A TOP SHELF review, originally appearing in the February 10, 2017 edition of The Monitor
Daniel José Older is a powerful new voice in speculative fictiA TOP SHELF review, originally appearing in the February 10, 2017 edition of The Monitor
Daniel José Older is a powerful new voice in speculative fiction. His 2012 short story collection “Salsa Nocturna” caught the eye of many readers and critics; 2015 saw the launch of two separate series by Older — the adult fantasy “Bone Street Rumba” and the young-adult “Shadowshaper” (both of which inhabit the same universe, I should add).
The latter series focuses on Sierra Santiago, a Puerto Rican teen living in Brooklyn who is heir to a unique Latino magic: the ability to infuse art with ancestral spirits, a skill known as shadowshaping. I don’t think it’s too spoilery to reveal that the first book ends with a wider circle of Sierra’s friends — people of color from the Bed-Stuy neighborhood — receiving this power.
Though book two won’t come out till later this year, Older surprised everyone recently by releasing a novella set immediately after Shadowshaper (think of it as the Rogue One of this series, except without as much death).
Titled “Ghost Girl in the Corner,” this new tale focuses, not on Sierra, but on her close friends Tee and Izzy. The romance between the two young women is on the rocks because of the events of “Shadowshaper,” and Tee decides to spend the summer taking over the neighborhood paper while Izzy throws herself deep into her music, rapping to deal with the heartache.
But then Tee finds a dress in the church basement where the press is set up and unknowingly calls the attention of a ghost — a girl about her age who begs her, inexplicably, to help.
Tee keeps the ghost girl a secret from everyone, even her beloved Izzy, until a local girl goes missing and the messages from beyond suddenly take on an unexpected urgency. With the assistance of Uncle Neville and his inscrutable past, Izzy and Tee have to navigate their feelings and act quickly to prevent a repeat of past horror.
In addition to being a thrilling mystery and moving teen romance, “Ghost Girl in the Corner” engages with Older’s refreshing social criticism and dedication to creating literary that truly reflects the diversity of modern America. Once again the privilege of white authority figures is held in stark and alarming relief, but the primary critique of the novella centers on police indifference to the plight of endangered youth of color. The neighborhood and attendant online community mobilize to find the missing girl in a desperate yet inspiring way that makes the inertia of law enforcement all the more infuriating.
Older, who spent years as an EMT in New York City, knows this alarming consequence of privilege better than most, and he parlays that experience — plus his great ear for dialogue and masterful skill at characterization — into a richly layered, revelatory and exciting ride....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 10, 2016 edition of The Monitor
I think it’s safe to say that “Mongrels” is one of Stephen GrahamA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 10, 2016 edition of The Monitor
I think it’s safe to say that “Mongrels” is one of Stephen Graham Jones’ most personal novels yet, even though it’s ostensibly about a family of werewolves.
Along with spending many of his formative years as the only Native American kid in a small West Texas town, Jones crisscrossed the country in his youth in many a broken-down truck. To this day the acclaimed author and professor seems to feel the stamp of the open road on his soul, as indelible a mark as the ostracization suffered be all marginalized families.
“Mongrels” opens with an unnamed young narrator living with his grandfather, an acerbic old man who tells tall tales about being a werewolf, much to the chagrin of the boy’s Aunt Libby and Uncle Darren (who imply to him that they are simply outsiders in their rural community).
But at a moment of crisis, the boy discovers the truth: all of his living relatives are werewolves. Soon he finds himself living on the road with Libby and Darren, their peculiar needs and customs keeping them from staying more than a few months at any one place. As his understanding of the nature of werewolves deepens, the boy at first embraces what may be his destiny with feral glee. With the passing of time, however, the gravitational pull of the rest of society complicates his relationship with his aunt and uncle.
The multiple conflicts with neighbors, law enforcement and social institutions are heightened by the fact that the narrator may not have actually inherited the family curse. Adjusting to that possibility, imagining himself nonetheless part of circle of loved ones with whom he doesn’t share an essential quality, makes the boy a rich, compelling and wholly empathetic character.
Jones has explained in interviews that “Mongrels” got its start as a cycle of short stories that he stitched together with a series of third-person vignettes (each of which refers to the protagonist by a role he plays or pretends to play: “nephew,” “biologist,” etc.). Like the lives of its characters themselves, this disjointed, episodic structure may baffle or frustrate some readers, but to my mind it’s a brilliant stroke of luck. The last thing I wanted was a novel version of “Teen Wolf.” Jones has given us something vastly richer and more rewarding.
The plight of the family can be read as a metaphor for that of any immigrant or minority clan whose lifestyle and traditions are at odds with a community that views them with deep distrust. The protagonist’s internal war — the existential question of whether to embrace his heritage or abandon it to pursue a more mainstream life in the larger social sphere — is one that will resonate with all daughters and sons of fringe folk....more
The Last Witness (by K.J. Parker, pseudonym of Tom Holt) is set (seemingly) in the same universe as many of Parker’s novels, in a quasi-Byzantine counThe Last Witness (by K.J. Parker, pseudonym of Tom Holt) is set (seemingly) in the same universe as many of Parker’s novels, in a quasi-Byzantine country at odds with one of its neighbors. The nameless protagonist is able to reach into the minds of people and remove memories, and he has marketed this ability in such a way and with so few scruples that he should be ridiculously wealthy (were it not for his crippling gambling addiction).
A persistent father-son set of clients and the appearance of a girl with the same ability ruin his attempt at retirement, sending him scuttling to the rival nation, where he uses stolen memories to become one of the greatest flautists in history. When relations between the two countries begin to normalize, however, he is hunted down by the young woman. Her identity and real purpose turn out to be a gob-smacking reveal that turns the tale into a tragedy of the oldest sort.
Written in Parker’s inimitable, unflinching and darkly humorous style, The Last Witness reached as deeply into my mind as its protagonist did his victims....more
Stephen R. Donaldson, in his first work since wrapping up his 10 volume magnum opus about leper Thomas Covenant, has produced two novellas, publishedStephen R. Donaldson, in his first work since wrapping up his 10 volume magnum opus about leper Thomas Covenant, has produced two novellas, published together under the title of the first: The King’s Justice.
In the title story, a mysterious man called Black rides into the village of Settle’s Crossways, where a young boy has recently been murdered. Black has been “shaped” by the nameless king of this land, who a few generations earlier put an end to a war between sorcerers using the powers of the Dark and the Bright, which are now worshipped as complementary gods. As he unravels the mystery of the murder, Black uncovers a twisted plan to reach beyond the balance imposed by the king to awaken other elemental powers of destruction.
A spare narrative reminiscent of the first three books of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, “The King’s Justice” was a thrilling read.
The other novella, “The Augur’s Gambit,” returns to one Donaldson’s favorite themes: the obscure plans of powerful rulers who must keep their loyal advisers and family in the dark while simultaneously trusting them to prevail despite this lack of information. On the island nation of Indemnie, Mayhew Gordian, a reader of entrails or “hieronomer,” has discovered for his queen, Inimica Phlegathon DeVry, that a horrible doom awaits her people. While she inexplicably goads the five barons of the island to civil war, Mayhew must work with her daughter Excrucia to find a way to save Indemnie without massive bloodshed.
Written in the first-person using highly stylized language, “The Augur’s Gambit” is a little less accessible, but ultimately rewarding in its own right, especially for those who love labyrinthine court dramas with a dash of magic. ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 12, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Maybe it’s just me, but 2015 feels like a watershed year for LatinA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 12, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Maybe it’s just me, but 2015 feels like a watershed year for Latino speculative fiction. The industry has been gradually evolving, becoming more inclusive and more celebratory of diverse voices (despite disgusting hiccups like the recent Hugo awards scandal — Google it and be ready to get upset). From where I’m sitting, it looks like a sea change.
Nothing makes this clearer than the exciting success of Daniel José Older, a neoyorquino whose debut collection “Salsa Nocturna” heralded the arrival of a very special voice capable of blending street, magic, music and heritage — a delightful and important fusion.
2015 is definitely Older’s year, with the launch of his urban fantasy series “Bone Street Rumba” in January and this month the arrival of his young adult urban fantasy “Shadowshaper.”
Imagine for a moment that some of the urban art you see gracing the sides of buildings at the heart of New York City were imbued with human spirits, ancestors and other ghostly allies who flow through the hands of talented artists to bring the images to startling life.
This intriguing premise is at the heart of “Shadowshaper.” The protagonist, a teenage Boricua named Sierra Santiago, lives with an extended family that includes her mother and her bed-ridden grandfather, whose mind has been wrenched by a terrible stroke. Sierra has great artistic talent, which she uses at the urging of people in her Brooklyn neighborhood to paint a massive mural on the side of a building that, abandoned and incomplete, blocks a previously scenic view.
Hints of something strange come with garbled warning from her grandfather and then Sierra is attacked by what appears to be a zombie. Determined to get to the bottom of things, she discovers that her family has been keeping a secret from her: Many of them and others in Bedford-Stuyvesant can shadowshape: guide ghosts into creative works (primarily visual ones). Her grandfather was one of the greatest shadowshapers and that ability has been passed to her.
But shadowshaping can be twisted for evil purposes and someone begins to use dark spirits to eliminate the friends of Sierra’s grandfather, one by one. To stop this force before it devastates the ones she loves, Sierra has to work together with a group of other kids — Robbie, the young Haitian ’shaper she finds herself falling for; Bennie and Jerome, faithful and funny friends from her block; and Izzy and Tee, two girls whose love for each other is itself a sort of power.
And that’s one of the most refreshing things about this book. There is no lone hero saving the day. Sure, Sierra is a “chosen one,” but her friends and community together in loving solidarity turn the tide against evil.
Older also embeds deft social commentary throughout the book, showing us the strange gentrification of certain parts of Brooklyn, unveiling the warped view privileged people often have toward people of color. Sierra encounters ethnic, linguistic and gender-based discrimination (both casual and aggressive), but she is a strong, well-rounded young woman who moves toward her objectives despite these obstacles.
Without spoiling too much, it’s important to note that the principal acts of evil in “Shadowshaper” grow out of a sort of cultural appropriation and Older — without being heavy-handed — explores the ethics of studying the belief systems of other cultures.
The writing is tight and fluid. Dialogue rings amazingly true and I was floored by Older’s ear for dialect and respect for the fact that people move between registers. The author is a talented musician and his prose shuffles, slides and steps with infectious rhythm. Overall, there is a weight and grittiness to his world-building that surely reflects his years as a paramedic in New York City, as well as a honed talent for fiction....more
A TOP SHELF review, original published in the May 1, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Some of us don’t make it out of adolescence and early adulthood unscatA TOP SHELF review, original published in the May 1, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Some of us don’t make it out of adolescence and early adulthood unscathed. Our nostalgia for the lovely moments is forever complicated by the scars inflicted on us by not only our enemies, but by people we love and trust. I was reminded of this truth this week by a powerful book that explores complex issues of family, friendship, intimacy and identity.
“Signal to Noise” is the debut novel by Silvia Moreno-García, self-declared “Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination.” In 2009, Meche returns to her native Mexico City to attend the funeral of her father, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Forced into re-encountering childhood friends, she begins to remember the period of time (1988-89) when their special circle found actual magic but then spun apart.
The novel alternates between these two eras, each chapter deftly informing the next. In the past, we see Meche — whose radio DJ father gives himself up to dreams that can never satisfy his demanding, uncompromising wife — struggle through adolescence with two other outsiders: Sebastián, a victim of child abuse who lives with his divorced mother and selfish older brother, and Daniela, child of overprotective parents who stunt her maturity because of the lupus she suffers.
When Meche discovers that certain LPs contain magic that can be unleashed and channeled, the trio imagines that their humiliating time at the margins of school society are at an end. But as Meche’s grandmother tries to warn her, magic has a cost. Sebastián and Meche, though each cares deeply for the other, end up at odds and their emotional clash has devastating consequences.
In the present, Meche deals with the aftermath of having left parents and friends behind at the age of 15. She discovers the complex depths of her father as she sorts his remaining things and she reconnects with Sebastián, who helps her to embrace the intense love that still crackles magically between them.
This book hit the sweet spot for me. Moreno-García effortlessly captures the spirit of a time and place (Mexico in the late ’80s — its music, people and popular culture) that resonates with me (and will with many of my friends: this does for roqueros what “Among Others” did for genre geeks). My regiomontana wife and I began dating around this time, and our conversations all week have been about how right this book gets things, how accessible the author makes it all for people unfamiliar with Mexico, too.
But the story is character-driven and without the palpably real figure of Meche — smart, crazy about music, conflicted about family and boys, loving yet fierce, capable of creation and destruction — the novel would not be as powerful. She mattered to me, her relationship with Sebastián was important to me: I suffered with them, wept with relief and joy when I read the final words.
A stunning exposé of the rich and magical complexities of life, “Signal to Noise” is the best debut of the year....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 20, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Done well, Weird West is one of my favorite sub-genres of speculaA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 20, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Done well, Weird West is one of my favorite sub-genres of speculative fiction, blending the look and feel of the Western with all the enchanting, bizarre and supernatural trappings of fantasy. When you pile on Chinese mythology and Daoist magic, I’m hooked. Molly Tanzer, acclaimed author of the short story collections A Pretty Mouth and Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations, has done all that with a splash of steam punk in her new novel Vermilion.
The novel centers on Elouise “Lou” Merriwether, a 19-year-old half-Chinese, half-English woman living and working in 1870s San Francisco in an sort of alternate reality in which magical beings and monsters are publicly known entities (including sentient bears and sea lions, plus, delightfully, jackalopes). After her father’s death, Lou inherits his job as psychopomp, a sort of exorcist/spirit guide for hire. Dressed in men’s clothes and doing little to address people’s confusion about her gender, Lou goes about this dangerous work alone, as the only person she wanted as her partner has left the city to pursue his dreams.
Shortly after the novel opens, Lou’s estranged mother brings a worrisome case to her attention: young men from Chinatown are being enticed away by the promise of work in Colorado. But none of them has returned. The rebellious psychopomp is at first reluctant, but her mind is changed when a youth finally does return—transformed into a "geung si," an undead creature midway between zombie and vampire.
Lou sets out to discover just what is happening to her mother’s people in the mountains of Colorado. Accompanied by the charming if strange dandy Shai, she makes her way to a popular sanatorium run by Dr. Lazarus Panacea, whose Elixir of Life has been flying off the shelves of apothecaries across the nation.
As she seeks to discover the dark secrets at the heart of that snowy retreat, our snarky heroine soon finds herself over her head. She is used to confronting life’s mysteries head-on, not slinking around the edges of things and her self-doubt threatens to undo her mission. Luckily, her former partner Bo and other new friends ally with her to ferret out the true nature of Dr. Panacea and the bizarre scheme driving his villainy.
Tanzer’s writing, as always, is a delightful meld of period-authentic language and modern sensibilities. Snappy, often hilarious dialogue is embedded in a deftly written narrative thread that gives plenty of room for characters to breathe and evolve. The world-building is fantastic and leaves many opportunities for follow-ups: I for one really hope this is the beginning of a series, as I want desperately to see Lou — an amazingly round and compelling protagonist — back in San Francisco, doing what she does best.
"Vermilion" abounds with relatable, human characters of various genders and sexual orientations. LGBTQ issues are folded into the supernatural plot with respect and care, focusing on the emotional and interpersonal repercussions in a refreshingly gentle but frank manner.
An amazing debut novel from an author to be reckoned with, Vermilion is most definitely Top Shelf....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the April 17, 2015 edition of The Monitor
One of the most powerful roles that speculative fiction, especialA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the April 17, 2015 edition of The Monitor
One of the most powerful roles that speculative fiction, especially dystopian sci-fi, plays in the literary community is that of cautionary prophet, spinning visionary depictions of what the sins of the present may lead us to. Classics like “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”and“Nineteen Eighty-Four” have become staples of high school and college curricula precisely because of their startling oracular power, that gut punch of plausibility that leaves readers reeling.
With “Ink,”Sabrina Vourvoulias — a writer, journalist and editor with Mexican-Guatemalan roots — has added a powerful meditation on immigration to this growing sub-genre. Set in the very near future, the novel depicts an America in which immigrants are required to receive a biometric tattoo in place of documentation, with colors corresponding to status.
The novel, which spans several years, depicts how this first repressive step (not as unbelievable as I would hope, given the current anti-immigrant climate in our country) leads to further persecution: the banning of the use of Spanish in public, creation of sanatoriums for supposedly sick “Inks” (as recipients of the tattoos are called), reversal of the rights of naturalized citizens, installation of tracking devices, sterilization and finally mass deportation.
Vourvoulias makes the brave choice of telling this story broadly and loosely, using four very different characters in New York State whose intersecting narratives weave together a compelling tapestry of communal victory. Finn is a journalist whose interest in the Inks is at first a reflection of his desire to sell news, but whose love for an immigrant embroils him emotionally and intellectually with the movement. Mari came as an infant to the United States from Guatemala with her American father, fleeing the massacre of her mother’s people (from whom she inherited a spirit animal to which she is twinned at birth and which protects her and other Inks in moments of direst need).
Del, Finn’s brother-in-law, is a painter with a spiritual bond that links him to his land. Drawn to the movement by his relationship with fellow workers and Meche, the Cuban chemist whose artificial skin allows immigrants who “pass” as white to cover up their tattoos, Del uses his earth magic to help establish a sanctuary for those escaping the increasingly harsh regime. Abbie, an almost preternaturally gifted teenage hacker of indigenous North American heritage, volunteers at the “inkatorium” her mother runs, and she also risks everything to protect immigrants from the dehumanizing practices that begin to snowball into fascism.
The novel consists of three broad arcs in which these individuals’ almost vignette-like stories, driven by relationships and characters, show how the immigrant community and its allies struggle to survive and finally fight back against the repression.
Rather than resolve itself through the actions of a single heroic chosen one, the conflict in “Ink” is refreshingly dealt with — after heartbreak and loss and betrayal — by the tenacity and solidarity of an entire movement who network and take action, never giving up until injustice is overturned.
Vourvoulias pulls off a real feat through her deft dialogue, arcane plotting and insightful characterization: spinning a complex and completely recognizable world that seems to be waiting just around the bend. Even the magic in this genre hybrid feels tangible and authentic, a deepening of cultural traditions and indigenous religious beliefs.
At a time like the present, when immigrants are in such physical/political danger and law enforcement’s violation of minority rights is tragically underscored with frightening regularity, brave novels like “Ink” become not only a necessity, but a moral obligation....more
A TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 30, 2015 edition of The Monitor.
First, for the uninitiated, a quick definition of weird fictionA TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 30, 2015 edition of The Monitor.
First, for the uninitiated, a quick definition of weird fiction: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
That’s how H.P. Lovecraft, the master of the uncanny dark, defined the genre for which he’d be forever known. Many modern writers exploring the genre have in fact used Lovecraft’s literary universe (now in the public domain) as a sort of gruesome sandbox for their own delightful tales.
One of the most exciting voices at play in that universe is that of Molly Tanzer. Her 2012 collection A Pretty Mouth is a delightful blend of subtle, unnerving horror and historically contextualized debauchery, substituting excesses of the flesh for the violence more commonly found in such tales.
Consisting of four short stories and a novella, A Pretty Mouth gives us in reverse chronological order a multi-generational look at the Calipash family, a noble English house with dark and twisted predilections and pedigree.
The Edwardian-era “A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs” details the aid an industrious valet renders Alastair Fitzroy, the 27th Lord Calipash, whose sister has become addicted to the secretions of an unusual cephalopod. “The Hour of the Tortoise” is a kinky Gothic exploration of patriarchal repression of intelligent women and the lengths to which they are driven by this marginalization.
Incest, black magic and blurred identities are just some of the themes of the slyly narrated “Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins.” Then in the titular novella, the stereotypical story of prep-school life is turned playfully on its head, as Tanzer explores the mischief of Calipash twins in 17th century using an inventive mixture of period language and modern slang. The final tale, “Damnatio Memoriae,” is a tongue-in-cheek sword-and-sandals tale of Romans in first-century Britain that shows us the founding of the bizarre Calipash clan.
Tanzer expertly weaves period-accurate language and cultural elements with mischievous mores and hints at cosmic darkness. Every story is wickedly wonderful and you’ll be left wanting to learn more about the debauched and gifted Calipashes....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the December 5, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Though not a memoir, some of the science-fiction, horror and faA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the December 5, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Though not a memoir, some of the science-fiction, horror and fantasy pieces in Bradley’s book have an autobiographical feel, drawing on the author’s youth as a Latina in South Texas. Certainly the innumerable facets of female identity glitter at the heart of these darkly beautiful treks through otherworldly landscapes of desire and pain, belonging and loneliness, creation and destruction.
Standouts for me were “No Patron Saint,” in which a young woman discovers she can bear the weight of her boyfriend’s grief; “Red Eye,” about a woman’s nightly excesses; the eerie and moving title sequence; the borderline bizarro “Teratoma Lullaby,” in which an absorbed twin struggles for the upper hand; “The ‘Ludes,” a great tale of addiction; the terrifying apocalyptic mythology of “Gehenesis”; and the novelette “Bilingual, or Mouth to Mouth,” a fascinating South Texas cuento de hadas … literally.
Bradley possesses a real gift for language and unflinching insight into the best and worst of human nature. You owe it to yourself to check out this rising star of speculative fiction and verse. ...more
The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World tells the story of Scrape, Texas, a rundown coastal town just north of Corpus Christi. Inhabited byThe Last Horror Novel in the History of the World tells the story of Scrape, Texas, a rundown coastal town just north of Corpus Christi. Inhabited by a handful of vice-indulging folk with no future, Scrape is attacked without warning …
... by la Llorona and an army of undead children.Then a horde of manos pachonas. Then by the spectral Agüelo. And so forth. An apocalypse of intensely personal, claustrophobic dimensions, The Last Horror Novel boasts harrowing scenes, believable (if often odious) characters, and some incredible writing. The origin story for la Llorona is one of the most original, soul-wrenching takes I have ever read....more
I’ll admit, when I first held the book in my hand, I was startled at the title and a little dubious at the idea of sharks raining down on cities. SharI’ll admit, when I first held the book in my hand, I was startled at the title and a little dubious at the idea of sharks raining down on cities. Sharknado, anyone?
Luckily, the author had something very different in mind. In that inimitable style of his, a sort of ADHD cross between Faulkner and Stephen King, Carr draws us into a timeless, worn-out world (vaguely post-apocalyptic in flavor, like his previous Edie and the Low-Hung Hands or the Dark Tower series). The protagonist, Crick, is a former magician who lost his family to a school of vicious sharks that appeared mysteriously after a torrential rain.
Crick, who has learned how to take down the eldritch flying killers, now travels from town to town on his mule-driven cart, trying to warn the inhabitants that the [expletive deleted] sharks are on their way. In one particular town he is arrested and finds himself helpless to stop the devastation that will soon rain down. Not for the faint of heart, but very rewarding to those who appreciate powerful, dark, almost biblical explorations of untrammeled, inhuman wrath. ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 6 edition of The Monitor
For the past 15 years, writer K.J. Parker has been exploring a strangA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 6 edition of The Monitor
For the past 15 years, writer K.J. Parker has been exploring a strange niche in fantasy fiction, publishing three trilogies, five stand-alone novels and a bevy of novellas and short stories all set in largely magic-free alternative medieval universes.
Rich with allusions to Byzantine and late Roman culture, these literary worlds use politics and dark-age technology to explore tragic themes, typically centering on the hells created by protagonists’ good intentions. Despite the twisting and often bleak plots, Parker’s books are also extremely witty, with crisp, sarcastic dialogue and lots of cathartic laughs.
Having read nearly all of the author’s later work, I decided to go back and catch up on the first series, The Fencer Trilogy. The first volume, Colours in the Steel, is set in Perimadeia, famed as Triple City and the mercantile capital of the world. The protagonist, Bardas Loredan, is a veteran, survivor of a vicious war against the more primitive tribes of the plains. In Perimadeia, many legal cases are resolved by armed combat, and Loredan has become a fencer-at-law.
When son of a fallen tribal chief makes his way to the Triple City to work as a blacksmith and study the engineering techniques of that mighty nation-state, a chain of events is set in motion that will put the lawyer in charge of the defense of Perimadeia.
But Loredan has other issues to face as well. The consequences of his well-intentioned actions during his childhood, during the war and in his profession converge with the misguided help the city’s spiritual leader has provided one of the lawyer’s former fencing students. The resulting chaos may just mean the end of Perimadeia’s economic and political ascendancy.
Colours in the Steel contains many of the same thematic elements that are explored with greater finesse in Parker’s later work: shades of grey rather than simplistic good and evil, the conflict between technologically advanced and backward peoples, the contingent or expedient nature of religion and politics. The plot, however, is not as tightly constructed as it could be, and the characters don’t all resonate as fully (and Loredan is shoe-horned into a hero role that Parker largely dispenses with in other books).
Though we know little about K.J. Parker (the pseudonym of a purportedly female lawyer in southern England), I definitely recommend her body of work to those who find history, politics, medieval technology and sword-fighting intriguing. But I would probably start with her third series instead of this....more
A TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 9, 2014 edition of The Monitor
In 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien published his massive follow-up to his 19A TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 9, 2014 edition of The Monitor
In 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien published his massive follow-up to his 1937 children’s book, The Hobbit. The three-volume work of fantasy known as The Lord of the Rings was a tough sell at the time, and Tolkien’s publisher turned to established authors for blurbs and marketing, including Naomi Mitchison.
Just two years earlier, Mitchison, who was a fan and friend of Tolkien’s for years, had herself published a slim fantasy novel titled Travel Light. The book in many respects reads as a conversation with or response to Tolkien’s work. Both authors were adapting epic heroic tales to modern sensibilities, but Mitchison arguably went further than her peer, turning the genre utterly on its head.
Travel Light tells the story of Halla, a princess who narrowly escapes the clutches of her murderous stepmother. She is brought up for a time by bears before being adopted by a dragon, under whose tutelage she gains the ability to speak to all living creatures and other small practical magicks.
Halla also learns to hate and mistrust heroes, whom dragons see as dangerous ideologues rushing off to murder and ransack. Indeed, great tragedy befalls her at the hands of a hero. Forced to leave the dragons’ world of treasure and ancient lore, she faces Valkyries, unicorns and other mythical creatures before being told by Odin All-Father to “travel light.”
Wandering through the world and the centuries, Halla finds herself in the company of men, whose tendency to want to rescue maidens from dragons without consulting with the ladies has always seemed suspect to her. But this particular band of men seeks to get justice from the Emperor in Constantinople, and Halla’s unique skills and world view are a godsend for them.
Right down to the twist of an ending, Mitchison is deftly subversive with genre and gender expectations while managing to tell a beautiful, moving story. She tackles issues of government, religion and tradition with a light but critical touch so that the book is simultaneously very accessible to children and immensely rewarding for adults.
Mitchison, who lived to be 101 and wrote some 90 books, may have been largely forgotten while her male colleagues Tolkien, C.S. Lewis et al. have been immortalized, but this engaging, witty and intelligent book needs to get into the hands of all the fantasy lovers you know, both young and old....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 3, 2013 edition of The Monitor
King Keeps on Shining
Thirty-five years ago, an alcoholic StephenA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 3, 2013 edition of The Monitor
King Keeps on Shining
Thirty-five years ago, an alcoholic Stephen King exorcised his fear of becoming an abusive father by writing The Shining, the harrowing tale of an author who accepts a job as caretaker of a Colorado hotel during the long winter months and who ends up trying to kill his family at the bidding of twisted revenants that haunt the place.
Given the popularity of the film version of that book, it is probably not a spoiler to reveal that his young son Danny, a boy gifted with psychic powers collectively called shining, escapes at the end. Like many fans of King, I have wondered for three decades what happened to Danny next.
Now we know.
Doctor Sleep gives us a Dan Torrance who has spent years grappling with the same demons as his father. But when the bottle drives him finally to the scummiest and most reprehensible of acts, Dan chances upon a town, a job and friends that help him sober up. He becomes an orderly at a hospice, where he earns the nickname Doctor Sleep because he uses the shining to help the dying pass peacefully.
Unbeknownst to Dan, an ancient tribe of psychic vampires called the True Knot is roaming the highways of America, searching for children with the shining, torturing them horribly and siphoning off the spiritual “steam” produced at their deaths. The macabre process extends their lives indefinitely, and they will do anything to continue their predatory lifestyle.
When they set their sights on 13-year-old Abra Stone, whose shining eclipses that of any human in existence, Dan Torrance finds himself drawn back into a world of evil he had thought sealed away forever in the deep vaults of his mind. He nonetheless determines to be her teacher and protector, much as Richard Halloran did for him decades earlier, no matter the cost.
Less of a nail-biting work of psychological horror than its predecessor, Doctor Sleep reads more like a modern urban fantasy with some classic King touches. It’s clear this book is the author’s answer to a lot of young adult literature (which he alludes to repeatedly throughout), and taken as such, it’s a great ride.
However, I’ll be honest. One YA-style relationship twist was just silly (to my mind) and unnecessary to the plot. The villains were not nearly as frightening as the above description might suggest, especially as we spend a good deal of time getting to know them. They are frankly pitiful and underwhelming. There is also very little real danger to our protagonists, strangely enough.
Despite these drawbacks, I enjoyed the book a lot, especially as a character study of Dan Torrance. Keep an eye out for the special appearance toward the very end by a dead relative of his … wink, wink. ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the January 10, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Returning to the Dark Tower
In 1982, Stephen King published a boA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the January 10, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Returning to the Dark Tower
In 1982, Stephen King published a book he’d been writing off and on for a dozen years. Called The Gunslinger, the novel described an epic pursuit: a gunslinger, Roland Deschain, following the Man in Black across a post-apocalyptic desert in Mid-World, a sort of decaying analogue of our own planet. King returned to this fantastic landscape again in 1987, 1991 and 1997. It seemed that the writer would continue to release a Dark Tower novel (named for the ultimate object of Roland’s quest) every 5 to 7 years, but then King was struck by a van in 1999 as he walked along the shoulder of Route 5 in his native Maine. The immediacy of his own mortality pushed him to finish the series (three additional volumes) by 2004. Though some fans were disappointed in the quality of these hurriedly completed novels, the series as a whole is one of the most remarkable accomplishments in American genre fiction.
As a result, there was much excitement at the announcement that King would be returning to Mid-World to narrate what happens between books 4 and 5. The Wind Through the Keyhole doesn’t actually advance the story of the Dark Tower series, but it does deepen a reader’s understanding of Roland and his broken world. The novel consists of three stories, each nested within the previous: Roland Deschain and his three companions (Eddie, Susannah and Jake, all from our world) take shelter from a gruesome starkblast, a wintery storm that can freeze things solid in seconds. While they wait out the malevolent weather, Roland relates the story of when, as young gunslingers (paladins in the long-dead kingdom of Gilead), he and his friend Jamie were responsible for investigating the murderous activities of a skin-man, a sort of monstrous shape-shifter. Young Roland tells the orphaned son of one of the victims the legend of Tim Ross, a boy lured into a dark, dangerous forest by the possibility of a magical cure for his mother, who has been blinded by a blow from her new husband (after she discovers he is the killer of Tim’s father). Wielding an old shotgun and aided by a strange clan of mutants, Tim searches for Maerlyn, the mythical wizard, but finds himself saving a massive tiger from the cruel bite of a starkblast instead.
I really enjoyed meeting up with Roland and his companions again: I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed those characters in the eight years since I finished the series. But I’ll be honest…once again, King is trying to do too much. The resolution to the skin-man mystery was very pat and by-the-numbers; spending time on the two frame stories also kept Tim’s discovery of the tiger’s true nature from playing out with the right depth and pacing. I should also mention that The Wind Through the Keyhole is a story Roland’s mother read to him as a child, but it is full of intense violence and profanity that seems out of keeping. Despite these flaws, the book is enjoyable, a must-have for fans of the Dark Tower....more