Hear the Wind Sing: Murakami’s debut novel

Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami

First published in 1979, Hear the Wind Sing is Haruki Murakami’s debut novel (or novella, depending upon where one draws the line). An unnamed narrator tells the story of what happened to him over the course of eighteen days when he was a university student. He spends most of his time either drinking beer with his friend, “The Rat,” or else in a confused relationship with a woman.

To be honest, I did not enjoy Hear the Wind Sing, since I prefer to latch onto the plot when reading. The novel is divided into forty chapters, and though a larger narrative loosely ties everything together, Hear the Wind Sing might actually be better read as a series of related vignettes that produce an overall feeling of aimlessness and detac... Read More

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: The funniest SF novel of all time

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I can’t think of any other SF book which is this incredibly funny, in that droll British way that Americans can never emulate. In 5th grade I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) and three of its sequels, but it’s this book that stays most in memory. I’ve always wanted to revisit Douglas Adams’ story, even though I was a bit worried it might not be quite as brilliant as I remembered, but I can report that the audiobook narrated by English comedian and actor Stephen Fry is the perfect comic voice to capture the spirit of the book. Since the audiobook clocks in at just under six hours, I decided it would be a good companion for a day hike in the mountains an hour from Tokyo. Hopefully none of the other hikers were disturbed by the strange tall gaijin chuckling to himself on the trail.

The story (as... Read More

Janissaries: Modern soldiers in ancient Rome on distant planet

Janissaries by Jerry Pournelle

Captain Rick Galloway and the soldiers he commands were surrounded by hostile enemies when the flying saucer arrived and offered them a way out of certain death. They had to take it. Now they’re on a planet called Tran where they’re expected to oversee the growth and harvest of a marijuana-like plant which their alien “saviors” collect and distribute on the black market when it ripens every 600 years. A human woman named Gwen has also been dumped on the planet after her boyfriend, who was working for the aliens, talked her into coming aboard the flying saucer.

Tran is not uninhabited. It is home to several ancient civilizations who were also delivered from Earth to Tran each time the harvest was nearing readiness. Galloway and Gwen, reluctant heroes, must somehow lead the locals to fulfill the aliens’ demands, or they risk being eradicated. This involves gaining power, allying with local go... Read More

Watchtower: Fairly standard feminist fantasy

Watchtower by Elizabeth A. Lynn

Watchtower, the first book in the award-winning THE CHRONICLES OF TORNOR series by Elizabeth A. Lynn, follows the tale of a young prince — why is he called a prince when his father is a lord? I have no idea. This bothered me through the whole book — who has to fight against a usurper to regain his lands.

Watchtower is frequently included on lists of feminist and gay SFF. It does deal with an underlying homoerotic tension between the prince and his soldier, and the other two main characters are of ambiguous gender — saying more would spoil the unfolding of that plot. Compared to books today I doubt either of these issues would raise an eyebrow. After reading it, I surely didn’t consider this to be a shining example of feminist literature. We’ve come a long way, baby, right?

I had a ... Read More

Lord Valentine’s Castle: A vast imaginative world

Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg

Valentine has been wandering the planet of Majipoor for a couple of years, but has almost no memory of where he’s been or what his life was like before. When he discovers that he has a talent for juggling and joins a troop of entertainers, he becomes more connected to his world and aware that something is wrong with him. After experiencing some “sendings” in dreams and hearing about the dreams of others, he begins to realize that he is Lord Valentine, one of the four rulers of Majipoor, whose soul has been put into some other body. So, with a loyal group of friends, he sets out to get some answers and to try to make things right.

Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980) is considered a classic SFF novel and, therefore, it’s one I’ve been planning to read (and expecting to love) for years. Indeed, there is much to love about Robert Silverberg’s world of Ma... Read More

The Leopard Mask: Probably better as manga

The Leopard Mask by Kaoru Kurimoto

The Leopard Mask, the first installment of The Guin Saga, is a rather uninspiring tale of two twins (Remus and Rinda) whose kingdom has fallen to an evil army and who are now trying to stay alive among all of the ghouls, demons, and other nasties who live in the marches. They are saved by an amnesic warrior (Guin) who, for some unknown but intriguing reason, has an irremovable leopard mask fused to his face.

The writing style is only serviceable. I don't know if this is due to the original Japanese text or to the English translation but it just doesn't grab me. The perspectives change abruptly, the dialogue is stilted, and the omniscient narrator tells too much — sometimes in a tone that would be used to teach children.

The plot of The Leopard Mask is quick as it m... Read More

The Legends of King Arthur: One of the best retellings


There are countless retellings and adaptations concerning the life and times of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and I'm not even close to having read all of them. Therefore, it's impossible for me to say that Rosemary Sutcliff's version is the definitive Arthurian retelling. However, it's certainly one of the best. Told in Sutcliff's graceful prose that is both epic and intimate when need-be, and the tricky subjects like incest, adultery and bloodshed are conveyed without being either too prudish or overly graphic.

The first instalment, The Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, is thicker than the next two books combined, and Sutcliff draws on a wide range of sources with which to build her own narrative. Going back to the circumstances of Arthur'... Read More

The Mists of Avalon: Beautiful writing, but excruciatingly slow

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Mists of Avalon, as you’ve likely guessed, is a retake on the King Arthur legends, but what makes it different is that it’s written from the women’s perspectives (Morgaine, Guinevere, etc.). The first one was written by Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1983 and this was the first time this feminist technique was used in fantasy literature and it was very successful (I learned that when I took a Modern Scholar course in fantasy literature).

The Mists of Avalon is beautifully written, but slow-paced, and I often wished the story would move faster. Since the women characters are the focus, there’s not much action (except traveling). The chicks themselves aren't fighting a lot of Saxons. Also, there’s a major emphasis on the dissolution of the pagan religion as Christianity spread throughout England. This wa... Read More

Sorcerer’s Son: Hell hath no fury like a sorcerer scorned

Sorcerer's Son by Phyllis Eisenstein

After the sorceress Delivev Ormoru rejects his marriage proposal, sorcerer Smada Rezhyk becomes worried that she's out to get him. In order to reduce her powers so that he'll have time to weave himself a protective gold shirt, Rezhyk sends his demon slave Gildrum to impregnate Delivev with Rezhyk's own seed. Gildrum takes on the form of a handsome young knight (Mellor) and shows up injured at Delivev's doorstep. As expected, Delivev falls in love with Mellor, but unexpectedly, Gildrum (who doesn't even have a heart) falls in love with her, too. However, Gildrum must return to serve Rezhyk. He doesn't tell Delivev that he's really a demon — he lies and tells her that he'll come back after he delivers a message.

Sure enough, Delivev becomes pregnant and gives birth to Cray. And, of course, Mellor never returns. When Cray becomes a teenager, he decides to find out what happened to the father who... Read More