became as attached to any of them as I did to the characters in Trader, but the plot of Someplace kept pulling me along late into the night. Both novels are very good, but Trader is very much character-driven while Someplace is much more plot-driven.

        Although I generally prefer novels, I picked up a couple of short story collections to get through a period when I couldn't devote big enough chunks of time to get through novels. Dangerous Vegetables created by Keith Laumer ($5.99) is packaged as if it were full of humorous stories, but most of them would fit better in Weird Tales than in a humor magazine. Copyrights range from 1939 to 1998, so a wide range of writing styles are presented. Although I was surprised that the tone of the stories were so different from the packaging, I still enjoyed the vast majority of the stories.
        I enjoy alternate history, so I picked up Alternate Generals edited by Harry Turtledove ($5.99). Some of the stories were exactly what I would have expected of such a collection, such as Brigadier General Sir Robert E. Lee in the Crimea leading the charge of the light brigade or Admiral Nelson fighting for Napoleon Bonaparte against the English (with explanation of why). Elizabeth Moon's story of naval combat in WW I exceeded my knowledge of history of the period, but did a wonderful job of portraying a period when acquiring enough coal was a major naval concern and you could see the black column of smoke from an enemy ship long before you could see the ship itself. Esther Friesner's slow-paced and literary story of President Eisenhower dealing with a stroke was not at all what I expected in such a collection, but I enjoy it anyway. While I would have enjoyed most alternate history novels more, I was pleased with the collection.

        For a pair of very good alternate history novels, try An Oblique Approach ($6.99) and In the Heart of Darkness ($6.99) by David Drake and Eric Flint. In 528 A.D. Justinian is Emperor in Constantinople and his main concerns are recapturing Western Europe for the Roman Empire and keeping the Persian Empire at bay. But his top general, Belisarius, learns that the Malwa in Northern India are conquering all of India using gunpowder weapons and terror, and they plan to use the enormous man-power of India to conquer the entire world. Belisarius and a few friends decide to stop them. Soon, it's the Roman Empire and the Axumite Empire (Ethiopia and the lands they rule in Arabia and Africa) versus the Indian Empire, with each side having help from the distant future. What we have here is a fast-paced, compelling story told with a surprisingly strong sense of humor. The two books are simply a fat book chopped in half, so you'd be smart to pick up both books at the same time. At the end of the second book, the action stops at a reasonable place, but I hope to see more books in the serious.

        About 6 years ago Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep ($5.99) came out, and it won the Hugo Award for the best sf novel of the year. One of the interesting character in A Fire Upon the Deep was Pham, a human who had been found dead in deep space by aliens and been put back together almost right and brought back to life. A Deepness in the Sky ($27.95) is about Pham 30,000 years before A Fire Upon the Deep.
        At the beginning of the book, mankind has been exploring and colonizing other solar systems for 8,000 years, without a faster-than-light means of travel. Civilizations develop on planets to meet local conditions, flourish for a while, collapse, and then start over again. The Qeng Ho are a group of interstellar traders that have become very rich helping collapsed civilizations rebuild. A Qeng Ho fleet might spend 100 years travelling between systems, with almost all the crew in suspended animation for almost all the trip, and then spend a few years in a system with the entire crew awake and trading with a planet before their next 100 year journey to the next system. This has led to a very different mind-set between the Qeng Ho and those who spend all their lives on a planet.
        Two groups of humans have launched fleets to explore an unusual star system, and they are about to encounter a new alien race. One of the fleets is headed by the Qeng Ho. The other is from a group known as the Emergents, a recently rebuilt civilization ruled by a ruthless semi-feudal military dictatorship that has plans to spread throughout human space. Over the course of the book and the conflict between the two groups of humans, we learn much of the history of the human expansion into the galaxy, and the role Pham has been playing over thousands of years as he tried to shape the Qeng Ho into a force that most of the Qeng Ho did not want to become.
        One of the things I found interesting was that Vinge did such a wonderful job of creating alien races in A Fire Upon the Deep that were very alien, but in A Deepness in the Sky the aliens seem more human that either group of humans. I enjoyed A Deepness in the Sky, but not quite as much as A Fire Upon the Deep.

        The Wild Swans ($13.99, due early April) is the second book from local author Peg Kerr. We get alternating chapters from two different story lines.
        One story is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Wild Swans". A teenage girl in England in 1689 discovers that her wicked step-mother is a witch and has turned her 11 brothers into swans. Her attempt to find a way to turn them human again eventually finds her and her swan-brothers in New England during the period of the Salem witch trials.
        The other story, set in the early 1980s, is about a teenage boy who finishes high school and then reveals to his rich parents that he is gay. He gets thrown out of the house and has to try to survive on the streets of New York City, with no street smarts in his background. Eventually, he is befriended by a street musician; they become roommates and eventually lovers. He acquires a new "family" that includes gay couples, a lesbian couple, and some straights. Things are really looking up for him, until member after member after member of his new "family" start to die from what will eventually become know as AIDS.
        Some people will love this book, some will hate it, and I'm somewhere in between. The writing technique of jumping back and forth between story lines was irritating to me because (1) I kept trying to figure out how the two story lines were going to tie together, and they never did to my satisfaction, and (2) the characters in the New York City story were so much more vivid and interesting and the story so much more compelling that I came to resent having to plow through another chapter of the fantasy story before I could get back to the more interesting story. In spite of that, I'm glad Peg wrote this book, I'm glad I read it, and I'm amazed by how much she has grown as a writer since her first book.

        Leo Frankowski is primarily known for his very popular Crosstime Engineer series (The Crosstime Engineer, The High-Tech Knight, The Radiant Warrior, The Flying Warlord, Lord Conrad's Lady, and the recently released Conrad's Quest For Rubber, $5.99 each), but back in the late 1980s he read a bunch of David Drake and decided that he also wanted to write something with mercenaries blowing things up with super tanks.
        What makes A Boy and His Tank ($21.00, due early March) so unusual is that the story percolated through Frankowski's totally twisted sense of humor.
        Long before the story started, the Wealthy Nations Group got control of a means of near-instantaneous travel, found lots of planets around other stars that could be colonized, and decided that the Earth would be ever so much nicer if lots of troublesome minorities were sent off to colonize other planets. The more the Wealthy Nations Group wanted to get rid of a minority, the nicer the planet offered to them. One of the first things they did was move all the minorities from Yugoslavia to a single nice new planet (since any fighting they did on their new planet wouldn't affect the quality of life of the members of the Wealthy Nations Group back on Earth), after which they turned Yugoslavia into a vacation resort for their own members.
        The narrator's great- grandfather was a political leader of the Kashubian Poles, a minority but not a troublesome minority. He kept filling out the paperwork year after year after year to get his people a planet of their own, but the bureaucrats of the Wealthy Nations Group just weren't that interested in getting rid of his people. Eventually, though, they decided to get rid of him by offering his people a planet nobody else wanted--among other problems, it had no atmosphere. Always on the lookout for a good con, he accepted the planet and then leased it to a Japanese mining conglomerate and passed along royalty checks to all his people. My, how the money rolled in! Most of his people continued to farm or fish, but due to those royalty checks most of them were now making twice as much money as they ever had before, and anybody who had any Kashubian blood in their background tried to get on the gravy train. But after many years of this, some bureaucrat in the Wealthy Nations Group headquarters noticed that the Kashubians had accepted a planet but there were still 13 million of them on Earth. So, anybody who had ever accepted a royalty check was rounded up and forcibly moved to the new planet.
        Living in mining tunnels with minimal food and air was tough, and what was needed was another good con! The various minorities on New Yugoslavia were about to start fighting again, so the Kashubians secretly approached each minority and offered their services as mercenaries, complete with super tanks (acquired via another con). Why should a Yugoslavian minority risk itself when it could hire outsiders to do the fighting? My, how the money rolled in! The Kashubians figured that if they were in control of all the private armies on the planet, they could periodically shoot off a lot of ammo, "fight" to a stalemate, and convince everybody of the need to keep the mercenaries on the payroll--the con should be good for decades. Unfortunately, very few Kashubians knew how to fight and very few wanted to learn, so they started building up their military with the help of the law: "You stole a potato--would you rather have the death penalty or volunteer for the army?"
        After our narrator has started his virtual reality training inside his smart tank, he's informed that even these extreme measures didn't produce enough mercenaries fast enough to satisfy the Serbs, who demanded that they be given smart tanks for the money they had paid in advance for mercenaries with smart tanks. Suddenly, the Kashubians were up against real soldiers who really wanted to kill people--very unpleasant when you expected to be up against fellow Kashubians who were only interested in putting on a show to perpetuate the con. Soon, the narrator is telling us about all of the sneaky military maneuvers, grand battles, and things blowing up that you would expect in a book about mercenaries with smart tanks--as well as all the virtual reality sex (not very graphic) that the smart tanks use to keep their human partners happy and motivated between battles.
        I'm a little unhappy with the ending, but I had fun getting there. While our narrator is locked up in the virtual reality that his tank provided for him, lots of things were happening in the real universe, which are discussed at the end of the novel, leading me to expect more books with more con games and things blowing up.

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