A Quest of Heroes

I have just read the sixty-fourth virtual page of the 400+ virtual pages of the first volume of a series of ten (and counting!). I have just met the Sword of Destiny. I have some predictions.

First there’s Thor. No, not the Norse God of Thunder, but a farm boy less strapping (and less loved) than his brothers. Let’s give the author credit for not even trying to hide the fact that Thor is the Chosen One. Argon the kick-ass druid told us so, in that wizard-not-revealing-things-that-will-break-the-plot kind of way, before vanishing. Thor seems like a good kid.

Interesting wrinkle: When Thor first discovers his power, it’s after praying (at a time of distress) to Big-G God. Not very druid-like; it remains to be seen if that’s going to be a theme or if that was just the writer accidentally slipping monotheism into the text.

And yes, the Top Druid in this story is named after an element. I’m waiting for Xenon to show up and challenge him. But while that remains unknown, there are many certainties.

Thor is a loyal subject of Good King. The lands of Good King have known peace for a long time; geographically, the kingdom is well-protected. Good King rules half of a circle of territory surrounded by a circular valley and a magical barrier, which keeps the unwashed barbarians without at bay. Inside, Good King has only one rival: Bad King. In the story they have different names (Scottish ones, actually).

I’ve read to the point in the story where the King is regarding the Sword of Destiny, which is almost literally the sword in the stone of Arthurian legend. Good King hoped to be the guy to lift it from the spikes or whatever-the-hell is restraining it. No dice.

So here’s what’s happening right now: Good King’s elder daughter is getting married to Bad King’s son. It’s happening in the capital city of Good Kingdom. Lots of Bad King’s people will be in Good City. Barbarians seem to be gathering for an attack outside the magical barrier. Somewhere far away, Thor has decided to say “Fuck you, dad! I’m going to force the army to take me!”

So, the predictions: Treachery! Bad King uses the happy occasion to overwhelm Good City! Somehow, his Evil Druid (Xenon?) finds the magical switch that turns off the barrier that protects both their kingdoms from the hordes outside. Our kid Thor arrives to find the city in turmoil. Events, fortitude, and whatnot bring Thor to the palace.

Good King will be killed. He will die with honor.

Remember when I said Good King’s elder daughter is getting married? That implies a younger one. There has been no hint of her in the narrative so far, but it’s a slam dunk that Thor will be in the palace, assholes will be sniffing around her ankles, and the Sword of Destiny will come to hand. And shit will go down. A princess will be impressed.

All of which has me ready to be a little disappointed. You see, Thor’s brothers are all about living by the sword, while Thor has developed a near-supernatural skill with the sling. I’m going to be a little sad when Thor surpasses his brothers by being better at the sword rather than rendering the sword obsolete.

I might hope that the writer could surprise me, but a key formative moment has already been lost. Thor doesn’t like killing things. He’s a gentle soul. When a terrible creature has one of Thor’s sheep in its jaws, Thor’s first bullet is to kill the sheep, to end her suffering.

So then it’s ON between Thor and this huge-ass killing machine. Thor’s taking a right beating until he prays to big-G God and finds the power he needs to survive. This was a pivotal moment for me, as a reader. “How much do you value life?” I asked through the text. Thor killed the thing. Given the time and context, an obvious decision. Not even a decision, really, just the way things are done. Mankind asserting its dominance over the world.

But in that context, how powerful would it have been if Thor had let the predator go free?

It’s not fair, really, to ask those questions of someone else’s work. It’s just that Thor has been presented as a champion of life, and when faced with the ultimate predator he has to accept that most lives feed on others.

____

Time has passed, pages have turned, and while structurally things are moving in the inescapable grooves reserved for fantasies like this, grooves that have been gouged in the rocky soil of storydom over the years, etched in the very bedrock by the passage of countless interchangeable plots, many of my predictions above proved, while not wrong, to be impatient. Bad King and Outer Hordes are definitely going to attack. Sword of Desitny will end up in Thor’s hand. Younger princess (who has been chosen to rule the land when Good King dies) has arrived and is definitely sweet on Thor.

The story reads like a novel aimed at middle-school kids; the sentence structure is very basic and the vocabulary is limited. More than that, the plot seems more geared toward gratification than conflict. Thor’s trajectory has been steadily upward, and he’s started to collect plot tokens.

Ojects appear out of nowhere when needed and disappear again when inconvenient. One of Thor’s mystical plot-token pets, a white leopard cub, has only been fed a mouthful of beer as far as I can tell, despite Thor worrying about caring for the beast.

Then there’s the second sun, which doesn’t seem to have a name, and doesn’t affect the world much at all. It may be some sort of variable star, because plenty of times, the day is delimited by the position of ‘the sun’. Singular. Note to the writer: if you’re going to add a romantic detail like two suns, you need to work it. For instance, some days Big Sun (man sun?) will rise before Little Sun (woman?). Other times, it will be the other way around. In a world bound by prophesy and destiny, you can get a lot of mileage out of stuff like that.

Despite those warts, I’ve been enjoying the read, up until last night. What can I say? Sometimes I like an easy read geared toward gratification. But last night…

This is going to be a spoiler, if such a thing can possibly happen when discussing a story like this.

… last night as I read, Thor learned that Good King was going to be poisoned. Thor must warn GK! He goes to the castle, but Good King is out. The warning will have to wait.

Not long after that, Thor is talking to Good King’s youngest son. Thor doesn’t mention his fears to someone particularly well-suited to help prevent the catastrophe. Then Thor talks to another guy who could help, but doesn’t bring it up. Instead, Thor volunteers to spend the entire fucking day riding far from the castle – so far he might not get back in time to deliver his warning.

Oh, and he easily could have passed word to Good King’s Eldest Son somewhere along the way.

In exchange for this horrible plot contrivance, we do get a very good treatise on the nature of chivalry and heroism. Rough paraphrase: “Don’t work to be better than the other guy, work to be a better person than you are now.” I liked that part. The titular Quest, it turns out, is more internal — the quest to always be better than you were yesterday. That, kids, is how you turn the theme of your story.

But then I thought about the context. While Thor is hearing this lecture, he’s being incredibly derelict. When he learned the King was not in the castle, did Thor go and try to find him? Nope. Sure, ditching his training might have got him kicked out of the army, but that’s exactly the kind of sacrifice he should be willing to make.

I’d actually talked myself into paying for the second installment of this escapist fluff, but now I’m not so sure. It’s the convenient forgetting-of-things that’s undermining my pleasure. The last one, forgetting that Good King is in deadly peril and that Thor’s every act should be to thwart the plot, is the killer.

All Timelines Lead to Rome

Dale Cozort is an interesting guy. He’s a hard-working writer, and he’s a friend of mine. Among the Kansas Bunch, Dale’s the guy who gets things done.

At summer camp in Kansas this year, during the book signing event, I picked up Dale’s latest work and gave it to him to sign. We chatted a bit and he hesitated over the page, and wrote his name. No personal message, no ready quip. (In contrast, Kevin Anderson wrote “faster than light!” in my copy of Tau Ceti, a generic message in what turned out to be a generic story.) Dale hesitated and just wrote his name in functional cursive. It made me laugh. That’s Dale.

I am biased in favor of Mr. Cozort, but I will never say I liked something I didn’t, just because the writer is my pal. If I didn’t like it, I’d just say nothing. I liked All Timelines Lead to Rome.

I’ve seen early drafts of some of his other stories and they’re problematic, as are the early drafts of every story. Seeing those drafts colors my expectations, even as people who read my drafts form their own conclusions. But Dale’s a hard-working writer, and an intelligent man, and he’s not afraid of a rewrite. Even if he doesn’t agree with a particular criticism, he will use his defense of it to improve the story. What comes out in the end is a solid tale.

Dale loves to mash cultures together. I think he spends his idle time just pondering things like “what would a pre-columbian Apache think of Beethoven?” It’s what Dale does. (My own thought: what would Beethoven do with electric guitars?) This time, we have discovered that with an adequate application of energy, we can cross to an alternate Earth where the Romans are still in control after all this time. But two thousand years later, they still haven’t sailed across the Atlantic. Technological advancement has stopped over in Europe. In America, the Indians are entering the bronze age.

The reason the Romans have maintained their power yet have ceased any technological advancement is a fascinating one. Without the intervention of our timeline, I imagine Indians in Pennsylvania learning steel and kicking Europe’s ass.

There’s nothing like that in the book, but it’s a credit to Dale’s idea that one is tempted to spin new what-ifs against the original conceit. It’s fun that way.

And while Dale loves to mash cultures together, his main guy in this story is devoted to keeping them apart. He’s on a team to limit the harm done to both worlds by free interaction. An impossible job. Around him are people drooling over the oil fields in alternate Texas, coveting the real estate in the alternate Montana, and smuggling sweet (and potentially plague-bearing) artifacts from alternate Rome.

Perhaps the best idea in the story is the realization that what has caused alternate Rome to stagnate is contageous (in a social sense of the word, not a biological one). Once alternate Rome’s secret comes over to our world, technology might stagnate here, too. There are some really tricky ethical questions that come along for the ride. There’s a government cover-up, and at first I thought it was silly, and not a strength of the story. Even the current US Government wouldn’t blindly try to cover up something like this, right? Oh, wait, I take that back.

For all the good ideas, there are some rough edges to the book. Some gripes, intentionally left vague:

I just don’t buy the spunky cop/street gang thing. It just doesn’t make sense; gangs aren’t that patient. Too big an investment with no specific reward. The stretch would be easier to take if resulting events weren’t so central to the plot. And then there’s the personal history between two of the other characters that seems, well, convenient. And the resource-endowed member of that pair would probably have played things differently. Then there is a decision by the good guys that puts our hero in the right place, but it doesn’t hold up well under the spotlight, protect-both-worlds-wise.

None of those things stopped me from reading the story, and enjoying it. Sometimes you just have to turn off the damn spotlight.

To be honest, I didn’t expect to like this story as much as I did. (Sorry, Dale.) You see enough early versions by a writer and it colors your perception. But as I mentioned before Dale’s a hard worker, and we all start with crappy drafts. Best thing: the real strength of this tale is not any of the stuff I’ve mentioned so far. It’s the people. While I must be careful not to spoil things, not everyone is who they seem to be. Loyalty is the highest virtue and it shows up in surprising places. The crisis that foments the action comes from someone acting on the highest ideals.

And there are people with serious personal issues whom you like anyway. As a reader I found some of their bruises tougher to buy than others, but none of the main people is entirely whole. Everyone’s a little bit broken, and that makes a good story.

Generally I’m not hesitant to throw out spoilers, but this time I’m being coy, because I’d like you to read the story. I’m a little worried I’m overselling it; it’s not perfect, but I had a genuine good time reading this. Maybe you will too.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Judith Leiber Nabila Crocodile Exotic Shoulder Bag), I get a kickback.

Would I Understand The Inferno?

I’ve been catching up on classics, and tonight while pursuing a different topic I looked up something Dante said in his famous Inferno. Noodling around the work I started thinking that maybe I should read that thing. It has informed a lot of pop culture; I’d guess more than anything else of that age.

But would I get it? I’ve read that Dante names names. Scandal ensued. Or not, I just hear things. But I won’t know any of those names. I really don’t know much at all about the context surrounding the work, and my understanding is that The Inferno is almost as context-sensitive as satire. Hell, maybe it is satire.

Maybe even if I don’t get it, I’ll be transported by the (translation of) the language. Maybe. But I get the feeling that’s not why people read Dante. If anyone actually does anymore.

Yet this thing has been so influential that I have to wonder. It was on a shelf in my house growing up, since before I can remember (or do I vaguely remember Dad reverently shelving the library of great works for the first time?). But has anyone out there read The Inferno? Or tried to read it and run away screaming? I’d really like to hear what you thought.

Inhuman

Lately I’ve started paying for books again. While there are plenty or offerings for free at Amazon and iBookstore and whatnot, the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ seems to apply. There’s a reason the world has editors.

Inhuman, by Danielle Q. Lee, is an example of a good idea fumbled by a writer who could really benefit from the attention of an editor, or at least a good proof reader.

Our main character is a student whom we already know was born in unusual circumstances. She was raised in a traditional Hopi village (cool!) and is now off on the east coast attending university. To raise money for tuition, she volunteers as a gunea pig in a strangely-unfocussed medical study. Then her life suddenly gets weird.

The thing is, you see, our new friend Cassia isn’t human — much to her surprise. Results from a blood test show that her DNA is completely different — a triple helix rather than double (which makes it not DNA at all, actually), and a different number of chromosomes. This catches the eye of a super-secret super-evil government agency whose mandate is to investigate weird shit. And kill it, no matter how useful it might be.

Somehow, despite having absolutely different genetic material, Cassia is able to interbreed with humans. For some reason, the Evil Agency knows this. For some reason, they are more interested in the offspring of an alien than the alien herself. For some reason…

Yeah, there’s a lot of that.

Then there’s the boyfriend problem. She meets a guy, they hit if off, then (*gasp!*) it turns out he’s one of the bad guys! Only… not really?!? He’s doing evil things against his will.

There is an element to the ending that I really appreciated, however, the sort of thing that never happens in stories like these. So bonus points for the writer on that account. Still and all, this novel effectively ended my quest for free material worth reading. It was free, and not worth the price.

The Island (Fallen Earth)

I downloaded two books out of the iBookstore at the same time, both free. One had a dragon on the cover, the other a biohazard symbol. I decided to start with the one that had the dragon. I generally prefer fantasy to thriller, though I enjoy both.

I hadn’t got very far when I scratched my head and figured that I must have fired up the biohazard story first. I read about an outbreak of La Fiebre in Mexico, the failed attempts of the governments to contain the deadly contagion (measures that were incredibly half-assed, but that’s a quibble), and the pending collapse of Civilization As We Know It. It was interesting, and the main character was interesting.

But first we’re given a whole crapload of backstory about our guy William — all to answer the question that must come later, “how did this guy become so damn capable?” But William is all right. The world is about to die, and he has no illusions that he is going to make it through. He decides to take control of the one thing left to him: where he will die when the fever catches him. He chooses to take the boat his father restored and go to an island along the coast of North Carolina, scene of one of his happiest weeks ever.

I like the logic of that. I like William’s melancholy-but-not-crippled vibe. I like his intelligence. No need to make him selectively stupid to make the plot work.

Which brings me to my biggest beef with this story, and it’s a big one. The plot. At the end of the book, I read some notes by the writer. He said he wanted to write fantasy, but built on a rock of reality. This book was the rock. Which is another way of saying I got all the way to the end, and the story hadn’t started yet. We’ve had some events, a few Important Sailing Facts, more than enough foreshadowing, and we’ve got a bad guy — but the conflict so far is just two guys who don’t like each other. Neither has an actual goal.

And while our first-person narrator is not at all shy about foreshadowing the ravages of the disease and saying that what comes next is much worse, he is annoyingly coy about what that is, especially considering a presumed audience in a first-person narrative that has lived through it all.

There is exactly one sentence in this novel that hints that it’s the introduction of a fantasy story. It comes right at the end of this volume, and leads me to suspect that the actual story may be about to begin.

So, what to say? I liked the writing from a technical standpoint. A good flow, capturing the voice of the main guy. I liked William. I liked the setting. But I didn’t like The Island. Too many pages burned setting the stage, not enough of the actual drama.

Still, I’m tempted to pay for book two. The writing is solid enough that it might be enjoyable when the story actually gets under way.

Darwin’s Radio

Greg Bear has written before about the end of the human race. One thing he does well is making the end of mankind as we know it not such a bad thing. He’s also better at science than many Science Fiction writers out there.

Darwin’s Radio is a pretty good story with some really interesting science. You see, our DNA is filled with junk. It’s possible that some of that junk came from viruses that made themselves a permanent home in our genome. Now they’re just camped there, never activated, hitchhiking in the backwaters of our chromosomes. Mission accomplished, as far as preserving that pattern goes.

So what if some trigger kicked one of these garbage genes into production? And what if the resultant virus could hop from person to person and activate that gene in the new host’s cells? The virus could actually move DNA from one person to another.

Finally, what if that new virus activated a sequence of events that fundamentally changed our offspring? Perhaps it has happened in the past; evolution seems to be more a series of little jumps (and occasionally a big jump) rather than a continuous progression.

In this story, the time is roughly now. Biology, the ascendant science, is starting to produce astonishing results. And just as we start to understand the human genome, some crazy shit starts going down. DNA is moving laterally — being exchanged between people — and that’s never happened before. Bacteria share DNA willy-nilly, but they don’t keep their genetic material bundled up and cataloged they way more complex organisms do.

Children are coming out broken. And when they’re not broken, they’re weird. What would you do, if your job was to protect the people of your society? What if, as time passed, you realized that you were working to protect not just your society but humanity as we know it? Would you slaughter an entire village to contain the epidemic?

Maybe you wouldn’t, but you can bet your boots that there are plenty who would. And if saving the human race isn’t justification for a few atrocities, I don’t know what is. And the effects of the virus are really, really bad. Lots and lots of dead babies. People are doing the math and there might be a time when there are no children born alive at all.

Then there’s the guy who has evidence that all this has happened before, to the Neanderthals.

Despite all the science flying around, the root of the drama is political. How does a civilized, law-respecting society face a horrific health crisis that just keeps getting worse and worse? What effect can the ambitions of a few key people have on a global calamity?

Mr. Bear went out of his way to create a peripheral precondition for the virus to take effect: The parents have to be in love. Sex without love produces normal human babies. This makes love a biological condition, and I’m all right with that. Presumably the virus is designed to work in the cases where the new child has the best chance at success. Makes sense, but biology is rarely self-limiting like that. Even if the chance of success is zero, biology will give it a try.

Parents are also altered, and the disfigurement they suffer becomes a social stigma. They carry the virus.

There are some really good scenes in this story. The scene that first springs to mind is when one of our favorite characters is in a crowd. There is a surge, a change of atmosphere, and the peaceful gathering crosses a threshold and becomes a mob. It’s a moment impossible to define but obvious when you see it.

That said, there are also some events and one element of the science that I just couldn’t buy. That wasn’t enough to stop me from staying up later than I should to read a few extra pages each night.

The story ends with a lot of questions, but enough is known to allow the enthusiastic reader to set down the book and imagine a wide range of scenarios, all with one inevitable outcome. Any by the end, that outcome seems like a pretty cool thing.

If you like Science Fiction with actual science in it, you will likely enjoy this book.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Millage Flying Tourbillon (3826) Collection), I get a kickback.

The Phoenix Conspiracy

“You were up late last night,” the light of my life said on Sunday.

“Really?” I said around a yawn. I had been reading, you see, and kind of lost track of time. I’d got caught up in a space opera called The Phoenix Conspiracy, and I wanted to see how it played out.

Space Opera, for the uninitiated, is what you get when you put Horatio Hornblower into space (where he goes by the alias James T. Kirk). They are pulp romance novels wrapped with that old-west feel that Out There it doesn’t matter where you come from; if you kick enough ass you will rise to the top.

The knock against space opera (he says like there’s only one) is that usually the conflict is between the hero and some totally bad guy. Black and white. Why is the bad guy doing all those evil things? Because he’s evil! To roughly quote a member of the Kansas Bunch: Why would he destroy the world? It’s where he keeps all his stuff!

I am happy to report that, despite other warts, the primary driver of conflict in The Phoenix Conspiracy by Richard Sanders was between two people on the same side who have a very different take on events. The hero, Calvin, is commander of a super-high-tech spy ship. He’s not a disciplinarian, rather he uses his personal relationships with his crew to get the most out of them. He has had some notable successes. Then he gets a new Executive Officer, a Totally Hot woman who technically outranks him. She’s from the regular navy, and she’s totally smokin’ hot. In management style, Summers is the polar opposite of Calvin. And hot.

They probably could have worked through the style differences, with time, but there is no time and Calvin almost instantly is compelled to keep secrets from her. Her last commander lied to her, almost implicating her in treason, and she’s not going down that road again. (Her former commander did notice, however, that she was very attractive.)

Have you gotten tired of hearing how hot Summers is? Yeah, I did too, during the third lengthy description of her, which came somewhere around chapter two. She’s also good at chess and is an excellent tactician, and knows how to run a tight ship. Did I mention she’s hot? ‘Cause dude, she’s really hot.

Another thing I liked about this book: None of the classic bad-guy mistakes. No “Leave this one for me.” No “Since you cannot escape I’ll tell you my whole plan.” No “I want this to be poetic.” The conflict escalates, Calvin’s weaknesses are exploited (a hero with weaknesses!), stakes rise. No one makes The Blunder that lets the other succeed. At the end of the conflict between the two, the stakes are very high indeed, though how the stakes are perceived by the two could not be more different. They both do things they’re going to have to live with later.

Meanwhile, of course, there’s a threat against the Empire, and both Navy and Intelligence Wing are likely infiltrated. Enemies are deep inside human space. And so forth. It’s satisfyingly complex. The story is set in the happy FTL≠TT (Faster-than-light ≠ time travel) alternate physics that we all love, and there’s just enough talk of ‘depth into alterdspace’ and ‘eighty percent potential’ to make it sound like they know exactly how things work, even if we don’t.

So, as space opera goes, this is a pretty good example. There are some things that bugged the heck out of me, however. ‘Port’ and ‘starboard’ in space. Multi-Terabyte thumb drives but no mobile phones. Being able to dock in an Intelligence Wing ship and somehow walk down the jetway (yes, jetway) and having no one suspect you’re in Intelligence Wing. For all the windows in these space ships, you’d think there’d be one that could allow the people on the space station to look at the boat that just docked.

There were multiple cases of computer hacking, some silly, one realistic. They got a dumbass to type his password for them. That’s how real hackers work.

And then there’s on-board romance. It seems to be par for the course in this military, to the point where it’s not even considered whether a relationship might affect performance (even when it demonstrably did). Sure, if your whole life is in the military, you’re going to find your life-partner there, too. And that’s OK. But in this navy you don’t get the sense that they have any rules about that stuff at all. The regulations would even help increase tension in some cases. Better tell her how you feel, Shen, before she’s promoted above you.

But that gets to my root complaint. Despite the relaxed command style of Calvin, there were several characters here who I just couldn’t picture in a uniform at all. Even a lenient commander will have come up through the ranks and will have been given a dressing-down over trifling details. If he doesn’t take those to heart, he’s not going to find himself in command. Here we have naval officers (well, Intelligence Wing officers — the connection is ambiguous) who are slobs.

You could argue that they are there for their intelligence and their ability to analyze data and reach surprising conclusions. You could argue that this is where the navy puts bright kids who don’t fit the mold. I’ll follow you down that road. It would have taken only one sentence somewhere in the early chapters to establish that. It would have made it all the more perplexing that Summers was put on this boat.

Which reminds me. The Nighthawk has special powers even the Navy doesn’t know about. How the heck does Summers end up there? I mean, sure, she has a ‘spectacular figure’, but she’s also navy. How does Intel Wing agree to that?

But slack must be cut here. It’s a story that happily embraces its genre, one I like, and it does a pretty good job of it. It shines just where most pulp fiction fails — it makes the conflict grounded, human, and sympathetic on both sides. You know Calvin has to prevail, but you don’t want Summers to get hurt when he does. Honestly, not too many worries on that score, but the fact I cared tells you what you need to know. That and the book-readin-machine glowing well into the wee hours of the night. If you like the genre, I heartily encourage you to give this one a try.

Note: Normally down here I mention that if you buy the book I reviewed by using the link in this episode I get a kickback. It’s part of my journalistic integrity (snerk). This time, however, you couldn’t pay for the book if you wanted to (as far as I can tell). It’s free. So maybe you should consider this Classic Flame 26MM8404E451 Captiva Electric Fireplace and Media Console With Included Glowing Ember Bed Realistic Resin Logs, which costs only… wait for it… $1.15 billion. With a ‘b’.

Glamour

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a terrible future. Technology has been rolled back centuries; the ability to make men’s shirts has been completely lost. Mankind is on the ropes, reduced to a few scattered enclaves of hungry people, cowering behind their walls while demons roam without. It is a world of stressed jeans and tattoos, school uniforms modified by the students without comment from the elders, and bare male chests. It is a world of madness.

[Apparently my Fantasy Novelists’ Exam section is broken. I’ll get right on that.]

Perhaps I am not the target demographic for this particular novel. I’m going to point out some ridiculous aspects of the story, but keep in mind as you read this that I read it to the end and was satisfied. There were some descriptions that were particularly well done, little slices of prose that I admired as a fellow craftsman.

Before I address the story directly, I want to tell you the full title of the book I downloaded. In the iBookstore (iBook Store?) the title is Glamour (Rae Wilder #1). First, points for honesty. This is the first of a series. Now, If you’ve read any of my other commentaries about fantasy series, you know I hate when Book One is really the first few hundred pages of a longer story that just didn’t fit between the covers (or, more likely, needed editing). I am happy to report that this book contains exactly one story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. Ms. Fletcher has another series, I have learned, that includes titles ending with “Book One, Volume One” and “Book One, Volume Two.”

Note to Penelope Fletcher, if you are reading this: I am going to say some less-than-positive things about Glamour in the coming paragraphs, but I will help fund your world tour to ring fantasy author’s doorbells, smack whoever answers the door and explain what a “novel” is, what a “book” is, and what a “story” is. I think you could do a good job of it.

So let’s get to it. Meet Rae, kick-ass teenager. And selectively stupid. She’s training at the Temple, to one day become a guardian of what’s left of humanity. Her most immediate goal, however, is to get by without attracting too much attention. She is a solitary creature. She just wants to be.

She likes to run through the forest (in her stressed blue jeans; apparently the technology of ‘sweats’ has also been lost). She particularly likes running in the forest Outside — the forest beyond the Wall that protects the humans from the wacky shit out there. The Wall is a magic-electric fence that raises alarms when breached. It turns out Rae can pass through it undetected. This is the first example of selective stupidity — she is thankful enough to be able to get out into the forest that she doesn’t question how she came by the ability.

There are two big flaws in this book, and selective stupidity is the first. Ms. Fletcher tries to anticipate my reaction to Rae’s lapses of intelligence, having her say things like “I knew the answer was right there in front of me, but…” Bzzzt. What does this nonsense accomplish? The writer is trying to time a big reveal, but the moment is ruined anyway, because even if Rae hasn’t figured out what’s going on, we have. When Rae finally figures it out, all the reader has left to say is, “no shit, Sherlock.”

Characters we’re supposed to like should not be stupid (even if it’s selective). If that means the big reveal comes sooner, well, twist it, or make the heavy thinking about the consequences of the reveal. That dude’s a demon? But he’s been here for weeks! Is someone in the Temple helping him? I suspect that subsequent books may reveal that to be the case. Once again, the protagonist is being dumbed down to protect later surprises.

We see here a fundamental limit of a first-person story. There’s a reason Sherlock has his Watson; the clever one can keep secrets from the narrator, and therefore from the reader. Holmes suspects a conspiracy and we readers know nothing. Rae must be selectively stupid, because we’re inside her head. If you want your story to be a series of surprises, reconsider first person narrative.

Or maybe surprises aren’t the driver of your story. Maybe you’re writing a story about a survival-oriented girl suddenly having to deal with a lot of shit. Maybe you don’t need to be coy in a story like that.

The overwhelming desire to surprise readers also leads to the second sin of this book: “I’ll tell you later.” Simple nuggets of information that would have helped Rae are withheld on the flimsiest of excuses. “You’re not ready.” “There’s no time.” At one point, Good-Guy-Demon must leave Rae in the company of Bad-Guy-Demon. “Don’t give him anything,” GGD says in parting. Now, expending perhaps two extra seconds, he could have said, “He wants your amulet. He will promise anything to get it, but he can’t take it without your permission.” Alas, it seems there wasn’t time for details like that. (Later, she takes someone else’s amulet without permission. Huh.)

One last beef and I promise I’ll have some very nice things to say. Time and blocking. They’re a mess. The classroom scene has people teleporting about the room (for an essentially military order, the clerics sure are lax), and the afternoon simply failed to happen, while twilight stretched for eternity. The setting of the sun started with a really interesting ticking clock (vampire in the wardrobe – hate when that happens), but just when the timer’s about to expire Rae and pals take off to somewhere more important.

So, the story is flawed. Yet several times I had the choice between Glamour and another book I’m halfway through. I’m enjoying the other book, quite a lot. Yet, I kept picking up this one. Thing is, when Rae wasn’t being stupid, I liked her. And I really liked the world she was operating in. Occasional sentences made me jealous I hadn’t written them. It’s difficult to quantify, but the pace was very good.

When we find ourselves at the ending and Rae is completely helpless to stop a horror that threatens all she has ever dared love, I was there with her. She became human at that moment. The payoff, well done, almost tangential to the action.

There were two very important qualities to the ending that I liked. The thing that almost always happens didn’t (not until after the terrible loss, anyway), and good guys do bad things out of loyalty. That, I hope, is the emerging theme of the series. There were also two very important qualities to the ending I didn’t like. A dude disappeared and allowed his pals to be slaughtered, when all evidence to that point had him in total control. Meanwhile, an entirely new occult tradition came out of nowhere. Blam!

Rae is in the middle of a gigantic struggle, loyal only to her beliefs, to her own sense of rightness. She’s going to take that to the grave, if it comes to that. Hell yeah, Rae!

I haven’t talked much about the romance angle of this story. It is a big part of the narrative. In the space of twenty-four hours Rae goes from lone wolf to loving two guys, attached to each by powerful mystical bonds. The two guys don’t get along. Yep, our spunky fantasy heroine has two awesome suitors, and she can’t decide. There are some complications that make the (let’s face it) obligatory situation more interesting, but it still comes down to Team Edward and Team… um… other guy. Like I said above, I may not be the target demographic for this story.

But I am the target audience for any well-told tale. I can roll my eyes at the required parts (two hot boyfriends, no shirts) and still have fun if the story is compelling. This was a good tale, but not particularly well-told. Yet still I read it, and still I smiled. If Ms. Fletcher puts her mind to it and develops her craft, she’s going to write something I really like.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Leica S2-P 37.5MP Camera Body with 3-Inch LCD with Sapphire LCD Cover [BODY ONLY]), I get a kickback.

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The Black Tower

I don’t go looking for historical fiction to read, but I’m starting to wonder why not. Exhibit A: The Black Tower: A Novel by Louis Bayard. France has had a bloody revolution in which they killed off much of the aristocracy. That was followed by a purge of the intellectuals who had fomented the first revolution, the rise of Napoleon and his failed attempt at empire-building, and finally an exhausted public deciding to invite the remains of royalty back to rule them.

In Paris there’s a lot of “let’s pretend the last couple of ugly decades never happened.” But questions linger. Particularly, the death of a young boy who would now be king. Documentation is sparse, and rumors abound, as they are wont to do. What if that boy, now a man, showed up again? Quite possibly, another civil war.

But here’s where the true magic of The Black Tower takes hold. Our narrator, a doctor (more or less), is sucked into the investigation of a grisly murder. He is bullied and tormented by Vidoq, an infamous policeman who is the terror of the bandits and low-lifes of Paris. And also, maybe, one of them. The actions of people trying to hide the (possibly) true king bring our earnest doctor and ruthless investigator to the very man. Much cleverness is required.

And the possible heir is… not what you might expect.

But it’s not just blind chance that sucks our unassuming doctor into the intrigue. Over the story his father looms, an accomplished physician, who was, long ago, charged with watching over a prince as he wasted away in the tower. After the prince died, Father was never the same.

Unless maybe the prince didn’t die after all. And that’s the big question. False claimants are periodically executed, along with those who backed them. Vidoq is a crafty SOB and is not going to stick his neck out (in this case not a metaphor, but the source of the metaphor) for a pretender.

Murders continue apace. Someone way up in the newly-reestabliched aristocracy does not want the prince to come to light. The doctor and the cop may not like each other, but Vidoq gradually makes the doctor an ally, rather than just his bitch. Eventually, arguably, they become friends. The sort of friends who don’t really want to see each other again.

There’s a lot of uncertainty at the end of the narrative, but it’s a satisfying sort of unknown. Our good doctor has played his role in a much larger story, but there is much that remains unseen.

I contend that all historical fiction should have a list of sources at the end. We’ve had our romp, but a short discussion of what parts of the story were based on documented fact would be awesome. How much did I learn about the French revolution from this book? I have no idea. I’ll be hitting the Interwebs to fill in the gaps, but any article I read out there may be based on this novel. The writer of this story clearly invested a lot of time in research; I’d just like to get the executive summary at the end.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Christian Dior Handbag), I get a kickback.

Executive Severance

So there’s this thing called The Twitter that all the kids are using. In terms of literary forms, it’s the shortest of the short, measured in characters, not words. It’s about the opposite of a novel. So what if you tried to write an entire novel in tweets?

Right off the bat, you’re faced with a critical decision: Does each tweet have to be interesting on its own? If not, then just tweet each sentence and ignore the fact that no one is following along. But if your medium truly is the tweet, then success is measured by followers, and that means that you will approach the story differently.

In the forward of Executive Severance by Robert K Blechman, the author discusses that briefly, and when the story gets meta (the bad guy is following the protagonist’s tweets), it is discussed more. The medium is the message, and whatnot.

Structurally, then, the story reads more like a daily comic strip than it does a traditional novel. Every third sentence or so must be a payoff. Blechman often achieves this through wordplay, which he obviously enjoys, and he transmits that pleasure successfully. With a wink toward character limits, he has contrived to give many of his characters single-letter names, and he plays with that quite a bit as well.

If you judge this story as a mystery novel, you’re likely to be disappointed. It’s not strong on narrative, but then again neither were the Pink Panther movies, which felt similar — the story is just there to hang funny episodes on. In this case, it’s a couple hundred very short funny episodes.

There were occasional tweets that I sat back and admired just for their economy. Wee tiny poems. One thing for sure, doing a story in this medium requires skill (and the willingness to drop the occasional punctuation mark).

It is a thought-provoking story, not so much for what it says, but for what it is. Which is something the story itself tells us.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a 1 CT Champagne Diamond Solitaire Pendant), I get a kickback.

The Integral Trees

I joke sometimes about the maps in the first pages of fantasy stories. When I opened The Integral Trees by Larry Niven, what I found were schematics. Niven, never one to shy away from building unusual worlds, outdid himself on this one. How can you create an atmosphere dense enough to breathe without a planet? Well, one way to do it is to create a donut of gas around a neutron star. Then, to make the region warm enough to support life, get that system captured by a nice yellow star.

So now we have a world that is an enormous volume of space, filled with tufts of plant life, spheres of water, and trees. The trees are vast, potentially hundreds of kilometers long, held by tidal forces with one end pointing “in” at the neutron star, the other “out”. The ends of the trees are swept by the winds of the “smoke ring” – the region of the dust torus dense enough to support life. The wind-swept ends of the trees make them resemble integral symbols from mathematics.

There are Earthlings living on the trees and in the floating puff-balls of jungles. They came in a ship long ago, but while the ship remembers them, it’s been a few hundred years and science is steadily being lost.

One thing I really liked: Language has drifted. Kilometers are klomters, which if you ask me is a way better word. Cursing and euphemisms have changed as well to match their new surroundings. A few good curse words can really frame a society. The people in the story would never, ever, use the phrase “integral tree”, and I don’t think Niven should have, either.

The biggest danger to our tree-dwelling humans is simply falling off. Humans are the only creatures in the system unable to propel themselves through the air. Everything else can — and I mean everything. If you drift too far out and don’t have a rope or pressurized seed pod to propel you back, well, you’re out of luck.

There are some interesting people in the story. Times are lean for the Quinn tribe, and they send out their cripples and dissidents on an “expedition” up the tree trunk looking for water and food, a transparent attempt by the leadership of the tribe to reduce the number of mouths to feed. The tree’s position has been disturbed and now it’s too far in. The tree is dying, though few of the tribe accept that.

The expedition reaches the midpoint of the trunk about the time we learn how it is the trees adjust their course. This does not go well for many of the people living on it, and our expedition finds itself clinging to an enormous piece of bark, drifting through the void and dying of thirst. They survive that adventure, of course, and more hardship follows.

This isn’t grand literature; while it touches on deeper themes it is first and foremost an adventure of life and death in a world more alien than most. If you like that stuff, do give this one a try.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a 15 ct Round Diamond Tennis Bracelet), I get a kickback. The version I chose to link to includes a sequel which I have not read.

A Princess of Mars

Some time ago I downloaded Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars through Project Gutenberg. Recently I downloaded it again into my eReader and this time I actually read it. Not long after I began to read I was sucked into the improbability vortex.

The first coincidence was external: I realized that the main character was named John Carter and there’s a special-effecta-palooza stomping its way into cinemas with that title. I was reading the material from which the movie was adapted. I knew the cinematic beast was based on stories of this ilk, but here I was holding the exact one.

The coincidences didn’t stop, but from then on they were within the story. John Carter is the luckiest SOB I’ve read about in a long time.

“But Jer,” you say, “it’s an adventure story. It’s pulp. Some slack is due.”

Yep indeed, the words I put into your mouth are dead on. Some slack is due. Carter is a lucky SOB all right, but it is his skill and derring-do that make the most of that good fortune. On Earth Carter is a pretty impressive specimen; in the lower gravity of Mars he kicks some pretty phenomenal ass.

It is not just physical prowess that sets him apart, however. While living in a society of heartless warriors, his horses (um… thoats) are far more faithful, because he uses the carrot as well as the stick. When the pragmatic Green Martians see that sometimes a gentle hand gets results, subtle societal changes begin.

As promised in the title, there’s a Princess, the undisputed Most Beautiful Woman on the Planet, and of course she’s captured by (what a coincidence!) Carter’s Green Martian sort-of-captors. You might not be surprised to hear that Carter and the Princess hit it off pretty well, despite some problems caused by culture clash.

Let’s reflect for a moment on some of the things Burroughs did well. There are two intelligent races on Mars, competing for dwindling resources. Death by old age is exceedingly rare, especially among the Green Martians. They spend a lot of time killing each other. I had no trouble at all getting the feel of this race, of the strengths and weaknesses of the society, and how their long history had shaped them. (By a remarkable coincidence, the two Green Martians closet to Carter were throwbacks to a gentler age. By an even larger coincidence the two were related.)

For all the Princess was Unimaginably Beautiful and in need of frequent rescue, she held her own. She did have an affliction I will call diminishing adjectivitis – almost every adjective applied to her minimized her, emphasizing her slightness, her delicacy. Yet she made the decision to sacrifice herself to save her people. That the Manly Men of the story managed to free her and save her people (and unite traditional foes, realigning politics on Mars from “Red vs. Green” to “Cool vs. Asshole”) does not take away from her sacrifice. Were the story written these days, more might have been made of her self-sacrifice, but let’s face it. This story was written for the same demographic that would be sneaking looks at their fathers’ Playboys a few decades hence.

Then there was The Coincidence That Went Too Far. I felt the strain when Carter ran into an old pal in enemy territory. Credulity snapped when Carter’s airship crashed right next to his old Green Chum in the heat of a savage battle, just in time to save the guy and get leverage to assemble an army to go save the princess.

A nation is slaughtered, but their king was a jerk, so that’s OK. Don’t go starting wars if you’re not ready to pay the price. This came out during The Great War.

So, in the shambles of the One Coincidence to Rule Them All, the story winds to a close on a wistful note. It’s a tight read, easy-breezy (though the language is filled with pomp), and it keeps on moving. I wonder, if the math of publishing had been different and Burroughs felt comfortable pushing to 300 pages, if he would have needed those coincidences to get the players into position. I also wonder if the story would have been any better without the Hand of Fate smacking things around so blatantly. After all, this way we get to the next action scene that much faster.

It’s kind of funny – In the end, four-armed men who own guns accurate for miles fighting with swords on the moss-covered beds of the ancient oceans of Mars didn’t bother me at all (well… not much). It was a chance meeting in a city square that pushed me to the breaking point.

I haven’t even alluded to the Greatest Coincidence Of Them All. The Great Mambo Coincidence that makes mere luck rock back on its heels and suck its thumb. A coincidence so stupendous that it can only save all life on an entire planet. It’s actually not that bothersome here since it’s not central to the action. It does put Carter back on Earth, though.

You know what, though? I’m pretty sure John Carter goes back to Mars. Maybe his kid has hatched (best not to think too hard about biology here). I’m equally confident that I’ll read more of these stories. I expect to roll my eyes at some mind-abusing good fortune on the part of our protagonist. But I’ll still have fun, and in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback. I chose to link to this version for the awesome cover, but you should know that if you have an electronic reading device, you can download the novel for free.

The Hunger Games vs. Treasure Island

Recently I’ve read two adventure stories which feature young protagonists thrown into desperate, life-and-death situations. I enjoyed both of them more than a little bit, and in both cases stayed up too late at night to see what happened next.

I finished Treasure Island last night, close on the heels of The Hunger Games and I’ve been contemplating the two stories, and the progress of storytelling in general.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two is the complete absence of female characters in the older story. Of course, most of the adventure takes place on a ship, with pirates, and any attempt to insert a female character would have been completely artificial. I don’t think I need to go into detail. Perfectly natural, however, to have an early-teen boy along. That’s how things worked back then.

More interesting than the differences are the similarities. I’ve commented in the past on the obvious-when-you-read-it schism that marks the beginning of “modern literature”. After I set down Treasure Island I realized that adventure stories were already modern, long before literature caught up. But for some language differences, TI: Silver’s Deceit might have been written last year. Bring a mysterious man into an inn, make him ornery, throw a band of assassins at him, get some people killed, and you’re off the the races, story-wise.

Funny how many names I recognized. Long John Silver. Ben Gunn. The parrot that said “Pieces of Eight!”

One thing that Treasure Island did particularly well was to create a compelling bad guy. Long John Silver is crafty, conniving, charismatic, and a consummate liar. The crusty old salt who appeared at the beginning to kick the story off was more afraid of Silver than any other man. Long John was a planner, a saver; while his shipmates of previous escapades had squandered their loot, he had invested carefully. If all the pirates were as smart as he was, this outing would have been no contest. The story does not rely on Classic Bad-Guy Mistakes (which weren’t even classic back then), but rather John Silver has to adapt his plan to appease his impatient cohorts. Totally buyable.

Even with that, the good guys need plenty of luck to win the day. Our narrator, young Jim Hawkins, is the vessel of much of that good fortune. He gets lucky, there’s no doubt about that, but even my twitchy preposterometer was not terribly agitated. The pirates destroyed themselves; Jim was just in the right place to take advantage of it.

It was a lot of fun to read.

Moving ahead a couple of centuries, we have The Hunger Games. In this story we have a post-apocalyptic gladiator contest, fought by children. This is no Road Warrior world, however; there is still a central authority and in the capital at least, technology has not been lost.

The Bad Guy in the story is much more vague than in Treasure Island. Authority, you could call it. The contest is an annual exercise of power the capital inflicts on the outlying districts. The primary tool the rulers use to control the populace is hunger. There’s simply not enough to eat. Our heroine is a poacher, skilled in slipping outside the confines of her district and bringing back food. The local authorities are happy to look the other way.

I had a little problem with the districts set up in this story. Our heroine hails from District Twelve, which numbers some eight thousand souls. In all of North America there are twelve districts, plus the capital. Even with the almost-magic technology possessed by the capital, I can’t see them controlling the population of an entire continent when there is so much out there. If there was uninhabitable wasteland beyond the fences of the districts it might make sense, but there’s a whole damn continent teeming with dangerous-but-edible creatures. I invoke thermodynamics: there’s just too much pent-up need for the plenty of the open continent. That much pressure, you’re going to leak.

Maybe in future episodes we’ll learn about human enclaves outside the districts, and why they haven’t become so populous that they can simply overwhelm the capital. Maybe I’ll even buy it. But the burden of proof is on the writer’s shoulders.

She might pull it off. She’s done a good job so far pulling me in. It’s a really tricky thing, introducing us to a world the characters already know, and it is done pretty well here. The narrator can’t stop to fill us in on how society works; it’s told in first person to a presumed audience who already knows the score. However, there were times I felt like the author was teasing.

The core question of The Hunger Games: What do you do when you are compelled to kill someone you really like, and who likes you even more? The answer to that is the payoff of the story. From a story perspective the big win in Hunger Games is the culture that surrounds the brutal competition – the marketing of the contestants, and the gambling. Outside forces can influence the game, at terrific cost. We get a good feel for this even though our perspective is limited to a single contestant.

Treasure Island doesn’t really have a core question. Doesn’t really need one. It has a situation and some great characters, and it plays from there.

In Games there are also hints that the actions of our single contestant might have an effect on the world outside the arena. There is a piece of bread that is an indicator of something greater. And that’s pretty good writing right there. The sort of writing that is the luxury of the series writer.

A series, done right, provides a sequential set of individually satisfying stories that, taken together, become something much more. Based on the first installment, Hunger Games almost hit that, but at the end devoted an extra chapter or two to setting up not the next story but the spunky-herione-must-have-two-viable-suitors-she-can’t-choose-between crap. Cheese Louise. I was totally along for the ride until I got that open declaration that this was going to devolve into Twilight.

I’ll say this for Games: There were a couple of points where it punched me square in the gut. Good people die in Treasure Island, die hard and die well, but it affected me more in the modern adventure. I have a theory that I won’t expand upon here that our perspective on death has changed dramatically in the last hundred years (penicillin might be the breakpoint), and so we write about death differently. Nobody says “it’s a good day to die” and really means it anymore.

Another difference between modern and older adventure stories for your adults: in more recent stories the young protagonist does everything. Situations are built so the hero does not get support from adults, only from a select handful of peers. Were Treasure Island written today, Jim would not have relinquished control of the treasure map to the local authority figure, and would not have settled for a mere share of the treasure. Bringing in adults makes the subsequent action a lot more believable. Sometimes in modern stories authors kill themselves (and their stories) to keep adults off the “good guy” side of the ledger.

There have been some changes in the art of the adventure story over the last centuries, not all for the better, but by and large an adventure is still an adventure, and good adventures start with action, have action in the middle, and then end with action. I like those.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback. You should also know that if you have an electronic reading device, you can download Treasure Island for free.

2

Loose Ends

The thing about having an electronic book-readin’ device is that my inherent cheapness is enabled and multiplied. There’s stuff out there I’d never read if I had to pay for it, but faced with a choice between a well-known book for a few bucks and something for free, I’ll take a chance on free. Thus, Loose Ends landed on my device.

The story was pretty good, but as usual I’m going to spend more time talking about the parts that rankled, rather than the parts I particularly enjoyed. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

The story opens with our heroine being awakened in the night by a shambling headless monster. Yikes! Her reaction is one of annoyance rather than terror; he’s dripping blood all over everything. She tells the shambling apparition in his civil war uniform that he has to go back to the basement. He does. Interesting.

First nit to pick here, and it wouldn’t have rankled so much except her annoyance at the blood is the first thing we ever learn about our protagonist. Turns out the intruder was a ghost, and the blood leaves with him, and she knew that. So our very first impression of Mary is turns sour, smelling of artifice.

That bad taste is short-lived; Mary turns out to be pretty interesting. She’s an Ex-cop, a pretty good one, who had a near-death experience that even now leaves her closer to death than most people. She can see ghosts, sometimes communicate with them, and she tries to help them. They also help her, and based on that Mary has a fairly successful business as a paranormal private detective.

One place this book really succeeds is portraying a small town in changing times. Downtown is dying, overwhelmed by the box stores nearby. People know each other’s business. The newspaper is struggling.

Also, there’s a new Police Chief in town. He’s not so bad to look at, in Mary’s opinion.

The romantic tension is inevitable (and necessary for the genre), and it’s done pretty well here. This is the first in a series, and so Reid is in no hurry to rush Mary and Bradley together. They like each other. They respect each other. None of the “I hate you so much I must love you” nonsense that Jane Austen traded in, instead we have people who like each other who also carry baggage, things they have to get past before they can get together. Sad things. Believable things.

One of the things I like about this book is that people act like people. Except when they don’t. Let’s say, for instance, that by sheer luck you have just avoided a bullet and dove for meager cover. Do you 1) try to figure out where the shot came from, improve your shelter, and call for help, or do you 2) engage in banter with the guy taking cover with you?

By the way, thank you Ms. Reid for not following the “spunky and resourceful female lead must have two legitimate love interests that she can’t choose between” pattern. At least in book one. Two awesome suitors is a fun problem to have, but lately it’s a requirement, and that’s not so good. Sure, I’m not the target audience for most of this, but come on. [Cut to every movie made in Hollywood in which a craggy, graying man ends up with a hottie. Yeah, it works both ways.]

In the end, Mary and Bradley get the bad guy. We know they will. The art of writing a story like this is making us believe that they don’t know they will win, and making victory costly, both short-term (pain) and long-term (baggage). This win definitely had a short-term cost, and that made it worthwhile. This time around, the characters came into focus with enough baggage already so that we didn’t need more. Still, I’d like to see layers of scar tissue build up.

Will I see it? To continue to follow Ms. Reid’s story I’ll have to pony up cash money. I’m tempted. If she has a tip jar out there somewhere, I’ll happily slide her a buck for the pleasure of Loose Ends.

Don Quixote

Back when printing was young, fantasy stories were all the rage. They went by the name Chivalry Tales back then, and followed a well-defined formula involving stout hearts, unrequited love, and great feats of heroism against mythical beasts and evil sorcerers. Good fun.

Sometimes following a formula can be a good thing, allowing a reader and a writer to get down to business with little wasted verbiage. Interesting characters can make the formula worthwhile, and even in suspense novels there’s really not much question who’s going to win in the end. It’s about providing an enjoyable journey. There just aren’t that many plots in the world, when all is said and done; you can argue that every story follows one of a limited set of formulas.

On the other extreme, there’s “literary fiction”, the genre defined by the resolute insistence that it’s not a genre, the more extreme practitioners of which often take avoidance of formula so far that they also avoid having any plot at all. Whee.

But, even if formula isn’t necessarily bad, ‘formulaic’ is. If a story is just another rehash of the same old shit with no new twist or compelling characters, it’s not fun, and just confirms to the literati their snooty contention that all formula is bad. Jerks.

What do you do if you’re surrounded by mediocre fantasy novels? If you’re someone like me, you make an online scoreboard and fiddle with a parody called The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy. If you’re Miguel de Cervantes, you write Don Quixote. (Yes, I just said Quest and Quixote are siblings. You got a problem with that?) In Don Quixote, there is a scene in which a few of the more rational characters burn copies of many popular titles of the day, with commentary. A few they preserve. Let there be no doubt that this novel intends to disparage the knock-offs. The dude names names.

As a thought experiment, I repeated the book-burning scene in my head, substituting some of the bigger titles from the modern fantasy library. It was pretty fun. A few titles survive, by virtue of history or quality, while many are mocked and burned.

When I first loaded Quixote onto my readin’ machine and opened the virtual cover, I saw how big the sucker is. Holy crap, 1500 pages! It’s in two parts, separated in publication by several years. Interesting story — Cervantes kept talking about writing a sequel but he was too busy trying to transform theatre (without success). Then someone else published a sequel to his story and that lit a fire under his ass.

How do I know this? Because the very long book is prefaced by a very long introduction by the translator. He discusses other translations, their strengths and (mostly) shortcomings, and that was pretty interesting. He mapped the change in the perception of the story over time. He also argued that the story’s just plain funnier in its original language, as Cervantes has a terse, laconic wit that Spanish expresses particularly well. (While a chicken-and-egg argument might be fun here — does the language shape his humor or the other way around — the point remains, his jokes are tuned to the Spanish ear.)

When looking for an edition to link to here, I chuckled when I noticed that Amazon sold a “Spanish Edition” of the novel.

As fun as that part of the introduction was, things got really interesting when we came to the biography of the author. Cervantes was one remarkable dude, in a way I’ve been completely unable to capture in one or two sentences. He wasn’t put to death even after his third attempt to escape from an Algerian prison. I’ll leave it at that.

So, the story. It’s big, as I mentioned before. We meet an aging man of modest means, who has come to believe all the chivalry stories he has read as literal truth. The stories are, in fact, more true for him than anything else, and all his perceptions are filtered through the conventions of the fantasy story. The famous windmill incident happens early on, and is fairly minor, in the scheme of things, though it doesn’t go well for the good Don Quixote.

In fact, nothing goes well for him. His campaign to right the wrongs of the world is a series of disasters. Some of the mishaps are funny, some are merely sad. Other people suffer as a result of his delusions. Then there’s faithful Sancho Panza, his squire. Sancho, filled with dreams of inheriting an island kingdom following the inevitable triumph of his master (that’s how these things work, after all), follows Don Quixote (sometimes reluctantly) and receives his own share of abuse. As the story progresses and Cervantes gains more confidence in Sancho’s voice, his comments become both subtle and cutting, while maintaing his aura of simple servitude. It’s the sidekick that makes this story an enduring tale.

How many times do you have to be kicked in the face before you give up your quest? Don Quixote’s saving grace is that he will not, he cannot, give up. I suspect that many of the mythical heroes he compares himself to would have long since packed it in and gone home, faced with the downturns Quixote has faced. But on he goes, because hardship merely proves the worthiness of the cause. It’s not supposed to be easy. If he weren’t a nut job, he’d be pretty easy to admire.

Coincidence is a mover in this story. In the end, everyone who matters winds up at the same inn, and hijinks ensue. Blake Edwards made a living off this sort of stuff a few centuries later. Thinking about it, I’d be interested in seeing what someone like Edwards did with the story. (This translator did mention that Don Quixote suffered for centuries perceived as merely a bawdy farce. It seems now I’m proposing returning it to that low regard. But it would be fun.)

There are sonnets in this book. Lots of them. At first I didn’t know what to make of all the friggin sonnets. Then I realized that they’re part of the parody. The old chivalry tales are silly with sonnets. But… these are almost good, to my ear. It’s with the sonnets I felt the gulf of language and time most profoundly. Are they hilarious? Merely awkward? Over the top? Filled with contemporary references? Makes me want a time machine and a babel fish.

I wonder about the translation on a couple of fronts. Translating a work of literature from one language into another is difficult enough, but this translation has to cross centuries as well. In this version, uneducated commoners speak in what today comes off as really upper-crust language, and it’s ponderous and hard work to read. “Thee” and “Thou” abound. Regular folk in this story don’t talk like regular folk do here, now.

I contend that if Cervantes wrote his story today, in English, the word “fuckin'” would be in it. While adding a word like that would be an extreme liberty on the part of a translator, I don’t think it’s going too far to make regular guys back then speak like regular guys today. It would be a conscious decision by the translator to move the story across time as well as borders, but I think the result would more closely mirror the experience readers had back then. There’s an extended poop joke, for crying out loud, and the word ‘shit’ does not appear in this translation. I didn’t bother searching on ‘turd’. I might have used ‘steamer’, were it up to me to translate. The aromatic qualities come into play.

I’m done with part one, a bit less than halfway through the monster. The opening notes indicate that the translator at least thought part two was where Sancho really got going and that it is the better half of the opus. I’m… not eager to continue at this time. I will read the rest someday, I have no doubt. But not yet.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback. You should also know that if you have an electronic reading device, you can download this sucker for free. I chose to link to an edition with illustrations; I don’t know if it’s the same translator.