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ex libris reviews

1 December 2006

There was a cheese-shaped hole in the bottom of the door, but Horace was back in his broken cage, making a very faint mmmmmmmmmm noise that may have been cheese snores.
Terry Pratchett


In This Issue:
And There Was Great Rejoicing!

Yes, it's that time of year; AYSO soccer ended yesterday for our family with the final playoff game for my eldest son's team. (We lost, but we were playing one of the two top-rated teams.) For the record, we had three children in soccer this year, which made Saturdays rather fraught. On the other hand, this meant that I had ample opportunity to practice my sports photography, with satisfying results. But it's over now, which means that life can get back to normal....sometime after New Years.

Until then, a very Merry Christmas to you and yours; may the Good Lord bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you all through the coming Yuletide.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

An Assembly Such As This
By Pamela Aidan

This is the first of a set of three novels which aim to re-tell the story of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from the standpoint of one Fitzwilliam Darcy. As it's exactly the sort of book I approach with trepidation, it's unlikely I'd have read it if the good people at Simon & Schuster hadn't sent me a review copy. Having read it, my reactions are mixed, but are positive on the whole.

When writing a book like this, there are two paths the author can take. She may attempt to complete the story by filling in the gaps, or she may try to tell the "real" story, the story behind the story, the story Jane Austen elected to suppress. The latter is the easier approach in this cynical and post-modern era, offering a multitude of opportunities for cheap gags at the expense of Miss Austen's classic. Fortunately for us, the author has chosen the more difficult path of trying to craft a tale that augments the original without tearing it down.

A digression: it's the more difficult path, but I can hardly call it the "road less travelled." I did a quick Google search and came up with the following titles, all by different authors:

  • The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy
  • The Diary of Fitzwilliam Darcy
  • Darcy's Diary
  • Darcy's Story
  • Darcy & Elizabeth: Nights and Days at Pemberly
  • North by Northanger, or The Shades of Pemberly: A Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery

Aidan does appear to have the distinction of being the first to expand her version of the story into a trilogy.

This volume, the first, covers the span from the beginning of Pride and Prejudice until shortly after Darcy moves his friend Bingley to London, to save him from a misalliance with the Bennett family. It begins slowly--the opening paragraphs are particularly stilted--but improves as the author hits her stride. There's a noticeable difference in tone between the "on-stage" sections, where Aidan is showing us one of Austen's scenes from Darcy's point of view, and is perforce required to use Austen's dialog, and the "off-stage" scenes where she exercise her imagination fully. The latter are freer, and generally more fun; in the "on-stage" scenes Darcy often seems somewhat uncomfortable with his lines, especially when addressing Elizabeth Bennett.

Aidan's Darcy is nevertheless an intriguing character, consistent with Austen's Darcy. He inhabits a larger world than Austen's Elizabeth Bennett, just as a man of Darcy's station would have in Austen's day, being more concerned with business and the latest news of the war in Spain, and more aware of various social trends and fads. Further, his ever-increasing fascination with Elizabeth rang true, at least to me.

In short, Aidan has managed to produce a tale that, while slow in spots, did no damage to my memories of Pride and Prejudice and left me wanting more. All in all, not a bad days work.

Please note, I have no intention of dipping into the "Mr. Darcy" books by other authors which I listed above. My satisfaction with this one still leaves me feeling rather like I dodged a bullet, and I'm not into playing Russian Roulette.

Duty and Desire
By Pamela Aidan

This is the second volume of Pamela Aidan's trilogy, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman; it begins shortly after Darcy takes Bingley off to London, safely away from Jane Bennett, and ends (so I guess) shortly before Darcy horrifies Elizabeth Bennett with his proposal of marriage. As Darcy has no contact with Elizabeth during this period of time, the entire book is off-stage, as it were; and frankly, it's all the better for it.

In terms of Pride and Prejudice, the point of the novel is Darcy's struggle to put Elizabeth behind him. He attends to his business interests, celebrates Christmas with his sister Georgianna and other family members, renews his acquaintance with old friends, and eventually tries to find a suitable wife of his own station (to no avail of course). Along the way we get to know a rich, delightful cast. Georgianna, no more than a plot contrivance in Austen, is here a vivid character with a neverending ability to surprise and astonish her older brother. Much of the growth we see in Darcy between the two ends of Austen's book is here set down to Georgianna's influence. There is the remarkable Lord Brougham, a college friend of Darcy's, who is clearly More Than He Seems. There is Fletcher, Darcy's valet, staunchly loyal but with definite (if carefully expressed) opinions as to where Darcy's good lies.

There are a few places that are maybe a little over the top, where Aidan had, as my wife would say, "way too much fun"; Darcy's encounters with Beau Brummel and Lord Byron come to mind, as does the new novel one of the characters reads--a story about a widow with three daughters who are cast out of their family home by the widow's stepson and his nasty wife. And the final major sequence, during which Darcy meets a femme fatale named Lady Sayres, sidles well into the territory Austen mocked so gleefully in Northanger Abbey.

No matter; it was fun, and if the third volume were available I'd no doubt be well into it by now. I'm given to understand that it will be out in January, and I'm looking forward to it.

Three Days To Never
By Tim Powers

It's always hard to review a Tim Powers novel without spoiling it, because a great deal of the pleasure involved in reading the novel lies in figuring out Just What The Heck Is Going On Here, Anyway. If I describe the plot in any detail, I'll be giving away details you should discover on your own. All this leaves me wondering just what to say about it.

Let's see. First, I bought it in hardcover and was not disappointed. I usually buy Powers' stuff in hardcover these days, and delightfully he had a signing at one of our local bookstores, so I've got a signed first edition, for whatever that's worth. For long-time Powers fans, I'll say that it put me in mind of both Last Call and Declare, while not repeating anything in either of those books in any significant way. And I liked it.

The book is firmly in Powers' standard territory. He gathers up a vast quantity of historical detail--in this case, detail about Albert Einstein, Israel, and (of all people) Charlie Chaplin--and uses it as background for a wild tale of secret history involving spies, secret societies, nearly magical devices, and several nearly ordinary people caught up in the whole thing. Oh, and there's a definite nod to C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. Call it a science fantasy thriller and you won't be too far off the mark.

Not Powers' best work, I think--it's hard to tell, as most of his books benefit from multiple re-readings--but not his worst either; and even his worst is pretty good. Definitely a keeper.

If you've not encountered Powers before, this is not an unreasonable book to start with; but you should also look at The Anubis Gates and Last Call.

Shadow Puppets
By Orson Scott Card

This is the third in the sequence that began with Ender's Shadow, which I really liked, following directly after Shadow of the Hegemon. And as with Shadow of the Hegemon I'm somewhat underwhelmed.

In the previous book, the nations of Earth begin to fight amongst themselves after the successful conclusion of the war against the Buggers. Both China and Russia expand significantly, with China conquering most of east Asia, including India. Much of the conflict has been engineered by Bean's old adversary, Achilles, who's a real piece of work.

In this book the tale continues more or less from where the last left off; indeed, it's my understanding that the material in this book and its precessor were originally intended to fill a single book. Unfortunately, there's nothing very compelling about it. Bean continues to mature, which is nice; and Card's view of possible future geo-politics is interesting; and Bean has his final confrontation with Achilles, which is a relief but turned out to be somewhat anti-climactic. It's not a bad book, and it has some good bits, but there's just nothing very special about it.

I'm planning on getting the final book in the set, Shadow of the Giant, sometime today, so I can take it with me on a business trip this coming week; but if Card doesn't have a pretty good conclusion lined up I'm going to be seriously disappointed.

Against the Tide of Years
By S.M. Stirling

This is the immediate sequel to Against the Tide of Years. In the previous book, the island of Nantucket and its inhabitants are inexplicably transported to (IIRC) 1242 B.C--the bronze age. There's the usual material about survival and gearing down technology to a sustainable level, and interactions with the people of the era. In this book, renegade William Walker sells his services to King Agamemnon of Mycenae (yes, that Agamemnon) and with the help of Odikweos, King of Ithaka, sets himself up as a tech-wizard and power in the land. Meanwhile the Nantucketers are preparing to oppose him, in particular by making an alliance with the people of Babylon.

It's the usual intriguing blend of anachronistic technology, alternate history, and military situations that I've come to expect from Stirling. I have the same issues with this book that I had with its predecessor, unsurprisingly, so I won't go into that again.

The stand-out part of this book (other than a few sequences where Stirling is clearly channelling Patrick O'Brian-- Desolation Island comes especially to mind) is Walker's experiences in Mycenae. The blend of intelligence, practicality, good management, ruthlessness, lust for power, and casual amorality with which Walker rises to power among the Achaeans is truly disturbing. The most unsettling bits show Walker disciplining his children in a very normal and fatherly way--except that the life lessons he's imparting are all unpleasantly twisted toward treating your fellow men like cattle: not to be casually abused, nor to be sentimentalized either, but to be treated as the source of wealth and a valuable resource. There are a few grisly scenes of torture carried out by Walker's psychopathic wife Alice Hong, the "Lady of Pain", which I could have done without; and frankly, the scenes with Walker's kids were more chilling.

The book does have one flaw that I'll mention, a flaw that it shares with many (most?) other books in the genre: the course of true love too often runs smooth. If the plot throws a man and a woman together, you can be pretty sure that they are going to pair off for the long term. It happens to at least four couples in this book, and perhaps more than that in the previous book. It's nice to have couples pairing off, but when it begins to seem inevitable that's a problem. I can't beat up Stirling too much over this, though, because as I say everybody does it.

I wouldn't say that these are my favorites of stirling's books, but they are good, solid reads nevertheless, especially if you have a taste for (alternate) history.

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 December 2006
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