Posts Tagged ‘pastiche’

Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

June 27, 2013 2 comments

Without a Summer

Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor, 2013) The Glamourist Histories 3 has produced a real internal debate and, even as I sit down to write this review, I’m still undecided on what my final decision should be. It all revolves around the merits of pastiche as a literary form. It has long been acceptable for one author to write in the style of another, usually to celebrate the skills and style of that other. I suppose in some senses, it’s a form of homage, albeit without the servile overtones that tend to be associated with the word. And we should distinguish parody because there’s no intention to make fun of the source material or its author. No matter how we end up defining pastiche, humour is not the intention (unless, of course, the author being celebrated is a humourist). So here we go with Mary Robinette Kowal writing in the style of Jane Austen, i.e. we’re to take it that this is how Jane Austen herself or other Regency writers might have written science fiction or fantasy. Ostensibly set in 1816, it deals with the literal fallout of the volcanic eruption of Tambora in the East Indies. It’s one of the few times we’ve come close to a nuclear winter as ash in the upper atmosphere produced a prolonged period of cold. So Ms Kowal’s intention is to take an actual historical event and to weave a story around it in a style of the period.

Mary Robinette Kowal with typewriter

Mary Robinette Kowal with typewriter

My problem with all this artifice is to decide how we should assess its merit and then whether the result works on those terms. As a reviewer, I could decide to accept the author’s intention as being to write a “Regency” novel. This would involve my applying criteria that Regency critics might have adopted. Or I could ignore its declared purpose of recreating a period work and judge it purely as a contemporary novel. So let’s be blunt about the first option. No Regency author would have written a book exactly like this. The core conceit is a system of magic that no author of that time could have imagined. Our two lead characters are capable of manipulating the aether for a number of different purposes and effects. Spread over now three books, the author has invested considerable effort in constructing an internally consistent set of rules for the exercise of this supernatural skill. Indeed, for the purposes of this book, we have an extension of the skill set to encompass coldmongering which is an elegant idea. So it’s pointless to try judging it as if it had been written two hundred years ago. Equally, we’re not in the business of trying to judge it in the same way as the efforts to complete Sanditon, i.e. the author takes the original incomplete work and attempts to continue the story in the same style. This is very much an original work albeit that it plays the game of social manners appropriate to the Regency era. Hence, if I’m not judging it to determine whether it succeeds as if written two hundred years ago, the primary question to answer is what value is added to the story by pretending it was written by Jane Austen.

So here I get into trying to second guess the marketing strategy. I’m assuming there’s a massive market for the real Jane Austen’s work. You only have to look at the outflowing of adaptations on the small and large screen to see our age is still fixated with this author’s view of the world. This would suggest that an author could trade on this love of the original author to sell her own fiction. What we have is a heady romance as Jane’s sister Melody comes to London and finds what may be love in an unfortunate quarter. We have all the problems of chaperoning and the etiquette of courtship set out for us at some length — a feature which rather pushes the glamour element to a backseat.

I’m therefore driven to a view which is no doubt strongly influenced by my male gender. I found Without a Summer to be as dull as ditchwater. I’ve tried to find added value in the pastiche but, frankly, I now conclude this has been a red herring. At best, this is a third-rate fantasy novel. There’s little development to the central conceit. The primary focus is romance threatened by political manoeuvring. From this point of view, the second novel was far stronger with genuine innovativeness on display. Sadly, this has dropped back to a very poor standard.

For reviews of the other books in this series, see:
Glamour in Glass
Shades of Milk and Honey
Valour and Vanity.

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

The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

October 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Authors are entirely human (unless they are AIs who’ve broken through into the fiction business) and, as is only natural, tend to get caught up in their own interests and obsessions. So when we go back to the start of the Laundry Files series, Charles Stross thought it was a wicked cool idea to take a Lovecraftian theme and wrap in into a pastiche format. Ignoring the shorter contributions, this worked rather well with the fairly generic style of Len Deighton for The Atrocity Archives but was, to my mind, a dismal failure with Ian Fleming when the joke proved repetitively interminable in The Jennifer Morgue. I think the series got back on track with The Fuller Memorandum because, although Stross claimed it was a pastiche of Anthony Price, it was nothing like any of Price’s novels. More to the point, even if it had been, only geriatrics like me have read and loved Price. So few people read him now, no-one would have known whether it was a reasonable approximation of the style. In other words, despite protestations to the contrary, Stross wrote an amusing Lovecraftian book. With the fourth book now out and titled The Apocalypse Codex (Penguin/Berkley, 2012), he’s again indulging in thematic pastiche. This time, we’re in Peter O’Donnell territory. Frankly, I haven’t read a Modesty Blaise book in more than forty years and wouldn’t want to read one today. I found them terrible. What was quick and amusing as a comic strip died when it was translated into prose. So here Stross introduces a strong, but occasionally vulnerable, woman to put up alongside the doughty Laundryman.

Charles Stross pretending to be Emperor Ming


Who’s this woman, then? Well, as in the originals, she has a vaguely Greek background and, having wandered around Europe, ends up a British national. Of course, there’s the required trusty sidekick as well. Like Willy Gavin, he’s tough, has throwing knives, and is not at all frustrated in a strictly platonic relationship with the Mam’selle. Having given up the life of crime, they’re recruited into MI6 by Sir Gerald Tarrant as external assets which is where this novel takes up the thread.


The good news is the more serious tone of the novel. Although I’m not against the idea of an author introducing a general air of levity into “end of the world” scenarios — that Douglas Adam chap was moderately successful in getting a laugh out of the destruction of the Earth — there comes a point when the arrival of one or more of the Great Old Ones has to become more threatening given the likely loss of amenity around the planet. Indeed, the plot of this novel assumes the arriving being will be a little peckish and need to have a light snack to build up its strength. That’s why this cult has been planning for so long and has developed the power to ring fence several million people into an outdoor eating area otherwise called Colorado. So although there’s some of the mild satire on civil service speak and organisational culture, the primary focus is on Lovecraftian matters with the sidekick and the televangelist being Deep One hybrids.


In line with the slightly darker themes featuring baby production facilities and parasitical infections, there’s also more intelligence in the discussion of organisations and how best to structure them to get the best results. Although this particular version of reality is fictional, I applaud Stross for taking the time to explain the point of his satire on the civil service mentality. Too often, jobs have been mechanised so that anyone can do them with only a minimal level of intelligence and experience. This compensates for the systemic failures of the education service to spit out sufficient numbers of clever people to run government “properly”. With jobs defined by lowest common denominator ability requirements, administration can continue, with policy overseen by a small cadre of more knowledgeable individuals. The point of the institutional speak is to hide the differences in intellectual ability. With everyone speaking in the same preprogrammed way, it takes marginally longer for the general public to work out whether they are talking with a high-powered Mandarin or lowly clerk.


Put all this together and The Apocalypse Codex is the best of the series so far. It has a better balance between the characters with the series character, Bob Howard, sharing the point-of-view limelight with our new female heroine (and sidekick). The Lovecraftian threat is escalating nicely with portal technology allowing entry into a different dimension for on-site conflict. The evolution also extends to our view of the British Government and we see more clearly where Bob’s career path may be leading — if not into middle management. The good final piece of news is this can more obviously be read as a stand-alone. Although knowing the background from the previous novels and short stories would enhance your enjoyment, everything you need to understand this is thoughtfully included.


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


This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.


Death of a Schoolgirl by Joanna Campbell Slan

I always remember arguments about medical matters of profound significance when I was growing up. “It’s a rash!” would be countered by, “Don’t be silly, it’s just a few spots.” Today, this may not sound very important, but we old ‘uns grew up with interesting infections and diseases like measles and scarlet fever. What didn’t make us infertile might kill us to make sure we never had kids. This may seem a somewhat extravagant way to begin the review of a mere book, but Death of a Schoolgirl by Joanna Campbell Slan (Berkley Prime Crime, 2012) is yet one more spot that I fear may be turning into a rash. Why? Because it’s riding the crest of a wave of books aping the styles of well-known authors. Indeed, a new line calling itself Clandestine Classics is due to launch later this month from Total-E-Bound Publishing. This publisher is preserving the style and language of Austen, Brontë, Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne, but introducing all the sex scenes that, previously, were only implied, e.g. homosexual activity between Holmes and Watson, bondage sessions between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, while Jane Eyre plays it safer and only has explosive, albeit unprotected, sex with Rochester hence the baby that appears at the beginning of this book. While Captain Nemo’s underwater fetish with that female octopus will also be exposed on YouTube in newly discovered sepia-tinted moving daguerrotypes.

Joanna Campbell Slan not as Van Vogt imagined her

Sadly, this book is rather tame. Instead of fighting off alien invaders, vampires, zombies or comparably vicious beasties, this addition to the Jane Eyre Chronicles is just a murder mystery as our heroine goes undercover to unmask the fiendish killer(s) of a “little girl”. Having just given birth to a son and heir, Jane is summoned to London by Adèle Varens and, despite being injured in failing to fight off a robber en route, arrives at the gates of Alderton House School for Girls just in time to see the titular schoolgirl’s body being taken away for autopsy — the Bow Street Runners tried and failed to get Miss Catherine Willows to view the crime scene, so had to fall back on Jane Eyre to infiltrate the school disguised as a teacher of German and art. The first more serious point to make is that Joanna Campbell Slan is not totally obsessive about accuracy in her recreation of the Victorian style. There’s some relief from the pedantry that pervades other attempts at pastiche. Nevertheless, this remains a rather tedious read. Frankly, this affectation of period prose adds little to the enjoyment of the book and pretending the book was written by someone else is not going to save the author. We must judge this on its merits as a murder mystery to be solved by an amateur detective, and not on whether it’s a successful pastiche with lots of social manners and lively conversations to pass the time.

So I come to the sad conclusion that Death of a Schoolgirl is a slight puzzle bloated to interminable length by desperate attempts to locate the work in the early part of the nineteenth century. I wish I could find something good to say about it but, without any explosive sex scenes to enliven the proceedings, it remains plodding and dull.

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

The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

Instead of starting with an autobiographical note, I thought I’d kick this review off with a number of definitions. Let’s start with “original”. This is a word we routinely see applied to the latest offerings in all media. Whether you’re talking about the latest blockbuster down at the multiplex, the next bestseller in bookshops or the newest release from the top group, the prime virtue is that the work is something fresh. Rather than recycle or derive ideas from another source, the creator has produced something sufficiently unique that it will be copied by others. Yet when you look at the millions of words and images that are hyped for our attention, and then multiply that across several centuries of effort, you realise how difficult it is to produce something that is not to some degree derivative of, or copied from, the works of others.

So this brings us to “derivative” which, in principle, is the adaptation of someone else’s work. It applies most frequently in the shared universes where, with the permission or consent of the original copyright holders, new creators are allowed to continue the development of the storyline. These major franchises cover a multitude of sins from the Lovecraftian to the Star WarsStar Trek industries that churn out new works for the delight of their fans (most recently seeing the latest and most brilliant contribution to the Batman canon to hit the big screen as The Dark Knight). But there are more authors who quietly borrow concepts and ideas from their peers, modifying them sufficiently to avoid plagiarism. After all, the dynamics of plot are basically rooted in human relationships and, unless you come up with new ways for people to interact, you can only cover the same ground as everyone else — simply changing the factual context to avoid copyright infringement actions.

And then there are the “parodies” — the works that satirise or mock the work of others. In such works, the author clearly identifies the sources and then makes fun of them. At least that is the usual intention. Yet as cultures diversify, so it becomes more difficult for humour to cross boundaries. Thus, works that are intended to amuse often anger or annoy different groups. Such works avoid liability as copyright infringements because the creators invest enough of their own imagination and labour to justify separate copyright protection.

Which all neatly brings us to The Bone Key by Sarah Monette. This collection of linked short stories pays homage to the work of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft (although the latter’s contribution is more tangential than direct). Well, that proves me an unreliable narrator qua critic because I have immediately stepped outside the three definitions. But that is the word used by Monette in her introduction. In essence, a homage is a work that shows respect for the individual(s) named. It reflects the spirit of the original in very recognisable ways, but adds a contemporary commentary or gloss. To that extent, it is close to being a derivative work, but it does not need the express consent of the copyright holders because the author avoids any direct quotations or other borrowings. The work is original but deliberately reflects the spirit of the originals.

So does this collection (close to being a fix-up novel but avoiding it) genuinely show respect for her two nominated sources of inspiration? The style is very definitely Jamesean. It has the same dry, slightly deadpan tone. But it avoids the rather more hyperbolic excesses of Lovecraft. You will not find any of the Elder Gods wandering around the museum where her protagonist works, although we do have a parade of revenants and other supernatural beings which borrow something from the Lovecraftian canon. To that extent, she succeeds in creating a genuine sense of period writing. Is this a good thing? Well, being of an age to have read these works more than fifty years ago, I immediately recognise the understated quality of James whom I continue to think is a master of the genre. However, I am not sure how well this style travels in time. Modern readers are used to a more explicit approach to the horror and supernatural content. Retaining some of the sensibilities of writers working so long ago is a dangerous ploy.

To leaven the mix, Monette takes the slightly radical decision to make her male hero gay. As an aside, I note that the magic employed in the Doctrine of Labyrinths has a homoerotic side with Felix overtly gay. Thematically, Monette seems to find it easier to write about gay rather than straight male characters. In this instance, the homosexuality is a reasonably good fit because the hero, Kyle Murchison Booth, comes from a wealthy background, goes through private schooling and therefore fits the stereotype of the slightly effete, intellectually obsessed individuals who closeted themselves away in museums in the early part of the last century.

In this context, it certainly does bring the characterisation into the modern era. Too often, the writers of the last century focused on the plot and said little about the interior lives of their characters. It also poses all kinds of interesting questions as: does an incubus also sleep with men or is it the succubus that swings both ways? Nomenclature is always important to us critics.

The stories are of a reasonably even standard with The Wall of Clouds the most interesting and the new Listening to Bone the weakest. The stories are divided into two camps. The first, to a greater or lesser extent, illuminates our understanding of Booth by reviewing his early life and schooling. This helps to explain how and why he has become the man he is in the second group of stories representing the mid-period of his life.

Overall, I think Monette has avoided the dangers of pastiche (in the more pejorative sense of the word) and has created an interesting blend of older and modern sensibilities. Thus, accepting the derivative nature of the work, there is a sufficient overlay of original contemporary feelings and emotions to make the fusion work.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: CorambisA Companion to Wolves, The Tempering of Men (jointly with Elizabeth Bear), a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

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