jfs: (boy with cat)
A quiet weekend, mostly on my own, though with a welcome few hours in the local with [livejournal.com profile] caddyman and [livejournal.com profile] ellefurtle. So in the silence of my flat (silent if you don't count the TV from next door - Doris is in her 80s, and is somewhat hard of hearing) I've been reading, and thinking about re-reading.

I think all readers have their comfort blankets; books that have to be nearby, even if they're not frequently read. Some of mine will come as no surprise to most of you - Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, LeGuin's Earthsea, Pratchett's Diskworld. Books from my childhood and teens; comfortable like an old jumper with holes in the elbows and history woven through.

Others are newer; I've been reading Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos stories since my first visit to London as an adult. I was giving a paper at a conference, and the Library Association had an arrangement with, of all places, the Union Jack club in Waterloo. The Union Jack is a private members club for serving and ex members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces, and I rented a room there for the three days of the conference. As a geeky, skinny, spekkie 22 year old, I really didn't fit in with either the squaddies or the officers who were in the bar and in the TV room. So I wandered around Waterloo until I found a remaindered book shop (which is still there) and bought and devoured the first three novels. They're not my favourites though. The real comfort blanket for me is Issola, which is a tale of love, friendship and manners. Without spoilers, the ending is probably the saddest of all of Brust's novels, and yet that feeling of loving melancholy is one I return to again and again.

Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise stories keep pulling me back. They're short - the 1970s and 80's Pan paperbacks I have (with the most ridiculous covers) are 70,000 words or so. Small enough to put in the back pocket of a pair of jeans or inside a coat, short enough to devour in a couple of hours, familiarity allowing me to concertina through the stories - flipping ahead quickly to get to the parts that I savour. O'Donnell's writing is slick, and his characters are way better than Bond for emphasising with, even if his situations are as far fetched.

And then, my most escapist, most comfortable blanket of all - Kipling's Kim. There's a lovely moment in Stalkey and Co, where the headmaster of the school, having just beaten Stalkey, M'Turk and Beetle for breaking rule 7 into little bits (breaking school boundaries, smoking, getting their teachers into trouble), tells them '"And that reminds me. There are a pile of paper-backs on that shelf. You can borrow them if you put them back. I don't think they'll take any harm from being read in the open. They smell of tobacco rather. You will go to prep. this evening as usual. Good-night." My copy of Kim is like that. (Well, without the tobacco smoke.) It's a hardback from 1957 that will fit into any coat I own, and I've read it many times. The paper is thin, but of much higher quality than you see now in books, and durable; I've no doubt it will out last me.

And it begins: "He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher - the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that 'fire breathing dragon' hold the Punjab, for that great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot."

Why the introspection?I was chatting to friends in the pub on Friday night about tech, and Kindles, and possible changes, and we all acknowledged that we're reading more and more ebooks, and buying fewer paper books. (And the same with movies and music.) But if you walk into my flat at present, you'll see books in every room; my personality and choices on display. We're moving away with that; if I read a Kindle in public you have no idea what I'm looking at; no longer will publishers have to create 'adult' covers for Harry Potter so businessmen can read them on the train without embarrassment. The ebook reader brings privacy, but at the cost of shuttering a quick glimpse into the soul.
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One of my favourite books about how to write is Stephen King's "On Writing". King, like John Irving, has such a distinctive voice when he writes - that New England laconic that infects my writing style for weeks after I've read something of theirs, sticking to my fingers like creosote, staining my keyboard with their rhythms.

So, following links on a dull May Bank Holiday Sunday, I found a post by Neil Gaiman where he'd interviewed King for the Sunday Times and then, because the Times interview is behind a paywall, has posted the interview on his blog. And one of the things that King said put my back up at first. He's written a sequel to The Shining.

I'm not a big fan of sequels that come out many years after. Le Guin managed it with Tehanu, but it took 10 years for me to (grow up and) like that book once it had been published. The questions it asked and answered about what had happened to Ged in the first three books were questions that it took me a long while to appreciate needing to be asked. Scott Card's 'Shadow' books were disastrous - take a character (Ender) that went through hell, and then take all his victories away from him 20 years later because the authors new favourite character (Bean) is working in the background, making things easier. It's revisionism, pure and simple.

So when King said he had written a sequel to The Shining, my instinctive reaction was to be wary.

And then he said this:

“I wanted to write Dr Sleep because I wanted to see what would happen to Danny Torrence when he grew up. And I knew that he would be a drunk because his father was a drunk. One of the holes it seemed to me in The Shining is that Jack Torrance was this white-knuckle dry drunk who never tried one of the self-help groups, the like Alcoholics Anonymous. I thought, okay, I'll start with Danny Torrence at age forty. He is going to be one of those people who says 'I am never going to be like my father, I am never going to be abusive like my father was'. Then you wake up at 37 or 38 and you're a drunk. Then I thought, what kind of a life does that person like that have? He'll do a bunch of low-bottom jobs, he'll get canned, and now he works in a hospice as a janitor. I really want him to be in a hospice worker because he has the shining and he can help people get across as they die. They call him Dr Sleep, and they know to call for him when the cat goes into their room and sits on their bed. This was writing about guy who rides the bus, and he's eating in a McDonalds, or on a special night out maybe Red Lobster. We are not talking about a guy who goes to Sardi's.”

And, you know? That's just such an awesome summary of 30 years of someone's life, 30 years of what would have happened to someone who went through what Danny did at the Overlook, 30 years of never being able to let go of the past.

I'm very much looking forward to reading this.
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My niece reads as voraciously as I do. Those of you who have been to my house know what that means. So for a couple of years, I bought her the Swallows and Amazons hardbacks - a couple for birthdays, a few for Christmas. Even when she was desperate to find out what happened next, and her Mum said that she could go and buy the books with her own money, she didn't want to. Those were the books that I bought her, and this was a thing between us.

So you can imagine when I bought the last one for her, I knew I had a hard act to follow.

Come last April, I looked around the books that I thought she'd like, and that would mean something to her. And I found the 'Hunger Games' trilogy - strong female protagonist, sci fi, exciting. Perfect. But one of the reviews made me pause - I hadn't read the books and my niece is young for her age. So I ordered them for me and read them first; if they were great and appropriate, I'd buy my niece her own set. If they were either rubbish or not appropriate, then I wouldn't.

Hmm.

The books are fantastic.

There's no way I want my 13 year old niece reading them. Not yet.

So you can imagine when I saw that a film was being made, I was slightly concerned. Even more so when I saw that it was going to get a 12A certificate.

I went to see it tonight.

It's everything that the books are; dark, melancholic, disturbing. It's a great film - it's a long time since a film has put my heart in my mouth for me and it happened several times tonight. The cuts they make to the book all make sense, and are few and far between.

It's a powerful story. And it's one I'll watch again. But not one that I'd suggest to my sister for my niece. Not just yet.

Even before I'd seen the film though, I'd heard ... not the soundtrack. I don't know if this is common but alongside the soundtrack album, there's this one - - The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond. As best I can tell, these are largely songs that fit the theme, or that have been written to complement the film - certainly the lyrics in many cases are too apposite to not reflect the story.

And it's just beautiful.

I've been listening to it on repeat pretty much for the last week or so, and there's one track in particular that I've played over and over - I might as well, because when I'm not, I still hear the chorus. Friends call this an earworm. When you have a track that you just can't get out of your head. There's a way out - you need an emergency backup track that's even more tenacious, to drive the earworm out.

But I don't want this one to go, not yet.

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I have the day off work; I was pretty sure that after running a cabaret at a festival, I'd need it - especially as I didn't get home until 11pm because of booking a late ferry crossing (my own fault, and definitely Lethargy Tax - I could have got an earlier ferry if I'd booked my ticket more than a month ago.)

I had to return the hire car this morning though, so I was up at 8am and the car was back by 9.30. That's okay - I don't need sleep, just not to be doing much.

So I got back to Ilford and mooched around the shops, somewhat inevitably ending up in Waterstones, even more inevitably buying books. And as I left I noticed that they had the new Terry Pratchett novel, "I Shall Wear Midnight" - the final book in the Tiffany Aching story. So I went back in and bought that too.

Because it's a mooching day, and because I hadn't had breakfast, I stopped for coffee and started reading. Three hours later I looked up from my book with tears in my eyes, the story finished.

I've liked Terry Pratchett for a very long time. I remember reading one of his books in the Burger King in Brighton and laughing out loud at the cleverness of his turn of phrase - he mentioned that the Medusa often had problems with underarm deodorant - the snakes kept biting the heads off the roll-ons.

Think about the implications of that for a second.

He also introduced me to my favourite GK Chesterton quote, and explained why fairy stories are important all in one go (even though he misquoted Chesterton): "Fairy stories don't teach children that monsters exist. They already know that. Fairy stories teach them that monsters can be slain".

And then he switched from merely clever to worthy, and I liked that too. He took fantasy and he used it to tell us truth about the world we live in, and did it without preaching and with humour - the spoonful of sugar that made the medicine go down delightfully.

With the Tiffany Aching books, he switched from worthy and thought provoking to soulful. For me, the Aching books are my favourite of his stories, because Tiffany herself is a character I feel affection for, not one that I merely admire. I care deeply what happens to her and that is one of the greatest gifts an author can bestow.

I was speaking to a friend recently and he expressed some concern that 'Midnight' would not be a great book. Certainly, Pratchett's recent books haven't grabbed me - Thudd, Making Money and Going Postal all had moments of what I love about his work, but not many of them. They're perfectly good books, but not up to his best. Unseen Academicals is okay, but nothing more than that. Is it the Alzheimer's? A lack of caring about the Discworld? Running out of ideas?

Having seen him speak at the National recently, and being very aware that he wasn't the same person I'd heard speak 5 years previously, I had much the same fears.

I won't post spoilers about the story, but I will say my fears were groundless. Is 'Midnight' his best book? I can't tell you yet. Give me a few years to see which ones I re-read over and over and then I'll let you know. But it's a worthy finish to the story he started telling in 2003, and like the best childrens books often are, full of beauty and certainly suitable for adults.

The tears in my eyes at the end were mainly there because it very much felt like a good-bye.
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I like maps. I've probably bored many of you (especially when I'm drunk) about maps, and the underground, and isochronic vs topographic maps, and how computers allow us to do things with maps that we could only dream of in paper.

But I'm also, at heart, a book person. I like having the weight of a book in my hands, sat curled up on the sofa with a pile of cushions behind me, coffee and biscuits within reach, and a new book to open.

So I'm overly excited at the moment.

When I left UCL my colleagues were very generous with their leaving present, and very wise. Because they gave me a reasonably large stack of book vouchers, and those vouchers have been sitting there for a while, because I wanted to work out what to buy with them. You have to be careful with vouchers, much like giving cash as a present - it would have been easy to take the vouchers and dent my Amazon wish list significantly. But then I'd have had a pile of gifts that would have disappeared onto the shelves and while I'd have enjoyed them, the impact of the gift would have dissipated as the atoms of it dispersed in the Brownian Decimal Classification scheme I use for my shelves.

So instead, I've just ordered a copy of this: the Times Atlas of the World. One of the most respected atlases available and, more importantly, something I'd never have justified buying for myself. A memory of my time at UCL, and of my colleagues there.

And a fantastically interesting book as well.

I'm just glad that [livejournal.com profile] catpookabuilds exceedingly good shelves.

(And I'm going to owe my postman an apology ...)
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Following the interview with Ursula Le Guin last week, this week, Radio 4 talk to Alan Garner about his Cheshire set books.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00j6xxz/Alan_Garner_The_Return_to_Brisingamen/
jfs: (Default)
""It is not just for a student's grade to depend on the willingness or capacity of a stranger to help him with his homework. I am ready to discuss this with your teacher, principal or school board."

Robert Heinlein's Form Letter.
jfs: (Default)
So where's it from?

It's not the same list as the BBC Big Read from 2003, which was voted for by the public.

As best I can tell it's nothing to do with the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read project; that doesn't have a top 100 list, let alone an assertion about 'average adults'.

Does it matter?

I hate 'list' memes generally; unless someone goes through to actually explain why they would highly recommend a book, or wouldn't touch another one with a bargepole they really don't tell you anything about the person who is doing the answering. Frankly, they're about as elucidating as the "Which Purple Power Puff Pony Are You?" questionnaires.

They're a way of keeping score? Well - I can see that. If we knew the provenance of the list, we'd at least know who we're keeping score against, and in what company. But this, with its vague attribution that doesn't actually hold up to scrutiny?

Each other, perhaps?

So here's a new Meme.

Pick one book from that list, and argue for or against it. Why should everyone you know read it, or why should all extant copies of it be pulped?

That's likely to be a lot more interesting than bolding, italicising and underlining 100 lines of text, neh?
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I had the slightly embarrassing thing of walking into the bookstore yesterday and completely blanking on what book it was I wanted to buy. So, here's a list of my 'wants' at the moment - more for my own purposes than anything else.

Jerry Oltion: The Getway Special and Anywhere but here - an exploration of what woul d happen in a world where an FTL drive can be cobbled together out of spare parts for about $200. Currently an interesting discussion thread on RPG.net where true to form, 2/3 of the posters have instantly said "how do we weaponise this?". I like those sort of threads - it allows me to create a list of people I never want to game with.

Ken Follett: Jackdaws - this was the book I blanked on, largely because I remembered that the italian translation of the story had the title 'La Gazza Ladras' which means 'the thieving magpies' - I don't know if the Italians don't have jackdaws, perhaps, but it was enough to cause a mental block. Anyhow, it's the story of an all women resistance group in France in 1944. I don't think I've read any of Ken Follett's stuff before, but I figure someone with his sales is likely to be a good pageturner, if nothing else.

More may well be added to this list as time goes on.
jfs: (NWO)
Warning - geek post ahead.

http://www.rpg.net has a new feature - a gaming index, created by the readers. You can add in a gaming supplement that you have, rate it, and discuss it. Or if someone else has already added it, you can flag that you own it, or that you want a copy.

That's not so bad.

What's bad is that you can go through the list of products for a gaming line, all on one screen, and tick the box that says "I own this" and you get a little green bar around the box.

People who have seen my bookshelves may see where this is going.

So I went to the Ars Magica page, and started idly ticking boxes. And by the time I'd reached the bottom of the page, with its 60 items, I found that I had perhaps 15 unticked.

And that's when the collector-boy-gene kicked in and said "you know, it probably wouldn't take a lot of effort to complete that list."

The collector-boy-gene lies, of course. One of the items on the list is so rare that the last time it was for sale on ebay, it went for $500+. And a lot of the supplements I'm missing are adventures, and I don't like buying adventures for games - they're based of such a different approach to the way I want to tell stories that I either stripmine them for ideas or read through them, harumph and then put them back on the shelf.

But those poor lines without the green bars are calling to me.

I must be strong.
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It was my niece's birthday earlier in the week, and given that we're travelling home today for my Dad's 65th, I thought I'd take the present up for Jade rather than posting it.

I've gotten her five old books - actually taken them off my shelves and wrapped them rather than going to the shops and buying new ones, even though I know they're still in print.

You see, in a conversation with my sister, it emerged that my niece has not read Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence.

Those of you who are regular readers of this journal may have an inkling of how incredibly happy I am at the present moment.
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With the estimable [livejournal.com profile] forbinproject and [livejournal.com profile] westernind, I went to see V for Vendetta yesterday evening. To make sure my anger gland was full to the fullest fullity, I re-read the graphic novel on Sunday, and had a look at a couple of the websites where Alan Moore describes what Hollywood have done to his work.

And you know what?

It's a good film.

Not "It's okay, I guess." Not "it's about the best we could have hoped." Not "Well, it's better than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen".

It's a good film.

It simplifies the message of the graphic novel a little, but you know - having re-read it over the weekend, it could do with simplifying. The graphic novel is great, but Moore himself admits that it's written over the best part of a decade, and that the early sections don't gel particularly well with the later ones. And V's anarchistic ravings are ... well frankly, they're not the most coherent thing I've ever read.

A couple of spoiler free points:

  • The mask. No Judge Dredd moment here. The mask stays on all the time. And whoever was the lighting director deserves much kudos because between them and Hugo Weaving, the mask is animated - it changes expression without physically changing at all. Weaving acts with his body instead of his face, and that brings emotion to the mask.


  • The rampant Americanisms - didn't see them. The line "we call it eggy in a basket" comes across as incredibly corny written down, and many people, myself included, were quite scornful - that's an American breakfast, we said. No one in England would call it that. Well, unless they're Stephen Fry. Because when he says it, it suddenly becomes one of those breakfasts that upper class nannys fed to children destined for boarding school and buggery while their father reads the Times and mother worries about her roses. Fry injects whimsy into the line, and it works because of it. In a similar fashion, when Evey says (after V's first virtuoso vengeful monologue) "are you like a crazy person?" it doesn't come across as Valley Girl - her accent isn't perfect, but it's good enough that she sounds like a well bred English girl (most of the time - sometimes, she's a little bit Australian ...)



Definitely worth seeing, in my opinion.
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As many of you know, I went to the Susan Cooper talk at Random House last night. The room it was in was strange - in the basement of Random House, with grey leather alcoved seats and little round tables along one wall - very tight circles of alcoves, with a little stool set like the jewel in a ring at the end of the benches. But the lighting was too bright for a coffee bar or wine bar, which is where the seats were trying to be. The walls were painted by committee - a quite neutral pastel green so as not to be offensive, with thin bright primary coloured stripes clustered together in the corners, just in case anyone might think that the walls were too dull on their own.

And on the wall opposite the alcoves were stainless steel serverys, empty of anything more substantial than finger nibbles.

There was no green room, no curtain, so the author stood just around the corner and we all pretended to ignore her until she was ready for us. She's a short, slender woman, dressed in a smart black suit with golden jewellery and silver hair. The brooch on her lapel looks like a circular mask, but for a second, as she turns to sit, it has owl eyes, looking to me like the cover of Over Sea, Under Stone. Her accent is still English, even after 40 years in the United States, and she sounds and looks like so many London women; comfortable in her skin and not afraid to show her years.

The majority of people sitting, watching and listening were women - but that's hardly surprising. children's librarians and primary school teachers mostly are. And that's the feel I was getting from the audience; these were people for whom books formed an essential part of their lives, and who had an interest in good children's books. I spoke to a few of the women later over wine and cake, and all of those that I spoke to were teachers, and all had children of their own. But all of them remembered A Dark is Rising from when they first encountered the books, not from when their children did.

Susan began to speak, introduced and questioned by Nick Tucker, who writes about children's books for the Independent. She read a couple of excerpts from her latest novel, Victory, which is based around Nelson and the battle of Trafalgar. "Nelson is one of my heroes," she said, "along with Merlin and Shakespeare. They're very English heroes." Englishness / Britishness was something she kept coming back to - Molly, one of the heroes of Victory, is an English girl who has been moved to the USA because her mother had remarried and who is homesick because of it, something that Susan Cooper obviously felt keenly when she moved to the States. "The Dark is Rising books came from that feeling of homesickness", she said. "I wanted to immerse myself in the myths and legends of Britain when I was in such a foreign country. As a result, the books are myth-haunted."

Eventually, the time for questions came around, and I eventually put my hand up. "Firstly," I said, "when I was 11 I wanted my birthday to move from September to December so that there was a chance I could open the curtains and see snow." There were several quiet "Oh yes"'s from the people sitting behind me. My actual question was something about handwriting versus word processing (she hand writes in the morning, then transcribes and edits onto computer in the afternoon, if you're interested) but I'd said the important thing.

Later on, I asked her about the movie tie in, and she said that the reason she'd gone with this offer rather than any other was because she's know the producer for 25 years, and so trusts him to do as good a job as possible.

Finally, I bought a copy of Victory and took it up to her to be signed. As she was signing it, I told her that it was reading King in Shadows that solved my dilemma of what to say at Roz and Simon's wedding, because of the role that Sonnet 116 plays in the book. She grinned, and said "I read that out at my daughter's wedding. Great minds, eh?"

I'm not usually one for hero worship, and had you asked me a week ago whether being in the same room as someone I'd never met before would have scared me so, I'd have been doubtful.

Not any more.

God forbid I ever meet Ursula Le Guin.
jfs: (Default)
[livejournal.com profile] oldnick has just posted about an Ars Magica Play By E-Mail game he's getting started in, set in Shropshire. My interest piqued, I asked for further details, and found it's set in Church Stretton, near the Long Mynd.

Like many children growing up, I wanted to know about the place I was - I've written before how Susan Cooper wrote my mythology for me, by weaving Welsh and English stories together in the Dark is Rising series, but Nick's post reminded me of another series of books I used to devour - the Lone Pine series by Malcolm Saville. They were sort of a more grown up Famous Five - the characters involved actually aged over the series, became teenagers, fell in and out of love - but the early books were still thrillers set in and around that area of Shropshire. given that the first of the books take place during World War Two, there are tales of Nazi spies who would have got away with it if it hadn't been for those damn kinds (and their pony, as I recall.)

Savilles heroes travelled - there were books set in Hastings and Rye, as well as Shropshire- and his sense of place was very evocative; he wrote about real people and real places in a way that Blyton never did. As was often the problem at the age of 11 when I read a book of his almost every day, I was pretty soon reading about things I didn't have a full comprehension of - kissing was still something to be avoided when it came on TV and Saville's heroes grew up over 20 books and 40 years. I read them in one summer; an accelerated fly by of their lives.

But I still remember his descriptions of dark nights on the Long Mynd, and the fog hiding the Devil's Chair on the Stiperstones.
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'Hogfather' TV film deal proves an offer Pratchett could not refuse

Terry Pratchett is overseeing a televisation of Hogfather, using human actors rather than animation. With Ian Richardson voicing DEATH, and David Jason playing Albert, DEATH's assistant, this will be on Sky TV for Christmas 2006.

Commenting on his known antipathy towards selling the film rights of his books, Pratchett said:

"I'm not a very easy person to negotiate with. The books make me a lot of money and I have very much enjoyed writing them. You have to give up a lot of control for the movies and I can't quite bring myself to do it. TV is more fun than movies, because you can get involved more, because these people are close at hand."

I've seen something on one of the Discworld fan sites that suggests that Malcolm Macdowell for the assassin Teatime, but given that there's nothing on IMDB about Hogfather at all, I can't track that any further.

jfs: (ghosts)
I don't particularly like to engage in IPR piracy, though hopefully I'm not too preachy about it. And I'm no saint in the matter; certainly.

But I've just been flicking through Ebay and come across something that I hadn't encountered before. It's now possible to buy a DVD with a complete run of Hellblazer comics on it for £6 plus p+p. And I doubt that that's the only comic that it's possible to buy large amounts of scanned issues for.

I guess I just never considered reading my comics on my computer (or even on my TV).
jfs: (Default)

A Wizard of Earthsea was, alongside Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, one of the stories that shaped my childhood. I still have the map that Nici Hawkins drew me of Earthsea, painstakingly copied from the frontispiece of the book and blown up to poster size.

And I have made no attempt whatsoever to see the Sci Fi Channel version of it, because as soon as I heard of it, I also heard of Ursula Le Guin's attitude towards it (that's a link to an article called "A whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books" if you'd like a hint as to what she thought).

I was colour-blind when I was reading it at the age of 8 - it literally didn't register that Ged was brown and Vetch was black - I didn't think of the Kargs as white - I thought of them as Vikings; after all, with the way we were taught history at that age, they were Vikings - dragon ships and horned helms and all.

This post by Pam Noles is worth reading, to see the perspective of someone who wasn't colour blind, and for whom A Wizard of Earthsea changed the world.

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