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.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Lean Times in Lankhmar

Lean Times in Lankhmar is the second in Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series. Fafhrd, the lean Northerner, and the Gray Mouser, the nimble Lankhmar native, have several more adventures in and around the city. They also take a magical trip to the ancient Mediterranean.

The second story is called "Lean Times in Lankhmar", and the two adventurers have settled on other pursuits while waiting for more exciting work. The Gray Mouser becomes a hired hand in the employ of an extortionist, and Fafhrd finds a priest to a new god who's not yet well known and becomes an acolyte. The story rambles for a bit, to where the reader wonders what will become of the two friends. Fafhrd's priest comes to the attention of the Mouser's employer, and the two find themselves at odds. With a little luck they manage to find a way out of a tight bind, but end up sneaking out of the city for a while.

After an adventure under the ocean, the two find themselves walking through a deep passageway looking for Fafhrd's sorcerer patron Ningauble. Here Leiber uses a narrative trick where the two adventurers have their memories altered and end up in ancient Tyre, setting up an older story that he had written. I was dubious about this story at first, but it quickly consumed me. "Adept's Gambit" is about the adventure of the two as they try to solve the riddle of a curse they are under which makes any woman they kiss turn into an animal (except mysteriously for the Mouser's current girlfriend). Ningauble gives them advice and they travel with another mysterious woman (whom they don't date try to kiss) to find a necromancer who offers them magical power in exchange for obedience. The Gray Mouser manages to kill him, but then they must travel to an ancient fortress that houses his true power. The whole story is fascinating and filled with suspense and a good dose of dread, almost like a Stephen King story.

The second half of the book is taken up by two novellas, split by the short story "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar", a nice ironic fun romp. The first novella is "Stardock", which follows the two as they climb a high mountain in search of a stash of jewels promised in a discovered piece of paper. A good bit of this is slow going as the author goes into great detail about the climb and the troubles they face. When they get near they top they are pleased to discover treasure of a different kind, and a dire threat.

The final story is "The Lord of Quarmall", about two feuding princes in an underground kingdom, each of whom has hired one of the two adventurers as a champion against the other. There is a good dose of sorcery in this story, as well as damsels who may or may not be in distress, and more plot twists. The story is a little different than others in the book but in many ways is closer to some of my favorites in the first book. I enjoy the themes where the characters identities are hidden, and they must discover each other and figure out a way out of the mess.

Overall these stories were a pretty good following to the first volume. They are fun and exciting, and mixing the familiar and the new at the same time. Having the two friends separate and have to face each other is an interesting twist. I look forward to reading the next volume soon. A-

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ill Met in Lankhmar

It is rare that I reread a book. I think mostly there are so many good books that I want to read out there that I generally don't make time to read something that I've read before. I suppose there are few books that are so great that they stick in my mind and are interesting enough to warrant a second look. One exception is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I read twice as a teenager and again when the movies were released. Since I started this blog, the only book I've reread is Arthur C. Clarke's The Hammer of God, and that one was so unmemorable that I had totally forgotten I'd read it before until I was half way through it.

I read Fritz Leiber's Ill Met in Lankhmar years ago and immediately loved it. I never got around to getting the next three books in the series, I just added them to my wish list and thought about ordering them every now and then. When my sister gave me the next three books for Christmas (thanks Erin!) I decided I had better reread the first book before reading the rest. It was just as good the second time around.

The world of Lankhmar is a fantastic world full of thieves and sorcerers, adventures and treasures. Leiber's two heroes are Fafhrd, the tall lanky swordsman from the northern Cold Waste, and the Gray Mouser, the wizard's adept turned adventurer. The book is a series of stories about their adventures together, starting with each character's seminal story of how they left their homes and traveled to Lankhmar, the biggest, richest, most decadent city in the world of Nehwon. The action really gets started with the story "Ill Met in Lankhmar", where the two adventurers meet in a dark alley while pursuing the same booty off the same two thieves. They go on to carouse with their girls and several jugs of wine, but the night ends badly when they end up facing down the Theives' Guild and their sorcerer.

There are more fantastic and exciting stories. A fun one is "The Jewels in the Forest", about a scrap of writing that leads the two to an old stone house in a forest which hides an unseen danger. My favorite the first time I read the book was "The Howling Tower", where the two come across the titular tower and the Mouser must face an old wizard and his stories of ghosts in order to save his friend from a ghastly end. This time around I greatly enjoyed "Thieves' House", in which the two adventurers must sneak back into the Thieves' Guild in order to capture a prized treasure. As in many of the stories, they end up with little to show for their troubles.

Leiber's stories are well plotted and they always keep the reader guessing. The situations the characters end up in are exciting, and there's always some twist or surprise that comes along. Often there's a sense of dread or foreboding that fills the characters. This passage, from "The Bleak Shore" sets the tone for the rest of the story. A mysterious stranger in a pub speaks to the two:

'... Now I have heard tell that death sometimes calls to a man in a voice only he can hear. Then he must rise and leave his friends and go to whatever place death shall bid him, and there meet his doom. Has death ever called to you in such a fashion?'

Fafhrd might have laughed, but did not. The Mouser had a witty rejoinder on the tip of his tongue, but instead he heard himself saying: 'In what words might death call?'

'That would depend,' said the small man. 'He might look at two such as you and say the Bleak Shore. Nothing more than that. The Bleak Shore. And when he said it three times you would have to go.'

This time Fafhrd tried to laugh, but the laugh never came.

The two thieves are excellent companions and well drawn characters for such stories. They have their own foibles and at times quarrel with one another. Even when they are driven by others, their own personalities shine through. And the city of Lankhmar and the world it's in have their own personalities. Every story adds to the feeling of Lankhmar's tangibility. This was a book well worth rereading. A

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Friday, May 14, 2010

The Golden Compass

I had heard good things about Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass so I finally picked up an audiobook version at the library. The audiobook is narrated by the author and a cast of voice actors who create an entertaining performance.

The story takes place in a fantastic alternate reality that is a sort of steampunk setting. Every human in this world has a talking animal as a daemon, a sort of familiar who is part of the person's soul. The children's daemon's can change form but at puberty they settle on a single form. Lyra is an eleven-year-old girl living at Jordan College at Oxford. Her uncle, Lord Asriel, is a scientist and explorer who has returned from the north to bring news of the Northern Lights and Dust, a special particle with magical properties. The people are talking about what the kids call the Gobblers, people who have been stealing children away. Lyra becomes upset when her friend Roger is taken by the Gobblers.

Lyra's life change when Lord Asriel leaves and she meets a woman named Mrs. Coulter. Lyra is enamored of Mrs. Coulter's sophistication and elegance and soon goes to live with her as her assistant and student. Before she moves in with Mrs. Coulter the Master of Jordan College secretly gives her an alethiometer, the golden compass of the title. Lyra comes to understand that the device is a sort of truth teller that she must figure out how to use. When she discovers that Mrs. Coulter is head of the General Oblation Board (the Gobblers) the makes an escape. She ends up with with the Gyptians, poor boat people who have been watching over her. Lyra tells the Gyptians what she knows and they decide to make an expedition to the arctic north to try to find their lost children, and Lyra insists on coming along.

Lyra's adventures lead her to Iorek Byrnison, an armored bear who has been tricked out of his armor. Lyra uses the golden compass to find out where his armor is and he gets it back. Iorek pledges to support Lyra and the Gyptians in their quest. They also get the help of an aeronaut and some witches. Lyra learns about Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter and the Gobblers; she learns about Dust and the Magisterium. It becomes clear that there is a lot going on in the world.

The story is expansive and detailed. Pullman does such a great job describing the daemons that I was truly horrified when Lyra discovered a boy who had had his daemon separated. The reader feels the pain along with the characters. The theme of a young person going on a journey and discovering his or her identity is a common one, but Pullman does a great job with the execution. There are twists in the story and some people are not as they appear. Lyra finds a sort of foster father in Iorek, who turns out not as wild and erratic as claimed at first.

The story deals with the powers of science and magic, and people seeking to control science and knowledge. The action is exciting and the characters are intriguing. I didn't find as much anti-religion rhetoric in the book as I expected given the talk about it, but there is talk toward the end about Dust and original sin. Pullman is clearly setting the stage for more interesting plot developments in the sequels. A

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Dragonbone Chair

The Dragonbone Chair is a fantasy novel written by Tad Williams. It has largely a standard structure for high fantasy novels. The protagonist is a young man with an unknown parentage. He becomes apprentice to a wise older man, seeking wisdom and possibly secrets of magic. A disaster thrusts him out on his own, where he must take his hidden knowledge and learn the ways of the world. He is aided by a mysterious helper and they make their way to the refuge of a noble where they are treated as honored guests. Then he must continue to take part in a larger quest.

The boy is Seoman, known as Simon. A hapless servant in the castle, he becomes apprenticed to Morgenes, the local wizard or teacher. Simon sneaks around the castle and becomes familiar with its hidden passages and hideouts. This leads to another trope where Simon overhears a bitter conversation between the two princes, Elias and Josua. When King John dies, Elias becomes king and soon Josua disappears. Simon discovers that he is imprisoned by Pyrates, Elias' evil wizard. With the help of Morgenes, Simon helps Josua escape, but Simon barely escapes when Pyrates attacks and kills Morgenes.

Thrust out on his own, Simon struggles northward towards Josua's home of Naglimund. After many missteps, he is befriended by Binabek, a small troll who later reveals that his own dead master was a colleague of Morgenes. There is a long chase when Elias' hunters chase down the wayward youth through the dark forest of Aldheorte. They find another helper, a powerful witch, and a young man Simon recognizes from the castle who is also fleeing Elias' hunters. The three of them leave the witch and flee towards Naglimund.

There is other intrigue going on in the kingdom as the new king's subjects chafe under his rule. The whole kingdom starts to break apart. Evil creatures from the north invade the land. The kingdom's struggles are well illustrated. I found the civilization believable as well as the wilderness in the forest and nearby. The blend of monotheism and paganism is interesting, including the political ramifications. The biggest critique I have is that all the characters seem completely earnest to the point of being naive. It can be excused in Simon who if after all a raw youth, but all the others seem a bit flat, having no life outside the plot.

Throughout the story I was wavering between recognizing an old formula and enjoying the newness. The tropes are all there, from the mysterious elven creatures to the quest for an ancient magical sword. The plot does build well with its foundations. The world is fleshed out, and the narrative is well written and at times literary. I found myself caring about Simon and his companions, and the whole land. But at the same time it didn't quite measure up. Perhaps it could have used some editing--the first hundred pages or so were a bit drawn out. In the end it turned out to be a good story but barely worth the effort. B