Archive for April, 2010

Diving into the Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Habits are those curious routines through which we live our lives. Some have become so ingrained we are hardly aware of them. Others have been highlighted as undesirable traits (wives and children most often speak the truth here) and so we struggle to break from the past. Having learned the art of reading, I then read everything from the dense text on the breakfast cereal box to the latest comics. Now into my second childhood, I still pick up any reading material to hand. Having been in publishing, I also read every printed word in and on a book from the blurbs to the acknowledgements. So I want to start off this review by quoting the author’s bio on the end papers.

“Her novels have made the bestseller lists — even in London — and have been published in fourteen countries and thirteen different languages.”

Well, would you believe it. I had no idea the folk who live in London could read, let alone organise something as demanding as a bestseller list. The arithmetic is also a bit screwy. Fourteen countries and thirteen languages. This suggests only one overlap of a language like English. That would mean Australia and Canada and. . . Wait, I get it. London is not a country so it does not count. Then to sell to twelve countries each with their own language. That’s going some. There was no overlap of French or Spanish or Portuguese? All those translation fees for individual countries. That’s inefficient, really cutting into the publisher’s bottom line.

Anyway, the rest of the book, Diving into the Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, manages to avoid such petty-minded controversies. This is a slight change of style for the author. Not only is it a fix-up of two previously published works, but it also avoids long paragraphs wherever possible. I was reading a piece of educational research charting the decline in reading skills in the developed world. Not only is vocabulary shrinking, but a significant number of adults find it too challenging to read “long” sentences like this one. Yes, even a simple two clause format defeats many modern readers. Shucks. (One word sentences being the best to convey meaning where an emoticon cannot be displayed). It’s actually quite fascinating to see so many one and two sentence paragraphs collected together to make a novel, and certainly makes for faster reading. None of this following from one line to the next. Everything is broken down into simple word bites.

So let’s get down to it. As a story, it’s actually quite pleasing. The central character in this first-person narrative is a woman, haunted by the memories of watching her mother die. This traumatic experience caused her alienation from the rest of the family and her adoption of a career where, for the most part, she can avoid dependence on others. Somewhat ironically, she is a wreck diver where she often assumes responsibility for the safety of others. Although more active in her exploration of history, she is cast in the same mould as Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict, finding and exploring lost ships. This also places her in the salvage and adventure tourism business. It’s an interesting notion that, as and when space ships become as routine as cars, the thrill seekers will want to free dive in wrecked ships. It beats bungy jumping in a vacuum, I suppose.

Anyway, when she finds this centuries-old warship, she puts a team together to explore it. Almost immediately, we are into McGuffin territory. By a magical coincidence, one of her team happens to know that this ship probably contains lost “stealth technology” and she argues passionately in favour of destroying the ship before governments get their hands on it. Knowledge that has been lost should not be recreated through this archaeological discovery. The stalemate balance of power could be upset. Thus, we are off and running with danger in the dives and the subsequent investigation of the damaged wreck.

I suspect that if the author had started with a blank screen to write a novel, it would have bridged rather more smoothly between the major plot elements. As it is, one ends and, with a few words explaining the passage of time, we jolt into the next episode. I would have been interested in an exploration of the fall-out from the first sequence. There would be formal inquiries into the deaths, possible prosecution for failing to report the wreck as being of historical or military value, discussion of whether it was possible to lock them up as traitors to prevent the fact of the discovery from being publicised, and so on. As it is, the implication seems to be that the wreck’s discovery has been publicised. So why has the wreck not been moved to a different location? It cannot be so inherently unsafe that a tug could not tow it to a place where it could be kept secure from journalists, spies from the opposing governments, and the generally curious. More to the point, I seriously doubt whether the boredom of the actual guards would lead to the ship being left completely unguarded. This is a major plank in one faction’s military renaissance. It would be guarded at all times.

Although some of the plotting has some vaguely Machiavellian qualities to it, I find the whole somewhat superficial and unsatisfying. This is not in the same league as the Retrieval Artist novels.

For my reviews of other titles, see:
City of Ruins
A Dangerous Road (writing as Kris Nelscott)
Diving into the Wreck
Duplicate Effort
Recovering Apollo 8

Strange Roads by Peter S. Beagle

April 28, 2010 1 comment

First a word in support of Greg Ketter at DreamHaven. Greg has been running an independent and specialist bookstore for some thirty-three years. More importantly, he also puts his money where his bookseller’s mouth is and publishes books by the authors he likes. We are currently running through a chapbook series with stories from Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Larry Niven and Strange Roads by Peter S. Beagle based on the artwork of Lisa Snellings-Clark. Everyone who values knowledge, expertise and high-quality service should support DreamHaven in all its incarnations.

I am also a life-long fan of Peter Beagle. There is a magical simplicity about his writing. When you start, the premise can look inauspicious, but he always seems to come up with stories of such humanity that you end up beguiled. In this instance, we have three short stories inspired by the work of Lisa Snellings-Clark. I confess to having a strong preference for representational art, finding more abstract forms less engaging. In this instance, it’s actually quite interesting to see how Beagle reacted to the three pieces.

The first represents the game jacks and a kind of obviously childish but perhaps slightly militaristic rocking horse. The result is called “King Pelles The Sure”, another example of the fairy story as a morality tale. It’s when, “boring is good” meets, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If you are a citizen in a small state where you have peace and stability, the chance to earn your living and a loving family, you live in a good place. There are times when predictability is to be embraced even though, once the routines are in place, life just runs itself, i.e. this may not be a place for the ambitious or greedy who always want more. As the King of such a country, you might feel almost completely redundant. Looking out of your castle windows, all you see are contented folk. Where’s the challenge in that. Kings are remembered because they rule. History may not be kind if you garnered the reputation as the hands-off king. So in this story, the King selfishly elects to introduce a little uncertainty. This proves a catastrophic misjudgement and then we are into the question of accountability. Can a King ever atone for the losses he causes?

The second piece of art appears on the wrapper and looks not unlike three sea cucumbers at play. Beagle prefers to see one “Spook” bent on asserting his right to revenge. This  is the least successful of the three. It’s on the edge of failure because Beagle wants to showcase bad writing rather than produce his own high-quality prose throughout. Which brings us to the sculpture of the angel. In “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel”, we are into semi-autobiographical territory with a young boy spending significant amounts of his time watching his Uncle paint. The resulting story is an interesting variation on the dybbuk theme. In the past, I have tended to associate the dybbuk with possession of the living. This story enables redemption and a rise to Heaven through sacrifice. Young boys can acknowledge and confront their fears. Artists can grow obsessive when they cannot quite capture what they see on canvas, and angels are there to help relieve our fears. This is an elegant story in which all the characters are actually trying to do the right things and, for the most part, succeeding albeit not quite in the way we might have thought.

If you enjoy Peter Beagle’s writing, these three stories will make a satisfying addition to your collection. Obviously, as a chapbook, it’s slightly more expensive than the conventional “book” but, for me, it’s good value.

As an added note, this slim volume was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award 2009 for Best Collection.

For reviews of other collections by Peter S. Beagle, see Sleight of Hand and We Never Talk About My Brother. There’s also Return: An Innkeeper’s World Story.

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

April 28, 2010 1 comment

On Friday, a friend of my wife’s sent me one of these rabid Christian circulars. She knew it would amuse me. It featured a list of people who had mocked God only to die in spectacularly appalling ways some time later. The message was simple. You’d better believe in God, particularly as portrayed in the Old Testament, because one word or action out of place and the old fellah is gonna come down from on-high and kick your ass downstairs to Hell. Well, as a more-or-less life-long atheist, bring it on, says I. It’s about time we got past this faith barrier and began collecting some empirical evidence on the acts and omissions of deities around the word. From this, you will realise I’m not singling out Christianity. The onus has always been on every religious organisation to explain to the world exactly why we should abandon common sense and believe in the supernatural.

I begin with this declaration of my lack of faith because I have just finished reading Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey, a man who might well want to buy some life insurance if he takes e-mail chain letters from the religious community seriously. It’s a delicious coincidence too wondrous to ignore that I should come to this book immediately after receiving the e-mail. It’s obviously a trick of Satan (the devil not the ice hockey player).

Anyway, here we have a superficially routine story about a human dragged down to Hell except, much to everyone’s surprise, he avoids death. Indeed, he’s soon a regular in the arena fighting all-comers and acting as a hit-man. Yes, in this version of Hell, it seems lower-ranking demons can be killed although I frankly cannot really explain what happens to them after this untimely demise except these new victims end up in Tartarus. Then, thanks to acquiring a set of doors (think the excellent TV serial The Lost Room and you get the idea of being able to go anywhere you will) he gets back to Earth and on to the revenge trail of those who sent him to Hell. He then confirms himself as a kind of Constantine, hobnobbing with angels, magicians and the occasional monster.

Once secure in the knowledge he’s going to be very difficult to kill, it’s left to the author to ratchet up the odds as our hero finds himself in the role of a potential saviour of Earth. It seems one of the reasons for him being relegated to Hell was to free up the playing field for the arrival of some nasties from the outer void. In the ensuing fighting, he encounters some tough characters from the Department of Homeland Security and, with a little help from some friends, takes on the invaders and the humans who opened the door to them. It’s a strong brew and, in structural terms, the novel takes a risk in allowing a significant amount of talking after the climax. Most up-and-at-’em action novels build up to the climax and quit before they have to explain themselves. Kadrey prefers to take his time and debrief us. He also leaves the door open to sequels — not a surprise in these commercialised days.

Were this all, the novel would be a by-the-numbers two-dimensional collection of standard tropes we would rapidly consign to the dumpster. But the reality is rather different. The whole is an engaging interior monologue. At times, it positively crackles with wit and it’s pleasingly fearless in taking on shibboleths. More importantly, it mocks its own assumptions. For example, one of the key problems in science fiction novels when you deal with “door” systems is to ensure you do not step out into the middle of a wall, underwater or two miles in the air. Even if you do manage to synchronise both sides of the door so you can pass through safely, how does it look to interested viewers when people suddenly step into view? Well, Kadrey puts it this way: “How can you see two guys dressed like ushers at Liberace’s funeral walk out of a wall and not react?”

So, while the plot is not much to write home about, the writing itself is singularly pleasing and, for those of you with flexible sensibilities when it comes to books involving Christianity (no fatwas please), it’s an irreverent romp. Naturally, neither Kadrey for writing the book nor I for reviewing it favourably feel threatened by circular e-mails threatening premature death. If you do harbour worries on this point, say prayers should you catch sight of this book on the shelves in bookshops and pass hurriedly by before you succumb to devilish temptation.

There’s an excellent video by Kadrey about this book on You Tube. If you are thinking about buying, it’s well worth a moment of your time.

For the sequels, see:
Aloha From Hell
Devil Said Bang
Kill City Blues
Kill the Dead.


April 25, 2010 1 comment

There’s nothing more fascinating to an audience than the idea that wealth can be redistributed. Not unnaturally, the wealthy deeply resent the notion and will do their utmost to prevent it from gaining common currency (pun intended). In modern times, for example, the elite of the US stigmatise the idea of redistribution as the worst conceivable aspect of communism, rejecting even a modest use of taxation to achieve any degree of social justice. Yet, albeit in a subversive way, the idea runs through many different forms, perhaps most often emerging in the myth of Robin Hood. In this, I note the imminent arrival of yet another film version. This time, Ridley Scott and the often-cast Russell Crowe are having a crack at it. All of which neatly brings us to Iljimae, the Korean version of Robin Hood which takes a slight detour through Shakespearean-like confusions over a prophesy and the identity of brothers and their parents.

The primary question asked and answered in this Korean television serial is the ever-popular nature/nurture. Is the way in which character develops inevitable given the package of genes handed down by parents, or do people become the sum of their experiences, learning and adapting to the environment as it rewards or threatens them? So, as is the way of things when you want to set a cat among a flock of pigeons, you start off your journey with a long back story. We see the king and his always honourable brother who sires three young children, all of whom lead privileged lives. Unfortunately, rather like Macbeth, the king is given a prophesy which he assumes means his brother will betray him. As any self-respecting villain would, he sends paid killers to terminate this potential threat. The brother dies but, through a combination of circumstances, the rest of the family survives.

Displaced into an unfamiliar world, the children follow different paths. Some thirteen years then passes in the blink of a flash forward. With his identity concealed by his mother, one son is adopted into a wealthy family. The other is raised by a retired thief and his wife. The older sister only reappears later in the story, bent on vengeance but quickly betrayed. Although we lack the element of twins, this takes us into the territory occupied by Comedy of Errors as both sons struggle to relate their pasts to their present surroundings. The charity case is despised by his corrupt adoptive family — although their daughter plays against type to become the Maid Marian figure and a demonstration of the conundrum of character as a rich girl afflicted by a social conscience. In ignorance of his true parentage (which would have caused his immediate execution), the rest of the family still treat him like dirt and he reacts by growing into a pillar of moral rectitude, outperforming all-comers intellectually and, under the supervision of one of the men who killed his father, developing into a fearsome warrior with the skills to become a killing machine. He sees no moral difficulty in killing anyone who is less righteous than himself. Played by Park Shi Hoo, who went on to co-star in a high-octane romantic drama called Family’s Honour where he played a young man who finds redemption (albeit through the love of a slightly older woman), this is a solid performance in a role not designed to be sympathetic.

The other son suffers a traumatic loss of memory and only slowly remembers his past. Before and during this awakening, he’s a classic underachiever, electing to work as little as possible. He does not immediately follow his adoptive father’s profession as a thief, and most people in the city surrounding the royal palace think him likeable but slow-witted. However, when spurred into entering into a locked building where a nobleman stores his wealth, his lack of experience traps him. Without thinking of the consequences, he removes a valuable ink drawing and then abandons it. Another young man picks up the drawing and, not unnaturally, is accused of being the thief. When he is tortured and imprisoned, guilt forces our hero into action. After blundering several times, the innocent man is exonerated.

Unfortunately, as our hero grows in confidence and breaks into more homes, one innocent victim in the community is the harbinger of many others to follow. He must learn new skills in a surprising range of different trades to become a Robin Hood figure, being called Iljimae because of the calling card he starts to leave at the scenes of his thefts. He robs the rich to help the poor and, where necessary, uses his fighting skills to defend the innocent. Played by Lee Jun Ki, some of his early scenes as the simpleton are a little tedious but, as his memory returns and a steely resolve emerges, he grows into the role of a hero (ironically going on to star in another Korean drama with the title Hero).

What distinguishes the serial is the genuine humour surrounding the increasingly sophisticated thefts and one spectacular rescue of people from jail. They are worthy of David Copperfield on steroids. In a story supposedly set in the early Joseon Dynasty, presumably in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries, our hero is supposedly able to produce major special effects that, in modern times, would require teams of men days of effort to set up and then execute. This superhuman quality enhances the initial sense of naive enthusiasm surrounding our hero but, as is always the way, it soon turns dark as the state begins the inevitable crackdown to identify and capture the thief.

The central dynamic driving the story is the rise of the self-righteous brother as the detective to track down the thief. He is increasingly humourless and driven. Worse, he is manipulated by the King who ordered the death of his father. When the detective finally works out his relationship to the thief and comes to understand how their father died, the serial heats up to a violent and tragic conclusion. In this, some characters find redemption while others find only pain and death. The plot is correctly structured to give initial drama, some pathos interspersed with comic interludes, and then increasing tension moving towards the final series of confrontations as identities are unmasked.

This is not to say the serial is a complete success. It runs for some twenty hours and would probably have been better if it had decided to focus more completely on the brothers, the good-hearted ex-thief (Lee Mun-Shik) and his wife who protect the boy raised as their son, and the surviving men who killed their father. While opening out the pool of characters gives even relatively minor characters their moment and adds to the richness of the tapestry of the life described, it dilutes the intensity that would otherwise have been achieved. We cannot care about everyone, particularly when they only feature early on to become sacrifices later in the story. One point of interest is the appearance of Han Hyo-joo as a lost childhood friend who eventually recognises the grown up Iljimae. Nevertheless, the whole is reasonably entertaining and an interesting commentary on the paranoia and corruption that so often afflicts the ruling elite of many countries throughout time and around the world.

You can download the OST main theme called Lonely Footsteps here. It’s a great balance between a tender piano melody and a pulsating adventure theme.

For those of you who are fans of Park Shi Hoo, there’s a fan site at


The Young Warriors or Shao Nian Yang Jia Jiang (2006)

It has been intriguing to watch the high-profile re-emergence of the phrase, “blood and treasure”, a phrase used to describe the costs of war. Every society, no matter what its size, must always be conscious of how much it spends on militarism. In the modern context, the loss of young men and women is less obvious in the NATO countries and their allies as they pursue the war against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recruitment into the army now draws on a significantly more limited section of the poor and, at the sharp end most likely to be sent into battle, the children of the political and business elite are unlikely to be exposed to danger. Because of this, the loss is less visible in the pro-war media, and there’s a smaller political price to pay for the occupying governments. When it’s reported, the loss of life among the occupied is sanitised as unfortunate collateral damage. Innocent civilian deaths are dehumanised in reports reaching the foreign media. Locally, of course, this carnage is not going to win the hearts and minds of citizens, but rather encourage recruitment into the ranks of armed resistance to the foreign occupying forces. But this has always been the balancing in the use of force by an occupying army.

As reported here, I have been watching more TV of late and here is the first of an occasional piece or two about some of the more interesting dramas. As to The Young Warriors, let’s get the confusion about the name out of the way. This is sometimes known as Young Warriors of the Yang Clan. Made in China, the original title is transliterated as Shao Yang Jia Liang and, allowing for the required adverts, this is 43 hour-long episodes.

From start to finish, the story is a gentle musing on the meaning of ambition and honour. All the characters are placed on a scale of integrity from zero to one-hundred percent. The writers then leave everyone twisting in the wind while they all work out the dynamics of their relationships. The primary source of conflict comes from the enduring confrontation between the Song Empire, ably defended by the Yang family, and the Liao Empire whose military leader is the young and gifted Yelu Xia. Given that both sides strive for victory in their dispute over territory, there’s always the potential for one or both sides to cut corners. But, if duty and honour are the Yang’s strength, they are, ultimately, its weakness. The family so stubbornly refuses ever to consider failing to defend their Emperor or to retreat in battle that it leads them into serious physical and emotional difficulties.

The Song Emperor has come to power by killing his older brother, allegedly for the greater good. The Prime Minister Pan Ren Mei is typically corrupt and ambitious to become Emperor but, for all that, still has some loyalty to the Empire. If there is no Empire, he cannot become its Emperor. Thus, he must walk a narrow line between loyalty and disloyalty. The Liao eventually decide they will never win by fair means and so empower Tian Ling as their key strategist. He only cares about winning and has no moral inhibitions.

Thus everything is in a permanent state of potential destabilisation. In military terms, the balance favours the Yangs on a conventional field of battle. In the Song court, the Emperor has the problem of balancing the self-righteous patriarch of the Yangs against the Prime Minister. In Liao, Yelu Xia is given Tian Ling as an advisor and finds his conscience troubled at the machinations he is expected to build into his campaigns. That said, the core to the serial is the young warriors of Yang as they go through their rites of passage into the world of military duty and marriage. Needless to say, they rapidly become pawns in the greater conflict and their training is, of necessity, accelerated so they develop the skills to survive or not as the case may be. It should be said that the plot develops in a way that is reasonably unflinching albeit that, when there is death, it tends to be milked.

Thematically, we get into complicated emotional territory. When a military leader takes his sons into battle by his side, does he owe a duty to the wives to bring them back safe? Even if the father does favour his sons and keeps them from the thick of the battle, do they have the sophistication to live with the knowledge they were saved by their father rather than by their own efforts. Which is better? That you survive to return to your wife or death in the knowledge this will devastate your wife and the rest of the family? Now scale this up.

In overall military terms, the key question for both sides depended on the social structure of militarism. In those times, there was a military elite with families and individual pugilists trained to fight at the highest levels. Around them is a small group of competent fighters, but the mass of the army is conscripts whose actual fighting skills are very limited. It was to overcome these problems that spears and bows were developed to enable less skilful peasants to defend themselves by keeping the enemy at arm’s length where they were less dangerous with a sword. Add in explosives and you can kill the dangerously skilful even further away from your vulnerable troops. Despite this, large numbers of the unskilful can be lost in every battle. Over time, this is a serious drain on the resources of both sides. If too many men are lost, who will till the land and produce the goods both Empires need to prosper. So a good general is the one who keeps most of his troops alive and sufficiently uninjured to be able to continue fighting.

It turns war into endless campaigns of attrition where the one with the biggest losses withdraws until strength can be rebuilt. Why, you might ask, would withdrawal not trigger invasion? Well, a few heroes might beat an enemy army in one battle, but they cannot invade and hold the enemy country where an entire population awaits them. If they do cross the border and resort to the use of excessive force, all this does is alienate more of the locals and increase resistance. So the calculation of blood and treasure always favours a balance of power between relatively equal warring states. The balance is only broken when states can be merged through marriage or superior numbers and better technology. In all this, we have to remember that armies are the political tools of the ruling elites with only a few social classes between them and the peasants. There are times when even ambitious Prime Ministers welcome the presence of a Yang family to keep them safe in their beds. There are times when even a Yang must learn how to retreat both politically and militarily.

Overall, this is a fascinating watch. While not historically accurate, there’s enough in the fiction both to represent the reality of leadership in ancient China and to demonstrate its relevance in modern times.

For a film sequel, see Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan.

The Radio Magician and Other Stories by James Van Pelt

April 23, 2010 3 comments

According to the mother of Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates. As similes go, this is of indifferent quality. With my waist expanding, I now rarely indulge in chocolate but, were I to resume consumption by the boxload, I would look carefully at the listed contents. Although not allergic to nuts, I actively dislike the taste of most varieties commonly found lurking inside bonbons. This is a consistent part of my approach to life. I never buy a pig in a poke, but always insist on reasonable certainty as to what my money is going to deliver. Indeed, the very notion of abandoning predictability in favour of happenstance is extraordinary on matters of personal taste. Why would anyone prefer random outcomes in life? Given freedom of choice, I suspect most of us fall into the life is a bowl of cherries camp.

So where does that leave me with my habit of buying collections and anthologies? Well, it comes down to trust. When you know the author’s work, you expect similar levels of performance regardless of length. With editors, past experience shows their taste is reasonably adjacent to mine. Yet, even with the best buying strategy, it’s a practical impossibility to ensure every book is a perfect match to my own taste — as some of these reviews all too clearly show. All you can do is hope for the best based on the track record of those involved.

This means I was filled with optimism when I picked up The Radio Magician by James Van Pelt (published by Fairwood Press). He’s a consistently engaging writer whose sole novel and other collections are well worth exploring. As an editor, I always aimed to open with one of the author’s strongest stories. This gives the reader encouragement to keep on reading. I also left the strongest story to the end so that the reader would be left with the best impression of the book and, hopefully, create good word-of-mouth. In this case, the lead and titular story is a singularly pleasing balance between realism and schmaltz. As children, our dreams are based on what we believe about the world around us. Today, our young are buried under an excess of information. There’s just too much noise in the environment. Yesterday, a child’s only view of the outside world came through the radio. The converse problem of a single source of information filtered through the commercial and other sensibilities of those running the medium of communication. Neither offers reliability. Yet, in one sense, there’s hope. Today’s increasingly sophisticated young can become their own filters. In the days of radio, the young were naive. Their inexperience could lead them to believe in the reality of magic — something obviously undesirable — except, in this case, it might just give real hope to the sick.

Pursuing the question of children, the Jesuits like to think they have made you in their image by the age of seven. The rest of us can be continuously surprised about how we are turning out as we mature into adults. Life has a strange way of finding the hero for the hour or the villain of the piece. As a youngster, you are untested and have no way of knowing what you are really capable of. A visitor from the future might be able to advise were he given the chance. Equally, there may be unexpected ways in which we might be able to avoid threats. The use of nuclear weapons has been a constant background fear in our lives since the end of W.W.II. For a while, states postured and paranoia spread. Now it matures into the more personal danger that a small terrorist group might be able to build and detonate an atomic bomb. It could be tempting to escape this reality even though the precise nature of the escape might be uncertain.

It’s often said that our lives are dominated by dreams. With the money available and the will, cosmetic surgery can remake our bodies. If the technology existed, we could terraform worlds. It’s a kind of Darwinian impulse to keep on growing and developing as an individual and a species. Would there come a point in time when the drive to modify and change dissipates? A kind of emotional entropy with energy decreasing as the world around us grows inactive. If so, what emotion would replace it? Equally, what emotion would you experience if you were told to give up your dog? There’s this loving animal who barks so adorably when you share time together. When it comes to a final decision, whose view matters the most: your own, the dog’s or the third party who intervenes?

One thing is, of course, clear. Children are potentially obsessive — even if it’s obsessing about rebelliously doing the opposite of what their parents want. Yet a monomaniacal focus of energy on a single activity can sometimes produce the breakthrough no-one thought possible. Except, in selfishness lies loneliness and the loss of family relationships. This is not to say, however, that an army of voices talking at you would make for a better life. Sometimes being in touch with every aspect of your environment would be overwhelming. Unless, that is, the environment is a single organism. In such a case, it might be useful if you could understand what it was trying to tell you.

It’s often said that time travel would be impossible. There would be too many paradoxes. Van Pelt’s explanation is one of the most original I have ever read! There are other stories I will leave you to discover for yourselves save, perhaps, for the last. In a final concert, when weeks of rehearsal all come together, the power of the music can free the mind to soar. Van Pelt’s music certainly does that except there’s a price to be paid by every major artist. While their rare talents remain unnoticed in childhood, their lives can be their own. But when the world notices, it can take them away, and leave friends and family behind.

Overall, this collection is a bowl of cherries and no nuts. Well worth dipping into at random or otherwise.

For a review of another collection by James Van Pelt, see Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille.

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s by Kage Baker

There is something slightly creepy about reviewing the work of an author so recently deceased. While not wishing to write an obituary, I satisfy myself with the bland assertion that I will miss her continuing to write — there are, of course, more books in the pipeline due for publication over the next year or so. When on form, Kage Baker was immensely readable and inventive.

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s is a part of the ongoing building of the back-story to the Company oeuvre. Nell Gwynne’s is a companion to the Gentleman’s Speculative Society in which Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax played such a pivotal role. When the two organisations combine, this is a steampunkish exploration of Victorian espionage and great fun. Sadly, there is a slightly wooden quality to some of the writing. In part, this is a result of a failure to acknowledge the extent of the squalor of the real London and the appalling conditions under which most prostitution was conducted. The first section of this novella is a fast-paced introduction to our heroine, Lady Beatrice. It hurries through her early years, glossing over the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army and her survival of the subsequent Battle of Jellalabad. Frankly, I think this was a missed opportunity to explore the traumatic effect of those events both on her as a fictional survivor and on the British nation. It would have given real substance to her subsequent character and, more importantly, given more credibility to her rejection upon returning “home”. Although her family’s selfish reaction in rejecting her is not unbelievable, meeting such a survivor would have forced individuals and the community to confront their shock and horror at Elphinstone’s catastrophic leadership failure. Pubic opinion had yet to establish sufficient distance for objective assessments. She would have been put “put of sight” so that the spectre of Elphinstone could be “out of mind”. As it is, everything is too sanitised and, ultimately, genteel. Although, I suppose her desired intention of writing a fantasy justifies this rose-tinted spectacles view of the world.

The introduction, once done, leads into a slightly more leisurely telling of her recruitment to the upmarket brothel known as Nell Gwynne’s and her first assignment for the GSS. Although I think using antigravity as the primary trope of the story is somewhat over-the-top, it fits into the general wackiness of the scientific achievements attributed to all interested parties. The gathering of the interested parties for the auction of the technology is fairly routine, but finds some of Baker’s sense of humour at play. The mayhem at the end is then well-handled and the whole represents an enjoyable read. While this is not one of her best stories at this length, it nevertheless represents good value from Subterranean Press for those of you who like to see more bricks added to the Company wall. If you are not a Company fan, you should probably give this a miss at this price and wait for it to be packaged into a collection.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of HeavenThe Empress of MarsHouse of the Stag and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

As an added note, The Women of Nell Gwynne’s won the Nebula Award 2010 for Best Novella. It was also shortlisted for both the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo Award 2010 for the Best Novella.

A Dangerous Road by Kris Nelscott

The theme of today’s review is authenticity. Many authors write what they know. This is their comfort zone and it enables them to include levels of insight normally impossible to an outsider. Others are more daring and adopt a point of view as an outsider. In the first, you get an essential truthfulness about the mise-en-scène and credibility in the belief systems driving the choices characters make on what to do or not to do. In the latter, you see the scenes and the characters’ motivations through a more objective eye. In some cases, this may offer a form of commentary on the culture being described. The leaves the question whether authenticity matters.

On some things, I am a genuine expert. So, being born a Geordie, I am able to comment with authority on the portrayal of my homeland in films like Get Carter and, more recently, The One and Only. We shall pass rapidly over the general failure of filmmakers to reproduce the accent. Their standard justification is that meaning would be denied to even to English, let alone foreign, audiences without the use of subtitles. In reality, the problem is that the “stars” imported to sell the films are incapable of adopting a credible accent and their efforts would probably add an unintended comic element to the whole — something not necessarily desirable in Get Carter, Purely Belter, et al. Does it matter that films do not accurately portray local accents or, indeed, the real local culture? In some senses, the answer is always “no”.

Art always strives to achieve some level of universality and, if you root your work too strongly in one culture, it may deny others the chance to empathise. Thus, when you go to see Shakespeare, you do not hear the Elizabethan English of his time, but modern accents and, often, find the action in contemporary settings. Indeed, where would we be with Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and the many other film and stage versions of Shakespeare that have transplanted the spirit of his work into forms more immediately accessible to modern audiences.

All of which brings me to A Dangerous Road by Kris Nelscott. This is a not-quite private-eye story in the tradition of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels. That means an African-American hero with a military background who makes his living by doing odd jobs, usually investigation based. Unlike Easy, Smokey Dalton is well-educated, but they both have a knack for solving mysteries. Unlike Easy, Smokey Dalton is demotivated and alienated but, as the pressure mounts, they both get things done. When it comes to the politics of race, Mosley captures the social anger of the times and the self-control necessary to survive the inevitable interaction with local law-enforcement officers in particular and white folk in general. I take his voice to be authentic. Nelscott is a pseudonym (as most people interested in mystery novels will know). I read this book because I had enjoyed her science fiction and was interested to explore her other writing. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has no direct experience as a man of colour living through times of racial tension in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet this is the substance of the first of what has proved a successful series of Smokey Dalton novels.

Let us start with the quality of the mystery to be solved. The core of the problem is obvious from the initial pages, but the detail of the resolution only becomes possible towards the end of the book when Smokey makes a road trip. I confess I did not predict the correct solution. I was in the mood to read it through to the end in one sitting and did not stop to give it thought. As a “twist”, it fits into the context, but it’s a bit “ordinary” when measured against comparable novels. The intended focus of interest lies in the novelisation of the final days leading up to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Since we all know he was assassinated, the only tension in this narrative lies in mapping out the territory often occupied by conspiracy theorists intent upon involving the FBI and the local police in the shooting. Sadly, I was mildly underwhelmed by this. There is also a subplot involving an interracial relationship between Smokey and his client, Laura Hathaway. In the heat of the moment and given all Smokey’s emotional baggage, I found this element to be the most credible. It’s an emotional tragedy for both characters, but probably what would have happened. I take this element to be authentic.

Put all this together and you have quite an interesting read. It has Rusch’s trademark prose — refreshingly simple and involving. If it had been put in support of a narrative more intrinsically exciting to a Geordie, I would have been really impressed. Perhaps, to Americans interested in their own history, such novels are inherently exciting. I am therefore uncertain whether to continue acquiring and reading the other Smokey Dalton novels. In contrast, I am a Walter Mosley completist, having read all his novels including the science fiction (one of which is dire). His voice does speak to me as a Geordie who lived through the immediate post-war period in a Northern, bomb-devastated British city.

For my other reviews of books by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, see:
City of Ruins
A Dangerous Road (writing as Kris Nelscott)
Diving into the Wreck
Duplicate Effort
Recovering Apollo 8

Child of Fire by Harry Connolly

There’s an art to writing a serial. In each instalment, you recognise that a percentage of the viewers or readers will not have seen or read what went before so they will need helpful hints and clues. Equally, all your loyal fans remember all too clearly how everyone got into this particular mess and want only to see or read how they get out of it. So there’s a balance to be struck. Newbies have to get up to speed. Hopefully, they will be inspired to go back and catch the earlier episodes — something that’s always good for business — but it’s in everyone’s interests to move the latest narrative along. That’s why most instalments in so many hack serials are formulaic. Once you’ve seen or read one episode, you realise Flash is still on Mongo fighting the Riddler while wondering if Moriarty really did die at Reichenbach Falls. When you understand the formula, it doesn’t matter what order you see or read them in. They all just happen in the moment.

Which brings me to Child of Fire. You have to put yourself as a fly on the wall of the publisher’s office to understand this. “Just think,” says the accountant, “of the size of the fan base you could create. There’s a fantastic market for spin-offs, sequels when one story arc has finished, and prequels. And those prequels can go back as far as you want into childhood. Hey, you could even write some for the YA market. Get them hooked on your heroes young and they’ll follow in lockstep into the adult serial. It’s a trail of breadcrumbs to riches. That means never starting at a beginning because, by our definition (on our contract terms to be negotiated) there’s no such thing as a beginning, just a point of origin tetralogy.” So poor unpublished Harry Connolly looks at the dollar signs written into the contract for his first novel, acts on what the publisher says, changes the title and sells his second novel.

Yes, friends, this is truly bizarre. This is the second outing for this pair of ghostbusters and, dotted through the text are the hints and clues normally reserved for newbies. Except, there’s no first novel to go back and read how they met. We have to wait for the prequel to get the gory details of how many they killed and how our hero ended up in police custody.

Personally, I prefer my story arcs to have a better defined beginning.

That said, this is a good read. The author has a lean style and, with commendable efficiency, sucks us in at the beginning (such as it is) and spits us out at the end (not counting the teaser pages of the already written sequel). This presents the threat of predators from other dimensions within a framework of magic where spells are cast to confer a significant range of different skills and abilities. Not surprisingly, the defenders of the Earth guard spell books out of fear. If too many ordinary folk could cast spells, this would be chaotic. So, courtesy of events in the prequel, our hero is an ordinary Joe who got caught up as a “defense contractor” — think of him as an employee of Blackwater with instructions to go out and make a lot of noise, shooting and, if unavoidable, killing as many as possible (regardless whether they are alive or dead). During this bloodthirsty first outing, he actually casts a spell of his own that works as a “get out of jail free” card in Monopoly. It’s a kind of all-purpose, but close-quarters, knife that passes through anything and cuts some things on the way. This is complicated because it will cut the clothing of enemies but not his own clothes when it leaves and returns to his pocket. Our hero is the “support” for a fully-fledged sorceress who, when push comes to shove, relentlessly tips the enemy off the cliff. She is, well, more or less, invulnerable. Except, of course, this particular predator’s attack inadvertently strikes her Achilles heel, leaving our hero to do the lifting (more heavy because of his general lack of magical skills and the need for him to survive to grace the pages of the next instalment — and the prequel).

You have to be prepared to suspend disbelief on an epic scale for this book to work. No matter how many people hit him, shoot at him or try to incinerate him, our hero manages to walk away relatively unscathed. It’s a kind of magic I wish I’d had when I was younger. But, switch off the brain and this is enjoyable mayhem with a slightly different twist on Ridley Scott’s (i.e. Van Vogt’s) Alien reproductive cycle, a werewolf or two, and assorted spellcasting.

Put another way, this is a talented writer who, to earn a living, has written a potboiler intended to inspire a lucrative serial. I wish him luck. It’s just a shame he could not have used his obvious talent to construct something slightly more “satisfying”. Oh dear, a view that sounds more elitist than usual. This probably means I think this book a guilty pleasure. I tend to prefer books that make me think rather than books to occupy a few hours with reasonable pleasure. Either way, this is so much more than the mindless incoherence of the standard potboiler. It is enjoyable.

For those of you who enjoy following up on a review, you can see comments here which is a mirror site from here.

Here are the reviews of the other two volumes in the series: Game of Cages and Circle of Enemies.

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