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Book Review #10, by Eric Weeks

September 27, 1998
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"Psychoshop" by Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny, Vintage Books, 1998.

In 1998 we have a a brand new book by Alfred Bester, who died in 1987, and Roger Zelazny, who died in 1995. This makes sense, as the characters in the book do a lot of time traveling too. Bester started this novel, and Zelazny finished it after Bester's death.

Anone can buy anything in the "Psychoshop" -- love potions, personality improvements, anything. In particular, people come to swap aspects of themselves for improvements. Alf Noir is assigned by his late-20th century magazine to investigate this shop, and discovers its unusual nature. Alf's essentially a normal guy from our world. The first half of this book is light and frothy, rapidly examining various interesting people (such as Edgar Allen Poe) who come to the shop to trade for things they need. Somewhat to my surprise, the trades are all beneficial; this isn't a story about people who find that what they want isn't what they need, or about people who learn their lesson after it's too late. No, everybody goes away happy, and it's all fun and interesting.

In the second half of this book, we learn that there is reason to believe that Alf actually isn't a normal guy, that he is potentially in conflict with the shop's owner, Adam. The book is told from Alf's point of view, and in fact he learns these facts just as we do. The second half of the book is Alf's self-discovery and a showdown of sorts between Adam and Alf, and isn't as light hearted as the first half. The book also has a love interest, Glory, who is attracted to Alf but fiercely loyal to Adam, and this adds to the story.

I enjoyed this book alot, although it was almost disappointingly short. The action flows quickly from place to place; while much of the story occurs in the shop itself, Alf also travels through time to run some errands for Adam. It's a quick read. In some ways it's hard to get a sense of the characters, especially as Alf's character is changing somewhat throughout the book (and it's also hard to believe a character who has lived a normal life as a writer, who all of a sudden accepts these strange adventures and such). This book is a lot of fun (not funny, just fun) and is quite imaginative, and has a satisfying ending as well. I give it 3 stars. For those of you who might not know, Bester won the first ever Hugo award for best novel (The Demolished Man) and Zelazny has won a combined nine Hugo and Nebula awards; these are two really good authors and the result of this collaboration is well worth reading. However, it's certainly clear that the first half has Bester's style and the second darker half has Zelazny's style.

The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander: "The Book of 3," 1964; "The Black Cauldron," 1965; "The Castle of Llyr," 1966; "Taran Wanderer," 1967; "The High King," 1968; Guild America Books.

I first read this series when I was much younger. Two weeks ago I found all five of these books in a single volume, at a used bookstore. It's been a lot of fun rereading them. While this series is written for younger readers (perhaps around age 12 or so), I found them still very enjoyable. This series gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars as children's fantasy. If you're older, the rating should perhaps be dropped by a star, but as a 2 1/2 star series I still think you'd find it fun reading. The last book, The High King, won the Newberry Award for children's literature, and two of the other books were nominated for that award.

These are the adventures of Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, in the land of Prydain. Several key characters (but not Taran) are taken directly from Welsh mythology, although I don't know anything about Welsh mythology so I can't comment. Taran starts the series living on a farm, helping tend the magical pig Hen Wen. He wishes for adventure, which he gets plenty of, starting by about Chapter 2 of the first book. In these books, he travels all over Prydain, gaining several companions and meeting many interesting characters. By the end of the series, Taran has matured and realized that perhaps fighting in wars and adventuring isn't as much fun as he thought, but he is also rather successful at these things when needed.

I liked reading about Taran and seeing him mature, but he tends to talk in artificial sentences: "I would be twice a fool, and so should we all, to be goaded by an idle taunt." "We grieve for you, but we cannot tarry here." He has interesting companions, fortunately. Princess Eilonwy is scatterbrained, but handy with a sword, and even handier with similes: "It's like ants walking up and down your back." The things she says are a great respite from Taran's oh-so-serious speech patterns. Gurgi is a shaggy something-or-other who refers to himself in the third person, and who does extremely useful things now and then. Fflewddur Fflam is a bard who has a magical harp; its strings break whenever Fflewddur stretches the truth, which happens reasonably often. This foursome usually gets in situations where they must accomplish difficult tasks by themselves without aid from their more experienced, wiser companions.

In The Book of 3, Taran has a series of straightforward adventures which allow him to meet his three main friends. Princess Eilonwy's best quotes are in this book. The Black Cauldron is an evil magical device used by Arawn, the Lord of Death, to turn dead corpses into evil undead soldiers which cannot be killed. Taran and his friends attempt to steal the Cauldron from Arawn, and then destroy it. The third book, The Castle of Llyr, sees the return of an evil character from one of the earlier books. This book also has Taran confronting his romantic feelings towards Princess Eilonwy, as Taran must protect an inept prince who is Taran's chief rival for Eilonwy.

The fourth and fifth books show Taran becoming an adult. Taran Wanderer isn't as good as the others. In this book, Taran roams around trying to find out who his parents were, hoping that they were royalty so that he can impress Princess Eilonwy. Finally by the end of the book, he has realized that it's not important if he has royal blood. I wished he had realized this several books earlier; Taran's big character trait is obsessing about how he is a mere Assistant Pig-Keeper. Still, having the main character of a series constantly referred to as an Assistant Pig-Keeper is a definite part of the charm of these books. In The High King, we have the final showdown between the good guys of Prydain and Arawn. Much of the previous book has prepared Taran for this showdown, although we didn't know it at the time. The High King was my favorite book of the series when I was younger, and is still my favorite.

Many aspects make this series worth 3 1/2 stars. Evil characters don't always die at the end of a book, but occasionally come back to do more evil things. Thinking is often more important than strength. There is a good variety of evil enemies in the series: some, such as Arawn, are Pure Evil; others include outlaws, traitors, corrupt local barons, and an ineffective giant. All of the good characters have chances to do brave and noble deeds. Compared to the last series for younger people that I reviewed, the Lucky Starr series by Asimov, the characters here are better developed and show more change throughout the series. The main reason this series falls slightly short of 4 stars is that I kept finding Taran's earnest statements too artificial sounding. Also, as noted above, I found the fourth book weaker than the others in terms of plot. The bottom line: I am glad I found this book, it was fun to reread.

(I should also note that this particular edition had a collection of six short stories about Prydain, stories written in 1973 but which predate the series in chronology. These are a good addition to the book although they are each extremely short.)

"Paratime" and "Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen" by H. Beam Piper, Ace Science Fiction, 1981 and 1965.

These two books contain the "Paratime Police" stories of H. Beam Piper, written in the early 60's. Paratime contains five short stories (two of them actually rather long), and Lord Kalvan... has three short stories which have been smoothly combined into one novel. The premise is that there are 10 to the 100000th power coexisting "paratimes" and that it is possible to travel between them. These are alternate universes where history has taken various paths. The home base of the Paratime Police is rather futuristic, on the "first level" of development, while our current Earth is a mere "fourth level" in comparison. The bottom level, the fifth, is comprised of Earths where humans have died out completely, or where they are still killing each other with swords or rocks.

The home paratime has developed the technology to travel between these paratimes, and now depends economically on paratime travel. Of course, evil people exploit paratime travel and cause problems, and thus the necessity for the Paratime Police. Verkan Vall, second in command of the Paratime Police, gets handed the worst problems. In one story, he tracks down a large-scale slavery operation, where thousands of people are kidnaped from one paratime and sold as slaves on another. In the story "Last Enemy" he must rescue an ex-girlfriend who has accidentally stirred up a violent revolution in a paratime where duels and assassinations are legal. These stories are all quite intelligent; for example, the revolution caused in "Last Enemy" is a natural consequence of the society Piper has set up meeting head-on with the results of the heroine's scientific research.

In the second book, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, Verkan Vall is a less important character. Calvin Morrison is a police officer of our own world who is accidentally transported to a fifth level world. This paratime discovered gunpowder recently, but the gunpowder is controlled by a corrupt religious group which sells just enough gunpowder to keep the various local kings constantly at war with each other. Enter Calvin, who befriends the local king (and the king's beautiful daughter) and promptly teaches them how to make gunpowder. Calvin, now called Kalvan, knows much about the history of war, and his strategic skills allow the local king to defeat other armies against the odds. Kalvan then tries to overthrow the religious group which had previously controlled the gunpowder.

Piper has a distinctive style of writing, which can be seen in every book of his that I've read. The heroes are very methodical, taking all precautions necessary and proceeding to systematically accomplish whatever task is at hand. In some ways this cuts back on the enjoyment, as you have a sense that the desired outcome is always inevitable in light of the careful planning and high level of skill of the hero. Also, in these stories the main characters tend to be surrounded by other competent characters, with an occasional buffoon thrown in to be chastised. Another characteristic of Piper's stories is the presence of firearms; when a gun isn't available, the characters are all handy with knives or swords as needed. A lot of Piper's characters are rather bloodthirsty, in fact; at one point Verkan's boss tells him that he's sending Verkan because Verkan won't hesitate to shoot people.

One difficulty I have with Piper's writing is that there is usually a flood of characters, even in the short stories. Given that most of them are interchangeable competent people backing up the main character, having five or six guys around with random names sometimes gets to be confusing. In the Paratime stories this gets to be an even bigger problem, as Piper often feels compelled to tell us everybody's paratime alias as well as their real name, for the many characters who are undercover in another paratime. This confusion of names sometimes obscures the plot.

The most important characteristic of Piper's writing is his ability to tell entertaining stories. Last Enemy is a particularly strong story by any standards. Even in the stories where there is a sense that success is inevitable, it's entertaining to read exactly how it occurs. I give these two books 3 stars. It's somewhat hard to find Piper's books in used bookstores, so I'll point out that you should buy whichever ones you can find: they're all about at the 3 star level. As I noted above, his style is consistent throughout all of his books, so unless you're particularly looking for parallel worlds stories, you'll probably enjoy whichever Piper books you find. For these two particular books, the stories in Paratime come first in sequence, but they are quite independent books.