Sime~Gen Inc. Presents

Recommended Books

January, 1997



Magic: The Gathering: Ashes of the Sun by Hanovi Braddock, HarperPrism, 1996

The Faces of Time by Camille Bacon-Smith, DAW Fantasy, 1996

City of Diamond by Jane Emerson, DAW Science Fiction, 1996

Fire Margins by Lisanne Norman, DAW Science Fiction, 1996

The Magic Touch by Jody Lynn Nye, Aspect Fantasy, 1996

First Contact - the new Star Trek movie!

As I write this, it is mid-December and the big news story of the week is the vampire slaying alleged to have been done by some teens who were into some kind of vampire cult -- acting out blood drinking and worse. So you might view it as odd that I would choose a Magic: The Gathering (a game) based novel to lead this review column this month and thus this year.

However, my choice has nothing to do with the headline. Yet, strangely enough, the headline leads right into discussion of the substance of this novel. Yes, I said substance. Ashes of the Sun has more substance than most of the novels they force you to read in English classes, but it's an easy, fun, stay-up-all-night-reading read. I couldn't begin to judge whether it's faithful to the game it's based on, but it's great fantasy and passable fair science fiction, too -- all at once. That's some trick to pull off, but Hanovi Braddock has done something very unusual here.

The headline is not really about vampires or gaming or gamers. The real world headline is about cults and the distinction between fantasy and reality. Very likely, the news story focuses on the vampire angle because the reporters know how many adults view our current youth as lacking in the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. And in truth, there are many adults whose grip on reality is a bit shaky. That's the reason TV shows always use 555 for the phone numbers they quote on the air in fiction. 555 is the prefix the phone company reserves for the phone business offices! People used to call those numbers trying to reach fictional characters -- or even the actors who play them!

Even ordinary people who would never consider harming another would attempt such a phone call -- to reach, for example, Lucy Ricardo, the fictional lead character in I Love Lucy.

A while back, I did a few columns on the cult phenomenon and how to avoid falling for such "gurus" (and how to dig yourself out if you have fallen) and so I won't repeat any of that here. Those columns should be available online at Suffice it to say that I feel that both the reporters who emphasize the vampire-gaming aspect of this case and the public they are playing to (yes, TV news is a branch of fiction) have a shaky grasp of reality. Murder and mental derangement are a serious and very real business and I don't feel they should be sensationalized nor called by the same name that designates the sane, well balanced and highly ethical people who engage in gaming.

Magic: The Gathering is one of the most popular games being played today -- and I know absolutely nothing whatever about it. A number of my friends and acquaintances are "into" gaming in various forms, and they often try to explain these things to me. I've decided to leave it until I retire from writing.

However, I exchanged a couple of e-mail messages with the author of this novel (whose address I've since lost) and he talked me into reading this book. It took some effort, too. I've read a lot of novels based on games and they just don't stand up to scrutiny as novels. Even very good novelists have produced "novels" based on games that don't make it as novels.

Ashes of the Sun is different. It's a great novel and I, as a non-gamer, never noticed any gaming structure or protocol that interfered with the novel itself. So I recommend this novel to you simply as a good read.

Only it's more than that. Ashes of the Sun addresses head-on one of the most difficult topics there is to discuss with folks who are just embarking on the mystical paths. Mastery. And it lays out the subject with methodical simplicity and crystal clarity. If you are a teacher of the occult, you will want to read this book and possibly to acquire it in multiple copies for your students. It will become an invaluable teaching tool. If you are a student, you will want to read this book because it gives insight into various aspects of Mastery.

There are a lot of novels that do that: Chaim Potok's series of novels about his character, Asher Lev (an artist who, unknown to himself and very possibly to Potok, is being intiated by inner planes masters); Marion Zimmer Bradley's Catch Trap which I've reviewed in the early columns here (that's about the circus in the '30s, '40s and '50s and shows Mastery in an athletic artform); the television show, Kung Fu and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues shows Mastery as an element in martial arts; Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and that entire series about Merlin shows other aspects of Mastery in magick; Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's St. Germain vampire shows it through alchemy.

But here we have Mastery in the martial arts approached from a different angle. In Ashes we have a gladiator, Ayesh, from a vanquished civilization trying to teach the Art to members of the species that destroyed that civilization.

She is human; her pupils are Goblins. She is a prisoner of minotaurs who have invented a drug to calm the fears that Goblins are prey to from their innate biochemistry, and which causes their aggressive behavior. The Goblins didn't conquer Ayesh's civilization -- they just destroyed it. Minotaur scientists are trying to prevent minotaur civilization from suffering the same destruction. The problem is that Ayesh is not a full Master herself. Not like Quai Chang Caine anyway. Yet she succeeds in conveying a few essentials that change the Goblin students on a very basic level -- change the way they see the world and themselves and their place in it. The veil of terror through which all facts had to be sifted is vanquished through her teaching, and the Goblin-mind gains a grasp on reality that is firm enough not to be dislodged even when the drug is withdrawn.

By the end of the novel, Ayesh, her students, the Minotaur civilization and some offstage characters have been greatly changed. And the seeds for further change throughout that entire world have been sown.

The juxtaposition of Mastery, internally generated terror, and the ability to apprehend reality is brilliantly done by Hannovi Braddock. This has led me to consider the elements of Mastery once again.

In 1996, we focused on the complex questions the Guardian at the Gate asks of travelers out of body. Last month, I mentioned that what we term the astral plane is the part of your mind where initiation can occur. It is your imagination. If you've done the reading I've recommended and kept up your disciplines, you should have a fair degree of access to the lower astral by now. You may be ready to wonder just exactly what initiation is, where it comes from, how it works, why everyone on the occult paths get so wound up in this process, and whether it has any relevance to you.

That would seem the next logical topic to investigate. But actually, Mastery itself is the topic that has to come before initiation. Mastery is the result of initiation. And initiation is a lot of work -- hard work -- dangerous work -- boring work -- tedious work -- ignominious drudgery -- pointless repetitions -- and time-consuming nonsense. It doesn't really matter to you what initiation is unless you want the result of having been initiated. And you have to want that result very much.

I have here four more novels that investigate what Mastery is all about, what it means, and what it requires of you. And they're all glued-to-the-page fun to read, not at all like taking an initiation.

The Faces of Time by Camille Bacon-Smith is about a young man who has a heritage of being the Sacrifice. He's been bred specifically for the dangerous job of keeping an evil magician sealed into a tomb where he can do no harm. But the young man abandons that heritage, seeking life in the city. Still, heritage will out and he becomes a public servant, a policeman catching nasty crooks. He is called home to his native village to investigate a series of murders. His partner, who knows nothing of this magickal heritage, goes with him. All hell breaks loose. Then it gets interesting.

The Face of Time might well have been titled The Karmic Price of Mastery. And it is a superbly crafted novel, a smooth read, filled with engrossing and fully realized characters.

City of Diamond by Jane Emerson is sf, not fantasy, yet it has psychic elements laced through it -- an alien species and their peculiar technology which might as well be magic. This novel deals with the present day results of long-ago events and, most interestingly, an alien religion which involves humans in a sort of vampiric practice. The novel is obscure on this point. It also has my least-favorite structure -- the wildly shifting and varying point of view with story-threads all over the place.

Many very popular TV shows today have parallel stories happening to different characters who interact only occasionally (such as LA Law as opposed to the structure I actually adore which was used in The Waltons). I have a theory that one reason this type of show (as well as channel and net surfing) is so popular is that exposure to Sesame Street cultivate a short attention span. Mastery, and successful initiation, require a very long attention span. Magick of all varieties is unsafe for those with a short attention span. Lengthening the attention span is a matter of hard, boring work. Gaming -- such as chess or role playing -- is a way to lengthen the attention span and exercise the imagination.

Reading single-viewpoint novels is another way of lengthening the attention span. Most multiple viewpoint novels, the well-written ones, are three or four short stories braided together to make a book. City of Diamond is at least three whole novels artfully braided together and published in 624 pages of very small print. And even so, it feels like only the start of a story, the setup for something very interesting. The theme isn't clear -- but the feeling is that it will be. I'll be looking for the sequel.

Meanwhile, there's another giant novel about a non-human telepathic civilization, and this one is a sequel to two normal-sized novels I've recommended here. Fire Margins by Lisanne Norman is a fascinating work simply because it is totally unlike the predecessors in this series which I have reviewed in prior months. The first novel, Turning Point, was a standard cookie-cutter action/adventure novel: young human woman meets alien telepath and thinks at first he's an animal. Together they save the world from really yucky alien invaders. That's a cliché except that Turning Point is gorgeously appointed and featured deep and interesting characters. It was rich but short and a type of book that I favor.

The second, Fortune's Wheel, took the human woman to the alien's planet. She marries the alien and becomes part of his civilization -- even to the point of becoming genetically altered. And here we began to get hints of the magickal underpinnings of this universe concept. The alien religion has more to it than meets the eye, and though the genetic alterations are being scientifically investigated, they don't have a reliable explanation of how it happened that this human woman has been altered and is bearing a half-alien child.

The third novel, Fire Margins, is the largest and has become something different in plot structure and overall flavor. I don't know how much of this is by author's design. I do like all three types of novels. This one is political intrigue, and the plot, theme and character motivations are largely political. The element of personal initiation and personal Mastery is submerged in this novel in an overburden of politics.

However, the main plot structure rests on the fulfilling of a religious ritual which, because of their society's structure, will have vast political consequences. The characters' abilities to pull off this feat depends on the character traits they acquired because of the initiation in the first novel, and one or maybe two interstellar civilizations are depending on their ability to execute the feat -- to travel to the Fire Margins.

I must warn the readers of this column, however, that Fire Margins is science fiction, and the religious ritual turns out to have time travel and scientific explanations. These are good explanations, well foreshadowed, tightly constructed, neatly presented, utterly logical. But those looking for the magick behind all these events would be disappointed.

Which only just illustrates one of my points about the subject of Mastery.

The true Masters, the adepts of the highest orders with the most responsibility, execute their magick within the laws of science, not athwart them. For science is a branch of magick. To do magick well, one must understand and use science.

We started this column today with a real-world news note, so for symmetry, I want to end on a note of imaginary whimsy that is nothing but a smile of delight lightly laced with little squeaks of discovery.

That's what it feels like to read Jody Lynn Nye's The Magic Touch. This novel belongs to the subgenre called Urban Fantasy. It has a contemporary setting, a densely populated urban center gradually subsiding into gangland. The focus is on the ordinary, decent families watching their children being swallowed up by street gangs and drugs.

The Don Maitz cover (he's one of the field's most famous artists) is a masterpiece, and the cover blurb calls it a "turf war of miracles . . . With the hearts of the young at stake."

And we have an ordinary eighteen-year-old kid during the summer before college being recruited into the Fairy Godparents' Union (and he gets a training wand). The Union is about to merge with the Guild of the Djinni, Demons, and Efreets who, unbeknownst to the Union, plans to embezzle their extra magic. We have the djinni who keep their expensive electric floor lamps in a store's storeroom because it's safe. Nobody rubs lamps in a warehouse. So the Guild holds their meetings between the night watchman's rounds. We have the bar where the Tooth Fairies and Guardian Angels (wannabees and real ones) hang out. And you solemnly believe every single word.

You'd think a book like this would be just for laughs -- but no. While you're laughing until the tears come, you might still notice that the Master Fairy Godmother who is training this young man to be a Fairy Godfather teaches him how to approach and use power without abusing it. And she teaches him just the way a real Master would teach a student of magick.

The author dedicates the book to her grandfather, who was the Recording Secretary of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, local 10-208. To me that shows the grandfather was probably a Master. Music is an art and it is an essential ingredient in the training of a magician. In Ashes of the Sun, the young teacher's most important teaching tool is a flute.

My father, may he rest in peace, was Chapel Chairman of the Commercial Telegrapher's Union, West Coast. I grew up amidst union organizational activities and contract negotiations. Perhaps that's one reason why this book is so funny and so delightful and so revealing to me. The author has nailed the union parts of this novel perfectly, with just the right mixture of rue and humor to leaven the serious business of dealing with a dire threat.

And this book proves beyond doubt that denigration and humiliation are not necessary ingredients in humor. The denigration and humiliation in the novel are not at all funny. They are the acts of the villains. There's no "comedy" in this book -- yet it's a side-splitter. What we're looking at here, folks, is the granddaughter of a master musician who has gained mastery of humor.

Before you even consider an initiatory path for yourself, study those who have trodden those paths, now or in past lives, and notice what they do that others don't or can't. Then you can decide if it's worth the effort and sacrifice. And you'll learn that there are many areas of life where Mastery can be attained -- magick isn't the only or even the most powerful one!

On yet another note, I did go to see the new Star Trek movie. I've already written detailed criticism of the portrayal of Cochran as such a wasted drunkard. Try out one of those AOL free trial disks. Sign onto AOL and click on ENTERTAINMENT, then FICTION then SCIENCE FICTION FORUM, scroll down to Author Spotlights in the little scroll box at the bottom of the screen, click on that and then on my name and then on the MESSAGES button and look in the Welcome folder for Author Spotlights. There you will find an ongoing discussion of Babylon Five vs. Voyager. Toward the end of November I posted my missive on First Contact.

I was very unhappy with the Cochran portrayal -- not the acting, which was superb, but the writing. That said, this movie is a creditable entry in the annals of Trek lore. Jonathan Frakes gave a virtuoso performance as a director and as an actor. The light humor in the face of the dire and terrible was pure Trek.

Those who had become bored with the series of Kirk-Enterprise movies now have something new to whet their appetites, and I think it works. I saw it the first weekend it came out, before Thanksgiving, and now I look back on the memory and can hardly distinguish it from an episode. It was TV on the big screen -- and it didn't lose anything in the translation. I want to see it several more times -- then I might have more to say about it.

Meanwhile, those of you online can now reach STAR TREK WELCOMMITTEE and all the wealth of information on Trek fan activity (which isn't highlighted on the official sites for Trek) at the Star Trek Welcommittee homepage:     (1999 addendum: Star Trek Welcommitee, is now disbanded beause the wealth of online facilities does the same job more efficiently.)

As Gene Autry might have sung, Happy Trekking To You!

Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952.



Find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to.   To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below. logo

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Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg