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While re-reading the Harry Potter series and watching the movies, I was struck by the ways in which J.K. Rowling's style resembles that of Agatha Christie. They share an intensely English, insular outlook - and rather a nationalistic, even racist one.

This is most evident in Rowling's portrayal of the two "visitor" schools in the Triwizard Tournament. Beauxbatons is a caricature of the French, at least as many older Britons perceive them: superficially attractive, concerned mainly about appearance (although to her credit Rowling did make an exception to that point later in the series, when Fleur surprises Mrs. Weasley by not breaking her engagement after Bill is badly scarred), and ultimately light-weights in every way (except, perhaps, in the field of romance). The movie accentuates this by representing the Beauxbatons student body as almost entirely female, and throws in a gratuitous mass-ass-wiggling scene which is simply ridiculous.

Likewise, Durmstrang is a heavy-handed parody of Russians and East Europeans in general. Virtually all male, sullen, buzz-cut, large, taciturn, and given to violence; the personification of the racist fantasies of some angry, graying old Briton, and an old-fashioned one at that. If they weren't school-age, I'd imagine Rowling would have made them drunks, too!

I almost wish that Rowling had included Americans in her books. Dame Agatha would doubtless once again have provided the template: quaint accents out of a 1930s western movie, combined with exaggerated New England ones from the 1890s. Ridiculous Biblical names like "Hiram", "Ezekiel", and "Jedediah". Poor taste in virtually everything. Far too much money than is good for them, and a propensity to throw that money around thoughtlessly. Ignorance combined with overweening arrogance. And I'd bet there'd be at least a touch of over-reliance on technology or its magical equivalent, as well - with a good solid comeuppance in the end, as our plucky British heroes prove that old-fashioned spunk and stick-to-it-iveness are the qualities that really matter when the chips are down.
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The Blood of a Dragon (Legends of Ethshar)The Blood of a Dragon by Lawrence Watt-Evans

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's late, so this will be relatively brief (for me, that is - which means it will probably be one of the longer reviews here on GoodReads).

Lawrence Watt-Evans' Ethshar books are the preeminent modern light fantasy series. They're eminently readable, and particularly enjoyable because most of them feature intelligent, reasonable, fundamentally decent protagonists who take sensible precautions, make intelligent choices, and cope with the unexpected logically - although not necessarily with superhuman perfection.

That's what makes the Ethshar books so refreshing: they're about people who are about as intelligent as most fantasy readers, I think. Or as intelligent as I am, anyway. :D

Whereas most modern genre fiction either features "heroes" who constantly miss the obvious in order to bloat the plot and page count to forest-killing proportions, or else have characters who are so annoyingly perfect and flawless that they have all the excitement of a particularly dull 1950s Superman comic.

It's nice to read books about people using their brains to deal with interesting problems that don't necessarily involve Saving the World. And it's a pleasure to read about people who make reasonable moral choices.

But the main protagonist in The Blood of a Dragon is something of an exception to that rule (as is Tabaea the Thief from The Spell of the Black Dagger). Dumery of Shiphaven is spoiled, paranoid, self-centered, doesn't think ahead, and repeatedly demonstrates both bad judgment and a surprisingly questionable morality. He only ends up succeeding because of pure luck (and, perhaps, stubbornness), and that's very unusual for an Ethshar protagonist.

To make up for that, we also have Teneria of Fishertown, a very sensible witch-apprentice. Her encounter with Adar the warlock is gripping, with fascinating implications for the world of Ethshar - implications which will, I suspect, be addressed in the forthcoming Ethshar novel The Unwelcome Warlock.

But Dumery? He's a jerk. Oh, there's a paragraph or two where he has a mild moral crisis over his behavior, and regrets his acts. But it felt to me as if Watt-Evans was almost forcing the character in that direction; it didn't ring quite true.

So although this is quite an enjoyable read, it's not the best of the Ethshar series - and it's definitely not a good introduction to Ethshar. I'd strongly suggest starting with The Misenchanted Sword and proceeding in order of publication, if you can.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: the book has a spriggan. It's one of the funnier spriggans, too - and they're all funny. I don't know what it is about spriggans, but they always make me laugh and tug my heartstrings!

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The Cyborg and the SorcerersThe Cyborg and the Sorcerers by Lawrence Watt-Evans

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Lawrence Watt-Evans is the best light fantasy writer of the past twenty years. He's put out some serious, massive fantasy tomes lately, too - as if P.G. Wodehouse were forced to write Wagnerian operas. Not that his serious stuff is bad, mind you! It's just not as good as his light fantasy.

But once in a while he steps out of the fantasy field altogether, and the results are usually impressive. The Cyborg and the Sorcerers is a relatively early science fiction novel from Watt-Evans; I think it might be his first, but it's not easy to find a straightforward bibliography of his novels.

TCatS is actually a mixed-genre novel; Slant, a STL-traveling interstellar elite military cyborg scout, finds a planet where the inhabitants have developed the ability to use magic. This is cursorily explained as the product of mutation, originally, although the ability can apparently be developed in any human being by a trained sorcerer.

One of the most refreshing things about Watt-Evans is that he almost never resorts to the "missing the obvious" plot coupon. His protagonists are generally sensible, reasonable people, and most of them are intelligent. Even better, they use that intelligence...intelligently. This is an astonishingly rare event in modern science fiction and fantasy fiction. One common shtick that often comes up in SF-meets-fantasy books is a refusal by SF characters to believe that magic could possibly be real. Slant accepts the "magic" he sees (albeit within the context of the mutation theory) after witnessing a reasonable amount of evidence.

It's the ship's computer, which is in many ways Slant's master, that has more difficulty accepting the idea of magic - although it nonetheless manages to come up with some intelligent ideas of its own.

The novel chronicles Slant's attempts to cope with the demands of the computer, and finally to escape its control altogether. It's well-told and entertaining. It does feel a little bit sketchy, though. I can't help but feel that another fifty pages or so would have helped the book; Slant could frankly use a bit more depth, and apart from the computer the other characters in the book feel a bit empty. There's an emotional potential in Slant's psyche that isn't sufficiently addressed, to my way of thinking. His past has been partly erased from his memory, and his world has been destroyed; slower-than-light travel has made him a chronological castaway, forever cut off from his birthplace and time. His struggle to recover an important memory is just slightly too easy.

There's one slight anachronism in the book, one hardly worth mentioning - but since I brought it up, I will. It's mentioned at least twice that Slant's skeleton has been reinforced with steel. That strikes an odd note. I'm surprised that Watt-Evans didn't make up some sort of space-age alloy, such as the adamantium that Marvel used long before for Wolverine.

I also recently came up with a solution for one of Slant's problems. But since it involves a spoiler, and I don't want to have to hide the whole review, I'm going to put it in a separate comment on the review itself - if GoodReads will allow it.

Oh, one more thing: although I usually like the cover art for the Ethshar books, and this one seems to be by the same artist who did several of the early Ethshar entries, I think it was an unfortunate choice to make all the characters on the cover look like Biblical patriarchs. It probably hurt sales.

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My spoiler-comment is behind this cut:
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The Sword and the EyeThe Sword and the Eye by Justin Leiber

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I wavered between giving this three and four stars. Once again, GoodReads' five-star system proves much too limiting. In a fractional scale, this would be a 3.5 at least.

It's really quite a likable book, in no small part because it takes some of the standard tropes of fantasy and fiction in general - going all the way back to The Count of Monte Cristo and, of course, Shakespeare - yet managed to surprise and move me at some points. I value that; when you've read as many books as I have, genuine surprises are rare, and to be cherished.

The language is a bit archaic and Vancian (i.e. reminiscent of Jack Vance, which is to say rather formal and old-fashioned). There are moments when the humor reminds me of Vance too - but nowhere near as chaotic and confusing as Vance can sometimes be.

It's an old story; the hero, cast down from his noble station, finds himself fated to set things right. The characters are the usual fantasy types, albeit with more depth than is usual. In fact, that's where Leiber surprised me; I was more than half-expecting the usual "this ends here" final encounter between the hero and villain, and instead was surprised by...well, I won't spoil it for you.

I'll note that Justin Leiber is the son of the famous Golden Age science fiction writer Fritz Leiber. He's a rare example of literary talent running true in a family (unlike the supremely untalented Brian Herbert, who, I must note, should have had his hands chopped off before he was ever allowed near a keyboard). Leiber (fils has also demonstrated an impressive range of ability, having also written some very good science fiction in a very different "voice". The Sword and the Eye is the next-to-last fiction book he published (so far); there's apparently a sequel (the cover calls it "Book One of the Saga of Eigin"), but that sequel was published in 1986, and there's been nothing more from Leiber since. That's a pity, because writers of his caliber are far too rare in the science fiction and fantasy genres these days!


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Astro City Vol. 1: Life in the Big CityAstro City Vol. 1: Life in the Big City by Kurt Busiek

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A nice change from the usual ponderous crap that's so often issued by the Big Two. Of course, this isn't from the Big Two, which is probably why it's not crap.

There are a number of thinly-disguised re-takes on classic superhero characters; this has practically become a genre in itself. I almost wonder if DC and Marvel might eventually start publishing their own thinly-disguised re-takes of their big properties, just to get in on the action!*

Anyway, the book consists of a series of mostly-unrelated superhero stories, offering a different and more "realistic" take on the genre. It reminds me very strongly indeed of Common Grounds, but to tell you the truth, I think Common Grounds did it better. In fairness I should note that Common Grounds also came out years after Astro City.

The stories are thought-provoking, but some of them fall a little flat. There's a slight feeling of...I'm not quite sure how to put this. The stories are good, but they're just not as masterfully written as the works of...well, I hate to always be bringing him up, but Alan Moore. They just feel as if they're aimed slightly lower, somehow; they don't dazzle through sheer virtuosity.

But they're fun, and thought-provoking, and the art is good. In a fractional system I'd give Astro City a solid 3.49, and I'm definitely going to look up other books in the series. If I was still subscribing to comic books, I'd doubtless subscribe.

I wish GoodReads would change over to a ten-star or fractional system! Five stars is MUCH too restrictive.

-----------------

* - They probably have - and if they have, I'm sure Steve will tell me.


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bobquasit: (Zelda)
I've decided to write reviews for every book in my GoodReads "My Books" listing - there are currently 215, and many of them don't have a review!

The Goblin ReservationThe Goblin Reservation by Clifford D. Simak

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


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Hidden Empire Hidden Empire by Orson Scott Card


My rating: 1 of 5 stars
The label on the spine says "SCIENCE FICTION", but "FANTASY" would have been more accurate. "RIGHT-WING FANTASY" would have been the most accurate of all.

Global warming is a lie, and even liberals know it in their heart of hearts. Guantanamo is relatively "nice". Progressives conspired against America, and were roundly defeated by patriotic red-state forces. Fox News is the only channel that even occasionally tells the truth. A Rush Limbaugh analog is a brave, noble, and lovable hero.

Three thoughts went through my head as I read this:

First, that George W. Bush could have written the whole thing. I knew that Card had been getting more and more right-wing over the years, but this surprised even me.

Second, that with each page I found myself disliking Card more and more. Your mileage may differ, but I found his opinions really offensive. He really seems quite proud of his bigoted opinions; that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has read any of his homophobic and religiously-biased articles.

Third, whatever storytelling talent Card had has long since been replaced with a dumbed-down writing style and an urge to grab the microphone and preach the True Faith. He's really gotten himself into a rut; he seems utterly dependent on overly-precious banter between precocious kids and their parent(s), alternating with warmed-over right-wing political philosophy and rather limp and confused action scenes.

There's a worldwide epidemic and African warfare thread which is slightly less tedious than the rest of the book, but it certainly doesn't make up for the rest of it. The whole thing rather reminded me of the Left Behind series, and that's a memory I would rather not have dredged up.

It's funny; he was able to write well, once upon a time. It's hard to believe that this book is by the same guy who wrote Songmaster.

Avoid!

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bobquasit: (Sebastian Riding)
We made these videos a few weeks ago, before he caught pneumonia. On the plus side, the antibiotic IV he got in the hospital cleared up that lip infection, too.

It's probably obvious that these were totally unscripted?







We're coming along nicely on The Return of the King, now. Merry is about to meet Dernhelm soon. Just for the record, he hasn't seen the movies at all - thank goodness!
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There's been a conversation going on over on a GoodReads discussion group about The Lord of the Rings:

For the record, I loathe the movies. That was the whole point of post #3. It's my hope and belief that the LOTR books will still be read and loved long after those idiotic movies are forgotten. The movies stood many of Tolkien's themes on their heads, and replaced some of his most memorable and beautiful dialog with ersatz idiocy. They represent a profound disrespect of Tolkien, although I believe that Peter Jackson was too self-important (and possibly too stupid) to realize that he was crapping all over a work that he wasn't qualified to read, much less film.

The Eagle was Gwaihir the Windlord. He was sent to Orthanc by Radagast the Brown, one of the Five Wizards and a particular friend of animals, at Gandalf's request - to bring news. Radagast had been misled by Saruman, but was not a traitor. Gandalf had certainly had dealings with the Eagles before, most notably in The Hobbit. Gandalf did not control Gwaihir, ever - the eagle helped him out of friendship. As far as I know, the only living things that Gandalf ever controlled were Grima Wormtongue and Saruman - and in both cases, only for a few moments at most.
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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz, Book 1) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's odd that this is the first time I've read an Oz book. I think I started one or two, long ago, and never finished them. But many people rave about Oz, and I love old books from that era (especially children's books), so recently I picked it up and read it through.

It didn't take long. In fact, I was quite surprised at how quickly I got through it. It's quite a short book. It's also very simply written. I don't think most young American children (say, ages 7 and up) would have any difficulty reading it at all. The grammar is slightly more formal than modern American English, but the vocabulary is startlingly ordinary; far less challenging than I'd expected.

Perhaps that's because most of the books I've read from that general era (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900) are English, and use a considerably deeper vocabulary. The majority of Americans would struggle with an unabridged Peter Pan or Winnie-the-Pooh, and be utterly defeated by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

That said, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a nice, light, and very quick read with some pleasantly funny moments. I'd heard that it was an extended political parable - the scarecrow representing Midwestern farmers, the Tin Woodsman representing the factory workers of the new Industrial Revolution, and the Lion representing...actually, I don't remember - but if that's the case (and it may well be) the result certainly doesn't seem to very complex. I probably won't read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for myself again very soon, but I'll probably soon read it to my son - or see if he's interested in reading it for himself.

I can't help but wonder if I'd have loved the book if I had first read it when I was seven. But I just don't know.

Oh, I almost forgot: Of course I've seen the movie many times, and am quite fond of it. I expected the book to be very different from the movie, and it was - but it turned out that the movie was more faithful to the text than I'd realized. That said, I have to say that the movie actually seemed to make a strong theme (there's no place like home, of course) which the book lacked. But then, Dorothy seemed much younger in the book.

It was also interesting that in the book, the voyage to Oz was clearly NOT a dream (Uncle Henry had had to build a new house to replace the one that had been taken away by the tornado), whereas the movie made it fairly clear that Oz HAD all been Dorothy's fever-dream (since, among other things, the house was unchanged and still there).

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The Silver Chair (Chronicles of Narnia, #6) The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once again C.S. Lewis went beyond the borders of Narnia for another "Narnian" book - and once again, he came up with a new character with enormous humor and appeal for children.

In this case, the character is Puddleglum the Marsh-Wiggle. He guides Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb as they "follow the signs" on a quest given them by Aslan. They must rescue the lost Prince Rilian, son of Prince Caspian.

There are several points at which characters are irritatingly oblivious to the obvious, throughout the book. I'll give no spoilers, but they're rather obvious. And Aslan comes off as something of a nagging wanker; what's with the mysterious "signs"? Jerking people around with hints and confusing portents may represent some sort of divine test of their moral fiber, but in my book it's just irritating. As Lewis himself seems to realize, since Aslan says at the end "I shall not always be scolding."
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I might also mention the BBC television adaptation of this book. It featured Tom Baker (best known as Doctor Who) in the role of Puddleglum, and he did his usual outstanding job. But some of his best lines were cut, which surprised me - particularly since my rendition of them while reading to my son earned me some very enthusiastic laughs.

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Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 03: 1941 Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 03: 1941 by Isaac Asimov


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A cynic once said something like "The Golden Age of science fiction is about sixteen."

But they're wrong. 1941 was the heart of the Golden Age of science fiction. And this book is the proof.

If you've read a fair selection of classic SF, some of these stories will doubtless be familiar to you. Others probably won't be. In any case, these are some of the all-time classics of the genre.

Each story is introduced by Isaac Asimov, and he provides some interesting (and tantalizing) commentary. I can't help but wonder, for example, why he included Fredric Brown (one of my favorite writers) as an author whose personality was different from his stories (as opposed to authors who resembled their stories, some of whom he also lists). I was surprised and pleased to see that Asimov was, like me, a fan of Robert Arthur as well - although I have to admit that Arthur's story may be the weakest one in the book (though still worth reading!).

There are no stories by Robert Heinlein in this collection, apparently because he (or his wife) wouldn't allow it. Since this book was published in 1980 and Heinlein lived until 1988, Heinlein must have been aware of this. Nonetheless Asimov listed the titles of the Heinlein stories that he would have included in the book, and commented on them. I've often wondered about the relationship between Asimov and Heinlein, and this book only adds to the mystery.

There's a tendency to think of old science fiction as being corny and simplistic. In fact, the best authors of the Golden Age had a sophistication and brilliance which is rarely seen in modern genre authors. If you're not familiar with Golden Age SF, I recommend The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume I, which is the definitive collection. But if you get a chance to buy any of The Great SF Stories, grab them! I know I will.

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The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Chronicles of Narnia, #5) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We enjoyed this one very much. Sebastian (my 7-year-old son) became an instant fan of Reepicheep the talking mouse, even though I never quite managed to develop a distinctive voice for him.

Placing the story primarily outside of Narnia was a good idea; the result is a considerably more imaginative book than the previous one (Prince Caspian).

As always, I must note that the numbering placed on modern editions of the books by the publisher is wrong. The books should be read in the order in which they were written; reading them in the "modern" order actually ruins many of the surprises.

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We finished reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader last week. Sebastian enjoyed it very much. So we started right in on The Silver Chair. That has been going very well, too.

The library has a DVD of the British TV series of The Chronicles of Narnia, or at least the first three discs (which cover Lion, Caspian, Voyage, and Chair). We watched the first disc, and well...it was pretty silly. The special effects were awfully cheesy, but that was pretty much to be expected. The pacing was much slower than the movie, of course, and Teri was bored out of her mind; but that was to be expected too (Sebastian wasn't bored at all).

But what got to me was the terrible British overacting. When a British actor is good they're outstanding, but when they're bad they're terrible. And there were a lot of actors in The Lion who were just painfully bad. "Bellowing scene-chewers" seems the best way to describe them. The Witch, in particular, was like a black hole of bad acting. She kept trying to shout her lines louder and louder, and it was simply awful.

When I was in [livejournal.com profile] stairflight's production of Romeo and Juliet, some of the other actors urged me to shout more to show that I was angry. I refused. I knew damned well that you can often convey far more anger in a softer voice, and that constantly screaming your lines can be surprisingly ineffective.

Eventually the bad acting got to me. I cracked and started MSTing (that is, commenting on the action MST3K-style). When the Witch's face was on the scream, I dubbed for her "I need some more TOILET PAPER!!!" with the requisite hamminess and eye-rolling. Sebastian completely cracked up, and made me say it again and again for the next two days.

Aslan was quite amusing too. For one thing, he was obviously stuffed. His mouth movements weren't synchronized with his words. So when he was on his way to the Stone Table to be sacrificed by the Witch, and Lucy asked him what was going to happen, I emoted "She's going to cut out my STUFFING!!!". More wild laughter from Sebastian. Ah, the fun. :D

The show of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is far less silly. The sea-serpent actually scared Sebastian a little (lots of spiky teeth). The effects were better, as was the acting. In The Lion talking animals were played (painfully) by people wearing costumes, and other creatures were portrayed with quite amateurish cartoon effects; in Voyage there was only one talking animal, Reepicheep, and although he was played by a (little person? Is that the correct term?), he was relatively well-played and not too irritating.
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The Cat Who Walks Through Walls The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of Heinlein's last books, and not one of his best. It represents yet another installment in the "World As Myth" theme that he used so often later in life, and therefore includes many characters from his older, better works - including, inevitably, Lazarus Long, who continues his long (pun intended) degeneration from the original interesting protagonist of "Methuselah's Children" into an annoying incest-freak, Heinlein surrogate, self-parody (I suspect), and all-around jerk-who-must-be-worshiped-due-to-his-natural-moral-superiority.
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Heinlein only wrote one more book after this; I've read it, but don't remember much of it (which is not very high praise, I must say). Unfortunately, that means that I don't remember if there was any mention of the outcome in that book. I suppose I'll have to re-read it to find out.

If it weren't for Heinlein's great skill as a storyteller, I'd have given this two stars at best. It's certainly among his weakest novels.

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Day of the Giants Day of the Giants by Lester Del Rey



My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a mere 128 pages, Lester Del Rey tells a better story than most modern writers can in 500. Day of the Giants feels astonishingly slim next to the mammoth tomes which are de rigueur these days, but that slimness just points up the fact that most of those gargantuan books are simply padded.

The book is very strongly reminiscent of the Compleat Enchanter series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. Both feature modern twentieth-century men who are unexpectedly faced with the world of Norse mythology. But while the situation was expertly played for laughs by de Camp and Pratt (the Compleat Enchanter series is rightfully considered a classic of the genre), in Day of the Giants del Rey plays it straight. Fimbulwinter has descended on the Earth, Ragnarok approaches, and two twin brothers - one a war hero, the other a farmer - have been taken up to Asgard by Loki and Thor to play a role in the final battle.

The interaction of modern science with magic and mythology is always interesting. I consider one of the failures of the Harry Potter series to be J.K. Rowling's relative neglect of that topic. For example, didn't witches care about the threat of nuclear war, or or ecological collapse? Surely witches who grew up as Muggles, as Harry did, must have been aware of those dangers - so why weren't they addressed? The idea of two societies existing side by side, with one unknown to the other, has all sorts of interesting possibilities...none of which were addressed by Rowling.

It's true that the issue of science vs. magic has become a cliche in modern genre fiction. But it certainly wasn't a cliche in 1959, when DotG was published.

In Day of the Giants, the interaction of science and mythology is handled in a much more satisfying way (I am tempted to compare the relative page counts of DotG with the Harry Potter series, just for laughs). del Rey's handling of the characters is never awkward or clumsy. By the end of the book, I found myself more satisfied than I've been at the end of many a weightier tome.

I suppose that there's no way that a 128-page novel is ever going to be reissued by a modern publisher, so Day of the Giants will remain a curiosity, only to be found in libraries and used book stores. That's a pity, because it deserves a wider readership. It's not a classic that will last for the ages, but it's a very well-written, entertaining book that many modern genre writers would do well to emulate.

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