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Newsletter #59 September - November, 2002

Short Recommendations         by Don Blyly

        Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove ($24.95, due November 5, signing at Uncle Hugo's November 12) is an alternate history novel that begins 7 years after the Spanish Armada conquered England. Queen Elizabeth has been locked in the Tower of London ever since, the Spanish Inquisition has forced everybody in England to at least pretend that they have returned to the Catholic Church, and King Philip of Spain has placed his daughter, Queen Isabella, and her husband, Albert of Austria, on the throne of England (with lots of Spanish soldiers and Irish mercenaries to suppress any English discontent). The story is primarily told from the point of view of a young successful playwright named William Shakespeare. King Philip's health is failing, and everybody knows that his son is far less competent. Once Philip dies, an English uprising would have a chance of success. Some English plotters secretly recruit Shakespeare to write a play that will rouse the public to revolt after Philip dies. If the Spanish even suspect what Shakespeare is doing, he and the entire company will die horrible deaths, and a Spanish playwright has been assigned to spy on him. Then, the Spanish hire Shakespeare to write a play to praise Philip, to be performed after his death, to convince the English public to be thankful for their Spanish rulers. Shakespeare must write and his company must rehearse both plays, the pro-Spanish play in front of the Spanish spy, and the pro-English play in absolute secrecy.
        All of the dialogue is in Elizabethan English, while the narrative is in modern English. This worked well at giving a feeling for the period, while still making it easy for a modern reader without much experience with Elizabethan English to follow the story. The commentary by the Spanish playwright about the difference between the Spanish theater and the English theater was particularly interesting. This seems to be a stand-alone novel rather than the beginning of a series.

        Angry Lead Skies by Glen Cook ($6.99) is the latest in his Garrett series, about a private investigator in a fantasy world. The series is somewhat better if read in order, but almost all the earlier books have gone out of print and seldom come back used.
        Most of the usual characters are involved in the story, and as always the book is a lot of fun. What the reader figures out almost immediately and the characters in the novel never manage to figure out is that UFOs have arrived on the fantasy world. But the characters in the novel believe that the visitors are agents for foreign wizards using unfamiliar magic, and manage to solve the mystery based on that premise.

        If you like the Garrett series, and if you have deep pockets, you might sample the Thraxas series by Martin Scott. The first novel, Thraxas, somehow managed to win the World Fantasy Award for best novel of the year, and the series is now up to 6 novels (Thraxas, Thraxas and the Warrior Monks, Thraxas at the Races, Thraxas and the Elvish Isles, Thraxas and the Sorcerers, Thraxas and the Dance of Death)--but no U.S. publisher has picked up the series, so I've been bringing them in from England a couple at a time at $15.95 each.
        Thraxas used to be an investigative magician at the palace, but his drinking problems cost him that job. For the past few years he has been living above a bar working as a private investigator, often with the help of a barmaid who is part Orc, part Elf, and part human--and she used to be a gladiator before she escaped from the Orcs.
        I don't think the Thraxas series is as well written as Glen Cook's Garrett series, but the books are still a lot of fun and quickly become habit-forming.

        Blood of Mystery by Mark Anthony ($6.99) is the fourth book in the Last Rune series (which should be read in order). At the end of the last book, Travis Wilder and Grace Beckett from Earth were separated on the magical parallel world of Eldh. Travis and three of his Eldhish companions tried to escape from a collapsing temple by using a magical gate, but somehow ended up being transported to a Colorado mining town in the 1880s. Grace and the rest of their Eldhist companions search for Travis's group while dealing with various dangers.
        Start at the beginning of the series, with Beyond the Pale ($6.99), followed by The Keep of Fire ($6.99) and The Dark Remains ($6.99). The fifth book is scheduled for next Spring, and I'll be eagerly waiting for it.

        When Alien Taste by Wen Spencer ($6.50) came out a little over a year ago, it sold okay for a first novel, but I didn't hear much about it and the cover didn't appeal to me. When the second book, Tainted Trail ($6.99), came out a couple of months ago, I heard so many people say, "The first book was so good, I have to pick up the second book" that I picked up the first book. I finished Alien Taste at 2:30 on a Sunday morning, and I unlocked the store at 8:30 the same Sunday morning so I could start on the second book. I haven't been so hooked by a series since I started the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton.
        Ukiah Oregon (he was named after the town nearest to where he was found) was caught in a humane wolf trap by a graduate researcher, who realized that she and her female partner would never be allowed to legally adopt the feral boy--so she smuggled him back to their farm outside Pittsburgh, and he was raised by 2 moms. When he seemed to be about 18, the moms started to feel guilty and hired Max Bennett, a private investigator who specializes in finding missing people, to try to find Ukiah's real parents. Max failed to find anything about Ukiah's background before he started running with wolves, but he became fascinated with the kid and took him on as a helper. Max discovered that Ukiah has amazing tracking abilities: if a person disappeared on foot, Ukiah managed to find them 100% of the time, and if a person was abducted using a car Ukiah still managed to find them 40% of the time. Soon, word spread among cops about the incredible success of Max and Ukiah at finding missing people, and cops would refer people to them. Word among the cops was that working with the kid was a little weird, but the kid was always right.
        At the beginning of Alien Trace, the cops have for the first time called Max and Ukiah in on a homicide investigation. Four college women shared a house, but three of them have been sliced and diced and the fourth gal (who has been doing security work for the government) is missing, and the cops want Ukiah to track her. In the course of the investigation, Max and Ukiah discover two secret organizations that have been fighting each other for a long time. The Pack, which the FBI considers a ruthless criminal motorcycle gang, has been fighting against an alien invasion of Earth (and yes, they are ruthless and are willing to commit any crimes to stop the alien invasion). The Ontongard are agents for the alien invasion, and are even more ruthless--and many of the crimes that the FBI blame on the Pack were in fact committed by the Ontongard. Ukiah learns some interesting facts about his background, including a blood connection to the Pack.
        In the second book, a cousin of a Pittsburgh police detective we met in the first book went to Oregon to do graduate geology work and then mysteriously disappeared. The detective asks Max and Ukiah to help find her. Ukiah discovers much more about his background, Max finds a female P.I. who he develops a strong attachment to, and they all discover another Ontongard plot that has resulted in dozens of dead people and many others taken over by the alien virus. I'm impatiently waiting for a third book in the series.

        I used to have a problem with Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. While I enjoyed every one of them, they tended to be so light weight that I could only read three or four in a row before my brain demanded something to read with more substance. But several of the recent Discworld books have had more substance, while still being enormous fun. Night Watch ($24.95, due early November) continues this trend towards substance mixed with humor.
        At the beginning of Night Watch, Sam Vimes, Commander of the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork, is being forced to wear his official uniform for a meeting at the palace, complete with gold ornamentation on the breastplate and helmet. He thinks back to the good old days (and nights) when he was just a beat cop worrying about catching criminals and keeping the peace, instead of worrying about how strange foreign troubles in countries he's barely heard of will impact law enforcement in his city. When he hears that a dangerous criminal who murdered a copper the night before has been sighted, he flees the meeting at the palace to personally take charge of the capture, resulting in his wrestling with the criminal during a strange lightning storm on top of the roof of the library of the University. Both he and the criminal are thrown back in time 30 years, to just before the revolution that overthrew Lord Winder and his secret police. Sam, as an older, much more experienced man, must go through the revolution that he remembers so vividly from his youth, when he was just starting his carrier as a beat cop. The older Sam has a much more cynical view of revolution and revolutionaries that the younger Sam had.
        A not-very-bright Army major, when ordered by the paranoid Lord Winder to use his troops (well-trained for cavalry charges on the battlefield, but with no training for dealing with civilians in a city full of narrow streets) to suppress the revolution, thinks back to his youth. When he was a boy, he had read books about great military campaigns and looked with patriotic pride at paintings of famous cavalry charges, last stands, and glorious victories, but when he later participated in such things he discovered that the painters had unaccountably left out the intestines, and he wondered why. He and his men soon learn that in some of the rougher parts of the city, a cavalry charge into a narrow alley means free horse steak dinners for the local cut-throats.
        Time travel can cause serious problems, but the monks of time step in to help solve the problem (without offering any explanations that make sense to Sam).

        When Douglas Adams died of a heart attack at the age of forty-nine, he had started three times to write a third Dirk Gently novel, but hadn't been satisfied with any of them and thought perhaps the ideas he was playing with would work better in another Hitchhiker's novel. He never got a chance to try to see if that would work any better. But he had lots of stuff on his computer harddrives. The Salmon of Doubt ($24.00) is a collection of articles (by or about Adams), interviews, letters, a short story, etc., for the first 2/3 of the book, plus a blending together of the three attempts at a Dirk Gently novel to fill the last 100 pages of the book.
        The Salmon of Doubt is not as much fun as a new Hitchhiker's novel, and it's easy to see why he felt that the Dirk Gently novel wasn't working very well. On the other hand, Adams' novels are so much fun because they are a series of interesting insights and great one-liners, sort of connected by a plot. The first 2/3 of this book contains a series of interesting insights and great one-liners, not connected by a bit of a plot. The final 1/3 has some interesting insights and good one-liners, sort of connected by a bit of a plot. I'm glad the book was published and that I read it. Otherwise, I would never have learned of his comparison of the Hollywood process to "trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it."

        Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Haern ($24.95, due early September) is the first of a trilogy set in a land very much like feudal Japan, and it has already sold in 22 foreign markets and has been optioned for film treatment by Universal.
        Our young protagonist grew up in a remote farming village in the mountains, far from the clan warfare that troubled the land. But one day when he was 16, he went into the forest to pick mushrooms and came home that evening to find that the local warlord had ordered everybody in the village slaughtered. He escapes, is adopted by a high-ranking member of another clan, and begins training as a warrior and as an assassin, in hopes of killing the clan leader who killed his village and was responsible for the death of the father and brother of the man who adopted him. He seems to have some slight magical abilities, inherited from his biological father (who was a master assassin who tried to leave the profession--but death is the only way for an assassin to leave the profession).
        The story is compelling and flows smoothly, the plot is much more complex than I've outlined it above, and it can be enjoyed either as a historical novel or a border-line fantasy novel. I'm looking forward to the next novel.

        Scott Imes started recommending The Thief's Gamble by Juliet E. McKeena ($7.99) a couple of years ago, but I just got around to reading it a few weeks ago. I immediately went on to read the second, The Swordsman's Oath ($6.99), and the third, The Gambler's Fortune ($7.99). Now, I have to wait impatiently for the fourth (scheduled for January, 2003 for the U.S. paperback) and the fifth and final volume (scheduled for October, 2002 in England and not yet scheduled for the U.S.) Fortunately, each novel in the series tells a complete story.
        In The Thief's Gamble, we see most of the action through the eyes of Livak, a young woman who prefers to support herself in games of chance that are less a matter of chance than the other players believe, but if times get tough she's willing to engage in a bit of burglary. She's running low on money when she hears that some people are traveling through the area who want to buy antiquities from the last days of the empire which collapsed about 24 generations before. She knows where to find a fine example of just what they are looking for--in the house of a minor local noble who had attempted to rape her some years before. She acquires the item in the middle of the night, but when she tries to sell it, the buyers refuse to believe her cover story for how it came to be in her possession. After some discussion, they all arrive at the truth of the matter. But it seems that the buyers are agents of the Archmage, and they have many more items they must acquire for him, and they haven't had much luck at purchasing the items he sent them to retrieve. They decide that adding a thief to their group would be very helpful, so they make her an offer she can't refuse.
        As they travel along they discover that others are trying to acquire the same items, but are using much more ruthless tactics. They join forces with a couple of soldiers who are seeking revenge upon the other groups for torturing to death a relative of their lord. Livak becomes attracted to one of these soldiers, Ryshad. Eventually, they learn that the others are under the control of the Elietimm, who are the descendants of the sorcerers that helped cause the collapse of the old empire, and the Elietimm have nasty plans for conquest. Livak and Ryshad manage to foil one of the plots of the Elietimm.
        In The Swordsman's Oath, we see much of the action through the eyes of Ryshad. We see more of the continent on which The Thief's Gamble took place, as well as a different culture in an archipelago to the south of the continent. In the first book, we learned that the ancient empire in it's last days established a colony on another continent, which hasn't been heard of since the collapse of the empire. In the second book, we discover what happened to the lost colony, and the significance of all those artifacts everybody was trying to get ahold of in the first book. A couple more plots of the Elietimm are foiled.
        In The Gambler's Fortune, we see much of the action through the eyes of Livak again, while Ryshad is off doing other things in the service of his lord (which I suspect we will read about in the fourth book). Livak and a wizard are sent to search among the forest people and the mountain people for evidence of older magic that would be effective against the Elietimm, and Livak soon enlists the help of a couple of mountain men who have frequently helped her in the past in various gambling scams. They are being hunted for their role in relieving a mercenary group of their payroll, and going off to places far away suits their current needs very nicely. Once again, a plot of the Elietimm is discovered and foiled.

        A couple of years ago I strongly recommended 1632 by Eric Flint ($7.99), an alternate history novel where 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 Thirty 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 the book involved how the West Virginians coped with the situation they suddenly found themselves in, and the other half dealt with the politics, personalities, and the battles of the Thirty Years War.
        As soon as I could get ahold of a copy of the sequel, 1633 by David Weber and Eric Flint ($26.00), big chunks of time were devoured by this fat (almost 600 pages) book. I had some problems early in the book--I felt that I was being lectured to a great deal in the first 100 pages or so, as various historical characters were introduced and facts were explained. This background was necessary to fully appreciate what was to follow, but seemed to be delivered less smoothly than I've come to expect in alternate history novels. But once the background is explained and the action begins, the book becomes very hard to put down. There are some sections of very fine writing in this book, and overall I thought it was a better book than 1632.
        Cardinal Richelieu's spies have brought him enough American books, especially history books, for him to decide that the Americans are the most serious threat to France (or at least the aristocracy of France). For years he had secretly financed the Protestant cause in Germany (but only enough to keep the war going, not enough to give them a chance of winning) in order to keep the Hapsburgs (who already ruled Spain, the Netherlands, and Austria and for years have been trying to conquer Germany) too busy to mess with France. Now, he pulls together an alliance with Spain, England, and the Danes to go after Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, the only ally of the Americans. But everybody underestimates the Americans.
        In his afterword, Flint says that he wrote 1632 as a stand-alone novel, but he has now signed a contract for 4 more novels in the main story line (the next to be 1634, but no publication date is suggested), plus a shared-world anthology, and he's also interested in co-writing other side-novels in the universe. I'm eagerly looking forward to them all.

        A few years ago Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson started a prequel trilogy set in the universe of Frank Herbert's Dune but starting a generation earlier. I thought that the first 40% or so of Dune: House Atreides ($6.99) read like transcribed history notes rather than like a novel, but after that the characters came to life and I enjoyed the entire trilogy. (The second is Dune: House Harkonnen ($6.99) and the third is Dune: House Corrino ($7.50 pb due early September.)
        Now they've jumped much farther back in time with a new trilogy, starting with Dune: The Butlerian Jihad ($27.95, due mid-September). The story begins 10,000 years before Dune and tells about a human empire that had spread across the stars, but then became stagnant, letting machines do most of the work and decision-making. A group of 20 revolutionaries (who called themselves the Titans) decided to take over the empire and stir up the human race, and one of them was a master programmer who altered the programming of the servile machines, making them loyal to the Titans and giving them a lust for conquest. After they had taken over the empire, many of the Titans became terrible despots, and by removing their human brains and moving the brain from mechanical body to mechanical body they ruled for a century. But one of them became decadent and careless, and the thinking machines with a lust for conquest took over the empire and used the Titans as enforcers for Omnius, the top thinking machine. At the time of the Butlerian Jihad, Omnius had ruled the empire for 1000 years. But on the fringe of the empire there is a group of planets, the League of Nobles, that successfully fought off both the empire under the Titans and the renamed Synchronized Worlds under Omnius.
        As with the first of the previous trilogy, the early part of the book read like transcribed history notes instead of like a novel. But eventually all the history is explained, the characters are introduced, and the story really starts to move. We see the first man to ride a worm on Arrakis (not intentionally), the beginning of the export of spice from Arrakis (as a recreational drug for the very rich), and the foundations are being established for the beginning of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood and other major institutions in the Dune universe.
        I could do a lot of nitpicking about details, but overall I did enjoy the book and plan to read the rest of the series.

        I was very impressed by Fallen Dragon by Peter Hamilton ($25.95). When humans began colonizing other planets, it was done by corporations. People would pay to get off polluted, overcrowded Earth, and the corporations thought they would also make lots of money on interstellar trade. But the colonies took longer than expected to produce exports worth the cost of shipping them back to Earth, so some of the corporations went bankrupt, while others sold their colonies to get a quick tax benefit. Before long, there were only a few corporations left dealing with the colonies and the relationship turned nasty. The corporation that now owned a colony would send around a military fleet every ten years or so for "asset realization"--which the colony thought looked a lot like piracy. And the colonies have been getting increasingly good at defending themselves, while the corporations have been cutting back on the resources the military fleets have available.
        We see most of the story through the eyes of Lawrence Newton. When we first meet Lawrence, he is a sergeant in the Skins, the near invincible ground forces of Zantiu-Braun's 3rd Fleet. After 20 years with the Skins, he's fed up and has decided to do some personal "asset realization" on the next assignment, and then get out. We then see alternating chapters of the mission going forward and running into unexpected difficulties and of how Lawrence got to the position he's now in. The first flashback chapter shows Lawrence as a troublesome but bright kid on a colony planet that is being Terraformed, with a father who is high in the company hierarchy. Lawrence dreams of becoming a space pilot and exploring new worlds; his domineering father wants to force him into business administration. His father tries to crush his dreams by telling him that none of the corporations are doing exploration any more, while there are in fact a few corporations back on Earth doing some exploration--but not the corporation they belong to. Lawrence discovers sex and gets distracted from his dream for a couple of years, but when he discovers how his father has been lying and manipulating him, he flees to Earth to chase his dreams. Zantiu-Braun is the corporation that is doing the most space exploration, but he finds that he can't jump into the position he wants. He's advised to join the corporation in strategic security, spend a couple of years there and build up his stake in the corporation, and then try to transfer to exploration, since insiders are given preference over outsiders in filling positions as they became available. In later flashback chapters, we learn about his attempts to pursue his dream (always blocked by the way the corporation functions), some of his expeditions to other planets (and how the colonies have diverged from Earth culture), and his personal life (including a brief relationship with a young woman who is vehemently opposed to what the corporate uniculture is doing to Earth).
        On his last mission, some of the colonists set up a surprisingly effective underground resistance, helped by being able to tap into the corporate computer network without being detected. The fact that Sgt. Newton's commanding officer got his position because of the amount of stock his family owns rather than because he's competent also helps explain why the Skins are constantly being out-maneuvered by the underground. The situation finally deteriorates to the point that Sgt. Newton takes his entire platoon into the hinterlands in pursuit of the "asset realization" potential that he first saw ten years before, on the last expedition to the colony.
        This novel works as military fiction, as space opera, and as social commentary. I strongly recommend it, but only for an adult audience.

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