November 22


Archived Newsletter Content


Newsletter #37 March - May, 1997

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        Jack Whyte is a Canadian folk singer and history buff who decided to write a series of books to present a historically plausible, non-magical explanation for the King Arthur legend. The series are best sellers in Canada, and have done very well in England. The first two books have now appeared in the U.S., but haven't yet gained much of a following. For that reason, his U.S. publisher sent him on a tour last fall, including Uncle Hugo's in October. Not many people showed up, so I had a lot of time to talk with him and was impressed by how much research he had done and how well he expressed himself. I read the first of the series, The Skystone ($6.99, some signed paperbacks available), and enjoyed it and have been recommending it ever since. The Skystone primarily deals with events in Britain from 367 AD when Hadrian's Wall was overrun by the Scots and Picts, aided by a seaborne invasion of Saxons (and it took the Romans three years to regain control) until just before the Legions were pulled out of Britain to protect Rome (and many Roman citizens who had roots in Britain going back for generations decided they'd rather stay behind and try to protect their family homes rather than go to the cesspool that Rome had become). There are enough flashbacks by officers to earlier tours of duty elsewhere in the Empire (especially North Africa) and enough discussions of "current" events in the Empire to give the reader a good general context for the story, but the heart of the story concerns people, events, and blendings of cultures in Britain. The characters are interesting and believable, the story moves along well, and some of the foundations for non-magical explanations for elements of Arthurian legend are clearly laid in the first book. The second of the series is The Singing Sword ($23.95 signed 1st printing hardcovers, $6.99 paperback due early April).

        While my mind was in this era, I picked up The Tower of Beowulf by Parke Godwin ($5.99). I've enjoyed all of Godwin's historical fiction that I've found time to read, and The Tower of Beowulf certainly upheld Godwin's high standard. About the first half of the book is based on the saga of Beowulf and Grendel, and the story was familiar but well told. Later in the book, Beowulf as an older man is a leader of his small tribe (the Geats) in a time of great change. Although the Roman Empire has collapsed as a military power in northern Europe, the new Christian missionaries are threatening the old ways. With his small tribe caught between the much larger and expansionistic Swedes and Danes, he wonders if he was correct to prevent his tribe from following many other small tribes in moving to Britain. Tower of Beowolf was very satisfying by itself, but was particularly good in conjunction with The Skystone.

        Devil's Tower by Mark Sumner ($5.99) is the first of a series of fantasy/American westerns. It seems that history took a turn at the Battle of Shiloh in the Civil War--magic broke loose and the dead bodies got up. The Civil War never really ended--things just got so strange that both sides withdrew their troops to their own areas east of the Mississippi to try to protect their own populations from the wild magic, leaving everybody west of the Mississippi to either flee to the east or cope as best they can.
        The story takes place on the high plains, where a town will hire a magic-worker as sheriff--and his job is to protect the town against criminals mundane and magical. If a magic-worker comes to town and challenges the sheriff and wins, the sheriff ends up dead and the town has a new sheriff, whether they want him or not.
        The novel concentrates on ordinary people stuck in this situation that they don't really understand--and how they cope with it. There was too little explanation of the "big picture" for my taste, too little "alternate history" where the author shows how a small change at a key point can bring about a large change in history. It felt like there was little hard research and little historical extrapolation in this book. But the story flowed along smoothly, pulling me along and entertaining me until the end.
        The main bad guy in this book is General George Armstrong Custer, who is using magic to try to conquer the West. The second in the series, Devil's Engine ($5.99), which I haven't read, features Buffalo Bill Cody and robber baron Jay Gould laying tracks for America's first transcontinental railroad.

        The Seer King by Chris Bunch ($13.99) is the first of a series, although the publisher gives you no warning of this fact. Most of the book is told in flashback by Damastes as he sits in prison after learning that the Seer King, Emperor Laish Tenedos, has died. He thinks back fifteen years to when he was a young cavalry officer and first met the wizard Tenedos. He tells the story of the meeting in the midst of a mountain ambush that was intended to kill Tenedos, but the ambush failed because Damastes showed more inititive than such a young officer should have. He becomes Tenedos' military right-hand-man as Tenedos plans to overthrow the ruling government of Numantia. Most of the book vividly tells of Damastes glorious exploits, both military and sexual, as Tenedos pursues his plans.
        This is fun, fast-paced, exotic action adventure. I suspect that it will take at least three books to tell the whole story, and I eagerly await the next installment.

        The Thrones of Kronos by Sherwood Smith & Dave Trowbridge ($5.99) is the fifth and supposedly concluding book of an excellent science fiction series. (While the war that has raged through the series ends in this book and most of the plot thread are resolved, there is one major plot thread introduced near the end of the book and left hanging to give me hope for more books in this universe.)
        This series has all the ingredients I could ask for - a big, well thought-out universe, various human cultures in conflict, lots of interesting aliens, ancient alien artifacts from vanished races, interesting characters, lots of action to move the story along, and "sense of wonder".
        The publishing situation on this series makes me grind my teeth. The early books of the series were on the recommended shelf as long as they were available, but by the time the fourth book came out you could no longer find all of the earlier books in the series. And by the time the fifth book came out, only the first book was still in print. This is a series where you have to read the books in order or else you'll be completely lost.
        For many, many years I have been pointing out to publishers that if they put out (for example) 50,000 copies of the fourth book of a series, they are getting 50,000 free advertisements on new release shelves all over the country for all of the earlier books in the same series if they package the fourth book correctly--but this only benefits the publisher (and the author and the bookstores) if the earlier books in the series are available for the customer to buy. Some publishers (especially DAW and often Baen) do a good job of taking advantage of this marketing opportunity, while some other publishers often ignore this opportunity.
        I enjoyed this series more than either Asimov's Foundation series or Herbert's Dune series, but I can't sell the series if the publisher won't keep it in print. Lots of luck finding used copies (almost nobody turns in their copies), but if you want to search for them, they are 1: The Phoenix in Flight ($4.99), 2: Ruler of Naught, 3: A Prison Unsought, 4: The Rifter's Covenant, and 5: The Thrones of Kronos.
        Glenraven by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Holly Lisle ($23) is a contemporary fantasy about a couple of women who decide to run away from their problems and take a vacation in Europe. Jayjay finds a guidebook to Glenraven at her local bookstore and convinces her friend Sophie to come along. But it turns out that Glenraven is a magical land that can only rarely be entered by outsiders, and the single copy of the guidebook to Glenraven is a magical book sent off to find a hero to save Glenraven from a terrible evil. Neither the good guys nor the bad guys can believe that Jayjay and Sophie are up to the task.
        I've liked everything else I've read with Holly Lisle's name on it, but this one was not to my taste. There is nothing wrong with the writing, and many of our customers will like this book a lot. But it had too much soap opera and romance for my taste. Jayjay's third marriage is falling apart--she's just learned that her latest husband is gay and he wants his real love interest to move in with them. Sophie can't deal with the death of her only child two years before. Things are so sad for both of them, but fear not--there is a love interest waiting for Jayjay in Glenraven, although he isn't quite human.

        I'm much happier with Holly Lisle's The Devil & Dan Cooley (written with Walter Spence, $5.99), a sequel to Sympathy for the Devil ($5.99, recommended in Newsletter #33). In Sympathy God had cut orders for Lucifer to ship 58,851 "fallen angels, devils, demons, and assorted members of the lower orders of Hell's crawling vermin into the state of North Carolina", where they will be operating under carefully crafted rules of engagement. The "Hellraised" will be trying to tempt the humans to sin, but they will be tempted themselves to repent.
        In The Devil & Dan Cooley Operation Tarheel (as God calls his experiment) is moving forward, but we see the effects through the eyes of a fresh batch of characters, mainly Dan Cooley (a morning drive-time DJ for a rock station on the skids) and Meg Lerner (an idealist young lawyer who can barely support herself from her family law practice, but still finds time to help the local chapter of the ACLU). One morning on the way to work Dan encounters Puck, an unemployed devil living in a dumpster. (Hell's operation has been going through an administrative shakeup, and Puck got fired.) When Dan's scheduled morning interviewee doesn't show up (his corperation is going through a downsizing...), Dan talks Puck into being a substitute interviewee. The switchboard lights up, the show is a hit, and Dan gets some big ideas.
        There are some books that I classify as "popcorn for a tired mind"--books that are fun, light, don't require much thought, and pull the reader through very quickly. It is tempting to recommend this book as "popcorn for a tired mind", but the characters are too well crafted and too believable; barbs are sunk with equal vigor into various left-wing and right-wing targets; and serious issues are raised (but with a light hand, rather than bludgeoning the reader with sermonettes). I recommend it, even if it is too good to be popcorn.

        In addition to giving advice to customers about which books are good, we also listen to our customers when they recommend books to us. Scott, Ken, and I had all been hearing lots of great comments about Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon ($5.99). Since I had read and enjoyed six of Moon's earlier books, it was easy to convince myself to move it to the top of my read-it-next pile.
        A company-sponsored colony has failed to prosper, mainly due to company mis-management. The company decides to close down the colony and ship the colonists off to some other planet, naturally without bothering to tell them anything about where they are going. Our hero, Ofelia, is a woman in her 70s who spent most of her adult life trying to make the colony work. Her husband is buried on the planet, most of her children are buried there, her one surviving son is a real pain and has a bitch for a wife. Ofelia decides that she is too old to start over on another planet (especially in the same house with her son and daughter-in-law), so she hides in the forest until the last shuttle leaves. She's the only human left on the planet, so for the first time in her life, she can do as she pleases, dress as she pleases, and have complete freedom until she dies. She loves it--until the previously unknown indigenous aliens show up. Suddenly, with no training, she must learn to communicate with the aliens.
        Ofelia and Remnant Population are wonderful. If I thought there was any hope of getting my mother to read fiction, I'd send her a copy.
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