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Archived Newsletter Content


Newsletter #49 March - May, 2000

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        A year ago, I recommended An Oblique Approach ($6.99) and In the Heart of Darkness ($6.99) by David Drake and Eric Flint, the first two novels in an alternate history series. 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 that they plan to use the enormous manpower of India to conquer the entire world. Destiny's Shield ($23.00) is the third of what I believe will be four books in the series, and continues to be very good. The Malwa have invaded the Persian Empire, and only Belisarius and the Roman army can save the Persians--but how much can such traditional enemies as the Romans and the Persians trust each other? Meanwhile, Alexandria is trying to break away from Byzantium's control. And the guerrilla war in India against the Malwa is making progress while the top Malwa army units are busy invading Persia.

        Eric Flint's newest book, 1632 ($24.00), is very good. An alien space-time art project goes bad, inadvertently swapping a six-mile-diameter piece of modern West Virginia with a piece of central Germany during the 30 Years War. The 6000 or so West Virginians find themselves cut off from modern civilization and surrounded by mercenary armies who during the war slaughtered literally millions of German civilians. About half of the book involves how the West Virginians deal with their situation, as the president of the United Mine Workers local tries to figure what's going on and how to deal with the situation. The other half involves the politics, the personalities, and the battles of the 30 Years War. Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus is trying to protect the Protestants of Germany from the forces of the Inquisition, but the Protestant German princes who are supposed to be his allies are totally untrustworthy, and he can't afford as many mercenary forces as his opponents. Cardinal Richelieu of France is secretly financing the Protestant side of the war--but just enough to keep the war going, not enough to give them a chance of winning. With the Hapsburgs ruling Spain, the Netherlands, and Austria, he wants to keep the Hapsburgs' attention, money, and military focused on Germany and away from France as long as possible. I found Flint's treatment of the Sephardic Jews of the period particularly interesting, as well as what he does with some stereotypes about high school cheerleaders. Highly recommended.

        Jack McDevitt's Infinity Beach ($25.00), is set about 1000 years in the future. Mankind has settled planets around several other stars and has explored thousands of stars looking for other intelligent life, but has never found so much as a non-terrestrial single-cell organism. Most of the human race has decided that we are alone in the galaxy, but one group of researchers has decided to force a series of stars without usable planets to go nova in sequence, to send a "Here we are" message that will eventually be visible even in other galaxies. Some people think that if there is other intelligent life somewhere in the galaxy, making stars go nova might send the wrong message about the human race.
        Dr. Kimberly Brandywine does public relations and fundraising for the Seabright Institute, which is behind the nova project, and she has her hands full. But an old professor calls and asks her to look into the circumstances involving an exploratory expedition of 26 years before, on which both Kim's older sister and the professor's granddaughter were members. Within 24 hours after the return of the mission, all but one of the members of the expedition had either died or disappeared, including both Kim's sister and the professor's granddaughter. Although the police investigated the incident 26 years before, Kim agrees to briefly look into things. She soon realizes that something very strange happened 26 years ago, and several people will go to great lengths to continue the cover-up. This is a very good science fiction-mystery crossover novel.

        Stephen Baxter's Manifold Time ($24.00) postulates that mankind colonized the stars, then the galaxy, and eventually mankind's descendants colonized the entire universe billions of years in the future. But when they couldn't find a way to survive the heat death of the universe, they decided to send messages back through time to the beginnings of the expansion from Earth to change things, so that mankind's descendants would not face extinction billions of years later. As a result of the meddling from billions of years in the future, a large number of super-bright and rather strange kids start being born all over the Earth--kids who have the ability to do what the folks from the far future think ought to be done to prevent the extinction threat at the end of the universe.
        As I was reading this book, I was reminded of a discussion I had a couple of years ago in the store with another science fiction reader. Both of us had read a couple of short novels by a couple of different authors. I commented that I thought both books contained the skeletons of interesting novels, and if the authors had bothered to do a good job of characterization, the novels could have been quite good. The other person commented that he reads science fiction for interesting ideas; if he wanted characterization, he'd read something other than science fiction; and he thought that both books were quite good as written because they had plenty of ideas for the length of the books.
        Manifold Time is full of interesting ideas, perhaps even overflowing with interesting ideas. It is also filled with characters who seem motivated to do whatever they have to do in order to show the reader whatever the author wants the reader to see next. I had lots of problems with this book, such as (1) the way the bright kids are treated and the near-universal acceptance of the way the kids are treated, (2) the extreme flip-flopping of the congresswoman on various issues, and the fact that she faces no political repercussions as a result, (3) the stiff, one-dimensional way most of the characters are portrayed, and (4)some of the science. (A Caribbean squid is genetically enhanced to be bright enough to pilot a spaceship to an asteroid (neat idea), but it's "atmosphere" of sea water has been leaking away during the trip, so it replaces the missing sea water with fresh water from the asteroid, and soon the asteroid is honeycombed with passageways of fresh water, with no ill effects on creatures that need sea water to survive.)
        In spite of my problems with the book, I have to recommend it anyway. The author takes the reader (clumsily at times) on such a wild ride, tossing out so many interesting ideas along the way, the I enjoyed the novel a great deal in spite of the problems.

        Obsidian Butterfly ($21.95) is the ninth book in Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series, and you really should read them in order: Guilty Pleasures ($6.99), The Laughing Corpse ($6.99) The Circus of the Damned ($6.99), The Lunatic Cafe ($6.99), Bloody Bones ($6.99), The Killing Dance ($6.99), Burnt Offerings ($6.99), and Blue Moon ($6.99). The series takes place in an alternate America where vampires, werewolves, etc., have civil rights. Anita Blake spends most of her time bringing back the dead so that they can answer questions for people. (Suppose Uncle George left a will that's unclear--Anita will go to the graveyard, sacrifice a chicken, and bring Uncle George back so that he can answer some questions for the lawyers--and then get him to go back into his grave.) She is also the St. Louis Police Department's outside expert whenever they come across a crime that may involve the preternatural. And she is one of the country's top vampire killers, sometimes with a court order (which makes it legal) and sometimes without a court order (which makes it murder).
        Although I've been a faithful reader from the beginning, I have to say that the series has been uneven. The series started out as very good mystery novels set in this alternate America. Grisly crimes would take place, Anita would search for clues and would help solve the crimes, and other things would go on in her life while she was solving the crimes. Then, there were the books where she was so busy worrying about her love life that she didn't have time to worry about crimes. Then, there were the books where she was so busy worrying about her love life that she kind of stumbled onto clues and eventually stumbled onto the solution, rather than "solving" it.
I'm happy to say that the sharp, tough Anita Blake is back in Obsidian Butterfly.
        Edward is a cold-blooded hit man who showed up in several of the earlier books. When somebody put out a contract on Anita, the job was offered to Edward, but he turned it down. As he explained to Anita, it had nothing to do with friendship-- if he had accepted the contract, he would have only gotten to kill her, but by volunteering to be her bodyguard he was sure he'd get to kill a lot more people. Edward is either a sociopath or so close that it makes no difference. But Anita owes him a favor.
        At the beginning of Obsidian Butterfly, Edward calls in the favor. Edward has run into something in New Mexico that has even him scared, and he needs Anita for backup. So Anita packs a bunch of weapons and flies to Albuquerque, eager to learn something of Edward's personal life, but worried about what could scare Edward enough for him to call in the favor. She proceeds to help Edward and the local cops, she finds the clues, she solves the crimes, and she deals with the bad guys (and with Edward's other backups, one of whom is almost as bad as the bad guys). And she does it all on her own, without any help from boyfriends from St. Louis.

        I've previously recommended The Last Dragonlord ($5.99) by Joanne Bertin. It's sequel, Dragon and the Phoenix ($25.95), is also quite good. The basic premise for this fantasy world is that there are normal humans, there are normal dragons, and there are a very few people who are born with both human and dragon souls and eventually become dragonlords, sort of like a weredragon. While they spend most of their time looking and thinking like humans, they can change at will into dragons--of the flying, fire-breathing variety. They also have dragon-style life spans of many centuries.
        The first book took place on a continent where the customs had the feel of Europe in the Middle Ages. Most of the action in the second book takes place in the far away land of Jehanglan, which has the feel of ancient China, with lots of horse-riding barbarians on the frontiers. And the native dragons in the far away land are also Chinese style (can't fly or breath fire, but can work water magic). Several of the main characters from the first book go on a secret mission to Jehanglan, where either a true dragon or a dragonlord has been kept prisoner for over 1000 years, so that it's magic can be used to keep a phoenix imprisoned.
        My one problem with the second novel involves foreshadowing. An author will often give the reader (and sometimes some of the characters) clues about something that will happen later in the book. If the author does too little foreshadowing, the reader will think that the author is not playing fair when surprising things happen in the book--that the author pulled a fast one. If the author gives too many clues to the reader (but not the characters), then the "surprising" plot twists are no surprise. In this book, so many clues are given to both the reader and the characters, that it just seems wrong that our bright, brave heroes can't figure out that they are being led into a trap.

        Ashes of Victory ($24.00, due early March) by David Weber is the eighth Honor Harrington novel, and they should be read in order. As those who have been following the storyline already know, Honor was taken as a prisoner of war by the Peeps and was sent to their secret prison planet. The Peeps thought she died before reaching the surface of the planet, so they created a show trial and a show execution of Honor, for release to both their own population and the rest of the galaxy. So, everybody in the galaxy thought Honor was dead, except on the prison planet itself, which Honor had managed to take over. Even after she could have escaped the planet by herself, she refused to leave until she had captured enough enemy shipping to be able to get around half a million other prisoners of war and political prisoners off the planet and back to Alliance lines. At the end of the previous book, she had just arrived at Alliance lines with the first part of her captured fleet, with no idea that she was supposed to be dead.
        Ashes of Victory begins immediately after the previous book, as the first batch of escaped prisoners are being removed from her captured flagship. Honor, as well as the governments of Grayson and Manticore, must deal with the results of her failure to be dead. Honor needs a new eye and a new arm, so has to deal with political situations instead of rushing back into battle. The Peeps are desperate to do something to win the war fast, as the released political prisoners start telling their stories about how the current Peep government seized power, resulting in former allies of the Peeps back away from the government. The Alliance has some hot new weapons, but have been refraining from using them against the Peeps until they have enough of them manufactured and deployed to make a major difference in the war. Slimy politicians are doing slimy things all over the place. Paranoid Peeps have good reasons to be paranoid.
        By the time I was 75% through the book, I thought the war was going to be over by the end of the book, and I was starting to wonder where Weber could take the series to keep it interesting after the war was over. But Weber throws an amazing number of plot twists into the last 50 pages of the book. All of them are foreshadowed just enough that they seem reasonable in hindsight, but are still surprising when they happen. As always happens when I finish an Honor Harrington book, I'd love to be able to grab the next one immediately to see what happens next.

        The High House by James Stoddard ($6.50) won last year's Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award for best first science fiction/fantasy novel. It has the feel of classic high fantasy of the early part of the twentieth century.
        The High House is a very strange house indeed! It is seldom seen by ordinary men, but is filled with some extraordinary men and other beings, including a dragon in the attic and some man-eating furniture. The House selects a Master, who gains control of the Seven Words of Power, the Master Keys, the Lightning Sword, and other resources to fulfill his mission, which is to maintain the proper balance between Chaos and Order, in order to protect the universe. The tasks that are performed within the House are on a scale that humans can comprehend, but have repercussions throughout the universe. If the lamp lighter allows a lamp to go out, a star will go out in the sky. If the clock winder (who was hand-picked by God thousands of years ago to perform the task) fails to wind all the clocks, time will not function properly in the larger universe.
        Ambassadors from lands never heard of outside the house will mysteriously appear in the library, asking for aid from the Master. Great wars have been fought within the House. Some passageways of the House are filled with traders traveling from land to land, all of which are contained within the House. Trips to some of the more distant parts of the House can take many weeks.
        In The High House, the Master has disappeared. His son by his first wife was sent away due to plotting of an evil stepmother, who wants her son to become the new Master. Carter Anderson returns as a young man when his father disappeared, to find his half-brother has been filled with lies about him. It is likely, though not certain, that the House will select one of the half-brothers to be the new Master. But the House is under attack, and Carter decides that fighting the external threat is more important than the rivalry from his half-brother and hostility from his stepmother.
        Stoddard spends more time using language to create atmosphere than is common in much of modern fantasy:
        He made his way to the library...The weight of the cavernous room flowed over him, air currents smelling of old books, musty as the opening of an Egyptian tomb, all dust and antiquity, deep velvet silence...Lightning against the upper windows outlined the bookshelves, monstrous and hulking, grown clever from the knowledge resting on their shelves.
        The High House tells a complete story, but a sequel has just come out. The False House ($6.50) also tells a complete story, but it is far better to read The High House first. The new story begins three months after the end of previous story, and Carter is still working to resolve the problems left from the war that was concluded in the first book. Somebody has stolen the magical cornerstone of the High House, and is using it to create a new False House to control reality, and in the process is changing the High House itself and some of its inhabitants. If you enjoy The High House, you'll also enjoy The False House.
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