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by L E Modesitt Jr

This is the second book in the Imager Portfolio, and it immediately follows the book Imager. While this can be viewed as a standalone story it reads best as being the second part of a story. Rhenn has become an Imager, but through a combination of circumstances and his own talents is still operating in a world where he is still very much learning all the unspoken rules that come with his position and his abilities.

There is also a sense in which the wider world is likewise having to adjust to the development of a new Imager. Like the previous book the action is tightly concentrated in the capital city of Solidar, the prominent nation on the planet. Despite that actions outside of the capital, and in the wider world, have a profound impact – but remain remote.

The action proceeds along at a steady pace, which quickens in the last third of the book as several unrelated threads in Rhenn’s life reach conclusion all around the same time. Rhenn’s journey is not complete at the end of Imager’s Challenge, but it has for the time plateaued. The achievements however come at the price of some real costs, some of which are obvious and others rather less so. The consequences of actions – even justified actions – can be terrible.

There is also a very strong sense of Rhenn being on the outside of his world, somewhat apart. This comes over in several ways. As an Imager he is apart from the wider populace, but even within the Imager community he is marked as being different. Then there is the matter of his intended, who also comes from a people that keep themselves apart.

However, even people who are apart from the world somewhat still have to live in it – and in many ways seeing Rhenn start to realise this, and step up to this challenge, is what I think this book is all about. By the end he has accepted the challenge that his life has offered him, with its attended dangers and rewards.

Personally I very much enjoyed Rhenn, and the further insights into his world. I suspect some might get turned off a little by Modesitt’s occasional moralising, and his writing style. To be fair I would not rate this amongst his strongest works, but it is still a good work.

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by L E Modesitt Jr.

This is the first book in the latest series (The Imager Portfolio) from this rather prolific author. I have been reading LE Modesitt since before I left school, and while I would never call his writing great literature I do find his stories entertaining, relaxing, and with occasional moments that really make you think.

The basic story, with very little in the way of spoilers, is that young Rhenn does not wish to follow his father in the wool trade. He becomes apprenticed to a portrait artist, but becomes aware he may have some magical talent, which in his world is called Imaging. In time this prompts him to leave his former profession and proffer himself to the Imager’s College. Life becomes more complex thereon has he learns more about his talent, and his world, and his future place in it.

This is not a stand alone work – the story ends with one particular story arc completed but there are several ones ongoing and new ones forming to carry on in the second book. Some works like this only feel like one part in a very long chain, but Imager avoids this peril very neatly. There is a sense of conclusion by the end of the novel, despite all the threads pointing to future stories.

The pace of the book starts slow, or perhaps deliberate is a better word. No doubt the first third, or so, of the work is largely about fixing ourselves in Rhenn’s world, and in himself. I do not mean only getting to know the nature of his character, but also of his circumstances. What we learn about the world is also strictly limited to his experience. Like many younger folk Rhenn has only a passing interest in the world beyond his own borders, but now and then we get snatches of what this world looks like as it begins to intrude upon his consciousness. As the book gathers pace and Rhenn finds himself exposed to more of the world we begin to learn more, but we leave this book Rhenn is a still a man with much to learn – as do we.

This extends to the realm of magic. I feel the magical is handled very well – described by not explained. In this setting magic – imaging – appears to be a matter of thought projection. The Imager forms an image of what they desire in their mind, and makes it real. Hence the name of their ability. Rhenn learns quite a bit about Imaging by the end of the book, but once again there remain many things to be discovered.

The entire story is set inside a single city. Although people Rhenn knows do travel outside it, and he hears from other places, he himself never leaves its bounds during the entire novel. The city is the capital of what appears to be the most prosperous, and possibly most technologically advanced, nation on this planet. Both these facts give the book a certain insularity which is echoed in many of Rhenn’s own viewpoints. Very much Rhenn is a creature of where he lives. I suspect very much in a future story Rhenn will start to outgrow the narrowness of his birth, and the story is clearly ripe for him to travel at some juncture. The overall technology level appears to be roughly that of sixteenth century Europe, but I do not think it is wise to regard that as something set in stone.

Overall I think Imager had to achieve two things: firstly, and most importantly, to be interesting in and of itself; and secondly to present an interesting world and character to make any readers desire to read the next book. For my own part Imager has succeeded in both of these aims.

 

This charming book by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw attempts to do exactly what it says on the cover – explain why E=mc2, probably the most famous equation in all of history. To be more precise, it does not attempt to explain the equation metaphysically (no debate on the role of a creator). Rather, it tries to explain why in the physical universe that exists as we currently understand it Energy equally mass times the speed of light squared.

Inevitably perhaps this book can be compared to Stephen Hawking’s brief (and ageing) tome, A Brief History of Time. Both are books that seek to explain the state of scientific understanding of our universe to the general public. Both seek to make very profound scientific knowledge and discoveries understandable to someone casually interested in what goes on in the world around them. It would be a mistake to compare them however, because they are really rather different books.

To begin with this book is far more focused on that central of all equations, Einstein’s special relativity. Stephen Hawking’s book is of a far more general nature. This allows the authors to go into some real depth in explaining some of the concepts around relativity and spacetime, a luxury Hawking did not really have.

A second difference, and a crucial one, is the tone of the entire work. Hawking’s book is a much more considered volume. While not dry, it nevertheless is reflects the seriousness of its subject. Engaging, nevertheless one feels a little like you are sitting in a lecture theatre. Actually, come to think of it E=mc2 feels a little like being a lecture theatre as well, just with a very different lecturer.

Brian Cox, one of the authors, is well known as the presenter of the Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe documentary series. Anyone who has seen these series knows just how excited he gets by his subject, and how earnestly he tries to convey why and how it excites him. On screen you get a real sense of the joy he finds in his subject. You get the same in his written word. Teh real desire of the writers to try to share their wonder and excitement at what they are describing.

Of course, a great part of what they are describing is mathematics. Stephen Hawking in his work quotes the old adage that for every equation in a book, you halve the readership. For that reason he limited himself to just one equation, the famous one. Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw  appear to have taken one look at this advice, decided that since they really enjoy the mathematical equations that govern our lives they will take on the challenge to try to explain them to the rest of us.

Mathematics suffers from being thought of as boring and hard. I think if I had Brian Cox as my maths teacher in school, I would not have found it so (to be fair to my maths teacher at school, I never found it hard – he was a very good teacher – just boring, and that is probably has more to do with the syllabus than the subject). In his TV series, and in his writing, Brian Cox keeps getting excited about and goes on about “beautiful equations” and “wonderful maths”. The words strain to reassure us that everything we thought about maths being hard is wrong, that we can get it. That it is within us all to understand what it is they are going on about. If I were to make a wager, I think the authors are baffled why the rest of us do not share their love of mathematics. I also would wager they might have one or two things to say about curriculums and teachers that take the joy out of a subject.

If the mathematics and equations are all too much however, it is easily possible just to skim them. I did for some, but even skimming I learned a great deal. The way they explain the maths it the very opposite of dry, all enthusiasm, encouragement, excitement, and very many examples to try to help us understand.

The same is true when they try to explain concepts such as relativity and spacetime. I won’t try to explain it all – just go and read it oneself.

Now, it is only fair to say that this book was written just over two years ago, and the experiments at Cern (just getting underway when it was published) will no doubt make this book dated in a few years time (much like Hawking’s opus is now quite dated). For all that I thoroughly recommend this book – it is both informative and entertaining.

Winterfair Gifts” is a novella by Lois McMaster Bujold in the Vorkosigan Saga. It follows on from “A Civil Campaign“, and is followed by “Diplomatic Immunity”. I bought it on my Kindle, and it can also be acquired in the compilation volume “Miles in Love”.

In short, this is a story about Miles’ wedding, after the courtship in “A Civil Campaign” was successfully concluded (in a suitably dramatic fashion for Miles). Oddly enough, the first Miles Vorkosigan book I read was “Diplomatic Immunity“. I then proceeded to the first book in the saga, and then read all the way. Therefore this book, to me, had some quality of completing a journey. Like in those films (or books) where the majority of the film is showing how the actions in the first scene came to be.

The tale is told from the point of view of Armsan Roic, one of Miles Vorkosigan’s liegemen. This provides a rather interesting glimpse from the “downstairs” on the aristocratic Vorkosigans – albeit strictly from a bodyguard’s perspective rather than a servant.

The essential plot of the story – without giving too much away – is that one of Miles’ various enemies tries to use Miles’ wedding as an opportunity for revenge, and how this effort is thwarted. On one level, that is all this tale is about. However, Bujold has the uncanny knack for turning space opera (which the Vorkosigan Saga definitely is) and throwing in a few curveballs in there making her tales more than just routine fare.

In particular this tale is about various Rites of Passage. Marriage is one of the great Rites of Passage – but there are smaller ones. Having the courage to step outside the cozy confines of one’s own culture, or stepping up and defiantly accepting the risks of an elevated position. can all equally be Rites of Passage.

The other reflection I have on this tale is how Bujold demonstrates how the grand events of the Very Important People of the world are often just the back-drop to equally life-altering events in those “below stairs”.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this novella, and would very much recommend it. However, while I think it may be a reasonable stand-alone, the more of the Vorkosigan Saga one has read the more I think one will get out of it. In particular the three novels “Memory“, “Komarr“, and “A Civil Campaign” set the scene for this little tale.

Score 4/5

Jessica at The Velvet Cafe has a rather good post about guilty-pleasures. Those things one likes of which “society” disapproves, for reasons of taste. The context of her post are films, in particular films she likes that “critics” do not, and those films that receive fulsome critical praise that she that (perhaps) make her think watching paint dry is a more valuable activity. Of course, these things are not restricted to just films, but to hobbies, books, clothes – even to the friends we make and the food we eat. Jessica, in her wonderful prose, says essentially to hell with all that and that these pleasures are all guilt-free, and to stop apologising for not liking the accepted “greats”.

All of which I very much agree with, because this is pretty much the attitude I have had my entire life. Not through conscious choice however, or any sense of it being somehow a “better” way of looking at the world, but through obliviousness.

One of the classic features of Asperger’s Syndrome is the inability or reduced ability to perceive social cues, especially nonverbal ones. This can be one of several reasons why someone with Asperger’s has a tendency to be something of a loner. Being a loner, of course, means less exposure to all those social cues, so even less opportunity to experience how the rest of the world operates.

This can manifest in a number of ways, and in my case one of the ways it shows was and is a certain bloody-mindedness about not caring about what the rest of the world thinks. My favourite colour, for as long as I can remember, is pink. I think this was a source of trial for my father on more than one occasion. For years, until hard use had reduced it more to a collection threads that a serviceable garment, I wore a full-length cloak (for most of my twenties). To be sure, I got a fair few insults hurled at me, such as Batman, Superman, Frodo, Harry Potter. Of course, they failed to understand I was hardly going to be insulted by people telling me I was a hero or superhero 🙂 .

Likewise I remember getting into a very energetic discussion with my English Literature teacher when I was 17 about whether Tolkien should or should not be considered a great author. I wish I knew more now than I did then, because if I did I would have reminded him that Charles Dickens was nothing more than a writer of the most populist fiction of his day 🙂 I still maintain that Guy Gavriel Kay, Lois McMaster Bujold, C J Cherryh, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and Tolkien are all as good, if not better, than many modern authors who are awarded the “literary” fiction prizes – and I basically don’t care what others think about this view.

This stubbornness persists in me to this day, though I can mask it sometimes when necessary (sometimes I can’t however). In my casual dress I basically have no fashion sense. If my clothes do their job of keeping me comfortable and pleasing my aesthetic sense, I basically do not care if others disagree. If there is a pop tune I like, I am happy to admit it even if others cringe. When I was at uni I purposefully ensured a Britney Spears album was followed by a Metallica album. I am utterly unashamed to being enthralled by “Avatar”, regardless of the opprobrium placed upon it by those who disliked the plot or the setting or the eucatastrophic ending (I have been waiting so long to be able to use that word).

The same of course is true about gaming. The last time someone made a querying remark about “growing up” and it being time to stop playing computer games, I reminded them they had that lunch-hour spent a good twenty minutes talking about a soap opera. To be fair to that particular person, she acknowledged the point.

There is a downside to all of this, in that it is possible to get into quite meaningless arguments because I sometimes find it difficult just to walk away, and sometimes I make a point of advertising my differences from the common norm. However, on balance, I think this is one area where my Asperger’s is more of a blessing than a curse.

Whilst in hospital after the birth of Melian, I had a chance to read “The Man Who Knew Too Much” by G K Chesterton. Chesterton is another of those authors who I was embarrassed that I had never read, especially considering that he is the source of one of my favourite lines (The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried).

I acquired The Man Who Knew Too Much on my Kindle for the princely sum of nothing. I am very glad I did.

The structure of the book is a series of short stories, primarily about the eponymous Man Who Knew Too Much. Each story is essentially a whodunnit, about a death, and through each death we come to learn more about the sort of world our main protagonist inhabits. My own view is that, as the stories went by, that this world seems a curiously empty one – as if knowledge had drained life of its colour. Yet, by the end of it I also felt it was a series about redemption. There is also a theme through the stories of the developing friendship between our knowledgeable protagonist and an up and coming political journalist. Two individuals that on the face of it are opposites – not least because one “knows” and the journalist, in so many ways, is ignorance and innocent. By the end of it, the journalist is no longer as ignorant, and one thinks probably no longer innocent as well. I do not want to go into too much more detail however, so as not to spoil it in case by some amazing chance I inspire someone to pick it up.

The stories are beautifully written, with the loving care of a real wordsmith. Just for the language alone I can recommend them – and it is my understanding this is far from Chesterton’s most accomplished work.

I am most definitely going ot read more Chesterton – and indeed I have downloaded onto my Kindle the most wonderfully entitled “Napoleon of Notting Hill”.

For Christmas my wife gave me a Kindle. I took the opportunity to download onto various classics of literature that I have not read (my reading of the classics is actually shockingly poor). However, given the extra-ordinarily good price for many wonderful books (free, or very nearly so) I decided I really didn’t have an excuse not to indulge in these classics anymore.

Amongst my Kindle acquisitions were The Complete Works of Charles Dickens for, I think, the grand sum of £1.79. Given Charles Dickens was, shall we say, somewhat prolific I thought it was a rather good deal. Besides, this year is also the bicentenary of his birth, so it seemed right to read something of his. The only other Charles Dickens I have read is A Christmas Carol, which is one of my favourite stories. What to read though? Well, for me there was only one option: A Tale of Two Cities.

Few starts to a novel are as famous. Perhaps Tolkien’s “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” is a twentieth-century equal, but sadly I doubt it. I was nervous however, when first I approached that magnificent opening with just a little trepidation.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Today as I was finishing it, I was struck by the thought that this was actually, for Charles Dickens and those who read it, an historical novel. The first portion of the book takes place nearly thirty years before his own birth – and more than eighty years before he wrote it. No different, in fact, from us today reading (or watching) a story crafted today about the events of the 1930s. Think a moment, and the above paragraph can quite reasonably be applied to what W H Auden described as “the low dishonest decade“. I also think it can be applied to our own … and in this I think it shows one of the things that kept me reading … this is not just a story about the French Revolution: it is a story about humanity, about human crises, and it speaks to today just as it spoke to Dickens’ own time.

At first, however, I was not sure I was going to like it. I sometimes get that way, especially with older authors where it can sometimes take a little while to “tune in” to their style – particularly if one previously has no, or only limited exposure. However, after a very few chapters – which were not in of themselves taxing – I found this a very pleasurable read. To be sure, it is rather more verbose than novels of today generally are, but there is something wonderful in the way that Dickens builds some of his descriptions. His characters are also brilliantly realised and portrayed, and in the madness of Madame Defarge more than a little scary when one thinks just how accurately he conveys the madness of the mob or how inhuman hatred can make us – but also how high our common humanity can reach to when it is motivated by love.

In short – if one is not turned off by Dickens’ loquaciousness – I do very much recommend to anyone who wishes for a good read. Also for anyone interested in what someone in England in the mid-nineteenth century thought about the events of the late eighteenth (I know I find this interesting – I figure I can’t be the only one)!