D3's Booklog

Another re-posted review not included in the import

Pale Fire - Vladimir Nabokov, Richard M. Rorty

This is the book that let me see that 'post-modern' fiction can be fun and rewarding at the same time that it is challenging and subversive; it doesn't all have to be literary wanking. The story unfolds in the guise of a collection of poems by character John Shade with an accompanying commentary by stalker-fan Charles Kinbote.


As we read through the poems, and especially Kinbote's commentary (which is more about himself and his own delusional pre-occupations than the poems it professes to expound upon), we begin to see the outlines of a harrowing story of fannish self-absorption and tragic genius. Nabokov's unreliable narrator is once again present and we must carefully sift through everything told to us in an attempt to discover what really happened to John Shade, just who is Charles Kinbote, and what, if any, meaning resides in the poetry of 'Pale Fire'?


An excellent and challenging read that ranks among Nabokov's best.

Re-posted Review that didn't appear with the import

The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

This is one of the books that I keep coming back to and re-reading whenever the urge strikes...and it strikes quite often; five times so far. Considering the sheer length of the book that might seem odd, but Dumas keeps things moving with his breakneck pace from the moment that poor Edmond Dantès is wrongly imprisoned by jealous rivals until the final consummation of his intricate plan of revenge.


Despite the speed at which Dumas keeps the plot moving, we are still treated to an in-depth story that examines the lives of the many characters that make up the main cast and are slowly initiated into the tangled ways in which their lives intertwine.


I think Dumas too often gets a bad rap for being some kind of early pulp 'penny-dreadful' writer who cranked out tales like sausages on a conveyor belt, but just reading the beautiful words he puts on the pages (admittedly in translation for me), and experiencing the fascinating characters and events to which he treats us, should be enough to dispel this myth. I find that the characters in his stories are often much more real, and multi-layered, than he is often given credit for and while their emotions may run quite high (it is romantic fiction after all) he never deviates from the kernel of truth about human nature that he seemed to know so well.


This book has it all, from revenge to murder, intrigue, escapes, love, hatred, damnation and salvation all tied to a plot that keeps on giving and urging you to turn the next page to see what strange adventure will happen next.

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So far a placeholder account and part of the great Goodreads Diaspora of '13. We'll see how things go over there...and by extension over here.
Age 40 , Male , Toronto, ON
My rating system is generally as follows:

1 * - I hated it, couldn't finish it, or in some other way ran screaming from this book. Avoid it.

2 * - It was ok, at least I didn't have the reaction for 1 *, but my response was more or less "meh".

3 * - This was a decent read, maybe it even bordered on really good, but something about it held me back from real enthusiasm. It's definitely not a waste of your time.

4 * - Bordering on greatness. The book pushed my buttons in almost all of the right places and I'd likely read it again given the opportunity.

5 * - A classic or personally world-changing book. Something I will come back to again and again and that did what it set out to do with panache and true awesomeness.
2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke 3 – 3.5 stars

Another entry in my occasional forays into classic SF and I’d have to say this one was definitely a success. The Big Ideas in this one are sufficiently big and yet handled deftly enough that they don’t completely overshadow the story. The prose and characterisation, as I generally expect from ‘classic’ SF, were unexceptional (one might say ‘workmanlike’), but I didn’t find them to be off-putting as I often do when I try dipping into earlier examples of the genre where the ‘big idea’ seems to be the only thing worth reading the book for (I’m afraid Asimov and Niven tend to fall into this category for me). Approaching the book these days could also be seen as risky given that it occurs, as the title indicates, in 2001 (it was published in 1968) and posits some egregiously incorrect and incredibly optimistic views on where we would be in regards to both space travel and the development of AI by that time. I found, however, that I could get around this by looking at it as a work of not only SF, but also as alternate history and while there were a few elements that seemed dated (a reference to the palatial residence and “all the fittings and status symbols of the typical $50,000 a year head of a department” was particularly glaring to me), there were others that seemed fairly prescient (particularly a reference to an internet-like news data stream and a computer tablet analogous to an iPad).

I imagine everyone knows the general story either from the book itself or (slightly modified) from the accompanying movie by Stanley Kubrick. Suffice it to say that mankind is making its first giant leap into the wider expanses of the solar system under the secret impetus of discoveries made on the moon and Saturn (changed to Jupiter in the movie) which imply the existence of extraterrestrial life and its possible tinkering in the evolution of humanity. We have four main characters who take centre stage: Dr. Heywood Floyd a senior scientist in the Space Administration who is a primary mover and shaker for the mission of the Discovery to Saturn; David Bowman and Frank Poole, astronauts on-board the Discovery whose routine ‘babysitting’ phase of the mission becomes something much more dangerous as a result of the actions of our fourth main character the irrepressible AI computer HAL 9000, who is in essence the onboard brains of the Discovery and whose psychological progression throughout the mission showcases the SF chestnut surrounding mankind’s fears about the inherent dangers and possibilities of artificial intelligence.

I found myself almost compelled to read from the first page and the plot certainly carried me forward at a rapid pace without any lagging interest on my part. I knew the basic story before ever approaching the book, but I didn’t find that this hampered my enjoyment of it at all and I liked the extra details that the novel was able to include (at least in regards to my hazy recollection of what the movie covered…definitely time for a re-watch). I have to admit, though, that I thought the movie was better able to ramp up the suspense when it came to the game of cat-and-mouse between Bowman and HAL, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and thought its exploration of a possible vision for humanity’s further evolution was great. The apparent linkage between the technological (technophilic, really) and a strange flavour of mysticism was also interesting. One thing that certainly struck me about the tone of the book was its unabashed optimism (as I guess as is to be expected from the SF of its era). Indeed, despite the difficulties and dangers that arise in regards to technology in the story this is first and foremost a work that looks to the future with a sense of hope and awe and a high level of faith in our species’ ability to use technology as a lever for evolution.
H.M.S. 'Surprise' (Aubrey/Maturin Book 3) - Patrick O'Brian, Patrick Tull 3 – 3.5 stars

As the rating attests I enjoyed this book, but I am not sure if I will ever be one of the rabid legion of fans enamoured of Patrick O’Brian’s work. I certainly enjoyed this book much more than I did [b:Master and Commander|77430|Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin, #1)|Patrick O'Brian|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348627212s/77430.jpg|722040] which, quite frankly, I found opaque and uninteresting. I also skipped over the second book in the series since Aubrey and Maturin on land worrying about their love lives didn’t really seem like the next best point to re-try getting into the series. For some reason I can’t quite fathom I’ve always felt a little guilty about not liking the first book and there’s something deep down in me that really wants to like this series. There is, after all, quite a bit to love: two well-drawn main characters who complement and contrast each other very nicely in both their skills and demeanor, a detailed (one might say perhaps a bit too detailed) glimpse into the minds and manners of Napoleonic Europe (with obviously a decided concentration on naval procedures and jargon), and enough adventure and excitement to generally keep things interesting. Of course, there are slow points and between naval engagements or chases, duels, and moments of intense physical or emotional intensity the calm can be somewhat soporific. I suppose this is a nice parallel to the sea voyages that comprise the bulk of the narrative: moments of intense action and apprehension leavened with days and days of routine and boredom. That’s not quite fair, I guess, I certainly didn’t find myself yawning too much during this book, but it is true that events often move at a sedate pace for the lion’s share of the pages.

As the story opens we find ourselves thrust into the midst of a meeting of politicians and naval muckety-mucks the result of which will be a major disappointment for Captain Jack Aubrey and a significant impediment to the health and possible continuance of Dr. Stephen Maturin’s life. Loose lips sink ships, and they also put His Majesty’s spies into tight corners. After some period scene setting with Jack’s fiancée Sophie and an initial adventure involving torture, rescue and escape the upshot is that Jack and Stephen are back at sea, nominally for the purpose of ferrying an envoy from Britain to the East Indies. From here we are treated to the requisite scenes of naval life, Stephen’s obsession with natural philosophy and both scientific and cultural observation, forays into the culture of the Indian subcontinent, and woman troubles for both Jack and Stephen. Add to that a duel, the weathering of some truly monumental forces of nature, and a surprise naval engagement and you’ve pretty much got everything you ought to expect from an Aubrey-Maturin novel.

The long and the short of it is that I enjoyed this novel quite a bit, certainly enough to more or less efface the bad taste I had after reading the first one. I definitely plan on continuing to follow Jack and Stephen’s further adventures, though I have not yet been converted to the level of hardcore fandom. One note: I alternated between listening to the Patrick Tull narrated audio version of the book and reading my electronic version. Overall I enjoyed Tull’s performance (it really can’t be called anything short of that), though his pauses and occasionally prolonged drawl did make me stumble from time to time.
Angel with the Sword - C.J. Cherryh 3.5 – 4 stars

So, I finally popped my Cherryh. It took me awhile, but believe me, it’s not from a lack of trying! C. J. Cherryh is one of those writers who looms pretty large in SF/Fantasy genre circles without making too much noise about it. I’ve been aware of her presence for years, and I know that she is viewed as both an excellent writer and, at times, a difficult one. She has, I believe, a strong and devoted following and in general just seems like the kind of writer you really ought to have read if you travel in the genre circles I do. And I’ve tried, believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve bounced off at least one of her fantasy books, and another of her more famous SF ones. I’ve still kept my eye on her though and this time things seem to have clicked for us. Don’t know if it was the timing, the specific novel I chose, or something else, but I thoroughly enjoyed _Angel with the Sword_ and am looking forward to diving into more of Cherryh’s extensive ouvre with higher hopes that at least some will be to my liking.

Cherryh has been a very prolific author. As mentioned above she has penned both SF and fantasy tomes (as well as the blended Science Fantasy that partakes of both) and much of her significant SF output has been in multiple series that span time, space, and in some ways even genre and yet all of which are part of a much larger future history of mankind amongst the stars (The Alliance-Union universe of which this volume is a peripheral part). I love this kind of thing, or at least I love the idea of it. Sprawling future histories with room to really explore differing political, ideological, and personal aspects of the human condition, along with all of that cool what-if technology and even crossing into other genres (like science fantasy) gives me a happy feeling. I say that I like the idea of it, though, because up to this point I have to admit that I have yet to find a future history series that has really clicked for me.

While I would classify this book as science fiction it looks much more like a fantasy at first blush. The world of Merovin in which we find ourselves appears to be something analagous to the late Renaissance, but it is made clear from the start that this is a fallen colony world that no longer has access to the high technology of the space-farers who were the colonist's ancestors. Also, these colonial descendants have not forgotten from whence they came (though at this point most of the details are lost) so it isn't a case of a primitive world that views technology as magic, though it is one where it is strictly limited due to lack of knowledge, limited resources, and most importantly a set of cultural restrictions that have become part and parcel of what it means to be a Merovingen and which harken back to the catastrophes that brought about their separation from the rest of the Human ecumene.

In this book Cherryh has in some ways taken what we would consider the traditional approach to her cast of characters and turned it on its head. The character of Mondragon (the aristocratic, sword-wielding figure of authority embroiled in high politics and nation-shaking events), who in almost any other sci-fi/fantasy work would have been the hero, is instead the secondary character while we follow the one who would normally be the side-kick: Altair Jones, a lowly skip pilot barely eking out a living moving illegal freight across the canals and rivers of a Venice-like city on this lost colony world of Merovin. To add to the inversion Mondragon is the one who needs to be saved by her, which certainly makes for an intriguing story as we follow Altair in her attempts to navigate both the lowly ‘canal-side’ world on the periphery of the criminal underworld with which she is familiar as well as the ‘hightown’ world of aristocrats and power brokers in which she is a true fish out of water.

The detail with which Cherryh builds the world of Merovin is impressive. She makes use of both an introduction to set the scene as well as an appendix at the back of the book to give greater detail to the interested reader on the culture that she builds in the novel proper. Her world-building within the context of the story proper, however, is done without resort to the dreaded infodump and she trusts the reader to gather the pieces left through passing comments and references made by characters and the tight third person narration and put them together themselves such that details of the broader picture can be distilled from the context in which they occur. I was probably most impressed with the vivid picture she painted of the life of Altair herself. It is a life that has been mostly hand-to-mouth where many things we would likely consider to be necessities are for Altair the greatest of luxuries to be obtained only in the rarest of circumstances (such as sugar for one’s tea). We are never bashed over the head with this, but simply come to appreciate the kind of life that a canaler on Merovin can come to expect. This of course comes into even greater focus as Altair is drawn into the hightown world that Mondragon calls home.

What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game of conspiracies and mysteries set against the backdrop of a hard-scrabble world that has lost everything but hope, and even that is of a rather callous sort. The real star is Altair Jones, an extremely well-drawn heroine who thinks and acts in ways that make sense and allow her to seem like a real person, not a literary archetype or a plot element. The world we get to live in for a short time is intriguing and colourful and certainly held my interest. The plot was intricate without being convoluted and was certainly strong enough to bear the weight that the world and characters demanded. The long and the short of it is that this book leaves me with a desire to read much more of Cherryh’s work and a sense of anticipation at what I might find there. That, my friends, is definitely a good thing.
The Odyssey - Homer, Robert Fagles, Bernard Knox Oh no, I didn’t! Did I just give Homer’s Odyssey 3 stars?! (Well, 3.5 really) What gall! Who the hell do I think I am?! Believe me, I am as shocked as you are. I thought I would end up liking this much more than its twin [b:The Iliad|1371|The Iliad|Homer|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1309201311s/1371.jpg|3293141], but the opposite turned out to be the case. Don’t get me wrong, Homer’s a great writer…he’s got a real future in the industry! (I kid, I kid) But seriously, while the Odyssey certainly contains more down to earth concerns than the vast epic of blood, guts and glory that was the Iliad, I just didn’t find it quite as compelling. As a literary artifact and founding work in the Western canon this is probably a five star book, but for me personally and my own enjoyment of it, it was still just a 3.5.

I think part of this may stem from my misapprehension that The Odyssey was primarily about the adventures and travels of Odysseus on his way home from Troy. While those aspects are certainly here, they took up a much smaller proportion of the book than I thought they would. The lion’s share seems more devoted to the travails that Odysseus encounters when he does finally get home to Ithaca and has to approach his own wife and home incognito due to the presence of dozens of overzealous, greedy suitors who are bleeding his estates dry with high living as they wait for his wife Penelope to make a decision on which of them she will marry. There were also some interludes with Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, and his foray into the wider world in search of his lost father. To be frank I found Telemachus a little less interesting than his dad. The picture we get of Greek domestic life and traditions of hospitality & obligation in these segments of the poem are certainly interesting, but I think I was just hoping for a bit more adventure and a little less skulking and planning as Odysseus attempts to sound out everyone around him and gain the lay of the land. It certainly spells out why Odysseus is the “man of twists and turns”, but I found it a little less compelling.

Overall there’s still a lot of great stuff going on here. The catalogue of the travails Odysseus must overcome to finally make it home after the Trojan War are probably known by everyone even if you haven’t read the Odyssey: you’ve got your adventure with the Cyclops, capture and seduction by not one, but two divine beauties (cry me a river Odysseus), the navigation between Scylla & Charybdis, the Siren’s song, a journey to the land of the dead, and an ill-conceived cattle raid on Apollo’s divine herd. For the most part these stories are related in the past tense by Odysseus himself while he’s on one of his layovers on the way to Ithaca.

I also enjoyed seeing the obvious links being made between the Odyssey and [b:The Iliad|1371|The Iliad|Homer|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1309201311s/1371.jpg|3293141] as each built upon the other and each was augmented by the lustre and resonance of the other. I especially enjoyed seeing old friends (such as Nestor, Menelaus, and most importantly Helen) in a new context as they appear in their own domestic tableaux and give some laudatory commentary on Odysseus, primarily remembering the ‘good old days’ when they were sacking Troy. Also carried over from [b:The Iliad|1371|The Iliad|Homer|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1309201311s/1371.jpg|3293141] was the chronic meddling of the gods in human affairs. This time, however, it’s mostly restricted to two divine puppeteers: Poseidon who has a raging hate-on for Odysseus and wants to see him sunk sooner than find his way home, and Athena who views the kingly trickster as the apple of her eye. The gods still seem, therefore, to have a vested interest in the doings of humanity, though just what they gain by this, especially when the life of only a single man, and not an entire nation, is at stake is open to question. It would appear that the pride of the immortals concerns itself with all levels of human affairs, from the epic to the domestic.

As noted above the preponderance of the text concerns itself with the actions of the suitors in Odysseus’ house and the plans and subterfuge our hero must undertake in order to return to his dearly remembered domestic bliss. Despite this we are given a scene that in its way is no less violent than many of the over the top battle scenes from the explicitly war-centred Iliad. The killing of the suitors may be somewhat toned down from the blood-drenched battles before the walls of Troy, but not by much. In this context I found it interesting how the spur to Odysseus’ actions, the ‘crimes’ of the suitors in their contravention of the rules of hospitality (in the spirit of what they do, if not the letter), while always spelled out explicitly and in no uncertain terms by the poet, still had a certain amount of ambiguity. Despite the fact that Odysseus is constantly presented as the wronged party it is apparent that he still feared the just retribution of the avenging furies of his victims. One wonders if Odysseus truly felt justified in his harsh actions against the suitors, or whether there was more than a little uncertainty in the justice of his actions on his part. Luckily for Odysseus his patroness Athena, through the auspices of Zeus, once again intervenes to save him from the consequences of his actions.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story for me was the return to the Underworld with the spirits of the suitors after they have been slain by Odysseus. There we once again meet with the shades of the heroes of [b:The Iliad|1371|The Iliad|Homer|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1309201311s/1371.jpg|3293141], namely Achilles, Ajax and Agamemnon, and are given their commentary, and commendation, on the actions of Odysseus and his wife despite the complaints of the suitors. I was also struck by the observation of Agamemnon regarding the ‘luck’ of Odysseus in both having a faithful wife to come home to (something of which he would obviously be envious), and in the fact that he views him as happy in that his death will be a quiet one in the arms of his loved ones. Indeed we are presented with three visions of death: Achilles is praised and envied by Agamemnon for having died a hero’s death on the plains of Ilium and having been celebrated by his comrades-in-arms, Odysseus is envied for making his way home and having the prospect of a quiet death surrounded by those he loves, and Agamemnon singles himself out for pity due to his treacherous and untimely death at the hands of his wife and her lover. Given the unambiguous way in which the Greek Underworld is the same (in both its characteristics of eternal boredom and regret over the loss of one’s life) for all of the dead I’m not sure I think it matters exactly how one died…even the ‘fortunate’ ones end up pining for the life they can no longer experience. I suppose, though, that it’s all about how you are remembered, and your death is the capstone to that. Both Achilles and Odysseus get an epic poem based on their actions and mode of death (even though those deaths do not occur in said poems),and while Agamemnon did get a play or two it was certainly not anything its audience would envy.
Riding the Torch - Norman Spinrad 3.5 stars

“The void neither knew nor cared. The void did not exist. It was the eternal and infinite nonexistence that dwarfed and encompassed that which did.”

I was a little surprised by this book. It’s the kind of sci-fi I generally love, and the ideas seemed very current to me, but the vintage of the book is 1974! In the first twenty pages alone we’ve got classic stuff like generational starships, a fleet of torchships streaking through the void, and a dead earth in a distant past, add to that such “new” ideas as artificially created elements (shades of nanotech), shared realities and sensations (virtual reality), substances doctored to alter perceptions and induce tailored results in the imbiber, and at least one set of humans apparently modified to suit their environment/purpose in deep space and you’ve got a heck of a lot going on!

The basic premise is that the earth has been destroyed by the selfish mismanagement of humanity and the remnants of the species are now housed in a fleet of torchships, known as the Trek, that are streaking through the cosmos searching for a viable new home. We are immediately introduced to Jofe D’mahl, a crafter of ‘sensos’ (fully interactive and immersive movies) as he hosts a party in his grand salon for the cream of the Trek’s society. He is premiering his newest creation, The Wandering Dutchman, a commentary on the society and plight of humanity since embarking on the Trek, mankind’s last, best hope for survival. Unfortunately he is upstaged by the presence of Haris Bandoora, a ‘voidsucker’, one of the group of humans who undertake the task of piloting scout-ships into the void in the hopes of finding a new planetary home for humanity and the terse announcement from the Council of Pilots that this voidsucker’s crew may have found the Eden that humanity has been waiting for. Tempers flare and a challenge is issued: does D’mahl dare to leave the comfortable confines of the Trek where every pleasure can be gratified, every sense stimulated to excess, and every thought and feeling shared in the communal altered reality of each human’s cranial ‘tap’ in order to undergo the hardships and isolation of travel into the void with Bandoora and his crew? We get our answer soon enough, and it is no surprise given our early discovery that D’mahl is a creature of almost pure ego, though it appears that this is both his greatest flaw and ultimately his saving grace. On his journey D’mahl is fated to learn the secret of the voidsuckers and bear the burden of making a decision that will change the fate of humanity forever.

There are definitely some shared themes between this book and Spinrad's perhaps more well-known [b:The Void Captain's Tale|633181|The Void Captain's Tale|Norman Spinrad|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1312039669s/633181.jpg|1978769], primarily the strange, quasi-mystical communion that seems to occur between the human mind and the endless void and which appears to be an integral aspect of space travel. While the normal pilots of the torchships being used by the Trek do not seem to take part in this, the voidsuckers are obsessed by it, indeed they consider the ‘truth’ of spaceflight to be a burden that they bear for the rest of humanity…not altogether unlike the situation posited by Cordwainer Smith in his famous short story “Scanners Die in Vain”. There is also the hedonistic, baroque, and highly stylized society that Spinrad has created, again much like the ‘Second Starfaring Age’ he later created in [b:The Void Captain's Tale|633181|The Void Captain's Tale|Norman Spinrad|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1312039669s/633181.jpg|1978769] and [b:Child of Fortune|633175|Child of Fortune|Norman Spinrad|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1312064258s/633175.jpg|2253009]. The questions the novel raises about the nature of life and sentience and its true place in the cosmos also reminded me of Peter Watts’ [b:Blindsight|48484|Blindsight|Peter Watts|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1312040759s/48484.jpg|47428], though Spinrad manages to spin things in a much more optimistic way than does Watts. I also found it intriguing how Spinrad handled the concepts of virtual realities and the internal world which are given precedence in this novel. In many other sci-fi works this is often viewed as a crutch, an escape from the ‘real’ world that is detrimental to human evolution and growth. Spinrad seems to posit in this story that it is in fact the opposite: the human ability to cultivate and then realize an unending series of inner worlds that can only be explored virtually is our race’s saving grace. Without it we are nothing more than a blip. Unless we make our own truths and embrace them we are simply sentient flotsam in the vast immensity of an empty reality.
Planetary, Vol. 4: Spacetime Archaeology - Warren Ellis, John Cassaday This is it. The culmination of the Planetary series. Does it live up to the hype? Does the climax match the build up? Well, read on and we’ll see.

Issue 19 – “Mystery in Space”: There’s a strange artifact approaching earth from deep space and Elijah plans on seeing what mysteries it contains. Ellis pays homage to the Big Dumb Object in sci-fi and also draws on the ideas of generation starships, orbital habitats, and the remnants of precursor races. Elijah has a plan to draw out the one member of the Four he’s never seen and hopefully deal with him…permanently. We’re getting more and more of a feel for just how extensive the holdings of Planetary are and the resources that Snow can bring to bear when he needs to.

Issue 20 – “Rendezvous”: Jacob Greene, Ellis’ version of the Thing, is in the house. How do you deal with a super-powered killing machine with a planet-sized grudge against the human race who is little more than a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of the Four? Hopefully Elijah has a plan that will work. Snow proves that he can be ruthless in the face of necessity and Jakita and Drummer aren’t sure they like it.

Issue 21 – “Death Machine Telemetry”: In the great tradition of consulting mystics in comic books (Dr. Strange, Madame Xanadu, etc.) Elijah goes to see an old friend who also happens to deal in mind expansion and vision quests. Snow wants to get his memory back and start putting together the pieces of the mysteries he’s been unravelling. Some answers to the underpinnings of Ellis’ universe, the mystery of the “Century Babies” who have been gaining greater prominence in the series throughout, and the nature and purpose of super-powers are all explored.

Issue 22 – “The Torture of William Leather”: Snow once again proves that he’s willing to push the limits in order to get what he wants when it comes to the Four. William Leather (Ellis’ analogue of the Human Torch) has a sad, cynical story to tell and in it we get further revelations about the Century Babies, the nature of super-powers and the agenda of the Four. Ellis also throws in a flashback story that references his versions of both the Lone Ranger mythos and the Shadow and which lead right up to William Leather and the present day.

Issue 23 – “Percussion”: We flashback to see where the Drummer came from, how he got involved with Planetary, and just why he might have a bit of a grudge against the Four himself. It was nice to get this insight into the Drummer and gain a little clearer understanding not only of just how his powers work, but also how they really might affect the way he relates to both other people and the world at large. We also get to see that the Drummer has a pretty good handle on just who Elijah Snow is and how this nature affects the actions he takes and ways he undertakes them as leader of Planetary.

Issue 24 – “Planetary Systems”: Elijah lays his cards on the table for Jakita and Drummer, explaining his moment of clarity regarding his role in the multiverse and the urgent need to deal conclusively with the Four. The Four respond with extreme prejudice to Snow’s recent activities and the stage is set for the end-game.

Issue 25 – “In from the Cold”: Snow confronts an old friend about his clandestine activities and we learn the real secrets of the Four, their powers, and their ultimate agenda. Some very cool nods to Kirby’s Fourth World stuff and of course the obvious Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. parallels that have been thrown around since we were first introduced to John Stone. Lots of revelations this issue and they were quite satisfying ones at that.

Issue 26 – Untitled: The penultimate issue of the series where the real resolution to the duel between Planetary and the Four takes place. Elijah lays his cards on the table and forces the hand of Randall Dowling, the Four’s evil genius version of Reed Richards. Coming full circle the teams meet up in the desert near the diner where we first met Snow and Jakita way back in issue 1. The confrontation is tense, and the culmination of things wasn’t exactly disappointing, but I have to admit that after 25 issues of build-up to this moment things felt a bit anticlimactic in some ways. Was it too easy, or did the setting up of the pieces along the way point to the appropriateness of the ending? I’m torn a bit, but overall short of spinning out the climax to several more issues of little more than a world-spanning battle (that would have been exactly what DC or Marvel would have done…even making it span multiple comic book series and forcing the reader to jump from issue to issue to get any real clarity) I’m not sure what else Ellis could have done. The elegance of things was, I must admit, rather enjoyable.

Issue 27 –Untitled/ Series Epilogue: One more loose end remains for the Planetary team: what really happened to Ambrose Chase on that ill-fated mission many years ago? We’ll find out the answer to that question as well as to the concerns of Jakita that now that the Four have been dealt with, what’s a girl with an addiction to death-defying thrills to do? Drummer’s new place as a real leader in light of the revelations of the Four’s hidden cache of data and technology, as well as his unique ability to exploit it based on his special skill set, was also nice to see. In a sense the final tag line to this issue could have been “The Beginning” instead of “the End”. Alas it did not lead to a new series outlining the further adventures of the Planetary team , though perhaps given the penchant for comic book companies to spin out the stories of their cash cows until they lose all relevance or interest I should instead say, “hooray!”

All in all this re-read has proven to me that my initial love for the series was well-founded. The ways in which Ellis took tropes from comic books, sci-fi and numerous other elements of pop culture and spun them into an intriguing and fun series still blows my mind. For me this was, and still is, one of the benchmark moments in comics and ultimately showed how you can be meta-textual about the medium without having to be morose or lose all sensawunda. Highly recommended!
Planetary, Vol. 3: Leaving the 20th Century - Warren Ellis, John Cassaday In this third volume of Planetary stories we not only get to step back for a moment and have a bit of a look at the adventures of Elijah Snow in his century of existence trying to keep the world strange, but we also get more details on the Four and their intersection with the Planetary organization prior to the current story arc. Ellis is able to play in a lot of cool sandboxes as a result and the genre mashing continues much to my personal glee!

Issue 13 – “Century”: Just how did Elijah Snow form the Planetary organization and why did he do it? Well, not all of the answers will be provided here, but we get an intriguing glimpse at young Elijah Snow circa 1919 as he tracks down the members of a secret organization from the 19th century whose goal was to “better mankind” from behind the scenes. Elijah doesn’t like that kind of meddling, but he just might have something to learn from one member of the cabal at least. Really cool stuff involving Frankenstein’s Monster(s), Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and some shout-outs to other luminaries from the penny dreadfuls and pulp fiction of an earlier day. Cool stuff.

Issue 14 – “Zero Point”: A flashback story showing just why (and how) the Four were able to mind-wipe Elijah. We get to see just how dangerous an opponent Snow and his group can be as they handily take down two members of the Four before being overcome by the ridiculously superior firepower the Four can bring to bear. There is also a chilling opening sequence that pulls some cool references from both Marvel’s Thor comic book and Alan Moore’s more esoteric work in Miracleman that serves to once again highlight the utter evil bastard status of the Four and help explain Elijah’s driving desire to stop them at any cost.

Issue 15 – “Creation Songs”: Back in the present we join Elijah, Jakita, and Drummer as they attempt to intercept the Four who are analysing Ayers Rock for their own arcane purposes. This in turn leads to a flashback story where Snow explains the significance of the place and just how it ties in to the wider cosmology that Ellis has created for his multiverse.

Issue 16 – “Hark”: The mysterious figure of Anna Hark, with links to both Axel Brass’ former team of superhumans and the Four, is brought from out of the shadows to play a central role in this issue. Snow is working hard at consolidating his power and ensuring that his upcoming standoff with the Four is his final one. No mistakes this time. To that end he will need all the allies he can get. Will the enigmatic and unpredictable Anna Hark play ball? This issue also has a cool intro that brings the popular wuxia films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to mind. It’s great to see how Snow is the kind of character who thinks out his moves and is playing the long game, he’s not just going to barge in and try to bash the villain’s head in (though of course if that’ll work he’s not averse to incorporating it into his plan).

Issue 17 – “Opak-Re”: Another flashback to Snow’s earlier journeys and discoveries when Planetary was still a relatively new organization and the fieldwork was primarily done by Elijah himself. Great homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Jose Farmer, and the Indiana Jones films. We also get a tantalizing glimpse of Ellis’ Tarzan analogue Lord Blackstone and some significant revelations about Jakita and her very long relationship with Snow. Lots of fun.

Issue 18 – “The Gun Club”: Ellis takes nineteenth century space travel, Jules Verne, and a new plan by Snow to draw out members of the Four and deal with them individually and does his usual trick: incorporate cool ideas from across pop culture boundaries and not only use them to build a strange and wonderful world, but tie them in to an intriguing story of the battle of superhumans for control of the kind of world we live in.

What can I say? Still great stuff. Even when there are weaker issues they’re fun and everything contributes to the wider story arc and the further fleshing out of Ellis’ cool world. Also, Cassaday’s art remains consistently beautiful…this is really some of the best art I’ve seen in the comic book medium and it just makes Ellis’ ideas pop off the page that much more. If you want to see something new being done in comics (even though it ironically makes heavy use of what’s old) then go read it!
Foucault's Pendulum - Umberto Eco, William Weaver I think it could be validly opined that all of Umberto Eco’s novels primarily exist to show off how much he knows. They are all jam-packed with esoteric knowledge from such specialized and varied sources that one wonders how a single human being managed to fit them all into his head, let alone turn them into fodder for a story. In this sense Eco seems much like his own creation of Casaubon from this novel, “the Marlowe of culture”: one able to sift through the vast repository of arcane and seemingly arbitrary bits of knowledge and not only pull out the bits he wants, but to put them together to create an impressive and coherent edifice. These influences and bits of knowledge aren’t just “high culture” things one might expect from an ivory tower academic, but also include numerous pop culture references that show a deep affection for them on Eco’s part. I can get behind that kind of syncretism. From the Templars, South American religious cults, and telluric currents to the secret masters of the world, the mysteries of alchemy, and the hollow earth Eco seems to fit pretty much every occult mystery you could think of (and many you couldn’t) into his work. There is also a prevalent fascination with Cabala, the nature of words, and the way in which words (and the ideas they form) shape our reality...only natural for a semiotician I suppose.

I’m sure you all know the basic premise of the story, and in its most common shorthand description, one that I think is fairly apt, it’s been called “the thinking man’s _Da Vinci Code_”. It's the story of three clever men undone by their own ingenuity, or perhaps they are actually undone by the credulity of others. Either way these three friends, working for a small publishing house in Milan, decide to play a little game after one too many crazy ‘diabolicals’ obsessed with the occult and the mystery of the Templars comes to their office peddling the next conspiracy theory of the secret masters of the world. Why not look at all of the vast theories out there, as well as numerous other ‘normal’ facts, and tie them all together into the grandest, and most elegant conspiracy theory of them all? Beat the crazies at their own game! What happens, though, when the crazies get wind of your incredibly elegant theory and begin to suspect that maybe there’s something to it and their lust for the ‘secrets’ you possess will brook no pleas of innocence and ignorance on the matter?

Eco does a lot of clever things in this novel, not least of which is coming up with a syncretic theory of nearly everything that plausibly ties huge swathes of western history and occult theories into an overall Master-Plan neatly tied up with a bow. He also manages to keep things off kilter enough that the reader is left wondering at the end just what is real and what is false. It seems, for most of the book, that the occult-obsessed diabolicals are truly insane monomaniacs. They pursue their goal with single-minded abandon and are able not so much to ignore any fact that contradicts their ideas, as to take it and twist it to align with the meaning their world-view requires with ridiculous ease. Indeed, Casaubon and his friends Belbo and Diotallevi show just how ridiculously easy it is to twist meaning to your own ends…that’s the whole point of their game, sending up the ridiculous blinders of those they mock. And yet…there are enough strange occurrences and unexplained phenomena to give one pause. Could it be true? Is the story more than just a story? Do things dove-tail so nicely because they should?

Casaubon is the viewpoint character for Eco’s little drama, immediately plunging the reader in medias res as we are thrust abruptly into the tail end of a conspiracy gone bad, though bit by bit he reveals the source of his troubles and terrors as he remembers the path of folly that led him to his current dire straits. While Casaubon is thus central to the story in many ways it is also (or perhaps “really”) the sad story of the life of poor Jacopo Belbo, a man whose existence has been, in his own mind at least, little more than a string of disappointments and failures. His reminiscences play a melancholic counterpoint to the larger story of the Templar conspiracy that threatens to overwhelm the three hapless editors. It is, indeed, through his single success at being the driving force (through the means of both his own thwarted creative impulses and his computer Abulafia) behind the crafting of the disparate and unlikely elements that become the Plan that his greatest failure lies...or is it his only true victory? Belbo’s story is ultimately the beating heart of the novel, the thing that keeps it grounded in human experience and ensures its wide and varied flights of fancy never take it too far from what we live and know at a gut level.

I think this is a great book that runs the gamut from ‘high-brow’ meditations on the nature of history and the mysteries of reality to ‘low-brow’ penny dreadful adventure and intrigue. The main characters are fairly well drawn, even when done so by the merest brush strokes, though the real stars in this regard are probably the large and varied cast of ‘diabolicals’, foremost amongst them that most urbane and witty cabalist, the Comte de Saint-Germain. If you like occult mysteries, conspiracy theories, and books that are densely packed with nuggets of lore then this is the book for you.
Planetary, Vol. 2: The Fourth Man - Warren Ellis, John Cassaday This volume of Planetary explores, and ultimately reveals, the secret of the mysterious Fourth Man of Planetary and also exposes the breathtaking scope and breadth of the crimes perpetrated by the Four upon the world in the name of their great game.

Issue 7 – “To be in England, in the Summertime”: Planetary attends the funeral of Jack Carter, the man everyone in the occult underworld was afraid of and owed favours to. Cute issue with plenty of nods to Alan Moore and the ‘dark and gritty’ world of magic and debased superheroes that the Vertigo line of comics, and esp. one of its hallmark titles “Hellblazer”, was known for. If you know the references you’ll get a chuckle, but otherwise a fairly unremarkable issue.

Issue 8 – “The Day the Earth Turned Slower”: Remember all of those crazy sci-fi B-movies from the olden days? Movies like “Them!”, “The Attack of the 50 ft. Woman”, and “The Incredible Shrinking Man”? What if they weren’t based on fiction? What if the government, or more accurately the Powers-that-Be, really did perform strange atomic experiments on animals and the wretched refuse of humanity that they deemed to be ‘unfit’ to live amongst right-thinking people? What if they created “Science Cities” in remote locations where these unfortunates could be put to ‘good use’, not in the name of building an army of super-soldiers or forwarding any grand plan, but simply because they could, merely to throw some science against the wall and see what sticks? Planetary's about to find out.

Issue 9 – “Planet Fiction”: This one is a flashback story where Ellis goes down a pretty weird rabbit hole. If comics look to fiction for many of their ideas for super-science why not blend fiction itself with scientific experimentation, really break the fourth wall? Why not create a "pretend" fictional world within your "real" fictional world of the comic book and then have an evil genius send a team of "fictionauts" inside it? What do you do if something comes back with them? This issue also deepens the mystery of the Fourth Man and introduces us to Ambrose Chase, the Third Man of the Planetary field team prior to the recruitment of Elijah Snow. He's a badass operator with a reality distortion field that allows him to speed up or slow down time and generally alter the physical laws in his close proximity. Think Neo from the Matrix with a brain.

Issue 10 – “Magic & Loss”: Planetary have set up a ‘dig’ in the laboratory of the Four that they found in issue 6. Their findings are not encouraging in what it reveals about the agenda and methodology of the Four. In going through some of the artefacts that are stored there we begin to glimpse the extent to which the Four have been able to control what has occurred on the planet and their utter ruthlessness in doing so. Think of the impact that three of the greatest heroes in the pantheon of comics: Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman have had on their fictional worlds. They are three whose power and outlook might have allowed them to save the world. What happens if the Four find them first?

Issue 11 – “Cold World”: Elijah’s suspicions about the actions and motivations of his colleagues grow, as does his concern with his spotty memory, so he decides to pay a call on an old friend for some advice and information. John Stone, agent of S.T.O.R.M., is the world’s greatest secret agent and if anyone can help Snow figure out who he is and what secret agenda the Four may have it’s got to be him. Memories are shaken loose and suspicions confirmed as Elijah tries to untangle the truth from the lies in the strange world he is uncovering.

Issue 12 – “Memory Cloud”: Snow confronts his Planetary colleagues with the results of his personal investigations and as his cloudy memory slowly comes back to him he reveals some of the secrets of his long life that others had wished would remain hidden. The Fourth man is revealed and a challenge is finally issued to the apparently unassailable Four in the names of all of their many victims.

All in all this was a very good volume in the continuing story of Planetary. Some of the one-off adventures were a bit weak, but the overall story arc shaped up very nicely as secrets and revelations about both Planetary and the Four are brought forward and the glimpses of the wider universe Ellis has created are tantalizing and a heck of a lot of fun. The gauntlet has been thrown and now things promise to gain momentum with every step. Lots of fun!
Planetary, Vol. 1: All Over the World and Other Stories - Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, John Cassaday I think the Planetary series by Ellis and Cassaday may be one of the most ambitious, and certainly most enjoyable, comics (excuse me, I mean graphic novels!) that I have ever read. It is yet another post-Watchmen, post-Dark Knight meta-textual exploration of the genre, but manages to be one that doesn’t lose its sense of humour or sense of wonder as it dissects some of the weird, wonderful, and even silly elements of the genre…no small feat! Also, Ellis does not restrict himself solely to an examination of the world of superheroes as it’s been portrayed in the funny books, but also includes a myriad of other pop culture genre tropes in a heady brew that’s chock-full of pulpy goodness! Conspiracy theories meet the world of metahumans, the science of the occult and the magic of super-science rub shoulders with genre standbys, and a world of strangeness and wonder slowly unfolds like a snowflake.

The premise is pretty simple, and kind of ingenious given Ellis’ aims: it’s a strange world, but the powers that be have been covering up every weird, wonderful, strange and scary thing that has reared its head in human history. Enter Planetary, an inter-continental organization of “archaeologists of the impossible” whose avowed goal is to unearth the secrets from which the enlightened ones would shield us and broadcast them in their yearly publication, kind of a Whole Earth Catalog of the weird and strange. The field team for Planetary is composed of three main agents: Elijah Snow is a gruff and taciturn leader who also sports the ability to generate cold on a superhuman level, Jakita Wagner the beautiful and nigh-invulnerable superwoman, and the Drummer, a prototypical slacker-geek whose ability to interface with anything electronic is truly extraordinary. Oh, and since this is a graphic novel/comic book I should note that the art by John Cassaday is consistently extraordinary, some of the best I’ve ever seen, really! I’ll break down the individual issues below and try to avoid any heinous spoilers.

Issue 0 (Preview) - “Nuclear Spring”: A secret military base; a genius cold war scientist decades ahead of his time; a quantum bomb that is able to rewrite the nature of reality; a friend of the scientist’s caught in the blast zone during the final test. What mysteries will the Planetary team find when they crack open this decades-old secret of tragedy and transformation?

Issue 1 - “All Over the World”: Jakita Wagner recruits the misanthropic loner Elijah Snow to join a mysterious team called Planetary. Details on their operations and make-up are scarce. They have scads of cash, but all the field team seems to know is that they are funded, and ultimately directed, by a shadowy figure known only as “the Fourth Man”. The organization’s aim? To uncover the mysteries that the powers that be want kept secret. Despite his suspicions and doubts Elijah decides to come along for the ride (a paycheck of a million dollars a year doesn’t hurt either) and on his first mission witnesses the uncovering of a decades-old secret base of operations for a team of heroes the world didn’t even know existed. We have a literal round table of pulp hero analogues: newly minted characters who are stand-ins for Doc Savage, The Shadow, Tom Swift, Fu Manchu, Tarzan, Operator 5, and G-8. I love this stuff. Homages to the great icons of pulp and comic book heroes are the kind of thing I eat up with a spoon, primarily, I think, because while the ideas behind these icons are fantastic the execution of their stories often leaves something to be desired (often either because the company that owns the properties doesn’t want anything ‘bad’ (read interesting) done with them, or simply because they were written into formulaic and kind of crappy stories by mediocre writers). Those problems can be remedied in this kind of ‘elseworlds’ context and Ellis proceeds to do so both here and throughout the Planetary series with panache. Love it.

Issue 2 – “Island”: Welcome to Monster Island! (Well, Warren Ellis’ version of it anyway.) What do you get when you combine an isolated and remote island populated by creatures out of a Kaiju film, government cover-ups, and Japanese death cults? You get issue 2 of Planetary. Pretty good stuff that helps widen the lens beyond superheroes and show us just how strange Ellis’ secret history for his world really is.

Issue 3 – “Dead Gunfighters”: We continue our tour of Ellis’ strange world with another one-off tale centring around a ghostly cop in Hong Kong out for revenge and yet further hints about the ‘quantum reality matrix’, the snowflake, that underlies all of the strangeness being catalogued by Planetary. Think John Woo meets the X-Files.

Issue 4 – “Strange Harbours”: This, and issue 5, are where things really started to gel for me with Planetary; things began coming together and the “oh shit, that’s cool” moments were multiplying fast and furious. In this issue the team investigates the hole left after a single office building in the middle of a New York City block is vaporized. It seems as though something was unearthed by mysterious forces under the direction of people unknown and an investigator for the Hark corporation (the name will have meaning once you’ve read this far in the series) will be changed into something wonderful and strange. What does a homesick starship meant to fly between realities do when it’s been trapped under the earth for millennia? Recruit a new crew for starters. Captain Marvel (the Shazam version) meets Flash Gordon with a dash of the many worlds theory thrown in for good measure.

Issue 5 – “The Good Doctor”: Secret societies from the French Revolution with a breeding plan for superhumans, a Man of Brass (or is it bronze?) who devotes his life to saving a world that does not know he exists and collecting together similarly endowed individuals in the hopes that together they can solve the world’s ills, a pulp fiction extravaganza highlighting the glories and the dangers of thinking you can save the world. Elijah Snow’s suspicions have been accumulating since he joined Planetary and now he goes to talk with Doc Brass, saved in issue 1, to help clear his head. Things will start to roll from hereon in.

Issue 6 – “It’s a Strange World”: Now we get to the meat of it. What if the cold war space race was nothing more than a smoke screen for what was really happening behind the scenes? What if four astronauts (the number is important and the corollaries are very cool) were sent into the void and met up with forces unknown, forces that could transmute mere humanity into something more? What if they were the most evil sons of bitches you’re likely to meet and had both the will and the power to take the reins of the secret organization that had been keeping everything strange and wonderful from surfacing in the daylight world? What if Planetary finally found out about them? This issue single-handedly made the Fantastic Four a cool concept, something they hadn’t been, for me at least, well, um, ever. It also helped to answer the question that might nag any self-respecting comic book nerd who really thought about the whole concept behind the Fantastic Four (or science-based superheroes in general) as superhuman adventurers who discover the secrets of other worlds and realities: why doesn’t any of that gleaming gosh-wow tech ever filter down to the man on the street? Why don’t they have a cure for cancer? Where are the flying cars, dammit?! Well, it’s because the ‘superheroes’ are keeping it all for themselves, dumb-ass!

One thing that really worked well for me in this series overall was the way in which Ellis balanced between the self-contained one-off stories that were compelling in and of themselves with a greater story arc that made the journey all the more satisfying. He didn’t always manage to pull this balance off perfectly (sometimes the one-off tales seemed a little light, or the connections they had to the wider context weren’t sufficiently drawn, and occasionally the bigger story arc seemed a little bit rushed, especially at the very end), but overall he did a pretty exemplary job with this. Kudos! The sense of mysteries to be uncovered and of an answer greater than the sum of its parts (as gosh darn cool as those parts may be) was very well-played and, unlike some genre fiascos that have attempted the same trick (I’m looking at you X-Files and especially you Lost), Planetary mostly lived up to its potential in this regard. It looks like Ellis had mapped out his ideas and goal from the beginning instead of just engaging in some half-assed attempt to retroactively join together the disparate elements that were all thrown into the soup willy-nilly at the last minute. I love, love, love this series…and there’s more to come! Can I squee? Well, I will anyway. Squeeee!
What's Bred in the Bone - Robertson Davies This is Robertson Davies’ best book. No, really it is. And he’s written some pretty awesome ones, let me tell you. Certainly, at the very least, I can say that this one is my favourite. It has everything I want and expect from a book by Davies: a concentration on artistic and intellectual matters, exploration into the ways in which heredity and upbringing shape the soul of an individual, characters who are both ‘realistic’ and odd, witty insights into human nature and foibles at both the individual and communal level, and a preoccupation with myth as it surfaces in our everyday lives through both obvious and not so obvious avenues; in short a heady rumination on what it means to be a sensate individual living in a difficult world coming to terms with oneself all wrapped up in a wonderful story built on well-wrought prose.

As the story opens we encounter our old friends Simon Darcourt, Maria Theotoky, and Arthur Cornish some years after we first met them in [b:The Rebel Angels|74405|The Rebel Angels (Cornish Trilogy, #1)|Robertson Davies|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1170852645s/74405.jpg|1336027]. They are haggling over some problems that Darcourt is having with the inaugural work commissioned by the Cornish Foundation, meant to launch this benevolent body founded by Arthur and Maria into the world of artistic patronage. It is in fact a biography of Francis Cornish, the somewhat mysterious art collector and millionaire whose death played an important, though ancillary, role in the first volume of the Cornish trilogy. It appears as though Darcourt’s problems are two-fold: one is that there are simply too few facts for him to compose anything like the comprehensive scholarly work of biography he desires, the other is that those nuggets that he is able to intuit from the sparse facts of Cornish’s life lead him to believe that some unexpectedly provocative revelations may lie behind what on the surface had seemed a sedentary, even boring, life. Arthur wants none of it. His foundation is surely not to be launched into the world with a work whose main thesis may be that his own uncle was something of a charlatan, or at the very least a man of disingenuous aspect. Darcourt simply bemoans the fact the he is likely never to know the truth of the “rum things” that seem to lie in the background of the life and times of Francis Cornish.

Luckily for the reader Davies has Zadkiel, the minor angel of biography, and Maimas, the personal daimon of Francis Cornish himself, appear on the scene to enlighten us with the true tale of his life. We are at first treated to a view of Francis’ immediate forbears, setting the scene as Maimas would have it, for the places and people that would shape him for better or worse upon his arrival in the world. Thus we meet the premier inhabits of the tiny Canadian hamlet of Blairlogie (the “jumping off point” as some might uncharitably call it): the Senator (Francis’ grandfather James McRory), a man of humble beginnings who rises to prominence in the economic and political world of turn of the century Canada due to shrewd decisions and the ability and desire to take risks, and his comfort-loving wife, Francis’ grand-mère. There is also the sweetly draconian and pious Catholic Aunt Mary-Ben, a spinster who takes over the management of the Senator’s household ostensibly to allow his wife the freedom required to fully live the life required of a society woman, and of course Francis’ parents: the Senator’s favourite daughter Mary-Jim and her very odd husband Francis “the Wooden Soldier” Cornish…the tale of their meeting and circumstances surrounding their marriage plays an important role in the first part of the narrative and ultimately sets the scene for the boy, and man, Francis is to become. Added to these ‘main players’ are the numerous background figures and servants of the prominent household, many of whom will play a much larger role in the life and development of Francis than they, or any of their ‘betters’, might have thought likely. With this the scene is set for Davies’ preoccupation with the twin pillars upon which our lives are built: nature and nurture.

Francis’ life in Blairlogie is lonely and often hard. Being the sensitive and often neglected son of the most prominent family in a small rough-and-tumble backwoods town is not exactly an enviable position for a little boy, especially when you get moved to a school on the other side of the tracks. Francis’ parents and grandparents are often absent, even when they are physically near him, and so his fostering is taken over primarily by his well-meaning, though strange and often misguided Aunt Mary-Ben, as well as the servants Victoria Cameron (a staunch and somewhat harsh, though caring, Presbyterian) and the kind, but unconventional groom Zadok Hoyle. All of these people strongly shape Francis’ young mind, usually in contrary ways, so that he is pulled in several different directions by the people who should be providing him with a stable life. As far as Maimas is concerned this is all to the good, for he cannot forge a great man with the small stuff of ‘normalcy’. Also, Francis is a resourceful boy (who has luckily been ‘gifted’ with his own inspirational daimon) and is thus able to take the varied and ambiguous gifts of these people and form them into something approximating a complete, though certainly fragmented, personality. From these strange roots Francis grows an intriguing crown: a profound love of and ability in art, a deep desire to find the eternal feminine that can provide him with the comfort and love that has always been so elusive to him, and a sense of charity and compassion tempered by a love of money and somewhat cynical eye. All in all it is a foundation that Francis himself describes as “A Catholic soul in Protestant chains”. There is one other shadow-figure of supreme importance to Francis’ life and development, but I will leave the discovery of his role and identity to you from the story itself.

From the small beginnings of rural Ontario Francis moves to the ‘big city’ of Toronto where he attends both Colborne College and ‘Spook’ (academic proving grounds familiar to those of us who have read more widely in Davies) before moving on to Oxford and the wider world of pre-WWII Europe. Here Francis will meet a variety of new people with whose lives and interests he will become entangled, both professionally and personally. Some will be lovers (both nurturing and destructive), others will be mentors and rivals (both very instructive roles). All of these relationships will be used by Maimas to forge Francis into the man he envisions: the ultimate work of art combining elements of both the physical and the spiritual world into an enigmatic, but complete human being. In the end Francis is led by both his interests and his connections not only into the world of art and scholarship, but also the realm of espionage and subterfuge. Ultimately he shapes himself into the skilled, knowledgeable, and supremely secretive man who is to provide such an enigmatic puzzle for the would-be biographer Darcourt.

As I said in my opening this book is great. I won’t go any farther into a précis of Francis' life, Davies details it with much more colour, wit, and interest than I could manage in a review, but I have to say that Francis Cornish is a compelling character (at least as much as that equally charming rascal Dunstan Ramsay) and the story of his life is one well worth reading. It is, I think, Davies’ tour-de-force that takes up all of his concerns and preoccupations, uniting them to the story of a life whose variety and pathos makes it both accessible and enlightening.

Definitely check it out.
The Rebel Angels - Robertson Davies 4 - 4.5 stars

Some books are comfort reads. They are old friends whose familiarity provides us with a sense of stability and well-being, and they fit like a glove to the intellectual, emotional, and purely personal elements of our psyche. Sometimes this is because we came to them in formative years when their mode and message could be deeply impressed on us, sometimes it is because they simply express aspects of our nature that we ourselves may not be fully aware of, but to which they harmonize completely. The books of Robertson Davies are these kinds of books for me. I did come at them at a young age, but they also showed to me a world, and way of looking at the world, that I found utterly appealing and deeply satisfying.

Like all of his books _The Rebel Angels_ is a book about art, about the intellect, and about secrets (both personal and professional). It is populated by the kind of characters that Davies knew so well and whose portraits he painted unerringly (if on occasion a little too neatly): they are intellectual elites, connoisseurs of art and artistry, but they are also unique, often bizarre, individuals whose quirks and manias may be the result of heredity, upbringing, or a judicious combination of both. Having said this I would have to admit that perhaps the only reservation I have is in the range of these characters. They are certainly unique, quirky and individual, but they do seem to generally be cut from the same cloth. Davies himself was a true old school Upper Canadian (though indeed one with a decidedly forward-looking bent) conversant with the rituals and mode of the intellectual and social elites and this is very much the place where his characters live. Trying to go outside of this range is something he doesn’t seem to have been very interested in, and this was probably for the best. My only qualm with any of his characters is actually with Maria in this trilogy. I’m not sure how successful I think he was in embodying a feminine voice in her and often wonder what women who have read the series think of her? I don’t exactly find her unbelievable, but I sometimes wonder if some of the things she says and does wouldn’t sit more comfortably with one of Davies other, male, characters.

For me perhaps the most alluring feature of this book is the fact that it centres on the life of a University; indeed, of the university which I not only attended but where I now work and whose buildings, halls, and (most importantly) odd individuals are only thinly disguised. It stands to reason, then, that this book holds a unique place in my heart. In some ways this book is an academic satire, showing us the strange rituals, obsessions, and quirks that are unique to the world of academe. We are primarily concerned with the perhaps parochial world of a small college within a larger University, the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (or more colloquially “Spook”) and are immediately thrust into the midst of the action as the whispered refrain “Parlabane is back!” echoes throughout the halls. Everyone loves some good gossip and academics are no less a party to this than anyone else. It appears as though John Parlabane, one of the college’s former stars in the intellectual firmament (now disgraced much to all of his contemporaries’ delight), has returned to the alma mater as a defrocked monk in the hopes of clawing his way back up, and perhaps stirring the pot of scandal and intrigue. In the midst of this is Maria Magdalena Theotoky, a promising graduate student who has the misfortune not only of being the research assistant of one of Parlabane’s old ‘friends’, but of being in love with him. Said scholar, Clemence Hollier (an ‘ornament to the university’), is pursuing his research interests with single-minded assurance that is broken by only two things: his role as co-executor to the vast estate of the recently deceased millionaire and art collector Francis Cornish, and his nagging remembrance of an indiscretion the year before with his beautiful and intelligent RA on his decrepit office couch. Finally we have Professor the Reverend Simon Darcourt, scholar in New Testament Greek, lover of homely comforts, and also both an executor of Cornish’s will and newly smitten teacher of the lovely Miss Theotoky.

From here Davies takes us into the tangled world of academe, which is more cutthroat than outsiders might believe. The narrative is first person, split between segments narrated by Maria and Darcourt respectively, each of whom view the culmination of events that grow around the death of Cornish and arrival of Parlabane from parallel tracks. There is intellectual intrigue and thievery, bizarre research interests, passive aggressive bullying, and a most interesting view into the household of a gypsy family of means who straddle the old world and the new, the criminal and the respectable. As is to be expected of Davies his Jungian interests come out in a few ways. First, and most importantly, each of the characters wrestles with what Parlabane calls their “root and crown”: the tension that exists between the chthonic forces of our heredity & deeply buried psychological foundations and the outward face we present to the world bound up in our more conscious needs & desires. In addition the tarot and other mystical and mythological aspects of art and scholarship flow in and out of the characters’ lives proving themselves to be more real and applicable than they would ever have previously given them credit for. Sometimes this is manifested in a benign & revelatory way, sometimes through fear and premonition, but always enlightening them about themselves and the world.

All in all this is a great start to a great trilogy. Highly recommended.

Also posted at Shelf Inflicted

The Deep

The Deep - John Crowley Review edited after June 2013 re-read

4-4.5 stars

This is a great, weird, crazy little sf-fantasy that I love for reasons I can't really put my finger on. Crowley's ability to simply write is obviously one of the elements that works in the book's favour, though my review of [b:Little Big|2612|The Tipping Point How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference|Malcolm Gladwell|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344268476s/2612.jpg|2124255] will show that, in my opinion at least, that isn't always enough to carry a Crowley book.

I can (and did) easily imagine this as a movie from the 70's with David Bowie starring as the enigmatic Visitor from the stars (a role he is familiar with) as he wanders in an amnesiac haze through the strange flat-earth world created by Crowley. Throughout his journey he witnesses the internecine wars of the Reds and the Blacks, the two reigning groups of aristocrats (who seem to be something of an amalgam of playing cards and chess pieces...though more fleshed out than that description implies) along with the guerilla resistance of the Just.

There's obviously a fairly strong allegorical element to this tale, and normally I don't like that, but Crowley manages to overcome this and still make his characters people, despite their obvious archetypes. Crowley's concerns with examining how human power corrupts, even when used with the best of intentions, and the idea of examining how a closed system will develop when only certain known external factors are allowed to be introduced were interesting, but ultimately I think this book's success lies in the fact that it was a story easy to get lost in and simply enjoy from start to finish.

June 2013 re-read thoughts: The underlying allegorical aspect of the Red/Black dichotomy (referencing both playing cards and chess...I mean these characters live out their lives on a flat-earth ‘playing board’!) is definitely strong. To add to the confusion many of the characters, especially those in the Red camp, have names so similar as to be utterly confusing at first. Despite this, though, I can really feel for them and they each grow into unique and complex individuals that live and breathe in a way that is real to me: Fauconred the old and trusted retainer, not too bright, but handy in a pinch and with a healthy dose of common sense; Learned Redhand and Sennred, the men who come to realize to what their loyalty must be given no matter the personal cost to themselves; Redhand, the proud and aristocratic warrior who is not above doing what is expedient, yet whose moral centre is not without a keen sense of honour; Red Senlin’s Son and Younger Redhand, one a king at once venal and grasping, yet driven by love (or is it hate?), the other a younger son and brother trying desperately to live up to the family members he worships, both touched by madness; Caredd, the loving and perhaps naïve wife, whose inner strength and compassion proves to be the bedrock for more than one man. The story itself is a story of circles, repetition, of changeless change. Something new has happened though and while we seem to end where we began it becomes apparent that something new has occurred, a twist in the pattern that just might be a newness that bears seed and grows, not one that reinforces the old way-worn paths.

Crowley is just so deft and precise in his characterization and plotting in this book that I wonder why he felt the need to ‘evolve’ towards doorstopper tomes and multi-volume epics (that are unfortunately mainly populated by uninteresting or unsympathetic characters and seem to me a bit scatter-shot in their execution)*sigh*. Final judgement: still a great read that displays to perfection how an author can use brevity and conciseness to build a whole world.

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