Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

I like to point out to my ten or so regular readers things that you might find interesting, or cool, or something of that nature. And also, I like to point them to things that you guys might not have heard of. That’s probably why I haven’t posted a big long review of the last Wheel of Time book (well, there’s that, and there’s the fact that I don’t like Wheel of Time). 

So I wanted to do a review of this book I read. And, because I was all busy with the schooling and the noveling, I only got around to it right now.

So.

The Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Eddison.

This is not the book The Worm Ouroboros. This is, in fact, Worm Ouroboros, which is a kickass doom metal band.

This is not the book The Worm Ouroboros. This is, in fact, Worm Ouroboros, which is a kickass doom metal band.

What is there to say about this book…? It came out in 1922, when it was completely ignored by the literary world, because 1922 was the height of modernism, and this book is decidedly not modernist. It went out of print after Eddison’s death, when it was republished in the sixties, in the brief period between the publication of Lord of the Rings, when the whole world WANTED MORE STUFF EXACTLY LIKE LORD OF THE RINGS RIGHT NOW, but before the publication of The Sword of Shannara, when a book that was exactly like LotR came out, and authors began a decade of wholesale Tolkien ripoff. There was some cool stuff published in that period, like the Earthsea and Elric books, but since there was more demand for fantasy than there were, you know, writers who actually wrote fantasy, editors basically brought every work of fantasy written between 1900 and 1960 and brought it back into print.

So, The Worm Ouroboros came out again, and was promptly ignored by the budding world of fantasy readers, because for one thing, it’s not like Lord of the Rings.

It’s been republished a couple of times afterwards. This is the cover of the current edition, which has been straight ripped from Amazon.

61J7RWEH2QL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

That’s not the edition that I read, though. I read this edition, which came out in 1990.

You can tell it’s from 1990, because it has a blurb from Piers Anthony. That is because in 1990, people actually considered Piers Anthony to be a respectable writer, rather than an unreadable novel-recycling hack.

You can tell it’s from 1990, because it has a blurb from Piers Anthony. That is because in 1990, people actually considered Piers Anthony to be a respectable writer, rather than an unreadable novel-recycling hack.

 

In any case, I mentioned that it’s not like Lord of the Rings. Which is fine, of course. While both novels were written by saga-loving Englishmen who were born in the late Victorian era, The Worm Ouroboros is really about as different from Lord of the Rings as two works of fantasy can really be.

Well, actually, there are some similarities. For one thing, they both have a fondness for archaisms. However, Tolkien actually knew archaic languages (I mean, come on: the man was fluent in twenty languages, most of them dead), which means that his prose has a certain glamour about it, which gives the story a particular sense of tragic dignity that most modern fantasy lacks:

 

Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner flew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Eomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden would not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and thief, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.

(The Return of the King, V.5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”)

 

Tolkien has been criticized for his anachronistic language, but nobody can deny that he knew how to write in that style. (In fact, I would argue that this specific scene might be the greatest scene ever written in all of fantasy, if it weren’t for the fact that two other scenes in Lord of the Rings, the “death” of Gandalf and the ring-destroying scene, might arguably outpace it.)

In contrast, Eddison didn’t write archaically like Tolkien did. His style is like a chaotic mashup of The Faërie Queene, Christopher Marlowe, Norse sagas, and Victorian poetry. Compare the scene from Lord of the Rings with this passage, which appears early on in The Worm Ouroboros:

 

Now while they rested, a flittermouse flew forth from the Witchland booths and went widdershins around the wrastling ground and so returned silently whence she came. Lord Gro saw her, and his heart waxed heavy within him. He spake to Corund, and said, “Needs must that I make trial even at this late hour if there be not any means to turn the King from further adventuring of himself, ere all be lost.” 

Corund said, “Be it as thou wilt, but it will be in vain.” 

So Gro stood by the King and said, “Lord, give over this wrastling. Great of growth and mightier of limb than any that you did overcome aforetime is this Demon, yet have you vanquished him. For you did throw him, as we plainly saw, and wrongfully hath the Red Foliot adjudged you evenly matched because in the throwing of him by your majesty’s self did fall to earth. Tempt not the fates by another bout. Yours is the victory in this wrastling: and now we, your servants, wait but your nod to make a sudden onslaught on these Demons and slay them, as we may lightly overcome them taken at unawares. And for the Foliots, they be peaceful and sheeplike folk, and will be held in awe when we have smitten the Demons with the edge of the sword. So may you depart, O King, with pleasure and great honour, and afterward fare to Demonland and bring it into subjection.” 

The King looked sourly upon Lord Gro, and said, “Thy counsel is unacceptable and unseasonable. What lieth behind it?” 

Gro answered, “There have been omens, O King.” 

And the King said, “What omens?”

(The Worm Ouroboros, Chapter II, “The Wrastling for Demonland”)

 

If you’re not accustomed to reading Ye Olde Laynguaygge, don’t worry. There were a lot of times when I had to read a page four or five times just so I could understand what the hell was going on. Lord of the Rings is famous for being a difficult book, even for people who love fantasy, but The Worm Ouroborous is far worse. This is mostly because Tolkien chose to write in a deliberately archaic style, but he was actually fluent in Oldespeak. He knew that kind of writing inside-out. Compared to Tolkien, the Eddison passage is cumbersome and clunky. Tolkien’s writing was the pounding of hoofbeats over hard turf. Eddison’s was often the squelching of a Honda Civic getting bogged down in quicksand.

That doesn’t mean that The Worm Ouroborous is bad, though. On the contrary– there are parts that are actually quite good, if you can tolerate or understand the cod-Elizabethan prose. There are some quite memorable passages, including the dark sorcery worked in Carcë and the quest to Koshtra Belorn in search of Lord Goldry Bluzco. And, while I probably would have cut out about two hundred pages of the middle (which is a lot, considering that it’s a five hundred page book), it’s still an interesting read.

It’s just… different.

In this post-Tolkien world, we’re used to our fantasy worlds being “secondary worlds”. We expect maps and histories, languages and economies, court customs and peasants’ fables, so that if the story were to disappear entirely, we’d have a sense that the world would still exist. We even have an entire word for writing the setting-related backstory for a fantasy novel: worldbuilding (WHICH IS TOTALLY A WORD EVEN IF WORDPRESS’S SPELLCHECK DOESN’T ACKNOWLEDGE IT). You get this impression from Lord of the Rings. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, every step that the Fellowship takes on their journey kicks up dust that has seemingly seen thousands of years of history. Middle-earth is a world, rich and diverse, which means that if we stop following the Fellowship and instead just stay at the Prancing Pony or Rivendell or Meduseld for the rest of the War of the Ring, things would still happen. It feels like a place.

This isn’t the case with The Worm Ouroboros’ world, which is rather tellingly called Mercury. Yes, it’s the planet Mercury, but it’s not the cratered sun-baked world that we expect from seeing space probe photos of the actual planet, but instead a bizarre dreamworld. Also, notice that “mercury” is also an element, which is slippery and shiny and liquid, just like Eddison’s world of Mercury. (I ask you: have you ever tried to put your finger on a bead of mercury underneath a glass slide? I haven’t, of course, because mercury is HIGHLY TOXIC, but I’ve talked with people who have, and they say that it’s quite tricky.)

The whole feeling of The Worm Ouroboros being a fever dream or one massive acid trip is amplified by the fact that the story is actually being shown from the perspective of a person from Earth, an Englishman named Lessingham, who falls asleep and dreams about a hippogriff that takes him to Mercury, where he acts as a silent spectator for the events of the novel. The dreamlike state is amplified by the fact that the novel repeats itself, like the titular snake eating its tail (or a Dream Theater album). When we get to the end of the book, we start again at the beginning. And even more telling, the events of the first half of the book are mirrored as we get to the second half. It doesn’t feel like an organic story. It feels like a series of Jungian archetypes bouncing off each other.

While Middle-earth feels real and solid, like post-Tolkien fantasy worlds from Discworld to Westeros, Mercury is light and insubstantial. Even the myriad castles and palaces feel like Disneyland sets made of candyfloss and plaster. You could give them a good solid kick, and they’d crumble to reveal a fifty-year-old Korean woman furtively smoking a cigarette while half-in half-out of a Minnie Mouse costume. The characters feel like people who could never exist outside of Mercury itself, while you feel like you could meet Frodo or Aragorn (or, for that matter, Sam Vimes or Tyrion Lannister) while walking down the street. The Worm Ouroboros doesn’t have the solidity and realism that most fantasy worlds have.

And yet, I sort of like it anyway.

It’s strange. The Worm Ouroboros is a collection of things that should never work in a fantasy novel thrown together in a chaotic stew, and yet somehow it works. You don’t need suspension of disbelief to get through the book. You have so much disbelief that it circles around and goes right back to belief. Sort of an insane thing to say, but it’s true. There’s no other way to explain it. The Worm Ouroboros is so surreal and sheerly weird that it all somehow falls together.

Should you read it? I don’t know. I don’t know you, and “doing the Worm”, to coin a phrase, is hardly for everyone. In fact, I read a post on Tor.com recently that had Jo Walton, a Hugo-, Nebula-, World Fantasy Award-, and everything else under the sun-winning author, claiming that she’d never finished The Worm Ouroboros, even though she’d tried many times. (Or something of that nature.) It’s not for everyone, in the way that calamari or head cheese isn’t for everyone. But hey, I like calamari (not so sure about the head cheese), so if you’re a person with strange tastes who happens to want something unusual to try, you might as well try The Worm Ouroboros.

That’s a terrible final paragraph, isn’t it? “I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s certainly a thing.”

Meh. There are lots of things in the universe, and The Worm Ouroboros is certainly one of them.

For lack of a better term.

~ Ian

I watched a hobbit today!

Of course, because of the fact that my brain recently fragmented into two parts about a month ago due to the combined stress of finals and NaNoWriMo, I’m going to review The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in two lumps, and give it two grades: a Tolkien-nerd grade, and a general storytelling grade.

 

Tolkien-Purist Ian:

Overall, I have to say that The Hobbit did REALLY well with staying true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the books. And there was a surprising amount of it that was accurate to the books… although, really, it wasn’t all from The Hobbit. While I was watching the movie, I could literally count off the origins of the scenes: “this one’s from The Hobbit… now we’ve got one from the Appendices of Lord of the Rings… here’s one that’s a little bit of a blend of Appendices and Unfinished Tales… now we’re back to The Hobbit… the screenwriters made this one up entirely…” Basically, I could tell you where every scene of the movie originated, and most of it was accurate.

And even when they made changes to the book’s narrative, it made sense. I could completely understand why Azog was included in the movie– he acts as a main adversary to Thorin, and Thorin’s opposite (if you look at Lord of the Rings, it’s constructed around the fact that most of the main characters have their “dark mirrors”, visions of what they might be if they were corrupted– Gandalf has Saruman, Aragorn has the Witch-King, Frodo has Gollum, and so on). Azog is also important because he adds to Thorin’s story arc. (Okay, Storyteller-Ian intruding here. Who thinks that Thorin and Azog are going to kill each other at the Battle of Five Armies at the end of Movie Three? I’ll take bets, but to tell you the truth, I like my odds of being right.)

And what’s different about the changes to The Hobbit as opposed to the changes to Lord of the Rings is that they make sense. There’s no pointless and nonsensical changes like Arwen and Aragorn sharing a telepathic link because of the power of “twue wuv”; Arwen being a Xena clone in the first movie and then somehow having her fate tied to the fate of the Ring in the second and third; Elrond acting like a douchecanoe; Aragorn falling off a ravine in a needlessly-added clearly-stalling-for-time battle and having no one bother to look for his body except for his horse; the lack of Denethor’s subplot with the Palantíri– look, I could just go on and on, but honestly you get the point. (I’m not complaining about the omission of Tom Bombadil. That was a good change. What I have a problem with are the moronic changes that Jackson and Co. clearly put in Lord of the Rings to appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator.) In contrast, the changes to The Hobbit make sense, and what’s more, even satisfy the Tolkien fan. (I might have been the only one in the theater who broke into laughter when Gandalf said, “There’s the two blue wizards, of course… You know, I’m not sure what their names are!”*)  There’s not really any egregious violations. It all works. Even Radagast being a mumbling, mushroom-eating hermit with birdshit in his hair riding a rabbit-pulled sleigh wasn’t a problem to me. After all, it’s pretty clear that Tolkien intended for all the wizards to be crazy in their own way. Some get megalomaniacal and want to rule the world, like Saruman, others just go a little woodsy-where-am and talk to hedgehogs like Radagast.

I did have two things that I didn’t like about the movie’s changes, though:

  • I didn’t like the fact that Thorin is clearly intended to be a broody Aragorn-surrogate. Jackson and Co. are clearly trying to have Thorin fill the same role as Aragorn did in LotR, and it didn’t work. They’re two different stories, and there’s no point in giving us characters that we’ve already seen before.
  • hated the huge warty ballsack dangling from the Great Goblin’s chin. Every time I saw it, I was tempted to yell, “Kick him in the balls! I mean, neck!”

Other than that, though, it was excellent.

Tolkien-Purist Ian’s Final Grade: B+

 

General Storytelling Ian: 

Literally everything in this movie was better than in Lord of the Rings. Better acting, better direction, better writing, everything. It’s almost as if you took the same team that made Lord of the Rings, gave them ten more years of experience, and set them loose in the same universe. (OH WAIT IT ACTUALLY IS.)

Martin Freeman was incredible. Unlike Elijah Wood, who was a wimpy fainting prick in the lead as Frodo in LotR, Martin Freeman embodied everything about the character of Bilbo. He was funny, charming, vulnerable, blustering, embarrassed, cheerful baffled, and brave, all at once. It was note-perfect. I can’t really think of any way that his performance could have been improved. Where Elijah Wood’s Frodo would probably have rolled his eyes and fainted at any sign of danger, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo faced up to it, and kicked ass. From now on, he’s the quintessential hobbit for me. Compared to the actors who played the hobbits in LotR (Sean Astin’s painfully-‘orrible British accent, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd’s relentlessly-grating comic relief, and Elijah Wood’s general blandness and suckitude), we had a hobbit that I can actually like

It also makes sense that Martin Freeman has played Arthur Dent, too. I can’t think of two characters more similar in all of literature: two middle-aged, middle-class Englishmen (or Englishman-surrogates) who get swept up unwillingly out of their rut and into a fantastical adventure by people who might actually be certifiably insane.

There’s still more of the same tricks that we’ve seen from Peter Jackson as a director. Specifically, I’m thinking about the defining shot from the LotR trilogy, the helicopter-mounted shot of people walking in a straight line through gorgeous New Zealand scenery. There’s some of that, although not as much, which is fine with me: too many of those and they’re going to start getting stale. But I could tell that Peter Jackson was varying his camera shots a little, and there was some pretty creative camerawork as well, even in scenes with just straight dialogue. (It’s easy for directors to fall into the boring old shot-reverse shot trap in dialogue-heavy scenes. You can do that, and it works, but I like to see a bit more creativity once in a while.)

I couldn’t have complained about the acting from Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, of course. They’ve both been acting for longer than most people have been alive. Still, Ian McKellan was still the quintessential Gandalf, and Christopher Lee (even though he only showed up for a single scene) conveyed a different Saruman perfectly. Instead of Dark Lord Wannabe Saruman, we get a second, earlier view of the character, one of Third Age Middle-earth’s equivalent of the climate change denier.

What was better in this movie was the supporting actors. While there was broad physical comedy with the dwarves, it didn’t cheapen their characters the way it did with Gimli in LotR. Quite the opposite, in fact– it fit the lighter tone of the movie perfectly. And I can’t wait to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s Necromancer. He’s been so good starring opposite Martin Freeman in Sherlock that I can’t wait to see them in a movie together, even if the two characters never meet.

(This is an interruption from Gaiman-fan Ian, speaking from another segment of Ian’s shattered brain. If a Sandman movie ever gets made, can we please have Benedict Cumberbatch play Dream? I can’t think of another actor with the acting skill, broodiness, and cheekbones who could pull off that role.)

(Ian’s appetite here. I’m getting hungry, guys. Can we get something to eat soon?)

Can we please not have interruptions from other sections of the brain?

(Tolkien-Purist Ian: Yeah! It’s really annoying! This is our post!)

(The Section of Ian’s Brain That Always Posts Lame Gifs on Axolotl Ceviche: This article needs more gifs. Can we have some gifs in this post? Like, maybe one of Sad Gollum at the moment when Bilbo almost kills him?)

No! Shut up, everyone!

(Gaiman-Fan Ian: Sorry.)

(Ian’s Appetite: Sorry.)

(The Section of Ian’s Brain That Always Posts Lame Gifs on Axolotl Ceviche: Sorry.)

(The Part of Ian’s Brain that Never Apologizes: I’m not.)

(Tolkien-Purist Ian and General Storytelling Ian: SHUT UP!)

Anyway, where was I? Oh– I should talk about the writing.

It was good. Like I said, more lighthearted– and was, in fact, as witty as a Joss Whedon production, which made me happy. It could have been a little less corny at times, but overall, it was better. The dialogue was tighter, the characters were better defined, and the lines felt more like something someone would actually say.

(Tolkien-purist Ian: And nobody said stupid things like “If you want him, come and claim him!” and “Let’s hunt some orc!“)

Quiet, you. This is my section.

Anyway, well done, actors, writers, and Peter Jackson. You’ve given us one hell of a movie.

General Storytelling Ian’s Final Grade: A

 

For those of you who are wondering, here’s the scores that Tolkien-purist Ian and General Storytelling Ian gave the Lord of the Rings movies:

Fellowship of the Ring: TP Ian B-, GS Ian B

The Two Towers: TP Ian F, GS Ian D-

Return of the King: TP Ian C, GS Ian B

That’s it for now. Have a wonderful Boxing Day evening.

~ Ian (Tolkien-Purist) and Ian (General Storytelling) (with unwanted assistance from Gaiman-fan Ian, Ian’s Appetite, The Section of Ian’s Brain That Always Posts Lame Gifs on Axolotl Ceviche, and The Part of Ian’s Brain That Never Apologizes)

*Alatar and Pallando, by the way.

So I got just back from seeing The Avengers with a couple of friends.

There’s an equation that I think about a lot, actually: it basically states that satisfaction=reality/expectation. I use this equation all the time: basically, I find that if you don’t expect too much from something, the satisfaction you derive from it goes up immensely.

I had incredibly high expectations for this movie.

Considering how satisfied I was with it, that just goes to show you what the reality was like.

OKAY. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE GO SEE IT RIGHT NOW. I’M NOT KIDDING. DO IT. DO IT NOW WAAAAGLBLAGLAGLAGLAGL

For one thing, it’s directed by Joss Whedon. And this movie is distinctly a Whedon film. It’s got snark. It’s got funny one-liners. The dialogue sparkles– and there’s humor all throughout this movie.

But what made Whedon such an incredible choice for The Avengers was the fact that it’s an ensemble cast. And if Whedon can do something well, then it’s write ensemble casts.

I mean, think about it. All the movies leading up to this one were basically one-man shows. You get a movie called Iron Man, you expect Iron Man to be running the whole plot. There’s not much to it. He’s the main character. He’s the star of the show.

There was no main character in The Avengers. It was completely and utterly an ensemble cast.

And if you think that’s easy to do, then you haven’t tried.

Look at Whedon’s previous filmography. Like FireflyFirefly would never work if it had just one main character. The interactions of the characters drive the plot entirely. Or Buffy. Granted, there’s a main character in Buffy, but all the other characters are just as critical to the plot as Buffy is.

So it is with this movie. It would be easy to have Captain America or Iron Man run the whole show here. I mean, Captain America is the leader of the Avengers, and Iron Man is played by Robert Downey Jr., so any other writer would have probably made them the main character.

That’s not how Joss Whedon wrote the The Avengers, though. The story is entirely driven by the interactions of the characters. And (without going into too many spoilers) the Avengers are almost totally dysfunctional. You have six strong, powerful personalities clashing here. The interpersonal conflicts between the main characters are just as interesting as (if not more than) the “main” conflict against Loki and a shit-ton of aliens.

But what I think I love the most from The Avengers is the fact that Black Widow is as interesting and well-drawn a character as any of the boys. If you look at the typical female characters in superhero movies, you get love interests, victims, and eye-candy window-dressing types. Black Widow is none of those things (although, don’t get me wrong– Scarlett Johansson is totally easy on the eyes). She’s a female character who contributes as much to the plot as any other member of The Avengers. Even moreso, in fact, than other members of the team (I’m thinking specifically of Thor here).

To see a complex, interesting female character in a Joss Whedon production is hardly a shock, of course. But to see it in a superhero film, in a genre that’s at best pandering and at worst blatantly misogynist… it’s incredible. I wish more screenwriters and comics writers could take a page from Whedon’s book.

So yeah. The Avengers. It’s everything I hoped for and more.

Go see it. You’ll love it.

final score: five aerodynamically-improbable flying aircraft carriers out of five

~ Ian

It’s probably no surprise that I’m a big fan of Felicia Day.

For one thing, I’ve already said that my favorite writers are those who do a lot of different things. And Felicia does a LOT of things. She’s an actress, a writer of both web videos and comics, a gamer, a producer… and she’s a pretty good singer, too.

So when I discovered that she was starting a new YouTube channel called Geek & Sundry, I will admit: it made me almost excited enough to pee.

The first two shows, the Flog and Tabletop, debuted today. The Flog is Felicia’s video blog, where she basically does whatever she feels like that week. Tabletop, on the other hand, is a show hosted by Wil Wheaton, dedicated to showing people the fun and togetherness that can be had by playing tabletop games.

I’m hugely excited for all the rest of the shows on Geek & Sundry too, especially Paul and Storm‘s show (which won’t be debuting* until the fall), which is entitled LEARNING TOWN. It is, from the description, a show that involves Paul and Storm creating a TV show that’s a bit like a modern-day version of Schoolhouse Rock.

I KNOW. I’M EXCITED TOO.

I’m also waiting with eager anticipation for Sword and Laser, which is a new video version of Veronica Belmont and Tom Merritt’s podcast on SF and fantasy books. While I love movies and TV and games and all that fun goodness, I’m always glad to see fiction getting a place in the spotlight– mainly because most of my story consumption is prose fiction.

Plus, the first book that Veronica and Tom are going to be reviewing on the show is Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

I’ll be honest: I squealed a little bit when I heard that.

It was very manly.

Anyway, Geek & Sundry. Check it out, mainly because it’s awesome.

Do it.

Now.

~ Ian

* I’ll be honest: this word is a little weird to me. It looks kind of like “de-butting” to me. As in to take off someone’s butt.**

** Apparently I stopped maturing at age eleven.***

*** Heh heh heh… “butt”.

If you didn’t already know, I’m a little bit of a geek.

And if you’re a certain kind of geek, then the phrases “Michael Moorcock” and “Doctor Who” will send a bit of a tingle down your spine.

I am that kind of geek.

At first I was a little worried about the quality of this book. I mean, media tie-in fiction is rarely good. And I hadn’t read any Doctor Who novels. But this book was written by Michael Moorcock. A man who has been writing for more than fifty years, who has cheerfully danced between fantasy and sf and realism, spanning traditions from pulp to postmodernism. He’s also the creator of the Multiverse, a massive universal construct that’s enough of an umbrella to contain all his fiction (and, possibly, all fiction ever written). It kind of boggles my mind to think that the Elric stories are fundamentally contained within the same massive framework as the Colonel Pyat quartet. And there are very few books as completely different as the Elric books and the Pyat quartet.

So I took a step into this book, where the worlds of Moorcockian multiverse and Whovian time-travel antics collide.

I was pleasantly surprised.

This book probably won’t be one of Moorcock’s enduring creations. It’s at best a somewhat-pulpish adventure using characters created by TV writers. But, hey: you know you’re not getting Mother London when you crack the book open and read its full title: Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles: Or, Pirates of the Second Aether!!

So, no: it’s not “literate chewer”.

But it is fun.

This is one of the few Moorcock novels that I’ve read that I’d describe as a “romp”. It’s pure fun from start to finish, and there are a few unexpected surprises. For example, I’d expected that it would blend the Multiverse with the Whoniverse, and it did– pretty seamlessly. What I didn’t expect was the extent to which it read like a Wodehouse novel. Seriously: there’s a character who is completely unironically named Bingo.

DW:TCotT:OPotSA!! has a lot of inside jokes for the Moorcockian aficionado. For example, the MacGuffin that the heroes are searching for is called “The Arrow of Law”, a name that any true Moorcock scholar should be able to recognize. There is a space-pirate captain named “Captain Cornelius”. And early on in the book, it’s revealed that the Doctor used to publish a fanzine going by the name of Novae Terrae (which was the name that Moorcock’s 1960s magazine, New Worlds, went under when it was a fanzine in the forties).

To sum up: the book was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it. Not enough to say that I loved it, per se, but it amused me, and that’s often a noble enough goal when telling a story.

Final Score: three out of five fifteen-centimeter TARDISes

~ Ian

My favorite authors consistently fall into two categories:

  1. They have a consistent mastery of language, and use that language to achieve a specific effect, such as humor or poeticness. (Is that a word? Meh. It is now.)
  2. They write in a LOT of different genres and mediums.

Because of this, it’s no surprise that I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman’s writing is consistently deep, beautiful, and mythic. There are a lot of fantasy writers out there, but I guarantee you– none of them are quite like Gaiman. Trust me on this.

So when I say to people that one of my favorite writers is Neil Gaiman, I mainly get one response: “Oh. I’ve never heard of him. What book of his should I start out with?

This is not an easy question to answer. Because Gaiman’s writings are so varied, varying between humor and horror, children’s picture books and deeply adult graphic novels, I think that it’s a little bit hard to answer. Sometimes I’ll say one thing, sometimes another, but in any case, the right Starting Gaiman Book is kind of hard to decide. It varies from person to person.

Therefore, I have compiled this list of Neil Gaiman books to start you off on reading some of the most imaginative, well-written, and frankly insane fantasy you’ll ever encounter.

 

If You Are A Child, Or A Person Who Likes To Hang Out In Graveyards: The Graveyard Book

This children’s book adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is probably destined to become just as much a classic as the work that inspired it. Essentially, The Graveyard Book is a collection of linked short stories that charts the adventures of young Nobody “Bod” Owens as he learns to grow up living in a graveyard in a small English city. (Please note, this book does start out with Bod’s family being murdered, and there are some particularly scary scenes that might frighten some sensitive adult readers. But it’s still really freaking good.)

Also note that this book won both the Newbery Award and the Hugo Award.

 

If You Sometimes Go Walking In The Woods, Hoping To Catch A Glimpse Of An Elf Or Dwarf: Stardust

Do you like The Princess Bride? Are you a person who never really outgrew faerie tales?

Well then, this book is for you. It’s a fun, romantic, smart fantasy novel that evokes the traditions of Olde-Schoole Faerie Tayles™.

I’d also go so far as to say that this book would be perfect for early teens and precocious tweens as an introduction to Gaiman’s oeuvre. However, parents be warned: there is a (very short) sex scene in the first chapter, and later on in the book is an uncensored F-bomb. It’s very unlikely that your kids will care, but you know: parents are a little weird about stuff like that. So I’m just warning you guys.

 

If You Wander Around In Cities, Exploring Interesting Abandoned Houses And Opening Unmarked Doors: Neverwhere

I’ve heard this book described as “a Goth Alice in Wonderland”. While there are definitely influences from both Goth culture and Lewis Carroll, this book is really a hodgepodge of all sorts of things.

Richard Mayhew, a young office drone, saves the life of a homeless girl on the streets of London, and journeys into a hidden underworld beneath the streets of the city, a world only known about by the homeless population of London, a world of magic and miracles. The book is filled with fascinating characters, from the flamboyant Marquis de Carabas; to the warrior woman Hunter, most skilled bodyguard alive; to Islington, the Angel with A Secret.

This book is also notable for its villains, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, who are both hilariously funny and utterly terrifying at the same time– which is a delicate balance to walk.

 

If You Just Want A Quick Weekend Read: Anansi Boys

The follow-up to the brilliant American Gods (about which, more below), Anansi Boys is the only work of Gaiman’s that I’d consider a “romp”. Fat Charlie Nancy, at his father’s funeral, learns that his father was the African trickster god Anansi. He also learns that he has a long-lost twin brother who inherited his father’s powers. Hijinks and shenanigans (and, dare I say it, monkey shines?) ensue.

Side note: This is the only book about black people by a white author that I’ve ever read that doesn’t manage to be oversentimental or racist. It’s also a lot of fun.

 

If You Have A Short Attention Span: Fragile Things

This is a collection of short stories that spans the gamut (I know! A whole gamut!) of genres, with fantasy, horror, SF, and realism represented in abundance. There’s a few love stories, and a few funny stories, and a few erotic stories, and much more besides. There’s not much to go wrong with in this collection. It’s brilliant, and an excellent gateway drug.

 

If You Enjoy Humor, And Are Not Too Put Off By Blasphemy: Good Omens: The Nice And Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

Good Omens reads like the Book of Revelations written by Douglas Adams.

I’ll let that just sink in for a second.

Side Note: The coauthor of this book is Terry Pratchett, British humorist, knight, and creator of the Discworld series. Sir Terry is also one of my favorite authors, and if you want to read some of the smartest, funniest fiction of the last fifty years, you should try to pick him up.

Hmm… I might actually have to write a Gateway to Discworld blog post sometime.

Let’s put that on the shelf for now.

~ Ian

 

P.S. One final note…

If You Are Starting To Read Neil Gaiman, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD AVOID THESE BOOKS:

American Gods:

This book isn’t bad. In fact, it’s brilliant.

But the problem is, it’s not a good book to read if you’re new to reading Neil Gaiman.

I’ve been known to describe this book as a hybrid of Jack Kerouac and Stephen King, with a little bit of Beowulf thrown in for good measure. But that doesn’t begin to sum up the bizarre madness of this book, which is a kind of road-novel ghost-story fantasy-epic, with all the gods of both the old world and the new running around America and engaged in a psychic war that threatens to engulf reality.

It’s really bloody good. But it’s not for new readers. The sheer amount of strangeness that eminates from the pages of this book is probably enough to put most people off.

Sandman:

The Sandman series of graphic novels is one of the best, most imaginative works of fantasy since Lord of the Rings.

It’s also two thousand pages long.

So yeah. I’d recommend staying away from it until you have enough time (and money) to make the commitment.

I have a couple of book reviews for you today, books that I just finished and wanted to share with you guys when I was done. They are: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu, and Among Others, by Jo Walton.

 

 

Written by Charles Yu, this book is about a man named Charles Yu who is a time machine repairman. One day, he sees himself coming out of a time machine, and, knowing that coming in contact with a future version of yourself is the WORST THING that can happen to a time traveler, Charles Yu shoots his future self and steals his time machine. Once in the time machine, he comes across a copy of a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a book written by his future self. Because of the nature of causality, he decides that he needs to write this book, so that his past self can find in in the time machine when his future self dies.

Oh, and there’s a lot of stuff going on with Charles Yu’s father, the inventor of time travel, and a large portion of the book is dedicated to Charles’ quest to find his dad, who went off in a time machine and never came back.

This book is ambitious, to say the least. It’s a metanovel that has quite a lot of science fictional elements (sexbots, computers with emotions, time travel, etc.). But even though it’s well-written, it feels like the book is trying to be too many things at once– sf comedy, a time travel story, post-modern experimental fiction, a coming-of-age story about a boy and his dad. Because the novel is relatively short, it feels like it’s stretched in too many directions. The core of the story– how will Charles Yu escape the time loop that he’s trapped in?– takes a backseat to various other adventures, which are only semi-explained in the context of the story, like the time when Charles Yu ends up in a Buddhist monastery and is attacked by a creepy alternate version of his mother. Because of this, the novel seems a bit forced.

What’s more, even though Charles Yu is obviously trying to do something new with sf storytelling here, it doesn’t really succeed. Instead of feeling fresh and original and strange, it feels incoherent and dull. Not that I’m opposed to people doing something different with the medium (I read Anathem when it came out in high school, and loved it), it’s just that while I was reading HtLSiaSFU, I kept thinking, “Stephen Moffat told this story way better in “Blink”.

So yeah. That’s How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Good ideas, but falls a little bit short on the execution.

Final Score: 2 out of 5 temporal anomalies

Next, there’s Among Others:

 

This is a beautiful book. Beautiful beautiful beautiful. The language, the story, the descriptions… wow. I was hugely impressed.

I’d first heard of Jo Walton from her very well-done rereads of Patrick Rothfuss on Tor.com. Because of this, when I came across this book in the SFF section of Bookshop Santa Cruz this weekend, I was curious. I picked it off the shelf and bought it.

I didn’t regret it. Among Others is the story of Mori Phelps, a fifteen-year-old crippled Welsh girl who loves sf and Lord of the Rings and can talk to fairies. There’s not a lot of action in the book– most of the excitement happens in the backstory. But it’s made up for by Walton’s incredible characterization of Mori, who is the kind of girl who I would have loved to know when I was fourteen or fifteen.

Mori’s characterization is deep and well-thought out. She feels like a real person, and the story of Among Others is mainly told by her diary entries between September 1979 and February 1980, as she goes to boarding school in England. I have to credit Walton– reading Mori’s diary entries felt like I was looking straight into the mind of a real person.

I’m not going to go deeply into detail about Among Others, because it’s a book that I want you to read if you love fantasy. But I’ll just summarize it quickly here: it’s a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl that manages to be neither melodramatic nor sentimental (a hard feat to achieve), and also a story about sf and fantasy and how it changes your life when you’re young. Read this book.

(One minor spoiler: Walton manages to create fairies that are completely non-cliché. In fact, they’re some of the most alien examples of the fey folk I’ve ever encountered in a fantasy novel.)

Final score: 4 out of 5 yellow-spined Gollancz paperbacks

That’s all there is from me for now. Happy Tuesday, and I hope you find something interesting to read, wherever you are.

~ Ian

If you know me, you know that I love me some JoCo. In fact, I once wrote a story that is basically a Jonathan Coulton song in prose form. So when I heard that the Elvis of nerd-rock was coming out with a new album (Artificial Heart) last year, I was excited– and a little nervous. For one thing, I love old-school Jonathan Coulton, all those classic songs about zombies and mad scientists and self-loathing giant squids and monkey butlers named Brian Dennehy. From what I’d heard, there wasn’t as much of that kind of geek comedy on the album. Furthermore, it’s the first album that Coulton has used studio musicians, and I was wondering if that would completely ruin the charm of his songs.

I had nothing to worry about.

This is the best Jonathan Coulton album ever. I must have listened to it twenty or thirty times by now.

In a lot of ways, it’s a huge departure from traditional JoCo music. Most of JoCo’s songs can be divided into three categories:

  1. Funny Songs (e.g. First of May)
  2. Geeky Songs (e.g. Mandelbrot Set)
  3. Character Songs (e.g. I Crush Everything)

Let me clarify what I mean by “character songs”. A character song is about a character who is unusual or bizarre doing strange things.

Wow, that was a terrible description, wasn’t it? Well, let me clarify by example. Some JoCo character songs include a middle-management douchebag who has turned into a zombie (Re: Your Brains), a teenaged geek who has cyborg date rape fantasies (The Future Soon), a mad scientist who falls in love with the girl he kidnaps (Skullcrusher Mountain), and a man who is incapable of talking about his feelings and so projects them onto his monkey butler during arguments with his girlfriend (My Monkey). These are the sorts of bizarre characters that exist in traditional Jonathan Coulton songs.

None of the songs on Artificial Heart really fit into any of these categories. In fact, with the exception of “Still Alive” and “Want You Gone” (which are from the perspective of GLaDoS, the psychotic computer from the Portal games), there aren’t any songs about weird people and their bizarre behaviors. (Okay, fine, I guess there’s “Je Suis Rick Springfield”, which is about either Rick Springfield or a guy in a French bar claiming to be Rick Springfield. That’s pretty weird.)

What are the songs about, then? Well, there’s songs about teenagers wanting to be adults (The Stache), the difficulties of adult relationships (Alone at Home); growing older (Glasses); normal, non-geeky/destructive love (The World Belongs to You, Down Today); and the banality of modern working life (Good Morning Tucson). Plus, there’s  “Nobody Loves You Like Me”, which is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.

Now, JoCo has written some sad songs in the past. Or rather, I think they’re songs that are trying to be sad, but the ridiculousness of their premise gets in the way of the actual sadness. For example, there’s “I Crush Everything”, which, as has been mentioned before, is about a giant squid who hates himself. If the song were about a young geeky boy who hates himself, yeah, that’d be a little sadder. But when you transpose that low self-esteem to a giant squid, it becomes funny.

“Nobody Loves You Like Me”, on the contrary, is heartbreaking. I’ve listened to it over and over again, tearing up every time, and yet I still don’t have any idea what it’s about. As far as I can tell, it’s a story about a musician singing in a bar on the day before his death from lung cancer. But even that doesn’t describe how perfect the song is. It’s sung a cappella, filtered through some sort of device that makes Coulton’s voice distorted. The lack of instrumentation means that we can hear JoCo’s incredible voice, and the sadness within it, with perfect clarity. It’s a song that I can’t describe in words. Plus, it’s joined “The Carnival Is Over” and “Comfortably Numb” as one of the songs that I’d like to hear played at my funeral. (Well, I wouldn’t hear it, of course– I’ll be dead. But other people are going to hear it. You get the picture.)

Of course, not all the songs are unadulterated awesome. Some of the songs are pretty weak. Case in point: “Today With Your Wife”, which is obviously intended to be a sad song, but is just too whiny and melodramatic to work. Plus it features the one instrument that turns me off completely from any song intended to be sad: the Emotional Piano. And then there’s “Sucker Punch”, which seems kind of like JoCo trying to write a power punk song, and not really succeeding. But other than a couple less-good songs, the album is pure solid gold.

I can’t mention Artificial Heart without bringing up the high production values. For previous albums, JoCo used a home studio, playing all the instruments and producing the music himself. Artificial Heart is produced by They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh, with an ensemble of backing singers and studio musicians. Instead of making the album sound slick and empty, the professional production values make the album that much better, adding a new dimension to the music. Again, I can’t describe it: somehow, I suppose that there must be a musicational-type person out there who could articulate it better.

Suffice to say, I will attempt to sum up how I feel about Artificial Heart below:

Artificial Heart is to Jonathan Coulton’s previous discography as A Storm of Swords is to A Feast for Crows. It is the difference between a Rorschach Test on fire and being punched in the solar plexus by a gasoline-doused, flaming Rorschach. It is the point where JoCo becomes less an easily-defined category (geeky folk-rock singer-songwriter) and more something indefinable, something magical. Artificial Heart only cements my love for Coulton’s music, and his position on my ever-shifting list of Top 10 favorite musicians.

But don’t take my word for it. Go out and buy it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love it.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 zombie monkeys

~ Ian

PS: Here’s a link to JoCo’s website, in case you wanted to buy the album.