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ex libris reviews

1 November 2001

Tippecanoe and Tickle-Me-Too!


In This Issue:
Holy Wars

The war has begun, and it's just about impossible to avoid the words of pundits, prophets, guessers, second-guessers, rabid patriots, sensible patriots, anti-patriots, deceivers, wishful-thinkers, and pessimists, on every subject from Anthrax to Zionism. Much of the words have had to with religion, the nature of religion, the history of religion, the relation between religion and politics, and what religion really is, anyway. It's a topic that's dear to my heart, and on which I have definite opinions--but, as I did last month, I'll restrain myself.

Nevertheless, by some odd chance many of the books I've read this month touch on the subject of religion one way or another. I'll try not to wax too philosophical.

Perhaps I should start another page to wax philosophical on.

In the meantime, if some of my reviews seem a little vague, I apologize; like everyone else, I've been distracted.

May God bless you and your family during these dark times.

-- Will Duquette

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Niccolo Rising
The Spring of the Ram
Race of Scorpions
Scales of Gold
The Unicorn Hunt
By Dorothy Dunnett

I am actually a little hesitant to review or recommend these books. Four years ago I devoured the Lymond Chronicles by Dunnett. While reading the third one, I got to have a snow day at home curled up in my husband's recliner under a wool afghan. I read the book and completely ignored the kids til early afternoon when I realized that I had 30 pages left and was snowed in without the next volume to continue with. It was a panic stricken moment. But, on the other hand, every time I loaned the book to someone with a brief but excited description and the injunction to keep going for at least past the first 100 pages, it came back shortly thereafter with less than enthusiastic comments. Pearls before swine, I thought and kept my enthusiasm for my journal.

When the House of Niccolo series finally came out in paper, I snatched up every one as it was published for the rainy, or more likely in Wisconsin, snowy day that I would need to escape into another century. I have read the first five of the eight volumes in the series and find myself still in awe of Dunnett's command of the English language and her deft and clever ability to plot her books. The entire series pivots on the life and development of Claes/Nicholas/Niccolo who progresses from a 19 year old dyer's apprentice in 15th century Flanders to an international merchant, spy, banker and mercenary. The books are deeply plotted, full of intricate and colorful detail,and have gut wrenching turns in the storyline. There's even a love story interwoven throughout. Several times I have actually gasped when reading because I was so astonished by what happened. Nicholas has a gift for numbers, puzzles, ciphers and games, all of which he uses to his own advantage to advance the interests of his schemes. He is surrounded by a core cast of characters that develop with him, with some fading to the background and some exiting stage left as the plot moves along. What is an interesting but not particulary significant detail in one volume will later take on new meaning in a subsequent volume. The settings are so wondrously described you can almost hear the background noise and smell the odors on the streets as the characters walk down them.

However, these are dense books and require more than cursory attention to follow. They are not light reading but.... if you keep going past the first 100 pages of the first one and let your imagination take over you may find them as compelling and fun as I do.

Mrs. Mike
By Benedict and Nancy Freeman

I first read "Mrs. Mike" in 6th or 7th grade. As I recall a friend recommended it to me on a trip to the library. I remembered it being fast paced and exciting with some sad bits in it. A few years ago I found it again at a library book sale and spent a whopping fifty cents on it. One for the bookshelf was my thought at the time. Abby, my 11 year old daughter, and I were recently hunting the house for a new read aloud when I ran across it again and suggested it to her. She wasn't sure but was willing so off we went to the comfy chair to read. I had forgotten just how much fun this book is. It was originally published in 1947; my copy was printed in 1972. The basic story is about Katherine Mary O'Fallon who leaves Boston in 1907 to live with her uncle in The Northwest Territories in order to recover from chronic pleurisy. She is 16, pampered and a stubborn, though pretty, Irish girl. While living with her uncle, she meets and, of course, falls head over heels in love with Sergeant Mike Flannigan of the Canadian Mounted Police. He is a dream come true--tall, blue eyed, wears a bright red uniform and rides a horse. I confess I can almost hear the theme for Dudley Dooright as I write this. The basic setup has all the makings of a real bodice-ripper but 1947 was a more sedate time for romantic fiction and the story actually develops into a sweet story of the joys and difficulties of married life while living on the frontier. There are natural disasters, babies born and lost, and friendships that overcome problems of race and age. The title comes from the nickname Kathy receives from the Creek Indian women she befriends, lives with and ultimately learns to admire. My daughter thoroughly enjoyed the book, as I had at her age, and would nip up into her room with it to read ahead. I enjoyed reading it aloud both for the story and because it gave me an oppurtunity to practice my horrible Irish accent. If you like light historical romance and can find it, it's definitly worth a couple dollars at at library sale or used book store.

By Seamus Heaney

I really have no clue why I bought this translation of Beowulf or why I thought I should read it again. I certainly have little, if any, interest in Old English sagas. I do remember being forced to read some of it for an English class in high school and the teacher standing up in front of 25 bored-to-tears teenagers chanting the poetry in the original language just so we could hear the rhythms of it. High school truly is wasted on the young. Lately, I was feeling under the weather and not wanting to expend too much energy reading so I picked it up and thought I'd browse thru it headlong and blow off all the scholastic stuff. The basic plot, very loosely speaking, centers on the battles that Beowulf has with evil monsters. Monsters here are explained as the spawn of Cain, forever damned and hideous because of his sin. The first is Grendel who has been eating the king's knights while they sleep. He comes out only at night to raid the king's mead hall and eat the good guys. Beowulf hears of the plight of the king and sails from Sweden to Denmark to defeat Grendel and make a political alliance, not to mention get treasure as a reward. He dispatches Grendel bare handed, ripping off his arm in the process, and sends him back to the dark to die. Then Grendel's mother, angry over the death of her son, comes after Beowulf and he kills her barehanded. I'll leave you to find out what the third adventure is but you get the drift. It's like something right out of the storyline of a Xena Warrior Princess episode.

However, and it's a BIG however, what makes "Beowulf" more than a bad TV plot is the history of it and the emphasis on old, old notions of virtue and honor. The translator, Seamus Heaney, won a Nobel for his poetry so I am assuming the translation is excellent. The introduction gives some interesting history of the poem, written sometime between 700 AD and 900 AD by an unknown poet. The poet is Christian, telling a pre-Christian story about pagan monsters and peoples. References are made to the Old Testament and there is a moving rendition of David's lament over Absolom called The Father's Lament. Beowulf wins the battles with the monsters because he is virtuous and honorable--so much so that his own physical strength is so great that man made swords break when he uses them and he must fight all his battles hand to hand. Not surprisingly, the poem also reminded me often of a bardic telling of some of the elements in the Lord of the Rings plot. The king is a ring giver, there are swords of power, the dragon sleeps on his treasure--they just continue thru the whole poem. And not surprising, Tolkein wrote scholastic work on Beowulf and, I would bet money, used some of the elements of it for his own saga. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story and I think it's unfortunate that it's kept in the dusty academic cupboard.

John Adams
By David McCullough

My husband got to read this one first. He snapped it right up and carried it off to his reading chair when he saw it on the coffee table. I love him dearly but he reads really slowly and wouldn't even acknowledge my little hints about finishing the book before the paper disintegrates. So, I've waited two months after I bought it to get to read this one. Adams was the 1st Vice President, the 2nd President, one of the framers of the Constitution, an American ambassador to France, England and The Netherlands, a lawyer, a farmer, a classical scholar, an on-again off-again friend to Thomas Jefferson, and the loving, loyal husband to Abigail. That's the basic plot--he's born, educated, does all that stuff, gets old and dies on July 4, 1826, 50 years after The Declaration of Independance is signed and on the same day as Thomas Jefferson.

However, the telling of the story is done so well by McCullough, the primary material so seamlessly included in the text that it reads like an novel. John Adams is, of course, the main character. It is his story being told but Abigail, his wife, is also prominent in the story. Their relationship, told through the letters they send to each other, is almost as compelling as the events that Adams is involved in. The letters show a deep, comfortable friendship between them though occasionally a little frisky sizzle comes through. McCullough keeps his eye on Adams, resisting interpretation of events and other players motives. He also resists psychoanalyzing Adams, choosing instead to let his words speak so the readers can make their own judgment. He does have some bias as a biographer. It is very apparent that he really likes and admires John and Abigail. It also becomes obvious that he doesn't think that much of Jefferson, or at least he doesn't give Jefferson the adoration other historians have given him in the past. I do wish McCollough would have addressed Adams' frailties as a parent--one son dies of liver damage brought on by drink at the age of thirty or so and you wonder how it must have been to grow up living in the shadow. But of course, neither John nor Abigail wrote about that and the author remains true to his style of letting the characters tell the story. As I read this book, I kept wishing I could fast-forward Adams to the present and hear his opinion on the current State of the Union. I also thought about highlighting all the passages I wanted to remember for future reference, usually the ones relating to the books he'd read or his advice to his children. I plan on rereading this book at least once more and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys biographies, history or just plain good writing.

Dewey Decimated
Carnage of the Realm
The Best Cellar
By Charles A. Goodrum

All the titles in this series are subtitled "A Werner-Bok Library Mystery." The Werner-Bok library in Washington D.C. is, I believe, a fictional library located on the Mall between the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art. It's the basic background for most of the action and an integral source of information for the detectives who set out to solve the mysteries.

This series has three main characters. Creighton Jones, the public relations officer/journalist of the library, is a young, extremely good looking, saucy feminist who provides the office they use and the primary connection to the library's resources. Her real name is Betty but she goes by the snappier middle name her father gave her, Creighton. Steve Carson is a historian/graduate student initially doing research in the library to write his doctoral thesis. He also has an amusing, totally male appreciation of women's derriere's and a constant proccupation with Creighton's more appealing physical attributes. Dr. Edward George is the retired head of Yale's library system who is still drawn to libraries and books and serves as the mentor/teacher/father figure of the trio. The three of them make up the team that works faster and smarter than the jaded, tired cop from D.C, Detective Conrad.

Dewey Decimated, the first of the series, was written in 1977--just on the cusp of libraries moving from card and paper to computerized cataloging systems. Creighton is dealing with a series of letters that have alleged that some of the oldest pieces such as the Gutenberg Bible in the Rare Books department are essentially fakes. The letters are causing interest in the media and the library's Director, Dr Brooks, is getting worried about the negative publicity's effect on the grants and donations that fund most of the library's newer initiatives. He calls in his old teacher and friend, Dr. Edward Jones, to look around, interview the staff and see if he can find any reason why a staff member would do such a thing. Creighton is helping one of the staff change a display in the front lobby and bends over in her fashionably short skirt to lay something on the floor just as Steve Carson is coming up the stairs giving him the view that will change his life and draw him in as an integral part of the detective team. A nasty staff member is murdered in the stacks making the negative publicity even worse and the three of them are off to solve the mystery of who, what, and why before the library loses any more credibility.

Carnage of the the Realm moves from rare books to rare coins when Dr George is asked by the stunningly beautiful Madame Alexa Lehman to find out who has threatened members of an exclusive coin collector's club. Dr. George brings Creighton and Carson into the mystery to help him snoop around when one member is actually murdered during what seems like a routine burglary of his family silver. The team uses the Werner-Bok's newish computers to research the rare coins world and comes up with a premise that is proved to be dramatically wrong when the main suspect is murdered in exactly the same burglary method as the first victim. All during this, Carson is wooing Creigton who is way too feminist to fall for his lame lines, and Dr. George, at seventy, is finding the beautiful Madame Alexa intellectually attractive. This book has some interesting period criticism of computers--they actually call them CRT's, a term I haven't heard in years--and discusses Boolean logic when doing the search functions on the mainframe of the library system.

The Best Cellar, written in 1987, begins with Creighton giving a visiting scholar from the U.VA a place to sleep until a bed opens up at the local hostel for scholars that are provided by the library. The scholar, Durrance Steele, has somehow figured out that the books from the original Library of Congress which were thought to be burned by the British in 1814 were actually carted off and stored somewhere in the DC/Virginia area. When Congress voted to buy Jefferson's library from him and thereby help him pay off some heavy debts he had already acquired, they were essentially replacing books already purchased and owned by the LC. Come to find out Durrance Steele has stolen the research for her thesis from her roommate and female lover and intends to make money off the whole scandal. When Durrance doesn't show up at Creighton's apartment as scheduled and Creighton receives a murderously threatening phone call intended for her, Creighton calls Carson in for moral support and aid. So much for feminism. The two of them contact Dr. George, who is out in California helping a MAJOR university there go computer with their card catalogs while also tooting around Europe with the beautiful Madame Alexa. They hurry to find the threatening caller before she can murder Durrance or, in error, Creighton, all the while trying to reconstruct the research done into the lost Library of Congress books.

I have to say I enjoyed these three mysteries. The interplay between Creighton and Carson and his hopelessly lame come on lines is amusing. The discussions of computers in the library realm, though dated, were interesting and each novel is full of carefully researched factoids that I have filed away for future reference with my other reading. They were fairly fast reads and didn't require much brain power to follow though the plot lines and action kept my interest the whole time. Good mysteries for an evening before the fire.

Shroud for the Archbishop
By Peter Tremayne

The printed reviews on the cover of my copy of this book make comparisons of this series with Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael series and I guess if you try hard enough you can find some similarities. They were not readily apparent to me, tho. The novel is set in A.D. 664. The main character and detective is Sister Fidelma, an Irish religieuse, the precursor of the vocation that would eventually become nuns. She is also a trained dalaigh or advocate in the law courts of Ireland; the dalaigh's role is to logically investigate the crime and present it to the court for judgment. As a religieuse, she has taken vows of allegiance to the church but the vows do not include a vow of celibacy nor do they require her to remain present in what would later in history be called a convent. Her sidekick is Brother Eadulf, a Saxon friar whose vows to the church have also not included vows of celibacy.

The novel begins with an introduction outlining the general history of the Celtic Church during that period and its differences with the Roman Church that is just establishing itself as the primary authority. It's a useful introduction to read before jumping into the story since much of what Sister Fidelma thinks and does in the story is explained in the introduction. Sister Fidelma is in Rome to have the Rule of her religious house blessed by the Pope. While waiting for an audience with the Pope, the Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury is murdered in his bedroom and the relics and chalices he has brought to be blessed have disappeared. The obvious culprit, an Irish monk, is apprehended and jailed but unfortunately escapes from prison. Sister Fidelma, who has won respect from the Pope's secretary for her knowledge of languages, her skill in logical argument and her forthright refusal to backdown in the face of Roman prejudice against women, has been asked by him to investigate the murder and the suspect to determine who committed the crime and possibly to prevent a war between the Saxons and Celts back in the British Islands. Fidelma, of course, doesn't completely buy into the Irish monk theory while Brother Eadulf is unable to see other possibilities so the two of them set off thru Rome and the Roman Catacombs to figure out who would kill the Archbishop and why the silver he carried was stolen.

I enjoyed some of the period parts of this novel, particularly the the descriptions and details of Rome though I think the author explained more than was necessary to carry the action. The tension between Sister Fidelma and Brother Eadulf is both intellectual and physical and while it added spice to the novel, it didn't really ring true most of the time. I would have liked more about Sister Fidelma since she tends to come off as a bit too intellectual, and Brother Eadulf, the supposed love interest, seemed like a doofus at times. This is the only one of the series that I have read, tho I have another on my reading shelf. I am hoping that with more exposure I will enjoy the characters more than I did with this one. It was just ok.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Ionian Mission
By Patrick O'Brian

Each month I'm reading and reviewing one book from O'Brian's justly acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin series. This is the eighth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April Issue.

After focussing on Stephen Maturin's doings for several books, O'Brian now brings Jack Aubrey back into the forefront, and a fine thing that is. Jack is given command of the Worcestor, a line-of-battle ship and one of the so-called "Forty Thieves", English-built warships constructed by a notoriously venal and dishonest shipyard, and sent to the Toulon Blockade.

It's somewhat ironic, but by the time Jack Aubrey's career as a captain gets underway, most of the great fleet engagements of the Napoleonic Wars were already in the past. Instead, blockade was the order of the day. Britain controlled the seas, and the bulk of the French fleet was perpetually in harbor, occasionally managing to escape by ones or twos, but rarely in sufficient numbers to challenge the blockading fleets.

A blockade was usually conducted by two squadrons: the inshore squadron, compose of frigates and smaller vessels, whose job it was to play watchdog, and then the body of line-of-battle ships, whose job it was to stand ready until a message from the inshore squadron should give alarm that the enemy were coming out. The Ionian Mission is the first book in the series where we get to see what life is like on a line-of-battle ship on blockade: a life of bad weather, poor food, few amusements, and constant attention to rigging and trim of sail, but also a relatively peaceful life, with time for singing and the production of amateur dramatics.

In the ordinary course of things, life on blockade would have been Jack Aubrey's lot for much of the rest of his career. Fortunately for O'Brian's book sales, Aubrey's career takes a sudden and delightful turn about two thirds of the way through the book. Largely due to his friendship with Stephen Maturin, Aubrey is given a mission to the petty principalities along the Ionian Sea--the shoreline of the Balkan peninsula. The Ottoman Empire of the 1810's was not yet quite the decrepit husk of a hundred years later, but the Sultan was far from being in strict control of the outlying areas of his realm; the various pashas and lordlings were accustomed to bargain with both the French and the British, playing one off of another. It is Aubrey's job to pay court to three of them, and decide (with the help of advisors) which of them will best help Britain in her aims in the eastern Mediterranean.

Naturally, (Oh, joy!) the ill-built Worcestor cannot be spared for such a mission; it must remain on blockade. And so, Jack Aubrey is once more given the command of the ship with which I most associate him: the small but sweet-sailing Surprise. He will sail in her often in the remaining books of the series; now it's like having a long visit with an old, cherished friend.

The Titian Committee
Giotto's Hand
By Iain Pears

By the nature of continuing mystery series, there's often very little to say about any given book beyond, "If you liked the others in the series, you'll like this one two." And, honestly, I read these at the beginning of the month; quite a lot has happened since then, and the details have become hazy. But I do like the others I've read in Pear's series of "Art History Mysteries", and I liked both of these. I think there are one or two I still don't have, and I intend to look for them.

Check the past issues of ex libris for more about the series.

By Dick Francis

The thing I like about Dick Francis is his consistency. When you pick up a Dick Francis novel, you know what you're going to get. You know there will be horse racing; you know there'll be a murder or two; you know that the hero is going to investigate, and is going to get beaten up a time or two; you know that this will make him even more stubborn; and you know he'll triumph in the end. And you know you'll have a pleasant few hours watching it all happen.

Shattered, Francis' latest paperback, more than lives up to this standard. I wouldn't rank it among his most ambitious novels; it's altogether a smaller work, but in its small way it's a well-crafted, thoroughly enjoyable production, as satisfying as one of the glass figures created by main character Gerard Logan. And you'll never think about glass-blowing quite the same way.

Sailing to Sarantium
Lord of Emperors
By Guy Gavriel Kay

Kay's first published books were somewhat run-of-the-mill high fantasy; but he's since staked out a firm claim to the subgenre one might call the historical fantasy novel. There are two forms: the story that takes real history and adds fantasy elements (Tim Powers is probably the best at this), and the story that transplants a historical setting into a fantasy world. Kay made this latter form his own with A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and now The Sarantine Mosaic, the combined title for the two books named above.

The Sarantine Mosaic takes place in the Sarantine Empire, which is centered on the glorious city of Sarantium. The names have all been changed, of course, but the correspondences to real history are easy to make; the story is really about the days of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, the emperor who built the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia (now the grand mosque in Istanbul). Italy is now ruled by the Goths, and the Persians are pressing in on the Empire from the south.

Nominally, this is the story of a Roman mosaicist named Crispin, who is summoned to Sarantium by the emperor, there to design and create an immense mosiac for the interior dome of the new cathedral. But it's equally the story of a soldier, some chariot racers, a dancer or two, an aging wizard, a general, and three very powerful women with whom Crispin comes in contact: the Queen of Italy, whose nobles conspire against her; the empress of Byzantium; and the daughter of the emperor's late rival to the throne. It's about politics, chariot-racing, and religion.

It's been said that the prime difficulty in describing the Byzantine world to modern audiences lies communicating just how important theology was to just about everyone. Harry Turtledove, in notes on his novel about the later emperor Justinian II, apologizes about going on and on about the topic at such unbelievable length; and then tells us that he didn't nearly as far as historical accuracy would dictate. So it's no surprise that the central theme (though not the central action) of Kay's book is theological--that although the old religions may give way to the new, they are not disproved nor destroyed thereby.

At least, I think that's what the central theme was. Or, perhaps the book was really about the power of women to pull the strings of power from backstage. I've found it, in fact, quite difficult to decide just what the point of the book was. An awful lot went on, and it all seemed to make sense at the time, and I enjoyed it, both for the history and for the tale itself; but I'm not really sure just who's story it really was.

Stranger in a Strange Land
By Robert A. Heinlein

Sailing to Sarantium is a historical novel disguised as fantasy; this is fantasy disguised as a classic science fiction novel.

I suppose every serious science fiction fan has already read Stranger in Strange Land, so there's no real need to say much about it. It's extremely dated, both by the subject matter (much beloved by the people of the 1960's), and by its slang, which is extrapolated from the '30's and '40's. It's got good guys, bad guys, smart maneuvering, and buckets upon buckets of hot air and pontification, and mostly it's about religion.

It's the first of what I call Heinlein's "free love" books, in which the protagonists romp rather like rabbits now and again, to make the philisophical point that Jealousy is a Bad Thing and would Go Away if only we Worked Hard Enough at it. Lots of people worked really hard at that throughout the '70's, '80's and '90's, and it's become pretty clear that he was mistaken.

It's a testimony to Heinlein's skill as a writer that despite all of its problems and all of things in it I disagree with I still found it a remarkably enjoyable read.

Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
By Donald E. Knuth

Donald E. Knuth is one of the best known computer scientists in the world, known and revered all over the world. He's the author of the epic series The Art of Computer Programming and of the seminal typesetting programs Metafont and TeX (both of which are still in common use). It also develops that he's a devout (if somewhat unusual) Lutheran. This present book is a transcript of some talks he gave at MIT as part of a seminar on Computer Science and Spirituality. Being interested in both of those, I naturally nabbed it at once.

It's an interesting read, and one which bolsters a cherished belief of mine: that all great discoverers and inventors are necessarily eccentric. On the other hand, it was something of a disappointment; it underscored that there's a wider gap between pure computer science and the kind of software engineering that I do than I had thought. I had thought it would interesting to hear the thoughts on religion of someone who thinks the way I do--I don't mean "believes the things I believe", but "whose brain works the way mind does." But Knuth's brain doesn't work the way mine does.

On the whole, I kind of wish I'd waited for the paperback...except, of course, that there might never be one.

Encyclopedias Brown and White
By Bill Amend

Yet another "Foxtrot" collection. It's really true: any book I read all the way through, I mention here.

The Last Hero
By Terry Pratchett

This is an interesting beast: a Terry Pratchett novel(ette) disguised as a coffee table book, with illustrations by Paul Kidby. Ever want to know what Rincewind looks like? Or the brilliant but uncertain Ponder Stibbons? Or the Librarian? I don't quite like the depiction of Lord Vetinari, the Patrician, but Rincewind and Captain Carrot of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch are dead on--and the the picture of Vena the Raven-Haired had me laughing out loud.

But about the story. Long time readers of the Discworld will remember that some time ago, Cohen the Barbarian, AKA Genghis Cohen, the toothless, balding, extraordinarily aged, nearly decrepit, but still entirely deadly hero, together with his Silver Horde (a collection of similar adventurers) had conquered the great Agatean Empire. Well, it seems that life in the Imperial Palace had made them all soft, and Cohen wasn't having it. He thought about it, and decided that it was time to take fire back to the Gods--in the form of a cart-full of high-explosives. The only trouble is, if he succeeds he'll destroy all life on the disk.

The world looks to Ankh-Morpork for a solution...

It's by no means quite the publishing event that a full-length novel would be, but it's quite good and the pictures are tremendous. Although, I would have liked to see pictures of Archchancellor Ridcully, Commander Sam Vimes, and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler.

Corum: The Coming of Chaos
By Michael Moorcock

This is the seventh volume of Moorcock's Eternal Champion cycle; again, I bought it because I remember it fondly. It's the first Moorcock I ever read (under the title "The Swords Trilogy"); alas, it's not the best, now that I read it again, but it still has a special place in my heart.

On the one hand, the tale of Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the Prince in the Scarlet Robe is typical heroic fantasy, if a tad more comic book than some. On the other hand, it was unlike anything else I'd ever read. To begin with, the moral poles weren't Good and Evil; Moorcock substituted Law and Chaos. But not exactly; Moorcock's is the way of the happy medium. Extremity in Law or Chaos is evil; maintaining the Cosmic Balance is good. And it is ever the task of the Eternal Champion to fight to maintain the Balance, fighting now for Law, now for Chaos (but usually for Law). The Champion has fought in many guises on every plane of the Multiverse; sometimes he is aware of his other lives, and sometimes he is not. As you see, there's a kind of cosmic grandiosity that as a teenager I found utterly irresistable.

You see, Moorcock is basically an A-1 prime-grade con artist. There really isn't all that much to relate the tales of Corum with the other incarnations of the Eternal Champion: Erekose, Elric of Melniboné, Dorian Hawkmoon, et al, except Moorcock's own word that they are related. By simply reusing the same terms, by referring to other names of the Champion, by having the same mysterious characters appear peripherally, even by having many characters with the same last name appear in book after book, he creates the sense of each book being a small part of a much larger universe--and not so subtly encourages us to buy the next and the next, in hopes of finding out more about it.

And what makes it a con is that we never do find out all that much more about it, not in the sense of having it all fit together and make sense.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not criticizing. Every successful work of fiction has a bit of the confidence trick about it. I'm really rather impressed at what a large castle in the air he manages to build out of such wispy materials.

Oh, and Corum? The basic problem I had with this particular book is that Corum gets led around by the nose by this God and that Oracle from one end to the other; he doesn't have much personality of his own.

It was fun to re-acquaint myself with him, though.

Von Bek
By Michael Moorcock

Having gotten started with Moorcock again, it just made sense to keep going while the books were still available. This is the second in the Eternal Champion cycle, and consists of three novels and a short story, only one of which I'd read before.

The Warhound and the World's Pain is considerably more naturalistic (i.e., less comic book) than the ones I've reviewed previously; it's the tale of mercenary Ulrich von Bek and his adventures in the Devil's service during the 17th Century's Wars of Religion. In a reversal of the usual tale, Lucifer offers von Bek his soul (it's already in Lucifer's keeping) if von Bek will retrieve for him the cure to the world's pain--the Holy Grail. The results are not what you would at first think; this is a story of how the fantastic began to recede from Earth and allowed reason to take its place.

The City in the Autumn Stars is nearly a sequel; it concerns the Holy Grail, the aftermath of the French Revolution, a descendant of Ulrich's named Manfred von Bek, and a convocation of alchemists seeking to take advantage of the Conjunction of the Million Spheres (one of those repeating terms I spoke of). This one is very similar in tone to its predecessor, and is the tale of how reason unhampered by empirical test is replaced by science and engineering.

It's not clear to me to what extent either of these really qualifies as an "Eternal Champion" novel, although they are clearly set against the same background. However, the writing is considerably better than some of his others, and the historical detail is, so far as I can tell, pretty good. Certainly I enjoyed The Warhound and the World's Pain much more this time than I did when I first read it many years ago; but then, I've read considerably more history since then, and have the needed background.

The third novel in this volume, The Dragon in the Sword, was a real treat, as it continues the story of John Daker/Erekose/Urlik Skarsol from the first volume of the cycle, The Eternal Champion. Its tone is much more like those earlier novels than like the others in this volume, but it's better written, and I enjoyed it.

The volume concludes with an odd little short story that takes place in a alternate Germany in which the Nazis never came to power. It was interesting, but I'm not sure there was all that much to it.

A Nomad of the Time Streams
By Michael Moorcock

If Von Bek is only loosely associated with the Eternal Champion cycle proper, the three novels that make up this volume are even less so. Oswald Bastable isn't so much the Eternal Champion as the Eternal Observer, doomed to see the human race blow itself up in one alternate future after another. I first read all of these when I was in college, and truth to tell I remembered almost nothing about them; this is not surprising, as they almost require a working knowledge of the British Empire at the end of the Victorian Era. For these alternate futures are not in our future; they are in the future of Oswald Bastable, once an officer in the Royal Army circa 1904.

For a history buff like me, these were great fun; and, of course, part of the fun is seeing how various prominent people in the history of our own 20th Century appear in various guises. Ronald Reagan, for example, makes an appearance as a bigoted short-tempered scout master (this was written, note well, before his successful presidential campaign).

If you're less interested in history, these will be less interesting; but the end of the book I was hungering for hero who could actually accomplish something.

ANSI Common Lisp
By Paul Graham

As a software-engineer, I'm a programming language junkie; one of the things I like about the job is that I'm always able to learn new things. Or, in this case, old things; Common Lisp wasn't standardized until 1994 or so, but the Lisp language is one of the three oldest programming languages that are still in use (the others are Fortan and Cobol). It's not clear that I have any real need for Lisp, but it's different than most other languages, and there seems to be a small resurgence in its popularity. Anyway, I'd recommend this book as a good starting point, at least for experienced programmers.

Celebration of Discipline
By Richard J. Foster

The title is maybe a little off-putting (at least I've always found it so), but the book is extremely useful. They say practice makes perfect, and yet one seldom applies this precept to one's spiritual life. Foster's book fills this gap: it's a practical guide to a variety of important Christian disciplines, including meditation, prayer, fasting, service, and solitude. It isn't written for saints, hermits, or cloistered monks; it's written for average Christians who want to grow closer to God. I first read it when I was in college, and I've read it a couple of times since; this time I was surprised to recognize in its pages some practices I thought I had come upon all by myself. Highly recommended.

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.

Home : Ex Libris : 1 November 2001
Copyright © 2001, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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