I have something I find hard to admit. Not because it's illegal or immoral (or fattening) but because it's sorta embarassing. I'm a relapsed Piers Anthony fan. (The shame!)
I used to read the Xanth novels. I had -- and still have -- three bookshelves of Mr. Anthony's books. I have most of his series: The Apprentice Adept series, Incarnations of Immortality, Bio of a Space Tyrant, The Cluster series, Of Man And Manta. Heck, I even have a first printing of Sos The Rope -- October '68, published by Pyramid Science Fiction. It's the first time the book was published in novel form, and the second book he published besides Chthon.
(As an aside, most of the publishers of his books -- excluding Pyramid, I presume -- are online: Avon Books, Del Rey Books, Baen Books, and Tor Books. And Pulpless.Com, of course. I've yet to find one for Berkley Press/Ace Books, however.)
There. I think I've absolved myself. Well... not quite. A while ago, I stopped reading his books, because of the critics who say that "He's writing for the money." Because of the books I have, I made a pretty good case for that -- he admitted as much in a few of his Author's Notes, the most damning in Letters to Jenny in which he offered only one-tenth of his profits of the book to Jenny Gildwarg, an unfortunate girl (woman, rather -- she's nineteen at the time of writing) who was struck by a drunk driver in December '88.
How could he be so callous?
Thus, after January '96 (in which I read Shame of Man), his books languished on my shelf.
Forward to October. I had moved several months before, and my bookshelf was in disarray. For lack of nothing better to do, I sorted them out. I had remembered a few good things about his books, and since I was hard up for something to read, I picked out Split Infinity, the first book of the Apprentice Adept series, and started reading.
And I haven't stopped yet.
Yeah, the guy wrote for money. Of course he did. I won't repeat the Samuel Johnson quote here. But he doesn't write just for money. Check out his Geodyssey series -- no puns, and a bleepload of research went into 'em. 1 Timothy 6:10 doesn't apply here: the man loves writing, for reasons other than money. (If you want to read his books but don't want to give him the pleasure of your money, go to your library and read his books there. If you like them, but still don't want to give him money, donate to the library instead. Mr. Anthony did.)
Admittedly, I preferred Geodyssey, Tatham Mound and others, like the Time and Evil books of the Incarnations of Immortality series. I love the concept of time travel. As James Burke fans know, seemingly inconsequential things have great effects. History appeals to me too, as a result. Mr. Anthony has shown this in his earlier works. So when Pulpless.Com offered Volk, a historical novel, in exchange for a review, I took the offer. What you're reading is the result.
Such was the history that lead me to read the novel. What follows is the review of the novel proper.
The first thing that struck me was something rather pedantic: reading a book online isn't quite the same as reading it on paper. I can't imagine lugging my 486 into bed, and especially not into the tub. Yeah, I could print it out, but I'd rather waste electrons than trees. But that's not a problem with the novel itself.
To offset that "problem" is the added detail that an electronic edition permits. There's no editor to trim back extraneous words, and if Mr. Anthony wants a longer Author's note than usual, he can make it so.
And since Pulpless.Com isn't affiliated with the other book publishers, it includes a list of Piers Anthony books more complete than most I've seen. (Even though it's not listed, I still hope that DoOon Mode will be published. Of course, I also hope that Iron Maiden, book six of the Bio Of A Space Tyrant series, will be published. Hope springs eternal, especially with electronic publishers like Pulpless.Com to sidestep the paper publishers.)
Incidentally, the way Mr. Anthony writes is very familiar. The author of the book Primary Colors was identified by his writing style. There is a similar situation with Volk -- to use a cliché, it's like coming home. Punctuation, attention to detail, weird names for the protagonists -- it's definitely Piers.
But enough preamble -- on to the book itself.
Unlike many of Mr. Anthony's books, the three protagonists all appear in the first chapter: Lane Dowling is from New York. Quality Smith is a Quaker and a pacifist, unhappy with this second War To End All Wars. The twist is that they're best friends with the enemy -- a German, Ernst Best. Indeed, the title of the novel is a German word -- German for folk, as those who drive Volkswagens might surmise.
The novel follows the protagonists through the war. Quality and Lane have met in college, and want to get married (presumably to move to England and make candies. Quality Street candies. Get it? Enh, never mind) with Ernst as their best man.
Predictably, events during the war get in the way of this hope. The typical novel forces the protagonists to endure hardships, but the reader knows that they'll be together again in the closing pages. With Mr. Anthony's novels, this isn't always the case. Is it the case with Volk, too? You'll have to find out for yourself...
Seriously, there are some bad points to the book: The book doesn't show the polished surface that his other novels portray. Perhaps this may be because the author doesn't expect this electronic version to do well, but the roughness shows all the same. There are also several typo(e)s noticeable in the text, surely not all due to a faulty OCR scanner. "She was so confused she splattered.", for instance. Mr. Anthony's creative spelling, I suppose. [Update 2002: According to the second page of an interview Piers Anthony had with Crescent Blues, those spellings *were* due to bad editing, and that he didn't get a copy to proofread. The copy at Xlibris has, apparently, been corrected.]
Ernst also has a habit of pointing out the bad side of America whenever the Fatherland is insulted. This reminds me of a smoker who, when told to quit, tells his antagonists to stop their own habits before deigning to tell him what to do. It's a natural reaction, certainly ("`Let he who is without sin cast the first stone'" -- John 8:7) and it shows Mr. Anthony's ability to create believable characters.
Involved with that is the most controversial part of the novel -- that America wasn't without sin during the second World War. Indeed, it wasn't. As has been said, the victors write the history books -- but Mr. Anthony has found some that tell the truth.
(I thought of trying to indemnify myself at this point by saying I'm a Canadian, but we're just as guilty. We interned native-born people in concentration camps simply because they looked Japanese. One of our most well-known scientists, Dr. David Suzuki, had parents who were locked up in such a camp. Stone-throwing is meaningless if those figurative stones can be thrown back. We're all guilty. I could go into how neither fingerpointing nor silence will help -- but talking would -- but this is a review, not a social commentary.)
It shall be interesting to see if any reviewers will believe that Mr. Anthony is a closet Nazi because of this book. He doesn't portray them in a good light -- far from it, in fact; anyone who reads the prologue could see that -- but he does portray them realistically. As Peter McWilliams said, while arguing that consensual crimes should not be punished, "...just presume that I am a drug-selling homosexual prostitute gambler who drunkenly loiters all day with my six wives and four husbands, making and watching pornography while being treated by strange medical practices and running a cult on the side." In other words, someone who describes or even defends something isn't necessarily part of it. (Incidentally, the book from which the above fair-use quote came, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do, is available free at http://mcwilliams.com/, along with several other books of his.)
As I've intimated, the historical aspects of the novel are superb -- the attention to detail is as to be expected from Mr. Anthony. It has been said that the man writes potboilers -- books just written to make money. The work put into his novels (notable exceptions being Letters From Jenny and many of his Xanth books) makes this unlikely. His books contain research enough to make them realistic without turning them into a history lesson. Volk is no exception.
Mr. Anthony's style of writing is unmistakable in Volk. As I've mentioned above, the protagonists all appear in the first chapter, but each subsequent chapter contains just one as the main character. Individual third person, with attention to the thoughts of the main character, making one novel actually several intertwined, is a hallmark of Mr. Anthony's writing, and was another point that drew me into the novel.
By the way, there are little hints in the novel that suggest that Mr. Anthony identifies himself with Lane. (These are hints that only rabid readers like me would pick up -- the description of Lane's hair, for instance.)
Now that all is read and done, what's my opinion of the novel?
Mr. Anthony wrote in his usual style, discussing the intricacies in which incidental events conspire to twist fate along the circuitious route that maps our past. It's more than just a romance set in the second World War. It's a history book, and even though it includes those boring dates and figures, Mr. Anthony does so in such a way to make it intriguing. To twist a cliché, I couldn't put my keyboard down.
There are controversial aspects to the novel -- internment camps and the like -- but none of those aspects were created simply to inspire such controversy. They really happened. And that's the best kind of fiction. Even if it involves space ships or unicorns, as Volk certainly does not, if a story draws you in and makes you believe, if it makes you think, then the author has done the job right.
With Volk, Mr. Anthony has done just that. He shows how both sides thought during the second War, how both sides knew they were right and were ready to successfully argue their points, and how both sides were wrong, in both thought and deed. Mr. Anthony demonstrates the futility of war. If you're a pacifist -- indeed, if you're not -- Volk is a book worth reading. It's a book I'd want to buy on the bookstands, even if I weren't a Piers Anthony fan. (The shame!)
But because of the controversies surrounding the novel, it's only available online. (Through Pulpless.Com, of course.)
Do I think you should plunk down your hard-earned three bucks and fifty cents (plus service charges) even though I paid not a whit? Definitely. If you're a Piers Anthony fan (The shame!), or like history or war, or want something to read that isn't just written to make a buck by someone who doesn't give a buck, Volk is worth your money. There's a preview of the book available on Pulpless.Com. Go on, take a look. I won't tell.
And if you like it, tell Pulpless.Com by buying it. Let them know that you liked it, and want to see more, and they'll be able to bring more books online.
And thus you can create your own history.
Good lord; check out the copyright date below -- 1996. Have I really been online that long? Apparently I have. Because it's been 6 whole years (several generations in Internet time) since I wrote the above, I figure I ought to include some sort of update.
First and foremost, Pulpless.Com is no more. The site is still there, but much of it is in pieces. Indeed, the original page for Volk, with my quote on it, is one of the few on the site that still works. I'm not quite sure when Pulpless fell apart; presumably it was around the time of the dot-com failures. I knew the site had finally defaulted when I received some unsolicited e-mail -- y'know, spam -- that suggested I was the owner of the site (oh, and would I please pay ten bucks a month to be listed on 300,000 search engines, 299,994 of which nobody's ever heard of).
Fortunately, other companies have taken up the slack that Pulpless's passing left behind, notably Xlibris, a company in which Piers has entrusted money; he wants to see it succeed, too. If you would like to order Volk online, you can. Here's hoping Xlibris has a better future than Pulpless.
Oh, and remember my wish that Iron Maiden would appear in written form? Well, thanks to Xlibris, it has. Iron Maiden is available for purchase from their site. A preview of the first chapter has Hope playing a VR version of Asteroids in order to win Spirit her infamous finger-whip. At around $21 for a hardcover-sized paperback, it's certainly not cheap -- but it's there for the buying.
Piers is on the Internet, by the way. Well, sort of. Around '97, a year after I wrote the original version of this review, Hi Piers -- his newsletter -- stopped its printing run. Subsequently it appeared online on his official homepage, HiPiers.com. From his latest newsletters, he's learning Linux now. Will wonders never cease?
This review is Copyright 1996,2002 David McGrath. This review may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by mimeograph or photograph or telegraph or polygraph or phonograph or chromatograph or any other means. The Berne Convention won't let ya. But I will, if you ask nicely.
The only remuneration I received from Pulpless.Com is a free copy of Volk. Mind you, a non-form letter from Piers would be nice, too!
This review is best viewed with yer eyes!
And yes, I do have a macro for Pulpless.Com.