Home : Ex Libris : 1 February 2002

ex libris reviews

1 February 2002

Swearing with great spirit from time to time, always a good sign with Sir Walter, he flew through the filmy splendors of autumn, primed to nick Kerr heads like old semmit buttons.
Dorothy Dunnett


In This Issue:
Dungeon Crawling

Every so often I get a letter expressing wonder and amazement at how many books I read. I don't expect any one to write such a letter as the result of this issue, as I can't remember a month when I read fewer books than I did this month.

There were reasons, of course. For example, I spent the first week of the year putting photo albums together. As I am all-digital these days, I spent a lot of time waiting for my inkjet printer. Normally I'd read while waiting, but I was in the throes of a mild cold and didn't feel like it. So I did something I do periodically; I fired up one of the latest versions of Angband and started dungeon-crawling.

Some few of you might actually know what I'm talking about; if so, you get two points. And if you ever actually played Moria, Angband's predecessor, take two more; and if you ever played it on a VAX-11/780 you win the grand prize.

Moria was one of the first great Dungeons & Dragons inspired computer games, and for its time (early 1980's) it had really advanced graphics:


You're looking down on a very small part of a "dungeon". The "@" is your character, who is currently fighting a troll ("T"). There's a staircase to the previous level ("<") and an open door ("'") leading into a passage. There's some treasure on the floor ("$"), and down the corridor a magic scroll ("?") and a potion of some kind ("!").

The goal of Moria was to travel down through the dungeon, level by level, slaying fearsome monsters and collecting booty, until finally on level 50 you encountered and slew the Balrog. Winning Moria was very difficult, and could take a very long time (months).

Moria evolved over time, moving from the VAX to a wide variety of machines, including PC's. Later versions took advantage of color displays, and added a town level where you could buy supplies, but the basic game remained the same. As time went on it spawned a number of variants, one of which, Angband, immediately became the definitive version. Angband added unique monsters (such as Gollum), artifact weapons (like Bilbo's sword Sting), 50 more levels, a wider variety of magic spells, many more kinds of monsters, and a variety of other things.

Amazingly, Angband is still under active development by a cadre of volunteers, and runs on almost any computer you can name. It has grown and expanded in many ways, and has dozens of unique variants, each with its own quirks. But each variant is still, fundamentally, character-graphics-based, with a user-interface that goes right back to the original Moria.

So why are people still playing this? More to the point, why am I still playing these games after all these years? The graphics are substandard, the user interface is archaic (though remarkly pleasant for experienced users), and it's a good way to get carpal tunnel syndrome. And yet, there's a richness to it that more modern games simply can't compete with. The game Diablo, which was in many ways a simple variant of Angband with a really fancy GUI, had maybe seven or eight different kinds of monster on each level, and there were maybe twenty or so levels. Angband has 100 levels, and thousands of different kinds of monsters; it has hundreds of unique "artifacts", each with its own story and powers; there are surprises lurking around every corner, even after all these years.

So as I say, I started playing Angband while waiting for my inkjet printer to print; Angband, particularly, because unlike many other games it isn't resource intensive and wouldn't slow down the printing process, and because it was more fun than solitaire. And, wonder of wonders, my character flourished. And now, after almost a month and more hours than I care to contemplate, my character has reach the 43rd rank (of 50 total), and is on level 46 of the dungeon. I can't abandon him now; I've only gotten characters this deep a handful of times.

So if I didn't read many books this month, you can blame it on Angband.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Reverse of the Medal
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 eleventh in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April 2001 issue.

As devoted fans of this series well know, the Jack Aubrey of Master and Commander, he who while in command of the sloop Sophie engaged and took the much larger Spanish vessel the the Cacafuego, was modelled on a historical figure named Lord Cochrane. Cochrane did much the same thing at the same point in his career; but after that time the tales of the two captains diverged wildly. They converge again, briefly, in this book, which has Aubrey standing in for Cochrane once again as the defendant on trial for investment fraud. O'Brian assures us in an author's note that no matter how farfetched the ensuing events appear, they are based on real events in every particular.

I found this to be rather depressing on first reading, as it consists (after a pleasant interlude in the West Indies) largely of a series of unpleasant events. Stephen's wife leaves him; Jack is arrested for attempting to rig the stock market and spends much of the book in debtor's prison awaiting trial; due to the machinations of his enemies, Jack's trial is a mockery, conducted to come to a pre-ordained conclusion.

Jack is innocent of course, innocent of any desire to manipulate the market; the very idea is laughable to anyone who knows him well. And if he has many enemies, so too he has many friends. And it's the nature of that friendship, I believe, that led O'Brian to assure us that the events are real, because they lead to a glorious moment, really to good to be true. I'd love to see it in a movie.

Next month: The Letter of Marque.

The Disorderly Knights
By Dorothy Dunnett

Each month for the next few months I'll be reading and reviewing one book from Dunnett's Lymond series of historical novels. This is the third in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the December issue.

This, like most of Dunnett's output, is a book meant to be read twice for full enjoyment. The first time you puzzle greatly about what in heaven's name is going on until All Is Revealed, and the second time, fore-armed with What Was Revealed, you keep your eye open for the tell-tale signs of corruption.

Lymond, at a loose end after running the Dowager Queen of Scotland's errand in the previous book, is hired by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem to aid them against an impending attack by the Turks. The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitaler and the Knights of Malta, were the second of the great orders of religious knighthood founded during the Crusades. One hears less about them than their colleagues the Knights Templar, mostly, one expects, because they weren't persecuted and suppressed by the King of France for their money amid scandal and rumors of traffic with the occult--but be that as it may. Incompetence, ill-will, and petty factionalism can be just as devastating, and so it is in this case.

The first half of the book concerns the Turkish attack on Malta, and then on the Knight's base in Tripoli. The attack is successful, despite all of Lymond's efforts, largely due to the incompetence, ill-will, and so forth of the Grand Master of the order, a Spaniard who hates the French, even the French of his own order, more it seems than he does the Turks.

After the siege of Tripoli and many scenes of excitement and derring-do, Lymond returns to Scotland and begins training a mercenary army. With him come many of the disaffected knights, including Jerott Blyth, a Scottish knight who had known Lymond in his youth. Just as much of The Game of Kings was seen through young Will Scott's eyes, so much of this book is seen through Blyth's less naive but equally uncomprehending ones. Another knight who joins him Sir Graham Malett, one of the order's shining lights, a man so pious, holy, good-looking, easy-tempered, and skilled at arms that his universal nickname is "Gabriel".

Lymond's long term goals in raising the army are unclear, though not for lack of suggestion; his immediate plans are to police the Anglo-Scottish border, and to attempt to put an end to the endless strife that occurs there. (See George MacDonald Fraser's The Steel Bonnets for more on this topic.) But there's much more going on, for the book's true story is the murky, often hidden struggle for supremacy between Lymond and Gabriel. As always, there's more here than meets the eye, and things are Not What They Seem.

Definitely thumbs up on this one...but you'll want to read the earlier books first.

Scion of Cyador
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This is the latest of Modesitt's Recluce series, and the direct sequel to Magii of Cyador, and it's far from his best. Magii of Cyador began the tale of a young man named Lorn, the son of a prominent Mage of the Empire of Cyador. Now, the balance of power in the Empire is divided among three groups: the Magii, the Lancers, and the Merchants. Alone of all the people in the Empire, the Emperor belongs to all three groups. In the first book, Lorn, despite his great talents, leaves the Magii and becomes a Lancer. Meanwhile, he meets, woos, and marries a young woman of the Merchant class, who most unusually is running her own business.

Everything points to ambition on Lorn's part. The Emperor is old and childless; before he dies he must pick a successor. By serving the Empire, and getting an in with each of the three groups, Lorn appears to be jockeying for the position.

In this book, naturally, he gets it. No surprises there, for anyone but Lorn. And that's why I wasn't particularly happy with the book. Half of the time, Lorn appears to be actively seeking the throne; the other half of the time, the idea seems never to have occurred to him. As a result, the book didn't flow well.

The World's Religions
By Huston Smith

This book is in the nature of a survey of the most prominent religions in the modern world: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, with a side-look at a few others. I was given it for my birthday, and finally got around to it this past month.

I found the book interesting, useful, and troubling, all at the same time. Interesting, because I'm interested in both history and religion, and you can't discuss one without discussing the other anyway. Useful, well.... In today's world, I think that goes without saying. Troubling, for a variety of reasons.

By its nature, a book like this needs to take a consistent view of its subjects. It can treat all religions as equally true or equally false; as a true means of interaction with the Divine, or as purely human phenomena. Smith doesn't quite play fair by this standard. The eastern religions are described as uniformly true; in Islam and Judaism the human element is emphasized; and in Christianity it is emphasized most of all.

I suppose, in a book written by an American for Americans, it's only natural that Smith should be most skeptical of the claims of the religion(s) most of us know best; but it still didn't sit well with me.

Another thing is that Smith describes each religion mostly at its best. One senses that he likes them, and doesn't want to speak poorly at them. But certainly (as 9/11/2001 has shown) we need to examine each religion not only at its best but also at its worst. As a Christian, I regard the Inquisition and the Crusades as abominations and perversions of Christianity--but surely they are part of my faith's history, and a dreadful warning of what can happen when Christians go wrong. Surely we should be given a complete picture.

But that, alas, would be a different book.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Windsor Knot
By Sharyn McCrumb

Every once in a while it's fun to read something just plain silly. Books that are intellectually edifying can be satisfying to read and ponder but during the holidays the last thing I need is more to think about. This book fit the bill perfectly. I had read an earlier mystery by McCrumb and wasn't all that impressed with it but I decided to give her another go and picked this one up at the used book store. Elizabeth MacPherson, the heroine/detective in the series, is getting married to her Scottish fiance in a big hurry. He has been invited to a Tea with the Queen of England and, should she be married to him, she can attend as well. Unfortunately, he lives in Scotland and she is in Georgia trying to throw together a traditional Southern wedding with all the trimmings in three weeks. The main plot line revolves around the wedding and all the problems involved in the planning of it with a murder thrown in along the way almost as an afterthought. In fact, when I finished it I realized that the only involvement that Elizabeth has in the whole investigation is to identify the bones as coming from more than one skeleton. There some amusing bits to the novel--a plastic garden gnome decoration is stolen from her fiance's garden and proceeds to send him photos from around the world. For the most part, however, what is amusing is Elizabeth and her machinations to marry in order to be eligible to drink tea with a thousand other people in the Queen's royal presence. It's light and silly and I liked it.

The Suspect
By Laurali R Wright

This mystery opens with the murder having just been committed and the murderer pondering what he has done, feeling his physical reaction to his act and surveying the murder scene in detail. He is an old man who has just bashed the head in of another very old man in a fit of rage. After calming down, he methodically goes home, drinks a cup of tea and thinks more about what is to be done. The detective in this series is Karl Alberg of the Canadian Mounted Police who is stationed on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia in a small town called Sechelt. After getting the report of the murder from a harmless old neighbor of the victim he investigates and comes up with no one with either motive or opportunity for the crime. Alberg is not the typical stereotypical Mountie. He refuses to wear the uniform, harasses his secretary for cleaning his office and puts up with his younger sidekick. While investigating the murder he also meets and puts the moves on the pretty town librarian, Cassandra Mitchell. As the readers, we know who committed the crime and watch Alberg follow the trail, make mistakes, back up and start over. What we don't know is why the murderer committed the crime and that is the real mystery in the novel. This is a clever, well-plotted novel with decent writing explaining why it won the Edgar Award.

The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
The Return of the King
By J.R.R. Tolkien

I first read this trilogy in 1974 on a fishing trip to Northern Minnesota with my parents. I have very specific memories of reading the chapters in the second part about the Ents and Fangorn, sitting under enormous white and red pines in the midst of still and, as I read on, more and more ominous woods. Of course, all my friends were reading it at the time and scrawling "Frodo Lives" on our notebooks and lockers but outside my little nerdy circle no one I had ever met had heard of the books or cared much about them at all. My parents tolerated my obsession for Middle Earth with amusement and a feeling of relief that there were much worse things my friends and I could be thinking about. In the years since I have reread them at least every three or four years although I will often go back to my favorite parts and read them without completing the entire book. I love the early sections in Hobbiton and the parts dealing with Tom Bombadill, though as a character I think he is the only inconsistency in the entire novel. I have never quite understood what his purpose was in the development of the plot or the action of the novel and had Tolkien cut the entire episode, the novel wouldn't have suffered. Nevertheless, I like Tom a lot. Recently, in preparation to hate the movie, I reread the entire trilogy from start to finish again and enjoyed it as I had the first time. The books have been getting a lot of press time lately and the movie hype had my children all prepped to see the movie. I thought the movie adequate, the books incomparably better and felt justified in my premise that the only books that have been successfully adapted to screen are "Gone with the Wind" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Master and Commander
By Patrick O'Brian

I confess it took me three tries over a couple years to actually complete this book. Everyone who knows I am an Austen fan has told me I'd love these books and raved over them. The first couple of times into it I got so lost in mizzens and jibs and staysails and hanging of hammocks--is that putting them up or taking them down?-- that I, frankly, just gave up and shelved it back on the "someday when I am older, wiser and have nothing else to read" shelf. Well, lately, people I trust have been recommending the series again and I gamely took it off the shelf and got started. Will has covered the plot well in his review in the April issue. I will only add that this time I pretty much ignored all the technical stuff, concentrated on the descriptive language and characters and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I liked it enough to have buzzed out to the bookstore and purchased the next two in the series. However, if you are an Austen fan, these books are nothing like Austen's either in temper or tone. They are good as well, but different.

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 February 2002
Copyright © 2002, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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