After I finished The Mouse That Roared, I decided that I'd tackle something a little longer and more difficult, so I picked up my copy of Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. I'd started reading it many months ago, gotten through the section on ancient philosophy, and then stopped reading in the medieval philosophy section.
It's an excellent book, phenomenally erudite and knowledgeable, but lucid and very well-written; it presents and critiques philosophers' thoughts respectfully but unflinchingly, puts them in historical context (with enough straight narrative history to make sense of that context), and deftly narrates the evolution, progression, and inter-relation of European thought. A general reader looking for an accessible wide-angle intellectual history of Europe could do a lot worse than this book, and I'm not sure they could do any better.
At this point, you may be wondering why I let this book sit on my shelf so long before picking it up again, and the answer is simply: I rarely find myself with the time and ambition to pick up thick, complex books. You'll notice that the last two books I've read were both slight, short fantasies; that's pretty typical for me these days. And, in fact, that same pattern held true here—I only read another 60 pages of Russell before wishing I had something simpler to chew on.
Fortunately, I did, in the guise of Dave Duncan's Silvercloak . This is the third book of the King's Daggers trilogy, which was conceived as a Young Adult companion to his King's Blades series, but ended up getting published as a mainstream title. Such are the vagaries of publishing houses, one supposes.
I've never much cared for children's books, or YA titles, and the reason for my dislike was on display in the first two Dagger books. The books are set in the same world as the Blades books, and feature many of the same characters (though, in standard YA fashion, the actual protagonists of these books are youngsters who appear only glancingly in the Blades books), but are much less significant. Whereas the Blades books feature legendary and world-changing events, the Daggers books don't—all three of them take place in the interim between the first and second Blades books, so they need to fit into continuity there. We already know what the world looks like when they end, so they can't change anything; it's a variant of the problem that usually makes prequels uninteresting.
Worse than that, though, is that the first two books didn't even have any significant changes to the characters. Sir Stalwart (the protagonist of all three volumes, and the title of the first) is involved in a deep undercover operation, so despite his successes, he never gets any public recognition or development, but remains stuck in that role. Frankly, it's frustrating for the reader to read a book where, at the end, nearly everything remains the same. It's like reading a Star Trek novel.
Which isn't to say that the books are bad; they're not. I haven't read a truly bad Duncan book yet. They're still breezily written and paced, and the plots are still convoluted enough to be interesting (though much less so than in his adult books). And, what's more, the third book turns out to be, by a fair margin, the best of the lot. Freed by the completion of the trilogy, Duncan actually allows things to change somewhat in this book; there are still no world-changing events to speak of, but at least there's some deserved change in the protagonists' status.
This isn't an excellent book or an excellent series—the King's Daggers trilogy will go down on Duncan's sizable corpus as a decidedly minor work—but it's still enjoyable enough to be worth reading, and it's a fine diversion of a few hours. I'm glad that Duncan's done with these and back to writing straight adult fiction, though.