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When I was a freshman at college, I decided that Smith needed a science fiction and fantasy society.

I had come to this conclusion after arriving at Sophia Smith's great legacy to the world and realizing that why, yes, there were other girls like me:  young women who loved Tolkien and Heinlein and LeGuin and all the rest.   There weren't all that many of us, but when we go together we'd discuss our favorite books and movies and TV shows for hours on end.  A few of us even had those mysterious creations called fanzines, chockful of non-canonical stories about Star Trek characters, and most of us had a carefully chosen shelf of paperbacks.

After several informal meetings in the fall, we decided to hold a semi-official organizing meeting just after classes resumed in January.  One of the girls who came to a meeting was another freshman named Sue.  She was smart, funny, and liked the same books I did, and soon we were inseparable.  We ended up rooming together as sophomores, then co-edited SSFFS's first fanzine our junior and senior years.  

The fanzine, Dreamlight, wasn't all that good, but we did manage to talk a couple of genuinely good artists into contributing illustrations and cover art.  We also persuaded all our friends who wrote into sending us stories.

That's how we became the very first editors anywhere to publish Walter H. Hunt.

Walter was an old friend of Sue's from high school.  He'd been a writer pretty much all his life, and not just the usual short stories, bad parodies, and lousy poetry most kids churn out in Creative Writing classes.  No, Walter wrote novels.  Good novels, with fully worked out, sophisticated plots, interesting characters, and a surprisingly adult use of language.  Most were only extant in longhand, on lined paper, in Walter's astonishingly small handwriting, but one, neatly typed and almost 500 pages, had been at least part of the reason Walter got into Bowdoin; the application invited students to send in any written material that might assist the admissions committee in making a decision, and Walter took them at their word.

Walter himself came to visit a couple of times, and he turned out to be every bit as sarcastic, brilliant, and talented as I'd imagined.  He introduced us to D&D, sent Sue and me chapters from yet another novel he was working on while he spent junior year abroad in Munich, and kept us very much in the loop as he met and fell in love with yet another SSFFS veteran, his beloved Lisa.  It was a heady, complicated time but we've all remained friends despite the passage of years and our growth in different directions and along different paths.

I've mentioned Walter more than once in my usual "Books So Bad They're Good" diaries, plus my entries on WYAR.  That story he sent Sue and me in college eventually led to a prequel in the late 1980s, and after several rewrites and many attempts, the prequel was finally published in 2001.

The Dark Wing is, at least on the surface, a space opera about the conflict between the Solar Empire and the zor, a winged race that repeatedly breaks peace treaties and engages in sneak attacks against human colonies.  Ivan Hector Charles Marais, military officer and former diplomat to the zor, asks for and receives command of the fleet from a desperate Emperor because he claims to know the right way to deal with the zor...which turns out to be total, unconditional, no holds barred war aimed at obliterating the zor as a race.

Before anyone thinks that this is yet another blood-soaked military SF novel with a thinly veiled xenophobic message about the Other - well, that's not even close to what this book is about.  Marais has studied zor religion and culture so deeply that he's convinced that the only way to stop the zor from destroying the Empire is to think like a zor.  Since the zor religion teaches that the entire universe was made by esLi, their god, for the zor to enjoy, that means that the very existence of another intelligent race is an offense against esLi.  That's why the zor keep breaking treaties and attacking the Empire:  humans blaspheme against esLi by merely existing, and the only way to follow esLi's will is to purge the blasphemers and their planets from the universe.

And knowing that, Marais and his officers disobey their orders and turn the tables on the zor by engaging in an equally destructive campaign headed straight for the zor homeworld.  Marais believes that if he can convince the zor that he personally is esGau, the great adversary of esLi, sent to punish the zor for their treatment of humans, they will come to realize that they have been wrong about humans (and other intelligent species) and come to terms with the Solar Empire.  How this works out involves the zor religion (beautifully worked out, both as theology and as a mythology), a working class officer, Sergei Torrijos, the zor aristocracy, a very upset Terran Emperor, and a manipulative agent from yet another alien culture who...

Well.  I'm not going to spoil you if you haven't read The Dark Wing, or its three sequels (The Dark Path, The Dark Ascent, and The Dark Crusade).  I will tell you that the sequels, set about a century later, involve a human officer, Commodore Jackie Laperriere, who has to lead a combined human/zor effort against that third alien culture.  To do so she quite literally has to become the next avatar of the great zor culture hero Qu'u, and her story is just as thoughtful and compelling as that of Sergei Torrijos and Admiral Marais.  All four books are well worth reading, and if the rumors are true and the Dark Wing series is reissued in e-format in the near future, I'll be one of the first to download copies.

Walter's most recent work, A Song in Stone, is a real change of pace.  Inspired by Walter's visit to Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, as well as his own deep love of Freemasonry and European history, this novel follows Ian Graham, a discontented television host who's recently been made redundant.  He's taken a job as the host of an ITV show about "world mysteries" like Rosslyn Chapel, and on the very first day of filming he follows what sounds like a musical tune into a blocked off part of the chapel...and is thrown back in time to 1307.  Ian, now a Templar initiate, learns that he must walk the camino, the pilgrimage route from Santiago de Compostela to Paris, if he has any hope of getting home.

Along the way Ian remembers his past as a mercenary who became sick of the bloodshed and joined the Templars to find his soul again.  His traveling companions, Rob and Juan, are either echoes or ancestors of people he knows in the 21st century, and before he knows it Ian is on the run from enemies he's never harmed, on a quest he barely comprehends but must complete if he's ever to return to his own time.  Even worse, he's running out of time; Ian arrives in 1307 in the summer, and thanks to his background reading for the ITV series he's the only person who knows that Friday, October 13, 1307, is the day that the King of France will order the arrest of the entire Templar order on charges of heresy.

And then there's the music.

The whole book is about what one character calls "the healing music of Rosslyn."  This haunting, simple tune shows up everywhere, from the simple notation concealed in the roof bosses of Rosslyn Chapel to a racy little number in a wayside inn to the Cantigas de Santa Maria Ian hears in Compostela itself.  Ian is the only person who can hear the music, which is why he's been sent back to save it (and several items associated with it) from those who would use the music to destroy, not heal...and this ability may cost him and his friends their lives.

A Song in Stone is nothing like the space opera of The Dark Wing series, but Walter's signature thoughtfulness, excellent research, and good plotting are evident throughout.  There's also a surprising amount of humor, much of it stemming from Ian's tendency to think like a 21st century television presenter while he's stuck in the past:

Rob strolled along the food sellers until he found one that satisfied him, and held up three fingers.  After a few words in Galician and an exchange of coins, he handed a sort of fried pie to each of us and took one for himself.  We found a spot off to the side of the plaza to sit and eat our breakfast.

"Empanadas," he said, biting into it.  "Fish."

They smelled wonderful.  "What sort of fish is in them?" I asked.

Rob stopped eating and looked up at me, paused for a moment, and said, "They have two kinds.  'Meat' and 'fish."  These are the 'fish' ones.  I think that's about all I need to know.  Would you rather have the 'meat' ones?"

"What sort of 'meat'?"

Rob scowled.  "I don't know.  Meat."

Sean and I looked at each other.  "Fish," we said at the same time.

I remained silent for a few minutes [before meditating at the shrine of John the Baptist]; then whimsy struck.  Without even meaning to do so, I found myself imaging the set of Ian and Jan, where I'd spent so much time.

"Let's give a warm welcome to our first guest - John the Baptist.  Glad you could be with us today.  So, Mr. 'the Baptist'," I said at last.  "May I call you John?"  It was my finest interview style; I smiled, turning aside from the alcove to show my best side to the camera.  "I'm told that this great cathedral was built for you.  What do you think of that?"

The original hardcover of A Song in Stone is now tough to find, but never fear - Fantastic Books brought it out in trade paperback earlier this year.  Walter has started work on a sequel but is currently under contract for a book set in Eric Flint's 1632 universe so it may be a while, but the book stands on its own with no problems.

So...if you like good military SF, or good time travel, or just plain good books, give Walter a try.  I think you'll be glad you did.

Tue Jul 26, 2011 at 10:19 AM PT: Walter has read the diary and reposted it on his Facebook page.  :)

Originally posted to Ellid on Mon Jul 25, 2011 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Pink Clubhouse, DKOMA, Readers and Book Lovers, and Community Spotlight.

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