You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Urth of the New Sun

The Urth of the New Sun is Gene Wolfe's sequel to his Book of the New Sun. It tries to follow up on the story told in those four books.

Severian is on a ship traveling vast distances in space. The ship is huge, with long spars and sails that catch the winds of space. He launches a copy of his story into the emptiness of the universe, nearly getting separated from the ship. When he gets back into the ship, he gets lost and is found by a group of sailors who enlist his aid to capture a strange creature.

Back in his cabin, he finds three aliens who he knows, who tell him about his journey. We find out he is traveling to the edge of the universe to be judged, and the stakes are the future of the Urth. If he fails, he will be sent back unmanned to watch his planet die. If he succeeds, he will bring the New Sun, which will brighten the skies again.

Something happens, and Severian finds himself thrust into a dark corridor. He fights off two assassins. He meets the creature he helped capture, named Zak, who has changed into a more human-like appearance. He is helped by Gunnie, one of the the sailors he helped catch Zak. He fights for the ship against the jibers, a group of creatures who inhabit the empty holds of the ship.

When the ship reaches Yesod, the end of space and time, Severian watches as another man is brought out of the ship as the one being judged. He follows the procession, and chains himself to the place of judgment instead of the other man. Apheta, a woman from Yesod, helps him and gives him a tour of the island. He meets his judge, Tzadkiel, who turns out to be Zak. He finds out the judgment has been made, and he will bring the New Sun.

The second half of the story is Severian's return to Urth and what happens there. He meets the captain of the ship, who turns out to be Tzadkiel. He meets an younger version of Gunnie, because the ship travels through time as well as space. The younger Gunnie goes with him to Urth. Together they travel through villages, and he heals several people. Gunnie ends up with the captain of a boat. Severian is captured by police and taken to his old Citadel as a prisoner. He realizes that he is in is past, and that he has powers as the New Sun.

He is taken to see the leader of the Urth, the two headed man whom he kills in the future. He then moves to the future, and finds his old House Absolute, finds his wife remarried (for he has been gone for decades), and finds the giant Baldanders. Then the oceans rise, killing nearly everyone. He meets up with some people on a raft, and they are picked up by a man on a boat who turns out to be an old friend of Severian's. Then follows a strange ending where Severian travels to the past and grows old in a village of primitive people, and finally travels to the future again.

The book has Wolfe's typical rich prose and vast vision. Pieces of the previous books appear and enrich the story, though I am not sure it would work as well as a standalone book. The story bends back on itself and picks up pieces that you thought were unimportant, like Zak. Severian is as usual a complex character. He is more thoughtful and remorseful here, having the weight of the world on him. The wonders of the huge ship and the world at the end of space and time are strange and engaging.

The only problem I have with the book is that the ending tends to wander and digress without a real goal or purpose. Severian's travels are confusing and seem to lack coherence. But still, I'll rate the book an A-. It was worth reading to find out about the judgment of Urth and the coming of the New Sun.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis, is another book about time travelers going to the past for their own purposes. But instead of big ideas and nefarious plots, the book is a lighthearted romp through Victorian England. The title and features of the book are taken from the Victorian book Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog, another lighthearted romp.

Ned Henry is a historian in the late twenty-first century who has been tasked to find the bishop's missing bird stump. He's part of a team trying to rebuild Coventry cathedral, which was destroyed by a Luftwaffe, and they want to make it as historically accurate as possible. After returning from 1945 where he was searching for the bird stump in the ruins of the cathedral, he is sent to 1888 to get some rest and relaxation, and get away from Lady Schrapnell, the imperious woman who insists on the strict schedule.

Ned runs into trouble in 1888 when he misses his contact and makes a local man miss meeting a woman who might end up being his wife. Ned and Verity, another historian who has traveled to 1888 to examine a diary, try to fix a discrepency in the timeline. It involves a cat, a dog, an Oxford professor, a butler or two, the cathedral, jumble sales, seances, and Lady Schrapnell's great great great grandmother.

Everything somehow comes together in the end, and there are clues throughout the story, just like in Verity's favorite mystery novels. Along the way, we learn a lot about history, including the battle of Waterloo and the Battle of Britain. Not only the facts of history, but also a theory of how little things matter and build up into big things. The classic horseshoe/horse/battle trope. Ned and Verity get in the middle of a huge mixup and come up with all sorts of combinations of fixes, with each one having various repurcussions. It turns out that the events in June 1888 may end up affecting the RAF and the Battle of Britain.

What really makes book fun is the events and mishaps, the interplay between all the colorful characters. Ned's confusion and misunderstandings form the basis of a complicated interweaving plot. The Victorian era is fertile ground for a comedy of errors.

The book is an A. It was amusing from start to finish, and I also learned something about history along the way. The story has that rare quality of being both a surprise and completely fitting.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Modern Scholar: Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature

Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature is a Modern Scholar lecture by Professor Michael D.C. Drout. Professor Drout teaches courses in Old and Middle English, medieval literature, and sciene fiction as well as fantasy.

He starts by relating the origins of modern fantasy, essentially Victorian fairy tales. I felt he didn't go enough into myths and legends here, especially Greek and Roman. But he does show how tales from the brothers Grimm influenced later writers.

He spends a good bit of time on Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. I learned a lot about the background and how much work Tolkien put into the books. I knew that there was a lot of work that Tolkien had done, but I hadn't realized he had gone so far to create two distinct languages, each based on a real archaic language. Of course the mythology and back stories are filled in from The Silmarillion. He points out the structure of action and repose, with repeated forms.

The crux of the story, according to Drout, is the moral actions of Frodo and his struggle with the Ring. Frodo fails in the end, and Gollum turns out to be the hero, albeit reluctantly. The whole story has a sense of nostalgia, of trying to get back to a lost home, which Drout relates to Tolkien's loss of his father and especially his mother at a young age.

Then Professor Drout moves to Tolkien's successors. He pans Terry Brooks, which I can't really complain about. He points out that his first book is largely derivative, and looking back I must agree. He also discusses Stephen Donaldson, who he thinks better of but still thinks he's a lesser writer.

He praises Urusla K. Le Guin and delves into her Earthsea trilogy. I must say that listening to his explanation of the books left me wanting to read them (I've only read A Wizard of Earthsea). I'm not sure I want to read Robert Holdstock.

He does use one lecture to talk about Arthurian literature. It's a good overview, but I could have used more. He hardly mentioned the Holy Grail at all. But he does mention how Arthurian works have been treated over time. I also want to read T. H. White's The Once and Future King (I've only read the first part before).

He talks about children's fantasy, a rich subject, for one lecture. He discusses C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, and why it is appealing to a child but less so to adults. I'm in agreement with him here. We both liked The Voyage of the Dawn Treader though.

Lastly he talks about magical realism and contrasts it with fantasy. According to Drout, the essential difference is not in the subject matter but in the style. Fantasy uses a more historical style while magical realism uses a modernist style. He believes that fantasy is better able to treat some subjects, such as death, due to its freedom and style.

This lecture series I'll give an A. I was a little concerned to see it was so focused on Tolkien (half the lectures) but listening to them was very enjoyable. I wanted more, both quantity and quality (as far as a deeper probing of subjects), but there's only fourteen lectures. Overall he does an excellent job.

Modern Scholar page