Monday, October 31, 2011

Trumps of Doom by Roger Zelazny

If you get discouraged waiting for the next book in a series to come out, don't feel bad. Zelazny published The Courts of Chaos in 1978, and "The New Amber Novel" Trumps of Doom did not appear in bookstores until 1985. That's a long long time.

Merle Corey is a programmer for a software company called Grand Design, in San Francisco. He has wrapped up his projects and is taking off on sabbatical. As he is wrapping things up, his friend Luke Reynard drops by with a note from his ex-girlfriend, Julia, which prompts Merle to go see her.

The date is April 30, and for the last five or six years, some unknown agency has tried to kill him on that day, for no apparent reason. When Merle arrives at Julia's apartment, he discovers her mauled body, and is himself attacked by a mangey-looking dog analog, which he grapples with, then throws out of a two story window.

Merle is understandably upset by Julia's death, and sets off to investigate the cause, blaming himself a bit. Julia had, from the evidence in her apartment, gotten fascinated with the occult after they broke up, so he heads for the occult bookstore of a mutual acquaintance, Rick Kinsky, to see if he knows anything. Rick tells him that Julia was seeking arcane knowledge that he wasn't able to provide, and she moved on to study under a "master" named Victor Melman, and gives him Melman's address.

When he goes to Melman's apartment to interrogate him, Melman reveals a mural (he's also an artist) on a wall that behaves just like a giant Trump (the cards that transport Amberites from place to place), and is drawn into a confrontation with a cloaked sorceror in a strange Shadow. When he returns victorious from the shadow, Melman attacks him, as well, and Merle ends up killing him before he can get more information.

Zelazny slowly reveals that Merle is actually Merlin, son of Corwin of Amber, and weaves a great tale in the old spirit as Merlin tries to find out who's trying to kill him, has succeeded in killing Julia, and what sort of plots are afoot in Amber this time around. A great return to Corwin's old stomping grounds, and a reunion with the family of Amber.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Weapon by Michael Z. Williamson

The Weapon is another book in the Freehold series. We step back here in time to the period before the UN invaded Freehold, described in Freehold. When the situation was dire, a group of undercover operatives from Freehold wreaked havoc on Earth's population and infrastructure through terrorist acts. This is the story of their leader, Kenneth Chinran.

Chinran enlists in the Freehold armed forces, and we get to follow along with him as he goes through basic and advanced training, culminating on becoming an Operative, something like our modern day Delta Force, except probably even better equipped and tougher. He is sent on missions to various planets, either alone or with forces of varying sizes, and faces challenges of varying degrees.

The book is full of political commentary, comparing the Freehold governing philosophy with that of the UN, which rules Earth and a number of other planets.

"Their (The UN) definition of civil rights was what the Roman Legions gave their subjects - the right to complain, pray and do nothing. We defined freedom as the right to be stupid. If you aren't allowed to ruin your life because of the 'greater good of the whole', you aren't really free, you're a cog."

Very libertarian in flavor.

On undercover operations:

"I actually hae the ideal build for an Operative. Depending on dress and presentation, I can look like a skinny, wirey laborer; a slim academic; a lean, handsome businessman; a career military officer or adminstrator or a shaggy college punk. Huge vid show muscles and chiseled features are unneccessary and a hindrance. The sniveling geeks will be the death of you."

Oh to have known this when I was young.

I had to laugh when I read this:

"I've found that there's very few personnel problems that can't be resolved by a suitable application of a  boot to the head."

Some political ranting that sounds all too familiar:

"They (the UN) even taxed shit. Not directly, but there was a tax on the water and sewer service, even though a theoretically private company handled the task. Yes, they recycled it for minerals, energy and fertilizer, just as we do. Yes, they then sold it. So why tax it? Apparently, just because they could. There was even a news load where some mouthpiece for policy recommended a tax on something, I didn't catch what, on the grounds that 'it's one of the few things not yet taxed for revenue.'"

On the subject of banks:

"They do it with user fees. The more they've been restricted from charging interest, the more fees they charge, and then some...Late payment fee. Early payment fee. Payment by comm processing fee. Payment in person processing fee. Automated payment fee. Penalty for paying ahead on the account, penalty for excessive activity, penalty for insufficient activity, charge for business transaction, charge for personal account transaction, statement charge, monthly service charge, annual account charge, withdrawal charge, deposit charge, transfer fee, service representative consultancy fee, cash transaction fee, NSF fee, overdraft charge and negative balance charge..."

He wrote this before Dodd-Frank. How many of these fees does your bank charge?

About the Earth news services:

"It's not 'news', it's 'Entertainment,' with a capital 'E.' The have so little content padded by some much repetition, crap, half-assed speculation by experts who know dick and hawking of worthless merchandise, it's hard for a rational person to pick out the few gems of actual intel."
Michael Jackson, Natalie Holloway and Casey Anthony, anyone?

This is a really good story about a man who dedicates his life to serving his planet, even when it takes him past the edge of his humanity. Good action, fun political brain teasers, and a strong central character keep this one lively.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Beautiful Friendship by David Weber

A Beautiful Friendship serves as a prequel, of sorts, to the Honor Harrington series. On the downside, it seemed a little familiar as I began reading it, and so I went to the shelves to determine that it had been previously published in the first of the Worlds of Honor shared world anthologies, More than Honor. I really hate it when publishers repackage old stories like this without a blazing disclaimer. However, there was a second half of the story that was added to this book, so I did get to read some fresh (to me) material after all.

If you've been following Honor's exploits, you will be familiar with her treecat, Nimitz. Throughout the series, we learn that Nimitz can sense the emotions of his person, and as time goes by, we find out that his species is a bit more intelligent than most people think, and eventually, he as able a) to pass the emotions and intentions of other people around Honor back through their link, making her a wonderful negotiator for the Queen, and b) to learn sign language and use that to communicate more effectively with humans.

In A Beautiful Friendship, we move back in time to the early days of the settlement of Sphinx, one of the Manticoran worlds, and Honor's family home. Her ancestor, Stephanie Harrington, is the first person to discover the treecats' existence and to bond with one of them, Climbs Quickly. The treecats are highly intelligent, tho pre-agricultural when the humans arrive, and are able to communicate sophisticated thoughts telepathically among their own kind, even over a distance. They find the "mind blind" humans puzzling and perhaps threatening to their way of life, and Climbs Quickly's clan is not happy about his bonding with Stephanie or getting involved with the "two-legs" further.

When the scientists come, inevitably, to study the treecats and attempt to learn how intelligent they really are; whether they deserve sentient race status and accompanying rights, there are also some people who would rather either exploit the treecats or wipe them out entirely. Stephanie and her treecat, of course, fall right in the middle of this conflict, and she and her family and friends have to determine the right way to reveal to the world how intelligent the treecats are, and keep concealed their telepathy, so as to keep them from being consigned to laboratory studies.

This is somewhat of a young adult novel in tone, without a lot of the whiney teen angst that often accompanies such. Light on the politics, with planetside action instead of space battles, it's a good companion piece for Honorverse fans.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Courts of Chaos by Roger Zelazny

This is the grand finale of the first act of the sweeping Amber series. King Oberon has returned to Amber, and has taken over in his usual high-handed fashion, leaving his heirs reeling emotionally. He reclaims the Jewel of Judgement, and is going to use it to attempt to repair the Pattern which was damaged by Brand. The effort may or may not succeed, but it will surely claim his life, either way. He tells Corwin he will name him as heir, but after all which has gone on, Corwin no longer desires it; feeling it was merely a prize in his sibling rivalry with Eric, after all.

Oberon sends Corwin on a mission to ride as far and fast as he can, ahead of the disruption that will be caused by his Pattern restoration attempt, and to receive the Jewel at some point along the way, then bearing it on to the Courts of Chaos, where Corwin can use it to direct the storm to spare the Amberites there. Benedict has been directed by Oberon to gather an army in Shadow and take them to battle with the armies of Chaos, and the rest of the brothers and sisters also join in.

So Corwin begins a strange and metaphorical journey to the Courts, meeting some interesting semi-legendary creatures along the way. Zelazny gets very descriptive and subjective for the middle portion of the book, which breaks from the pace he's set in the early series. Once Corwin reaches the Courts, however, the action picks back up again, and the final confrontation between Amber and Chaos, the fate of Brand, and the disposition of the crown provide a bittersweet and mostly satisfying conclusion to the saga.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Heinlein Collections

  There is a collection called 6 X H, published by Pyramid Science Fiction, that is just The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag by another name. Unless you're searching for utter compleatness in your collection, pick up one or the other, not both.
  The Past Through Tomorrow is a collection of all of the short stories that fit in Heinlein's Future History, which are also contained in other earlier collections, including The Man Who Sold the Moon, The Green Hills of Earth, Methuselah's Children, The Menace from Earth, and The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.

Best Backroads of Florida by Douglas Waitley

When I searched my local library's online catalog for travel books for Florida, in anticipation of an upcoming trip, this book came up only as Best Backroads of Florida. It turned out to be only Volume 1 - The Heartland, so it really didn't give me the information I was looking for, about places I really should visit while I'm there.

The first 100 or so pages that I did read were a very detailed journey through Florida's heartland, with an amazing depth of detail on the settlement, geography and history of the area. Some very thorough research by Waitley, whom I suspect of being a local historian of some note. If you're looking for info on Florida's heartland, a great book.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Encore Provence by Peter Mayle

I think this is the last of Mayle's non-fiction books about his sojourn in Provence, which is rather a pity, as I thoroughly enjoyed them all. He and his wife moved to America for a while, and then decided to return to France, so he really seems to take a fresh look at it all, and brings us along for the ride. About America, he notices that a curious outbreak of politically correct speech was going on in the late 80s.

"...sophisticated and influential Americans - those whose comments are sought by the media - were not content to finish anything but preferred to 'reach closure,' and I have a nasty feeling that it won't be long before this affectation is picked up by waiters in pretentious restaurants. I can hear it already; 'Have you reached closure on your salad?' (This, of course, would only be after you had spent some time bending your 'learning curve' around the menu.)"

He talks about the plentiful supply of good restaurants near his home, and comments on the fact that there are very few female chefs in France. When he asks one local, he is told, " France some things are considered too important to be left to women." He's a little hard on the food critics, and when one reports that in France, the selection of rose wines alone in the supermarket was larger than the entire aisle of cereals, cookies and crackers back home, he snarks, "More wine than cookies! There can be few more telling signs than that of a society in the grip of depravity." That was one of the things, incidentally, that I found marvelous about supermarkets in Portugal - aisles and aisles of wine, cheese, meats and olives. Heavenly!

Outdoor cafes seem to be something that the French do extraordinarily well, and Mayle spends some time capturing the cafe experience. Contrary to the stressful, hurried way in which we Americans most often gulp down our meals, "You are expected to linger. You can read a newspaper, write a love letter, daydream, plan a coup d'etat or use the cafe as an office and run your business undisturbed."

Dry cleaners in France are experts on the oddest things. "...she gave him a short lecture on the staining capabilities of various wines, according to their tannin content, and seemed ready to move on to particular vintages when the arrival of another customer distracted her."

Mayle pays a visit to a perfumerie, where he learns just how difficult it is to be a "nose", and discovers that sometimes the most peculiar scents are added to perfumes for just the right fragrance to emerge, such as pipi de chat. He tries to figure out how the natives of Provence stay so fit on what is supposed to be an unhealthy diet. "...the food police...have lectured us on the evils of fat, any kind of fat...Food products, even here in France, have to confess on their labels that they have committed a crime against the innards of society by including a percentage of fat."

He also goes on a quest to find the perfect corkscrew, visits an olive oil production facility, where he says of the oil, "There was a wonderful smell in the air, rich and slippery and promising, a warm smell I always associate with sunshine."

I feel exactly the same way about Peter Mayle's writing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Hand of Oberon by Roger Zelazny

In this installment, Corwin finally begins to figure out much of what's been going on. At the primal Pattern, he and Random and Ganelon discover that the blood of Martin, Random's son, has been shed in the middle of the Pattern, causing damage, with the effects spreading out through Shadow, creating the Black Road which leads from the Courts of Chaos to Amber. Random sets off with Benedict to try to find Martin and determine his fate, as Benedict was one of the last people to hear news of Martin, via some mutual friends in Shadow.

Corwin uses an etching in his old cell, carved by Dworkin, the ancient family wizard to visit Dworkin where Oberon has confined him. He discovers that Dworkin was a rebel son of Chaos who found the Jewel of Judgement on the neck of a unicorn, and used the pattern in the Jewel to inscribe the Pattern, which created Amber and all of its Shadows, unsettling the balance between chaos and order. He is also stunned to learn that Dworkin is Oberon's sire, and thus, Corwin and his siblings' grandfather. Dworkin has gone slightly around the bend, after the damage to the Pattern caused parallel damage in his own mind, and believes the only way out is to destroy the Pattern, while Oberon, when he was last seen, believes there is a way to repair it, using the Jewel as a template.

Corwin journeys to the shadow Earth, where last he left the Jewel, after the attempt on  his life. While he doesn't discover the Jewel, he finds out through his friend and lawyer, Bill Roth, a few more things about the accident that seemed to start off this whole journey. His brother, Brand, seems to be at the bottom of the mess, and he has managed to steal the Jewel to implement his own plans for Amber.

There's a great synopsis of "what has gone before" in chapter 2 of this book, providing a nice refresher for those who wait too long between reading these. I believe the Amber chronicles were originally serialized in one of the pulps, then collected into five paperbacks, and later merged into two volumes by the SF Book Club, so early readers could have easily been left behind.

Corwin also manages to get an entirely different version of the story of the cabals vying for the throne from Julian and Fiona, Brand's former allies. It was they who had imprisoned Brand, fearing his plans for Amber were not really benign. The novel ends with a big reveal of the whereabouts of Oberon, that in retrospect seems almost obvious - the clues were there all along.

More good stuff from a master of fantasy.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein

  Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein is a nice little short story collection, though a bit inconsistent. These are reprints of some of his stories from the pulps, and he includes a short dissertation on the nature of science fiction, writing, and the future in his introduction, called Pandora's Box. I can see some of the roots of what I consider to be the essential elements of good writing described here - I always thought I'd come up with them on my own. Ah well. In this essay, Heinlein gives some of his predictions for what the future will be like in 50 years, and he was writing in 1966, so at this point one can tell how well he did as a prognosticator.

  1. Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door. Nowhere even close.
  2. Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure. Nailed it.
  3. The most important military fact of this century is that there is no way to repel an attack from outer space. See #1.
  4. It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a "preventive war." ROFL.
  5. ...the housing shortage will be solved...Still with us.
  6. We'll all be getting hungry by and by. We'll all be getting obese, more likely in the U.S.
  7. The cult of the phony in art will disappear. What an impossible dream.
  8. ...psychoanalysis will be replaced by 'operational psychology' based on measurement and prediction. Naw.
  9. Cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay will all be conquered. Unfortunately, no.
  10. ...mankind will have explored the solar system, and the first ship to reach the nearest star will be abuilding. Sadly, our spacefaring days may be over.
  11. Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Wow! He had no idea.
He lists a few more, but nothing of consequence.

The first story, Free Men, is about the resistance movement in the U.S. after invasion by an undescribed foreign power. It ends abruptly and inconclusively, as if perhaps there was a larger story in mind never got around to penning. The only thing recognizable is the quote "You can't enslave a free man, the most you can do is kill him."

Blowups Happen is the story of how scientists deal with the difficult problem of keeping an atomic power plant running, when it could turn into an atomic bomb at any time, and when the entire economy of our nation depends on its continued operation. A little technical, yet hokey.

Searchlight is a cute short short about locating and rescuing a little girl - a piano prodigy - when her ship crashes on the Moon, using music.

Life-Line is the story of how Dr. Hugo Pinero discovers a scientific method to determine the date and hour of a man's death. This understandably upsets the life insurance companies, and begins a legal battle to prohibit him from doing business. Heinlein has some interesting things to say about the scientific method.

Solution Unsatisfactory might be regarded as an allegory, of sorts. It's a story in an alternate history, where the atomic bomb was never invented, and the path to a super weapon went a different direction, creating a radioactive dust which kills wholesale, and against which there is no effective defense. Some of this is about the "road not taken" by the U.S. after WWII, when we dropped the atomic bomb, but failed to anticipate the future proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the danger which they now pose when acquired by rogue states. Very thought provoking.

As I said, a bit inconsistent, but still a good read.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

Will Laurence and Temeraire are quite eager to be on their way home from China, but their ship catches fire near Macao, and they are forced to remain there far longer than they really want to, until a message arrives by courier from England ordering Laurence to proceed to Istanbul to take possession of three dragon eggs purchased by the British from the Turks. As the ship cannot sail immediately, they decide to go overland, and hire a guide - the same man who delivered the message - to show them the way to cross the land mass of Asia.

The first half of the book reads a bit like a Marco Polo travelogue of exotic lands and people, as they travel with a train of camels, both to carry water and to feed Temeraire when necessary. Along the way, they encounter a clutch of semi-feral dragons who live in the mountains, and Temeraire's stories of civilization tempt them into accompanying the adventurers. When they finally arrive in Istanbul, it turns out that the payment for the dragons eggs has been stolen, the British ambassador has disappeared, and Laurence and his crew are "guests" of the Turkish rulers for far longer than they had hoped. They are forced to steal the eggs, finally (they learn that the Turks really had received the gold, after all), and flee the city and area.

They end up in the middle of Napoleon's invasion of Germany, Austria and Prussia, and try to help the German armies to defeat the emperor. But things go badly, and the French overrun part of Russia, as well, and Laurence and Temeraire are trapped behind enemy lines, while the time for the eggs' hatching approaches far too quickly.

This one is a bit depressing...I guess the Napoleonic Wars were, too, weren't they? Except for the French, perhaps.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sign of the Unicorn by Roger Zelazny

  Sign of the Unicorn is the third book in the chronicles of Amber. After arriving with an army with firearms when Amber was under attack and Eric lay dying, Prince Corwin is finally at the helm of the kingdom, for the moment. As the story opens, he has been made the prime suspect in the murder of his brother, Caine. He found a note ostensibly from Caine, asking him for a meeting in the Grove of the Unicorn, and when he arrived, he found his brother with a slit throat, killed by a humanoid out of shadow that seems extremely familiar. It's one of the same crew that attacked Corwin, Random and Flora at the beginning of Nine Princes in Amber.

Corwin returns to the castle with the body of the attacker, after placing Caine's body in a shallow grave, and calls Random to his room. He finally gets to hear the story of how Random ended up being pursued. Random was attempting to rescue their brother, Brand, from a strange prison in one of the wilder shadows at the edge of Chaos.

One amusing little passage about his first battle with Brand's jailers:

"Unfortunately, the inconsiderate lout had carried off my blade, snagged in some bony cleft or other he had chosen to interpose when I swung. It was obviously my day for losing blades, and I wondered if my horoscope would have mentioned it if I had thought to look before I set out."

After Caine's funeral, Corwin decides to take advantage of having most of his siblings gathered in one place  and, after having Random relate his tale, uses their combined wills to use the Trumps (powerful tarot cards that allow communication and transport between their wielders) to contact Brand and attempt to set him free. They succeed in this endeavor, but someone in the room attempts to kill Brand as soon as he is in the room with them, planting a dagger in his kidneys. Gerard uses his medical skills to keep Brand alive, and stands guard over him while the others return to their conversation and conspiracies.

When Corwin finally heads off to his room at the end of the evening, he is surprised by an assassin there, and only the effects of the Jewel of Judgement (which occasionally does odd things with time) keep him from being killed, as he manages to partially dodge the lethal blow, and the Jewel teleports him to a place where he subconsciously feels safe, his own bed in his house on the Shadow Earth. While he is there recovering (taking advantage of a time differential between Earth and Amber) he learns a lot more about the accident that put him in the hospital, and becomes more determined to get to the bottom of what's rotten in

More good intrigue, and some things that were previously shadowy begin to emerge.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Waldo & Magic, Inc. by Robert A. Heinlein

  This book is a binding together of two novelettes by Heinlein. In Waldo, most of the U.S. industry and transportation run on broadcast radioelectric power, collected by a type of antenna called a deKalb unit. When these units begin to fail, for no apparent reason, the engineers of the North American Power-Air company are forced to seek help from a mad genius of sorts - Waldo. 

Waldo lives on a space station orbiting Earth, because he was born with a rare condition, myasthenia gravis, which has made his muscles extremely weak, and he is much better able to cope with life in zero gravity. He's quite brilliant, and highly arrogant, so consulting him tends to be a last resort.

In the course of figuring out what has caused the deKalb failures, Waldo is forced to travel to earth to consult an old man who has managed to make one of them work magic, apparently. He teaches Waldo about the Other World, which he describes in somewhat mystical terms, but Waldo returns home and comes up with a theory about parallel universes that explains the phenomenon adequately for the purposes of repairing the device, though the solution can only be employed by someone with the right mental attitude (back to some of Heinlein's ESP musings again).

One rather interesting passage:

"Suppose Chaos were king and the order we though we detected in the world about us a mere phantasm of the imagination; where would that lead us? In that case, Waldo decided, it was entirely possible that a ten-pound weight did fall ten times as fast as a one-pound weight until the day the audacious Galileo decided in his mind that it was not so. Perhaps the whole meticulous science of ballistics derived from the convictions of a few firm-minded individuals who had sold the notion to the world. Perhaps the very stars were held firm in their courses by the unvarying faith of the astronomers. Orderly Cosmos, created out of Chaos - by Mind!"

Still not sure whether it's an apocryphal story or not that Heinlein was the one, in this book, who coined the term "waldo" for remotely operated manipulating tools, still used today.

The second story is, on the surface, about a businessman's struggle against a protection racket run by magical mobsters, and then against a professional association for magicians which threatens to wipe out all competition in the area. Actually, it seems to be a product of Heinlein's foray into politics, and either reflects things he saw happening around him at the time, or events he thought might come to pass - just without the magical twist that made it a story publishable by the pulps he wrote for.

Some good fodder for thought in this one.

I found it interesting what he had to say about gun control, over sixty years ago.

"I see the drawbacks of magic as well as you do," he went on, "but it is like firearms. Certainly guns made it possible for almost anyone to commit murder and get away with it. But once they were invented the damage was done. All you can do is try to cope with it. Things like the Sullivan Act - they didn't keep the crooks from carrying guns and using them; they simply took guns out of the hands of honest people."

Sound like a familiar bumper sticker, anyone?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

How Firm a Foundation by David Weber

  This book is the fifth in the Safehold series by Weber, and it continues in the grand tradition. When I picked up the first book in this series, I had no idea I was in for a saga of this length. It will probably rival his Honor Harrington stuff when it reaches its conclusion...if ever.

Emperor Caleb and Sharleyan continue to oppose the infamous leaders of the Church of God Awakening, based in the city of Zion, who have declared their countries and their faith apostasy and declared a jihad against them. Merlin's pupils continue to introduce new innovations to the Charisian Empire's war machine, such as exploding shells for their cannons, rifled barrels and breech loading for their muskets, and more reliable fuses for both. They've continued improving their ship designs, as well, and are just approaching the point where their mines and forges will be able to provide sufficient metals to start going the ironclad route, as well. The steam engine is on the near horizon, and will soon provide motive power for their heavy industry, their transportation needs, and probably will drive their ships soon.

Sharleyan journeys to the recently conquered kingdom of Corisande, where she takes the responsibility of dispensing high justice against those caught and convicted of treason against the Empire. She manages to win the hearts of the Corisandians, for the most part, after surviving an assassination attempt (stopped by some of Merlin's special body armor) and continuing on with the trials as if nothing had happened. The true heir to the throne of Corisande is still staying with relations near the Church Lands, and his life will be worth little if the head of the Church ever decides it would be more advantageous to have him killed and blame it on Charis, as he did with the boy's father.

The Scheulerite order (secret police of sorts) decide that, since the conventional war isn't going all that well - Charis just destroys every fleet sent their way - it is time to resort to guerrilla methods. One of the church loyalists in Tellesburg arranges to divert a large amount of gunpowder from its proper destination and into the hands of agents of the Church. Those agents mount a series of suicide bombing missions which murder a number of Caleb and Sharleyan's nobles and allies, as well as hundreds of innocent civilians. No correspondence with current world events is intended, I am sure.

Weber weaves a lot of commentary about the nature of "proper" religion into this tale, with conversations between Archbishop Mikhael Staynair and his fellow clergy, and others between members of the Gang of Four in Zion. Some rather interesting philosophical points here, from a theist or deist outlook.

There's a lot of interesting intrigue going on in the land of Siddermark, as well, where the local merchants and nobles are basically ignoring the embargo against Charis, and therefore are one of the few provinces of the Church lands who are able to afford their tithe in these desperate times. Vicar Clyntahn has finally decided to move against them, and his undercover agents foment a rebellion against that land's Lord Protector. But Madame Anjelyka, formerly of Zion - instrumental in helping many of the innocent families of clergy accused of heresy to escape when Clyntahn began his purge - has been doing some plotting of her own, and things don't turn out quite the way the Church expected after all.

More great adventure in the inimitable Weber style.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Toujours Provence by Peter Mayle

  Mayle's tales about he and his wife's sojourn in Provence related in A Year in Provence were truly delightful, so I looked forward with relish (and maybe a little ketchup and mayo) to this one. Mayle has settled in and nearly gone native by the time this one was written, so he's lost a little bit of the sense of being on the outside, looking in, that made many of his stories so droll, but there's still a lot to love here.

Getting away from the calendar progression of the first book, Mayle feels free to jump around a bit in his subject matter, ranging from the buying and selling of pedigreed dogs to the training of truffle pigs, to the traditions and manufacture of pastis (an anise flavored liqueur that the people of Provence consume in prodigal quantities), to a visit to the Chateau Neuf de Pape and more than a few tastes of its famous wines.

Mayle decries the "gentrification" of his beloved countryside when it is invaded by the beautiful people, and the movie stars, politicians, and other heavy hitters move in, cause property prices to skyrocket, and turn sleepy little towns into pop cultural tourist meccas.

Something that recalled to me fond memories of my vacation in Europe:

There were two stalls selling olives - just olives - in every conceivable style of preparation: olives a la grecque, olives in herb-flavored oil, olives mixed with scarlet shards of pimento, olives from Nyons, olives from Les Baux, olives that looked like small black plums or elongated green grapes. They were lined up in squat wooden tubs, gleaming as though each one had been individually polished."

Mayle's recounts the story of how he hears about a man who is training a group of frogs to sing the Marseillaise (the French national anthem) for Bastille Day celebrations. Is there a racial slur implied here? Anyway, he spends considerable time tracking down the location of the man and his frogs. In pursuit, he inquires of his neighbor, Massot, about whether it is even possible. Massot doesn't quite understand the question.

"I have never eaten toads," he said. "Frogs, yes. But toads, never. Doubtless there is an English recipe. No?"

"I don't want to eat them. I want to know if they can sing."

"Dogs can sing," he said, "You jut kick them in the couilles and then..." He lifted his head and howled.

I began howling as I read this, myself.

I love his descriptions of meals in Provence.

"We eased into lunch like athletes limbering up. A radish, its top split open to hold a sliver of almost white butter and flecked with a pinch of coarse salt; a slice of saucisson, prickly with pepper on the tongue, rounts of toast made from yesterday's bread, shining with tapenade. Cool pink and white wines...The alouettes sans tete (headless larks, but not literally) were hot and humming with garlic, and Michel decided that they deserved a more solid wine...Salad came, and then a basketwork tray of cheeses, fat white discs of fresh goat cheese, some mild Cantal, and a wheel of creamy St. Nectaire from the Auvergne...Scoops of sorbet were offered, and an apple tart, sleek with glaze, but I was defeated."

Time to knock off for a bite to eat. Happy Travels!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Spider's Revenge by Jennifer Estep

  Spider's Revenge is the fifth book in the Elemental Assassin series by Estep. As the story begins, Gin is on the rooftop of Mab Monroe's mansion, where a dinner party is beginning, in the middle of winter, with a crossbow at the ready and a small hole bored in the window, waiting to loose the bolt that will kill Mab and end their conflict at last. Ok, so you realize that if this succeeds, the story will be over, basically, and the book will be about twenty five pages long, so you can be certain that something is about to go horribly wrong. Just as Gin fires the crossbow, one of Mab's giant servants leans in to give her a message, and takes the crossbow bolt in the head, instead of Gin's target.

Much excitement ensues, and Gin is forced to flee the rooftop of the mansion, then its grounds, through the snow, with enemies round about. She almost makes it out when she is knocked nearly senseless by a woman who looks old enough to be her grandmother. Mab's dinner guests turn out to be a couple of dozen bounty hunters who have been brought into town to capture or kill Gin and anyone she is associated with. Gin manages to turn the tables on the elderly yet still quite spry bounty hunter and her youthful protege, and forbears to kill either one of them. I predicted at this point that her mercy would become crucial to the plot later on, and ...well, duh.

When Gin realizes what's going on with Mab and her hirelings, she decides she must kill Mab before any of her friends are captured, tortured or killed in order to gain leverage with her, so she decides to tempt fate once again by attending a costume ball where Mab is expected, hoping to get the jump on the fire elemental. She tries to keep her friends out of things, but they're all a little too stubborn for her. Just before she goes off to the party, her sister Bria pours a great deal of her ice elemental power into a silverstone ring that Gin wears to remind her of her family (this becomes important later - another point of prediction) Owen escorts her to the party, and Finn hangs around as a wheelman to make a quick getaway. Gin has her desired battle royale with Mab, just outside the ladies' room, and (since the book is only halfway done) her skills are not sufficient to kill Mab at this time, and she is forced to flee, wounded and weary, once again.

Mab's bounty hunters begin the hunt in earnest at this point, and Gin and her friends head for their safe house. Finn and Bria, however, do not answer Gin's frantic phone call telling them to get away from her deceased mentor, Fletcher's, house. They have chosen this moment, for plot reasons, to finally realize they are actually quite fond of each other, so fond, in fact, that they are caught en flagrante when the bounty hunters surround the house. Gin tries to rescue them herself, but they are surprised by, once again, the old bounty huntress and her young ward (whom Gin has treated with kindness one more time by now - gave the kid some home made cookies). The bounty hunters take Bria away, and Gin knows it's time for the final showdown.

Estep is a good writer, very entertaining, but unfortunately far too many of the plot elements in this climactic episode were utterly and inescapably...predictable.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny

  In the Guns of Avalon, we take up the story of Corwin again, sometime after he has escaped from the dungeons where he was thrown by his brother, Eric, after he has recovered at the lighthouse of Cabra enough to travel. He journeys through Shadows to reach a place he once ruled, the realm of Avalon. On the way, he encounters someone who resembles a man who once served him, Lancelot (not a lot of creativity here by Zelazny in naming a noble knight, but he's not central to the long story arc, so we'll forgive it this time. Lancelot has been attacked by a group of bandits, and has managed to kill them all, but is gravely wounded when Corwin discovers him.

On the nature of the multiplicity of Shadow:

"I was drawing nearer to Avalon when I came upon the wounded knight and the six dead men. Had I chosen to walk on by, I could have reached a place where the six men lay dead and the knight stood unwounded - or a place where he lay dead and they stood laughing."

Corwin decides to aid Lance, and so he treats his wounds, gives him something to eat and drink, and then carries him all the way home, to the keep of Ganelon. The name Ganelon gives Corwin pause for a bit, as he once had befriended a man by that name who began as a bandit, but joined with Lord Corwin in ridding his realm of some other villains, and joined his court. But Ganelon felt betrayed by his lord when a title was given to another follower whose daughter Corwin desired, and he turned traitor, then was caught and exiled by Corwin into Shadow, never able to find the way home to Avalon.

But Corwin is far from the man he used to be after his stay in the dungeons, and he decides the risk of being recognized is small compared to the value of having a place to recover his full strength and conditioning, so he names himself Corey, and stays at Ganelon's keep for a while. It becomes apparent to him that this is truly his old retainer, long exiled, and as he begins to regain his abilities, it becomes a little harder to conceal his identity.

Ganelon's land has been beset by horrible creatures out of Chaos, whose number grow daily. When Corwin is visited by one of their leaders late one night, he realizes that this curse upon the land is a direct result of the curse he laid upon Eric and Amber when his eyes were burned from his head and he was thrown in the dungeons. By the way, the royal blood of Amber has always healed quickly, and the recovery of his sight finally proves that even more sensitive tissue than fingertips and patches of skin can grow back with time.

Corwin aids Ganelon and his people in ridding the land of the scourge, then decides he must head for Avalon. Ganelon has by this time recognized him, but has come to realize that he richly deserved his exile by Corwin, and begs to accompany him. They journey through Shadow to that place, and when they arrive, find that Corwin's older brother, Benedict, has become the protector of that land, perhaps in remembrance of his younger brother. They spend some time at his home before going after what Corwin most desires there, which is a compound which behaves just like gunpowder in the realm of Amber, where normal gunpowder does not work. He takes the powder back to the shadow Earth, and has ammunition made, buys weapons, and returns to Amber to continue his assault upon Eric and the kingdom he has usurped.

More great adventure and interesting plots and characters abound.