Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Deeds of Paksennarion, by Elizabeth Moon.

Sheepfarmer's Daughter
Divided Allegiance
Oath of Gold

I seem to be writing a fair bit about Elizabeth Moon, but I was late to discover her, and much of what I've read has very different feels to it, so deserves separate comment.

These books are one of the things she is most famous for, and I like her other stuff, but I avoided them for ages because the jacket blurbs make them sound like such unadulterated schmaltz. As is often the case, said jacket blurbs were probably written by someone who had done no more than look at the (terrible) cover art; the books themselves were quite good. Here Moon turns her talent for making the fantastic feel "normal" and everyday - which I much enjoyed in her sci-fi stuff - on a world of fantasy and magic. The first book follows a new recruit into a mercenary company on a fantasy world, and the day-to-day barracks life, as well as the battles, has the feel of realism to it. All is not the slaying of dragons and heroic rescuing of maidens; mostly its drill, polishing, and slogging through the mud.

In the later two books, once she has you believing in this world, more elements of fantasy creep their way in. And here we get an interesting twist. In some fantasy - usually, but not universally bad - you can practically hear the dice rolling in the background it sounds so much like a transcript of a role-playing game. They end up strings of unrelated events sounding like one of those "And then I rolled a 20!" geek stories that you desperately tried to save yourself from by faking your own death. Moon does the opposite; she paints us a picture of paladins that is so the cardboard stereotype that I swear she must have been working from a DND manual, and then fleshes it out to put real characters in it and tell an interesting story about them. All the wacky pointless details are there - from preturnaturally shining armour, magic warhorses, and high charisma, to the old classic of "laying on hands" - but all given reasons and woven into a background to make sense. And then she messes about with some of the real issues like belief in god vs. belief in a church, but does it as an undercurrent in what is otherwise an action tale, so you can be intrigued by it without getting bored.

On the whole, I rarely (except for Speed of Dark) find that Moon's writing draws me in so completely and compellingly as some of my other favorites, but she has a talent for selling the fantastic as gritty and real which I always enjoy. Couple that with her poking here at genre stereotypes - and poking by simply doing the stereotypes right, for once - and these books are well worth the read.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman does Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency... and as if I have to say it; thats a good thing. Neil tells us in the afterword that hes deliberately reaching for comedy here, more than in some of his other darker things, and also that he thinks Douglas Adams is one of two true geniuses that hes ever met. It shows. This book has Adams' quirky sense of the unreal being real, but does it with Gaiman's sense of story and myth.

Its the story of a boy and his God... or his dad... whichever. It draws heavily on the rich African myths of Anansi, who is a sort of trickster/creator god like the Coyote of various native american tribes. Hes not good, hes not bad, he just is. He gets himself into trouble, and then gets out of it again. Sometimes he dies. But hes about being clever - sometimes too clever for his own good - not about being fierce, and so the world ends up a bit bemusing and bewildering, but not so much terrifying. Which rather describes the book as well - definitely worth a re-read.