Category Archives: Alan Dean Foster

Sailing the Serpent Sea

The Serpent Sea
Martha Wells
Night Shade Books
Trade Paper, 342 p., $14.99

If you’ve read The Cloud Roads, or my review of it, or just looked at the cover of either it or The Serpent Sea, you can probably guess that I’m using the term “sailing” in the title of this review somewhat loosely.

I’ve been looking forward to this book since I read The Cloud Roads last year, and Night Shade Books was gracious enough to send me a review copy.  It should be hitting store shelves any day now, if it hasn’t already.  I’ve not seen a copy yet, but that doesn’t mean the book isn’t available.  You should pick up a copy (of both if you haven’t read the first one).  That way you can join me in one of my New Year activities, looking forward to the next book in the series.

The story picks up shortly after the close of The Cloud Roads, with the Indigo Cloud court returning to their ancestral home.  This happens to be a Mountain Tree, and the name means exactly what it says.  It’s a tree that’s purt  near the size of a mountain, as we would say where I hail from.  There are entire forests of these things, and they have branches wide enough for herds of herbivores to live on.  The sequences with the Mountain Tree, brief though they were, reminded me of Alan Dean Foster’s Midworld, one of my favorite creations.

Unfortunately, Moon, Stone, Jade, and some of the others don’t get to enjoy their new home for long.  The tree is dying.  Sometime within the last turn, the Three Worlds equivalent of a year, someone broke into the tree and took the seed containing the life essence of the tree, and as a result the tree is dying.  Fortunately, the thieves left enough of a trail for them to follow.

What they find is more than any of them expects, with wonders and surprises outside the predictable.  Part of the story involves tracking the thieves, but the bulk of it involves trying to retrieve the seed once they locate the parties responsible for taking it.  Along the way they encounter a number of races, most we’ve not seen before.

Whereas much of the excitement and suspense in The Cloud Roads came from the threat of the Fell and some intense aerial combat scenes, in The Serpent Sea the suspense comes from the group’s efforts, especially Moon and Stone’s, to locate the seed and retrieve it.  The book is no less suspenseful.  It’s every bit as good as the first without being repetitive. 

Nor is this just a suspenseful novel.  The characters continue to grow, as do their relationships, and Wells makes it all look easy.  Even some of the characters who only show up for one or two scenes come across as individuals.

Of course, since this book is told from Moon’s point of view, his character development is where the emphasis is.  Much of this revolves around Moon trying to make a place for himself in the court, something that becomes harder after the group visits a neighboring court.  Moon commits a faux paus that results in Jade having to engage another queen in combat.  By the time the book is over, Moon will experience a number of things and will grow into a true leader.

A few weeks ago, Martha Wells wrote in a post on The Night Bazaar, that after her last contract ended in 2007 and five novels “died on the vine”, she was on the verge of giving up writing for good when the book that became The Cloud Roads resurrected itself.  I’m glad it did, and I hope those other novels come back and are published, either by Night Shade, someone else, or Martha herself.  There was a time, more in science fiction than in fantasy, where authors created detailed worlds or universes, such as Known Space (and especially Ringworld), Dune, or more recently Karl Schroeder’s Virga, places unique and filled with that sense of wonder that seems to be missing from so much of contemporary fantastic literature. The Cloud Roads and The Serpent Sea are brim full of sense of wonder.  It would have been a shame if Martha had given up before these books got published.  Kudos to Night Shade for publishing her, and the other new writers they’ve brought into print.  It’s one of the reasons I listed Night Shade as a publisher to read in 2012.

As I mentioned, there are a number of races in the Three Worlds.  I hope when Martha is done telling the story of Moon, or if she just wants to take a break, she’ll introduce us to more of them.  The Three Worlds is a fascinating place, and I, for one, am eager to explore more of it.  With these books Wells is writing at the top of her game, and given their breath, originality, and complexity, this series is showing indications it could become one of the landmark series of the genre.

A Personal Appreciation of Darrell K. Sweet.

As most of you probably know, one of my all time favorite artists died Monday.  Darrell K. Sweet was the first artist I ever became aware of by name.  It was something of a circuitous process.

I grew up reading comics, but when Star Wars (the original film) came out, I got bitten by the science fiction bug hard and started reading that almost exclusively.  Commercial fantasy hadn’t quite experienced a boom, although there was some around.  Not too long after the movie, I noticed a novel (maybe in the library, maybe in the bookstore) that had Darth Vader on the cover.  The title was Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, and it was written by some guy named Alan Dean Foster.  Although I don’t remember actually doing so, I bought the book, read it, and enjoyed it.  (I still have that copy.)

I started looking for more of this Foster guy’s stuff.  This was in the late seventies, and Del Rey was publishing quite of bit of Foster’s Commonwealth novels, still one of my favorite universes.  I was transitioning from the children’s section of the library to the adult section (YA as we know it didn’t exist in those days) and that shift was mirrored in my buying habits.

I quickly became a fan of the Flinx and Pip novels, and since new ones were being published at this exact time, I bought and read them.

Being a voracious reader, I even read the copyright page, a vice I still practice, and learned the artist’s name was Darrell K. Sweet.  I loved the covers of the Flinx and Pip novels.  There was detail and color.  Action and adventure.  Sweet had a unique style.  He became the first cover artist I could recognize and identify on sight, although others would follow.

I noticed his work on the mass market paperback editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  He did the covers for The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.  Piers Anthony’s Xanth.  Some of the early Well of Souls novels by Jack Chalker.  L. E. Modesitt’s Recluse series.  Early novels by James P. Hogan, Robert Don Hughes, and Joel Rosenberg. 

He seemed to be everywhere.  One of my favorite covers was for Lawrence Watt-EvansThe Misenchanted Sword, the first in his Ethshar series.  The yellow and orange glow of the setting sun, contrasted by the blue glow of the sword and the greens in the clothing and vegetation.

Sweet would later become known for his work on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but I’ve never felt those were his best covers. 

I can’t say, even after thinking about it for the last two days, what it is about Darrell K. Sweet’s work that resonates so much with me.  Some of it is early imprinting for sure, but I still react the same way when I see a new piece by him (new to me at least).

Part of it is the detail.  Then there was the way the physical features, especially the facial features, made the people in the illustrations stand out from each other as unique individuals, as though Sweet had captured some essence of that character in his work.  His women were always gorgeous and alluring, yet somehow wholesome and pure. 

We met on three occasions.  One was Armadillocon 14 in 1992, which I think was my first Armadillocon.  The second was at Conestoga 8 in 2004.  The final time I met him, and the time I had the most interaction with him, was at Fencon III in 2006, when Sweet was the Artist Guest of Honor, Alan Dean Foster the Writer Guest of Honor, and Lawrence Watt-Evans was the Special Guest.  At the end of the convention, I told him that when I was a teenager, I didn’t read every book that had one of his covers, but I did pick up and seriously examine every book that did.  He seemed to really appreciate the compliment.

That wasn’t just flattery, either.  It was true.  In thinking back, as well as reflecting on what others have written, I think part of that was because the genre was different then.  Science fiction and fantasy were a lot more fun.  We weren’t inundated with hot female demon hunting private investigators who engaged in some sort of necrophilia with the dead, the undead, or the mostly dead.  Sweet’s art reflected this sense of adventure.  I’ve been thinking about how much the genre needs that.  Books then were shorter, less heavy in tone and content, and not as likely to try and raise my social consciousness. It was a heckuva lot more fun.

I’ll have some time to hit the second hand bookstores here in town over the next couple of days.  I’m going to see what old paperbacks with DKS covers that I haven’t read.  Final exams are starting, and I could use some fun.

Long Looks at Short Fiction: The Forest Boy by Martha Wells

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of the Long Looks at Short Fiction posts.  Far too long a while.  A few weeks ago I reviewed The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells and griped a little bit about having to wait on the order of a year before the sequel is published.I really enjoyed the world Wells created and have wanted to see more of it since before I finished the last page and closed the book.  Fortunately, I have.  On her webpage, Martha Wells has made available a selection of novel excepts and short stories.  You should really check some of them out.  One of them is entitled “The Forest Boy“, and it’s a prequel to The Cloud Roads.  In that book we learned that the protagonist, Moon, had been orphaned as a young boy.  Because of his ability to shape shift, he was never able to settle down and find a home, instead continually being forced to leave because of the fear his other form caused the people around him.

In “The Forest Boy” we get to see an episode from Moon’s early life, one of the attempts he made to find a home and acceptance, and how jealousy drove him from it.

Instead of making Moon the viewpoint character, Wells has chosen instead to tell the story from the point of view of Tren.  Tren is one of six foster children adopted by Kaleb and his wife Ari.  The settlement where they live is along a trading route called the Long Road, and the children are primarily those abandoned along the road.

Tren and his foster sister Lua are searching the settlement’s midden when they discover Moon caught in a trap.  They get Kaleb, who frees Moon, takes him home, and oversees his recovery.  Moon is accepted into the family without question.

During the course of his recovery, Moon and Lua become quite close.  Since Tren had assumed he and Lua would one day be married, Lua’s growing relationship with Moon naturally causes problems.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot.  The story is a character driven one, not an action tale, although there is one fight scene near the end that was well done.  The choice to use Tren rather than Moon as the viewpoint character was a wise one.  If the story had been told by Moon, it would have simply rehashed things told in The Cloud Roads.  Instead, by focusing on a character who isn’t seen in the novel, and probably won’t ever be again, Wells breaks new ground by giving us a detailed look at the impact Moon has on the lives of the people he encounters.

Adolescence can be a turbulent time in the life of a person, and Wells shows in a few thousand words just how difficult and unsettling such a time is.  Tren’s feelings are complex, and even as he knows many of his feelings are unfounded and irrational, that doesn’t stop him from having them.  Or of despising the jealousy he feels even as it grows.  The ultimate lesson Tren learns, that things aren’t always what they seem, and that the people we envy often envy us for the things in our lives we take for granted, is a bitter lesson.  It’s one of life’s most powerful lessons, though.

Not only is Tren a fully developed character, but so is Lua, even though her character is revealed indirectly, through her words and actions, and not her thoughts.  Kaleb and Ari are shown to be loving, caring parents, even though they don’t get much stage time.

Finally, I found the descriptions of the round-trees and the brief mentions of the forest fauna lent an air of exoticism to the story reminiscent of the best ecology building of James H. Schmitz or Alan Dean Foster.  With only a few lines, I was transported to another world, different yet at the same time familiar enough that I could relate to it.

I still haven’t figured out if this series is ultimately going to turn out to be fantasy or science fiction, and at this point, I really don’t care.  I see elements of both, but that could be my training as a scientist imposing an order that may not be there.  It’s a fascinating world no matter how the stories are classified.  I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.