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Friday, June 29, 2007

More about "Books Under the Bridge"

It's time to give a little context to this blog.

Several years ago, back in ancient history (2001), one of us (Mister Troll) started a website called thecrossroads.net (it no longer exists; if there is a site there, it doesn't belong to us). Just like this blog, The Crossroads was intended to provide reading recommendations for fantasy and science-fiction literature. Recommendations - not reviews. The Crossroads, alas, was way ahead of its time. It was a blog before there were blogs. Ultimately The Crossroads expired slowly, but we hope to revive it on blogger, with a more active community.

I will be writing new recommendations as well as re-posting recommendations already published on The Crossroads. My intent is to offer recommendations for literature that ranges from recent to obscure and unusual. Seventeenth century science-fiction? Check! Old English poetry? Check!

Particularly I look forward to hearing from fellow readers; please offer recommendations to us as well.

Let me emphasize one point. This blog will not review books. We plan to recommend books and perhaps try to give you a flavor of why we think this or that book is very good. We will not waste your time tearing into books that we think are bad. We will not dissect books that we think are good. After all, that's not what you want to hear when you ask a friend to recommend a book.

So please don't expect reviews; we won't do 'em.

And finally, above all else, consider Rule Number One: No author is ceaselessly brilliant.

No one. Not even Gene Wolfe, no matter what Billy Goat says.

Welcome again to our blog, and we hope you enjoy!

Use of Genius, Use of Weapons

Recommended: Use of Weapons (Iain M. Banks)

Cheradenine Zakalwe's troubled past has transformed him into a military genius, a genius the Culture needs to influence conflicts on worlds that are not yet enlightened enough to have joined its ranks.

The Culture is a utopian society, a collection of worlds that are ruled over by advanced artificial intelligences, and inhabited by lesser AIs, humans, and various alien races. Banks features the Culture in a number of his books, but their part in this one is minor.

Diziet Sma is Zakalwe's Culture contact, and she directs him on his assignments. She is a ranking officer in the Culture's "Special Circumstances" division (think black ops), and her relationship with Zakalwe drives the main plot forward.

Skaffen-Amtiskaw is Sma's robot assistant, and the robot provides humor and compassion to the story. This atypical computer behavior is typical of Banks' AIs and makes them some of his most enjoyable characters.

The main plot of Use of Weapons entertains with action and plot twists, and the descriptions grip you and push you around Banks' universe. However, despite the quality of these aspects, they are forgettable compared to the character of Zakalwe. Zakalwe is the heart of this book, and he is the reason to read it. He is obviously troubled, from the very first chapter of the book. Throughout the rest of the book, we look deeper into his past, and through his past to his soul. We discover why he is a military genius, the costs that came with his gift, and the price he has paid for how he has used his gift.

Mister Troll has pointed out to me in the past that I have a tendency to cherish the misfits and the screw-ups in stories. It's true, but there's more to it than that. I like to empathize with characters, I like my heart to go out to them. So, it's not just the screw-ups and the misfits I love, but the flawed heroes, and the tragic heroes. And it's not just that they have these qualities, but that the author has put enough soul into them to make them worth cherishing.

Cheradenine Zakalwe is that kind of character.

Who is the Star-Bearer?

...and what will he loose that is bound?

Recommended: The Riddle-Master of Hed (Patricia McKillip)

Morgon of Hed was born to the land-rule, to quiet farming and selling grain to the spring traders. But when Morgon wins a riddle-game with an ancient specter, he finds that destiny waits for him far from the peace of Hed. Morgon's brow is marked by three stars, and only he can pluck the strings of a dead wizard's harp inset with three red stars. This is a world where an unanswered riddle can mean death, and Morgon leaves behind him a trail of riddles as wide as the river Ose.

Raederle of An, the second-most beautiful woman in the three portions of An, is promised to whoever wins the crown from the ghost of Peven. But when Morgon never comes to claim her, and the lands begin to churn with chaos, Raederle ventures forth to find Morgon and to protect him from the sea-born shape-changers that hunt him solely for the name he carries.

Deth, the High One's harpist, has for centuries traveled between kingdoms, serving the High One and the land-rulers alike. For longer than anyone can remember, he has been counselor and confidant, teacher and musician, and sometimes lover, to those that rule in the High One's name. But as the world turns under Morgon's path, Deth's fortune fails, and he to whom all places were once open is barred from each kingdom in its turn. At last he must hide in the wilderness far from those who would kill him and begs for the money to buy a harp that he plucks clumsily with maimed hands.

Patricia McKillip's fabulous trilogy (The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind) is collected in a single volume by Ace Books. I almost fainted when I saw it recently at a bookstore; it's a treasure. You'll also find the books easily in the juvenile section of your library. The stories are so steeped in beauty and emotion that I am moved whenever I even think of them. I hope you'll feel the same way.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Treasure of Words

Dear Mister Troll's bridge is a treasure trove of knowledge. Nestled below the old planks over which passers-by blithely trip-trap-trip-trap, sturdy shelves bear hardbound and paperback treasure chests from many worlds. I'm talking about books. And where did all those books filled with gems and trinkets come from? Well, Mister Troll and I have collected them together for many years.

Where do you think he learned all those tales you've heard about? That's right, from those books, right over there.

And why do you think they're all so good?

The reason is because we've been very picky, very meticulous, and very cranky in our choosing. We choose only the best. He only has so much shelf space, and I'm not helping him build another shelf anytime soon. Besides, who wants to hear (or tell) a bad story?

If only my nephews had understood the value of a good story. Instead of threatening our neighbor, Dear Mister Troll, and running off to fatten their bellies, they could have learned something. Next time I see them, I'll show them gruff.

As for you, take a seat. Trolls don't actually eat people or goats, you know. That's just a nasty rumor. As for goats, we'll eat anything. But I'll make an exception for you.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Welcome!

Friends! Come in, come in. Sit for a moment... the mossy stone here is very comfortable.

A drink, perhaps? Some mountain-cool water, fresh from the stream? Shall I light your pipe? Ah... now what was it you came by to see me for?

Oh, yes, I remember. A story, perhaps a tale or two to fill the time.

Let me think... yes, that's the one, yes. Did you hear the one about...?