Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My Top Ten Favorite Books, Part One

There are some stories that just stay with you over time. They have an impact, whether it changes your perspective on things, enlightens you about a topic or just makes you laugh. The following are my top ten favorite books, strictly my personal opinion. Please leave me comments about your favorites, I look forward to hearing your favorites.

No. 10 Riddlemaster of Hed

Written by Patricia A. McKillip, 1976.

In many ways a fairly typical story of a young man destined for greater things. But I love the story and the characters, McKillip has a way of developing both through the trilogy. The hero, unlike many in fantasy, is strongly conflicted about the role he's being led into and the past he's being forced to give up, and the theme of growing up and having to move away from what we've known and love is a powerful one.The use of riddles, not the type you get from the sphinx, but more a question and answer about the history and lessons of the lands, adds a dimension to the story that resonates within the reader to, a unique way to make her lessons touch us. It is certainly one story I enjoy reading again every few years.

No. 9 From Beirut To Jerusalem

Written by Thomas L. Friedman, 1989.

Mr. Friedman was a reporter for the UPI and New York Times in Beirut from 1979 to 1984, and in Lebanon from 1984 to 1989, and his stories about his experiences there are riveting. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he talks about many of the most famous names on both sides of the conflict, but also looks at how the average person lived through one of the most intense conflicts of the Middle East. An amazingly balanced view that doesn't really place blame, but looks fairly at the mistakes of all sides.

No. 8 American Gods

Written by Neil Gaiman, 2001.

An exploration of mythology, both ancient and modern, with a great cast of characters. The basic idea is that gods exist based on belief, the greater the belief, the stronger the god. The book follows the path of Shadow, an ex-convict released from jail early due to the death of his wife, who finds himself a pawn in the hands of Mr. Wednesday. Because the  gods exist on the basis of belief, the gods that populate this world are the ones brought over by the variety of immigrants to America, and so the story is very much about how we reconcile our past with the potential of our future.

No. 7 Another Fine Myth

Written by Robert Aspirin, 1979.

Hilarious. A twist on the fantasy hero stories, the tale of an incompetent apprentice wizard who finds his master dead one day and is forced to team up with a demon to survive. Of course the demon is large and scaly, and because of the dead wizards sense of humor, powerless. The story is fun, and you really can't look for anything more than that in it. It's a different twist on the genre, and the beginning of a series that, I have to admit, got old. But the first few are laugh out loud funny.

No. 6 Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.

Written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, 1990.

Two of my favorite authors collaborating to end the world. Two of the strangest angels working together to save it. The end of the world is approaching, the four horsemen are riding forth, and the antichrist is an eleven-year-old boy. The angel, Aziraphale, and Crowley, the demon who tempted Eve, decide the world is too entertaining to let be destroyed and focus all their attention to save it. A great story, great characters, the funniest book about the end of the world you'll ever read. I wish the two of them would do it again someday.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett

"I meant," said Iplsore bitterly, "what is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?" Death thought about it. "CATS," he said eventually, "CATS ARE NICE."

In many ways, I feel bad for wizards. What good is all that power if you can't get chicks? On the other hand, I suppose that if your children have the potential to destroy the world, then maybe procreation isn't such a hot idea. In the fifth Discworld novel, we revisit both the wizard Rincewind and the reasons why wizards are discouraged from having children.
As we know the eighth son of an eighth son is destined to be a powerful wizard, even if she's a she, not a he (see Equal Rites). What happens when that child has eight sons? The wizard Iplsore finds out you get a sorcerer squared, a sourcerer. A sourcerer is a source of magic, more powerful than anything else on the Discworld. When Death comes for the wizard, Ipslore finds a way to escape the chill grasp of Death by placing himself in his staff, to be passed along to his son. And eventually the son grows up.
As Coin, the sourcerer, makes his way to the halls of magic at the Unseen University, the wizards are engaged in a long standing tradition, electing the new Archchancellor. Things go awry when the chosen wizard is attacked and disappears. It is into this leadership vacuum that Coin makes his entrance. Of course wizards are unlikely to accept the leadership of an untried boy, so they put him to the test. After a few top wizards are soundly defeated, the others soon accept, with fear if not grace, Coin's ascension to the top spot. The only problem is teh Archchancellors Hat seems to have gone missing.

Enter Rincewind, coward and wizard, master of no spell, but with a great turn of speed. He and the University Librarian are taking the evening to enjoy a pint at the pub when Conina, the daughter of the great barbarian hero Cohen, appears. It seems that the Hat has gained a degree of sentience from sitting atop the heads of so many wizards and it at least realizes the peril that they face in the form of Coin. The Hat implores Rincewind to take it and do what he does best: run. And run they do, straight to the Al Khali, away from the power building up in Ankh-Morpork. When they are all captured by the Grand Vizier, things look grim.
And sure enough they are. Coin has convinced the wizards that they need neither restraint nor the University, so they destroy both. With the power unleashed, they realize that only the gods can stop them. Easily taken care of, the gods of the disc are a jovial and lazy lot, so capturing them in a separate dimension is no challenge. Of course, THAT unleashes the Ice Giants, who have long been held in check until the end of the world. So, I guess its that time. And the four horsemen ride forth.

Rincewind, joined by Creosote, Conina and Nijel the barbarian head back to Ankh-Morpork to confront Coin. I would hate to give away the ending but the line "It's going to look pretty good, then, isn't it," said War testily, "the One Horseman and Three Pedestrians of the Apocralypse." is too good not to mention.
Once again, its the characters that make the story. Conina, the daughter of the aging barbarian hero, who really prefers hair to blood. Nijel, who answers the question of how hero's get started in the first place. And Rincewind, the eternal coward. The way Mr. Pratchett can shape characters that show us our worst traits as well as show how they can be used for good is inspiring, really. The way the wizards react when given the least bit of release raises the question of how we would respond in the same situation, a question that we have seen answered, horribly, so many times in the past.

Another great story by a great author. Read it, enjoy it, then read it again.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mort by Terry Pratchett

-"Pardon me for living, I'm sure."
- NO-ONE GETS PARDONED FOR LIVING. -- (Terry Pratchett, Mort)

Take a moment to imagine with me. Let's imagine that you are the personification of a natural force, say for instance, death. Let us imagine that for untold millenia you have been existing for nothing but bringing an end to the lives of all creatures, from the least significant to the mightiest. Can you imagine even a glimmer of the loneliness that would build up? Neither could Death, right up until he decided to take in a young girl rather than kill her. And when He decides to take on an apprentice to keep her company, the Discworld better watch out.

Until this fourth novel, the character Death plays a minor recurring role, but now its time for him to take center stage. When Rincewind makes his brief appearance in Death's domain in the book The Light Fantastic, he meets Death's adopted daughter Ysabell. This book picks up the story of Ysabell and a young man named Mort. Mort is your typical teen who just doesn't quite seem suited to the family farm, and his father decides that Mort would do well to find a new field of study. When the young boy is unable to find a suitable employer, at the stroke of midnight he encounters a blacked robe figure on a white horse, who offers to teach him to help move souls into the next realm. While dad thinks that being an undertaker would be a great career move for the boy, it soon becomes clear that this is a little more involved. While out learning the job, Mort makes the mistake of saving a girl who was supposed to die, and reality itself moves against him. This certainly puts a damper on Death's vacation plans!

It's the characters that really set this book up. Getting away from the mocking of heroic fantasy, Mr.Pratchett moved onto mocking love stories, by setting up a familiar, if unconventional romance between Mort and Ysabell. Death playing matchmaker for his adopted daughter is just the first step to finding the spark of humanity that lies within Ultimate Reality. The feelings that Mort develops for the girl he saves, mirrored by the feelings that Ysabell feels for Mort, and capped off with the feelings that the princess has with dying, are a familiar triangle to anyone who's ever been a teenager.

The character of Death, forever conflicted between Duty and his curiosity with the human's he services, is the first step down the road that leads to one of the most popular and well developed characters on the Disc. For all those that have hit middle age, and asked the question "Is this all there is?", who have looked at their life and careers and said "I need a change!", the issues that Death faces will ring true.

So, pick this one up and get to know one of my favorite characters. Death makes a few more star appearances including Reaper Man and Hogfather, which continue to explore the themes of death and humanity. And then there's Susan, Death's granddaughter. Turns out some things are inherited through the bones...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Equal Rites

"There's no such thing as a female wizard!"

There is a legend. The seventh son of the seventh son is truly a man of special powers. On the Discworld, the number eight holds even greater power (the eight spells in the Octavio, for instance, or octarine, the eighth color that only wizards can see.) So when the eighth son of the eighth son is born, a world of magic trembles. And when a dying wizard wants his staff to pass along to this child, prophesying that the child will be the greatest wizard ever, even Death feels unnerved. Imagine everyone's surprise then when the eighth son is actually a daughter!

In this third visit to the Discworld, the daughter of this foolish, foolish wizard inherits a staff of power with a mind of its own, and the strength of will to put it too use. But there are no female wizards, and this young lady, named Esk falls under the tutelage of one Granny Weatherwax, the most powerful witch in the Ramtops. In time Granny realizes that the power in this girl is far beyond what she's ever seen and decides that the girl should be educated among her fellow wizards, so its off to the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork.

What I like about this story isn't the question of gender roles, sexism and equal rights for women, though Mr. Pratchett does a great job of addressing them in a serious, yet humorous way. For me the pleasure is in meeting Granny Weatherwax. A hard as nails woman who is powerful, yet rarely needs to use that power, she is described in another story as having "pride you can wrap a horseshoe around." Very much a believer in the ideas of equal treatment, she also clearly sees that she is above most people. And while she may get on your nerves, you know you won't dare to cross her. In Equal Rites, she isn't as full force as she will become, playing a relatively secondary role. But we do get a glimmer of the character that will take charge in future novels.

I've talked to people who argue this is their least favorite Discworld books, that the writing isn't what it could be, that the ideas are not fully developed. I can't argue, but on a second, or third reading, you see how he's developing this idea that the Discworld can poke fun at this crazy world of ours, while really examining serious ideas, in this case feminism. While it's not my favorite, I certainly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Light Fantastic

"He moved in a way that suggested he was attempting the world speed record for the nonchalant walk." -- (Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic)

Terry Pratchett's Discworld series continues with one of the few stories that is a direct sequel. The Light Fantastic takes up where The Colour of Magic left off, with Rincewind the wizard and Twoflower the tourist falling off the edge of the world. While certain death seems imminent, the powerful eighth spell of the Octavio, currently locked in Rincewinds' head, come forth to rescue Rincewind (and as a by-product, itself). Of course it's never that simple. When the spell surfaces, it also informs us that the destination of Great A'Tuin is rapidly approaching and it the eight great spells aren't spoken, the world will end. And here Rincewind was just coming to terms with Death (and Deaths adopted daughter, Ysabell).

As you can expect, as news of the approaching doom spreads, the population panics and religious chaos reigns. And to make matters worse, the wizard Trymon decides the time is right for him to gain the ultimate power. He decides to read the Octavio, and absorb the seven remaining great spells himself, and take charge of the Disc. You'll have to find out for yourself how this works out.

The movie I mentioned in the last post, The Colour of Magic (2008), by Sky One, combines the two novels into one movie, relating the full story in one sitting. Some of the smaller adventures get cut out, while building up on the character of Trymon.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Colour of Magic.

Begin at the beginning.

A world on the back of a group of elephants, riding a turtle, who swims through space. On a world like that anything can happen. And in the Discworld, anything does happen.

The first book in the hugely successful Discworld series introduces the Great A'Tuin as a backdrop for Terry Pratchett's mockery of the fantasy genre. Yes, there is a powerful wizard. Yes, there is a mighty barbarian hero. Yes, there is a damsel to be rescued. And if that was the end of it, it would be like a thousand other fantasy novels that no one will ever read. But the powerful wizard, Rincewind, knows one spell, that he doesn't control and is abysmal at performing any other magic. The mighty barbarian hero, Cohen the Barbarian, is older than my grandmother, and ten times as mean. And the damsel to be rescued is more than capable of handling things herself if the need arises. Wait, I'm missing something. Oh yes, the tourist. The world's first tourist, who keeps his rose colored glasses clean through out each misadventure.

Admittedly, this is not my favorite Discworld novel. Others have a more polished feel, with greater depth of character and world-building. But it is a wonderful introduction and a read in conjunction with The Light Fantastic, it makes a fun adventure.

A small British studio, The Mob, with Sky One, took a shot at a two part TV movie in 2008. While it received mixed reviews by critics, the fans, myself included, loved it. It was great to see the world I had read so much of come to life in such a vivid and realistic way.

Monday, September 14, 2009

An Intro To Terry Pratchett

"As far as I'm aware I'm not specifically banned anywhere in the USA, and am rather depressed about it. Surely some of you guys can do something?" -- Terry Pratchett, alt.books.pratchett

Terry Pratchett is one of the funniest authors on the shelves today. He takes a very skewed look at the fantasy genre, as well as Shakespeare and politics and casts it through a kaleidoscope of chaos. With a dry and cynical sense of humor, he takes on current events and twists them to make you see both the humor and the tragedy. He does to fantasy what Douglass Adams did for Science Fiction, so if you've read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series you'll know what I mean. While He is best known for his Discworld series, you don't want to miss out on Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman or Johnny and The Bomb.

Discworld is a flat world carried on the backs of four elephants standing on the turtle known as the Great A'Tuin, who swims through space to a destination only he can imagine, where magic is part of life and the laws of the universe are just a little bit different, even while the fundamentals of truth and greed and human venality remain the same. The series is 36 books with three more in the works. Certainly the characters and stories become intertwined over time, and the timeline does advance as the books get newer, but start anywhere in the series and you'll find your way down the path with ease. . And whatever you do, make sure you read the footnotes. They're much better than what you'd find in an academic text.

Who will you meet along the way? Granny Weatherwax, the most powerful witch in the Ramtop Mountains? Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch? Perhaps Archchancellor Ridcully of the Unseen University. Or the newest citizen of the Disc, Moist Von Lipwig. All will keep you coming back for more. In future posts, I'll look closer at individual books. I can't tell you how excited I am to see the newest, Unseen Academicals hitting bookshelves in October.

Stay Tuned.