Archive for June, 2003

Macdonald, James D., and Debra Doyle: (02) “Selling the Devil”

“I’d come to New York on business, switching out fabric samples from the Shroud of Turin so that the scientists who were doing the tests would declare it a fake and give it a rest.”

Ah, another Peter Crossman story, namely “Selling the Devil”, by Debra Doyle and James Macdonald, in On Crusade: More Tales of the Knights Templar. This is actually the middle Crossman short story, but acquiring this anthology was surprisingly difficult. All the local bookstores and several online retailers claimed they didn’t have copies, and when I finally ordered it online from Barnes & Noble, I got the right exterior, but an interior of Evelyn Waugh’s Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (of all things). B&N lost my replacement copy, and I only got the second last week.

As the title suggests, this story revolves around a claimed attempt to raise a demon before a paying audience. On the surface, it looks like simple get-rich-quick fakery—but why the new, ornate, chalice, and old, plain, sword? Crossman’s instincts tell him something more sinister is going on, and when he finds the bodies, well, he realizes that he’s right.

Start with The Apocalypse Door if you haven’t read a Peter Crossman story before, but if you encounter a copy of this anthology, definitely worth reading.

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Dyer, S.N.: “Resolve and Resistance”

I also recently read another short story that deserves mention here: “Resolve and Resistance,” by S.N. Dyer (collected in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Ninth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. This came to my attention in a comment thread elsewhere on this book log. It’s an alternative-universe sequel to Pride and Prejudice, in which Napoleon has won and Lord Nelson is a crippled beggar in Hyde Park. A Norfolkman recognizes Nelson and whispers to him, “Darcy. Pemberley,” giving him a purpose and a destination.

Nelson is crushed to arrive at Pemberley and discover that Mr. Darcy was killed by the French and that the Bennett sisters appear to be collaborators. Of course, the “Darcy” referred to was actually Elizabeth; the Bennett sisters are running the resistance in their area, and have a plan to invade London.

I really enjoyed this, though it’s somewhat different than described in the aforementioned comments thread (most notably, no Caroline Bingley)—up to the very end. I found the last section absolutely infuriating. The shortest way to explain why is its opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of the gratitude of her nation must be in want of a husband.” Which it takes seriously!

A hint for aspiring writers: contrary to what many appear to believe, it is not actually necessary to end your story by marrying everyone off, particularly when doing so will require you to completely ignore your characters’ personalities as they have been established to date.

If you just stop reading at the end of the invasion, you’ll be fine. Pretend the rest doesn’t exist.

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Edgerton, Teresa: (02) The Gnome’s Engine

Being June 22, yes, I’ve read the new Harry Potter (spoiler-filled first thoughts on my LiveJournal). However, I thought I would clear the decks, so to speak, on the book log, by catching up on the backlog before starting the slow and detailed re-read that will inevitably spawn enormous posts here and on the LJ.

[split for import into MT; hit "next" at the bottom of this post]

First up is Teresa Edgerton’s The Gnome’s Engine, which is the sequel to Goblin Moon. At the end of that book, our protagonists were heading for the New World to flee their several enemies. This book opens a year later; our protagonists have spent the year getting established and getting the idea for the titular machine, but otherwise not much has changed: villains still searching, True Loves still separated by circumstance, etc.

This is kind of an odd book. The plot takes a while to get going, there are some plot threads whose relationship to the overall plot is rather ambiguous, and the end-of-book confrontation is distinctly anti-climactic. The best word I can think to describe it is “genteel”; it meanders along, with bad things presented in a non-bleak tone, and at the end everyone picks up their toys and cordially goes home. I think I liked it, but again, it was odd.

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Wrede, Patricia C., and Caroline Stevermer: (01) Sorcery and Cecelia, or, the Enchanted Chocolate Pot

After The Gnome’s Engine came Sorcery and Cecelia, or, the Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. This book was legendarily hard to find for quite a few years, and happily has now been reprinted in hardcover, with a sequel to come (details at a joint author webpage).

[ Interestingly, it's been reprinted as a YA, right down to the listing of other books by the authors, which pointedly omits anything that wasn't marketed as YA. Also, it's got a new copyright date (2003), with a notice that it was originally printed in 1988 without the subtitle. I don't see any differences in the text, so I'm a little baffled about giving it a new copyright date, but intellectual property law isn't my field. ]

I’ve described this book before as “Freedom and Necessity without the Hegel.” I think that’s accurate if a touch flip, but I would be falling down on my book logging responsibilities if I left it at that.

First, this is an epistolary novel. Kate Talgarth has gone to London for the Season, and she corresponds with her cousin Cecelia Rushton, who is stuck at home in Essex. Second, it’s set in England in the 1800s, though about thirty years earlier than F&N; it’s also explicitly an alternate England, as the first letter makes clear; among Cecelia’s talk of parties and calling on the vicarage is this news:

Sir Hilary Bedrick has just been named to the Royal College of Wizards; the whole village is buzzing with the news. I suspect he was chosen because of that enormous library of musty old spellbooks at Bedrick Hall. He left yesterday for London, where he will be installed, but all of us expect great things when he returns. Except, of course, Aunt Elizabeth, who looks at me sideways and says darkly that magic is for heathens and cannibals, not for decent folk.

Yes indeed, we are in a Regency romance novel with magic (the same universe as Wrede’s Mairelon books). Kate goes to Sir Hilary’s investiture, goes through a little side door, and finds herself confronted with a perfectly horrible woman named Miranda, who thinks that Kate is actually someone named Thomas in disguise and tries to make her drink suspicious hot chocolate. Meanwhile, Cecy meets a new girl with an evil Stepmama who is, you guessed it, Miranda; and just what is Miranda’s relationship with Sir Hilary, anyway?

The plot of this is lovely and frothy, but it’s the narrators that really make it work. If The Gnome’s Engine was “genteel,” this is, quite simply, “charming.” For instance, Thomas seeks Kate out to thank her for springing Miranda’s trap. They naturally have further encounters, such as Thomas’s saving both her and, later, her cousin Oliver from being turned into trees:

“That’s part of the second reason I came here. You will agree you owe me some slight favor for rescuing you and your cod’s head of a cousin? I wish to make you an offer.”

I nodded as intelligently as I could and said, “Very well, I am very grateful to you for recovering dear, stupid Oliver. What sort of an offer?”

Thomas regarded me with an air of disbelief. “An offer of marriage, my dear half-wit. What other sort of offer did you expect?”

Cecy, I do think it is unfair. People in novels are fainting all the time, and I never can, no matter how badly I need to. Instead, I stared at him for what seemed like years, with the stupidest expression on my face, I’m sure, because I felt stupid. For I couldn’t imagine why he should say such an extraordinary thing. Finally I realized he was waiting for me to say something.

I said, “I can’t imagine why you should say such an extraordinary thing.”

Her cousin Cecelia is also excellent company, much inclined to saying things like “We simply must do something!” and then, well, doing it.

[ Aside: There is a conspicuous absence of parents in this, which I suppose is a point in favor of YA classification. Cecelia's mother is dead, and she mentions her a few times; her father is immersed in his studies. Kate mentions her father just once, who appears to be dead; she doesn't mention her mother at all that I can see. If I have the family tree right, Cecelia's father had three sisters: Kate's mother, Aunt Charlotte, and Aunt Elizabeth. What happened to Kate's parents? ]

The only flaw in Sorcery and Cecelia is that I can’t re-read it too often. It’s quite short, and I’ve found if I try to read it too soon after the last time, everything’s too familiar and I can’t get into it. (Okay, another possible flaw: I’m not really clear how the Horrible Hollydean was involved.) It’s guaranteed to make me smile, which is why I’ve made the attempt. It’s amusing without being saccharine, light without being insubstantial, romantic without being sappy, and just plain fun. Highly recommended.

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White, James: (07-08) General Practice (omnibus of Code Blue—Emergency and The Genocidal Healer)

James White’s General Practice is a Sector General omnibus that collects the previous out-of-print Code Blue—Emergency and The Genocidal Healer. (Tor has now published the entire Sector General series: all the books after this omnibus were originally published by Tor, and all the books before are in the two prior collections, Beginning Operations and Alien Emergencies. They do good work.) To round off the one-word summaries, this is “benevolent”—no surprise, since that applies just as well to all the rest of the Sector General stories.

These are the first books to be told from the viewpoint of non-Earth-human characters. Indeed, they’re also the first books to not focus primarily or exclusively on Conway, who was made a Diagnostician at the end of the prior book. Code Blue—Emergency also features our first female protagonist, Cha Thrat, who goes to Sector General in part to escape institutional sexism on her home planet—only to run into Sector General’s unique institutional sexism regarding Educator tapes, an irony that appears to be lost on both the author and the male characters. (Not the least because it’s demonstrably wrong, though no-one seems to notice.)

The book does a better job than I expected of managing Cha Thrat’s point-of-view, avoiding blatant infodumping in her personal thoughts and letting her personality and cultural background unfold slowly. Like prior novels, it is structured in a somewhat episodic fashion; the overall arc is Cha Thrat exploring Sector General and finding her place. Satisfyingly done.

The Genocidal Healer is talky, philosophical, angsty, and possibly my favorite Sector General book. (I’d read it before, actually just before I started this log.) This is the story of Lioren, a Tarlan Surgeon-Captain who makes a terrible mistake out of ambition, pride, impatience, and arrogance, and opens the book demanding the death penalty for nearly wiping out an entire species. Instead, he’s sentenced to Sector General.

I think this is the first book where we’ve seen a serious mistake made—we’ve come close before, but out of well-intentioned inabilities to make Conway-sized deductive leaps. And much more than any prior book, this is about the internal journey of a character: Lioren is suffering under a crushing weight of guilt, and coming to terms with his actions takes a considerable amount of self-reflection and emotional growth. In another first for Sector General, this is also a very spiritual book (presented in a way that I, thoroughly secular creature though I am, did not find offensive). And there’s also a good medical puzzle to keep the suspense up.

Anyone who likes fabulous flights of imagination, thoroughly grounded in a respect for humanity in the broadest sense of the word, should really read the Sector General series. They are comfort books par excellence and I am greatly pleased to have finally read all of them.

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