Saturday, June 30, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog II: The Hobbit - Chapters 6-12

WELL! We are off to a rip-roarin' start with this whole Puttin' the Blog in Balrog madness. Be sure to check out everybody else's posts on this score. EssJay has a good little clearing-house at the bottom of her entry (see the "Related Reading" list at the end). We'll try and keep everyone updated as new posts appear. We're really getting a nice range of input from serious Tolkien grognards, complete Middle Earth tenderfoots (Tender Feet, shouted Odo...) and everything in between. Middle Earth is a great place to spend the summer.

In particular, we've discovered that lots of people grew up singing "That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates" when our moms made us do the dishes. Chip the glasses and crack the plates, everybody!

Now, onwards with The Hobbit!

Chapter 6
Bilbo is really starting to feel his stuff in this chapter, isn't he? But after outwitting Gollum and escaping from a cave full of goblins, who wouldn't feel like a bit of a badass, with or without his or her original complement of beautiful brass buttons?* So I'm sure it surprised no one that he decided to seize the opportunity to make a very dramatic entrance, right in the middle of Gandalf and the Dwarves bickering over whose fault it was he'd been lost and whether or not they needed to go back and get him. "And here's the burglar" indeed!

Reading as a fully-informed Silmarillion-totin' adult, I've found myself sort of hyper-vigilant about how the Ring might be influencing Bilbo's behavior, even at this early stage. We had an interesting conversation over at EssJay's blog about whether it was the Ring or Bilbo's survival instinct that prompted him to pounce on the opportunity afforded him by Gollum's misunderstanding of "What have I got in my pocket?" I like the latter theory; we Tolkiephiles know that Hobbits are made of surprisingly tough stuff and I balk at the notion that the Ring would be messing with Bilbo's head already, just an hour or two after he's found it. I find my argument strengthened by the fact that before Bilbo discovers that everybody else made it out alive, too, he is ready to go back and try to rescue them all on his lonesome. "He had just made up his mind that it was his duty, that he must turn back, and very miserable he felt about it."

When reunited with his party, of course, he lies his head off about how he got away from Gollum and the goblins, but by that time he has actually worn the Ring for a while, so I pin down this fib-fest as the Ring's first foray into Bilbo-bothering.

BUT, none of that is exceptionally germaine to this story, is it? And certainly not this chapter, because this is the chapter of the wolves. And no, I'm not excited about the wolves because I'm one of those wildlife freaks who swoons at the very thought of them and wears that stupid tee shirt on my off days.

This guy would have to be very quick with that stick 
to stop me from kicking him in the crotch.

I'm from Wyoming, okay? Wolves are still a very real fact of life out here. They aren't beautiful and they aren't noble and they aren't misunderstood. They are vicious predators and they hunt in packs like bullies and if cornered they'll rip out your throat as soon as look at you. Plus they kill livestock, poop all over the place and carry fleas and worse. There's a reason they're the villains and the monsters in all the old fairy tales, peeps.

So when the wolves start howling in the eastern foothills of the Misty Mountains, Bilbo and the Dwarves should be pretty much peeing their pants. And hey, they are! "Even magic rings are not much use against wolves, especially against the evil packs that lived under the shadow of the goblin-infested mountains."

"What shall we do, what shall we do... escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!" And Gandalf is all, I know, up in the trees everybody, even though that's pretty much a one-way escape so it isn't an escape so much as a very slow-acting and delayed sort of trap. Unless you're Katniss Everdeen and there's a nest full of trackerjacks up there, but no, except yes because see after the pic of the scary cannibal man below.

Yeah, I didn't sleep for like a week after this part, you guys. When I was a kid, I mean. Now I just rant and rave and foam at the mouth and look for guys in stupid tee shirts to kick in the crotch.

And then it gets worse, because here come the goblins, who have a serious hate-on for our heroes now because the dwarves and Gandalf killed the Head Goblin while they were escaping the cave, and who sing the best song maybe ever. I like this one even more than the I Hate Dishwashing song, but I had far fewer occasions to sing it, at least until I was in high school and on the speech team and was sometimes confronted with an array of types about whom it was entirely appropriate to muse "What shall we do with the funny little things?" Except for the eating them part.

Though on second thought, you funny little things...

Of course before the goblins get there, we are treated to some very detailed descriptions of exactly what "birds" are in what trees, because Tolkien cannot pass up any opportunity to wear us down with scenery porn. So Dwarves 'N Da Hood are up in a larch and Dori, Nori Oin and Gloin are in a pine and Bifur, Bofur. Bombur and Thorin are in another pine and Dawlin and Balin are in a fir and Bilbo is running around like a rabbit in seventeen different types of grass each with its own special growth patterns and seed shapes and medicinal uses and dude, Mr. J.R.R. sir I don't mean to interrupt but there are wolves down there, can we have some focus please?

Sorry, got carried away a bit. It might only have been sixteen kinds of grasses, except that one kind actually has two different cultivars and they're well on their way to speciation in fact I wonder if we have time for a little plant breeding experiment here and


Oh yeah. Which Gandalf deals with rather cleverly but irresponsibly by starting a forest fire (see, this is the Katniss Everdeen bit, amirite?). Dammit, Gandalf, I like you and all but I grew up in the middle of a major National Forest (well, with forest on three sides, anyway) and if there's one thing I can't stand it's a firebug.

But at least that catches the attention of the eagles, Tolkien's favorite flying dei ex machinae, and now my shoulder sockets are aching in sympathy for Bilbo. I always thought hang gliding would be fun, and I bet I'd enjoy it more than Bilbo did, but still ow, ow, ow.

Oh, and just as a last by the bye for this chapter -- did anyone else expect that there would maybe be fewer than 13 dwarves in the party by now? Any other author, and some of these guys would be absolute red shirts, troll food, goblin slaves, eagle poop, but no. Dwarves are badasses who can survive anything as long as they have a wizard and a hobbit around, apparently. But that is cool, yes?

Chapter 7

Ah, Beorn. BEORN. If you do not share my love for Beorn, you might as well skip on to the next bit, because Beorn, Beorn, Beorn.

A curious thing I noticed for the first time this reading is that in the lead-up to meeting Beorn, Gandalf, who at this point is still just referring to Beorn as The Somebody, comes up with a very careful and cautious approach to bringing his party (whom he has just announced he is going to leave very soon so he can gang up with the rest of the Wise to kick Sauron out of Mirkwood and, though he doesn't know it yet, take his first crack keeping Saruman from becoming a complete bastard) to Beorn's house:
This Somebody I spoke of, a very great person. You must all be very polite when I introduce you. I shall introduce you slowly, two by two, I think, and you must be careful not to annoy him, or heaven knows what will happen.
Does this not remind you a little bit of how the dwarves first gathered at Bilbo's house? Did they not also approach that beautiful green door two by two, or at least in very small groups? I like the sort of rhetorical equivalency this gives to Beorn and Bilbo, though Beorn's greatness lies mostly in past deeds while Bilbo's is (mostly) yet in his future at this point.

Like fairies (some hobbits believe that a Took ancestor had a fairy wife) and giants (like those hurling rocks around in the storm in the mountains), skin-changers like Beorn seem to exist only in this children's tour of Middle Earth, which is something else I always found curious. As Beorn is the only one we encounter even in this book, we have no way of knowing whether there are a lot of these or just a few or maybe just Beorn and his descendants. Anyway, they're pretty cool:
Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came. Others say that he is a man descended from the first men who lived before Smaug or the other dragons came into this part of the world, and before the goblins came into the hills out of the North.
And here I will pause to let all you George R.R. Martin fans have your mental snigger about Jorah Mormont and "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" and all that nonsense.

And no, really, I don't like bears anymore than I like wolves. I respect both, but my form of respect consists of staying as far away from them as possible, keeping the lid firmly on my trash, and hoping I never, ever encounter one outside of a zoo. And the people who cause traffic jams in Yellowstone Park and other such places so they can feed bears send me into crotch-kicking rages also, thag you bery much.

But Beorn, Beorn is a badass. He can turn into a bear at will but lives mostly on cream and honey because he's a Good Guy. He keeps livestock -- for conversation partners, not for food (well, except for the cream of course. But I'm sure he has a nice chat with the cow as he milks her. Shut up).

Also, Beorn keeps lots and lots of bees, in pastures set aside just for them, bees "bigger than hornets... and the bands of yellow on their deep black bodies shone like fiery gold." I'm pretty sure this is the sole entomological reference in all of Tolkien (the giant spiders don't count because those are arachnids, not insects) and I treasure it as such. Happy sigh.

Oh, and his house is pretty awesome, too, as you would expect of the manliest, beariest hippy ever to inhabit a semi-magical kingdom.

I am, however, a little disappointed that he didn't bitch out Gandalf for starting a forest fire (yes, yes, with goblin help, but still). But we know, we know, he's not a tame bear, and he did go back and give the goblins who fanned Gandalf's flames a proper thrashing. And then, because now that he knows the synopsis Gandalf gave while the dwarves arrived at his house is true, he lets the crew borrow his pony friends for a while to give them a leg up on their journey. But only as far as Mirkwood.

Oh boy. MIRKWOOD. Stay on the path, Beorn says. And don't drink any of the water you find there, especially not in that nasty enchanted stream. No foreshadowing there, of course.

Bye bye, Beorn! You're the bestest! I wish you'd at least gotten a cameo in LOTR! But at least you're being played by an appropriately badass dude in the film!

Mikael "Hamilton"  Persbrandt will be an interesting  Beorn. 
Though it looks like Beorn is a grizzly instead of a black bear.

Chapter 8

So. Mirkwood. And I was wrong: there's some more entomology, first when Bilbo and the boys try having a fire at night and it brings "thousands of dark grey and black moths, some nearly as big as your hand, flapping and whirring round their ears" and later when the party starts losing hope of ever getting out of the densest, darkest forest that ever was, and send Bilbo up a tree to see if he can see the Forest's edge (I feel like this common noun, "forest" needs capitalization when we're talking about Mirkwood) and he sees lots of black butterflies flitting about the tree tops.

But insects aren't really their biggest concern, in Mirkwood, because the deer really have it in for them. First one comes at them, makes them waste a lot of arrows, and knocks Bombur into the enchanted stream that Beorn warned them against (don't drink or bathe in it, he told them, or you'll fall asleep and forget everything), and then later a white doe (called a hind in the British fashion here, natch) and her fawns happen along and make the boys waste the rest of their arrows. "Now the bows Beorn had given them were useless," the narrator observes, though I don't see where they were all that useful before, what as they only thing anyone managed to shoot was a black squirrel that tasted so horrible they never shot another one.

Of course, bows and arrows are pretty damned important much later in the story, but not in these guys' hands, amirite?

Nor are the troubles with wildlife over, especially not if you belong to the school of "the appearing and disappearing torchlight is a trap by the spiders." I'm not sure I do, but I don't have a better theory, either. At any rate, Bombur's stream-stoned dreams of a fancy woodland feast get everyone else all worked up and they start thinking they see rings of torchlight and partying way off the path. You know, the path that Beorn told them not to stray from. But as soon as our gang tries to crash the will o'the party, yoink, total blackness and no way of finding the path again. Are the Elves just messing with them, or what?

Not that this matters for much longer because SPIDERS! Who fortunately make the mistake of taking on Bilbo last so that when one of the SPIDERS! starts binding up his legs while he's dozing, Bilbo busts out his little knife-sword-thing and kills that SPIDER! which, when he finally gets around to realizing that he's done so, makes him feel like a badass and since badasses always name their knife-sword-things, names his knife-sword-thing Sting. I had, by the way, totally forgotten how Sting got its name! See why it's good to re-read once in a while?

Then it's just a matter of putting on the Ring (d'oh!) and sneaking up on the rest of the SPIDERS! who have all of his friends trussed up and ready to envenom and dissolve and slurp up like Dwarf-smoothies "after they've hung a bit" because oh yeah, these SPIDERS! can talk. In English. I was finding this odd, on this re-read, as hey, neither Ungoliant (Silmarillion) nor Shelob (LOTR) ever talk, but then again, this is a children's book and talking animals are a common narrative convenience in those, right?

Not that you want your kids reading too many children's books with giant malevolent SPIDERS! in them, I'll reckon.

Anyway, it turns out to be pretty fortunate that these SPIDERS! can talk, so when Bilbo starts chucking rocks at them and insulting them in doggerel they give chase and clever Bilbo can then sneak back and free everybody else. Attercop, indeed. What?**

Did anyone else ever wonder what all these SPIDERS! eat when they can't get wandering Dwarf? Especially when they can't get wandering Dwarf, even when they can? I mean, sustaining bodies that big (and no, no, I'm not going to go there. I'm NOT. I'm not going to be tempted into mystandard rant about how invertebrate land animals that size defy the laws of physics, nope, nope, nope. Because I know you'll all just tell me to let it go, nerd, it's fantasy) takes quite a lot of food...? Anyone?

Anyway, it is a very thrilling escape they have. Of course, "escaping goblins to be caught by wolves" (heh), because ELVES! Uh, cave-dwelling Wood-Elves, who still think Dwarves are guilty of stealing their treasure. Poor Dwarves.

Chapter 9

You've got to feel for the dwarves. They're all still staggering around the dark forest, high on spider venom, slowly starving to death, depending on a little guy with a little sword to protect them... I think I'd be glad to get captured, too. Especially since the little guy is smart enough to go invisible at the first sign of trouble!

I love how they claim their beef with the Dwarves is that they kept trying to crash the Elves' woodland feasts, and that Balin, gonnabe Lord of Moria, manages to climb the high horse about it. "Is it a crime to be lost in the forest, to be hungry and thirsty, to be trapped by spiders?"

Apparently, yes, yes it is. Or at least it's a crime to be DWARVES lost in the forest...

Man, this time around reading these, I'm all about spotting the parallels. Like now, I can't stop thinking about how Tolkien describes Thranduil, the king of the Mirkwood Elves (and also Legolas' daddy), as living in what amounts to a great big cave, and being hopped up on treasure most of the time, and wanting more, and hating dwarves because they also like treasure and so have to be there to steal his, and gosh, doesn't he sound like someone else we have a date with later in this book?

Of course, he's a bit nicer. A bit. I mean, at least he has his soldiers untie them. They're not, he judges, an escape risk because "There is no escape from my magic doors."

ANYWAY, Bilbo winds up spending a crazy long time wearing the Ring, which is kind of horrible to contemplate for those of us who know about that Ring. Good thing certain parties are distracting certain other parties in another part of the forest. Funny to think, though, that this is as close as You-Know-Who (couldn't help myself, there, heh) will be to the Ring before Bilbo's nephew destroys it years later. Hmm!

"I am like a burglar that can't get away, but most go on miserably burgling the same house day after day" he says to himself at one point. But since this is his first time actually, you know, burgling, it's good that he's getting lots of practice, I say.

But of course, none of that matters, because this is the chapter that's all about BARRELS and how Bilbo goes from burglar to smuggler in just a few easy steps. This was one of my favorite parts when I was a kid, because I love rafting and all I ever really thought about was Bilbo's experience but this time, with my newfound overwhelming sympathy for the Dwarves, all I could think about was how much it would suck to be nailed helpless into a barrel and sent down the river to who-knows-where. Hello, claustrophobia!

Chapter 10
Well, the secret is out now, isn't it? Thorin doesn't even hesitate to tell the Master of Lake Town that he is, in fact, that Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror and the rightful King Under the Mountain, and since Lake Town doesn't get a lot of celebrity visits, everyone pretty much turns into 24 hour party people, as if his merely showing up is going to undo all the bad stuff that has happened since Smaug came to stay.

And thus are some very bad seeds planted, because of course some of Thranduil's people are in town and of course they're very interested to learn that this is what the Dwarves have been up to all this time and of course they rush home to tell their treasure-happy king all about it.

Everyone's been happy to let the dragon use all that gold as his giant posturepedic, but now that one snotty dwarf has shown up, each is even happier to start dreaming about what he'll do with his share of the loot, because of course, as the Master tells Thorin, he's sure the New Kingz Under Da Mountain will show proper gratitude later on, if you know what he means. But for now, by all means, help yourself to the food, the clothes and the barber shops (and *cough* some other services that we'd hear all about if George R. R. Martin were writing this instead of J.R.R. Tolkien and let's just all give thanks for that right now).

This should be a bit of a wake up call for everybody. Just because so far no one has held out a hand and said "ahem" after helping the party along doesn't mean everybody's as nice as Elrond or Beorn. But only Bilbo worries about what this big welcome means.

Silly Dwarves.

Chapter 11
Good bye, Lake-Town, hello desert. Smaug totally trashed the place when he moved in, and keeps everything nice and blackened and crispy. Our boys ride through the Desolation without much worry, except for Bilbo, who first got a look at Erebor (the Lonely Mountain) from astride a bucking barrel and never got over the shock of it.

I'm not going to spend a lot on this chapter. It's mostly about everybody getting nice and frustrated trying to find a way into the Mountain, because they've apparently decided that Elrond didn't know what he was talking about when he showed them the moon-runes and what they said. Had I been writing this book, someone would have come out to clobber them for making the racket they do, banging away on the rock with every tool they've got, but I guess Smaug is a sound sleeper. He would have to be, since he's scorched the landscape for miles around and ruined any chances of easy pickings when he gets peckish. He must drop into serious energy conservation mode between faraway raids on Men's livestock, is my guess.

Anyway, of course good old Bilbo finds The Stone which is covered in Snails and waits around for many days until one evening a Thrush shows up and starts knocking the Snails against the Stone like Otters with Shellfish. Which means it's finally Durin's Day! Because everyone... knows that Thrushes only try Escargot... on Durin's Day... Yeah, that still bothers me. It bothered me when I was seven apparently I still haven't gotten over it. Worst plot device ever.***

And then, and then, we have to prolong the suspense anyway and the sun sets behind a cloud and for a moment we're supposed to think "oh no, this is the one Durin's Day when the last ray of the setting sun won't shine on the keyhole!" but of course one very determined red ray shoots through the clouds and hits that keyhole anyway.

Open sesame. Belloc.

Chapter 12
So now it's time for Bilbo to enter the Mountain all by himself, after a nice pompous speech by Thorin and a tart observation on the part of the author about the character of Thorin's race: "Dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money." SaraJean and I have been exchanging a lot of back-channel observations about how the Dwarves are the Jews of Middle Earth, but I think I'm going to save that for another post (or let her do it), since this one is getting long, and it's not what this chapter is really about.

It's time for Bilbo to Do His Job, after all.
Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
Bizarrely, we have a sort of Princess and the Pea situation after Bilbo hobbits up. He pinches a cup and takes it back to show it off to the Dwarves and Smaug notices the cup's absence almost immediately, even though it is small and Smaug is enormous. Dragons are serious about hoards.

As for the actual meeting between Smaug and Bilbo that follows, I think the Rankin-Bass cartoon did a wonderful job on the primary scene of this chapter. Who are you, and where do you come from?

Though the searchlight eye thing seems a little weird to me as an adult. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the stupid searchlight Sauron in the LOTR films?

Anyway, Bilbo's handling of the dragon, again via misdirection and riddling talk, is a nice parallel to his meeting with Gollum back under those other mountains a while back, isn't it? And Sneaky Bagginses would have been an hors d'oeuvre had he not "won" the Ring away from Gollum.

Of course, this time around, the consequences of Bilbo's tricksy victory are much, much greater. The dragon is amuck, and is angry and very shrewd and pretty sure the Thief came from Lake Town. Watch out!

*Man, when I was little, I felt the loss of those buttons as keenly as anyone ever felt the loss of anything. It was emotionally a very complex moment for me. I was very, very, very sad that Bilbo's buttons all popped off when he was squeezing through the gate because all I could think of at the time was how many hours of overtime his daddy must have had to work to afford those buttons, but I also giggled quite a lot at the image of them whizzing off InvisiBilbo's gut and winging goblins in the head. Pop! Ping! OW! Hee hee.

**From Michael Quinion's World Wide Words: The word is Old English, from attor, poison + cop, the head. (Cop, or coppa, was also used by itself to mean a spider, so cobweb ought really to be spelled copweb.) The name was given to spiders in the mistaken belief that they were all poisonous to humans. By the sixteenth century it had begun to be applied to a cross-grained, ill-natured, figuratively venomous person. There, see, you learned something didn't you?

***And yes, I know it is a very special Thrush, from a long-lived line of Magic Thrushes that ran messages for the original Dwarf kingdom and whatnot. None of that adds up to "only knocks snail shells against a rock on Durin's Day." Grr.

100 Books #60 - Chuck Wendig's BLACKBIRDS

This has got to be one of the most language-drunk novels I have ever read.

This is a marvelous, marvelous thing, but also a bit exhausting; one's jaw gets tired of dropping at the verbal inventiveness of author Chuck Wendig and his protagonist, Miriam Black, whose wit bites like a cloud of deer flies, relentless and impossible to ignore. At times this threatens to distract the reader from the story, which is a bit of a shame because the story is also very good. This combination of story and verbal pyrotechnics makes Blackbirds a very overwhelming book, but also an unforgettable one.

And one that gets off to a very, very seedy start. Miriam, a "batshit highway witch" as she describes herself at one point**, whose gift/curse is to foresee exactly how a person is going to die, ekes out a precarious existence taking advantage of the newly- or soon-to-be dead, being on hand as a witness and, then, a corpse-robber, "more vulture than falcon." Which is to say that she's a bit of a nasty piece of work, sharp-tongued and cold-hearted, but then again, she tends to discover a lot about a person's less savory character traits in the process of foreseeing and stalking him or her. That could make anybody cynical.

A bit cynical myself, I could gladly have spent chapters plying the roach motels and truck stops with her, but Wendig had better plans for her than that. Like meeting a wonderful man -- not a bog standard handsome hottie, but just a good, kind, pensive sort of person -- and foreseeing that he will be murdered in a little over a month with her name on his lips.


The plot that spins out from this is violent, crude, gritty, hilarious (if you like gallows humor and worse, which I do), sometimes obscene*** and completely gripping. I was hooked from the first awesomely icky scene, icky not in that it contained anything graphic or overly gross (unless you're really freaked out by, e.g., cockroaches crawling into a dead guy's nostril) but icky in that it was one of the most fascinatingly morally repugnant scenes I've read in years. At least since Bad Marie. And at least until, well, some later scenes in this book.

And now, excuse me. I need a shower. Again. And then another. On and on until September, when the sequel to this one, Mockingbirds, hits my e-reader. I will read the crap out of it.

*Well, aside from, say Ulysses or anything of Henry Miller's, of course.

**Well, okay, she ascribes this view of herself to one of her companion-victims, but it's still pretty apt a description.

***Miriam is possibly the crudest mental bestower of nicknames in all of literature. Gray Pubes, indeed. As one GoodReads reviewer, Eva, put it " The novel contains sex, drugs, and cursing, like if there's a drinking game and you have to take a shot every time someone curses, you'd probably be drunk by page 50." Worse if you're drinking anything like what Miriam drinks. Shudder. Also, nothing is ever just yellow in color, it is always "piss yellow." If you have a problem with that sort of thing, you should probably avoid this book. Me, I was an entomology graduate student back in the day. I cleaned up cockroach poop. A lot. Knowingly. I'm pretty much impossible to gross out.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

100 Books #59 - Nathan Lowell's FULL SHARE

"You may be the most deviously disturbed individual I have ever met, Mr. Wang. It's an honor to know you." - Mr. von Ickles to Ishmael Wang in Full Share

Whenever the narrator of a story relates a compliment like that one, be on your guard. But, trust Lois. Or so the aforementioned narrator counsels us. As such.

Last year I deeply enjoyed the all but incident-free Half Share, the second in Nathan Lowell's Traders' Tale series, a novel full of lovely character moments and quiet pleasures, at least from its narrator and protagonist's, junior spaceman Ishmael Wang's, point of view. His meteoric rise through the ranks aboard the Lois McKendrick, an interstellar trading vessel, is told in an overly modest "aw shucks" style that makes Ish seem almost too good to be true, but I, a fan of unreliable narrators in the William Faulkner/Gene Wolfe vein, suspect the story would sound very, very different from other characters' perspectives, yes I do.

Full Share continues recounting this rise, approaches the mid-point in this series, and is thus its first true pivot: stuff happens and choices have to be made and there is actual drama. In other words, this could have been the book where the series went all wrong -- it has been perfectly enjoyable up to now, in its sweet, intimate, ordinary way -- but Lowell is a better writer than that, thank goodness, and Lois' first real crisis since Ish joined the crew is deftly handled and dramatic, its consequences vivid and plausible, except, of course, Ish's part in it, because he has an agenda as a narrator that  I haven't entirely teased out yet and don't entirely trust.

Which is always fun.

Despite that early bit of big-time physical jeopardy, though, the tension isn't where one usually expects it in a full on interstellar-traveling, space station- and planet-visiting bit of science fiction. It's Ish's fate that is the mystery when crew-shuffling orders from the higher-ups -- the Lois McKendrick is part of a commercial freighter fleet, after all -- leave him scrambling around like a kid at musical chairs when the music has stopped. Unlike in musical chairs, though, his fellow players want to keep him. And so, it seems, does the ship.

A quasi-mystical undercurrent has long been at play in these books. Ish catches himself occasionally murmuring that well-known mantra** "Trust Lois" and thinking of the ship as a conscious entity with a purpose and a plan, and then there are the "whelkies," handicrafts from one of the worlds Ish and his friends have visited, pocket-sized statuettes of wood and strange stones that are believed to have shamanic properties, subtle but powerful things that many of Ish's fellow travelers and traders are glad to have with them in the Deep Dark.

And of course, like its predecessors, this is not a book to read on an empty stomach. Ish started out, in Quarter Share, working in the kitchens and teaching Cookie, in loving detail*, how to brew up a proper urn of coffee, and while he may no longer be a food service coolie, he still tells us all about his meals, the biscuits, the omelets, the lamb. In space, no one can hear your stomach growl, because it's never empty, apparently.

Where this book stands out from its admittedly still-exceptional predecessors is in its underlying mystery. The crisis that served as the dramatic focus for the novel's first act is not what it seemed, and while Ish would (as usual) have us believe it's all down to his ingenuity and skill to tease out what really happened when the excrement hit the air circulation systems (and Ish started out this novel as a mid-spec Environmental, didn't he?), whether or not that's the truth doesn't in any way affect the inherent interest of figuring out what did happen, why, and to benefit whom, if anyone. Nor is that crisis the only bit of skullduggery going on among Lois's crew. No, no.

But this isn't an ordinary space opera, where the author is pushing the drama button at intervals; this is a story of ordinary joes and janes making an ordinary living between the stars. And what charming joes and janes they are, even if sometimes the reader does want to roll his or her eyes at the charm and the intense camaraderie and the barely contained lust they express for one another. Ish isn't a kid anymore. Nobody is.

And I think I'm going to miss Lois more than he will.

*I still quite vividly remember Patrick McLean reading aloud from that passage at the Ridan Publishing party at Balticon and then bellowing that it was coffee porn.

**Well-known among Lowell's fans, at least.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog I: The Hobbit, Chapters 1-5

Like, I suspect, many of my generation who were kids in the 1970s, my first foray into J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth wasn't a reading experience at all. It was via the animated efforts of Rankin Bass:

You can watch the whole film right there! Isn't modern technology spectacular?

To this very day, I hear John Huston's voice narrating the novel and speaking Gandalf's lines,Orson Bean as Bilbo Baggins, Hans "5000 Fingers of Doctor T" Conried as Thorin, and Glen Yarbrough singing the poetry. I'm sure I'm not alone, there.

It's been several years since I last read The Hobbit, though I read the "more grown-up" Lord of the Rings trilogy pretty much every autumn. I'm pretty happy to return to it for the summer Middle Earth read-a-thon, though. It's truly a book that not only stands up to repeated readings but is deeply enriched by the reader's having tackled Tolkien's serious efforts at world-building in The Silmarillion* a staggering work of myth-making the philologist spent years on, creating a fully realized world and history in which his lovely invented languages would be spoken if he'd been the boss of anything.

Haven't read The Silmarillion? Well, don't worry; it's not everyone's flagon of miruvor. But my good friend EssJay read it so you don't have to (although if you don't mind some grognardy goodness, you probably should anyway). Just start from the bottom of the page, where Part I is, and enjoy her amusing take on it. She was pretty excited to get this party started.

And so am I!

The Hobbit: Chapters 1-5

Chapter 1:
When I was a kid I wanted to live in Bilbo's hobbit hole; it wasn't until I got to college that I realized that pretty much everyone did. A pre-cursor to the modern fad for earth homes, it sounds like the coziest and most convenient dwelling imaginable, but can still host quite a party at need! Good thing, too, because here come ALL THE DWARVES.

The highlight of this chapter when I was a kid was the song the dwarves sing (not in Glen Yarbrough's voice) about what not to do in Bilbo's kitchen. I used to sing it under my breath when my mom made me do the dishes, but like the dwarves, I never followed through on the implied threat. Well, not on purpose (though had the old "break something precious the first time so you never get asked to do it again" gambit worked as well for kids as for husbands...).

This time, though, it's probably the song they sing by way of introducing the theme of what kind of hare-brained mad adventure they're shanghai-ing Bilbo into on Gandalf's recommendation. With EssJay's Silma-summary, if not The Silmarillion itself, fresh in my brain, their story of pale enchanted gold and the underground kingdoms in which they made it into cool stuff was thrillingly resonant of the dwarves' very beginnings, created by a lesser demiurge, Aule, who got impatient waiting around for the hotshot Illuvitar to get on with populating the place already. When Illuvitar found out he was technically late to the character creation party, he had a fit, and so Aule stashed the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves "in various places" in Middle Earth to wait until Illuvitar got around to actually creating the elves.

Our man Thorin, wearer of the sky blue hood with a silver tassel (this description thus assuring for all time that I would always, always, always imagine Tolkien's Dwarves wearing fezzes) who wants to take back his family's treasure hoard from the dragon Smaug, is a direct lineal descendant of the first of the dwarves to awaken, and has a huge chip on his shoulder that makes a lot more sense when the reader realizes that the dwarves shoulda come first, gosh darn it. They deserve a little help when a dragon comes along, roasts most of their families alive and turns all of their gold into a big shiny mattress (which, diamond-hard scales or not, that still has to be maybe the least comfortable bed ever, surely?), but do they get any from any of the Men or Elves living nearby? Like hell they do.

But really, when you're depending on the goodwill of your customers to survive a disaster, you're probably doing it wrong. Especially if those customers just took it in the pants, too. But hey.

Point is, these are wronged dwarves, and Gandalf has somehow convinced them that this Baggins character, who looks more like a grocer than a burglar, is their best bet at righting this terrible wrong. But has he convinced Baggins himself? Let's read on!*

Chapter 2:
Holy faits accompli, Gandalf! I mean, I know you're basically a demigod and all, but you're really quite the con man, aren't you? When in doubt, convince your mark that he's already agreed and it would be indecent to pull out now, then hustle him out the door without any pocket handkerchiefs. Ha ha.

So we're off now, twelve dwarves and Bilbo on ponies, heading for adventure. Gandalf catches them up "splendid on a white horse" and for some reason this is the first time I've said "Shadowfax?" at this point. Like I said, it's been a long time since I read The Hobbit -- and it's the fact that you can read a book 20-some times and still discover new things that marks it as an exceptionally good one.

"He had brought a lot of pocket handkerchiefs and Bilbo's pipe and tobacco." Not pipeweed, tobacco. Was Bilbo just too much of a fuddy duddy to smoke Longbottom Leaf**, are pipeweed and tobacco synonymous, or other? This is all, of course, deeply irrelevant to everyone except for those people who love to think of Gandalf and the Hobbits as getting high together. I'm really not one of those. Your mileage may vary.

And so begins the most crummyawsome vacation ever. Clark Griswold has nothing on these guys, who barely clear the borders of the Shire (one presumes: the Shire is not named in this book, just references to wild but respectable countryside settled by hobbits and farmers and dwarves on errands) before a pony bolts, two of the guys nearly drown trying to get him out of a river swollen with lots of spring runoff, and 1/14th of the baggage is gone. I hope Dinky wasn't tied onto that one.

All that is, of course, neither here nor there, for the point of this chapter is TROLLS! Trolls who sound a lot like I imagine my dad did when he was a kid "Mutton yesterday, mutton today and blimey, if it don't look like mutton again tomorrer." My dad grew up eating mutton and hated it, and now won't even touch a nice rack of lamb because as far as he's concerned, it's mutton. He also had two brothers, and they liked to go camping, so my mental picture of these trolls has always been very, very distorted, conflated with that of three rough-and-tumble little boys camping in the sagebrush as it is.***

Wait, did I just call my dad and uncles trolls? But of course, I speak of when they were little boys, and from the stories I've heard growing up, Dennis the Menace had nothing on them, so the comparison may be as apt as it is unflattering. I definitely come from the school of thought that holds that children are born savage little beasts and have to learn to be civilized beings, rather than the silly old Rousseauist "saintly innocent child" school. And hey, how do we know these are adult trolls, sitting here on the edge of the wilds of Middle Earth? They could well be three little troll brothers on their first foray on their own. Poor things, with nasty Mr. Bagginses the Burrahobbit (how I laughed at that as a kid! This again reminds me of my father, who is never one to pass up a chance to pounce on the absurd in something a kid has said to him) looking on and dreaming of robbing or murdering them while they gobble their supper.

And there I've talked myself into feeling sorry for the trolls.

But Bilbo soon redeems himself in my eyes, for he is more kin to me and my sense of humor than the trolls are, really. "I am a good cook myself, and I cook better than I cook, if you see what I mean." One wonders what Tolkien might have made of the astonishing versatility of a certain other monosyllabic term (the one beginning with "F") had he been of a mind to. At any rate, if there were any lingering doubt that a philologist wrote this book, this would fry it up in a pan, no?

At any rate, Gandalf's extended ruse to rescue everybody still stands up as a masterful bit of pranking, though with my newfound sympathy for the trolls, it feels kind of mean-spirited. Still, The Hobbit would be a much shorter book if the dwarves all wound up being minced and boiled, or roasted, or squashed to jelly, to add a little variety to Bert's and Tom's and Bill's diets, right?

Because without the dwarves, Bilbo would probably have turned around and gone back to his hobbit hole with the beautiful green door. Right?

We'll meet these trolls once again early on in Fellowship of the Ring, and of course this chapter is also noticeable as the origin of Gandalf's possession of the famous Gondolin-made sword Glamdring, known as "Foe-Hammer" to the orcs, and of Thorin's getting Orcrist, aka "Goblin Cleaver", which Bill and Bert and Tom had in their secret hoard.

Chapter 3
As our party slouches on towards Rivendell, the question that really won't let me go this time around is this: how does Bilbo know what Elves smell like? He's led, we've been told, quite a lot, a very quiet, even sheltered life, not one to "go out of the blue for mad adventures" so his chances of ever having encountered an Elve (tee hee), let alone Elves, seem pretty slim. But here he is, as they follow the trail of white rocks, remarking that "it smells like Elves!" So what's the explanation, here? Is it some genetically bestowed superpower from the Took side of his ancestry? Are the pocket handkerchiefs Gandalf brought along imbued with a special "detect Elf smell" charm? Inquiring minds want to know. Or at least this one does.

Anyway, Rivendell. Everybody's favorite set design from The Fellowship of the Ring's film adaptation (well, almost everyone's; I'm sure there are some stump humpers out there who like Lothlorien better), home of Agent Smith/V/Tick/Hugo Weaving, the Last Homely House, where a rather campy bunch of know-it-alls sing a very silly song of welcome**** and observe that the sight of Bilbo the hobbit on a pony is "delicious" and later Elrond reveals the proud lineage of Gandolf's shiny new sword (and of Thorin's too, but the King of Gondolin, Turgon himself, wore Glamdring to war, so it's somewhat cooler) and finds the hidden moon runes on Thorin's treasure map. I was always tantalized by his observation, after he has read his bit from the map and been asked if there's anything else, that there is "none to be seen by this moon." Am I the only one who would immediately be clamoring to look at the map during every other moon phase just in case? Maybe to see if there's a note saying that Smaug is ticklish under his left wing or that if you play Dwarves in da Hood's latest hit single at just the right volume he'll forget who he is and you can trick him into impregnating his sister?


OK, just me, then.

Also: not a lot of geo/ecological change going on in Middle Earth at this point, that everyone can be absolutely sure that the grey stone is going to stay put and that the thrush is going to keep on "knocking" in exactly the same place every year on Durin's Day and never, ever take a year off. If it were me trying to break into the Lonely Mountain, I could guarandamntee that the year I got there would also be the year some bastard with a bow took my flying keyhole clue home to the missus to be made into pie. But then, as we'll shortly see in spades, Bilbo is a much luckier person than I am, which is probably why the KATE STATION has never seen a Dwarvish invasion, unless you count some nights when I am grumpy, sneezy and sleepy all at once.

Chapter 4
This is the most action-packed chapter yet, and also contains some of Tolkien's very finest weather pr0n as he describes a big mountain thunderstorm in loving detail. I remember one year, I must have been about nine or ten years old, when I took my copy of The Hobbit (from the Ballantine boxed set, which I still have, much worn, so worn that this time I'm reading on my Kindle to spare yet more wear. I still think those are the coolest covers) camping and we got caught in a thunderstorm just like this one. I kept quoting from these passages and babbling about stone giants until my parents told me, very kindly, to shut up. Then the next morning, a herd of sheep invaded our camp site on their way somewhere and our tiny peek-a-poo miraculously survived trying to herd them. What I'm saying here is that I KNOW!

I also learned from this chapter that it's better to get soaked to the bone than take shelter in a strange cave. No strange caves up in Wyoming's Snowy Range, which is good, because if we'd ever gotten caught in a storm and had to shelter in one I would have had screaming hysterical fits.

But it's the swords that were really the problem here, right? Because otherwise the goblins would surely have just eaten the ponies, rifled through the baggage, and let the dwarves and hobbits go, because Thorin apologized, right? Pompously, but you know, everyone knows Thorin's kind of a pompous jerk and that news has surely made it deep into the roots of the Misty Mountains and the tunnels of what is probably Moria or at least the exurban tunnel network outside Moria, where all the Big Box joints drove all the mom 'n' pop pickaxe-and-shovel shops out of business, forcing all the goblins to make the trek to the 'burbs to get their whips, right? Because it was only when the goblins found that Thorin had Orcrist, aka Goblin Cleaver but known as Biter to the goblins, that they got mad, right? Otherwise it would have all been goblin tea and finger sandwiches. Um. Ew.

Of course, in terms of the bigger picture (much bigger), it's a very good thing that Thorin had Biter, or else there would have been no dramatic escape through the tunnels that led to Bilbo getting knocked out and dropped and all of the events of Chapter 5 and, his burglar-y exploits later in the book and, you know, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy. A goblin would have found the One Ring, lorded it over his friends for a while until the Nazgul came along and said, dude, that's our Master's and then Middle Earth would have turned into one giant Chinese Special Economic Zone.

Most important trolls EVER.

Chapter 5
It's such a tiny little moment, isn't it, when Bilbo finds the Ring? He might just have easily have left it where he, uh, felt it. He's much more concerned that he doesn't have any matches to light his pipe. Ho ho, if he had only known, I'm sure he could have made fire happen with the almighty power of the trinket in his pocket!

Of course, he could have also probably made Smaug get out of bed and dance the hula later on, too. But all this might-have-been speculation is probably only amusing to me.

I'm a little concerned that he wore Sting, the little dagger-sword he found in Bert and Tom and Bill's stash, inside his breeches. How did he not do permanent, uh, damage to himself thereby in all the commotion and jostling in the tunnels? On the other hand, he never did have children...

All this is neither here nor there (and back again), however, because this chapter is all about Gollum, "as dark as darkness" (but acceptable in the movie version as a pale and stunted cave animal type creature, though then perhaps he should have been blind as well, no?) whom we obsessive re-readers now know used to be a being "very like" a hobbit*****, and has a hobbity, Tolkien-y love of riddles and word-play and also a razory attention on the task at hand, which is why it never even occurs to him that "what have I got in my pocket?" is neither a riddle nor a query directed at him and basically talks himself into forfeiting to Bilbo. Of course, we re-readers see a sort of parallel here with how the Ring came to be Gollum's back when he was Smeagol and logicked his way into believing that it was his birthday present from Deagol. Not that he knows he's lost that yet, though it is, in fact, the answer to Bilbo's non-riddle. Oh, clever, cleaver J.R.R!

I always, by the way, liked the idea that the goblins avoided the underground pool where Gollum lived because "they had a feeling something unpleasant was lurking down there." I always imagined Gollum sort of exulting in the fact that he was the scary thing in the water that the goblins were afraid of. They fearsss us, my preciousss!

Also, I remember as a tyke being completely gobsmacked by these riddles, because the only riddles I'd heard up until that time had been barely more complicated than knock-knock jokes, and these were so elegant, elusive and allusive I could have cried from sheer happiness! Except I remember being a little annoyed that Bilbo only accidentally guessed the Time riddle, because I'd gotten that one right away and was very impatient with him, but as the book says, I was sitting comfortably in my bedroom, beneath my Shaun Cassidy poster (shut up!) and not in danger of being eaten by anything except for some mosquitoes.

And then, of course, there is the all-important Pity of Bilbo, which I didn't remember as being so dramatic as it actually is, here. Gollum is completely at his mercy; Bilbo is invisible and has a sword and Gollum doesn't even realize his danger, and Bilbo has "a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering."

And you wonder why I almost always wind up feeling sorry for the bad guy?

And that's it for Chapters 1-5. Watch this space for more as our Summer of Middle Earth rolls on!

*He has also, thank goodness, convinced them that maybe trying to take on the Necromancer just now might not be the greatest of ideas. Of course, we all know who the Necromancer is, don't we?

Tell me this doesn't look like an Ullver album cover.

**And yes, now I'm thinking of Neville. Shut up.

***For more on how inaccurate a lot of my mental imagery of Middle Earth's landscapes have been, check out this post from my old blog back in 2001. Skip towards the bottom if you're impatient.

****And Tolkien intimates that the big beef between Dwarves and Elves lies chiefly in how much the Elves like to make fun of Dwarves' beards, which is, of course, balderdash, but it's amusing balderdash, so hey.

*****And yet in this book, our narrator claims "I don't know where he came from, nor who he was." Of course, The Hobbit is meant to be an adaptation or excerpt from Bilbo's travelogue and we don't ever, in any of the books, narrative, mytho-historical or behind-the-scenes-constructed-by-Christopher-from-Daddy's-notes, learn if Bilbo was ever told Gollum's origin story. I'm sure he must have heard it at some point, say on a particularly dull day at the Grey Havens, but we don't know for certain that he ever knew. So if this is just meant to be Bilbo telling this story, that's one thing, but if it's Tolkien, this is just coy and silly, isn't it? If he didn't want to tell the back-story here, he didn't have to, but he didn't have to call attention to there being a supposedly unknown back-story here, either! But then, but then, just pages later, we're told that asking riddles "and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny cratures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago" so, um, argh! Yes, these are really the thoughts I have, at age 42, reading a book I first read at age 7.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


Without having seen them yet, mind, I can certainly see why the powers that be decided that this book needed to be divided into two films.

It's really two different books sort of awkwardly pasted together, an opposite number to the awkward cleaving of George R.R. Martin's last two volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Only one of them is good, though. Rowling saved the best for last.

To get to the good stuff, though, much must be endured. The training wheels are finally off for Harry, Ron and Hermione (and presumably for everyone else as well, but we don't get to see that), and they sort of wobble around for rather a shockingly long time before anything interesting is allowed to happen (apart from more contrived back-story exposition. I still say I'd rather have read the previous generation's adventures first-hand than watched their kids traipse around the countryside collecting bits of the story second- or third-hand). It was perhaps a daring thing for Dame Judith to have tried, to show what it would be like in the real world (if the real world had Magic Wands and Beaded Clutches of Holding and swords being distributed in farcical aquatic ceremonies) to have a responsibility to save it without the first clue as to how; to be sent on a treasure hunt without a map and no idea what the clues might be. Daring but dull; as has so often been the case* lots of really interesting stuff is happening elsewhere and to people I like better, but it's all Trio, all the time, for most of the first half of Deathly Hallows. The other really interesting stuff all gets related after the fact, in infodumps, second hand.

Ah, me.

But then there's the second half. And the second half is a bit glorious. Once the plot brings everyone back together again, the author can't help but let us see what's going on with everyone we've come to enjoy, not just the Wonderful Weasley Twins and the rest of their lovable family, but Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood (and her dad!) and all the Quidditch jocks and nutty professors and what's left of the Order, all mixing it up together and against the enemy together at last! We got a tiny taste of this at the end of Order of the Phoenix, but just a taste. This time we get one of Hagrid's giant pewter tankards full. Smack your lips and say "ah."

Pretty satisfying. Even if there's a bit of a Battlestar Galactica-esque turd near the very end. Well, not quite that bad. But still. Cough.**

After seven books and a good two weeks and change of immersion in the world of Harry Potter, I'm pretty much equal parts wistful to see it end and relieved to move on to something else, which pretty much reflects how I've felt throughout these thousands of pages -- about equal parts cheering and tooth-gnashing. I am grateful, at any rate, that Dame Judith managed to wrap things up well and to send the Hogwarts crew off into the (unwritten) future with some style and leave me with a cheer instead of a jeer.

So, I shan't completely dismiss Hogwarts as a silly Camelot place among young adult books. Were I recommending some neato books to some fresh young readers, Harry Potter might well make the list -- if the kid really nags me for a long one, but these still, for my money, rank well after the Oz books (even the "non-canonical" ones), the Chronicles of Narnia, the Chronicles of Prydain (which are, I think, underappreciated these days, perhaps? I certainly don't see them mentioned much, but I loved them as a young'un and still love them), His Dark Materials, or The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.

Speaking of which, hey, it's June 23. I gotta motor if I'm gonna make that Unexpected Party.

*Cough. Barty Crouch Jr. not even being introduced until the end of Goblet of Fire. Cough. Draco's dastardly deeds all being detailed only second hand at the end of Half-Blood Prince, Scooby-Doo style. Cough.

**And also, the Snape resolution. Cough. Because really? Seriously? Remusly? If you were madly in love with a kid's mother since you were both little kids, would you really have a big hate-on for her son just because she married someone you hated? The stuff with Snape and Dumbledore I buy and found kind of cool but the being in love with Lily all his life? Pure, badly mixed retcon. ARGH.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


People I trust on matters Potter told me I'd like this one a lot better than, say, the last two Harrys, those people were right. Well, mostly.

I am, though, getting some Potter fatigue.

So while I'm delighted to see Fred and George running their joke shop and to start off a book from the Muggle Prime Minister's point of view and all the other charming little humorous nuggets* that make a Potter book a Potter book, there are some other things that I don't find quite so charming. By which I mean, things that threaten the willing suspension of disbelief that is vital to the enjoyment of books such as these. By which I mean, well, consarn it, after five books and how many encounters with the bad stuff again, mightn't one reasonably expect that when the boy with the Dark Lord-detecting scar right on his forehead says something might be fishy, someone might at least be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and check it out? Even if it's just one of his classmates?

But no. Here's another plot that depends largely on Harry's being right and nobody with authority believing him until it's too late. Sigh.

Also, I'm seriously missing a certain character whose name I'll not disclose to avoid spoilers even though I'm pretty sure I'm the last person in the world to read these books. Portrayed magnificently, if sparingly** by Gary Oldman in the films. Sob.

BUT, I can forgive a lot of this because of the inventiveness of this book's big plot MacGuffin: the advanced potions textbook, via which a long-ago titular "prince" communicates with Harry and which satisfies a longing I've had since the first book: for a look at the creative process behind all of these spells and recipes these kids have been struggling to master and memorize for hundreds of pages. There was a glimpse of that in the Weasley Twins' gags, but that was just a tease. Of course.

The mystery behind who made all of those margin notes that have turned Harry from a potions duffer to a potions superstar is the most intriguing one so far. Who was it? What became of that person? What were his or her motives? Is there any relationship to a certain other book that caused all kinds of ruckus in the second novel?*** This is the most original bit of plotting Rowling has done -- which is a good thing because otherwise, this book is a bit dismal, even dull. The other main plot (or what should have been the other main plot instead of the tedious All About Voldemort exposition) involving a student who was obviously originally intended to be a serious rival for Harry at the school but who had degenerated into a bit of hum-drum caricature a long time ago, finally seeming to rise to the status of actual villain, fell a bit flat for me, mostly because it was sidelined by the romantic escapades of the Main Trio. I feel a bit cheated by this; that whole story is told second-hand at the end, Scooby-Doo style. I would rather have read that story than about teenage soap opera romance, even with magic wands.

Do members of Rowling's intended audience really prefer will-they-won't they to werewolf attacks and kid wizards trying to become eeeevil?

The main surprise of the book, which defines this one for most people I am sure, was spoiled for me long ago, of course, but was still moving. Even if it hadn't been spoiled for me, I expected it in any case; in the Hero's Journey, he always loses his mentor before his greatest challenge. I was, though, mercifully still in the dark as to how this loss was going to happen, so it still managed to be a bit of an enjoyable shock, even though the betrayal had been pretty much foreshadowed for five books already.

So now the decks are cleared, the furniture stowed, the cutlasses out, the drums pounding, the powder and shot lined up by the cannons -- and the crew arguing with Captain Harry about whether he can really sail the ship alone, especially since he doesn't have a course to go with his mission. Bring on Deathly Hallows.

*Some of which might not be intentional? I'm still looking at about page 110 when Ron and Harry buy a large bag of owl nuts. Um.

**There is not enough Gary Oldman. Gary Oldman should be in all the films.

***But the answer turned out to be kind of nonsensical. An early candidate for the real identity of the Half-Blood Prince was ruled out based on the timing of the book's publication, but then the actual prince turned out to be someone pretty much the same age as the eliminated candidate. Um.

Monday, June 18, 2012


Well! This one certainly started off with a lot of drama. And shouting. There was a whole lot of shouting going on. But of course we all came through it; it was just an excuse to delay the Return to Hogwarts for about 200 pages, and to make sure everyone still feels nice and sorry for poor, persecuted Harry.

Alas, the brattiness continues at Hogwarts, as everyone starts freaking out over a series of exams on which many future opportunities depend, Ron and Hermione continue bickering in that cute pre-couple way, and Harry seems to be having one long shouty temper tantrum.* Yes, being a teenager sucks, even if you can do magic. Especially if your two best friends now have AUTHORITAH!**

Amusing as Prefect Ron and Prefect Hermione are, though, their antics are not the main show. No, the main plot of this one, as far as I can tell, is that the Ministry of Magic is in denial about the return of the evil wizard and is suppressing all discourse about it while simultaneously infiltrating Hogwarts and trying to turn it into a school that is all theory and no practice and no fun at all -- i.e., a wizard diploma factory. This is potentially a very interesting development, and just possibly a very smart critique of the decline of education in the Western World into the "weigh the calf but never feed it" model, but of course here that's all more or less dismissable as another front in the War on Poor Harry.

Were I of a mind to re-read these some day (currently I am not, but one never knows), I wonder what it would be like to read them as a story of a mentally divergent boy who gets upset whenever confronted with the fact that he's not a special wizard boy at all and hallucinates a lot while wandering around in bunny slippers. I now picture Ralph Fiennes in the Madeline Stowe role. Hey, that might explain a lot of things, including Quidditch scoring!

...And I've almost talked myself into doing a re-read someday. This despite having two enormous books to go.

But then I'd have to deal with All the Adverbs again. Every writing critique, every style guide, every essay on good prose I've ever encountered has emphasized how sparingly (hee hee) these need to be used. I know it's largely a matter of choice, to use them or not to use them, and I originally wasn't going to say anything about this here, but after thousands of pages and now that I'm well over the Harry hump, I want to scream "Enough with the adverbs in your dialogue tags, Dame Rowling" (she said wearily). Popqueenie assures me I'm not the only one to be haunted by this awfulness. I want to put on a nun's habit and start rapping some knuckles now. Really, if your dialogue is good enough (and here's the thing -- it is! The dialogue is good and very expressive!), adding that nugatory bit of description in the tag is utterly unnecessary. Doing so just yanks me out of my happy reading trance. Argh!

I sound like I'm turning into a hater, but really I'm not. As I observed above, the dialogue is good and there are still plenty of imaginative touches, a trail of amusing and sometimes horrifying (the Quill of Detention!***) bread crumbs leading us to Rowling's/Voldemort's witchy cottage at the end. The Twins are still awesome (and their comic relief has never been so necessary) as are the ghosts. A lot of background/second tier characters get a chance to shine (Neville!). And even Hermione gets a funny line or two. Well, "Europa's covered in ice, not mice" made me giggle, anyway...

And sometimes, just sometimes, Dame Rowling actually displays some lovely writing chops:

October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.
Isn't that nice? By far that is some of her best weather writing to date. And there is plenty to which to compare it, yes there is. Of course it's meant as foreshadowing as much as anything; the later tone of the book takes a decided turn for the dark and forbidding, a turn that comes as a bit of a relief, it's been built up for so long: all that tension and fear feels like it's finally going to pay off somehow. However, this brings up, I'm afraid, another gripe.

Here's the thing. As with the other books, Order of the Phoenix is, at bottom, a mystery. As mystery plots, though, the Harry Potter books are fundamentally unsatisfying, because part of the fun of reading a mystery is trying to solve it right along side the detectives. And to a degree this is possible in Harry Potter, but only to a degree: one can sometimes get an idea of who did/is doing it**** and maybe why, but almost never how. Or some other faulty combination of those three classics. And a lot of this has to do with Rowling's system of magic, the workings -- and, more importantly, the limitations -- of which are never really disclosed to us. So as we read along, of course we get lots of rather obvious red herring characters to hate and suspect (but they almost always turn out to be secretly lovely, don't they?), which is moderately fun, but after four or five books we know it's never one of these that's (deliberately) doing Voldemort's dirty work, so the fun of suspecting them is pretty hollow, and it does no good to read deeper if the villain du jour has not even been mentioned yet, or if we don't know how something is happening in any more detail than "by magic." Anything is possible if you are a wizard, want something to happen, and can invent a vaguely Latin-sounding word for it, apparently? Yeah, we get a neat and tidy explanation for all of the malefactions at book's end, always, but it's almost never something we could have anticipated, no matter how closely we've been reading -- I guess because we're meant to just passively take it in as poor, dumb Muggles, rather than actively trying to figure stuff out as we go along.

A bit shaggy dog-ish, that.

But I'll say this for Dame Rowling, she's a hell of a lot better than certain screenwriterly types at resolving plots. At least her Chekov's gun looks like a gun and fires like a gun; Prometheus employed Chekov's shoelace and forced it to try to drown a pistachio.

So there's that.

On to The Half-Blood Prince, which sources tell me is as good as, perhaps even better than, The Prisoner of Azkaban, which I think has been my favorite so far.

*And yes, he is provoked. Rowling loves to torture this guy. It's not enough that he has to fight the most evil wizard ever, every book; every book he also has to be majorly misunderstood, abused, set to impossible tasks, threatened with expulsion, and loaded with too much homework. And this book is no exception and is the worst yet, because the evil wizard understands the power of the press and has managed to convince everyone that Harry is a self-aggrandizing liar and his protectors are all senile or crazy. I'd probably get shouty, too. I'm not sure I'd subject readers of my chronicles to such a minute, blow-by-blow account of every single blow-out, at such great length. Sigh. This one almost lost me, you guys. It was only my multitudes of friends who love these books cheering me on to the better books (6 and 7) that kept me struggling through all the screaming matches of the first third of this volume.

**Many were the moments when I could not help but laugh at my mental image of Hermione in aviator shades whaling on people with a nightstick and yelling "RESPECT MA AUTHORITAH"

***Seriously, Remusly, how does Harry not wind up with complete anemia by the end of this book? Yeeouch!

****Goblet of Fire, I'm looking at you. We readers hadn't even known of the episode-villain (as in, not Voldemort, but his tool-of-the-year)'s existence until we were mostly through the book. He was pretty much just dropped in at the end as a spindle around which to wrap the plot threads. Boo!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

100 Books #55 - J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE

Well, that was certainly a whole lot of Quidditch. Even more than I was expecting. And that was, what, only the first 20% of the book?

And a whole lot of other stuff as well. I hesitate to use the term "bloat" here, but... wait a minute, no I don't! It's like someone gave this book a whole pocketful of the Weasley Twins' Ton-Tongue Toffees all at once! There are more sub-plots in this one volume than there have been in the rest put together, and not too many of them resolve at all well. House-Elf uprising, I'm looking at you.

But it's fun to see the kids as budding teenagers, Ron and Harry finally noticing that Hermione's a girl and all. I'm sure the hormones will only get worse as we continue onwards. Teenage melodrama, now with hexes. That could really, really be fun, if it doesn't get bogged down with a lot of other stuff.

I get the impression, sometimes, that the author was actually way more interested in Harry's parents' generation than Harry's own, though. How else to explain the mountains of backstory/exposition that we get each novel (none more than here, so far. Pensieve, anyone?)? Everything that happens seems to be traced back to something the previous generation made or did. It's kind of like living in the shadow of the Baby Boomers, which, OMG J.K. Rowling is a Boomer isn't she? Are these books all just coded messages to the rest of us that we'll never be as cool as the Boomers were and we should stop trying and just sit back and say thank you sir and ma'am for being so awesome and may I polish your shoes with my hair again like a good little House Elf?

But no. Writers don't do that, do they?

Let me just say, though, that the House Elf thing really, really bugs me. I mean, sure, Doctor Who has the Ood, but at least the Ood don't feel compelled to punish themselves whenever they make mistakes. And, when freed, they go on to become pretty freaking awesome. Rowling insists on leaving them toiling in the kitchens and insists that they like it that way. This coupled with all the other elitist elements (wizards are better than non-wizards, the latter denigrated as "Muggles"; pure-blooded wizards are better than half-bloods or Muggle-borns who can do magic, the last denigrated as "Mudbloods"; the Houses at Hogwarts, Gryffindor=popular kids, jocks and cheerleaders and pretty girls who are also good students, Ravenclaw=braniacs, Hufflepuff=dorks, Slytherin=posh kids) gives these books an unusually unpleasant edge for me. And yes, I know, all the good guys (who are so very, very good, aren't they?) are Muggle-tolerant if not downright Muggle-fans, so no lectures about that, Potterites. I know. I'm still free to dislike the fictions that make this fictional tolerance necessary when said fictions often threaten to spoil my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

Of course, I risk going down a silly garden path (or, in this case, hedge maze) in reading too much into these books that are, after all, just meant as entertainments. But these elements keep cropping up and annoying me when I'm trying to enjoy all the funny and imaginative bits (current favorite character, well, right up there with the Weasley Twins: Peeves the Poltergeist. The one laugh-out-loud moment I had in Goblet of Fire was when he had to be extracted from a suit of armor that was enchanted to sing Christmas carols; Peeves was substituting his own rude lyrics). Fortunately, there are a lot of these; Rowling's at her best when she's just letting kids be silly kids and ghosts be silly ghosts.*

Goblet of Fire ended on notes of great foreboding even as most of the plots and subplots were resolved with happy endings. And so, while I do like these books best when they focus on pranks and surprises and childhood goofiness, I am curious to see what its like to see this milieu get darker. I know the main characters, that oh-so-perfect trio of Harry and Ron and Hermione, will be all heroic and face it all with courage and perfect goodness (even if they squabble a bit here and there) but what of everybody else? I so love everybody else.

Especially the Twins. And Neville Longbottom. And Severus Snape. And the wacky Weasley parents. And the giggling girls of Gryffindor. And the owls. I can see why there's been a bit of a mania for owls as pets, because Hedwig and Pigwidgeon are adorkable!

*And if magic were real, it would definitely never, ever be safe to accept candy from strangers. Tee hee!

Friday, June 15, 2012


A number of small scuffles broke out in the corridors, culminating in a nasty incident in which a Gryffindor fourth year and a Slytherin sixth year ended up in the hospital wing with leeks sprouting out of their ears.

A lot of people have told me that this is their favorite, or at least one of their favorites, of the series, and I can definitely see why. Of the three I have read so far, this one has indeed been the best for sheer fun as well as for drama and tension: the mystery of Hermione's course load; the menacing presence of the Dementors; the tantalizing threat of Sirius Black; the sad story of Hagrid and his hippogriff; and, most amusingly and refreshingly, the first ever notes of skepticism as we're introduced to the "misty-voiced" Professor Trelawney's Divination class, which most students and many teachers seem to think is a lot of rubbish. Rowling is juggling a lot of balls in this one, and keeps them in the air most satisfactorily.

The structure of one school year per novel is starting to wear on me, though. I had resolved to read all of these in one long gulp, as I did, more or less, with A Song of Ice and Fire last year, but I'm starting to wonder if reading them this way is going to just give too much emphasis to the humdrum run of summer sucks/back to school/Halloween/Christmas/Easter/Final Exams and Quidditch Cup.

I keep going, though, because within that predictable framework, there is still a lot of amusement and charm to be had. Like the kids winding up in sickbay with leeks growing out of their ears. As far as I'm concerned, this is what J.K. Rowling does best: coming up with amusing little details like that to illustrate what life must be like among a hundred or so immature wizards, childish creatures with as-yet-unmeasured magical powers, kids being kids, but with wands and fake Latin and the possibility, at any time that someone might actually get turned into a toad. Or worse.

Which is to say that it remains true for me that the stuff going on along the sidelines of young Mr. Potter's adventures is way more interesting than the main events -- and while this particular volume was rather short on Weasley Twins and long on Hermione harrumph, it still had just enough in the way of entertaining little nuggets to keep me going, and leave me cracking into the next book, which, if I'm guessing right, is going to break from the school year tradition a bit, which makes me happy, but it also sounds likely to concern itself mostly with Quidditch, which does not. Um.

Well done.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


It's the secondary and incidental characters that are really selling me on these books as I finish with the second of seven, especially the Weasley family, and especially the Weasley Twins. Intended, from what I can gather, as a sort of faded gentry in the wizard world -- "too little money and too little children" as the uni-dimensionally awful aristocrat brat Draco Malfoy mocks them -- the family is loving, clever and charming and the twins, the twins are more fun than any one boy ever could be alone, smart, resourceful, full of mischief and pranks, and utterly, utterly lovable. Meeting the rest of the family is easily the best part of this second Harry Potter novel, but there are lots of contenders for second best.

Such as the fact that Hermione spends a good chunk of the second half of the story turned to stone. I'm sorry, but she annoys the hell out of me. Such as Dobby the House Elf, who reminds me of Michael Palin's maniacally self-flagellating waiter in Monty Python's Indian Restaurant Sketch and whose attempts to save Harry Potter's life always wind up getting Harry into big trouble. Such as poor Moaning Myrtle. Such as Professor McGonnagle, whom Rowling simply has to have been picturing as Maggie Smith from the start, which makes her wonderful.

But then there's Professor Lockhart, the most cardboard yet of Rowling's nuisance characters. I'm sure I'm meant to cheer his fate at the end but I couldn't be arsed; I think this would have been a better book without him. And yes, I'm aware he's meant to be a warning of the dangers of Harry's maybe buying into his own celebrity too much, but Harry is just so very, very good that perils such as those are onionskin tigers at best. He's such a paragon, our Harry. I'd maybe seek to frame him for some malefaction or other myself.

I did enjoy the mystery plot, and all the behind-the-scenes wrangling and jockeying for power that it caused, though it's quite possible that George R.R. Martin has spoiled this kind of clash between capital G Good and capital E Evil characters for me, for good. I understand that these are young adult books and thus are supposed to be rather black and white affairs, but so far I'm not 100% sold on the idea that they're as enjoyable for adults as for children.

I bet I'd have loved them unreservedly as a teenybopper, had they existed then. Nonetheless, I will read on, out of curiosity and out of love for the second-tier cast. What are Fred and George going to scheme up next?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Quibble time first. Why, oh why, did the powers that be insist on publishing this book with different titles in the U.K. and the U.S.? Are British children taught the finer points of alchemy at such an earlier age than American ones, that the former should be expected to know what the Philosopher's Stone was but the latter needed that patronizing little pat on the head about it.

Oh, and Quidditch. Foolish game. I can see where one needed to create a kind of Wizard Cricket for a tale of Wizard Boarding School, but did it have to be so grossly bizarre in its scoring? Anyway.

I can certainly see why certain fifth graders of my acquaintance, back in my substitute teaching/newslady days, were so very taken with this book that they played at being Harry and Ron and Hermione on the playground the way my own contemporaries (dating myself, of course) played at being Luke and Leia and Han. It's lovely to imagine that a child whose actual life is as neglected and deprived and dismal as every child who's ever not gotten his/her way always imagines his/her own life to be, is suddenly revealed to be the Most Important Kid, Like Ever and whisked away to become a great hero. Maybe that can be true for me, too. And I've decided to start calling that girl Hermione and chase her around the jungle gym and try to get her to kiss me.

I hurried to show said fifth graders where there was better stuff to be found in the library. And while there were not shelves and shelves of ready-made Halloween costumes and toys and companion picture books and other dreck to go with them (unless one wanted to hit eBay), these discerning kids mostly came to agree with me that those older books were pretty all right, too.

Is Harry Potter's world as charming as L. Frank Baum's Oz books, as gently edifying as C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, as erudite and overwhelming as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth Madness, as dark and portentous as Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books? It is none of these. It is modern and a tad bland and predictable compared to its ancestors, obviously written with an eye toward screenplay adaptation, but enjoyable nonetheless. I'm told the books get more challenging as they pile up, the idea having been that the series' original readers would grow up right alongside the Hogwarthians, and so I'll keep on reading for a while.

Because, why not?

I've now popped my Harry Cherry, and an amusing experience it was. Alas that I had already seen the film version of this first book, so never got the chance to cast the characters in my own imagination, but I'm not good at that anyway, and Hollywood and its partners did a fine, fine job. Any book in which I get to imagine Alan Rickman skulking around my head for a few hours is fine with me. Skulk on, Snape.

100 Books #51 - Anne Lyle's ALCHEMIST OF SOULS

Some books are just made for readers like me, ticking off so many boxes on one's personal checklist that one sits there screaming "hey you book, why aren't you already published and in my hot little hands!" when one hears about them.

Alchemist of Souls is one of those, for me. Tudor/Elizabethan England? Check. Alternate history*? Check. Alien species coexisting with humans? Check. Theatrical politics? Check. Shakespearean cross-dressers, onstage and off? Check.

The world of the novel is one in which Elizabeth I not only married but had children; England's Crown Prince is her son Arthur (by, of course, Robert Dudley. Aww!). That's all just background, though, because this book isn't about Elizabeth or her children except in a distant way; our heroes and heroines are more or less ordinary Londoners dealing with the consequences of an extraordinary event: for the first time ever, a tribe of Skraylings (the aforementioned alien species, the conceit of them being that the New World contained not only the people we know as First Nations/Native Americans, but also a magical, sort-of-elfin race who became trading partners and allies of Britain) are sending a formal ambassador to Elizabeth's court. So of course, intrigue on every level follows, because France and Spain are still Britain's enemies and seek to break up that alliance, by whatever means they might. By which I mean spies, assassins, saboteurs, the usual rabble of mischief-makers.

Enter Maliverny Catlyn (loosely based on an actual historical figure), mysterious swordsman with an intriguing past of which we're only given hints, who is singled out by the powers that be to serve as this ambassador's bodyguard. He has theatrical connections through a sometime love affair with a copyist and forger and thereby winds up coming into the orbit of our other protagonist, Coby, sort of a young majordomo for a theater company who happens to be fluent in TradeTalk, the Skrayling/English pidgeon Mal will have to learn in order to do his new job. Coby, of course, being a "real life" Shakespearean girl in disguise**, half Viola, half Rosalind, falls in love with Mal, though she would have wound up sucked into these intrigues anyway, since her theater company is one of many competing in a special theater contest which the ambassador shall judge, Skraylings being wild about the theater.

Got all that? Good, because there's even more. I have proclaimed on this blog and elsewhere that I would love to read a version of A Song of Ice and Fire that's all about the little people instead of the unpleasant, immoral bigshots jockeying for power. I seem to have gotten my wish. There is a dizzying array of plots and counter-plots, both in the meta, literary sense and in the sense of espionage and political struggle. Coby's is not the only secret identity. The Skraylings have lots of secrets, and not just that of how they make light out of puddles of mystery liquid. There is, of course, magic, and while a major plot point does hinge on this magic, it's otherwise pretty unobtrusive, a mere and minor fact of the world, because Anne Lyle is interested in people, not fantasy tropes. To which I say hooray!

A sequel, set in the Venice of this alternate world, is planned for later this year, and shall land on my ebook reader as a matter of course due to my Angry Robot ebooks subscription, which I shall be renewing immediately this month. I think of all my purchases over the last twelve months, that subscription has given me the most return on investment in terms of sheer pleasure. I am now never without something to read; indeed, I have an overabundance yet, including many books that came out before Alchemist of Souls but didn't promise to capture my imagination and anticipation quite the way this book did. And yes, that promise I count quite fulfilled. Whot larks!

I'm still puzzled at the title, though. No alchemists were harmed in the making of this book. No alchemists appeared at all. The title is pretty much just a rather deep metaphor for plot points I shan't reveal here. Shh!

*Very, very alternate. This Elizabethan England is way more accepting of, e.g., homosexuality, than the real period was, for instance, to say nothing of a whole 'nother sentient race. There are mentions of sectarian Catholic/Protestant tensions but they're just that -- mentions. Much of this can be forgiven (if forgiveness is needed) because of the subculture in which so much of the story takes place; theater/arts circles are always a bit more progressive than the rest of society. Still, I sometimes found this a little hard to swallow.

**This is just one of many Shakespearean motifs, overt and subtle, appearing in the novel. I think Lyle is probably a good old Shakespeare nerd. Funny the Bard himself never appears. That's rather a huge absence, especially since it's not explained. Perhaps in the sequel?

Monday, June 11, 2012

100 Books #50 - Alastair Reynolds' BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH

I'm the punchline... I'm the period, the full stop at the end of an immensely long and convoluted argument, a rambling chain of happenstance and contingency stretching from the discovery of fire down in the Olduvai Gorge, through the invention so language and paper and the wheel, through all the unremembered centuries to... this. This condition. Being brought out of hibernation aboard a spaceship orbiting another planet. Being alive in the twenty-second century. Being a thing with a central nervous system complex enough to understand the concept of being a thing with a central nervous system. Simply being. - Sunday Akinya in Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth

I, too, feel like a punchline a lot of the time, though nowhere near so cosmic a one as Sunday Akinya. Where I feel like a punchline is this: I have a fundamental problem with novel-reading, I'm discovering, one that became acutely noticeable while reading Alastair Reynolds' latest novel. And make no mistake -- the problem is most certainly mine and not Mr. Reynolds'. He remains one of my favorite authors, as I've observed before on this blog, and this book is one of his best. Possibly his best. I haven't been able to decide on that as yet.

 But one of the things I like best about him is where I have the most trouble with fiction as we know it.

You see, a story, at least in Western literature, starts by setting the scene and introducing the characters, showing us the baseline, the norm. Once that's all established, things must happen to upset this balance, threaten the norm, pull the characters out of their comfort zones and make them do stuff, achieve a goal, change and develop, fight the enemy, solve the problem, and finally establish a new norm, better or worse, it does not matter as long as its different. That's how fiction works.

I must, though, have some kind of serious emotional conservatism when it comes to reading stories, though, because I'm always sad to see the plot take over the milieu. I'm delighted to plunge into a writer's world, meet his imaginary friends, learn how their lives work when they're being ordinary. And I'd be happy to stay there. Why has there always got to be someone messing it up, just when I'm getting to know it, I always internally wail when the villain blows things up or the natural disaster strikes or whatever the first plot coupon may be.

Rarely have I fallen so completely in love with that established norm as I did in this novel, not because it's so idyllic or perfect or beautiful (though in lots of ways it is those things) as because it's just so interesting. Africa is the center of world power in a neural utopia* chock full of space elevators and sophisticated telepresence technology; humans have colonized not only the Moon and Mars but are well on their way towards exploiting the rest of the Solar system, but in a very responsible way. And the biggest debate going on is whether a human-and-intelligent-machine society like Iain M. Banks' Culture gets to go to the stars along with whatever organisms we happen to find useful to us, or whether it should be humans and every other variety of organic life that has evolved on Earth alongside us and just what machines are needed to keep the living things that shall inherit the galaxy alive. What's not to love?

And there's more, for this world, or set of worlds, is brought to us from the perspective of a fascinating young man, one of Reynolds' most satisfying characterizations to date, Geoffrey Akinya, grandson of the female explorer-entrepreneur who made most of this civilization possible and thus a member of one of its most powerful families, but one who has chosen to drop out of that family as much as possible in favor of studying elephants. Really studying elephants. As in taking baby steps toward establishing, via neuro-machinery, what amounts to a Mind Meld with one of them.

And then there's his sister, Sunday, who lives on the Moon in a drop-out society of her own, a "Descrutinized Zone" in which much of the neural machinery that controls anti-social behavior on earth, and thus a lot of the constant contact and data access that goes with that machinery, is dampened or just non-existent. She and hers firmly believe that suppressing that urge to bend or break the rules also suppresses innovation and creativity.

So each lives a rich, vivid and fascinating life that I would enjoy just sort of wandering through, picaresque-style, for hundreds and hundreds of pages. But that's not how novels work. Sigh.

Fortunately, the plot, part thriller, part treasure-hunt through the human-settled Solar System, and yes, part giant sprawling hunk of (nascent) space operatics, is quite satisfying and exciting and all the stuff that everyone else reads a novel for. Reynolds gets better and better at this with each book, and I don't think he's plateaued yet or will anytime soon. As I intimated above, his characters get better with each book, too, richer and lovelier and more believably human**. This is the first of a new series, Poseidon's Children (which pretty obviously refers to the fact that the Green Efflorescence, which is how the people-and-organisms faction refers to their goal of spreading all Earth life through the stars, had its birth among the United Aquatic Nations of Earth [which, get ready for THAT; quite possibly Reynolds' most ravishingly seductive bit of world-building to date]*** -- thus the reader has a pretty good idea of to which side of the Big Argument the balance is likely to tip right away), and I hope that Mr. Reynolds, lovely chap that he is, hurries up with the next one already.

I'm ready for the next punchline. Aren't you?

*Utopia might not be quite the word for it, but neither is dystopia. There is no crime or struggle over resources, which is pretty idyllic, but this is achieved at a scary cost: a central Mechanism catches anti-social or otherwise bad impulses almost before people have them and shuts them down. Neural subjugation to this Mechanism is mandatory from early childhood. Shudder.

**So it's interesting that of all of Reynolds' fiction to date, this is set in the nearest of futures, just a hundred or so years from the present, instead of many hundreds or thousands (millions?) of years as he most often chooses. Are his characters in Blue Remembered Earth simply more enjoyable because less alien? Or is it simply that he's still growing in his craft? It's not to say he hasn't created amazing and memorable characters before -- Volyova, anyone? Remontoire? Galliana? Wendell Floyd? The Gentians? Curtana? But did you like reading about these characters, or did you fall in love with them? I fell in love with Geoffrey and Sunday, and Chama and Gleb too, for that matter. And most of all with Eunice, or rather sim-Eunice, the pioneering grandmother, who has a wonderfully crusty, uphill-both-ways, get-off-my lawn attitude toward what's become of human space travel and settlement. I want to read a prequel novel all about her adventures. Way more fun than Calvin Sylveste!

***It's his amazing talent for science fiction world-building that first sold me on Reynolds. He knocks it out of the park, book after book. I can't think of anyone else who can touch him on his main theme of showing how human minds and technology have run away together toward the end of ratcheting up our species' adaptability to any environment up to eleven. And this book he's applying it to every species, not just ours! Hello, Denizens! Please don't eat me.