Thursday, December 31, 2009
Blood Rites by Jim Butcher
"Hell's Bells" count: 19 
As far as I know, The Dresden Files is an open-ended series that Butcher will continue to write until he decides to end it, which is fine with me. He's set up a universe that has endless possibilities to it, from simple mysteries to humorous romps to soul-searing betrayal and heartache. Can't go wrong with all that, and if Butcher wants to just keep putting out Dresden books every eighteen months or so, I'll happily keep buying them.
One of the dangers of such a plan, however, is stagnation - you end up rehashing similar plot points, perhaps throwing in a few twists and turns, but never really advancing the plot because, well, you don't know where the plot is going. I can imagine Butcher would get to a point where he thinks, "Ummm... Okay, Harry Dresden fights vampire werewolves.... from the future!" At which point, the shark has been well and truly jumped. As I've said before, I would much rather see a series end well than see it go on beyond its useful life and leave me with sad, sad memories. I'm looking at you, X-Files.
While I don't know if Butcher knows exactly where the series will finally end (though he probably does), he does manage to avoid stagnation very nicely, mainly by putting Harry in mortal danger. Okay, that's nothing new, but this time it's Mortal Danger with bonus Crippling Injury! And a side order of Serious Disillusion to boot. This book really stirs things up for the world of Harry Dresden and lets the readers know that there is far, far more in store for us than we knew. So bravo to you, Jim.
In this volume, Dresden is asked by his kind-of-sort-of friend Thomas to do a favor for him. Despite being a vampire of the White Court and a soul-sucking incubus, Thomas is an okay kind of guy and has helped Harry out of a few tight spots in their time. He can't say he trusts Thomas, but he likes him. And therefore we like him as well. The job sounds simple: a movie producer has been having weird accidents happen to people linked with his movie, and two women have already died mysterious deaths. Harry's job would be to figure out who's putting the bad mojo on the movie studio and stop it.
The fact that it's an adult movie studio is not brought up until later.
In the process of trying to help out with an astoundingly powerful (and regular) Evil Eye curse, Harry runs afoul of the Black Court vampires in a side plot that really has nothing to do with the main one. This seems unusual, since most of the Dresden books that have featured multiple cases do so in the spirit of Raymond Chandler, where we find out that they were all part of the same case after all.
The B plot in this book is an attempt to put down Mavra, a truly terrifying member of the Black Court of vampires. The Black Court is the type of vampire we all think of when the word comes up - the Nosferatu, the Dracula, all black and dry and horrible. They're also the toughest, most resilient and most vicious of the vampire clans. What's more, Mavra is an accomplished sorceress, whose power makes even Harry Dresden think twice about crossing her. Which is why he has a Plan this time. And we all know about Harry and his Plans....
All of this, though is incidental to the things he learns in this book, both about himself and the people he trusts. Those are the things that truly shake up his world and which will shape the books that are to follow. This book is a turning point for Dresden, and not a good one. While the Black Court plot, for example, didn't have much to do with the main plot, it sets up very important elements and concepts that are deftly exploited in later books. And Harry's always-fragile relationship with the White Council endures what could be a crippling blow.
All this is setting up the next few books and laying the groundwork for the rest of the series. One of the things I've come to admire about Butcher's writing is that nothing is wasted. I once heard that the process of writing a story is like packing for someone else's hiking trip - you only want to put into the bag what you think that person will absolutely need. After all, if they get to the end of their hiking trip and they haven't used that ten-pound bag of rice you thought might come in handy, they're going to be very pissed off at you.
Butcher doesn't do that. You can be sure that the elements he lays out in his stories will be used, sooner or later., and you'll never be left wondering, "But what was that scene with the baseball player and the chicken farm about?" If Butcher puts a baseball player and a chicken farm into his book, there's a very good reason for it, and you'll find out eventually.
As with the other books in The Dresden Files series, this is great fun to read. Which makes it no surprise that the series had some measure of success outside its original format - a TV series and a comic, at last count. I look forward to following it as it goes on.
"No matter how screwed up things are, they can get a whole lot worse."
- Harry Dresden, Blood Rites
 One of these was the maxi-expletive "Hell's holy stars and freaking stones shit bells," which I must commit to memory
The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Blood Rites on Wikipedia
Blood Rites on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher's homepage
Thursday, December 24, 2009
The Stupidest Angel - A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore
It's an old saw, but a good one - Be Careful What You Wish For. It's the staple theme of many a cautionary tale, which I suppose we could say this book is. It's a warning I've always kept close to my heart, even though I know I have no rational reason to do so. For example, I might wake up one morning, tired from a poor night's sleep, and a thought will emerge from my brain - "I wish I could just stay in bed all the time." I have to squash that thought, because I know it'll inevitably lead to some mystical creature appearing in a puff of smoke, saying "IT IS DONE!" at which point I get hit by a bus and become a quadriplegic.
No thank you, sir.
I'm lucky - I learned this lesson from reading the right stories and watching the right movies. Little Josh Barker of Pine Cove, California didn't seem to have that advantage. To be fair, though, he was under a lot of stress. He had just seen Santa Claus get killed with a shovel to the throat, and that'll mess up any seven-year-old's day. So when an angel - an honest-to-God Angel shows up in town, looking for a child to grant a Christmas Wish to, what else is a boy to do but wish that Santa would come back?
If it had been any angel but Raziel, it might have worked. Another angel might have gotten more details from the child about where Dead Santa was, rather than just "Out behind the church." Another angel might have been more diligent in making sure the child got what he wanted, rather than what he asked for. Another angel might not have carelessly caused a zombie invasion of the weird little town of Pine Cove.
But this is Raziel, who has that most unfortunate of personality combinations - stupidity and confidence. Mix in a little laziness, and you have a recipe for the most horrible Christmas celebration ever.
This book is nice, entertaining, and very silly. Intentionally silly, really - try as I might, I couldn't find too many overarching themes or messages other than the one I've already mentioned - be careful what you wish for. Alongside the unmedicated movie queen, the Evil Developer, the doped-up constable, and the talking fruitbat (who chooses not to talk, of course) you'll find a diverse cast of bizarre characters that you're not sure you'd ever really want to hang out with. I mean, don't get me wrong but Pine Cove seems like that weird little town where they're just one bad day away from, well, a zombie apocalypse. And god help you if you are the one who decided to wear your red Star Trek shirt to the annual Christmas costume party.
So if you like zombies, dope paranoia, swords and some good laughs, check out this book. As Christmas stories go, I can guarantee you've never read anything quite like it. It's funny, not entirely scary, and written in Moore's very conversational style that makes you want to turn around to your friends and co-workers and read passages out loud, no matter that they've developed a Pavlovian twitch every time you open your mouth while staring at a page....
It's also a kind of Christopher Moore All-Star story, so if you're a fan of his other works, you may see some of your favorite characters show up in these pages. And that's always fun, although if he had added Biff and Maggie, I would have been a thousand times happier with it....
"It's Christmas! Ah, Christmas, the time when all good people go about not decapitating each other."
- Tucker Case, The Stupidest Angel
The Stupidest Angel on Wikipedia
Christopher Moore on Wikipedia
Christopher Moore's homepage
The Stupidest Angel on Amazon.com
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Comrade Loves of the Samurai by Ihara Saikaku
At last, the book you've been waiting for - a book of gay samurai love stories! Woo-hoo! Hot Bushido love! Awwwwww yeah.....
No, seriously, it's short stories of gay samurai love.
You see, here's the thing - prior to the modern era of Japan, the attitude towards gay love was similar to that of ancient Greece. Women were fine for having children and securing alliances and building property, but if you want real passion, real true love, you needed a bright-eyed young boy. This kind of relationship between an older man and an adolescent boy, generally known as pederasty (which is often wrongly confused with pedophilia), was considered a natural and healthy bond in those days, and assuming that both parties acted honorably and respectfully, it was mutually beneficial.
As in many other world cultures, this kind of bond was a common one, especially amongst the religious and ruling classes - people who were less interested in breeding large families and more interested in the aesthetic aspects of romance and eroticism. It wasn't necessarily a lifelong bond, but it could be, and some of these pairings have inspired love stories as passionate and heartbreaking as any other.
This being Japan, of course, most of the love stories in this book don't end well. About half tend to finish with seppuku, ending the lives of the lovers and, occasionally, other people who are unlucky enough to be in the area. The story All Comrade-Lovers Die by Hara-Kiri is a case in point - it's the story of Ukyo, Uneme and Samanousuke, three youths bound together by a deep, passionate love. When Ukyo murders a romantic rival in order to prevent the deaths of his friends, he is ordered to kill himself to pay for it. His beloved Uneme joins him in death, and Samanousuke, unable to live without either of the men he loves, takes his own life soon after.
Then there's Love Vowed to the Dead, in which young Muranousuke fulfills the dying wish of his best friend Gorokitji by giving himself to Gorokitji's lost lover. In He Died to Save his Lover, young Korin allows himself to be tortured and executed by one lover to save the life of another, and of course, He Followed his Friend into the Other World, After Torturing him to Death, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Let it be said, though, that Sasanousuke didn't mean for Hayemon to freeze to death, it just kind of happened that way.
In my favorite, The Tragic Love of Two Enemies, a man, Senpatji, falls in love with the young son of the samurai that he had been ordered to kill many years before. The boy, Shynousuke, is ordered by his mother to kill Senpatji, and thus avenge his father, but the boy cannot bring himself to murder the man he loves - especially since Senpatji had been acting under the orders of his lord. He convinces his mother to give them one more night together, which she does, because she's not completely heartless. She finds them dead the next morning, both impaled through their hearts on Shynousuke's sword.
Who says the Japanese aren't romantic?
There are happy(ish) tales, too. Tales of constant dedication, of loyalty and hidden desires in the courtly world of the ruling classes of Edo-period Japan. Men and boys endure great hardships and risk their lives to be together, and on occasion get to spend the rest of their lives together.
These stories were all written back in the 17th century and the author gained great notoriety writing these kinds of soft romances. One of his books was titled, Glorious Tales of Pederasty, which I would really love to see on a bookshelf at Borders someday. Just to see the reactions.... There's a whole lot of, "They lay together through the night" kind of language, and a general avoidance of sordid detail. Still, they're well-written, and well-translated, so you can get a very good sense, in these short, short stories, of the kinds of relationships that popped up among the samurai class way back before Western prudishness got its claws into people. In the preface to Glorious Tales, Ihara says:
Our eyes are soiled by the soft haunches and scarlet petticoats of women. These female beauties are good for nothing save to give pleasure to old men in lands where there is not a single good-looking boy. If a man is interested in women, he can never know the joys of pederasty.So that should give you an idea of the cultural divide you're working against when you pick up this book. It's tough for us modern folks, whose culture is dead set against cross-generational homosexual relationships, to really be comfortable reading stories like this. Usually when you hear stories about a grown man and a teenage boy, it's immediately classified as "abuse." Images of windowless panel vans, sweaty gym teachers, NAMBLA meetings rise up and.... Yeah.
Speaking from an American perspective, I can't think of any situation where a relationship such as the ones in this book would ever be considered acceptable, despite the purity of the feelings involved. The characters in these stories, it must be noted, are not leches. They're not Herbert from Family Guy. But no matter how pure my intentions might be, if I were to start hanging around the arcades, chatting up fifteen year-old boys, my life as a respectable citizen would be effectively over.
Even assuming that a relationship built on pederasty can be mutually beneficial - and it could be argued that it can - it's still a) illegal in most places and b) massively creepy. So that makes it an interesting challenge to get into these stories. Life was different back then, after all. The extended childhood that we take for granted in our teenage years pretty much didn't exist. As soon as someone reached the age of sexual maturity, they were basically proto-adults, rather than lingering children, and were therefore fair game. So as much as I hate to invoke cultural relativism (because I find it wishy-washy and noncommittal), I have to just say, "It was a different time." In times gone by, pederastic relationships worked, but our culture has moved to a point now where even if it were legalized, the emotional and experiential gulf between the older and younger party would probably make it impossible to go beyond a relationship built on physical eroticism.
Still, the feelings in these stories are just as valid and pure as "traditional" romances, the obstacles they overcome and risks they take are just as real and just as difficult. If you can set aside your more judgmental self, you can appreciate the depth of feeling that existed in these relationships, and recognize the universal themes of all great love stories - discovery, love, loss, betrayal, redemption.... They're all here. So get reading.
"The fairest plants and trees meet their death because of the marvel of their flowers. And it is the same with humanity: many men perish because they are too beautiful."
- Ihara Saikaku, Comrade Loves of the Samurai
Ihara Saikaku on Wikipedia
Comrade Loves of the Samurai on Amazon.com
Pederastic couples in Japan on Wikipedia
Thursday, December 10, 2009
The Green Futures of Tycho by William Sleator
It's always dangerous to revisit a book that you loved when you were a kid. Everyone knows that. Some books are really just geared towards a certain age, a certain time in your life where that book can step in and say, "Here - someone knows what you're thinking about." And those books are amazing. You read them and your life changes. Maybe only in small ways, maybe in ways you don't even realize until later, but it does.
Then you come back to it ten or twenty years later and think, "I remember this book. I loved this book. I think I'll read it again." So you do, and it's a disappointment. Not because the book isn't as good as you thought it was but rather because you aren't the person you were when you first read it. There's nothing wrong with that - it's just life.
When I ordered this off Amazon, I did so with a certain amount of trepidation. This book occupies a very special place in my heart. I read it over and over again when I was a kid. It instilled a love of time travel that I keep to this day. I even adopted the name Tycho as a pseudonym for various parts of my own mind all the way through high school and beyond. I knew that re-reading it would put that entire past at risk of becoming foolish or stupid or childish, and I wasn't sure my ever-vulnerable pride wanted to take that.
Fortunately, I discovered that the book was as good as I recalled it being. Shorter than I remember, of course, but still quite good.
The story is deceptively simple - Tycho Tithonus, the youngest of four siblings - the other three being very talented and thoroughly unpleasant - finds a small, silver, egg-like object while digging up a new vegetable garden. As innocuous as it seems, that object is about to change everything. It is, in fact, a time machine.
It's not very difficult - it has a series of dials on one end, which you turn to set the time you want to go to. Press the other end and it's done. And Tycho does what anyone would do when presented with such an amazing device: go back and re-work an unpleasant event in his past. And if by doing so he could maybe teach his nasty siblings to appreciate him more, well, so be it. Of course, the ramifications of this act don't become clear until it's much too late.
But the past doesn't really hold that much allure for young Tycho. It's over and done with, and was never very pleasant to begin with. So he decides to go to the future, to see what has become of himself and his family. A quick twenty-year jump to April 23,2001 shows him what's in store for himself. A desperate, unhappy, bitter man, fronting for a lunar entertainment industry and reduced to begging sponsors for money.
Disappointed and upset, Tycho comes back. Later, he visits the future again - same day - only to find it has changed completely. He's no longer a sad, shapeless man but a tough, ruthless one, a man who uses his ability to travel through time to make money and ruin his family. Terrified, Tycho returns to his own time. But his curiosity can't be stopped. He needs to see a future where everything works out right. Unfortunately, every time he goes there it's worse and worse. His future self becomes a monster and a murderer, a willing agent to bring beings of higher power onto this planet.
This is one of the things I've always liked about Sleator - his mind turns around corners. Everyone and his uncle can write about a time traveler going to the past and changing the present, but who writes about someone changing the future by messing about in the present? Not many, I'll tell you that. Each time Tycho comes back from the future, the knowledge he has gained causes him to say something or do something that alters the course of his future in a new and terrible way. And seeing how much worse it gets just forces him to make even more terrible decisions, until you have the final, terrible paradox of an old Tycho trying to chase down and kill his younger self over the course of millennia.
Which does bring up the problem of paradox, unavoidable in any time travel book, known in fiction as "massive, gaping plot holes."
For example - if Tycho time-travels twenty years into the future to see his older self, there shouldn't be any older self there for him to meet. It's impossible - as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Tycho vanished on April 23, 1981 and re-appeared twenty years later. Everyone else lived through that time, but he simply side-stepped it. Instead of finding a letter from his older self to his mother in their future house, he should have found perhaps a black-framed picture of 11 year-old Tycho with a note to the effect that they should have loved him more. The only way I can think of to resolve this problem is to assume that Tycho was absolutely and incontrovertibly determined to return to his own time after each future visit, thus ensuring that he would eventually live out those twenty years.
Fortunately, Sleator handles these paradoxes in a very simple and straightforward manner. During one of Tycho's experimental first trips into the future, he meets his teenage self, who shows him how the dials work on the egg:
"But," Tycho said. "But if you're me... I mean, if we're the same person, how can we both be here at the same time?"There you go. That bit there is the author saying, "Yes, I know there are paradoxes involved, but that's not the point of the book." That pretty much sweeps aside all those little picky details, like older Tycho trying to kill his younger self, or the fact that, by the end of the book, the entire story didn't, technically, happen. "Shut up and concentrate."
"No time to explain now," said the other Tycho, bending over him. "I've got to show you how to work this thing, fast, so you can get back to your own time."
"But that doesn't make sense," Tycho said, more confused than ever. "If you have to show me how it works, then who showed you how to -"
"Shut up and concentrate."
He handles the alterations resulting from time travel very neatly as well. Rather than beat us over the head with "Things have CHANGED!" he just inserts a simple descriptive line in there. If you're reading carefully, you'll notice that Ludwig's hair has gone from proto-emo long to a nice crew cut. Even Tycho doesn't notice, which is interesting. When presented with the results of a change in time, he has a moment of jamais vu - the feeling of something familiar as totally new - and then the story moves on. The effects multiply and resonate, and even Tycho isn't aware of how much he's changed.
Going back to the plot hole problem for a moment, there is the small issue of the egg's origin and purpose. We know it was planted on Earth by aliens, something like 150 million years ago. It seems they did so with the intention that it one day be found and used in order to prepare the way for their arrival and dominance of Earth - this is what can be gleaned by the ravings of older Tycho. But why would an alien race which has time travel sorted out need such a roundabout way of conquering the world? Why drop it into some Jurassic mud and leave it at the whims of plate tectonics? Why not just show up at Tycho's house one day and drop it on his bedside table? This is never adequately explained in the book, probably because it's not what the book's about. But it nagged me when I was a kid, and it still does now.
All plot holes and paradoxes aside, it's a really good book, and if you have a kid, I recommend it. It's the kind of story that you really can pick apart and look from many angles. In one sense, it's a story about destiny. Tycho and his siblings are all named after extraordinary famous people - Ludwig Beethoven,Tamara Karsavina, Leonardo DaVinci, and Tycho Brahe - in the hopes that they would grow up to emulate them. Tycho's siblings fall into line very easily, adopting the roles that they'd been given from birth. Tycho doesn't - he's interested in a little bit of everything, and isn't entire sure what he wants to do with his life. I knew that feeling when I was eleven years old. Hell, I know that feeling now.
And of course it's about the futility of letting your future control your life. The future isn't fixed. It's an organic, growing thing that you can't begin to control, and the tiniest change in the present could become a radical change in the future. Sure, it's good to have goals and plans, but to try and wield unbending control over who you're going to be is foolish at best.
And that brings me to the nagging question that occurred to me right around chapter 9, the first time Tycho sees his adult self and is terribly disappointed in him. Reading this again as an adult, I found myself wondering that if eleven year-old me suddenly appeared, what would he think? Would he be impressed at the path my life had taken? Would he be disappointed by my physical appearance? Would he be surprised at the relationship I have with my siblings? Would be be shocked that I have a boyfriend? What would his judgment be on his future?
Following right on the heels of that, of course, was the more important question of, "Who cares what eleven year-old me thinks of my life?" Not to disparage the eleven year-olds out there, but you don't know nearly as much as you think you do, and becoming a teenager isn't going to confer any more wisdom. Tycho doesn't know the twenty years of history and context that led to him becoming a miserable bastard. Perhaps if he had learned a little, he might have made better decisions when he returned to his own time. And if eleven year-old me gave me any lip about what I'd become, I'd send him back to his own time with a whole host of new neuroses to deal with.
Anyway, my point is this: The Green Futures of Tycho is a damn fine book. It's a good time travel adventure, and it's a good allegory for the existential angst we all go through when we consider the future. While such feelings might be new and raw to a child of Tycho's age, and old and familiar to us adults, it's still something that we need to deal with. And perhaps that best way to do it is to simply appreciate what we have now.
"After all, he wasn't doing anything dangerous, like interacting with the past, which might have unexpected effects on the present. What harm could a little peek at the future do? How could he change anything there?"
from The Green Futures of Tycho by William Sleator
The Green Futures of Tycho on Wikipedia
William Sleator on Wikipedia
The Green Futures of Tycho on Amazon.com
Green Futures fan site
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
I want an electric monk.
As Douglas Adams tells us in this book, every civilization creates mechanical devices designed to save us from our labor. We have dishwashers to wash our tedious dishes for us, VCRs to watch those tedious television programs so we don't have to, and finally the Electric Monk to believe in those things we can't be bothered to believe in.
Is that cool, or what?
As strange as it sounds, the Electric Monk is actually integral to the plot. But this plot is complex enough to deserve it. The main character, more or less, is Richard MacDuff, an up-and-coming young computer programmer who has several unique problems. The first problem is that of his couch - it's stuck in the stairwell and, by all logic as affirmed by the best computer modeling systems, should never have gotten where it was in the first place.
The second problem is that he's wanted for the murder of his boss. He didn't do it, of course, but that kind of thing doesn't really impress the police. And, of course, there's the problem with the woman he loves, Susan, who just so happens to be the sister of the boss whom Richard is accused of murdering.
Add into all that the titular Dirk Gently, if that is his real name. Dirk is a man who, since college, has unswayingly, constantly denied having any kind of psychic powers whatsoever - which caused him some problems during his university days when he managed to correctly predict, down the the comma, the contents of a major exam.
Now older and weirder, Dirk runs his Holistic Detective Agency. His work rests on one simple principle: the Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things. Based on a common misunderstanding of quantum theory, Dirk believes that all things are fundamentally connected to all other things, no matter how tenuous those connections might appear to the unaided eye. So during the course of, say, looking for a lost cat, it is entirely possible that he may have to go down to the beach in Bermuda. Because, fundamentally, all things are connected. And billable.
Then there's the matter of a time machine hidden in Cambridge and the temptation that can arise from having one. With what amounts to a TARDIS, one could go to any point in time and space. You could visit ancient lands, pet extinct animals or, if necessary, fix something that had gone terribly, terribly wrong. It's tricky, but it can be done. And if you're the ghost of an alien whose simple mistake – putting his trust in an Electric Monk, for example – consigned it to billions of years of insubstantial solitude, a time machine might be very tempting indeed.
There's really no good way to summarize this book. As Douglas Adams is fond of doing, there seem to be several plotlines and events which, at first, seem to have no relation to each other. But as you read, you find out that the Electric Monk isn't as funny as we thought he was, that putting a salt shaker into a piece of pottery can cause more problems than you think, and that you should always be afraid of people with nothing to lose.
As Dirk claims, all things in this book are fundamentally interconnected, even if it's not obvious at the moment.
Yes, even the couch.
“My mind is my center and everything that happens there is my responsibility. Other people may believe what it pleases them to believe, but I will do nothing without I know the reason why and know it clearly.”
- Dirk Gently, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency on Wikipedia
Douglas Adams on Wikipedia
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency at Amazon.com