Home : Ex Libris : 1 September 2006

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1 September 2006

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In This Issue:
Labor Day

One of the reviews in last month's issue proved slightly controversial, somewhat to my surprise; and eventually even the author of the book weighed in. The review is S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, and the related blog posts are here and here.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

By Steven Brust

When Vlad Taltos was a punk kid, getting beat up regularly on the streets of Adrilankha, his father owned a restaurant. As a result, Vlad learned how to defend himself, how to beat up people who were bigger and stronger than he was, how to cook, and how to appreciate well-prepared food. Vlad sold the restaurant a few years after his father's untimely death, but throughout his career as a free-lance assassin and "boss" for the Jhereg (the Dragaeran Empire's version of the Mafia) he has retained his love for exquisite cuisine. And in almost every volume in the series to date, he has mentioned Valabar's, the best restaurant in Adrilankha, and possibly the oldest restaurant in the entire Empire. For its entire history, Valabar's has been run by the same family of Easterners (humans, that is); that Valabar's has survived for so long, in an Empire where Easterners are second-class citizens at best and hated enemies at worst, is a tribute to Mr. Valabar's skill, delicate touch, and creativity.

However, in none of the Vlad books to date has Vlad actually stepped foot in Valabar's while he's actually on-stage. With Dzur, all of that changes. Yes, this is a fantasy novel for your inner foodie.

A little background. Vlad, as I say, grew up tough. His father, eager to be accepted in the Empire, spent all of his savings to buy a title in House Jhereg, the only one of the Empire's seventeen Houses that accepts Easterners as members--and then, only because there is money to be made. It's not true that all Jhereg are criminals; many are not. But Jheregs always have an eye on the main chance, and on making a profit, and they are generally engaged in those activities which, though not strictly legal, are yet always in demand. At the age of seventeen (there's that number again) Vlad goes to work for a small-time Jhereg boss as an enforcer. He takes on additional duties, and begins to do assassinations on the side. Eventually he becomes a boss himself, managing a number of illicit enterprises. In the mean time, he's made some unusual friends for an Easterner and a Jhereg, including a number of extremely powerful nobles (both magically and politically) from the House of the Dragon.

Let's be clear. Vlad is not a nice guy. He kills people for money. He sends enforcers to rough up folks who won't pay back his usurious loans. But he's not without virtues. He's loyal to those who are loyal to him. He's witty. He's smart. For a murdering S.O.B. he's got a certain integrity. And he's a survivor.

Eventually, after some goings on that involve his wife and the impoverished Easterner's ghetto in South Adrilankha, he finds himself at odds with his higher-ups in the Jhereg. In fact, he annoys them so thoroughly that he finds a price on his head...a fabulously large one, in fact. It is axiomatic that if you betray the Jhereg, you are a dead man walking...but far from waiting to be killed, Vlad takes it on the lam. A number of years elapse, during which time Vlad has a number of adventures and makes a number of discoveries. Then, two of his friends disappear under mysterious circumstances; his other friends manage to contact him, and he spends a book (Issola) helping to extricate them, and manages to help preserve the World As He Knows It at the same time. Afterwards he's tired, disgusted, depressed, and sick of living in the wilderness where no one knows how to make a decent cup of klava. Damn it, it's not safe, but before he heads out again he's going to take a chance. He's going to have dinner at Valabar's for the first time in years, and he's going to enjoy it, and if anyone wants to kill him they'll just have to wait until he finishes the meal.

And that's where Dzur begins. Nobles of the House of the Dzur are big tough wizards and warriors (usually both at once) who like nothing better than to wade into a fight at impossible odds. If they are defending something noble and good, so much the better; this gives them additional motivation. Vlad has his meal at Valabar's with a young Dzurlord--a meal that is described, over the course of the book, in exquisite detail; and then he has to deal with new developments in South Adrilankha. Vlad would never be mistaken for a Dzur...but it appears that it's time for him to act like one.

So much for the background. Steven Brust is one of the few authors whose books I buy in hardcover, and along with Lois McMaster Bujold and Terry Pratchett, he's one of the even small group of authors whose books I read aloud to Jane as soon as we get them. As it happens, I've spent a fair amount of time this summer re-reading most of the Vlad books aloud to Jane, so Dzur's timing was wonderful, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. On the other hand, while a number of interesting things happen little is actually resolved in terms of Vlad's larger story arc; this was a bit of a disappointment. Consequently, I offer this advice: if you've been reading the series in paperback, wait for the paperback. And if you've not been reading the series at all, there's a trade paperback available called The Book of Jhereg, which includes the first three Vlad novels; go buy it. (Don't let the third one, Teckla, put you off; it's a bit heavy going, but it's worth it, as it's a pivotal book in the series.)

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Eternity Artifact
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

The Eternity Artifact is L.E. Modesitt, Jr's riff on an old science fiction chestnut, the lone artifact of a deceased alien society which causes a war among the various countries or factions or races or star nations, all of which want to plunder it for the secrets of its advanced technology. It's reasonably entertaining, and Modesitt has added a few unique twists of his own. That said, I can't really describe it as a success. One of the twists is a series of reflections on science, religion, and the epistemology of "true believers", and his conclusions on the latter two grounds would strike anyone but a diehard philosophical materialist as absurd. I don't know whether Modesitt is a materialist or not--it's always dangerous to assume that the views of the characters of a book represent the views of the author. But the bad guys in the book belong to a group that appears to be patterned after the Mormon Church, which he's picked on before. He's a resident of Utah, according to the bio in the back of the book; maybe he's a non-believer and living among Mormons grates on him, or perhaps he was raised Mormon and is writing about what he knows.

I can't explain the circumstances which the religious folks in the book supposedly find intolerable without giving away too much of the plot, but really, it didn't work. Not a bad read, though, if a bit silly.

The Big Over Easy
By Jasper Fforde

My sister gave me this book for my birthday, and I'm grateful. Jasper Fforde, you may recall, is the author of the delightfully silly "Thursday Next" novels, The Eyre Affair and its sequels. The Big Over Easy is the first in a new, unrelated series that concerns the Nursery Crime Division of the Reading CID in Reading, England. DI Jack Spratt handles all of the cases in the vicinity of Reading that involve pigs, wolves, beanstalks, billy goats gruff, giants, et al, including, in this case, the demise of one Humperdinck Jehoshaphat Aloysius Stuyvesant van Dumpty.

As the book begins, Jack's in a bit of a down phase; the jury has just acquitted three pigs of the wrongful death of a wolf who was climbing down their chimney. The investigation cost the taxpayers a quarter-of-a-million pounds, and it's even possible that the NCD might be closed at the next budget review--so when it develops that Humpty Dumpty was shot, Jack's determined (with the help of Detective Sergeant Mary Mary) to track down the killer in double-quick time.

What follows is a delightfully oddball tale which is, in fact, a pretty good murder mystery at the same time. Fforde has a knack for creating screwball worlds somewhat like our own and yet deliciously off. In Fforde's England, for example, all of the best detectives--Inspector Moose of Oxford, Inspect Dogleash, Miss Maple, and many others, including Reading's own Chief Detective Inspector Friedland Chymes--are members of the Guild of Detectives, which has, among its other functions, the task of negotiating publication rights with such worthy periodicals as Amazing Crime Stories. To be successful, a detective must not only be able to catch the perpetrator; he must also run his investigation in a thrilling, well-paced, narratively-satisfying way. And, of course, he must have an Official Sidekick who's well-able to write his cases up for publication.

The Big Over Easy gets off to a bit of a slow start, and I think it tries a little too hard now and then; but it's also genuinely funny and filled with scads of allusions and odd links between rhymes and fairytales that would never have occurred to me on my own. Oh, and there are at least two Monty Python references, one of them nicely subtle.

I enjoyed the Thursday Next books, except for the latest, Something Rotten, which I've not yet read; but this one's at least as good, and possibly better. All in all, I'm looking forward to the sequel. I do wonder how many books he can add to the series before the gag gets stale, though.

Trustee from the Toolroom
By Nevil Shute

This is the last of the lot of books by Nevil Shute that I picked up six months or so ago; Ian Hamet had suggested that I keep it for last. I've held off reading it for quite a while now, because, of course, once I've read it I can never enjoy reading it for the first time again. (Yeah, I've come to think a lot of ol' Nevil.)

Anyway, it was a joy and a delight, I loved it, and you should all go find a copy in a used bookstore and read it.

What, you need convincing? Look, I promise, it's worth your time. You'll enjoy it more if you don't know anything about it.

For those who'd like to know a little more before skittering off to the local receiver of pre-read literature (what one might call a "white-paged fence", I suppose) here's the set-up--note that I'm trying to tell you as little as possible.

Keith Stewart is an engineer who delights in making model engines and machines of various kinds--working models. Steam engines, gasoline engines, diesel engines, generators, clocks of all kinds, all at very small sizes. He builds them, and he writes about how to build them for a weekly magazine called Miniature Mechanic. In fact, although he doesn't know it, he's their biggest draw.

When Keith's sister and her husband die in a tragic accident, Keith and his wife are left with Keith's ten-year-old niece, Janice. Janice inherits her parent's estate, with Keith as the trustee. Janice's parents were reasonably well-off, and there ought to be plenty of money to pay for Janice's education...but all the lawyer can find of the estate is fifty-six pounds. There ought to be quite a lot more, if only Keith can find it.

Keith's income is barely adequate for his family's needs. He and his wife Katie are quite willing to stretch it as necessary for Janice's sake...but on their own they can't give her the education her parents wanted for her.

Our Keith is a conscientious man; and he's Janice's trustee. And he's an engineer...which means that problems are to be solved.

It's quite an interesting ride; you should try it.

Pegasus Descending
By James Lee Burke

Some time ago I was contacted by a publicist at Simon & Schuster, who asked me if I'd be interested in getting review copies of new books. I said, "Sure!" which might have been a mistake, for now I have a stack of books which I've been putting off reading. On the one hand, it's possible that I'll find a new author to read; on the other hand, it's likely that many of them won't be to my taste.

This is the first of them (the first that I've gotten around to reading, that is); it's a hard-boiled police procedural set in the town of New Iberia, Louisiana, and featuring a police detective named Dave Robicheaux. This is the fifteenth of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels, none of which I'd previously read, and I'm of two minds about it.

Robicheaux is an interesting character, sort of a southern cousin of Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder. He's a veteran of both Viet Nam and the New Orleans Police Department, an ex-drunk and member of AA, and (as the author describes him) "a blue-collar knight-errant tragically flawed by hubris." As the book begins he's confronted by a number of cases: a young woman who mysteriously commits suicide; a violent confrontation between two frat boys and a black drug-deealer; a young woman who's been spotted counting cards in the local casinos, and who might have helped rob a bank a month or two earlier. The card counter is the daughter of an old buddy of Robicheaux's from his drinking days, a buddy who was killed by the mob during an armored car heist. So happens, the mobster responsible is the father of one of the two frat boys. And the other frat boy was recently seen with the young woman who committed suicide.

Robicheaux proceeds by visiting people, asking questions, and (when he's got no better idea, which seems to be quite often) being as obnoxious as possible to the suspects in hopes of shaking something loose. In the latter activity he's occasionally assisted by Clete, an old buddy from his NOPD days and now a private-eye in New Iberia. Clete's a fascinating case, a fellow veteran, a staunch friend, a guy with a heart of gold and a staggering tendency to self-destruction. Robicheaux has one of the latter himself (he slugs the local DA in the mouth at one point), but Clete makes him look like a model of caution and propriety.

I found the book gripping; I read it in two evenings, and would gladly have read it in one. Burke's prose is sometimes a little too purple, though perhaps that's appropriate for Louisiana; as one of the characters observes, half the state's under water, and the other half is under indictment. At the same time, I didn't cordially like it. There's more foul language and graphic violence in the book than I care for these days (though nothing out of the ordinary for the genre, I'd say), and there's a sense that everyone in the book--indeed, everyone in the state, and perhaps everyone everywhere--are morally corrupt, and for sale to the highest bidder. You might say it takes a dim view of the human condition. On the other hand, Robicheaux continues to struggle to do the right thing, even as he sometimes fails to rein in his baser, more violent impulses. It's actually rather a compelling picture of sin and suffering; if only it included a stronger picture of repentance and redemption.

So as I say, I have mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, it certainly held my attention; on the other hand, I'm not sure I like the say it made me feel while I was reading it.

The important question, of course, is whether or not I'll track down any of the earlier books in the series, and the answer is that I'm not sure. If I were stuck somewhere without a book to read and a James Lee Burke were on offer, I'd certainly be willing to give it a try; otherwise, I dunno. But maybe I will.

Malpractice in Maggody
By Joan Hess

This is another bit of fallout from my arrangement with Simon & Schuster--Joan Hess's latest from her "Arly Hanks" series. I read a bunch of these in years gone by, shortly before I started writing reviews as a regular thing.

The premise of the series is simple. Policewoman Arly Hanks, on the rebound from a failed marriage, returns to her home town of Maggody, Arkansas to spend some time collecting herself. She's gotta eat, so she takes the job of Chief of Police for a community of gossips, inbred knuckledraggers, moonshiners, and poker-playing idiots. The only two normal folk are Arly Hanks herself, and her landlord, the local antique dealer. It's likely that Jeff Foxworthy got most of his material from places like Maggody.

The whole thing is played for laughs, of course, with large helpings of country-fried ribaldry.

After a while the gags began to get stale, and the whole thing began to seem essentially mean-spirited, and I stopped reading them--until now. It appears that I've missed five or six books. There are a few differences in town. The bag boy down at the grocery store seems to have stopped making out with the checkout girl in the backroom in favor of marrying her and making out with her at home; they have twins and another on the way. And Arly Hanks has acquired a boyfriend, a development which seems to be of fairly recent vintage. But no one's yet rebuilt the bank, which burned down a while back, and nothing much else seems to be new.

As the book begins, the county old folks home has just been closed; apparently the site has been sold to mysterious investors from California. Nobody knows anything about it, and (this being Maggody) rumors and conspiracy theories begin to develop as the entire town prepares to fly off the handle yet again. Not even Arly can find out what's going on there...until there's a murder at the country's newest celebrity rehab center, the Stonebridge Foundation.

On the whole, I found it to be of similar tone and quality to the earlier books in the series; and I'll note that I bought six or seven of those before I got tired of the whole thing. Some bits were genuinely funny, while others were clearly meant to be, and perhaps to someone else they will be. As always, your mileage may vary.

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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