In the days of innocence, there used to be jokes that started, “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman. . .” That was before we got all wrapped up in what might or might not be politically correct and worried such jokes might be a form of racism in mocking the idiosyncrasies of each nationality. Well, in Hot Blooded by Amanda Carlson (Orbit, 2013) Jessica McCain Book 2, some werewolves, two vampires and a human go into the woods together. . . Now those of you who, by accident, have encountered the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, will know that this combination is fairly combustible as romantic love triangles complicate interspecies politics. This pursues the same basic idea but just on the adult side of the young adult (YA) divide. In other words, this is not strictly speaking YA but rather the kind of book you encourage YA readers to try. Hopefully it weans them off YA and moves them into reading books with more adult sensibilities. The marketers then say, “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” or words to that effect and before you can say “Snap dragons are beautiful at this time of year!” these older readers have been moved on and are actually reading stuff meant for adults to read. To fill this interstitial role, this author has crafted a not quite “urban fantasy” because almost all the major action takes place in natural surroundings (forests and mountainous areas). But we have a youngish female heroine who’s just growing into her powers and her love interest who’s missing, held in captivity. Plus the mandatory human who’s just found out that all this supernatural shit is true. Ah, if only our heroine didn’t have a conscience, it would be so easy to kill off the human to protect the secret of her heritage. But fear of guilt makes werewolf people do foolish things. So they take him along on this campaign to kill Selene, the Lunar Goddess (and rescue the love interest).
Now as you probably know, Goddesses are pretty badass and damned difficult to kill. It’s going to take a lot of effort to drain enough of her immortality so she ceases to exist. Why take the human? Because the werewolves can’t leave him where he was being held captive and they can kill him if he gets in the way on their mission — assuming none of the assorted supernatural perils do for him on the way, of course. In the first book, our heroine made a deal with the Vampire Queen, so two vampire foot-soldiers who have some experience of the Goddess are sent along to help. That’s why this disparate group end up traipsing through the woods to get to the mountain and do battle. This would be relatively straightforward (insofar as anything ever is in fantasy novels), but then the Underworld decides to get involved and this upsets the natural order of things. And that brings us to the Prophesy. Yes, all books like this have to have a Prophesy and, in this instance, powers long ago predicted that population growth in the different supernatural species would lead to new tensions and conflict. In such a situation, there would have to be a peacekeeper, someone not directly involved who would see each side in the conflicts played fair. Yes, you guessed it. Our girl is the interspecies referee in the making.
So there you have it: this is a tag team contest between our heroine and her mixed cohorts against the Goddess and her backers from the Underworld. Everything happens at a good pace and there are twists and turns on the way to the set up for the next exciting instalment. It’s positive and upbeat with every challenge easily defeated as she explores and grows more confident in her powers (I suppose there will be some explanation of the source of these powers at some point but, for now, you just accept she can defeat all-comers without using anything like her full potential). In my opinion this makes the book suitable for the fourteen to sixteen age bracket in emotional development if not physical years. Those who are emotionally older will look for books which have protagonists face more real challenges without the assurance of success to keep their spirits up, i.e. books which deal with the uncertainties of life and death in the battle against “dark forces”. Parents can be reassured this book has no sex scenes. Just a tender clinch when the battle is over. All this makes Hot Blooded is a safe and unchallenging read.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In his introduction, Jason Sizemore, the Editor-in-Chief announces a new series titled Apex Voices in which the publisher intends to feature writers with a more unique voice. In Plow the Bones by Douglas F Warrick (Apex Publications, 2013), we’re offered a new(ish) writer with surreal tendencies. And, to prove the point, the first story in this collection is “Behindeye: A History” a most curiously surreal opening. So, if we inhabit a world based on rationality, the author’s intention is to react against that intellectual straightjacket and substitute a positive absence of reality. Now let’s ask what goes on inside another’s head. It would be reassuring to believe the conscious mind is in control. But if the mind is obsessed with the idea of self-harm or, even, suicide. . . As a metaphor imagine a blind hermit who saves a baby which, when it grows up a little, proves to have a pair of working eyes. Such a child can mitigate the suffering loneliness of the man. For all its weakness, he or she might represent hope for a better future. But in a larger context, such a reduction in suffering, if not the introduction of love, cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the looming personal catastrophe. “Her Father’s Collection” is a more straightforward supernatural story in which a father decides to include his daughter in his collection of ghosts. Although it fudges the mechanism of entrapment, there’s a rather pleasing albeit selfish viciousness in the way the ties of love are subverted. This is a most successful story.
“Zen and the Art of Gordon Dratch’s Damnation” asks a rather pertinent question for all of us who are atheists. Suppose we are wrong. In our rather self-congratulatory way, we’ve been denying Him only to discover the price to be paid is damnation for eternity (which is rather a long time to suffer). So how would we cope? Well, in this answer, it looks to be a good strategy to be into Buddhism. That way, you might actually be able to rise above all the Heaven and Hell schtick and break out of the cycle of damnation and redemption. It’s a neat trick if you can maintain the right mindset. “The Itaewon Eschatology Show” continues the discussion in a slightly different way. When you go to live in a foreign country like Korea and scrape the outside of the culture, what kind of life can you make for yourself as an outsider looking in, understanding so little of what goes on around you? Perhaps you need to believe in something, even if it’s about the end of the world, as a hook on which to hang your hat. Except even that won’t make Korea your home and won’t bridge the gap between you and the Koreans. We’re all just passing through until we reach the end of days. And in “Come to my Arms, My Beamish Boy”, when you’re eight-four years old and your mind is shot to pieces, you really do feel you’ve reached the end of your days (when you’re able to think coherently about anything, of course). The actual process of disintegration is like having your mental sustenance sucked out of your head by a lamprey which is something you used to know about when you were a biologist. At such a time, the only thing you have to hang on to is the love of a good woman.
“Funeral Song for a Ventriloquist” is nicely metafictional as the story tells itself, speaking of secrets we cannot know the answers to and telling us, no matter how much we aspire to some degree of permanence in our lives, our common destiny as humans is to die and be forgotten. “Inhuman Zones: An Oral History of Jan Landau’s Golem Band” reminds us of the mythology we create about the times we live through. In this case, this group of people were present when a new music movement took off. They were at ground zero and knew the band before they were famous. That was when it was all real, before the record company executives came along and signed up groups and tried to make money on their backs. Those golems. They were the best, man. Similarly “Drag” has a small group of students go through one of the rituals associated with the place where they sleep. It’s been handed down from one generation of students to the next so the tradition of what happens in the closet is never lost. Sometimes the point of these rituals is to confront and overcome fear of the supernatural. Except not all rituals turn out the way the older, more experienced students expect.
“Ballad of a Hot Air Balloon-Headed Girl” echoes this as a young man training to be a soldier becomes infatuated with a girl who thinks her head might catch fire. Then the war comes and innocence is lost as young men on each side kill each other for their beliefs. No-one actually knows what they are fighting for. You don’t have to know what the cause is, just believe in it. Later the girl’s head generates such heat, she becomes her own hot-air balloon and floats away. This is such a loss he also rises in more mundane terms to become president of the land. He never forgets the girl who was the source of her own freedom. And talking of freedom, the “Rattenkonig” wants to be free but it’s, well, stuck and it needs just a little help to get where it needs to go. Perhaps this couple can help or if not the couple, this woman.
“Old Roses” tells us that as dentists give birth to poets, the next generation after that may also have poetic tendencies. But when parents die what do we have left except our memories of them. Houses are not conveniently haunted so we can continue to share our lives with them. “Stickhead (Or. . . In the Dark, in the Wet, We Are Collected)” introduces two seventeen-year-olds who find a rotting corpse in a culvert. At least, it seems to be dead. Perhaps that’s just a working hypothesis we could debate, out of curiosity if not for some better reason. Perhaps we could try prodding it with a stick to see if it moves. “I Inhale the City, the City Exhales Me” takes us to Osaka, the home of manga and anime where drawings are their own reality and journalists can make the news tell the stories they invent. And I wonder whether Camille Paglia said, “Every generation drives its plow over the bones of the dead.” Finally, in the world of adult entertainment, “Across the Dead Station Desert, Television Girl” we wonder whether Television Girl can cross the desert to the City of Life. Of course this use of computer simulations is just a different form of human trafficking. These AIs have exactly the same emotions as human women. Well that can’t be right, can it? Fantasy women must match the archetypes men want, not have their own wants and desires. So if they show any sign of independence, we’d better wipe them and start over again.
Plow the Bones is not a book to run through. The author has invested considerable effort in constructing some, at times, rather beautiful prose which rewards careful attention with the revelation of pleasing ideas. We flirt with surrealism and notice elements of the supernatural. Philosophical abstractions try to attract our attention as we lie alienated in different settings. There are occasional snatches of weird as if overheard accidentally in real settings. And overall there are symptoms of intelligence at work. As a collection, it’s a positive delight from start to finish!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For this review, I need to begin with a few brief thoughts about terminology. In another life, I might have considered the spirit of this matching pair of novellas to be a fairy story or fairy tale. This reflects the broad classification largely attributed to the work of Hans Christian Andersen and other later authors, which is largely considered suitable only for consumption by children. If we move back in time, the original folk tales and legends are often darker and more adult in approach. I suppose this means we distinguish between fantasy as fiction and the fairy story as fable because, in part, it’s intended to have an educational purpose, i.e. this makes it more appropriate for children. This is not to say The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb (pseudonym of Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) (Subterranean Press, 2013) is about fairies but, as you will understand from the title, it does concern a Princess and there’s an underlying system of magic in operation although that’s only directly relevant for more political purposes towards the end.
I suppose the point of this rambling thought is confirmation that there’s real character development in operation. Not, you understand, so that we arrive at a “Happily ever after” moment. This is not a book in which things work out well for everyone. But there’s the idea that, through the telling, one generation can reach out and teach something of value to future generations. Perhaps, in that future time, the happiness everyone seeks will come to pass. For this to work, the events as told have to be inherently credible. The future generations are not going to be impressed by the quality of the message if it’s wrapped up in a supernatural context. There must be “truth” based in the reality we all know. So this story is essentially about real people with the same strengths and weaknesses we all have. The fact the key players are a doomed Princess and the bastard son she brings into the world should not distract us from the allegorical nature of the tale.
The structure of the novel is of two narratives told by different people but reported by the same individual. The first is the story told from her own knowledge by the woman who grows up with the Princess. The second is a slightly broader historical overview as told by her son, the Minstrel Redbird, but written down by his mother. Both documents, therefore, represent a more or less continuous story, but the authorship is divided because of a convention adopted by the local culture. Minstrels are oral historians, responsible for telling the truth as they have seen it. In their songs and written records, they are only allowed to set down what they have actually seen. There can be no guesswork, no embellishment. Only the truth as they know it can be passed down for posterity. When the task falls to the mother to write both documents, she adopts this convention for her own contributions to this jointly told tale. It’s made absolutely clear which voice is telling each part of the story and why the knowledge being reported is limited to that voice.
The first novella sticks very closely to the rather more intimate style we associate with classical fairy stories. We see the birth of the Princess and understand how and why she becomes something of a handful for her parents. In this, the machinations of the storyteller’s family are fascinating. The description of rising through the ranks of a court by wet-nursing the babies of the nobility is most carefully worked out. Indeed, the politics of childbirth are crucial to understanding this story and its implications for future generations, i.e. it all bears directly on questions about the succession to the throne. As the story progresses into the second novella, we move slowly from the more intimate family considerations to the broader movement of factions within the court. So we may safely say that the roots in the fairy story grow into a sturdy tree of political rivalry and treason, depending on whose side you happen to be on. All illegitimate sons face difficulties after the death of their mothers. You will understand from the broad sweep of our own history that the right to succeed to the throne claimed by bastard grandsons does not necessarily prevail over the claims of the King’s brothers and their legitimate offspring. It often comes down to a might-is-right resolution, assuming there’s a strong enough will to make the contest for the throne real.
Overall The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince manages to blend fairy story and historical fantasy into a most pleasing conflation. Except, in the final sections, I feel it’s a little rushed. Although it might have bent the convention of only reporting what’s actually seen, I felt some of the narrative was superficial. This inevitably comes from lack of a point of view. Had there been ways to get either the Minstrel or his mother into more relevant situations, we could have achieved a more rounded view of how this particular ending came to be. As it is, we’re left with considerable doubt over when certain events took place and exactly what the motivation of different individuals was. Despite this, the result is rather delightful in a fairy tale kind of way with some tough historical lessons for those with eyes to see them.
For a review of a collection by Robin Hobb, see The Inheritance.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In the simple days of my youth, there were an alarming number of fantasy stories in which the hero is suddenly made aware he or she has magical powers. This was wish fulfillment overcompensation just after the war. There we were, walking around towns and cities with major bomb damage, wondering when life would get back to normal and speculating on how much easier it would be if we were all endowed with superpowers to clear the sites, dig new foundations and get everything ready for the rebuilding. It offered hope for the future when we could read about people who could not only rebuild, but use their powers to ensure we never had to go through another war. In these stories, we were there, looking over their shoulders as they experienced shock and surprise at the discovery they could do super stuff. These “ordinary” men and women had been living routine lives in whatever settings the authors picked. Suddenly they are pitched into situations in which their very survival depends on them mastering these new skills and besting those who have spent decades (or in some cases centuries) practising and refining their powers. And all this before eating breakfast and learning the magic spell, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side”. The most annoying feature of this approach is the assumption some people are so inherently superior to others, they could always prevail because they are “good”. It’s a kind of übermenschlich approach to the traditional battle between good and evil. In this binary world, there’s a superhuman lurking in everyone, just waiting for the chance to leap into action when the chips are down and the barbarians are at the gates.
And talking of chips, here’s Blind God’s Bluff by Richard Lee Byers (Night Shade Books, 2013) an urban fantasy novel built around a poker game. I confess to being a reasonably good bridge player but poker leaves me cold. This judgement has nothing to do with the merits of the game. The blend of straight probability calculation and psychology is intriguing and, when played at a high level, it can be interesting to watch. But with only one or two exceptions like The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), the idea of making poker a central plot element has not attracted me. So, from the outset, this book is facing an uphill struggle. Now add in the human who turns out to have superpowers trope and you see why this book is never going to get anywhere in my estimation. So how does all this work?
Well, within ten seconds of our hero stopping to help an injured “man”, he’s attacked by feral fairies who try to rip out his eyes. Now you’ll understand this is not an everyday occurrence as you walk down a busy city street. Usually, the only thing assaulting your senses are the garden gnomes and their faux clay smiles. But the old “man” touches him and, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side” this awaken superpowers. In an instant, he’s able to throw up a force field. Moments later, he’s sending out his Ka (as in Gifford Hillary by Dennis Wheatley). In this form, he’s able to fetch his car, i.e. even when on the astral plane, he can manifest in the physical world to drive a car — neat trick, huh? And all this without any practice and within minutes of understanding the world of the supernatural and magic are real. This guy is a real operator in every sense of the word. As we go on, we meet the other players in the poker game. It’s the usual Friday night crowd in the backroom at the pub: the Mummy, a vampish female, a mechanical man calling himself Gimble of the Seven Soft Rebukes, a Queen Bee, and a demonlike figure called Wotan.
The other feature I found distinctly wearing on the nerves was the general lack of seriousness. This is not to say the book is a barrel of laughs. Perish the thought that any work in the urban fantasy subgenre should be a comedy. But there’s a lightness in the tone that militates against there being any sense of menace or threat to our “hero”. This does not deny that two of the dream sequences have potential in the horror zone, but you just know our hero is never seriously at risk and is always going to emerge stronger and more experienced from whatever the latest challenge is. The race at the end is overblown and the final nail in the coffin. Overall, I regret to say I found Blind God’s Bluff tiresome and, even more disconcertingly, when I finally arrived at the end, I discovered that it’s left open to become a series. If that’s the case, I will definitely not be reading it. This does indicate an acknowledgement that Richard Lee Byers is a competent author who has a good command of the craft of writing. It’s just that he’s allowed himself to be diverted from the need to write something genuinely scary by his obvious love for poker and his desire to construct an urban fantasy suitable for teens and young women to read. Definitely not recommended for anyone who likes red meat.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Blasphemy by Mike Resnick (Golden Gryphon, 2010) is, as the title suggests, preoccupied with material that may be taken as showing a certain lack of reverence for Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism. So if you are sensitive on matters of religion, this is probably not the book for you. We have five short stories and two longer pieces that were originally published as free-standing novels. “Genesis: The Rejected Canon” is quite a pleasing joke, nicely paced with a good punchline. “God and Mr Slatterman” shows that some bartenders have real people skills when it comes to dealing with difficult customers who might interrupt a crap game at a tense moment just to talk metaphysics. “The Pale Thin God” is a very elegant inversion of expectation demonstrating that judging cause and effect is always a matter of perspective. “How I Wrote the New Testament, Ushered in the Renaissance, and Birdied the Seventeenth Hole at Pebble Beach” is probably the most successful of these short pieces with the true story of the Wandering Jew while “Interview With the Almighty” is less successful — it tries too hard to be amusing.
One of the old favourites when it comes to fables about typecasting is the story of the scorpion that wants to cross a river. After some negotiation, he persuades the frog to carry him with the predictable results. “Walpurgis III” is a very elegant variation on this theme, albeit with more types to make the political point clearer. Let’s start with the psychopathic personality who has refined his skill set to such a point, he can rapidly rise to leadership roles where he’s able to kill increasingly large numbers of people. Up to a certain point in society, it’s the job of police officers to catch the killers. Unfortunately, some killers rise to a point where they become untouchable. Indeed, the increasing irony is that it becomes the job of the police to protect the psychopathic leader. Then there are the politicians, i.e the thinking members of the community who were in power before the psychopath came along. They have to decide what their role should be. Finally, some politicians may decide the best course of action is to hire an assassin to dispose of the leader. This will be an individual who has supreme skills as a killer. He will not judge the task given. It will be irrelevant whether the target is considered a good or bad person. The individual is motivated by the nature of the challenge and the financial rewards. At his level, he can pick and choose which tasks to accept. The idea of penetrating a leader’s security and killing him might very well appeal to him. The result is beautifully orchestrated, switching between the assassin, the policeman and the leader as required. Although the tone is rather different, it reminded me of Wasp by Eric Frank Russell in which a one-man terrorist operation disrupts a world. Thematically, this has a world that’s on the cusp of destruction through the actions of the new leader but only a few truly understand the extent of the danger. The arrival of a single assassin has an increasingly dramatic effect on the lives of the people who live in the vicinity of the leader. Mike Resnick is very careful to strike a balance between the mechanics of the morality play, the description of this rather unique planet, and the excitement of the assassin’s progress towards achieving his goal. It’s a terrific read even though it works out in a fairly predictable way — or to put it another way, the resolution accords with the most commonly accepted principles of morality. To explain the relevance to the theme, the planet has been settled by all the different cults and groups who believe in satanism and the other sources of dark magic.
“The Branch” is playing the most interesting game of the book. Many moons ago in the late-1950s I read Messiah by Gore Vidal. It wasn’t much liked by the critics of the time. They were more inhibited by social convention in those days and the somewhat violent satire on the Christian Church was deeply unpopular. For those of you who have not read it, the primary figure is John Cave. He’s a professional embalmer and so does not consider dying to be a bad thing. When he begins to talk about this belief to the world, a new religion springs up. When he’s assassinated, the meaning of his words is taken up by theocrats who end up ruling over the USA. As an atheist, I’m more comfortable with this exclusively naturalistic approach. The notion one man’s moderately innocent words about the need to accept death might, through televangelism, become the basis of a new credo, is an interesting study in the politics of religion. With the suicide rate rising fast as his followers begin distributing the new drug Cavesway, those with access to power must decide how to react. Mike Resnick, however, muddies the waters by having his figure be a not very bright young conman who slowly comes to realise he’s literally the Messiah the Jews and other followers of the Old Testament have been waiting for. This is not, you understand, a good and inspirational person. Indeed, early on he decides he’s going to challenge a local crime boss for a share in his business. It’s only when bullets seem not to have a permanent effect on him that he and the crime boss come to recognise he’s something “special”. The virtue of the story is that it never blinks. Both the Messiah and his Nemesis behave as you would expect as they struggle to understand the implications of the young man’s arrival and how the world should react. Since one of the expectations of the Messiah is he will restore the Kingdom of Israel in Jerusalem, the current government feels somewhat under pressure when the reality of the “man” and the number of his followers become clear. The other established churches are also disconcerted because this man’s arrival tends to suggest Jesus was not quite what they thought. On balance, the first half of the story is more successful than the second. Although I think the development of the plot is not unrealistic, I feel it lacks conviction. Things happen because they must to produce the ending the author wants to achieve. This leads us away from what I suspect might be the more realistic scenarios. This is not a serious criticism. There is quite a pleasing quality to the conclusion, although I think the epilogue unnecessary.
Put all this together and Blasphemy proves to be never less than interesting at, at times, rivetingly exciting. Mike Resnick proves himself a master storyteller who can take controversial material and make it genuinely entertaining.
For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire.
A few reviews ago, I was asking myself why I continue to read horror. The answer I offered then was that the discovery of Victorian and Edwardian authors during the 1950s set me off on a hunt. Like these more modern people who obsessively seek out roller coasters in the hope of matching or beating their last white-knuckle ride, I live for finding my next frisson of alarm or fear when reading. Ironically, as I’ve grown older and more “sophisticated”, the thrills are fewer and farther between. Too many modern authors either try to get an effect simply by being more extreme, or they slavishly follow the magic formulae that used to work twenty or thirty years ago. The area in which it’s most difficult to hit the right contemporary note is the Mythos. For all his faults, and there were many, H P Lovecraft was a very sophisticated writer for his day. This was not simply in the level of creativity where he excelled by creating a detailed context for his fiction, but also in the rather florid writing style which, probably more by accident than anything else, suited what we’ve now come to call cosmic horror. As the years have passed and more people have come to play in the Lovecraftian sandbox, it’s become very difficult to keep the content fresh. To be considered “good” today, you have to be way better than those writing twenty and more years ago.
The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep by W H Pugmire (Miskatonic River Press, 2012) is my second look at this author. In the late 1990s, I read Tales of Sesqua Valley and thought the content quite interesting but the style somewhat overdone. With Pugmire becoming a more regular figure on the Lovecraft scene, I though the time had come for another look. We start of this slim collection with the titular story, “The Strange Dark One” and we’re immediately pitched back into Sesqua Valley. For those of you new to this author, the valley is home to a group of beings who are not, strictly speaking human. Although they have have taken human form and some might say this involves acquiring a soul as well, they have created an enclave for themselves. Most human folk never manage to find this “hidden” valley and its community. You need to have an affinity with outside forces to gain admission. Of course, having found your way in, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever be able to get out again. This time, the granddaughter of a book dealer who has taken over the business on her grandfather’s death, decides to sell some of his old books to a man from the Sesqua Valley. This is sufficient connection to open the door for her. What she finds proves upsetting as she learns not everything comes without a price to be paid. Although it has moments when the prose rescues the rather thin plot, I found the whole rather mechanical. “Immortal Remains”, on the other hand, is shorter and has a more pronounced sense of wonder about it. The young being confronts the ineffable and, after initial and not unexpected apprehension, embraces the chance to merge. It’s a pleasing balance between the prose style and the content.
“Past the Gates of Deepest Dreaming” is less successful because the conversations between all the interested parties both within and without the valley, lack credibility. People don’t speak to each other like this in real life. They speak using ordinary words even though what’s going on around them is wholly extraordinary. Indeed, it’s the incongruity between the everyday and the weird that heightens their and our emotional responses. This story is just trying too hard to use the heightened prose style throughout. It’s the same with “One Last Theft” where there are some genuinely strange vocabulary choices to distract the reader from a reasonably interesting plot. For example why “debauch” a plot rather than frustrate it? And what are we to make of this question, “Will you tell me of your rhubarb with the beast?” This must be an American usage of rhubarb meaning dispute or argument. “The Hands That Reek and Smoke” is more naturalistic and, set in a city, is more effective as Nyarlathotep offers himself as a muse. “The Audient Void” is another linguistically overwrought story with oddities, e.g. “. . .a blackness that whirled with spectral sentient.” “Some Bacchante of Irem” again falls into this strange hinterland of quite interesting plot and language which I find a poor fit. Finally, “To See Beyond” proves to be the most successful story as the series character from Sesqua Valley recruits an author from the human world and introduces him to a musician.
Taking an overview, we have some interesting plot ideas and, at times, the use of heightened language is very effective. But when the plot calls for the denizens of Sesqua Valley to interact with humans, I think the dialogue should moderate to something more everyday. The dissonance in the juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary will usually enhance the sense of wonder. When everything is at the same linguistic pitch, it produces a slightly monotonous quality — no thrills for the roller coaster fans among you. This is also my first look at this small press. Sadly it fails to give the most professional impression. The type setting is left justified only and there are some setting mistakes, particularly in the use of linefeeds. Surprisingly, there are proofreading errors, e.g. entré as the past participle instead of entrez the imperative. So overall, I’m not beguiled (the author’s favorite word) by The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep as either a text or a physical object, although jacket artwork and internal illustrations by Jeffrey Thomas do hit the right notes.
Night & Demons by David Drake (Baen, 2012) has some of the most interesting introductions I’ve read for a long time. Too often authors throw us an occasional crumb from their tables. Putting all these pages together gives a real autobiographical insight into how the stories came to be written and what their significance is.
“The Red Leer” is a classic piece of writing, nicely setting up the situation and elegantly arriving at the not unexpected conclusion. This is not to undervalue the story in any way. Once you begin with two men breaking into a Red Indian burial site, you know the likely outcomes. This is as good as it gets with this type of story. “A Land of Romance” is one of these pleasingly humorous fantasy stories in the style of Sprague de Camp. As is required we have a bright young man who, when presented with an opportunity, particularly one involving a pretty young girl, manages to come out smelling of roses (or some other appropriate flower). “Smokie Joe” is a nice long-spoon story in which the Devil gently muscles into organised crime and pushes sins to the corruptible for the rewards they bring. It displays a slightly unsual sense of humour about the entire operation which means some may find the descriptions of sexual disease a little daunting. But that’s the point of “horror” stories, isn’t it? “Awakening” is a very short piece that speculates on how far you can take denial. “Denkirch” is the first story he published. It’s a direct invocation of the Lovecraft formula with obsessed scientist driven to use himself as the test subject in his latest experiment. Who needs books and spells when you have the advantages of modern science. It almost certainly wouldn’t sell today but, in its time, it was passable. “Dragon, the Book” is another elegant fantasy which reruns the old adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. “The False Prophet” takes us into the classical realm where Drake is particularly comfortable with a fine story of a charlatan who isn’t quite what his loyal followers take him to be. It’s another of these stories where “adventure” and “mystery” shade into an atmosphere piece with fantasy, supernatural and, perhaps, even science fictional possibilities. One or two moments made me smile which is unusual in stories of this type. “Black Iron continues with the same characters in a story with different tempo as the merchant member of the duo explains how he came into possession of an interesting sword. The final contribution to this mini trilogy is “The Shortest Way” which suggests a reason for civility when asking for directions. We then get back into vaguely Lovecraftian territory with a nod and a wink to the worship of large tentacled underwater creatures.
“The Land Toward Sunset” is a story of mighty heroism as a character out of Karl Wagner’s universe is given a whistle-stop tour of the remnant of Atlantis. I suppose it’s quite good as an example of the older style of high fantasy sword and sorcery writing but it goes on too long for my taste. “Children of the Forest” is one of these wise fantasies that sets out to tell the reader about the choices we make as humans. Necessity, real or imagined, often forces decisions we later regret. Sometimes, when we have only instinct to rely on, we run home — a choice that can bring disaster following close behind. “The Barrow Troll” is an old idea but very elegantly told in this story of a Northern berserker’s quest for the gold reputedly guarded by a troll. The casual brutality of the man contrasts sharply with the “soft” German priest whose involuntary role is, perhaps surprisingly, to bless the venture. “Than Curse the Darkness” is a excellent Lovecraftian Mythos story in which a very determined and knowledgeable woman steps up when the threat is maturing and speaks the words of power before the full awakening. It’s very nicely done in a period style with lots of interesting background information on how life used to be in the Congo. Moving back up North, “The Song of the Bone” is nicely unexpected as, with the right music, you wake like a bear with a sore head. “The Master of Demons” is magnificently ironic as, in the shortest of stories, a reckless magician comes to understand the magnitude of his error.
“The Dancer in the Flames” is a fascinating fusion as a conventional war story set in Vietnam becomes a supernatural communion with a woman in a tricky situation. “Codex” is another highly original variation on an old theme, this time using the information from an old book for arranging a trading opportunity with a not wholly unpredictable outcome. The fun comes in the nature of the book and in guessing what will happen. “Firefight” is a taut and exciting page ripped from Vietnam’s bloody history books and converted into a confrontation between a battle-hardened US unit and a supernatural threat. This is one of the best stories in the collection. Almost as good, “Best of Luck” has an enemy within the troop so, when the Viet Cong appears, the soldiers are between a rock and a hard place. “Arclight” continues the absorption of military experience into a supernatural context. This time the troop discovers a small temple with big trouble written all over it. Perhaps the idol represents a power that can follow them wherever they go. Perhaps there are other powers that might have a say in that. Then comes “Something Had to be Done” which is the best of the lot. It’s a thankless task to visit the homes of those who’ve been killed on active duty to report the circumstances of each son’s death. This time, the sergeant who was with the soldier on his last mission draws the short straw.
“The Waiting Bullet” gets us back into conventional supernatural territory with a pleasing ghost story. It’s beautifully set up with a nice plot to unwind as the first sight of the ghost triggers the slow release of the backstory to the cabin where the hero is staying. “The Elf House” is a rather fey fantasy that lacks an edge. It moves along very professionally but has no real sense of danger. This contrasts sharply with “The Hunting Ground” which is another of these Vets under pressure stories. This time, two men recently returned from combat find an unexpected threat in their neighbourhood. Fortunately, they are able to give as good as they get. “The Automatic Rifleman” beat me. I had it back-to-front when I was reading it so the ending caught me by surprise. It’s very clever, taking a simple story of an assassination and turning it into something altogether more strange. “Blood Debt” deals with a slightly awkward social question. What exactly do we owe a family member who dies? Must we take revenge? If so, what price must we pay? This is a very effective story of witchcraft in a modern setting but with traditional results. Finally, “Men Like Us” takes us into a post-apocalyptic future where a dedicated team ensures no-one will continue the use of nuclear power. Overall this makes for a remarkably eclectic collection with the majority of the earlier stories holding up extremely well. Those with a military background are particularly effective as David Drake mines his past for backgrounds and characters. Definitely a book to savour.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Nostalgia is a rather curious emotional response to a current stimulus or event. Like Pavlov’s dog, we seem to have programmed ourselves to take pleasure in recalling past events. This is not to say we find today’s realities unpleasant and wish to escape. It’s simply that something triggers our memories of past events. It can be coming across an old photograph or a snatch of music half-heard on the radio. Perhaps a casual word in conversation or revisiting a place we knew well as children throws us back in time. No matter what the stimulus, the result is a mixture of faint romanticism and some melancholy, i.e. fairly powerful emotions associated with pleasure are tinged with sadness and a sense of loss. The evocation of the past is strong. We have a sense of “truth” but there’s also a slightly gratuitous and shallow feeling. In our more rational moments, we acknowledge our memories are gilded. That’s it’s convenient to remember the good stuff and push the bad into the deeper recesses of memory.
As I approach the end of my days, I find myself caught in two quite different waves of nostalgia. One is the more conventional sense that there were many aspects of my life as a child and young adult that were positive and constructive. While I would not want to return to that time — there were too many hardships — I miss the sense of innocence that came from growing up in an information bubble. Today the world intrudes in our lives at every point with mass media and the internet competing for our attention, passing on both substantive and trivial news of the latest events from around the world. I’m not sure that the culture of childhood today is giving the young a chance to develop their full potential. The result of this first stage nostalgia is that I’m profoundly relieved to be old and therefore no longer caught up in the lives of the ephemeral Mayflies who declare themselves “adults” before they have had the chance to understand the benefits of remaining young.
The other form of nostalgia flows from the emotional constructs I formed as a child. Even in those days, I was an obsessive reader, ploughing relentlessly through both British and American fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. At that time, my mind was filled with a sense of wonder that the recent past had been so exciting. My memories of this childhood nostalgia for all things Victorian and Edwardian create significant emotional responses to modern subgenres like steampunk. This second tier response reinforces my more general nostalgia for “the past”. I’m therefore predisposed to like modern authors like Tim Powers and James P Blaylock because they are playing with the mythology of the past. Their interests and sensibilities overlap the remembered fictional worlds from Dickens to the penny dreadfuls, from Jack London to the pulps. Yes, it’s actually a false nostalgia, but I enjoy revisiting it every now and again.
The Aylesford Skull by James P Blaylock (Titan Books, 2013) continues the saga of Langdon St James and his battle with Dr Ignacio Narbondo. Although I dislike the publishers’ labelling conventions, it’s actually useful to list the different features of this novel. Insofar as it contains real-world characters like Arthur Conan Doyle and, offstage, Gladstone, we might choose to think of this as being alternate history. It nicely captures the time when London was in a ferment because of the activities of the Fenians and the anarchists. Set in 1883, the world was reeling from the Phoenix Park murders and Gladstone was under pressure to repeal the Irish coercion laws. This book produces a complex plot to destabilise the government and evict Gladstone from power. It’s a great success as a Victorian political thriller. As a second strand, it’s steampunk. History tells us that, in 1883, Gaston Tissandier made the first electric-powered flight in a dirigible. In this book, we have a sophisticated electric motor and steering system for an airship which flies around London. There’s also some interesting technology for using coal dust as an explosive with portable systems for deploying the dust in suspension and then igniting it. Then we have a supernatural element which cloaks the conventional adventure in fantasy motley. Put simply our evil genius has developed a system for trapping the soul in the skull upon death. He plans an explosive release of the trapped spirit which should force open a door. Who can say where the door will lead nor, if it opened in Hell, what might come through into the human realm. We’re also treated to various other supernatural phenomena in Victorian style with references to table-turning, Planchette boards and other forms of spirit-based communication and foretelling.
Overall, it’s a beautifully constructed adventure novel in the Edwardian style. In spirit, it reminds me of thrillers by Sapper (pseudonym of H C McNeile) although, this being a modern book, we get better written female characters and none of the cultural baggage that would make a real period book less than acceptable to modern readers, i.e. the disparaging views of the minorities, the ghastly sexism and the increasingly virulent fascism that came to characterise so much of the fiction written between the wars. From this you will understand this is not a Dickensian novel. Although set in Victorian England, we have a sanitised version of life in and around London. This is very much a “fantasy” version of the capital as befits the steampunk subgenre. We can’t have revolutionary scientific advances against too dark a background. The book is intended as adventure and not a political satire or a realistic depiction of life in some of the more dangerous parts of the capital. That we can have a young Arthur Conan Doyle fighting alongside Langdon St James is simply part of the fun. As you would expect, there’s mayhem and death, political skullduggery and a threatened supernatural armageddon. But it’s all told with breathless excitement and regular edge-of-the-seat cliffhangers.
All of which should signal my immense enjoyment. Although I might cavil at one or two of the vocabulary choices, this is a remarkably sustained piece of writing in a period style suitable for modern sensibilities. I was entranced. That it’s all magnificent nonsense simply adds to the fun of it all. No matter what your age or predisposition to nostalgia, The Aylesford Skull is a book you should read.
For a review of another book by James B Blaylock, see Zeuglodon.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Authors are potentially the freest people on the planet. They get to write what they want and, if they have the common touch, what they write sells to the mass audience and they can become self-supporting professionals. Except, of course, there’s an enormous amount of hard work that goes into the process, followed by considerable anxiety that the right tone has been struck to appeal to the largest number of buyers. This continues the work of building the loyal fan base and consolidating the brand image that will hopefully make the next book a best seller before it’s actually published. If only this could be true for every author, yet financial stability for the average professional is tenuous at best. Even midlist authors with relatively well-known names can struggle to make ends meet without a day job. The confidence that should allow the words to flow can dry up. The muse departs and the impoverished but wiser author searches for alternative sources of income. All of which background makes Pandaemonium by Ben Macallan (yet another pseudonym for Chaz Brenchley) (Solaris Books, 2012) a fascinating read. This is an author at his self-confident best, not caring whether the words strictly match the expectations of the marketplace. Certain his approach to the subgenre is going to work.
So what does the jacket artwork by Vincent Chong promise us? Not trying to avoid sexual stereotypes, we see a youngish woman, appropriately shapely and dressed stylishly in black, patting the head of a spectral horse while posing in front of a gas holder and belching factory chimneys (industrialised Britain is not the most romantic of backdrops). This is signalling urban fantasy (the scope of factory fantasy was wonderfully exposed in “The Mangler” by Stephen King and then slaughtered in the Chocolate Factory by twee Oompa Loompas) but when you actually get into the text of the book you find a slightly different style.
While the label slapped on these books by publishers inevitably promises supernatural shenanigans, the unresolved issue is the tone. Because of the romantic element, the majority of the books avoid darkness. The evildoers and beasties are not that threatening. This makes the books accessible to the female market which tends to avoid anything too frightening. But conventional wisdom also says such books cannot be humorous or ironic. Romance is often deflated if the author makes fun of the men in the heroine’s life or of relationships in general. Indeed, this would be subversive, denying the mythology of fairy-tale romances and replacing the saccharine with real or metaphorical prat falls. What avid readers expect to read is essentially a naive heroine embarking on an adventure during which she will meet one or two men whom she may consider suitable candidates for mating purposes. There will be trials and tribulations. We may even be permitted a sympathetic smile as our heroine misjudges the situations as they arise. But we will serenely move to an ending where bliss (marital or otherwise) is achieved. There can be no grim humour which blames any of the men for failing to come up to expectations, none of the social expectations will be undermined by satire, and even a hint of pessimism is outlawed.
One of the most interesting of the characters we meet in this peripatetic novel is an angel who has suffered torture and abuse. She was held down, her pinions were slowly pulled out and, when the skin was left bleeding and bare, they cut her wings off, leaving only stumps by her shoulder blades. Being an immortal, she did not die. Now, when this angel steps out of her office, the door flings itself open, “. . .as a courtesy, an announcement like a flunkey calling out arrivals at the head of the stairs”. In other words, she has not exactly treated this mutilation as a reason to give in to self-pity and despair. She remains a warrior. You should also notice the language. It’s nicely conversational. You can hear the first-person narrator telling you this story and giving you permission to smile whenever the mood takes you. This sets up a narrative tension between sometimes quite dark fantasy elements and the lighter descriptions which I find beguiling. We’re being invited to enjoy the moment of levity before dropping back into the more serious stuff. If there’s to be humour, we smile with and not at the characters. It’s an essentially innocent enjoyment, as befits an urban fantasy.
To add further complications, she begins by running away from one ex-boyfriend because she betrayed him and is naturally worried he may be not-a-little upset. She runs to another ex and finds herself having to continue running to a third ex because his life may be in danger. As a heroine‚ she feels morally obliged to stand on her own two feet, defending herself as best she can and, when necessary, reaching out to save others. This does not mean the young men are not useful to have around. At times, they do contrive to save her but she finds this humiliating so does her best to keep them all at arms length. At some point, she may have to choose between the two more obvious candidates but that’s for another book. Until then, she’s now fully empowered as a human, having shed her supernatural protection. This makes her feel more comfortable. If she’s going to succeed, it should be on her own merits, on her terms. She stands proud, pleasingly determined and sufficiently credible to be able to carry the first-person narrative.
Frankly, I enjoy hanging out with Desi or Fay depending on how she’s feeling and who she’s with. I look forward to the next step in her development as a human being. As a result, Pandaemonium is great fun and, at times, aggressively original by leaving the city behind and going rural — a petrifying thought for those only comfortable in urban environments.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.