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Oh Frabjous Day

Phoenixine Eighty-Nine, January 1997

It being Christmas, what better book to discuss than the new Terry Pratchett novel -- Hogfather. It would appear that every Hogwatchnight, the Hogfather journeys the Discworld in a sleigh drawn by grossly overweight pigs. He travels the length and breadth of the world, delivering presents to the good children (he knows if you've been good or bad). Unfortunately, this year the Hogfather has gone missing and as a stand in, Death leaves something to be desired. Particularly since Albert will keep drinking the sherry that has been left out for the Hogfather. But Death must do his duty. If the Hogfather does not deliver the presents, the sun won't rise the next day.

That's about it, as far as plot goes. The rest is just Terry having his usual fun with the Discworld. We find out where the tooth fairy takes all those teeth (and why she carries a pair of pliers). We meet the verruca gnome and the cheerful fairy. The wizards at Unseen University have a computer called Hex which is powered by ants. In other words, it has Anthill Inside.

Lots of good groans in this book, but really it is just more of the same. I hate to say it, but I think the Discworld is getting stale in the same way that the Stainless Steel Rat is getting rusty.

I read The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell, but really I shouldn't have bothered. The books are now so formulaic that I suspect Harrison could write them in his sleep. In fact I'd be willing to bet that he did write this one in his sleep.

On Hogwatch morning in the Robson house, it was champagne and smoked salmon for breakfast, and the opening of the presents. The Hogfather brought me a CD rack with a Buck Rogers spaceship on it, a carving of a sleepy cat and some plastic insects that glow in the dark. The cats treated their catnip mice with total disdain, and refused to scratch their new scratching post -- the furniture and the carpet still being preferred. Perhaps, from their point of view, it would have been better to have given them the smoked salmon and left the catnip mice for me.

Charles Sheffield popped up with a couple of good books this month. The Ganymede Club is a sort of a prequel to Cold As Ice (but is completely stand alone -- neither book depends upon the other). It is set in a solar system ravaged by the after effects of the great war. Lola Belman, although she doesn't know it yet, has fallen foul of the Ganymede Club of the title. The club was formed in secret by the survivors of the first expedition to Saturn in order to protect and use what found them there. (No there's nothing wrong with that last sentence). Lola Belman is a haldane, a sort of super psychiatrist, and one of her patients is on the run from the Ganymede club...

The novel is just a space opera; lots of slam-bang adventure, but there's nothing wrong with that and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed Tomorrow and Tomorrow as well, though it is a much deeper book. It opens in the late twentieth century. Drake Martin's wife Anastasia is dying of an incurable disease. Drake has her frozen, to be revived when the disease can be cured. And because he cannot bear to live without her, he follows her into the cryowomb to journey with her into the future. He is awoken several times on his long journey into time, but for Anastasia there is no cure and each time he wakens alone. Millions of years in the future, he learns that there is hope that she will live again, at the eschaton, the omega point where the universe collapses in on itself, merging past and present.

This is obviously an idea whose time has come. Sheffield's novel is the second I have read recently which uses this theme (the first was Frederik Pohl's The Other End of Time). The idea of the eschaton and what it means is taken from a rather quirky book called The Physics of Immortality by Frank Tipler. The physics may be dubious, but that makes it perfect for SF and both Sheffield and Pohl have done Tipler proud.

Another good space opera is Patton's Spaceships by John Barnes. It turns out to be the first of a series (damn!) but that minor fault aside, it is a rollicking good yarn. The closers (whoever they might be) are waging a war of extermination among a million parallel earths. Opposing them are the Crux Ops teams, guerrilla units from an alternate Athens. A Pittsburgh private eye (the first person narrator of the story) stumbles across a Crux Op operation and is soon embroiled in the fight. There's nothing new about the premise -- Fritz Leiber did it in his Change War stories, Keith Laumer did it in his Imperium stories, and doubtless many others have done it too. But that doesn't stop it being fun when it is done well, and Barnes does it very well indeed. And now I'm going to have to buy the rest of the books as they are published. Blast! Blast! Blast!

Not too far removed in the space opera stakes is the new L. Neil Smith novel Pallas. I bought this one on the strength of his earlier book The Probability Broach which I enjoyed immensely, and I wasn't disappointed. Emerson Ngu escapes from a government run prison colony on the asteroid Pallas. Outside the colony he finds a semi-anarchic libertarian society. The slam bang adventure story of Ngu's escape and subsequent battle against the government regime is used to dramatise the libertarian ideals. Smith himself is a well known libertarian and survivalist and he uses his fiction as propaganda. Nothing wrong with that. Unlike many propagandists, he can actually write well and tells a good page-turning tale. The idealistic society he seems to yearn for strikes me as being fundamentally unworkable (he has a rather naive view of human nature) and his insistence that everybody should be armed strikes a rather sour note in the wake of tragedies such as Dunblane and Port Arthur. I detest his ideas, but I thoroughly enjoy his stories.

In search of grue, I picked up Geoffrey Abbot's Lords of the Scaffold, subtitled "A History of Execution". Abbott is a former Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London. As part of his duty of guiding tourists around the tower, he would embroider his normal lectures with the odd ghoulish, macabre fact. These went down so well that he has now collected these into several books, of which this is one. No gruesome detail is omitted as Abbott gleefully discusses the gory details of various execution methods used around the world, the executioners who put them into practice and their successes and failures on the scaffold. The failures, naturally, make for the most interesting reading. Thus in 1571, a certain John Storey was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. He was cut down from the gallows while still alive in order to be drawn, and it is reported that while the executioner was 'rifling through his bowels', Storey sat up and dealt him a blow before being quickly dismembered. And who can blame him?

The name of Sharyn McCrumb is well known to SF fans. She is the author of two screamingly funny satires of the SF world, Bimbos of the Death Sun and Zombies of the Gene Pool. However she is also a well respected novelist in her own right outside the SF field and I have just read two of the four novels in her Appalachian series. All are set in the hillbilly country with an overlapping cast of characters.

The Rosewood Casket concerns the Stargill family. Old Randall Stargill is dying and his four sons come back to the family farm. There they build him a coffin and argue over what to do after he dies. There is an old scandal connected with the Stargill family. In his youth Randall had a sister who disappeared and presumably died in the thick forest. Now that Randall himself is dying his old childhood sweetheart Nora Bonesteel (who has the spirit sight) asks that a small box be buried with Randall. Inside the box are the bones of a small child.

She Walks these Hills opens two hundred years ago with Katie Wyler who ran across Ashe Mountain escaping from Indians who had held her captive. But she returned home to a greater tragedy. She still crosses Ashe Mountain today, but only people such as Nora Bonesteel can see her now. Hiram Sorley, who has escaped from prison and is making his way back home can see her. Jeremy Cobb who is studying the period for a thesis would like to see her. Deputy Sheriff Martha Ayres does not believe in ghosts. She needs to protect Hiram Sorley's ex-wife and daughter. After all, Sorley is a convicted murderer who could easily kill again. All these deaths, past and present, link together in the climax of the book.

I suppose, stretching a point, you could call these SF novels because of the small supernatural element that they embody. But really they are just enormously well written and absorbing books full of incident and character and grandeur. I read both books in a sitting, totally absorbed. And when I'd finished them I dashed out and visited every bookshop in Auckland looking for the other two books in the series but I couldn't find them anywhere and I'm annoyed. If any of you want to buy me a birthday present, I want The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter and If Ever I Return.

Falco, the detective in Vespasian's Rome is back again in Lindsey Davis' new novel A Dying Light in Corduba. Falco becomes involved in the politics of Olive Oil when he stumbles across a particularly gruesome murder in the back streets of Rome, a murder in which he could have been a victim, were it not for an amphora of fish-pickle sauce two slaves were carrying for him at the time. Despite the fact that Helen is eight months pregnant, they travel to Spain to sort out a price fixing cartel and find the murderer. As the case is triumphantly concluded, Helen goes into labour...

I found the plot of this one somewhat difficult to follow. There were too many characters with very similar names and rather too many obscure political and social ramifications. At times, Falco seemed to be building straw men, at others, tilting at very murky windmills. I'm still not sure who did what to whom, and why. In that sense, perhaps it is an unsatisfactory book. Falco was as cynical and wise-cracking as ever, and that was fun. But it is not one of the stronger Falco novels.

For many years I have been promising myself that I'd read the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters. The fortunate discovery of four Cadfael omnibus volumes in a second hand bookshop forced my hand and I have just finished the first of them. It contains the first three Cadfael novels: A Morbid Taste for Bones, One Corpse too Many and Monk's Hood. Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk in twelfth century England. Over the course of more than twenty novels, Ellis Peters has him solve many murder mysteries. The strength of the novels lies not so much in the whodunit aspects of the plots as in their sense of time and place, the skilful invocation of the past. Under her real name (Edith Pargeter), the writer was an extremely well thought of historical novelist who specialised in this period, so there is no doubt that she was writing for strength. I felt the first novel was rather weak (though it has a brilliant title), but after that they really took off and I galloped through the next two. I have another seventeen (I think) to go and I am rather looking forward to them. No -- I won't review them one by one in this column. But I may well mention them in passing. Watch this space.

Edith Pargeter died last year. The new Lindsey Davis novel is dedicated to her.

So that was it for the Hogwatch month. As I write these words, I really am on holiday. Oh frabjous day, calloo, callay. (I put that in to torment the spell checker).

Terry Pratchett   Hogfather Gollancz
Harry Harrison The Stainless Steel Rat goes to Hell  Tor
Charles Sheffield The Ganymede Club  Tor
  Tomorrow and Tomorrow Bantam
John Barnes Patton’s Spaceships  Harper Prism
L. Neil Smith Pallas Tor
Geoffrey Abbott  Lords of the Scaffold Headline
Sharyn McCrumb  The Rosewood Casket   NEL
  She Walks These Hills Coronet
Lindsey Davis  A Dying Light in Corduba  Century
Ellis Peters The First Cadfael Omnibus Warner
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