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The High Window, The Thin Man, The Daughter of Time, Tiassa

Raymond Chandler, The High Window
There is something vaguely unnatural about Raymond Chandler novels. Although they’re generally very bleak, being noir detective stories with a greater than usual dose of personal trauma above and beyond the murder-for-money motives, I tend to read them through with a huge grin on my face. I know what it is, it’s the constant wisecracking and world-weary self-aware irony of Philip Marlowe. I still find it vaguely unnatural. But I adore them nonetheless.

Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man
Despite my love of noir (and I have been indulging it greatly the past few weeks, I should post a list of the movies I’ve been watching, too), I have never before actually read any Dashiell Hammett. But I grabbed a copy of The Thin Man while stocking up on Bogie movies at the library last week, and I adored it. It’s not as gritty as Chandler, but Nick and Nora are wonderful, as are all the minor characters. (I was surprised at how much I ended up liking Gilbert, the morbid teenager; his fascination with cannibalism was what cemented it for me, I think.) It’s a pity Hammett didn’t do sequels, I’d love to read more of them. Perhaps I will investigate the movies.

Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time
This is the best book about invalids doing research that I have ever read. Okay, that sounds like damning with faint praise. I loved it. A Scotland Yard investigator is laid up in the hospital and decides to try to figure out just what the hell Richard III was doing, murdering the princes in the Tower, and comes to the surprising conclusion that he wasn’t. It’s all the best parts of doing historical research without any of the boring bits. Not a strictly noir mystery, except for the way that the accused doesn’t manage to regain his besmirched reputation — which might be close enough, actually — but extremely satisfying nonetheless.

Steven Brust, Tiassa
And a break from the detective stories for the latest Vlad novel! I have to say, I know he’s cranking these out at one a year, but it’s still not fast enough for me. I’ll just have to be grateful for what we get. Unlike last year’s Iorich, I think this would be a great introduction to the Vlad stories. You get a little bit of all the main characters (except for Morrolan, he’s been strangely absent for a while) and a little bit of each of the narrative styles: first-person Vlad POV, third person straight narrative, and Paarfi. The story itself is easy to follow if you don’t know all the background, but there’ll be plenty in there you’ll still want to find out about, to make sure you go back and read the other novels. But then, how could you not?

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30 Days of Books: Day Nineteen

Day 19 – Favorite book cover (bonus points for posting an image!)

I follow book blogs and book news pretty closely, which means that when I’m out in a bookstore or a library looking for something really new to me to read, I have to look pretty hard to find something I haven’t heard of. I also tend to prefer stand-alone science fiction or fantasy to series or trilogies, which means I have to look twice as hard. Which means that when I’m out there judging books by their covers, I actually tend not to look at the covers at all, but at the spines. Really good spine design is even more impressive, to me, than really good cover design — after all, there’s less space to do it in.

Here’s a shot of one of my bookshelves, for instance. (Click on it for a bigger picture.) I picked up The Devil’s Alphabet on the strength of the spine. I love that font, and the color scheme is evocative. I like series that match, like the lovely structural similarities of The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves. The contrasts between the Steven Brust novels, Brokedown Palace and To Reign in Hell, do a good job of getting across their differences. And for classics, I really like a nice old-fashioned clothbound book, like my Jane Austen set or the wee Yale Shakespeare editions.

I can show you a picture of my least-favorite book cover of all time, though.

I love this book. Shadow Magic is the central book in Patricia C. Wrede’s Lyra series — I don’t know if it was the first one, but it is the one that all the other plots tie into or lead up to. Parts of it aren’t bad, for a fantasy novel cover. The sea-dwelling Neira and the foresty Wyrd both look pretty much like their races are described in the novel. And then… and then… *sigh*

I used to wrap this novel in brown paper when I brought it to school to read. It was slightly less embarassing than the cover.

30 Days of Books: Day Eighteen

Day 18 – Favorite beginning scene in a book

I don’t know if it’s because I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, which require a lot of explanation before the action gets going (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” requires something before the drama, certainly), or if it’s because I’m grabbed by the language of a book first and therefore don’t remember the imagery of the scenes until I sink into it a bit, but I can’t recall the first scenes of…well, anything.

Except for the opening of The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust. And while it’s partly the language that makes it memorable, it is indeed the scene I remember, and so it totally counts.

The Phoenix Guards opens with a young man out to seek his fortune, who has been traveling for several days, stopping at an inn, whereupon he is enlisted to assist in the preparations for a duel…

Yes, The Phoenix Guards is The Three Musketeers in a fantasy setting. And its sequel, Five Hundred Years Later, is Twenty Years After in a fantasy setting. And the three-volume end of the series, The Viscount of Adrilankha, is…yes, you get the point. Steven Brust did the whole bloody d’Artagnan Romances as a fantasy series. And it’s awesome.

If you’re intrigued, I actually recommend starting with the almost-entirely-unrelated Taltos, or perhaps Dragon or Jhereg. They’re set in the same universe, but significantly later than the Khaavren Romances, and give you a very different perspective on the world, one that can be valuable when Paarfi of Roundwood (the fictional author of the Khaavren Romances, which Steven Brust is translating for his English-speaking audience) gets into his third consecutive page of court manners. Also, there is nothing like knowing what they’re talking about when, halfway through The Phoenix Guards, Khaavren announces, “It’s okay! We’ll just take everyone to Adron e’Kieron’s place.”

Book of the Month: Steven Brust’s Iorich

I read…way too many books. Far too many for someone in graduate school. Far, far too many to write up detailed reviews for each one. But, since I do read so many books, and since readers advisory is one of those things the Internet was practically made for, I thought I’d institute a Book of the Month feature, where I highlight a book I read in the past month. I can’t promise they’ll all be new, and I can’t promise they’ll all be good, but I can certainly promise I will always have read at least one interesting book in a month.

Steven Brust – Iorich

Steven Brust - Iorich cover
Buy at IndieBound | Look up on WorldCat

This book is both new and good! Excellent, we’re off to a great start. Also, I love science fiction and fantasy in all forms. This will become apparent very soon, if it hasn’t already.

I’ve only been reading Brust’s Dragaera series for a couple of years — the first one I read in hardcover was Jhegaala — but the friend who got me hooked on the series has been reading them since Issola was new. If you’re not familiar with Brust, don’t be put off by the increasingly weird names, the books aren’t nearly as hard to understand as the titles are to pronounce. Your narrator is one Vlad Taltos, friend to the powerful, former assassin, now on the run from the organized crime of his world, a human in a world of Dragaerans. (Or Easterner in a world of humans — the Dragaerans call themselves human, you see.)

In many ways, the Dragaeran universe is a classic fantasy setup. Dragaerans are tall, imposing, live for a thousand years and more, and practice a complicated kind of sorcery. They’re ruled by an Empress, and have a complicated system of Houses and nobility. Our main characters (Vlad aside) are some of the most powerful figures in the Empire. This is definitely not your standard sword-and-sorcery adventure, though. Vlad is the first big difference: his no-nonsense, sarcastic narration was revolutionary when Jhereg came out in 1983 and is still one of the best and most entertaining parts of the series. (And when Vlad isn’t sarcastic enough for you, there’s his telepathic flying lizard Loiosh. If you like fantasy novels, you’re probably already on board with this. If you don’t know if you like fantasy novels, trust me, you’ll love Loiosh.)

The series is planned to include one book for each of the seventeen Dragaeran Houses, plus two additional, including one that has already been published. In publication order, then, these are: Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla, Taltos (not a House), Phoenix, Athyra, Orca, Dragon, Issola, Dzur, Jhegaala, and Iorich. Each House has a particular defining characteristic, and this characteristic becomes the main theme for the book: Orca are merchants and businessmen, so the theme of Orca is economics; Dragons are generals, so Dragon is about a war. And so on. (Forthcoming: Tiassa, Lyorn, Hawk, Tsalmoth, Vallista, Chreotha, and a final book which may or may not be called The Last Contract. Fans spend a great deal of time trying to figure out just what the characteristics of these Houses are and thus what the plots of these books may entail.) There’s a depth of understanding in these books that also sets them apart from cookie-cutter fantasy, as Vlad comes to more fully understand the world he lives in and works to change himself. The character development can be subtle, since publication order is not the same as in-universe chronological order, but it’s immensely satisfying.

Finally: Iorich. Iorich stands for law and justice, and the House of Iorich serve as Justicers (judges) and advocates. In this book, one of Vlad’s old friends is arrested for the practice of Elder Sorcery, and he takes it upon himself to start up the legal proceedings. He hires Perisil, a tedious but extremely efficient Iorich, to deal with the official matters while Vlad talks to pretty much everyone he knows trying to understand why Aliera was arrested for something everyone knew she’d been doing for years. In between the arguments, secret meetings, and assassination attempts, the theme of the book is really justice — whether it’s possible to get any, and what it would mean if you did. Like all the hard questions, this one has no easy answers.

I loved Iorich, but I’m not positive it’d be the best place to start if you’re just getting into the series. If you’re into this kind of modern-language high-concept fantasy, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to start, either — particularly if you’re aware that at least half of the “but that’s another story” references are still obscure even if you’ve read all the other books in the series. This is a big universe, and Brust certainly hasn’t told all the stories in it yet. For a gentler introduction, I’d suggest Jhereg, Taltos, or Dragon (although if you’re a fan of noir mysteries, Jhegaala has a lot of in-jokes for you). Once you’ve gotten through all those, and if you take to it anything like I do, that will only be a week or so, Brust’s other Dragaera books are Brokedown Palace, an Easterner story in the mode of a Hungarian fairy tale, and the Paarfi series, starting with The Phoenix Guards, which is a high-fantasy pastiche of The Three Musketeers.

See also:
The Lyorn Records, a fan-run wiki attempting to organize all the Dragaera information we have. Contains book summaries with spoilers.
The Dream Cafe, Steven Brust’s website, and Words, Words, Words, his blog.
Dragaera on Tor.com, a collection of reviews of the books by Jo Walton. May contain spoilers. (These reviews are much, much better than mine. If you’re interested, check them out — the first post contains no spoilers at all.)

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