Sunday, September 17, 2017

Another "Is THAT How You Say...?"

During a recent road-trip spent joyfully listening to Ulli Birvé read Georgette Heyer's 1939 mystery No Wind of Blame, I encountered several more intriguing examples of the difference between how I have been brought up pronouncing English words and the way the English themselves pronounce them.

I'm more than ever on the lookout for such examples since I read portions of H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926), in which that high-ranking authority on how English out to be used refers to a certain law, already at that time not being vigorously enforced and nowadays all but forgotten, called the Recessive Accent. This rule, which apparently means the accent should land on the syllable as far to the left as possible, no doubt accounts for the fact one may still occasionally hear a highly educated, upper-class Brit putting the accent on the first syllable of such words as "despicable," "hospitable," or "exquisite."

But this rule doesn't quite explain why Ulli Birvé says "exigencies" with the emphasis on the second "e" - ex-i-GEN-cies. I was so struck by this, I had to grab the little commonplace book I keep in the center-island of my car (yeah, I know) and make a note of it.

The next note below that reminds me that in at least two places, Birvé pronounced the verb "demur" or its past-tense form "demurred" (to voice disagreement) exactly as I would expect to hear the adjective "demure" (modest, bashful), with a "y" sound before a long "u." This is one of those words I have probably never heard anyone use in casual speech, but have read silently in many books. I always guessed the "u" in the second syllable was pronounced with a more neutral vowel sound, like the accented vowel in "preferred."

Below that, I scribbled the word "raiment," which again, is a term I may have only encountered in literature, and seldom if ever heard spoken aloud. I would never have quibbled to hear it pronounced exactly the way anyone would expect to hear an English word thus spelled: "RAY-mənt," with a schwa in the second syllable, followed by a garden-variety "n" and some notion of a final "t," even if the latter exists more in the realm of imagination than in actual sonic reality. I can't tell whether Heyer italicized the word, but apparently Birvé took it as a French loan-word and pronounced it as such, with no particular accent on the first syllable, and a second syllable essentially ending with a nasalized ẽ vowel. I don't know about this. I have little doubt the English word "raiment" can be traced back to some similar French word; but since it occurs more than 50 times in the King James Bible (1611), flaunting that debt is probably overdoing the francophilia just a bit. The question now is whether that fetish should be attributed to Heyer (by dint of italics) or to Birvé.

Finally, or rather first of all, I remember being surprised at the beginning of the audiobook by Birvé's pronunciation of the author's last name. This probably goes down to germanophilia, or whatever the right word for it is, owing to the influence of the German language on the speech of the American midwest, but ever since I first saw the name Georgette Heyer in print, I have assumed her second name was pronounced like the English word "higher." Now I owe it to Birvé's qualifications as an audiobook reader to assume she is correct when she pronounces it more like "hayer," as in a person who makes hay, or "heyer," as in a person who says "Hey!" Maybe you knew this before, but I didn't.

I don't know much about Birvé, but a search for her turns up some credits in Australian film and TV productions, so her authority on English pronunciation may by confined to the land down under. Her accent sounds cultured and neutral enough to be from anywhere, and she does put on a variety of regional English accents with seemingly no effort whatever; so I just don't know. But if there are multiple ways to skin a cat, there are surely even more ways to pronounce some English words.

The King's Buccaneer

The King's Buccaneer
by Raymond E. Feist
Recommended Ages: 14+

Nicholas conDoin is the youngest son of Arutha, Prince of Krondor and brother of Lyam, King of the Isles. Overshadowed by his older twin brothers, one of whom will be king after Lyam, he has also been allowed to lead a relatively soft life by dint of his deformed left foot. As he approaches the age when his father started to do heroic deeds, Arutha decides to do something to make a man of him - like, sending him to the remote duchy of Crydee, to serve as a squire to his Uncle Martin and maybe rack up some leadership experience. Nicholas gets more than his father bargained for, starting when a horde of the darkest villains in all the world of Midkemia sneak into Crydee, taking captive everyone young and healthy, and killing pretty much everyone else. By chance among those who survive the raid, Nicholas leads an expedition across a seemingly endless ocean to rescue those captives, including his cousin Margaret and her lovely lady-in-waiting, Abigail.

If you've guessed Nicholas is impelled partly by his attachment to Abigail, you're not as dumb as you look. But before he finds her and the other captives, things happen that draw his heart in another direction. Meantime, he becomes the captain of an increasingly diverse group of sailors, soldiers, mercenaries, and more - including two notable wizards, and possibly the only half-elf/half-human ever to exist in their world. They endure heartbreaking disaster, struggle against deadly conditions, battle enemies as powerful as they are ruthless, and sustain terrible losses. They visit an alien continent, witness a conflict between legendary forces, and end up racing against a terrible plot to destroy the world.

I'll confine my review to these sweeping generalities, but believe me: the fun in this book is in the specifics. Characters like Nakor, the cheerful wizard who swears "there is no magic," and Anthony, whose love for a woman above his station shines bright enough to steer a ship by; villains like Lady Clovis, whose seductive power can drain a man's life force in minutes; romantic interests ranging from a girl who haunts the streets of a pirate hide-out to a bossy-pants princess who has been marked for death; and above all, Nicholas himself, who faces his own deepest fear and grows as a man beyond anyone's expectations - all these and incidents galore fill this book with excitement, surprises, and satisfying emotional arcs.

Depending on how you slice up Feist's Midkemia-related output, involving 30-some books written over 30-some years, either this book is the second of two stand-alone companion novels to the Riftwar trilogy (or quartet), which begins with Magician (or at least Magician: Apprentice); or it is the second book of the Krondor's Sons duad, following Prince of the Blood; or both books are a continuation of the Riftwar saga. Each of these options has its pros and cons, and the author's views on the matter don't seem to feature much in the debate. But I reckon the next book to read, in following the multi-layered Midkemia canon, seems to be Daughter of the Empire, book 1 of the "Riftwar: The World On the Other Side" trilogy with co-author Janny Wurts; though that book was published before Prince of the Blood and this book. Just be quiet and nod your head. Good.

No Wind of Blame

No Wind of Blame
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 12+

Nearly everyone at the Palings, an English country house owned by the retired actress Ermentrude Carter, has a motive for murdering Ermentrude's good-for-nothing husband Wally. But when someone shoots him dead in the middle of a footbridge on his way to tea at the neighbor's house, the police are puzzled. None of those apparent motives seem to match up with the ability to have smuggled the victim's own rifle out of his gun safe, or an opportunity to have pulled the trigger from the cover of nearby shrubbery. And of those people with a shred of opportunity, everyone seems to have an airtight alibi - or, at least, no one can explain how they could have gotten the gun out of the house, or how they would have known where and when to lie in ambush for poor, worthless Wally.

This murder mystery has first the local police, then Scotland Yard scratching their heads, while members of Ermentrude's circle of family, friends, and neighbors act out a complex weave of romantic melodramas in a style that I would like to describe as "Agatha Christie meets P.G. Wodehouse." One particular couple had me often chuckling, and occasionally laughing out loud, especially at the girl's spirited meddling and stage-struck eccentricity. Incidentally, who done it and how they (almost) pulled it off account for a really nifty surprise. Spread over everything is a layer of between-the-world-wars English charm, enhanced by a possibly fraudulent Georgian prince, a couple of Bolshevik sympathizers, and masterful scenes of drawing-room histrionics.

One of Regency romance maven Heyer's 12 detective novels, this is the first of four "Country House Mysteries" featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Hemingway. The other three are Envious Casca (a.k.a. A Christmas Party), Duplicate Death, and Detection Unlimited. I enjoyed the audiobook version read by Ulli Birvé during a recent interstate road trip.

The Pillars of The Earth

The Pillars of the Earth
by Ken Follett
Recommended Ages: 14+

A dear friend of mine, from whom changes in the circumcstances of life have separated me, once gave me a copy of this book, along with one or two others, and strongly urged me to read it. I can still recall her enthusiastic description of it, doing a pantomime of the eager turning of pages, with breathless comments like, "Oh my God! Did she really! No way! He didn't! They wouldn't! Tell me more!" It testifies to my trust in that friend's judgment that I kept that book on my (admittedly enormous) to-read shelf for years and years, though I gave priority to other books in the meantime. I finally found an opportunity to heed my friend's advice when the availability of an audiobook edition, just when I was about to go on a long road-trip. So now I can say, "Thanks, Amanda, for pointing me in the direction of some terrific entertainment!"

The Pillars of the Earth has achieved bestseller status without any help from me; in fact, it is probably the best-known book by its fairly prolific author. It was adapted as a TV miniseries in 2010, which is useful to know, because I wouldn't have known how to spell the characters' names correctly were it not for a webpage listing the cast of that film. It focuses on a large handful of characters whose status as protagonists or antagonists is in reference to the building of a great cathedral in the village of Kingsbridge in 12th-century England, during a period known to historians as the Anarchy, due to the effects of a civil war between three rival claimants to the throne (for the record, Stephen, Maud, and eventual winner Henry I). It was also the period during which Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, became in rapid succession a martyr and a saint, due to his conflict with King Henry; and when the trend in cathedral-building tipped from Romanesque (rounded) arches to Gothic (pointed) ones.

Embedded in that historical context, high drama spins out of the rivalries between a Benedictine monk named Philip and a ruthlessly ambitious bishop named Waleran Bigod, and between a headstrong girl named Aliena, who has sworn to restore her brother Richard to the earldom that was taken from their father, and the monstrous Percy Hamleigh, who... well, if I listed his crimes here, you wouldn't believe me. You'll just have to read the book. Caught in the middle are a stonemason named Tom Builder and his gifted stepson Jack, who has a rivalry of his own both with Percy and with Tom's rather disappointing son Alfred. Jack also happens to be in love with Aliena, but both Percy and Alfred are in lust with her, and... well, you know where this is going, whether you read the book or not; but along the way are the kinds of surprises that will have you eagerly turning pages and making breathless comments like, "Oh my God! Did she really! No way! He didn't! They wouldn't! Tell me more!" I was warned about this, so now I warn you. Amanda was right.

I didn't realize until my road-trip was underway that the audiobook I had purchased of this novel, read by Richard E. Grant, was an abridged edition. If someone finds out who made the decision to produce an abridged audiobook of this novel - part of a series of abridged installments that I have seen on store shelves, but will now know better than to buy - I wish they would do me a personal favor and leave a flaming brown-paper lunch bag full of dog poo on that person's doorstep. Those of us who frequently drive great distances with only audiobooks to keep us sane, will not feel we have been done a favor by having a long-anticipated bestseller reduced to eight measly CDs. So, not only didn't it last even half of my road trip, it didn't provide me with the full Pillars of the Earth experience that I could have gotten by listening to the version recorded by John Lee. And since I have spoken of a series, let it be known that, whosoever may have recorded them in abridged or unabridged audio, the sequels to this book are World Without End and A Column of Fire.

Ken Follett is also the author of the Apples Carstairs trilogy (The Big Needle, etc.), the Piers Roper books (The Shakeout, etc.), the Century Trilogy (Fall of Giants, etc.), and a variety of other novels, some of them written under the pen-names Symon Myles, Martin Martinsen, Zachary Stone, and Bernard L. Ross. Their titles include The Power Twins, The Modigliani Scandal, Capricorn One, The Key to Rebecca, Lie Down with Lions, Night Over Water, A Dangerous Fortune, The Hammer of Eden, Hornet Flight, and Whiteout.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Prince of the Blood

Prince of the Blood
by Raymond E. Feist
Recommended Ages: 14+

Twenty years after the Riftwar (see Magician, Silverthorn, and A Darkness at Sethanon), the 19-year-old twin sons of Prince Arutha are a couple of trouble-making scamps. They certainly don't have the maturity to rule over the Kingdom of the Isles in the world of Midkemia. And now that Arutha has declared his intention to renounce his claim to the throne, should he outlive his brother King Lyam, Borric and Erland are first and second in the line of royal succession. It's a pretty pickle. So, Arutha sends the boys to Kesh, the vast and dangerous empire to the south, to serve as the kingdom's delegates to the Empress Lakeisha's 75th birthday jubilee. Attending them are Barons Locklear and James, who were boys themselves when we last saw them, and (after a stop to visit Pug the Magician) James' new wife Gamina, who can communicate telepathically.

Arutha only hopes the trip will teach the twins some responsibility. But their schooling takes a nasty turn soon after they cross the Keshian border, when their party is attacked by bandits. Believed by all except Erland to be dead, Borric is taken prisoner and cruelly driven to the slave market of Durbin, where is to be sold. He escapes with the aid of a fast-talking beggar boy named Suli, and later joins up with a mercenary named Ghuda and a fun-loving wizard named Nakor. They make their perilous way to the capital city of Kesh, while trying to elude capture by forces who are determined to kill Borric for mysterious, political reasons. Meantime, Erland finds himself unexpectedly representing the Kingdom as its heir presumptive in the middle of a vast, culturally alien court swirling with sex, intrigue, and danger. A high-ranking member of the royal family is murdered, and two nations are brought to the brink of war, before the true nature of the plot is revealed. By then, it's open season on the twin princes and their entourage.

Every book by Feist that I have read, including the massive Magician, I have found easy to enjoy: written in a transparent style, with fast-paced action, romance, humor, and mighty feats of world-building filling every page with fun. Though at times this book felt like a lighter-weight piece of entertainment than the three (or four) I had read before, I came to the end thinking it might have been my favorite so far. I'm not sure that isn't something that's going to happen every time I read another Feist novel. The twins, Jimmy, Locky, Gamina, Ghuda, Suli, and Nakor are compelling characters, and as the two groups pursue vastly different types of adventures, a rich variety of culture and scenery is revealed. The tale abounds in suspense, excitement, Adult Content Advisory-worthy titillation, and intrigue, with differing views about the place of women and attitudes about sex coming in for some comment. And most importantly, the twins' characters are transformed by their adventure.

I have learned to tremble a little when I get to the part of a review of one of Feist's books where I have to describe where it fits into his body of work. Feist himself apparently counts the Riftwar books, listed above, as a trilogy; most everyone else divides Magician into two books (Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master), and therefore counts the same series as four books. The situation only becomes more complex with this book, which I have seen described as the first of two stand-alone companion novels to the Riftwar saga (the second being The King's Buccaneer) - rather as Belgarath the Sorcerer is viewed as a stand-alone companion or prequel to David Eddings' Belgariad quintet. On the cover of my copy of The King's Buccanneer, however, that book is described as the second book of the "Krondor's Sons" series, apparently taking Prince of the Blood as the first. And on one of my favorite websites for settling arguments about the canon order of various series of books, both books are listed as part of the Riftwar series. I don't want to get into the middle of this, but for the sake of simplicity, I'm going with this last option in my index to these reviews.

Now that that's settled, I can go on to note this five- or six-book series, or trilogy or quartet with two outlying books, or whatever it is, is only the beginning of a literary canon of some 30 books set in the world of Midkemia, which (if I am correctly interpreting the author's acknowledgements to both books) took shape in the collaborative setting of a fantasy role-playing game. Other titles include the "Riftwar: The World on the Other Side" trilogy (co-authored with Janny Wurts), the "Riftwar: Serpentwar" quartet, the "Riftwar Legacy" quartet, the "Legends of Riftwar" trilogy (with various co-authors), the "Conclave of Shadows" trilogy, the "Darkwar" trilogy, the "Demonwar" duad, and the "Chaoswar" trilogy. Most recently, Feist started an entirely new fantasy series with the book King of Ashes.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Silver Dream

The Silver Dream
story by Neil Gaiman & Michael Reaves
written by Michael Reaves & Mallory Reaves
Recommended Ages: 12+

Joey Harker used to be just this kid, but now he's one of several hundred "paraincarnations" of pretty much the same exact kid, gathered from around the altiverse - which means the earthlike, inhabited part of the multiverse - which means... never mind. They all live, study, train, and travel between parallel dimensions on a ship/city/school called InterWorld, whose mission is to fight the evils encroaching from both ends of the spectrum of possible worlds - the HEX pirates trying to conquer everything from the magical end of the continuum, and the Binary clones encroaching from the technological end. And though some are boys and some are girls, and some have feathers and others have cybernetic implants, and some come from planets with super-high gravity, and so on, they all look and sound more or less exactly like Joey Harker. They all have names beginning with a J, too, so be sure to keep your list of characters handy.

A couple years into his tour of duty with InterWorld, Joey has started to feel like he belongs. He more or less leads a team (though he isn't the senior officer on it). He doesn't spend quite as many meals at his own table in the mess hall, writhing in social awkwardness, as he did when he first arrived and everyone was suspicious because he had accidentally gotten his recruiter killed. And though the Old Man (kind of a far-future version of Joey) never seems to approve of anything he does, he hasn't been suspected of selling out his team to the enemy, lately.

But now things start to go downhill. First, his team botches a mission to retrieve Binary data from a world called Earth FΔ986, and brings back an uninvited guest whose name doesn't begin with a J - a mysterious girl named Acacia Jones, widely and embarrassingly rumored to be Joey's girlfriend. Then they have to go back to FΔ986 to complete their original mission, plus rescue a Walker - someone like Joey and all his InterWorld friends, who can Walk (with a capital "w") between worlds - who turns out to be way cooler and more popular than Joey. Then a training exercise leads to an accident that injures Joey and kills one of his best friends in a way that leads many, Joey included, to suspect that he, Joey, is to blame. Every time Joey tries to make things better, things get worse, and before anything happens that you won't hate me for spoiling, the multiverse is on the verge of an almighty disaster called Frost Night, and Joey is marooned, hurt, and helpless to do anything to stop it. Or is he? (Cue scary music.)

As the second installment in a series of at least three books, it is perhaps understandable that the mood in this book hits a low note, and it has an unresolved ending. That just gives you more to look forward to in books to come, right? Meantime, there are loads of far-out fantasy ideas, weird images, exciting conflicts, and scary moments in this book, along with some tenderer emotions. While I would prefer to see a book take a story all the way to the end, there is good precedent for leaving us in suspense - so long as the pay-off is worth it.

This sequel to Neil Gaiman & Michael Reaves's InterWorld is one of the few books I have reviewed whose author credits read like the writing credits of a screenplay. Gaiman is the Hugo, Nebula, Newbery Medal, and Carnegie Medal winning author of The Graveyard Book, Coraline, American Gods, Anansi Boys, Neverwhere, Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, etc., etc. Michael Reaves is an Emmy-winning TV writer who has contributed to Batman: The Animated Series and Disney's Gargoyles, as well as Star Wars novels and more; increasingly, he has been working with co-authors while struggling with Parkinson's disease. Mallory Reaves is his daughter, who specializes in adapting manga series such as Afterschool Nightmare and Her Majesty's Dog. Their writing credits grow even more complicated in the third installment of this series, Eternity's Wheel, with the younger Reaves probably doing most of the writing but still getting last (if not least) billing. I hate getting in the middle of messes like this, but I still plan to enjoy this series while it lasts.

Monday, September 4, 2017

God Save the Queen

God Save the Queen
by Kate Locke
Recommended Ages: 14+

Alexandra Vardan is a half-blood, or halvie, in an alternate version of present-day London descended via divergent history from the Madness of George III, when in Xandra's universe the Plague mutated into something called the Prometheus Protein and turned the aristocracy into either vampires (mainly English), werewolves (mainly Scottish), or goblins (um, you'd rather not know). Most commoners, without the mutated gene allowing them to become fully plagued, have continued living life as they otherwise would have, with some weird differences. Instead of CDs and DVDs, they have audio and video cylinders. Instead of push-button cellphones, they carry portable rotaries. They still have Sid Vicious, but he's singing covers of Frank Sinatra now. And Adolf Hitler, instead of causing World War II, made his mark on history as a mediocre landscape painter. Humans have only risen up against the aristos once - during the Great Insurrection of 1932, when Her Ensanguinated Majesty Queen Victoria's beloved Prince Albert was among the slain - but pressure has been building lately in British society, with anti-plague hate groups running amok, and with a carefully-bred buffer class of halvies training to defend the aristos against another attack.

Xandra, for example, is a member of the Royal Guard, a terrific fighter, a star pupil of the academy, and a pet of her teacher, the vampire Churchill. Of her three half-siblings on the side of her aristocratic vampire father, one is an inspector with Scotland Yard, and two are private security consultants - including the youngest, Dede, of whom Xandra is especially protective. When Dede disappears, Xandra makes her perilous way to the city's main goblin plague den, seeking information about where to find her sister. The answer seems terrible enough: Bedlam, the lunatic asylum where Xandra's mother, a breeding courtesan who bore halvie children to more than one aristo, was committed before she died. Even worse news comes on the heels of that bulletin: Dede has committed suicide. So Xandra must face an even more paralyzing fear - the fear of insanity - going to the very place into which her mother disappeared when she was a girl, to identify the charred remains of her sister. But lest you think things can't get even darker and weirder, she can tell right away the burned body is not Dede. So what's going on?

What's going on, she learns, is far deeper and weirder than the matter of what happened to Dede. As she gradually finds out, there is something about Xandra herself that has been hidden from her. On the way to accepting it, however, she stops an assassin from shooting Queen Victoria at her 175th Jubilee Ball; she survives, just barely, an attempt to assassinate herself; she falls in love with the alpha werewolf of all Great Britain; she discovers a heartbreaking betrayal; and she finds herself at the center of a personal scandal and a political crisis that could shake the Empire.

This book has an energetic pace, an Adult Content Advisory-worthy romance, and a fascinating, not-undead take on what vampires and werewolves are (not to mention goblins), and what makes them that way. It also has one of the most valuable assets a fantasy novel can have, in its immersively convincing close-parallel-world setting, sort of like what you get when you take Regency Steampunk and fast forward 200 years. Best of all, it has a heroine with a vibrant personality, a tough attitude, and, well, a lot of other unique stuff about her that I don't want to spoil for you. It fills a niche I didn't know existed, between the period Steampunk of Gail Carriger's "Parasol Protectorate" series and the darker, more dystopian vision of Clay and Susan Griffiths' "Vampire Empire" series. I'm eager to see where Xandra's adventures lead next.

This is the first book in the "Immortal Empire" trilogy, which also includes The Queen Is Dead and Long Live the Queen. The Canadian-born author has also published books under the names Kathryn Smith, Kady Cross, and Kate Cross, including the "Brotherhood of the Blood" quintet, the "Steampunk Chronicles" quartet, and the "Clockwork Agents" trilogy.