Review of Legends II: Volume III

Legend II: Volume IIILegends II: Volume III
Edited by Robert Silverberg
Containing stories by Robert Silverberg, Neil Gaiman, and Orson Scott Card
Read by Jason Culp, Peter Bradbury, and Michael Emerson
4 Cassettes – 7 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 0739310860
Themes: / Fantasy / Majipoor / Mythology / Alternate History / Gods /

The cover of this audiobook prominently displays the names “Neil Gaiman” and “Orson Scott Card”, so I was a bit surprised to find a Robert Silverberg story leading off the collection. It probably shouldn’t have been unexpected, because a look at the back of the audiobook includes blurbs from all three stories – it’s just from the front, the audio appears to include two stories, not three.

“The Book of Changes” is set in Silverberg’s Majipoor universe and is a fine story about an epic poet’s discovery and subsequent writing of his masterwork. The story is steeped in the history of Majipoor, but is clear and enjoyable to a person unfamiliar with that history, as I am. Silverberg has created a world that is as much science fiction as it is fantasy. In Majipoor’s past, humans colonized then got into a war with the native inhabitants. These past events are discussed in Silverberg’s story, but the tale is firmly focused on the poet and the act of creation – something Silverberg knows much about. Jason Culp’s performance was near perfect.

The second novella in the collection is “Monarch of the Glen”, written by Neil Gaiman. The story starts in a hotel bar where Shadow (the main character from Gaiman’s American Gods) is talking to a Scotsman. It is immediately notable that the story is in good hands with Peter Bradbury, whose crisp, clear accents place the listener firmly in the setting which in this case is Northern Scotland. The scotsman offers Shadow a job as a bouncer, but Shadow knows that something is afoot beyond the obvious. Neil Gaiman provides a story that is just as mythic and mysterious and unexpected as his previous fiction. This is a Gaiman story through and through, which is as marvelous a thing as a visit from a good friend.

Last up is Orson Scott Card’s “The Yazoo Queen,” which is set in his Alvin Maker universe. It’s read by Michael Emerson, who performs a sort of old-west style voice which works very well with the prose Card writes with throughout the series – conversational with plenty of 19th century slang and pronounciation. THe story is a prologue to The Crystal City, the sixth novel in the series. In the story, Alvin Maker and Arthur Stuart meet Jim Bowie and Abraham Lincoln while travelling on the Mississippi River. Card’s world is early 19th century America where the Revolutionary War never took place and the magic (called “knacks”) that superstitious folks believed in back then really works. Alvin, the focus of all the stories, is a maker – he can see into things and change them, making them better. He’s chasing after the Unmaker and each volume in the series is building toward a confrontation between the two.

Another notable thing about this audio is that each story is preceded by a summary of what the series is all about. I found each one interesting – in the case of Silverberg’s Majipoor, it was all new information and in the case of the other two, it was a recap for me. But in all three cases it was very welcome.

Three very enjoyable stories read by three top-notch narrators – highly recommended!

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Snow Crash by Neal StephensonSnow Crash
by Neal Stephenson; Read by Jonathan Davis
12 Cassettes, 18 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Time Warner Audio
Date Published: August 2001
ISBN: 158211137
Themes: / Science Fiction / Computers / Virtual Reality / Religion / Mythology / Cyberpunk /

Snow Crash is one of those rare novels; one of those that stand out, tall and unique, amongst all the novels I’ve read in my life. I know of nothing with which to compare it, but I can say that it ranks amongst my favourite novels. Neal Stephenson impressed me both with his fearless, irreverent tone and with the astonishing range of subjects touched by his characters.

Snow Crash reveals a picture of the not-too-distant future, where the only things the USA is good at are “music, movies, microcode (software), and high-speed pizza delivery.” It’s a world where people spend part of their lives in the Metaverse, a highly developed yet realistic virtual world where they use avatars of their own design to interact with each other. It’s a world divided into burbclaves, or city-states, each with its own identity, laws, and law-enforcement. In stark contrast to this future society, the main character finds himself entangled in a mystery that requires him to explore ancient Sumerian mythology and the roots of biblical religion.

All of this in an extremely fast-paced adventure story. Remarkable. This is an exciting, impressive novel.

For the audio version, Time-Warner selected a first rate reader in Jonathan Davis. I never tired of his effortless inflection changes as different characters spoke — very important in a quick moving story like this one. The production quality was excellent; I found the sounds used to mark breaks in the text to be particularly effective.

And with that, my current list of all-time favorites is complete! See the whole list here!

Review of Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton

Fantasy Audiobooks - Eaters of the Dead by Michael CrichtonEaters of The Dead
By Michael Crichton; Read by Victor Garber and Michael Crichton
2 cassettes – 3 hours [ABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audiobooks
Published: 1998
ISBN: 0679460330
Themes: / Fantasy / Historical Fiction / Alternate History / Vikings / Arabs / Mythology / Neanderthals / Epic /

In the year A.D. 922, Ibn Fadlan, a devout Muslim nobleman, left his home in Baghdad on a mission to the King of the Bulgars. During his journey, he met various groups of “barbarians” who he reported as having varying degrees of bad hygiene and alcoholism. It was a classic clash of cultures story that revealed more about both societies than any other type of narrative could. Whilst encamped in a Norseman trading village word came of a request for warriors to return to Scandinavia to battle an unnamed foe. Because the Norsemen were so superstitious, Fadlan was shanghaied as the “13th warrior”, a necessary foreigner, and forced to accompany the war party. Under the leadership of Buliwyf, Fadlan and eleven other Norsemen journeyed far to the North, to a land where the nights last only a few minutes, where sea monsters abound in the oceans and where shimmering lights in the sky are a nightly occurrence. Once there he and his companions must fight a battle against the Eaters Of The Dead.

If the premise is familiar it may be because you’ve seen the movie “The 13th Warrior,” which is based upon this novel. Supposedly this is a true story taken from the journals of an Arab courtier named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. In reality it is only partially based on those writings. Crichton wrote Eaters Of The Dead based on a bet. He argued that Beowulf, the oldest surviving epic in British literature, could be successfully turned into a satisfying adventure story. In the real life writings of Ibn Fadlan Crichton found a viewpoint chracater who’d be able to witness the adventure of Beowulf and his fight against Grendel first hand. Starting with actual journal entries from Ibn Fadlan, Eaters Of The Dead begins as non-fiction. About a third of the way into the reading, Crichton stops using Fadlan’s journals, starts writing in the style of Fadlan, and begins telling his version of Beowulf. Sounds simple, but because Crichton doesn’t tell us any of this in his introduction, it isnt.

Confusing things further, Victor Garber’s reading of the story is interupted every so often by commentary by Michael Crichton! Crichton doing commentary on Crichton confuses things to a high degree, and yet somehow it works! This is a compelling story, likely because it draws so heavily from the deeply rooted mythology including snippets of ideas from everything from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to modern anthropological theories regarding the extinction of the Neanderthals.

Victor Garber does a good job reading, his only flaw is that his Arbaic accent sounds a bit to much like a Punjabi accent. Crichton too reads his commentaries well. As with many abridgments this one leaves the listener wanting more of the story, though thankfully it doesn’t suffer from the equally common failing of being incomprehensible.

As with all Michael Crichton novels, this turns into a Frankestienian morality tale in the vein of “there are some things men wernt meant to know”. For the most part it works, but what bothers me most about Eaters Of The Dead is its fence sitting nature. Not strictly fiction nor strictly non-fiction, Crichton has chosen to deliberately blend the reality and the fantasy without any disclaimer of even the most generous “based on a true story” or even the weaker “inspired by true events”. Instead he deliberately tricks us into thinking this is a true story by interspersing his own commentaries about the translation! True stories are inherently more interesting than fiction, no doubt Crichton chose to capitalize on this by deliberately obscuring the fact that he basically made up the whole last 2/3rds of the book! Had there been a disclaimer about this at the beginning of the book I’d have been much happier with it. That said, the story is fun, an interesting ride, and certainly one of Crichton’s best novels, but it isn’t even in the same class as say Robert Silverberg’s terrific A Hero Of The Empire, which also deals with historical figures in ancient Arabia.. If you absolutely insist on reading Michael Crichton novels I’d recommend you actually NOT read his Science Fiction! Read his fantasy, read Eaters of The Dead and then if you want a non-SFF treat try Crichton’s admirable The Great Train Robbery (also based on a true story), which is far better than his constant rehashing of Frankensteinian plots about cloning, time travel, etc.