Index of first lines
Enlightenment came to Patera Silk on the ball court; nothing could ever be the same after that. So runs the first line of NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN (NEL, HARDBACK, UK £15.99, 333 pp) the new novel, and first in a new series set in the universe of his Urth books, by GENE WOLFE. As a master of his craft one expects only the best from Wolfe and as first lines go this one is pretty impressive. But from my perspective, and I consider myself a fan of his work, much of what follows goes downhill. My main complaint about NIGHTSIDE is that it is all too obviously part one of a series and has been written as a means of setting the scene for what is to follow and to introduce backgrounds and characters more than it is intended to entertain as a work in its own right. Consequently it moves at the leisurely pace of a work of much greater length, and import one might say if feeling particularly bitchy, and all the action within its pages feels as though it has been padded with an excess of detail which leaves it unbalanced.
That said, it is worth sticking with all the way through to the end and although it may not quite deliver the reward a reader may feel is his due the time and energy invested in its 333 pages, what it promises for the future (in a further three volumes) is certainly intriguing. Patera Silk is a priest whose Manteion (a cross between his home, a monastry and a church) is sold from under him to a property developer, and a somewhat shady character to boot. Following his enlightenment, Patera Silk decides to take matters into his own hands. His plan is to break into the crooked developer’s house, which is something of a fortress, confront the man and demand (with threats of violence if necessary) the return of the Manteion. Nobody else gives him much (any) chance of succeeding, not surprisingly, but because he believes it to be the will of one of his gods, he proceeds.
For mature readers (maturity being a state of mind rather than an accumulation of years in this case) who appreciate first class writing for its own sake, NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN is well worth the investment. But a word of warning to anyone looking for an all-action blockbuster: walk on by.
Already showered with awards, it seems arrogant of me to think that anyone could value my opinion of this novel, let alone base their decision to read it upon any recommendation I might make. But it is not always the best or most interesting or the most readable novel that wins the awards. As with everything, voting in the Hugos etc. is very much a matter of personal taste – or who is flavour of the (month/year/decade -check one). So it is possible for crap (at least what I consider to be crap) to cop the major awards. But DOOMSDAY BOOK (NEL, PAPERBACK, £5.99,650pp) by CONNIE WILLIS does not fall into this category. DOOMSDAY BOOK is, in fact, a beautifully realised tragedy set against the background of England in the Middle Ages. It also involves time travel, the plague and an intriguing mystery. Willis has peopled it with characters for whom we can really care, whether they hail from our century or that which our heroine visits and her back¬ground detail is so convincing that she must have spent years researching it. Of course it is always possible that it’s just that I am both ignorant of the period or particularly gullible – but let’s say for the sake of argu¬ment that she’s done a job good enough to fool the average reader.
One thing that you will have noticed about Connie Willis, if you have read her before, is the measured pace of her writing. She is never in a hurry to go anywhere so that the reader always has ample time to admire the scenery she has crafted. The life stories of the central players are built up over hundreds of pages rather than tens and the plot unfolds in a leisurely manner. There is seldom, if ever, any sign of slam down, drag out action but in the context of the stories she wishes to tell and the manner of their telling, it hardly seems necessary -even in a novel of this length. So why should you bother to part with your hard earned for this particular book? Do yourself a favour and find out for yourself. At £5.99 it will be a cheap lesson. Of course the money you spend on the rest of her output may amount to a considerable sum.
FAERY IN SHADOW (LEGEND, TRADE PAPERBACK, £8.99,249 pp) has certainly answered some questions about C.J. CHERRYH in my mind. Many years ago (when Adam was a boy) I read the Faded Sun trilogy and thoroughly enjoyed it, with certain reservations. Since then I have ploughed my way through three more of her SF novels, most recently HELLBURNER, and so it was with mixed feelings that I approached this, her latest, and the first fantasy of hers I have tried.
I wanted to like FAERY IN SHADOW, I really did. After The Faded Sun I had considered myself, if not a fan, at least someone who appreciated her fiction deeply. But I have to say that as far as I am concerned, following the delights of FAERY it is definitely time for me to wake up and smell the coffee. If I really did like The Faded Sun all those years ago, things have certainly changed. I know that she is held in the highest esteem in writerly circles but it is time for me to stand up and be counted. She does not put her words in the optimum order. Not all of her sentences make immediate sense to the reader who might not be concentrating one hundred and one per cent upon what Ms Cherryh is trying to say.
Yes folks, I found this quite difficult, and tiring, to read. It also cost me a couple of weeks of my life to get through this one, and I am usually quite a fast reader. When I look back on the experience of re-reading sentence after sentence two or three times in order to make sense of what she was trying to put across I have to ask myself was it worth the effort.
My advice to you is don’t waste the time in finding out the answer to that question for yourself. Find something a little more user friendly – like the telephone directory.
Who needs another book about Atlantis by some n utter with a foreign sounding name, I imagine a number of you asking yourselves. And in many cases (most indeed) you would be right to put forward the question. But THE FLOOD FROM HEAVEN (PAN, PAPERBACK, £5.99,224pp) by EBERHARD ZANGGER is different enough from the ‘Aliens from Atlantis kidnapped me for sex’ brigade to be of interest to anyone from serious students of history to the most casual of readers.
Zangger takes as his starting point the two works of Plato, Timaeus and Critias, in which he describes Atlantis and which are the original references to the lost continent. Every story concerning Atlantis can be traced back to a few short pieces in these works, the second of which, Critias, was left unfinished.
So why was Critias left unfinished? It was not his last work. It was part two of a planned trilogy which seems to have been scrapped a short way into book two. If we are to give credence to Zangger’s theories it is because Plato discovered he had made a fundamental error in telling the Atlantis story, which he had presented not as legend but as fact, as history. And it is upon this re-interpretation of Atlantis as Zangger believes Plato himself must have done, that he bases his work. In pursuit of his theory he indulges in a little detective work that even Sherlock Holmes might have been proud of and in the end places before the reader every significant reason he can think of as to why his research amounts to no more than bunkum.
Personally I think he may be as close to the truth as anyone is ever going to get and his answer is certainly more plausible than anything I have seen before. My only problem with it is that as an incurable romantic I far prefer the Atlantis that disappeared beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean some twelve thousand years ago.
For something that is transparently a vehicle for getting mileage out of a big name whose recent performances have been below par, STRANGE DREAMS (HARPER COLLINS, TRADE PAPERBACK, £8.99,531 pp) edited by STEPHEN DONALDSON turns out to be one helluva good anthology. Perhaps if it had not been for the Bestselling Author of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant tag after his name they might have got away with it. Some of us might have been fooled into thinking that Donaldson was setting forth on a new career as an editor and anthologist. We might have believed that compiling this anthology fulfilled some lifelong need in the man. There again, we might still have seen it as merely an excuse to generate some more product under the Donaldson name. But at the end of the day, who cares as long as the product is worthwhile.
If you like short stories and you haven’t got too many of these already in other collections I can heartily recommend purchasing STRANGE DREAMS. Although there are few surprises in terms of author or story content, there’s hardly a one that doesn’t deserve its place here – more about The Storming of Annie Kinsale by Lucius Shepard later. The authors include such luminaries as Orson Scott Card with the near-ubiquitous Euminides in the Fourth-Floor Lavatory, R.A. Lafferty whose marvellous Narrow Valley has been the highlight of many an anthology, Theodore Sturgeon with his darkly humourous And Now The News, Harlan Ellison whose Jeffty Is Five is always worth another look and John Varley with Air Raid which metamorphosed into the movie Millenium.
Of course there are exceptions and I’ve picked the two which are most glaring. If you have passed by Jorge Luis Borges on the shelves of your local library or book¬shop without pause, read his contribution to STRANGE DREAMS and kick yourself for what you’ve been missing all these years. The story here – The Aleph – is a perfectly ordinary sample of his work and it is a wonderful illustration of why the word ‘magic’ appears in the description ‘magic realism’. Look at this for a first line: On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes.
His writing is so effortlessly ordinary and yet approaches everything from such an odd angle that you must question even the most mundane of statements. The Aleph presents itself in the beginning as a love story, develops into a tale of literary envy and becomes suddenly and without prior warning a piece of the purest Science Fiction.
The Storming of Annie Kinsale on the other hand, while coming from the pen of an author who would claim to plough the outer edges of magic realism, is a total piece of stage-Oirish blarney which might just convince some fifth-generation New York Paddy with a name like Zablinsky or Tortelli or Tortuga or Torquemada, but faith and begorrah would ye ever be after kindly sparing us your arrogantly unresearched bullshit if you wouldn’t be afther minding Mr Shepard, yer honour. You nearly spoiled a perfectly good anthology, never to mind a perfectly good lunch.