The Hell…? Someone please tell me what this is.
The Hell…? Someone please tell me what this is.
In Vonda McIntyre’s novel Dreamsnake a herpetologist/healer (also, rather creatively, named Snake) on a post-apocalyptic Earth relies on Mist, an albino cobra, Sand, a rattlesnake, and Grass, an alien creature that resembles a snake, to cure the patients she meets. By feeding them different chemical concoctions, their venom becomes a means of healing rather than death.
In real life, venomous snakes are some of the most feared creatures known. As many as 94,000 people per year die worldwide because of snakebite. Most are located in rural areas where they do not have access to modern medical facilities where antivenom is available. In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movie duology, his assassins are named after snakes: Cottonmouth, Copperhead, Diamondback, Black Mamba, and California Mountain Snake, the latter species entirely fictional. (I suppose he might have meant the California Mountain Kingsnake, a look-alike for the very poisonous Coral Snake, and gotten confused. )
In the market for a deadly fictional snake of your own? Here’s a list of randomly generated made-up species.
A selection of covers for Vonda McIntyre’s dystopic SF novel Dreamsnake.
Author Madeleine L’Engle wrote a heckuvalotta novels. In addition to the Wrinkle in Time (or the Kairos series as she called it) books pictured above, she also wrote a second generation series about the same family, plus the Chronos series about the Austin family, the Katherine Forrester series, and the Camilla Dickinson series. One thing all of these books have in common is the mystical nature of their titles. (Read my reviews of A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.)
If the author had written more, or had some stashed away in a safety deposit box, they might sound like these, courtesy of random generation, and open for use.
An Irrational Miracle
A Patient Stitch in Fate
A Shadow Comes Striding
A Cloud in the Window
Take a Breath for Treading
An Empty Knot of Knowledge
A Pocket of Wisdom
The Dragon in the Parlor
The Patient Sphinx
Empty Places in a Young Heart
An Oddly Watching Interface
Grooves in the Water
The Joyful Hemisphere
Small Patterns of Creation
A Breeze through the Palace
by Madeleine L’Engle
Dell Yearling, 1978
[Challenge # 4: A children’s book, middle grade or younger.]
A Swiftly Turning Planet is a hot mess of a book, but not without its rewards. The third installment of the Murry family saga that began with A Wrinkle in Time, it features the insufferable Charles Wallace as the protagonist with a grumpy time-traveling unicorn named Gaudior as his companion. It’s not a direct sequel; there’s an intervening book, A Wind in the Door. But the story was easy to pick up without having read it.
That said, Planet shows its age in a way that Wrinkle does not. The book begins when the Murry family, approximately ten years removed from the events of Wrinkle, are about to sit down and eat Thanksgiving dinner when a call comes from the US president. It seems Mad Dog Branzillo, the war-mongering South American dictator of the imaginary country of Vespugia, has acquired nuclear weapons and is threatening to let them fly on the world. Right off the bat there was so much wrong with this banana republic trope, not the least of it its leader’s name. It’s revealed later Branzillo has that name for a reason, and it’s a clever one that ties into the story’s central mystery. But still… way to insult South Americans, now-deceased YA author.
Mrs. O’Keefe, Meg Murry’s reclusive, unfriendly mother-in-law (for she has married Calvin O’Keefe) is at the dinner too, and she mutters an ancient Welsh rune, or poem of protection, at the news, which inspires Charles Wallace to find a way to neutralize this event. He wanders outside to the ancient star-watching rock on the Murry acreage where he meets a winged, time-traveling unicorn named Gaudior, who is to escort him back in time so he can go “within.” That is, embedding himself into people who lived on the same land in the past to find a way to tweak the fabric of time so the current situation is defused. It turns out both Mad Dog Branzillo and Mrs. O’Keefe share an ancient connection, and both the characters and the reader must figure it out.
It’s one of the most complicated plots I’ve ever seen. Every word of L’Engle means something, and the reader must work, hard. In fact, I can’t see how YA readers raised on simpler fare like Cinder or The Maze Runner would have much patience with it. As an adult, I didn’t have much patience with it at times, even as I admired its cleverness and the way everything dovetailed together in the end. L’Engle is still a magnificent writer, and at her worst is better than 95% of modern YA writers at their best; but boy, was there a lot to be unpacked.
There was some dubious science and history as well, such as The People of the Wind, a tribe of proto-Native Americans who live on a lake where they ride iridescent blue-green dolphins who spray water out of their blowholes. (That’s not how it works; cetaceans breathe through their blowholes, which are actually their noses, and while the air they exhale might have moisture in it, it’s not a water spray such as what an elephant might make by suctioning water up through its trunk and blowing it out.) Though delightful, it was just wrong. Cetaceans would not be iridescent either, or blue-green, or live in lakes in geologically recent times; and neither would ancient people have flown through the air on giant birds as also occurs in the story. Though not depicted negatively, noble savage clichés abounded, and the writer would probably receive criticism if it had been written today.
As Charles Wallace travels through time in other people’s bodies he is accompanied by Meg, who is kything with him, linked to him mentally from her bed at home and experiencing the things he does. Meg, such a strong character in Wrinkle, disappoints here. The twins study law and medicine, Mom has a Nobel Prize, Dad gets calls from the President, Calvin is giving symposiums in foreign countries, and Charles Wallace remains vaguely gifted and mystical, but all poor Meg has done is become attractive, get married to Cal, and gotten pregnant. She’s not even doing well at that because she’s been sick and has been advised not to strain herself for the baby’s sake. She still has no self-esteem and is fine being condescended to by the other members of the family. The book even states she’s out of practice in kything. Whatever.
(And if she’s to watch her health, why the heck is she sleeping in her old bedroom in the family’s attic, with its rickety stairs and single electric plug-in heater?)
Charles Wallace disappears when he’s in the other people, so their stories belong to them, not Charles Wallace, while Meg observes and transmits clues to the mystery from the present day. It’s an odd but audacious device, compressing into one book what might take four or five to do. Things did not feel rushed, but they did feel skimmed as we flip-flopped from New England to Wales to Patagonia and then back to New England again. Since Gaudior’s magic traverses time but not space, the Wales and Patagonia events are portrayed in a plot device within a plot device, in the form of old letters discovered by Mrs. O’Keefe in her attic. The book is readable despite the clumsiness, but I wish it had been edited better. The author often forgets her POV, calling, for example, Chuck’s grandmother as “the grandmother” even though we are clearly in Chuck and not third person omniscient. Body parts too are disconnected from their owners, like “the boy bent over the great neck” when it should be “Charles Wallace bent over Gaudior’s great neck.”
L’Engle never referred to current events or even technology beyond phones and cars in the books, which gives them a timeless quality… up to a point. (For modern readers, the lack of cellphones and computers dates them.) In later years she said the series took place in Kairos, a sort of Christian alternate universe. I don’t know if that was a serious statement on her part or a cop out, but at times I did feel she was ignoring her own timeline.
So, I’ll take a stab at creating one here.
First off, I’ll posit Wrinkle takes place in 1963, the year after it was first published. The anxiety of the Cold War and dreary sameness of suburban life come through very clearly in the book, while the turmoil and sense of hopelessness makes me think of the Kennedy assassination. From Wrinkle we know that Meg is 13 and Charles Wallace 6. Calvin O’Keefe is one year older than Meg, so he is 14. I’m going to ballpark Mrs. Murry’s age as 35 and the twins at 11, in junior high but not teens as yet. Mr. Murry, who knows.
A Wrinkle in Time
|Mrs. Murry (b. 1928)
Meg (b. 1950)
Twins (b. 1952)
Charles Wallace (b. 1957)
Calvin O’Keefe (b. 1949)
Mrs. O’Keefe (b. 1928)
(It’s stated in Planet that Mrs. O’Keefe is the same age as Mrs. Murry when the disparity in their health and looks is commented on. Because of the number of her children – eleven! – I’ll say Mrs. O’Keefe married very young, perhaps at 17. )
When we come to Planet, Charles Wallace is stated to be 15. I’ll stretch it and say he’s 15 going on 16. So now the year is 1973. Israel is mentioned fleetingly in the story as a holder of nuclear weapons, which makes sense as the Yom Kippur War had just happened in October of that year so it would have been on the family’s mind during Thanksgiving.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
|Mrs. Murry (b. 1928)
Meg (b. 1950)
Twins (b. 1952)
Charles Wallace (b. 1957)
Calvin O’Keefe (b. 1949)
Mrs. O’Keefe (b. 1928)
15 going on 16
Even considering this, some things just don’t make sense.
Mrs. O’Keefe, Calvin’s neglectful, poverty-stricken mother in Wrinkle, is one of the people Charles Wallace interacts with when he’s embedded in the past. Her age is given as 12 when a pivotal event of her life occurs, which would make the year 1939. It’s said she’s wearing blue jeans. Now, in that time I think farming or rural people might have worn jeans while doing chores, but not people who live in a town, where propriety still put young girls in dresses. Jeans as knockabout wear for women didn’t catch on until the late 1950s. It’s also said, that while standing near the star-watching rock, they hear the roar of trucks on the freeway and airplanes in the sky. Trucking was not prevalent for goods transport in the 1930s and a freeway being near the small town they live in doesn’t sound likely either. Highways and freeways were a product of post WWII America, mainly the 1960s. In 1939 they might have heard a truck putt-putting along on a country road but certainly not a freeway roar. Airplane noise would have been rare as well, as commercial air traffic was still far in the future. Mrs. O’Keefe’s 1939 sounds a lot like 1965.
This made me question the story’s verisimilitude and made me think the author did not do her historical research. Even though the story was about an alternate history – the founding of a fictional country named Vespugia in Patagonia by Welsh, Spanish, and native settlers – that doesn’t mean facts of history outside of that, like the existence of freeways in 1939 or iridescent lake dolphins, can be posited willy-nilly.
On the plus side, there was some wonderful descriptive writing in here that called to mind the exotic worlds of A Wrinkle in Time, like the unicorns hatching from eggs on a planet of warm, creamy snow, drinking moonlight and starlight. C.S. Lewis was a big influence on the writer, and it shows, but she is also equal parts Madame Blavatsky, and her vision foretells the gush of New Age religious fantasies that began to be published in the 1980s, the kind you’d find in the rec room of a very hip Unitarian Church. The family’s interactions, which are the core of all the books, remain fresh. L’Engle had a way of writing them so the reader felt like a fly on the wall, unobtrusively eavesdropping.
There were also unalterable tragedies which are not sugarcoated. Parents die suddenly, children are abused or fall sick or go mad. There are misunderstandings both familial and cultural, and young people lose their dreams and ambitions. In the present day as well loss occurs: Fortinbras, the Murry family dog, has died, and a much-loved vegetable garden plowed under for lack of a caretaker. (A new dog, Ananda, appears in the course of the story to offer comfort.) There was a downbeat note with Gaudior, too. You’d think a flying unicorn with a name that means “Joy” might be more affable, but as a guide he had none of Mrs. Whatsit’s or Aunt Beast’s warmth and tenderness. For all his majesty he was kind of standoffish and acted like he’d rather be doing something else, somewhere else.
In the end, Mad Dog Branzillo is not all he seems and neither is Mrs. O’Keefe, who receives a new respect even though she is too old and tired to change her ways or make amends.
This was a divisive book for me. It annoyed me with its clichés and sense of naivete, yet has stuck in my mind for the way it all fit together just so, like a complex, many-faceted jewel.
Since it’s the week before Easter, here’s some more Lapine words with generated meanings.
|To flip over; somersault
To listen closely, to pay attention
Seeds that can be eaten
Seeds that are not good to eat
A place to store food
Fluff, like loose fur, used by does to make a nest
A young doe, analogous to girl
Thick wooded undergrowth
To feint when fighting another rabbit
To scrabble for footing, as if on stones or a steep surface
Spider. Hlothlev-frei, cobweb.
Flies-so-fast, Lapine for a jet airplane
Silent or silence
To store or hoard
To leap through the woods, to gambol
“Pebble-stealer,” or one who is petty about things
Early morning mist
Wind. Sivroo, breeze.
A short branch
To nurse young
Little rascal, or pest
I was lucky enough to visit Notre Dame cathedral as a child. It was August, the time when Parisians traditionally took their own vacations, and the city was quieter than it normally was. I went with my mom and dad. I remember it being shadowy and cool inside, the noises muffled. It seemed impossibly high. The summer sun blazed through the stained glass windows, so bright I could barely tell what colors they were made of. My dad wandered around, snapping pictures on a 35mm reflex camera — he was a photographer. Perhaps, being a jokester, he told me to look out for the hunchback.
That version of the cathedral is gone now.
It’s a disaster, of course, the fire eating through the roof and destroying the spire. But the spire had never been part of the original design. Neither were the iconic flying buttresses. And many cathedrals have survived the loss of their roofs and spires, even their towers. Fire is the most common culprit, but windstorms as well, and sometimes the failure of the materials themselves when the weight of the structure strains them over time.
Additions too change a cathedral’s original integrity. Chapels may be added to appease some noble family. Or the building changes religions, Hagia Sophia adding minarets (and very attractive ones) when it became a mosque.
The point is, churches are of man, of humankind, and not static objects frozen in time. They change and grow as humans themselves do. Notre Dame will recover, as an individual, family, or community does. It will endure.
For a different kind of disaster that befalls a cathedral, here’s the short story “Petra” by SF author Greg Bear. He most likely had Notre Dame and its famous gargoyles in mind when he wrote it.
How much is too much digital entertainment?
by Scott Lynch
Paperback edition, Bantam, 2007
The Lies of Locke Lamora came out in 2006, but I only got around to it in 2019. I’m coming out of a long period where I did not read current science fiction or fantasy, only old favorites. It caught my attention at Value Village, one of my favorite places in Seattle to buy used books, because of all the buzz it’s had. It’s completely warranted for the most part.
(NOTE: There are some spoilers in this review.)
Lies is a rollicking, genial fairground ride of a fantasy, less deep than it intends to be, but very good for what it does — depicting a roguish buddy adventure for which Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series was the basic template. There’s a team of five in the book, but Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen are the core members, embodying, respectively, brains and brawn, but also acting and business, planning and fighting. There’s a healthy dash of Asterix and Obelix as well. Lynch’s creations are far more cerebral, however, and more self-aware. They are confidence men, running their scams out of a temple dedicated to the god of poverty and charity from a basement hideout that would put the Batcave to shame, while catering to the upscale tastes of Bruce Wayne. The book has been described as grimdark by some reviewers because of its focus on vice, but it really isn’t. It’s a lark, and the sheer glee of the author shines through as he constructs the plot along with the glee of the protagonists as they construct their scam of the century.
The story takes place in Camorr, a canal-filled city based on Venice, but with the muggy climate of a hot summer in New York City, and with that city’s crime, too. The city becomes its own character in the book, a place of seediness and mystery, yet also great wealth and ostentatious displays of it. It’s an exquisitely designed gamer’s paradise rendered as the background of a novel, giving life and color to the adventures within. The naming conventions are Italianate, some actual, like Lorenzo, others made up with an Italian feel, like Barsavi. I give the author lots of credit for doing historical research. Much in here could have come from City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, the history of Venice I read for the 2018 Reading Challenge. There are twists, though. Instead of the Doge (Duke) of the city symbolically wedding the sea, we have female athletes who fight sharks with battle axes. It’s a lot of fun, though I could have done with less of the local color, especially the descriptions of clothing. But what made it excessive also made it very real. I felt I could walk into it at any point.
In contrast, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the fantasy book I had read previous to this, had a world that felt less real and more stylized, like an expressionistic movie set. In contrast to Lies the things that happen to Jemisin’s characters were both horrible and affecting, which is what the author intended, and indeed it was a different kind of book. I could go on about male vs. female ways of writing here, and which is better or worse, but I won’t.
The structure of the novel is interesting too. Instead of telling the story of Locke Lamora, a completely average human save for his skill at impersonation and thievery, in a linear way, we move back-and-forth. We begin at Locke’s genesis, where he escapes a fire in a poor neighborhood and is taken in by The Thiefmaker, the Fagin-like leader of a ring of pickpocket children that operates out of tombs in the cemetery. In roughly the first half of the story we watch Locke, Jean, the Sanza brothers and apprentice Bug set up an elaborate scam on an unsuspecting noble which is contrasted with Locke’s rough life with the pickpockets, then with Father Chains who trains him to run scams. This was fun and I was waiting for the scam to go wrong so the main plot could get started. The back-and-forth structure meant some events became confusing though. At one point the noble target is visited by a member of the Duke’s secret police who warns him of what Locke is planning for them and advises them to play along with it, as the secret police have things under control and are waiting for the right moment to catch the thief. Then in the next chapter we switch to Locke & Co. dressing as the secret police in their hideout, preparing to visit the noble, and I chuckled, foreseeing the trouble they will run into with their scam if the real secret police have warned the target. I thought this was the trigger point of the plot and looked forward to the mayhem. But no, we actually skipped back in time and everything was all right.
That said, the first half of the book was better plotted than the second half, and the last eighth of it, where things begin to fall apart in a way that didn’t fit with the story’s earlier tone.
The real plot begins when Locke is drugged on his way home from visiting his marks and taken to the Gray King, a mysterious assassin who has been killing the men of Barsavi, the current crimelord of the city. The Gray King tells Locke he must impersonate him at a meeting with Barsavi but doesn’t explain why. This is the first time ever Locke finds himself in a bind, and we move away from the scam plot which was loads of fun into a more standard and sober one. Appealing characters start to die, some in sadistic ways. Though it’s something that would normally bother me as a reader because the previous tone was so gleeful, it didn’t. Emotional consequences were not examined at length because it just wasn’t that kind of book. The tone remained breezy, and I could easily imagine the deceased characters as actors only playing their roles, popping up backstage hale and hearty after their exits were made. I can guess it’s because of the RPG influence on the author, where deceased characters are just that, characters, and can be used to game with another day. No sweat.
The story then becomes a mystery/thriller as Locke & Co. try to stop the Gray King from his nefarious plot to destroy Camorr. The tension is ratcheted up and kept me turning the pages. The intrusions to the past continued, some of which filled in the details of the characters’ previous lives, and started to feel more like intrusions, but they also leavened the cartoonish nature of the plot. (Incidentally, this method of telling a SFF story by going back-and-forth with anecdotes, myths, diary entries, etc. all started with Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness, as I found out the other day. How the field cross pollinates.)
However, the two sections fit together uneasily even with this device. I had the feeling that Locke, who had been set up in all the chapters before as a cool, confidant badass, was being shoehorned into the plot and his character suffered. For example, when Locke is drugged for the first meeting with the Gray King, he thinks the wife of the noble he’s scamming has poisoned the ink of the document he handled earlier — meaning she knows the true nature of Locke’s scam. But Locke never follows up on it or thinks about it again. And when, in the end, Lock is captured and exposed as a criminal, liar and cheat, he must save Camorr by revealing a wild plot that no one is likely to believe. We might have had the grounds for some delicious examination of what happens when a habitual liar must tell the truth. Yet that irony is never explored, Locke instead getting his point across by lots of sputtering and cursing. The side characters had continued to be well done and rounded out up to that point, yet the main character took a big step back, becoming a puppet. As a reader I expected some deeper examination of him at this part, but all I got was lip service to his trauma. An older or more skilled writer might have been able to pull it off; this was the writer’s debut, and though solid, he was not 100% there yet.
Still, it’s a loving tribute to games and gaming and the creators of those games. I give it five stars.