This book made me lose a lot of interest in short stories. The writing was beautiful, but most of the stories didn't go anywhere for me, doing little...moreThis book made me lose a lot of interest in short stories. The writing was beautiful, but most of the stories didn't go anywhere for me, doing little more than setting the mood, and the ones that did were a little too neatly bundled up. I guess Kiernan isn't really my writer. (less)
In Shakespeare, we divide comedy from tragedy by the endings, if people die, it's a tragedy, if there's a wedding, a comedy. The brilliance of his bod...moreIn Shakespeare, we divide comedy from tragedy by the endings, if people die, it's a tragedy, if there's a wedding, a comedy. The brilliance of his body of work is many of the comedies could have gone to tragedy with a couple different choices. Under the Poppy ends with a wedding, I don't think there's any spoiler there. In the middle there's some murders and some deaths, this is a war story of sorts, but whether this is comedy or tragedy may lie in which character you like the best, or whether you consider The Poppy to be a character of its own. Under the Poppy is set in a brothel in 1870s Brussels owned by Decca and Rupert. It is a brothel like no other, with a grand stage, a bawdy puppet show put on by Decca's brother, the puckish Istvan and mute pianist Jonathan. As war threatens nearby, the army takes up occupancy in whatever buildings they can, and the Poppy becomes a boarding house for the military presence, while still running business. This presence complicates matters for the residents. Accommodations must be made for the soldiers, a new class of people are coming through, including the mayor, and the general in command of the forces. These forces of order react as you might guess to the forces of liberality and counterculture represented in the Poppy, scandals that would have been contained in this vice district are now being witnessed by the high society of the city, and this brings unwanted attentions their way. Istvan in particular will not back down from his ever more outrageous and shocking puppet performances. Backstage too, controversy begins to build as Decca loves Rupert, but Rupert loves Istvan. The homosexual nature of this relationship is certainly not tolerated in this society, and as it becomes more open, the politics of the house and its relationship to the city become quite complicated. The survival of the Poppy becomes doubtful as the war passes near, supplies begin to run low, the population become afraid to go out, and the residents must make decisions on how to survive, whether remaining at the Poppy is plausible, and every departure hurts. The exploration of sex and sexuality in Under the Poppy is very well handled. We have a society that has not yet embraced the modern view, but is on the cusp of it, and I think the more modern sensibility is symbolized by Paris in the book. One of the very tricky aspects of a period piece like this is demonstrating just how attitudes differ from the modern while not looking like you are demonstrating it. Koja was very adept at making this apparent and natural to the world of the book. Often, you'll find a character which can embody the modern take on things, but she has a cast of characters with which to accomplish the subtle shading between the liberal and conservative points of view. Sexuality itself is well handled, it would be easy to go over the line, make the kinks an overt motif, but such heavy handedness would certainly be detrimental to this book. Sexuality deserves subtlety in all its variety, but hinting is too little for a book like this. Koja understands this and gives us doses of sexuality in just the right amounts and places to make it resonate without bringing the house down. There's a few reasons why I wanted to read this book. First, the language was described as lush and poetic, and this it certainly was, on the level of description and metaphor, she wrote a very visual and sensual world, replete with historic sights and smells, beauty and ugliness, rooms filled with cigar smoke and fine alcohols, with gaiety and danger. Her characterization is strong, a significant challenge with the number of social classes represented in the characters of the book, and the structures of the society. I was also interested because my main character for Inside is mute for part of the book, and I wanted to see how she handled it. In this respect I was disappointed. He was never so significant a character that it became an issue, and some opportunities were probably missed with him, at least I felt. I did have significant issues with a couple decisions she made in the writing of this book as well. First is how deaths were handled. The first death was one of the girls in the Poppy who had consumption. We hit a point of some tension, a chapter ends, and the next thing that happens, they are talking about the poor girl who died. I felt cheated we didn't see the death scene, we only hear about it second hand in reactions from the rest of the residents of the house. She had been a character of some significance up to that point, and then she was just gone, and people were talking of her in the past tense. Doing this once might have been permissible, but it happens again to a much more significant character and at a much more significant moment, and by much more sinister means. When I didn't get to see this death, I very much felt something was wrong, a wrong choice was made, and from that point I was wary of being cheated again. The shock of that event didn't register because I was feeling the shock of having not seen it happen. The book's biggest writing challenge, however, was maintaining the large cast of characters, and this for me was the biggest point at which the book failed. There were many point of view shifts in the way the story was told, and while each shift happened at a major section break, so no head-hopping, I felt every time that a new character was being introduced the shape of the line felt like a freeway with many on-ramps, and every time I had to get back up to speed. The effect it had was to break up the ensemble cast feeling I thought the book could have and should have had, while also making the plot feel less straightforward than it really was. This came down to a point of view issue. It came down to a sort of ensemble over-the-shoulder third person narration, and I would have preferred a stronger through-line, which would have tightened the ensemble cast feeling. As it stood, I felt like I was being introduced to a new character every section, and couldn't be bothered after a point with what the relationships between characters were. Limiting the points of view to only a few would have made it a much better read for me. This is not to say it wasn't a worthy read. I certainly got a lot of what I wanted out of it, and it was a nice break from my usual horror fantasy and scifi reading habits. (less)
Michael Cisco has been a favorite of mine for almost ten years, from when I read his 1999 International Horror Guild Award winning, The Divinity Stude...moreMichael Cisco has been a favorite of mine for almost ten years, from when I read his 1999 International Horror Guild Award winning, The Divinity Student. Cisco is not strictly horror, he lands in a category I can’t quite place, dark fantasy, Lovecraftian, gothic, something unto himself. His hallmarks are tremendous world-building, extremely rich visual description, character driven plots, unusually rendered and memorable side characters, and worlds as mysterious and magical as they are unorthodox. Cisco landed with Prime books for The San Veneficio Canon, The Tyrant, and The Traitor. Prime seemed to be a good fit for him, but the imprint proved difficult. A blog entry some time ago on why you should avoid Prime books began, “I think I remember what money looks like.” The Narrator takes place in a tangential connection to The Traitor, by use of a language and culture called Alak, and mention of the Soul Eaters, a sort of marginalized religious figure, but this does not play prominently in The Narrator. It seems to be a time period on the future of the same world, and events are not related between the two books.
The mess with Prime resulted in only one novel being released in six years despite his assertion of having fifteen done. Another book is set to be released by another publisher in the spring, a couple other titles are known, but have not found a home.
The Narrator was released in October 2010 by Civil Coping Mechanisms, which promoted it as his most mature and ambitious novel yet. The title character, named Low Loom Column begins the book at a university, training to become a narrator when he is drafted into military service despite having an exemption. When he tries to protest he is told time and again it is a futile effort, and he is forced to report to the nearest city for service. He continues seeking ways of getting out of conscription, even considering desertion, as he meets others from his unit, notably the conscripts Jil Punkinflake, and Silichieh, and Captain Makemin. He has some time in the city before they gather and move out, which he spends in his occupation. He records a séance, and provides his services for a wealthy and mysterious resident of the city, the cannibal queen who is said to have killed and eaten her husband after the death of her child, and who is socially imprisoned in her mansion. Here he illustrates just what a narrator does, he records the story that is told to him.
Forgive me a brief foray from the plot at this point, to set up what Cisco is so good at. Cisco can write sentences better than anybody. Long and lush descriptions, brilliant similes and metaphors, a tremendous mastery of language which always inspires me. While still in the city, he lays out the matter of the book in this paragraph.
“I find unaccountable difficulties always arise in searching out the narrative sections of any marketplace, but of course, how could I know that? Anyhow there always seems to be some distraction, or the sort of wrong turn that, having drawn you into the trammels of its mischief, dodges behind the innocent turns and loses itself among them like an absconding pickpocket. No shortage of the real ones either—at the wine store, Jil Punkinflake took my wallet slowly from my hand as I was about to restore it to my pocket and deftly slipped it into my shirt, where my vest holds it now against my skin. I ask him about the narrative market and he gives me a swift, canny look. With a nearly invisible toss of his head I realize he is one of those go-betweens who are involved with the narrative merchants, the storiers and letterers and calligraphers and abcedarians. We flit out into trough like stone lanes.”
Here Cisco lays out exactly what to expect in this book. This is a story about story, existing on many levels simultaneously, and it will steal your wallet if you aren’t careful. Low is an unreliable narrator, as unreliable as this narrative market. It is also here that he is seen by an Edek, and once the Edek sees you, there is no sneaking away from conscription. They assemble, and we find Makemin is a hard officer, intent on making a name for himself, and forget about his pending divorce, mostly by taking out his personal anger on his troops. Low tries to avoid him until on the march our of the city, Makemin notices he is a narrator. Low is given a horse, and ordered to ride alongside him to record the story of his unit.
They are attacked on the road, enemies described as “blackbirds” ambush them as they make their way out of the city. They take some casualties, but curiously, the blackbird dead hover above the ground. Their first stop is a mental institution. In the run up to the war, the caretakers locked the residents in, leaving them to die. Makemin releases and treats many, and then conscripts the able bodies into his unit. A woman, Saskia describes how the Blackbirds have metal body suits, cast specially so lightly they float, and can therefore attack from the sky, cover great distances in a jump, and be gone in seconds.
They make their way to the shore, where they commandeer a ship to make it an island which is a strategic stronghold for their side of the war. Their ship is attacked en route, and they suffer large casualties before reaching port. The port is designed to be very easily defended from the sea, and mountains protect the city from the inland side of the island, but the enemy is known to be on the opposite shore. The unit disembarks and makes friends with the natives, largely through Low's translation skills, and soon marches on the enemy, Makemin eager to make a name for himself. Early exploration reveals a larger than expected enemy presence, and Makemin is forced to make a decision, return to the city and defend it from there, leaving the rest of the island to fend for itself, possibly leaving it to become a stronghold, or wait for reinforcements in the form of Predicanten, (also known as predicates), soldiers locked in giant armored suits, essentially walking insane tanks. There is another option, however. The interior of the island is said to possess ancient magical weapons, enough to destroy any army, if the spirits of the island decide they like those seeking to use them. If not, well, no one makes it back alive. Only Low, the Narrator, has the ability to translate the languages needed to convince the spirits to fight on their side, and so he leads a final expedition into the interior to gain the spirit weapons before the opposing army realizes they are there and makes its own attempts. But to describe it like this is to leave out all of the details that make a Michael Cisco book so rich and engrossing.
The book is rich in ambiguity. It is never clear what the matter of the war is, or who the enemy is, nor is it clear how anybody in the country feels towards the war, the enemy, or the soldiers. There are mentions of separatists, but these seem to be more an ethnic minority and never figure into the fighting. Even the soldiers have very little to say about the why of the war, and only discuss the circumstances they find themselves in.
The Narrator is a book that rewards a slow read due to its rich text and subtle storyline. This is certainly an gifted author coming into his own, though I think The Tyrant left me more satisfied emotionally as a reader.
Cisco succeeds here at writing a rich story on several levels, not just telling a story of this military regiment, but a story of people, a nation, and a story about story telling, and the strength narrative holds personally and culturally. It is interesting to see how the pursuit of story affects the characters through the book. For Low, being a narrator should have been a blessing, a way out of this war, and it soon becomes a burden, but a burden he must carry as his training requires. Makemin does not set out in search of honor, glory or country, it is to make his own story, and all along the way, story drives every character. Low is the historian on the spot, setting each down, it is only with reluctance that he takes control of the narrative, and it is up to the reader to decide how unreliable a narrator he is.
Cisco also succeeds in re-imagining the unreliable narrator story, creating a narrator always suspect, seemingly capable of everything he undertakes, and yet incapable of the tasks he takes on. (less)