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Morningside Fall by Jay Posey

August 28, 2014 2 comments

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey (Angry Robot, 2014) Legends of the Duskwalker 2 follows on from Three with the young boy Wren now the Governor of Morningside. The title to the book is a spoiler in its own right because it announces that this citadel that’s stood against the Weir for a significant period of time is not going to do all that well as the pages turn. So this is a book that straddles a number of rather different genres. At its heart, this is a political thriller which examines how a self-contained group of people that has been in a stable situation should react when their autocratic leader is removed. The senior citizens who had been in a supporting role now find themselves as council members with a young boy nominally in charge. Unfortunately, one of this boy’s first instructions is to allow the people who had been living outside the city to take up residence. Worse, he has been awakening some of the Weir and expecting the city dwellers to accept these “people” as safe to live alongside them. The general rule is that people don’t respond well to change. Those who now have more obvious routes to power might be inclined to plot against the boy. Those on the streets might take it personally if outsiders start moving into accommodation next to them.

 

Secondly, this is a science fiction, post apocalypse novel. We still have absolutely no idea what precisely has gone wrong with this world but we seem to have a rump of humanity surviving in fortified cities (although, in the first book, we did meet one community surviving outside without walls) and under threat from the Weir. Now these are not simple zombie-like creatures. They retain some level of purpose and can also communicate with each other. Indeed, under certain circumstances, they are capable of co-ordinated action. There are also a small number of human mutants such as Wren who has a natural ability to interface with electronic systems and he can reawaken the human personality of a Weir. When awakened, he or she will retain the changed body and, depending on the length of time between turning and reawakening, it’s possible for the personality to return almost unchanged.

Jay Posey

Jay Posey

 

Thirdly, this is a hybrid military SF or Wild West weird. There’s a considerable amount of fighting between what’s left of the human armed forces and the Weir. The humans have some advanced weaponry, but they are relatively small in number. It’s therefore not unlike groups of white settlers, militia or US Cavalry going into the land occupied by large numbers of less well-armed Native Indians. Finally, this is a coming-of-age story as Wren and the young “friend” he has awakened adjust to circumstances around them and find themselves forced to take responsibility for what they are or may become.

 

The first novel in the series was very impressive because the main character was the titular Three who acted as the protector of, and guide for, Wren and his mother. This gave us a chase across the landscape as Three led the inexperienced boy to a place where there might be some safety. They were being pursued by a small group led by Wren’s older brother. Although not much of the world was explained, there was considerable tension in the chase and we did pick up clues about the Weir and some of the different ways in which human mutants could operate. Unfortunately, Three is killed at the end of the book which leaves Wren as the primary protagonist in this book. This is unfortunate because, frankly, he’s not that interesting most of the time. We’re waiting for him to grow into his mutant powers. So far, he’s just dabbling and lacks the self-confidence to really get things done. So although he can occasionally say relevant and quite powerful things in the political arena, he’s essentially dependent on his mother for political decision-making, and the cast of bodyguards to keep him alive. When things get too hot inside Morningside, they take off into the desert and this leads to some quite repetitive chase and fighting sequences. If the editorial staff had been prepared to cut down the length by at least ten percent, this would have been a better book. As it is, the book starts off not unpromisingly, but lacks an adult point of view to deal with the political situation. It’s only as we approach the end that there’s more emotional investment in the characters and we get into the conflict that will leave us ready for the next book in the series. This leads to the general conclusion that even though this improves towards the end, Morningside Falls is significantly less successful than the first in the series.

 

For a review of the first in the series, see Three.

 

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.

Irredeemable by Jason Sizemore

June 4, 2014 1 comment

irredeemable_cover800x600

Irredeemable by Jason Sizemore (Seventh Star Press, 2014) is a collection of eighteen stories, seven of which are original. “Caspar” strips down the setting to the bare minimum and has us view a meeting on a bench. Two men come together and one offers insights into the story of the three gifts offered by the three wise men to the baby Jesus. Perhaps this interpretation of the Bible is not quite standard, but it certainly comes with a point and indicates the probable direction of travel. “City Hall” wonders whether Human Resources Departments, particularly those in the public sector, could become slightly more innovative when it comes to terminating employees who are tardy, incompetent, or have serious halitosis. For too long, personnel mavens have relied on the tried and tested pink slip. But that’s altogether too impersonal. I’m reminded of Julius Caesar Act 4 which warns, “These many, then, shall die; their names are prick’d.” “Faithless” reminds us that sometimes there’s a double edge to a situation. Now it may well be that a serpent was responsible for tempting Adam and Eve with the unfortunate consequence of original sin. But there are times when, in the right hands, the serpent can have precisely the opposite effect.

“For the Sake of Pleasing” is as the title suggests, a rather pleasing science fantasy in which the rather powerful vampire-like creatures who run Earth like a cattle farm suddenly detect the imminent arrival of aliens. This could be very inconvenient, so Earth sends its Barbarella on a first-contact mission. In tone, this is rather like the Richard Jeperson stories by Kim Newman with psychic forces blending in with sixties and seventies spy and thriller film and television series like The Avengers and James Bond. Although I don’t think the ending is quite worked out properly, this is a standout story. “Hope” is a different form of science fiction context for an urban fantasy story of hunter and hunted at the end of the world. Although mildly explicit, it builds to a pleasingly wry conclusion. “Ice Cream at the Falls” sees us back to the straight horror with an artist who has a mission to impose his point of view on the world. With his latest work on display, he suddenly discovers the sins of the father can pass down to the son. “Little Digits” is a short short story which inverts expectation lickety-split or should that be splat? “Mr Templar” takes us back to the sfnal world with a story of androids surviving a nuclear holocaust. They wander the surface of Earth searching for fuel to keep themselves functional. At times, out of desperation, they scavenge the fallen for spare parts and residual fuel. It’s a tough life made more pressing by the discovery of a spacecraft in orbit. Perhaps if they could reach that ship there would be salvation. Or perhaps an entirely different fate awaits them.

Jason Sizemore

Jason Sizemore

“Plug and Play” is a faintly humorous spin on the drug mule trope as our human hero has what some might think a psychotic break on the space station where he works and discovers it can be a better life to work for, rather than against, android interests. I don’t think the plot is completely coherent. Why he should want to go back to his old job and, more to the point, why the androids would want such a troublesome human back needs to be explained. Nevertheless, as written, it maintains interest to the end. “Pranks” is an unsuccessful attempt to run the biter-bit trope. Unfortunately, it telegraphs the ending from the first paragraph. “Samuel” sees a son try to defend his mother from death. It seems not to follow the logic of its basis in faith. If the mother had been baptised and had led a life without sin, or, more likely, had been given the last rites after confession, the son should have faith his mother would go to Heaven and dismiss the words of the devil as lies. But you can ignore this comment. As an atheist, I’m afraid I don’t really understand stories like this. “Shotgun Shelter” takes us back into the real world with a kind of coming-of-age story in which three teens get into trouble and have to decide what to do about it. The answer is slightly extreme but not unexpected.

“Sonic Scarring” is a powerful alien invasion story with a very interesting variation on the answer to the traditional question, “What do the aliens want with us, anyway?” “The XX Agent” is one of the most successful stories in the collection, showing us how arbitrary the line is between life and death, and how often the choices we make dictate which side of the line we fall. “The Dead and Metty Crawford” takes us into familiar zombie territory, and as the title suggests, “The Sleeping Quartet” has us in a dream/nightmare scenario where the trick is telling the real from the imagined. “Useless Creek” is one of these nicely ambiguous stories in which even thinking about a lost love can be emotionally painful. As with all such situations, it’s the uncertainty that’s the most difficult to deal with. And, as is appropriate in collections, the publisher leaves the best till last. “Yellow Warblers” is a terrific story about the nature of acceptance and the role of knowledge when it comes to survival.

Having finished, three things are clear. Jason Sizemore is better at length than writing shorter stories. Second, he’s better at writing science fiction and naturalistic crime stories than straight horror. Finally, although this collection is slightly uneven in quality, there’s no doubt that when he makes a good connection with the ball, he hits it out of the park. All of which makes Irredeemable highly readable and worth picking up if you’re into short fiction which, for the most part, is influenced by the southern gothic style.

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

Parasite by Mira Grant

June 2, 2014 7 comments

Mira Grant Parasite-HC

When I began getting into the pop music scene during the 1950s, I quickly noticed a rather odd phenomenon. If someone produced a hit record with a different type of rhythm or hook, it was likely to be rerecorded by other artists so we’d all have a choice of which version to buy, or other artists produced “different” but similar songs or instrumentals which aimed to cash in on the feature that had made the first so popular. Following the same logic, when an artist did have a hit, there was a tendency for the next record he or she produced to be a variation on the same theme. After all, the theory says if something works the first time round, it can’t hurt to try the same thing again. So this review is continuing my survey of the fairly prolific phenomenon that was christened Seanan McGuire but who also writes as Mira Grant. Why spend so much time looking at this particular author? you ask. Well, the answer is she’s actually quite fascinating as an author. Because I’m old and my brain cells (and some others) are dying off more quickly these days, it’s taken me up to now to work her out. Let’s start off with the good news, initially for publishers, and then for readers.

She’s a writing machine, producing a serious quantity of prose and, once her brand was established, delivering the product publishers want. At this point, I need a minor digression. Though I would wish it otherwise, the world of publishing has fallen to the tyranny of the genre. The marketers have been through surveys and focus groups to define the types of book most likely to sell in numbers. Better still, they have come up with fairly detailed specifications so each publisher can buy product to sell to each identified group of readers. This author has the relevant formulae down to a fine art and can turn on a dime to tailor each book very precisely to the required formula and length. It’s fascinating to watch the craft of writing shift for each series or type of book. For readers, there’s also a big plus. Although I find the quality of the plots a bit variable and not always strictly logical or coherent, there’s a very positive inventiveness about the initial plot ideas. Better still, there’s a very natural, often quite humorous, feel to the dialogue. When she hits the mark, it does produce smiles and, in these rather po-faced days, that’s always a big selling point. Up to this point in my reading, there’s the expected repetitiveness about books in the same series — once you have a formula, you don’t change it too much to keep the loyal fans happy. But there’s been sufficient difference between the series to keep us interested.

Mira Grant passing herself off as Seanan McGuire

Mira Grant passing herself off as Seanan McGuire

We now come to Parasite by Mira Grant (Orbit, 2013) the first in a new science fiction Parasitology series. Ah, well, I’m using the word “new” in the looser sense of the word. You would only think this new if you hadn’t read the Newsflesh trilogy in which the zombies are produced by exposure to the Kellis-Amberlee virus. In this iteration, the zombies are produced in San Francisco in 2027, when SymboGen Corporation persuades people to allow themselves to be infected by the Intestinal Bodyguard, a parasitic organism that’s supposed to keep the human body rather more healthy than usual. The plot idea is really rather pleasing and the hints explaining how this medical breakthrough was marketed are a delight. The medical aim was to build on the Hygiene Hypothesis which I’ve always found convincing.

Indeed, there’s a considerable amount of medical background trotted out to give the science of the premise some plausibility. Unfortunately, this also makes the book heavy on exposition. As to the characterisation, with one or two exceptions, they are somewhat generic. Our first-person heroine, Sally Mitchell, is a coma patient whose body is used in a research program to prove the treatment is both safe and effective. To everyone’s amazement, she wakes up albeit with complete amnesia as to her life before the accident. She has to relearn everything. Interestingly, by the time she’s finished, her crash education course in “life skills” really does make her seem like a completely different person. Six years down the line, she has a steady boyfriend, Nathan, and the corporation responsible for developing the “cure” has become wealthy and politically very powerful. Sally is anomalously naive with odd outbursts of insight but, as you read the book, you come to understand why she might not see the world in quite the same way as the rest of us. To enliven proceedings, there are a couple of relatively mad scientists and one delightfully psychopathic killer. Then there’s the curious way in which which the book ends. Most authors aim to build to a climax that leaves everyone trembling with excitement, perhaps with a major plot revelation to leave a cliffhanger for the next in the series. But this has our heroine literally walk and occasionally run away from the “bad” guys. She’s then driven to a place of safety where there’s a very predictable discovery. It’s not exactly finishing on a high.

Put all this together and this is just another zombie book, albeit one written with considerable wit and style. If I had not read the Newsflesh series which started well and then went steadily downhill, I might think this excellent. But having practised writing zombie books, you would expect this author to do better with the second attempt. Indeed, Parasite has been nominated for the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novel so a lot of people obviously like this. Personally, I think I’m back in the 1950s and 60s with pop artists recording and rerecording the same song over and over again.

For reviews of the Newsflesh trilogy written as Mira Grant, see:
Blackout
Deadline
Feed
and the novels written by Seanan McGuire:
Chimes at Midnight
Discount Armageddon
Half-off Ragnarok.

To Sail a Darkling Sea by John Ringo

March 7, 2014 2 comments

To Sail a Darkling Sea

To Sail a Darkling Sea by John Ringo (Baen, 2014) is the second in the Black Tide Rising series following on Under a Graveyard Sky and features survival after a zombie plague has overrun the land. In military terms that just leaves isolated bases in the US, Russia and China, and a reasonable number of people in submarines. Obviously, once the plague hit, the rich and more enterprising took off on small boats. Others were already at sea on cruise liners. What’s now called the Wolf Squadron is now slowly growing itself by finding boats, clearing the zombies and rescuing the few survivors who could shut themselves away with enough food and water to survive.

 

I’m obliged to start this review with the usual disclaimer that I know absolutely nothing about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various types of guns and rifles discussed in the pages of this or any other military book. Those that have this interest will no doubt be fascinated by the detailed evaluation of stopping power and generally utility. I skipped through these passages as part of the price to be paid to get on with the story.

 

I should also note the rather odd view of gender displayed as the story unwinds. Faith and Sophia, the two Wolf daughters are both shown as ruthless killers of the zombies. Having set up two of the main point of view characters as female, it’s a little depressing to have another set of scenes which trap five men and one woman in a compartment, leaving her in the role of comfort woman. Alarmingly, she gets to enjoy the sex including threesomes. It’s a sad commentary of the five men that they have no self-control and believe the best way of passing the time while waiting for rescue is to persuade the only female that sex is wonderful (as often as they want it, of course).

John Ringo

John Ringo

 

There’s also an interesting discussion of the psychology of leadership and the necessity for ranks with a defined disciplinary code. This becomes a essential matter to settle because the only group functioning on the surface is the Wolf Squadron and it’s civilian. So we have the few military survivors hiding in bunkers on land and lots of submarines who don’t dare undog their hatches near anyone even vaguely human in case they contract the zombie-causing virus. The rump survivors of the military must therefore fit these “people” into a command hierarchy so that, as and when the scientists in the Wolf Squadron produce more of the vaccine and can protect the crews of the submarines, everyone will know how to relate to each other and co-ordinate their efforts to retake the land. Less successful is the discussion of whether the mechanism for the Wolf Squadron’s cohesion is a form of communism. Regrettably, when you measure the US in international terms, even its supposed left-wing liberals are woefully right wing when compared to almost all other countries. So when a US author of military SF, adapted in this case to cover a zombie apocalypse, starts talking about whether the organisational dynamic is communist, you know to suppress mirth.

 

So is there anything to like about this book? Well, for all the facile politics, the endless discussion of weaponry and overemphasis on military jargon, the underlying story is actually quite interesting even though it does get somewhat repetitive. The marines led by Shewolf are shown clearing boats and ships of varying size. They then move on to land in the Canary Islands. Knowing they will need to move to safer waters as the winter storm season approaches, they require more transport for the increasing number of people they have been rescuing. The Canaries are convenient because there are a number of cruise ships there, together with a significant number of motor yachts and zodiac-style power boats. The plan is to put together a flotilla capable of wintering successfully and then moving over to Guantanamo where they hope to find the facilities to resume manufacture of the vaccine. All this has virtue in thoughtful plotting terms. Overlook the extermination of zombies on an industrial scale when they can be confronted in relatively controlled situations, and the spirit of the book does maintain a reasonable momentum. I suppose the fans of military SF will think this wonderful. As it is, I rate To Sail a Darkling Sea as not too unbearable.

 

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

 

Silevethiel by Andi O’Connor

September 19, 2013 2 comments

Silevethiel by Andi O'Connor

Silevethiel by Andi O’Connor (Purple Sun Press, 2013) looks and feels like a self-published book. There’s nothing about the publisher’s website to suggest it’s anything other than a vanity label created by the author for this book. Sadly reading it confirms it as poorly written with one or two typos in the digital version I read. In a way, the opening chapter should mark it out as dark fantasy. The King is found murdered in his bed, his heart ripped from his body and left draped over his head. His daughter and only living heir is spirited out of the kingdom only to fall foul of assassins who leave her for dead. But the prose style and vocabulary choice mark it as essentially intended for young adults. Hence, the darkness is quickly waved away and the language trivialises the events. Indeed, some of the prose is embarrassing in what is presented on the page as a professionally produced publication. Here’s Irewen running past the guards into her father’s bedchamber where the blood is almost dry. So why has it taken so long for the alarm to be raised? In a well-run castle, someone notices if the king is slaughtered and raises the alarm. Then she’s led off through the “expansive” castle to the sitting room (obviously a castle designed by Walt Disney) where she perches on a settee, takes a slug of wine to calm her nerves, tucks a stray raven curl of hair behind her ear, and decides to get out of Dodge. I confess to almost giving up at the end of the first chapter but, after following the heir apparent’s example and taking a fortifying drink, I soldiered on.

This prince guy with the elf magic (and hormones) coursing through his veins comes upon the scene and rescues the fair damsel before she can get properly deceased. Laegon is definitely a useful person to have around. He can pull out two arrows without making the wounds worse, neuralise the poison that’s been slowly spreading through her body for an hour (the icy cold has not been enough to kill this tough young woman), and he can close the wounds from the inside out. No Irewen, don’t go towards the light! Anyway, after deciding which way to go, she regains consciousness and greets the lonely elf prince again after a ten-year gap. He’s one of these shy twits who would be red-hot if he let himself go but. . . So he’s never known true love (it’s apparently a pretty rare commodity in these magical times until an author gets just the right pair together in the cold) and can satisfy the virgin requirement for relationships with sex-starved princesses. Before the love birds get too deeply involved, a word of explanation. Silevethiel is a lioness and the Dame of the Guardians who, like, protects people. The Dame was able to save Irewen because she’s, gasp, a quarter Green and Wood elf. Now calm yourselves. The Elf Discrimination Act is in force: equal treatment for all on the basis of their race. But that means the princess has the mind-talking ability. Human Daddy king married a commoner with elf blood. They could do nothing to hush up the lowly birth, but they did hide the witchy bit. Fortunately, there’s an elven prophesy that someone just like Irewen (what a coincidence) will reunite the four elven races and save the world. Isn’t this exciting? Particularly when you discover she can talk to the dead? Is that not cool or what?

So then we plough through some mind-numbingly banal romance, endure bathos without any sublime bits in-between, and have some fighting with Drulaack — zombie warriors, no less — sent by her evil cousin who has a lock of her hair and can track her every movement (well, perhaps not every movement). This inspires our princess to learn to become an Amazon — no, not an online bookstore — fighting with bladed weapons without faltering in her strikes. Go, Irewen, go! And she’s recruited as protectee by Silevethiel. Things just naturally go her way until the evil cousin attacks from within and then the virgin prince is told he must stay home while the princess goes on a quest. Ah the stresses young love must bear even if the virgin prince is over two-hundred years old (he’s been saving himself for a long time). Fortunately this is written for twelve-year-old girls so it all comes out right at the end with a little predictive ability showing her children in the future with the prince (after he loses his status as a virgin, of course).

As a final note of sadness, this is not even the worst book I’ve read so far this year. Yes, I have been less than merciful here but I did at least get to the end. In moments of naive abstraction, it amazes me that books like this can ever find a market. Then common sense reasserts itself and I remember the vast number of children and teens whose ability to judge quality has not yet formed and who will therefore enjoy this vapid fantasy romance. Since no youngsters read these reviews there’s no damage done to sales projections. Indeed, out of perversity, teens reading my contempt may well be inspired to buy Silevethiel — the perfect ironic riposte to an old man’s opinion.

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

Mountain Dead edited by Jason Sizemore and Eugene Johnson

September 2, 2013 2 comments

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00075]

Mountain Dead edited by Jason Sizemore and Eugene Johnson (Apex Publications, 2013) is a chapbook anthology comprising four stories. Think of it as a kind of overflow. The publisher put together an anthology under the title Appalachian Undead but had some stories left over that it felt were too good to leave on the shelf. Note the cover artwork is the same on both the chapbook and anthology save for the title. I suppose I should approve a left-handed banjo player showing himself an outlier even among zombies.

The problem in the structuring of any story is knowing where to start and when to stop. On the way through, it may be necessary to dump information or to include flashbacks to clarify the ongoing situation. The ideal is to enable everyone to arrive at the end in possession of all the relevant information. The more unanswered questions the reader has at the end, the worse the story. In “Deep Underground” by Sara M Harvey, we have a man returning to the valley where he and his family have lived for more than one-hundred years. We know of one motive for this visit, but the other is never made explicit. It’s obvious he’s spent considerable time researching his family and the valley as he comes with notes to consult as he goes through the story. But we’re never told why he should have made this effort nor what he found. This is a serious oversight. Even though we are given hints, e.g. that other hamlets in the valley have disappeared, there’s no detail given and no context. All we have is an innuendo that the village he’s returned to could be next. It’s not that this story is badly written. It’s that there’s been an insufficient effort invested in fleshing the story out to a proper length to make the overarching situation clear. Only then would the ending make sense. As it is, I have no idea why this particular decision appears to have solved the problem.

“Unto the Lord a New Song” by Geoffrey Girard is wonderfully macabre idea. Many moons ago when I was young and was stuck for something to do, I was won’t to experiment with bottles. Did you know if you take a set of identical bottle and partially fill them with water, you can tune them into a primitive form of xylophone. It’s the same with wine glasses except, instead of striking them with padded hammers, you can wet your fingers and run them round the rims. This is all tangentially relevant to this story. Read it to find out why. “Let Me Come In” by Lesley Conner is a delightful fusion of fairy story and zombies as the three little pigs and the big bad wolf find they have a common enemy, but the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, or something.

“And It’ll Haunt Me (For Long Days To Come)” by K Allen Wood is a story about credibility. We all hope that, if we tell the truth as we understand it, others will believe us. Even though what we say is not the everyday story of human folk, there will somehow be sufficient empathy that one human will trust the word of another. If that faint hope fails, what are we left with? This is rather a pleasing answer. The structure of this story is that of a frame with an embedded narrative. This is an ideal format because it gives us a chance to watch the story being told and to have third party confirmation of the outcome. I find myself baffled by the decision not to print this full version in Appalachian Undead where a truncated version appears. When this is so obviously superior, there’s no reason to save this fuller version for the chapbook. Unless I have cause and effect the wrong way round. Perhaps the editors felt they had three good stories but not enough for a chapbook. They therefore adopted this version as the fourth and printed a cut-down version in the anthology hoping readers would accept it in context.

So three out of four better than average stories makes Mountain Dead a winner. For a review of the paired anthology, see Appalachian Undead edited by Eugene Johnson and Jason Sizemore.

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

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