Alif the Unseen is something truly unique -- an urban fantasy spin on djinns and the Arabian Nights from a Muslim author, set in the the modern MiddleAlif the Unseen is something truly unique -- an urban fantasy spin on djinns and the Arabian Nights from a Muslim author, set in the the modern Middle East/Arab world. It sits on the edge between the genres of urban fantasy and cyberpunk in a delightful way, with computer code invoking imagery of the worlds of djinn and fantastical creatures. Like good speculative fiction, Wilson uses the speculative elements to cast a light on aspects of "real life" in the modern world, namely surveillance and suppression of the populace as the true scourge of the Arab world, oppressive to both the religious and the secular.
In the praise column here is also Wilson's beautiful, nuanced, discussion of religion, belief and faith. She contrasts the beliefs of several characters who do and don't believe in religion and/or djinn to various degrees of literalism. This exploration is fascinating. Many of the ideas, such as how to believe in the fantastic are generalizable across religions. It also was fascinating as a discourse on Islam.
Usually, any truly unique book on my shelf gets four stars, and this is truly unique and well-done. However, there is a major drawback that I would feel remise if I didn't address, which is the female characters. I know that Wilson is much believed for her work on the Miss Marvel series, which I had not read. However, there is not a shred of evidence of feminism in this book. The female characters have no agency at all and exist largely to be sexualized/romanticized by the male characters who do have agency. No book needs to be perfect in every respect, but the extent to which female characters exist only for male gaze here is beyond just failing the Bechdel test and borders on disturbing....more
The best part of the book was so nostalgic -- the idea of combing bookstores and finding The Book! The Amazing Fantasy or SciFi book that you've neverThe best part of the book was so nostalgic -- the idea of combing bookstores and finding The Book! The Amazing Fantasy or SciFi book that you've never heard of before, but it's by your favorite author and it is just so perfect! Finding The Book in bookstores and on my friends' book cases was a huge part of my adolescent years. It makes me kind of want to earmark the authors that Walton name checks that I've never read: (Zelazny, Delany, Tiptree embarrassingly enough) and never Amazon or Google them and only hunt down their books in used bookstores to recreate the feeling. But I know that truly that feeling is a little eradicated, because even if I play by the rules, I know that they're arbitrary and in real life I can get whatever book I want whenever I want, which is great, except that it ruins the mystique.
I also liked that "is it real or isn't it?" feel of the book. Reading as a teenager, I never would have questioned that the subtle magic in the book was indeed the highest reality. But I love Walton's depiction of that subtle magic, which as an adult, you can't help but second guess: "maybe Mor is just subconsciously coming up with a narrative to explain why bad thing X happened." I love that the book works on both levels and that it forces you to consider both -- it's such a great way to depict magic.
So what didn't I like? Well, I think my expectations were set too high by Jon and Beka, who both said this book was the most amazing thing in the history of books. Also, while reading the book I had an overwhelming, terribly distracting sense of how much I would have loved this book if I had read it back when I was 18. My 18 year old self would have promptly declared it her favorite book in the history of books, too, but since I'm no longer her, I felt almost guilty reading it.
Ultimately, I just felt like I didn't "get it." So, there's this girl, and some bad magic happened in her past, and now she goes to a boarding school, where she's a little social isolated, but then she joins a book club and along the way she buys a lot of books and sees a lot of faeries, and that's all well and good, but when is the plot going to begin? Oh, the book is over, so I guess there just isn't a plot? And I can handle a lack of a plot if the character growth and development is well done, but after awhile I got bored of reading about Mor read and go to bookstores, and I would rather be reading and going to bookstores myself....more
What an uneven collection. It's not even just the wide variation of quality (although there IS a wide variation in quality), but it seems like the stoWhat an uneven collection. It's not even just the wide variation of quality (although there IS a wide variation in quality), but it seems like the stories chosen have only a glancing association with the ostensible theme. This is particularly notable given the hubris expressed in the introduction that this will be the ur-collection of modern faery tales (Klima goes as far as to imply that it is the ONLY collection of this sort, which is laughable, given that not only are almost all of these stories pulled from other, similar, anthologies, but the vast majority of them have been published in one of the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling anthologies.) Its also poorly organized, with adjacent stories doing nothing to build or communicate with each other and some stories on the same faery tale are close to each other, while others aren't. The theme is also poorly defined, with some stories being modern interpretations of faery tales, some being retellings without a change in setting, and yet others seem to come from a universe where the words "faery tale" have no meaning.
All of that notwithstanding, there are some excellent stories: -Wil McCarthy's He Died That Day, in Thirty Years is one of those rare pieces: a sci-fi short story that actually is satisfying. It stood on it's own and yet was clearly related to Alice in Wonderland. It was rich and provocative and wholly original. Perhaps particularly remarkable is how every little detail of the story was rich with information.
-Michelle West's The Rose Garden was something that I wanted to hate. I hate Beauty and the Best as the exemplar of the Bad Boy genre -- that horribly insidious, misogynist trope by which women should cleave to cruel, angry men and by their love covert them into some sort of paragon. But The Rose Garden, while not being a full inversion, was raw and honest about its intentions. And, I'm a sucker for platonic romance, so...
-Robert J. Howe's Pinocchio's Diary is terrifying, brutal, and an absolutely fascinating retelling. I loved his exploration of "realness" and bullying and othering. This is faery tale telling at it's best -- using a tale familiar to all of us, to tell a moral familiar to all of us, but to also tell a story that feels real and visceral and to twist it into something new that has a new moral.
There are also some completely AWFUL stories -Howard Waldrop's The Sawing Boys is completely impenetrable. You see it's a modern twist on the faery tale in which a bunch of Yiddish gangsters are finally thwarted by a Klezmer band playing construction equipment. No? No hint of recognition? Maybe it will help if they only speak in roaring twenties slang, which is converted into Pig Latin such that you both have to decrypt every utterance and then further deduce it's meaning based on the glossary at the end of the story? No? Yeah, me neither. Also, apparently Yiddish is the new black in faery tales, as it also seems to infiltrate Leslie What's The Emperor's New (and Improved) Clothes for no clear reason, too.
-Gregory Maguire's The Seven Stage a Comeback, which unfortunately starts this collection, may work as a play, but as written media is completely god-awful. It's impossible to keep the dwarfs straight, as they have no names; only numbers, therefore there is no character development evident.
The rest is mostly pretty cliched and unmemorable. (I do love Neil Gaiman's The Troll Bridge, but I've already read it in a different collection, so it doesn't count)...more
I haven't read an anthology in several years, so I wasn't sure what to expect in terms on consistency of theme and quality.
Overall, for an anthologyI haven't read an anthology in several years, so I wasn't sure what to expect in terms on consistency of theme and quality.
Overall, for an anthology that is looking to branch out beyond genre categories, the stories mesh relatively nicely with each other; although many fail to achieve the intended theme of "and then what happened?" The editing was well done, with the collection laid out in a way the flows, with stories with similar themes placed near each other, but not such that they blur with one another. There's a nice mix of long and short stories that makes the collection readable for long stretches of time. I found most of my favorite stories bunched at the back end, so keep reading if you don't like the beginning too well.
In terms of quality, I felt that most of the stories were well-written, although several were not to my liking.
The introduction by Neil Gaiman is probably the best part of the book. I loved the description of why people read and write fantasy and where fantasy as a genre can let us down. The desire to defy genres is ambitious and motivating.
Blood is a great opening story. It's evocative and plays directly to the "and then what happened" theme. Fossil Figures was not to my liking. It's a kind of generic twin story with some nice turns of phrase, but not much substance. Wildfire in Manhattan on the one hand, Gods are real and they live in cities has been done before and better (by two authors included in this collection, no less.) That being said, if not particularly original, this was still fun. I enjoyed the writing style and the characterizations. There was plenty of really nice imagery. The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains Gaiman's contribution to the collection was probably the closest to the intended theme. A very well-written play on the traditional fairy tale of Aladdin's cave of gold. Written in a very traditional folk tale style, but with new takes on the typical folk tale themes. Unbelief A story of an assassin sent to kill a mysterious figure. Went straight in one ear and out the other. This has been done before and done better. I would have lost nothing had this story been excluded completely. The Stars are Falling I hated this one, too. This is the typical story of a WWI veteran who comes home and tries to reconcile with his old life. It was so cliche in plot, tone and writing style and every piece of the plot was telegraphed from the beginning. Instead of "and then what happened?" I felt like "oh, that happened, really? I'm so totally unsurprised." Juvenal Nyx Sometimes, when you read fantasy, the setting is so complex that once author takes so long to set it up, you still don't understand it and you don't care. This story is how to do a complex setting correctly. Very little set up was ever done, but by the end you got the feeling that his world was so complicated and so rich. I wish I could have read whole series in this setting. The Knife This story reminded me a lot of "Blood." More a story-let, it felt like a nice palate cleanser after two relatively long stories; however, it's not something I would reread on its own. Weights and Measures as a sad story about a couple that had lost their daughter, this worked. Picoult excels at writing emotion and this was a very sad, very moving story. As a magical realism piece, this didn't work. The conceit of the magic didn't make sense to me, and it distracted me from the emotions and themes of the piece rather than adding to it. Goblin Lake A beautifully written piece of meta-fiction that nicely explores the relationship between fiction and reality. I found this very insightful on the topics of why we read and why we write. Mallon the Guru The writing in this was so evocative and full of gorgeous imagery. The feeling of mysticism and growing feeling of dread worked their way into every sentence. The story left me more with feelings than with a concrete understanding of the plot (such that I immediately reread the story to make sure I hadn't missed anything.) Catch and Release Another nice twist on a genre -- a story told from the point of view of a reformed serial killer. I found the narrative chilling and fascinating. The analogy of fishing really carried the story. Polka Dots and Moonbeams one part 1920's gangsters, one part...something else. The writing is outstanding; the setting is established impeccably from the first sentence. Although as the reader you never quite figure out what's happening, the feelings of needing to escape, of love and of desperation all come through so clearly that it doesn't really matter. Loser Chuck Palahniuk always writes in the same Chuck Palahniuk genre and this is no exception. Take something banal, such as the Price is Right, and add grit. This was a fun, but superficial, read. Samantha's Diary I was so disappointed by this that I almost don't want to review it. I love Jones. I've read every book she's ever written. I bought this collection because it advertised a new Diana Wynne Jones story. But there's no two ways about it: this story sucked. There was no intrigue, none of the plot twists Jones fans live for and no depth of characterization. It was the saddest thing ever. Land of the Lost Maybe I could have handled this story better had I not been still grieving from Samantha's Diary. As was, this was a trite story about a woman who will find the grave of a serial killer's victim, even though the police have given up. Sound like something you've read about a million times before? Well, that's exactly what it was like. Lief in the Wind On the other hand, this was so fantastic. A completely original science fiction story about a team exploring a new planet and contacting the alien life there. Sound like something you've read a million times before? Well, this was absolutely nothing like all of those others. This started with the beautiful imagery of the "birds that get smaller as they get closer" and built open that with so much metaphor and so much detail of language. The story was also about how to recollect yourself when loved ones die and hope is lost and was gorgeous on that front as well. Unwell This story gets you totally lost in the mind of a toxic woman and you realize too late that although she's toxic there might be something else to the story. I adore stories with untrustworthy narrators and this was done perfectly. A Life in Fictions One of the few stories that felt completely new. Not a twist on a genre, or an old tale with a new spin, but just something new. It's a story about a woman who disappears into her boyfriend's novels when he writes characters based on her and how this affects her life. At a larger level it's about the many facets of self and what we do to integrate them. I really loved this piece. Let the Past Begin A lot of fluff surrounding a middle segment of a beautifully told folk legend. The meat of the story was haunting and so well-described that I could close my eyes and see the fortune teller. But the rest of it was chaff. The Therapist I loved this work. Very soft science fiction about what causes people to lose their tempers mixed with court fiction. I loved the idea of a neme (a contagious feeling of rage). I felt the first part could stand on its own and then loved the twist brought by the second part. Parallel Lines Now this was the twin story that I've been waiting for. At first glance, this is a boring Ouiji board twin-twin communication story. But it's actually so much more. The relationship between the twins and the characterization of each is done beautifully and the exploration of what we do and don't owe other people is unique. The Cult of the Nose This read along the same lines as the Therapist. What of the narrative should the reader choose to believe? The narrative itself was spooky with the sinister members of the Cult of the Nose inevitably showing up amid chaos and destruction. Human Intelligence about an alien spy on earth and the women who finds him out, but also about loneliness and goals and what one should do to achieve them. Stories A fictionalized autobiography of Moorcock. The first half reads like propaganda for the breaking down of genre barriers, which Gaiman had already given us (and better) in the introduction. The remainder, once he gets down to it, is a character-driven piece about love, loss and betrayal that is well done. The Maiden Flight of BellerophonI really enjoyed this while I was reading it for the well-drawn characters and the attention to detail (probably one highlight was a character who was obsessed with the flying machine Bellerophon having written the overly laudatory wikipedia article thereon.) However the plot never really came together for me. The Devil Staircase First of all, the layout (like stairs) is so distracting and not set up correctly with the page breaks. But once I got past that, I found that the central part of the story -- about a man who finds the devil's son, who offers him tempting gifts and who ends up taking a bird who sings when he lies -- interesting and creative. However, the beginning of the story really drags.
Overall, I would say that if, like me, you're picking up this book because you're a Diana Wynne Jones fan, do not do it! Otherwise, this book is totally worth reading for the contributions from Gaiman, Mosley, Swanwick, Ford, Wolfe, Howard, Deaver and Powers, particularly and several other solid entries....more
The Magicians is frequently billed as Harry Potter meets Narnia. What is left out is the heavy helping that Grossman borrows from a series of unfortunThe Magicians is frequently billed as Harry Potter meets Narnia. What is left out is the heavy helping that Grossman borrows from a series of unfortunate events, which is, truly, unfortunate. The Magicians is really quite clever, when Grossman forgets to make all of his characters (and as a result, his reader) maximally miserable.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about why I didn't enjoy this book. I like urban fantasy. I like gritty literature. I loved the way the Grossman treated being a magician in a mundane world as something that would mess you up and remove your chances of having a normal life or normal interactions. I loved how academic and technical magic was. And, when Grossman concentrated on his own plot and his own ideas, the results were amazing.
To me, the problem arose in the set of totally unsympathetic disaffected 20-somethings that comprise that main cast. Although we're supposed to believe that they are the most brilliant youths in America, it seems to be a law of physics in Grossman's universe that whenever a character is confronted with two choices, they will chose the worse one. Perhaps it helps that his characters drink copious amounts of alcohol roughly every other page. As the reader, it becomes tedious to anticipate how Grossman will turn the latest plot arc into misery all around. Additionally, Grossman seems to intentionally write unrelated, usually pointless plot arcs that remain without conclusion at the end. Perhaps this is to loan the reader the despair the characters feel at living in a world where nothing means everything. If so, it worked -- I spent most of my time reading this book despairing. ...more
China Mieville is the author when it comes to cities. I've found some of his other works tedious going because he puts so much love and adoration intoChina Mieville is the author when it comes to cities. I've found some of his other works tedious going because he puts so much love and adoration into his settings that he can't help but nudge the plot out of the way to show you his cool setting. Luckily, when it comes to The City & The City, Mieville had a brilliant idea: the detective novel provides a perfect frame for him to show off his city without it fighting for attention with his plot. Because there's a mystery to investigate, the details of the setting become critical to the plot, and can be properly showcased. Inspector Borlu is perfect for the job of tour guide -- the archetypal detective, he neither truly inhabits his life, but clinically examines his surroundings, and his arms-length remove from the city sets up the theme nicely.
Of course, where The City & The City shines is in the titular cities and there are (at least) three: Beszel: a prototypical Eastern European Olde Country; Ul Qoma: nouveau riche and glitzy; the combined physical reality that contains both, transposed on top of each other, not to mention Orciny -- the mythical third city that lies in the interstitial space. The idea is just so cool. And then the more I thought about it, the more I reflect on life, and that, my friends, is what makes a good book into a great book.
The central conceit is this: Ul Qoma and Beszel occupy the same space. I at first thought that this requires science fiction or fantasy, but Mieville employs neither here. Instead, he simply invents a political system where Ul Qoma and Beszel refuse to notice each other, even when physically located in the same place. They speak different languages, follow different rules and have different cultures. This was a stretch for me at first -- more of a stretch than imagining a magical system, to be honest. But then I started thinking of real-life split cities, like Jerusalem, where adjoining spaces belong to different governing bodies, speak different languages and in general refuse to acknowledge each other (even though in the book this exact example is brought up and belittled). And then I started thinking more generally and more close to home: I live in a neighborhood that walks the fine line between diversity and gentrification. Could it not be said that there are the neighbors, whether I know them or not, that I acknowledge more -- that, because I see similarity in the way they dress, talk and hold themselves, I am more likely to make small talk? When I talk about buying a house, there are blocks -- right next to highly desirable blocks -- where I would never live, because of the style of the houses and the presumed personalities of the neighbors (and the imaginary line dividing real people from the loathed undergrads.) And then I reflect on the recent political events and it's hard to argue that the same laws apply to everyone in the city, even in one physical location. So I spent a lot of time thinking about what these imaginary-but-real divisions in my life are, and what to do about them, since there is no all-powerful Breach in real life.
This ability to write a book that is intriguing prima facie, but that has used speculative fiction to explore deeper truths about real life is the exact reason that I read speculative fiction. The back of my copy of the City and The City compares it to Orwell and Kafka, but honestly, I think it transcends that and can only be compared to the true master: Ursula K. Le Guin. And to say it holds up well in the comparison is a compliment of the highest order.
A gorgeous and moving piece centered on what truly makes one oneself and how much of personality is bound up in our relationships with others. Every tA gorgeous and moving piece centered on what truly makes one oneself and how much of personality is bound up in our relationships with others. Every twist of the ending was telegraphed from the beginning, but despite that (or perhaps because of it) each piece is still extremely poignant. If this book has a draw back it is that Niffenegger still has a somewhat heavy hand with the English language. Long passages in Portuguese are written in full and then occasionally translated below (a gimmick which smacks of arrogance), thoughts are typed haphazardly in italics and some sentences simply fall flat. Overall, an extraordinary second novel. ...more
The Lost Boys is a triumph in setting. The most frequent complaint I found about this book before reading it myself was how long it takes to get to thThe Lost Boys is a triumph in setting. The most frequent complaint I found about this book before reading it myself was how long it takes to get to the plot (the plot, per se, occurs on page 374 and runs for about 15 pages before the book ends.) People who say such things are missing Card's point. The Lost Boys is not about plot -- it is about how the most mundane things can conspire to drive us down -- how teachers can be too cynical to love children, how churchgoers can be so self-absorbed that they wrap God around themselves and how businesses can be so obsessed with the bottom line that they are torturing their employees. It is about how witty Step and kind DeAnne get disillusioned and how hard they have to work to pull themselves back up. And ultimately, Lost Boys is Card's testament to Mormonism -- how faith in the unseen can be the most important thing of all....more