Saturday 28 April 2001

Leslie Charteris: The Saint on Guard (1945)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1945
Review number: 809

The last Saint book to be written during the war - it was published a few months after it ended - contains two stories, of an unusual length (most of the books contain one, three or twelve stories). They are typical in content, though, both about Simon Templar's battles on the American "home front", fighting the black market and sabotage.

Both stories use the same investigative technique; Simon Templar announces that he is going to do something about a problem (the black market in iridium, essential for munitions, or a gang of saboteurs) and uses his reputation to make things happen and get the opposition panicked into making mistakes. This is a device that Charteris uses frequently, and while it makes for exciting thrillers, it becomes a bit predictable when several Saint stories are read more or less one after another, as I have been doing recently.

The two stories are not among the very best Saint stories, though competent, and there are signs that Charteris is becoming bored with this phase of the character. He makes fun of his own creation in a couple of places, which is a new departure. From this book, Charteris' speed of production drops quite dramatically, before reaching the point (with the advent of the TV series) where collections of Saint stories include ones written by other people. I have a suspicion that the mid 1940s was also a time when Charteris became disillusioned with the series of films; he didn't like any of the actors who portrayed Simon Templar, from George Saunders to Ian Ogilvy. The only way this shows in the writing is a certain lack of inspiration.

K.W. Jeter: Infernal Devices (1987)

Edition: Grafton, 1988
Review number: 808

There are quite a few science fiction novels which use the same basic premise as Infernal Devices - that the Victorian period could have produced technology rivalling today's computers in complexity - enough to have earned the subgenre label "steampunk" in imitation of cyberpunk. The attractions of such novels for writers are clear; as well as allowing them to comment on contemporary life in a veiled way, as all alternative history does, it is possible to write in homage to the Victorian thrillers and early science fiction adventures which are still loved by many today. The tone of Infernal Devices is more reminiscent of Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger novels than H.G. Wells or Jules Verne (who are possibly more obvious models to follow - especially as one of Jeter's other novels is a sequel to The Time Machine). It is, however, rather knowing and pokes some fun at the way that many historical novels import modern language and morality unintentionally.

George Dower's father was a master inventor of clockwork devices, a talent unfortunately not inherited by his son, who makes a meagre living repairing watches and those creations of his father where the fault is obvious. One device, left with him by its owner, a man who seems to have a skin of brown leather, leads him into a strange adventure. This involves an unusual couple who talk in twentieth century slang, a church where the pew Bibles are replaced by Isaak Walton's Compleat Angler, a device which is meant to destroy the world, and a violin-playing automaton, the Paganinicon, which is also Dower's double.

Infernal Devices is much less repellent than Jeter's earlier work, but perhaps is less gripping as a result. Its message is less clear than that of Dr Adder. However, since it can be appreciated as an entertaining take on the Victorian adventure story, it probably remains Jeter's most accessible novel, even including the Bladerunner sequels.

Friday 27 April 2001

Michael Wood: In Search of England (1999)

Edition: Viking, 1999
Review number: 807

Like every nation, England has its collection of historical mythology, which is of varying truthfulness. This collection of essays is mostly about this subject, the famous and the less famous - Arthur and Robin Hood, on the one hand, to the survival of ancient crafts ("the last bowl-turner of England"), to turning points in English history. Though England is the unifying theme, the collection of essays is not sufficiently focused to make them read as though they were specially written for this book, and there plenty of things which could have provided interesting material but which are not covered - Magna Carta, Simon de Montfort and the English Parliament, and so on.

The eclectic approach is the major problem that In Search of England faces; in other respects (and certainly as far as individual chapters are concerned), it is as interesting and well written as Wood's earlier In Search of ... volumes. Wood's popular history offers a very personal approach particularly appropriate in the TV versions which have been made of some of the books; his obvious engagement with the past makes it exciting and alive for the view and reader.

Thursday 26 April 2001

Gene Wolfe: Peace (1975)

Edition: New English Library, 1989 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 805

This novel must rank as one of the most atmospheric fantasies ever written. It is the story of a life in the American Midwest in the early years of the twentieth century, which is a strange setting for such a novel; the narrator's life is not in itself fantastic - it is purely the way in which the story is told which places it in the genre.

For the narrator is a ghost. He is revisiting his life as part of a visit to a doctor, when given an odd treatment which is a sort of combination of the Rorschach test with fortune telling by the use of the Tarot; each episode in the novel is set off with the turn of a card. The episodes are not chronological and the storytelling is very digressive, and they are not entirely complete in themselves. It is quite difficult at the beginning to follow what is going on.

One thing the novel is remarkable for is the use of stories within the story. These are basically ghost stories, and are both skilfully told and carefully used to enhance the otherworldly atmosphere.

Peace is a wonderfully subtle and enjoyable novel, and is completely different - though equally excellent - from most of the Wolfe I have previously read - The Book of the New Sun and The Book of the Long Sun.

Paul Doherty: The Treason of the Ghosts (2000)

Edition: Headline, 2000
Review number: 806

The medieval town of Melford is a dangerous place for young women. A serial killer is stalking the lanes around the town, which has grown quickly from a village after local farming has changed to the profitable business of sheep rearing. When local magnate Sir Robert Champelys is hanged, found guilty of the killings, they stop. However, questions are raised after his conviction - the jury included several men he had cuckolded, and there seemed to be irregularities in some of the evidence. Sir Robert's son petitioned the king for an investigation and maybe a pardon, and when the killings start up again the king's clerk Sir Hugh Corbett is sent to Melford to find out the truth.

In many ways The Treason of the Ghosts is not quite typical of the series of novels in which Corbett is the detective. It is as meticulously researched as ever, but the fact that there is more plot than usual (with a large number of murders requiring simultaneous investigation) leaves less room for the evocation of background which is one of the principal merits of the series. Like many of Doherty's novels, particularly those written as Paul Harding, this one contains a locked room mystery, but it is only perfunctory and easily solved in a few pages. It is in fact quite easy to work out who the murderer is, with Corbett ignoring some very obvious leads. The poorer plot and lack of background make The Treason of the Ghosts one of the least successful novels in the series.

Wednesday 25 April 2001

Max Beerbohm: Zuleika Dobson (1911)

Edition: Yale University Press, 1985 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 804

While this famous comic novel has much in common with the writing of Oscar Wilde and Saki, it has at its centre an extravagent gesture all of its own, far beyond anything attempted by these other writers.

Zuleika is an incredibly beautiful young woman, famous as a conjurer, who visits Oxford as the guest of her grandfather, Warden of Judas College. There she meets the extremely eligible Duke of Dorset, an undergraduate, who leads the other students first into falling in love with her and then into suicide because of her. The death of thousands of students is the extravagant gesture, and much of the novel is about the day leading up to this, at the climax of Eights Week (the main rowing competition between Oxford colleges).

The deaths may seem a strange central episode for a comic novel, and it does occasionally threaten to overwhelm the humour, particularly in the description of the last hours of the Duke's life, when he realises that Zuleika is not worthy of the sacrifice he is making but that he is compelled by his honour and the appearance at his ancestral home of the owls that mark the death of the head of the family to go through with it. The Duke is a far more sympathetic character than the vain, selfish, shallow and not terribly bright Zuleika, and it is a task which has taken much skill from Beerbohm to balance the reader's sorrow over his fate with the humour of the novel.

One question which I cannot answer is whether Zuleika Dobson has any meaning beyond what it appears to have on the surface. If it had been written after 1914, it would fairly clearly have seemed to be a reference to the destruction of youth by the war; but this is impossible. What destroys the youth of Oxford is something which appeals to their desires in a fairly superficial way - Zuleika's appearance; she isn't even a particularly good conjurer. Maybe she represents the lure of the world outside the college cloisters, corrupting the elite of the country; she is after all an outsider in Oxford.

This particular edition contains delightful eccentric illustrations by Beerbohm, unpublished in his lifetime but reproduced from one of his copies of the novel.

Tuesday 24 April 2001

Orson Scott Card: The Shadow of the Hegemon (2000)

Edition: Orbit, 2001
Review number: 803

Following on from Ender's Shadow, this novel is the story of what happened to the Battle School graduates of Ender's Game after their return to Earth. Since it covers new ground rather than paralleling Speaker for the Dead, it is a much more involving novel than Ender's Shadow.

It puts the antagonism between Ender's lieutenant Bean and serial killer Achilles against the background of political and eventually military manoeuvring as the unity of facing the alien Buggers falls apart with the removal of the threat. Still only children, the military geniuses and immensely famous Battle School graduates are incredibly valuable as pawns and in their own right (though adult commanders find the second difficult to believe).

The children are well drawn characters, and the political background is fascinating if a bit like the scenario of a game of Risk (as Card admits in the afterword). Much better than Ender's Shadow, a most enjoyable piece of science fiction.

Saturday 21 April 2001

Frederik Pohl: The Annals of the Heechee (1987)

Edition: Del Rey, 1988
Review number: 802

The Heechee series, which begins with Gateway and ends with The Annals of the Heechee, is a classic. It is very traditional science fiction, but the quality of the ideas and the writing raise it well above the commonplace. I remember reading the first three novels for the first time when this was published, which is when I bought it; for it to have left as strong an impression on me as that, I must have found it an inspiring read.

The other thing I can remember is that The Annals of the Heechee was comparatively disappointing. Re-reading it now (without re-reading the others first), I can see both why this was and what I found impressive about the series as a whole.

The plot is rather difficult to summarise without completely ruining the earlier novels. The central character and narrator, Robinette Broadhead, is in some ways dead; he is now a machine stored personality. A lot of the novel is about the interaction of human beings and computer programs, a relationship which is clearly going to become closer and closer as time goes on in the real world.

Another theme of the novel - and of much hard science fiction - is the nature of the universe, and quite a large proportion of it is given over to descriptions of the big bang and string theory. This is a little unhelpful for plot development, but is probably needed for many readers to understand what is going on. (The descriptions are very clear, and do not appear to have gone out of date particularly badly.)

The Annals of the Heechee is quite a slow novel - partly a deliberate effect to emphasise the difference between machine stored and "meat" people - and its ending is anti-climactic. However, it succeeds on the ideas and characters sides, and provides a definite conclusion to a great series.

Friday 20 April 2001

Lyndon Hardy: Secret of the Sixth Magic (1984)

Edition: Corgi, 1986
Review number: 801

Having written his first novel around a carefully constructed theory of magic, Hardy undermines it in his second. It is set in a different country in the same world, with a new central character who is unfortunately very similar to the hero of Master of the Five Magics. (Having someone who studies all the different magic arts is of course a useful device for exposition of the theory.)

The plot of Secret of the Sixth Magic is based around a crisis, when the art of sorcery ceases to work. This spreads to magic - a serious problem when this art is used to guarantee major currencies. Finally, Jemidon works out what is happening - magic is not being destroyed; its laws are being changed by the mysterious Melizar. When Melizar's minions become the only people to know the new laws, they will have immense power, so Jemidon has to work out how to transform the laws back again.

The whole thing seems to be simultaneously contrived and unimaginative. It also undermines an interesting facet of Master of the Five Magics, the correspondence between the branches of the magic arts and our scientific disciplines; to change the laws of physics would have much more far reaching and interesting effects (probably fatal) than just putting physicists out of work. Repeating the same plot with essentially the same poorly drawn characters is dull, and the one really remarkable aspect of this novel is just how uninteresting Hardy can make a completely alien world (in which Melizar imprisons Jemidon) and how unalien its supposedly completely different inhabitants seem to be. There is a further sequel, but this novel has always quashed any desire I might have had to read it.

Michael Innes: The Man From the Sea (1955)

Edition: Gollancz, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 800

On a beach in northern Scotland, a night time assignation is interrupted by the emergence of a fugitive from the sea. This turns out to be one-time defector John Day, who claims to have returned to the country to see his wife again before he dies (a nuclear physicist, he has been fatally careless). The young man on the beach agrees to help him and they begin to try to travel south without being caught by Soviet agents or revealing Day's identity to the British authorities.

The novel is basically a latter day John Buchan thriller, with especial closeness to The Thirty Nine Steps. Being Michael Innes, the writing is frequently tongue in cheek, and so The Man From the Sea is a knowing homage. Even for a thriller, it has an abrupt ending, and could actually be improved by expanding the last three or four chapters by twenty pages or so. Fast paced and enjoyable, it sweeps the reader along for the most part, which is good; it is only if you stop and think that it becomes clear just how silly it all is.

Thursday 19 April 2001

David Eddings: The Losers (1992)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1993
Review number: 799

Apart from his debut novel, thriller High Hunt, The Losers is Eddings' only attempt at something outside the fantasy genre. Interestingly, it has aspects in common with the much earlier novel, including the Washington state setting (though that is where Eddings lives) and a plot incorporating ideas about sibling rivalry (less literally here).

Raphael Taylor is bright, good-looking and athletic - a high school American football hero. When he goes to university, he meets the strange but fascinating Damon Flood, and is basically led astray. A drunken driving accident leads to the loss of a leg, and Raphael has to face up to life as a cripple.

Unable to face his friends, Raphael moves to a poor area of Spokane to begin his convalescence, only to become fascinated by the lives of those around him (in a Rear Windows kind of way). These people, living on the edge of crisis, unwillingly dependent on an institutionalised social services, are the losers of the novel's title.

The losers are really what the novel is about, and there are lengthy debates about what drives them and if (and how) they can be helped. A lot of what is said is criticism of the American social services, which, in Taylor's (and presumably Eddings') opinion, fails because it regards these people as a catalogue of problems to be matched against programs, rather than as individuals. It is, of course, an easy criticism to make of any enterprise of a large scale, and it is much more difficult to suggest anything which can
be done about it.

As a novel, The Losers is more interesting than successful, with the traces of arch humour characteristic of Eddings' fantasy novels seeming distinctly out of place. (This is particularly the case as some jokes are repeated word for word.) Raphael is not believable enough to hang the novel on; the loss of his leg has remarkably few psychological effects, and this combines with his role as observer to make him seem too detached from reality. Charles Dickens would have made wonderful characters out of the losers, and Eddings is no Dickens. The Losers is probably Eddings' most ambitious and least successful novel.

Wednesday 11 April 2001

Michael Moorcock: The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming (1977)

Edition: Daw Books, 1978
Review number: 798
Alternative title: A Messiah at the End of Time

The second title of this novel, used for the American edition (which is actually the one I read), is in fact rather better than the original one; it is much more apposite, and concerns the main interest of the novel. It begins with a short editorial explanation, detailing the way it fits into Moorcock's other novels; it draws on several scenarios, but the one series which really should be read before The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming is The Dancers at the End of Time.

Mavis Ming is one of the many time travellers stranded at the end of time; overweight and not terribly bright, she isn't exactly one of the stars of that superficial society. But then the Fireclown, prophet from the past, arrives to judge the End of Time, and he chooses the unwilling Mavis Ming to be his great love.

The idea of confronting the hedonism of the End of Time with religious fanaticism is interesting, but Moorcock for once executes it poorly. The Fireclown is not one of his more convincing characters, and Mavis Ming is (deliberately) a dull one. In the end, the novel is a poor relation of the trilogy.

Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (1836)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 797

The immense success if the story that launched Dickens' career is shown by the fact that the 400 copies of the first issue of the serial had become 40000 by the fifteenth. It has remained something of a favourite with readers ever since.

Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. I find the character of Mr Pickwick annoying, particularly at the start of the novel - at least until the introduction of Sam Weller; for someone who has lived to middle age he is unbelievably naive. The interpolated stories are dull and for the most part deserve to be skipped; one (Gabriel Grub) is interesting as a precursor to The Christmas Carol.

It is only really following the election at Eatonswill and Mrs Bardwell's breach of promise suit against Mr Pickwick that things pick up. Sam Weller and his father are good characters, even if the rendition of their accents now seems tediously affected rather than comic.

I like the later writings of Dickens better, when he had more discipline. The Pickwick Papers developed as its serial numbers were written, and it shows. (In fact, it was originally meant to be a set of pieces to accompany the illustrations, rather than the other way around, and the virtually unknown Dickens was not the first choice to write them.) There are elements which prefigure Dickens' strengths as a writer, but they are more enjoyable when more fully developed (in David Copperfield,say).

Leslie Charteris: The Saint Steps In (1944)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1944 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 796

This novel, written towards the end of the war, is a typical Saint plot - beautiful woman in danger because of innocent involvement in a criminal scheme - set against the background of one of the most important industries for the war effort, rubber production.

In many ways, The Saint Steps In could be considered a paradigm for Saint novels. It is an exciting thriller, and is also an uncompromising attack on the elements of society that Charteris despised - in this case, Nazis, fifth columnists, profiteers, and those who through stupidity allowed these people to operate. Not profound, perhaps, but certainly enjoyable.