Friday, May 30, 2014

Review of The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard

    “…the dragon Griaule, a vast mile-long beast who had been struck immobile yet not lifeless by a wizard’s spell, and who ruled over the Carbonales Valley, controlling in every detail the lives of the inhabitants, making known his will by the ineffable radiations emanating from the cold tonnage of his brain. From shoulder to tail, the greater part of Griaule was covered with earth and trees and grass, from some perspectives appearing to be an element of the landscape, another hill among those that ringed the valley; except for sections cleared by the scalehunters, only a portion of his right side to the haunch, and his massive neck and head remained visible, and the head had sunk to the ground, its massive jaws halfway open, itself nearly as high as the crests of the surrounding hills.” (The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter)

A quiet evil, the Dragon Griaule exudes malevolence in subtle ways.  Shepard examining several of them, six in fact, the eponymous collection brings together the stories published as of 2012, and is, in most ways, the author’s magnum opus.  Appearing irregularly over a period of almost thirty years, the five novellas and one novelette are pleasingly unconventional, spellbinding, humanist, haunting, and smoothly well-written—each story highly unique within the context.  The following is a brief summary of each.

In dialogue with the metaphors of life, “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) is literary fantasy at its peak, and is the story of Meric Cattanay.  Griaule a powerful evil, the men of the nearby village have hired wizards and mages for ages to try to kill it once and for all, but with no success.  It is Cattanay who suggets trying to kill Griaule by painting him—literally, not on canvas.  Painting a dragon of such size a lifelong process, the story is told in windows of time in Cattanay’s life as he deals with the exigencies of handling the task he has taken on. Utilizing one of fantasy’s most recognized, if not the most recognizable trope for literary purposes, the novelette is a beautiful tale of one man “conquering a dragon”.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The meat industry is one of those background entities of civilization that few people question—but would if they knew more of the details that go into turning a live animal into gleaming pink wads on white styrofoam pads in your local supermarket.  For example, the meat we buy is almost always pumped full of water (and other chemicals).  After removing a hunk of cow or pig from the carcass, it is placed between two needled plates, injected with a fluid mix, and shaken—like a mixed drink.  While keeping the meat fresh longer, weight is also boosted in order to, of course, make more money on the sale.  Why sell one piece of meat when you can pump it full of slurry and sell it for two?  After reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (2013), I’m starting to get the same feeling about another industry: the current incarnation of speculative fiction.

A quality novella hidden in a blasé 400 page novel, Ancillary Justice is the story of Breq, a former ship captain.  Once occupying the minds of hundreds of avatars, she hunts for a secret weapon on an ice planet, bent on revenge against the empire that reduced her to a single body.  Encountering a colleague of old dying in the snow, Breq revives him, and for as much trouble as his drug withdrawal brings, drags him across a frozen planet on her quest for the weapon.  Told in alternating chapters, a second thread, nineteen years in the past, describes how the empire reduced Breq to a single existence with nothing except vengeance on her mind.  But whether she is able to find and kill the multiple existences of Anaander Mianaai is up to the reader to discover.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Review of Ship of Shadows by Fritz Leiber

Please note this review is for the novella Ship of Shadows, not the later collection which took this as its title.  A review of the collection can be read here.

Reading the comments regarding a review of Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time today, I was made aware of a facet of the novel I hadn’t been aware of: its hints and stabs at Weird (yes, capital W).  Things never quite mirroring the reality of our world, at no time does Leiber pause to break it all down in the novel, instead letting the reader sink or swim.  Inspired, I decided to pick up a collection of Leiber’s I’ve had for some time.  The first story knocked me down.  A Weird text if ever there were, Ship of Shadows is a delightful dip in an ether of horror to which few know the recipe.  Looking for, or needing anchors to reality in your fiction? Look elsewhere.

Ship of Shadows is the bizarre story of Spar.  Half-blind, half-deaf barman at the Bat Rack, a watering hole is perhaps not the best place to work for an addict.  Sick and hungover on the opening page, a talking cat makes his acquaintance, and after some initial social troubles, the two become friends.  The owner of the Bat Rack barely tolerant of Spar’s lifestyle, it’s the customers who keep Spar afloat.  Doc, though having his own issues, has an eye out for the crippled and elderly Spar—and the eye is needed if the likes of Crown and his Hellhound are to be kept at bay.  Events oscillating between the mundane and feverishly horrorific, Spar discovers a cat may be a better friend than humans.

Review of Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Citizen Kane is considered by many connoisseurs to be the greatest film of all time.  Channeling the idea of empire through the life of a mysterious magnate, it is a drama telling the bittersweet story of the glory days of wealth, the inevitable fall, and how its biggest dreams are left unfulfilled.  Half a century later, with numerous new forms of media having been adopted into mainstream culture, comes Terry Pratchett.  Practically creating a new form of media of his own, he decided to overlay Hollywood onto the template of Citizen Kane.  The weight of elephants behind him, 1990’s Moving Pictures is the same bittersweet result.

Capturing the magic and innocence of the burgeoning film industry in Ankh-Morpork, at the outset of Moving Pictures the Guild of Alchemists discover the secret to capturing pictures on film.  Studios, back lot sets, haberdasheries, production companies and all other business associated with the film industry springing up practically overnight in an empty patch of desert a few miles outside of the great city, it isn’t long before trolls, dwarves, and humans (and dogs) are lining up to catch their bit of fame on the silver screen in Holy Wood.  Victor Tugelbend is one of the many caught up in the madness.  But with a little luck, he soon has a new last name and is starring opposite the lovely Delayne de Syn (originally Theda Withel, otherwise known as Ginger).  Stars literally in her eyes, it’s Ginger’s sleepwalking to a mysterious temple rising from a nearby beach that concerns Victor most.  Strange things in the air, Holy Wood and Ankh-Morpork are eventually swept to the verge of destruction by the powers of cinema.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review of Illyria by Elizabeth Hand

Incest is currently thought of as having sex with someone close in your bloodline, and is one of the strongest social faux-pas possible in Western society today.  (Interestingly, Merriam-Websters defines 'incest' according to law, i.e. sex with someone you are not legally allowed to marry.)  The term subconsciously turning the stomach for most, kissing cousins are currently on the outside looking in when once they were an accepted part, and even in some cases, a preferred reality of society.  Tackling the issue head-on in the contemporary era, Elizabeth Hand’s novella Illyria (2007) presents living, breathing people dealing with the issue, all manner of reader reaction - conscious and subconscious - the result.

Illyria is the story of Madeline Tierney, the youngest of six girls, and Rogan Tierney, her cousin, the youngest of six boys.  Their fathers’ identical twins, the two even grow up on the same street, their houses opposite one another.  The innocence of kissing cousins becoming more serious as the pair go through puberty, and their secret becoming ever more precarious as their two families evolve, the finding of a treasure in the attic of Rogan’s home one day turns everything upside down.  But the repercussions are not immediately apparent.  Life goes smoothly in the build up to their high school’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But whether the show goes on remains to be seen.

Review of Bronte's Egg by Richard Chwedyk

In the early 90s, Jim Henson got together with Disney and produced a television show called simply Dinosaurs.  The puppets and dolls anthropomorphized to the point of being human save surface features, the show featured a typical family—of dinosaurs.  Though utilizing many of the common motifs of American situation comedies, the show also tackled a large number of social issues thanks to Henson.  It is thus coming to Richard Chwedyk’s 2002 novella Bronte’s Egg, one can’t help but think the show was a major inspiration.

Bronte’s Egg is the story of Axel, an excitable, sentient mini-dinosaur (“with the scary parts removed”) living in a shelter cum laboratory where other dino pets that have been abandoned by their owners reside.  Waking early one morning, he sets off to the computer Reggie to send a message into space.  After the others wake, they do their part to protect an egg another dinosaur named Bronte has laid that the caretakers are not supposed to know of.  After breakfast, Axel puts the second part of his plan for the day into action: buy a Rotomotoman.  But when Axel’s message to the universe is unexpectedly picked up by a scientific watch group, the young dinosaur and his friends find themselves scrambling to make appearances, Rotomotoman included.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review of Reach for Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

With the success of two ‘infinity’ themed anthologies under his belt (Engineering Infinity and Edge of Infinity), editor Jonathan Strahan pushes his science fiction agenda forward with a third.  Presenting the third transitive point, Reach for Infinity (Rebellion Publishing, 2014) regards humanity’s future in the solar system and beyond.  Familiar names return and new are added, making the fourteen stories in the third anthology as creative and enjoyable as the first two.

In the intro Strahan asserts that “hard sci fi has always sat at the heart of the science fiction field”.  While the statement is contentious (see Shelley, Verne and Wells, Burroughs and E.E. Smith, Gernsback, et al), there’s no doubt it occupies a major slice of the genre pie.  Opening the collection is perhaps the most extreme hard sci-fi writer the world has yet seen: Greg Egan.  “Break My Fall” is the story of a group travelling in a hollowed out asteroid through the solar system’s transportation network.  Being slingshot (slungshot?) along, they use the gravity of particularly spaced orbiting hubs to move outwards, that is, until a rescue is needed at one of the hubs.  Further pushing the realities of science, albeit in situations closer to home, Ken Macleod’s “‘The Entire Immense Superstructure’: An Installation” and Karl Schroeder’s “Kheldyu” each create plausible superstructures that work with Earth’s environment in positive, practical fashion.  Peter Watts’ “Hotshot”, while certainly not what one thinks of when the term ‘hard sf’ comes into the discussion, nevertheless tells a tale rooted in modern neuroscience.  Replete with Watts trademark determinism, there is a light at the end of the tunnel—a big, bright, burning one.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Review of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Perusing bookshops in Poland one finds fiction is categorized along the same genre lines as America or Britain.  They have horror, fantastyka, science fiction, kryminalny—all of which are readily recognizable to the English speaker.  There is one additional category, however, that I’d never seen before: sensacyjny.  Neither ‘sensual’ or ‘sensation’, the word, in this context, translates to ‘sensational’.  Not in the ‘amazing’ or ‘magnificent’ sense of the word, rather ‘sensationalist’ or ‘suddenness’, and it’s in that section one finds books that have certainly taken readers by storm, but less certainly are in possession of layers beyond outright popularity.  It’s here one finds Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King, and, Iain Banks’ 1984 The Wasp Factory. (Though to be fair, Banks at least attempts an agenda.)

The novel is the story of Frank Cauldhame, a sixteen year old who is open to the reader about having killed three times in his youth.  Baldly psychotic, he goes into detail describing the fetishes and rituals of his life—the bones, skulls, candles, and totems that protect the small island in Scotland where he and his eccentric father call home.  If his own problems aren’t bad enough, Frank’s brother Eric is certified crazy, and at the outset of the story escapes the mental hospital.   Phone calls to Frank occurring sporadically thereafter, each one draws Eric closer and closer to home.  Little know to Frank, the ultimate conflict has been lying under his nose the whole time

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Review of Devices and Desires by K.J. Parker

Carving out a niche in the epic fantasy market these days is an ever-challenging task.  Some authors producing original ideas and others the most blasé, most have only a moderate degree of success making their creations singular.  George R.R. Martin, through strong characters and worldbuilding, has conquered the market, while writers like Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Michael Sullivan, and the creators of Dragonlance continue to churn out easily digesteable material derivative of tradition.  Occupying the middle territory are writers like Richard Morgan, Brian Ruckley, R. Scott Bakker, Joe Abercrombie, David Gemmell, etc., etc.; certain facets are unique, but by and large a very familiar sense of epic fantasy imbues their work.  K.J. Parker is another such author, and the first in the Engineer trilogy, Devices and Desires (2005), is a representative example why.

Devices and Desires is the story of Ziani Vaatzes.  Engineer among the industrially dominant Mezentine, he breaks Guild law (literally by fractions of an inch) and, in the opening pages, is sentenced to death.  Making a narrow escape, he soon finds himself a prisoner of neighboring Eremia, a duchy at war with Mezentine.  Duke Orsea, leader of Mezentine, grasps Ziani’s potential and puts his knowledge of metalworking, machining, and engineering to use.  Ziani more than willing to impart his knowledge, vengeance on Mezentine and seeing his beloved wife and daughter once again cloud every decision he makes.  But whether Mezentine is able to reclaim what was lost to them is certainly at odds.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Review of End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Roger Zelazny, on top of writing a number of immensely popular books and stories, was one of the genre’s great stylists, noir minimalism utilized in nearly all his works.  He was likewise predictable for his main characters; a world weary man with personal issues finds himself in situations he would rather avoid but faces despite, the common premise.  Basing his fiction on these two same elements, I have come to think of Jon Courtenay Grimwood as a successor to Zelazny, but significantly upgraded for the (post-) modern world.  An exemplary text, his End of the World Blues (2006) possesses a sophisticated sense of noir that does not lack for eye-kicks (to borrow a phrase from Bruce Sterling), and features a troubled man whose choices get him in deeper and deeper trouble. The teenage girl manga fantasy, well, that's just the icing on the cake.

Where Zelazny sought to implement history, myth, and legend into genre storylines, Grimwood brings his foundational content closer to the contemporary era.  Events do occur in and outside of time, but always the rays of story emanate from 20 and 21st century concerns; identity, existentialism, and an overall loss of faith in society inform the subtext.  Never over-stating these elements, Grimwood keeps his personal comments veiled, allowing the characters their voices, and in turn gives his stories more socio-cultural relevancy than Zelazny’s.  Embodying nearly everything the author has created to date, End of the World Blues is a well-written, engaging story worthy of greater recognition than it received.

Review Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny's 1966 This Immortal took a post-apocalyptic human race and put it on trial for future viability—it’s history the evidence in question.  Feeling there was more to the idea, three years later he destroyed geo-political conception of the US in another catastrophe story, writing Damnation Alley (1969).  The novel the story of another troubled man who must survive its horror, it’s instead his soul at stake, not the world.'

"Hell," said Tanner. "That's my name. I was the seventh kid in our family, and when I was born the nurse held me up and said to my old man, 'What name do you want on the birth certificate?' and Dad said, 'Hell!' and walked away.

Convicted criminal and former leader of an outlaw bike gang, Hell Tanner never had it easy, and at the beginning of Damnation Alley his life doesn’t get any easier.  Faced with a classic proposition: go back to jail on trumped up charges or do what the law wants him to, his past running the wilds with his gang comes back to haunt him in a way he never thought it would.  One of only a few with the bravery and experience to travel in the nuclear wasteland that divides the US in half, Tanner is forced to traverse the freak zone to get to Boston and deliver a package—a package vital to the survival of the people in the city.  A rider having broken through the wasteland from the Boston side, he requests a driver be sent back with an antidote before collapsing and dying: the east coast is being overtaken by a plague.  Given a massive armored car with heavy guns and a good luck wish, Tanner and two others set off on a journey none are expected to survive.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Review of Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

"Write what you know" is an adage oft quoted to wannabe writers. If the logic is applied to Doomsday Book (1992), it would appear Connie Willis is knowledgeable about the following: British period drama, prior iterations of the English language, the plague, and the Bible—not necessarily in order of prominence.  The plot moving simplistically in light, superficial fashion, whether the knowledge has been integrated sufficiently with plot and not left hanging as trivia is up to the reader.

Doomsday Book is split into two threads of story.  The first is set in Oxford of 2050 and the time travel laboratory of the city’s university.  With Christmas approaching, things are a bit hectic as the scientists and historians prepare to send one of the students back to 1320, as well as host a party of American bell ringers visiting the Isles for the holidays.  Despite the busy holiday time, things go as expected with the time drop.  It’s in the aftermath not all is revealed as having gone perfectly: a strange illness overcomes one of the technicians manning the time board.  A full quarantine shutting Oxford down in the aftermath, the scientists have to deal with both their time machines and an epidemic if they are to ensure their prize student returns safely.

Review of Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

There are increasing number of new niches in speculative fiction created as it expands toward realism and the mainstream, and, as they are being created, the interstices are also slowly being filled.  Some writers strike out, trying to till fresh ground, but there remain others who feel more at home plowing the fields of their forefathers.  Alastair Reynolds is one such writer (though I continually wait for something more challenging as I know he is perfectly capable*).  His 2004 Century Rain is a perfect example of retro sci fi published in, or at least the moments this review was being written, the modern era, nothing new to evolve the genre.
Century Rain is a split narrative that eventually dovetails into one.  The first tells of Wendell Floyd, private eye for hire, and the strange commission he receives one day. Living in an alternate history Paris 1939, Hitler was thwarted before he began, leaving Europe in a state of peace.  But this doesn't stop the French from rendering Paris a police-controlled city. Hired by a suspicious neighbor to investigate what police are calling a suicide, Floyd delves into the bizarre details of Susan Day’s death, eventually finding things literally out of this world.  The second story thread is of Verity Auger. A historian (of sorts), she digs beneath the ruins of Paris seeking the details of why a nano catastophe destroyed Earth. Auger a member of a polity calling themselves the Threshers (for their belief in the need to limit technology), her efforts are constantly under threat from their rivals, the Slashers, (a group who—inevitably—believes technology should be developed and applied freely). Called upon special assignment per the specific request of Susan Day, it isn't long before Floyd and Auger's versions of Paris collide.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review of The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 2 ed. by Gordon van Gelder

Fantasy & Science Fiction, published since 1949, is one of the most recognized and long-lasting magazine in the speculative fiction field.  Racking up an incredible list of awarded authors and stories in the decades that have passed, in 2009 they gleaned their backlists and produced The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology.  The number of stories qualifying for the moniker spilling over, in 2014 the magazine decided to publish a second group of stories as ‘the very best of’, naming it Volume 2.  The first an all-star anthology, the second, also edited by Gordon van Gelder, possesses just as much impact, history, and sheer enjoyability, and is a welcome retrospective of one of the genre’s bastions.  Arranged chronologically, the following are brief summaries of the twenty-seven stories selected.

The charmingly genre “The Third Level” by Jack Finney opens the anthology.  One man’s recollection of a time he accidentally wandered in to the supposedly non-existent third level of New York’s Central Station, it’s a suitably nostalgic mood on which to start the journey.  But C.M. Kornbluth’s black comedy “The Cosmic Charge Account”, with its strong dose of the surreal, is what gets the anthology moving.  Kornbluth an amazing stylist, few writers have been able to capture such a voice.  The story of a journey taken by two ostensibly senile men (a publisher and his writer), the pair ends up escorting a little old lady who believes the world can be her oyster after reading a self-help book.  Hilarity ensues.  “The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight is a very peculiar, very mercurial, troubling story that never quite settles in the mind.  About a man isolated from the world by his anti-social (to put it lightly) behavior, his attempts at existence simultaneously invoke empathy and abhorrence—not an easy trick to pull off for a writer, and perhaps the reason the story is reprinted to this day.  An innocent drop of youthful imagination, “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson is the amiable story of a teacher, her young student, and the secret that arises between them in the classroom one school year.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review of Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

I have long had a debate in my mind about the place of the woman warrior in fiction, particularly the type most often presented in epic fantasy/sword & sorcery.  Robert E. Howard, Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, David Gemmell, and Tobias Buckell, for example, have all included the undaunted, sword-wielding, occasionally bra-defying warrioresses in their tales of adventure and battle.  But in these stories, the women are most often just men with breasts.  A distracting veneer is lacquered on the character: she is sexualized, given a sword, and kicks ass, but little is done to represent what actually makes her a woman.  After all, feats of strength, unwritten codes of honor, fights for power and control, heroism in battle, etc., etc. ad infinitum are manifestations of the masculine world.  Just one of the guys, rarely are such female characters presented for their intrinsic qualities.  This is what makes Mary Gentle’s 2000 Ash: A Secret History such an intriguing read.  More ‘grimdark’ than Martin or Abercrombie have thus far been able to accomplish, the graphic story of one woman making a place for herself in a male world makes me believe it is fully possible to represent the qualities of the ‘fair sex’ on the Medieval battlefield.  A stunning read in many,many ways, I can no longer read the woman warrior in fiction without thinking of Ash.

Ash: A Secret History is a book that proceeds along two lines.  The first is purported to be the modern translation of Ash’s autobiography.  Recently discovered after centuries hidden away, it reads in story format (i.e. mimetic dialogue, exposition in storytelling form, etc.) and covers a brief moment in Ash’s childhood and, in extensive detail, the twentieth and final year of her life.  Leader of a mercenary group operating in 15 th century Europe, her eight hundred swords are loyal to the man.  Following their captain anywhere, the Azure Lions sign contracts as the field dictates, and in the process attempt to stay alive as emperors, dukes, and lordlings fight across the battlefields of Italy, Germany, and France.  Though respected for the position she has won for herself, Ash must still deal with prejudice and her role in the continent’s rulers’ plans.  The life of a Medieval mercenary already difficult enough, arranged marriage, conception, and the will needed to maintain authority over a group of misfits requires every bit of strength Ash has.  But when Carthage attacks the continent, even the best of intentions may not be protection enough.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Review of The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

Despite the disappointment of The Well of Ascension, the premise established in The Final Empire was entertaining enough to at least attempt the third and final volume, The Hero of Ages (2008).  While re-focusing the Mistborn narrative and, to some degree, offering a satisfying conclusion, the faults of the series continue to take center stage.  Sanderson’s blanket of exposed nuance and redundant statements ad nauseum (i.e. the continual re-presentation of obvious elements and prior plot events, i.e. continually telling not showing, i.e. padding the review—I mean, narrative out with spurious statements of the known, i.e. you get the point) smothers any potential impact, creating a slog of a narrative.  Knowing that in the next page or two, the facts, as they stand, will be rehashed in detail, at no time does the reader feel the need to pay attention.  In fact, it’s possible to read the last two hundred pages without missing anything.  Sanderson repeats the salient points relevant to the conclusion at various points, rendering the prior text essentially extraneous.  But I get ahead of myself…

The Hero of Ages is the conclusion of Vin, Elend, Sazed, and a handful of other side characters’ stories.  With the unintended emergence of Ruin at the end of The Well of Ascension, the world has a new evil to focus on, and the good guys look to its destruction.  Sazed continues his sojourn through the countryside, talking with skaa, collecting info, and trying to learn as much as he can of old religions, while Vin, with the newly empowered Elend in tow, go to Fadrex city to learn more about the revelations and mist.  Dangers from kandra, koloss, and other humans abound, whether or not the three will arrive at the knowledge necessary to defeat Ruin is something for the ages (a throwaway line for a throwaway story).

Review of The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

For its magic system, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books occupy a unique niche in the market—something increasingly difficult to accomplish these days.  Employing the idea of allomancy for action purposes, The Final Empire, the first book of Mistborn, saw the rise of a rebellion and toppling of the ruling power.  The dialogue wooden, Sanderson was nevertheless able to pull off a mainstream work of genre that capitalized on a hero’s story.  Yet more to be told in Vin’s story, Sanderson followed up The Final Empire a year later with The Well of Ascension (2007).  Dialogue only more stilted, plot heavily contrived, and the overall narrative bogged down with high school romances and statements of the obvious, perhaps Sanderson would have been better off leaving the young woman’s story at a single volume.

Set one year after The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension opens with Vin playing the role of bodyguard to Elend, now king of Luthadel and the surrounding Dominances.  A man dubbed the Watcher mysteriously keeping tabs on Vin’s late night thwarting of assassination attempts, a greater threat rests outside the city: Elend’s father, King Straff, and his massive army.  Meanwhile, Sazed wanders the countryside and amongst the skaa, gathering information.  Encountering dead bodies seemingly killed by the mist, he has a whole new mystery to unravel, one helped by the uncovering of a sacred text.  The plot elements stewing for some time, they eventually triangulate on Luthadel, the city and character’s fates hanging in the balance.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review of The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand is simply one of the best genre writers working today.  Subtle, humanistic, poignant, intuitive, and above all a flat out good storyteller, her works of the slightly paranormal strum chords of human empathy few writers of fantasy are able to conjure.  2010’s The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon a captivating example, the novella’s musing on loss captured in an homage to humanity’s winged flight is superb.

The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon is the story of three friends, Robbie, Emery, and Leonard, who met, one way or another, when working for the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Aviation and Aerospace; Robbie was a security guard, Leonard a special effects designer, and Emery a former local tv personality dealing with space and aeronautics.  Learning in the early going that their former director at the Museum, an aging woman named Maggie, is suffering from terminal breast cancer, Leonard decides to do something special for her before she passes.  Enlisting the help of the others, the trio heads to South Carolina for location work.  Though they are doing something to help a woman they care for, each learns a little something about themselves in the process.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Review of The Steel Tsar by Michael Moorcock

Given the manner in which The Warlord of the Air was an alternate future (from the perspective of 1903) and The Land Leviathan an alternate history (from the perspective of 1973), it remains for The Steel Tsar to be the final statement regarding time (and politics) in Michael Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable universe—or multiverse as it were.  Published nearly ten years after The Warlord of the Air (1971) and seven years after The Land Leviathan (1974), it’s obvious Moorcock took his time coming up with a third and final scenario that would match the integrity of the first two books.  Simultaneously explaining the underlying dynamics of the threads in time Bastable traverses, as well as confirming the series’ realist agenda, The Steel Tsar lands smack in the middle of the previous two books timewise, telling another tale of thirst for power in an altered version of 1941 that gets as close to our reality as Moorcock has yet to tread in the series.

The first two novels frame stories, it would be remiss were The Steel Tsar not to be.  And Moorcock does not disappoint.  The novel opens in 1979 with Michael Moorcock III, the grandson of Michael Moorcock from The Warlord of the Air, receiving a visit from Una Persson, the beautiful woman attached to various revolutionaries from the first two novels.  She hand delivers to Moorcock a third and final narrative direct from the pen of Bastable, stating that Moorcock will probably never see him again.  Bastable’s account opening on a small boat adrift at sea, he stays alive when the island he thought was a mirage proves real.  Bumping up against a pier in the Philippines, he discovers it is the year 1941, and the Japanese, breaking with their treaty with Britain, have just bombed Singapore.

Review of The Land Leviathan by Michael Moorcock

The most challenging and ambitious of the Oswald Bastable books, 1974’s The Land Leviathan tackles a daring combination of ideals: race and authoritarianism.  Pulling off an iconoclastic juxtaposition that will set the reader thinking, the Bastable series continues in fine fashion. 

The Land Leviathan is a frame story like The Warlord of the Air, but a frame story within a frame story.  Matters begin with the grandson of the "fictional" Michael Moorcock (Moorcock being the confidante who Bastable told his story to in The Warlord of the Air) discovering a safe tucked away in the family attic in 1973.  Unable to pry the sturdy metal box open, he ventures to the locksmith who is able to trip the lid.  Inside he discovers the lost narrative of Bastable’s adventures after he left Rowe Island.  This narrative however, is preceded by his grandfather’s introductory notes.  Having gone on an excursion to see the Valley of the Morning with his own eyes, Moorcock Senior had his own adventures coming to possess the remnants of Bastable’s story.  The narrative coming into his hands in the most dangerous of circumstances, Bastable’s second adventure starts with a return to Teku Benga to see if the place is real or just a dream.  Soon enough world politics, time, and race take center stage in his life, whether he wants them or not.

A Nomad of the Time Streams is the title of the omnibus edition of the three Oswald Bastable novels.  Accordingly, each of the three books features the hero, if he can be called as such (‘observer’ perhaps a better descriptor), being bounced around to alternate histories and futures.  All commenting in some way upon social and political ideas, The Land Leviathan rolls with the imperialist theme of The Warlord of the Air and slowly mixes in relevant commentary on race via a post-apocalyptic scenario involving chemical weapons and Africa. 

Review of The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock

H.G. Wells was the first British writer to combine political commentary and the rudimentary elements of what would become science fiction to popular effect.  The Time Machine is a novel that uses a futuristic scenario via time travel to indict British social and political policy of the era.  The novel is also, interestingly, considered by some one of the first steampunk texts.  While this may only be due to the century that has passed since Wells’ imaginative technology was ‘fresh’, it has had an influence on other books, nevertheless.  Perhaps most notable is Michael Moorcock’s Nomad of the Time Stream, or Oswald Bastable trilogy.  Likewise an indictment of British imperialism (and unquestioned authoritarianism in general), the three novels utilize anachronistic technology in a politically altered reality to positive effect.  Moorcock’s writing and pacing crisp and smooth, fans of steampunk will almost certainly fall in love with the novels.  The Warlord of the Air (1971) is the first in the series and the best place to start.

The Warlord of the Air is a frame story.  The year 1903, when a worked out British businessman decides to take a holiday on a Far East island, he gets the rest he deserves.  A strange stowaway appearing on one of the few boats which visit the remote island one day, he also gets an earful of story—the literally unbelievable story of Oswald Bastable.  Formerly an officer in the Queen’s army, Bastable had been stationed in India.  But when asked to parlay with a local chieftain deep in the mountains of Sikkim, the captain finds himself inexplicably seventy years in the future.  The world different yet the same, Bastable must adapt to the strange new sights: dirigibles, monorails, and wireless technology buzzing around him.  Becoming second mate on one of the huge flying zeppelins, he must also fight his way through dogma, perceived amnesia, and imperialism run rampant if he is to have a hope of getting back to 1903 alive.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Review of The Durdane Chronicles by Jack Vance

The Demon Princes was the first major series Jack Vance wrote—or at least started.  Begun in 1964 with The Star King, the effort proved difficult, as the final book, The Book of Dreams, was not published until nearly twenty years later in 1981.  The Planet of Adventure, or as Vance preferred to call it Tschai, was his second major series.  The outline proving more coherent, the four books were quickly rolled out over a span of three years.  It should come as no surprise then, when Vance begun a third series his confidence in delivering a three-volume story was innate.  Three books written in the course of two years, the Durdane Chronicles show the writer in fluid and creative form, the story of Gastel Etzwane springing to life in strong Vance fashion.

Published in three volumes, the Durdane Chronicles is a story that continually evolves, and at one point, very surprisingly.  Where the five Demon Prince books can be read in any order, Durdane, like The Tschai, must read in published order: The Anome (aka The Faceless Man), The Brave Free Men, and The Asutra.  Durdane Vance’s entry into the world of dystopian/utopian fiction, the story is set in a land where citizens must wear a torc around their neck.  In essence a radio-controlled bomb, the people’s leader, the Faceless Man, and his faithful protectors, the Discriminators, are free to kill anyone who does not adhere to society’s laws, the torc beheading them explosively should they disobey.  The imminence of the threat effective, the humans of Durdance live in relative, albeit heavily restricted, peace.  The problem is, another species on the planet, the Rogushkoi, are becoming ever more aggressive to humanity.  The vaguely humanoid, mindless aliens steal women, burn farms, and kill.  But when the Faceless Man appears to take no action to mitigate the threat, something must be done. Enter Gastel Etzwane.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review of The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

The rebellions, coups, kidnappings, revolutions, putschs, and all out political chaos of Central and South America in the 20th century is well-documented.  It sometimes feels like, from the landing of the Spanish to Che Guevara, Noriega to Hugo Chavez, the land mass cannot escape politically motivated violence.  Visiting Argentina in the early 70s and witnessing the clash of ideologies first-hand, Graham Greene decided to use the experience to write a novel which would encapsulate the phenomena.  The Honorary Consul the result, indeed tragi-comedy is the perfect mode to encompass the all too human occurrences of the region.

Set in an intentionally fictional town up the River Plata from Buenos Aires, The Honorary Consul is the story of the half-Argentinian, half-British doctor, Eduardo Plarr.  His father missing since he was ten, Plarr spent most of his life with his mother, and after obtaining his medical degree, set her up in the capital city to live a life of peace and quiet while he remained behind in their hometown.  One of only three Brits in the small city, he often dines with another colleague, and when needed, provides assistance to the third, the British consul.  Charlie Fortnum his name, the job is in title only, his only actual pursuits being a daily measure of whiskey and driving his beat-up Land Rover through the fields of mate he oversees.  Life moving easily for Plarr all hell breaks looks when local guerrillas mistake Fortnum for the visiting American ambassador and kidnap him.  The story unraveling thereafter both absurd and tragic, the stories of the individual characters is where circumstances come alive. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review of Another Orphan by John Kessel

The Eighties were a dynamic period in US history: there was an actor in the White House, the economy took major swings, the Cold War petered out amidst scandals and hush-hush wars, and the game changer—the computer—saw its first major steps into the private sector.  It was also a time when much of the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s, after having abandoned its extreme left-wing views, had integrated itself with conventional American life.  Money, home, and old age having taken on different perspectives, numerous ex-hippies could be found working in mainstream of society, their youth an entirely different scene than their middle age.  John Kessel’s 1982 novella Another Orphan examines the life of one of these ex-hippies through the lens of Moby Dick (interestingly enough) in fine, philosophical fashion.

Another Orphan is the story of Patrick Fallon, an analyst working on the Chicago stock exchange.  An ex ‘longhair’, the man found himself in need of real employment as the exigencies of life made their demands and the counter-culture movement drew to a close.  Starting as a runner, Fallon worked his way up to stock analyst in a few years, and at the opening of the story is leading a standard yuppie life in the metro area with a girlfriend he’s unsure he loves.  Mundane to the max, Fallon feels little motivation or excitement in life, and moreover, is unaware of the lack.  Waking up on a whaling ship at sea in the opening pages, however, existence takes on a whole new dynamic—one he quickly realizes is a manifestation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  The novel coming alive around him, life at sea in contrast to life in Chicago, and the questions which arise as a result, provide a context to existence Fallon never had.

Review of Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

It is always an interesting experience to go back and read a book that one has fond memories of.  Human nature being what it is, the change in perspective—expectation, interest, value, etc.—are elements of the experience that undergo transformations visible only after an indeterminate period of time has passed.  Reading The Jungle Book as a youth is a vastly different experience as an adult—and who is to say which is better?  Such books delightfully flexible, able to adjust to changes in age and perspective, there are others which remain static, however, and limited to a time when simple was good enough.  Anne McCaffrey’s 1968 Dragonflight is one of these books. 

What young person wouldn’t want to have their own pet dragon to ride through the clouds and time—a telepathically linked pair that uplift one another with every wing beat of flight?  Such is the fairy tale base of Dragonflight, and the myriad of spin-off fiction McCaffrey, and eventually her son Todd, have published in the setting.  Set on a faraway planet where castles and holds, swords and honor are the norm, the novel is centered on the young woman Lessa.  Beginning the story as a drudge in a castle oppressed by the evil Fax, she, in conjunction with the visiting patrol of handsome, sensitive dragonmen, resolve matters for the region in revolutionary style.  In the process, her skills as a telepath are discovered by the handsome, sensitive dragonmen, and they take her away to their sky hold where she is to be tried and tested as queen of the dragons.  Though having a fiery personality earth-side, does she pass the test sky-side when facing a trembling, cracking egg with a baby dragon inside?  The reader will have to find out. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Review of Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay

Sailing to Sarantium, the first book of the Sarantine Mosaic, ended on a subtle note—a strange portent indeed for a duology robed in the clothes of saga and high fantasy.  The pieces on the board suspiciously quiet, it remains for Lord of Emperors to see them open their attack through to the end game.  And indeed, Kay being Kay, the plot does unravel in dramatic fashion, the meaning of the title not what the reader may think.

Lord of Emperors opens with the introduction of an important new character: the Bassani doctor Rustem.  Coming from the Arabian-esque east, Rustem is called to serve a dangerous patient, and in the aftermath is asked to perform one more service for his king: go to Sarantium as a spy for the Bassani.  Death the door opening if he rejects the request, Rustem reluctantly says goodbye to his family, and soon enough, finds himself on the streets of the great city.  Crispin having begun work on the dome, another unlikely visitor finds themselves on Sarantium’s streets: his Queen Gisel.  War and rumors of war with Bataria swirling through the courts and the mighty hippodrome, the Emperor, his beautiful queen, the senators, the Blues, the Greens, and everyone in the city are caught up in the intrigue and violence which unleash themselves on the city one fateful day.  Life taking on a whole new meaning, Crispin’s project reaches its end, but not in the manner he expected.

Review of Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

Save the detour of Ysabel, since publishing the three-book Fionavar Tapestry Guy Gavriel Kay has been pumping out historical fantasy as consistently as a machine. Covering the globe one romantifi-able culture after another, he has moved from Europe (Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Lions of Al-Rassan) to Asia (Under Heaven and River of Stars).  Stuck in the middle of this oeuvre—literally on the Bosphorous between the two continents—is The Sarantine Mosaic.  Detailing the life and times of what we knew as Byzantium, and which later became Istanbul, Sailing to Sarantium is the first book of the two-volume series.  Style and methodology products of the same machine, the book is everything one expects from Kay.

Sailing to Sarantium is the story of Caius Crispin, a mosaicist living in the kingdom of Bataria.  Wife and daughters taken by a plague two years prior, he devotes his life to the only thing remaining important to him: his craft.  Alongside his once mentor, now partner Martinius, the two are decorating a local church at the story’s outset.  Their work interrupted, an Imperial courier arrives from the distant capital Sarantium to deliver a request: come to the holy city and have the honors of creating a moasic on the dome of the largest cathedral ever constructed.  Not feeling up to the task, Martinius appoints Crispin, who, still suffering from the heartbreak of losing his family, feels a trip to Sarantium would put some life back in his soul.  But before hitting the road for the long journey, Crispin is stopped by the Batarian queen and given a private commission—one that could get easily him killed should the secret be revealed.  The weight of the task not enough, a local alchemist, the mysterious Zoticus, also has work for Crispin to do in the holy city, and provides him a strange bird made of metal and leather.  But no matter how prepared the melancholy artisan may be for the challenges ahead, nothing can possibly ready him for the Sarantine court.  Every word possessing two edges, opening one’s mouth in front of the Emperor can be more dangerous than drawing sword.  Art may just have to come second.