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October/November 2000
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett, Harper Collins, 2000, 24.00

Heart of Gold, Sharon Shinn, Ace, 2000, $14.95

The Tower at Stony Wood, Patricia A. McKillip, Ace, 2000, 22.95

If Terry Pratchett is not yet an Institution—as distinctly opposed to being put on the inside of one—he should be. The Discworld canon occupies two bookshelves in a store when the volumes are spined for minimal shelf crowding, and there are yearbooks (well, three that I know of), t-shirts, art portfolios, two computer games, and the animated Discworld adventures (of which I've only seen Wyrd Sisters) which is pretty faithful to the novels but, owing to the inability to capture Pratchett's descriptive turn of phrase, is not nearly as good.

I digress. Pratchett does this to me. Where was I? Ah yes, Discworld. Pratchett's manic creation, the patch of geography about which he says "There are no maps. You can't map a sense of humour." (Although I believe there are at least two maps, so some brave soul has certainly tried).

I have previously stated that books concerning the Watch are my favorite, for reasons of Samuel Vimes, the closest person Discworld has to a smart everyman (as opposed to Lord Vetinari who is a smart, perfect despot with his heart in the right place [his chest]) and Captain Carrot, the closest person Discworld has to a perfect person. The problem with favorite characters—from any perspective—is that they can grow stale with age.

The longevity of Discworld rests upon Pratchett's ability to let his characters change, while preserving some of the essential nature that made them so intriguing in the first place—which is probably harder to do in something of a comedic nature than it is in a serious character study. Samuel Vimes has progressed from an alcoholic (well, a drunk, as you have to have money to be an alcoholic, according to Vimes) cynic to a married, honorable, and even self-respecting cynic. He has also, in every novel that features the Watch, managed to get himself promoted, moving to Captain, Commander, Sir (as in Knight) and His Grace (as in Duke). I'd wondered what would follow afterward, since there aren't really many more ways that he could be exalted—although in truth being Captain and Commander are a lot more valuable to Vimes than the pomp and circumstance of the less functional entitlements of becoming a Noble.

In a sideways move, Vimes is sent to be a diplomat at a most important ceremony—the coronation of a new Low King in Uberwald, ancestral land of dwarves, vampires, and werewolves. Vimes and diplomacy are not opposites. Well, not in practice, at any rate, although the Vimes brand of diplomacy is perhaps what you'd expect, given that he's Vimes. The dwarves in Uberwald are real dwarves, not these modern deserters who have moved, whole hog, to Ankh-Morpork and forgotten the old ways. They resent Ankh-Morpork for stealing both their people and devaluing the customs that define dwarfdom—but they need their money. As usual, Pratchett keeps his humor grounded in the day to day reality of life in the modern world.

Did I mention werewolves? Angua, a member of the Watch who was originally supposed to serve the function of a Visible Minority (along with a troll, a dwarf, and a zombie), is a werewolf. She is also the significant other of one Captain Carrot, and when she disappears without a trace, Carrot resigns his commission to pursue her—straight into the arms of her family. In Uberwald. It seems that werewolves and dwarves have got together to do something with the Scone of Stone that would cause chaos, war, and death—which is pretty much what you'd expect in a land where they take on faith the idea that werewolves and vampires will behave themselves on the condition that garlic isn't grown and silver isn't mined.

Nothing is as it seems, of course, and Vimes's instincts as a member of the Watch—which generally means, in the end, the ability to intelligently survive anything, if only by the seat of his pants—is a sheer joy to read about.

The most promising development in the book has nothing to do with the plot; but it does answer the question, What Is Pratchett Going To Do To Keep Vimes's Life Interesting Since He's Run Out of Titles?

I'd love to spoil it, but I won't.

Suffice it to say that Sybil goes along with Vimes as a diplomatic wife; that she plays a significant role in the action, and that there is much—as usual—to chew on after you've finished laughing and closed the covers of the book with that warm and silly glow you get after you've been grinning for a bit too long. Pratchett never preaches, and I don't think I've heard him say one serious thing about Discworld, but the reason Discworld works so well for me is that I do end up chewing over the bits and pieces of philosophy and earnest (I use that word with some hesitance, but I do think it appropriate) struggle that make up the interior life of Vimes as he struggles to be the best person he can be in a world in which best is never quite what you'd hoped for.

If you like the Watch, this book is one of the best Discworld novels to hit the shelves in a while.

* * *

I've read every novel that Sharon Shinn has written, and I've liked them all. She's not a Tepper or a Sargent; she balances the mechanics of world-building with the romance and adventure that make a novel a good read, rather than a spiky, painful one. This doesn't mean that there are no ambiguities in her works, or that the books themselves are black and white—but it does mean that you aren't going to walk away with a depressing vision of nihilism and despair. That said, Heart of Gold has the most obviously romantic of the covers with which Shinn's work has been blessed (and I use that word advisedly in this case) to date, and although there is some romance, it is one of her books in which romance, or the romantic tropes, are least prominent. Having started with the cover, let me add that were the author any other author, I wouldn't have touched the book because I would have assumed that it had been misfiled—to the harried eye of a parent trying to hold onto a small child or two while grabbing for something that appeals, the cover suggests a Regency Romance, although on closer inspection the details are off. If for some reason the blurb or the cover make you think twice, think a third time and remember that the author doesn't get to choose either the cover or the back ad copy.

As in the Pratchett—and this is perhaps the only thing, other than quality, that these two books share in common, but as a reviewer the commonality of what I've read tends to leap out when I'm writing a column—Shinn's novel deals with the changes that come to a society when it is exposed to, and blended with, a different one. This book is about a time when morals that were cast in stone have lost their relevance to the modern generation, and transgressions against a certain sense of racial purity have become thinkable, and possibly even acceptable.

Nolan Adelpho is a scientist of the indigo people, and a high born one at that. His world is Indigo; he has the natural disdain for both the lower born members of his own race and the native gulden, the world's working underclass. Kitrini Solvano is one of the indigo people as well—but the two could not be farther apart. Raised by a philosopher father to question all privilege and to view the gulden as equals, Kitrini has chosen, in love and in life, to live among the people her race despises, to dedicate herself to the cause of equality and justice.

Both Nolan and Kitrini are involved with people they love passionately—and we see both of those relationships and how they formed and changed these two characters. But we also see what happens when they collide, and in collision, how they question everything that they've accepted as truths—for both of their truths are absolute and strident, even Kitrini's, with whom we readers instantly sympathize. When terrorism starts escalating into the beginnings of a biological warfare that will be the death of one race, Nolan and Kitrini are thrown together. Shinn plays up the attraction between the two protagonists without insulting the intelligence and dedication of either to their lives and causes as they are forced to examine themselves and the people they thought they knew and loved.

In the end, they each have to make a choice—but again, that choice has very little to do with what they feel for each other; they redefine what they value, and why. I'm not a cynic, exactly—but I'm not really a Romantic in the modern sense of that word; I firmly believe that giving someone dying plants as a gesture of love and affection is a completely nonsensical act. So I like books in which I can be happy that two people are drawn together and still behave like themselves instead of hormonal teens while they struggle with concepts and truths with which they would probably have had to struggle anyway in order to grow.

Shinn has produced another successful novel, and if you're looking for something to read in which you can root for both sides of a great divide, this is a sure bet.

* * *

A new Patricia McKillip novel is always cause for celebration. There is something about McKillip's evocative use of language and imagery that is fantasy in its purest form: lyrical and mythic. Everything she writes has the power to enchant, sometimes with ease and grace, sometimes with the rewarding difficulty that penetrating a mystery involves.

The Tower at Stony Wood is her newest novel, and it is a tapestry—a weaving of disparate threads into whole cloth that is greater than its parts, which when seen singly only hint at the finished weave if one is paying attention and dissecting as one goes. The viewpoints alternate among Cyan Dag, a knight of the realm of Gloinmere who has been sent on a terrifying journey to find a Queen in a tower and rescue her, thus saving his much loved King; Thayne Ysse, a prince of a broken, defeated realm, who desires freedom for his people; and Melanthos, a woman who is entranced by the visions she sees in an ancient mirror, and compelled to embroider those things she sees, those glimpsed stories with their half-endings. McKillip leads us into a wilderness of magic that reminds a reader that magic is dangerous, profound, unpredictable. Here, as they say, there be dragons, and they will hollow you with the fire of their breath, pierce you with their claws, destroy you with your own desires.

If a story is a structure that makes sense out of chaos, that tames, that explains, that soothes the edges of dream or nightmare by making it solid, McKillip is that rarest of things: a storyteller who does all this without losing sight of the things she seeks to invoke. She can both remind us of the depths of longing and wilderness that lurk beneath the conformities of our daily life, while at the same time celebrating the heroic effort it takes to live that daily life, to choose, again and again, the things that affirm life: Love, responsibility, compassion.

Let me just say that again, because in the end, I'm a reader who looks for such things in the books I read: wisdom and clarity, and an understanding of how difficult it is to offer these things in a world that moves so quickly and sees askew. Love. Responsibility. Compassion.

This is probably the most emotionally accessible novel McKillip has written in a while, but for all that, it's a rose with thorns; it is never quite comfortable, and yet, in spite of that, it is comforting.

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