Superior link of the day: Khaaaaan!
I knew I was asking for it when I picked up Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. Usually I run screaming the other way at Niven’s name, but I thought this one was new and thus possibly up to the higher standards of characterization and believability that the genre has acquired since the alleged Golden Age. Instead, Dream Park turned out to be a reprint. The only reason imaginable for this piece of fluff to still be in print is also the only thing that keeps the umpteen indistinguishable characters limping along in a plot better suited to a crime thriller than a sci-fi novel - the Park itself.
Dream Park is the Disneyland of role-playing games. I suffered through it because I’ve been toying with a similar story idea and I needed to know what had been done. Let me say, not much. The park covers a significant area which is remodeled for each game - this time, with imported Brazilian fauna. The characters go in armed, but their weapons have holographic blades so as not to hurt any papier-mache monsters or actors playing the orcs; the computer records the virtual hits. This is where my disbelief blew out its suspension - how do you swing a holographic sword? This isn’t Star Wars with its solid lightsabers; presumably there is no way for one weapon to hit another weapon or a person - no experience of the padded broadsword thunking into the padded shield the way the real SCA does it. The basic physics of momentum have been overlooked.
Fantasy it ain’t, but if you want a mildly interesting tale of industrial espionage without any baggage of believable characterization involved, then give it a shot. Dream Park has two sequels - not many, considering the potential for milking the concept dry. Judging from the Amazon reviews they’re even worse than the original, if that’s possible.
After all that, Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold was a relief. LMB can be counted on for good characterization and a plot that rolls along, and I was drawn in to this novel. It took a while for the pseudo-Spanish titles (Royina, etc.) to stop annoying me, and I didn’t remember enough of The Curse of Chalion to know whether I should know anything about Ista or not. As always, LMB manages to fill in the series details smoothly.
I didn’t mind so much when I discovered that The Curse of Chalion was all about Miles, renamed Cazaril for the occasion. I was more disturbed to find that Ista was Ekaterin in disguise (right down to the oh’s), and not at all relieved when she morphed into Cordelia halfway through the novel. It rather undermines the fantasy background to have your characters acting so much like your space-opera characters would - and so I return to my old complaint that Chalion isn’t enough of a fantasy.
The world is stolen medieval Spain (others call it Renaissance, though there’s nothing being reborn here besides demons); the castles are nice, but I don’t really get the feeling of a medieval world, real or imagined. Chalion isn’t nearly as solid in its execution as Barrayar. The quintitarian theology is interesting, but religion supplants magic - cutting off yet another fantasy angle. Paladin does have some demon-wrought magic (a subplot that makes the novel for me) but then the gods get involved again with their dii ex machina and I’m left feeling that they are more real than the world of Chalion itself.
It occured to me that maybe this supernatural thriller/fantasy crossover counted as one of those genre-crossing works of which true literature is made (according to John Gardner). If so, I really need to get that suspension of disbelief repaired, because I’m dragging an axle here.