Monday, October 29, 2012

100 Books #103 - Cory Doctorow's PIRATE CINEMA

"If it's just theft, then why do they need to get their laws passed in the dead of the night, without debate or discussion?" - 26 in Pirate Cinema

There's something more than a little bit After School Special-ish about Pirate Cinema, I'm afraid. Well, let's say half After-School Special and half Steal This Book. With maybe a little of some sunny Oliver!-ish can-do musical extravaganza thrown in here and there. Which is to say that in a lot of ways, the didactic agenda of this novel gets noticeably in the way of the story a little too often to make this a genuinely enjoyable read. And however praiseworthy that agenda may be, a novel-length parable illustrating its importance is a bit much.

But! Fear not, for the bits where we don't feel the author sitting next to us and preaching at us (and let me just get it out there right now: I sing an enthusiastic tenor in every performance of the choir to whom Cory Doctorow is preaching) are pretty good, though in some ways that almost makes it worse -- they're good enough to just make the reader ache for an edit of this book with maybe at least some of the finger-wagging cut out or cut down.

I wonder how Doctorow, champion of remix culture, culture jamming, sharing, and all the other ideas that are illustrated in this book, would feel about such an edit, though? On the one hand, his work would be getting watered down, stripped of a lot of its political message and used as mere entertainment, and thus maybe undermining that message; on the other, well, it would be a remix like any other. Another fan might choose to edit out all of the teenage romance and cheerful "we can do it" remodeling/repurposing/squat claiming stuff and just leave the expounding dialogues in place to educate everyone about the dangers of copyright maximalism and the move to privatize free expression and bring all media under corporate control.

Actually, as I consider it, I would probably enjoy reading either of those edits, at least more than I enjoyed reading this novel.

That's not to say it's a horrible novel; it's not. Doctorow has considerable narrative skill and has populated his story with a host of very charming characters, young punks all, lovable scamps with talent and creativity and technical know-how (and, in more than a few cases, an impressive knowledge of property law, both intellectual and real). One would have to have a heart of stone not to root for Trent and his girlfriend 26*, Jem and Rabid Dog, Cora and Aziz and all the rest**. Especially since their foes are so faceless, so nameless as to not even be human at all: Paramount, Universal, Disney-Marvel, Virgin -- you get the idea.

Trent and co. live in an absolute copyright dystopia that takes things even further than that depicted in my good friend Paul Laroquod's Swap Thing videos. If you want to see a movie on the big screen, you not only have to fork out the cash for a ticket, but also subject yourself to metal detectors, searches, and temporary confiscation of any personal electronics you've been dumb enough to bring. Download too many illegal files off the internet and you can have your entire family's access cut off for a whole year. And all that's even before yet another piece of draconian legislation gets passed that imposes, among other things, mandatory minimum jail sentences for being caught in possession of any music, photos, films or other files you can't prove you obtained 100% legally.

Enter our hero, Trent, a teenaged kid who happens to be a very talented video editor, and to be, as teenagers are, utterly disinclined to wait until he's done with school and has been hired and vetted by a corporate overlord to sanction/pay for/control his exercise of his talents, anymore than a kid who was good at a sport would wait for a professional league to discover him before playing that sport. Of course, as we've established, Trent does not live in a world that acknowledges or respects this equivalency; it is as if a promising young basketball player got busted and banned for enjoying some pick-up games on the playground, sharing his ball and the court and his knowledge of the rules and the history of the sport with other kids freely being suddenly banned from ever touching any ball or court or uniform, perhaps even any spectator's seat at a game, ever again.

I know, ridiculous, right? What's to stop such a kid from, say, stealing a ball from a sporting goods store and shooting some hoops on a deserted playground in the dead of night? Maybe even teaming up with other people who got busted and starting a secret club where they head off to a secret cobbled-together court somewhere to indulge their shared passion.***

That's pretty much what Trent does. When a third copyright offense, logged as he finishes his latest mash-up masterpiece on his laptop at his parents' house, triggers the harshest penalty -- his entire household, parents and sister and all, being banned from the internet for an entire year -- Trent runs away and goes rogue, joining up with a bunch of other similarly banned/punished people to continue doing what they love outside of/under mainstream society, hacking hardware to circumvent the latest crufted-on copyright protection cripples, remixing films and books and music into their own weird new creations, throwing parties in which their artwork is freely shared and enjoyed by anyone cool enough and smart enough to be willing to put in the time to find out where to go and how to do it.

Ahh, hackers. Ahh, culture jammers. How are they not lovable? Romantic? Quixotic? Charming? Plucky? And yet also, somehow boring. They always get along. They always make things happen. Hell, even the parents and other adults like and encourage them, even 26's parents, who tell Trent it's just fine that he sleeps over in their 17-year-old-daughter's bedroom. With her. Even if they don't sleep. Wink wink. Really?

After a while, even the important jeopardy -- the big bad so big and so bad and so important that Doctorow couldn't allow even the ghost of any other kind of conflict so that even the neighborhood drug dealers where Trent squats are nice and friendly and helpful -- feels unreal and incohate. The corporate sharks are swimming out there in the deep water, watchful and hungry, but our carefree happy little heroes stick to the shallows and frolick away, and just occasionally chuck some chum out to sea out of sheer exuberance.

Don't get me wrong; I had fun reading this at times. But I could never just immerse myself in the story, between the preaching and the excessive benevolence of the book's universe. In the end, I found that for all my love of Doctorow and what he does, I didn't ever feel like I was this book's audience.

But I'm not sure who is.

*Yeah, that's really her name. Sometimes people call her Twenty for short.

**Not that they need much rooting for.

***You sports fans should all take a moment and contemplate with gratitude the fact that, as dickheaded as the NBA, NFL, FIFA, etc. can be, they haven't to date tried to get play not under their aegis banned by law.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

100 Books #102 - Mark A. Rayner's FRIDGULARITY

Note: the author graciously supplied the blogger with an eARC (electronic advance review copy) of this book (available Nov. 21st at all the usual ebook outlets). I say graciously because he didn't know if I would like it or say nice things about it or not, he just thought I'd like it, and we're Twitter buddies. And because I did say nice things about a previous book of his, Marvelous Hairy, under similar circumstances. He plays the odds well, that Mark.

"People are willing to die for Twitter, you know."

The "Internet of Things" is barely a thing and already there is someone satirizing the living Snape out of it.

That person is Mark A. Rayner, who, it seems, never met a science fiction/fact trope that he didn't want to mock thoroughly and well (witness his astonishing short fiction tour-de-force, Pirate Therapy, to which he provides ample links in his Twitter feed, not to mention the aforementioned Marvelous Hairy).

Get past the smiles -- the internet emerges into conscious intelligence but decides, somehow, that its interface with the human world will be through the screen on the web-enabled refrigerator belonging to Blake Givens, Canadian doofus -- though, and you'll see that Rayner has more on his mind than just cheap laughs at the expense of our dependence on digital technology and how weird that is making the world. For part and parcel with the intelligence's emergence is its takeover of all of said technology for its own growth and purposes. Zathir, as it/they start calling itself/themselves*, has taken away the internet, leaving humanity to make do with whatever old analog technology it can scrounge up and get working again to stay alive and function as a society.**

As has been posited by the sort of people who like to think about happenstances like this one -- by which I mean pretty much every doomsday type we know -- the younger generations handle this the least well. Rayner milks much humor from scenarios of bereft social media addicts "playing Twitter" by passing around Post-It notes with 140 character messages, complete with hashtags, "playing Pinterest" by pinning magazine cut-outs onto Blake's couch, and scrawling on the walls of Blake's house to recreate a certain other social media outlet that it makes my head vomit to contemplate and so I will not name here. While others rebuild the world, these "Networked" await more messages from Zathir via Blake's kitchen. It's a very funny notion, except when it's not.

Which is to say that Rayner does a very fine job, indeed, of balancing between mockery and hand-wringing, even before this scenario explodes into ridiculous and appalling sectarian conflict and poetry slamming. And while Rayner's absurdist edge is never far from view, for long stretches of this story the man is dead serious. He has not only thought of the comedic but the tragic possibilities of a post-Internet world in which we have allowed our non-virtual skills to wither and dwindle into something we have to look up in what dead-tree books we haven't destroyed to scan into ebook form.

And, in Blake, he's given us a believable everyman, not a complete hero (though he does manage some physical feats that the average netizen would probably find all but impossible), but not an utter boob either (except when the Girl of His Dreams is around). Martin Freeman could play him credibly in the film version, though he might be a bit old. Pitted against him is one "Lord" Sona, a former hardcore videogamer who has turned his WoW-oid online posse into a real-world freakshow-cum-religious crusade that has declared jihad on Zathir and Blake, because, well, what else is a fat guy with a pizza fixation going to do in this world, apparently?

In truth, Sona's villainy is probably the least plausible element in the story, even as it is also the most entertaining. He's an over-the-top combination of pathos and puissance even when he isn't being undercut by his choice of undergarment or home furnishings. All that's missing is a mustache to twirl, but somebody else got that, for this story.

All in all, Fridgularity is a fun way to think about the unthinkable. Can the world really be brought to this kind of a pass, this way? Probably not. But it could be something like this, a little, that brings it all down, and it never hurts to be reminded of that, does it?

Hold onto those shortwave radios, kids.

*As makes sense for a conglomeration of too-intelligent household appliances, social media networks, newswire services and military guidance systems, it sometimes seems like a singular and sometimes a collective entity, its font choices on Blake's refrigerator screen providing the most important clue to how it's regarding itself at any given time.

**This includes, delightfully, a renewed importance for the good old DX crew, ham radio operators who to this day maintain completely informal contact with the rest of the world via home-built radios and antennas and the catch-as-catch can nature of analog radio waves through the earth's atmosphere. One of my best friends is one of these guys, and I can't wait to put this book in his hands. Thank goodness he's not such a quasi-Luddite that he doesn't read ebooks!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

100 Books #101 - Justin Robinson's MR. BLANK

Was Tobias Knight your favorite character in Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson's fiction, or did you at least wonder what it would be like to be him?

Did you dig X-Files but think it was kind of cheap that Mulder & Scully only had to deal with one freakshow at a time? And too much FBI red tape?

Do conspiracy theories make you horny, baby?

Then, brother, have I got the novel for you.

The title character in Mr. Blank makes Tobias Knight, quintuple agent, look like a monogamous pansy. As he tells us in the novel's exquisitely perfect opening sentence, "Every conspiracy needs a guy like me." The sad bit is, as he goes on to explain, he's that guy for every single conspiracy. And there's only so much of him to go around. So, he has established more false identities than any sane person could keep track of, each with its own email address, cell phone and contract, and contact within a secret organization; the Masons know him by one name, the Satanists by another, etc. Across conspiracies, though, he is at core the same guy: the go-to guy, a low-level initiate/enthusiast who is willing to be the gopher, delivery guy, purchasing agent, evidence hider, witness confuser, whatever dumb little task you need today, Worshipful Sir or Ma'am or Thingie.

The premise could work with any number of plots (har har). The temptation that could waylay it being just to watch him in action, which could be fun as the quotidian-for-him early pages establish; his to-do list (or lists, one for each identity/role) are quite entertaining. I was especially amused by bits like this one: "Commercial candy is allowed to have up to five rat droppings per ounce by law. What they don't say is what kind of rat droppings or whose job it is to put them there."

You get the idea.

So this could have turned into the kind of sprawling hot mess that the Illuminatus! Trilogy (clearly its primary inspiration) was, but Robinson was more interested in producing a piece of quality genre fiction/entertainment than in imparting his mystic-comic wisdom to us in a gigantic parable. I think. At any rate, he found a plot that worked, the good old "someone is trying to kill me and this stacked redhead I just happened to meet along the way" that's straight out of mid-century crime noir. Hey, why mess with perfection?

And this book is so close to genre-mashing perfection that it's almost painful to contemplate how it also kind of bothered me: there's a major sub-plot involving female body-image politics that I didn't quite like, pitting one conspiracy of Rubenesque, curvy women (the stacked redhead and her fuller-figured overladies, whom Mr. Blank refers to as "hippos" and worse) against another of stick-thin model-pushers (though bonus points for the neologism "ascetorexics"). Mr. Blank more or less comes down on the side of the former, mostly due to the presence at his side of their prettiest and smartest (Mina, whom he wants to "paint on the side of a bomber"), so I guess there's that, but still, focusing on that one characteristic of a woman -- her body, her shape -- still counts as objectification, whether you're turned on by it or not, guys. Ew.

If that kind of thing doesn't bother you*, or if it does but you're able to square your shoulders and march on and get past it and focus on all the good stuff, this is quite an enjoyable read. Fnord.

*And usually I'm of this camp, able to dismiss the odd quip about a female character's appearance or a gay character's clothing or whatever as just something that is missing the mark with me but that the author felt necessary to include to appeal to other readers. But here, it is very much front and center, with Mr. Blank all but smacking his lips over Mina on almost every page. What saves it is that she notices this, calls him on it, and occasionally delivers the kind of reprimand that leaves a mark. So that brings up a question for me that I'm not sure I have the answer to: does the presence of a strong and self-determined female character who refuses to be a sidekick justify or compensate adequately for the author's over-the-top rubbing of my readerly nose in all of this body-image crap? Like I said, I don't have an answer, so my annoyance is only mostly assuaged by the fact that everything else in this book was over-the-top awesome.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

100 Books #100 - Ray Banks' WOLF TICKETS

So, it's official: I love Ray Banks.

From what I've learned of the backstory of the life of this novel, it's a bit of a wonder that I ever got to read it at all. And it would have been a crying shame of a brutal crime if I hadn't, because I do like a bit of crime fiction once in a while, and when I do, I like it to be spectacular.

Wolf Tickets is spectacular. Originally drafted as a collaboration between Ray Banks and Ken Bruen and featuring alternating chapters written from the point of view of two very bad friends*, the book is loaded with English and Irish lower class slang (one protagonist is one, and the other is, tadaa, the other) that, I guess, publishers thought would make it a too-difficult, too-challenging read for the average knuckle-dragging crime fiction fan? At any rate, it's only because Banks is stubborn and sure and teamed up with Blasted Heath Publishing to release it as an ebook.


I'd caution my readers that this one isn't for everyone, though. The slang does take a bit of parsing, for one thing -- though really, context clues are a big help if the rest of the writing is good, and here, the rest of the writing is good, sometimes even brilliant. For another, well, duh, it's crime fiction. And these two, Sean and Jimmy, are serious freaking low-lifes on the trail of another pair who did Sean wrong: his ex-girlfriend, Nora, and her hitman ex-ex-boyfriend, who have stolen all of the hidden money (and his favorite leather jacket) out of Sean's home and are off to steal the rest - as in 200 grand he's stashed somewhere around Newcastle, UK. Or at least, that he's claimed to have stashed. Or has he?

So it's a race, it's a chase, it's a spree, full of hard drinking and drug use, vandalism, arson, assault, battery, foul language, more drinking, and a lot of brutal language**. These are not nice people, and of the characters there is not a one whom ordinary readers will find conventionally sympathetic. They made me wince a lot, look away a lot -- but never for too long, because they're too fascinating, the lot of them.

I just wouldn't want to meet anyone like them in person, thanks. I take those kinds of thrills vicariously. Which is why people like Banks and the Blasted Heath guys get my money.

Oh, and caveat lector: if you're an ex-smoker or someone who's trying to quit, this novel might be even rougher going for you than for the rest of us. They smoke a lot. Like, even when their mouths are so cut up they can barely talk lot.

*And here Banks has attempted a difficult feat: writing a novel in two first-person (and unreliable) voices. I don't see a lot of writers even trying this, but maybe I'm just not reading the right show-offs (it could easily blow up in one's face, after all). My standard for this trick is, of course, Theodore Sturgeon's Godbody, in which all of the different characters' voices are so well-defined one could tell who was speaking even if one didn't know where in the book a passage was found. Banks doesn't achieve quite that level of greatness, but he comes closer to it than most do, which makes this pulpy bit of brutal crime fun that much more enjoyable.

**Sample: "How about a drink and a sub?" "How about a f*** and an off" Funny, but not for everyone.

Monday, October 22, 2012

100 Books #99 - Stanislaw Lem's SOLARIS

I was absolutely charmed by my first Stanislaw Lem book, The Cyberiad, but this one, this one is very different. I am haunted by it, as I am by J.G. Ballard's books -- but even more so.

Just pages into Solaris, I could see why the amazing Andrei Tarkovsky picked on it to adapt into a film.* Not because its plot or characters are demanding to make the leap to the big screen, but because its setting, as observed by Kris Kelvin, is sense-swampingly cinematic:

" though sucked upwards, the cloud-mass lifted; I was gliding, half in light, half in shadow, the capsule revolving upon its own vertical axis..."

"...the sun's orbit, which had so far encircled me, shifted unexpectedly, and the incandescent disc appeared now to the right, now to the left, seeming to dance on the planet's horizon. I was swinging like a giant pendulum while the plaenet, its surface wrinkled with purplish-blue and black furrows, rose up in front of me like a wall."

And that's just the English translation. Goodness knows what the appeal of the original Polish to the mind's eye would be. I'm guessing marvelous, because Polish seems marvelous. But so, who wouldn't want to try to bring such images (and these aren't even the most vivid or colorful. There's a freaking literary light show towards the end!) to the actual eye, hmm?

Alas, the films, both Tarkovsky's glorious one and Stephen Soderberg's somewhat less-so one, are more interested in Kelvin and the strange clone/doppelganger/thing of his wife that shows up just as other figures, imaginary/archetypal or real, show up in the lives of the others on the station studying the planet Solaris, than in Solaris itself. This is not true of the book.

Solaris is alive, or at least its surface is, taken up by one vast organism that defies biological, chemical, and physical science but exists anyway. It delights in creating vast structures and shapes from its own imagination and, ominously, in creating slightly off copies of human objects. And memories? Well, how else do you think these imperfect copies of people and creatures who are haunting the researchers get there?

But get this. Oh, get this. As Kelvin reads a prior researcher's account of his observations on Solaris, we get a sense of vast weirdness that I have only ever encountered in one book (Greg Bear's Blood Music), though perhaps there are echoes of this in Alastair Reynolds' Pattern Jugglers as well (though they are many organisms on many water-covered planets, not one vast one that only sort of seems like an ocean. Anyway, check this description of one of many weird types of oceanic/organic formations the researchers call "Extensors" doing their weird things under the light of the planet's two suns (a red one and a blue one):
"It must be understood that the 'extensors' are formations that dwarf the Grand  Canyon, that they are produced in a substance which externally resembles a yeasty colloid (during this fantastic 'fermentation' the yeast sets into festoons of starched open-work lace; some experts refer to 'ossified tumors'), and that deeper down the substance becomes increasingly resistant, like a tensed muscle which fifty feet below the surface is as hard as rock but retains its flexibility. The 'extensor' appears to be an independent creation, stretching for miles between membranous walls swollen with 'ossified growths' like some colossal python which after swallowing a mountain is sluggishly digesting the meal, while a slow shudder occasionally ripples along its creeping body."
It goes on at greater length, but that bit should be enough to convey the awesome creepiness of the planet Solaris. I had chills. Even before we learn that when seen up close this structure is "bewilderingly alive with movement." Its hard not to imagine the continent-spanning waves of sentient individual cells that engulf North America in Blood Music -- but Solaris came first, of course.

And Solaris, Solaris is real science fiction. As in there is lots of science, the way science is actually conducted. And no, I'm not talking about crazy experiments, though there are some of those. I'm talking about all of the literature reviews our narrator conducts in the course of telling  his story (the big block quote above comes from a journal article). As any former or current graduate student/coolie can tell you, a vastly greater amount of a working scientist's time is so spent than anyone who is not one or hasn't been one would suspect -- especially in a well-established discipline, which, at the time of the events of this novel "Solarist studies" is. There are decades of theories, counter-theories, grant proposals, experimental "results", project budgets and other documentary minutiae to be gone through if one is going even try to grasp the immensity of the planet/life form's mystery. It's a true testament to Lem's storytelling abilities that this is not at all tedious. I, for one, kind of felt myself tapping my foot impatiently through all of the Kelvin/Pseudo-Mrs. Kelvin scenes, waiting to learn more about the planet.** Or, at least, about what it probably wasn't.

"The existence of the thinking colossus was bound to go on haunting men's minds."


*I'm trying not to gush too much about this film -- and it is not a perfect film; feel free to fast forward through its infamously dull "city of the future" scene, in which characters are sitting in a car and traveling a seemingly endless expanse of then-contemporary Tokyo, for instance; it's there because Tarkovsky was damned lucky to get to leave the Soviet Union to go get that footage, and he had to justify the trip, by not-god -- but if you haven't seen it or aren't willing to give it a chance, I... I just don't know what to say. It's an amazing and subtle film, and features one of my very favorite actors, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, in a strong supporting role. It concerns itself more with the relationship between Kelvin and his dead wife than with all of the real science fiction, which now that I've read the novel I find a bit of a cheat, but my jaw still just drops at the mere thought of this film.

**Again, how much of this is due to having enjoyed (Tarkovsky) and endured (Soderberg) two film adaptations that were all Rheya/Hari (for reasons I do not grasp, Kelvin's wife is named Hari in the original Polish novel and the Tarkovsky film, and Rheya in the English translation and Soderberg's film), all the time, I cannot say. And how much of that is due to Natascha McElhone, whose performance in Soderberg's version I loathed, well, maybe that I can say, because I heard every line of Rheya's dialogue in the book in her whiny/whispy voice until I wanted to find a way to claw out that part of the brain that is the mind's ear.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

100 Books #98 - Stephen King's THE DARK TOWER

Well, thank Bog that's over.

I'll tell you what: for a while there, I was going to let that sentence be my whole review. The Dark Tower, also known as last 1050 pages of the enormous Dark Tower saga, was pretty rough going for me. Mostly in terms of sheer annoyance.

Unlike most of the series' true fans and Constant Readers -- and I know a lot of them, online and in meatspace -- I never really bonded with the characters, mostly because, as I've complained of in all of my other posts about these books, these characters never really came to life for me.* Oh, they came close, every single one of them. But it always seemed like just as soon as they were doing so, the author yanked hard on their puppet strings and made them dance to his tune instead of their own. I've come to expect that from King, but after watching him do that for hundreds and thousands of pages, to the same five main characters and a host of secondaries, I'm punchy and exhausted and annoyed as hell and want to punch the man in the crotch.

But then there's the ending. And let me tell you this: I dug the ending. Oh, not the wish fulfillment happy ending in Central Park, but what we learn in the coda. Seriously: after wading through all the muck of these last several books, that was really the only ending that would have earned my respect. Well done, Mr. King. I might even call you Sai King. Just this once.

*So no, I didn't cry or anything when anybody died. In large part this is probably because not a single death in this book is a surprise (well, except for one, and that one, that was just cheap. Hundreds of thousands of pages of shit-eating grins and traps and henchmen attacks and BOOM, a brand new player pulled off the bench in the last book gits him? UGH). I've complained of my ribs being sore from all the digging references to other elements of pop culture (Harry Potter. UGH); now my head is sore from its having been beaten over the head in advance of every death. Kate. Yeah. Hey, Kate. Kate. So and so is going to die. Are you ready for so and so to die, Kate? Because so and so is gonna die. And it's really going to be tragic. And it's going to make you sad. I'm really not sure you're ready. Because I'm not kidding. So and so is going to die. Hey, Kate, do you get it yet? So and so is gonna die. STOP STOP STOP.

Friday, October 12, 2012

100 Books #97 - Balogun Ojetade's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AFRIKA

"Sword and Soul" is a sub-genre I had yet to explore -- had yet even to have heard of -- before my good friend and fellow bookfreak EssJay mentioned it, and this book, to me. Ever ready to try something new, especially if it's cheap, I decided to take a chance on Once Upon a Time in Afrika.

I'm very glad I did.

Written like a fairy tale, densely plotted like the conventional epic fantasies it's riffing on, Once Upon a Time in Afrika is a hell of a lot of fun to read. Set in an alternate pre-white-contact version of Africa in which the magic and the gods and demigods of folk tale and legend are real and part of everyday life, the story of badass Princess Esuseeke and her equally badass suitors is packed with action, combat, empowerment and intrigue. Ojetade is a student of African martial arts and it shows; his fight scenes are intricate, plausible, visceral and absolutely breathtaking, but he's writer enough to keep the reader's attention between battles.*

Refreshingly for this reader, Esuseeke is not rebelling when she takes up a sword or drops into an unarmed combat stance, but partaking fully of a culture that expects women to be able to defend themselves and boasts of a proud tradition of women warriors who often outshine the men. Her gender is important only because of her royalty; someone's got to breed successors to the crown, and for that she needs, at some point, a husband.

But her husband can't just be any old blue-blood type; he has to be her equal. And there aren't many of those.

Enter the time-honored device of the tournament. The winner gets to marry Esuseeke -- all nice and straightforward. But it isn't; Esuseeke's father, a politician rather than a warrior, doesn't trust the mechanism to produce a satisfactory result. He has someone in mind for her that will probably win, but daddy wants to be sure, you see. In other words, daddy starts gaming the system even before the system is in place, just to make sure that his daughter marries the right guy.

Of course the right guy is kind a jerk. More than a jerk, actually, a terrifying warlord whose fixation on the Law brings him to commit acts of extreme cruelty towards those less fortunate than he, rather than bend the rules a little.

But wait, there's more! Chiefly one Akin, the son of the unspeakably badass warrior woman who trained Esuseeke, but whom the princess somehow never met. He is the best student at his parents' school but has yet to prove himself anywhere else, but oh is he ready. Packing a pair of wooden swords that once slew a dragon and sporting a bristling mohawk, he is every inch a hero-in-waiting, but the way he finds himself fighting for Esuseeke's hand isn't quite what he might expect.

There's also a magician of intimidating power and wiliness, who just happens to be the sworn enemy of the Jerk. And a vast and skeletal monster only half of which, the left side, exists in our world. And a freaky witch that tricks her way into Akin's stomach. And a giant, pasty warrior who rides an armored albino rhinocerus into battle. And much, much more.

I haven't had this much sheer fun with a book since the first Crown of the Blood novel, if you couldn't tell.

So if you love pulp fantasy but don't love the racism, or the sexism, this may be your new favorite novel, or perhaps novella, for my one complaint about Once Upon a Time in Afrika, it's that it's just too short! But like they say, you want to leave 'em hankering for more.

Mission accomplished, Mr. Ojetade.

*Although there is a bit of tedium in the middle as he sends the kingdom's Prime Minister on a tour of the continent, recruiting warriors for the tournament. It's only a bit tedious, though, because Ojetade's considerable imagination gets free reign on the journey. And he does like a badass warrior-woman, does Ojetade. Oh, yes.

100 Books #96 - Jean Plaidy's MADONNA OF THE SEVEN HILLS

This is the first Jean Plaidy book I've ever read that did not concern itself with a Queen of England. I was expecting the reading of it to be a stranger experience.

But Jean Plaidy is always Jean Plaidy, writing as if she's telling a fairy tale but not sparing us any of the unsavory or unpleasant details. So of course she had to take on the infamous Lucrezia Borgia.

I've noticed a tendency, in Plaidy, to build the tale around the most popular anecdote about her subject known at the time, whether it's truth or folklore. Thus, for instance, The Follies of the King is one long argument/justification for the infamous (and possibly fanciful) murder, at the behest of his long-suffering wife, of Edward III by means of a red hot poker. And thus this first of two books Plaidy wrote about Lucrezia and the rest of the Borgia family is just a giant bit of foreshadowing for the legendary fratricide of Lucrezia's brother Juan/Giovanni by her other brother Cesare.

Thus even as it tells the story of Lucrezia's father's elevation from Cardinal Roderigo Borgia to Pope Alexander III despite being the father of three and possibly four illegitimate children by a courtesan, which is a tale quite worthy of a novel in its own right, Madonna of the Seven Hills focuses on perhaps the most famous case of sibling rivalry gone wild since Cain and Abel, except this time, instead of God's favor, the brothers are dueling for that of their own sister and father.*

Some later writers (Madonna of the Seven Hills was first published in 1958) might have gone all out for the scandalous, salacious incest plot, but Plaidy, as always, was more interested in who Lucrezia really was and why she would accept and even embrace a situation that most modern women would find intolerable. From the first pages, we see Lucrezia as a girl born to a bizarre station in life (tartly observing at one point to her friend Giulia Farnese [who has also by that point taken over Lucrezia's mother's job as the pope's mistress] that accepting bribes and telling her father all about them is her job) but who never knew anything else; the only daughter of a family of vain, proud, selfish and violently passionate pseudo-aristocrats who can't afford not to stick together however much they have gotten sick of each other.

So of course Plaidy's Lucrezia** grows up to be a pathological people pleaser. She is rich and powerful and beautiful and educated, but despite these advantages her self-worth is bound up only in how her father and brothers react to her; if they are adoring her, they are not fighting each other, or killing people, or starting wars or seduce-raping innocent girls (or boys) -- so it's very important that they keep on adoring her, even if it means keeping them trapped as rivals for her attention and affection. Whether or not she had a sexual relationship with any of them is quite beside the point, for Plaidy; if she did, it was just another symptom. Plaidy is more interested in how the rumors got started than if they were true.

As I said, though, all of this is just foreshadowing for the culmination of the big and legendary hatred between Cesare and Giovanni***, the two brothers who have only ever been friends when they were teaming up against an outsider whom they perceived as a threat to the family (usually a husband or lover or would-be lover of Lucrezia's). It's a tricky thing Plaidy has done here, making us sympathize for their prize even as our author so obviously taps her foot impatiently waiting for the Big Showdown. Lucrezia gets humanized only to be turned into a thing, a prize, anyway.

Which is to say that in Madonna of the Seven Hills, Plaidy may have achieved her greatest degree of verisimilitude, of art imitating life almost painfully perfectly, of all.

But that's not quite what we turn to historical fiction/romance for, is it?

*Alexander VI was an infamously indulgent and doting father, but even so, imposed his will on his children somewhat mercilessly. Giovanni, his favorite, he chose to be the soldier and the secular nobleman, blind to the fact that Giovanni was about as much a soldier as, as, well, as Cesare was a clergyman. And, famously, Cesare was the one who got trained up in the priesthood and made a Cardinal by age 18. Of course, had this not happened, Niccolo Macchiavelli wouldn't have had his model for The Prince, because Cesare wouldn't have had to become the consummate schemer he was, etc.

**And possibly the historical Lucrezia, too.

***Peculiarly, the actual murder is dealt with offstage, which feels like a bit of a cheat after all of the build-up, but again, is the sort of anti-climactic "truth" writers like Plaidy most like to highlight, even at the expense of causing the last third or so of the novel to fall flat.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

100 Books #95 - Chris F. Holm's THE WRONG GOODBYE

Stop me if you've heard this one. Boy meets corpse. Boy tries to harvest soul from corpse. Boy finds out that someone else already took it. Boy is in big, big trouble. There is no girl. Nor is there a spoon.

It's not even been two months since I read and enjoyed the first book in Chris F. Holm's Collector series, Dead Harvest, so the fact that I was eager to return to it says something, either about what else I've been reading (*cough* too much Dark Tower) or about how much I liked that first book, or both.

Let's say "both."

The Wrong Goodbye is not merely another adventure for our beleaguered soul-collector, Sam, though it would seem like such at first as he slogs through rain-washed jungles of Columbia to gather up the mean, mean soul of one Varela, drug kingpin, power broker and all around bad guy. But then the problem kicks in, and it's a doozy: someone else got there first. Someone who left behind the nastiest crime scene, maybe ever (especially if you don't like insects*). Someone who absconded with Varela's soul and carved a "hey buddy, we have to talk" message to Sam into Varela's corpse.

Before we know it, Sam, victim of a bait-and-switch, is traipsing all over the U.S. in the company of a dead low-level mobster who has been shoehorned into the fat old body of "the sausage king of Chicago" (wink wink) hunting down the guy who stole the soul and left the message. Along the way, we learn a bit more of Sam's incredible backstory, but where in Dead Harvest it was all about how he got to be a Collector, in The Wrong Goodbye the backstory focus is on his early Collecting days, during which he broke a lot of really important rules. Which is to say that even before the near-apocalyptic events of the first book, Sam has been on a lot of supernatural radars, none of them friendly.

Sam and his mobster-cum-sausage king** encounter quite a lot of genuine horror in this book, all of it dealt with extremely effectively. An extended scene exploring a decrepit sanitarium in the New Mexico desert evokes shades of every nightmare you've ever had, and every horror game you've ever had to play with the lights on (Fatal Frame, I'm looking at you) -- while, get this, simultaneously making the reader feel sorry for the demons hanging out there. It's all very complicated and I don't want to spoil it but man, it's a bravura performance Holm has done, there, and worth the price of the book alone.

But wait, there's more! Like two dead guys who are animating two other dead guys' bodies having an argument over whether one is to be allowed to smoke indoors. Giant evil mega-demons quoting The Big Lebowski. A weird carjacking of a vehicle so beautiful even a non gearhead like me can appreciate it. An action-packed final third that riffs on and builds from the action-packed final third of Dead Harvest and turns it all up to eleven -- until comes a twist ending that, even if you did see it coming, is a pretty satisfying payoff.

And through it all, we have Sam, still trying, despite his damned and undead status, to be a decent guy, to do the right thing, to keep the world from being completely destroyed. Again. Because he's Sam, a guy who went into perdition out of pure and selfless love, and who, yes, is bitter about it, but has not given up the struggle to stay good even so. I heart Sam, I really do.

All of this makes for very good, page-turning fiction. One might think she knows where all of this is heading, but one might be wrong. Or not. Either way, very enjoyable.

And yes, there is obviously going to be at least one more Collector book, to which part of me says, jeeze, how many times can one guy save the world, but to which the rest of me says, hey, Sam's a lot more likeable than Buffy...

*And speaking of insects, if you have a phobia about them, this book is going to scare you silly. There are swarms of giant, angry insects -- The Deliverants, who accept and pass collected souls along to Hell -- dogging Sam's every step through this one. They want their two dollars, you guys. A lot.

**Coo, that sounds a bit naughty, doesn't it?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

100 Books #94 - Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S TRAFALGAR

OK, I'll admit, I've been putting off reading this one just because the very idea of it seemed ludicrous and forced to me. As has been very firmly established, our man Richard Sharpe is a daring, lucky and resourceful infantry officer. Infantry. The guy can barely ride a horse, but he's the devil in a red coat on foot. But see, Trafalgar was a naval battle. As in between ships. Admiral Nelson. Sailing maneuvers (or lack thereof: just go right at 'em). Ramming. Boarding parties. Being on the water.

So how could Sharpe have a Trafalgar that wasn't preposterous and contrived?

Answer: well, he can't: but the contriving minimizes the preposterousness and soon the reader forgets her pre-book scoffing altogether. After all, Richard does have to get from India back to England somehow, and we readers have already swallowed his just happening to be the unknown man who killed the Tippoo Sultan and the man who "really" found the way into Gawilgur.

Anyway, lesson well learned: always trust Uncle Bernard.

Speaking of things we learn, Sharpe's Trafalgar is also where we learn, not only that Sharpe has sea legs, but that he doesn't require the heat of battle to be a killer. Oh, we've had hints of this before, witness his attempt in the first book to feed his Wile E. Coyote nemesis to a tiger, but what we see in his shipboard relationship with his would-be blackmailer*, Mister Braithwaite, shows new depths of cold-bloodedness. Sharpe has never known an even-handed, just application of society's rules and laws, so he doesn't feel particularly bound by them. Dude.

And Sharpe has a lot to learn as well, here, for he has in the person of his friend Captain Chase (whom he rescued from a nasty crew on land in the novel's prologue) an example of leadership like he's not seen before. His Pucelle**, on which Sharpe finds himself after he's sort-of-rescued from a captured Indiaman, is a great big ship of the line, a floating artillery battery, and, that rarity of rarities, a happy ship. How does he do that?

"Sharpe watched  Chase, for he reckoned he had still a lot to learn about the subtle business of leading men. He saw that the captain did not secure his authority by recourse to punishment, but rather by expecting high standards and rewarding them. He also hid his doubts."
From what I know about Sharpe's future with a rifle company in the Napoleonic wars (these novels have such cultural currency that it's almost as impossible not to know Sharpe's going to end up a lieutenant in Spain as it is not to know what Rosebud is), these are good lessons for him to be getting, very important for his transformation from a gutter rat whose first  (chronological) scene in fiction is of him getting flogged to a man who inspires loyalty.

The scenes with Sharpe and Chase are also a nice antidote to the soap opera adultery plot that comprises more than  half this book.*** Ugh.

But the real star here is the famous naval battle, into which the Pucelle more or less stumbles. Cornwell gives Patrick O'Brian a run for his ramming, gunning, sailing money here; one could fully imagine the Surprise being somewhere in the smoke (but of course we know it wasn't. Sillies. The Surprise was as real as... as the Pucelle!). The action is described in loving detail, with an emphasis on its chaotic nature, for we are seeing it from the perspective of an infantry soldier serving as an "honorary marine" who barely understands what's going on.

And yes, Cornwell succumbs to the temptation to substitute his fictional ship for the real one that rescued Admiral Nelson's flagship just as the French were about to board her, and also to the temptation to make Sharpe the person Nelson finds most interesting at his pre-battle breakfast. But I ask you: who wouldn't? Scenes such as those are a big part of why historical fiction is fun, if one isn't simply writing a fictionalized biography of an actual historical figure the way, say, Jean Plaidy does. But yes, I rolled my eyes a bit. But I was also smiling. It's a Sharpe book, after all.

It's just not the best Sharpe book. Hey, they can't all be.

Onward to Europe!

*Of course the blackmail is over a woman. Cornwell knows and respects the principle of Chekhov's Gun; if a pretty woman shows up in the first act of a Sharpe novel, Sharpe is going to become her lover, even if, as in this case, she is married to an obnoxious nobleman.

**"Pucelle" in English is "virgin." Ho ho!

**The other half, at least until the Pucelle stumbles across the battle at Trafalgar, is a chase plot. While Sharpe is schtupping the nobleman's wife in every unseen corner of the ship that isn't too disgusting, the ship is chasing a French one, the Revenant, to which Sharpe's frenemy and also a suspected spy jumped after it took the first ship that Sharpe and co embarked on, the Calliope. It's all very exciting and Patrick O'Brian-ish, and I would have much preferred it without all the tedious adultery, but I'm just sort of like that, you know?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

100 Books #93 - Stephen King's SONG OF SUSANNAH

Someone -- I forget who, and it may be several someones, the way ideas like this get spread -- has observed that the current proliferation of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is more or less exactly contemporaneous with the entry of millions of Baby Boomers into their retirement years, their golden years, the years in which previous generations been put out to pasture to enjoy their remaining years in contemplative peace (if they're lucky) before going gently -- or not -- into that good night. The Boomers are fighting it like never before, of course. And so, taking the observation about the spate of fictional apocalypses a little further, it represents the Boomers' collective freak-out that they, too, might die someday, and this an expression of their inability to imagine the world moving on without them. Apres nous, le deluge.

Increasingly, this is how the Dark Tower series is looking to me. For all that the first novel. The Gunslinger, was written when King was a very young man (just 19 years old),  the series as a whole, and especially Song of Susannah (I haven't read the final book yet, obviously), feels like King having a vast and rather elegant freak out of his very own: not just "the" world but all the worlds are disintegrating, as they have been practically forever* but the horrible and final end is going to happen now. Unless the ka-tet -- Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy -- can reach the Dark Tower in time and do something as yet unknown there to stop it all from falling apart.

That's all pretty standard fantasy/quest novel stuff. What makes this feel like a giant Baby Boomer freak-out to me is what King, the king of all Baby Boomer pop fictioneers**, has done in this novel in particular -- namely, writing himself and his obsessions right into the narrative. Yes, this includes the blue Dodge Caravan that famously struck and could have killed him in June of 1999, and which famously prompted him to finally finish this series lest he George R.R. Martin us and leave it unfinished forever due to his finally finding a bucket to kick as most of us suspect Martin is probably going to do with A Song of Ice and Fire. Whereas in previous Dark Tower novels King ingeniously tied a lot of his most beloved stories together and made them into satellite/spin-offs of his grand DT mythos, here he has made himself all but an early stand-in for the Tower, the Fisher King whom Eddie and Roland must seek out, query and assist in order to further their own quest. The closer they get, the better they feel. Everything seems wonderful, even the clouds are more beautiful, and they start wondering if King is really just a man at all.

I mean, check out how they speak of him as they approach:

"Is he immortal, do you think? Because I've seen much in my years, and heard rumors of much more, but never of a man or woman who lived forever." "I don't think he needs to be immortal. I think all he needs to do is write the right story. Because some stories do live forever."

Excuse me while I discreetly retch just a little.***

Anyway, Song of Susannah and all of its tying in is all kind of impressive, as technical achievements go, but it's also all a bit twee. My ribs are already bruised and sore from all of the digs they've taken in the hundreds of pages of DT I've already read. This time King's elbow drew blood. Dude, pop culture and literary references are fun to tease out and play detective over, but not when the fun of figuring them out for myself is taken away. And an overwhelmingly self-indulgent, explicit self-portrait of the author, however tongue-in-cheek, taking such prominence in a story just makes it all that much worse.

I would really like to visit the universe next door, where King's magnum opus went through the hands of a really serious editor who was committed into making these books the real towering achievements they could have and should have been. In that universe, these stonkingly amazing characters are allowed to be themselves, to tease out or create meaning from the world(s) around them, to discover what they needed to do and the tools they need to do it organically and never once descend into that most annoying of all hack fictional tropes of wondering if they are characters in a novel. In that universe, these books vibrate in glory on their own merits entirely and become cultural touchstones on the order of, well, on the order of all of the works King so desperately wants them compared to that he all but shouts every time he ganks something from one of them "See how I referenced the Wizard of Oz here you guys, isn't that cool?" "Hey look, Magnificent Seven!" "Dudes! JFK was totally a Gunslinger. You guys, you guys, JFK."****

As it is, I appear to be stuck in this one, where true greatness is buried in cruft. The greatness is so very great that it shines through the cruft in a lot of places, but buried it remains. I know a lot of people who love these books so much that they read them over and over and over again and find new wonders to behold every time, on the order of how I keep finding new ways to enjoy Lord of the Rings and The Anubis Gates and Middlemarch and all of the oeuvres of Philip K. Dick and Joseph Conrad and Gene Wolfe. And bully for them, I say.

But I'm pretty sure that once I've finally finished these books, and I have but one left to go, now, I'm never going to want to revisit these universes again.

My ribs may never fully heal.

*But, as Susannah's latest alternate personality informs her, men had managed to shore everything up when magic left the world by building machines to do the work of magic and spells, assuming that there would always be men like themselves around to keep the machines, and thus the universe, going. Foolishly, of course; in King's as in so many universes, man is only a pale and crappy imitation of God, whose creations never last and are tainted by original sin and a lot of other craptrap. I mean claptrap. Or do I? For all that King has Roland asserting that he doesn't believe in any gods, we're still very much in King's famous medieval morality play in genre fiction's clothes, here.

**I, at least, can think of no other novelist of his generation who has so thoroughly woven that generation's pop and high cultural tropes into his work. He is famous for larding up his work with references to Boomer-era music (in which his taste is impeccable, if he can be forgiven by Beatles haters like myself for his overwhelming adoration of their stuff), in particular (check out EssJay's fantastic Stephen King playlist over at Insatiable Booksluts and remember this is just a taste of what he's done).

***I must say, though, as "writer meets his characters in 'real life'" scenes go, this one isn't bad. It contains a nice excursis on how characters come to be, bubbling up from the writer's psyche as if they were real beings with pasts and identities and goals and longings and regrets, for whom the writer feels like a mere amanuensis. But this emphasized for me, of course, what a shame it is that King never felt he could trust his characters to enact his plots, even though both elements are coming from the same place. That said, though, it was more than a little amusing to see King treating himself-as-character the same way he treats all of his other characters. Tee hee.

****Which, I get it. JFK's assassination was a shocking and transformative event that traumatized everybody who was alive then. It was a turning point in history. It may have changed our world forever. But I'm sick to my eyeballs of being reminded of that all of the time. Sooner or later, every Boomer artist has his or her say about it to borrow its importance to make his or her art that much more important. The effect of this, though, is not to enshrine this event and its effects on American life, but to cheapen it. And, for me at least, JFK's assassination is about as cheapened as a historical event could possibly get (don't even get me started about all the conspiracy theories and whatnot about it. Enough already, people). I could very gladly live out the rest of my life without ever encountering it in novel, film or art exhibit ever again. Which is to say that I have absolutely zero plans to read King's 11/22/63. I'm pretty sure that if there is a Hell and I wind up going there, Bob Dylan will be reading aloud from its pages to me for all eternity, and hey, why allow for spoilerage?

Friday, October 5, 2012

100 Books #92 - Harry Turtledove's HOW FEW REMAIN

It was a near miss for the Confederacy when General Robert E. Lee's aide recovered a document he'd lost, that detailed Lee's entire plan for the invasion of the Union in 1862. Just imagine the disaster that would have befallen those brave Southern boys had that document fallen into Yankee hands! Mercy!

Oh wait, that's not how it happened? Pardon me. I'm from Wyoming. Our school system teaches Wyoming history, to which accounts of the War Between the States are merely an ancillary in that they explain why a lot of members of the U.S. Calvary charged with protecting Manifest Destiny-enacting white settlers against Red Indians in the West had fewer than their original compliment of digits or limbs, or raging cases of PTSD. I'm hazy on details.

No, not really. But the Civil War still isn't something I've studied too terribly closely, which may be a shame, but then again may not be, as far as my ability to appreciate what Harry Turtledove has achieved in this founding document of his sprawling alternate history of North America, the departure point for which is the aforementioned recovery of Lee's invasion plan. Without that vital intelligence, Turtledove says, the Union might not have won at Antietam, which means President Lincoln would not have had that victory announcement to serve as his springboard for announcing Emancipation, which means Great Britain and France don't have a clear moral choice in deciding whether or not to continue supporting the Confederacy, which means the Confederacy winds up winning the War and North America winds up with four internationally recognized nation states instead of three (well, okay, three nation states and one Dominion).

That premise established, the action proper of this novel starts up about 20 years later. The Confederacy is buying the provinces of Sonora and Chihuahua from Mexico in order to acquire a Pacific port and the land access to extend its railroads to it. The USA has elected its first Republican President since Abraham Lincoln's one and only term ended in the disgrace of losing the War; this new President needs to look tough and declares war (Lincoln has taken to the railways to travel the diminished United States of America as a quasi-Marxist labor agitator*). Frederick Douglass is an old man, still hopeful that someday, someone is going to give a crap about the countless slaves still in bondage in the Confederacy. Old Yellowhair, George Armstrong Custer, is charged with containing a Mormon rebellion in Utah. Samuel Clemens (whom real history knows better as Mark Twain) reports and editorializes on events in the pages of the San Francisco Call and has uxorious sex with his wife (yeah, I could have done without that mental image too, guys). Jeb Stuart is in charge of moving Confederate troops into the newly-purchased territories as a first step towards colonizing them for the C.S.A. Teddy Roosevelt, Montana rancher, watches events unfolding and hopes the new President will hold fast, but decides his own help is needed to do it and forms up his own Unauthorized Regiment. Etc.

It's always fun to play "What If" over a few beers or whatever, but who else has taken that game to such lengths? Turtledove went on to write ten more novels in this universe he created. Ten. Am I going to read the rest of them?

Well, I'm not sure. This was my first Harry Turtledove, and I did find it diverting and moderately absorbing, chiefly because it was fun to imagine these historical figures in circumstances so radically different from what they're famous for, but, well, those reviewers who have described How Few Remain as historical fan fiction are kind of right. I'm told subsequent books in the series are much, much better than this first book, which news I always greet with irritation; I've just endured 596 pages of this solely so that I understand what's going on in better future books? I'd say that if those future books were solely about Turtledove's own characters, I'd be disinclined to continue, but I can't help but be curious about, e.g. Lincoln, Twain, Roosevelt and Custer** in this alternate timeline. Especially after enjoying the mental spectacle of Custer with Gatling guns. And Lincoln delivering stonking Marxist rants. And Douglass...

Ah me, Douglass. Despite his advanced age, he dons his journalist hat*** and accompanies a Union flanking attack that brings him onto Confederate soil for the first time (he doesn't count his years as a slave because it was still part of the United States then), and when he sees that the little structures he sees burning all over the place are slave shanties, it's impossible not to share his rage. "May they all burn, and all the big houses with them."

Which is to say that, where most of the other historical figures and characters come off as tremendously unpleasant, if not outright assholes, Lincoln and Douglass (ha ha) shine as the novel's only real heroes, both of them old men, generally despised if not outright hated, bowed but not broken, sad but not embittered by the Union's defeat in the first war, only sort of hopeful that a second might change anything but doing their damndest to bring about the changes they hope for regardless of what happens on the battlefields. They make up for any number of disappointments (Turtledove succumbs to a failing that is one of my great pets peeve as a reader, the impulse to use "amber liquid" as a synonym for beer or scotch. Why do you do that, writers? Why do you always pick that beverage as a point to vary your vocabulary, and why must you always invoke the image of body fluids when you do? WHY, WRITERS, WHY?) and ick moments (for some reason, sex scenes involving Mark Twain and his wife, and George Custer and not-his-wife, have scarred me for life). They might even lead me to look into more of this series.

*A lot of people are nonplussed by Turtledove's version of Lincoln, but I think it makes a lot of sense, provided one never forgets that this Lincoln is one who not only did not get assassinated but lived to a ripe old age in a world in which the institution of slavery persisted in North America, and no one in the defeated North gave much of a damn about them (and many blamed the war on them, as alt-Frederick Douglass' story illustrates). So, as Lincoln observes to himself as he prepares to address a fairly unreceptive crowd in Great Falls, Montana: "Without more than a handful of Negroes to exploit, it [the country] battened off the sweat of the poor and the ignorant and the newly arrived and the unlucky." Which is to say that those people wound up having it even worse in Turtledove's alt USA than they did in ours, with no newly-freed slaves to soak up the really dirty jobs. Potentially, this could even have retarded the development of the middle class whose interests and abilities so characterized the 20th century in our world. So yeah, I buy Lincoln as a golden years Marxist under these circumstances. For great justice.

**Though I've got to say that Ol' Yellowhair -- and a lot of other Union military leaders -- comes off as a considerable jerk, even before he gets to Utah, where he's hell-bent on stringing up all the leaders of the Mormon Church ostensibly for inciting the Territory to rebel while the Union wages its second war with the Confederacy, but, one suspects, really over polygamy. Everyone is really obsessed with polygamy in this novel, and perhaps that's true for the times, but man, did the multiple wives jokes get old after a few hundred pages. Also: I didn't think anything could ever really make me hate Teddy Roosevelt, but this book did. I had to keep gritting my teeth and reminding myself this is just a character kind of loosely based on Roosevelt. As were all of the historical figures, of course, even the ones who kept their pants on.

***But somehow never encounters, say, Matthew Brady, whose absence from this novel is glaring. I would have accepted at least a passing reference to how he had died or something, you know?