Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, published in 1884, is Edwin A. Abbott's social satire and Christian apORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, published in 1884, is Edwin A. Abbott's social satire and Christian apologetic. As a Cambridge mathematician, theologian, and schoolmaster, Abbott had a lot to say about his Victorian society and about being open-minded to the supernatural. He does this from the point of view of a humble square that lives in Flatland, a world of only two dimensions.
For the first half of the book ("This World"), the square explains the demography of Flatland, all the while offering hilarious social satire. He begins at the lowest social stratum (women, who are straight lines) and ends with the king, who has so many sides that he's indistinguishable from a circle. Low-class men, such as soldiers, are isosceles triangles with sharp acute angles. Since the brain is the size of the smallest angle, these men are stupid, but their sharp angles provide offensive weapons. Anyone who has an angle under 60° is a serf. Women, of course, have no angles, which means they are brainless and irrational (and Abbot provides plenty of tongue-in-cheek evidence for this fact). But women have a mouth on one end, and it can effectively be used as a dagger. When viewed from the back, a woman is hard to notice since she is seen only as a point, thus she must sway her bottom back and forth to alert others of her dangerous presence.
Pretending that he's merely explaining Flatland society to his readers in "Spaceland," Abbot mercilessly mocks his era's class structure, fashion, aristocratic marriage and parenting practices, the education system and school board politics, and government. All of this is done in a reasonable-sounding lecturing tone:
"Obviously then a Woman is not to be irritated as long as she is in a position where she can turn round. When you have them in their apartments -- which are constructed with a view to denying them that power -- you can say and do what you like; for they are then wholly impotent for mischief, and will not remember a few minutes hence the incident for which they may be at this moment threatening you with death, nor the promises which you may have found it necessary to make in order to pacify their fury."
In the second half of the book ("Other Worlds") the square explains his vision of a one-dimensional realm called "Lineland" where he meets the king of Lineland who can't imagine Flatland, a world of two dimensions. The square thinks this is amusing, so he torments the belligerent king by using the second dimension to speak to the king from above, to magically pop in and out of the King's view, and to offer predictions about who is approaching the king from afar (image below). With his omniscience and omnipresence, the square bewilders the king of Lineland.
Upon his return to Flatland, the square is confronted by a sphere from our Spaceland of three dimensions who, poised in the third dimension, can view all of Flatland. To the Flatlanders the sphere looks like a circle of changing diameter, and to Linelanders he seems to be only two lines. The sphere can pop in and out of Flatland and Lineland as he wills, can see inside (and even manipulate) houses and bodies, and can make predictions about the future based on what he sees from his viewpoint.
Our square, who harassed the king of Lineland for his inability to imagine Flatland, is now flummoxed at the thought of a dimension he can't perceive, but he believes it because he has witnessed the sphere's power and he remembers his analogous encounter in one-dimensional Lineland. When the square tries to preach this new teaching, though, he meets resistance from unbelievers.
The metaphor, of course, is that we in Spaceland, being confined to only the dimensions we are able to perceive, can't imagine more dimensions in which other beings exist and may be able to visit, view, or manipulate us. This idea isn't at all new to me, but I found Abbott's explanation to be a very convincing line of reasoning and, perhaps, a way to imagine what it must be like to be God. Flatland is best known, by the way, as a treatise on dimensionality and is considered by scientists to be prophetic in its use of unseen dimensions to explain physical phenomena.
Flatland is available in the public domain, but I chose to listen to Blackstone Audio's recent version which is four hours long and read by Robin Field. The audiobook does not come with Edwin Abbott's drawings, but I had no trouble imagining them because they're thoroughly described by Abbott in the text. However, it's easy to refer to them in public domain sources if you wish. I loved Robin Field's narration and, even though the material seems heavy, I didn't have any problem following along. I did, however, have to maintain constant focus just to translate all of the geometric metaphors into social analogies during the first section of the book. For that reason, Flatland is hard work, but immensely rewarding. I thought it was brilliant.
The more I read Kage Baker, the more I love Kage Baker. Of the hundreds of speculative fiction authors I’ve reORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
The more I read Kage Baker, the more I love Kage Baker. Of the hundreds of speculative fiction authors I’ve read, I rank Kage Baker in the top ten. Maybe top five. She’s that amazing. I love her clever imagination and her style which is unembellished, straightforward, and full of wit and charm. Which is why I was jumping up and down when the nearly 500-page story collection called The Best of Kage Baker showed up on my doorstep.
This collection, published by Subterranean Press, contains 20 excellent stories; nine have been published in five previous collections and eleven are uncollected. Several are set in the world of Baker’s most famous creation: THE COMPANY. Here are the stories you’ll find in The Best of Kage Baker:
1. “Noble Mold” — (1997, Asimov's Science Fiction) Mendoza, the Company botanist, is sent to collect an important vine from an Indian mission in California, but the Indians refuse to give it up. Joseph, acting as a Roman Catholic priest, has to play a trick on them to get the precious vine out of their hands.
2. “Old Flat Top” — (2002, Black Projects, White Knights) A Cro-Magnon boy climbs a mountain searching for God. It turns out that God is a Company Enforcer.
3. “Hanuman” — (2002, Asimov’s Science Fiction) When Mendoza meets a pre-human hominid at a Company R&R facility and hears his story about how he visited his chimpanzee surrogate mother, Mendoza must consider her own feelings about being human.
4. “Son Observe The Time” — (1999, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Hugo nominee) Before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a group of Company operatives is sent on a mission to preserve the city’s important relics before they are destroyed. This story is full of magnificent imagery and will likely bring tears to the eyes of anyone who loves that city. You can almost feel the earth starting to tremble... what a beautiful story.
5. “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst” — (2003, Asimov’s Science Fiction) Joseph and Lewis visit the mansion of media magnate Walter Randolph Hearst. The Company wants to make a deal with the inestimable Mr. Hearst.
6. “The Catch” — (2004, Asimov’s Science Fiction) Clete and Porfirio are tracking a dangerous rogue Company operative who used to be a freckle-faced baseball- and cowboy-loving All-American boy from 1951.
7. “Leaving His Cares Behind” — (2004, Asimov’s Science Fiction) This is a sequel to Baker’s novel The House of the Stag, which I loved. The spoiled loafing son of the King of the Mountain and the Saint of the World needs some spending money. It was such a pleasure to revisit this world.
8. “What the Tyger Told Her” — (2001, Realms of Fantasy) A caged Tyger advises a young girl about life. Using her family members as examples, he demonstrates that to get what you want in life, you should not talk too much and you should never underestimate your opponents.
9. “Calamari Curls” — (2006, Dark Mondays) In this silly tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, the owner of the Chowder Palace restaurant (whose customers seem to all be missing body parts) hires a transgender mime to ruin the business of the new Calamari Curls restaurant that opened across the street. In this story we learn the real words to the song Louie, Louie.
10. “Maelstrom” — (2007, The New Space Opera) On Mars, a rich man uses his money to build the Edgar Allan Poe playhouse. Now where is he going to find some decent actors?
11. “Speed, Speed the Cable” — (2008, Extraordinary Engines) The Society is involved in a covert operation to prevent sabotage to the world’s first transatlantic communications wire. While they’re at it, they install a little something extra for themselves. This story ends with a thoughtful vignette about copyright and internet piracy.
12. “Caverns of Mystery” — (2008, Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy, World Fantasy Award nominee) This spooky story is about a girl who has the curse of being able to see phantoms from the past. While on a beach vacation with her family, she is drawn to the caverns which have an old sad story to tell.
13. “Are You Afflicted With Dragons?” — (2009, The Dragon Book) A hotel owner can’t get rid of the dragons roosting on his roof until he meets a man in the marketplace who offers to do the job for free... For free... Really?
14. “I Begyn as I Meane to Go On” — (2008, Fast Ships, Black Sails) Slaves escaped from Barbados are picked up by some unlucky pirates and eventually find themselves hunting treasure on a creepy booby-trapped island. There’s not much fantasy here – it’s just a thrilling pirate adventure that would make a great movie.
15. “The Ruby Incomparable” — (2007, Wizards: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy) We return again to the world of The House of the Stag in this story about the headstrong daughter of the King of the Mountain and the Saint of the World. I love this world and its inhabitants and this story seemed like just a fun frolic until the poignant end that brought tears to my eyes. This is a story for parents, and especially for mothers.
16. “Plotters and Shooters” — (2007, Fast Forward) This hilarious story is about a colony of geeks who plot and shoot asteroids above the planet Mars. The Shooters have enslaved the inferior Plotters, but when a new plotter arrives, geek civil war ensues. I laughed all the way through this story.
17. “The Faithful” — (2003, New Voices in Science Fiction) Two temple priestesses are in danger of losing their faith when their goddess is replaced with a new religion. If you’ve never read this clever story, I guarantee that as soon as you read the last paragraph, you’ll go right back to the beginning and read it again. I love stories that make me do that. This was one of my favorites.
18. “Leaping Lover” — (2007, The Mammoth Book of Dickensian Whodunnits) In letters to a friend, a delusional narcissistic lady explains how Spring-Heeled Jack has fallen in love with her. Another hilarious story.
19. “Bad Machine” — (2005, Asimov’s Science Fiction) The 16 year old son of a parliamentarian living in an Orwellian future England has been noticed by the authorities because he’s been ordering too many condoms by mail. His computer, which manifests as a pirate, must “patch” things up.
20. “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park” — (original) A Company operative whose surgery was unsuccessful is used only as a living camera to document decades of change in Sutro Park in San Francisco. As the park declines, so also does a little girl who grows up and eventually deteriorates into madness as she fights to preserve the park she loves. I cried at the end of this story, too.
In my experience, story collections are almost always a mixed bag, but The Best of Kage Baker is not. Even those I’d read before were welcome re-reads. I enjoyed every single story in this collection. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s the honest truth that nearly every one of them made me think, smile, laugh, or cry. What can be better than that? And at the very end, I wanted to cry just because Kage Baker, who died a couple of years ago, will write no more of her wonderful stories. We have lost such a great talent.
The Best of Kage Baker is one of the best story collections I’ve ever read. I will treasure this volume. Please don’t ask me if you can borrow it.
It’s been 3000 years since Ender Wiggin, as a child, was tricked into committing xenocide. While he and his siORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
It’s been 3000 years since Ender Wiggin, as a child, was tricked into committing xenocide. While he and his sister Valentine traveled the universe and benefited from the effects of space-time relativity, Ender’s name has been reviled on Earth and all the inhabited planets. He is infamous for his childhood deeds, but almost everyone thinks he’s been dead for centuries. They don’t realize that the man who holds the respected position of Speaker for the Dead is actually Ender Wiggin. And they don’t know that the Hive Queen of the Buggers still lives and that Ender has vowed to find her a new home. When Ender is called to the planet Lusitania to speak the death of a beloved xenologer, he thinks he may have finally found a suitable place for the Hive Queen to resurrect her race.
In the author’s afterward to Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card explains that this was the novel he had always intended to write and that Ender’s Game, its more famous and popular prequel, was just an introduction. I’m sure that’s why, as much as I loved Ender’s Game as a thrilling action-packed YA adventure, I liked Speaker for the Dead even more. This is a more mature, thoughtful, and far-reaching story.
Card explains that he wanted to explore this question: “What do we do about dead people whose lives were really crummy? What do we do about people who were vicious... What do you say at the funeral?” He suggests that we deal with this by lying, or by erasing the person they really were, re-making them, after their death, into the person we wish they had been. To address this human tendency, Card created the function of Speaker for the Dead — an objective outsider who would learn about the person who had died and would then speak the truth about him. This would involve uncovering not only the person’s good and bad deeds, but also the background that would let his acquaintances understand why he became the person he was. Card effectively uses the role of Speaker for the Dead to show us that there may be a very good reason why a “bad” person turns out that way. Not that this excuses his behavior, but it at least makes it understandable and may help us see how our own behaviors could have contributed to it. Perhaps then we can be more forgiving.
There is way more going on in Speaker for the Dead than this, though. Card explores the sciences of cultural anthropology and genetics as researchers on Lusitania are learning about the native alien species that live there. In so doing, he manages to touch on ecology, biodiversity, virology, xenophobia, cultural elitism, our motivations for scientific study of other species, and how advancing technologies drastically change a culture. He asks us to consider when we should disobey our government and when we should abandon the ethical principles we’ve sworn to uphold. He asks us to constantly question all of our previous knowledge.
Though this is a meaty and thought-provoking work, Speaker for the Dead is populated with characters you can love, hate, or otherwise relate to, and Card holds it all together with a heart-wrenching story about loneliness, bullying, abuse, hate, jealousy, adultery, incest, companionship, guilt, forgiveness, redemption, love, and death. There’s a lot going on here.
At the conclusion of Speaker for the Dead Ender finds that, once again, he has both destroyed and saved lives, and he is severely misunderstood by most of his fellow humans. He has accomplished much in Speaker for the Dead, but there is more trouble literally on the horizon. I can’t wait to see how he deals with it in the third ENDER WIGGIN novel, Xenocide.
Speaker for the Dead was published in 1986 and, like its prequel Ender’s Game, it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, making Orson Scott Card the first author to win both awards two years in a row. It also won the Locus Award. I listened to Audio Renaissance’s full-cast audio production of Speaker for the Dead. It’s excellent and highly recommended....more
I don’t like vampire novels much, so I wasn’t planning to read Richard Matheson’s classic vampire story I am LORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
I don’t like vampire novels much, so I wasn’t planning to read Richard Matheson’s classic vampire story I am Legend which was published in 1954, is also known by the title The Omega Man, and is, of course, the basis for the movie I am Legend.
But then I recently read and was enthralled by two other books by Matheson: The Incredible Shrinking Man and Steel and Other Stories. I realized that The Incredible Shrinking Man wasn’t really so much about a man who was losing his height as it was about a man who was losing his manhood. Likewise, the novella “Steel,” the titular piece of Steel and Other Stories and the premise for the movie Real Steal, isn’t so much about a fighting robot as it is about a man who, similar to the shrinking man, is fighting to keep his position in life. The psychological aspects of these stories fascinated me and I began to wonder if perhaps I am Legend wasn’t really about vampires after all.
As I suspected, it’s not. Well, on the surface it is. Robert Neville is the last human being on Earth. Everyone else has been infected with a virus that causes vampirism, but for some reason, Robert is immune. He spends his daytime hours securing his house, staking vampires, and trying to discover a cure for the virus. At night he hides indoors while the vampires, some who are his former acquaintances, try to break in. During the story there are flashbacks which show the gradual loss of Robert’s family and friends to vampirism.
I was fascinated by Robert’s preparations and daytime activities, and his studies to find the cause and cure for the virus. The thought, for example, of having free access to anything you want, including cars, jewelry, clothes, houses, art, scientific equipment, and every book in every bookstore and library in the world is exhilarating... until you realize that there’s nobody to share it with. All those things are almost meaningless outside of their social context.
So, this is Matheson’s gut-wrenching focus — what it means to be the last human on Earth, especially when you’re fighting for your life. We all know that humans are social creatures, but none of us has actually experienced a total lack of companionship. What would it mean to rule the entire world alone? And yet, as depressing as that is, why, when there’s nothing to live for, do we still cling to life so desperately? Matheson writes so powerfully about these emotions. I ached for Robert Neville and a few of Matheson’s scenes had me in tears.
The story is called I am Legend because Robert Neville gradually comes to realize that vampires, the creatures he thought were only legend, are real. Now, Robert Neville, the elusive human being who vampires fear, has become the legend.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version of I am Legend which is perfectly read by Robertson Dean. This is one I will listen to again. By the way, I am Legend is not a full-length novel, so some versions include additional stories in a collection called I am Legend and Other Stories.
It’s the dark ages again. A 20th century nuclear war spawned a “Flame Deluge” which destroyed human civilizatiORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
It’s the dark ages again. A 20th century nuclear war spawned a “Flame Deluge” which destroyed human civilization’s infrastructure and technology, killed most of the people, and created genetic mutations in many of the rest. Then there was a backlash against the educated people of the world who were seen as the creators of both the ideas that started the war, and the weapons that were used to fight it. They were persecuted and killed and all knowledge was burned up. After this “Simplification,” people took pride in being illiterate and the only institution that seemed to come through intact was the Roman Catholic Church.
Walter M. Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is divided into three parts, which were originally published as three separate stories. In the first story, “Fiat Homo,” which takes place 600 years after The Simplification, we find a cloister of monks who are applying to New Rome to have their martyred patron, an ex-electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz, sainted. Leibowitz’s monks have been collecting, preserving, and copying fragments of the Earth’s previous civilization. As keepers of pre-Deluge history, they attempt to piece together knowledge and history, without knowing for certain what they’re looking at. One day, while maintaining a vigil of silence in the desert around the abbey, Brother Francis stumbles upon the entrance to Leibowitz’s fallout shelter containing precious relics, such as a circuitry blueprint and a deli shopping list. These relics cause quite a stir in the abbey.
“Fiat Lux” begins 600 years later. Genetic mutations caused by the fallout are still affecting mammalian DNA, and the monks of St. Leibowitz occasionally wonder whether there really ever was an advanced civilization on Earth, but progress is gradually being made. This is especially true in the abbey of St. Leibowitz where the monks are safe from the tribal wars that are common in surrounding Texarkana. Their studies of the fragments they’ve been collecting have prepared them to ignite a new renaissance.
Another 600 years pass. In “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” humans, though still affected by “genetic festering,” have reached the pinnacle of civilization and culture, progressing beyond what had been experienced before the nuclear war in the 20th century. But there’s been a cold war going on for 50 years between the two world superpowers and they both have nuclear weapons. At the abbey of St. Leibowitz, the monks wonder if humans are destined to repeat the cycle and, as keepers of the world’s knowledge, what is the abbey’s responsibility to humankind?
"Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? …. Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing? This time, it will swing us clean to oblivion… Back then, in the Saint Leibowitz’ time, maybe they didn’t know what would happen… They had not yet seen a billion corpses. They had not seen the still-born, the monstrous, the dehumanized, the blind. They had not yet seen the madness and the murder and the blotting out of reason. Then they did it, and then they saw it… Only a race of madmen could do it again."
Obviously, the main theme of A Canticle for Leibowitz is the repetitive cycle of human history and the role of our advancing knowledge and technology in our own destruction. This provides the reader with plenty to think on, but Miller also addresses issues that the Roman Catholic Church has tackled during its history, such as its role in state politics and its insistence that euthanasia is a sin. While the novel is meant to be a serious consideration of these ideas, and while its predictions and warnings are frightening, A Canticle for Leibowitz still manages to be amusing and agreeably quirky all the way through. Though there’s a powerful and unforgettable message here, it is the irreverent, eccentric humor that makes it so enjoyable to read.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a classic piece of post-apocalyptic science fiction that had mass cross-genre appeal when it was published in 1960, won the Hugo award in 1961, and has never been out of print. Thus, it’s a must-read for any true SF fan. I recently tried the audio version which was just released by Blackstone Audio and narrated by Tom Weiner. Audio readers, even if you’ve read A Canticle for Leibowitz before, you won’t want to miss Blackstone Audio’s first-rate production of this imaginative, chilling, and humorous novel....more
audio version Henry Dorsett Case is a washed up computer hacker. He used to be one of the best, travel4.5 stars ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
audio version Henry Dorsett Case is a washed up computer hacker. He used to be one of the best, traveling cyberspace and sneaking through computer defenses, stealing money and information for his employers. But after he got greedy and embezzled some money, his employers damaged his brain so he can’t jack into cyberspace anymore. He spent the stolen money trying to get his ability back, but it didn’t work, and now he’s suicidal and wandering the squalid streets of Chiba City, Japan... Until Molly the razorgirl shows up. She wears tight black leather, has mirrored glasses implanted in her eye sockets, and has retractable razors embedded under her fingernails. She delivers Case to her boss, Armitage, who says he can fix Case if he’ll hire on as his hacker. Case’s new hacking job turns out to be a lot bigger and a lot stranger than he and his new colleagues expected.
There’s very little exposition in Neuromancer and it’s got its own slang and culture. So when William Gibson drops us off in degenerate and dystopian Night City with its neon lights, holographic arcades, drug dealers, meat puppets, black market surgeons, and silvery sky, you’ll want to either hide in the nearest alley, or start running... and hope you don’t bump into any of Gibson’s characters. Once you meet them, you won’t forget them, but you’re unlikely to fall in love with any of them because, like their city, they’re cold and criminal (“Towns like this are for people who like the way down”).
The unfamiliar language and setting and the aloof characters will be a turn-off for some readers, but those who think it’s exhilarating to be dumped into new and unknown territory will find that Neuromancer is fast-moving, flashy, decadent, and sexy (think The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell). For a novel written in 1984, it feels surprisingly stylish, its cultural issues are still modern, and it has accurately anticipated some of our 21st century technological developments.
The most obvious thing that Neuromancer anticipated — and this is what makes it classic science fiction and the seminal cyberpunk novel — is the internet, which Case calls “cyberspace.” In his afterward to Neuromancer, Jack Womack suggests that Neuromancer didn’t just foresee the internet, but that the novel may have actually created the internet (or at least influenced how we use it) because the people who developed it read Neuromancer back in 1984.
As a product of the 1980s, a fan of dystopian science fiction, a neuroscience researcher, and a denizen of cyberspace, I’ve been waiting years for Neuromancer to be released on audio, so I was thrilled to see that Penguin Audio finally produced it this summer. The audio version is excellently read by Robertson Dean and includes Jack Womack’s afterward in which he discusses the novel’s influence and his friendship with William Gibson. There’s also an introduction by Gibson in which he talks about how Neuromancer has aged — pretty well except for the mention of modems and the lack of cell phones (something I’ve noticed that most old SF novels are missing).
One thing I’d like to alert audio readers to: Neuromancer is not an easy read because of the lack of exposition, which makes it even more difficult on audio. If you’ve not read the novel before, it will require full concentration and occasional rewinding, but it will be rewarding. No science fiction fan should miss the first novel to win the Triple Crown of SF awards: the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Philip K. Dick awards. And for audiobook readers, now is the perfect time to enjoy Neuromancer....more
The Incredible Shrinking Man: A beautiful psychological study of masculinity
Every day Scott Carey is getting shorter by 1/7 of an inch. The doctors haThe Incredible Shrinking Man: A beautiful psychological study of masculinity
Every day Scott Carey is getting shorter by 1/7 of an inch. The doctors have figured out why — he was exposed to a combination of insecticide and radioactivity — but so far they have not been able to make him stop shrinking. Now Scott is only one inch tall and he is trapped in the cellar of his family’s rented home with a stale piece of bread, an out-of-reach box of crackers, a sponge, a garden hose, a water heater, and a black widow spider. And in seven more days, he’ll be gone.
Well, that’s enough to make many readers want to hear Scott’s story. How did he get in the cellar? Why didn’t he prepare for this since he had plenty of time? Where is his wife and daughter? Will the therapies reverse the shrinkage? Will the spider get him?
In The Speed of Dark, Elizabeth Moon blends science fiction, neuroscience, and her own experience to speculateORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
In The Speed of Dark, Elizabeth Moon blends science fiction, neuroscience, and her own experience to speculate about a future in which scientists have nearly eliminated the symptoms of autism. Lou Arrendale’s cohort is the last of the impaired autistics. Thanks to early intervention programs, Lou and his colleagues are verbal, take care of themselves, and work for a pharmaceutical company that makes use of their savant abilities, yet they lack the social understanding needed to integrate into “normal” society. But that could all change because Lou’s company has just received approval to begin clinical trials on a procedure that may cure them of their disorder, and the boss wants to use Lou and his co-workers as the first guinea pigs.
Because Elizabeth Moon has a teenager with autism, a background in science (and science fiction), and has done a lot of research, The Speed of Dark feels like an authentic account of an autistic man’s cognitive processes. I was completely fascinated by Lou’s revelations about the way he thinks, the things he understands and remembers, the environmental stimuli that he either doesn’t notice or can’t ignore, and the way he uses music and motion to help him integrate and regulate sensory input. This was really well done (except that I feel pretty sure that Lou wouldn’t use the term “object permanence” to explain “shape constancy”). Few readers could fail to become emotionally attached to Lou and to root for him as he struggles to understand who he is and how he fits in, tests his strengths and challenges himself to excel, makes friends and enemies, falls in love, learns how his brain works and, most importantly, decides who he wants to be.
The focus on Lou deprives the other characters of some depth, but perhaps they seem this way because we view them mainly from Lou’s perspective. Marjory, the girl Lou has fallen in love with, exhibits very little personality, and Mr. Crenshaw, the “villain,” is so completely over-the-top that I kept thinking of Mr. Waternoose from Monsters, Inc. In fact, in Brilliance Audio’s version, the reader, Jay Snyder, sounds just like Mr. Waternoose (who was played by James Coburn). By the way, I highly recommend this audiobook because the novel is written in the first person and Snyder’s voice, which so perfectly captures Lou’s social awkwardness, adds to the emotional impact and makes Lou’s stilted language not only easier to “read,” but actually quite charming.
The Speed of Dark, which won the Nebula Award, is one of those novels that makes you feel the whole spectrum of emotions, changes the way you think, and stays with you forever. Its portrayal of a devastating behavioral disorder is all at once beautiful, humorous, enlightening, heart-wrenching, poignant, and hopeful. ...more
Cugel “the clever” is one of the scummiest, nastiest, lowliest rogues in all of fantasy literature. He’s got nORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
Cugel “the clever” is one of the scummiest, nastiest, lowliest rogues in all of fantasy literature. He’s got no morals and no respect for women, he’s often a coward, he’s not good looking, nor is he particularly good with a sword. In the words of one of Cugel’s acquaintances, “who could imagine such protean depravity?” The answer, apparently, is Jack Vance. And that's why Cugel is one of my favorite “heroes” — because he belongs to Jack Vance.
Cugel’s Saga, book 3 of The Dying Earth and the direct sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld, begins ironically — with Cugel again fallen afoul of Iucounu, the Laughing Magician, who has now banished Cugel across the dying earth to exactly the same place he had sent Cugel before and from which Cugel had just returned to seek his revenge. Thus, Cugel begins another long journey back to Almery to get even with Iucounu, and of course it’s another series of hilarious misadventures. These usually involve Cugel entering a village, pretending to be a gentleman and getting involved in some profitable scheme, and eventually having to flee or being run out of town.
During each of these episodes, Jack Vance uses his characteristic humor to highlight absurd human behavior. For example, in chapter 3, after penniless Cugel has just narrowly escaped a man whose ship, wife, and daughters he kidnapped, he happens upon a town in which the men spend their days sunning themselves atop columns of stone while their wives work to pay Nisbet the quarryman to add additional stones to their husbands’ towers, thus elevating them, both literally and figuratively, above the other townsmen. Cugel, noticing how eager the women are to please Nisbet, sees this as an opportunity not only for monetary gain, but also perhaps to score benefits that Nisbet may not have imagined… Yes, Cugel is a scoundrel, but it’s hard to think too badly of him when most of the people he encounters are equally corrupt. Cugel himself explains it this way:
I am not one to crouch passively with my hindquarters raised awaiting either the kick or the caress of Destiny! I am Cugel! Fearless and indomitable!
Cugel’s various adventures do not become predictable and they never get stale — each is unique, fresh, and delightfully funny. Besides the sheer entertainment value, Jack Vance’s voice is consistently a pleasure to read. Nobody writes just like Vance and I never tire of it.
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of Cugel’s Saga, which was read by Arthur Morey, who has narrated their other Vance titles. He is excellent as usual — one of the finest audiobook readers I’ve ever listened to. He and Jack Vance have entertained me for many an hour as I commute back and forth to work. I’ll bet my colleagues wonder why I’m always chuckling wickedly when I pull into the parking lot....more
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance is the best anthology I’ve ever read. These stories wORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance is the best anthology I’ve ever read. These stories will be enjoyed by any SFF reader, but they’ll be ten times more fun if you’ve read Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, because they are all written in honor of that fantastic work. Each tale is written in the style of Vance, which is quite amusing in itself, and each takes place on the Dying Earth, that far-future wasteland in which natural selection means survival of the cleverest, nastiest, sneakiest, and most self-serving.
Songs of the Dying Earth was written by “many high-echelon, top-drawer writers” (as Mr. Vance says in the preface): Robert Silverberg, Matthew Hughes, Terry Dowling, Liz Williams, Mike Resnick, Walter Jon Williams, Paula Volsky, Jeff Vandermeer, Kage Baker, Phyllis Eisenstein, Elizabeth Moon, Lucius Shepard, Tad Williams, John C. Wright, Glen Cook, Elizabeth Hand, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Dan Simmons, Howard Waldrop, George R.R. Martin, and Neil Gaiman. And there’s an introductory “appreciation” by Dean Koontz.
It was pure pleasure to listen to these authors emulate Jack Vance’s writing style and to fill their stories with Vance’s beloved (if I can call them that) characters such as Rhialto the Marvellous, Cugel the clever, Derwe Coreme, Guyal, Turjan, T’sais, Ioucounu the Laughing Magician, Lith, Chun the Unavoidable and, of course, plenty of Deodands, sandestins, pelgranes, and Twk-men. They used some of Vance’s neologisms and hilariously named magic spells (e.g., The Spell of Forlorn Encystment, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Spell of the Macroid Toe) and plenty of those other strange things we find in Vance novels: colors that don’t exist, baroque architecture and fashion, slimy creatures that squirm and pulsate, eyeball jelly, blue concentrate, miniaturized enemies, nostrils used as doorways, pulp, ichor, fungi, and empty eye sockets… as Kage Baker said in her afterword, the Dying Earth is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
These stories were so well done that much of the time I forgot that I wasn’t actually reading Jack Vance. Many of the tales give us supplementary history about some of Vance’s well-known characters and they fit into the canon so smoothly that I’m afraid I’ll forever be remembering them as original Vance! Every story in this anthology is a lot of fun (except for Elizabeth Moon’s because I have a phobia of cockroaches), and they are all highly recommended reading, but my favorites were those that best affect Vance’s florid style, magniloquent dialogue, distinctive character names, black humor, and sense of irony — not so easily done. Those that accomplish this best are:
* Tad Williams, whose story about a low-order traveling magician who gets stuck to a Deodand was the funniest * Terry Dowling, who made me late to work because I was sitting in the parking lot and laughing at his magicians’ contest * Kage Baker, who had won me over even before she has Cugel say to himself “What, though, Cugel! Have you not an unfailing way with the female sex? If you cannot ingratiate yourself with the old witch, you are not your father’s child.” * Tanith Lee, whose style is spot-on in every respect and gets extra points for creating a spell “extrapolated from Phandaal’s empurpled theorem of Locative Selfulsion” * Walter Jon Williams, who creates a delightfully clever hero, puts a disagreeable wife in a bottle, and makes up some nice new words * Mike Resnick, who explains the origin of Chun the Unavoidable and why he sews eyeballs onto his cloak * Matthew Hughes, whose unlucky protagonist inhabits flying insects who keep getting squashed * Neil Gaiman, whose charming last story answers the ultimate question: what happens when the sputtering sun finally goes out?
Something that makes the Songs of the Dying Earth very special (especially to me, a rabid but newer Vance fan) were the authors’ afterwords in which they explain what Jack Vance’s work means to them. I was amazed at how similar their stories were: almost invariably they were between 13 and 15 years old, looking for something to do, found a Vance novel on their brother’s bookshelf or one of his stories in a pulp magazine, became completely enthralled, scoured the bookstores and newsstands for more, and eventually read all of his work. They consider Vance a major influence in their own writing, and (almost all of them say this) he’s one of the few authors they still feel the same way about today as they did when they were teenagers. I found this fascinating. And kind of sad, for I have never experienced the joy of needing to hunt for, and therefore eventually finding, a treasured book that I didn’t know existed. I’ve never seen an Ace Double at a newsstand. This was all before my time and I feel like I’ve missed out.
The afterwords were beautifully nostalgic, but in reality I’m thankful to Subterranean Press and Brilliance Audio, that scrounging around on used bookstore floors is a thing of the past for Vance fans. Both of these houses have lately been supplying us with Vance in print and audio, and both have published Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance. Sub Press’s print version has terrific illustrations by Tom Kidd. Arthur Morey does the narration for the audio version and, because he also narrated The Dying Earth stories and uses the same voices for the characters in this anthology, it helps give the impression that these are actually Vance tales. Mr. Morey “gets” Jack Vance — he has the wry tone just right. He really had me laughing at the bad-poetry-quoting barbarians in Robert Silverberg’s story.
Songs of the Dying Earth is a must-read for Vance fans. If you haven’t read The Dying Earth, I highly suggest that you read it first (may I recommend Brilliance Audio’s versions?). Mr. Martin and Mr. Dozois, please give us more Songs of the Dying Earth!...more
Books are dangerous. They’re full of ideas that make people think about the world, feel passion, and perhaps aORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
Books are dangerous. They’re full of ideas that make people think about the world, feel passion, and perhaps act out. That’s not good for society; it causes conflict, uprising, and interference with the status quo. People who read and think scare people who don’t, so most citizens have happily given up the right to decide what to think about and now let the government fill their brains with constant loud mindless entertainment. This managed input has equalized society; nobody feels inferior to anyone else and there’s no conflict anymore. Dull minds, constant entertainment, and conformity make society run smoothly.
Guy Montag works as a fireman. He burns books at night while his wife sits in her parlor and listens to inane media shows at high volume. But Clarice, the teenager next door, is different. Her family sits around and talks. They discuss things and they laugh with each other. Guy wonders what they talk about as he watches his wife talk to the strangers on TV and pop sleeping pills…
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 presents a possible frightening future in which intellectual pursuits and nonconformity are deemed dangerous and subversive. It’s been more than half a century since Fahrenheit 451 was published and we’ve seen censorship laws actually become looser over the years and the advent of the internet has brought on the current “information age.” But that doesn’t make Fahrenheit 451 irrelevant because it’s about much more than literary censorship. It’s about freedom of speech and individual rights. It’s about thinking for ourselves and what might happen if we let the government tell us what we can see, hear, or own.
Fahrenheit 451 resonates with me on so many levels. First of all, it’s just superbly written. I love Bradbury’s intense style which translates especially well on Blackstone Audio’s version read by Christopher Hurt. Here he describes the show that Mrs Montag watches all day:
A great thunderstorm of sound gushed from the walls. Music bombarded him at such an immense volume that his bones were almost shaken from their tendons; he felt his jaw vibrate, his eyes wobble in his head. He was a victim of concussion. When it was all over he felt like a man who had been thrown from a cliff, whirled in a centrifuge and spat out over a waterfall that fell and fell into emptiness and emptiness and never — quite — touched — bottom — never — never — quite — no not quite — touched — bottom ... and you fell so fast you didn't touch the sides either... never... quite... touched... anything.
The thunder faded. The music died.
"There," said Mildred. And it was indeed remarkable. Something had happened. Even though the people in the walls of the room had barely moved, and nothing had really been settled, you had the impression that someone had turned on a washing-machine or sucked you up in a gigantic vacuum. You drowned in music and pure cacophony. He came out of the room sweating and on the point of collapse. Behind him, Mildred sat in her chair and the voices went on again…
Second, I share Bradbury’s ardent passion for knowledge and learning. The thought of lost information, burned books, mindless entertainment, meaningless small-talk, conformity, and intellectual malaise makes my stomach twist. I don’t believe that we’re in danger of the anti-intellectualism that Bradbury posits, but still his ideas get me riled up.
Third, I’ll admit that I’m a rebel at heart. While I recognize that obeying laws and paying taxes are a necessary part of living in a well-functioning society, I feel mostly distrustful and suspicious when the government increases taxes, takes over more functions in society, tells us what to believe, and tries to revoke constitutional freedoms. In this context, Bradbury’s possible future doesn’t seem so impossible anymore.
I’m pleased that my school district assigns Fahrenheit 451 in its middle-school curriculum, though I find it a bit ironic that some publishers have edited the language to make it more “suitable” for teenagers....more
Many times I don't like sequels because there's nothing new to learn. Authors tend to give us all of their worORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
Many times I don't like sequels because there's nothing new to learn. Authors tend to give us all of their world-building in the first novel, so I'm often bored by a sequel. But Lavondyss blew my mind. It is, I have no doubt, one of the best fantasy novels ever written.
In Mythago Wood, Harry Keeton entered the forest with Steven and he's been there for years. We got the sense back then that Harry had some secret personal purpose for going in — it wasn't just to help Steven. His sister Tallis remembers him leaving when she was four years old. Her parents are distressed and assume he's dead. When Tallis hears what she believes is a communication from Harry and starts interacting with the wood, her parents think she's gone batty. But Tallis is determined to bring Harry home.
Lavondyss may be the perfect fantasy novel. First of all, it's written in Robert Holdstock's beautiful style. I tend to be picky and demanding about style. A good story will not do it for me if the writing is pedestrian. It doesn't have to be poetic, but it needs to be interesting and creative — not just, as we say, "serviceable." Robert Holdstock's writing style, at least in these novels, is similar to Patricia McKillip's: straightforward, but kind of dreamy, too. To me, it's perfect.
Secondly, Lavondyss made me think. It was complex and convoluted, and I didn't even know how complex it was until I got to the end. At that point I had to go back and re-read several passages so I could try to understand what had happened. It's not that it wasn't related effectively, but rather that Mr. Holdstock does not spoon-feed the reader. He does not divulge everything we want to know when we want to know it. We're given hints and impressions (and maybe even some false information from unreliable characters?) that must be accumulated and assembled. My brain had trouble bringing it all together in the end. What, exactly, is Lavondyss? Why do the mythagos travel there? What drove Harry into the forest? Who is he there? How is he related to the mythagos? How do Mr. Williams and Wynne-Jones fit in? Most importantly: what is the nature of myth, story, and legend, and where do they come from? (There are lots of other questions I could ask, but I'd be giving too much away.) Instead of leaving me frustrated, I am fascinated, and motivated to find the answers.
Lastly, the story made me feel. The characters are endearing and I experienced their joy, pain, hope, and hopelessness. The ending was sad, happy, chilling, shocking, wonderful, and inconclusive. It stayed with me for days.
I am still confused about a lot of stuff that I was hoping would be cleared up, but I'm happily confused. This is a story that requires a re-read in order to appreciate its richness. I've jotted down some notes — stuff I learned in the parts of Lavondyss that I re-read. I will have to go back to Mythago Wood and then read further in the series. I look forward to it and I can't wait to spend more time in, and learn more about, Rhyhope Wood. See my review for Mythago Wood....more
As I'm writing this, Jack Vance's under-appreciated Lyonesse trilogy has been off the shelves for years. My liORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
As I'm writing this, Jack Vance's under-appreciated Lyonesse trilogy has been off the shelves for years. My library doesn't even have a copy — it had to be interlibrary loaned for me. Why is that? Publishers have been printing a seemingly endless stream of vampire and werewolf novels these days — same plot, same characters, blah blah blah. If not that, it's grit. We all want grit. Or maybe it's that more women are reading fantasy these days and publishers think we want to read about bad-ass heroines who kill vampires. But, the publishers and authors are just giving us what we demand, I suppose. We all got sick of the sweeping medieval-style multi-volume epics that take forever to write, publish, and read. So now we get vampires and sassy chicks with tattoos and bare midriffs. When we've become glutted with those (it can't be long now), what's next?
I've got a suggestion: Publishers, why don't you reprint some of the best classic fantasy? Let's start with Jack Vance's Lyonesse. Here we have a beautiful and complex story full of fascinating characters (even those we only see for a couple of pages are engaging), unpredictable and shocking plot twists, and rambling and entertainingly disjointed adventure. No clichés. No vampires.
As a psychologist, I especially appreciated the many insights into human cognition and perceptual processing that I found in Suldrun's Garden. But what's best is Jack Vance's unique style. He's quirky, funny, and droll. He uses language not just to tell us an interesting story, but he actually entertains us with the way he uses language to tell the story. Similar to Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, or Catherynne Valente, but in a different, completely unique style. I love authors who respect the English language and compose their prose with care and precision. Many of Jack Vance's sentences are purposely funny in their construction and I find myself laughing and delighted not at what was said, but at how it was said. Here's his description of Shimrod's excursion to another world:
He apprehended a landscape of vast extent dotted with isolated mountains of gray-yellow custard, each terminating in a ludicrous semi-human face. All faces turned toward himself, displaying outrage and censure. Some showed cataclysmic scowls and grimaces, others produced thunderous belches of disdain. The most intemperate extruded a pair of liver-colored tongues, dripping magma which tinkled in falling, like small bells; one or two spat jets of hissing green sound, which Shimrod avoided, so that they struck other mountains, to cause new disturbance.
And here is part of King Casmir's lecture to his daughter Suldrun when she announced that she's not ready to get married:
That is sentiment properly to be expected in a maiden chaste and innocent. I am not displeased. Still, such qualms must bend before affairs of state ... Your conduct toward Duke Carfilhiot must be amiable and gracious, yet neither fulsome not exaggerated. Do not press your company upon him; a man like Carfilhiot is stimulated by reserve and reluctance. Still, be neither coy not cold ... Modesty is all very well in moderation, even appealing. Still, when exercised to excess it becomes tiresome.
If you can find a used copy of Suldrun's Garden, the first of the Lyonesse trilogy, snatch it up. There are some available on Amazon and there's a kindle version, too. (Beware the Fantasy Masterworks version, which is known to have printing errors). Jack Vance is original; You won't get his books confused with anyone else's. This is beautiful work for those who love excellent fantasy literature!
After his post-WWII convalescence in France, Steven Huxley is returning to his family's home on the edge of RyORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
After his post-WWII convalescence in France, Steven Huxley is returning to his family's home on the edge of Ryhope Wood, a patch of ancient forest, in Britain. For as long as Steven remembers, his father, who recently died, had been so obsessed with the forest that it destroyed their family.
Upon returning home, Steven finds that his brother Christian is quickly following in their father's footsteps -- both figuratively and literally -- for he has also discovered that this is no ordinary forest! It resists intrusion from Outsiders, time and distance are skewed there (so it is much larger inside than the 6 miles it covers in modern Britain should allow, and time seems to expand), and strange energy fields interact with human minds to create mythagos -- the idealized forms of ancient mythical and legendary creatures, heroes, and villains formed from collective subconscious hopes and fears. So, for example, if you strolled through Mythago Wood (if you could get in) you might encounter Robin Hood, King Arthur, Talos, Freya, or perhaps some more generic version of a popular legendary ideal. You might walk down a Roman road or stay in a medieval castle or a Germanic tribe's hut. And when you come out, you may have been gone only half the time you spent inside Mythago Wood.
The destruction of the Huxley family has been caused by the creation, out of father Huxley's mind, of Guiwenneth, the mythago of an idealized red-haired Celtic warrior princess who occasionally comes out of the woods. Mr. Huxley was obsessed with her (and this is what eventually led to both Mrs. and Mr. Huxley's deaths) and, when Steven arrives, Christian, who has become similarly obsessed, has been making forays into the forest in search of Guiwenneth. Before long, Steven gets pulled into the drama and the strange goings on in Mythago Wood.
I was entranced by Mythago Wood from the first page. The writing is clear, lovely, and unpretentious. The story is told from Steven's viewpoint (first person, with diary entries and letters from a couple of other characters), so the reader feels emotionally involved. The pace is quick. The forest setting is beautiful.
The first two thirds of the novel flew by. During this time, Steven is figuring out what's going on in the woods and he meets and falls in love with Guiwenneth (yes, the same girl that his father and brother loved). All of this was fascinating and highly emotional. I loved the premise of the story -- the wood that forbade entry to modern humans and was bigger in time and space inside than could be explained by it's physical dimensions. The existence in the wood of archetypal heroes and villains from across the ages, all living together at the same time, each in his own clothes and weapons. Cool stuff. I also thought the recollections of Steven and Christian about their father's work and coldness toward their family was poignant.
But, somehow, when Steven and his companion Harry Keeton actually managed to get beyond the defenses of the forest and were traveling through Mythago Wood, it was not as exciting as when Steven was only learning about the forest from his father's notes and his experiences with the mythagos who came out of the woods. Suddenly, it turned into a quest and struggle for survival that was not quite as fascinating as the learning process was, though there were definitely some fun parts.
I did not understand how mythagos, if they are not real, can kill, be killed, or fall in love. Steven and Harry come up some revelations (about mythagos) that seemed to come out of nowhere. I am also not sure why these men are falling for Guiwenneth. The explanation is that she's the mythago of the Celtic warrior princess, and thus men can't help but fall in love with her. Steven mentions that she may be his mythago, but his father and brother fall in love with the same woman. She doesn't do much but giggle. Is that ideal? She has red hair, fair skin, she's slender and uses a knife. Maybe that's it?
I never fully understood Harry Keeton's situation, which was wrapped up much too quickly, but I'm thinking that this will be addressed in a sequel. There were a few elements that seemed thrown in without purpose -- myths that didn't seem to fit, characters who Steven was told had to be "left behind" when he didn't even know they were with him. Perhaps we'll see them again.
So, while I was quickly pulled in and I absolutely loved the first two-thirds of the book, I experienced moments of confusion in the last section. I'm sure I'd benefit from another reading of Mythago Wood -- it's that kind of book. Perhaps some of these things would be cleared up. Or, perhaps not. I believe that the novel was composed of three separate novellas, and that may explain some of the disjointedness.
I'm going to read Lavondyss, the sequel to Mythago Wood. I loved this setting and the characters, and I'm hoping further reading will clear up my confusion.
Let me say two things about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell:
1. This is one of the finest novels I have ever read. Ever. 2. You might hate it.
Okay, let me say more. I listened to this book on audio and, because of the language and humor, I was delighted from the very start. I listened for 32 hours and approximately 25 of those hours are rather slow. Interesting stuff happens, but nothing that's going to put you on the edge of your seat. It's leisurely and teasing. It's not clear how all of the characters and plots relate to each other. If you're ready for action, it's a bit frustrating. But the action finally does arrive and all of the characters and plots finally come together in an unexpected and satisfying way. Looking back, you realize that the plot was clever and quite tight all along.
What kept me going was that the writing is absolutely glorious. Susanna Clarke writes like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen or one of those other 19th century English novelists who we love because of the insightful and subtly witty social commentary and the plain but elegant writing style. She's right up there with the best. In fact, I can't think of anyone who writes better than Susanna Clarke. Not Tolkien, not Le Guin, not Bujold. And for this reason, I must give the book 5 stars. It is a superb novel.
Particularly fun were a few devices that I really enjoyed such as the intrusive narrator somewhat reminiscent of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, fictional characters interacting with real historical figures (Lord Byron was my favorite), and a few little alternate explanations of how some historical events in arts and literature came to be (I won't give you any examples because discovering them is the fun part).
The audiobook is also superb. The reader, Simon Prebble, is English (in case you couldn't tell by his name), and his diction, pace, and voices are perfect. I love the voice he uses for the more uncouth characters -- it just sounds slimy. This was a great novel to listen to--Mr. Prebble's voices add to the dry humor--but keep in mind that it will take you 32 hours. It's quite a time investment, but well worth it.
So, I recommend that you read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell when you have the time to be patient and when you're in the mood to be delighted by a long elegant English novel. If you're in a hurry, or if you're in the mood for quests, orphan boys, sword-fighting, or dragons, don't bother.
This is the perfect book for the right reader. I can't wait to see what Susanna Clarke does next -- she's brilliant!
Lois McMaster Bujold has long been esteemed in the science fiction genre, so I expected great things from TheORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
Lois McMaster Bujold has long been esteemed in the science fiction genre, so I expected great things from The Curse of Chalion, and I'm happy to report that I wasn't disappointed. This is an excellent piece of work! Bujold's story is completely fresh, and the world-building and magic system are unique, too. I was hooked from page one and it proceeds at a pleasant pace with plenty of surprises and plot twists. Characterization is deep and somehow Bujold made me really like the main character, Cazaril, right from the start, even though he is not the type of hero I thought I preferred (see FanLit for the lurid details of that). As a psychologist, I especially appreciate how the characters realistically maintained their natural personalities throughout the story while maturing (or becoming more immature) as they grew from their experiences.
And, so importantly, The Curse of Chalion is beautifully written. I tend to be very critical about the writing style. But Bujold's writing is perfect. I'd like to especially mention the dialogue, which I think is so hard for an author to get just right. Some authors make their characters so annoyingly quick-witted and perfect in speech that it's completely unbelievable. Bujold's characters pause, hem and haw, and say "um" just like I do. And they occasionally have conversations that provide a dry comic relief (I laughed out loud many times).
I read part of this book in print, and I listened to part of it on audiobook. There are many ways an audiobook reader can ruin a book, but I was, as usual, impressed with this Blackstone Audio production. Lloyd James is an excellent reader who has a nice voice and uses different voices and speaking styles for each character. It is very easy to follow and pleasant to listen to. I highly recommend this format for Curse of Chalion.
Curse of Chalion is the first in a series of books which are set in the same world and have some of the same characters, but which can be read independently. So, Curse can stand alone if you like, but I think you'll want to go on to Paladin of Souls because it's highly decorated (many awards) and it tells a story which you'll want to hear after reading Curse.
There are some fantasy epics that all literature professors, and most normal people, would consider essentialORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
There are some fantasy epics that all literature professors, and most normal people, would consider essential reading for any well-educated person -- J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, Lewis Carroll, etc. So, yeah, I read those a long time ago. But beyond that, there's not much fantasy literature that's essential reading. So, for a long time, I didn't read any. In my drive to be educated, I stuck to the classics (which are classic because they're great literature, usually). But one day, maybe 15 years ago, Patricia McKillip's Riddlemaster fell into my hands. I can't remember exactly when, and I can't remember how. I can't even remember enough to tell you exactly what the trilogy was about. It's been that long ago.
All I can remember is sitting for hours, slack-jawed and amazed. The imagery was so beautiful, the writing so elegant, the ideas so powerful. Some of the imagery has remained with me; I can still remember the awe I felt when Morgon learned how to change into a tree, how to harp the wind, and who Deth was. I don't really remember the details of the story very well, but I still feel it.