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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A Dog's History of America : How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent

A Dog's History of America : How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent
Author: Mark Derr
Publisher: North Point Press
ISBN: 0865476314

I happened across this book while doing some shelving at work one day, and thought it looked at least mildly interesting. I grew up with dogs (and cats, but there’s no Cat’s History of America on our shelf), and miss having them terribly. So I thought it would be interesting to learn more about dogs, where they came from, the role they played in our society, etc. I’ve also been trying to make sure that I read more than just Fantasy and Science Fiction, and this seemed like a reasonably entertaining diversion. My store has a policy where employees can borrow certain books, so I figured, "hey, it will only cost me time, right?"

Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t pay for it.

A Dog’s History of America covers American pre-history up through the modern period, and is broken down into chapters by historical time periods. In each chapter, Derr ostensibly discusses how dogs were used, viewed, their influence on society at the time, and so on. I say "ostensibly" because the sad truth is, Derr doesn’t spend nearly enough time on the dogs themselves. The first two chapters, on pre-history and the Spanish conquest, are essentially wasted space. The pre-history chapter could have been summed up as "there’s no real evidence about dogs, but pre-historic people probably had ‘em." Instead, the reader is treated to a half-assed synopsis of land-bridge theory (which, if I understand my girlfriend the archaeologist correctly, has come under serious criticism in recent years), and a little speculation about how dogs might have been used, none of which is particularly shocking or insightful.

The chapter on the Spanish conquest was the worst of the book. Again, there isn’t a whole lot of documentation, and so most of the chapter is Derr reminding the reader that those Spaniards were evil, evil, people who did evil wrongbad things! Oh…and sometimes they sicced dogs on people, which one of the many evil wrongbad things that they did. ‘Cause they were evil, y’know. And the conquest, it was wrong. And evil. Was the evil clear?

Now, before I get lynched here…I’m not saying the Spanish conquest WASN’T evil, or that the Spanish didn’t commit horrible atrocities, sometimes using dogs. But if I’m reading a book about dogs, I expect to, well, read about dogs, not about the author’s other sundry politics and beliefs. There’s plenty of books on the Spanish conquest. If I want to know how awful it was, I’ll read one. I wanted to hear about dogs.

There are more dogs as the book goes on, but there’s nothing that really jumps out at the reader. Derr gives every story the most cursory treatment possible, but never goes far enough in depth to make the characters (human or dog) seem lively or interesting. He continuously deviates to discuss his views on human politics that are frankly, unrelated to the topic at hand. There are a few actually dog related political issues that are brought up (such as leash laws, and peoples misconceptions about the dangers certain breeds pose), but most of it just doesn’t get in depth enough.

In the end, I can’t recommend this book. Dog lovers will be disappointed by the lack of interesting stories/characters, and history buffs will be better served reading a dedicated history book. This book tries to both, and ends up doing neither particularly well.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

A Secret History: The Book of Ash

A Secret History: The Book of Ash #1

Mary Gentle

A Secret History is actually two stories in one, though you wouldn’t know it by reading the description on the back.

The primary story/text in the book is the story of Ash, a female mercenary captain living in 15th century Europe. The story begins when, at the age of eight, Ash kills two men who attack her in the mercenary camp where she lives. From there, we see Ash again as a teenager, learning the arts of war, and finally as an adult and the leader of her own mercenary company. But Ash isn’t simply a skilled warrior…she hears a voice that answers her questions regarding combat/tactical scenarios, and she uses that voice to her advantage. Yes, there are definite and intentional parallels between Ash and Joan of Arc. More on that later.
The bulk of the story centers around events in Ash’s adult life. There’s some courtly intrigue, a forced marriage, and an invasion by a Carthaginian army that uses Golems for servants and blots out the sun where they conquer.

Yes, now might be a good time to describe the second story.
Throughout the book are interspersed email exchanges between the publisher of this book, and the scholar who is supposedly translating a series of historical documents. Those documents are, of course, the main storyline of the novel. The email exchanges are short, never more than five or six pages at a time, but there is a plot that runs through them. The publisher is initially pleased, but turns somewhat incredulous around the time that Golems are first introduced into the novel. This sets scholar and publisher both off on research expeditions, in which we learn that all of the documents about Ash’s life have been mysteriously re-labeled as medieval romance as opposed to medieval history. At the same time, an archaeologist friend of the scholar makes a startling discovery - actual Golems, just as described in the Ash texts! Thus, we are left with a puzzling denial and affirmation of this history, which is largely unresolved by the end of the book.

The main body of the book (Ash’s life) is well written, and fairly interesting, but it suffers in a few places. The biggest one comes from Ash’s "love" interest…who takes the form of an abusive, spoiled, inveterate coward of a nobleman who Ash is manipulated into marrying towards the beginning of the novel. His only redeeming quality is that he’s pretty, and good in bed. It’s unclear why Ash cares about him at all, and even Ash admits there’s no good reason why she should like him. It’s sad, primarily because it takes a very strong female character (of whom there are few in fantasy literature), and seriously undermines her strengths. It’s hard to respect Ash as a tough-as-nails warrior when apparently any well-endowed pretty boy will set her heart a-flutter.

The other members of Ash’s company are fun, but not particularly notable. There’s one woman disguised as man, a few grizzled vets, some with more of a sense of humor than others. None particularly jump out at my memory, though it’s been a few weeks since I finished the book. Ash herself is fairly well characterized, but ultimately, this is a book more about plot than people. That may change later on in the series, I suppose, but it seems that Gentle is more interested in exploring an idea than a character.
Is it worth reading? Yes, but I wouldn’t rush out for it. I suspect I’ll check out the second book eventually, but I don’t feel like I’m in a rush either. While the book has some neat ideas, and some good writing, I ultimately didn’t find the characters quite as engaging as I hoped. While Ash may be a great inspiration to her men, she didn’t quite inspire me.

Royal Assassin & Assassin's Quest

Royal Assassin
Author: Robin Hobb
ISBN: 0553573411
Publisher: Spectra

When I was in undergrad, I remember at some point seeing Alaron wandering around reading a book called Royal Assassin. The cover depicted a man standing on top of a mountain, head thrown back, arms spread wide, raising a sword towards the sky. Next to him, a wolf sat, it’s head thrown back in a long howl.

In other words, it looked like the cover of a thousand fantasy novels, all of them miserable pieces of garbage. And while Alaron has good taste in books, I never had any reason to believe that this novel was anything particularly remarkable.

Alaron, if you are reading this, I blame you entirely for not telling me how good Robin Hobb really is.

Royal Assassin is actually the second book in the Farseer Trilogy, which chronicles the life of FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard son of King Shrewd’s eldest son, Chivalry, who is dead before the story ever begins. The first novel, Assassin’s Apprentice tells the story of how FitzChivalry (often called Fitz, and the name I will use for him hereafter) is taken by Burrich, the king’s stablemaster, and subsequently trained as stablehand, warrior, Skill user (the Skill is a sort of mental magic), and above all else, assassin. If you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that Hobb does a wonderful job of conveying Fitz’s confusion and desperation as he struggles to find his place the world. Assassin’s Apprentice culminates in Fitz’s first assignment as an assassin, a mission which does not go nearly as well as one might expect.

If Assassin’s Apprentice is a story about childhood, Royal Assassin is a story about adolescence. Fitz returns from his mission to continue his duties as Shrewd’s servant, but finds that Shrewd has grown old and sick. Thus, Fitz finds himself under the command of King-In-Waiting Verity, and his Queen-In-Waiting Kettrickan.

A quick word on naming conventions; Hobb never explicates the means by which she names characters, but certain patterns are fairly clear. Royalty in the Six Duchies (the kingdom where most of the story takes place) are given names that mean something. Shrewd, Verity, Regal, Patience, Chivalry, and so on. Those characters frequently embody the traits that their name describes (Regal might be the one exception, depending on what you think a "regal" person ought to act like). The rest of the population is granted names that read like standard fantasy names…that is, a string of syllables with no meaning what so ever (it is possible that I am wrong about their meaning). Occasionally, there are exceptions, such as Molly (Fitz’s romantic interest), and Hands the stable…er…hand. But the basic pattern holds. Fitz means bastard, which creates the interesting suggestion that bastard children really have no name or identity, except to be designated as the illegitimate offspring of someone else.

Moving on.

Royal Assassin takes place primarily in Buckkeep, the capital fortress of the Six Duchies. Upon returning there, Fitz is caught up in a variety of political intrigues, mostly those between Verity and his younger half-brother, Regal. I have mixed feelings about Regal. He initially seems to be your somewhat standard evil half-brother, bent on getting his own way even if it means destroying the kingdom entirely. He’s pompous, rude, manipulative, and generally not a very likable fellow. On the other hand, he turns out to be more clever than he initially appears (no, I won’t tell you how), and holds up pretty well as an interesting villain by the end. Since the novels are written in the first person, we gain an amazing amount of insight into Fitz’s thoughts, but the thoughts and motives of other characters are always a bit obscured.

As I said early, Royal Assassin is a story about adolescence. Which means Fitz spends a great deal of time questioning himself, experiencing overblown emotions, question everyone around him, breaking rules, trying to please his mentors, and rebel against them at the same time. While the angst and agony of adolescence can be annoying in the hands of some writers, Hobb does a wonderful job of conveying things in a way that makes Fitz sympathetic and enjoyable to read. Telling her story through the eyes of a growing boy allows her to open up layers of the world to the reader as the story progresses. As Royal Assassin progresses, the reader slowly understands more and more of what is going on, just as Fitz does the same.

Hobb manages to pack an incredible amount of information into every word, which makes providing a plot synopsis impossible. There’s just too much intrigue, emotion, and action to sum up neatly. This is a good thing. Too many fantasy novels can be summed up in a paragraph, and when finished, are easily forgettable. Royal Assassin not only defies easy summation, but is easily worth a second read. It’s so good that, in defiance of my own set rules, I’m now reading Assassin’s Quest, the third book in the series. I just couldn’t wait to get to it.

Assassin’s Quest
Author: Robin Hobb
ISBN: 0553565699
Publisher: Spectra

Assassin’s Quest picks up where Royal Assassin left off. It’s hard to describe too much of the plot without giving away spoilers, but I’ll do my best. This is really one of those trilogies that’s best experienced with surprises intact. Hobb throws in a lot of twists and turns throughout her plot, and keeps the reader guessing about what’s happening right up until the end.

As the title suggests, Assassin’s Quest moves the story of FitzChivalry Farseer away from the confines of Buckkeep and out into the rest of the world. Setting out in search of a…missing friend (trying not to spoil here), Fitz travels across a large part of the Six Duchies, and back into the mountain kingdoms. Along the way, Fitz acquires some new allies, re-acquaints himself with old ones, and spends a great deal of time dodging the forces of his enemy. His quest does not end in the mountain kingdom, but takes him much further into it, seeking out an ancient mystery/legend that he believes may save the Six Duchies from the Red Ship Raiders.

Like the two books before it, Assassin’s Quest has a lot to recommend it. The story is interesting, the characters are well developed, and there’s enough action, mystery and intrigue to keep the reader stuck in the book for hours. Hobb offers the reader just enough information to make you want to read just one more chapter before you shut off the lights. And then another, and another…

Fitz, for his part, remains an fairly interesting, if not always likable character. There are definitely moments where you feel like Fitz needs a good slapping, but far more often, you understand Fitz’s frustration at the actions of those around him. While Assassin’s Apprentice was about childhood, and Royal Assassin was about adolescence, Assassin’s Quest is about growing up. Fitz has to come to terms with the realities of his world, and deal with them in an adult way. Not surprisingly, it’s not an easy thing to do.

While the book is excellent, it’s not perfect. The pacing, in particular, is a little off. Hobb throws a lot of obstacles in Fitz’s path, and sometimes, it feels like one too many. There is a brief moment in the middle of the book where I started to wonder if Fitz was even going to GET to the mountains. I really appreciate the fact that Fitz is not a super-hero, immune to failure and defeating everything he encounters with ease, but at the same time, I did want to the poor guy get somewhere. Sometimes the obstacles and pitfalls just feel a bit petty.

The ending also feels a bit rushed, I think in part because so much time has been taken up with Fitz getting there. Hobb does, by and large, resolve most of the mysteries and plots that she’s set forth, but it felt as though she was trying to pack in too much into too few pages towards the end. Given all of the difficulties Fitz faces in the beginning/middle, the ending felt just a little to easy.

Despite the pacing problems, the book is an excellent overall read, and worthy conclusion to a great trilogy. Definitely worth picking up, but make sure you don’t have too much else you need to be doing. This is not an easy series to put down.