Home : Ex Libris : 1 July 1997

ex libris reviews

1 July 1997

The reviews contained in this page originally appeared in a precursor of ex libris reviews called Will & Jane's Book Page. It did not have a monthly format, being just a set of steadily lengthening pages on what we'd been reading. It was split into monthly sections for convenience when ex libris was launched in August of 1997.


Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

By Patrick O'Brian

We started reading this shortly after finishing Master and Commander; alas, Jane got caught up in a book of her own shortly after, and we stopped. I enjoy this so much, but Jane's indifferent. Maybe we'll try again later. Years later.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Switch
By Elmore Leonard

I'd seen Leonard recommended by a variety of people over time, and bought one of his books at random, on a whim. Leonard writes crime fiction that's supposed to be bitingly funny; the movie Get Shorty is based on one of his books. I have no idea whether The Switch is representative or not, but I wasn't particularly impressed. It was a pleasant enough way to spend a couple-three hours sitting outside in the shade on a summer afternoon...but it didn't fill me with the urge to rush out and buy more.

The Price of the Stars
Starpilot's Grave
By Honor Betray'd
The Gathering Flame
The Long Hunt
By Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald

Collectively, these books comprise the authors' Mageworlds series, an interesting mix of space opera and fantasy. There's nothing deep about them, but they have been consistently enjoyable.

The premise is straightforward. Twenty years or so after the Rebel Alliance has defeated the Empire, Princess Leia is assassinated, and Han Solo, her consort and commander-in-chief of the Republic Space Force wants to find out who did it. He gives the Millenium Falcon to his rebellious daughter Beka, a starship pilot, on the condition that she seek out who arranged to have Leia killed. Along the way Beka gets help from an interesting variety of people, including several Jedi Knights; the order of Jedi Knights is now lead by Luke Skywalker. But wait...Leia's death is just the first step toward a new war with the followers of the Dark Side of the Force.....NOT!

These are not actually Star Wars books. Perada Rosselin, Domina of Lost Entibor, is not Princess Leia; she has considerably more sense. Her consort, Jos Metadi, is not Han Solo; he has considerably more courage. Errec Ransome, once Metadi's copilot and now Master of the Guild of Adepts, is nothing like Luke Skywalker. (Although, Ferrda, Metadi's Selvaur engineer, bears a striking resemblance to a reptilian Chewbacca.) The war was not a rebellion against an evil Empire; it was a defensive action by a loose alliance of free worlds against the forces of the Mage Worlds.

The match between Mageworlds and Star Wars is imperfect, but sufficiently present that they read a little like "Star Wars: The Next Generation." But they are much better, and an awful lot of fun.

Gate of Ivrel
By C.J. Cherryh

This is one of Cherryh's earliest books (perhaps the earliest book). Like Mageworlds, it's an interesting blend of science fiction and fantasy. Here's the premise: shortly after achieving spaceflight, a race called the qhal learn how to build "gates". A gate is a teleportation device capable of transporting people and things over interstellar distances. After this, they use spacecraft only to find new planets and install gates on them. But gates can also transport through time as well as space. As they fear changing the past, they never go backwards in time, but only forwards. Inevitably, though someone blows it, and the ripples of changing time destroy the farflung qhal empire leaving their worlds in ruins, inhabited by low-tech barbarians....and dotted with functioning star gates. Eventually another empire arises and discovers the qhal gates (there's a tantalizing hint that the discovering group is the Union of Cherryh's Union-Alliance novels). After seeing what happened to the qhal, they determine to close the gates, one at a time. They recruit a force of people who will travel through the gate that has been found, close it behind them, and move on from world to world. Of this force, the sole survivor is a woman named Morgaine. Gate of Ivrel, and its sequels, are her story.

I'd class Gate of Ivrel as a reasonably pleasant read, more accessible than some of Cherryh's work, but not in the first rank either. Of course, she was just starting out then.

Timediver's Dawn
The Timegod
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

These two books form a short series, unrelated to Modesitt's Recluce novels. Like virtually all of Modesitt's books, the main character starts out as a young, callow (but essentially decent) fellow who develops into an incredibly powerful decent fellow who can trash hell out of people who get in his way. As such, they are even better wish-fulfillment than Feist's books. These particular books, which are better than most of the Recluce books, concern a race of timedivers...people who can move from place to place and from time to time by the power of their minds. Together, the provide an interesting picture of the kind of culture that would result.

Fall of Angels
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This is the most recent (final?) book in Modesitt's Recluce series, but the earliest chronologically. It concerns an event that's almost a myth at the time of the later books, the foundation of the fortress of Westwind and the coming of the Legend. It also concerns the first black mage, a fellow named Nylan. Like all of the heroes in the Recluce series (Dorrin, Crespin, et al), Nylan is a genuinely nice guy, who really cares about people, builds things with his hands, and uses his powers in an extremely self-sacrificing way to save his people from destruction even though killing their enemies is progressively more painful for him. As such, it follows very much the pattern of The Towers of Sunset and The Magic Engineer. Enjoyable enough, but it doesn't really add much to the series. I must say, though, that Modesitt writes a much better prequel than many other authors (Anne McCaffrey comes to mind...or did you like Dragonsdawn?).

Shadow of a Dark Queen
Rise of a Merchant Prince
Rage of a Demon King
By Raymond E. Feist

These are the three books of Feist's Serpentwar Saga; I suspect another book is in the offing. The Serpentwar Saga is a follow on to Feist's Riftwar Saga, and has much the same feel. He's a good storyteller, and keeps me turning pages...but I have more and more trouble believing in his world with each book. He's got the Skylark Syndrome in spades. The Skylark Syndrome? Many years ago, E.E. "Doc" Smith wrote a series about a spacecraft, The Skylark of Space. During the series (I think) the Skylark and its crew discover a wonderful material for the ship's hull that is impervious to any kind of attack, and build a new ship. Later, they meet any anyway with a deadly energy ray that can cut through their supposedly impervious hull. Then they discover a new material that's even stronger, and so on. Every discovery they make is just the ultimate in strength, something that can't possibly be beaten....except that Smith couldn't continue the series without coming up with something even better. In Feist's case, the problem is finding yet another enemy to threaten the entire world with destruction. Got to be bigger and nastier than the previous enemy, got to threaten the known universe, or it's just no good!

It's interesting to compare Feist's stuff with J.R.R. Tolkien's. In The Lord of the Rings, a simple hobbit is called upon to find the strength to defeat the Dark Lord...not by becoming so powerful that he could defeat the Dark Lord by main strength, but by fighting to remain himself. Most of Feist's work, on the other hand, involves ordinary kids who grow up to be quite extraordinary, amazingly powerful adults who defeat the bad guys by their extreme power, good humor, and pragmatism. I've heard Tolkien dismissed as escapist wish-fulfillment, but he doesn't hold a candle to Ray Feist.

The Belgariad
By David Eddings

The Belgariad is one story spread over five volumes: Pawn of Prophecy, Queen of Sorcery, Magician's Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, and Enchanter's Endgame. The chess motif doesn't extend past the titles. I've read these a number of times; they're quick-moving, shallow, and fun: good light reading, if you like sword and sorcery fantasy. I don't particularly recommend the sequels (a second five-volume set, under the title The Mallorean), or what I've read of his later books. When fresh, his style is pleasant enough, but it grows cloying with repetition.

The Rosewood Casket
By Sharyn McCrumb

This is the latest in her Appalachian series. I used to think of these as the Spencer Arrowood mysteries, but Chief Arrowood has only a small part, and the only real mystery is over fifty years old. It's really a story about family, and about the tie between people and the land. I enjoyed it at least as well as her other Appalachian novels, but I wish she'd let her comic side shine through again. Even her Elizabeth MacPherson books have been pretty bleak recently.

Requiem for a Ruler of Worlds
Jinx on a Terran Inheritance
By Brian Daley

Old favorites, these. Good space opera. Sometimes I read to learn, and sometimes I read to enjoy a new story, and sometimes I just read to relax. Re-reading books like these is like changing out of hiking boots into soft camp shoes.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
Prince Caspian
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
By C.S. Lewis

Old favorites, and a joy to read. This time through, I was amazed at how rich and vibrant the stories are in my memory, while remaining so simple on the page.

Surprised by Joy
By C.S. Lewis

Those who have seen the movie Shadowlands might think the title is a reference to Lewis' marriage; it isn't. Rather, it's an autobiographical account of how Lewis became a Christian. It's a fascinating to watch how Lewis, who had utterly no desire to be a Christian, was dragged kicking and screaming into a real and vibrant faith--dragged, not by anyone human, but by his own intellect and the love of God.

The Great Divorce
By C.S. Lewis

Lewis was quite good at the art of applying Christian doctrine to real people, and this is one of his best books. As he puts it, there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who accept God's sovereignty over his creation (and thus over themselves), and those who say, with Milton's Lucifer, "Better to reign in Hell than serve in heaven." This book has nothing to do with divorce (the title is an obscure literary reference); rather, it's about the ways in which people seek their own will and reject the will of God. As such, he captures the dilemma of Heaven and Hell quite well: how can a loving God allow people to go to Hell? Hell is separation from God...and God will not override the individuality he has given us. If we choose misery rather than happiness, he will not prevent us. Ah, you ask, why would anyone choose misery over happiness? Read the book, and find out.

The Bridge
By Iain M. Banks

This is one of Bank's earlier novels, and one of his mainstream novels. At its simplest level, it's the story of a man who has a car accident and spends six months or so in a coma, and of the dreams and visions he has during that time. Nothing so simple as a near-death experience. I mentioned hiking books and camp shoes some books back; this was definitely one for the hiking boots. It was worth reading, but I still don't know quite what to make of it. It left me with some interesting images.

Don't Know Much About The Civil War
By Kenneth C. Davis

As I've indicated elsewhere in these pages, I'm something of a history buff. Up until now I'd not read much about the Civil War; it's quite a large subject, and I generally like to read an overview of a period or place in history before attempting anything too in-depth. I like to know how the little details fit in to the big picture, and it's easier to get the big picture from an overview. This book succeeds admirably, in my opinion, in covering the Civil War and the issues that caused it. I have no idea what genuine Civil War buffs and historians think of it, but for my purposes it was quite good. It was also enjoyable to read.

Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.

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