The Horse And His Boy


The title does a neat trick. The Horse (usually capitalized because, if you are unaware of how all this works, the Horse in question is a talking, Narnian horse) comes first and he is the dominant figure. The boy (not capitalized) is his, not the other way around. But really, the book is about the boy, not the Horse and especially not about the girl.

This was my favorite Narnia book as a child, barely, but definitely, beating out The Lion, The Witch, and the WardrobeAnd I thought my daughter my like it. It’s a simpler story than that first Narnia book (and it was the first he wrote and, frankly, everything will make much more sense if you read them in the order he wrote them than if you attempt to retroactively place them in a chronology based on the timeline of Narnia, itself) and less allegorical. The stakes feel lower because, even though the hero, Shasta (the boy), saves the nice kingdom of Archenland, Archenland is only Narnia’s neighbor and not the home of Talking Horses and the like.

But, if you read it now, you will find a muted, but still nasty form of orientalist racism running through. Thankfully, the girl, Aravis, is from the more or less Middle Eastern style kingdom of this world (though, really, it’s less Middle Eastern than inspired by, I would guess, childhood readings of The Arabian Nights). She does get some decent characterization and growth and is a strong person with brown skin and black hair (like my daughter, to whom I was reading this). But this doesn’t make up for the moment when the titular boy is singled out for being blonde and fair skinned and obviously of northern stock and though never said, one can’t help but feel that we are supposed to feel that this makes him somehow better than all those vaguely Arabic chaps. Reading those bits to my daughter almost made me put down the book.

I also had not remembered that C.S. Lewis made the correlation between Aslan and Jesus clearer than at any other point before the final book in the series. He even puts in a parallel to the incarnation.

What, in the end, as a grown up living in the days after the death of George Floyd (which came after the death of countless others), did I take from it? Anything at all? It is an old fashioned adventure story, more similar to the serials of the 20s and 30s than anything else in Lewis’ oeuvre and I like those stories, for all their many faults.

The Loch


This is by the same guy who wrote the Meg books, which I have not read, but I did see the movie because, hey, giant sharks. It all started when, maybe a week before I picked it up from the library, I started thinking about the Loch Ness monster, about which I have complicated feelings. I don’t believe in the Loch Ness monster, but I want to believe it in it hard enough that I might actually believe in it. Certainly I was devastated when (and am in a form of state of denial regarding) that famous photo of it was revealed to be a fake.

So, googling happened and I saw this book and can you believe it was available at the library? Apparently the market for nearly two decade old hack work is not booming. I blame the coronavirus.

The hero, Zachary Wallace, was born sickly, but amazingly grew up to play college football (American football), is descended from William Wallace of Mel Gibson fame, and who is , despite not sounding super educated, in possession of a doctorate in marine biology and enough technical know-how to build a giant squid attractor. Like I said, I didn’t read The Meg, but saw the movie and you can definitely imagine Jason Statham pretending to have a PhD in the movie version of this book.

This novel doesn’t just have a handsome PhD hero, a buxom wench with childhood connections to said hero, a sensational murder trial, and a Loch Ness monster (no, the secret is not that Loch Ness is incapable of supporting any kind of large monster, making the real villain man’s inhumanity to man and also global warming, though there is a little bit about oil being bad for marine life, but it turns out, it was kind of a fluke caused by one bad actor and so most drilling is totally ok)… it also has the Knights Templar!

And the hero is super impressed with the knowledge his dad passes on (‘I was amazed at the depth of his knowledge,’ he says while daddy dearest explains how the Scottish Freemasons are Templars, just like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who totally ripped off the super democratic ideas of an order of military monks when writing the Declaration of Independence, which I used to think was written by Jefferson, though actually Adams deserves more credit, but what am I saying is, it’s Templars, you fool!). It’s a veritable grab bag conspiracies to make that Da Vinci Code guy proud (but he shouldn’t be; he should feel ashamed all the time, the kind of shame a man might feel if his sainted mother caught him abusing himself while leafing through a carefully curated collection of  Wilfred Brimley photos, because his books are terrible). To read about the hero (who, again, is supposed to have doctoral degree) praising his (maybe) wrongfully accused, alcoholic, womanizing (which includes sex with minors, which, while noted in the novel, doesn’t feel like is properly recognized as being a super bad thing to do, but maybe not surprising, because the hero opens the book as a professor at Florida Atlantic University, where in addition to teaching marine biology and being super handsome and smart, he is also engaged to an undergraduate he met because she was in his class, which is totally an ok thing to do, right, but it’s also ok, because they break up because, and this will blow your mind, undergrads aren’t always super emotionally mature and she was kind of ditz because, you know, women, amirite? high five guys!) father for his grasp of… history, I guess, really takes one out of the moment. Did I mention there is an rogue branch of the Knights Templar, imaginatively named the Black Knights, presumably after the famed Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the last I saw it was at a midnight showing and my wife almost divorced me for taking her; the time before that, I fell asleep during the movie and when I woke up, Joe Lieberman was telling me that we’d invaded Iraq; on the other hand, what a great movie and you can’t go more than five minutes into an in-depth discussion of the sources behind Eliot’s modernist classic, The Wasteland, before someone says ‘Nee!’).

So, a lot going on here, and I swear that none of the books many plot reveals look like they were put together using a broken Magic 8 Ball and a set of Erich Von Daniken playing cards.

One interesting conceit is that, in addition to claiming descent from Mel Gibson’s nom de guerre, the hero’s family also claims relation to Alfred Russel Wallace, who worked on a theory of evolution in parallel to Darwin (Darwin was actually encouraged publish Origin, which he had been dithering over, because he was told that Wallace was close to beating him to the punch). Excerpts from his writings pepper the beginnings of chapters and I found them fascinating, though they failed to gussy up the book in the classy veneer which Mr. Alten no doubt intended. You seen, any class which nineteenth century scientific writings may have added is more than equally subtracted by clauses like ‘my groin awakening for the first time in months.’ Also, by tossing in the occasional Darwin or Gould excerpt, he weakens the semi-unique conceit of the ancestral relationship to Wallace, but, hey, book learning!

However my hands down favorite literary flourish, redolent of Finnegans Wake‘s finest fart jokes (actually, Finnegans Wake does have a lot of fart jokes, only they are just as impossible to understand as the rest of the book) is the way characters, every time someone else says ‘but,’ interject ‘- butts are for crapping.’ Unless they’re doing a really deep Scottish thing, in which case its ‘butts er fer crappin’, dinna ya ken, ya wee laddie!’ I’m transported. You can already smell the fresh highland air of a free and independent Scotland, can’t you? So evocative.

But, when this potboiler finally reaches its heart pounding conclusion, it’s gotta be exciting right? Actually, the finale was too cluttered. It was like one of those action movies where the director keeps the camera moving and cutting so you can’t figure out what’s happening (check out the final shootout in Johnny To’s Drug War for a masterclass in how to film a visually coherent and exciting action sequence). Which is even worse in a book than it is in a movie. Also, our intrepid hero was going to free the monster, but then decided, meh, let’s kill it. This is after determining it wasn’t her fault (the monster is a girl) that she had become aggressive because of specific environmental damage caused by humans, but, meh, let’s blame an animal for all our sins. And let’s, I kid you not, kill it with William Wallace’s sword. I would say you couldn’t make that up, but obviously someone did, but I think that it would be correct to say, you could make that up, but you probably shouldn’t. Also, the hero is supposed to be a marine biologist. Typically, wouldn’t one be less blithe about slaughtering a hitherto unknown marine animal (it’s an eel, by the way, a giant eel)?

So if you like Monarch of the Glen fanfiction, history gleaned from cursory glances at wikipedia articles, and you also like giant sharks, then this book is that other book by the guy who wrote that other book about the giant shark and which also has those other things.

Tek Money


Can you believe this is the seventh book ‘written’ by William Shatner? Though he comes closer than ever to admitting Ron Goulart as the author of these novels in his acknowledgements.

Like its immediate predecessorTek Money has an international flavor to it. This time, they go to Spain which is kind of a third world country in the future, apparently. There is a democratically elected government, except that maybe it’s bad. And an insurgency that’s allied with the sort of American intelligence agencies that thought bombing Laos would be good for everyone and also with drug cartels, except maybe they’re not and maybe they’re not so bad. I guess.

The ostensible hero, Jake Cardigan, fades into the background a bit relative to his partner Sid Gomez, whose characterization always flirts dangerously close to ethnic caricature, without ever quite going all the way. It’s like a Heideggerian being-approaching-racism. But, despite those concerns, he is actually becoming more interesting than his caucasian buddy. Also, whoever is writing these novels needs to stop putting in subplots involving Jake’s teenage son, Dan and his partner in crime/occasional girlfriend, Molly. There was a confusing and pointless one going in and out during this book, that both managed never to make sense and to not go anywhere. Best of both worlds.

‘Severance’ By Ling Ma


Severance was well reviewed, and rightly so, but like most contemporary, literary novels, I always feel a slight sense of disappointment. It’s a very, very good novel, but it’s no classic for inclusion in the canon. Which is, of course, not a fair comparison, but one that I always go to. Perhaps why I read so much genre fiction. Less weight on the shoulders of reader and writer.

The obvious comparison here is to Station ElevenSeverance has more to say, but Station Eleven says it better. By which I mean that Na is not really writing any kind of science fiction novel. She is trying to make a point about modern life and the traps of routine and acceptance into which we fall. And she makes it well. Mostly.

The protagonist, Candace Chen, is a bit of tabula rasa, for good or ill. Only in the flashbacks to her childhood does she seem more fully realized, as a character.

But, this novel is about a global, airborne pandemic (albeit one spread by fungal spores). And features people wearing masks and empty office buildings. So… a little on the nose right now.

The Court Of Broken Knives


img_5217This was a difficult one to get into. A young, beautiful protagonist who is, at least initially, a member of a mercenary company that is only mostly shamelessly rips off Glen Cook’s Black Company (here, the unimaginatively named Free Company of the Sword), who happens to be a genetic sociopath. If there is a success here, it is in succeeding in duping the reader into thinking that – because he is good looking (yes, even when we can’t see the person, we are predisposed to think good looking people are better people) and is clearly set up as the protagonist – we are rooting for the good guy. Not that Spark doesn’t give us ample reason to mistrust that instinct (including pretty severe addiction problem – drugs and alcohol – that not infrequently has him puking all over himself).

About midway through, one character actually gives voice to that mistake, albeit inside her own head. Someone so beautiful must be good. And we are dragged along. It helps that the most mistrustful folks, the handful of members of the aforementioned Free Company who survive a bloodbath that takes place about one third of the way through, a portrayed as grimy, not very good looking, and very… human, in an icky and mortal way. So we don’t really trust them the way we do the good looking sociopath.

Admittedly, by around the final third, pretense has been dropped and the ‘hero’ is revealed as tramautized, sociopathic, man-child with never properly explained powers (he’s descended from some kind of god-like and also deranged hero of ancient legend).

I’m making this all sound more literary and successful than it is. Because it’s hard to feel super invested when you really don’t like anybody enough to care too much what happens to anybody and come to the conclusion that, with the exception of one (former) high priestess (who is too damsel-in-distress-y for my tastes), that the moral arc of the universe would be just fine if every significant character to whom the author introduced you were swallowed by a meth alligator.

‘The Beetle‘ By Richard Marsh


The Beetle is a work of horror by a man who seems not in control of his own sexual hang ups.

The characters are mostly too perfect or, in one case, too crippled by a twenty year old attack to be other than cryptic or hysterical at all times. In his defense, he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a beautiful young woman who was also a divine and immortal beetle.

Only a fellow called Atherton is exempt. He’s excitable, vengeful, and generally relatable in a way everyone is not. He’s an ass, but a normal and understandable one. He is also shown working on a horrifying chemical weapon which… is never used to move the plot forward in any meaningful way. It’s as if Chekhov forgot to fire his gun.

The villain, besides being indicted based on their ethnic appearance, has, when not a beetle, the body a handsome woman with the face of aging and preternaturally ugly man.

Also, nudity is surprisingly frequent for a novel from 1897. A man runs through the streets wearing only a cloak and everyone he meets notes he is naked beneath. When a young woman is forced to wear a man’s rags, the speaker notes that she must first have been forced to undress. Atherton catches a glimpse of the villainous beetle’s alluring feminine body before they transform.

And did I mention the rapes and orgies that preceded the sacrifice of (formerly) virginal white women by burning?

Also: brandy can cure almost all ills (and literally brings a man back from the dead, even if only for a moment).

Something happened to Mr. Marsh and I don’t care to know what.

In the meantime, better folk than I can comment on what this all says about gender roles, masculinity, and the end of empire.

Tek Power


You’d think I’d be more embarrassed. I mean, I’m a little embarrassed, but not that much. This is my thing. Sci fi and fantasy pulps. And these particular ones are attributed to William Shatner, for whom I have a deep and abiding love.

The thread of these techno drug cartels (the titular ‘tek’) runs through all the novels and this one is no exception. While obviously science fiction, in a semi-near future way (more Neuromancer than Star Trek), I have settled into an appreciative groove by understanding these as decently crafted, fast moving detective novels. Jake Cardigan, the primary protagonist, is very much the archetype of a noir hero: middle aged, tough, haggard, former cop turned PI, formerly jailed for crime he didn’t commit, preternaturally good at his job, and not infrequently beaten up a little. Read more

Krondor: Tear Of The Gods


Finally… after two books, we see a colon used in the third volume!

More than ever, these books feel like Dungeons & Dragons tie-ins. I just finished a long campaign with my long time group, going from first to twentieth level. This feels like a campaign. But the thing is, there is a lot of filler that doesn’t really tie the true narrative together. When playing, it’s not that important because the real joy is the relationship with your companions and seeing your own character grow and evolve. But it doesn’t really work in a novel. This was possibly my least favorite of the three.

‘Tek Secret’ & ‘Tek War’ The Movie/Series


I am not going to justify myself here. I really can’t, except for a sort of pact with the devil and a deep love of William Shatner. Also, a memory of it being on the sort of revolving wire book rack you used to see in drugstores in the Dunedin Library, near the card catalog.

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Tek Vengeance


I got back and forth on these Tek novels (inexplicable, save for my deep love of William Shatner, who didn’t actually write these novels). Today, I’m feeling generous towards the compulsive storytelling and decent chemistry between the middle aged, but still vigorous and athletic, Jake Cardigan, and his partner in the future world of private eyes, Sid Gomez.

What I am not down for is the revelation that Jake’s girlfriend (who he cheated on with her college friend in the last volume; did we forget that? because I didn’t forget that), is twenty-seven years old to his forty-nine. And they’ve been together for at least a year. Icky.