Every now and then I love to sink my teeth into an epic fantasy of many pages that will sweep me off to somewhere that temporarily seems more real tha...moreEvery now and then I love to sink my teeth into an epic fantasy of many pages that will sweep me off to somewhere that temporarily seems more real than the world I live in. I read Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song years ago and have dipped in and out of his monumental Otherland series, so I expected to enjoy this standalone novel (kind of rare in fantasy publishing these days)and wasn’t disappointed.
Let me just say, I was not prepared for this vision of fairyland—-as Dorothy Parker reputedly exclaimed, “What fresh hell is this?” There is a term some reviewer applied to The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick that fits here as well: cyberpunk meets faerie, producing fairypunk. Massive factional intrigue, raging battles with B-25 dragons, constant danger that never lets you relax, and two of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in years make this book a genuinely satisfying (if terrifying) escape into another world. The human Theo and the sprite Applecore are just about as good as it gets for well-developed, fully rounded characters, and I loved being in their company for the whole roller-coaster ride of the plot.
I also loved the twisted, inside-out perspective on global fairy tales and magical lore. Nothing is sacred in Applecore’s estimation, and her wry take on just about every trope fantasy stories are built on keeps readers and Theo continually off balance. One person’s science is another person’s magic, and vice versa. I laughed and shivered at the same time. The nobility of the goblin Button at the climax is as heartrending as a Greek tragedy. (less)
Caveat - I was sent an advance review copy of this book by the publisher with an invitation to review if I felt it was worthy. I enjoyed the book grea...moreCaveat - I was sent an advance review copy of this book by the publisher with an invitation to review if I felt it was worthy. I enjoyed the book greatly and admired the skill with which it was written, so I chose to review. This is NOT a paid review.
For those who like their horror Old School, That Which Should Not Be is a delicious treat. Channeling a potent witches’ brew of H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Algernon Blackwood, and Bram Stoker, Brett J. Talley pulls out all the classic horror tropes to craft a dark foreboding pall of a story that is all his own.
The narrative structure – tales within a tale, framed by the larger narrative told through a “found” manuscript – draws not only from the Lovecraftian heritage, but from Stoker’s Dracula as well. In fact, the book is full of nods to icons of gothic fiction. The setting begins in Lovecraft’s mythical Arkham, Massachusetts, and moves northward up the rocky coast, where our hero meets a quartet of informants in a windswept tavern aptly called The Kraken. Here the novel takes a Boccaccian turn, wherein a group of people trapped in a confined space swap tall tales to pass the time. The main narrator, university student Carter Weston, listens entranced to loosely connected stories from a woodsman, a lawyer, a doctor, and a ship’s captain whose tale comes after the guests have departed the snowbound tavern.
The four tales that make up the core of the book could stand well enough on their own as compelling novellas, but Talley skillfully weaves them into a larger tapestry based on Lovecraft’s premise of the return of the Old Gods. Drawing from the deep well of world folklore and legend, we have a Wendigo legend in the trapper’s tale; the lawyer’s East European story of hidden rituals in a ruined mountain abbey that does not require the presence of vampires; the doctor’s tale set in a Massachusetts hospital for the insane reminiscent of the asylum scenes from Dracula (complete with its own Renfield character as well as a doctor named Harker and a professor named Seward); and, finally, the captain’s tale of a cursed sea voyage.
Talley has the period diction nailed, with very few slippages. Not an easy feat when you have five different narrators to voice. The narrative style takes a page or two of getting used to, but once you’ve settled into the time period, Talley’s stories unfold with a decadent, mist-shrouded 19th century atmosphere worthy of Poe himself. The “found” manuscript or diary style of narration of necessity creates some distance from the reader, but Talley still manages to bring his various narrators vividly to life so that we care what happens to them and feel fully invested in their storylines.
Talley is at his best in setting mood and atmosphere, and his writing style truly shines in the passages describing weather and landscape, whether it’s the mythic Miskatonic woodlands of Massachusetts, a snowy coastal nor’easter, a careening carriage ride through the Carpathians, or moonlit vistas in old Arkham. Especially captivating, and constituting the best written passages in the novel, are the seafaring episodes. These are so well rendered one could easily believe the author’s salty dog credentials come from dire personal experience. It’s no surprise that the final story, Captain Gray’s tale paying homage to the Flying Dutchman legend and Coleridge’s “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and even Poe’s “Lenore,” is the best of the four and constitutes the book’s gripping climax. Captain Gray’s narrative brings the main storyline back into the present and merges Weston’s immediate quest with the larger premise of the novel: the attempt by misguided humans to reawaken the Old Ones as described in Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos.
There is much of Blackwood’s style in Talley’s writing. Blackwood was described by his peers as a mystic, naturalist, conservationist, outdoorsman, and genuine intellectual interested perhaps more in the terrors of the mind and the powers of the unseen than the physical acts of horror themselves.
This is not to say that That Which Should Not Be doesn’t have its graphic, pure horror moments – an early image of the Wendigo devouring its prey qualifies nicely, as does the bloody Sisters’ sacrifice in a cursed abbey. But much of the book’s satisfying gothic terror stems from the mind’s contemplation of nighttime frights and what lurks, gibbering, beyond ordinary perception. In old-style gothic novel writing, what the reader congers in his or her imagination, with skillful prompting from the author, produces a much stronger, lingering sense of terror than detailed graphic descriptions, shocking as they may be at the moment of reading. As we all know, the mind is a dark and dangerous place.
That’s why reading Talley’s book just before bedtime is not a good idea. But then, once you’ve started, it’s impossible to stop. (less)
I'm a big fan of JCP, but she really outdid herself with this one. Definitely the best vampire book I've read in the past several years. I'm always im...moreI'm a big fan of JCP, but she really outdid herself with this one. Definitely the best vampire book I've read in the past several years. I'm always impressed when a prolific author still manages to come up with unusual, unique characters who become totally three-dimensional over the course of the book. Even more impressive is coming up with an approach to the vampire mythology that's new and riveting. Price has a visceral, muscular prose that just grabs you by the collar, gets in your face, and doesn't let up until the HEA is completely and totally earned or at least given a hint of a promise. I know I'll be rereading this one some time soon. (less)
Never met a Terry Pratchett book I didn't love, but this one is beyond belief! The whole world of the A-M library, buried under tons of undelivered ma...moreNever met a Terry Pratchett book I didn't love, but this one is beyond belief! The whole world of the A-M library, buried under tons of undelivered mail is somehow ominously cautionary!(less)