Thursday, August 31, 2023

Resurrected Review: The Gammage Cup, by Carol Kendall

Another old review, originally from Black Gate, I think, back in the year 2000. 

The Gammage Cup

by Carol Kendall
Harcourt Young Classics, Orlando, Florida, 2000, (originally published 1959), $17, 284 pages
ISBN: 0-15-202487-5

A review by Rich Horton

A rising tide lifts all boats, they say. The rising tide caused by the phenomenal success of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books has indeed lifted the boats of many writers of children's fantasy. One of the oddest cases is perhaps Carol Kendall, and her book The Gammage Cup. This is hardly an unsuccessful book: it was first published in 1959, and it was a Newbery Honor Book. It was reprinted at least as recently as 1990. But when a writer sued J. K. Rowling over supposed similarities between her obscure 1980s books and the Harry Potter books, notably including the use of the word "muggles", some unexpected attention was paid to The Gammage Cup. For it turns out that long before either J. K. Rowling or her suer, Carol Kendall used "Muggles" in this book. To be sure, Muggles in The Gammage Cup is a character name, but nonetheless, Kendall's book is proof enough that the word has a long history in children's fantasy.

Harcourt is reissuing this novel again in 2000. I will confess that I had not previously heard of it, despite having read a great many children's fantasies, and for that matter a great many Newbery Award and Newbery Honor books. But I'm glad to have seen it now. It's a decent book, very readable, displaying a nice touch for the cute turn of phrase, and with several clever notions. That said, it's a fairly minor book: pleasant enough but no patch on Alan Garner, or Lloyd Alexander, or Susan Cooper, or even J. K. Rowling.

The story is set in a small village in an idyllic valley. Centuries before, the Minnipins fled their drought-ridden land, as well as the evil "Mushrooms", and found their way to this valley. Now their past is all but forgotten. The townspeople of Slipper-on-the-Water live comfortable, complacent, and mostly conformist lives. They remember the centuries-past exploits of the great Fooley, who took a balloon over the mountains to their old land, and returned with some relics. Fooley's descendants, the Periods (called so for a cute reason I'll not reveal), are the leaders of the town. Everybody wears green cloaks, and paints their doors green, except for a few outcasts, called "them".

The main character is Muggles, a woman who runs the local museum (mostly housing artifacts Fooley brought with him from over the mountains). She is dangerously close to being one of "them", because though she wears a green cloak she sometimes belts it with an orange sash. As the story proper opens she notices something strange happening in the nearby mountains, and two of "them", the idler and poet Gummy, and the historian Walter the Earl, seem to be involved. Muggles is drawn closer and closer to "them" as the rest of the town, led by the Periods, whips itself into paroxysms of ultraconformity, in an attempt to win the "Gammage Cup". Finally Muggles and her friends are outlawed, even as they become convinced that the whole valley could be in great danger from over (or through) the mountains.

Naturally the outlaws save the day in the end, leading the fight against the menace from the desolate lands outside the valley. The story is throughout pleasantly and cleverly told, and the characters, particularly Muggles and her friends, are well-depicted. It is very tempting to try to think of the book in allegorical terms, not necessarily to its benefit. Read in this way, the book is clearly a warning against 1950s conformist tendencies. It's also a warning against the threat from "outside the valley", and this is one way the book falls down. This threat is seen as completely unhuman, and worthy simply of killing. In the context of the book this is no doubt the only option, but it made me feel a bit queasy.

The Gammage Cup is certainly a very enjoyable book to read. But it falls some way short of excellence. I'm glad to have it still in print, but it stands at best in the second rank of the great children's fantasies.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Resurrected Review: The Covenant, by Modean Moon

Resurrected Review: The Covenant, by Modean Moon

I ran across this old review I did of a very early example of ebook publishing. I haven't changed anything -- obviously much of what I said then is either old hat now or just out of date, and some of my speculations were wrong. 

Embiid was not a basketball player, but an early ebook company that lasted from 2000 to 2006, publishing perhaps most notably Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liaden novels. I will note that The Covenant was reprinted physically by Norilana Books, and is now available in ebook form from Baen. (I'm not sure if Baen did a print edition. The cover reproduced to the left is from their ebook.)

The Covenant

by Modean Moon

Electronic edition: Embiid, Waianae HI, 2000, $5

(Originally published by Harper Monogram, 1995)

ISBN: 1-58787-003-7

Review Copyright 2000 by Rich Horton

Most of my reading is Science Fiction, and a major concern in that field is availability of older books. That is to say, the diminishing backlist. Lots of fine books are published and for all practical purposes are uavailable after the few months they are displayed in bookstores, or the slightly longer time they may still be obtainable from the publisher. As far as I can tell, this problem is still worse in the Romance field. There, the backlist seems almost nonexistent.

A lot of folks have suggested that new technologies can solve this problem. Print on demand books are one potential solution, and electronic books are another. (Keeping in mind that the interests of authors, readers, and publishers often clash in these areas, and that if a solution which seems ideal to a reader means an author doesn't get paid, for instance, it's not a very fair solution.) One company has just appeared and is reprinting some fine recent SF and Romance books, quintessential "midlist" titles, in electronic format, suitable for reading on a computer screen. This is Embiid, a Hawaii based company, which maintains a website at

I recently obtained a copy of the proprietary Embiid reader (available free with the purchase of one book: or a sampler version is completely free), along with one Embiid book. This reader has two functions: it decrypts the Embiid .ebk file format (an anti-piracy move), and it provides some basic functionality to help read the book on screen. This functionality includes such things as easy font size changes, display size changes, bookmarking, cover illustration display, and reading progress monitor. I found it easy to use, and in general the reading experience was tolerable. I am still much fonder of reading books on paper, but this reader did make it convenient to read a novel on screen without eye strain or difficulty finding my place.

The book I read was The Covenant, by Modean Moon. This novel was published in 1995, and won the Romance Writers of America Rita award for best Paranormal Romance. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Besides the romance element, there is a contemporary suspense story, and a link with an historical story. The various strands of the story are well integrated, with the romance arising naturally as part of the story, rather than driving the story, and with the resolution of the book being more closely tied to the characters' solving their personal problems than to the culmination of their romance.

The plot involves Megan McIntyre Hudson, a recently widowed daughter of a U. S. Senator. She has returned to rural Pitchlyn County, Oklahoma, to occupy a house her husband had owned, and to come to terms with her reactions to his death and the death of his sister, and to her own mistreatment, in a South American country they had been visiting for political reasons. Her emotions are complex, because her marriage was mostly a sham, and because her father has betrayed her in his politically-motivated response to the atrocities she witnessed in South American, and because she is only now coming to terms with a lonely emotional life. Unbeknownst to her, her onetime brother-in-law, the estranged husband of her husband's now dead sister, lives in a neighboring house. This man, Jake Kenyon, is a former DEA agent, then local sheriff, who has considerable issues with the current law enforcement officials of Pitchlyn County.

One night Jake hears signs of a struggle at Megan's house, and bursts in to rescue her from an illegal search conducted by the thuggish local sheriff. Thus Jake and Megan, who don't know each other despite being almost in-laws, are thrown together. Soon they find themselves, against their will, forced to try to figure out why people seem to be prowling about their two properties, and why the local police seem to be unduly interested as well.

At the same time, Megan, perhaps as a result of her psychiatrist's urging her to record her thoughts, begins to seemingly "channel" a young woman who lived in Pitchlyn County in the 1870s. Lydia was a white woman in the then Choctaw Nation, in love with a half-Choctaw ex-Ranger named Sam Hooker. Sam has angered an outlaw gang who then kidnap Lydia and rape her serially for several days until Sam can rescue her. This horrifying event scars her permanently, essentially ruining her relationship with Sam, which is already harmed by her hypocritical father's refusal to countenance her marriage to an Indian. Over time, Megan learns more and more of Lydia's story, and the half-parellels between her story and Megan's own story illuminate the contemporary plotline without being a slavish repetition.

The novel works itself out with a solid and suspenseful resolution to the story of Jake and Megan, as they fall in love, and also figure out the mysterious doings on their property, which turn out to have connections to both Jake's past and Megan's past, and perhaps even to the story of Sam and Lydia. The latter story is nicely revealed as well, and is effectively emotionally wrenching. The backdrop of the Oklahoma landscape is also well-evoked. The characters are convincing, and the love story is believable. This is a good example of what a "romance novel" really should be, in my opinion: a good novel on its own that has a solid romance story as a significant thread, as opposed to a contrived romance that drives the plot willy nilly (which I've seen too often elsewhere). Definitely worthy of reprinting.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Review: Waking the Moon, by Elizabeth Hand

Review: Waking the Moon, by Elizabeth Hand

by Rich Horton

I am a great fan of Elizabeth Hand's fiction, but I am quite behind on her novels, especially her early ones. I finally decided to read her  1994 novel Waking the Moon. I bought the audiobook version, and then, because I get impatient and also like to have text for rereading and such, I got the Kindle edition. I figured they would be the latest and best versions. And I read the book and was very impressed.

Then I investigated further ... the original 1994 version was published in the UK. The US edition appeared in 1995, and, it seems, was significantly shorter. Which version had I read? I ordered a UK copy, which took a while to come (the US Postal Service played some of their delightful games with it.) And as soon as I finally looked into it, I realized the version I read/listened to was indeed the shorter American version. And the changes are interspersed throughout -- there are the same number of chapters, but text has been added in many places. (Or, I should rather say, text had been cut in many places for the American version.) Somewhere I read that Liz actually prefers the shorter version. (I hoped to ask her about that at Readercon but we only got to talk for a minute or so.) Hah! -- I always want MORE. But, you know, things intervened -- like many other books. So I've only sampled the British edition. What I've read of the longer version has been good. But I think a full reading will wait until it's time for a reread. And so this review comes later than I meant it too, and probably suffers therefrom.

Waking the Moon is told primarily by Katherine Sweeney Cassidy, called Katie by her family, but Sweeney by everyone she meets as an adult. We meet her as she matriculates at the University of the Archangels and St. John the Divine in Washington, D. C. We already know from a preface that she will make two particular friends there: Oliver and Angelica, and that she will be in love with both of them, and that they are now (when is now?) gone. (The university is apparently based to some extent on Catholic University, where Hand herself went.) Sweeney is a typical smart young kid from a moderately privileged background, a mix of believing in her talent and totally unsure of herself. Soon after she gets there she runs into Oliver -- a legacy of sorts, and a gorgeous and undisciplined and dangerous and intelligent young man; and Angelica, astonishingly beautiful, also a legacy, raised by a single father. Soon they are inseparable, even as "signs" are happening -- living gargoyles or angels, portents of a potential change. Professor Balthasar Warnick is on alert. Visiting Professor Magda Kurtz is after something else ... And Sweeney's circle expands a bit to include Baby Joe and Hasel Bright and Annie Harmon (Angelica's roommate.) 

We get chapters detailing Sweeney's semester at the Divine, mostly spent learning the city and music and coffee and more from Oliver, while skpping class. We get an interlude with Magda Kurtz, as she leads an archaelogical dig in the USSR and discovers exhilarating (to her) evidence of human sacrifice in a Mother Goddess civilization. Sweeney and Angelica witness a dark scene with Balthasar encountering and exiling Magda ... and Angelica ends up with an ancient lunula that Magda had found at her dig. And everything climaxes at a retreat in which Angelica calls on mystical forces ... and before long Oliver is mad, and then dead, a suicide. And Sweeney is expelled, Angelica off to to Italy ...

The novel skips forward a couple of decades. Sweeney has graduated (from George Washington University) and taken a sort of routine job at the Smithsonian's Natural History museum. Her other friends from the Divine are surviving -- Baby Joe is a music critic of some note, Hasel a lawyer, and Annie a rising star in the Lesbian folk scene. Angelica is different ... she seems to be the leader of a sort of New Age feminist cult. But dark things start happening -- Hasel dies under mysterious circumstances that Baby Joe learns may be connected to Angelica. Annie is increasingly successful but is becoming scared of some of her fans, who seem to be ensnared in Angelica's cult, which has seriously misandric aspects. We learn of Angelica's father's past, and perhaps who Angelica's mother is; there are terrifying scenes at Angelica's home; Sweeney goes to one of Annie's concerts and finds herself in an hallucinatory state witnessing bizarre and horrifying acts. And she gets an intern who is terribly attractive, way too young, and who is Annie's son -- and maybe Oliver reincarnated?

I don't want to detail the plot any more -- perhaps I've already written too much. This is a novel that manages to be very scary and also very beautiful. It's a D.C. novel more than any other I know -- a true city novel, with great details about underground music and Washington's geography. It's feminist and inquisitive about a sort of cultist feminism that is both plausibly attractive and genuninely horrifying. It's about weather, oddly. It's beautiful, and beautifully written. It's a college novel for a while, and then it isn't. It's big and never boring in the least. It's sexy. It's musical. It's terrifying. It's tragic, and it has a (sort of) happy ending. It won the Tiptree Award and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award and probably deserved a few more. An excellent novel.  

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Old Bestseller Review: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

Old Bestseller Review: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

by Rich Horton

As regular readers of this blog (you happy few! :)) know, I have been reading a lot of Victorian fiction lately, and enjoying it immensely -- that last appropriate enough as many of these books are immense! But perhaps the most famous Victorian novelist, as well as one of the most popular in his time and to this day, is Charles Dickens. And I had not read a Dickens novel since I was 15 or so, when I read A Christmas Carol (of course!) and Nicholas Nickleby. I should say I enjoyed both those books, and it's hard to say why I didn't keep reading him. In those days (perhaps less so now) it was pretty common for Dickens to be assigned in high school. At my school, I believe, the usual choice was A Tale of Two Cities, though I've heard that each of David Copperfield and Great Expectations were also common. But he wasn't assigned in the English Literature class I took. (I believe Wuthering Heights, which at that time I hated, was the only Victorian novel on the reading list.)

At any rate, I knew I'd get to Dickens eventually, and I had pretty much decided that either David Copperfield or Great Expectations were logical first choices. And Copperfield got the nod, primarily because I found a free Librivox recording, so was able to listen to it on the way to work over the past few weeks. (Of course I also have a print copy, a Modern Library Classics edition.) The reader was T. Hynes (I think, sometimes it's hard to know) and he did a very fine job.

The novel's full title is given, in my Modern Library edition, as The Personal History, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery Which He Has Never Meant to be Published on any Account. This is a curious alteration of the title given on the serial edition: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery. As for the first book edition, the title page reads simply The Personal History of David Copperfield. (I don't know if a fuller version was given a bit later in that edition.) The novel was serialized between May of 1849 and November of 1850. (Not, as I understand, in a magazine, but in independently sold parts.) The first book edition appeared from Bradbury and Evans in two volumes in November of 1850. 

I don't wish to go to much into the plot, which is surely familiar to many people, and which anyway, though enjoyable to follow, is not the key to the novel. It is a purely classic bildungsroman in form, and it is also semi-autobigraphical. (In the years before Dickens wrote Copperfield he had produced some autobiographical sketches, which he claimed to have burned -- but surely some of what he wrote was reworked to form parts of the novel.) At any rate, it treats of the life of its first person narrator from his birth as already half an orphan (his father having died months before his birth), through his mother's disastrous remarriage and subsequent death, to his abortive education followed by factory work, then to his fleeing to his aunt's house, and his more successful education, leading to a job training to be a proctor (a sort of lawyer), his courtship of his boss's pretty daughter and then marriage, his early career as a journalist and then novelist, and his eventual success, in both his career and a later remarriage.

Obviously that description leaves out, well, pretty much everything! For the book lives in the other characters, and much of the incidents and extended plot elements concern other characters too: his schoolboy friend Steerforth and his terrible betrayal of David's childhood friends; his impecunious one-time landlord Mr. Micawber; the scheming villain Uriah Heep, etc. Best perhaps, to just mention all the glorious characters, most of whom are wildly eccentric in one way or another. There are villains -- Heep, of course; and David's sadistic stepfather (called "father-in-law" in the book) Mr. Murdstone and his equally sadistic sister Jane; and Steerforth, somewhat ambiguously villainous but with a truly villainous servant, Littimer; his first schoomaster, Mr. Creakle; the rackety Jack Maldon, who tries to seduce David's second schoomaster Dr. Strong's young wife. And the long catalog of less terrible people: Mr. Micawber, ever ambitious but never willing to work for it, and his loyal wife; Miss Mowcher, a spirited dwarf and hairdresser; Thomas Traddles, David's much put-upon school friend who is perhaps the most deserving hard worker in the novel; David's aunt, Betsey Trotwood, perhaps my favorite character in the novel, a greathearted woman with a suspicion of marriage and a curious devotion to David's sister Betsey (the girl she feels David should have been); Betsey's lodger Mr. Dick, obssessed with the severed head of Charles I but as loyal and honest a man as may be; David's mother's maid, Clara Peggoty, and her whole family: her brother, unmarried himself but who has adopted his niece Emily and his nephew Ham, both orphans (of different parents) -- Emily is, in a way, David's first love, and her story is one of the more affecting in the book; the carter Mr. Barkis -- "Barkis is willin'" is one of the book's great lines; Mr. Wickfield, Aunt Betsey's lawyer and David's landlord for a time, almost ruined by his drinking; Agnes Wickfield, a sweet and greatly moral character, perhaps a tad too idealized; Mr. Omer, the wonderfully portrayed undertaker who buries David's mother (and remains a figure in David's life); Martha, the ruined woman who redeems herself in the end; Rosa Dartle, Mrs. Steerforth's fierce companion, not a good person but one more to be pitied than despised ... and many more. Some of these characters barely appear but are still memorable, others recur again and again. Even the tiniest characters are fun -- there are several delightfully portrayed waiters, for instance; and David's servants over time are pathetically awful at their jobs, and for all that quite funny.

There are many wonderful scenes worth mentioning as well: David's birth, especially Aunt Betsey's appearance; several death scenes; the great storm near the end; Micawber's denunciation of Heep; the dinner party at the Waterbrooks'; every scene with Miss Mowcher. And again, on and on.

It's a huge novel (roughly the same length as Middlemarch, I'd estimate) and it fully inhabits its length. It is by turns powerful, horrifying, very funny, very sentimental. It is moving when it wants to be, earnest when it wants to be. Certainly I was brought to tears several times, and to gales of laughter at other times. It is great-hearted, I think. It is far from perfect -- as Randall Jarrell said, "A novel is a prose narrative of some length with a flaw in it." David Copperfield is a prose narrative of great length with great flaws. And it is big enough, joyous enough, heartfelt enough, that the flaws don't matter and often are in their way also virtues.

It seems that its reputation has wavered over time. I sense that some critics disapprove of its sentimentality, probably of its relatively happy ending (for most characters), probably of its lack of devotion to social issues (they are not absent, but they are not central to the novel.) And I suppose that by this time several of Dickens' novels rank more highly in the general estimation: Great Expectations, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend in particular, I'd say. And perhaps they deserve it! -- I expect to get to them eventually. But I do love David Copperfield

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Review: Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz, by Garth Nix

Review: Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz, by Garth Nix

a review by Rich Horton

This is a very enjoyable new collection from Garth Nix, of 9 stories that have appeared in the past 15 years or so (one original to the collection) about the two people mentioned in the title. Sir Hereward is a young man, an expert in artillery, but also the only male born in centuries to the Witches of Har. Mister Fitz is a very long-lived sorcerous puppet, who has worked with the Witches for most of (I suppose all of) his life. He was Hereward's nanny as a child (and then called Mistress Fitz), and now he is Hereward's partner on their clandestine missions. Godlets are creatures from another dimension who have somehow entered Hereward and Fitz's world. Sometimes they are benign, and work to improve the lives of the humans near them. Sometimes they are rather trivial. And sometimes they are "inimical", usually enslaving in some sense the living things near them, to increase their power. The Council of the Treaty for the Safety of the World  enjoins the Witches of Har (and possibly other people) to destroy (or return to their original dimensions) these godlets. Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz travel the world, ostensibly as mercenaries, selling Hereward's artillery skills, but in reality perform missions for the Council: missions in which, typically, Sir Hereward distracts the godlet and or eliminates interference by the humans in thrall to it; while Mister Fitz uses his sorcerous powers to deal with the godlet itself.

The stories feature plenty of dark events -- wasted lands, many deaths, including of innocents, many betrayals, and some fearsome monsters. Yet the tone throughout is rather light. The interaction of the two main characters is delightful: Sir Hereward smarter than he acts, but still prone to be distracted by a pretty girl, while Mister Fitz never forgets that he (she) was Sir Hereward's teacher, and teaches him still. 

The stories range across a broad swath of this secondary world. In "Sir Hereward and Master Fitz Go to War Again" the twosome visit a prosperous city threatened by its much poorer neighbors, planning to serve in the city's defense -- until they realize there is a dark reason for the city's relative riches. Alas for Sir Hereward, the very attractive member of the city guard he first duels to a draw is on duty that night ... "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarsköe" takes them along with a fierce and sexy pirate and her crew to the well-hidden tresure of the Scholar-Pirates: a treasure only too well guarded. In "A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet", a convalescing Sir Hereward happens across a book which tells him the traditional date of "birth" of Mister Fitz -- and in finding him a present finds something much more sinister. "Losing Her Divinity", one of my favorites, it told by a man who chance-meets our heroes on a train, and tells them of his meeting with a certain Goddess. The first person voice of this man is beautifully done. In "A Cargo of Ivories", the twosome's plan to steal a valuable set of ivory statuettes -- some of which are vessels for dangerous godlets -- is complicated by the appearance of a young thief with the same goal. "Home is the Haunter" has the pair transporting a huge cannon across a dry waste, until they reach an apparent refuge, unfortunately the same night as the yearly manifestation of a godlet called the Hag. "A Long Cold Trail" has them chasing an escaped monster that has possessed one of Hereward's great-great-Aunts, who has failed to banish it -- their job is to catch it before it can reach a city and gain energy from all its souls, and their effort is complicated by the foolish intervention of an ordinary man who thinks his magical sword makes him a God-Taker. "Cut me Another Quill, Mister Fitz" features the two of them searching through tax records to track down someone with an anomalous fortune on the theory that that might reveal a dragon and its hoard; though Sir Hereward has little patience with this task and much more interest in getting a glass of wine in the company of a pretty guard. And "The Field of Fallen Foe" is another case where Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz have to clean up a mistake by one of his aunts, and also clean up a dreadful field of dead soldiers, and a questionably proscribed godlet.

These are all very amusing, and clever. My summaries above reveal little of the twists involved: sometimes Mister Fitz and Sir Hereward have a brilliant plan, sometimes they make it up as they go along, sometimes Sir Hereward is ignorant of Mister Fitz's plan. Always, something goes wrong. Sometimes, even, Sir Hereward gets his wish to dally with one or another of the pretty women he encounters. They are series stories, and follow a bit of a template, but in a good way, with variations and plenty of interesting menaces. I enjoyed them all when they first appeared, and enjoyed them as much on this reread. (The last story is original to this volume.) Recommended!

Friday, August 11, 2023

Review: As the Curtain Falls, by Robert Chilson

As the Curtain Falls, by Robert Chilson

a review by Rich Horton

Rob Chilson  began publishing in 1968, with "The Mind Reader" in Analog. He has published a great many short stories since then, with Analog and F&SF his primary markets. He published as by "Robert Chilson" for about the first decade of his career, and mostly as "Rob Chilson" since then. This novel was his first, published by DAW in 1974. (This makes it what James Davis Nicoll likes to call "Disco Era SF.")

I know Rob personally, mostly from various conversations over the years at ConQuesT, the Kansas City convention. (Rob lives in the KC area.) And I've enjoyed a lot of his fiction, mostly in Analog -- colorful and thoughtful SF, often set far in the future. Rob has called himself one of the last writers trained by John Campbell -- and he's one of relatively few writers to have sold stories to all four of Analog's editors (Campbell, Ben Bova, Stanley Schmidt, and Trevor Quacchri.) Having said all that, I'm disappointed to say that As the Curtain Falls isn't really very good.

It's a Dying Earth novel, set a billion years in the future. The protagonist is one "Trebor, Executive-Heir of the Forestallers of Amballa, son of Sirrom, son of Leinad the Buller." He's now the leader of one faction in the small nation Amballa -- after his father's murder. He is looking for an alliance with the leader of a faction in another nation, Linllalal. And he learns to his distress that the leader of that faction has also been murdered -- and that they now propose that he marry this man's daughter, Viani. An offer which he finds insulting and distasteful -- as too does she, after a short while. But things are quickly complicated when Viani is kidnapped, either by Trebor's enemies or hers ... and honor requires him to try to rescue her.

Let's back off a bit. The attentive reader might have quickly discerned that "Trebor" is Robert, the author's name, spelled backwards. And soon enough we meet a Knarf, and a reference to an historical Imperator called Suiluj, and several more (check the names of Trebor's father and grandfather.) I can believe that a young man, writing his first novel, found this sort of thing cute -- and I could mention at least one more writer, of a similar age, who did much the same thing in this first novel. That said, while a minor irritation, it is an irritation. Perhaps worse are the opening paragraphs, a dreadful and overdone attempt at portraying some sort of exotic beauty in the dying earth landscape. I suspect the influence may have been Clark Ashton Smith, or perhaps William Hope Hodgson. (Indeed, the cover art, by Hans Ulrich Osterwalder and Ute Osterwalder, is reproduced from a German collection of stories by Hodgson.)

Anyway, the story continues, with Trebor chasing Viani and her kidnappers. There is a distinct sense of the author making things up as he goes along. He does find her, and her fetching maid, with whom he quickly has some fun ... making, eventually, both of them angry. There is an encounter with an apparently immortal man digging up "Dawn age" treasures; a battle against ogres; and another kidnapping, leading Tregor to a city ruled by a Witch Queen, also apparently immortal. He manages to escape, but he is still pursued by the Witch Queen, and a member of the sect that killed his father. He realizes he is in possession of a powerful "sigil", which might lead him to the "Kinsworth Legacy". The ladies are rescued again, and they make their way to the Legacy ... still pursued by enemies. Leading to a fairly appropriately cynical conclusion.

I complained about the prose at the beginning, but I should say it quickly settles to, well, good enough prose, if nothing special. The plot is, as I suggested, somewhat discursive and inconsistent. There are some nice action scenes, and some parts that drag, and a lot of rather implausible developments. It's sexy enough (for its era), and doesn't take itself too seriously. The "Dying Earth" milieu is a constant presence, with much discussion of the very deep time represented by past Empires, but there's not enough there that's original enough, or truly inspiring enough, to really work. In the end, at least it held my attention, but I was never thrilled. A very minor work, not really a novel that deserves remembering. But I will reiterate that Chilson, well, Got Better, and he has produced some very enjoyable work in later years.

One more criticism -- not the author's fault. The copy-editing is utterly dreadful. There are numerous annoying typos -- such as "football" for "footfall", a bit distracting in a novel set a billion years hence. Or, on the back cover, "Kingsworth Legacy" instead of "Kinsworth Legacy". And dozens more. Also there was at least one case where several lines were completely omitted. DAW was not known back then, I'd suggest, for great production values, but this seems far worse than their norm. 

I have another Chilson novel to hand -- The Shores of Kansas. It looks somewhat more promising, and I'll be giving it a try soon.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Review: Sunfall, by C. J. Cherryh

Review: Sunfall, by C. J. Cherryh

by Rich Horton

I read C. J. Cherryh's collection Sunfall when it first appeared in 1981. I remember enjoying it, and thinking that the opening story, "The Only Death in the City", should have got a Hugo nomination, but I remember little else. So I was happy that our book club chose it for the August meeting this year.

Sunfall was marketed ambiguously, never identified as a collection, doubtless because novels tend to sell better than collections. And, indeed, the stories are vaguely linked by setting and theme, though there are no direct links. And they are all original to the book. (One more story, "MasKs", was added in 2004 for The Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh.) I always assumed that one reason "The Only Death in the City" didn't get a Hugo or Nebula nomination was that many voters passed over the stories in Sunfall on the assumption that they were chapters in a novel, though it did finish 4th in the Best Short Story category for the Locus Awards. It comprises six stories (not counting "MasKs"), each set in a major world city. There is a brief prologue establishing the setting and theme -- Earth is an old, dying world, and many of its remaining people are concentrated in the great ancient cities. The six stories are:

"The Only Death in the City" (Paris) (6800 words)

"The Haunted Tower" (London) (15700 words)

"Ice" (Moscow) (10600 words)

"Nightgame" (Rome) (6400 words)

"Highliner" (New York) (11100 words)

"The General" (Paris) (10600 words)

The later, seventh, story, "MasKs", is set in Venice, and is about 17,500 words.

"The Only Death in the City" is about the first new child born in Paris in a long time -- most children are reincarnations of the residents. As he grows up, he eventually falls in love with Ermine, one of the ancients. And he realizes he does not want to live over and over, replaying the same scenes in different permutations -- so he makes a bargain with Death, that he will truly die and not be reincarnated. It's a highly romantic story, and the romanticism is effective, and the inevitable ending works. It remains a very good story, though I think it affected me even more 30 years ago.

"The Haunted Tower" concerns Bettine Maunfrey, a mistress of the Lord Mayor of this latterday London. She is a callow woman, born to poverty and only too aware that she needs to keep the interest of the Mayor to keep her position -- but she is tempted into an affair with a young man and is sent to the Tower. Once there she encounters the ghosts of the Tower -- the past victims, such as Richard III's nephews, Anne Boleyn, the Earl of Essex, and even Queen Elizabeth I (not truly a Tower victim, of course.) And an old Roman soldier. They make it clear to her that is is politics, not sex, that has imprisoned her, and she realizes that she has gotten entangled in a revolutionary plot, as her young lover used the access she accidentally gave him to steal secrets. Eventually the Mayor offers her her freedom in exchange for revealing the name of the thief ... It's a pretty effective story but not a great one.

In "Ice" the Moskva of this future has returned, it seems, to essentially 15th Century or so conditions, with added cold. Andrei is one of the few who dare venture outside, to hunt. One day on his return he encounters a pack of wolves, seemingly led by a mysterious great white wolf. He barely makes it to safety, and finds himself terrified by the prospect of going back outside the walls, but at the same time drawn to the great beauty of the ice and the white wolf. He puts it "I have lost my luck". He is to be married to his beloved Anna in the spring, but even this joy seems to have been taken from him. He decides he must go back outside -- to his fate, he believes. But his friend Ilya, Anna's brother (and obviously coded as gay, and in love with Andrei) insists that he go instead, though he lacks the skill and experience of Andrei. Again -- the plot drives to the one possible conlusion. I liked this story quite a bit.

"Nightgame" is more science-fictional. Rome is again ruled by an Emperor -- the current one, Elio DCCII, is a 12 year old boy. He has become more and more bored with the primary entertainment -- in which a prisoner is sent to a virtual environment to be hunted or otherwise exposed to great dangers, and inevitably to die. The prisoner's mental state is recorded as "dreams" that people can experience for themselves. But the decadent local prisoners don't put up enough of a fight. So a man who supplies people for this dream recording has obtained a native of one of the planets humans have colonized, who lives in a more "primitive" environment ... and who may put up a better fight. Though the basic outlines of this are clear, the execution, and the final resolution, are nicely handled. Another good story.

"Highliner" is again true science fiction. It's set in an ever expanding New York, comprising, it seems, larger and larger skyscrapers. The "highliners" are those who work on the outside, maintaining the buildings or working the construction crews expanding them. One such is Johnny Tallfeather (the name evoking, of course, the Mohawk "skywalkers" who have worked in bridge and skyscraper construction for decades.) Johnny and his team are approached by someone representing a corporation which wants the latest new construction to be slightly altered to favor them. He's uneasy about this, but there seems no alternative -- and then when they are working on it, there's an accident -- and it's quickly clear that it was no accident -- as witnesses to the corporations corrupt actions Johnny and his team are to be murdered. But Johnny survives, and in his anger convinces his union to stage a strike. It's a pretty solid story.

"The General" is set in the Forbidden City, as it is again threatened by the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. The Forbidden City, or City of Heaven, is not ready for war -- they are devoted to beauty and pleasure, though they maintain an army, which has been sufficient in the past when one small tribe or another attacks. But this time the tribes have been unified by title General, Yilan, and a true "horde" has been assembled, and the City is doomed. Yilan, however, is dying, and the question of succession is important -- he wishes for his protege Shimshek, despite the latter's having gotten Yilan's wife pregnant; but Boga, a cruel rival, clearly is planning his bid. Meanwhile, two young lovers in Peking witness the city's apparent fall ... Much of this is informed by Yilan's realization (echoing, slightly, the many ghosts in "The Haunted Tower") that he is only the latest sort of reincarnation of past conquerors -- Alexander, Arthur, Caesar -- even (somewhat unconvincingly) Hitler; and he hopes for a new pattern to emerge in the twilight of Earth. For me, this was an ambitious story that didn't really work.

So how does the book work as a whole? First, it's clearly not set in a consistent far future -- these stories are best viewed as variations on a theme -- six separate looks at how one particular city might evolve in the very far future -- some somewhat fantastical, some straight SF. In the end, it's far more about the cities than it is about the "Dying Earth" future. As a story collection, it's quite good, with two or three exceptional stories and no real clunkers. Cherryh can really write, and that too is a pleasure throughout. 

It's also from an interesting period in Cherryh's career, as Mark Tiedemann suggested: she had established her reputation with the Morgaine novels and the Faded Sun novels (as well as the linked books Brothers of Earth and Hunter of Worlds), and for this brief period she published a number of almost experimental books: Sunfall, certainly, but also Wave Without a Shore, and Hestia, and Port Eternity. Part of this was Don Wollheim's willingness to let her try different things, part of this was, I think, Cherryh stretching her wings, as it were. It's nice to see this sort of phase in a major writer's career.

Finally, a quick look at the story written for the later edition, "MasKs", which I had not read until justnow. And I have to say, it's a very enjoyable story. It's set in Venice -- Venezia -- and the only real indication that it's in the future is that the threat of floods, of the sea, is more insistent than ever. Venice is not welcoming (in this future) to "foreigners" -- that is, to non-Venetians. But the story concerns too such -- an old woman exiled from Milan, and her young granddaughter; and a man, Cesare, exiled from Verona, an ambitious man. And the new Doge -- a commoner, but so far a successful Doge. The granddaughter, Giacinta, anticipates here first carnevale, her first taste of freedom, but her grandmother makes it clear she is supposed to marry Cesare, to ensure her grandmother's finances, and to support Cesare's bid for power. And all might go that way, but Giancinta sneaks away and meets a mysterious young man -- and when she meets Cesare she recognizes his cruelty. Can she possibly escape? Really, there are no surprises here, but it's a nice romantic story. (And I have no idea why the K is capitalized.)

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Review: The Godel Operation, by James L. Cambias

Review: The Godel Operation, by James L. Cambias

by Rich Horton

James L. Cambias has been publishing short fiction since the turn of the millennium (and even a few months before.) He has published six novels in the past decade. He also has done a good deal of work designing games. I have known him personally for several years (and liked his fiction for a lot longer.) Indeed, I read The Godel Operation in two shifts on a plane -- on the way to Massachusetts, and then on the way back (plus an extended stay in the airport waiting for a flight delayed several hours). Part of the trip to Massachusetts included a visit with Jim to a bookstore in my Dad's hometown of Hadley, and then dinner at Jim's house. You may calibrate this review as you choose! (I am friends with a good many SF writers, and I still review their books, and I do think I remain objective, though I might discreetly ignore a story than I disliked by a writer I liked rather than be mean to them.)

The Godel Operation was published by Baen in 2021. It is set some 8000 years in the future, in a very diversely populated Solar System, collectively called "The Billion Worlds". There is a fundamental divide between the inner system and outer system -- the former dominated by AIs, the latter heavily populated by humans with a large admixture of AIs. Much of this goes back to a war in the Fourth Millennium, which led to the depopulation of Venus and Earth and nearly to the extinction of humans.

The story is narrated by Daslakh, an AI living in a habitat called Raba in the Uranus trailing Trojans, who has been doing ice mining along with a man named Zee ("pretty clever for a lump of meat", allows Daslakh.) Zee begins to wonder if his life is really meaningful and Daslakh, surprised that he actually cares enough for a meat person to worry about his state of mind, asks the God of Raba -- i.e. the high-powered AI in charge -- to see if he can do something for Zee. And suddenly Zee reveals that he feels guilty about breaking up with an old girlfriend named Kusti Sendoa because she wanted to move away -- and so he's going to find out where Kusti might be in the Billion Worlds ...

Daslakh is smart enough to realize that Kusti is fictional -- a plant by the God of Raba to distract Zee from his depressive thoughts. As Daslakh expects, none of the Kusti Sendoas who respond are the right one. But, instead of giving up, Zee decides to track "his" Kusti down anyway. And soon Zee and Daslakh are on their way to Uranus itself, the last place Kusti was known to be heading. When they get there, they stumble into what seems a kidnapping, of a woman named Adya, and they rescue her. For their trouble, they are thrown into space, and miraculously are rescued as well -- and on that ship is Kusti Sendoa. Who doesn't remember Zee.

All this in the first couple of chapters. The story continues kinetically from there, across the Solar System. It soon turns out that Adya and Kusti are both (coincidentally?) in search of the same thing, something called the "Godel Trigger", which if released would represent a monstrous weapon against AIs. The two women don't trust each other, for good reasons (such as that it was Kusti's companions who tried to kidnap Adya) and they seem to have differing uses for the Trigger. Zee and Daslakh have a different view as well -- especially as Daslakh is an AI -- and one with secrets, secrets even from himself. Zee, predictably, is falling for Adya, but is tormented by his loyalty to his memory of Kusti.

The rest of the novel proceeds on two timelines -- the "present" -- that it, Tenth Millennium -- in which Daslakh, Zee, and company try to track down the Godel Trigger, and a series of episodes set millennia earlier, during and after the terrible war, which, the reader quickly guesses, involves Daslakh's own distant past; and also factions among the AIs, some who wish to destroy humankind and others to live with them. It's really tremendous fun. I was engaged from the getgo. Daslakh's snarky voice is a delight. The details of life in space, and of the interactions of various flavors of both AIs and "meat intelligences", are clever and believable. The twisty motivations, and twisty revelations, and wheels within wheels plotting, is intriguing. 

There is at least one more Billion Worlds novel (The Scarab Mission), and the setting is expansive enough (I mean, a Billion worlds, right?) for more. I don't want to call this "good old-fashioned SF", because it's 21st Century SF, with 21st Century science and people (well, at least 100th Century people, I guess!) -- but its delights recalled the delights I felt when first reading SF.  I recommend this novel highly.