Here's a book not to judge by its cover. That makes it look like a pretty-pretty fantasy. Actually, it's a fairly hard-boiled detective story set in a bunch of parallel universes. Lee Enfield and Gelert are Ellay prosecutors, working on the side of Justice Herself. They are assigned a case about the murder of an Alfen electronics whizz. They "solve" the murder fairly quickly, but when they keep digging at an anomaly, things start getting serious. The case may actually cover up a wider problem of tension between the various parallel races, brewing civil war, and maybe even the end of the Worlds.
The various parallel worlds are nicely realised -- although the references to our own are a little heavy handed. There are several features that would make this a fantasy in most treatments -- Elves for example -- but here they all have a rational explanation. The story progresses along at a good pace, and the various features of the worlds are introduced gradually, without resort to gobs of infodumping. It's a pleasure to discover how the worlds work, along with solving the crimes.
I was slightly boggled at how easily Lee is persuaded to do what she has to do to resolve the main problem. But apart from that, this is a good romp through a series of fascinating parallel alternate worlds.
Concord Marine Lieutenant Gabriel Connor is aide to Ambassador Lauren Delvecchio, negotiating a peace between two warring planets. But sabotage strikes, Connor is framed, and dismissed in disgrace. Determined to clear his name, he teams up with Enda, a 300 year old Fraal, and they embark on an asteroid mining venture. But people keep trying to kill them, and it becomes clear that there is more at stake than a simple peace treaty.
This is set in the universe of the TSR campaign game Star*Force, which I had never heard of before. So there's a lot of scene setting and info dumping, which slows the first half down a bit. The action picks up in the second half, but in a curiously fragmented way. I don't find Connor a particularly well-drawn character: he seems to be there mainly to drive the plot. Enda, on the other hand, is interesting. But not interesting enough for me to read the rest of the trilogy.
The Nita and Kit stories are marketed as a 'juvenile' series, but don't let that put you off. Two teenagers find "wizard's manuals" and have great adventures, leavened with a sense of real conflict.
The Book of Night with Moon is set in the same universe as the Nita and Kit stories -- indeed, the pair make a brief cameo appearance -- but it is an entirely independent story. It is told from the point of view of Rhiow, the leader of a team of cat-wizards who help maintain the transit portals in New York's Grand Central Station. Something strange is happening to one of these gates, and the team must brave the dangers of Downside to fix it before the horror trying to break through into our world succeeds. But at this moment of crisis they have been saddled with a young feral tom cat, Arhu, just starting his Ordeal to become a wizard.
Duane has invented a complete cat society, interacting with our human one, but with very different rules and games of its own. We see the humans only as they appear to the cats, and it is done well enough that the humans seem alien. The story, while interesting, is fairly straightforward, but it is set against a marvelously rich and well-drawn background. Duane shows us the world through the eyes of one of her cats, rather than baldly telling us what it is like. For example, at one point she spends half a chapter just on the walk from Rhiow's home to the station, and it opens up a whole new world.
The Powers That Be call on Rhiow, Urruah and Arhu to help a team of London cat wizards, who are having time-trouble with their gates. Once there the New York cats discover the problem is grave indeed: the destructive Lone One has altered the time line, sending scientific information back to 1820s Victorian London, then having Queen Victoria assassinated in the 1870s, thereby precipitating a premature nuclear war, and killing the Earth with Nuclear Winter.
A lovely sequel to The Book of Night with Moon, with a good plot, well drawn cat characters, and tasty details. It is a little slow to get started, but the action does hot up, and has some nice plot twists, conflicts and complications. Great scenes include the Tower of London ravens, Queen Victoria, the Downing Street cat Humphrey (especially remembering the Real Life furore over that cat, and the original TV series character after whom it was named), and Willis in the British Museum with his hundreds of mummified Egyptian cats.
Well, this might be marketed as a juvenile, but there's nothing juvenile about the writing, or the intensity of the plot. Nita is having a really bad time. She and her partner Kit are quarrelling, and then her mother gets really ill. Nita must face up to a terrible dilemma: without help all her wizardry might not be enough to save her mother's life, but the price she is asked to pay for that help might be even worse.
Nita's dilemma is very real: who, and what, to sacrifice? The plot is cleverly constructed so that seemingly irrelevant details take on a later significance. The resolution is simultaneously affirming and agonising. Yet all this trauma is leavened by the excellent aliens (no "men in rubber suits" here), and Kit's parallel adventures with his dog. (Duane does animals really well. I've already remarked on the cat's eye view of The Book of Night with Moon, and here the dog, although capable of wizardly Speech, is still very doggy.)
Duane's Wizard series just keeps getting better.
Kit is having a hard time. He's been sent to look for a young wizard who has been on Ordeal for three months, rather than the usual few days, and he feels in need of backup when he discovers the boy is autistic. But Nita is so deep in grief over the death of her mother that she doesn't feel able to help. So Kit goes in alone, with help from his rather special dog Ponch, but soon finds himself in deep trouble. Can Nita snap out of her depression in time to help?
This isn't as traumatic as the previous in the series, despite the overshadowing grief. There's some really good stuff about grief counselling children, some very funny moments, especially when alien TV adverts or Ponch is involved [laughing out loud whilst reading this in a dentist's waiting room got me some strange looks], and some interesting insights into the grammar of the Speech. The handling of the autism feels a bit "textbook" -- but maybe that's because I've read too many books about it!
The plot moves along briskly and, while there's never any real doubt about the outcome this time, there is a satisfactorily mature ending. Duane has a great way of making evil look petulant and silly, whilst still being chillingly evil, and making good look mature and worthwhile (rather than just plain boring, as some more heavy handed treatments can). Worth reading, and you don't have to be a kid to enjoy it.
Nita's sister Dairine has applied to take part in a "cultural exchange" programme -- without bothering to ask for her father's permission first. The local wizards are annoyed with her, and let Nita and Kit go instead, to beautiful peaceful planet paradise. Dairine gets to stay at home, and entertain the incoming exchange wizards: a giant centipede, a sentient bush, and a bored and arrogant Prince.
But the Powers That Be never waste time or energy, and everyone finds themselves on a "Wizard's Holiday" -- that is, a busman's holiday where they have to save the planet they are visiting.
Good stuff, and once again, Duane pulls off the feat of making being good interesting and fun (and scary and difficult), and being evil petty and small (and scary -- for others).
Nita and Kit have just returned from their Wizard's Holiday, where they had to save the planet they were visiting. They feel in need for a holiday to recover. But a wizard's work is never done, and they discover that they have a new task: nothing less than saving the entire universe. Without upsetting the school inspectors. But they do have some help: Dairine's exchange wizard friends are still around. Even Kit's non-wizardly elder sister gets in on the act. And his dog proves to be a bit special at finding things.
This would definitely not be a good place to start reading this series: so much of the previous books is assumed as backstory that a newbie would be lost. But if you've got here the hard way, it's well worth the effort. A great addition to the series. (But how is Duane going to trump saving the universe?)
So, I asked, how is Duane going to top saving the entire Universe? By having a bit of fun with all the various Martian myths, instead (Wells, Burroughs, Bradbury, whatever). Why are so many of our stories about Martian invaders? Kit has been investigating some strange happenings on the Red Planet, while Nita is mostly having to cope with her sister acting strangely (more strangely, that is). What they don't know is that Mars has a reason for deserving those stories, and they might all start coming true if Kit isn't careful. And he isn't.
This starts rather slowly, with a lot of background scenes and filling in continuity with the previous books. Once it gets going, it rattles along well, with the usual mature handling of moral dilemmas. In fact, the handling is getting more mature, as the dilemmas are no longer so black and white, and the baddie not so obviously foregrounded. Kit and Nita are growing up.
How Lovely Are Thy Branches, a holiday-themed Young Wizards story in which an alien wizard who looks a lot like a Christmas tree gets the gift he wants most – decorations – and in which a memorable party and sleepover are disrupted (somewhat) by an untimely superblizzard and an incursion of alien ghosts.
Lifeboats, the tale of a distant world threatened by unavoidable doom, an intervention that takes thousands of Earth’s wizards, young and old, into harm’s way, and a Valentine’s Day that absolutely doesn’t go as planned…
Here we have a short story, a novella, and a novel, set in the Young Wizards' world, that are canon, but not published in the usual way. Why? Well, it might make sense for the short format works, but why it the canon novel published “on the side”? The author explains in an afterword:
The two shorter works are certainly “relaxed” to some degree, being a bit jokey, but with the standard dark underpinnings of this series. In the first, “Not On My Patch”, we have Halloween, with funny costumes, and a less-than-funny pumpkin uprising. In the second, “How Lovely Are Thy Branches”, we have a Christmas party, including the decoration of an alien tree, and the comeuppance of some nasty pieces of work. These develop peripheral characters, giving background on Kit and Nita's families, and their acceptance of their kids' wizardry.
The novel, Lifeboats, is more serious fare: the imminent destruction of an entire world, the desperate struggle to relocate all the sentient life before that occurs, and the problem that a large proportion of the inhabitants refuse to leave. This is certainly one of the most important things in Kit's life at the time, as is the problem of a suitable Valentine's gift, and a looming maths exam. Kit solves the problem of the reluctant leavers without realising it, and has some good times introducing two young alien wizards to his favourite science fiction movies on the way. I think this could have stood on its own as a novel in the main series, although maybe not as a starting point.
Anyhow, these tales provide some welcome “explorations of the characterscape” while we wait for the next mainstream instalment.
Together they’re plunged into a whirlwind of cutthroat competition and ruthless judging. Penn’s egotistical attitude toward his mentors complicates matters as they try to negotiate their burgeoning romance. Meanwhile, Dairine struggles to stabilize her insecure protégée against the interference of powerful relatives using her to further their own tangled agendas. When both candidates make it through to the finals stage on the dark side of the Moon, they and their mentors are flung into a conflict that could change the solar system for the better … or damage Earth beyond even wizardly repair.
Wizards Kit and Nita don’t have to save the world; they just have to mentor a junior wizard in the Invitational Games. Saving the world might be easier.
This is more of Kit and Nita growing up, and growing closer. They get to be the ones teaching, and they have to work out their own relationship. In fact, that relationship is foregrounded, as Duane takes adolescence seriously, but not so seriously that it can’t be amusingly contrasted with how planets manage their relationships. There’s not a lot of tension until right at the conclusion, which feels a little rushed. But there’s a big plot development for Nita, after she hangs out with Pluto.
I read Star Trek novels if they're written by authors I like. And I've read quite a few of Diane Duane's ST novels, and enjoyed them. But I found this one rather so-so, as if it had been written in a hurry. There isn't enough conflict, or difficulty, or set-backs: the villain is tracked down too quickly, and put out of action too easily.
There are hints that things could have been made more interesting. The villain is killing sentient beings in a particularly nasty way; but what if that is the only way it can survive, because of evolutionary accident? There is potential for exploring an interesting moral dilemma here, but it is wasted, and the villain simply destroyed. And there is an interesting philosophical point about the nature of reality, concerning experiences on the holodeck, but this is not taken anywhere.
Also, there is little extra interest, or 'character development': new characters are introduced, but seem to have little reality of their own, and the familiar ones have little extra depth added. The only part that rings true for me is Dr Crusher's reaction to the mindless crew -- but even that feels curiously passionless. The writing style of the whole book is very pedestrian -- Duane can write much better than this. Quite a disappointment after the much better Dark Mirror.
The Shi'ar empress, Lilandra, has discovered a deadly threat to her galaxy, and calls in the X-Men to help. All is not simple, however. Not only might this be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness, but the X-Men will have to use a device to increase their powers to god-like levels, such that they may not want to return as ordinary mortals.
All a bit ho-hum, really. Despite all the build-up to the problem of using their augmented powers, they all get reset to "normal" pretty readily. And the problem of Charles and Lilandra's impossible romance: why don't they just commute?