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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Review: Heart of Gold

This review has been sent to January Magazine and will probably be published there sooner or later, but probably later, as there are a number of my reviews awaiting publication, so here it is!

HEART OF GOLD By Michael Pryor

In Blaze of Glory, first novel in the Laws of Magic series, we met Aubrey Fitzwilliam, son of an aristocratic family in the land of Albion, an alternative universe version of Edwardian England. In this world, magic is a science, totally unconnected with superstition or the summoning of demons, ouija boards or midnight rituals. Well, admittedly it’s done best in such ancient languages as Chaldean... The laws of magic of the series title are a lot like the laws of physics - “ye cannae change them, Captain” although you can mix and match and adapt them if you know what you’re doing. Unlike the magic of the Harry Potter universe, it isn’t genetically-based, but something you can learn at school and then practise as a career.

Aubrey is a magical genius. Like other geniuses, he simply can’t resist experimenting and at the start of the first novel, he did something truly stupid, experimenting with horribly dangerous death magic. As a result, he ended up dead.

Well, sort of. He is - literally - holding body and soul together, to avoid having his soul float off into the realm of true death, and finding that being dead can really mess up a chap’s lifestyle.

With his schoolfriend George and a brilliant and feisty young lady called Caroline, he saved the Crown Prince Albert (otherwise known as his cousin Bertie) and foiled a plot by the realm’s head magician which would have started this world’s version of World War I.

At the beginning of Heart of Gold, Aubrey and George, who desperately need a holiday before starting university, head for Gallia (France) where Caroline is already studying at the university of Lutetia (Paris). Aubrey isn’t allowed to relax, though; each member of his family gives him an item to add to a “shopping list” of tasks to perform while he’s over there. His grandmother wants some embarrassing letters back. His mother wants contact with a fellow scientist. His father wants him to keep an eye out for certain things he needs to know. Cousin Bertie needs some important information about his ancestors. All of them, of course, end up being connected and sending Aubrey and George into danger .

Aubrey being Aubrey, he can’t stay out of trouble, and while filling the shopping list and trying to find a magician who might have information that will cure his condition, he finds himself contending with more plotting, spies, a city full of lurching zombies (living folk whose souls have been stolen by a nutter with a magical camera), prehistoric animals erupting all over Lutetia, terrorists, the theft of a magical artefact - the Heart of Gold - that must be kept in the city’s centre, in a nun’s lap, or Gallia will fall apart - oh, and inviting Caroline to an embassy ball...

Like the first novel, Heart of Gold is great fun. The action is almost non-stop - even in the first few pages, Aubrey and George are flying an ornithopter to rescue an airship in trouble. Immediately on arriving in Paris, they’re fighting a zombie. Among the prehistoric monsters they have to face is a scary dinosaur, probably a tyrannosaurus.

Despite all the action, the author never forgets that as well as story, you have to have characters the readers can believe in. Aubrey is brilliant, but not perfect; he does something idiotic yet again, though this time it could lose him Caroline’s affection rather than his life. George, while filling the role of the comical sidekick, is really not dumb at all, and Aubrey doesn’t underestimate him for a minute, though others do. Possibly only Caroline is too perfect; as well as intelligence and beauty and ability with a gun, she turns out to be a martial arts expert.

Still, the characters are likeable, the plot funny and delightful and I do like this universe. Women don’t yet have the vote, but they are respected as scientists and artists and their strength is taken for granted.

The series has been compared with Harry Potter, which seems about standard right now. Sorry - not remotely alike, except that both protagonists are teenagers who are good at magic, hang out with two other teenagers and can’t get up the nerve to ask a girl to a dance. If anything, it reminds me of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy - Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen - and the world of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy. Fans of both series should enjoy this one.

Anyway, much as I loved the Potter books, I’d rather go out to a party with Aubrey than Harry; at least he doesn’t whinge or worry about what the Dark Lord is plotting when he’s supposed to be giving his partner a good time. Sorry, J.K. Rowling.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Vale Centero!

Centero is no more, alas!

I remember getting my first copy of what was then a print newsletter centred around Blake’s Seven, which was the reason for the name of the zine; in the British TV science fiction show, Centero was the location of the federation’s communications centre.

Nikki White, the editor, has been a passionate media fan for many years, though she has also been writing for periodicals relating to Dracula, a favourite historical figure, as well as having an interest all the literature about him, and, in recent years, has become a member of the rabbit-breeding community, writing for this “fandom” as well. Her activism and energy in many areas has been amazing and I, for one, am really going to miss Centero, though I do understand her reasons for finally dropping it.

Centero started as a duplicated zine. I remember going to the newsagency to pick up stencils on which I carefully typed my contributions, getting really upset every time I made a typo. I rolled them up and sent them to Nikki, who duplicated them on her machine and, at her own expense, sent the fanzine out to the contributors. Eventually, she had to charge something towards the postage expenses. Also, with the end of Blake’s Seven, quite a few fans found other interests. At this point, Nikki considered cancelling, but expanded into media science fiction and fantasy in general and there was a re-birth of the zine, as people wrote articles and letters about whatever their favourite shows and films were at the time. Nikki wrote reviews of quite a few media-related books and brought us up to date with whatever was happening to actors from Blake’s Seven and other shows.

Stencils gave way to photocopies, as the years went on and technology changed. It meant we no longer had to worry about what happened when we made typos, especially after we all got computers. This went on for some years – and, to be honest, it became my last contact with media fandom in between cons, because I dropped out of one Star Trek club and another closed down, and the Blake’s Seven club to which I had belonged went on-line.

Media cons, for that matter, thinned out; older fans retired from active fandom and new ones seem to think a con means you get an outrageously expensive actor and charge hundreds of dollars for people to sit in an auditorium and be entertained, as the actor who played second Romulan from the left in some obscure Trek episode talks about how great it is to be here in “Mel-born.” Well, it’s a con all right, but not in the way they think. Media fanzines, in Australia at least, have gone the way of the dodo, for the most part, as people discover the joys of the Internet. Viacom closed down Trek fanzines in Australia, one of the few countries where there isn’t a technicality in the law that allows them to continue, but they would probably have died anyway, as people decided that it was more fun to go on-line and choose stories by theme and character and, for that matter, write and publish their own stuff without having to go through the filter of an editor.

Eventually, fed up with the incompetence of her local post office, which had been messing up deliveries, Nikki declared that that was it – no more Centero! It was not as if a whole lot of people were writing any more anyway. Around then, I suggested she have a go at doing it as an e-mail newsletter. It continued in this form for some time; Nikki even kept print copies going for a few people who didn’t have the Internet, and goodness knows, she has to be considered a saint for patiently reproducing contributions from some folk who didn’t even have a computer.

It was a joy to read the reviews and the news and the articles about films and media-related books and new TV shows, and stay in contact with other fans. I looked forward to it every quarter, and made myself sit down and write something every time (I did miss the odd issue for one reason or another, but I think I’ve been in all but three or four issues since the start).

However, I was one of the few who did have that self-discipline, so Nikki finally decided enough was enough. With Issue #103, the party is over.

I’m considering re-publishing some of my own contributions on a new blog and will be inviting anyone else who is interested in writing media-related stuff, to submit. Stand by.

Meanwhile, thanks for everything, Nikki. You deserved a Ditmar Award for this zine, but you at least have the Sue Bursztynski Award for giving me a lot of enjoyment over the years.