The Fell Gard Codices

I’ve begun a personal program to try to read a book per day; or, more precisely, 30 or 31 books per month. I’ve just got too damn many unread things floating about. So every couple of weeks I’ll take a quick look at whether I’ve hit my goal numbers-wise, and have a few comments about what I’ve read. To start with, here are the 22 books I read between the 1st and 15th of October.

1491 / by Charles C. Mann: A tremendous, and important, work of history. Synthesizing advanced in a number of fields, bringing in contributions from a range of fields, the book suggests a view of the pre-Columbian Americas wildly different and far richer than the traditional views from years past. It’s the sort of book that can wildly refashion a reader’s entire outlook on at least part of the world. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Necessary Beggar / by Susan Palwick: I looked at this for Black Gate, so my thoughts are there.

Maphead / by Ken Jennings: A pleasant look at geography, and its various applications. Less to do with actual maps than I’d expected. I felt it tried a bit too hard for a just-folks populist tone, but it’s fast and informative.

She-Wolves / by Helen Castor: A book about women who ruled England before Mary and Elizabeth. Not ‘queens,’ but ‘rulers.’ It’s very well-done narrative history, that I thought made some good choices about what to include and what to leave out and what sort of connections to draw. I did think starting with Mary, skipping back through time, and then concluding with Mary and Elizabeth was a structural gambit that didn’t really work; the framing device was too short for the rest of the mass of material, and (wisely) Cantor didn’t really refer much to the frame during the rest of the book. Still, that’s a minor quibble.

Tam Lin / by Pamela Dean: I’d read this before, mostly, in bits and pieces; I sat down now to read it through start to finish. I think it re-read better than it read the first time round, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s just that I had a better handle on the characters, and how the main character comes out through the limited-third-person perspective; how she shapes, and limits, the narrative. There’s a relentless intelligence about the book, moving quickly, assuming the reader’s grasped details and bits of business without spelling things out or repeating information. But I thought the narrative was oddly loose. I wonder if having a better grasp of romance plot-patterns might have helped, because in the end it’s a book about the main character’s love choices and relationships, and I was paying more attention to the guy she started off with rather than the guy she ended up with and who turned out to drive the fairy-tale strand of the story. It doesn’t help that I started off reading the novel as a book about college, rather than about relationships at college; it’s possible to be both, but I didn’t get that off this book. Which is not to say it’s bad, just that it didn’t pull me in the way it perhaps might have. Maybe it’s just that my own university experience was so, so different than anything in this book.

The Dispossessed / by Ursula K. Le Guin: A science-fiction classic I somehow never got around to reading before. It’s clever, thoughtful, and, I felt, a little arid. It seemed to me to be an extended character piece, which I wasn’t really expecting. I think it works by contrasting character with two separate societies, both of which think they’re utopias, neither of which are. I can understand why it’s such a well-regarded book, but I can’t help but wish there’d been a bit more narrative tension, if not actually drama.

The Three Imposters / by Arthur Machen: Machen’s an excellent writer, but his plotting here isn’t terribly strong. This is a kind of anthology framed by a story about a valuable item, three scoundrels trying to get it back, and a series of encounters between the two main characters and various chance-met folks who regale them with wild quasi-supernatural tales. You can kinda see the twists coming, though I suspect when the story was published in 1895 it might have been more surprising. Unfortunately, while the individual tales are often excellent, there doesn’t really seem to be, in the end, much reason for these specific tales to be told to their specific audiences, with the result that a memorably nasty pay-off doesn’t quite click the way it might. Still, some nice effects, nice stories, and nice writing. Good show, Mister Machen.

Science Fiction From China: I think I may talk about this for Black Gate in the near future, so I’ll just say here that this was a collection, published in 1989, of nine stories with an introduction by Frederik Pohl. Uneven, but the good stuff is very good.

Prentice Alvin

Alvin Journeyman


The Crystal City / by Orson Scott Card: I read the first three Alvin Maker books when I was much, much younger, bought the fourth, and got eighty pages into it (I found my old bookmark, from Nebula Bookshop of Montrealers’ hallowed memories, while going through the book this time around). For those as may not know, this is an alternate-history series set in America in the early nineteenth century, in a world where backwoods magic works — small-scale hexes, to start with, though the magic grows in scale as things go on. The books follow Alvin, seventh son of a seventh son, born to be a Maker, a kind of American Jesus. I’m glad I’ve finally read the whole story so far; or, at least, most of the story so far, as judging by abruptly-introduced plot threads in the last book there have to be a few short stories floating around (Wikipedia tells me that yes, there are). I will say that, as is usual with series books, there did seem to be a falling-off in intensity as things went along. The sense of divine forces at play faded, and the plots became less and less powerful. Someday, somebody will sit down (if it hasn’t already been done) and thrash out Card’s use of history and race, and make a serious attempt at analysing what makes sense and what doesn’t and what serves the story and what comes off as a convenient Yankee fiction (and note that as a Canadian, all Americans are ‘Yankees’ to me). Somebody will do that, but it won’t be me. Still … his racialised magic system feels odd. And you can’t help but notice, for example, that Card sets things up so that his alternate ‘United States’ was always fervently anti-slavery, with only the evil English monarchists of the south really ardent slavers. This seems unlikely, not least because slavery in the American South was one of the major drivers of the economy of the North until well into the 19th century.

But then again, that kind of structural thinking is oddly absent from the books. Which is a problem, not only in terms of history and economics, but in the coherence of the fantasy. The magics grow bigger and bigger and you wonder why nobody else ever did this kind of stuff before and how can this history be so close to ours if there’s no limits and really isn’t this ‘everybody has a magical knack and Alvin’s building a city to teach people to use their knack’ just the X-Men in a different guise? As I say, the early books work best, where this sort of thing is less of a concern. And where the style’s strongest. Card has a knack for humorous dialogue, but the voice of the early books had a flavour that fades as things go on. Characters grow flatter, and morality more difficult to parse — Alvin, visited by angels, becomes an all-around good guy, but his brother with similar powers doesn’t get any similar visitation and so becomes a rotter, with the result that you’re wondering why the angels couldn’t be bothered to pay him a visit. Wait, didn’t I say I wouldn’t get into all this sort of thing? Oh well. Pleasurable books, but not fulfilling the promise of the early volumes. And, I’ve gotta say it: far as I’m concerned, Card is wrong about William Blake in every way it’s possible to be wrong.

The Harp and the Blade / by John Myers Myers: Historical adventure set in Dark Ages France, vaguely reminiscent of Keith Thomas’ Bard series. Quite different in many ways, though; this is a low-magic story, and written in a very pulp-American voice. Fast-paced and entertaining.

The Ivory Lyre / by Shirley Rousseau Murphy: YA-ish fantasy, and not really my style. It’s not clear from the cover, but this is the third in a series.

Aucassin & Nicolette and Other Medieval Romances / translated from the French by Eugene Mason: A book from the old Everyman’s library. Stories, mostly from 13th-century France; I found they still had something affecting to them. If not affecting, at least interesting. The difference between the stories we tell about the Middle Ages and the stories the folk of those times told about themselves is striking. Sure, there’s a much greater reliance on divine intervention to make things come out a’right, but there’s a narrative energy that pulled me in. And you can’t help but get a better sense of the world that produced these stories. The multiple references to Constantinople, the great world-city. The way there’s an almost prosaic concern with status and money and wealth. Fascinating, and fun.

TimesSteps+ / by John M. Ford: Clever and nimble verse, that deserves to be preserved and remembered. Most modern verse I read tends to be, if not free verse, at least consciously trying to mimic actual speech. For the most part that’s not really the case here — Ford glories in poetic form, in sonnets and sestinas. The voice is precisely not everyday, being rather musical and subtly elevated. A notable exception: ‘110 Stories,’ one of the rare pieces of 9/11 art that works, a mosaic of voices, perhaps a kind of play with The Waste Land. A solid collection, if you can find it.

Cry Murder! In a Small Voice / by Greer Gilman: I’m hoping to do something about this for Black Gate. So I’ll say that it’s a hardboiled noir detective story starring Ben Jonson investigating the wicked Earl of Oxford, written in language like Iain Sinclair in an Elizabethan mood. Quite brilliant, with a twist at the end.

Gothic / by George Henderson: A brief look at medieval Gothic art in northwest Europe. Offers some strong readings of Gothic architecture in particular. Good connections between the visual arts, notably architecture and painting, and the theology, philosophy, and literature of the times. Little said about the economic context, and only a bit more about the politics, but then it is a very brief book. I will say that I’d have liked to see a bit more about tapestries. On the whole effective; I have a strong bias for historical surveys that stick to chronological order, and this one doesn’t — but it works.

Shadow & Claw (containing Shadow of the Torturer and Claw of the Conciliator)

Sword & Citadel (containing Sword of the Lictor and Citadel of the Autarch)

Urth of the New Sun

Litany of the Long Sun (containing Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun) / by Gene Wolfe: I’ll have more to say about the Long Sun books in a couple of weeks. Rereading the New Sun books this time around, I found myself able this time to notice the tight plot structure of the series; and that’s something different, as I’d always found myself almost bewildered in earlier readings with the sheer variety of events. This time I found it easier to draw connections. Excellent, challenging books.

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