Archive for December, 2010

Drowned Wednesday by Garth Nix

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

The third installment of The Keys to the Kingdom series, Drowned Wednesday, sweeps both Arthur Penhaligon and his newly met friend Leaf into the Border Sea of the House via a huge wave of water.  There, Leaf must become a ship’s boy and Arthur must find the third part of the Will and collect the third key from Drowned Wednesday, who has become a leviathan due to the vice of gluttony.

Drowned Wednesday has invited Arthur into the Border Sea, telling him that if he can release the Will, she’ll turn over the key.  The problem is that no one really knows where it is.

Arthur and Leaf are assisted in their quest by Raised Rats, who are sentient, intelligent rats who were brought into the House by the Piper (cf. Pied Piper of Hamelin) along with human children from the Secondary Realms like Earth.  These Raised Rats are information gatherers and have communication devices throughout the House.  And, it is they who believe they know where the Will is, and might be persuaded to help if Arthur will answer a few of their questions.

Like the other books, Nix adds interesting color through the denizens and creatures of the House.  Doctor Scamandros, a House sorcerer whose final examination papers were lost before the results were known, is one of the only sorcerers on the Border Sea.  Tattoos across his face change and move with his emotions and moods, changing from storm-tossed sailing vessels to calm seas.

I found that I liked this book a bit less than the previous ones as it didn’t seem to delve deeply enough into the mysteries of the House.

The books in the series:

  1. Mister Monday
  2. Grim Tuesday
  3. Drowned Wednesday
  4. Sir Thursday
  5. Lady Friday
  6. Superior Saturday
  7. Lord Sunday

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished December 11, 2010)

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This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

December 28, 2010 2 comments

I have previously read all of Zelazny’s fantasy/science fiction Amber series, his one-off Lord of Light as a science fiction book club selection, but had never read This Immortal before.  Surprisingly, This Immortal is currently out of print except for an unabridged audio version (which is the media I “read”); I say “surprisingly” because This Immortal, under its original serialized title of “…and Call Me Conrad,” tied with Frank Herbert’s Dune for the 1966 Hugo for best novel.

Honestly, I am not sure what to think of the book.  Like Lord of Light, Zelazny uses mythology or religious texts (in the case of the latter) to mix into a science fiction world.  In This Immortal, he uses Greek legends and folklore as background for his post-apocalyptic world.  The nuclear “hot spots” spawn mutations reminiscent of satyrs, centaurs, and other creatures.  The main character, Conrad Nomikos, is a Pan-like human, but is also referred to as a kallikantzaros, a goblin from Greek folk tales who work almost unceasingly to bring down the world (except during the 12 days of Christmas).

Conrad has had many aliases over the years, continually hiding his identity and longevity.  Zelazny never really confirms how old Conrad is, nor whether he is a god (Pan?) or a mutated human with long life.  He is, however, a protector of the Earth and its peoples, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly.  The main threat is a blue-skinned alien race, the Vegans, who have purchased some of the Earth land for tourism.  Conrad is assigned to guide an important Vegan through the ruins of Earth’s civilization in order for him to write a travelogue.

Quickly it is apparent that there is more going on than writing a travel guide, as there are several attempts on the Vegan’s life and on Conrad’s.

One inventive episode occurs as the party approaches Giza.  There, Conrad has authorized the dismantling of the Great Pyramid.  “But why?” he is asked.  He then points out the filming equipment and informs the party that the labor force, who is moving the blocks without any modern equipment, is part of an actor’s guild.  His intention, so he says, is to use the building material and then to run the film backward so as to show how the pyramids were originally built by the Egyptians.

The book is interesting and the writing style is obviously from an earlier time in the genre, since it is much less straight-forward than today’s novels.  But, I am surprised that it tied with Dune, since the latter has so much more depth and is more elegantly written.

Conrad himself is written as a worldly man who is quick with a quip and for some reason the style reminded me a bit of a hard boiled detective novel.

I did, however, find several interesting similarities between the books:

  • The concept of an overman or a superman.  In This Immortal, the character of Conrad; in Dune, Paul Atreides.
  • There is a general theme of conservation and the importance of good stewardship of the planet.
  • There was a short comment about the use of a meta-cyanide, which was also the poison used on the gom jabbar needle in the Dune universe to test for human-ness.  I’ve never heard of this term before outside of these two novels.
  • At one point a poisoned needs secreted in the palm was to be used by an assassin.  There are several parallels in Dune, most specifically the needle that Thufir Hawat was to have used on Paul Atreides at the end of the novel.

Again, for me the clear winner would have been Dune, but This Immortal was still worth the read.  I do think that I will attempt to read more of the Hugo and Nebula award winners, especially the earlier ones.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished December 28, 2010)

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The Dark Foundations by Chris Walley

December 20, 2010 1 comment

The Dark Foundations continues the plotline of The Lamb Among the Stars as a direct sequel to The Shadow and Night, which I read in November.  As with the first novel, it posits a Christian society far in the future which is in a millennial state of grace, without apparent sin.  This period of grace, however, is being tested by the Lamb through the agency of the Dominion, the descendants of a splinter group which broke from the Assembly thousands of years before.

Right from the opening pages, Walley reveals the nature of the Dominion and its Lord-Emperor, Nezhuala.  In the Dominion, Nezhuala has consorted with extra-physical beings (spiritual beings analogous to demons) who have been restrained from entering the Assembly and who can only manifest in the physical world with great difficulty.  I found the author’s skillful creativity of using viable terminology for what we’d consider demonic beings and events.

Back on the planet Farholme, access to the Assembly has been severed by the destruction of the hyperspatial Gate.  On their own and contaminated by evil spiritual beings that the Dominion refugees brought to the world, the Farholme citizens must begin to arm themselves against a larger attack force.

It was refreshing to see the development of Merral D’Avanos, a forester turned military leader, and Vero Enand, who becomes the head of the defense force’s intelligence branch.  These men, while striving to be true, occasionally fail, leading to poor choices and grea sorrow from their moral failures.  And, of course, sacrifices must be made and accepted.

The Lamb, however, does not abandon His children and sends his Envoy to talk with key leaders, delivering messages from the Most High but also ensuring that mankind’s free will is paramount.  The Envoy (a messenger, or angel) is a fascinating character since he/it often comes across as cold and stern.  Instead, however, I saw this aloofness as Walley’s way of showing how these beings might be compassionate, yet perhaps not completely comprehending the human condition and weaknesses.

The plot definitely quickens through this book as Walley has to spend less time on the worldbuilding aspects.

A very enjoyable read with and unresolved ending that will hopefully be concluded in the last volume.  I can honestly say that I have read nothing like this before.

4 1/2 stars out of 5 (finished December 5, 2010)

Grim Tuesday by Garth Nix

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Garth Nix continues his series, The Keys to the Kingdom, with Grim Tuesday, a direct sequel to Mister Monday (see my comments here).

Only a few hours after returning from the House and obtaining a cure for the sleepy plague which was spreading through his home town, Arthur Penhaligon, the Rightful Heir, must return to the House to wrest the second key from the next Trustee, Grim Tuesday.

Unlike the first domain of the bureaucracy, the Far Reaches is made up of indentured miners and craftsman.  Nothing is a mined substance which can be crafted into all sorts of useful items for the House, from Metal Commissionaires to teapots; but, Nothing is also a corrosive substance into which the entire House could fall and be destroyed.  Greedy and acquisitive Grim Tuesday is a master craftsman but sadly lacks a creative spark in himself; instead he can only copy works (beautiful though they may be) from the Secondary Realms, such as Earth.

Arthur becomes an indentured servant and is forced to walk a long road to the Pit.  His faithful companion, Suzy Turquoise Blue from his first adventure, helps him to reach Tuesday’s treasure tower, where priceless gems and works of art are housed.  From there, Arthur must find and free the second part of the Will of the Architect and take Tuesday’s key.

One character that I particularly enjoyed was the Mariner, who appears to be vaguely based on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Although constrained by his word to obey Grim Tuesday, he appears very noble and is a refreshing straight talker.

It was also somewhat novel to have Arthur’s sojourns in the house directly impact his life back home, rather than have every change reverted back to normal (a la Narnia’s wardrobe):  in the first novel, the First Key partially heals one of his lungs from asthma and in this book, his leg remains broken.

I liked the book slightly less than the first one, but I continue to be impressed by Nix’s consistency and the progression through the days, the seven deadly sins (this book covers Greed), and virtues (the Will is shown as prudent).

The books in the series:

  1. Mister Monday
  2. Grim Tuesday
  3. Drowned Wednesday
  4. Sir Thursday
  5. Lady Friday
  6. Superior Saturday
  7. Lord Sunday

4  out of 5 stars (finished December 6, 2010)

Mister Monday by Garth Nix

December 15, 2010 2 comments

Mister Monday is the first book in Garth Nix’s The Keys to the Kingdom series for young adults (see the bottom of this post for a list of the other books in the series).  I’ve read the novel several times and now that the final book has been released, I plan to read through them all to refresh my memory.

The plot:  our Earth (I think anyway that it’s OUR Earth) is one of the chiefest Secondary Realms created by the Architect.  True time runs in the House, almost a universe in itself, which was intended by the Architect to record all that happened in the many Secondary Realms without interfering.  At some time in the past, the Architect disappears, leaving a Will under the control of seven Trustees (of which Mister Monday is one).  At an appointed time, an Heir must be found and the Trustees’ powers must be relinquished.  Instead, the Trustees break up the Will, hide the pieces so that no one can find them, ignore its tenets, retain control of their domains in the House, and begin to effect the Secondary Realms (each of the Days agree to divide the worlds — Mister Monday of the Lower House, for example, is permitted can reach out on any Monday).

The first piece of the Will is sentient and after thousands of years manages to escape.  Its first task is to name an Heir to find the remaining pieces and wrest the Keys from the Trustees.  The person it selects is Arthur Penhaligon, a junior high-aged boy from our world (again, I think).

Arthur must quickly figure out what is happening, enter the House, and save his family from the Sleepy Plague, a virus spread by contamination of some of the denizens of the House sent by Monday.  And, incidentally, the only way to do so is to follow the Will’s direction.

The book is very well written and seems to be very consistent in its ideas.  Each Trustee supervises a part of the house with a specific purpose — Monday is in charge of the Lower House, largely concerned with bureaucracy, contracts, and files.  Each Trustee has also fallen into one of the Seven Deadly Sins — Monday’s vice is sloth, which has essentially caused the Lower House to back up with paperwork.  There are key servants for each of the Days:  a Dawn, Noon, and Dusk.

Interesting characters abound including the Old One, a Prometheus of sorts who is imprisoned in the lower coal mines for an undisclosed sin against the Architect.

With its conceit of a House at the center of the universe it reminds me a bit of The High House by James Stoddard (which I recommend highly).

The one quibble I have is that the main character, who is very likable, is almost too competent and clever.  I wish that he had a few more flaws, rather than merely physical ones (asthma) which he cannot help.

The books in the series:

  1. Mister Monday
  2. Grim Tuesday
  3. Drowned Wednesday
  4. Sir Thursday
  5. Lady Friday
  6. Superior Saturday
  7. Lord Sunday

4 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished December 2, 2010)

Review: My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle by Marcel Pagnol

December 12, 2010 2 comments

Since I took a lot of French language classes both in high school and college, I was exposed to a wide range of French literature and movies.  Both media help to give insights into French sensibilities, thinking, and history.  Sometime in college, I watched My Father’s Glory""La Gloire de Mon Pere (My Father’s Glory) and was charmed by its sense of innocence and nostalgia for an earlier, simpler time.

The volume I finished last weekend, virtually in one sitting, includes two of the four semi-autobiographical books of Souvenirs d’enfance by Marcel Pagnol:  My Father’s Glory & My Mother’s Castle: Marcel Pagnol’s Memories of Childhood""My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle.

My Father’s Glory introduces Marcel at the turn of the 20th century.   His father is a school teacher who was trained at a very anti-religious ecole normale, a fact which brings out some humorous incidents with his brother-in-law.  Marcel is raised in Marseille.  As the family’s monetary situation improves over the years, they rent a cottage in the country to spend their summer vacances.

It is clear that the time spent in the country had a profound effect on Pagnol.  The descriptions of his adventures hunting and exploring have a moving emotional element to them.

The main incident in the book begins to shake Marcel’s view of his father’s omnipotence.  His father and Marcel’s Uncle Jules plan a hunting expedition, hoping to shoot the legendary bartavelle (a rock partridge).   Jules tells of his hunting prowess and instructs Marcel’s father how to track and flush these fowl, telling him that there is a specific shooting technique.  His father practices before the scheduled day, but Marcel is worried that he’ll miss, humiliate himself, and destroy Marcel’s faith in him.

On the eve of the appointed day, Marcel assumes he’ll be going with the hunting party.  They lie to him about the date and then sneak out of the house long before dawn.  But Marcel is tipped off and follows them secretly.  He becomes lost in the woods, but is there to see his father pull off a perfect shot, killing two bartavelles.  In the village, he is able to see his father basking in the glory of his achievement.  Marcel’s faith is confirmed.

My Mother’s Castle is a direct continuation of the story, telling of the end of the summer vacation and Marcel’s reluctance to leave.  The family determines to visit as often as possible (every weekend!) and the Pagnol describes how they manage to reduce the length of the trip by following the canals which cross over others’ property, including manor houses (the castle in the title).

I found the stories very charming and very cleverly written.  For example:

Pagnol relates a story of how his father discovered he could read.  When very young, his mother left him in his father’s classroom when she needed to run errands.

One morning, my mother left me in my usual place and went out without a word, while he wrote on the blackboard in big beautiful letters: ‘ The mother punished her little boy who had been naughty.’

As he was rounding off an admirable full-stop, I shouted: ‘No! It isn’t true!’

My father spun around, stared at me in amazement and cried: ‘What did you say?’

‘Mama didn’t punish me!  You didn’t write down the truth!’

Another incident arises from his father’s infatuation with purchasing junk from antique dealers.  He purchases a number of furniture items to take to the cottage, repairing and refinishing them.

[My mother] admired above all a small pedestal table which I had given three coats of ‘mahogany varnish’.  It was really a joy to the eye, but it was wiser to look at it than to touch it, for if you put your hands flat on the table-top, you could lift the table up and carry it about, as mediums do.  I believe everyone noticed this inconvenience but nobody said a word that might have spoilt the triumph of our expedition.

Later, Pagnol notes that even errors can be turned to good:

…for this pedestal table, placed like a precious period piece in a well-lit corner, caught so many flies that it ensured the silence and hygiene of the dining-room….

A very pleasant read.  The translator, Rita Barisse, did a great job maintaining the literary quality of the writing yet retaining the subtle humor intact.

4 out of 5 stars (finished December 4, 2010)

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