Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: QUEENS WALK IN THE DUSK by Thomas Burnett Swann

This was the final Swann novel published in 1977 after the author’s death, in a limited signed edition, one reason I never found it. It tells part of the story of the Greek warrior Aeneas and Queen Dido of Carthage, in present-day Tunisia. The Greek poet Homer wrote of Aeneas in The Iliad, his story of the Trojan War. The Roman poet Virgil took Aeneas’s story up after that in his The Aeneid, including the meeting with Dido, though Virgil’s story went on much further. Swann has borrowed from both poets in this book but also from the myths and stories of Greece to create a different and less ambitious tale that’s still interesting and worth reading.

Aeneas, his son Ascanius, and the remnants of his army are shipwrecked on the shore of Africa where they are first threatened by elephants, who hate all men because they are ivory hunters in their eyes. The king of the elephants and Ascanius are able to converse mentally somehow and become friends, staving off the attack. Aeneas learns of Queen Dido and her people living nearby, and he and his son go to meet her. Aeneas finds in her a strong woman and a kindred spirit, and their attraction for each other grows, which angers the elephant king, Iarbus, who still fears Aeneas and his men, and does not want them to stay. Gods and demi-gods have some roles to play here, and the anger of elephants, even though Ascanius visits the elephants’ home after he is rescued from a giant deadly pitcher plant by Iarbus. Ascanius wishes for his father’s happiness, but the path ahead for Dido and Aeneas is troubled and full of difficulties.

I enjoyed this return to the myth-filled world of Thomas Burnett Swann, and recommend it.

And Then I Read: THE FOREST OF FOREVER by Thomas Burnett Swann

Cover illustration by George Barr

Thomas Burnett Swann is an author I discovered in the science fiction magazines of the 1960s. I liked his work, usually fantasy based on Greek myths, and followed it to his novels. I bought and enjoyed many of them, but there were a few I never found, either because I just missed them or because they were only issued in rare limited editions. Recently I found the ones I haven’t read are easily available now as ebooks, and I bought a few including this one. It’s the middle book of a trilogy about a minotaur and his friends, and I don’t recall the other two, but it works fine on its own. (They were written in reverse order anyway.)

In a remote forest on the island of Crete in pre-Christian times live a dwindling population of mythical creatures like the dryad Zoe and the last of the minotaurs, Eunostos as well as centaurs, bee-creatures and others. Though they have become isolated and surrounded by mundane humans, they continue their ancient ways as best they can. Eunostos is in love with a younger dryad named Kora, but he is shy and inept at courting her, and asks his friend Zoe, a much older dryad, for help. When Kora is captured by Saffron, a Bee-Queen, Eunostos and his friends rescue her, and in gratitude she accepts his advances. Then things change when a human prince of Crete, Aeacus, comes into the forest fleeing enemy warriors. He is reluctantly accepted by the inhabitants, and Kora falls in love with him. Eunostos is heartbroken but determined to remain her friend, even though Aeacus tries to keep the minotaur and Kora apart. What will happen when Aeacus and Kora have children? The court of King Minos of Crete has no heir, Aeacus’s son could be that heir, but Kora cannot leave her tree for long without dying.

I enjoyed this story and the writing. Swann has a gentle touch, but his characters are interesting and his plots engaging, if somewhat predictable. He was ahead of his time in promoting equal rights for all, and frank in his inclusion of sexual themes, though they were not explicit. His world has its tragedies, but generally it’s a pleasant place to visit, and informed by his scholarship. Recommended.

Rereading: WIZARD and DEMON by John Varley

A few weeks ago I posted about my rereading of TITAN by John Varley. Of the new science fiction authors that I sampled in the 1970s, Varley was one of the best. I first read some of his short stories in the science fiction digests of the time, and when this trilogy came out in paperback in the 1980s, I devoured it. Varley seemed to me (and others) a talent as original and compelling as Robert A. Heinlein, and this trilogy was as full of terrific ideas, impressive world building, and wonderful characters as Heinlein’s “Future History” stories. I continue to follow Varley’s work and enjoy each new book by him as it comes out, though he no longer seems as important an author to me as he did in the 1980s, but that may just be my jaded view through the passage of time. Certainly these books were just as great on the reread as when I first read them. I’d like to review the second and third books in the trilogy in more detail, but I can’t see how I might do that without spoiling some of the surprises in the plot, so I’ll just say that I encourage anyone interested in top-quality science fiction to give this trilogy a try. You won’t be disappointed. It’s been so much fun to reread that I only wish there were more in the series. Highly recommended. Here are links to all three books.

And Then I Read: PEACE by Gene Wolfe

I am slowly working my way through a list of Neil Gaiman’s favorite fantasy novels that he posted on Facebook a few months ago. There are two entries for Gene Wolfe, and I greatly enjoyed the other one, “The Book of the New Sun,” which is actually one long novel divided into four separate books. The other Wolfe entry on Neil’s list is this one, a standalone novel written by Wolfe at the beginning of his writing career and published in 1975. It is indeed a puzzle. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Peace is a psychologicalfantasy/ghost story novel by American writer Gene Wolfe, published in 1975. It is the story of a man from a small Midwestern town in the early to mid-20th century, Alden Dennis Weer, who narrates various memories from different parts of his life, including his childhood, early adulthood, and middle to old age.

Further from Wikipedia:

Unlike a lot of Wolfe’s work Peace is a standalone novel set in a somewhat contemporary time and place (as opposed to the future or an imaginary world). Despite this, the story of the novel is one of Wolfe’s strangest and most difficult; the narrator’s consciousness at times seems to transcend time and space, as if he’s narrating from beyond our plane of reality. One interpretation is that the narrator, Weer, is dead, and the scattered memories are those of a ghost; in 2014, Wolfe confirmed that this was his intention.

There’s no clear narrative thread in the book, it wanders like the wandering of an elderly mind from era to era of the character’s life, much as the elderly man wanders from room to room of his house, lost. The stories within stories comprise much of the book, but they aren’t always complete in one place, and important events are left out or purposely told in an evasive way. Reading “Peace” was a bit like the time I was trying to read a novel while feverish from the Flu. There were many interesting stories and moments, but I couldn’t keep things clear or make sense of the book as a whole. I can see why Neil might love it, as a writer himself he would appreciate all the ways Wolfe plays with the form and goes against the expected, but I can’t say I really enjoyed the book. I liked “Book of the New Sun” much more. This is not Joyce’s “Ulysses,” but it’s similarly tangled at times.

In case you’d like to try it yourself, a link is below.

Rereading: TITAN by John Varley

Cover design by Tony Russo

In the 1970s I was reading several science fiction digest-size magazines regularly, and finding new favorite authors there to add to ones I liked from a previous generation like Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke. One was John Varley, whose inventive stories seemed cutting edge, full of original ideas, and well written. I bought each of his Gaea trilogy novels when they came out and loved them, but hadn’t read them since. Titan came out in 1979 in hardcover, I got the 1980 paperback.

In 2025, a small crew aboard the NASA ship Ringmaster heads toward Saturn on an exploratory expedition. The crew consists of Commander Cirocco Jones, astronomer Gaby Plauget, the clone twin physicists April and August Polo, pilot Eugene Springfield, physician Calvin Greene and engineer Bill (no last name given). As they approach Saturn they discover a previously unknown satellite that can’t be natural, it’s in the shape of a hollow wheel or torus thousands of kilometers wide with six spokes and a central hub. As they approach it, control of their ship is lost, and they are drawn into the torus by tentacle-like appendages. The crew is rendered unconscious, and each of them spends uncountable time inside the structure’s “soil” or lower levels before emerging to the inner surface and awakening. Cirocco is the viewpoint character, and while marveling at the amazing world around her, she’s also trying to find her crew as well as answers about exactly what’s happened. Some of the crew is reassembled, but each of them has been changed by Gaea, as they name this world they’ve entered, and somehow they know it’s one gigantic living thing. Calvin, for example, has been given the language of Blimps, giant gas-filled creatures who roam the skies of Gaea, while Cirocco has the ability to understand and sing in the language of the Titanides, centaur-like creatures who become the allies of she and Gaby as they explore the vast inner world of Gaea and try to find a way to contact the mind of the world itself. To do that they must make a perilous climb up a huge cable to the hub, where Gaea holds court and perhaps will help them, or perhaps will kill them.

This book is stuffed with wonderful ideas and characters, it has a thrilling plot, and the sense of wonder never quits as Gaea’s nature is gradually revealed, with the inner torus divided into many different lands, some in sunlight, some in darkness, and all dangerous. I won’t say any more except to recommend it highly.