Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
October 2005

Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling
Roc, 2004, $7.99

The Protector's War by S. M. Stirling
Roc, 2005, $26.95

In S. M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, the world was struck by a crippling and inexplicable "Change," which rendered all explosives and electronics across the globe useless, stripping humanity of nearly three centuries worth of technological progress. The cause of the catastrophe is unknown, but the effects of the Change are devastating: global supply chains break down, resulting in widespread starvation; disease ravages major cities, where sanitation becomes impossible; and looters and brigands steal what they can, or kill to take what they can't. Survivors gather together into communities and learn to live without the benefit of the technology they relied upon all their lives. Swords and bows return as the weapons of choice, and horses are once again the primary mode of transportation. But while most people are content just to survive and adapt to their new circumstances, some people see this Change as a way to seize power for themselves. One man, a history professor-cum-warlord who calls himself The Protector, rules his domain with an iron fist. Meanwhile, ex-soldier Mike Havel, a/k/a Lord Bear of the Bearkillers Clan, and Wiccan folk singer Lady Juniper Mackenzie of Clan Mackenzie work together to rebuild some semblance of civilization in Oregon's Willamette Valley. But prosperity cannot be achieved without cost, and The Protector has it in mind to charge a toll.

Now, in The Protector's War, over eight years later, the effects of the Change are still ongoing. A new generation has grown up for the most part without modern conveniences, and archery and swordsmanship have become second nature to them. But though the battle years ago between The Protector and the combined forces of The Bearkillers and Clan Mackenzie resulted in a tentative peace agreement, Havel and Lady Juniper know that The Protector cannot be trusted. Skirmishes on the borderlands threaten renewed hostilities, and a sinister plan of The Protector's could unleash new horrors upon an already devastated populace. Added to this mix is the arrival of several British ex-patriots, exiled by a mad King Charles, and the capture of something The Protector very much holds dear all brings tensions to the boiling point, until the inevitable war of the title erupts in the Valley.

Like most good post-apocalyptic narratives, Stirling fuels the reader's passion for this bleak but engaging scenario by playing up the thrill of rebuilding a world from scratch, the idea of returning to a simpler time, and by taking something familiar and looking at it from a new angle. But while the speculative question here--what if humanity suddenly could not use gunpowder or electricity--is a compelling one, the book's true strength is in its vividly described action sequences; brutal and verisimilar, the action never revels in its grotesquerie, though it strikes so fast, hard, and often that it will have readers checking their faces for bloodspatter. The prose is tight as a 130 lb. bowstring and hits home with as much force as an bodkin-tipped arrow. Havel and Lady Juniper come across as real people, with very real problems who are thrust into a leadership role they never asked for, but must fulfill nonetheless. Stirling handles their characterizations, and those of the supporting cast, with the deft skill of a craftsman, building intricate family relationships and societal rules that make no character's choice without cost. There's not much of a plot per se--basically, survival is paramount on the characters' agendas--but the societal changes and the constant conflict keep the novel moving, and the pace never flags.

Where Dies the Fire was very much a post-apocalyptic novel in the truest sense, The Protector's War is much more of a war novel; it's more Braveheart than No Blade of Grass. But though readers who read Dies the Fire first will likely get more out of The Protector's War, it's an extremely enjoyable novel in its own right, and stands alone well. But do yourself a favor and read both books... and be sure to pick up a shield and helmet.

The King in the Window by Adam Gopnik
Hyperion, 2005, $19.95

Oliver Parker, an eleven year old American boy living in Paris, celebrates the French holiday of Epiphany with his family, and is given a gold paper crown along with his cake. He puts it atop his head, more to humor his parents than anything else. Lonely and missing his friends back Stateside, he gazes out the window of his family's apartment and sees not his reflection, but the ghostly image of an anachronistic young boy, floating outside the window. He soon learns that the boy is a window wraith, and that there is another realm called The Way, accessible via mirrors. Seeing Oliver in the window with the crown atop his head, the window wraiths presume him to be the new King in the Window, and turn to him to help them vanquish the evil, soul-stealing Master of Mirrors. Inside The Way, Oliver meets with famous historical figures like Nostradamus and Moliere, who provide him guidance; meanwhile, in the real world, he gets a little help from his best friend Charlie (on a surprise visit from America) and the girl next door, Neige, who knows more about the world of mirrors than she initially lets on. To defeat the Master of Mirrors, Neige, Charlie, and Oliver will tromp all over Paris, from the hall of mirrors at Versailles to the top of the Eiffel Tower; along the way, they'll enlist the aid of some unlikely, downtrodden compatriots, and will find out just exactly what they're capable of.

Gopnik is a veteran writer, having published a long-running series of "Paris Journals" for The New Yorker. Though this is his first novel, it doesn't show the signs of such. The prose is clean and polished, and the plot is tightly constructed, if a bit zany. But the joy of this book is not in the technical proficiency of Gopnik's writing--it's in the gosh-wow fun of it all, the richly-imagined fantasy world with intricate rules and elaborate backstory, the coming-of-age storyline of the innocent and likable heroes...it's fantasy at it's most pure--like an idle daydream come to life, written down in book-form by a master raconteur. It's escapist, to be sure, but there's some great fun to be had along the way, and it's fashioned with enough literary craftsmanship to compensate for its somewhat simple ambitions.

The King in the Window is a YA novel--"for ages 10 and up," according to the cover copy--though it never talks down to its audience. It's full of historical and literary references, and throws some quantum physics at the reader for good measure (which ties in rather slyly with the main thrust of the fantasy element). It does what good YA fiction should do--that is, it opens the young reader's mind to new possibilities, challenges him to learn and dream, and serves as a reminder that one need not be ordinary.

Thud! by Terry Pratchett, read by Stephen Briggs
HarperAudio, 2005, $39.95, 10.5 hours, Audio CD
Audible.com, 2005, $27.97, 10.5 hours, Digital Audio

Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch--straight as an arrow, even if he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer--must investigate the death of an influential dwarf leader, who was found beaten to death with a troll club left nearby as an obvious murder weapon. The conflict between trolls and dwarves goes back hundreds of years, and a new war threatens to erupt between the two forces unless Vimes can unravel the mystery of the murder. And if that doesn't sound tough enough, he's also got to deal with integrating a vampire into the Watch, and has to be home by six o'clock every evening, so he can read Where's My Cow? to Sam, Jr.

It can be hard to do justice to a Discworld novel in summary, as it's not the plot that matters, but the execution, and Pratchett is on the top of his game with Thud! The characters, as always with Pratchett, are the novel's lifeblood, and they come to life vividly courtesy of vocal-chameleon Briggs. His voices run the gamut from the straight-British voice of Vimes to the slightly snooty parlance of Lord Vetinari, to the slow, slightly stupid speech of the trolls.

Though Pratchett has been writing about Discworld for years (there's 30 novels in the series, according to Amazon.com's reckoning), the Discworld novels are generally very accessible to new readers, and Thud! is no exception. Pratchett's humor is as sharp and witty as ever, and Briggs's comic timing is spot-on. Like peanut butter and chocolate, Pratchett and Briggs are great on their own, but when you put them together, you've got something that's almost too good for words to describe.

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