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Three More Books - Qualified Perceptions
Three More Books

When the King Comes Home, (Caroline Stevermer)
There are books which believe in the power of music, and there are books which believe in the power of art. I always find the latter more convincing to read about - it's not that I don't believe in music, but I have a hard time perceiving it in the written word. The only fiction that has successfully conveyed the sheer beauty that music can have is Amadeus, and that's because it lets you hear the music, as Salieri reacts to it. The scene with Mozart in his deathbed, dictating the Requiem Mass, or earlier, as Salieri pages through the manuscripts, snippets of melody flying by - between the music itself and the reaction to it, I believe in the heart-pausing emotional impact of the music. Art, I can always believe in the magic of (which is probably why Dunyazade is an artist rather than a musician).

All that is something of a digression before saying that When the King Comes Home is about an artist (so I have a soft spot for it). It's set in a fictional European country during the Renaissance, and the plot really doesn't remind me of anything else at all. There's some travelling, but it's not a Quest and there's no Party of Travellers. There's a lot of art, which ties into magic somewhat confusingly. The return of the legendary king is - a good thing? a bad thing? Hard to tell. The author writes with a light touch, so even though the plot muddles around a bit, it's still worth following. It's moderately reminiscent of Sorcery and Cecilia (Stevermer is one of the two authors of that), without the letter-writing convention. I had one brief worry that she would fall into a traditional cliche and make the villain be a character we had previously met (that both were mentioned as having red hair made me very worried that there would be a later revalatory scene of "Why, it was you all along!") - but she didn't.

All in all, a book worth reading more for the style and the momentary beauty of particular scenes, and not for the Epic Plot. Four out of five stars, but half a star is for the artist.

What's the Worst That Could Happen? and The Hot Rock(Donald Westlake)
The sub pilot first recommended Donald Westlake and the Dortmunder novels to me, and that's one of the best recommendations I've ever gotten. My favorite so far is probably Bad News, but I didn't just read that one, I read these two this week.

Westlake is, as always, funny. The humor is thoughtful and sardonic, so it didn't transfer very well to a movie version some years ago. And he does it with words that cost no more than a penny apiece, so you can just read along at a fast clip.
"Freeze," the man said.
Freeze. Why does everybody say freeze anymore? Whatever happened to "hands up"? With "hands up" you had a simple particular movement you could perform that would demonstrate to one and all that you weren't making any trouble, you were going along with the armed person, no problem. What are you supposed to do with "freeze"? Teeter on one foot? Maintain a stupid expression on your face? "Freeze" is for television actors; in real life, it's demeaning to all concerned.
Dortmunder is a nicely put-upon professional crook, likable enough yet without any tendency to segue into the heroic, and the plots tend to involve people being both clever, competent, and humanly fallible, but not hit by stupid rays. My only complaint is with What's the Worst that Could Happenthe back of the book - the header is "Trumped!" as if we couldn't figure out who the billionaire was supposed to be a riff on. The Hot Rock was the first of the Dortmunder books, written in 1970, and WtWtCH was written in 1996 - for all the time that separates them, they're remarkably even.

Anyway, just go read one. Or two. Then more, if you're hooked, but maybe not all at the same sitting - to give the similarities a little time to fade. Five out of five, as long as you're not expecting grand literature.

The Abhorsen Trilogy, (Garth Nix)
This is three books, Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen. The first stands alone, and the second two are one story set a few years later.

I really like the world. There has been a lot of world-building that went into it, much of which is mentioned but not explained. Why does magic work in one country and not the other (except when the wind is from the country of magic)? Why are the seasons, and the time of day different on one side of the Wall than the other? Death is a river, with waterfalls (the Gates) and rapids and flat shallow planes with monstrous waves ; when a necromancer sends their spirit into Death, their body, left behind, quickly ices over with frost. I like the magic system (Free Magic, Charter Magic, the Named Bells used in necromancy), though Charter magic tended to promote itself to deus ex machina some of the time.

I ended up with a clearer visual picture of many of the settings (Death, in particular, and the no-mans-land near the Wall) than I often do, a good thing. The Bad Things are actually spooky. There are some unreasonable coincidences, but no more than one comes to expect in fantasy. The plots involve something of the standard "Defeat the Terrible Evil through Sacrifice and Against the Odds", but it's in a different enough setting and with different enough tools that it isn't anything like a Tolkein rehash. Four stars, because I had to deduct half a star for an annoyingly rushed love plot in the first book.

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3 comments or Leave a comment
jencallisto From: jencallisto Date: May 18th, 2004 01:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Stevermer: i enjoyed When the King Comes Homes, but i remember almost nothing about it, which is a bit sad. the same is true of her A College of Magics</i>. i think A Scholar of Magics</i> will stay with me more, but i'm not sure why. Sorcery and Cecilia i love, but then i'm pretty fond of Wrede in general. i'm really looking forward to the sequel.

the thing that strikes me as interesting is that i am strongly inclined to like and believe in the power of music in books. i'm okay with the power of art, too, but the power of music is more real to me.

have you read Sharon Shinn's Archangel series? voice and vocal harmony are a major component of the world and the plots, and i think it works fairly well. Emma Bull's War for the Oaks may be my favorite book with a musician for a protagonist, but i think music is largely incidental to my reasons for liking it.

also, i'm having trouble coming up with many books with art or artists as a large component. Charles de Lint's The Onion Girl... i think there are artists in Steven Brust's The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars... do you have any favorites to recommend?

Nix: it's funny, because most of your general statements about the series i quite agree with -- especially the different setting and the actually spooky Bad Things. but when talking about the specific books... i loved Sabriel, really liked parts of Lirael and found Abhorsen to be somewhat disappointing. i think that Lirael and Abhorsen would've been better off as one longer, more tightly written book. and i don't recall the love plot in the first book annoying me at all. it seemed more reasonable and comprehensible than the bits of romance in the other two, iirc, though it's been awhile since i read Sabriel and hadn't thought about making a direct comparison of the love plots until now. hmm.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: May 18th, 2004 01:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
I really liked The Golden Key, by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott (a collaboration that worked better than many I've encountered). I don't remember the plot very well (I rarely do for books I only read once, I'm afraid), but art is a big theme.

I just read the Archangel series fairly recently, so can remember it. And the music all sounded pretty, but I did end up thinking that since everyone was such a marvellous singer, it was hard to imagine them very differently, even though they were described very differently. So that really was an example of music that I didn't believe in my heart, just in my head. "Yes, he sings well."

It's funny that you thought pretty much the opposite of me about the love plots - Liriel/Abhorsen, I found more plausible. Yes, there's some interest, but it's diffident and she dodges, pretending to be much older, and then gets embarassed... The Sabriel/Touchstone love plot seemed very rushed. Here we are, I've rescued you, we've shared a moment of combat, now I'm in your arms, a chapter later I'm in love? I may exaggerate a bit, I just returned the book to MITSFS today and can't reference it. :)
jencallisto From: jencallisto Date: May 18th, 2004 02:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
i will have to look for The Golden Key, though i have to admit a certain amount of trepidation about a book with three authors, all of whom i've vaguely heard of but not read.

i can see how the sheer amount of beautiful singing in the Archangel books could translate into "oh, more pretty singing" and not much more. it could be that being a singer myself i'm more attuned to the descriptions of differences in the voices -- in the most recent one i read (Angelica, am waiting for Angel-Seeker in paperback) the female lead is described as being a warm alto with natural talent at harmony, the sort of voice that makes voices singing with it better than they ever could be on their own, which strikes me as very distinct. i think the male voices may less differentiated, though.

i think i must go back at read the Nix trilogy again. i see what you're saying, and yet the feel of it... i don't know. i guess i've had a fair amount of quick falls into love, so they don't necessarily seem too implausible to me.
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