Aardy R. DeVarque (aardy) wrote,
Aardy R. DeVarque

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Books that I read in April

Gah. This took much longer to write (and find the time to write) than I would've preferred. Now to start in on May's list... -sigh-

17. Rosenberg, Joel. The Warrior Lives (260 p.)

18. Heinlein, Robert. Waldo and Magic, Inc. (191 p.)

19. Heinlein, Robert. Starship Troopers (208 p.)

20. Walker, Lars. Erling's Word (308 p.)

21. Gertler, Nat, ed. 24-Hour Comics: All-Stars (238 p.)

April total: 1205 pages
YTD total: 6607 pages

The Warrior Lives is basically the last book of the first major story arc in Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series, and, unlike the books to this point, is a direct continuation of the action in the previous book. One of the major characters died just off-camera at the end of the previous book, blown to bits in a blast that also took out several hundred slavers. Soon afterwards, slavers start turning up dead all over the area, accompanied by a notice of "The Warrior Lives", and since he had a reputation for managing to avoid certain death, his friends and family start searching for whomever is leaving the notes, to see if somehow he really did survive.

Books four and five of this series (more the latter than the former) are basically a Bildungsroman for the children of the original main characters, which is something you don't see too often in long-term series books--the main characters actually grow old, slow down, semi-retire, and their children take over the "business".

There were more books in the series (and I read several of them when they first came out), but this one makes a good jumping-off point, as it ties up the important loose ends and draws a something of a line under the story, even though there are plenty of avenues left open for further tales. I like the series, and it's fun to come back to it every few years, but because books 2-5, at least, depend so much on "the story thus far", you miss a lot if you don't start at the beginning, so it's hard to recommend the later books to anyone who hasn't read the earlier books yet, by which point they'll already know whether or not they're interested in reading more of the series.

Waldo and Magic, Inc. are two of Heinlein's short(er) stories published together in this paperback edition. Waldo features an arrogant know-it-all engineering genius of that name who builds hand-like devices to manipulate objects he normally can't--some for microscopic work, some for working with dangerous materials, some for heavy lifting, etc. (This story is the reason why such devices have been called "waldoes" every since.) The story itself starts off as a standard science fiction story about a futuristic engine type that is used to power almost everything in society, but now some of them are suddenly stopping dead for no discernable reason, and the main character is tasked with finding out why and how to fix it. Also the population seems to be getting more and more lethargic as time goes on. The story takes a left turn into mysticism towards the end as it ties those two problems together in a way that requires the characters to toss out the known laws of physics.

I generally prefer to keep my mysticism and science fiction separate, and this is another Heinlein story where not much other than (generally very interesting) character interaction and dead ends happen for most of the story, only to suddenly veer off into left field and tie everything up in the last couple of chapters. I love his story ideas and most of his characters, but his approaches to basic story structure keep throwing me off.

Magic, Inc. is something of an oddity among the Heinlein stories I've read. It's not science fiction, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the unified timeline in which almost all of his other stories are set. Rather, it is fantasy in a "modern" setting ("modern" being circa 1940, so take that with a grain of salt), with a heavy emphasis on the American system of politics. In a city were most businesses use magic instead of machinery, a company named "Magic, Inc." sets up a protection racket that will lead to them having a monopoly on magic. A couple of businessmen being squeezed by the racket try to figure out what's going on and break their stranglehold--even going to the statehouse to lobby against a law getting passed that would force every magician to be licensed by Magic, Inc. It turns out that there's a demon pulling strings behind the scenes, and demons know politics all too well, so the only way to win is to go to Hell and basically out-fox the Devil himself. It's very much like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington set in the world of Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files. Also, the action seems to build more steadily to a semi-logical climax, rather than Heinlein's typical slow burn followed by frenetic action. There's still some of that here, but for some reason, it seemed to feel more in place in a fantasy story.

I'd generally recommend both of these, but I liked Magic, Inc. better than Waldo (I'm something of a sucker for a Frank Capra-esque story, and the juxtaposition of one of those with a world just like the real world except with magic exactly replacing equivalent technology struck something of a chord with me that either genre on its own might not have.)

Starship Troopers is, I think, the best Heinlein book I've read to date. And now that I've read it, the movie makes a lot more sense (though that doesn't stop the movie's critical flaws from being what they are).

It's an infantryman's-eye view of basic training and war, particularly war against a largely unknown enemy with possibly superior firepower. As with The Puppet Masters, the fact that the enemy happens to be aliens is largely besides the point, though having it be aliens helps drive the plot without bogging the story down in politics; the point is what the protagonist observes happening and how he reacts to what's going on around him in a time of all-out war, as well as being a "hard sci-fi" look at what small-group tactics in a future war might be like.

You might think a book like this would fall squarely into the "pro-war" or "anti-war" camps, and while some people might come away thinking it's one or the other, this story is not so clear as that. It's more along the lines of both "war is hell" and "if you're going to go to war, do it right". (It also suggests a way to structure society to truly encourage an "all volunteer" army that doesn't have recruiting problems.)

I really liked this book, and would definitely recommend it.

Erling's Word is a bit of an odd duck--historical fiction set in old Norway, except that there really are elves, trolls, and undead, and the gods (and God) sometimes act directly.

Based very loosely on the Heimskringla saga about the kings of Norway, it's the tale of Ailill, an Irish priest-candidate who is enslaved during a viking raid in the early 990s. He is then purchased by one of the few Christian lords in Norway, Erling Skjalgsson, who freed him to be his priest, though Ailill neglected to tell him he had been thrown out of the monastery before he got anywhere near being ordained. Erling's previous priest had been murdered because he preached against the pagan ways of Erling's people, and it's now up to Ailill to figure out a way to do the job and stay alive, with very little of the religious knowledge an actual priest should have. His chief opponents turn out to be the village blacksmith & his wife--the local priest & priestess of Thor--and himself. The latter proves to be the more interesting plot thread.

The setting and action are broadly similar to Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead (and therefore the movie The 13th Warrior), but mostly just in the location, approximate time frame, and teasing at the possible reality of otherworldly beings.

Most Christian fiction takes that one element and plays it as hard as it can, to the detriment of everything else. Here, Ailill's faith (or lack thereof) and how it changes over the course of the book both because and in spite of his successes and failures is the focus, but the other story elements are intertwined with that one in such a way that each builds on the other. That said, non-Christians (especially pagans) who read this are likely going to feel it still hits the Christian elements far too hard and paints too many of the pagans as villains.

I think this book would have been stronger as simply historical fiction, or with the fantasy elements being less certain as to their status as reality vs. hallucination. When the otherwise "straight" supporting characters start interacting with the fantastical without much blinking an eye, my suspension of disbelief started fraying.

Lastly, while it's probably true to the time period, I would have been more comfortable with a bit less in the way of graphic violence, rape (in the very first paragraph, even!), and so forth. Some of it was necessary to move the plot along, but some of the details (and frequency), even if technically historically accurate, just seemed to me to be more than was really necessary for this particular story to be told.

Overall, though, this book not only entertained me more than I thought it would (parts of it had me picturing what this would look like if it were adapted into a movie), and it made me do some pondering about faith and religion.

24-Hour Comics: All-Stars is a collection of comics stories written and drawn in (approximately) 24 hours by Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), Tone Rodriguez (Snake Plissken), Chris Eliopoulos (X-Men), John Peters (Forty Winks, Paul Smith (Uncanny X-Men), David Chelsea (Perspective! for Comic Book Artists), Tom Hart (Hutch Owen, Sean McKeever (Mary Jane), and Dave Sim (Cerebus).

McCloud's story is the first-ever "24-hour comic", and is interestingly surreal, but relies a bit much on near-pointless nudity and violence for my tastes.

Rodriguez' story about a post-apocalyptic robot-destroying vigilante is one of the best in the book. The amount of detail in his artwork is amazing for something completed in less than a day.

Eliopoulos' story is a spot-on Calvin & Hobbes homage/pastiche about a boy with a magic crayon. It shows obvious signs of rushed artwork, but manages to work well anyway.

Peters' story is a post-apocalyptic tale about our heroes trying to deliver a truck-load of pillows without being captured by a horde of robotic mimes. Cute (and some decent gags about "anti-mime defenses"), but suffers quite a bit in the middle from rushed/sketchy artwork.

Smith's contribution is actually an anthology of one semi-autobiographical and the rest true-life stories, with a different style of artwork for each story. I particularly laughed at the tale of a Navy engineer who carried not one but two flashlights with him at all times, then used them to find his station during "lights out" drill.

Chelsea's contribution is another anthology, this time of four stories: a name-guessing game, a tale of two tomatoes that reminded me a lot of Milk & Cheese, a "story" that consists entirely of quotes from song lyrics, and one about a man with a coffee-cup for a head going to a yard sale.

The artwork on Hart's tale is so scratchy it's often hard to follow the action, but from what I can pick up, it's about an older woman who accidentally killed her dog in a fire when she was a little girl, and now is basically catatonic except when she sees something burning. Not my cup of tea, but the basic story structure is a bit more "arty" than I'm used to seeing in a comic--particuarly a 24-hour comic.

McKeever's story is interesting in that he's normally a writer and this is was the first comics story he's drawn, and given that, it's actually pretty good artwork. It's a bit of a surreal tale (that seems to be a common fallback for 24-hour comics stories, probably because it's easier to come up with surreal ideas at 3 in the morning) about a guy who wakes up to discover that everything's been left-for-righted. And it features a gratuitous cameo by Warren Ellis.

Sim's story is arguably the pièce de résistance of the book, so it's fitting that it's the last story. He's working without Gerhard here, so there are no backgrounds, but otherwise, the artwork and lettering are both pretty much up his normal par. It's a character study about a woman who's reflecting on her love life and how awful it's been. It's not a pleasant story to read, but it's disturbing in its truth rather than (as most such stories are) simply to be disturbing.

I've read a few of About Comics' "24-hour comics" collections over the years, and this was by far my favorite collection.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
Tags: books

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