Tuesday, September 19, 2006



James Alan Gardner

  —   $6.99   —   Book

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Fiction, Science Fiction

James Alan Gardner returns to Earth for this story set in his Expendable universe. Philemon - Phil - and several of his co-workers at a second-rate private school are swept into an almost magical quest when one of their students is found murdered by means unknown. The quest, while thrust upon them, is almost welcomed by these folk. It seems that they understand how seriously they are in ruts, and how greatness has passed them by to the extent that they are willing to fight a mafiaesque group, a shapeshifting alien, and the humdrum run of snarky normal folk just to save one boy, the love of the murdered girl - oh, and incidentally, one of the most powerful psychics Earth has known.

Gardner's explanation of the "magic" that some Earth people possess is entirely plausible within the universe he has created, especially since he has already established that Earth was a bit of an experimental ground for certain alien species. But the true thrust of the story is the longings of the mediocre; it's all well and good to be the best at what you do, but to know that you are incapable of the supreme while still being able to recognize genius is a sort of torture. It also speaks of settling for second best, of treading water and knowing that is what you are doing. Phil is a decent mathematician but knows he is mostly fit for teaching "surplus" rich kids; the Steel Caryatid is a middling sorceress at best; Myoko's telekinesis is weak and causes great strain; and Sister Impenina has to fight constantly to overcome her "unholy" thoughts. This quest is their chance to break free of mediocrity; the Arthurian feel only underscores their fear that they are unsuited to the task, especially when the powerful Spark Lords step in.

It is an entertaining novel, not especially deep, but told from the first-person perspective of someone who feels as though life is passing him by. (Or that he is missing what is right before his eyes; in the cases where Gardner has a male protagonist, one gets the sense that he believes that they are apt to miss a lot of cues.)

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