25 August 2012

Population explosions at series' ends

Fantasy | Jim Butcher | Changes

I've only dipped into the Dresden Files series. I've read the first one, then Summer Knight, and now Changes.

Edit: Mike Martinez says that I should put in major spoiler alerts. I didn't think I'd put in any spoilers, but just in case. Be warned. Some things below may be spoilers, probably the partial list of characters, or the duel which Dresden won in a previous book (oh, come on, he has to win them all; he's the hero).

So, to start with, 10 bonus points for the fact that I don't feel like I've lost my way somewhere in between and need to trudge through all the intervening books in sequence. You have to admire a writer who can avoid prior plot summaries along the way, have loyal readers instantly identify characters from before, yet not turn off new readers who plop in for a look-see in mid-stream.

Changes is the latest in the series on wizard Harry Dresden, who solves supernatural mysteries for the local police force. Oh, wait, not any more. Now he solves supernatural mysteries for supernatural types.

His erstwhile flame, Susan, is back on page one, telling him the Red Court of horrible vampires (implying there are less horrible ones, and we meet at least two in this book) has kidnapped their daughter. The one she hadn't bothered to tell him about these past 8 years and counting. Curses!

Susan and her companion Martin (both half-turned vampires) are part of an underground fighting the Red Court in South America. (Apparently all the woes of the continent are due to these bloodsuckers. Gosh. That makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Doesn't it? OK, I wasn't impressed either; it only made me chuckle once out of half my mouth). And the Red Court has sent the evil villain, Duchess Arianna Ortega, the widow of the ex-villain (dead now) Duke Ortega, killed by Dresden in a previous book, and kid-napper of the girl, as the ambassador to the White Council of Wizards. Who do not take kindly to Dresden's attempt to challenge her to a duel. And he can't tell them why, as then anyone can use the kid against him.

Dresden then rounds up support in other places, and realises that his best bet is to take in all his friends, but then since all of them will likely die, that means he's killing all his friends. Fortunately, there is more than one way out of this dilemma. He takes one of them, and his friends the other (smack him upside his head and say we're coming along, like it or not, stupid!).

Of course there is a happy ending of sorts, or Jim Butcher would not be releasing another book this coming October.

What does one like about this book and the series in general? Snappy dialogue, check. Dresden forgetting basic precautions in the heat of the moment, check. He's certainly not one of those all-powerful all-clever wizards. He goofs. Spectacularly at times. But he muddles through. OK, enough nattering. Sample time:

"You aren't the boss of me." [That's Dresden's apprentice].
I could all but taste the pride she felt at making her talents useful to my cause. "The hell I'm not," I told her. "Do it or I dock you a year's pay."
"You know you don't pay me anything, right?"
"Curses," I said. "Foiled again."
You also get exotic locations. Chichen Itza. Edinburgh. What? Edinburgh is exotic to me. Chicago. Ok, stop giggling.

What causes facepalm? Long series tend to accumulate characters, particularly ones the author doesn't feel like killing off from time to time. Harry Potter had so many characters by the last book that you needed some 30 extra pages just to fit their names in. The Dresden series is going that way, too. See which ones you recognise: Dresden, Susan Rodriguez, Martin, Molly, Margaret Angelica (aka Mom), Duke Ortega, Duchess Ortega, White Council, Red Court, Grey Council, Black Council, Karrin Murphy, Wizard MacFee, Wizard Cristos, Carlos Ramirez, Anastasia Luccio, Arthur Langtry, Wizard McCoy, Bob the Skull, the doggy Mouse, Rudolph the IA cop, and le chat. And that's only from the first 10 chapters. There's a bro, a Knight of the Cross, tiny faeries, major bad faeries including Mab, and Dresden's faerie godmother, who is promoted in this book by Molly: "Spooky death Sidhe lady," Molly said. "Now upgraded to spooky, crazy death Sidhe lady." "Bless you, child. You have such potential. We should talk when this is over."

Dresden gets at least two upgrades himself in this book. One by deducing something and asking for it, the other by a Deal with [spoiler deleted].

Plenty of sorcery, good guys vs. monsters, and other assorted wizardly complications that the Dresden Files reader knows and expects.

Jim Butcher maintains his standards in this one.

But he needs to do something about the population explosion. You already need a fisheye lens for the cast photo at the end of the book. One sad bullet at the last page doesn't begin to make a dent.

[Sorry about the flash reflection on the cover picture. I'm just too lazy to shoot it again. And I thought I only had one more book to tell you about to polish my conscience and make it nice and shiny, but turns out I hid the other one in my desk to avoid writing about it. Naughty! Bad reviewer! And then, I found an unread book lying around, even if it is a Michael Crichton. So, if I don't write faster, I will have three to do again. Curses. Fuego.]

24 August 2012

A rich vein of tropes

Science fiction | Greig Beck | Beneath the Dark Ice

I knew when I picked it up that it would probably be lightweight SF. You've seen this trope many times before. If you've seen Aliens vs. Predator, a terrible movie, you've seen the 'hideous creatures under the ice' trope. And perhaps this suffers from comparison with the last book I read with the trope, Gridlinked (see earlier posts), which, too, had a hideous murderous thing under the ice. But it's not steampunk, alien-punk or far future folderol. This is near future stuff.

But this book has another trope, too, and I wanted to see how the two meshed. The hero, Capt Alex Hunter, has become a superman. Nope, no radioactive spiders, just a bullet into a part of the brain which gets superactivated in his case. He can run faster, see further, in the dark, hear better, be stronger, cleverer, you name it. Err, you saw this in the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. Except that Hunter is not immune to pain.

There is also Dr Aimee Weir, a petrobiologist, who spends the first few chapters slowly falling in love and sharing gazes across the room. For some reason, she can also do instant dissections and tell you all about the Creature under the scalpel.

There is the creepy Dr Silex of the lax ethical codes and roving hands.

Assorted hardcore military types.

And the monster under the ice. OK, I'm not giving away any spoilers about how this monster, a prototype kraken, differs from other trope-y monsters. It's different. Trust me. Whatever is not a trope will not suffer spoilers. OK, hint, Arthur C Clarke did something similar, but not similar enough to make it a trope.

Of course, there are ancient pre-Mayan Altanteans, nonono, they are Aztlans, using granite from Aswan to build a huge city in the Antarctic (facepalm). Except that they built it about 10000 years ago when Antarctica was warm and green. Let me put in the comma: 10,000 years ago. And then it sank under the ice.

Anyhow, with the help of the hotshot climber Monica Jennings and the smitten-by-Monica Dr Matt Kerns, the archaeologist, the whole lot goes down into the ominous cave, in the wake of the previous expedition, of which they have a few bits and pieces left, which in turn was off to rescue a billionaire's planeload of hangers-on, of which pieces, ditto.

And presently they are attacked both by Russians and the creature.

The Russians have been sent by their Energy Minister, who is terrified of the ex-KGB President, and sends in their elite killer unit just in case the liquid under the cave is petroleum, which mother Russian will naturally keep to herself, but the gracious Americans by contrast will either keep safe for the future or share generously. Right. This minister later on turns out to like teen prostitutes and gets assassinated. What's with this penchant of Americans to demonise Russian villains, anyway? I asked this before, and I ask it again. Russia is a democracy and has checks and balances. OK, OK, I'm grateful the Americans don't demonise Indian villains. I'd stop reading their fiction, most likely.

The underground thingy turns out to be a lake with beaches populated by enough new forms of vicious life to give Pellucidar a hat-tip.

As with any Creature movie, the cast gets killed off one by one, leaving very few to be rescued at the end, and as a going-away prize, knocks off a few of the rescuers as well. I'll leave you to guess who gets killed. Is Greig Beck the new George RR Martin (everyone dies!) or more in the Hollywood tradition?

This book will come to you as a Hollywood movie, I predict to you, all dialogue retained intact. [Nooooo, I did not mean to give you a hint.]

Read it on a tired Sunday when you really have no energy for more than some light, fluffy entertainment, and the TV or DVD player are on the blink. It will not make you strain your brain, hough you will learn how blue ice differs from other ice, and what a halocline is. It's what we in India call 'a time-pass'.

But I picked it over serious literature. Therefore you safely conclude my last Sunday was not particularly energetic.

Old SF in new bottles

Science Fiction | Isaac Asimov, Ross Rocklynne, AE Van Vogt, Lester Del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon | The Big and the Little (anthology)

This is a neat little anthology comprising "short stories from the Golden Age of Science Fiction" by Jaico Publishing House, and cost a mere Rs 225 in 2004. It has five stories, and I'll take them up one by one.

The Big and the Little by I Asimov is part of the Foundation series, and was originally published, like the rest of the stories collected in novel-sized volumes, as a separate novelette in the series. This story brings to you Hober Mallow, a trader, and the next Seldon crisis facing the Foundation. Having used religion and magic tricks to awe the remnants of the galactic empire nearest their own base, the Foundation has atrophied into a dogmatic insistence that only trade strongly linked to missionary activity (in which the non-Foundation people are kept as ignorant as possible) is the key to their safety and stability. What happens when this collides head-on with a trader's natural instinct? What if the minor princelings around actually have atomic energy? (When this story was written, atomic technology was the be-end and all-end of scientific endeavour, and the computers are quaint at best). But it's human nature which brings forth the solution. This particular story has relatively fewer anachronisms, and is a fun read (if you ignore the 'princess', a caricatured character if there ever was one). However, you do need to know what the Foundation is, and what a Seldon crisis is. You won't get that here.

Time Wants a Skeleton by R Rocklynne has a different set of anachronisms. Since this is a less well-known story compared to the others, here's a summary. Lt Tony Crow fails to dodge asteroid 1007 and crashes on it. (It's all the fatigue from the desperate need for dodging close-spaced hurtling asteroids that gets everyone dead, you know). Fortunately for him, the villains  are also right there, and he decides to arrest them as well as get a ride home from this bit of space rock where no human had ever come. Except that there is a skeleton lying in a cave, and Crow knows it predates humanity as well as being a human skeleton. It wears a distinctive ring. Anyway, during the ensuing shoot-up, they all manage to destroy the villains' spacecraft. Except that a scientific expedition promptly lands (the coincidence is exclaimed upon), and rescues the lot. So they fire up the H-H drive that runs on gravitons, of which there are "1846 in a proton and 1 in an electron", which explains weight, forget those H bosons we are nattering on about. "A Wittenberg disrupter tears atoms apart. The free electrons are shunted off into accumulators... The protons go into the proton analyzer where the gravitons are ripped out of them and stored in a special type of spherical field. When we want to move the ship, the gravitons are released... The natural place for a graviton is in a proton. They rush for the protons -- which are already saturated... Gravitons are unable to remain free in three-dimensional space. They escape along the timeline, into the past. The reaction contracts the atoms in the ship... and shoves it forward along the opposite time line-- into the future and forward in space. In the apparent space of a second, therefore, the ship can travel thousands of miles, with no acceleration effects." Of course, the gravitons cannot travel to the future, totally laughable, but in the story, they do, hurling the whole lot into the past onto the planet that broke up to form the asteroids. Just before it's going to be smashed. Ok, and the ring belongs to one of the outlaws. But he doesn't want to be the skeleton of the future. Neither does anyone else. And now it's clear that someone has to be the skeleton, left in the cave when the planet blows up. This leads to a murderous round of passing-the-parcel while everyone tries to fix the ship before the planet blows up. There is, naturally, air, water, streams, plants, and stuff. Anyhow, no spoilers. As you expect, they return to the present. The hero and the heroine (the professor has a beautiful daughter) ought to be safe, eh? After all, it's Christmas. Despite a few really dated scenes, it's a fresh little piece after all.

What can I say about The Weapons Shop? It's a classic which everyone has probably read. A loyal subject of the Empress is horrified to find the evil Weapons Shop people have set up in his village and he will have none of it. Except the Weapons Shop ("The right to bear weapons is the right to be free") has the bestest technology, and can not only read minds but right all wrongs. And our man is much wronged till he realises that the WS guys are the good guys and the Empress is the real evil. He ends up buying his weapon and holding his head high, admired by all and sundry (they are all secret admirers of the WS after all). I imagine this story exemplifies much of the American approach to gun control, and has probably directly influenced millions of young minds over the years. About the quality of writing: it's actually quite appalling the amount of mind-control AE V Vogt has over us mere-mortal readers!

Nerves has thoroughly dated in its technology. Atomics again! This time artificial elements that are produced in reactors. Not the mingy power generators that the real future of the story fiddles around with, oh no, these produce transuranics and other wonderful isotopes. One of them takes an unexpected reaction path and decays into Isotope R, which is bound to decay in an unknown time into Mahler's Isotope, with complete breakdown in a billionth of a second, and goodbye continental USA, or at the least 50 miles of city. Dr Ferrell, the famous peerless surgeon is now a company doctor with National Atomics Products Co., Inc. He is training new doctor Jenkins. Together they face the sudden parade of injured and dead people resulting from the catastrophe. Bring in Dr Brown, Dr Jenkin's wife, a 'nursing doctor', Palmer the factory manager (in those days, it was acceptable for a factory manager to be a kind of hero), Hokusai and Jorgensen, the scientist with untimely appendicitis, and the technologist who alone can suggest what is to be done. Except that Jorgensen is one of those rescued, and near death. All now depends on Jenkins, who turns out to be the atomics-trained stepson of Kahler, the long-dead wizard of all things atomic. And Jenkins fears he is going to crack, with half the continent at stake. This story still has power due to the human angle. And given the recent scares in Fukushima, perhaps not so dated after all, in another way.

Last but not the least, the classic Killdozer! by Theodore Sturgeon. An ancient race wiped out all life using, among others, malevolent negatively charged gaseous entities inimical to all life (phew!). One of the more primitive of these was caught and stored in a neutronium box (warning: dated! Neutronium is too dense to do anything but sink to the centre of the Earth in this timeframe) and tossed around on magma until it finally ended up on an island where a team is sent to build an airfield. The high-tech bulldozer catches an edge of the grey stone in an ancient temple (ha!) and tears it open, releasing the entity--into the bulldozer. Which then proceeds to try and kill everyone on the island (warning: dated! Why only kill the humans?) A crackerjack suspense/adventure story, the original for the trope of the machine with a mind of its own. This and his other story Slow Sculpture have firmly fixed Theodore Sturgeon in my mind as one of the best sci fi authors ever.

A good, if highly dated, collection. Still enjoyable. Probably nudging 4 stars out of 5.

21 August 2012

A Spree of Thrillers

Thrillers | David Baldacci, Anthony Horowitz | Hell's Corner, First Family, True Blue, The Whole Truth, Skeleton Key, The Innocent

This has been a spree of thrillers. I started with David Baldacci's Hell's Corner (covered in the last post), then, in close succession, I read his First Family, True Blue, The Whole Truth and The Innocent, and re-read Anthony Horowitz's Skeleton Key in between.

So, Hell's Corner, I deemed to be an excellent addition to the Camel Club series, much better than the previous one in the series, Divine Justice. You can skip over the latter when reading the series which not much loss, unless you are a diehard fan or something.

First Family features Michelle Maxwell and Sean King, ex-Secret Service agents who are now into detectiving in the private sector. Of the two, Michelle is the one who kicks backsides, and King is the one who does sidekick duty. Not surprising, really, when you consider that every single one of D Baldacci's books is dedicated 'to Michelle'. (I feel so clever at finally picking that up). The book features the abduction of the President's wife's niece, the day of her 12th birthday party at Camp David. The President's wife gets Maxwell and King in, thanks to King's knowing the girl's mother, who's been killed during the kidnapping. In true Baldacci style, we switch between the abductor and the detectives. The niece is the only abductee (there is an adult, too) who has the guts and the intelligence to attempt a breakout. Which fails. In the meantime, M&K are getting closer and closer. And for a change, a whole bunch of agencies is helping them out. The motive remains obscure till just about a few millimeters from the end of the book (your page thickness may vary). The truly perfidious villains get their due comeuppance.

Somewhere in there, the character of Michelle Maxwell, and her motivations, gets further developed, and she has to face loss and suspicion in her own family. This theme is built upon further in the next book in the series, The Sixth Man (about which I have written in an earlier post; this is what comes of reading series out of order).

First Family is a tightly-plotted story, and the denouement is quite satisfactory. Michelle gains more sympathy from the reader in this one. King remains calm and collected.

Since I don't have the book to hand, you'll have to take it from me that the dialogue is crackerjack. I particularly liked the one in which King comments that Maxwell is 'a bit of a show-off' after she kicks a door in.

True Blue continues the theme of tough women with Mace Perry, a cop framed for armed robbery under the influence of drugs, coming out of prison, and with the gracious help of Chief Perry, her sister (ha, betcha didn't see that one coming; huh, you read the blurb), trying to solve assorted murders and get the villains who framed her. To help, she has a lawyer, who falls for her while trying to keep as far away as possible. The problem is, he's a witness to the murder, and a prime suspect. OK, he didn't do it (not a spoiler, dammit, you can read the blurb). Who did it, how and why, is complicated. I suspect it's only in thrillers that things like this happen. Reality is much simpler, if more sordid.

Call it un-feminist of me, but such books (also like Patricia Cornwell's Hornet's Nest and Southern Cross) which feature women police chiefs, don't strike me quite as real. Perhaps the lack of real-life people with adequate fame is the reason.

Anyhow, you can guess she nabs her villain, and that she's the one with commitment issues. I didn't like this one as much as the others in this spree. It simply means it's the last of equals, though. In itself, readable.

The Whole Truth features a troubleshooter from an international police force (fortunately, not named with some cutesy acronym here), with a cutesy name, A Shaw. The first name is A. Shaw loves Anna Fischer, a hotshot analyst deeply, but Nicholas Creel, an arms maker and self-proclaimed visionary, needs a war. I'd have dismissed the whole whip-up-the-masses-via-the-internet as far-fetched if it wasn't for the sobering reality of the Assamese exodus of the past few days. Truth really is stranger than fiction. There is also an ex-Pulitzer Prize winning ex-journo desperately trying to resurrect her career, named Katie James, who gets embroiled in the whole horrible mess. Will it be a spoiler for me to say that the series (there are more after this which I am yet to read) is called the Shaw and Katie James series? OK, I'll refrain from telling you why.

Shaw's emotions are dealt with very well in this book. I wondered many times how they'd actually lay all the crimes to the right door, but they finally did, and not implausibly either. I may point out that books and movies in which the villain is not brought to a court and sentenced to long years in jail or short days before an execution are not my favourites.

Which is why this book ties with First Family in this spree, despite many better elements. Oh, Hell's Corner is still ahead.

And now let us take a short diversion to a re-read of a non-Baldacci thriller,  Anthony Horowitz's Skeleton Key. Skeleton Key is an Alex Rider book. Alex is a reluctant teenage super-spy, who would prefer to be a schoolboy (and every schoolkid who reads these books prefers to be Alex, go figure!), but who is pressed into saving England, the world--and assorted collections in between the two--from evil villains of various stripes. It's not easy writing thrillers for young adults and teens. Which is probably why A Horowitz also wrote the side-splitting Diamond Brothers series in between (ok, not getting side-tracked on how even more difficult it is to write a funny detective series for young adults, in which the detectiving still has to make some kind of (highly convoluted) sense, after all). A Horowitz knows how to do this. How to make his teenage hero ring true, to hold our hands and take us step by step along the frighteningly plausible route to how such a thing could happen. And if he can keep kids hooked, what are you and me (presuming you, too, are an adult) in terms of the challenge level. Nothing. Succumb already.

Skeleton Key is the third book in the series, and I strongly recommend you read the lot. The reason I've read them in order is because I hung around the bookshops and grabbed them as fast as they came out. (The resident teenager was faster, grabbing them off friends in some cases: "Thanks for getting me this book, but I've already read it"). Here, Alex is loaned by the Brits to the CIA (how could they do that to a mere kid??), to investigate a crazy Russian ex-general living in a fortress on the island Skeleton Key. He's just supposed to be cover for the real agents. Yeah, right.

I here go off on a mini-tangent, in which I muse how one of the Modesty Blaise books also had a crazy guy in a fortress on a Caribbean island, and how the two fortresses have so much in common, including difficult approaches and impossible exits.

OK, since I've already recommended this book to you strongly, I may just warn you that the guy who wrote the Diamond Brothers series introduces in this book a chewed gum called Bubble-o seven (groan) and a heroine named Sabina Pleasure (louder groans). There is action under the Wimbledon courts, on a surfed wave, under the warm ocean, and aboard the Russian President's plane (how come Russian Presidents get such bad casting in American and British novels? But I'm jumping to the next post too early).

I may warn you that the books get grimmer as the series proceeds, but A Horowitz leaves tiny loopholes of hope at the end of each. Actually, I for one don't want to be Alex Rider at all, by now. Poor kid. Fantastic books.

And now the train reaches the last book in this spree, A Baldacci's The Innocent. In internal ranking among Baldaccis in this spree, this one tops. I liked it better than Hell's Corner, which is saying something. (I think it is saying that A Baldacci retains his touch :).

Will Robie is an assassin working for the government (trope, you groan). True. He gets an assignment to kill a woman who works for the same government. He's being framed. Trope, you groan again. Yeah, yeah, hang around. While running to escape being killed himself, he runs into a teenager whose parents have just been murdered in front of her, and who is running too. OK, switching verbs (enough of a run there), Robie rescues the girl, but the bus they were on is blown up. Someone is after something big. But is it Julie Getty they are after or W Robie? And can he trust the 'superagent' from the FBI? And what the hell are the villains really after? Oh, right, forgot to tell you, his agency brings him into the investigation of the original murder, the one he was supposed to do, in case you think the plot isn't convoluted enough. And we're still only a quarter of the way in.

This is one turny-twisty story, with the trademark Baldacci surprises along the way, right to the very end. The public is going to be clamouring for a series on this one, to be sure.

Have fun with all the books in the spree. All enjoyable and recommended.

(Oh, and the red 'Read!' stamp in the cover picture? That's me using paint.net to disguise a sticker which I wasn't going to remove, but which may be personally identifying).

02 August 2012

Advanced suspense writing by Prof David Baldacci

Thriller | David Baldacci | Hell's Corner

The Camel Club is back. This is the fourth in the series featuring Oliver Stone and his motley collection of loyal friends.

So, by now we know that Oliver Stone is not a homeless protector of civil liberties pitching his protest tent in Lafayette Park across the White House where the President of the United States lives. Having done good deeds in the previous books and gotten the Prez to root for him, Stone is told to investigate the takeover of the Columbian drug cartels by the the Russian drug cartels, aka the Russian government. Ok, large pinch of salt and keep going.

But, as he walks home, a bomb explodes in the Park, where the British PM was supposed to be walking shortly before. Along with a lot of bullets flying. So he gets drafted as an Agent with one of the acronymic agencies that the USA seems to be stuffed with, with what seems to be the sole purpose of confusing anyone who wants to sort out who is who.

We find the Park is called Hell's Corner because several of these TLA* agencies have jurisdiction over parts of it, and nobody has any say over the whole of it. And all of them are investigating the bomb. Not to mention, MI6 from the UK, in the person of Stone's old friend who runs the agency, and a woman operative who is assigned to the mystery. And a bunch of others who turn up every fourth chapter to confuse you further.

Now, you remember I caviled about the third book in the series as not having enough heft to warrant the presence of Stone and the Camel Club. No such complaints here. If you want to learn how to write advanced high-speed suspense, sit at the feet of the master. This is a breathless book, and you might want to read it in electronic form where you get a few milliseconds' benefit in turning the pages faster.

Clues lead from one to the other, witnesses get killed minutes before revealing anything. Agencies hide things from each other, Stone gets kicked out. Ah, you knew that was coming, it's not a spoiler.

And yet, the core of the story is as high-tech a world-shaking plot as you can possibly hope for in anything short of science fiction. I just don't think the source of all the villainy as finally revealed could actually implement the high-tech device, nor do I think it would work as advertised, but hey, that's because it's been a week since I read the book and have had time to start unsuspending disbelief.

This book, if made into a movie, will confuse the hell's corner out of the viewers, mainly because it would run too fast for them to quite follow. The movie makers will have to dumb it down, at which point purists like me will turn up our noses and refuse to watch.

TL;DR: Baldacci retains his touch, and indeed, is getting better at thrillers.

Therefore, you will not be surprised to know that coming up next is his other series' book, First Family.

Time travel with Duke Vimes

Fantasy | Terry Pratchett | Night Watch

What I forgot to mention in the last post was that Jingo featured one of the most immediately recognisable gadgets in all the Discworld books--the Disorganiser, which desperately and futilely attempts to remind Insert Name Here of his appointments throughout the book. In a twist that only the Discworld could come up with, Vimes tells the device in exasperation that it's no use reminding him of appointments he already knows about. How about telling him of appointments he doesn't know about. And that's what happens. Except that, at one point, Vimes in this world makes a decision he doesn't make in the parallel world (if this kind of stuff makes your head hurt, you should avoid science fiction and fantasy entirely), and picks up the wrong Disorganiser, with the result that as the two time paths diverge, he gets to know how narrowly he avoided disaster all around. Bingelly-bingelly-beep!

Now, here's the thing, Night Watch, too, has time travel. This time of the physical pick-up-the-person-and-dump-him-in-the-past type. Vimes, by now Duke, still hasn't learned to delegate chasing villains to his underlings. And the High Energy Magic building's roof is not the place to tempt fate, anyway. So Vimes and the villain end up back in Vimes' past, where he has to protect everyone he loves from the machinations of the 'who, me?' baby-faced and black-hearted villain.

In Night Watch, we meet the monks who manage time and have these large rotating cylinders that warp time. (Somehow, ever since Larry Niven's short story Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility of Global Causality Violation {in turn, swiping the title from a physics paper which describes real-Universe physics, mind-boggling as it may be}, I've had the impression that the large cylinders should be planet-sized or larger LARGE, but on the Discworld, faux-Tibetan cylinders manage well enough.) I suspect that Pratchett realised these monks would mess up any other book of the Discworld, so we don't quite meet them again.

Instead, we also meet, and this is a delight, Vetinari as a student assassin. And the early Sam Vimes, the early Fred Colon, and Nobby Nobbs as an urchin. We also meet the surprise of the citizens and watchmen at the idea of trolls or dwarves in the Watch, which is Pratchett's way of pointing out how the world changes in just half a lifetime. Things which were normal then are unacceptable today, and vice versa. Hey, just look around.

Pratchett has invented many villains, most of whom are plain bigots or ignoramuses with power, but this book has his first frisson-up-the-spine pure psychopath, the type James Patterson or Jeffery Deaver would scare us with, or Stephen King would use to mess with our heads. And, yet, you don't quite think he's the very worst villain in this book.

This is one of Pratchett's best Discworld books. Thud!, which came later, is not as good. But I'm not going to get to Thud! again for a nice long time. You can, instead, consider how singing the national anthem proves that you are a rebel in need of putting down. Go on, read it and realise how many assumptions you live with.

Let me close here, and move on to David Baldacci's Hell's Corner.

[Oh, in closing, the book cover doesn't have the hourglass or weird ring on it. That's just me trying to be artistic, rather unsuccessfully.]