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Shelf Care | Prose and Cons

By Alex Doyle

Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: Prose and Cons. Awhile back I was fortunate enough to go to this year’s WorldCon (a fact I might have mentioned here) and was able to meet some authors I’d been reading since I was a kid. So with that in mind, I’ve picked out some of my favorites from the pros at the con.

So if you like:

The straightforward writing style of Roger Zelazny or Glen Cook

Collapsing civilizations

Low-tech wizardry

You might like

The Magic Goes Away, from The Time of the Warlock, by Larry Niven

Overview

If mana, the fuel that powers magic, is a limited resource, what happens to the wizards when it starts to run out?

Sample passage

“I thought I’d killed you. You were two hundred years old when I canceled your longevity spells.”

“I was able to renew them. Partly. I give you a technical victory, Wavyhill. It was my ally who defeated you.”

“Technical victory!” There was hysteria in the skull’s falsetto laughter. “That werewolf rug merchant kept tearing and tearing at me! It went on forever and ever, and I couldn’t die! I couldn’t die!”

“It’s over.”

“I thought it wouldn’t ever be over. It went on and on, a piece of me gone every time he got close enough—”

The skull stopped, seemed to consider. Its expression was unreadable, of course. “I don’t hurt. In fact, I can’t feel much of anything. There was a long time when I couldn’t feel or see or hear or smell or…Did you say twenty years? Warlock, what do I look like?”

The Warlock detached a mirror from the wall, brought it and held it. Wavyhill’s skull studied itself for a time. It said, “You just had to do that, didn’t you?”

“I owed you one.”

Takeaway

While Niven is well known for his science fiction and Known Space stories, you may not be aware that he dabbled in fantasy as well. Here, the concept of everyone running out of magic hearkens back to the oil crisis of the 70s, when there was very much an awareness of how much society depended on this one thing and the realization that there were real consequences to it vanishing. The premise is handled well, with wizards who used to move mountains being forced to limp along, conserving their resources and hunting for spots where the mana hasn’t been depleted. The main character’s arc starts with a short story wherein a simple experiment proves to him that the world is going to be changing eventually, then follows him teaming up with other wizards, including one he killed awhile back, to execute an audacious plan to get the world more mana. The question of course, is will it work? (As an aside, the books seem to be out of print, but there should be plenty of used booksellers that have it. If you prefer to use an e-reader, you’re in luck, as the collection linked to above seems to be the only instance of all these stories.)

Or if you like:

Piers Anthony’s Xanth books

Short stories

Weird stuff showing up in bars

Terrible puns

You might like

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, by Spider Robinson

Overview

This short story collection revolves around Callahan’s Bar, where absolutely anything from anywhere, or anywhen may walk through that door…or just materialize inside. You never know.

Sample passage

Hold it!” Callahan bellowed, and the room froze. Fogerty turned slowly and stared at the big redheaded barkeep, an innocent look on his pudding face. Callahan glared at him, brows like thunderclouds.

“Whassamatter, chief?” Fogerty asked.

“Damned if I know,” Callahan rumbled, “but I’ve seen you take at least a dozen long swallows from that drink you got, and it’s still full.”

Every eye in the place Went to Fogerty’s glass, and sure enough. Not only was it full, all the glasses near it were emptier than their owners remembered leaving them, and an angry buzzing began.

“Wait a minute,” Fogerty protested. “My hands’ve been in plain sight every minute—all of you saw me. You can’t pin nothin’ on me.”

“I guess you didn’t use your hands, then,” Callahan said darkly, and a great light seemed to dawn on Doc Webster’s face.

“By God,” he roared, “a telekinetic! Why you low-down, no-good…”

Takeaway

The Callahan’s stories, and there are several books of them, are the sort of light, good natured fantasy stories that should appeal to fans of Terry Pratchett and Piers Anthony – especially if you’re a fan of terrible puns. Robinson uses the short story format to set up an idea and pay it off, and does this rather well. What I found particularly interesting during a re-read of the collection was that the story “The Time Traveler”, which was written in the mid-seventies, is just as relevant today as it was then. I’d say more, but, spoilers…

Or if you like:

Fantasy with a sci-fi twist

Juggling

Royal succession issues

Journeys where the world becomes part of the narrative

You might like

Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg

Overview

A man who cannot remember his past joins a troupe of wandering jugglers and slowly begins to learn that he has some unfinished business with the powers that be.

Sample passage

“I wonder if this is a sending,” said Valentine. “And from the King? What business would the King of Dreams have with a wanderer like me? I hardly think it possible. With twenty billion souls on Majipoor, how could the King find time to deal with any but the most important?”

“In Suvrael,” said Sleet, “at the palace of the King of Dreams, are great machines that scan this entire world, and send messages into the minds of millions of people every night. Who knows how those millions are chosen? One thing they tell us when we are children, and I know it has truth: at least once before we leave this world, we will feel the touch of the King of Dreams against our spirit, each and all of us. I know that I have.”

“You?”

“More than once.” Sleet touched his lank, coarse white hair. “Do you think I was born white-haired? One night I lay in a hammock in the jungles outside Narabal, no juggler then, and the King came to me as I slept and placed commands upon my soul, and when I awakened my hair was like this. I was twenty-three years old.”

“Commands?” Valentine blurted. “What commands?”

“Commands that turn a man’s hair from black to white between darkness and dawn,” Sleet said. Obviously, he wished to say no more.

Takeaway

Although there are a number of Majipoor books, this was the first one, and it exists as a self-contained story. Apart from Valentine’s realization as to where his destiny may lie, it serves as an introduction to the other leading character in this book, which is the world of Majipoor itself. As the characters travel across it, getting in to and out of one scrape after another, it’s shown to be a gigantic world populated by a number of different races, with a unique power structure and a fairly agrarian level of technology.

One of the neat things about Majipoor is that it’s a fantasy world with science fiction roots, and it’s interesting to see how Silverberg has had one become the other. Sure, this has been done other places, like McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern, and C.S.Frieman’s Coldfire trilogy, but there the technology is long since gone, and in Majipoor, it’s still under the surface of daily life. The pacing isn’t fast, but it is consistent, and the scenery is beautiful, so if you’re looking for a vacation on a budget, this is it.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be: Playing With A Full Deck.

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About Alex Doyle (27 Articles)
Alex Doyle is a father, programmer, smartass and a fan of anything that wastes no time to getting to the point. When he's not trying to be clever on the Internet, or irritating his kids with dad jokes, he can be found looking for the next great story that everyone has to read.

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