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Friday, December 30, 2005

Princess of Mars :John Carter, Warlord of Mars, Book 1 (John Carter, Warlord of Mars)

Princess of Mars :John Carter, Warlord of Mars, Book 1 (John Carter, Warlord of Mars)
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Publisher: I Books (March 1, 2005)
ISBN: 0743498534

I forget how or when I first heard of John Carter, but I became more curious about him after he featured in extreme passing in the second League of Extraordinary Gentlemenseries. When I stumbled across this book in the old Wbooks store, I figured I’dgrab it because it’s something of a classic, and, well, it was cheap. Five bucks cheap. With an employee discount, it’s pretty hard to beat.

The basic plot is pretty straightforward – John Carter, Virginia gentleman and Civil War veteran, falls asleep in a cave, and wakes up on Mars. Fortunately for John, Burroughs’s (who also wrote the somewhat more well-know Tarzan novels) Mars is oxygenated and populated, so rather than simply suffocating and dying, John goes off to have adventures. He meets, among others, the mighty Tharks;a race of green-skinned, six-limbed giants who are impressed by Carter’s strength and fighting prowess (thanks to Mars’s lower gravity, Carter is strong enough to punch out a fifteen-foot tall giant, and, yes, leap tall buildings in a single bound); a variety of strange monsters, including the loyal Woola, some sort of Martian (excuse me, Barsoomian) watchdog; and of course, Dejah Thoris,the beautiful, red-skinned titular princess. Wackiness ensues.

This is total pulp sci-fi at it’s finest. Science takes a backseat to plot and action, the hero is…well, HEROIC, and the bad guys are BAD.(And of course, lust after the women, because they’re BAD). It’s good, cheesy fun. It’s not deep. If you want a LeGuin-like story about the inner workings of a society, or an Asimovian-exploration of esoteric scientific principles, you will not like this book. If you want Flash Gordon­-like action, complete with ray-guns, hover-bikes, arena duels, and so on, then you’ll probably enjoy this.

Also, if you are offended by a very 1916-view of the world,this book may not be for you. If you want female characters with equal screen-time and presence…you won’t get much of it. Sola, one of the female Tharks, manages to do some interesting thing, but Dejah Thoris is pretty much a McGuffin in skimpy clothing.

One total oddity: Carter (who narrates most of the book),mentions in the first chapter that he’s immortal. Well, ageless, anyway. This is never mentioned again, nor does it seem to have any particular bearing on the story. He’s just some guy who is so old, he can’t remember how old he is.It’s a pretty neat concept (I like the idea of a guy so old he can’t remember how old he is), but Burroughs ignores it after the first page of Chapter One.Which makes it both confusing, and feel totally unnecessary.

In the end, this is kind of a fun, pulpy book. Nothing deep or taxing…a dedicated reader could probably burn through it in an afternoon. But it’s a classic, and clearly had a big influence on the sci-fi genre as a whole(Star Wars certainly cribs some stuff from it). I’ll probably pick up the rest of the series at some point (or at least more of it).

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Green and the Gray

Green and the Gray
Author: TimothyZahn
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
ISBN: 0765346451

Disclaimer: I’m a huge Timothy Zahn fan. I first became acquainted with his work when heput out Heir to the Empire, the firstin a trilogy of Star Wars novels that launched the Expanded Universe. I loved it, and the rest of his Star Wars books as well. So much so that I began seeking out the rest of his stuff. It took me a very long time to pickup the Green and the Gray. I’m not sure why. I just had so much stacked up, that I missed it in hardcover, and finally grabbed in paperback, despite wanting it in hardcover anyway. Yes, I am one of those people who likes to have the hardcover version. Sue me.

Green and the Gray is the story of…well, a lot of people. But it begins with Roger and Caroline, aNew York Citycouple who is accosted one night by a mysterious stranger, and told to take custody of an equally mysterious child. The two of them, along with a police detective and his partner, quickly become caught up in a secret war between two alien races (the titular Greens and Grays)that is about to erupt in the middle of NYC. True to Zahn’s style, the book is very fast-paced, filled with plot twists, turns, and loopholes from beginning to end. Most of the twists are pretty interesting too, though one of the big ones I figured out pretty early on. That didn’t hurt my enjoyment too much though. It was still fun.

The characters are a mixed bag. Roger and Caroline are really interesting, and I enjoyed seeing a piece of science fiction where the married couple, despite having problems, makes it through the whole work intact. Fierenzo, the NYPD guy, is a little less interesting…a bit of a stereotype cop who doesn’t distinguish himself in any particular way. The Ellis Island clerk who processed the alien immigrants, Velovsky,is fairly interesting, but doesn’t get quite as much development as I’d like.The aliens themselves are a mixed bag. Between the leaders and power players in various factions, as well as a few rogue elements, there’s a lot of aliens to keep track of. Some of them are pretty well-developed. Others, not quite as much.

I enjoyed Green and the Gray quite a bit. It’s not quite as “out there” as Zahn’s last adult novel, Manta’s Gift, but the understated tone works well. Zahn does a great job of managing to convincingly create the “aliens among us” syndrome, without having to resort to Men-in-Black like gimmicks where people’s memories are erased constantly. Still, while it’s good, I don’t think it’s Zahn’s strongest work.The Conqueror’s trilogy, and some of his short stories, are much better places to start. If you’re a Zahn fan though, or just enjoy good, fast-paced, sci-fi, Green and the Gray is definitely worth picking up.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Bloody Crown of Conan

Title: The Bloody Crown of Conan
Author: Robert E.Howard
Publisher: Del Rey (November 23, 2004)
ISBN: 0345461525

The Bloody Crown of Conan is the third in a series of five collections of REH’s work being published by Del Rey. Three of those volumes feature Howard’s original,unedited Conan stories. The other two cover different fantasy heroes of Howard’s,namely Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane. Apparently, I never reviewed the first Conan collection, the Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, but I liked it. And guess what. I liked this too.

Bloody Crown of Conancontains only three stories: “People of the Black Circle,” “The Hour of the Dragon,”and “A Witch is Born.” While it may not sound like much, “The Hour of the Dragon” is the only full length Conan novel that Howard ever wrote. It’s a very neat story, set during the time when Conan is king of Aquilonia. In short, Conan is disposed by an evil necromancer and the mortals he conspires with, and must go on a quest to retrieve something that can kill the necromancer and allow him to reclaim the throne. Lots of high adventure, sword-fighting, strange, otherworldly horrors, and no small amount of intrigue. The other two stories are shorter(obviously), but still packed with good stuff.

I really enjoy Howard’s writing style. It’s very straightforward, but evocative at the same time. He does get into some purple prose on occasion, but it’s the sort of purple prose that’s fun to read. My only real complaint would be that he sometimes over-uses certain descriptors,particularly those involving wolves and panthers. Still, he treads a line between cliché and epic epithet enough that it only rarely bothers me. Oh, and occasionally he starts to drift into the Lovecraft “it was so horrible, I cannot describe it, except in horribly vague terms” trap, which is kind of annoying,especially because Howard’s descriptions of everything else are wonderful. Conan’s crucifixion in “A Witch is Born” had me shuddering on the T. Powerful stuff.

Yes, Conan does get crucified. One of the interesting things about reading these stories is seeing where the Schwarzenegger movie cribbed certain scenes or ideas to create the story it did. In the end, the Schwarzenegger Conan is substantively different from the actual Conan, but I still love the movie, and think it’s very well done. Of course, I’m an unrepentant Schwarzenegger fan for a variety of reasons, so take that for what you will.

Bloody Crown of Conan,and indeed, all the Conan stories, really are required reading for fantasy fans. There’s a good reason why the character has survived this long…he’s awesome.