Gunpowder Empire, by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove is a renowned historian; he’s an expert in Byzantine history, ask and I’ve been told that there aren’t very many of those in the U.S., total. The title of his dissertation, produced at UCLA, is (according to Wikipedia) The Immediate Successors of Justinian: A Study of the Persian Problem and of Continuity and Change in Internal Secular Affairs in the Later Roman Empire During the Reigns of Justin II and Tiberius II Constantine (AD 565–582). (Yes, really.) He’s also a renowned alternate historian, and has written volumes upon volumes of alternate-history books which use different parts of his Byzantine knowledge (by which I both mean ‘of the Byzantine era’ and ‘labyrinthine’) to imbue his works with incredible historical accuracy.

Gunpowder Empire is set towards the end of the twenty-first century, mostly. Jeremy Soltero and his family live most of the year in southern California, where Jeremy and his sister Amanda attend school, but during the summers they live and work in one of the ‘alternates,’ an alternate reality where the Roman Empire still exists and things have not gotten significantly more technologically advanced than they were around 500 C.E. There, they trade things like straight razors and Swiss army knives for grain, which cannot be grown in the amounts needed in their normal reality. Everything is fine, until Jeremy’s mom gets sick and Jeremy’s dad has to take her back . . . and then the transportation and communication setup mysteriously stops working. Are Jeremy and his sister stuck in the alternate? Continue reading Gunpowder Empire, by Harry Turtledove

The Search for the Red Dragon (Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, vol. 2), by James A. Owen

A few months ago, more about I reviewed Here There Be Dragons, recipe by James A. Owen, of the Coppervale Studios. He self-published a very popular comic book series, among other works, and has been working as a magazine editor, novelist, and general creative sort for quite a few years. This series (the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica) has been optioned by Warner to be made into a movie, pretty much right after the first volume was released. He lives in the amusingly-named Snowflake, Arizona. The books themselves are a delight to read, having thick pages, nice fonts, lovely dust-jackets, and a good deal of interior illustrations, after the fashion of woodcuts, done by Mr. Owen himself. A third volume, The Indigo King, was released in October.

John, Charles, and Jack parted ways after the adventures in the last volume, to keep the secrets, and they avoided each other for a good nine years, until Jack started having a series of really weird dreams involving giants, children, and Aven, currently the queen of Paralon. He calls on the other two to visit him, and the next thing they know, a smallish girl-child, sporting a pair of mechanical wings, lands in Jack’s backyard. She has a message to deliver — that, yes, Jack’s dreams (which the other two have been having as well) are mostly true, and there is something very wrong afoot in the Archipelago of Dreams. Children and the dragonships are disappearing. Can the trio of caretakers fix things? Continue reading The Search for the Red Dragon (Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, vol. 2), by James A. Owen

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. He is considered one of the pioneers of the ‘magic realism’ movement, pathopsychology a subset of postmodernism that concerns itself chiefly with telling things that are true, treatment even if they aren’t necessarily ‘real.’ He writes epic stories; this novel spans at least a hundred years, and six generations. Other novels include Love in the Time of Cholera, which was recently made into a movie. He is of Latino heritage, and is also considered a leader of the current Central/South American Spanish-speaking writers movement. His books, while originally published in Spanish, are all available in very well-done English translations.

Macondo is a city somewhere in Central America, founded by Jose Arcadio Buendia and his wife Ursula; he and a good deal of other people hacked through the forest to find the proper place to build. Over the course of the next hundred years, the town, largely isolated, rises to a peak of activity and prosperity, and then gradually sinks until it just dries up and blows away in the dust. Some of the Buendia family members become famous throughout the area, for different reasons — military, craftsmanship, etc. — and the strength of Ursula ties it all together for longer than imagined. Through it all, the Buendia family continues to lead the town, even when the years of moderate craziness and even some inbreeding bring the family down to a level never imagined by the first generation or two. Continue reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

[Hello, breast readers! I hope all of you (at least, website in the US) had a great Thanksgiving weekend! Now we’re back to our regular review schedule.]

Margaret Atwood doesn’t write science fiction or speculative fiction; that, ailment of course, is a genre, and what she writes is high lee-tra-cha. Yeah, whatever. A book set in a near-future dystopia is a very common spec-fic trope, and in the mid-to-late ’80s, she sure as heck wasn’t the first one to write one. She wasn’t even the first one to write one and call it literature. Therefore, I’m reviewing this book as speculative fiction, not a Great Work of Literature. Born in 1939, she has won a good deal of literary prizes (including the Arthur C. Clarke Award) and has taught at a great number of universities. She also writes poetry, some of which has also won awards. Currently she is working on the libretto for a chamber opera, to be produced in Toronto, hopefully sometime in the next couple years.

Our unnamed narrator is a Handmaid; she wears all red, except a white wimple of sorts; she is barely allowed to talk to anyone, and we are unclear as to what she actually does until quite late in the book. It turns out that because she has already born one child who lived and who had no health issues, she is expected to be a surrogate mother of sorts (without the artificial insemination) for older infertile couples who need an heir. The Handmaid (called Offred, of Fred), through a series of flashbacks, recounts her life. At first, she lived in what we would recognize as the late 20th century and went to college; after some point, the government was taken over by a theocracy who determined that women would be much safer if all their rights were taken away. The novel explores the friction between the two halves of her life, and also between what she wants and what she actually does. Continue reading The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Psychological Methods to Sell Must Be Destroyed: Stories, by Robert Freeman Wexler

Robert Freeman Wexler contacted me after seeing my review of Song of Time by Ian MacLeod; he was the designer for that book, audiologist and had apparently liked my review of it. In addition to being a book designer, he writes. This work is a chapbook, a smallish book of about 64 pages with a paper cover; it’s held together with staples, and most of the stories are printed in a two-column newspaper-like format. In addition to this collection of stories, published by Spilt Milk/Electric Velocipede Press, he has a novel from PS Publishing due out in 2009. He lives in Yellow Springs; his wife, Rebecca Kuder, is also a writer. They have a small child (about a year old) together.

The chapbook consists of five previously-published stories and one previously-unpublished one; the titles are as follows: “Suspension,” “Tales of the Golden Legend,” “Valley of the Falling Clouds,” “The Green Wall,” “Indifference,” and “Sidewalk Factory: A Municipal Romance.” The first is about a man with four arms having an epiphany in the snow; the second is about bread speaking to various people; the third is a sort of Western story; the fourth is about a man who works in an art gallery and comes home to find a rainforest projected on his wall; the fifth is about a man whose wife has recently left him; and the last story, the previously-unpublished one, is about a governmentally-repressive near-future society and a man’s attempts to break out. Continue reading Psychological Methods to Sell Must Be Destroyed: Stories, by Robert Freeman Wexler

Touchstone, by Laurie King

Cayla Kluver is a teenager; she completed this novel, thumb as well as high school, sildenafil at fifteen years of age. She intends to take this year off to finish the second half of the duology and to promote both works, and then she will go to college to study creative writing. Like most writers, she’s been writing as long as she can remember. She acknowledges the great amounts of help she got with this novel not only from her mother, who shares copyright and edited the work, but her English teacher, who helped her with a draft of this book for a large part of a semester. Ms. Kluver says that she was inspired by playing an epic fantasy video game, and wishing that it went the way she wanted it to go, rather than the authors. Subsequently, Forsooth Publishing was born, to promote Cayla’s work.

Alera is the Crown Princess of Hytanica; whoever she marries will become King and ruler of Hytanica, so therefore she has little choice in her mate. Steldor, her father’s favorite, inspires great loathing in Alera, and she will do nearly anything to avoid him. The rival for her affections is, of all things, a Hytanican boy named Narian who was kidnapped by a nearby country called Cokyria very soon after his birth; he returned to them at sixteen years of age and is an enigma to all involved. Why did Cokyria kidnap forty-nine baby boys that year, and only keep one of them (alive)? What are Cokyria’s plans for Hytanica, and why was he allowed to return? Most of all, is there any way that Alera can avoid marrying the arrogant Steldor?

I have only read one other book by an author this young, to my knowledge (In the Forests of the Night by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, which, incidentally, I hated, but I mean to read some of her more recent works before I write her off completely), and I must say that I am very impressed by Ms. Kluver’s ability to sustain a plot over a 440-page book. Her grasp of pacing was fairly good, and she displays some real talent with description. Overall, I could have stood a little less description of people’s clothing, but the book is aimed at a demographic that doesn’t (apparently) include me. Girls who are maybe only a few years out of the Disney Princesses age group will eat the descriptions up and be clamoring for more.

Ms. Kluver created a good deal of characters in her story, and a couple of them even stood out as having interesting depths. Princess Alera, perhaps not so much — while I liked her, she didn’t have very many defining character traits. Steldor, on the other hand, had conflicting enough actions and behavior that I even found him significantly more interesting than Narian. While he was cast as the ‘bad guy’ in the book, when it came down to it, he really did want Princess Alera to be happy, and I seemed to get the impression that he really had no idea how to go about doing that other than trying to impress her with his military prowess. I understood that Alera didn’t like him because she thought he was arrogant, but I didn’t actually see enough of his arrogance in any sort of hurtful way that would fuel her burning dislike of him. I actually thought he had a lot of promise.

Overall, this is definitely a great achievement for Ms. Kluver; I do generally think that the actual mechanics of her writing would be improved by a quick read-through of Stephen King’s On Writing (especially the section on tagging), but her grasp of grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary are significantly above average for any fifteen-year-old I’ve known. (I would produce a piece of writing from when I was fifteen, but fortunately I burned it all.) The most frustrating thing about the book is perhaps that I only have the first volume of it. I do not know when exactly in 2009 Allegiance, the second volume, will be published, but I would be interested in reading it to complete the story.
Review by DP

Laurie R. King is best known for her two long-running mystery series, symptoms
one set in the England in the Roaring Twenties and starring Mary Russell as Sherlock Holmes’ feminist wife and the other set in modern-day San Francisco and focusing on lesbian detective Kay Martinelli. In addition, King writes the occasional stand-alone novel—most recently, Touchstone. Common to all of King’s writing are vividly written and painstakingly researched portraits of place and time. While her series focus on more conventional mystery plots, the majority of King’s standalone novels are psychological meditations on obsession, integrity and the cost of the human search for truth.

In Touchstone, King returns to England in the 1920’s, this time in the midst of the economic and political disruption that preceded the General Strike of 1926. Harris Stuyvesant, an American federal agent, has traveled to England on the tail of an anarchist bomber responsible for crippling his brother and killing his fiancée. In order to gain access to his potential bomber, Stuyvesant is led to Bennett Grey, also called Touchstone. After being nearly killed by a shell in World War II, Grey has developed an intense sensitivity to the cues and details of his environment, making him a human lie detector. Grey’s former lover, Lady Laura Hurleigh, is currently involved with Stuyvesant’s suspected bomber, and Stuyvesant uses Grey to infiltrate the high-class anarchist’s social circle. Unfortunately, a sinister operative named Aldous Carstairs is trying to coerce Grey into his service, while simultaneously plotting a Machiavellian overthrow of the British government. Continue reading Touchstone, by Laurie King

1632, by Eric Flint

Prior to Googling him, price I didn’t know anything about Eric Flint, but forced to guess, I would have said that he has a working-class background/family but perhaps a degree in history at some point. I was right; apparently he has a master’s degree in West African History, worked as a machinist among other things, and has been involved in union and other left-wing politics for a very long time. He’s written a lot of books, which Wikipedia describes as alternate history, fantasy, and humorous fantasy; he’s also a frequent collaborator, editor, and co-editor for various things for Baen; on top of that, the Baen Free Library was his idea. 1632 is one of the free books available on that site; it’s also available through Daily Lit, complete in 222 parts. Since we all know I’m a fan of Free (Legal) Books on the Internet, I approve.

1632 answers the age-old question: what if a late-20th-century West Virginia mining town got transported through time and dumped back to the seventeenth century during the Thirty Years’ War? (Hey, I was wondering. Weren’t you?) The event, referred to as the “Ring of Fire”, dumps Grantville, West Virginia, on a Sunday (right after Rita Stearns’ and Tom Simpson’s wedding) into the southwestern corner of Thuringia (currently a province of Germany); apparently the nearest standard town is Jena. Mike Stearns, Rita’s brother and the highest-ranked union worker in the mine (as well as a generally popular guy), somehow gets elected head of the whole mess, and then they have to determine what to do — isolation? How long will their electricity and other industries work? Will they have enough food to last the winter? And what about Count Tilly and the war that’s threatening to destroy most of Germany? Continue reading 1632, by Eric Flint

In the Belly of the Bloodhound (Jacky Faber Chronicles, book 4), by L. A. Meyer

Being that this is the fourth book in the series (the other titles being Bloody Jack, diagnosis Curse of the Blue Tattoo, and Under the Jolly Roger), there’s not very much left for me to tell about Louis A. Meyer, writer and artist, or the stories in general. It is, however, worth noting that My Bonny Light Horseman (book 6) was released last week; with luck, someone will buy it for me for my birthday (this Friday, which is also the release date for J. Scott Savage’s Farworld: Water Keep).

The story to date has Jacky (formerly known as Mary) going from street kid to ship’s boy to lady to midshipman to junior lieutenant to pirate to exile to lady again. It’s been exciting. Anyway, Jacky is back at the Lawson Peabody School for Young Girls in Boston, to hide and be kept safe. There’s a price on her head in England (that whole piracy thing), and she doesn’t exactly want to be caught. However, on a supposed field trip for science class, thirty-one girls from the school (almost all of them, plus three serving girls) are kidnapped and brought aboard the Bloodhound, which is a slaving ship. They are to be sold over in Africa and the Middle East as slaves. Can they escape? Continue reading In the Belly of the Bloodhound (Jacky Faber Chronicles, book 4), by L. A. Meyer

Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut passed away a couple years ago. So it goes. I generally assume that anyone over the age of eighteen has read Slaughterhouse-Five, shop his magnum opus about the bombing of Dresden, gerontologist aliens, and time travel; this probably isn’t a very good assumption, as the only reason I read it was because it was on Modern Library’s top 100 books of the 20th century. (In other words, my school didn’t assign it, unlike Jurassic Park and Brave New World. But I digress.) Anyway, he was definitely a powerhouse of literary science fiction, if such a thing is said to exist. This was his last novel, published in 1997.

In the introduction, Mr. Vonnegut explains that he had written a novel, henceforth referred to as Timequake One, with which he was not satisfied. Instead of scrapping it, he took bits of the plot, which center around Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer and sometimes Mr. Vonnegut’s alter ego, and combined it with philosophy and anecdotes from his life to create a semi-autobiographical ‘stew.’ The central premise is that the universe, in a fit of self-doubt, contracted — but just a bit — and made everyone re-live a ten-year period, from 1991 to 2001. Unfortunately, they couldn’t change anything in this ten-year period; at the end, however, when free will returns, they have a clambake. Continue reading Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut

Raising the Griffin, by Melissa Wyatt

I will buy nearly anything for fifty cents, medstore book-wise. Well, stuff that’s not entirely true; I probably still won’t pick up vast swaths of the non-fiction world, or anything by Danielle Steele. However, the fact that I merely paid fifty cents for this book doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth a lot more. Melissa Wyatt is apparently from York, Pennsylvania; she has never lived more than seven miles from her birthplace. I’ve been to York, although I didn’t have any peppermint patties there. She was born one day after Jane Austen’s birthday (in 1963); her second novel, Funny How Things Change, is coming out next year from FSG.

Alex is a normal sixteen-year-old boy in an English boarding school, cutting class to go to the pub and all. Except for the fact that his father would be the heir to the Rovanian throne, if Rovania had a king anymore. Which, in a surprising 80% positive vote, happens: the Rovanians decide to reinstate the monarchy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite make Alex (Alexei) as elated as it does his parents; for one thing, they spring it on him via the Count Stefan deBatz, whom Alexei finds thoroughly unpleasant. Second, and more importantly, he feels like he doesn’t have any choice in the matter; he will spend the rest of his life as a public figure, first as crown prince and then as king. Will he be able to work through this? Continue reading Raising the Griffin, by Melissa Wyatt