Thursday, March 11, 2010


Tamora Pierce mentioned the Provost's Dogs, the proto-police force of her pseudo-medieval city of Corus, in her very first novel about the fantasy kingdom of Tortall, Alanna: The First Adventure.  She hasn't said much about them since, but in her new series she delves into the history of the Provost's Guard.  Beka Cooper is a rookie in the Guard--since they're the Dogs, she's a Puppy--learning to walk the fine line between law and justice on one side and workable corruption on the other, always keeping in mind that her first responsibility is to the people of her district, where she grew up.

Interesting departure for Pierce in some ways: her first foray into first-person narration, for one thing.  Most of her books have been about knights or mages, both in their own ways elite classes even when they came to their current status from a background of poverty; this one looks at the city's poorer class from the inside.  This is also her first prequel series, set two hundred years before her other Tortall books, in the age of the lady knights who had become legend long before Alanna disguised herself as a boy to train as a page.

But I have some problems with the character of Beka; she's too smart, and gets too much respect for a rookie, and her announced character flaw of extreme shyness hardly slows her down at all in practice.  When her training partners refer to her as "the sharpest Puppy of all" the dreaded words Mary Sue inevitably sprang to mind. 

Not that this is going to stop me from reading the rest of the series.

Originally posted at MySpace 12/2/06

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Prestige and The Illusionist

When I was on my long weekend in Virginia last month I went to see The Prestige one day and The Illusionist the next; I'd missed The Illusionist when it played here, so I was glad my friend didn't mind seeing it again.

In The Prestige (based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Priest, which I have my name down for at the library where I work), two young magicians in turn-of-the-20th-century London start out as colleagues and friendly rivals, but when one of them ties what may or may not have been a faulty knot as part of a water escape trick in which the other's wife dies onstage, their relationship turns to escalating acts of sabotage and deepening obsession.

In The Illusionist (based, very loosely, on the story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" by Steven Millhauser, which I've read) the young son of a cabinetmaker falls for the daughter of a noble family, and years after they are forcibly separated, he meets her again when she comes onstage to volunteer for one of his illusions.  But she is now a duchess, and about to be engaged to the Emperor's son; and the Crown Prince has a reputation for violence that doesn't bode well for any woman in his orbit.

I'm glad I saw them in the order that I did, because I liked The Illusionist a lot more and if I'd seen it first I might have been disappointed in The Prestige.  Unfairly so, since they're not the same kind of story at all: The Illusionist is a fairy tale, and doesn't pretend to be anything else, while The Prestige is a much grittier story of obsession and revenge that abruptly takes a left turn into steampunk.  Most critics are saying that The Prestige is clearly the superior movie, and I'm not saying it isn't; just that the comparisons between the two are unfair to both films.

Besides, The Illusionist has characters I could sympathize with, and in The Prestige everyone turns out to be a right bastard.  Not what I personally am looking for in my escapism, thanks.

Originally posted at MySpace 11/4/06

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Under orders

Dick Francis returns with his first new novel since the death of his wife, who was also his chief researcher.  He retired, but has been talked out of retirement.  I think he may have gotten some bad advice.

Most Francis novels are stand-alone; he's only used a couple of recurring characters in his entire writing career.  This new one brings back Sid Halley, a jockey who became an investigator when catastrophic injury ended his racing days.  Sid has been featured in four books, which almost qualifies him as a series hero.

In this book a jockey is murdered after winning a race for a trainer who was visibly angry with him afterwards.  Accusations of race-fixing fly.  A racehorse owner asks Sid to look into that angle, while the murdered man's father wants him to find the killer.  Another death seems to provide an answer, but Sid is sure it's not the right one, and his belief is reinforced when he starts to receive threats--not to himself, since it's been well-established that threats only encourage him to keep digging, but to his new girlfriend.

Well-plotted, though in hindsight I see I probably should have guessed at least one of the villains from the Law of Conservation of Characters.  At the time I just enjoyed the ride.  But the style isn't nearly as polished as I'd come to expect from Francis, and the research shows too much; a couple of the characters have an unfortunate tendency to go in for highly technical lectures instead of more natural dialogue.  Some of the characters behaved in out-of-character ways, a problem that wouldn't have arisen if this novel didn't have a cast that had appeared before.  It was pretty good, but not one of Francis's best.

Originally posted at MySpace 10/13/06 

Monday, March 8, 2010

Samaria series

Jovah's Angel
The Alleluia Files

I don't want to fill up the entire front page of the blog with Sharon Shinn books, so I'm going to talk about this series collectively.  It's her longest running series; the first volume, Archangel, was her second novel ever (copyright 1996), and the fifth and latest, Angel-Seeker, came out just a couple of years ago.  The first three form a loosely connected trilogy, and the two others are stand-alone stories set in the same world.  The first one reads like a fantasy, with its angels praying in song to a very hands-on god; only in the second volume, Jovah's Angel, does the series turn out to be science fiction after all.

I am a long time fan of Shinn, so of course I was aware of this series, but for a long time the first chapter of Archangel totally failed to grab me.  Some time recently I bought my own copy at the best local second-hand book store, just so I'd have it lying around the apartment if I was ever in the mood for it.  A couple of weekends ago I shrugged and opened it, and proceeded to fall into it headfirst.  I had to go to the library where I work on my day off to get the next volume, and should have just checked them all out while I was there.

As always with Shinn, colorful world-building, convincing action, and a goodly helping of romance in each book.  Reading them all one right after the other, though, they started to sound a bit alike, especially since in three of the first four the main romantic plot involved the ruling Archangel's search for the person the god Jovah had decreed he (or she) should marry.  The fifth volume does not involve direct contact with Jovah at all, and may turn out to be my favorite of the lot.

All excellent, however, and it definitely pays to read them in order.

Originally posted at MySpace 9/16/06

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Knights of the Black and White

I am endlessly fascinated by the Knights Templar, the order of military monks founded shortly after the First Crusade and disbanded a little over 200 years later, to the point of wondering if I might have been one in a past life.  I'm oddly protective of their memory, and you can't convince me they were guilty of the horrendous accusations that led to the suppression of the Order.

And Jack Whyte is a favorite author of mine.  His reimagining of the Arthurian cycle in terms of strict historical possibility (if not always plausibility) is one of the best treatments of those legends I've ever read.

So I was pretty excited when I heard he was taking a break from his version of Lancelot to give us his version of the Knights Templar.  This novel, the first of a planned trilogy, follows Templar founder Hugh de Payens from young manhood through the first few years of the Order in Jerusalem, and ends just before the original nine Templars send an embassy to the Pope to enlist his aid in promoting the Order.

And I'm very sad to say I'm disappointed in this book.  It has hardly any action, and what there is seems peripheral.  The dialogue is mostly didactic; the characters make speeches rather than having conversations.  There's no villain for the first half of the book, and the bad guys in the second half don't seem to present much of a danger.  Not recommended, alas.

Originally posted at MySpace 9/1/06. Reprinted to prove I don't unilaterally like everything I read!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

His Majesty's Dragon

At the height of the Napoleonic wars, British Naval captain Will Laurence discovers an unusual prize in the hold of a captured French frigate: a dragon's egg, nearly ready to hatch.  The officers draw lots for the extremely undesirable job of harnessing the newborn dragon--whoever does so must abandon his naval career and join the considerably less reputable Aerial Corps--but the dragon ignores the unfortunate midshipman who drew the lot and heads straight for the captain.

Anne McCaffrey meets Patrick O'Brian in this series by Naomi Novik.  I'm not much of a Patrick O'Brian fan, never having managed to hold out for the first three chapters (after which, I'm told, the action picks up considerably), but this book was so much fun I read the whole thing after work last night--something I rarely do any more.  The second volume is checked out at the library where I work and not due back for nearly three weeks; I may have to buy a copy.

Originally posted at MySpace 8/19/06

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Thirteenth House

When the newly named regent for the king's underage daughter is kidnapped, aristocratic shapeshifter Kirra Danalustrous cheerfully accepts the assignment to help rescue him before she answers her father's summons to return home.  Once she gets home, she finds that her father intends to name her younger half-sister Casserah his heir and send her out on a social tour of the great houses; but Casserah refuses to go, and the obvious answer is for Kirra to assume her sister's shape and go in her place.  Further intrigues, political and romantic, ensue when "Casserah" runs into the regent again....

Sharon Shinn is one of my favorite writers working today.  She writes science fiction and fantasy, both with a strong romantic slant; I recommend her to romance readers all the time.  (I've seen her listed as a "paranormal romance" writer, which I wouldn't have thought of but I guess isn't entirely inappropriate.)  This book is the second in a series, following a secondary character from the first book.  I cried buckets over this one, just because of the complications of the romance angle; great fun.

Originally posted at MySpace 8/12/06