Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE OVERNEATH by Peter S. Beagle

I’ve been enjoying the writing of Peter S. Beagle a very long time, since discovering his fantasy novels “A Fine and Private Place” and “The Last Unicorn” in the late 1960s. He continues to entertain me. This collection gathers stories from various anthologies dated 2010 through 2016.

“The Green-Eyed Boy” is a tale of Beagle’s character Schmendrick the Magician just starting out in his ill-fated career, an important incident for fans of “The Last Unicorn.”

“The Story of Kao Yu” tells of a Chinese unicorn (of sorts) who helps a famous judge decide some of his most troubling cases…until the judge finds himself in moral jeopardy.

“My Son Heydari and the Karkadann” tells of yet another kind of unicorn, this one a fierce beast of Iran akin to a rhinoceros, and the young man and his girlfriend who help nurse an injured one back to health.

“The Queen Who Could Not Walk” asks, if you are raised with every privilege to offset your disability, what will happen when you are turned out into the streets with nothing?

“Trinity County, CA” wonders what might happen if lawmen trying to control illegal drugs had to deal with guardian dragons owned by the drug lords?

In “The Way It Works Out And All,” Beagle uses real-life fantasy writer and his mentor, Avram Davidson in a fun fictional adventure in which Avram has discovered The Overneath, a way to travel great distances quickly, but a dangerous one.

“Kaskia” features a laptop computer so inexplicable to its user that it might well be magic. The messages he’s receiving certainly seem to be from some other world than ours.

“Schmendrick Alone” is another tale of bungled magic that the wizard allows to get out of control.

“Great-Grandmother in the Cellar” is a chilling tale of a family secret that is not only their horror, but at times their savior.

“Underbridge” is a modern day troll story set in Seattle, and using an actual troll sculpture found there as the focal point.

“The Very Nasty Aquarium” asks, can an ancient evil reside in a simple aquarium decoration, and what happens when the water starts turning black?

“Music, When Soft Voices Die” describes four rooming-house inhabitants in a sort of Victorian steampunk London. One of them is experimenting with early radio devices, and unleashes voices from the dead that will not be silenced.

“Olfert Dapper’s Day” takes place in 17th-century Maine, where the title character once reported to have seen a real unicorn. Beagle’s development of this spare idea is fascinating.

All good stories, and recommended.

And Then I Read: THE COLOR OF MAGIC by Terry Pratchett

I came to the Discworld series late, when most of it was already written. There are lots of titles, over 40. I read up on where to start. The advice was, don’t try to read them in order, pick a series within the series and follow that. I did so with the Tiffany Aching books — loved them — and the Going Postal books — loved them as well. Tried a few others at random. Finally, I decided to read this one, the very first.

While I’d been able to pick up the general geography and plan of Discworld from some of the other books, the first one makes it more understandable thanks to the wide range of action and Terry’s explanations as he went along. Why did I listen to all that advice, I should have started here! Giant flat disc with central land mass surrounded by oceans, which pour continuously over the edge. Disc on the back of four immense elephants themselves on the back of an even more immense sea turtle swimming through space. Got it. Established: this is a world not possible without magic. There’s plenty of that in the book.

The story focuses on Rincewind, who calls himself a wizard, but in fact he has almost no wizardly abilities due to flunking out of wizard school. He agrees to become the personal guide to Twoflower, a rich but clueless tourist from a faraway empire. Rincewind plans to pocket his large fee and skedaddle, but he’s forced to actually honor the agreement by the ruler of his home city, Ankh-Morpork to keep Twoflower’s empire from taking revenge for the trick. Twoflower has a list of events and places he wants to visit, all of them very dangerous or nearly impossible to achieve. His one important asset is a magical trunk that not only holds his fortune, but almost anything else Twoflower might need. The trunk has many small legs, and doggedly and unerringly follows Twoflower everywhere, even when left far behind. The trunk has teeth and a dangerous appetite when threatened.

Through these characters, we get to see many areas and their inhabitants on Discworld, even in the surrounding ocean. The flavor is humorous, at times satiric, but the characters are believable and entertaining, perhaps not least because they all have agendas that include getting some of Twoflower’s money for themselves. Is there an honest man or woman on Discworld? They’re mighty scarce.

A fun read, and recommended.

Rereading: THE STAR BEAST by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover art by Clifford Geary

As has often been the case, I reread a Heinlein book on my way to the San Diego Con last week. I didn’t bring my hardcover copy (which does not have the dust jacket pictured above, sadly), I read an ebook version.

“Star Beast” is the eighth of the author’s juveniles series, science fiction novels written for young readers, most published by Scribners in the 1950s. This one came out in 1954. It takes place in a future Earth which has had spaceflight for a few centuries, and had contact with a number of non-terrestrial species and civilizations. The protagonist, teenager John Thomas Stuart XI, lives in the small Rocky Mountains town of Westville. The one unusual thing about his life is his pet, Lummox, a creature brought back from an early space expedition by his great-grandfather. At the time, Lummox was about the size of a dog, but he has continued to grow, and developed the ability to speak English in the manner of a child. Lummox is now the size of a small bus, and quartered in a large barn in John Thomas’ back yard, which he’s been forbidden to leave. The creature is obedient, but boredom eventually causes him to find a way to sneak out, and soon he’s caused a great deal of damage to property all over Westville.

John Thomas’ widowed mother does not like Lummox, and sees this as a way to get the animal destroyed. At first John Thomas and his girlfriend try to protect Lummox, but attempts by the town’s police chief to kill the beast (unsuccessful) lead them to engineer an escape into the mountains where they hope to hide out.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kiku, a career diplomat with Earth’s Department of Spacial Affairs, is having trouble negotiating with a new, powerful alien species, whose ship has arrived in Earth orbit. Their negotiator demands the return of a lost child they are sure is on Earth, though no creature similar to the Hroshi has ever been seen there. As you might imagine, these two stories soon intertwine in a very entertaining way.

I hadn’t read this fine book in a long time, and one thing that surprised me was how talky it is. I expect that of Heinlein’s later works, but this one is about two-thirds dialogue. Despite that, the story moves along well, and all the characters and ideas are clever and appealing. This is one of the funniest and most charming of Heinlein’s works. Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: A SENDING OF DRAGONS by Jane Yolen

Cover illustration by Dominick Domingo

The third book in the Pit Dragon series takes a different turn by sending the two fugitives, Jakkin and Akki, underground, where they become prisoners of trogdolytes descended from humans who had escaped from bondage in centuries past, and who have developed a twisted interdependence on dragons kept with them in their maze of caverns. Like the two human captives, they can withstand the deep cold of the Austarian nights because they have bathed in dragon’s blood. Both the cave dwellers and their dragons have devolved through inbreeding, though, and while they have strong mental command powers that Jakkin and Akki are helpless to defy, their way of life is declining steadily. Jakkin’s talent with dragons helps him gain some new importance in the group, and he is able to get Akki to help him as they deal with a female dragon who is sick. Eventually they learn of a dangerous way out of the caves and are determined to try it.

I didn’t like this book as much as the first two, I think because the two leads are often helpless, and the atmosphere is gloomy. Adventures with their own group of young dragons is mostly put on hold here except for the beginning and end of the book. This was meant to be a trilogy, but in the back of this one is a sample of book four. That turned out to be the final entry. I may try it eventually, but my interest in the series has cooled.

Mildly recommended.

And Then I Read: FIRE, TALES OF ELEMENTAL SPIRITS by Robin McKinley & Peter Dickinson

I’ve enjoyed the fantasy fiction of both these authors for many years. They married in 1991 and did two of these anthologies together. This one has three stories by Dickinson and two by McKinley, but one of hers fills about a third of the book.

First is “Phoenix” by Dickinson. Ellie is on a picnic with her family in the English countryside, and is rescued on the edge of a private woods preserve from thieves by a boy, Dave, who invites her to enter the wood and meet his elderly lady friend Welly, who lives there. Dave and Welly are caretakers of the preserve, and are as much in love with trees, animals and nature as she is. In time, she becomes their helper, and eventually learns their deepest secret. They have a (or the) Phoenix living in the wood with them. It has done so for over 100 years. The rest of Dave and Welly’s story is equally amazing, and Ellie is asked to take part in an ancient ritual to allow it to continue.

Next is McKinley’s “Hellhound.” Miri and her family run a riding stable adjacent to a cemetery with a bad reputation. When Miri adopts a dog with unusual red eyes she names Flame, she jokingly calls him a hellhound. It turns out she’s not far wrong. Flame has perfect manners, but he does not like the graveyard and what unseen things may be there. When Miri’s brother and his girlfriend don’t return in time from a trail ride in that direction, Miri and Flame are off to find out why. The answer is horrible, leading to a battle in the spirit world.

“Fireworm” by Dickinson is about an ancient pre-historic people in an ice age beset by a fiery salamander from deep inside the earth who attacks their camp. Tandin, one of them who is not well thought of by his people, finds he has the power to enter the spirit world and follow the salamander there, leading to a plan that he hopes will destroy the creature and save his people.

“Salamander Man” is another Dickinson story about the fiery elemental creatures. In this one, Tib is the slave/helper of a seller of magical trinkets and charms in the medieval town of Haballun. A wizard customer recognizes powers in Tib he doesn’t know about himself, and he buys the boy, beginning a strange journey in which Tib gathers the powers of the salamanders, growing to the size of a giant.

“First Flight” by McKinley is the longest story, almost a novel itself. It’s about dragons who are partnered with human riders for combat and transportation, along the lines of Ann McCaffrey’s Pern novels. Ern is the third son of a working class family in a small village. His older brother Dag has gone to learn to be a dragon rider, the second boy is learning to be a Seer. Ern has found his own personal calling as a healer, but healing is a skill which is looked down on in his village, and Ern has to hide his talent for it. Meanwhile, he’s found a young animal, a foogit, doglike but related to the dragons somehow. Sippy had a broken leg when he found it, and Ern mended it to the best of his ability, but in the end he brought it to Ralas, their local witch/wizard. Ralas becomes Ern’s friend and teaches him many things about healing. The story takes a turn when Dag comes home angry and depressed. He’s been paired with an older dragon who has only two eyes instead of the usual three, one was lost in combat. This makes Hereyta unable to make the long-distance flights through another dimension that her breed is known for. Despite that, Dag and Hereyta have been commanded to fly with the rest of Dag’s class before the entire dragon school. Ralas suggests that Ern and Sippy go with him for this graduation event, and when they all arrive at the dragon school things get even more interesting, and Ern and Sippy find new importance.

This is a fine book. I’m not a fan of anthologies generally, but I liked this one a lot. Recommended.