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By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan

August 6, 2014 3 comments

By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan

A few years ago, I was standing in the bookshop section of one of these large stores that sells everything including books, music, videos, stationery, and so on, wondering how long it was going to take my wife to decide which diary to buy. By one of these strange mischances, my eye fell on a copy of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer and, having heard it was making waves, I read the first few pages. Deciding that anything more would make me ill, I swore never to try another book featuring a romance between a vampire and a werewolf. Yet, through the quirk of fate, I find myself picking up By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan (Knopf, 2014) the third in The Last Werewolf series. With a heavy heart I note the words, “. . .a stunningly erotic love story” on the jacket flap. There are vampires and werewolves involved. I begin to read.

In the red corner, we have Remshi, the male vampire who seems to have been on the prowl for three-times the number of years the Creationists say the world has been around. In the blue corner there’s Tallula, the female werewolf (and mother of twins) who may be the reincarnated Vali — the female Remshi loved and lost in prehistoric times. Not surprisingly, once people start talking about life before the Universe was created by God, the Catholic Church gets all militant and decides it has to exterminate all nonconformist life, i.e. all the werewolves and vampires. The cynics among you may say the Catholics are only doing this as a ploy to distract the world’s attention from the paedophile scandal. But with the GOP and fundamental Christians in America getting in on the act, there may be a more general movement to protect humanity from this dangerous group of predators that has been culling our population ever since Eve made the wrong choice with the apple.

Anyway, to prove there’s nothing going on between the vampires and the werewolves, the book opens with Tallula “married” (the validity of same species marriage still has to be decided by the Supreme Court) with twins, while Remshi is living in sin with Justine Cavell (these vampires have no shame). The book then hits its stride with am extermination squad from the Catholic Church turning up to kill Remshi. Naturally, he survives with difficulty, but she’s seriously injured so he “turns” her (their love must be sufficiently strong he wants to keep her around). However, she then takes off on a revenge quest and he has to choose whether to pursue her, or find Tallula and resolve the puzzle of this dream he keeps having. Meanwhile, Tallula and family are snacking on some random humans in an isolated farmhouse when they are attacked by another of these God-squads. She and Zoe end up captured, while hubby and the son escape.

Glen Duncan

Glen Duncan

The ending is both semantically exact and emotionally affecting. As readers we always try to second-guess how the author will resolve matters. This seems particularly effective and avoids much of the mawkish sentimentality that so offends in the young adult efforts in this market. Even though the majority of the key characters are driven by love (even the Catholics are inspired by their love of Jesus), there’s a deep sense of realism pervading the development of the plot. Both vampires and werewolves need to feed on human flesh and blood if they are to survive. So both species must live with the guilt of having to kill. Indeed, at one point, Tallula as a mother confronts the possibility of eating a human baby. Fortunately, she does not have to put herself to the test, but you have the sense she would decide not to. Even though the wolf side of her personality would not have scruples, she retains an essential humanity in her capacity for compassion and love. She’s not quite the monster she sometimes believes herself to be. Similarly, Remshi finds himself increasingly overpowered by the lives of those he eats. It’s as he’s losing his capacity for absorbing their personalities, signalling a time for ending or achieving some kind of rebirth. He loves a human who becomes a vampire. But he’s distracted by a love through time. He’s been waiting centuries for Vali to return. Now he believes she has reappeared, he hopes they can be together again. Indeed, some centuries ago, there was a prophesy promising something spectacular when they got back together. This provides the dynamic as fate conspires to force a meeting and then to reproduce that dream he keeps having.

Taken overall this is a bold and quite literate example of vampire/werewolf Gothic. It’s more than apparent there’s a brain at work and this represents a fairly detailed exploration of the human/monster hybrid (both vampires and werewolves start off as humans and are then “contaminated”). Despite the drive for food as the mechanism for preserving existence, these creatures retain something of their human hearts. They and their victims share a form of existential horror at being predator and prey respectively. Although Duncan somewhat wryly points out the commercial and political opportunities for Church and governments to convince their followers that these predators exist: great reality television shows can show extermination squads at work, while politicians can sell the religious message that belief in God will keep the people safe. So although I think the reliance on Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is slightly overdone as a mechanism for providing a unifying mythology, this remains a very impressive and intelligent supernatural horror novel. It’s naturally violent, as it should be, with many scenes of conflict dotted throughout the book. So one thing is clear. Those who enjoyed the Twilight series, whether as books or films, will probably be shocked and appalled by By Blood We Live. This will help them understand just how vapid and wishy-washy the work of Stephenie Meyer is, and what a horror novel for adults should be like.

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

The Undead Pool by Kim Harrison

August 1, 2014 1 comment

The Undead Pool

The Undead Pool by Kim Harrison (The Hollows 12) (Harper Collins, 2014) is what I’m supposed to label urban fantasy but, having ploughed through it, the reality is more romance than anything else. Although we’re dealing with a complex world of mixed species — supernatural and human — with different types of magic on display, I found the characters completely uninvolving and the fantasy weak and wimpy. I suppose this is a gender phenomenon. This author has been churning out books which hit the New York Bestseller lists, so I’m forced to conclude she has a loyal group of female fans who lap up this “heady” mixture of sex and magical mystery. As a mere male, it left me completely cold.

 

Our hero, Rachel Morgan, is a female demon. As this book begins, she’s been providing security for long-time love interest, the top elf in Cincinnati, Trent Kalamack. So far, despite all the temptation, they have only managed a kiss, but the storm signs have already been raised. Deeper sexual attraction is in the wind and likely to sweep all before it. The “problem” is the presence of Ellasbeth. There’s a political move to displace Trent from the elven ruling council because of his “association” with the demon. The price for retaining all his wealth, power and influence is marriage to Ellasbeth. If Trent were to comply, it would obviously be emotionally devastating to Rachel but, in the interests of keeping the peace, she’s preparing herself for the loss.

Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison

 

Except, of course, there’s a real brew of magical mayhem in the cauldron. While she’s on the golf course, she discovers the hard way that her magic is suddenly rather unexpectedly stronger than she was expecting. What’s supposed to be a simple spell to deflect an incoming golfball from the tee, explodes the ball and leaves a new sandtrap just waiting for the sand. This is the first sign of a wave of what overstimulates every spell as it’s being performed. To add to the disturbance to the force, all the master vampires fall asleep. This is going to kill them and, more importantly, leave the rank and file vampires without anyone to control them.

 

All this leads to opportunities for characters to build friendships and alliances while being prepared to make sacrifices if the situation requires it. When interests are threatened, it’s all going to come down to people making the best decisions they can, hoping they can trust those they work with. Needless to say, love prevails with Rachel and Trent finally coming together at the end. A bitterly frustrated Ellasbeth leaves the city with nothing (and not before time, some might say). I find myself slightly puzzled at my lack of response to this book. Objectively, the author is doing the right things. There’s a mixture of adventure situations with magic thrown in to add a little extra spice. Except despite there being opportunities for our couple to be in danger (including quite a long sequence when our couple on horseback are hunted by demons), I was bored. For some reason, the tone of the book fails to even vaguely resonate with me. When I’m looking for some excitement (any excitement), all I find is flat, functional narrative prose and characters who fail to inspire any interest. Given the vast popularity of this author, I acknowledge I’m on the losing side of this debate. So I will make my usual apologies and leave this book to the legion of women readers who obviously lap up this type of urban fantasy as if it’s the best thing since the invention of sliced bread.

 

This book was sent to me for review.

 

Dark Lycan by Christine Feehan

March 10, 2014 2 comments

dark lycan_final_rgb

Every now and then, I encounter the truth behind one of the traditional idioms. In this case, I’m thinking of, “curiosity killed the cat”. To explain: working for SFBRs is a real pleasure. Every two or three weeks, the crew sends me a list of books from which to choose what to read next. I pick out authors that I know and like, together with a liberal number of anything that looks vaguely interesting. For Dark Lycan by Christine Feehan (Berkley, 2013), the feature swinging the interestometer was the fact this is the twenty-fourth in her Carpathians series. Yes, I know. The ideal is to start with volume 1 and work through as many as you can tolerate. But if you are going to jump into a series, you might as well do it with something that’s apparently selling as strongly today as it was when the first book hit the shelves way back when.

 

So here I am with absolutely no idea what to expect reading the first page and my hackles are rising. It seems this is one of these romance-tinged vampire/werewolf series in which the good fight the bad specimens on each side of the species divide (or when things get confused, the species mix up and produce more powerful versions of the source creature). So the first sign of trouble comes with the sheer inexplicability of what’s happening. Our heroine is Tatijana Dragonseeker and she’s currently underground, buried somewhere near her sister Branislava. It turns out this is a good thing. They have been trapped in ice for centuries. Now released, they are sleeping this minor inconvenience off by soaking in the goodness of the soil. In this half-dreaming state, the sisters have a telepathic link. They have been keeping each other company (and sane) for all these years by exchanging thoughts. At this time in their recovery cycle, Tatijana is the more alert and she decides to go visit with the locals. This involves tunnelling. She comes out close to the kind of inn low-lifes like and, guess what, propping up the bar is Fenris Dalka. A few pages later, the pair have decided they are soul mates. Because a fight is looming with some renegade werewolves who just happen to be rampaging in the neighbourhood, they put off the moment of bonding to each other for life so they can kill a few of these importunate toothy ones. Fortunately, Fenris has a brother who flies in to help and a “man” from the inn also proves to be one of the “good guys” so they do pretty well in the slaying business. This is not to say they emerge unscathed but with Fenris patching up his brother and Tatijana working her magic on the helpful one, they are soon back up to strength.

Christine Feehan

Christine Feehan

 

At this point, I revised my original estimate that this is a romance-tinged story. That usually means the male and female circle round each other for the book or series, and never commit. This pair have full emotional contact at the first more intimate glance (with telepathic overtones) and never look back. It’s just a case of waiting for them to say the words and get started making new Cathpathians, Lycans or mixtures depending on what you think the attributes of this pair happen to be. Well, I got as far as Fenris being outed as one of the abomination mixtures, but her family saying, “Well, you know, that’s not so bad today as it used to be.” so they decide not to kill him. Which is kind of convenient because it means the lifemating can go ahead and let no man (or any other beastie) put asunder (or something). So that leaves them free to fight together against the evil pack and their bad mix leader. Except I decide life’s just too short to attempt reading something like this, so I carefully placed it in the “read” box and picked up the next. Yes Dark Lycan is the first unfinished book of the year.

 

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

 

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear

December 30, 2013 1 comment

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2009) sees Lady Abigail Irene Garrett and wampyr Don Sebastien de Ulloa making a home for themselves in a London under German occupation. This novella is set some thirty-five years after events described in New Amsterdam. In this alternate history, Britain lost the peace and, with its king fled to America, the younger generation of the British are growing up through the education system put in place by their conquerors. The first real signs of this are now openly walking the streets wearing the uniforms of the German army. When the occupation is all you’ve known during the formative years, it’s difficult not to be a collaborator. For the record, this is not the German master race we know from our own history. It’s the Prussians who, under the leadership of a Bismarck analogue, have been grabbing European turf. Sadly, from their point of view, Russia has yet to succumb. This leads them to attempt a magical strategy. If their army could be reinforced by werewolves, this would almost certainly give them the edge when it comes to an invasion. The problem is how to resurrect the largely lost packs and, even more importantly, ensure their loyalty. It would be somewhat embarrassing if, having found a way of putting together a regiment of these beasts, they then ate all soldiers in sight, regardless of their uniforms.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

It’s always convenient to read books and see only the superficial story of a British resistance movement with an undead Scarlet Pimpernel working alongside them. But that would be to completely misjudge the quality of the book. This is a book about the power of love at opposite ends of the age spectrum. From the merely old and immortal comes the tragedy of mortality. Vampires were first human and only later came to their higher status. This means they can be tempted by the emotion of love even though, to them, it’s going to be ephemeral unless they turn the object of their affection. So Sebastian is on the cusp of that bittersweet moment when his human love will die. That he’s seen nations born and die gives him perspective, but that doesn’t really change the nature of the experience each time he watches someone he cares about die. At the other end of the age and experience scale, we have two young girls on the cusp of turning into warriors. Yet, despite the psychological manipulation, they find themselves experiencing physical attraction. Further complicating matters is the question of race. One girl is Jewish and she has already assumed responsibility for infiltrating the werewolf operation so she can strike back for her people. For her, the sacrifice of herself or the others around her may become necessary if she’s to carry forward the plan.

The book therefore considers the nature of relationships when one or both parties are mayflies. Perhaps we all accept short-term satisfaction when we can place ourselves in a larger context. For Sebastian, he may lose Abigail Irene’s physical body but she will always be with him in memories. It’s the regret you cannot hold hands or kiss that will prove fleeting when all you have to do to be together again is to close your eyes. For the young lovers, it’s the natural feel to the emotions that’s so seductive. Despite the options to persuade or actually change the other person’s mind, they would never do that because it’s a betrayal of the trust they have in each other. That there’s an inherent lack of honesty in the infiltrator does not change her love. That she recognises the other may turn into an enemy the moment the dishonesty is revealed cannot stop her. She’s been honed into a weapon and she has to live with the consequences. She has a higher purpose than ephemeral love.

So Seven for a Secret is a book that features vampires, their renfields, werewolves and assorted manipulative human taskmasters. Yet it’s also about the tragedy individuals have to endure because of the circumstances in which they find themselves. The result is affecting, melancholic and rather beautiful.

For reviews of books also by Elizabeth Bear, see
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette),
Range of Ghosts,
Shattered Pillars,
Shoggoths in Bloom,
Steles of the Sky and
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette).

Dust jacket artwork is again by Patrick Arrasmith.

Box Office Poison by Phillipa Bornikova

October 31, 2013 2 comments

Box Office Poison

Box Office Poison by Phillipa Bornikova (a pseudonym of Melinda Snodgrass) (Tor, 2013) is the second urban fantasy to feature Linnet Ellery, a human lawyer employed by a vampire firm. Looking at that last sentence gives me a warm feeling. It’s always therapeutic to suggest firms of lawyers are blood-sucking vampires but, with this book having the urban fantasy label plastered on the shingle hung outside their office, this is meant literally. Werewolves and elves, who call themselves the Álfar, are also “real” and are, to a significant degree, integrated into human affairs. This takes us a step further than the Left Hand/Right Hand Magic by Nancy Collins in which a range of supernatural creatures are living among humans but their existence is largely ghettoised. Here some of the leading celebrities on the big screen are Álfar, their agents are werewolves and vampires draw up the contracts. To a great extent, this is life in the mainstream, but it’s not without its complications.

In our world, America has been built out of successive waves of immigration, but the pace has dwindled of late. Indeed, it would be fair to say America is less welcoming than it used to be and, in some quarters, actively hostile to newcomers. This is most obviously apparent in the failure of the so-called Dream Act to gain traction on Capitol Hill. Common sense says America should embrace the people already in the country, often doing the work local people refuse to do, paying taxes and sending their children to school. So this book has three different groups who live and work in human America. Obviously both vampires and werewolves used to be human. No-one is entirely sure who or what the Álfar are. But one thing is clear. These people are taking work from the “humans” and it’s time they were sent back where they came from. As a first step, a Humans First organisation is arguing for a racial law to prevent a marriage from being valid between a human and one of these “others”, cf the miscegenation laws in some US states, Nazi Germany, South Africa, etc. In other words, this book is actually a good vehicle for exploring attitudes between different groups and the pressures for positive discrimination laws to impose greater equality than the more extreme elements in human society prefers.

Melinda Snodgrass

Melinda Snodgrass

On the way to solving some interesting mystery puzzles about two Álfar accused of murder, we’ve got a formal arbitration which plays the legal niceties rather well. The question is pleasingly simple. When it comes to the process of casting a film, everyone puts on a show. They all want to impress during the audition. So if one group of actors can use a glamour to make themselves more attractive in face-to-face meetings with directors and producers, how qualitatively different is this from others having cosmetic surgery or corrective dentistry to make themselves look better? And then there’s the not so mythological use of the casting couch — exploitation, yes, but a price some are prepared to pay in their search for stardom and celebrity. Who’s to say what “tricks” people may play when the outcomes to the individuals involved are so important.

This is a book written by someone who has experience in Hollywood. It has a knowing quality about some of the descriptions of the characters and the places where “work” is done. So this is me reaching a fairly radical conclusion given all the dismissive things I’ve said about most of the urban fantasies I’ve read over the last couple of years. Looks around nervously and mops a brow suddenly beaded with sweat. This is highly enjoyable! There, I’ve said it. “But why?” you wail, having legitimately expected me to rip this to shreds? Well this is not your common or garden urban fantasy with a kick-ass female first-person narrator who dispatches supernatural beasties with a flick of her manicured hand while lusting platonically after some hunky male (of whatever race or species happens to be available). Box Office Poison is an excellent legal thriller that involves a range of supernatural and human people all working together to arrive at a just outcome, the American way. Ignore the crass label stuck on by the marketers. This is a superior book no matter what the cover art or blurb might otherwise suggest.

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

Of Fever and Blood by Sire Cédric

October 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Of Fever and Blood

Of Fever and Blood by Sire Cédric (Publishers Square, 2013) is distributed in English by Open Road. Sire Cédric has published eight titles (with another due shortly) including L’enfant des cimetières (2009) which won the Masterston prize, this book, De fièvre et de sang (2010), which won the Polar prize at the Cognac festival and the first Cinécinéma Frissons prize, and Le jeu de l’ombre (2011). From this brief history, you’ll understand this author writes about monsters, madness and, without irony intended, rock music. In his novels and short stories, he’s influenced by Clive Barker and Stephen King, having moved from a career in journalism and translation, to writing police procedurals, often with a supernatural element. Le premier sang (2012), the second in this series, has been nominated for the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire and the Prix de l’Embouchure 2013.

Of Fever and Blood is the first of two supernatural thrillers featuring Inspectors Eva Svärta and Alexandre Vauvert. Eva Svärta is a profiler based in Paris. She specialises in cults and anything with an occult connection. We’re immediately pitched into the climax of their hunt for a kidnapped girl. Eva Svärta is assisting in a serial killer case being handled by the Homicide Unit in Toulouse where Alexandre Vauvert works. Structurally, this means the action kicks off in high gear with the pair breaking into a remote farmhouse — none of the niceties of search warrants and backup from SWAT for this pair. They are in (relatively) hot pursuit of the latest kidnapped young woman and are not inclined to let bureaucracy stand in their way. That’s why the two men found at the farm end up dead (well, probably) and the young woman is rescued. Such a good outcome allows the press to senationalise the whole episode as one involving vampires (it’s all about the blood, you see) who’ve been stopped (young women in the area can feel safer) and this positive reaction gives the senior echelons in the policing agencies the excuse to look the other way on the number of different laws broken and the deaths of the two “suspects”.

Sire Cédric

Sire Cédric

Not surprisingly, things don’t go back to normal. Just over a year later, there are two new deaths in Paris which have the same hallmarks from Toulouse. Vauvert is also tempted to return to the farmhouse where supernatural and natural events collide in a rather interesting way (technology is highly relevant here). This prompts our two characters to communicate with each other. They always were unhappy at the summary way their first case was wrapped up. Questions were left unanswered. Now’s their chance to continue the investigation. Except, of course, the two men they killed. . . Perhaps they were Renfields, working for one or more people struggling with the delusion of vampirism. Or just maybe, there’s a real supernatural issue to investigate and resolve here.

Half the interest and fun of this book is the way in which stolid police procedural meets something not covered in the standard training manuals. At one level, we’ve got the usual tropes at work. There’s the structural sexism blighting the career of Svärta. More importantly, there are some seniors officers who’ve seen some inexplicable things in their long careers and are not going to be overly critical if the new generation of officers get caught up in something similar and have to fight their way out, leaving a few bodies behind. And so on. Why should France’s finest have such latitude? Because what they find at the farm and subsequent murder scenes shows a highly organised approach to torturing the twenty-four women kidnapped (or more — keeping count may be important) and draining them of their blood. This signals the most critical failure in the initial investigation. Our heroes never did discover exactly what happened to all the blood.

All this should tell you Of Fever and Blood is a fascinatingly direct voyage into a slightly gothic version of grand guignol. The style is simple and, allowing for the usual melodramatic French sense of atmosphere, unflinching when it comes to describing the way in which the women are killed. We’re then off into slightly more conventional territory with the mythology of vampires and their companion wolves. All of which manages to capture attention early and then ride the curiosity factor through to the end. It’s a real page turner as matters grow increasingly dark for our police heroes. This is not to say the story is stunningly original. In this particular niche which, for these purposes, I’ll describe as supernatural horror and fantasy, there are only a certain number of ways in which an author can manipulate the plot elements. But the results here are carried off with remarkable élan. Given the amount of blood spilled, we’re in early Clive Barker territory. This is not to say the book or its style feels dated. Rather that it’s quite refreshing to find someone getting back to the basic craft of graphic supernatural horror. Put simply Of Fever and Blood is a riveting example of an intelligent plot and ruthlessly efficient pacing in a gore-soaked police procedural. I recommend it.

For a review of the sequel, see The First Blood.

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

Shadows of the Falling Night by S M Stirling

Shadows of the Falling Night by S M Stirling

To say Shadows of the Falling Night by S M Stirling (Roc, 2013) Shadowspawn 3 is tedious is an understatement. It all starts to go wrong with the prose which is formulaic and wooden. In some hands, functionalism is a virtue because the words are the least barrier between the reader and the meaning. There’s no ornament or distraction. The author just gets on and tells the story. Unfortunately that’s not what we have here. Everything feels padded out with lots of detail about where everyone is or what everyone is wearing or eating or enjoying as art. None of it is terribly interesting in itself and cumulatively it’s just boring. I have the sense the author started off with a particular word count in mind and that’s what he wrote. What also makes the text less appealing is the S&M theme. Although we don’t quite get into the realm of soft porn, the descriptions of Monica’s domination flirt around the edges of good taste. We’ve also got a fair bit of history to wade through explaining the origin of the species and how the Shadow folk have evolved, particularly since they latched on to the Mendel and Darwin guys to go in for selective breeding.

For those of you who’ve missed the first two in this series, the Shadowspawn are an amalgam of the different supernatural beasties we’re identified as preying on us over the centuries. So think of them as predominantly vampires but with mind-control, shape-shifting and other attributes bred into the different blood lines. The other interesting feature is that they can live on beyond one body and inhabit others. Although they can be killed, most manage to endure for centuries.

S M Stirling holding on to his precious

S M Stirling holding on to his precious

As to the plot, it couldn’t be easier to describe. All the interested parties touch base in Paris. Principally that’s Adrian Brézé and his wife, Ellen, and the antagonist sister Adrienne Brézé. The children, Leila and Leon, are in the care of Eric and Chiba in Santa Fe, and all four have to get from America to Europe, joining up with Peter Boase en route. Harvey Ledbetter, his atomic bomb and his two pursuers (or not), Anjali Guha and Jack Farmer, are moving across Turkey. . . and then everyone converges on Tbilisi where The Shadow Council will decide how they are going to thin the ranks of the humans. The choice is between letting off EMPs to knock out all the modern technology and releasing one of these tailored plagues. Using bombs to destroy the technological infrastructure is messy. Worse, it’s going to leave the planet pretty irradiated which won’t kill the Shadowspawn, but it will make their lives less comfortable. There’s also the risk of atomic power stations melting down and causing all kind of other problems. The disease option keeps the technology and all the comforts it brings without the number of humans getting in the way. The problem in leaving scientific knowledge workable is that humanity is getting far too interested in trying to identify and defeat the Shadowspawn. Anticipating this growing risk, the mood is to strike first and ask questions later. Just to add a little spice to the mix, Harvey’s bomb has been factored into Adrienne’s plan. She thinks it will kill most of her competitors and leave her in charge.

So the book inches everyone forward towards the big bang (or not). People are chasing the children but who and why is not clear. This is what other people call a twisty plot, i.e. no-one has any idea what’s going on, but the author keeps giving contradictory signals as to who might be responsible. If you’re interested in guessing, you’re a real fan and will no doubt love this book. If like me, you think any plot run along these lines is as exciting as watching a car-wreck in slow-motion, you look away after the first ten seconds of the impact has taken half an hour to view and flick through to the end to see how bad the damage was. There’s fighting in different bodies including a quick rerun of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Moby Dick, followed by explosions of different magnitudes and something approaching a novelty to set things up for the next book should the publisher offer enough money to buy it. Personally, I would let Shadows of the Falling Night be the final book in a trilogy and hope he goes on to write something better, but there may be an army of fans out there demanding more.

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

For reviews of other books by S M Stirling, see:
The Council of Shadows
The Tears of the Sun.

The Hunter From the Woods by Robert McCammon

April 10, 2012 6 comments

When I was growing up, the dominant form of fiction was labelled generically as “adventure” in which clean-cut heroes would fight the mostly good fight and beat the bad guys (badness often prejudged based on their racial characteristics). Now I find myself in a postmodernist world — no peace for the wicked. For those of you who missed modernism, it was one of those rather curious intellectual movements which preferred to reject the realism of the more traditional forms of art. What began life as avant-garde slowly persuaded artists to stop painting what they saw. Instead, we were all eased into expressionism and abstracts. When we got tired of all that, there was no going back to the representational schtick, so we had to become postmodernist, i.e. invent new conceptual ways of describing what would sell, first to the elites whose superior taste was backed up by cash in the bank, and then to the masses when their tastes became educated enough to appreciate the “new” approach to art.

One of the best ways of understanding the process is to follow the trajectory of James Bond. As written by Ian Fleming, he’s a terrible high-class snob much in love with both himself and the material world of casinos, high-powered cars and the leading brands he wears. In a way we forgive the sadism inherent in his behaviour because that’s the way public school boys did act and it was thoroughly British for our suave social elite to defend our sceptered isle from the depredations of foreign villains. The postmodernist Bond offered in Daniel Craig’s performance is very interesting. He’s been repositioned as a middle-class everyman, no longer caring whether his vodka martini is shaken or stirred. Yet once you strip away the class and materialism, all you have left is the amorality, that the ends justify the means. The reconstructed Bond assumes the role of the warrior guarding the gates. As viewers, we step back and let him do what’s necessary to keep us safe. That he may torture Mr White for information is acceptable so long as we don’t have to watch, i.e. after the credits in Casino Royale (2006).

The Hunter From the Woods by Robert McCammon (Subterranean Press, 2011) is a collection of three short stories and three novelettes filling in gaps before, during and after the events described in The Wolf’s Hour which first appeared in 1989. This is a fascinating venture because it deliberately avoids the obvious postmodernist approach. This hero is neither a reconstructed Bond nor a more modern creation like Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. We’re deliberately taken back in time to the character basics of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay and, to some extent, the value system demonstrated by the team working for the Duke de Richleau in the early novels by Dennis Wheatley before he was seduced by the supernatural. For Robert McCammon, this is not, you understand, merely a feature of the main action being set in World War II. As Quentin Tarantino demonstrates in Inglourious Basterds (2009), realism is not required. Indeed, in today’s fiction, anything goes whether in this or an alternate reality. Rather Robert McCammon gives us a hero who demonstrates the delicate balance between supreme confidence in his physical abilities and a more innocent desire to “do the right thing”. This is based on what we might term a warrior’s code of honour. Yes, this is a man who will usually kill without a second thought but, if possible, he prefers to respect the courage of his enemies and give them the benefit of the doubt. This is most clearly on display in “The Wolf and the Eagle”. When a German air ace shoots down our hero, they are thrown together in the North African desert. Short of water and threatened by predatory tribesmen who will kill without compunction, they must co-operate to survive. National conflict means nothing when the desert is the enemy. This is a “classic” story that, to younger readers, might seem fresh. Yet it’s a common situation in fiction from H Rider Haggard through Edgar Rice Burroughs to Barry B Longyear’s Enemy Mine, the last adding the human/alien dimension and winning the 1979 Nebula Award and the 1980 Hugo Award for Best Novella. Pointing out a certain lack of originality is not a criticism. It simply sets the bar high. If a contemporary writer is going to mine the past for situations, he’s got to do very well to avoid the plot feeling tired and old.

Robert McCammon, an ex-horror writer but still in dark circumstances

So “The Great White Way” is a wisp of a story showing our young hero learning something about the the complexities of a relationship between a woman and her abusive husband, while “The Man From London” shows model behaviour from a British secret agent in surrendering himself to protect the villagers and their secret quartermaster. “Sea Chase” traps our hero on a relatively helpless cargo vessel at the mercy of a German Q-ship. Fortunately, the crew has read C S Forester’s The African Queen and so knows what to do. And, speaking of the crew, they are a pleasingly motley lot but, when the Nazis start shooting, they put differences to one side and get the job done. “Death of a Hunter” takes us to the twilight years where “foreign” villains are still out for revenge. Which leaves us with “The Room at the Bottom of the Stairs” which has our hero struggling with the impossibility of “love” in the broader scheme of things. Sexual compatibility and the initial lust that carries people through the first period of the relationship is not a firm basis on which to plan the future. When you relocate the action to war-torn Berlin with the Russians advancing ever closer, there’s no chance two people on opposite sides can ever find long-lasting happiness. Everything should be in the now, except the heart often fails to heed that reality. Such stupidity is both the strength and weakness of what it means to be human. Ah, the delicious irony of writing that because, as those of you who have read The Wolf’s Hour will know, our hero is a werewolf. Except, of course, he’s exactly the same as every other classic hero: disarmingly innocent, naturally brave and emotionally vulnerable.

The Hunter From the Woods is wonderful adventure, taking on the challenge of the past and coming out with flying colours. The collection stands alone although you should read The Wolf’s Hour anyway to get the full flavour of the hero. I enjoyed the approach because, in my old age, this is pure nostalgia. Except for “The Room at the Bottom of the Stairs”, of course. In my day, stories featuring sexual activity were only available under very discreet circumstances. What completes the enjoyment is the prose which is simple, direct and rather muscular. This is also in keeping with the period feel, taking us back to times when fiction was less complicated and wanted to feature the adventure with minimum distractions. As to the title of the collection, our hero is given the name Horst Jaeger to use in Germany. Horst is a variation on the Old Saxon name Horsa meaning ‘horse’, and Jäger is the occupational name for a hunter, derived from the verb jagen ‘to hunt’. Near enough, I suppose.

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

Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes

February 27, 2012 2 comments

It’s impossible to begin this review of Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes (DAW Books, 2012) without mentioning the sad death of Martin Greenberg. Over the decades, he’s contrived to stay at the top of the editing pile by consistently producing anthologies of quality. Although he often shared the editorial credits, this is as good a memorial for his talents as you could hope to find. Now a word of reassurance. Yes, this carries the word “weird” on the jacket, but it’s wonderfully eclectic, combining science fiction with fantasy in a complete disregard for genre boundaries as anything and everything spectacularly odd comes to the Wild West and beyond. There literally isn’t a weak story in this anthology and, as befits anything with claims to supernatural overtones, you’re lucky to find thirteen such excellent stories.

“The Temptation of Eustace Prudence McAllen” by Jay Lake is a pleasing relocation of the long spoon trope to the cowboy on the range. This sees the Devil happily engaging in a little cattle rustling for BBQ purposes until he’s tracked down by an upright loner. Although we lack some of the sophistication of the storytellers who want to construct a powerful Faustian offer with a clever way of avoiding the soul-loss trap, this more than makes up for it with a nice sense of humour. “The Last Master of Aeronautical Winters” by Larry D Sweazy is a steampunkish city in the sky, partly built using Wild Bill’s savings. When the enterprise is overrun by demons, it comes down to two brave souls to see what they can pull out of the fire (so to speak). Again, this is delightfully knowing as our heroes prepare to ride the elevator of doom up into the sky. “Lowstone” by Anton Strout also has elegant biomechanical additions in this steampunk mining community threatened by zombies. It’s slightly more serious, but no less effective in bending the gender roles to fight the good fight.

“The Flower of Arizona” by Seanan McGuire brings a pleasing touch of whimsy to a hunt for a man-eating chimaera. This is a nice take on the problems faced by the old travelling circus companies when audiences were poor. “Surveyor of Mars” by Christopher McKitterick has us embark on a sequel to H G Wells War of the Worlds. It assumes Earth would have used the Martian technology to colonise Mars. Except, of course, the carpetbaggers would have followed the settlers. In situations where freedom is under threat, what you need is a man embodying the qualities of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The politics are a bit clunky to European eyes, but the spirit of the story shines through despite the fact that only Americans seem to have had the can-do mechanical skills to get to Mars. It would have been more interesting had the Brits also been able to compete for territorial rights. “Coyote, Spider, Bat” by Steven Saus is a powerful and dark story that sees cultural imperialism come grinding to a halt in the face of even older power. European vampires may think they’re at the top of the food chain but, if they come to America, even in disguise, they might be in for a surprise as they end up on the menu of the local Teddy Bear’s Picnic.

“Maybe Another Time” by Dean Wesley Smith plays with one of my favourite time travel themes perhaps best captured in The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. In every respect, this is an unexpected delight to find in an anthology supposedly about weird stuff in the Wild West — whichever version of it you care to pick. “Renn and the Little Men” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is magnificently whimsical, rerunning the Rumpelstiltskin trope in a High Noon showdown to avoid rule by the trolls. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when you read it. This has just the right amount of nuttiness to qualify it as one of the best fantasy stories of the year. Continuing in the same vein, “Showdown At High Noon” by Jennifer Brozek has an earlier version of Bonnie and Clyde caught up in an interplanetary conflict involving Ancient Egyptian scarabs and a Norse shapeshifter. As you might expect, this is delightfully weird.

“The Clockwork Cowboy” by J Steven York is a very clever story Isaac Asimov would have enjoyed. The literal Biblical injunction against killing can be enshrined in the software. This will reflect the thinking of all sections of the community, no matter what its racial background or source of mechanical power. Except, as is always the way when one of the minority breaks the programming, the majority humans don’t take kindly to a killer. “Black Train” by Jeff Mariotte takes aim at the zombie theme through the potential use of technology for military purposes. As with every good invention, you always need an antidote or countermeasure. If you release gas, you need a mask. If you release a virus, you need a vaccine. This speculates on what you might need for a mould. Finally, “Lone Wolf” by Jody Lynn Nye manages to conflate werewolves, an Indian Shaman’s insights into soul mates, and a backwoodsman Edison who would would make even a sober Gallegher proud.

I confess Westward Weird is an anthology I resisted picking up, fearing the genre mixture would be indigestible. In fact, it’s proved to be tasty Wild West victuals for them as likes a hot spicy sauce with their eatings. I find myself recommending this as great fun from start to finish.

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

The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment

When I was at school, the atmosphere was mostly serious. Various talking heads would appear in front of us, doing their best to interest us in basic information. Educationally, they believed we first needed order and structure. Later, we could build on this for a more sophisticated level of performance. We ground through the grammar of both English and foreign languages so that, when we acquired vocabulary, we could speak and write with formal exactness. All continued serenely until, after we’d polished off O-Levels, our English teacher decided we should explore the range of literary forms. Suddenly, we were expected to parody and lampoon anything and everything supposedly serious. Looking back, this was building on our devout worship of the surrealism of the Goon Show and other potentially satirical radio programmes of the period. If you want an academic justification, I suppose he must have encountered Heidegger’s ideas as incorporated into French existentialism because he gave us an early introduction to the process, courtesy of Derrida, we might now consider deconstruction or, if you prefer, reconstruction. We had to focus on the text, capture its meaning and then make fun of it.

 

This caught me at an impressionable age and I’ve never really lost a somewhat subversive view of the world. In terms of my reading, I also enjoyed the parodies of the classics of my chosen genres, devouring Bored of the Rings by Henry N Beard and Douglas C Kenney as soon as it came out. Similarly, I grabbed National Lampoon’s Doon by Ellis Weiner. Such books are of their time and I seriously doubt anyone would find them even remotely amusing today. I’m also conscious that neither book would make much sense unless you were really familiar with the originals.

 

All of which brings me to the modern fashion for mash-ups which has produced such classics as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Seth Grahame-Smith), Little Women and Werewolves (Porter Grand), etc. Personally, I’m not impressed because although there’s some originality at a conceptual level, the execution is neither a good version of the original styles and manners, nor a competent supernatural novel. Such humour as exists comes from the forced nature of the situations, e.g. that Queen Victoria might hitch up her skirts and secretly hunt demons or Abraham Lincoln despatch vampires — easier because of the lack of skirts. But, after a few pages, even the best of jokes palls and leaves us with pages of desperate writing.

 

For many moons, Garrison Keillor has been broadcasting and writing about Lake Wobegon, a fictional town in Minnesota based, in part, on his hometown of Anoka. Similarly, Stephenie Meyer has been writing about the romantic possibilities if you put a vampire and a predatory young lady in the same room, and wait to see who’s chased and whether two become one (the Spice Girls have a lot of explaining to do). So here comes The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor (Night Shade Books, 2011) (which looks like a pseudonym for someone famous but one can never be sure about these things). Should you be afraid, very afraid?

 

Well, surprisingly, this is a very good stand-alone novel. Suppose you’d spent the last thirty years never engaging in cultural activities like reading fiction, listening to the radio, watching television or going to the cinema (which probably means you’re Amish). You could still read this book with perfect enjoyment for, although it borrows heavily from the ideas bank underlying the originals, it doesn’t depend on them for their effect.

 

So here comes Bonnie Grayduck. Forced to leave California to escape investigation into some of her extracurricular activities, she finds herself in a small town in Minnesota. This is both a curse because life appears so unsophisticated, and an opportunity because she believes she can easily dominate the scene and do more of what she enjoys. As is always the case in such stories, she must enroll in the local High School where, in the midst of all the dross, there’s this stand-out hunk who catches her eye. Now begins a strange courtship, the young man resisting her feminine wiles. Rising to the challenge, she plots his downfall only to discover she’s in pursuit of a vampire — and, ignoring the television show, she keeps a diary detailing her experiences. It should be said, however, this is rather better than the CW Network’s teen drama (not difficult) and, in my opinion, even better than the Twilight young adult books of Stephenie Meyer (even less difficult). This novel is written with very adult sensibilities engaged (no porn, of course) and a gentle sense of humour aimed at mocking the standard tropes in vampire, were-thing and Criminal Minds-type dramas. And it’s all set in Lake Wo(e)bego(tte)n so we get news of life and death out on the prairies.

 

I’m a natural curmudgeon so never do laughter unless I’m confident I can be unobserved — reputation is everything in my household. Fortunately, The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten is not something that threatened unrestrained mirth, but it did make me smile every now and again. By my standards, this is high praise. So allow me to recommend this rather clever book by Harrison Geillor. If you have had Amish tendencies for the last thirty years, you can still enjoy this on its merits, but a little background on Lake Wobegon and both Twilight and New Moon will enhance your understanding. It’s not something Heidegger would have enjoyed (unless in translation), but my English teacher would have approved.

 

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

 

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