My relationship with King started out badly, back when I was fifteen. Already a voracious reader, I was invited to the birthday of a classmate of mine by the name of Christine. Her last name shall remain shrouded in obscurity. Not the brightest cookie in the jar, one might say. And Christine showed me her bookshelf. Twelve books. Every single one by Stephen King. “And I read all of them!” Christine proudly proclaims, as if she has just come up with the square root of pi…

Well, anyway. That was then. I apologize for any bad thoughts that I have had about Mr. King in the years to follow. First impressions can be deceiving. The Dark Tower and It have taught me otherwise in the meantime.

And now Cell. After the long intro I have to admit that Cell doesn’t need a very long review. The novel is above all solid. It has solid characters. King seems to have a knack for those. The plot is solid too, except for the slightly abrupt ending, but I shall refrain from going into detail here. Cell concentrates on the characters, their fears, hopes and needs and still doesn’t fail to be, well, epic. That’s what I call a good book.

And that’s all I need to say.

The Lions of Al-Rassan


First of all: Yes, I know, I am much funnier when I dislike stuff. Everyone is.

And: Yes, I promise to read something crappy next. (Chances are good; I’m currently reading a book by John Irving, who might be a good author if he didn’t obsess about sex that much.)

So: Sorry, but The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the most excellent novels that I have read in, well, a long time.

Besides that there really is not much to say. The book follows multiple point-of-view characters, each of them real and likeable enough to adopt in a heartbeat. The setting is medieval Spain, or what medieval Spain might have looked like had things gone a little different, but just a little, mind you. The story is powerful, passionate and mesmerizing, something I haven’t experienced to such a degree since… let me think… The Dark Tower, I’d say. Completely different type of storytelling, but both sweep you off your feet.

My husband read Tigana (also by Guy Gavriel Kay) recently and had a similar experience. So yay for Kay. And that must be true, because it rhymes.

(Do not continue reading if you want to keep your respect for me as a professional geek, but) the book also features one hell of a love story. I can’t help it, I’m a girl, don’t hold it against me.

So the bottom line is this: Read this book if you love good fantasy/alternate history with strong characters and really really excellent writting. The Lions of Al-Rassan was really a bit of an eye-opener to me in that respect, seeing that in the past I tended to look down on alternate history stories as the refuge of post-menopause women with boring jobs. My bad.

And what about Barnacle Bill?

Barnacle Bill the Spacer

Oh, yes.


Got a bit carried away there.

Where was I?

Barnacle Bill.

My Lucius Shepard experience so far has mostly been limited to short stories, and of those I have read a lot. Also, as mentioned above, two of these count among my favourite pieces of writing in the whole wide world. So naturally my expectations for Barnacle Bill were high. I am glad to say that I was not disappointed.

As with a lot of Shepard’s writing, I would not have minded for some of the stories to be longer. That is especially the case when it comes to the title story, where you only get a glimpse of what our world might look like in the future. It’s not pretty, but I’d like so see more.

As for the other stories: both A Little Night Music and Sports in America suffered from a certain blah-ness, but I suspect that is because I found the topics to be to my disliking. The writing is as always superb.

The Sun Spider is Shepard at his best. I don’t think anything will ever be able to eclipse the story about the sleeping dragon Griaule and Meric Cattanay the man who painted him, but this one comes close. Like Lem’s Solaris or the 2007 movie Sunshine by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland, this story manages to convey the sense of awe and wonder that I imagine has to beset one if confronted with something as mind-boggling as the sun or, as in Lem, a creature too alien to comprehend.

We are taken to Egypt in All the Perfumes of Araby and from there on towards Israel. A setting that made me pause, given the current political situation in that region. The story is twenty years old, true, but from my viewpoint not much has changed in that time, so what would Shepard’s take be? Surreal, is the answer. And once again too short. The story seems to end when the protagonist’s journey is just beginning. If you ever read this, Mr. Shepard, personally I wouldn’t mind reading a novel about Danny Shields. Just so you know.

Finally, maybe the most surprising story of the collection: Beast of the Heartland. I didn’t think much of it when I started reading the story. Actually I was sorely tempted to put the book aside at this point, only that’s against my honour as a reader. The problem was that I could once again tell that this was a subject that didn’t draw me much. Now, after reading the story, I am very grateful that I did read on, because this story about a washed-out boxer is amazing. It’s not too long and not too short, sad and joyful at the same time and full of mesmerizing imagery.

All in all Barnacle Bill the Spacer is a thoroughly satisfying read, although I would recommend the more recent Eternity and Other Stories to first-time Lucius Shepard readers. But then again, if you want to get really hooked read The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, now there’s a story…



I recently finished reading the short story collection Lythande by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In my youth, back in the days when I was still reading books in German, I read quite a bit of MZB. Not only did I read Lythande, which I greatly enjoyed,  I also read the Trillium series and the beginning of the Darkover series (both of which I enjoyed greatly initially, and not so much as the series progressed).

One thing that I always stayed away from and swore only to touch with a very long stick is The Mists of Avalon. Not the book’s fault, necessarily, I just react that way if a lot of people tell me that I MUST READ THIS, IT IS SO GREAT. Strange but true. That has changed a bit in recent years, so I might just give it a try one day.

To return to the subject at hand: What all these books have in common is that I read them in German and at the tender age of maybe thirteen or fourteen, and I was interested to see how well Lythande would hold up, fifteen-odd years later.

The answer is: hard to say.

Lythande is what I would call old-school fantasy. When I told Jonas about my self-invented category he said that what I meant is pulp magazine fantasy, and I guess he is right.

I cannot find it in me to really bash Lythande, which is not an euphemistic way of saying that it is crap, it’s just … well, it’s hard to explain.

Marion Zimmer Bradley herself certainly seems to have similar difficulties with her heroine. Each of the stories comes with an introduction by the author and while she openly condemns some of her contemporaries for their strong feminist* views I can not help but think that Lythande is a bit on the feminist side herself. Sometimes. Sometimes not. Mhm.  Also I was surprised to learn that the adept of the blue star started her journey as a man. Or maybe a metrosexual, only that word didn’t exist back then. The first metrosexual then. Now, being a writer myself I know that characters sometimes take on a life of their own and surprise their makers with what they like and what they dislike, but I’d like to say that none of my characters ever underwent a sex change in the process of writing. But let’s not hold this against her too much, she noticed early enough.

As for the individual stories, I find them to be of varying quality.

The first one, The Secret of the Blue Star, is solid enough, even though some of the dialogue is a bit heavy-handed. Something that I sadly associate to a certain degree with books from this period. The biggest drawback, if you can call it that, is that this is the only story to feature Lythande’s friend Myrtis. I would have loved to hear more of the relationship between these two unalike women.

Next up is the star of the show: The Incompetent Magician, which I wholeheartedly recommend, if only for its stuttering title character . Ca-ca-carrying on.

From the heights of hilarity we plunge into a valley of… how to phrase this delicately? Shoddy writing? I guess. Lythande, our heroine, a woman sworn by oath to never reveal her true sex, is tasked by a dying priestess to deliver a sword to her shrine. The catch: only women may enter the temple. Lythande’s reaction: red rage throughout most of the story. I am oversimplifying the plot immensly here, and there are some mitigating factors to be considered, but I found this to be the low point of the book. The story gets redeemed in the punchline, but I doubt that brief moment of satisfaction is worth all that pain.

Sea Wrack is another gem in this collection, for it manages, more than any other story in the book, to show us the true depth of Lythande’s loneliness and the burden of her vows. Also it has a mermaid in it.

The last of the stories by MZB is called Wandering Lute and it is both solidly written and has a very funny ending. I approve.

Which is more than can be said of the last story in the book, Looking for Satan by Vonda N. McIntyre. I’ll try to be nice. Let’s see if I manage. Yes, I see that the title is cool, which is probably exactly what Mrs. McIntyre thought when she came up with it. Unfortunately Looking for Satan is also a story about three women and one man who have sex a lot, who are too stupid to live and who walk through the book’s fantasy world with an illuminated page from the Bible, looking for their red-furred, winged friend Satan who is called that because his mum liked the picture. Yes. You have to read it to believe it. On second thought: don’t.

Summing up: I don’t know if I should recommend Lythande. It seems a bit too old-school for my taste. The dialogue tends to be stiff and the protagonist’s emotional journey gets a rather erratic treatment. But then there are the good moments, like Lythande’s encouter with the mermaid and Rastafyre the Incomparable. Maybe I should just recommend my approach to picking a book:

Go to a bookstore, a big one, one that has a lot of books (which is a good thing for bookstores to have, in general). Go to the fantasy section and look for Marion Zimmer Bradley. Now, take Lythande out of the bookshelf in front of you. Read the first page, but only the first. Do not look at the summary, not if you can avoid it, and certainly not in this case. Now, close the book and ask yourself if you liked what you read. Yes? Very nice, proceed to the checkout, go home and enjoy. No? Well, don’t worry, just rinse and repeat until you find something that is nice. It’s very bad manners to walk out of a bookstore without buying something.

* Don’t misunderstand me. I am not against women’s rights. More precisely, I am for equality between people. Feminism seems like a well-intentioned movement gone terribly haywire.