Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Under Heaven

Shen Tai, the second son of the late general Shen Gao, chooses to honor his father's memory during his mandatory two years of mourning by traveling to a distant western battlefield and burying the bones that lie there. There is no way to distinguish between the fallen soldiers of his own Kitan Empire and the Taguran enemy, so he doesn't try.  To honor his efforts, a Kitan princess married off as part of the peace treaty sends him a gift that will change his life, or possibly destroy it.

There's not much that makes me happier than a new novel by Guy Gavriel Kay.  I think he's just about the best prose stylist writing fantasy today, except maybe Patricia McKillip; his books are so beautifully written they just beg to be read out loud. His extensive research into the historical models for his invented countries and societies (this one is his take on Tang China) informs the setting without drowning the story in scholarly pedantry.  His characters always seem like real people that you would recognize if you met them.  And he nearly always manages to make me cry towards the end.  Beautiful, beautiful book.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wyatt Earp (1994) and Tombstone (1993)

In Tombstone, when Wyatt Earp joins his brothers Virgil and Morgan in the eponymous town in Arizona, he finds his reputation as a lawman has preceded him. He insists he's left all that behind him; all he wants now is to go into business, earn a comfortable living, and conduct a quiet, peaceful life. But the conspicuous lack of law and order in Tombstone prompts Virgil and Morgan to step up as U.S. Marshals, and their attempt to enforce an ordinance against carrying weapons in town turns into the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral.  When Virgil is later crippled and Morgan killed, Wyatt embarks on a messy vendetta that bears very little resemblance to law and order.

Wyatt Earp covers a greater span of the man's life, from teenage longing to join his brothers at war to an old age still seeking new horizons in yet another gold rush.  The Tombstone story is given a lot of time, but so is the leadup to it in Dodge City, which the earlier movie took as a given, assuming that everybody knew that legend including the viewer.

The films have invited comparisons to each other since they first came out, of course.  Doc Holliday is probably the most compelling character in either one; Dennis Quaid is almost unrecognizable in the role, but Val Kilmer looks like he had more fun with it (point for Tombstone).  It's hard to do better than Sam Elliott's "Best Mustache in a Supporting Role" as Virgil (point for Tombstone again). 

I may as well stop counting points and just admit that I liked Tombstone better.  It seemed more focused; Wyatt Earp didn't seem to be able to figure out what kind of movie it wanted to be, or what kind of character Wyatt was. The plot was clearer in Tombstone, and in spite of the massive number of speaking roles I didn't need a scorecard to tell the characters apart.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Sheen on the Silk

Widowed physician Anna Zarides disguises herself as the eunuch Anastasius so that she can move freely in the upper echelons of Byzantine society and investigate the murder of royal connection Bessarion Comnenos, hoping to prove her twin brother Justinian innocent of the crime for which he has been exiled. Nobody she meets in Constantinople makes this easy for her, and many of them have their own reasons for making sure the truth never comes out.

Anne Perry takes a break from her usual 19th- and 20th-century English settings, traveling very far afield to 13th century Constantinople. If her intent was to show why the term "Byzantine" now has pejorative connotations of "devious, surreptitious, and intricately involved" she has succeeded brilliantly.  "Anastasius" finds herself floundering in very deep waters indeed, trying to navigate not only currents of imperial and international politics, but also personal vendettas and the ever-present questions of religion.

Unfortunately, it seems like a whole lot of nothing happens in this book.  Inside the storyline Anastasius struggles for years to learn anything useful from the major players remaining in Constantinople, while the reader slogs through chapter after chapter without learning anything more. 

It does Perry a disservice to market this book as a historical mystery.  It works a lot better as a historical novel about revenge.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Adventures of Jules de Grandin

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson meet Mulder and Scully.  Jules de Grandin, physician and consultant for the Sûreté, has also been described as the occult Hercule Poirot, but I don't much care for Poirot myself so I'm going with the supernatural Sherlock instead.  The Watson in this series of short stories by Seabury Quinn, published in Weird Tales beginning in 1925, is also a doctor, a New Jersey GP named Trowbridge, though he narrates the tales with more of Scully's skepticism than Watson's admiration sometimes.
 And I had no idea these stories even existed until I read one of SF Signal's Mind Meld columns about a month ago, asking assorted authors for their recommendation of an underrated fantasy series.  It was S. Andrew Swann who recommended de Grandin, and his remark that Quinn is to gritty noir urban fantasy what Tolkien is to grand high-fantasy epic got my attention.  I'm a big fan of the Dresden Files, and I quite liked the X-Files when they weren't going overboard on the conspiracy (I liked the monster-of-the-week stories, so sue me), so of course I had to look up de Grandin.

Interlibrary loan is a wonderful invention, is all.  The de Grandin stories were collected in the 1970s, but those paperbacks are long out of print now; my library couldn't find a copy of the first one anywhere in my state, and had to borrow it from a much larger library system in Dallas for me.

The Adventures of Jules de Grandin collects the first seven stories, including the one that introduces the characters of de Grandin and Trowbridge and what would become the standard setting for the stories, the town of Harrisonville, New Jersey, possibly the epicenter of more weirdness than any town since Arkham, Mass. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, mad scientists, curses, it's all here, and de Grandin is just the man who knows how to deal with it all.

There were 93 de Grandin stories in all.  I'm tracking down the rest of them now.