Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Reading :: Spell of Catastrophe and Spell of Intrigue

Spell of Catastrophe
Spell of Intrigue
by Mayer Alan Brenner

Every once in a while I take a break and read some of the science fiction and fantasy books that really sparked my love of reading as a kid. So when I saw on BoingBoing that Mayer Alan Brenner was releasing his out-of-print fantasy series under a Creative Commons license, I figured I might as well take a look.

The first two books of the series are now online at Brenner's website in PDF format. You can also buy them used on Amazon for a cent apiece, plus shipping. But I really didn't want to commit to that degree -- or kill the trees to print them out -- so I ended up reading the PDFs in odd moments on my laptop. Think of it as an experiment in remediating print genres through new media and distribution channels, I guess.

The books themselves are not what I would call great. They have some interesting points, and the spellcasting mechanism sounds a bit like what Larry Niven did in his fantasy phase, but the author never quite manages to strongly differentiate the voices or world views of his characters. Some complex action scenes and visuals really suffered from the author's descriptive style, so I had trouble envisioning some of the key points in the book. And post-9/11, post-tsunami, the climax of Spell of Catastrophe seems to be far too lightly handled. On the other hand, the books still manage to be fairly engaging and the world that Brenner constructs seems to have potential.

The remediation aspect is actually more interesting. Since Brenner can control his own content and distribution now, he has gone ahead and written annotations of the books, including his recollections of how he shaped and sold the manuscripts, the influences on which he drew (e.g., Star Wars and the Society for Creative Anachronisms), and how he reacts to the series two decades later. Since he is no longer concerned with selling his work, he loads the annotations with spoilers. And since the PDFs are full text, not scans, the books themselves offer interesting possibilities such as easy searches of the text.

I'd recommend the series if you consume a lot of fantasy and are not terribly picky, or if you like to see how fantasy/sf worlds are constructed to support a large series. But I recommend the website to anyone who is thinking through the relationship of old to new media and the long tail.

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