Thursday, April 29, 2010
Small Favor by Jim Butcher
"Hell's Bells" count: 21
This is the tenth book in the series, and if Butcher's own plan can be trusted, it marks about the halfway point for the series as a whole. Having made it this far with the series is a remarkable achievement, and if he can keep it up all the way to its projected end, I will be a very happy and impressed reader. So, a few words about the book itself, and then some thoughts on the series.
Honestly, if you've been following my reviews of this series, you can be pretty sure what I'm going to say about it - I devoured the book and enjoyed every minute of it. In this edition, Our Hero Harry is faced with death and danger on all sides, as usual. The everlasting Queen of the Winter Sidhe, Mab, wants Harry to rescue John Marcone, the boss of the biggest organized crime racket in the city, from the clutches of fallen angels who have immeasurable power and millennia of experience. What they want with Marcone - and other, more innocent and tragic characters - isn't clear, but what we can be sure of is that the full extent of their plans will far exceed simple kidnapping.
Meanwhile, he's being attacked by agents of Queen Titania, the queen of the Summer Sidhe, for reasons that are not all that clear to anyone, especially Harry. His attackers are beasts of legend - the Gruffs. You may have heard of them when you were a child - goatlike creatures with a talent for eliminating trolls. They are brothers, and if you manage to defeat one of them, you can be sure that his big brother will be along soon to take care of you. And you most certainly don't want to get on the bad side of the eldest of the Gruffs, let me tell you that. Nice guy, but he's clean your clock no matter who you are.
So, things aren't so good for Harry Dresden. But, then, when are they ever? Going up against forces way over his head is pretty much a theme for Harry's life, and while we can be reasonably certain that he will prevail (after all, there are about ten more books to go, and they'd be hard to write without him), we don't know how much damage he will take in the doing so. Although if you guessed "a lot," you'd be pretty well on the mark.
That goes for pretty much every book in the series. Harry is an underdog, or at least he starts out as one. By the time you get to this book, he has some measure of authority, responsibility and respect, as well as a serious reputation amongst people in this world and others. So, this makes it rather harder for him to be an underdog. Instead of simple vampires, werewolves and the occasional necromancer, we now have to deal with the Big Guns like Mab, Titania and The Fallen. Which brings me to my first prediction for the rest of the series.
Harry Laid Low. At some point, I figure all that he's built up will have to come crashing down. Gross physical harm aside, he's put himself in a much better position than the one he was in way back in Storm Front, and if he continues the way he has, he will cease to be the underdog and become the overdog, if there is such a thing. While it'll be interesting to see how he handles being higher up on the food chain, I don't think it'll sit well with his character.
That would be unfortunate, because it's Harry's character that really make this book. I've talked to those who aren't too keen on investing in this series because it's not quite different enough from the other modern, urban fantasy out there. And in a way, they're right. A lone wolf investigator with a mysterious past and unknowable potential who has a talent for making big enemies? That could either be this series or the Nightside books by Simon Green, and I'm sure there's a few more that follow a similar pattern. Butcher isn't breaking open new ground with this series, at least not as far as I can tell. And a main character who is a wizard named Harry with a mysterious destiny and a tragic past? Yeah, like I'm sure you haven't thought of it already. I don't think that's Butcher's fault, though. Harry seems to be the kind of character who shows up in a writer's head long before the book gets published, and Gary Dresden or Fred Dresden doesn't sound as good.
Though Christopher Dresden has a nice ring to it, I must say. Why aren't there more fictional heroes named Chris, anyway? Weird.
Back on topic - what Butcher has done, and what makes me enjoy this series so much, is take the genre and populate it with really interesting people. One of the things I enjoy so much about Harry is that he seems to be someone I'd like to hang out with - he has a sense of humor that I enjoy, and seeing how many of my friends tend towards wise-assery, I think we'd get along well. Other characters, like Murphy, Michael, Molly (lots of M names), Thomas, Bob, Mouse.... They're complex, they're interesting and occasionally surprising. You really come to care about them, because Harry cares about them and you care about Harry.
Which reminds me: Predictions 2 and 3 - The Death of Karrin Murphy and The Corruption of Molly Carpenter. These are two people who are extremely close to Harry, and invoke his much-debated sense of male chauvinism. A few people seem to take issue with Harry's desire to protect women, which appears hopelessly old-fashioned. Maybe it is, but Harry (and by extension Butcher) seems to be okay with that. Murphy is Harry's best friend, the one character who's stood by him since the first book, and has grown to be his closest ally. She has gained his trust and his faith through fire and trial, and in this book is actually able to assert her authority (in a wonderful, wonderful scene) to save Harry's skin.
So, she has to die. It's one of those Hero's Journey things - the hero has to lose those things closest to him in order to come out the other side as a True Hero. He needs Murphy, he really does, and he needs to be able to stand without her. If that means that she's taken out, well.... I don't know if or when it'll happen - I'd bet somewhere in the climactic final books.
As for Molly, she's an interesting person. A young person who, after a very rocky start to her life as a magic-user, has been given a second chance by Harry. For his part, Harry's job is to make sure she turns out right, to make sure she learns how to use her powers responsibly and wisely, for the betterment of others. As of this book, she's doing very well - her powers are becoming more refined, and she's got a good handle on what it means to be a responsible wizard.
But first, she has to see her dark side, look it in the eye, and face it down. So, at some point, Molly is going to slip. Whether through impatience, arrogance or circumstance, she's going to risk both her and Harry's lives by using her powers for Evil.
There you go, then. It's a great series, very enjoyable, and I'll be following it to the end. I highly recommend you do the same.
"Let's sum up: an unknown number of enemies with unknown capabilities, supported by a gang of madmen, packs of attack animals, and superhumanly intelligent pocket change."
- Murphy, Small Favor
The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Small Favor on Wikipedia
Small Favor on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher's homepage
Thursday, April 22, 2010
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
As I've said before, Neil Gaiman is one of the very few authors whose books I'll pick up without reservation. I can always be sure that I'll enjoy what he does, so I always look forward to new work. I am happy to say that this book is no exception. It's even made news recently - it won the Newberry Medal for Children's Literature, a very prestigious American literary prize. So good for you, Neil....
It's a well-deserved medal for a book that follows in the footsteps of Kipling's The Jungle Book. It's a book that can appeal to young readers and adults alike, without being condescending or patronizing, something that many writers for young readers have trouble with. As can usually be expected from books aimed at young readers, it's heavy on the themes of growing up, learning your place in the world, and eventually deciding who you want to be. The means by which this book does it, however, are slightly different.
The first line was enough to get me hooked: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife."
The story begins with a gruesome triple murder, as all good childrens' books do. But the intended fourth victim, a young toddler, manages to escape the bloodbath and wander, quite innocently, up to the graveyard on the hill. There, amidst tombs and graves that had lain there for centuries, he is saved from certain death and given protection by a most unusual new family: ghosts.
The boy, rechristened as Nobody Owens, or Bod for short, is raised by the spirits of this tiny world through the intercession of Silas, a mysterious individual who straddles the boundary between the living and the dead. As far as places to grow up go, it's not a bad one. He does end up learning some rather old-fashioned English from those who died half a millennium ago, and wanders around in a grey winding sheet instead of proper clothing, but he is safe there. He has the Freedom of the Graveyard, a gift from the ghosts that allows him the protection that only the dead can offer.
As Bod grows up, he learns the tricks that ghosts can do - how to fade from sight, or to rouse fear and terror, how to walk through walls. But he also learns that he's very different from his adopted community. Their lives are ended, their stories are done. He is alive, and as he gets older, that difference becomes more and more vivid. While he may live among the ghosts, he is not one himself. Not yet, anyway.
But there are those who would like to make him one. The mysterious murderer who destroyed Bod's family, a man named Jack, is one of many wicked men who would see Bod dead. He may have lost the boy once, but he and his confederates are determined to find him again. There is a prophecy, you see, and they mean to see that it's stopped. And once Bod learns about his family's fate, he becomes equally determined to see justice done.
The book is really good. It's a bit simple for an adult audience, and there were a few plot points that I was able to predict pretty quickly. But the book isn't really aimed at us - it's aimed at the younger reader, around eleven or twelve years old. Such readers don't quite have the experience to know that, say, when a new character is introduced two-thirds of the way through the book, that's a character to be wary of. It's the kind of book that's best read to people,and that's how Gaiman promoted the release of the book, by doing public readings of it.
As I said before, it dwells on the theme that most books of this genre do: growing up. As Bod gets older, as he starts to feel the pull of the outside world, he understands that he can't stay with his family forever. The dead don't grow, they don't change, but young people do - often very radically in a very short span of time. While it is perhaps a stretch to compare parents to dead people, there is certainly a vague parallel to be drawn here. As adults, we don't change very much, at least not unless we have to. We're set in our ways and our beliefs. They've served us well, and if there's no reason to go mucking about with them, then they're better off left alone. Kids, however, are malleable and ever-changing. They go through phases and changes and switch from adorable little tyke to abominable little teenager with alacrity. Eventually, they have to discover who they are, and the only way to do that is to leave.
The nice thing about Bod is that, while he does get into trouble and disobey his guardians, he is, on the whole, obedient and self-aware. He understands that his freedom - indeed his very life - is a gift to him from the graveyard. The ghosts there taught him what he knows, and made sure that he lived through the traumas of childhood and the machinations of men who wanted him dead. He appreciates what his guardians have done for him, even as he prepares to leave them. It's a good message, slipped in with the general motif of the challenges of growing up, and one that I hope young readers absorb.
It's easy for a young person to look at the adults in his or her life and think of them like the ghosts in this book. Yes, their lives aren't very exciting anymore, and yes they tend to be overprotective and kind of a pain in the ass. But it's for a good reason, most of the time. Thanks to them, you have all the possibilities of life laid before you. And it won't be easy, living. But you should do it while you have the chance....
"You're always you, and that don't change, and you're always changing, and there's nothing you can do about it."
- Mother Slaughter, The Graveyard Book
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Every time I go back to the US to visit friends and family, I always make a visit to a bookstore or two. I can buy books here in Japan, but the prices are high and the selection isn't nearly as good, so a trip to our local mega-bookstore is like a visit to Mecca for me.
The last time I was home, my father let me wander for a while, and then he came up and handed me this book. He was picking up copies for a few other people as well, but he gave me this and said, "I think you'd really like it."
He was right.
It's one of those books that you feel compelled to share with others once you've finished. It's one of those books where people see you reading it and say, "I read that - it's really good, isn't it?" It's one of those books which, the author promises, will make you believe in God. A pretty tall order, but there you go. And in a roundabout way, it makes good on its promise. But we'll get to that....
It's a story of layers, as the best stories often are. On one layer, it's the tale of young Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian boy with an insatiable curiosity about everything. The son of a zookeeper, Piscine - who re-christens himself Pi in order to clear up misunderstandings of his given name - develops a great interest in the world around him, especially religion. His part of India is home to people of all faiths, and he finds himself moving between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, despite the protests of holy men of all three faiths.
He grows up in this world, between animals and gods, until his family decides to escape India's political turmoil by moving to Canada. They sell what animals they can, keep the ones they must, board everything onto a freighter and head off for a trip around the world, destined for a new life.
Until the ship sinks.
Pi finds himself the only human survivor of the ship's sinking, alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Alone except for the zebra. And the hyena. And the orangutan. And, of course, the tiger. Can't forget the tiger.
Pi's mini-zoo diminishes quickly, of course. There's only so long such a diverse group of creatures can abide each other's company in such terrible circumstances, so in time it comes down to two: Pi and the tiger, who had the unusual name of Richard Parker. You would think that there would be no winner in this contest - a diminished teenage boy against a full-grown tiger, with limited resources and a very stressful environment. But Pi is the son of a zookeeper, one whose job is to know how to control animals that don't want to be controlled. Pi's ability to survive in these circumstances would, by itself, be a fascinating story.
But the story is not just about Pi and the tiger. Not really. It's also about our relationship with the world, with the universe, with God. It's about who we are when everything we ever loved is stripped away from us. And it's about how we can survive in even the most extraordinary circumstances. Pi does survive, and his survival makes sense, within the world of the story. Would he be able to do it out here in Real Life (TM)? I have no idea. But as you read, there is no point where you think, "The author is cheating," and allowing his main character to survive when he really shouldn't have.
The overriding theme of the book, however, is stories. The book itself is set up as a memoir, told by Patel to the author. It's the story of a story, and it is a story which the author says will make you believe in God. And in a way, it does. But not in the way you think.
It's kind of a modified version of Pascal's Wager - the idea that it is better to believe in God than not to believe. Pascal's idea is simple. If you disbelieve in God, and you're right, then you'll just wink out of existence when you die. No harm, no foul. But if you disbelieve and you're wrong, then you end up suffering eternal damnation. Whereas if you believe in God and you're wrong, again, no harm, no foul.
There are criticisms, and fair ones, of this philosophy, but I think this book offers a more reasonable alternative. You should believe in God because believing in God is the better story. Martel suggests (through Pi) that there is no mystery in facts and reason, no magic and no wonder. That the unrepentant atheist whose last thoughts are, "I believe I am losing brain function" lacks the imagination of the unrepentant atheist who has a deathbed conversion. In other words, by sticking only to what can be known and proven, one misses the better story.
I don't necessarily agree with this. I think it's an interesting point of view, and as long as one can remain aware that belief is not truth, I think I can let it go, but I don't believe that the world of fact and reason is without brilliant stories. Look at the story of life on earth - a three and a half billion year epic of survival, death and rebirth. Look at the story of a lowly paperclip - born in the heart of an exploding star, and representing five thousand years of human progress towards extelligence. There are great stories, astounding stories out there in the world that don't need to be believed because they are true. There is evidence for them, and their veracity can be proven.
But Martel's isn't about what is provably true.
Pi offers a choice: given two possible explanations for something, with no evidence to support either one, which explanation would you choose? The answer is, whichever explanation makes for the better story. Pi's adventure is an example of that. As readers, we choose to believe Pi's story, because it's fascinating. We don't sit there and think, "This is bull. A teenage boy taming a tiger? Puh-leeze." We believe the story, while at the same time knowing that it is not, technically, "true."
So it is with God. We believe in God, regardless of whether God is "true," because it's a more interesting story. And Pi's adherence to three mutually exclusive religions suggests that the God of Pi isn't to be found in a book or a church, in the words of a priest or a holy man. The God of Pi is everywhere, and doesn't care if we believe or not. But we should believe, Pi suggests. Because that's the better story.
The best books leave us thinking, and burrow into our brains to give us something to chew on for a while. So it is with this book. My rational part and my romantic part argue over the meaning of this story, and whether or not Pi's conclusion is valid. Sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don't. That's just how it is. But one thing I can say with certainty is that this is a very good book. And you should read it.
"To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."
-Pi Patel, Life of Pi
Yann Martel on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Amazon.com
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Mercury Falls by Robert Kroese
You all know I love apocalypses, if that is indeed the correct pluralization. There's just something about the end of the world that really gets me going, and if it can be done with some sense of humor and insight, that's even better.
Mercury Falls has the distinction of being the first full-length book I've read on my Kindle, and let me say that it was a good christening. While I'm not writing a Kindle review, I have to admit that the device works very well. It's easy to read, easy to make notes and mark interesting passages, and it fits in my bag a lot better than a 352 page paperback would. So, score one for the Kindle.
This being the ADD Age of Twitter, I don't exactly remember how I first ran across Robert Kroese. He may have been re-tweeted by someone, or popped up on a Facebook update, or implanted into my mind while I slept (thank you, Dreamr.com!) I don't know. What I do know is that the man is relentless in promoting his work. He keeps up an excellent level of interactivity with his Twitter and Facebook followers and finds ways to increase the word-of-mouth marketing that he needs, since this book was self-published and can use all the marketing help it can get. Under his incessant barrage, I bought the book for the Kindle, and it turned out to be fortuitous. Divinely inspired, perhaps, as though it were part of a larger plan. Hmmm....
One of the central themes of the End of the World, whether it's the Biblical Apocalypse or any other, is that it has to happen. There's just no way around it - sooner or later the forces of Good and the forces of Evil will duke it out on the Earth to see who's the baddest bunch around. When asked why they would bother, the usual answer is that it's part of God's Plan, and that's all we need to know. So we imagine that while we miserable humans must be kept in the dark, there must be someone who knows what's going on. A prophet, perhaps the angels who are doing the fighting - God, definitely, right?
Not really, Kroese suggests.
He presents the reader with a celestial bureaucracy that makes the U.S. Government look like a small-town McDonald's on a slow day. There are levels within levels, rank upon rank of angelic bureaucrats and agents and paper-pushers, all working towards what they believe the Divine Plan involves. The problem is that no one is entirely sure what that plan actually is. But like all good bureaucrats everywhere, they don't care. There are rules, there are regulations, and they must be followed. What happens, however, when the Plan breaks down? Well, that's when things get messy.
The human woman Christine Temetri, a reporter on the apocalypse beat at a nationally-read newspaper, The Banner, is about to find out just how awry things can go when the Divine Plan gets all cocked up. On an assignment to cover the latest skirmish between Israel and Syria, Christine is entrusted with a Very Important
Only he's not a cult leader, really. He's an angel. A fallen one, yes, but an angel nonetheless, and he's the only angel who plans to sit out the end of the world. He's happy to do card tricks and play ping-pong, at least until Christine shows up and drags him back into the fray. Together, they have to not only figure out how to stop the apocalypse, but how to make sure they stop the right apocalypse, and see to it that it's done with as little damage as possible. They don't really succeed on that last part, but they certainly make a valiant effort.
The entertainment in this book is not so much in the plot, which is in the political thriller mode with twists and turns and reveals a-plenty, to say nothing of shootings, explosions and pillars of fire. There are two major things that make the book entertaining.
First is the cosmology that Kroese has built up. The idea of a Heavenly Bureaucracy is not a new one, but he takes it rather a step further. In one scene, a couple of angels are taking pity on humanity because we pitiful humans are running around, making decisions without knowing for sure whether they're right or wrong. The angels believe they are superior in that they have a Plan to follow - but they freely admit that they aren't entirely sure if the Plan they're following is the right one. "We assume that we're part of a system that ultimately makes sense to [the Archangel] Michael, or God, or someone. All the little details may not make sense to us, but we go along with it anyway." In other words, the angels are just like us, except that they can fly, do miracles, and are immortal. The bastards. In a later section, the characters are given a look at how the whole celestial bureaucracy is set up, and discover that even the angels don't know for sure who's actually in charge of anything. They just do what the Plan tells them to do and hope for the best.
So what we have here is a bureaucratic cosmology. It works, but no one is entirely sure how it works. And as Christine discovers, the benefit to not knowing the actual plan is that you are then free to do what you think is right. While the book is obviously centered around the Judeo-Christian framework, it's not a religious book. It doesn't address whether there is or is not a God, or whether religion is a fundamental necessity to humanity or a primitive hang-up, or neither, or both. What it's about is the idea of choice, a topic covered pretty explicitly in chapter thirteen. The boiled-down version is that we may or may not have free will, and we can never really know, so it's best to just pretend that we do. What this means, then, is maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism about what you are told is the right or necessary thing to do.
This does lead to some editorializing at times, which is pretty obvious when you hit it. As soon as you get to a section where two characters are engaged in a Socratic dialogue with each other, you definitely get the feeling that it's Kroese putting his two cents in. This would be annoying if I disagreed with him, or if it was written with less wit. As it stands, I read it with the kind of patience I reserve for my really funny friends when they hit a topic they actually care about - I'll listen along, because I know it'll be good, but at the same time I'll feel a little uncomfortable that they've decided to be serious for once.
Which brings me to the second reason I enjoyed the book - it's damned funny. It reminded me in various places of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently books, as well as the fine work of Christopher Moore. There was plenty of narrative commentary, which was sarcastic and biting, and the characters often matched wits with each other at lightning speed. There were many parts that I re-read because I was sure I had missed something in the exchange, and it turned out I was right - and what I had missed was worth going back for. I put my Kindle's highlighting function to good use, let me just say that. While I have trained myself to hold in my guffaws, in accordance with social norms here in Japan, there were a few points where I just couldn't help but draw the stares of my fellow train passengers.
On a tangent: there was a moment in the book that made me think of the infamous LJ RaceFail of '09, something I had hoped to not have to think of again for a while. When Christine meets Mercury for the first time, we're introduced to two people. One is a short, dumpy man of Chinese ancestry, and the other is a tall, handsome white guy, and they're playing ping-pong. When Christine asks for Galileo Mercury, the tall, handsome white guy leads her to believe that his opponent is the one she wants. He then reveals, of course, that he's just messing with her. "Is there some law," he says, "that a Chinese dude can't be named Galileo?" And then, "But you have to admit, it would be pretty funny if Galileo Mercury was a Chinese dude." He then sends the Chinese dude out to get some sodas.
This made me ask myself, "Well... why not? Why couldn't Galileo Mercury have been a dumpy Chinese guy?" It's not really apropos of anything - the presumed ethnicity of the character (who is an angel, after all) is utterly irrelevant to the rest of the story - but I would have been very impressed if Kroese had made his celestial action hero a less obvious action hero. Just a thought. Tangent over.
So, a fine first novel from a clever new author. You really can't ask for much more than that, in my opinion, and I look forward to seeing more of Kroese's work in the future. As he improves his craft, he may become a force to be reckoned with in the fantasy/comedy genre, so keep your eyes on him.
"My philosophy is that if you can make one person laugh, you're already doing better than John Calvin."
- Mercury, Mercury Falls
Robert Kroese's homepage
Mercury Falls on Amazon.com
Mattress Police - Robert Kroese's blog
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
If you've been following my reviews over the last few years, I don't see any reason why I should have to put a caution into this, but here it is: if you're not interested in speculative fiction, open to the reinterpretation of the life of Jesus, speculation on the gaps in the gospels and the possibility of pan-religious values having been vital to the formation of Christianity, then you should probably not read this book. Nor should you really be using the internet - there's just too much nasty "Free Thinking" out there. Take your hands off the keyboard and back away slowly.
Okay, that'll weed out the wusses. Although, as I think about it, perhaps those are exactly the people who should be reading this book. I'm sorry for all the nasty stuff I said - come on back!
Each time I read this, I love it more. For one thing it's Moore's best work, without question. Not only is it blindingly funny, which is a hallmark of Moore's style, but it's also thoughtful, philosophical, and is supported by obvious research. Because he's dealing with real places and real people, Moore has made sure that his depiction of first-century Israel is as accurate as he can make it. It's all there in the details about the lives of the characters, the struggles they go through and the understandings they come to. Without hours of research as its foundation, the book would have failed almost instantly. Moore didn't have to do it, but it is a great sign of his character as an author that he did.
This is also by far my favorite interpretation of the life of Jesus. It is the Gospel According to Biff, the best friend of Joshua bar Joseph, the man who would one day be called Jesus Christ. Of course, when Biff met him, the young Son of God was occupying himself by resurrecting lizards after his brother smashed their heads in. But they grew to be fast friends, and everywhere that young Joshua went, so went his buddy Biff.
The best way to describe Biff would be Jesus' Sidekick. He's a troublemaker, sarcastic, and far too prone to succumb to temptations of the flesh. But he's clever and resourceful, and mindful of his friend's mission on this earth. He's young Joshua's best friend in every way, so when Josh goes searching for the three Magi who attended his birth, Biff knows he has to go with him. The way to finding Joshua's destiny will be long and hard, and Biff knows that his friend needs him.
The main part of the book has to do with Biff and Josh's search for the Magi, to learn from them how Josh can be the Messiah. On their way they face demons, death and certain temptation, but also wisdom and experience from the wisest men in Asia. From Balthazar in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, Joshua learns of the Tao, contemplating its Three Jewels - compassion, moderation, and humility. He learns about suffering and mercy and kindness and the effects they bring.
Biff, on the other hand, learns about the ways in which eight Chinese concubines can make life a wonderful place, night after night. He learns how to make potions and explosives, how to cast metal and read Chinese. He learns vital skills that the Messiah cannot - or must not - know.
From there they go to China, to a monastery high in the cold mountains to study with Gaspar, a monk of the Zen school. From Gaspar, Josh learns stillness and mindful breath, compassion for all things and, oddly enough, how to turn invisible. He discovers the divine spark that exists in all things, a holiness that no one can claim or take from you. He also learns what it's like to be the only one of his kind, and foreshadows the tragic end that can bring.
Biff, of course, is learning kung fu and how to break bricks with his head.
Finally, they go to India to seek out Melchior, an ascetic yogi and the last of the wise men. Joshua here learns about sacrifice and blood, and the horrors that are perpetrated in the name of religion. He discovers the injustice of denying the Kingdom of God to anyone, Jew or Gentile, and the futility of trying to teach yoga to an elephant.
Biff, for his part, manages to put together a truly spectacular version of the Kama Sutra.
Don't get me wrong - while Biff is certainly more earthly than his friend, he is also devoted to both Joshua and his mission. He is Josh's anchor to the real world, always reminding him of his mission and making sure he doesn't take himself too seriously. Biff, in this rendition of Jesus' story, is a necessary element in the ultimate teachings of Christ.
As he admits in his afterward, Moore has tackled a very tough subject here, one that he knows is likely to rile people up. Jesus is one of those characters that is very set in peoples' minds - he is the tall, beatific figure with a gentle voice and blue eyes who glides around in robes followed by insightful and worshipful men.
He certainly never ate Chinese food on his birthday, nor did he get hopped up on coffee or learn kung-fu. He's never had a sarcastic best friend who was willing to risk damnation to describe what sex was like to the young Messiah, who was pretty sure that he wasn't allowed to Know women. We haven's seen Jesus get frustrated and yell at his disciples because they didn't get the message he was trying to send, or be torn between what he has to do and what he wants to do. The Jesus in this book is an excellent meld of the human and the divine. He has the miracles and the powers, but his mind is human. He knows that he's the son of god, but he feels like just a regular guy who's been tapped to save humanity from itself. It's a very difficult situation to be in, and Moore does a really good job of getting us to understand that.
More importantly, the life of Jesus hasn't been this funny before. This is the kind of book that will piss off your family or co-workers, because you'll want to read out passages from the book every five minutes, but you won't get it out right because you'll be laughing too hard. The way the book is set up, Biff has been resurrected by the angel Raziel in order to write a new gospel. Unfortunately, he's been resurrected in the modern age, about two thousand years too late to help his friend avoid the awful, horrible sacrifice that he knows he has to undergo. So he writes in the modern American vernacular, assuring us that while the words may not be a direct translation of first-century Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, Chinese or any of the other languages they encounter, the tone is accurate. And the tone is comedy, all the way through.
Of course, the comedy kind of drops off as the book races towards its unpleasant end, which is where my troubles with Moore as a writer usually lie. He tends to write endings that are abrupt and unfulfilling, as though he just wants to finish writing the book so he can, perhaps, get on with the next one. Even though we know how this story ends, it still feels rushed. Biff's attempts to save his friend from horrible death make sense, but I would like to have seen them drawn out a bit more. I have a feeling that Moore could have added another hundred pages without breaking a sweat - and I wish he had.
The best thing, though, is that Moore treats his characters with the utmost respect. Nothing that Jesus does in the book is out of character for him, insofar as we know his character. And Biff is more than just a goofy friend of the Messiah - he is the reminder and the anchor of Jesus' humanity. I'm not a Christian - I don't claim any religion, in fact - but this version of Jesus would be one that I might be willing to give some time to.
It's a brilliant book, in my top ten....
"Josh, faking demonic possession is like a mustard seed."
"How is it like a mustard seed?"
"You don't know, do you? Doesn't seem at all like a mustard seed, does it? Now you see how we all feel when you liken things unto a mustard seed? Huh?"
- Biff and Josh, Lamb
Christopher Moore on Wikipedia
Lamb on Wikipedia
Lamb on Amazon.com
Christopher Moore's homepage