Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Victoria, BC

My delightful husband surprised me with a quick weekend trip to Victoria by clipper. We did not stay at the Empress Hotel (pictured above) because it's damn expensive, but isn't it the prettiest thing ever?

The thing about Victoria that surprised me was how many bookstores there were (bookshops, perhaps, as it was Canada.) I think, in walking about for the better part of two days, I saw something like eight bookstores, mostly new books only, but a couple mixed new and used, and a couple just used. The greatest of them has to be Russell Books, which claims to have new and used, but I think it's just that they special order new books, and maybe have a very few tucked away discretely in some odd nook. It was a massive, delightfully tightly packed, high shelved store of awesomeness. It's big enough that they've had to take over adjoining spaces, thus giving them three separate entrances into the place.

My main joy was the used scifi/fantasy section. I've been doing a good number of rereads, and there's one thing about them, which is that a lot of the books are out of print. Which means used book stores. But they can be hard to find. Most places, I mean. Not at Russell, where I found such a bonanza of books it was amazing. I had to just stop looking, because I was carrying everything home. I got five books, one of which, Dune, is readily in print, but I'd rather buy used because it's cheaper. But the others: well, a couple are in print, I think, but a couple are most definitely out of print, and it might be all four of them are. This was the sort of store, though, where I would catch sight of obscure books I read thirty years ago that almost certainly went out of print twenty eight years ago, and there would be two copies of the thing. So of course, I found almost all the books I was looking for. (They did miss out on having one book, which is still in print, and is very good, and so I can see why a used bookstore wouldn't have it. None of the other places I've looked have had it either, so I wasn't surprised.)

So I've got my next handful of rereads just waiting for me on the shelf, and I'm pretty excited. I can't say that I really fell in love with Victoria, but I did fall in love with Russell Books, and they ship free in the US for orders over 50 dollars, so I can still give them money without a problem, even across the border. That makes me happy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Rereads: The Black Company

When I was a youth, 99% of what I read was fantasy and science fiction. We didn't have the most money, so any such book that came into the house, I'd read over and over for years. In this occasional series, I take up some of those old and treasured titles and give them a read after fifteen or twenty years to see how I feel about them now.
Wow. This was a hard one. Not because I had to force myself through it or anything. Glen Cook's book is a page turner still.'s not quite what I remember.

Let me explain. I really, really dug this book when I read it (must have been high school, 10th grade, maybe? 11th perhaps?) I mean, I thought it was the best thing ever. It's a book about a centuries old mercenary company (the titular group) getting tangled up in the high level politics of a magical empire (under the employ, specifically, of the black-clad baddie depicted on the cover above). Everyone has a short, often brutal sounding nickname; the action is quick and often summed up (as in: we fought a lot, some people died, then it was the next morning); the mystical powerhouses are incredibly powerful and thus the main character has to just scramble around under them hoping for the best. The book is funny, grim, clever and has been most influential.

So, why the hesitation? Why the problematic response?

Because it's not what I remember, mainly. I remember it being incredibly awesome, and instead it's just pretty darn good. I remember it being full of details and quirks and curiosities, and instead it just hints at most of that. I remember thinking these characters were wily and cunning and wicked, and they are, but so very sketchily described. Part of the problem is in reading just one book: there is a whole massive series. A first trilogy, a bonus book that occurs sometime during that trilogy, a duology, and then a quadrilogy. Ten total books, with some core of the same characters continuing on to become much better defined. I read just the one (that's what I try to do) and so I felt a little disappointed, I guess.

These books are still really good, though. Steven Erickson owes a truly huge debt to them (one he freely admits to): his Bridgeburners are a slightly more ethical version of the Black Company, and his scale of powers, from ordinary soldier on up to godlike mages, is taken direct from this series too; so too much of his naming tradition of both characters and locations. He built a grand edifice of his own that obviously expanded far beyond what he took from Cook, but still, the foundations are here, in the Black Company. Joe Abercrombie, too, owes a lot to these books and their mix of humor and grim brutal reality in an essentially martial world. 

Cook is also the author of the very fine Garrett files, a genius collection of books about a fantasy noir PI that I think I enjoy more than the Black Company, and which are still being written, irregularly, some twenty five years after the first book came out. In other words, the man's solid: two great series coming out over the same twenty or twenty five year period; and other things besides, some that I've read, some I haven't.

One last thing. There's a game in the Black Company, called Tonk. It's a card game that the soldiers all play for small change when there's down time, which is almost always. Regularly, for ten books, there will be someone in the background shouting out "Tonk!" When me and my friends were about 20 or so, we found a rules set for it, and for a short time, Tonk became our game. But I can see why it's the sort of thing you play always and forever to fill up the boring hours; it's not very thrilling or challenging, and it's superfast, and you could win or lose a lot of money in a day but make it up the next. Strange, though: when I first ran into Tonk during this reread, and all the rules came back into my head at once. It's curious when a book becomes a part of your life in more than the sense of reading and liking it. And for that, thank you, Glen Cook

Thursday, August 1, 2013


It's my birth month now. Not that I was born over a thirty one day period (for which my mother must be very grateful). No, I was born in the middle of the sunny and lazy month of August, a delightful time of year to have your birthday. August in Seattle is one of the most beautiful times and places to be alive: warm without being hot, occasionally a bit of brief rain to freshen things up, skies so blue they make you ache, and the nights are still avoiding being chilly after blissfully long days. When I was a kid we used to go to water parks or have barbeques, that sort of thing, for my birthday. My older brother, who was born in January, got nothing so festive.

Normally I wouldn't make much note of it being August. Even as a child, I don't think I got too giddy just at being in my birth month. But my husband loves to celebrate things, and he dotes on ideas like "birthday months". It makes it more exciting, I'll give him that, to have someone constantly building up an event. This morning when I got up, there was a little bag on the coffee table; nothing to do with it being my birthday month, but a lingering Christmas gift, which is a star chart calendar thing. Every month I stare bleary eyed at a lovely blue card with a calender for April or August, whatever it might be, at the bottom, and a pattern of stars connected by dotted lines above. I struggle to thread a needle with embroidery floss, which is the devil's thread in that it separates into strands immediately on touching it so that threading it will take between fifteen seconds (hurray!) and fifteen minutes (boo!!!!). And then I poke a bunch of holes and sew up the stars. Of course, the astrological signs don't match up with the months, but more or less they do, and no one would buy a calendar that split up months, so Leo sits on August, even if part of the lion is actually draped over July, too. The thread supposedly glows in the dark, but we've never noticed it doing so. It doesn't matter: at 25 bucks for the thing, it's a really great gift that keeps on giving.

All the constellations are nonsense, of course. One wonders how the ancients looked up and made out a lion from among the heavens. Humans will see relevance and form in anything, I guess. Because Leo looks to me very much like a Sphinx, which would be a cool creature to have as my Zodiac animal.

It's scarcely more than a week until my birthday now. It's not one of the big ones, and in the normal course of affairs I'd probably just have a few people out for drinks and call it a day. Which is still happening, but Adam also has some mysterious journey planned. Just a weekend outing, actually, my birthday being on a weekend this year, which, it already coming in August, seems a bit much. Let some other people have some fortune for their natal occasions. I've had plenty.