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Innocence by Dean Koontz

November 28, 2014 1 comment

KoontzInnocence-2

Spoiler alert. For once I’m going to talk about the plot is some detail so, if you prefer to come to this book without preconceptions, do not read this review.

As a lifelong atheist, I feel I’ve been the victim of some discrimination. Back in the 1970s and 80s, I read most of the novels by Dean Koontz (including those written under the various pseudonyms), but slowly grew tired of the style. Having taken my thirty year sabbatical, I therefore thought it would be interesting to see what the latest book was like. It’s called Innocence (Bantam Books, 2014) and, as you can see, the jacket artwork shows a scene featuring a lonely man in a hoodie, standing in the middle of a snowscape. It creates the impression that this man is a threat of some kind and that, as the book develops, we’ll go through the usual supernatural or horror thriller format of this man preying on the innocent or acting as a vigilante to protect the innocent. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the plot has this figure as a victim who hides himself away from the world. Worse, the final third of the book retrospectively converts the novel into an explicitly Christian and specifically Catholic tale. When the publishers design books with Satanic or other themes which they believe might upset the Christians, they put warning pictures and words on the jacket. There’s nothing on the jacket or blurb to warn atheists that this book is going to be deeply annoying.

So what do we have? This is a first-person narrative of a young man whose entire life has been blighted by his appearance. When he was born, the midwife wanted to kill him. This set the pattern and, had the mother not lived in a desolate house deep in the woods, he would not have survived. When he’s eight-years-old, his mother announces she can no longer stand him and throws him out. As he hides in the woods around the home, he sees his mother commit suicide so you can tell his appearance must be horrendous. At this point, all the options are on the table. He’s physically disabled in a very disturbing way. He’s hairy like a werewolf. He’s the antiChrist. To maintain suspense, there are no clues — our narrator is very unreliable and never describes what he sees in the mirror. When he comes to the city, he’s rescued by another older member of his “kind”. This man teaches him survival strategies and shows him how to live underground. Unfortunately, they are out in the early hours of the morning, having fun, throwing snowballs at each other when they are challenged by two police officers. As the man takes off his mask, the officers are so horrified, they immediately open fire and empty their guns into him. This distraction enables the young man to escape.

Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz

Fortunately, our hero meets a young girl. On the night her father was murdered, she escaped rape when fourteen and has been living a reclusive life while trying to collect evidence that will prove the man guilty of the murder of her father and the attempted sexual assault. They team up and then have one of these intense twenty-four hours in which several people are kidnapped and/or murdered, they go on the run, and the world as we know it ends. It seems the North Koreans are the agents of the Devil and have released a virus that will wipe out most of the human race.

This girl had a father so rich he could leave her with ten places to hide, one outside the city, miles into the countryside. This is very convenient. Further, to maintain security, only one other man is supposed to know where these places are. So she can safely play hide-and-seek around the city. Except how does she maintain all these places? There must be people who go in to clean and tidy, do the washing, and keep the refrigerator stocked with food. It’s not a problem financially. There are millions stashed away in different accounts and trust funds. But it’s the logistics of all these people going in and out of these places and never talking about it. No burglars ever break in. The pipes never freeze and burst during the winters. Then we have her remarkable powers of foresight. She can set up meetings around the city as the snow begins to fall, and she and the narrator will always end up at the right place at the right time for the plot to work. No, sorry, this is just the author moving the characters around so the plot will work out. There’s no suggestion she has supernatural powers of foresight.

And who are this pair? Well, by now you should be thinking they are the “reincarnation” (sorry, wrong religion) of Adam and Eve. Except that’s not quite right. They are pure innocence. In a photograph, they would look perfectly normal. But face-to-face with “ordinary” humans, they radiate a judgmental field in which the humans are immediately aware of all their sins. These poor folk are so horrified by the extent of their wickedness, they immediately set to and aim to kill the innocent one(s). To add insult to injury, there are also angels and devils floating around. In the end, the innocent survive the plague and go off to repopulate the world (a task which may take some time, so God provides manna to avoid the need to eke out dwindling food supplies). This makes Innocence an Armageddon novel with God providing the means for humanity to get a second chance. But this time, they are starting off with those who retain their innocence and are free from original sin. That should give the future generations a better chance of avoiding sin and walking in the path of righteousness. I suppose I have to classify this as Christian fantasy. In less polite mode, I can think of better ways of describing this literalist biblical belief in a God who judges humanity not worth saving from the plague. He just presses the reset button and starts over. So if you are a Christian who wants to see your worldview affirmed, this is the book for you. Otherwise, ignore the author’s name and the jacket design. Innocence is not a horror novel. It’s a waste of your time.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Nobody’s Home by Tim Powers

November 15, 2014 4 comments

Nobodys Home by Tim POwers

In the land before time forgot (that’s when my health and strength were good, and memory was still working properly), I could actually recall what happened yesterday. On such a day, I went out of my then home to the Andromeda Book Company in Birmingham and bought a copy of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. This proved to be a good buy both in terms of enjoyment when I read it, and in terms of investment when I later sold it along with the rest of my collection. This sad tale of a collector forced to sell his books through force of circumstance (I was relocating to a different country) is a way of introducing a new novelette called Nobody’s Home (Subterranean Press, 2014) set in the same universe.

It features a young woman from the source novel called Jacky, an ambiguous name which suggests to her that moving through London’s less salubrious quarters would be less dangerous if she was a man. So she arms herself with a false moustache, cuts her hair short, and affects a deeper voice. Somewhat surprisingly, this enables her to duck and dive her way through London in pursuit of Dog-Face Joe. Now this is a fascinating creature. It’s one of these body-hopping beings that, after the transfer, begins to sprout body hair. In one sense, this makes it somewhat like a werewolf except that the process of transformation continues regardless as to the phases of the moon. Over time, this increased hairiness becomes somewhat conspicuous, so it takes a slow-acting poison in the current body and transfers to a new body. This makes it very difficult to track. But our young Jacky is determined. Her fiancé was one of those occupied by Dog-Face Joe and, after ingesting the poison and being released by Joe, he went to the home of the young woman he loved. She saw only a monster and, as is the way of young women who feel threatened, she shot him through the heart. When she realises the terrible crime she has committed, she wants revenge. Hence her search for the Dog-Faced beast that deprived her of her life-partner.

Tim Powers

Tim Powers

During this pursuit, she rescues a young woman called Harriet. She’s haunted by the ghost of her husband. Under normal circumstances, this would not be too serious but, in life, he was an Indian national and now he wants her to follow him into death through sutee. The fact she’s missed out on the funeral pyre to throw herself on is not something the ghost cares about. He comes armed with his own pyrotechnic skills and aims to finish off the job himself. The rest of this elegantly atmospheric tale takes us through this dark and dangerous version of London in search of a way to rid herself of this ghost. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, nobody’s prepared to help.

It’s not actually necessary for you to know the original novel to enjoy this novelette. It reads well as a standalone. But it’s a richer experience if you can remember what happened in the source novel. So my advice, should you not have read The Anubis Gates, is to read it immediately. It was and remains a highly successful time travel novel with Gothic overtones. This will set you up to read this very enjoyable backstory element for Jacky.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
The Drawing of the Dark
Hide Me Among the Graves
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Small Town Heroes by Marion G Harmon

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Small Town Heories cover

As we grow, we learn about the world that surrounds us. The first independent exploration across the floor brings us a sense of the space around us, but strange phenomena like steps are beyond us. Then as our eyesight and cognitive functions improve, we appreciate vision in three dimensions. We grasp the idea of depth and “see” a context for the faces of mommy and daddy that have loomed above us in the cot. Our natural curiosity propels us to explore strange new worlds, seeking out new lives for ourselves, and boldly going where no baby has gone before.

This may seem a perverse way in which to begin the review of Small Town Heroes by Marion G Harmon, the fifth in the series, Wearing the Cape, featuring Astra and the junior team of Sentinels, but it nicely captures the spirit of the problem confronting all those who write a serial. When the first episode sees the light of day, the author waits with trepidation to see whether he or she’s managed to find the magic formula that will pay the bills while the next in the serial is written. In fact, this author has the talent to produce new books at a steady rate. He’s now a professional writer with a loyal following, keeping everyone happy. Well, keeping most people happy.

The problem may be put simply. The world of the superhero can be very two-dimensional. Each character comes with inbuilt strengths and weaknesses. In the right circumstances, any given character will prevail by using the strengths and shielding the weaknesses from attack. The plot in each book is therefore like a structured game or dance as opponents manoeuvre against each other to face combat in circumstances which favour one side. If the plot comes out right, the good guys have the edge over the bad guys, and we can pass on to the next thrilling instalment. Except, after a while this can grow a little repetitive. There are only a limited set of conditions in which each class of superhero can win or lose. After a few fights, we’ve seen most of these situations played out. So if the series is to develop, it must gain depth and context, i.e. the characterisation must show real growth, and there must be world-building so we understand how and why these particular superheroes and their antagonists came into being, and what motivates them to fight.

Marion G Harmon

Marion G Harmon

This book makes a more serious attempt not only to give some of the history explaining how this particular version of reality came into being, it also introduces a wider political context for the action, some of which takes place in Cuba. So, for the first time, we can begin to locate the American experience of superheroes in an international context. More interestingly, there’s also a discussion of the different types of political system that might emerge if some of the local citizenry develop superpowers. It’s all very well to assume some people would side with the forces of law and order, offering help to subdue superpowered villains as they break the law. But this ignores the need for a legal structure in which the powerful may be protected from civil liability. Imagine the problem if a gang of supervillains breaks into a bank. Superheroes surround the area and a fight ensues. Not surprisingly, a significant amount of damage is caused to buildings, the street furniture, and any vehicles in the area. And that’s before you get to any ordinary humans who get caught in the crossfire. So who pays to repair all the damage, replace broken fixtures and fittings, and cover the medical expenses of the humans injured? There must be careful liaison between conventional police officers and the superpowered helpers. Rules of engagement must be agreed. There must be penalties if the superpowered exceed their defined roles. There must also be investment in new forms of jail to hold those villains with different powers, and in the development of new weapons that can defeat the supervillains when none of the superheroes are around, or, perish the thought, if one of the superheroes goes rogue.

So one of the joys of reading books like this is to see an author making a real effort to develop the basic scenario. The opening books were auspicious because there’s real ingenuity in the way they exploit the information made available through time travel. However, as the series has progressed, the changes made using this information have produced an increasingly divergent reality which no longer matches the future from which the information was gleaned. So now the heroes are flying more by the seat of their pants, hoping their best decisions are good enough to keep their world on a safe track. Our primary hero, Astra, is also growing up. She’s still making mistakes as you would expect of someone of her age, but there are signs of maturity creeping in. Some time soon, she’s going to become a fine superhero leader. While she waits for more responsibility and some national recognition, the rest of her team rally round for the big set-piece fight at the end with others making guest appearances from earlier books. It’s pleasing to see how everyone gets their place in the action as a new set of supervillains poses different challenges to overcome. So having wobbled very slightly in the last book, Harmon is very much back on track with Small Town Heroes, leaving a mess of troubles for Astra to deal with when she gets back home in the next book.

For reviews of the other books by Marion G Harmon, see:
Bite Me: Big Easy Nights
Villains Inc
Wearing the Cape
Young Sentinels

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Computer designed grunge border and aged textured background

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins auspiciously with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem, which is a magnificent piece of atmosphere writing, filled with menace. All that happens is that a mother and her son stand by a field of wheat, but it’s an unforgettable experience. “Blue Amber” by David J. Schow takes us to a place where the bridgehead has been established and answers the question of how best to spread the infection. It’s a raw adrenaline fight and flight. “The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed drops the pace slightly with a group of girl scouts that goes AWOL on a forested mountainside. Later a bus tour brings some rich men hoping they’ll be able to find some of those girls to rescue. The result is probably not what either side would have wanted. “The Good Husband” by Nathan Ballingrud flirts rather admirably with the distinction between a zombie and a vampire as a husband comes upon his wife as she’s committing suicide (again). This time, however, he decides not to save her. Except sometimes, wives don’t take being ignored lying down. “The Soul in the Bell Jar” by K. J. Kabza has a great-niece coming to visit her uncle in the Gothic splendour of the family manse while her parents go away on holiday. Here she’s not to touch anything and to avoid the vivifieds. The house cats and horses nay be safe to interact with. The result is a singularly over-the-top romp through the rotting pile, discovering secrets as she goes. “The Creature Recants” by Dale Bailey is the delightfully unexpected backstory to the shooting of the original film version of Creature from the Black Lagoon. It has a pleasing sense of humour, tinged with sadness.

Nights grow long in the Alaskan tooth in “Termination Dust” by Laird Barron. Here we’re playing in the Ripper sandbox as different versions of what might have been play out across the years. As always with this author, an intriguing game is being played. “Postcards from Abroad” by Peter Atkins succeeds because it’s completely naturalistic. The young man with a heart of gold from Liverpool puts down supernatural nasties when they get to be a nuisance. The dry wit is a delight. “Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes is historical horror detailing the appalling conditions in which the matchmakers worked in Victorian London. When the phosphorous got into their bones, death followed quite quickly. “A Lunar Labyrinth” by Neil Gaiman is a pleasing story that creeps up on you, as if you were walking through a maze and suddenly felt you might not be entirely alone. “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is an intriguing piece of metafiction with literary overtones as our movie critic sits through a classic piece of horror and thinks about the review she will write.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson is a terrific piece of classic fantasy showing the need to follow simple rules to the letter when it comes to dealing with shades. It’s a short masterclass in how to write dark fantasy. “The Plague” by Ken Liu is short science fiction at its best as the nanobots prove they know what’s best for survival. “The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning” by Joe R. Lansdale answers the simple question of what August Dupin would make of the Necronomicon should he be able to lay hands upon it and, more importantly, read from it. Watch out Old Ones, the Great Detective is barring the way! “Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella” by Brian Hodge has our first-person narrator track down a girl whose celebrity depends on a slow-motion suicide attempt. By coincidence, when he arrives and first sees her, he discovers there’s so much more to learn about her. Perhaps he’ll be endlessly fascinated. “Air, Water and the Grove” by Kaaron Warren is a very elegant science fiction story of the metamorphosis that occurs when the rocket bringing back samples from Saturn is destroyed in our atmosphere. It may all look beautiful, but living that life is a one-way trip to the grove.

“A Little of the Night” by Tanith Lee considers whether a vacuum of nothingness is comparable to a vampire, sucking the positives of life into the nothingness beyond. If such is not too poetical a fancy, how would you fight such a phenomenon? The answer here is rather beautifully explored in true mythic style. “A Collapse of Horses” by Brian Evenson is a Schrödinger’s cat story. Following an accident in which his head was injured, our hero has difficulty in distinguishing what’s real, e.g. are the fallen horses dead? This shows how you should deal with this uncertainty. “Pride” by Glen Hirshberg is an interesting story about collectors and what drives them to put the collection together. It also deals with the complex situation in which a collector loses an item from the collection. “Our Lady of Ruins” by Sarah Singleton wonders what happens when some people disappear for years after they wander into the woods. This is an intriguing take on the fey trope and asks whether love can transcend separation if memory returns. “The Marginals” by Steve Duffy finds a different way of exploring the nature of existence. Some people seem to leave our conventional society and are only visible when they stay too long in one place or are drawn to a particular place. Perhaps they are dead. “Dark Gardens” by Greg Kurzawa is a remarkably effective piece. The image of the hatch as an opening into our word and what lies beneath is managed magnificently. “Rag and Bone” by Priya Sharma is another piece of history but, this time, we’re in an alternate reality and the poor are bought by the rich for their organs. It’s always been a tough life in Liverpool. “The Slipway Gray” by Helen Marshall reflects the fact death can come in many form and, sometimes, if it’s your lucky day, it passes you by. “To Die for Moonlight” by Sarah Monette is a nicely judged story of two families, both cursed, who speculate that if they intermarry, the curses may cancel each other out. Obviously our hero knows what his curse is but what exactly troubles the young lady?

“Cuckoo” by Angela Slatter sees a body-hopping, vengeance-seeking creature find a victim and seek out the man who had killed her. Now there’s just one thing she wants or needs from him before she kills him. “Fishwife” by Carrie Vaughn draws its strength from the inexorable predicability of the outcome. People who are so desperate always pay the price. “The Dream Detective” by Lisa Tuttle is outstandingly intelligent as a man meets the detective both in the real world and in his dreams. At first, there seems to be no problem, but that’s before the dreams take a darker turn. “Event Horizon” by Sunny Moraine is such a simple idea but it’s presented with significant verve such that, just as in science fiction stories when the space ship is on the cusp of a black hole, the ship and its passengers are never able to pull free. “Moonstruck” by Karin Tidbeck indicates a collision between the metaphorical and the literal as a young girl becomes convinced the moon’s strange behaviour is somehow linked to her first period. “The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear is a classical fantasy of wizards and high magic as two “warriors” fight to prevent the sorcerer from adding to his collection of souls. It’s beautifully written with a poetic cast and an unflinching eye. “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee continues in high fantasy mode with a spy recovering a lexicon from a magician only to find the words may presage an invasion. The semiotic question, of course, is what happens to the language of magic over time and, if it does change or evolve, how would you keep track of it. The answer here is delightfully elegant. All you have to do is understand the true nature of the word “defeat”.

When looking back at this anthology, one fact stands out. Darkness can be found in any situation whether it be historical fact, fantastical or science fictional. So although the title suggests a limitation to fantasy and/or horror, we actually get a demonstration of the diverse range of situations in which the world of the rational slips away, leaving only fear and menace behind. I’m indebted to Paul Guran as editor in producing such a fine assembly of stories. Many deserve to be shortlisted for awards as recognition for their quality. Of course, I might cavil at one or two of the choices where the plot doesn’t quite cohere or the execution is overlong, but such differences in opinion are inevitable in an anthology this long. This does not prevent me from recommending this anthology as superb value for money for anyone who enjoys the darker side of fiction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran

August 20, 2014 1 comment

ZombiesMoreRecent-600

Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins with a fairly robust defence of the subgenre which, for better or worse, seems to have become essential to modern culture through The Walking Dead and other television series.

“The Afflicted” by Matthew Johnson takes us on an emotional journey as a nurse tours the camps where the infected wait to turn. She does her best to keep them healthy and, on her way back to the Ranger’s camp, she rescues a young girl from three who have changed. This is going to slow her down, particularly when the girl’s grandmother also joins them. At some level, we always do our best to care for those we love. “Dead Song” by Jay Wilburn (reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow) is one of these delightfully ambiguous stories which leaves us guessing where the musicologists “found” the music they recorded. “Iphigenia in Aulis” by Mike Carey is a wonderful story that arises because the Religious Right insists on an amendment to the Constitution marking the start of life as the moment of conception. That means the innocent babies have to be rescued whenever their zombie mothers are killed. Well, surprisingly, some of them are and this is what happens when one of the rescued bonds with one of her jailers. “Pollution” by Don Webb may be set in Japan but it’s actually a universal story about the quality of life those more marginalised members of any society can expect. The zombie element is pretty cool as well with the virus and subsequent use of those infected having a macabre commercial logic.

“Becca at the End of the World” by Shira Lipkin is short and to the point. It may be predictable, but it still manages to pack a bit of a punch with the last line. “The Naturalist” by Maureen F. McHugh (collected in After the Apocalypse) gives us a prisoner who survives to learn a little about zombies and their lifestyle (tinfoil figures in this). In fact, they prove a lot more interesting than the other inmates and he can make them useful in his study of the zombies. “Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571 BCE)” by Alex Dally MacFarlane brings us news of an old outbreak and hope for a defence against the undead. Which brings us to “What Maisie Knew” by David Liss and the terrible contortions the guilty must go through to stave off the possibility of discovery. This has a surprising sense of humour as Maisie finally finds the right person to talk to.

“Rocket Man” by Stephen Graham Jones answers a question that’s been bothering baseball fans for years. If a ball hits a zombie and doesn’t fall to ground, is that a good catch and is the batter out? “The Day the Music Died” by Joe McKinney explores the old truism that the best thing that can ever happen to a rock star is that he or she dies. Record sales go ballistic as everyone remembers how good he or she was. Well, this is only a little different if slightly more entertainingly manic. “The Children’s Hour” by Marge Simon is a short poem to celebrate mother coming home. “Delice” by Holly Newstein is a traditional voodoo zombie tale of justice claimed when society had turned its eyes away. It’s good to see the old ideas stand up so well against the new. “Trail of Dead” by Joanne Anderton gives us the chance to consider why someone would want to raise the dead, and what qualities a person would have to have to kill both the undead and those who raised them. In entertaining stories like this, sometimes, you get a match.

“The Death and Life of Bob” by William Jablonsky is an outstanding story of office life in which the religious zealot is confronted by evidence incompatible with her faith. When bell, book and candle fail to do the trick, perhaps she should resort to more extreme measures. At the very least, this should provide a better rug for the survivors to admire. “Stemming the Tide” by Simon Strantzas gives us the chance to consider where the dead might come from. Of course, it could be from the past. But suppose, just suppose, it was from our future. Would that make any difference to the result? “Those Beneath the Bog” by Jacques L. Condor (Maka Tai Meh) transfers the threat to North America in which the old Indian ways give the chance of salvation, but the young have been corrupted by the White Man’s ways and so they will go to their doom. It’s surprising how much the change of culture and locale invigorates the plot. “What Still Abides” by Marie Brennan takes us into Anglo Saxon times with one of these annoying bodies that just will not stay in the ground. “Jack and Jill” by Jonathan Maberry is a remarkably effective piece of atmospheric writing as the family on the not remote enough farm gets caught between a storm threatening to bring down the levee and a crowd of dead neighbours. “In the Dreamtime of Lady Resurrection” by Caitlín R. Kiernan nicely captures Gothic romance as the ever-inquisitive scientist seeks first death and then reanimation. Except there’s one small possibility he neglected to consider: that she may not have come back alone. “Rigormarole” by Michael A. Arnzen offers a slightly different way of spreading the infection. “Kitty’s Zombie New Year” by Carrie Vaughn has a gatecrasher at a party in Denver give Kitty a different way of starting the New Year. The most pleasing feature of this story is the tone of normality. Hey, perhaps, it’s a zombie. Let’s see what Google has to say.

“The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” by Genvieve Valentine shows a practical community way off the beaten track in the far north, recognising the value of good work and the need for people who can fit in. This produces a delightful story as the new gravedigger, a perfectionist, finds himself challenged. “Chew” by Tamsyn Muir is an effective tale of revenge best served cold with a dish of gum. “’Til Death Do Us Part” by Shaun Jeffrey deals with the perennial problem faced by husbands who have buried their wives only to find them coming home again. Locking them in a cupboard is somewhat undignified, but when they are dead, who’s going to complain? “There Is No “E” in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We” by Roxane Gay gives us the perfect answer to the age-old question: what must a woman do when every fibre of her body wants to possess just that one man? “What Once We Feared” by Carrie Ryan challenges us to decide how long we would want to live if we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by the undead. What would be the point of surviving?

“The Harrowers” by Eric Gregory takes us into a world of fortified cities surrounded by a wilderness of zombie bears, wolves and humans. Here one man suddenly sees the chance to have a real life outside the walls. All he has to do is die according to city records. “Resurgam” by Lisa Mannetti sees a parallel between past and current events as a medical student dissecting a body finds himself at the centre of what may be a zombie outbreak. Perhaps his research can show how best to respond. “I Waltzed with a Zombie” by Ron Goulart sees a B-movie scriptwriter with an impeccable record get the inside dope on how to complete a movie when your star lead has died. Except his eyewitness account is just not quite up to the minute and he’s pre-empted by the real news. This is great fun. “Aftermath” by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill is thoughtfully brilliant. If time and space permitted, I would write a lot about it. “A Shepherd of the Valley” by Maggie Slater gives us a different way of reinventing the undead so they have some degree of social utility even though, as the title suggests, they have no more intelligence than sheep. “The Day the Saucers Came” by Neil Gaiman is the day you sit waiting for that call.

“Love, Resurrected” by Cat Rambo is very elegant high fantasy in which a sorcerer reanimates a great general to serve him for as long as he desires (which might be a very long time). “Present” by Nicole Kornher-Stace makes a nice point about the tense authors use to tell their stories and then fast-forwards to the moment of sacrifice. “The Hunt: Before, and the Aftermath” by Joe R. Lansdale changes the biter-bit trope into the shooter-shoot trope as a couple try to work out their marital problems. And then comes the payoff. At least he might have thought it worth waiting for. “Bit Rot” by Charles Stross has us on a starship with the crew in slowtime when the power fails. This is, to put it mildly, unfortunate, particularly because the crew have just been exposed to a big burst of radiation. When it comes to triage, the dead are the last in line for treatment. They are not going to get any worse. But if any were to wake up, they would be hungry.

I admit to being overwhelmed by this evidence of my own ignorance. Here was I thinking the zombie story was dead and buried, only to find this anthology full of stories of such range and quality. And most of these stories are only a few years old. There’s still good work being done on old and trusted tropes. So thank you Paula Guran. The pennies have fallen from my eyes and I can now shamble forward to seek out more stories such as this for intellectual nourishment. Zombies: More Recent Dead is great value for money.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Apex Book of World SF Volume 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar

August 15, 2014 3 comments

worldsf3

Apex Book of World SF Volume 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Publications, 2014) is an anthology of stories running from science fiction, to fantasy, to horror. Some are translations from Chinese, French, German, Spanish and Swedish, and the rest were written in English. It’s appropriate for me to climb on to my pulpit for a moment because books like this are desirable. When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to find people who had never left their small community to travel the few miles to the nearest city. They were the epitome of physical parochialism, choosing to live their lives in the same place. Even then, this was strange to me because, from an early age, I’d been travelling outside the parish, even if only to see what was to be seen.

Today, there’s a literary parochialism which seems just as strong. Readers find themselves most comfortable with the familiar. This may be always looking for work by authors they have enjoyed in the past, or buying from publishers whose editorial taste most closely matches their own. As a result, many have never read books from different genres or written by people who are not cultural matches. In this, there’s often an element of prejudice at work. Such readers prefer to avoid exposure to books which might threaten their worldview or give them information which might induce uncomfortable emotions.

It’s therefore appropriate to herald this third in a series of anthologies featuring short fiction from different cultures. It should be on everyone’s reading list, if only so they can be satisfied there’s nothing frightening or overly challenging about these stories. They are, as most of the best British or American short fiction, well-written (even in translated form) and thoughtfully provocative. What’s particularly fascinating is the degree to which the stories written in English show significant differences in vocabulary choices, syntax and attitude from North American norms. That’s as it should be. Language reveals much about the authors and differences are to be celebrated. As we enter the second decade of a new century, we should be dismantling the borders between different types of fiction and focusing on reading good fiction, regardless of its source.

“Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew was the first story she published back in 2012. Through rather beautiful prose, she introduces us to a first contact situation where locals are visited by people who, out of a sense of altruism, feel they should conquer the locals for their own good. Needless to say, this does not go down well and produces a robust response albeit not one without losses. Not only is the language itself fascinating, the approach to the alien invasion trope rather blurs the line between science fiction, fantasy and romance (which is not the conventional two-gendered monogamous norm of our culture). “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” by Xia Jia (translated from Chinese) challenges preconceptions about what a ghost story should be and how such stories relate to science fiction as we try to define what “real people” are, particularly when the metal spiders come along.

“Act of Faith” by Fadzlishah Johanabas is a rather pleasing variation on the robot trope in which we are encouraged to ask whether we would accept a machine as a fellow worshipper. The answer here is wise, but not necessarily realistic, as you would expect in a science fiction story, carefully avoiding the sentimentality that would have taken the edge off the quality of the ideas. “The Foreigner” by Uko Bendi Udo is a delightful story of inheritance denied under Nigerian law. In default of evidence, the obvious heir takes on intestacy. Just think how embarrassing it would be if another claimant appeared with the technology to extract the evidence of dishonesty. “The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong (translated from Chinese) describes the life of a human cog in the internet world of the State. He functions properly even when he has a headache, and lives within the framework approved for him by the State until he’s accepted as a member of a forum. The story then segues nicely into a form of revolutionary semiotics in which our hero explores the extent to which language can enable him to be free. “Planetfall” by Athena Andreadis gives us a generational overview of what happens to a group of human settlers who modify themselves to be compatible with their new world. The problem is that it takes time for a genetic change to become socially integrated and for positive patterns of behaviour to emerge. “Jungle Fever” by Zulaikha Nurain Mudzar (first publication) is a simple, linear horror story in which a slightly different form of zombie emerges after a chance encounter with some local vegetation.

“To Follow the Waves” by Amal El-Mohtar is a delightful insight into the mind of an artist who has developed the skill of catching a dream in a stone or crystal. All is developing well until she catches sight of a woman who, for some unknown reason, inspires her. This is high class fantasy. “Ahuizotl” by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (translated from Spanish) takes us in a Lovecraftian direction with a sister in search of her brother’s body. The report of his death was quite specific about the condition of the body. This leaves her unsure what conclusion to draw but, when she arrives, things become less unclear. “The Rare Earth” by Biram Mboob offers a very different view of how a possible second coming might put God’s representative on the Earth and what such a person might do. “Spider’s Nest” by Myra Çakan (translated from German) is a form of fantasy horror story set in a post-apocalypse world. The few who survived the collapse find some solace in a drug-induced retreat from reality. The question, of course, is what happens when the drugs run out?

“Waiting with Mortals” by Crystal Koo takes us into the world of ghosts who have yet to cross over. Some ride the mortals as passengers, displacing the living whether by force or consent — there are different deals available. In each case, it’s for the ghost to work out what holds him or her on the mortal side of the equation. “Three Little Children” by Ange (pseudonym of Anne and Gérard Guèro) (translated from French) is a terrific revisionary fairy story. Here we get the truth behind one of the rhymes told to the young in which the titular children find themselves in the lair of the ogre and wonder whether their lives will be forfeit. “Brita’s Holiday Village” by Karin Tidbeck (translated from Swedish) plays with the idea that memories of family and friends can sometimes be triggered by events. When our narrator who’s staying at the holiday village to get some writing done, begins to flesh out two of her possible plots, the presence of the strange hanging pupas somehow inspire her to take the stories in a completely different direction. The results are pleasingly affective.

“Regressions” by Swapna Kishore is an outstanding story which uses the time travel trope to explore the dynamics of gender relations. We could, of course, take the sterotypes as somehow set in stone, but suppose it was possible to build a more equal basis for interaction between the sexes. No, such would be the stuff of mythology. Mars and Venus, and their parallels in all the different religions and cultures, have always tended to be antagonistic. No matter what was tried in the past, the result would always be the same. . . “Dancing on the Red Planet” by Berit Ellingsen is a delightful way to bring this anthology to a successful conclusion. The moon may just have been one small step for mankind. How many steps could they do when emerging from the Mars lander at one-hundred-and-twenty beats per minute? This is a moment of sly humour on which to end.

Taken overall, a couple of the stories tend to run a little long, but the quality of the ideas is undeniable and the language in which they are explored is fascinating. Lavie Tidhar is to be congratulated on pulling together so many excellent stories, and all credit to Apex for publishing the Apex Book of World SF Volume 3. It’s an outstanding anthology.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Dust and Light by Carol Berg

August 8, 2014 6 comments

Dust And Light by Carol Berg

Dust and Light by Carol Berg (Roc, 2014) (The Sanctuary Duet 1) is set in the same world as the duology of Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone which jointly won the Mythopoeic Award in 2009. In this first-person narrative, we join Lucian de Remeni-Masson as he falls from grace and slowly begins to find his feet again. He’s one of the children of high-status parents who’s never really had to worry about anything. He’s just bumbled happily along, never really feeling under pressure to learn anything or refine his magical skills. There was one minor peccadillo when he went to University. A young girl caught his eye. . . But his father was quick to intervene, smoothed over ruffled feathers, and found him a place where he could draw and paint, working for The PureBlood Registry. His skill, you see, is to use his magic to see the truth of those he draws. Should he see anything too unfortunate, he’s quick to apologise and adjust the picture when he comes back to himself. For the most part, this is a quiet and undemanding role, leaving him plenty of time to enjoy family life.

 

As in most books of this type, this quiet life is rudely shattered when only he and his younger sister avoid being killed when the rest of the family gathers together in another city. To compound the problems, he quickly find his sinecure at the registry terminated and his contract sold for a fraction of its value to Bastien de Caton, who serves the King as the coroner of Palinur. Going from high privilege to the necropolis is, in itself, an almost insupportable blow to his pride. But when he begins to draw the dead, he’s accused of deliberately underperforming to escape the contract. Of course, this accusation outrages the pompous one, who stoutly defends the quality of his work. Except he’s a little surprised at exactly what he’s been able to draw. There seems to be a lot of detail in the uniforms and style of dress that would only be apparent if he were somehow able to commune with the dead.

Carol Berg

Carol Berg

 

The first real sign of trouble comes when he draws a picture of a young girl. The coroner is reluctant to trust the image because it suggests this was a girl of real privilege. Yet, so far as he knows, all the nobility are accounted for. No-one of importance has been reported missing. But when the matter is tested by our hero producing a second drawing, it’s clear this is the drawing of one of the royal bastards. This more formally sets us off on the dual trail. First we have to discover who’s out to wreck the career of our young innocent. Then we have to discover who strangled this girl.

 

For all this is sold as a fantasy novel, it’s really a political thriller. With the death of the old King of Navronne, the two sons embark on a civil war to decide the question of succession. Over the generations, the families who have been lucky enough to develop magical powers sell their allegiance to whoever is rich enough to pay for them. Obviously, the best work for the nobility. Lucian’s father was a cartographer to the old king. One of the royal sons might wonder whether Lucian might be able to find lost treasures. This sets up a certain tension between some of the nobility who might see people like Lucian as a necessity to progress their own interests, while others see them as dangerous. In theory, the magicians preserve their neutrality by keeping to themselves. This is signalled to the world by their habit of going out in public wearing a mask. They are supposed to fly above the rough and tumble of political life. Except, of course, few can live in a society without being ambitious for power and success. This can mean neutrality is inconvenient. Some will take sides. Others like Lucian who was essentially inexperienced and somewhat naive are potentially just canon fodder, liable to be used and discarded as required. So, this is a form of coming-of-age story in which a young man is stripped of his dignity and slowly comes to realise he must start on a journey, both physical and metaphorical, to discover who he is and what powers he’s able to command if he takes them seriously. The result is both a very pleasing mystery in which a murder must be solved, and a nicely balanced political situation as the various factions try to manoeuvre themselves into the best position. Dust and Light is an impressive start to this latest episode in this fantasy world, leaving everything completely in the balance as we wait for the second instalment due in 2015.

 

For reviews of other books by Carol Berg see:
Breath and Bone
The Daemon Prism
Flesh and Spirit
The Soul Mirror
The Spirit Lens.

 

Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

July 27, 2014 6 comments

Dreams-of-the-Golden-Age-Carrie-Vaughn

Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn (Tor, 2014) gives us the sequel to After the Golden Age (2011). Moving forward some twenty years or so, Celia West is now a dedicated mother and dynamic business woman. She’s married to Dr. Arthur Mentis, a superhero with mental powers, and has two teen daughters, Anna and Bethy. Having watched Celia work her way through the early years of living with two superhero parents, we now get to watch her try to make a better job of bringing up her own two girls. All of this is, of course, under the shadow of superpowers. Being a numbers person, she’s calculated there’s a 40% chance of the next generation having superpowers. Even if the genetic quirk does not kick in on one generation (she did not have any superpowers), the same percentages apply to the next. That’s why she’s not only watching her own children like a hawk (well-known detective without superpowers), but also monitoring what’s happening to the other families that were exposed to the trigger radiation all those years ago.

 

To avoid repeating myself, I invite you to read the review of the first book After the Golden Age, because all that stuff about parenting is relevant to this sequel. Once you have that under your belt, you can absorb the idea this is both an adult and a YA book. We get the parental angst as teen daughter Anna is doing the secretive thing and not talking with those who could give support and advice if she’s developing superpowers. Indeed, so bad does it get that Celia tells her best friend, the police chief, to put the children under surveillance and try to keep them out of trouble if they begin fighting someone a little out of their league. From the teens point of view, we see them trying to come to terms with their powers and decide what to do with them. Naturally, they almost immediately see themselves as superheroes in waiting but, when one tries to interfere in a robbery, he finds himself outclassed and is badly beaten. His problem, like Anna, is that his power is slightly more passive than aggressive. The other three who can freeze things, sorta control the weather, and blow stuff up with laser beams, do a lot better because they can disable their opponents.

Carrie Vaughn

 

Anyway, with the addition of an out-of-towner who can jump (he’s much in demand for basketball), these teens do the usual thing of forming a gang, bickering, getting jealous, falling out, wondering who to go to the prom with, and so on. The parents do the big corporate superhero thing of trying to save the city by making it a better place in which to live. Needless to say, a supervillain is in play. He or she may be nicknamed The Executive and works entirely out of sight, manipulating people to get what he or she wants. It’s fairly obvious from an early point who the villain must be, but the confirmation of The Executive’s identity is one of these really elegant jokes that comes in the final quarter of the book.

 

This should be leading you to my conclusion that this is a very good book in parts. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not simply throwing away all the YA stuff. In fact, some of that proves to be interesting as they discuss whether to tell their parents about their powers, or how to strike the right balance between a positive use of their powers and avoiding serious injury or death by recklessly exposing themselves to danger. However, all that becomes academic when Celia is yet again kidnapped. The scenes with her tied to a chair and exchanging opinions with the villain are the highlight of the book. Unfortunately, although elements of the rescue are done well, the whole sequence goes on too long and is, at times, confusing. So this is a brave attempt to write a sequel to an outstandingly good book and, as sequels go, this is good of its type. I just wish authors did not feel under such commercial pressure to revisit the same themes quite so relentlessly. This means you buy Dreams of the Golden Age if you enjoy superhero fiction and don’t mind it being of slightly patchy quality.

 

This book was sent to me for review.

 

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

July 17, 2014 2 comments

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo is a reprint collection from Open Road Media, 2014. It was originally published in 1995 by Four Walls Eight Windows, and contains three novellas: “Victoria” (1991), “Hottentots” (1995) shortlisted for the 1996 Locus Award for Best Novella, and “Walt and Emily” (1993) published in two parts by Interzone and shortlisted for the 1994 Locus Award for Best Novella. Ignore the title: recognise that these novellas are not about great airships and mechanical inventiveness on a large scale. Rather this is steampunk as a state of mind. As emotionally repressed people, the Victorians feared they would lose control if their inner passions were allowed free rein. Think Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde with a beast lurking inside the sack of skin, just waiting for the chance to take over and cause mayhem. Although it may make us feel more comfortable to restrict this historical trait to sexual behaviour and the threat of men being overtaken by their lust, the reality was a more general exuberance of greed and selfishness, cruelty and ambition — build an empire before tea, exploit it to the maximum possible, and then lose it all as night falls and the downtrodden refuse to accept the continuing abuse.

We start off in the same style as The Importance of Being a Nest by Wilde Birds with The Importance of Being a Newt. Yes, this is the story of Cosmo Cowperthwait who, having expunged Letchworth from the map (those of you interested in this phenomenon should read the excellent Queen Victoria’s Bomb by Ronald W Clark), turned his attention to genetic engineering, hoping to satisfy his scientific curiosity by scaling up a newt to human size. Coincidentally, because books like this thrive on the comic effect generated by coincidences, he names his life-sized newt Victoria so, when the Queen of the same name goes walkabout, who else should the prime minister think of putting on the throne as a temporary replacement but the newt? As you will gather from these few sentences, this novella begins with a certain level of absurdity and then elevates the absurdity to previously undreamed of levels. It’s a masterpiece as our heroic inventor and genetic manipulatist ransacks London in search of the missing queen, fighting off temptation from an early suffragette whose self-appointed task is to relieve the suffering of women at the hands of men, only to end up where he started out albeit on a more private basis. Di Filippo’s take on the half-human, half-newt is as a sex toy for the rich that may, in the long term, prove to have a mind of her own. It’s simply an ironic commentary on the science that the combination of the animal and the human produces a more naturally sexual “animal” save that the human Queen Victoria is also discovering the diversity of sexual experience in an upmarket brothel. It seems newt genes and leadership pressures make sexual champions of us all. Although some of the humour is a little “obvious”, this remains great fun to read.

Paul Di Filippo

Paul Di Filippo

“Hottentots” is high quality satire that begins by skewering some of the prejudices that would have been prevalent in Victorian times. Fortunately, in our current post-racial times, we could not possibly hold such bigoted views or, if we did, we would carefully avoid expressing them in public. From our position of enlightenment, it gives us a chance to consider the basis of the beliefs that produced ideas of Übermensch, racial supremacism, eugenics, and so on. Our hero, Louis Agassiz, for want of a better way of describing the man, is a Swiss national working to establish a scientific centre in America. Apart from the intellectually elite to be found in places of learning such as Harvard, he considers America a dire melting pot in which miscegenation has run riot, irrecoverably polluting the gene pool and producing a potentially subhuman underclass of simple-minded people. You can therefore imagine his horror when his calm progress through life is disturbed by the arrival of a white man and his Hottentot bride who are intent upon recovering a lost fetish. There’s much tooing and froing as Agassiz attempts to reconcile his desire for a rational view of the world with the somewhat irrational occurrences around him. All this would have been more successful if the character of the man had been more likeable. But, from the outset, we’re shown how ghastly he is (by modern standards) and so have no sympathy for him at all.

“Walt and Emily” is about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson who are involved in that most Victorian of pastimes: the pursuit of the supernatural through the séance and other mechanisms for interacting with the spirit world. Emily’s brother, Austin, seeks a way to communicate with his two aborted children. He hopes the Spiritualist Madam Hrose Selavy is the real deal and engages Walt and Emily to investigate the medium’s claims not only to communicate with the dead, but also transport the living into the spirit world. This involves us trying to reconcile science and the supernatural as the medium discharges ideoplasm from her breasts and transports our poets to an encounter with Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound. There’s a general sense of fun as literary sensibilities are explored across the ages but, as with the other stories, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. As in the other novellas, there’s also a sexual component to the story.

Although there are monsters on display, some more Lovecraftian than others, and there are some beautifully rendered mechanical ideas to satisfy those who want their steampunk to be about machines rather than ideas, full enjoyment of these three stories is somewhat dependent on being familiar with the more general Victorian writing styles and the particular literary flourishes of the poets in the last novella. This is not to say the modern reader will not enjoy these stories, but they will deliver more enjoyment if you have some background in the history and literature of Victorian times. With that caveat, I recommend The Steampunk Trilogy as producing a nicely balanced and occasionally humorous set of alternate histories for us to explore.

For a review of another work by Paul Di Filippo, see Cosmocopia.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Silk Map by Chris Willrich

July 16, 2014 1 comment

silk map

The Silk Map by Chris Willrich (Pyr, 2014) offers a story of two heroes, Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone, plus Snow Pine and a number of others who, for various reasons, get sucked into the quest for the Iron Moths and their (magical) silk. Yes we’re into that most dangerous of fantasy tropes: the quest! In the more innocent days of the last century, sword-wielding barbarians, usually accompanied by a thief and a wizard, set off across an alien landscape to find treasure. On the way, they would battle magical thingummies and bed a few (usually voluptuous) women in a style that would appeal to the boy hero lurking inside every (adult male) reader. They were simple, linear narratives, good for nothing but to get from point A to point B having killed as many thingamabobs and bedded as many women as possible. Then along came a more humorous approach which treated the whole idea of sword and sorcery as a joke and decided to have as much fun as possible killing and having sex (although not necessarily in that order). All of which brings us to the modern day when authors look back in despair at the decades of inventiveness that have gone before them. These writers therefore rise to the challenge of differentiating themselves from the past by producing ever more complicated fantasy worlds for their heroes to travel across and fight things (sex is optional or mandatory with as many as fifty different shades of activity described).

Chris Willrich seems to have been primarily interested in Chinese mythology. One of the most famous gods of the Middle Kingdom is Monkey aka Sun-Wukong. He first surfaces in the sixteenth century. Journey To The West (Xiyou Ji) by Wu Cheng’en finds a rock on the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers soaking up the chi. It becomes pregnant and gives birth to the Monkey which immediately jumps off to have fun. But because he challenges Heaven, Buddha pins him on the ground by placing a mountain on top of him. To get anything out of this book, it’s as well to know other features of Chinese mythology (even though this version of Monkey is, for no terribly obvious reason, female), plus some of the One-Thousand-and-One Arabian Nights stories (including the inner secrets of flying carpets), plus some of the fairy story mythology surrounding Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, and others. When it comes to the art of conflation, this one’s a doozy all wrapped up in a quest not unlike the good old days of sword and sorcery, and Dungeons and Dragons.Chris Willrich

Now I don’t mind this type of book if it’s done with wit and style. Even though it may be reinventing the wheel, the prose can give life and direction to plausible characters as they tramp (or fly) across the landscape to realise their destinies. In theory, this particular plot has a good staring point. At the end of the first book, our heroes had to hide their child away in a pocket dimension. Now they have to get into that dimension to recover what has been lost. Monkey offers them a deal. If they find the Iron Moths, enlightenment on the subject of dimensions will follow. So off they go, acquiring travelling companions who may be benign, and encountering the daughters of the Khan, and the inevitable group who sees it as their task in life to defend the Iron Moths against interlopers.

Unfortunately, this book is written in turgid prose and has characters that fail to come over as even remotely plausible. Our parents who have so carefully sequestered their son, Innocent (ha, there’s a name guaranteed to spell trouble) out of danger seem somehow calm. Not in a fatalistic way, you understand. At times their actions seem rather divorced from the emotional trauma they should be feeling. Indeed, I was occasionally baffled by their behaviour as a couple. Perhaps I’m missing some key information from the first in the series, but this pair don’t really seem to be coherent people at all. It’s the same with the other mother who has also placed her daughter with Innocent in this alternate dimension (trusting the name is never enough). Snow Pine is also remarkably enigmatic, reactive rather than proactive for most of the time until she’s let loose on the demons at the end — then she can be proactive in a deadly kind of way. It’s just three people going with the flow and ending up in more or less the right place at the end for the big battle and the not very unfavorable ending. So when you put all this together, I regret to say this book is barely readable. In the best tradition of the phrase, I didn’t give a damn about any of the people and thought the situations tiresomely clichéd. It’s far too long and, at times, I think the author lost track of what his characters were supposed to be feeling or doing. It gets confusing, to say the least. So although the Silk Map is not quite the worst book of the year so far, it’s certainly in the bottom five in terms of readability and I seriously warn people against trying it.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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