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Strange New Words: Tales of Heroism and Horror by Ari Marmell

February 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Strange New Words Tales of Heroism and Horror by Ari Marmell

Strange New Words: Tales of Heroism and Horror by Ari Marmell (Smashwords, 2013) begins by posing an interesting question: whether a novelist can write good short stories. The problem is one of narrative design. If you formulate ideas which can only be explored at length, they end up crushed if pared down to less than 5,000 words. Conversely, someone who comes up with an idea for a short story is going to find it very difficult to sustain reader interest over 75,000 words — there has to be development and embellishment to the basic idea to help it grow. So here’s an author who cut his early teeth at length showing considerable skill when refocusing his art in the shorter form.

“The Cemetery Wyrm” is an elegant story about a boy who, when attending his grandfather’s funeral, discovers an overgrown and abandoned tomb at the edge of the woods next to the graveyard. The unmarked grave is topped by the magnificent carving of a dragon and, even though young, he’s instantly fascinated. Who could be buried there and why is the grave untended? The answers are a delightful surprise for the reader. Similarly, “The Purloined Ledger” is a neat variation on the Poe theme with a magical way of concealing a book of accounts. Of course, whether Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again is a different question. “The Shaman’s Tale” fits into a shared universe of orcs and fills in some of the backstory. As an outsider, I found this less interesting. “Railroad Spikes” gets us back on track with one of these “trap for the unwary” stories in which a train robber finds himself in a rather challenging situation. “The Rubies of Olun-Zeth” moves from a weird West to a Conan-like setting as our barbarian hero meets up with an old flame in search of treasure. The only problem, of course, when dealing with a very old language, is how accurately it can be translated. “Big Apple, Small Serpent” keeps it simple, short and sweet as the adventure of the missing cobra in New York is explained.

Ari Marmell

Ari Marmell

“Reaver” is one of these stories charting the irreversible momentum in human emotions where superstitious fear collides with rationality, and both lose. “Twenty-One-Oh” is a reflection on the old days of the West when the Pony Express riders upheld their motto, “The mail must go through.” This may be a cyberpunk story in spirit but only the technology has changed. “Tithe” suggests that no matter how clever you may think you are, there’s always someone else who can outthink you — at least in the short term. But if time’s not in the equation, the revenge may come through many years of diligent effort.

“Than to Serve in Heaven” has a slightly unusual prodigal return to his father’s side which is, in some respects, nothing more than an act of manipulation. One side want the other to change. After the return, perspectives change but there remains the unanswered question. Why did the son leave in the first place? “The Ogre’s Pride” poses another interesting question. In the heat of the moment, all kinds of misjudgments can be made so, when pride is at stake, just how far will you go to recover what has been lost? “In Deepest Silence” is a rather pleasing submarine encounter where the captain’s preference for valour in preference to discretion has unfortunate results. “One Solitary Scale” reminds us there are times when you should not strive for absolute perfection. Sometimes, a blemish is expedient. This leaves us with “Tropes of the Trade” as a short nonfiction essay on how to conceive the characters and events in a fantasy context. Like most short pieces on the craft of writing, it does little more than introduce ideas and give a few examples. But it is, at least, going in the right direction. Taken overall, the collection shows an author in complete command of the language of fantasy and horror. Even though some of the stories are conceptually light, the writing has a bravura quality which carries the reader through to the end. It’s good value for money.

For a review of another book by Ari Marmell, see In Thunder Forged.

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

By the Sword by F. Paul Wilson

As the explanation for an idiom, let us allow for the world to be an impossibly large place. To lose one object or one person would present you with a haystack worthy of the challenge to find the needle. Even a city the size of New York — a mere 8,274,527 people occupying just under 305 square miles if you believe wikipedia — would make life difficult. So it is that F. Paul Wilson pitches Repairman Jack back into the continuing saga of the Adversary Cycle. This time continuing on from Bloodline, we come into By the Sword (Gauntlet Press, 2008), the title containing a big hint about the number of people likely to die. He still has the need to search for Dawn on his mind and, as is the custom, he picks up a commission to look for a sword. So, as Randy Jackson would say, “Keeping it real, dog!” this would present a serious challenge to the combined forces of New York’s finest, the FBI, Homeland Security and the CIA to deal with the Threat from Beyond. But there is one consistent thread in all Repairman stories. There’s no such thing as coincidence. Put another way, this brings us to the Moirae.

In classical mythology, there were three women who worked together as The Fates. The first, Clotho, spun the thread of life. The second, Lachesis, measured the thread out to each person as their span of life. The third, Atropos, cut the thread of life when it was due to end. The point of this trinity is that fate is an inexorable mistress. They know the span allotted to you and never hesitate to bring death as closure when time has expired. Yet, unlike the word “destiny” which has quite positive connotations, the Fates were seen as remorseless or relentless. This is quite different from the notion of destiny which has more positive connotations. People are always far more positive and hopeful as they work towards their end. Even if they believe their destiny is to die, it is associated with the idea of heroism and this can inspire both actors and their observers to respect the individual. Fate, on the other hand, has a bad reputation. It can play us false and lead us to destruction.

As we have seen from the prequel Secret Histories, Jack’s feet were firmly planted on the path from his youngest years. He is, if you like, genetically predisposed to be a player in the final battles. Thus, as a young man, he is already surrounded by the characters who will play a major role in his adult life. This brings me to a metaphorical moment. A watch has a face with hands or a digital display to mark the passage of time. The mechanism for analogue timepieces has a balance wheel, which as its name suggests, keeps an even balance between equally matched but opposing forces. There is a gear train to produce the driving force for the whole plot of time to be delivered to that point when the spring must be rewound to restart the movement and, for Jack, there must be escapement (for now). Time marches on inexorably and, in a sense, we are forced to go along with it (or perhaps that should be the other way round since it was the humans who thought up the concept of time in the first place). Whatever! We know Jack has to survive until we get to Nightworld, the last book in the cycle. Thus, there is no suspense. No matter what happens, Jack has to survive.

This leaves him and the readers as rather passive observers to the passage of time. Everything that should happen to advance the plot does happen. Dawn and the sword move round like pawns on the writer’s board. Jack gets all the other major factions to fight each other and, for the most part, lets them get on with the serious business of killing each other. It’s all a little perfunctory, including the resolution of what happens to the sword. As Donald Rumsfeld, who was Secretary of Defence in the US, once famously said, “Stuff happens, and it’s untidy. . .” Except that here it’s all a bit too tidy. The mechanism has to deliver us to a particular point so the next volume can carry on, and that’s what it does. It does so as entertainingly as it can. Wilson’s prose is as clean cut as ever, the plot develops at a good pace with some nice quirks, but I feel my interest waning a little. To paraphrase Macbeth, “. . .to be well done, it were better done quickly.” I want to see the whole Adversary Cycle all over. The oeuvre is beautifully envisioned and it deserves to be finished. I just wish I could skim through the rest now and see how all the ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed. Then I could walk away contented.

For all my reviews of books by F. Paul Wilson, see:
Aftershock & Others
Bloodline
By the Sword
The Dark at the End
Dark City
Fatal Error
Ground Zero
Secret Circles
Secret Histories
Secret Vengeance

The Dragon’s Nine Sons by Chris Roberson

My grandma as I now remember her, had a phrase for every occasion. One of my enduring favourites is, “The things you see when you haven’t got your gun”. She was a Victorian and so grew up immersed in the ethos of the Empire at large. It was a notorious fact that British Army Officers used to shoot every animal in sight, have it stuffed and mounted. Their homes were full to overflowing with these trophies. Yet, in the tradition of all fishermen from Captain Ahab on the Pequod onward, the things they were unable to shoot for want of a weapon to hand were always the most remarkable. Their stories were told and retold in drawing rooms throughout the land, each more sensational than the last.

Such was the boredom of peace that, for them, the coming of a real shooting war broke the monotony and allowed their homicidal impulses free rein. This transition from peace to war always produces emotional conflicts. For real warriors, it is the realisation of their purpose. The coming of war completes them. For people like Captain Zhuan Jie in The Dragon’s Nine Sons by Chris Roberson, it is the transition from contented merchant captain to an unsettled captain of a small man o’ war.

The question most consistently posed by the writers of military fiction is how people react when put to the test. For significant periods of time, a combatant can hide from direct confrontation with the enemy. When the time comes, do they rise to the challenge or will their nerve crack? There is a fascination with courage and the trappings of heroism. Rational people will always feel fear. No matter how many times you may face death, it will always be a result you would prefer to avoid. How well or badly you face this defines you as a warrior and a person.

In any work of length, you need a plot to drive you through the book. For the most part, it will be a mixture of contrivance and coincidence. The author needs a certain number of people to come together, certain things must happen so that we can arrive at the desired conclusion. We always hope for credibility. We are often disappointed. In this case, I find some of the coincidence contrived and unnecessary. Although it all takes place over a relatively short period of time and therefore the chances of different events interacting is quite high, I don’t think all the coincidences in this plot add anything to the strength of the story.

Then we come to the individual issues. Would a crew being sent on a suicide mission be so passive? The crew has every incentive to mutiny. They are out of the control of their immediate captors. They have access to weapons and, it would seem, only one officer standing in their way — I’m not convinced that the Captain would oppose an attempt to escape. Why is there not a whisper of conspiracy? Are we supposed to believe that this group would be so cowed when on their own, yet so magnificent when put to the ultimate test? In fact, trying to make a run for it in one of the enemy’s ships would make for an interesting read. Where would they go? Just what would the Generals tell the pursuers, if any? If challenged by another ship, what would the runways do? Now that’s a fun read. As it is, we are left with a flock of sheep penned up in the ship until the plot conveniently delivers them to their destination.

But, back on the plot we are given, we come to their enemies. There is no real detail on how the Mexica side live their lives. They are cyphers. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. States at war simply dehumanise and demonise the enemy. The plan is induce each group of warriors to think only the worst of their enemy so that both sides can kill without compunction. Since the story is told from the point of view of the “ordinary” warrior, I suppose their vagueness is understandable. Nevertheless, the lack of substance to the opposition means there is little sense of danger. This derives from the alternative history format. In a real world story of war with one nation pitted against another, we know the history and can fill in all the gaps to explain why there was mutual hatred. When the history is invented, it needs to be fleshed out to create a more convincing context for the action. Worse, for a supposedly militaristic cast culture on a war footing, their lack of internal security inside Xolotl is lamentably convenient for the “heroes”. Even when the alarm is triggered, the Mexica warriors are simply cannon fodder.

The notion that a whole ship, nay, even a complete space station might shut down if there was an insufficient supply of blood is distinctly disconcerting. Unless the crew are to be tapped for back-up supplies, I seriously wonder whether the technology could be allowed into space without some kind of override facility. There has to come a point on a small ship when you run out of captives (and just think of all the extra payload of food, clothing and medical supplies required to feed and keep them healthy). You start tapping the crew until their health is threatened. At this point, you just have to be able to make the ship work without having to kill the rest of the crew. This would seem most likely to happen in battle conditions when crew and captives might be killed. The ship cannot simply make a run for it back to the “secret” space station, so it has to “hide” until it is safe to return. In such circumstances, the surviving crew must be able to get by without blood donors or else lose the ship. All of which reminds me that the Celestial Empire has stealth technology but applies it to space suits when it would be better applied to small scout ships that could shadow the enemy back to their “secret” base.

It is a truism that, in war, hard decision must often be taken. Thus, for example, if you have broken the enemy’s code, this can often mean you have to allow the enemy’s plans to proceed as normal. To disrupt those plans alerts the enemy that the code has been broken. War is full of such hard decisions. The only difference may lie in the number of people who have to be sacrificed. And here we come to a major plot problem. From the outset, we are told that Bannerman Yao’s disciplinary issues arise from his interest in uncovering the truth about the Shachuan Station Massacre. Even the name is wrong. If the Mexic technology is so inflexibly dependent on fresh blood, no soldier would ever willingly kill even one of their enemies. They would take extraordinary care to ensure that all were taken prisoner with the least possible physical damage. This maximises the number of blood donors to keep the technology working. The idea that any armed group would indiscriminately kill settlers is not rational. I can accept that religious obligations may, in times of plenty, demand continuing sacrifices. But in times of war, when it may be difficult to obtain regular supplies of victims, I suspect that religion might have to yield to military practicality. Further, the need to take people alive for this purpose could be used by the Celestial Empire to inspire horror in their citizens who might even be persuaded to commit suicide rather than be taken. In this kind of conflict, the scorched earth strategy relies on denying your enemy live prisoners. After a while, the Mexic military will run out of prisoners and either have to start using its own citizens as blood donors or lose access to their weapons. The Celestial Empire might even have to instal suicide/homicide devices inside its colonists most at risk so that the High Command could remotely kill any citizen taken prisoner. That would give even the least effective citizen a motive for fighting ferociously against the enemy.

How good is this book? It is actually deeply frustrating. I can see how it could have been made into a brilliant book if only someone intelligent had taken the author in hand and shown him how to think through the implications of what he was writing. As it is, my page turning speed increased simply to see what the body count was at the end. I had no sense of empathy with any of the characters. Most of them, like their enemies, were nothing more than ciphers. It is a shame because, properly worked out, this clash of civilisations in an alternative universe would be quite interesting. Writers fight their wars inside their heads and, sometimes, it needs an outsider to tell the author, in as nice a way as possible, that more work is necessary. Such helpful critics always leave their guns at home when telling the author what they see. As it is, I am not tempted to try another instalment (I think it may be intended a trilogy — now there’s a surprise!)

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