Archive for September, 2010

Warriors edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois

September 28, 2010 1 comment

I find this anthology something of a conundrum. At the editorial helm stand two very distinguished individuals who may properly be labelled as pre-eminently working in the science fiction and fantasy genres. It may therefore be a not-unreasonable expectation that any book jointly edited by them would be stuffed to the rafters with science fiction and fantasy stories. But this is not the case at all. Surprisingly, the majority of stories are historical without any obvious fantasy or horror elements. In this respect, I was somewhat saddened by my decision to buy. I don’t usually read so many non-sf, fantasy or horror stories.

“The King of Norway” by Cecelia Holland is a “straight” historical reconstruction of fighting between feuding groups of Vikings in old Norseland. It strings out the prebattle boasting and swearing of loyalty oaths, to the sea battle and its aftermath. The problem is one of scale. The author is overambitious and she includes too many characters and plot lines. It’s impossible to resolve all these threads at this length. As a novel, with time to get to know the characters, it could be interesting. At this length, I found it boring and tedious. Robin Hobb has the scale right in “The Triumph”. It’s essentially the story of the relationship between two men set against the background of the Punic Wars, making simple statements about loyalty and honour. I thought the decision to feature the snake surprising and distracting. No matter whether it’s realistic, it did nothing to enhance primary thrust of the story. Steven Saylor’s The Eagle and the Rabbit” is set after the fall of Carthage and manages to avoid sentimentality in describing the campaign to round up the Carthaginian stragglers. But it lacks originality.

Joe R. Lansdale is rather better as he weighs in with “Soldierin’” which captures some of the racial tensions and practical fighting by the Buffalo Soldiers. This is a taut and economical story, told with characteristic dry wit. “The Scroll” by David Ball is equally pleasing with a sadistic Emperor of Morocco building a great new monument to his own importance using captured French soldiers and engineers. This would sit comfortably in a fantasy anthology although I take it to be “historical” in its intent. It beautifully captures the despair of the architect as victim of the psychological games played by his captor. While Diana Gabaldon’s “Custom of the Army” has us watch the British take Quebec. This is the most engaging of the historical stories with an interesting hero, delightfully electrified and beset by circumstances. What sets it apart from the majority of the other stories in the anthology is a real sense of irony — somewhat unusual in an American author.

Moving into more modern times, “Ninieslando” by Howard Waldrop has a different take on the “truth” about No-Man’s Land between the trenches in WWI. I doubt it would be possible to create a Utopia in this unforgiving place. Worse, the morality of its ghoulish occupants is unbelievable. I suggest anyone with any sense would relocate to Switzerland and wait for the warriors to run out of steam. Living in relative luxury by scavenging on the dead and stealing from the living hardly shows them in a good light. “The Girls From Avenger” by Carrie Vaughn moves on to the next war with women delivering planes during WWII. The tone is feeble. Even if the plot does reflect the dangerous hostility culturally demanded from the male pilots, it lacks any real sense of authorial outrage. Although there were some excesses to the feminism of thirty years ago, it did at least challenge the reader to acknowledge the injustices suffered by women. Ms Vaughn seems to think we can brush a homicide under the carpet and buy her heroine’s silent complicity by offering her a better job. This is so far post feminism as to be depressing. In “My Name Is Legion” (an unnecessary pun) David Morrell has a rather more interesting view of honour in the unfortunate necessity for factions in the French Foreign Legion to fight each other during WWII. This is gritty and nicely captures the difficulties when loyalties are tested.

Lawrence Block’s “Clean Slate” is a perfectly respectable serial killer story. I’m just not at all sure how or why it is included. How can this campaign make her a warrior? That goes double for “The Pit” by James Rollins. I can recall reading this type of story as a coming-of-age adventure using the boy’s POV. Reinventing it from the dog’s POV as a warrior does little to improve a hackneyed idea.

“Forever Bound” by Joe Haldeman moves into my preferred reading territory with a more interesting consideration of how team-building could develop as technology allows ever-greater sharing of thought. But the idea it would take ten people to run an armored fighting machine is somewhat absurd. It makes the co-ordination between the minds unnecessarily complicated and would only be justified as redundant systems if you really expect significant losses from the group mind. Two couples would have made the point. Nevertheless, it manages to get to a coherent end by distinguishing the literal chemistry of the linked humans and the real emotions of the civilian lovers. Naomi Novik’s “Seven Year’s From Home” has us playing in the sandbox of managed destabilisation as our heroine encourages ever greater military effort from “her” side in the conflict. It nicely personalises and inverts the old adage “si vis pacem, para bellum”. The original Latin means, “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” In this story, we see a conflict encouraged between an aggressive nation and an essentially peaceful, but technologically advanced, people. Unfortunately, our agent provocateur has no real control over “her” side’s ability to turn its technology to war. When the dust settles, our heroine’s actions inspire a world-weary response from her bosses. David Weber’s “Out of the Dark” is a wonderful alien invasion story. Frankly, I realised the possible resolution quite early, but never thought he would have the nerve to do it. It’s a delight to find an author and editors prepared to take a flexible view on genres (it also explains the incredulity of the losing aliens)*.

“And Ministers of Grace” by Tad Williams is a pleasing variation on the infiltrator assassin theme with our driven hero sent to kill the leader of an opposing philosophical group. If you strip away the technology, it follows in the footsteps of Condon’s Manchurian Candidate by asking what would happen if the programmed assassin is allowed to think for himself. “Dirae” by Peter S. Beagle sees us skating on the edge of graphic novel/comic book vigilante territory without losing sight of the importance of real storytelling. This is a particularly pleasing piece of writing as our heroine struggles to understand who or what she is. In “Ancient Ways”, S.M. Stirling has us in a post-apocalypse version of the Steppes. It’s always interesting to watch the predictions authors make about the fault lines along which societies might fracture. In this case, it’s reasonable to suppose the old tribalism would reassert itself and it’s a nice touch to flirt with gender issues as the damsel in distress turns out to be a closet chemist who can throw together weapons with a test tube and bunsen burner. Gardner Dozois puts the mantle of editorship to one side to contribute “Recidivist” — another post-apocalypse story. This time, the Earth has been overtaken by its own inventiveness as AIs assert independence and, with due frivolity, undertake a planetary redesign. Not the most original of plots but well executed. Robert Silverberg’s “Defenders of the Frontier” watches the end of an Empire with a dispassionate eye. The men debate whether to hold their position or, with no apparent enemy to defend against, withdraw to some nearby outpost of civilisation. Finally, George Martin lays down his editorial burden and offers “The Mystery Knight”. Now I remember why I bought this book. You plough through all the rest to get to this latest instalment from the world of Song of Ice and Fire. This is a terrific read with one slight regret. Despite their lack of height, I would have preferred to see more of the comic dwarfs.

Overall, the decision whether to buy this 730-page monster will depend on your view of the authors collected. If you like historical fiction with a few science fiction and fantasy asides thrown in, this is for you. Otherwise it’s a not inexpensive way of buying the latest from Robert Silverberg, Peter Beagle and George Martin — not forgetting David Weber’s contribution which was the surprise winner of my “favourite” story competition. Finally, I admit a small victory for the editors in that I’m slightly tempted to look at one of Diana Gabaldon’s novels. If one of the purposes of anthologies like these is to introduce you to “new” authors, this is as good a taster as you can get.

*David Weber has now expanded the novella into a full novel. Here is the review of Out of the Dark.

The dynamic duo has now produced an anthology in celebration of Jack Vance: Songs of the Dying Earth, a second on the theme of star-crossed love: Songs of Love and Death, and a third set on a pulp version of Mars: Old Mars.


For anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois on his own, see:
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection.

The anthology itself and “The Mystery Knight” by George R R Martin are finalists in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Anthology and Novella respectively. “The Mystery Knight” is also nominated in the Best Novella category for the 2011 World Fantasy Awards.


The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)

September 21, 2010 1 comment

In a sense, a film needs a plot. There has to be something coherent to put on the screen. It should be entertaining. For those who prefer intelligence, it should offer food for thought. But without characters we can understand, respect and care about, there’s no point to the plot. There are only images on the screen with us indifferent as to the fate of those depicted in them.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was the man’s film. He was the reporter threatened with jail and so available to undertake the investigation. She was playing catch-up. In the end, it was a partnership of equals. Sex was on her terms. They remained friends when she walked away. He was humble enough to be able to accept the fact that she saved his life. She could be with a man and not think of him as an enemy.

The sequel is a film about a woman. There’s a man who believes he is her friend, but he is now the one playing catch-up. The title is interesting and revealing. It names her as The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden. As a twelve-year old, she defended her mother by setting fire to her abusive father. She is all grown up now and the film starts with our heroine returning to Sweden after a year’s meaningless travel abroad, finding reasons to spend her ill-gotten gains. We see snapshots of her living out of suitcases. Later we see inside the apartment she buys in Sweden. It’s mostly empty. The refrigerator is bare. Eating is a functional thing you do to stay alive. She may have acquired wealth, but it has not changed her as a person. Literally and metaphorically, she lives hand-to-mouth. Material possessions are of little interest to her unless they serve a specific purpose. All she needs is a place to sleep, anonymous clothes to wear and the floor to store them on. This expensive flat has windows looking out into the world she must periodically enter. She feels safer inside looking out, but is supremely confident when out. Someone who knows her, thinks of her as invincible. Indeed, that’s how she thinks of herself. Except, of course, someone more invincible can overwhelm her. When this happens, she never gives up. She just carries on as if nothing untoward has happened.

Early on in the film, her employer from the first film complains that she treats those she knows as disposable. People are only there for her convenience, to be spoken to or helped as she feels appropriate. He wonders how someone can be so walled-off from the world. He says this as an outsider and without rancour, accepting her for who she is. There’s no need for him actually to ask how she relates to those whom she might call her friends. Apart from her first legal Guardian and a girl for sex, she has no friends.

Because she is who she is, she finds herself a target. As it’s explained to her, “It’s just business.” But through this involvement, she gets a second chance at revenge for what happened to her mother. In other films, we would no doubt lose sympathy for someone who decides to act out the impulse. Taking both films together, however, the cumulative horror in her life gives us understanding. The simple vulnerability and honesty of her defuses the issue. This is not sensationalised in Hollywood style with vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. This is an abused woman who fights to reclaim who she is as a person. Nevertheless, we should note that she immediately responds with graphic violence to her rape and, at the end of the first film, she takes vicarious revenge, destroying the wealthy tycoon who was able to imprison her man for an alleged defamation. We can therefore see a kind of inspirational righteousness in her. She seeks justice, not only for herself, but also for those she has some feelings for. Towards the end of this film, she takes the unprecedented step of sending her man an e-mail acknowledging him as a friend. The first sign that a woman who has suffered so much abuse at the hands of men may be able to trust one of that breed again.

This is a film in which people who are hit, stay hit. It does not glorify violence. Instead it shows brutality for what it is and what it does to people. Take it as being a part of the film’s integrity. The story blends detection with a more thrillerish approach. This is detection as self-defence, aiming to identify the source of the threat and eliminate it before “it” eliminates the heroine. More importantly, it starts to give us a better view of the extent of the conspiracy that has victimised the girl-now-woman. Although there’s one obvious “bad guy”, he’s not working alone. Swedish society is implicated and it will take a few brave souls to root out the corruption and see justice done.

This film is stunningly good, in many ways rather better than the first. Although, when I think about it, the second draws its strength from the first. If you saw the second as a stand-alone, you would struggle to understand it. Once again, the cast proves sensational. Michael Nyqvist is playing the “hero” in a wonderfully understated way, while Noomi Rapace continues to star as the eponymous “girl”. In every way, she carries the film. Indeed, seeing the structure of this film and how the primary characters relate to each other, makes Hollywood’s decision to remake the Millennium Trilogy even more bizarre. When you cast a sex symbol like Daniel Craig into the leading male role, how can he fail to see, let alone touch, the girl until the last few frames? Although the hero does have sex with the editor of the magazine where he works, I doubt this opportunity to see Craig without his shirt will be enough to satisfy Hollywood and Craig’s fans. I fear there will be major surgery to distort the plot into a star-vehicle. Unfortunately, Stieg Larsson is no longer around to defend the novels he wrote — the trilogy being published posthumously. When so much money is at stake, the needs of bankers outweigh any artistic hopes that might lurk in the consciences of the author’s heirs who sold the rights.

Back in the Swedish film industry where character is everything, events are left nicely poised for the third. Fortunately, the trilogy is playing as a single season so I only have a few weeks to wait to see how it all works out.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

In some cases, it’s good to start with a quote. Not because that’s the way you intend to go on. But to lay down a marker. To show intent.

“. . .we were afraid of. . .their seeming ability to make anything happen that you could imagine, even before you’d finished imagining it. It was instantly clear. . .that we were in the presence of an unstoppable moral force, and that this force would not rest until it did us in, all of us, even if it didn’t mean to.”

There are several questions you must always ask when confronted by thematic uncertainty. Suppose we could make people out of metal, would they feel anything? Obviously and literally, there would be no physical sense of touch as we humans understand it. But would there be emotional feeling? Or once they were birthed from the same mould, would these mechanicals all work in the same way (until breaking down)? Think of the possibilities. They could become a moral army, programmed to act in the way thought best by their creator(s). They would march in lock step through what they had of a life, each contributing to the wellbeing of their maker(s).

Metaphorically, of course, we are all capable of shutting ourselves off from the real world. Even though we have the ability to touch, we might remake our hearts out of metal and so insulate ourselves from ever having to feel again. Indeed, to the casual glance, we might be indistinguishable from “real” human beings, but actually be emotionally mechanical. If that was the case, would we ever have the need to speak to each other?

Machines make noise, have their own rhythm in doing what they do, but do not “speak”. Why should any one actually need to communicate to any other. Our lives are wrapped up in what we do. Only in exceptional cases is it necessary to reach out verbally to others. If something needs to be said, it can be written down. Or perhaps we could all come to realise that silence can be just as eloquent as speech. Indeed, sometimes, it’s the things we don’t say that are the most revealing about who or what we are.

In all of this, what is real? Some things may have the appearance of life but actually be mechanical lifeforms. Equally, some people may lie, deceiving themselves and others about who they are and what their history is. They program themselves not to feel pain and loss. Does this mean there cannot be love? Just because of the accident of birth, we might feel obliged to love our parents and siblings. This would suggest a different love when we have a choice. Perhaps in adopting a child, or deciding whether there’s something more than lust in our relationship(s), the emotions we exchange become love. One thing is certain. When we cheat on our partners, no spoken words are needed. We use disposable signs and gestures, designed only to satisfy our immediate needs and without real meaning. Perhaps that’s why, sometimes, spoken words can feel so out-of-place, say, when one person is trying to cut through convention and make a real connection with the other.

Being essentially selfish creatures, we are all in search of our heart’s desire. It’s what motivates us, giving shape to our lives. Unless and until we admit failure, we keep on moving closer to what we hope will give us what we want (or need). Except, of course, people forget or they change through time and realise that the goals they set in childhood are not suitable for an adult. To that extent, all humans are in perpetual motion, their needs and wants evolving and changing through time. And, somewhat ironically, even the mechanicals can have purpose and feel satisfaction in achieving goals. Just because the fabric may not be exactly the same as skin and bone, is not a reason to deny them human qualities. Except, of course, they can be unstoppable and do us in, even though that was not their (or their maker’s) intention. So, an emotionally blind adoptive father may not see the needs of his daughter, trampling her individuality in the belief it’s for her own good.

I could go on, but you get the message. In The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Dexter Palmer has written a book for musing on such weighty issues. Were this an ordinary novel, it would be a light read, offering various romantic themes pushed together so we could compare and contrast the emotions on display. Unfortunately, he has made a study of experimental writing. He knows about modernism and postmodernism, and can play in the semiotics sandbox. The result is mannered and pretentious. What might have been fresh when the William S. Burroughs drug-soaked generation was playing with cut-up and metafiction, is singularly less successful here. What could be quite interesting existentialism or even transcendentalism, gets mown down in Palmer’s desire to show off his ability to play with the symbols we use to communicate with each other. Rather as in the novels of Paul Auster, we have an obsessive protagonist. He is obsessed with words as a writer but loses spoken language during the period he fails to recognise himself as a person with feelings and the capacity to love. To get past this point, he has to cut himself off from the world. Think of him as in a sensory deprivation chamber with constant background white noise to complete his isolation from real language. He could be floating above the world in some incredible dirigible with nothing but a few visual symbols to remind him of reality. In this suspension from his own existence, he can look back at his life and finally come to terms with himself. Perhaps even find redemption. As to his love, he is Shakespeare to Miranda’s Queen Elizabeth. She is everywhere, but is nowhere to be found until he finds the right words to reach out to her. Setting up the context in which this happens would be a good trick for a dead magician to perform.

I note a tendency in others to stereotype the novel as being steampunk. I disagree. The term is rather reserved to the Victorian era whereas this is firmly rooted in the twentieth century. There is technology, but it is not anachronistic. We did have dirigibles at this time and, although we have not developed the android technology suggested here, we did have Gakutensoku and Elektro. Indeed, the fact this novel is framed as The Tempest suggests we are not intended to take the mechanical men literally. All this is the magic of Prospero as he strives to give the world its heart’s desire, even if it kills us.

I found this book immensely tedious at times and, although there are odd moments when I appreciated the author’s cleverness, I leave you with a final quote. As in all novels of this type, the author must write himself into the story. This is how he describes himself, “. . .that Dexter couldn’t shut his piehole either. . .” For the only time in the novel, the author was attempting to give himself good advice. Unfortunately, he continued to write.

Embers by Laura Bickle

September 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Capitalism is a wonderful thing. Invent a market and entrepreneurs pile in with product until no more can be sold. A classic example of this is the publishing industry which identifies niches and then relentlessly aims content at them. This is my first foray into what is politely called the paranormal romance wing of urban fantasy. My curiosity piqued, I delve into one of the books edited by the redoubtable Paula Guran for the Juno Books line out of Simon & Schuster, meeting a new female lead, a firefighter who now works the arson investigation side of the profession while moonlighting as a ghostbuster with a local group of specialists.

To conform to its stereotypes, the story must blend the reality of urban life with traditional fantasy, allowing the female lead an opportunity for romantic entanglement in a rite of passage to greater empowerment. For a preset number of reasons, she is likely to begin the novel lacking confidence in more or more aspects of her life, but she will gain strength and probably form a relationship on her own terms by the end of the book. She will have some kind of supernatural ability and this will enable her to perform her job more effectively. For the most part, these are career women in law-enforcement or similar work which has given them a basic training in self-defence or somehow equipped them with survival skills so that, when they confront supernatural or mythological creatures, they are likely to emerge relatively unscathed. Mostly written by women for women, they are expected to offer gentle rides rather than the gritty realism and more excessive violence left to the mainstream, male-oriented writers.

So, judging Embers by Laura Bickle on its own terms, we have the opportunity to see inside the Detroit Fire Department, giving us the urban setting. As a “lantern”, Anya Kalinczyk can see and talk with spirits. If one is causing problems, she can absorb it — one of the hooks of the story is speculation on what happens to these spirits after she or other lanterns consume them. She is protected by a salamander which, being unable to discriminate between the various levels of threat, also comes between her and would-be lovers. Finally and inevitably in a romance, there’s a “love” interest although Ms Bickle does slightly bend the rules. Because she is possessed by an ancient demoness, our heroine is pushed into sex with the “villain” before she can perfect the relationship with the Honest Joe. This “saves” the heroine from any moral responsibility for having lustful (unprotected) sex and cheating on her true love. It’s not her. It’s the demoness making her do it, OK. And it’s also a useful opportunity to learn how to corral the salamander so she can have uninterrupted sex with her true love later on.

The firefighting side of story reads with reasonable credibility and both the explicit and inexplicit discrimination against women in this male-dominated service is at least mentioned. The set-piece aggressive dismissal of her by the police liaison is clichéd, but we are at least partially in the real world with this more obvious misogyny. So, on that score, Ms Bickle is on target. The extensive ability to interact with ghosts is quite interesting. Rather than have some intermittent contact with unreliable spirits, these ghosts are willing to shout out warnings to her and do basic desk research for her. This overcomes one of the classic difficulties always encountered by lone-wolf heroines. How do you find reliable help if you do not trust the men around you?

But I find myself somewhat less impressed by the supernatural side. By a coincidence that would normally considered too far-fetched for modern fiction, two ancient beings last seen together in Babylon both happen to end up in Detroit. One is just generally malevolent but thinks on a very small scale, being content to corrupt and destroy people one-by-one. The other is prepared to consider levelling most of the city as an exercise in urban redevelopment. All city architects would benefit from help like this. You just acquire the title to all the relevant buildings and then have this being rise up and knock down all the city blocks. In this case, the site clearance would be without warning the people, but that’s a small detail to the city planner.

Well, perhaps there’s something wrong with me, but this is altogether too nice. Yes, there’s an element of personal revenge at work but, essentially, the major plot is all about rescuing the fabric of Detroit from the urban planning mistakes of the past and remaking it in a more beautiful form. In part, we are supposed to think the “villain” is more misguided than wicked. He was an artist and city architect, but a violent mugging left him seriously injured and disillusioned. With one eye now lost and his view of the world one-dimensional, he uses unorthodox methods to cut through the red tape of the city planning process. Indeed, arguably at the end, he does stop being a villain and becomes the essentially sensitive and lovable guy he once was. After all, if he really was evil to the core, our heroine could never find him attractive — even making allowances for the inconvenient demoness — that’s not the way the formula for these romances has to work. The fruit that would tempt her from her one true love must fall from the tree, but the fall is usually just a character flaw rather than personification of outright evil.

This leads me to a sad conclusion. There’s always a problem when a novel is announced as the first in a new series and, as is predictable, I never once thought our heroine was at risk. Although her Honest Joe is injured and in a coma for half the book, she has a team of supportive human and ghostly folk (and the salamander) to see her through to the end. This is not urban fantasy with a hard edge to threaten the heroine. This is the distaff version with everything smoothed over when all the right people get in the same room together and talk things through.

The cultural gap is just too wide for me to bridge. For once, my failure to match the gender and age demographic excludes me from finding satisfaction in the read. A further depressing factor as a reader is the rate at which US English is diverging from the rest of the world. I found myself flinching at some of the grammar. Ms Bickle offers us a more colloquial style of writing which emphasises rather than mitigates the linguistic differences. So, if you want an undemanding romance with a supernatural twist and a cute salamander, this is for you. I am not sufficiently interested to buy the next in the series which is apparently called Sparks.

The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg

September 16, 2010 1 comment

The marketers are being somewhat provocative by heavily promoting this book as about “. . .a Kingdom on the verge of a grand renaissance, where natural science has supplanted failing sorcery. . .” In our human history, this seems to be rolling up some four or five centuries of struggle in a single sequence of events intended to be a mere trilogy. One of the most interesting stages in the development of any society is when it’s on the cusp between an old order and the new. Quite what we should call this process is not clear. Over time, the early demarcation lines can be between rural and urban, barbarism and civilisation. When changing from one paradigm to the next, we may get a renaissance where the “people” reform their worldview. This is not linear for, as the German concept Weltanschauung explains, we tell ourselves complex stories about the world we inhabit, with different elements of the discourse manipulated for political reasons with varying degrees of success during the period of change.

It should be said this notion of a renaissance or rebirth is not without controversy. Does it imply someone or something always has to die to make way for the new? If so, what is the morality of this displacement of the old? Then does the process affect everyone or is it only the intellectuals who perceive the changes while the masses continue to be downtrodden? And so on. If it is not to be considered a “renaissance”, should it be described as an Age of Enlightenment or of Reason where “rationality” rather than dogma becomes the basis on which to describe or comment on social institutions, responsibilities and practices? Well, not really. An Age of Reason occurs when a sufficient majority of opinion shapers are able to critique the power structure of the old age. Once they recognise the old can be replaced, the debate becomes what the new model will look like. In due course, the way in which this debate is conducted determines whether we move into a more rational age.

However, we should not judge a book by its cover. The author is not responsible for the ignorance of those who write the blurb. Indeed, since science has not supplanted sorcery inside the covers, it’s fairly obvious the blurb writer did not consider it necessary to read the book before deciding how to sell it.

What, then, of the text of The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg? Well, there’s good news and bad. We have an essentially mediaeval society in which an elite group has magical powers. Except, not only was a major war fought over the practice of this magic some two hundred years before our immediate action begins, but the actual ability to use it also seems to have been steadily declining ever since. Now two hundred years is a long time. If this society really was developing the kind of culture that could develop the prism to refract light, the telescope and microscope, and enough understanding of the eye to create spectacle lenses for improving vision, it would also be investigating its own past. The Renaissance in England and more generally in Europe was associated with Shakespeare, Boccaccio and other writers prepared to re-imagine recorded historical events for current “enlightenment” and entertainment. On page 460 a group of travelling players arrives to present a masque — not something more serious. Other than this, the development of this world has nothing to suggest any kind of pervasive intellectual culture. Whatever we have seems restricted to the court.

At large, there is an organised religion. The beliefs point to an oriental style of ancestor worship, but the practices and rituals seem to exist independently of the system permitting practical magic. This is genuinely strange. If, over centuries, a group of people were obviously able to wield powerful supernatural powers, this would have permeated the society. Out of self-defence, people would have allied themselves with the various families, hoping their loyalty would be rewarded with better crops, good health and any other perks a magician might bestow. Yet there is no evidence of this.

Indeed, with our hero a librarian, there is nothing to suggest any real interest in history at all. All that can be said of the Collegia de Magica de Seravain where he works is that it is an institution gracefully slipping into impotent irrelevance. There seems no interest or alarm that the ability to continue the magical traditions of the centuries is in decline. Apart from a policing function to prevent the more dangerous practices, the leaders seem content with an increasingly marginalised role. This is completely incredible. Old and powerful organisations do not simply give up their power and walk quietly into the night. They fight to preserve their influence. Yet there is nothing in this story to suggest that either the organisation responsible for maintaining the religion or the magicians union see any threat in the emergence of rationalism. Everyone seems to be happily coexisting as the benign King gently steers his people away from old superstitions and into a new age. Except, presumably, the trilogy will develop an explanation of the broader context for the current troubles that will show the old families who fought the war are still the real power brokers and, for their own purposes, want to destabilise the kingdom before it goes to far towards rationalism. I wait with interest to see whether Ms Berg manages to rescue herself from the pit she seems to have been digging for herself.

But, if you put aside the structural problems of the world Ms Berg has been building, the actual mystery element of the novel is genuinely entertaining. Although it has elements that are somewhat contrived, the interplay between the three tasked to investigate an attack upon the King and the disappearance of a key noble who was initially charged with the investigation make the journey through the pages enjoyable. The most interesting is the maverick magician our hero picks up to infiltrate the court. The underestimated fop and the witless librarian are not uncommon in “detective” fiction. A powerful mage with a chip on his shoulder and his own agenda is a pleasant change. Through their mutual lack of respect, they manage to provoke each other into insights about what may really be happening. At the end, we have the immediate crimes solved and everything now poised for The Soul Mirror due in 2011.

It’s always difficult with a first person narrative to build in significant exposition to explain what would be self-evident to the narrator. Thus, we must perforce leave the small mountain of questions about the world to be explained in the remaining two books. Which leaves me recommending the book. I was caught up in the story of the investigation which has enough intellectual credibility and have already ordered my copy of the next in the series.

For other reviews of books by Carol Berg, see:
Dust and Light
Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone.
The second and third books in the Collegia Magica trilogy are The Soul Mirror and The Daemon Prism.

Voices From Hades by Jeffrey Thomas

September 14, 2010 2 comments

Sometimes, the only way of getting to the heart of the matter is to cut into the body, prod the heart with a sharp stick, and see if that makes it tick. Although this may strike you as a somewhat radical approach, it’s nevertheless the scientific method at work. In school biology classes, you may have been offered the chance to physically inspect the organs inside small animals (usually frogs or mice). In this endeavour, it’s curious to see how culture changes. Dissection was a routine part of biology classes when I was young — no choice was offered in those days. Now, the whole question of morality and “animal rights” clouds the physical investigation of their insides. Some organisations, usually disingenuously including the word “humane” or “ethical” in their name, come into the debate with varying degrees of ferocity, intending to suppress any of our hands-on investigative work that might taint their sincerely-held beliefs. Well, here’s the equivalent of dissection in fiction (it would have been vivisection except the book deals with human dead and not their living form) for similar organisations to get all excited about.

One of the more pleasing “what ifs” is consideration of what it might be like if, upon dying, you find yourself in either a Heaven or Hell. Ignoring the blockbuster Christian Rapture series like Left Behind by LaHaye and Jenkins, which have contrived to dominate bestseller lists on and off over the last fifteen years or so, there’s a venerable history of books dealing with the phenomenon of the afterlife, including Purgatory and the judgment of the disposition between Heaven and Hell. Think only of Dante and Milton, then move through C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, until you get to the modern crop of authors. Over the centuries, there are hundreds of books and short stories demonstrating varying degrees of reverence or irreverence. All of which brings us to Voices From Hades by Jeffrey Thomas, the author of the admirable Punktown series.

This collection is radical in assuming practical monotheism with Hell reserved for anyone who is neither baptised nor a believer in the Christian God. This means Hell is full of everyone from all the alternative belief systems. In this, you will understand, Hell is not into concepts like fairness. The fact you might have led an exemplary life as a Hindu or Moslem is ignored. You were mistaken in your choice of a God to worship and pay the price reserved for all blasphemers and apostates. Two factors make this particular version of the afterlife particularly subversive. First it assumes the damned will have relatively ordinary lives except, from time to time, they will be tortured by demons. This is the old, you cannot understand darkness unless you know light. If you were subjected to pain continuously, you would slowly adapt and tolerate it. Thus, this Hell alternates punishment and relatively mundane lives of work and play. The second factor is the attitude of the angels. For the most part, they have gone through life in a fog of self-serving hypocrisy. Now happily ensconced in Heaven, they can give full rein to their holier-than-thou attitudes which, when the mood takes them, includes helping out the demons in their infliction of pain on the damned.

So here we have eight stories set in this “alternative” version of Hell (with a quick peek into Heaven so we can all appreciate the way the system works). Thematically, they tend to focus on the idea of love. In one sense, this is ironic since the New Testament God is supposed to be the embodiment of perfect love to cast out fear and other bad emotional stuff. Yet He shows precious little love in the administration of either wing in this afterlife dimension. It’s actually left to individuals to decide just how much they dare to love. Which starts us off with “The Abandoned”. Here a damned woman is just trying to get through the whole experience, keeping her head down and not making any commitments. Yet when she sees an abandoned and probably dying infant demon, she has to decide whether to walk by on the other side. Perhaps it’s odd to think of one of the damned having a growing opportunity, but this could open her to accept a better afterlife for herself. In “Black Wings”, we get to meet some angels who prove to be the same narrow-minded hypocrites we know so well on Earth. Against a background in which the current religions seek to define marriage as a sanctified union between a man and a woman, it’s good to see such an open marriage with interspecies options. Except, of course, demons come with their own emotional baggage, including the possibility of devastating consequences should the idea of revenge intrude into an unbalanced sexual equation. The next story “Siren” is all that is good about horror fiction. Too often, we readers are offered little more than gore and splatter. In these stories, it would be to offer nothing more than scenes in the spirit of Hieronymus Bosch. But this story has the horror arising from our ability to empathise with the main protagonist. His shock at the depths of his own prurience and how terrible the outcome is truly memorable.

“Sweet Oblivion” plays with the idea that, in this context, even thinking about reincarnation could be blasphemous. Although since the experience of punishment is indefinite, things are hardly going to get much worse if you do blaspheme or, even, dream of escape. “The Secret Gallery” does give us some hope in that we meet an angel and a Celestial being who might actually have some level of compassion more to be expected of those inhabiting a New Testament Heaven. This more hopeful trend continues in “The Burning House” in which individual demons and angels find it in themselves to work together to save the one they love. This revisits the themes of “The Abandoned” and demonstrates that love can conquer all. This also underpins the final story “Piece of Mind” in which a demon has to make a choice on whether to stand up for what he believes may be important.

Overall, this is a genuinely pleasing collection if your belief system permits you to play with religious concepts or ideas. Kudos to Dark Regions Press for being brave enough to publish what many would consider a controversial book.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

Voices From HadesVoices From Hades by Jeffrey Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a genuinely pleasing collection with one or two really outstanding stories.…

View all my reviews

The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross

September 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Recently, I was privileged to see a juggler keep an uncountable number of balls in the air for a short period of time. It was one of the more remarkable feats of physical ability I have seen. For an achingly beautiful minute or so, the balls seemed to transcend gravity and float in the air. Then, as is the case with all acts of magic, it had to end. He smiled in response to the audience’s sigh and caught the balls. With an apology he left the stage because our time was up.

So it is that we reach the end of the sixth in the Merchant Princes series. It’s The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross (an apparent reference to the opium trade) and he manages to catch most of the balls he thought were important while moving to a resolution of sorts. Perhaps I really should have browsed through The Revolution Business before starting out on this concluding volume.

Frankly, leaving this much time between episodes is completely nuts. At my age, memory grows fallible and, worse, interest declines. As you read any series, you play a game with the author, trying to second guess where he might take the plot, how he might resolve narrative arcs. More than a year has passed since reading Volume Five and I couldn’t remember who many of these people were. Worse, all the little info dumps slowed things down at the beginning without completely fulfilling their purpose of enlightenment. When you are talking about the accumulated wisdom of five books, the sixth had better be good, or die because high expectations are not met. Publishers please note. As a reader I could not care less about your commissioning cycle or the commercial decisions as to when a hardback should be released as a mass market paperback. If we are in the middle of a potentially interesting series, we should just get on with it.

Well, the best you can say about this ending is that it ends. When this all started out with The Family Trade in 2004, we had a richly embroidered story about Miriam Beckstein. It ends as thin gruel with Miriam a modest character, no longer really the mover or shaker she promised to be. Perhaps that’s how life works. The people who emerge from the crowd as potential leaders can just as quickly be submerged back into the faceless tide again. Salience is transitory. But when an author invests so much effort in building up a character and then sustains her as a major player for the first three or so books, it says a great deal about an author losing focus or direction to effectively throw her away. The story becomes more important than the characters (than any of the characters). In the end, everyone is moved around the gaming board like pawns so they can finish where they are supposed to finish. There’s no interest or attempt to involve us emotionally in any of the outcomes. It just ends.

At this point, I cannot avoid mentioning an alarming note in the Acknowledgements. “My agent, Caitlin Blaisdell, nudged me to make a radical change of direction. . . David Hartwell and Tom Doherty encouraged me further. . .” So there was a conspiracy to persuade a fine author to throw away everything that was good about his previous books, and to subordinate everything to the plot. Well, in future Mr. Stross, I suggest you ignore what others tell you and stay true to who you are as a writer. You had fine instincts when you started off. To let it peter out like this is a creative disaster. Except, I place the blame more squarely on your agent. When you were deciding how to develop the plot going out of Volume Two into Volume Three, it should have been obvious to everyone on the inside that you were being very ambitious. At that point, your agent should have renegotiated your contract. You have clout. The publisher would have accepted a proposal to split the six book series into a trilogy and then sequences of books set in the different worlds in parallel. This would have let you do justice to the characters and the scale of your imagination (or perhaps that was just too boring a prospect for you). As it is, you opened the floodgates on your imagination and watched the flow spread out across the countryside going into Volume Four and then realised you were constrained by the six-book limit. This forced you to put the brakes on in Volume Five and then end it like this. Worse, you have also been persuaded to borrow stylistically from your other work. If I had wanted to reread your stories with CAPITALS about bombs going off thanks to nameless agencies, I would have picked other books off my shelves.

You are a writer who could become dominant, but you will throw away major goodwill if you allow the publication of books like this. Frankly, it is an insult to loyal fans.

For the other reviews of books by Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex
The Fuller Memorandum
Neptune’s Brood
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens

Voices From Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas

September 9, 2010 2 comments

Ever since the Scopes Monkey Trial, evolution has been one of these tricky subjects. Just how far are we allowed to go in considering the origin points of modern species without offending people? With the publication of another impenetrable book somewhat sardonically named The Grand Design (no intelligence required on the part of the reader), Stephen Hawking throws caution to the winds and argues no God was needed to light the blue touch paper to launch the Universe (and everything else that followed including the Garden of Eden). Thus encouraged, I press forward with a discussion of books like Prostho Plus by Piers Anthony and James White’s Sector General series, denying any possibility that they are metaphorical or any other kind of monkeys (or, perhaps, turkeys given shifts in modern taste).

How did we come to this sad place in which we think twice about exercising our freedom to look back honestly at what may have gone before?

Well, in Voices From Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas, we have the modern species of medical story called “Monsters”. In a hospital somewhere off in the Galapagos Nebula, Drs Conway and Prilicia represent the best of the Hippocratic traditions and offer interspecies medicine with a smile. Equally mired in the maws of the “different”, Anthony’s Dr Dillingham manages to survive as he hops from tooth to tooth, hoping his nemesis may extend his life expectancy. Essentially, these stories continue in the tradition of the Med Ship stories by Will F Jenkins in which Médecins Sans Frontières are welcomed into alien communities and thanked for their good works. Sadly, these authors had never heard of honour killings and similar misogynistic rituals. Not unnaturally, if a doctor comes between a family and its desire to discipline a wayward daughter, this is the fastest possible way to achieve roadkill status. “Monsters” therefore represents a degree of genetic drift so great that it falls off the edge of the gene map and into a new genre species. It’s a kind of sci-fi meets horror with an edge and I’m delighted to be able to welcome its first unsteady steps into the daylight.

Jeffrey Thomas is such a pleasing author who occupies a rare interstitial place on the genre map — one in which he writes about what interests him without regard to whether it really “fits” into preconceived genres. This relatively slim volume collects stories nominally sharing a setting in Punktown — although, in a sense, this is all rather arbitrary. Truth be told, they could be set anywhere and still be good stories. Nevertheless, we can smile benignly because, no matter what the excuse, it’s always good to read stories of such a consistently high standard. We start off with “Johnny Pharaoh”, an original to this edition and one of these entertaining stories in which mistakes are made and we work through logically to the conclusion. Suffice it to say it’s slip-ups like this that give a cloning shop a really bad rep. For those involved, you just wish you could go back to the beginning and start all over again.

“Do You Know This Girl” gives our shy guy the chance he so covets with a beautiful (if somewhat weird) lady except he’s not getting into quite the situation he expects. While “Mourning Cloak” is an affecting story dealing with that great imponderable — can there ever be real love between a prostitute and her John? Perhaps, in this case, the stakes are higher because the girl has been modified so she has the wings of a butterfly. She was genuinely exotic when first modified. Now age is catching up with her. As she approaches the end of her contract with the brothel, there’s a chance to consider the value of her life and her relationships with her wealthy clients. Perhaps there will be one last reason to spread those wings.

“The Reflections of Ghosts” a scripting of an earlier story as a graphic novel revisits the question of cloning, wondering whether a narcissistic artist really should risk cloning himself. “The Color Shrain” is a wonderful variation on the theme of how we come to depend on our abilities to earn a living. Sometimes, the difference between success and failure can be such a small margin but, when the employer is an unforgiving crime boss, even small margins can have big consequences. Thinking back through the inner workings of this story is a delight as everything clicks into place with the smooth action of a drawer closing in a bureau. “Trash” is one of those short, short stories that just feels right, smiles understandingly at us, and then moves on.

“Behind the Masque” is a Poe story and the third cloning story in which we deal with the consequence of the inevitable difference between the new physical body and the character and personality that inhabited the original. Actually, I hope Kaji is still around and learns of the loss of the collectible magazines from his library. He should savour the perfection of the “revenge” by purloining. “Forge Park” is another of these elegant meditations on the unexpected strengths of the common man. No matter how strange or alien the situation, it often comes down to one man to cut through all the bullshit cultishness and save the world. Well, perhaps that’s rather more the last story, “The Bones of the Old Ones” in which overtly Lovecraftian forces are pushing open the door, unleashing the hounds and threatening a full opening of the way. No matter which story, there’s a time in everyone’s life when they have to take up the sword (or whatever other weapons happen to be to hand) in defence of truth, justice and the human way.

Voices From Punktown is a 2008 edition but still available from Dark Regions Press. Well worth a look if you’re into edgy cross-genre short stories.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

Voices From PunktownVoices From Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas

An edgy collection of stories based in Punktown. Well worth looking at if you’re into SF blurring into horror.…

View all my reviews

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two edited by Ellen Datlow

September 5, 2010 2 comments

Anthologies can be the most fun to read, offering the chance to experience the complete range of the chosen theme or genre. The reason why this hope is often frustrated is that many editors have preset acceptance criteria, imposing their own rather limited sensibilities on the choices to be made. The result is usually monotony in style and/or content. Fortunately, there are exceptions to prove every rule and, in this instance, another anthology edited by Ellen Datlow is a perfect demonstration of how to appreciate and value diversity.

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two (Night Shade Books) is one of the most pleasing anthologies of 2010 (so far). After the now mandatory reference to Wales as a separate country, we are straight down to business with “Lowland Sea” by Suzy McKee Charnas which is one of these genre-bending stories that starts off as primarily science fiction and then veers off into horror territory. It’s saved from the ordinariness of the telegraphed ending by the characterisation. Every reader should be there with Miriam in confronting the callous disregard of the other survivors. “The End of Everything” by Steve Eller is the first of the two zombie stories that again manages to rise above the routine by subverting the idea of saving the souls of the dead. “Each Piece I Show You Is A Piece of My Death” by Gemma Files and Stephen J Barringer is a particularly ingenious story which happily plays with ideas from semiotics in considering how images of individuals might become embedded in our cultural records. Art is continuously reinventing the past and how we remember people and events. So what began as collage is now mashup as digital technology enables the mixture of video images, animation, audio and text. The intriguing question posed by these authors is whether images of people can ever really be lost from our digital records. Indeed, might these images be self-replicating and capable of invading even supposedly “protected” records? It’s interesting to compare it with “Technicolor” by John Langan which is a story emerging from a lecturer’s deconstruction of “The Masque of the Red Death” by Poe. Although the ending has an inevitability about it, our arrival there is somewhat laboured. Sadly, I grew bored by the “study guide” as fiction. It would have been more effective at a shorter length. Files and Barringer carefully change the tone and point of view to keep us interested. Langan’s academic endeavour is worthy but ultimately a little monotonous.

“The Nimble Men” by Glen Hirshberg is one of these neat “short” stories in which something weird happens as the Northern Lights flicker over Canada. The “Wendigo” by Micaela Morrissette reintroduces more traditional ideas of cannibalism rather than the more common supernatural were/vampire things striding through a wooded landscape. “The Crevasse” by Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud finds us in Lovecraftian territory as an icy wilderness may not be quite as empty as the humans believe. “Lotophagi” by Edward Morris is a well written recycling of cannibalistic devolved humans lurking in the deep woods. “The Gaze Dogs of the Nine Waterfall” by Kaaron Warren almost makes it on to my best of the best list but just misses out. It is a genuinely innovative fantasy/horror blend which has our two intrepid hunters rising above the disparaging sexism of the dog collecting world to journey off in search of the ultimately desirable additions to any collection. My only reservation about it is that there is a slight disconnection between the social commentary and the expedition. At least the dogs come out of it well.

“Dead Loss” by Carole Johnstone is a claustrophobic few days out over the deeps in a vulnerable trawler. In such cases, we always wonder who is trying to catch whom (or what). “Strappado” by Laird Barron takes us into that strange hinterland where a city’s fading commercial land is partially unoccupied and available for unconventional uses. As we have come to expect with Barron’s fiction, it’s the people who make the stories live although, this time, the Indian cityscape is a welcome departure from the more usual “dark” American settings.

For me, these are the standout stories. We start with “Mrs Midnight” by Reggie Oliver which is a wonderful story of a lurking revenant from Victorian times. We have all actually met or read about B-list celebrities, but this interior monologue is so pleasingly knowing, it makes the story so much better. The linkage to Jack the Ripper is cleverly handled and the creeping menace of the stalker well managed. Then along comes “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night” by Michael Marshall Smith. This is a quiet and intimate piece. Unlike “It’s A Good Life” from the Twilight Zone which was over the top in the involvement of adults in the world of a child’s imagination, this creeps up on you quietly and then leaves you in the dark. It’s a remarkable example of authorial minimalism. Equally cunning in the way it captures an everyday annoyance and then hangs endless sadness on it, is “In the Porches of my Ears” by Norman Prentiss. It’s a genuinely unexpected resolution to the set-up as the all-too-human need to understand and then reinterpret the world leads to dishonesty for all the “right” reasons. We then come to a second outings of zombies with a difference in “Lonegan’s Luck” by Stephen Graham Jones. This is a puzzle story that starts in the middle and lets us work out exactly what is happening. Once we get started into this as one of the longer stories, it never lets up, carrying us through to a final image of our anti-hero caught in a Tantalus moment. “The Lion’s Den” by Steve Duffy flits between fantasy and horror in a fascinating intervention that may forever change the relationship between man and the animals. Stories like this are difficult to pull off because they require just enough detail to establish the possibility as credible and then great self-discipline not to overelaborate. The essence of the weird is that it is fundamentally inexplicable. Duffy has it right, leaving us to wonder what will happen next. Finally, “The Lammas Worm” by Nina Allan is a disturbing story about a waif picked up from the roadside by a passing circus troop. This has two narratives in parallel as we see the girl slowly accepted into the community and ultimately into marriage with one of the group, while a second couple’s destiny becomes entwined in uncovering the history of the girl and the forces that may be shaping events. What makes the read so satisfying is the self-sacrificing trust of the couples as they do their best to reconcile their circus lives with their needs as individuals.

Overall, this is clearly one of the best horror anthologies so far this year. Definitely worth the price of admission.

For reviews of other books edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

As an added note, “In the Porches of My Ears” by Norman Prentiss won the Bram Stoker Award 2010 for Short Fiction.

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