Archive for July, 2010

Eclipse Three edited by Jonathan Strahan

Given the editor starts off with a discussion of the jacket artwork, how can I avoid mentioning it. In terms of style, it’s a real blast from the past, and not necessarily in a good way. I suppose something abstract in a slightly futuristic mode is appropriate for a non-themed anthology, but this is a bit weird. We have a figure in red who could be making a thoroughly obscene gesture or looking to make a shadow puppet of Anubis with a really provocative pair of ears. He stands, legs astride, wearing one of those one-piece jumpsuits much favoured by space heroes of the 1950s. To his right is the eclipsed sun with perspective lines linking to what may be a partially disassembled robot, or perhaps that’s just a door knob and not a head. I can understand why Jonathan Strahan would want to spend the introductory pages defending it all. Anyway, here we are, under starter’s orders, with Eclipse Three (Night Shade Books), not surprisingly following on from Eclipse Two.

And we are off and running. . . except I am immediately pitched back into speculation on what this anthology is intended to be. “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler is a perfectly respectable piece of fiction about parents who send off their rebellious teen to a boot camp for reprogramming, if not depersonalisation. I am unimpressed by the jacket blurb describing this as a “strange incarceration”. It seems nothing more than a slightly polemical piece about the cruelty parents can inflict on their offspring. There’s not the slightest sign of anything remotely sfnal, fantastical or horrific about it. It’s a great story in its own right, but I disagree with the editorial choice, and placing it first in the anthology compounds the strangeness.* “A Practical Girl” by Ellen Klages somewhat gets us back on to a better track with the notion there’s magic in pure maths such that it can create its own perfect world. The irony is that the perfection resulting from a magic square is a closed loop no matter which direction you attempt to move. It’s nicely told as a period piece with a young girl intent on “saving” a younger boy she meets.

We really get moving with “Don’t Mention Madagascar” by Pat Cadigan. Whoever said karma was something you collected every time you passed “Go” by dying had not the good fortune to read this delightfully wrought story. I suppose the problem for Hindus and Buddhists is that few have the chance to visit Madagascar. “On the Road” by Nnedi Okorafor is a reworking of a standard horror trope as a woman comes to realise that matters of life and death can be shaped by powerful spirits. What makes this better than the usual efforts is the cultural relocation to Nigeria. I confess to reading very little fiction based in Africa, so this editorial choice briefly extended my repertoire.

“Swell” by Elizabeth Bear picks up the pace again with a marvelous story about a siren. There’s beauty in the perfectly-judged reaction of the man to the “gift” from this water nymph to him. I wish him every success and will be looking for his first CD when it’s released.

“Useless Things” by Maureen F. McHugh is a sad piece about a woman trying to eke out a living in the New Mexico countryside. It touches on the increasingly hot potato of illegal immigration, ties it to the hobo culture and leaves the woman at risk as hopefully “safe” men passing by, trade their labour for a meal. She makes dolls and diversifies into up-market sex toys to pay the bills. The hook to justify inclusion is vaguely horrific or, given the increasingly eclectic nature of the stories, perhaps we should be beyond genre expectations at this point.

Back into classic sword and sorcery with “The Coral Heart” by Jeffrey Ford, an entertaining romp through the usually dismal swamp of barbarians who have to fight their way out of trouble with their sword. This particular blade is a variation on the Gorgon theme, transmuting the wounded victims into coral rather than stone. Our “hero” and his tulpa are distracted by the lusty side of love in a trap seeking revenge. How it all works out is great fun. As an aside, I note that only four and a half of the authors for the fifteen stories included in the anthology are male. It’s reassuring that a male editor is sufficiently meritocratic to pick the best stories available without regard to gender.

It’s always sightly invidious to pick favourites from an anthology but, for me, there are three clear winners in this anthology, listed in the order of their appearance. The first is “It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith. The balancing between the natural and chemical attraction is made most satisfyingly. The field trial of hormonal manipulation is wonderfully cruel, made all the more so because of its commercial context. It poses a difficult choice for the lab rat once alerted to the sequence of events leading thus far. The simple emotion of hope in the resulting decision feels right. “Sleight of Hand” by Peter S. Beagle — just mentioning the author’s name is almost enough to guarantee a top-three finish. How this man contrives to produce so many good stories is beyond me. It’s a magical consistency. In this case, we have a thematic return to Madagascar where, for a rather better reason, a person may earn a right to change what has happened. In Cadigan’s story, the girls rather blunder through to their “end”. Beagle resolves matters more poignantly. My final choice is “Yes, We Have No Bananas” by Paul Di Filippo. Taking the title of a 1922 song and then producing this wonderfully fey story of magical science in a post-apocalyptic America is no more than we have come to expect from this master storyteller. Having lived through food rationing, I know what it’s like to live in a world without bananas.

Back with the merely “very good”, we have “The Pretender’s Tourney” by Daniel Abraham. Again, this is a slightly odd choice in that it’s not really science-fictional — only a metallic meteorite falls — and barely fantasy, being rather more a historical piece about succession to a throne in generic mediaeval times with Welsh overtones. “Mesopotamian Fire” by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple walks a tightrope of humour and just about emerges unscathed. Writing in this style is very difficult to sustain over any length and this pair of authors time their throwing in of the towel just before it grows tedious. “The Visited Man” by Molly Gloss almost made my top three as a ghost story dealing with grief. It’s another nicely-judged story about a recently bereaved old man rescued from apathetic surrender by the intrusion of the artist who lives in the apartment below. The shading of melancholy into a more positive mood is gently captured as both men deal with their “issues”. As another aside, one of the paintings described in this story would have made a good cover.

“Galapagos” by Caitlin R Kiernan is a fairly routine story about an alien first contact triggering evolutionary shifts in the crew. It’s saved by the manner of its telling through the eyes of the sole human allowed to see the consequences. This enables most of the “action” to be left off-stage and so our own imaginations are more involved. Slightly less of the descriptions towards the end would have improved the finished product. Finally, we have “Dulce Domum” by Ellen Kushner which is an exercise in intertextualism, mashing in text from “Wind in the Willows” to illuminate this Christmas tale. I’m not sure it’s a success but it’s a brave piece of writing.

Looking back on the anthology as a whole, it has proved enjoyable if sometimes frustrating, offering stories of a kind I would not normally have read. Insofar as any editor can provoke readers into exploring fiction outside their declared zone of interest, Jonathan Strahan has bravely pushed the envelope. This is worth picking up.

*For the record, “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler won the World Fantasy Award 2010 for Best Short Story, “It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith was shortlisted for the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novelette, while Eclipse Three was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award 2010 for Best Anthology.

For reviews of other anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan, see Eclipse Two and Eclipse Four. There’s also a new website, Eclipse Online.

Inception (2010)

The world continues to throw up the occasional marketing campaign to stimulate curiosity. I enjoyed the recent Batman films so going to see Christopher Nolan’s stand-alone science-fictional effort, Inception (2010), seemed a good idea. Every now and again, it does me good to run with the herd, to remember what it’s like to jump off a cliff with all the other lemmings.

So there I am, comfortably installed in the cinema — amazingly only the one trailer for Harry Potter, no ads. Thank God for longer films! Shame about the Potter. And so, in the best of the racetrack jargon, we’re off and running.

About fifteen minutes into the film, I register a discussion about perceptions in a dream. Cobb, our hero, asks his architect how they arrived at this particular place in Paris. She cannot remember. There’s a discontinuity. I am immediately triggered into comparing the medium of film with dreaming. Because of the time limitations, directors cut between one scene and the next, leaving it to the viewers to fill in the blanks. We are well trained, always being prepared to infer the missing events. So dreams are also discontinuous as the subconscious flits from one set of narrative elements to another. I begin to wonder whether any of what we are watching is intended to be “real” or is it all to be a dream. I am further reinforced in this speculation as the idea of multiple levels in dreaming is introduced and discussed. Then the game is completely exposed when Cobb is trying to escape in Mombassa and runs down an ever-narrowing passageway.

Perhaps I am too old to be watching young film-makers try to say something new.

In this instance, I can identify two good things about the end-product. Even though it’s not terribly original, I like the logic of the plot. Having decided which of the possible stories he’s going to tell, Nolan is very disciplined, carefully setting out his ground rules, and then watching them play out to the end. Overall, I think it goes on for about twenty minutes too long. There’s just too much repetitive shooting and explosions, particularly in the third level where the snow looks pretty even though the action is tedious.

The second good thing is the quality of the cinematography and design. Some of the dreamscapes are impressive although, again, the zero gravity sequence goes on too long.

But there’s a real problem. I think the best way to explain it is to remind myself of the number of exciting games I have watched. When you spectate, particularly as a player yourself, you are immediately drawn into the ebb and flow of the action. Although there’s always satisfaction in watching any game played really well, nothing beats the raw emotion of empathising with the winner and commiserating with the loser. Any good work of fiction, whether on the page, on stage or the screen must encourage us to suspend disbelief. It may not be real, but the director hopes we will empathise with the key players.

The mark of a great film is the way in which it captures and holds our interest. We must want the key protagonist to win, or not to lose too badly. The difficulty with Inception is that it’s like watching over someone’s shoulder while he or she plays a video game. I can stand this for a few minutes but, with little turning on the outcome, I’m rarely involved. It’s different if I’m the one playing. Then, regardless whether my level of performance is good or bad, it’s my effort and, as a competitive soul, I dislike losing to some stupid machine. But all I was doing this afternoon was watching Nolan play a first-person shooter game. It had great visuals and Zimmer’s music was the usual atmospheric pomp, but I was not involved. These were not real people. At best, they were projections of the subconscious mind. In a sense, it did not matter which actors happened to be on the screen at any one time. They were merely going through the motions necessitated by the plot. On three occasions, individuals were asked to make a leap of faith. I could not do it. I wish it were otherwise, but Inception (2010) is a film you admire for its technical virtuosity but forget because it had no heart.

As always, I can pick winners for this won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form at the 2011 World Science Fiction Convention.

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Known to Evil by Walter Mosley

July 26, 2010 1 comment

This is the second in the series by Walter Mosley featuring Leonid McGill. Following on The Long Fall, we are pitched back into the realpolitik of New York with our eponymous hero working directly for Alphonse Rinaldo — a fictional consigliere to the Mayor who fixes what the city needs.

It’s always interesting to see how a series develops its own agenda. Although ostensibly about a PI solving crimes, Mosley is more interested in exploring the relationships between people based on how honest they are. In this, the touchstone of honesty is applied not just in what they say, but also in what they do. A man may be without conscience when it comes to killing. This is a brutal kind of honesty and, once you are aware of this man’s character, you can define the relationship you can form with him. In this, it’s possible to separate the essential nature of the man from what he may sometimes do. He may be unfailingly loyal to his friends, a wise counsellor and, if needed, a defender of the innocent. Are we to say this is not a good man. Morality is always an exercise in relativism. Although Kant and other philosophers prefer to define some moral principles in absolute terms, such certainty rarely works in all cultural contexts. Circumstances dictate exceptions to every rule.

Within his marriage, McGill’s relationship with his wife is defined by what he does not say and do. When he does speak, it’s usually to lie about what their sons are doing. Dimitri, his son by blood, rarely speaks to his father. Twill, who was born during the marriage but not with McGill as his father, is a kind of spiv in the making. So far, his criminality is relatively low level, but he has an easy-going charm that may mark him out for an effective life in sales. Whether this will be selling the Brooklyn Bridge or more legitimate property remains to be seen. Shelly, a daughter, is not relevant to this story.

This is not to undervalue the racial element that runs as a steady thread throughout almost all Mosley’s fiction. But, rather in the same way that the U.S. has become increasingly unwilling to discuss the structural and institutionalised racism that permeates so much of its life, so Mosely is here more oblique in his treatment of racial issues. That Dimitri spends the book infatuated with and hiding a high-class Russian prostitute from her pimp is never commented on. That various white men and women physically threaten McGill is simply the way the world works when words are not a sufficient deterrent. It’s left to the reader to impose his or her own interpretation on events. This is a significant shift from the Easy Rawlins, Socrates Fortlow and some of the stand-alone novels like The Man In My Basement where the discussion of race is overt. I mention this shift not to suggest that Mosely is himself becoming less honest. It’s entirely possible he has toned it down because, in these increasingly hypocritical times, the more honest books about race relations in the U.S. do not sell. Authors who want to earn a living cannot afford to alienate too many of their readers.

In fact, Mosley engages in a nice piece of misdirection. Having been raised by a political activist, the younger McGill still carries the intellectual baggage of the communist idealism that drove his father. So, in various reminiscences punctuating the interior monologue, we are treated to some of the wisdom of his father. As explicit commentary on the U.S. and its current political stance, it draws attention away from the subtext of race.

Overall, this is another fast-paced PI novel where, from the moment he accepts the assignment from Rinaldo, he is fighting to thwart a malicious plot to kill the named young woman. In the midst of this, he must save his sons from their well-intentioned desire to take on a major prostitution ring, help a man whose life he blighted in the past, and offer physical support for an ageing surrogate father figure. Did I mention decisions about what to do about his marriage and resolving issues with his girlfriend? And then there’s the new manager of the building where he has his offices. He would prefer McGill to leave. This is a classic recipe of ingredients, all stirred together with style and panache by a wonderful writer.

This is a terrific PI novel. Start with The Long Fall, the first in the series, to understand who everyone is.

For a review of the last two Easy Rawlins novela, see Blonde Faith and Little Green. The third and fourth Leonid McGill novels are When the Thrill Is Gone and All I Did Was Shoot My Man. The new stand-alone pairs of novellas are The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin and Merge and Disciple. Now comes a new ebook, Jack Strong.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

July 26, 2010 2 comments

Having had sand kicked in my face for my whinging about the size and weight of some modern hardback books, I went back to the trunk where I store the few remnants of my youth. There it was. Just as I remembered. The Charles Atlas dynamic tension course. Now, of course, you all think of dynamic tension as being one of these fancy postmodernist theories about narrative — the idea that an author should be able to hold the interest of the reader from start to finish. But, as one who consumed a diet of comics as a kid, the idea I would be able to beat the bully to a pulp and get the girl was a terrible lure to the insecure and callow youth that I was.

Over the last weeks, I have been training in self-resistance, reading only light trade paperbacks while working out the Atlas way. Today sees the proof of the pudding I once was. The weight is now gone from the waist as chords of rippling muscles play across the upper body of a old god holding up the world and a fair-sized terrapin. I have even mastered the Shaolin one-finger technique for turning the pages.

Thus prepared, I was easily able to lift and hold Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson. For once, I am able to say this was a delight to read. Recently, I seem to have been caught in a rut of indifferent to poor books. This broke the run with such amazing power, I was immediately checking his web site. Sadly, there do not seem to be any plans for a sequel. I know there’s a terrible glut of trilogies, but if he could maintain the same wit and style, I would happily buy the next in series.

Is this book perfect? In one sense, this is a meaningless question. We are into the world of individual sensibilities. All readers have monster egos and can think of ways in which they believe any work of fiction can be improved. In this case, we have the sudden loss of all narrative connection with Dedelin once his two daughters have left for the capital. I find it impossible to believe he would not have attempted some search for his favoured daughter. There would also have been the preparations for war. That said, I suppose it might have pushed the book into trilogy mode. Once you start considering what everyone else is doing, the wordage expands to fill the space available — Parkinson’s Law of writing. So, no book is every completely perfect. Yet this comes close.

This is about real people in an unreal situation. We have sisters who find themselves in unfamiliar territory, both literally and metaphorically. Some of those around them are wise, others foolish. Perhaps sometimes those who are both foolish and wise at the same time prove to be the best. We have those who smile to conceal their nature and those who are silent because they must learn how to speak. As we progress, the innocent must learn the hard lessons of life and the overconfident must recognise those who stand together can be stronger. All life is here from the lowest in the slums to the highest in the land. And let’s not rush to judgement on who is better. Status counts for nothing when real choices must be made.

And all is told with a remarkable wit. It’s genuinely rare to be able to accuse a writer of high fantasy of breaking the mould of seriousness that so often pervades works of magic. Frankly, the irreverence and iconoclasm are utterly refreshing. As a final test, I gave the book to my wife who asserts a blind and unreasoning prejudice against fantasy. A mixture of threats and promises of a high quality meals in one of our better local restaurants persuaded her to start reading. It took her three days but she made time to finish it. She then promptly asked for more. Believe me. There can be no higher recommendation than both a tired old guy who has read thousands of books “just like this” and a wife who usually hates fantasy both unreservedly like this book. Ignore it at your peril!

Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul,
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
The Way of Kings
Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

In the best traditions of The Archers, a nightly radio soap much loved by the British, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin is an everyday story of godfolk. As creation myths go, this has an inner circle of three gods, their children and all the worlds they brought into existence. Except, to keep the whole story-telling thing manageable, we are only on one world (almost all the time). Anyway, these gods had a war. Somehow, gods never seem to be able to get on. All that power and still no interpersonal skills. They fight even though it never solves anything and leaves worlds in ruin as collateral damage. Except, in this war, there was a resolution of sorts. One god reigned supreme, one god was imprisoned in human flesh, and the third was disincorporated — since gods are kinda unkillable, this is a process whereby the body is destroyed but the spirit (or soul, if you prefer) lives on.

Time passes as it must and a balance emerges. The losing god and immediate children are physically limited and under the control of the “humans” ruling this world. Rather in the same way Isaac Asimov’s robots have literal minds and like to play games with the three laws of robotics, so these gods are prone to “misunderstand” commands given to them. This is not always fatal, but usually involves serious destruction, albeit on a limited scale. Think of these beings as weapons available for use by the inner circle of the ruling elite and you have some idea of how the system is supposed to work. Remembering, of course, that the surviving god from the trio (now a solo act) has a local agent to keep them from running amok.

An outsider is summoned into this court of elite rulers. Her destiny was shaped before her birth. This makes her an innocent pawn in the renewal of the “human” political system. On a regular basis, the surviving god’s direct agent ages to a point when he or she is of little further use. At this point, the successor must be chosen. Our heroine, Yeine, in this first-person narrative is the current agent’s granddaughter. She is to have a pivotal role in the process of succession. That means everyone is out to manipulate her. As a political novel this works quite well. Jemisin has produced a series of different structures within the elite itself and in the surrounding kingdoms. While by no means original, the overall view of the society fits the need. Anything more complicated and the novel would get too bogged down in the detail.

There are, however, three problems with the resulting novel (the first part in The Inheritance Trilogy). The first is one of tone. I find the style of writing curiously flat. Although there’s a lot that is potentially exciting, I never found myself involved. In part, because I never had the sense our heroine was ever in serious danger. It’s always a problem with books when you know the heroine must persist through to the end. But there’s no real effort here to “sell” the story. We know she’s a warrior princess but, allowing for the fish-out-of-water, thrown-in-at-the-deep-end of court life, she’s remarkably uncertain for someone so obviously destined for greatness.

The second problem lies in the mystery element to work out who killed her mother and why. This could have been a major plot hook but, in the end, it’s all rather thrown away, being left as a kind of footnote to what has been a revenge motif running through the narrative. This is somewhat ironic because, in the best tradition of all country house murder mysteries from the Golden Age, all the suspects are gathered together for the succession ceremony. The moving finger does go round pointing at the candidates, but the revelation is swamped by the broader canvas of the succession itself. In a sense, everything must be subordinated to picking out who will lead — and, surprise, it’s not going to be who you guess.

Finally, there’s the reason for her ultimate success. The two-souls-in-one-body trope has been done so much better by others. While making allowances for this being the first novel, I can’t suspend disbelief at the arc of growth from barbarian clod (with the clod uppermost) to the superhuman able to survive sexual intercourse with a god in human form. It seems their activities can reduce the bedroom to a shattered wreck but leave her relatively untouched. How come the two-souls thing protects the physical body? Worse, it’s unprotected sex! Not the kind of role-model message authors should be sending to their readers. Just think what would happen if a godling baby is conceived and develops in a human womb. What will the first kick feel like?

So The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is mildly interesting, but not that exciting. Nevertheless, I have ordered the next in the series called The Broken Kingdoms. Hopefully, N. K. Jemisin can pick up the pace a bit.

For the record, this book is one of the 2010 Nebula Awards, 2011 World Fantasy Awards, and 2011 Hugo Awards nominations for Best Novel. It’s also a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best First Novel.


For the final volume in the trilogy, see The Kingdom of Gods. For a new duology by N K Jemisin, see The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun.


No Doors, No Windows by Joe Schreiber

In the good old days before the birth of the Internet, we were all the victims of failing memory. If we half-remembered a line, placing it was always a delightful challenge. The various books of famous quotations were always serendipitous ways of passing an idle hour as the search would inevitably be diverted by delight in seeing old friends on flicked through pages. Today, it’s more efficient as we trigger a googling only to find many possible sources. So it was that I thought, “sins of the father” and then found myself pitched into lists of Biblical references which, inconveniently, contradict each other. It seems the generational transmission of sin was always controversial as the notion of personal responsibility vied with vicarious liability if there was any suggestion the sons had benefited from the father’s sins.

So picture a house standing out on its own in the countryside. To the eye outside, it’s all straight lines. But inside it’s all curves. Houses pass through time, handed down as the accumulated wealth of the family. They are the wombs in which the young are conceived and are carried until it’s time to give birth to each new generation. Wombs must be flexible in size, ready to expand and contract. There must be passages in and out for fertilisation and evacuation. A house is life. A house is a place in which we die when disease or old age catches up with us.

So picture such a house. It’s the means whereby a curse might pass through time. Do the sins of the father really justify visiting revenge on the innocent children? Is such a question meaningful? Perhaps a curse is like a computer program, forever set to repeat its operation when certain conditions are met. How or why the program was written never matter to the computer. It has no mind to make moral or any other judgements. It simply executes. . . an appropriate word when dealing with curses.

So picture a house — each new generation of owners may be manipulated. There are traps and lures. Once the hook is set, it floats or sinks depending on the weights attached. All good fishermen know where the targeted fish like to swim. History guides them.

No Doors, No Windows by Joe Schreiber is a fast and pacey read for two-thirds its length. It runs well as all muscular stallions will when left to run the course at their own speed. But there comes a point in every narrative when calculations must be made. In part this is driven by the power of the horse, but the expectations of the crowd at the track also come into play. Seeing a front runner burn out before the finishing post does not appeal to the betting fraternity. It wants to see winners. So the little chap perched precariously on this mass of pounding flesh uses a mixture of encouragement and pain, hoping to guide the unthinking animal to its best result. It must be held back, positioned just right, then readied for the sprint to the line.

This is a wonderful atmosphere piece that, perforce, must fit into the readers’ expectations. So, acting on the trainer’s instructions, the jockey takes out the whip and hits the horse.

Everything is great up to this moment. The horse then veers off into a different race in which ghosts from the past rear up in the present.

Shame really. If only the jockey had kept his nerve, this horse would have run a great race. As it is, it all gets far to literal in the last third and the horse tails in at the end. But if your thing is fighting the good fight and seeing the good triumph over evil, well, this ending is for you.

Not Less Than Gods by Kage Baker

You know something is wrong when you desperately want a book to be good. Pursuing metaphors of the sea, you feel waves of rationality washing up on the shores of disappointment and not receding as a full moon of gravity-manipulating proportions keeps the tide moving ever higher.

So it is with a heavy heart that I report another dud from Kage Baker. I wish I could write a better epitaph. But, instead of a brilliant swan song, we have the Danny Kay “And (s)he went with a quack and a waddle and a quack” — two quacks already? And we’re still only in the second paragraph!

Not Less Than Gods is a depressing travelogue through old landscapes. An author on form illuminates the journey with wit and intelligence, pointing out details lovingly researched before we set out, making the tedium between stops bearable. This is what is now called an “origin” story where we look back in the life of a fictional character to see where he came from and what forces shaped his early life. As someone who has read almost every word of the Company series, both novels and shorter stories, I always found the ideas interesting even though the execution could be a bit clunky — a word much loved by those who write lit. crit. meaning inelegant. So, it’s an “interesting” idea to explore the origin of Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax except the first section is essentially a rewrite of Alec Checkerfield’s arrival on the scene — fortunately without the support of pirate-centred early learning devices. This time, the absentee parents are replaced by a well-meaning servant who acts as a “father figure” to fill his young protégé’s head with stories of military adventurism.

Nevertheless, despite any real novelty, the early years are paradise compared to the tedium of training by the Gentleman’s Speculative Society. And then we are off on the mission. Yawn. This is all going through the motions. Tick box for entering Country A. Stuff happens. Tick box when leaving. For all its faults, there was more life and inventiveness in The Women of Nell Gwynne’s with some steampunishness to tickle our fancy.

This is the second recent book from Subterranean Press relying on Baker’s name to sell a book. Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key was a sketch waiting for an author to bring it up to a level when it could stand in the light of day and not cause everyone to flinch away in embarrassment. Not Less Than Gods is the reverse problem of an author spewing out words in the hope an editor will tell her which should remain after the blue pencil has done its work. In other words, lurking inside this lumbering hulk, there is a potentially interesting read. With the right hands on the tiller, this could have come into a safe harbour with all flags flying. It would have been a great way of remembering an author. As it is, this is definitely not to be attempted in its expensive limited edition form. If you are interested, wait for the paperback to hit the secondhand stores.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of HeavenThe Empress of MarsHouse of the Stag, The Bird of the River, Not Less Than Gods, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

The Devil’s Alphabet by Daryl Gregory

You know you’re in trouble when the author, Daryl Gregory, sets a novel about DNA shifts/human evolution in a hick place called Switchcreek, Tennessee. This is like the author taking a rubber hammer and driving a spike into the reader’s head to get him, her or the other to pay attention. How else are we to understand something is “significant”? Sadly, this naïveté is symptomatic of a very pedestrian story of everyday rural folk who wake up one day to find the ones who survive the transformation are suddenly three or, may be, four different species. Ho hum, was there ever such a day! Off to bed as Tennessee white trash, the next day awake as Alphas, Betas, Gammas (no,wait, that’s Brave New World) so this must be Argos, Betas and Charlies. Perhaps that’s why the author called the novel The Devil’s Alphabet, keeping the Deltas up his sleeve for the sequel.

This is a mystery story buried in a portentous story about how one isolated community might suddenly be kicked into a different evolutionary path. It’s a kind of Midwich Cuckoos event and may presage the first attempts of an invading virus from a parallel world to gain a foothold in our neck of the woods. Or perhaps that’s an invasion from three different worlds or dimensions. Frankly, I lost interest after the first efforts to explain what might be happening. That the author keeps having different attempts at explanation is slightly desperate because it doesn’t get any better each time it comes around.

So we have the usual ragbag of tired plot devices. The rest of Tennessee avoids the town like the plague (which is hardly surprising because the inhabitants have been struck down by some kind of mass epidemic). There are the usual drive-by attacks by these unfriendly neighbours until, slowly, they grow bored. No-one else falls ill. It’s not contagious or infectious. Yawn. Then, thirteen years after the first, a village in Ecuador has the same problem so the US army encircles Switchcreek in a quarantine and, to assure the local population of their goodwill, they shoot the first couple who try to leave town. Those soldiers. . . Fresh from Iraq, you can always rely on their welcoming spirit.

In the midst of all this stuff, one of the older transformed women apparently commits suicide. Yeah, right. So we all start guessing whodunnit. To help us through the tangled web, a returning man, not apparently affected in the original outbreak, runs from one local character to another until we have met the assembled cast of potential killers. Roll up, roll up! Place your bets. And it turns out it’s the always obvious. . . although the reason for the killing is actually quite clever so score one for the author in this one-horse-race.

Overall, this is a somewhat tiresome and rather boring book that offers a vague sfnal explanation for some rather weird physical transformations while investigating a fake suicide. Our hero (for want of a better word) goes through the usual PI travails of being beaten to a pulp for daring to stick his nose where it’s not wanted, getting hooked on some a strange vintage brew, and emerging from the whole thing in one piece by virtue of finding enough buried bodies with which to blackmail to key players into letting him go.

Not recommended unless you are desperate for something to read.

As an added note, The Devil’s Alphabet was a finalist in the Philip K. Dick Award 2010 for Best Novel.

Here are reviews of other novels by Daryl Gregory:
Raising Stony Mayhall
We Are All Completely Fine
and an equally wonderful collection Unpossible.

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