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Archive for December, 2009

Quentin Coldwater was a Brooklyn high school student with brilliant grades and obsessed with the imaginary world of Fillory (a kind of Narnia). One day he took an odd test, and was invited to a special University where he was taught magic. While in Brooklyn Quentin was living an unhappy and unfulfilled life. While studying magic… well… his life kept unhappy: magic was difficult and did not bring an objective to his life. Without an objective, magic became just useful to take an easy life, enjoying instant pleasures: drink, sex and drugs. One day, the discovery of an artifact from Fillory brought the opportunity for an adventure…

The Magicians is mostly a decadent mix of Harry Potter with The Chronicles of Narnia. Quentin is a kind of Harry Potter without objectives. He has all his needs fulfilled but there is no Lord Voldemort to fight. At the School of Magic he meets a group of students sharing the same problem, each one with a special way of dealing with it. His best friends are Alice, a brilliant hard-working student who has all kinds of Freudian, anti-Freudian and pseudo-Freudian conditions, and Eliot, a genius-boy that learns everything without studying and who is an alcoholic gay sex addict. The characters are very well constructed and described, as well as the (strange) relationships among them and the way they evolve throughout the story.

Although The Magicians has some more or less subtle dark humored references to Harry Potter, Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, it is not just a jest on other books. It has a story for itself, with interesting characters, and, most of all, an attractive writing. There is no need to be well acquainted with other works to find The Magicians interesting.

Note: this book is filled with dark humor. It may be depressing for people who do not get it.

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Alcina was the beautiful and glamorous Queen/Enchantress/Zoo-Keeper of a hospitable Island. She welcomed any ships that arrived and usually took the most handsome man for her lover. When Alcina got tired of the lover, she just transformed him into an animal for her Zoo.

One day a ship arrived at her Island commanded by two men. Alcina welcomed them but she was satisfied with her current lover, Ruggiero. Morgana, Alcina’s sister, fell in love with the younger one. However the older officer was Ruggiero’s friend Melisso, and the younger one (to whom Morgana fell in love) was Bradamante, Ruggiero’s bride, who came to rescue Ruggiero.

Ruggiero iwas under a spell and did not recognize his friends. Melisso managed to break the spell with a magic ring, and together they plotted to defeat Alcina by breaking the urn which was the source of her power. Without their powers, Alcina and Morgana vanished, never to be seen again.

The plot of Alcina, like many librettos at the time, was based on Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto. Handel, however, gave a great focus on the Alcina character, showing her reasons/feelings and her humanity, and so twisting the story: we actually feel pity for Alcina when she looses her powers.

I am a big admirer of Handel’s Operas, but Alcina is by far his best work. For me it is one of those Operas which went far beyond time and style, becoming an Universal Masterwork.

Alcina is a well balanced opera, where all the music serves its dramatic purpose (together with all the passages for a virtuoso performance). Each character’s personality is well developed: one can notice every nuance and change in a character just by paying attention to the isolated character’s arias in sequence. Another thing that I find remarkably brilliant is the sequence of arias in the second act: Morgana’s aria “Ama, sospira”, in which she mockingly warns Alcina that Ruggiero is deceiving her, then Ruggiero’s aria “Mio bel Tesoro”, where he pretends to be in love with Alcina, and then Alcina’s “Ah, mio cor” when she discovers Ruggiero’s deceit. The aria “Ah, mio cor” is a masterwork by itself, the mix of savage feelings in it is tremendous: from sadness and self-pity to pure rage against Ruggiero and against herself for falling in love with him.

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Renée Fleming (Alcina), Susan Graham (Ruggiero), Natalie Dessay (Morgana), Kathleen Kuhlmann (Bradamante), Les Arts Florissants, William Christie (live). My personal favorite. Fleming makes a perfect Alcina technically and dramatically, with all the pathos Händel intended to the role. Natalie Dessay is the lightest, funniest and more fairy-like Morgana on record. William Christie was attentive to every detail of the score, bringing up the best of it. This recording is often criticized by the lack of period singing: the singers have bigger voices than expected, and the improvisation is romantic bel-canto style, not baroque. I agree with these critics, but I like it as it is… Watch Renée Fleming as Alcina.

Joyce DiDonato (Alcina), Maite Beaumont (Ruggiero), Karina Gauvin (Morgana), Sonia Prina (Bradamante), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis. This is, in every way, a period style recording, with a very ballanced cast where everyone shines in her/his role. Didonato surprised me by singing as soprano and in such a feminine way. Beaumont is my favorite Ruggiero. Curtis does a good work with the conducting. The tempi are very fast, which works well with some arias, but not with others such as “Ah, mio cor”. Joyce DiDonato as Alcina

Arleen Augér (Alcina), Della Jones (Ruggiero), Eiddwen Harrhy (Morgana), Kathleen Kuhlmann (Bradamante), City of London Baroque Sinfonia, Richard Hickox. Augér is another first-rate Alcina, and in this recording she proved to be one of the greatest baroque interpreters, combining technique, baroque style and drama. Della Jones does a peculiar Ruggiero. The rest of the cast is fairly good. Hickox tends to be too slow (and sometimes sluggish). Arleen Augér as Alcina

Joan Sutherland’s recordings. There are two recordings available: the studio recording, with a starry cast (Teresa Berganza, Mirella Freni, etc), and the live recording, with Fritz Wünderlich. Both recordings are NOT in a period style, and are a must-have for every Sutherland fan (the live recording is also a must-have for every Wünderlich fan). I don’t think Sutherland was an expressive Alcina, though. Both casts are fairly good (even the not-so-famous cast in the live recording). The tempi are rather slow where they shouldn’t and, as a result, both recordings tend to get boring. Note: Sutherland was used to “steal” the aria “Tornami a vagheggiar” from Morgana.

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401 BC. An army of Greek mercenaries is paid by Cyrus to enter Persia and defeat his brother, the great Persian King Artaxerxes. This army is composed by more then ten thousand warriors, and its core is made by the feared Spartan warriors. The army manages to reach the outskirts of Babylon, in the very heart of Persia, and to defeat the Persian Army there.

However, Cyrus was killed in battle…

They won the battle but, as the pretendent to the throne was killed, the war was lost. The army was more than 6000 Km inside the Persian Empire, and the Persians didn’t want to be known that an army could ever get that far and than get away with it.

Sparta secretly supported that army, and expected to be rewarded if Cyrus became king, or no one to know about the Spartan involvement if the army was defeated. Cyrus was dead but the army wasn’t defeated.

In summary: everyone wanted the ten thousand men to vanish inside the Persian Empire. Except for the warriors themselves, who just wanted to return home.

The Lost Army was based in a true historical event, which later inspired Alexander the Great to invade the Persian Empire, and from the author’s note about the true events we can see that it is the fruit of a huge archeological research.

The narration comes from the point of view of a woman. Abira was the lover of the Greek writer in charge of the diary of the expedition, and travels among the other women (lovers, servants and prostitutes) who follow the army.

This is not another book of the “History-seen-by-a-woman” kind. The point of view of Abira works really well in this book as it is very practical, straight forward, and not overly feminist. Abira has a present but external voice, she is not influenced by a military position as she is neither a warrior nor a leader of warriors.

The story of The Lost Army remains always fresh and vivid, and all the characters have a great human plasticity. The opinion of the reader about the characters changes throughout the book, but remains always sympathetic, as they are just human.

Some war descriptions, and correspondent opinions by some characters, tend to be too sensationalistic. (A problem of the translation from Italian to English?!)

Overall, The Lost Army is a great epic in not-so-many pages.

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…Yellow Dog is the codename of a female spy working for a vast Mongol-dominated galactic empire. When she learns of anomalous events happening on the edge of civilized space – phantom ships appearing in the faster-than-light transit system which binds the empire together – Yellow Dog puts herself forward for the most hazardous assignment of her career. In deep cover, she must penetrate the autonomous zone where the anomalies are most frequent, and determine whether the empire is really under attack, and if so by who or what. Yellow Dog’s problems, however, are only just beginning. For the autonomous zone is under the heel of Qilian, a thuggish local tyrant with no love for central government and a reputation for extreme brutality.

This novella presents lots of good ideas. The heroine finds herself in a place where the several parallel dimensions cross each other, letting a spaceship jump from one to another. Each dimension is dominated by different party who ever struggled for the dominance of the Earth/Space: Mongols, Christians, Islamics, Lemurs (who competed with humans in the course of Natural History), and Reptiles (who competed with mammals). This novella shows the arrogance and aggressiveness of a long-winning party towards the ones it considers its inferiors, and the clash when many of these self-centered parties come face to face with one another.

The only problem of The Six Directions of Space shows up in the end: we want it to continue. The novella seems to be the prelude of a promising story.

The Six Directions of Space had an edition by itself and also shows up in the compilation The Mammoth Book of the Best New SF 22, edited by Gardner Dozois, which I started reading after the praise by a great friend of mine who is one of the Portuguese most credited experts in SciFi/Fantasy literature. Check her Portuguese blog Rascunhos.

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