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Monday 21 February 2005

Locus Listens to Audio #2:

Reviews by John Joseph Adams


  • Hot and Sweaty Rex by Eric Garcia, read by Jonathan Marosz
    (Books on Tape book #6385 [cs], $35.96, book #6385-CD [cd], $35.96, www.booksontape.com [rental], $16.95, 12 hours, unabridged) April 2004.
    Listen to an excerpt (provided by Booksontape): real

In this third novel of Eric Garcia's Rex series of mysteries-disguised-as-science fiction about dinosaurs-disguised-as-humans (following 1999's Anonymous Rex and 2001 prequel Casual Rex), recovering basil-addict/velociraptor private eye Vincent Rubio finds himself embroiled in a vicious dino-mobster gang war when crime boss Frank Tallarico makes him an offer he can't refuse. This job takes Vincent from his home turf of L.A. to the "hot and sweaty" humidity of South Florida in the midst of hurricane season, where he reunites with old partner-in-crime Jack Dugan and Jack's sister Noreen (an old flame). But Vincent discovers that his friends are on the wrong side of the gang war, and that he'll have to do a little double-dealing if he's going to keep them (and himself) alive.

There's very little SFnal content here other than the central conceit that dinosaurs never went extinct and have instead been living disguised as humans all along; instead, Garcia uses this device to satirize society and he has quite a bit of fun doing so. There is one MacGuffin central to the mystery that keeps this novel essentially speculative-that is, if you removed it, the entire story would fall apart-but where the novel really excels is in the witty neo-noir detective story aspects, along with Jonathan Marosz's performance of it. His hard-boiled cadence and sardonic tone are a perfect match for the text, and his deadpan delivery of even the most hilarious lines rivals that of master straight-man actor Patrick Warburton. Though Garcia probably could have told what would essentially be the same tale without the dinosaur trappings, it wouldn't be nearly as fun; and though you could skip the audio and read the novel, that wouldn't be nearly as fun either.


  • A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett, read by Stephen Briggs
    (HarperAudio 0060747684 [cd], $34.95, 9 hours, unabridged) May 2004.
    Listen to an excerpt (provided by Audible): windows media  | real

Tiffany Aching-brown hair, good with cheese-is back for her second adventure in Discworld, following 2003's The Wee Free Men. Now, after defeating the Queen of Fairies, she's off to see if she can add "good with magic" to her resume. But it won't be easy. When she learns to astral project herself, she accidentally leaves her body open to possession by an entity known as a hiver, which, having taken control of her body, slowly works at taking over her mind as well. With her steadfast companions, the Nac Mac Feegle-those six-inch tall, blue-skinned, red-haired foul-mouthed pictsies-and some new ones, such as Mistress Weatherwax ("the greatest witch in the world") and part-time antagonist/fellow apprentice witch Annagramma, Tiffany must rid herself of the hiver once and for all. And along the way she just might learn something about magic-and herself-as well.

It is difficult to describe Briggs's voice, because he has not one but many; he is a veritable vocal chameleon. As with all of Pratchett's Discworld novels, A Hat Full of Sky is peopled with a varied group of vivid characters, and this ensemble puts Briggs's vocal talents to the test. That he succeeds marvelously is not a surprise-he's had a lot of experience with Discworld, having co-authored (with Pratchett) The Discworld Companion, in addition to having previously dramatized a dozen of Pratchett's books (including a 2004 Audie Award-winning performance of Monstrous Regiment). By now, he has the rhythm and cadences of Pratchett's prose down to a science, and his comic timing is always spot-on. Humorous fantasy tends to work well on audio, and Pratchett's Discworld novels are no exception-rather, they set the standard.


  • Troll Fell by Katherine Langrish, read by Alex Jennings
    (Collins UK, 0007192835 [cd], 13.99, 0739312707, 3.5 hours, abridged) May 2004.

After the death of his father, young Peer Ulfsson, is taken to live with his cruel uncles, Baldur and Grim Grimsson. They steal his inheritance, beat him, and threaten to feed his dog Loki to their vicious hound Grendel. As if that wasn't bad enough, Peer discovers that his greedy uncles are planning to kidnap his friend Hilde and then present the two of them to the trolls in nearby Troll Fell as a wedding gift. Peer quickly makes plans to run away, along with some help from Hilde, and Nis, a trouble-making household spirit. But just as he's about to escape, he discovers his uncles' alternate plan and devotes himself to stopping them, even if it takes him into the heart of Troll Fell.

Lively music sets the mood for this atmospheric tale based on Scandinavian myth, and narrator Alex Jennings maintains that mood with his earnest and energetic performance. He narrates in British English, shifting to a slight Nordic accent for character dialogue. He strikes perfectly the high-pitched warble of a young boy's voice for Peer's speech, then shifts seamlessly to the deeper rumbling voices of various adults. Jennings' overall performance is delightful-the only disappointment here is the mere three and a half hours of enjoyment; at under 300 pages, the abridgement, though competent, hardly seems necessary.


  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, read by Scott Brick
    (Random House Audio 0739312693 [cs], $25.00, 0739312707 [cd], $27.50, www.booksontape.com [rental], $14.95, 8.5 hours, unabridged) June 2004. (Audible, www.audible.com, [digital], $17.50) June 2004.
    Listen to an excerpt (provided by Audible): windows media | real

Isaac Asimov's legendary I, Robot contains the stories "Robbie," "Runaround," "Reason," "Catch That Rabbit," "Liar!" "Little Lost Robot," "Escape!" "Evidence," and "The Evitable Conflict." In these nine tales, Asimov explores the future of humanity and robotics via a series of logical and ethical quandaries, with his famous "Three Laws of Robotics" that govern robot behavior at the heart of each dilemma. Though published as a novel, this is actually a fixed-up short fiction collection, tied together by an interview with robo-psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, in which she relates all the stories found herein.

Asimov is often quoted as saying that he wanted his prose to be invisible. Though it may have been back in the '40s when these stories were originally written, it's a bit opaque these days, often appearing clunky and very dated, not only in dialogue, but stylistically as well. This presents a problem for narrator Scott Brick, who must read aloud that clunky prose and wooden dialogue while trying to make it sound good. He does about as well as can be expected, and the end result is somewhat reminiscent of the old 50s radio dramas but without the sound effects and music. Brick is certainly earnest in his attempt-and his enthusiasm for the source material is infectious-but with the artless infodumps and characters exclaiming things like "Sizzlin' Saturn!" I, Robot is hard to take seriously at times. Though it hasn't aged well and is a product of its time, there remains enough of the original heart and gosh-wow speculation behind these stories to keep listeners listening.


  • The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, read by James Spencer
    (Telltale Weekly, www.telltaleweekly.org, [digital], $8.00, 6 hours, unabridged) May 2004.
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, read by James Spencer
    (Telltale Weekly, www.telltaleweekly.org, [digital], $5.00, 3 hours, unabridged) August 2004.

H. G. Wells is commonly known as the "father of science fiction," and in The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, we have two of science fiction's oldest sons-an alien invasion story and a tale of time travel. These two H. G. Wells classics are likely familiar to Locus readers-the time traveler skips ahead to the distant future, meets up with the peaceful, lazy Eloi and the aggressive and monstrous Morlocks; Martians invade Earth, stomp around in their tripod machines of destruction, chaos ensues-but these new, inexpensive audio editions will be a treat for both those who have read and enjoyed these books already, and for those reading them for the first time. Narrator James Spencer reads with a steady determination, and with an earnestness that suits these narratives perfectly. There's a slightly old-fashioned quality to his speech that compliments Wells' old-fashioned brand of science fiction. A minor quibble that may upset purists: in The Time Machine, Spencer pronounces Eloi "Ee-low-eye," rather than the traditional "Ee-loy." Despite this, and Wells' dated and oftentimes clumsy prose, Spencer's overall performance rises above the source material, making these audio editions a great way to experience these two classics.


  • Legends II: Volume II, edited by Robert Silverberg, read by Simon Prebble and Charles Keating
    (Random House Audio 0739310844 [cs], $25.00, 5 hours, unabridged) July 2004. (Audible, www.audible.com, [digital], $17.50) July 2004.
    Listen to an excerpt (provided by Audible): windows media | real

As with the original Legends anthology, Legends II has been broken up into multiple volumes for the audio edition. Here, in Volume II, we have selections from Diana Gabaldon and Terry Brooks.

Readers unfamiliar with Gabaldon should have no trouble getting into "Lord John and the Succubus," an engaging kidnapping-and-murder mystery rich with historical detail and supernatural trappings set in 18th century Prussia. Lord John Grey, who was first introduced to readers in Dragonfly in Amber, is serving as English liaison to the First Regiment of Hanoverian Foot in the early days of the Seven Years War. But when a man is murdered and a succubus is the prime suspect, Lord John's curiosity gets the better of him, and he finds himself embroiled in the investigation, seemingly the only rational man in a land of superstitious fools.

In Brooks' Shannara offering, "Indomitable," which takes place several years after The Wishsong of Shannara, a page of the Ildatch, a book of dark magic thought destroyed at the end of Wishsong, somehow escaped destruction, and it's up to Jair Ohmsford to track it down and destroy it once and for all. Along the way he gathers up some friends, wields some magic, and faces lots of dangers, making for a rather paint-by-numbers sword and sorcery adventure. Fans of the series will likely draw more resonance from the additions to the overall story arc, but readers new to Shannara are left with a fun bit of fluff.

Simon Prebble, reader of Gabaldon's "Lord John and the Succubus," narrates in a pleasant British English and shifts subtly between male and female, and into German and Gypsy accents. "Indomitable" narrator Charles Keating, also British, does less to distinguish between character voices, but delivers an overall performance that is solid if a bit monotone. Though the Keating/Brooks combo doesn't thrill, Prebble's narration and Gabaldon's story are first-rate.


  • The Consciousness Plague by Paul Levinson, read by Mark Shanahan
    (Audible/Listen & Live Audio, www.audible.com, [digital], $24.47, 8.5 hours, abridged) July 2004.
    Listen to an excerpt (provided by Audible): windows media | real

A serial killer and a series of baffling cases of memory loss are plaguing New York City in this second science fiction/police procedural starring NYPD forensic investigator Phil D'Amato (following 1999's The Silk Code). The plague of the title, meanwhile, refers to the possibility that human consciousness may have been caused by a bacteria-like organism; so, when Omnin-the first antibiotic to cross the blood-brain barrier-hits the market, the people who take it could be in serious trouble. It's up to D'Amato to figure things out, and his investigations take him from New York to Chicago, to California, and to England before the mystery is finally revealed. His research uncovers troubling incidents of memory loss in the past, dating all the way back to Viking and Phoenician cultures, and what he discovers in these ancient cases bodes ill for the future.

Narrator Mark Shanahan handles all the voicing duties here, but, like a radio dramatization, this abridged production is enhanced by sound effects and music. The novel's locations are accompanied by background noise, such as the sound of the train rolling over the tracks, the sound of traffic as D'Amato walks around Manhattan, the crash of waves at the beach. D'Amato's many cell conversations are characterized by the tinny, scratchy sound of mobile phone reception. Music fades in as scenes come to their climaxes, and audio cues let the listener know when the narrative moves to a new location or time passes. It's very easy for this sort of thing to become annoying, but this production does it quite well, and it compliments Shanahan nicely. Though Shanahan doesn't have great range, he modulates his voice well enough that who is speaking is never in question, and his smooth, relentless narration propels the novel to its conclusion.

Some of the police procedural aspects here are dubious (such as D'Amato's seemingly infinite travel budget), but overall The Consciousness Plague is an enjoyable, if sometimes overly convenient, SF/mystery hybrid. Though detective genre fans might question some of the technical details, there's no need to question the quality of this audio production-it's top notch.


  • The Crystal City by Orson Scott Card, read by Stefan Rudnicki, M. E. Willis, and cast
    (Audio Renaissance 1593974868 [cd], $44.95, 12 hours, unabridged) October 2004. (Audible, www.audible.com, [digital], $31.47) July 2004.
    Listen to an excerpt (provided by Audible): windows media | real

In this sixth and penultimate volume of The Tales of Alvin Maker, Card's brilliantly-imagined, quintessential American fantasy series, Alvin is sent by his wife, Peggy-a "torch" who is able to see the future-to Nueva Barcelona (New Orleans) in an attempt to avert an upcoming war over slavery. Soon after his arrival, a girl witnesses Alvin using his "knack" to clear the murky water at the town well, and he's asked to heal the girls' ailing mother. Alvin works the woman's sickness into remission, but an oversight leads to a mass epidemic, inflicting the yellow fever upon all of Barcy. This epidemic, coupled with an impending military conflict, leads to a mass exodus, forcing Alvin to use his Maker skills to lead his people-the slaves and the poor-across Lake Pontchartrain, and to freedom. From there, their journey takes them north, to the unsettled territory west of Vigor Church, where Alvin, with the help of a few good friends, fulfills a prophetic vision of his youth.

The previous Alvin Maker books, though abridged, are some of the best audiobooks of all time. But after a change in audio publishers, beloved series narrator Nana Visitor was replaced by a cast lead by Stefan Rudnicki and M. E. Willis. These two provide the bulk of the narration, with Rudnicki voicing the parts told from Alvin's point of view, and Willis voicing those from Arthur Stuart's. The cast is rounded out with additional contributions from David Birney (as Calvin), Scott Brick (as Verily Cooper), and Gabrielle de Cuir (as various females). These five transport the listener to Card's alternate America with their masterful use of the speech patterns and dialects of colonial times, and their energetic narration enlivens Card's already sterling prose. Though Visitor will be missed, this superb performance by Rudnicki and cast show that the series remains in good hands.


  • The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer, read by Gerard Doyle
    (Recorded Books 1402593449 [cd], $29.99, www.recordedbooks.com [rental], $17.50, 14 hours, unabridged) September 2004.

In the year 793, young Jack lives a rather mundane life-hauling driftwood, building up the fire, that sort of thing-until he's apprenticed to the village bard. The old skald teaches Jack much about magic and the way of the bard, but just when things start to get interesting, Viking berserkers raid the village and capture Jack and his young sister Lucy as slaves. Things look grim, but they look worse still when the Northmen take Jack and Lucy to the court of King Ivar the Boneless, where Jack accidentally offends the queen. In order to make amends (and save the life of his sister Lucy), Jack must travel to Jotunheim-the land of trolls-and retrieve the song mead from Mimir's well. Jack's joined on this quest by the giant berserker chief Olaf One-Brow; Thorgil, the petulant young shield maiden; and Bold Heart, an intelligent and friendly crow. But it won't be easy, for where they're going, "everything's nastier."

Nancy Farmer, who won the National Book Award for her previous novel, The House of the Scorpion, is in similar, award-worthy form here, in relating this fun and vibrant adventure tale which draws on the rich cultural and mythological heritage of Scandinavia. Narrator Gerard Doyle's quietly powerful performance, delivered in a soothing British English with child-like wonder is at once endearing and captivating. His vocal range is impressive, as he shifts from the treble voices of Jack and Thorgil to the deeper baritones of Olaf and the trolls. Equally remarkable is his ability to convey emotion, everything from humor-such as Olaf's advice to Jack: "Just say no to pillaging"-to sorrow-such as Thorgil's wailing anguish at the death of one of her compatriots.

That a story about bards should succeed so brilliantly when read-aloud is somehow appropriate-it is the sort of book that people will cite as the reason they fell in love with fantasy, and it is the sort of recording that people will cite as the reason they fell in love with audiobooks.

REWIND

  • The Best of Analog edited by Stanley Schmidt, read by Stefan Rudnicki, Gabrielle de Cuir, and cast
    (Audible, www.audible.com, [digital], $17.47, 7 hours, unabridged) January 2003.
    Listen to an excerpt (provided by Audible): windows media | real

  • The Best of Asimov's edited by Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams, read by Stefan Rudnicki, Scott Brick, and Gabrielle de Cuir
    (Audible, www.audible.com, [digital], $17.47, 7.5 hours, unabridged) January 2003.
    Listen to an excerpt (provided by Audible): windows media | real

These two audio anthologies, which collect the "best" of Analog and Asimov's from mostly from the year 2002, are probably not familiar to readers of the magazines or listeners of audiobooks. The reason? They were under-publicized and went unrecognized by the public-at-large, making these recordings undeservedly obscure. Though the project failed financially, it was successful both artistically and creatively, resulting in these two fine collections.

The Best of Analog features "Slow Life" by Michael Swanwick (a 2002 Hugo Award-winner), "The Astronaut from Wyoming" by Adam-Troy Castro and Jerry Oltion, "The Hunters of Pangaea" by Stephen Baxter, and "In Spirit" by Pat Forde. The Best of Asimov's, meanwhile, features "The Clear Blue Seas of Luna," Gregory Benford, "Speaker for the Woodland Sea," by Ian Watson, "Candy Art," by James Patrick Kelly, and "With Caesar in the Underworld" by Robert Silverberg.

Of these two anthologies, the Analog is superior; the stories are better suited to audio, and each story is truly a fine example of the best of what Analog publishes. Perhaps the best of these Pat Forde's post-9/11 masterpiece, "In Spirit," but also worth noting is the excellent portrayal of the dream-like sequences in "Slow Life." When the protagonist attempts to interact with the aliens of Titan, the alienness of the communication is illustrated by the use of atmospheric music; in text, this is easily denoted by italics, but is much harder to do on audio, and the techniques used here work exceedingly well.

Of four selections from Asimov's, "Candy Art" succeeds best. While the Watson and Silverberg aren't ideally suited to audio, the adaptations are solid, and both are read by Rudnicki, which is always a treat. The lone disappointment here is the Benford story, which deals with complicated SFnal ideas that might come across well-enough on paper, but end up somewhat incomprehensible on audio. Still, three out of four isn't bad, and with good short fiction being hard to come by on audio. Though not quite as good as the Analog collection, The Best of Asimov's is still among the best short fiction audiobooks available in the genre.

Perhaps someday someone will figure out how to make audio editions of the fiction magazines cost effective. With these recordings, Audible, Rudnicki, and crew prove that it's certainly a worthwhile endeavor.

[Ed. Note: Also available from Audible is a complete year's worth of bi-monthly, "best of" The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction audio editions.]

— John Joseph Adams

First published in Locus Magazine, December 2004


John Joseph Adams is the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and the audiobook reviewer for Locus Magazine. His non-fiction has appeared in (or is forthcoming from) The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Science Fiction Weekly, and Amazing Stories. You can visit his website at www.tuginternet.com/jja.


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