Short works

Books : reviews

Dorothy J. Heydt.
The Interior Life.
Baen. 1990


rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 6 April 2001

Good grief what a good book.
    I'd never have read this if someone hadn't gone to the trouble of buying it and sending it to me, because it does not look promising. I'd even read reviews of it and thought it doesn't look promising - "housewife has daydreams about fantasy world". Ah, yes. Right. Um. I don't like mundane books much, and I don't like fantasy much. This isn't either, and it definitely isn't both. It really works. It's slightly reminiscent of Barbara Hambly at her best, only better. It could be compared in some ways to some of the more sensitive Connie Willis. It's very slightly like a very much more positive use of a motif in Woman on the Edge of Time - note that this is one of my favourite books and Blake does it better. It's more riveting that [Patrick] O'Brian. It's a little like a rebuttal of some of Lisa Tuttle. Actually, in some ways if there were a genre that is the inverse of certain types of psychological horror this could be it, except it would be very hard to say what I mean by that in any coherent way. Hmm. It is a very unexpected book altogether. It only does one solitary expected thing, plotwise.
    There are books so well written, and so beautifully and artlessly done that they are better than they possibly could be by any sensible measure. This is one of them.
    I really really liked it.
    If you like unexpectedly good books, read this one.
    If there's anything else like it, please recommend it to me.
    If anyone wants to talk about how she pulled it off technically, go ahead - I'm still stunned.

Jo Walton, rec.arts.sf.written, November 1997

People have been raving about this book for ages on rec.arts.sf.written, and bemoaning the fact it is now out of print. In one thread I mentioned that, because of all the recommendations, I was looking for a second hand copy, but hadn't yet been lucky enough to find one. I can be patient; it was over twenty years of looking before I got my second hand copy of Annabel and Bryony (in the bad old days before Web searches). But then next day my email inbox contained several offers. I gratefully took up one (and regretfully declined the others), swapping it for a book I accidentally had two copies of.

Well, after all that hype and build up, especially Jo Walton's panegyric (above), there was absolutely no chance it could stand up, was there? So I approached it with some trepidation. But despite my worries of disappointment, I was rapidly hooked.

The premiss sounds conventional enough: Sue is a bored housewife, mother of three young children, unable to get on top of the housework, who escapes into a fantasy world. But the execution is not conventional at all. The fantasy world is different and interesting in its own right, and its plot keeps moving off at right angles just when you think you know what's coming next. The mundane plot is possibly even more interesting, and again does not develop in any of the expected directions (it is also the actual fantasy, as Sue's real world life develops in a totally implausible manner). But the best bit for me is the interaction between the two worlds, as the characters from each influence and interact with the other.

So, although I wasn't as blown away by it as was Jo, this is definitely worth reading. Thanks, community of the Internet (and the author, naturally), for giving me the opportunity. And it's fun to think that the circumstances of how I came to be reading my copy would themselves have been fantastical (or at least, sfnal) only a few decades ago. I like living in the future!

A footnote on the fonts. The different narratives are indicated by a subtle change in the typeface -- the interior life is a slightly darker, slightly spikier script. Newsgroup discussions indicate some readers never even noticed the transition. I did, but it is subtle. It is a clever technique, though, allowing rapid to-ing and fro-ing between the worlds, and when the third font appears...

I would describe that dress, actually (and have several times) as a 1940s-style prom dress with pageboy hairdo to match. It has little puffed sleeves...
    She was supposed to be all in black, with a hooded cloak, looking as like a Nazgul as makes no difference till you got up close. Yech. Pfui.

-- Dorothy J. Heydt, rec.arts.sf.written, Feb 2001
[I don't think the author likes the cover design of her book...]

Dorothy J. Heydt.
A Point of Honor.
DAW. 1998


rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 13 May 1998

Mary Craven make a precarious but enjoyable living as Sir Mary de Courcy, jousting in front of paying audiences in the popular Virtual Reality game of Chivalry, and teaching new players the finer points of VR-fighting. But one day she unhorses an opponent who cannot afford his ransom, and who gives her the deed to St. Chad's, a strange VR manor house, as payment instead. Then her troubles start: someone is trying to kill her 'outside', in the real world. She needs to discover the secret to St. Chad's, fast.

This is a great adventure-chase through various total-immersion VR games and 'desk top' interfaces. The post global-warming world outside and the various different computer games and data manipulation interfaces are well-drawn, and the dislocations from moving between 'outside' and VR is well handled. The chases, the fights, even the programming bugs in the virtual worlds are great. In these VR worlds, programming wizards are indeed wizards! It's good to see a bunch of people totally at home with the technology in their world, and using it in original ways to solve their problems. (My only plot-quibble: it's never satisfactorily explained why the villain tries to kill Mary from the start, without first simply trying to buy the manor off her.)