Wow! I don't know if I've ever actually read a Jack London story before. I suppose I must have in elementary school. But The Call of the Wild, a shortWow! I don't know if I've ever actually read a Jack London story before. I suppose I must have in elementary school. But The Call of the Wild, a short novel of 84 pages, is really an excellent adventure - simple, straightforward, but with crisp prose, rousing adventure, and who doesn't love a dog story? And no sentimental tail-wagging doggie here, but a metaphor for the ancient struggle between civilization and nature, the blessings and disadvantages of giving up our ancestral survival instincts and attunement to the natural world for the comforts of hearthfires and permanent shelter.
Buck, our furry protagonist, is half-Saint Bernard, half-German Shepard. He starts life as the lazy pet of a wealthy California judge, but during the Klondike gold rush of 1897, big dogs like Buck are in high demand as sled dogs, so he is kidnapped and sold up the coast to begin a new life. He soon learns the way of fang and club, as this formerly gentle giant proves to be a sort of Conan among canines. Not just in brute strength and capacity for violence, but also in cunning.
He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He saw, once for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in all his after life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and he met the introduction halfway. The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect; and while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused. As the days went by, other dogs came, in crates and at the ends of ropes, some docilely, and some raging and roaring as he had come; and, one and all, he watched them pass under the dominion of the man in the red sweater. Again and again, as he looked at each brutal performance, the lesson was driven home to Buck: a man with a club was a lawgiver, a master to be obeyed, though not necessarily conciliated. Of this last Buck was never guilty, though he did see beaten dogs that fawned upon the man, and wagged their tails, and licked his hand. Also he saw one dog, that would neither conciliate nor obey, finally killed in the struggle for mastery.
Jack London made Buck a compelling protagonist — while the dogs are anthropomorphized just a little, depicted as having greater understanding and self-awareness than real dogs probably do, they do not speak, or behave in any other way unrealistically. (Well, towards the end, Buck becomes something of a super-dog, capable of heroic feats like pulling a thousand-pound sled and defeating black bears, wolverines, Indian tribes, and wolf packs by himself. But let's give Jack London some artistic license.) Buck's gradual awakening to his true primitive nature evolves from his understanding of men with clubs, to his fatal duel with a rival huskie, to his penultimate stage of life, at last, with a man he truly loves, and then his final trek into the wilderness.
This is a very masculine, adventuresome book and I can see why it's popular with kids, especially boys. Jack London clearly idealized the wilderness and the life of a primitive, though it may have contributed to his own early demise. In reality, of course, the life of a dog turned loose in the wild is likely to be brutal and short, but you can read The Call of the Wild and imagine Buck running free in the Alaskan Yukon, howling with his wolf-brothers.
It's a great little story, not all that deep, but it does resonate with clear and powerful themes, and Jack London's prose goes down surprisingly well....more
Cited as an early satirical work and one of the first English historical novels, Castle Rackrent is the story of the Rackrents, formerly the O'ShaughlCited as an early satirical work and one of the first English historical novels, Castle Rackrent is the story of the Rackrents, formerly the O'Shaughlins, a family of land-holding Anglo-Irish aristocrats who sink into dissolution and ruin over the course of four generations. The narrator, "Old Thady" or "Honest Thady," is the Rackrents' steward. Offering occasionally obsequious, occasionally wry commentary, never directly insulting the family he's served for his entire life but making it pretty clear that some of them are wastes of space, Thady is also supposedly an early example of an unreliable narrator.
As a work of satire, Castle Rackrent isn't that funny, though the Rackrents are certainly comical figures. Thady describes one Rackrent heir after the next: the generous but spendthrift Sir Patrick O'Shaughlin, the litigious Sir Murtagh Rackrent, the cruel Sir Kit Rackrent, who abuses his Jewish wife and locks her in her bedroom for seven years, and the last of the Rackrents, Sir Condy, who ends up selling the estate to the narrator's son, Jason. It emerges as a single long stream of narration, interspersed with Thady's highly vernacular commentary, telling the history of Castle Rackrent until at least it falls into the hands of their long-time Irish steward's son.
Politically, this book was apparently something of a hot potato, being published just prior to the 1800 Act of Union that supposedly united Ireland with Britain. Edgeworth was ostensibly describing the Irish people for her English readers. From the Author's Preface:
For the information of the IGNORANT English reader, a few notes have been subjoined by the editor, and he had it once in contemplation to translate the language of Thady into plain English; but Thady's idiom is incapable of translation, and, besides, the authenticity of his story would have been more exposed to doubt if it were not told in his own characteristic manner. Several years ago he related to the editor the history of the Rackrent family, and it was with some difficulty that he was persuaded to have it committed to writing; however, his feelings for 'THE HONOUR OF THE FAMILY,' as he expressed himself, prevailed over his habitual laziness, and he at length completed the narrative which is now laid before the public.
As she puts it, the Irish were more alien to the English than the people of continental Europe. Her description of the Irish is sympathetic yet slightly condescending; betwixt the lines one sees the sharp criticism of English overlordship, and how mismanagement by profligate and irresponsible, mostly absentee, landlords has driven the Irish to poverty and pathos.
That said, it's a very early work. The novel form was still being refined. Edgeworth writes with a certain amount of humor and depth, but I saw little of the wit or understanding of story found in Jane Austen's much better novels, which came a few years later. This would be of interest to people with a historical interest in Anglo-Irish relations, and Edgeworth casts neither the English nor the Irish as heroes or villains; they're just two groups of people thrown together into a historical stew; the bloody outcome persisting for generations was probably not foreseeable by the author, even if she shows an awareness of what sort of calamity is already being perpetrated. 2 stars for entertainment value, 3 stars for its historical value and place in literary history....more
A number of other reviewers have made the obvious comparison to Xanth, and they're right - this first book in a prolonged series reads very much likeA number of other reviewers have made the obvious comparison to Xanth, and they're right - this first book in a prolonged series reads very much like a slightly more mature Piers Anthony novel. But only slightly. The River of Dancing Gods is part traditional portal-epic fantasy, part satire of that genre. Chalker must have had a lot of fun writing this, but in his self-aware parody, he sometimes comes off as trying a little too hard to convince us it's all a joke. "See, the bit about beautiful women walking around half-naked, it's in the Rules!" Yeah, okay Jack, I get it, you're being totally subversive. Har har.
Ruddygore turned to Marge. “You realize, of course, that you’re almost more in a state of undress than dress. That’s what Joe was talking about.” “Well, yeah, but…Oh, those books again.” Ruddygore nodded. “Volume 46 is mostly concerned with appearances. Page 119, section 34(a)—‘Weather and climate permitting, all beautiful young women will be scantily clad.’ It’s as simple as that.” She just stared at him.
Marge and Joe, a trucker and a woman on the run, find themselves at a literal ferry crossing, where they meet an enormously-girthed wizard named Ruddygore who gives them the classic call to adventure, layered with a bit more metaphysics. Chalker builds his alternate world with a story about heaven and hell and how the magical fantasy world of Husaquahr was built as a sort of prototype for the "real" world, Earth. Ruddygore needs a couple of adventurers from Earth, for rather obscure reasons that aren't completely explained in this book, to help prevent the Dark Baron from conquering Husaquahr, which hell will then use as a beachhead from which to launch an invasion of Earth.
Upon crossing over, Joe becomes a brawny, iron-thewed barbarian warrior complete with a magic sword, and Marge becomes a half-naked elfin witch. The two of them go through a quick training period, then acquire a group of companions to accompany them on their quest, which involves a Circe-like sorceress who transforms men into animals, some battles with enemy soldiers in the mountains, a neurotic dragon, a genie in a magic lamp, and finally, a big staged battle between fantasy armies.
This is a classic, cliche-heavy epic fantasy, but the twist is that it's deliberately and intentionally so - when the angels created Husaquahr, they did so with a book of Rules concerning how magic and quests and everything else were supposed to work. Then a Council of wizards took over the job, and like all bureaucracies, has added to it over time until now the Rules are an immense library governing everything from genies to magic swords to barbarian heroes to the attire of beautiful young women. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from these Rules, so we are continually reminded that there's a reason for the cliches.
And here's how it ends:
He sighed. “Remember back at the start of this thing? Remember, Marge, when you labeled it the start of an epic?” She chuckled. “Yes, I remember. I didn’t know how true that was when I joked about it.” “You still don’t,” he told her. “The Books of Rules, Volume 16, page 103, section 12(d).” “Yeah? So what’s that crazy set say about us?” Joe wanted to know. “All epics must be at least trilogies,” Ruddygore replied, and laughed and laughed and laughed…
This book was fun, light reading, though were some passages where it felt like Chalker was just kind of filling space by telling us what happened between the scenes he really wanted to write. The worldbuilding hints at a bit more complexity than is immediately apparent, but nothing like his Well World or Quintara Marathon series. This is basically a book that's a product of its time, the 80s boom in epic fantasy of indifferent quality, and while Chalker is always an entertaining author, this series was probably not his best work. The first book was okay, but I'm not really motivated to read the rest.
I downloaded this ebook as a free Phoenix Pick, and then randomly read it out of order in my TBR queue because I used to really like Jack Chalker but had not read him in a long time. (FYI and OT, if you are a SF&F fan, especially if you like older stuff, you should subscribe to the Phoenix Pick newsletter - they offer a free ebook every month, usually an older first-in-a-series book, and have a nice mix of classic formerly OOP SF and new stuff for sale.)...more
Maxim Gorky was one of the USSR's favorite sons — there's a park named after him and everything.
The MotherGood godless commies, this book was a slog.
Maxim Gorky was one of the USSR's favorite sons — there's a park named after him and everything.
The Mother tells the story of Pelagueya Nilovna, mother of Pavel Vlasov. Nilovna, or "the Mother" as she is called throughout the novel, is married to a big wife-beating ogre of a man who works for the factory in some village. He dies, leaving the Mother alone with her teenage son, who turns out to be cut from very different cloth than his father. Pavel is a well-spoken, sophisticated young man who comes back after some time spent getting an education with revolution and love of all mankind in his heart.
The Mother is a pure revolutionary novel, written before the Russian Revolution actually happened and touting the praises of the glorious workers' revolution that would lift the serfs out of bondage and bring justice to the workers and the masters. It is full of miserable oppression and suffering by the working classes, long heartfelt speeches laced with very non-Soviet Christian subtext, and soapboxing by Pavel, the author's mouthpiece, and his friends.
"This is the way it ought to be!" said the Little Russian, returning. "Because, mark you, mother dear, a new heart is coming into existence, a new heart is growing up in life. All hearts are smitten in the conflict of interests, all are consumed with a blind greed, eaten up with envy, stricken, wounded, and dripping with filth, falsehood, and cowardice. All people are sick; they are afraid to live; they wander about as in a mist. Everyone feels only his own toothache. But lo, and behold! Here is a Man coming and illuminating life with the light of reason, and he shouts: 'Oh, ho! you straying roaches! It's time, high time, for you to understand that all your interests are one, that everyone has the need to live, everyone has the desire to grow!' The Man who shouts this is alone, and therefore he cries aloud; he needs comrades, he feels dreary in his loneliness, dreary and cold. And at his call the stanch hearts unite into one great, strong heart, deep and sensitive as a silver bell not yet cast. And hark! This bell rings forth the message: 'Men of all countries, unite into one family! Love is the mother of life, not hate!' My brothers! I hear this message sounding through the world!"
It is, frankly, quite boring. About the only positive thing I can say for The Mother is that Gorky does a good job of capturing Russia at a particular point in its history and from a particular angle, like a skilled photographer framing exactly the picture he wants to capture even if it does involve leaving a few things out of the picture.
Gorky describes the political awakening of the Mother as she proudly watches her son go to prison for what he believes. He recruits her to the cause of distributing illegal socialist literature to wake up the masses. The book ends in a long trial scene with more speeches, then the Mother picking up the cause of her exiled son.
Russia has never struck me as a particularly hospitable place to live. No insult to the Russian people, who have survived the worst that history can throw at them, but you just don't associate laughter, light, and joy with the place that went from brutal Czars to brutal Soviets. I can't blame Gorky for not knowing what his revolution would reap, but as a novelist, he was a less entertaining soapboxer than Tolstoy and his characters are all mouthpieces and plot puppets. His descriptions are, I admit, vivid and alternately grim and humorous, and some of my disdain for the writing may be the result of an inferior translation.
The factory spread itself like a huge, clumsy, dark-red spider, raising its lofty smokestacks high up into the sky. The small one-storied houses pressed against it, gray, flattened out on the soot-covered ground, and crowded up in close clusters on the edge of the marsh. They looked sorrowfully at one another with their little dull windows. Above them rose the church, also dark red like the factory. The belfry, it seemed to her, was lower than the factory chimneys.
The mother sighed, and adjusted the collar of her dress, which choked her. She felt sad, but it was a dry sadness like the dust of the hot day.
"Gee!" mumbled the driver, shaking the reins over the horse. He was a bow-legged man of uncertain height, with sparse, faded hair on his face and head, and faded eyes. Swinging from side to side he walked alongside the wagon. It was evidently a matter of indifference to him whether he went to the right or the left.
"Gee!" he called in a colorless voice, with a comical forward stride of his crooked legs clothed in heavy boots, to which clods of mud were clinging. The mother looked around. The country was as bleak and dreary as her soul.
"You'll never escape want, no matter where you go, auntie," the driver said dully. "There's no road leading away from poverty; all roads lead to it, and none out of it."
Shaking its head dejectedly the horse sank its feet heavily into the deep sun-dried sand, which crackled softly under its tread. The rickety wagon creaked for lack of greasing.
Still, I can't really recommend this book for entertainment, and I don't know why anyone would want to read it unless they're deeply interesting in early Bolshevik history or on a Russian literature jag. 2 stars is being generous — it's a serious work, just too damn serious and neither entertaining nor, with historical hindsight, convincing....more
This is John Scalzi's signature novel, the one that kicked off his popular military SF series and was supposedly going to be made into a movie.
I haveThis is John Scalzi's signature novel, the one that kicked off his popular military SF series and was supposedly going to be made into a movie.
I have enjoyed a lot of Scalzi's novels, but always found him to be a good writer, an entertaining writer, but never a great writer.
Old Man's War leaves me...underwhelmed.
By his own admission, this book is a Heinlein tribute. Hence the obvious similarities to Heinlein's "signature novel" (I suppose Heinlein purists might argue about this), Starship Troopers. It's got the same basic theme — humans going out into space and gotta toughen up to fight a hostile universe full of aliens who want to kill us. But what was glaringly apparent to this ex-military dude is that Scalzi, unlike Heinlein, has never worn a uniform and never spent much time hanging out with actual military folks. And when it comes to hostile, advanced aliens who would just as soon flick us off the table, David Brin does it so, so much better.
Old Man's War does have a lot of nifty and novel ideas. The "Old Man" of the novel is John Perry (a painfully Mary Sue-ish authorial stand-in - I mean, come on John, couldn't you at least have given your protagonist a different first name?), who at age 75 signs up for the Colonial Defense Force. Although humans are now colonizing other star systems, no one on Earth knows exactly what the situation is like out there among the stars. Hence the first few chapters reading like Anytown, Ohio (bearing a startling resemblance to John Scalzi's home town) has basically not changed in centuries. The CDF accepts septuagenarians into its service, who are never seen on Earth again. It is assumed that they have some sort of advanced technology to rejuvenate their elderly recruits, since otherwise why the hell would a military want old people with one foot in the grave? But no one knows exactly what the process is - when you sign up for the CDF, it's a one-way trip.
So John Perry leaves Earth, and finds out what the deal is - they're given vat-grown super-soldier bodies with green skin.
From here, we have Scalzi attempting to write all the usual military SF cliches - band of new recruits bonds, goes through basic training under the harsh tutelage of a weak imitation of Sergeant Zim who tells them that everything they know about the military and fighting aliens is wrong, etc., etc..
Once out of basic, Perry goes from one battle to another with the expected loss of friends in various encounters, but despite the bloody massacre in which he's the sole survivor of a bungled invasion and the graphic depiction of his injuries, it all feels so very bloodless. The verisimilitude just isn't there. The men and women of the CDF act like civilians who are going to an office job that happens to be very dangerous and involve aliens shooting at them, they don't really act like soldiers. Scalzi has no sense of the actual camaraderie formed under fire - his "band of brothers and sisters" is more like your old college gang getting together for boardgame night. He tries and fails to write convincingly about the attachment formed between a soldier and his weapons. There is no sense of the discomfort and crudeness of military life, even if they are flying around in starships. When John Perry encounters the "Ghost Brigades" - the CDF's special forces - Scalzi tries to convey the gap between CDF regulars and the Special Forces, but he's got no sense of what inter-service rivalry is really like.
And the aliens - the Consu, the Rraey - well, I've seen other reviewers praise Scalzi for writing "alien aliens" who aren't like Star Trek humans-in-latex-mask aliens, and I just don't see it. Sure, because in written form you can describe your aliens as being physically very different from humans, the aliens the CDF fights are not at all human in appearance, but even the Rraey, who think it's just peachy to eat other sentients, are described in very human terms. (They have a "celebrity chef" who broadcasts a cooking show about how to prepare humans. Maybe this was supposed to be funny, but it just made the Rraey seem cartoonish to me.)
I think this book will appeal to people who like "light sci-fi" but it is not really military sci-fi, even if it is about a colonial military fighting aliens. People generally like Scalzi for his humanistic style of writing, and in that sense perhaps he is the anti-Heinlein. This review may seem mostly negative, but I enjoyed Old Man's War and will probably read the other books in the series, but I didn't love it. It's not that it struck any wrong notes, just too many not-quite-right ones....more
Oh how I wanted to like this book. A first contact novel, supposedly hard SF (it's not), with a linguist as the protagonist. It's getting buzz and accOh how I wanted to like this book. A first contact novel, supposedly hard SF (it's not), with a linguist as the protagonist. It's getting buzz and acclaim everywhere and a huge number of 5-star reviews. And yes, it has a gorgeous cover.
After reading it (50 pages in, I already knew I wasn't going to like it; at 100 pages, I had to force myself to keep going), all I can say to those 5-star reviewers is "Are you freaking kidding me? This is what you consider great science fiction?"
First of all, the writing is just not good. This was a self-published novel, and as much of a cliche as it is to say this - it shows.
Her heart galloped in her chest. In minutes she’d be stepping up to do her thing with no idea whatsoever of precisely what or whom she’d be facing. Dr. Jane Holloway would be Earth’s ambassador. Why her? Because some accident of birth, some odd mutant gene, some quirk of brain chemistry, gave her the ability to learn new languages as easily as she breathed. Did that mean anything once she’d left the safe embrace of planet Earth? She was about to find out.
She noticed the fingers of one hand trembling and gripped the armrests with determined ferocity. She’d maintained her dignity this long—she wasn’t about to let go of it now.
The unending, stifling journey was over. The nightmare of sameness, of maddening confinement, of desperate loneliness and unrelenting, forced togetherness, done. They’d finally climb out of this fragile, aluminum/lithium-alloy sardine-can that had kept them safe from the vacuum of space for ten months. They’d actually made it there alive.
The capsule vibrated violently. Jane glanced at Bergen for reassurance. His hand hovered at the clip that would free him from his harness and he grinned wolfishly through his ragged, blond beard. He was the closest she could come to calling a friend on this journey—and that label seemed a bit of a stretch.
The crew thrummed with the tension of tightly controlled excitement. It was a far healthier kind of tension than what had often prevailed over the last ten months. There’d been many a heated argument over issues as immaterial as who was eating disproportionately more of the chocolate before it all suddenly disappeared.
After being hit with cliche after cliche (hearts galloping in chests, trembling fingers) and adverbs and adjectives swarming every sentence, I found myself thinking "fan fiction." This reads like fan fiction. And in fact, the author's other major work appears to be a Stargate fan fiction novel.
Problem two is that the characters behave like idiots, and frequently in highly unrealistic and unprofessional ways, just because the author wants to write something clever or amusing.
Dr. Jane Holloway is a character right out of a teenager's fan fiction story. Thanks to "some accident of birth, some odd mutant gene, some quirk of brain chemistry" she can "learn new languages as easily as she breathes." This makes her of interest to NASA, which is about to launch a mission to Mars. Except, it turns out, the mission isn't really to Mars - it's to a big alien spaceship sitting in the asteroid belt, which they've known about since the 1960s, but just now have the technology to go investigate. They figure Dr. Holloway might help them talk to the aliens.
Who have not responded to any radio signals and whose ship has done nothing for the last 50 years. So why exactly do they think there are even aliens to talk to?
Not content to make Dr. Holloway some sort of super-linguist, she also turns out to have a backstory involving her parents' tragic death in Australia, and Dr. Holloway then having an adventure in the Amazon in which she singlehandedly saved her team from hostile tribesmen while suffering from malaria okay are you fucking kidding me?!
That wasn’t the reaction he expected. “You’re wrong. I had a chance to look over the other files. You’re the only person for this job. You’re the only one with the kind of stamina, talent, and sheer guts it will take to do this.”
Her expression was skeptical. “I’m sure it looks like that on paper—”
He let his frustration bleed through. “Look, they’ve spent months looking at linguists—we’ve been working with plenty of linguists already, on another, similar project—and none of them can match your level of natural ability and experience. Come on! You’re a goddamn living legend in your field—and you’re what? 35? Do you know what we’ve been calling you at NASA? We call you Indiana Jane.”
The smile snuck back, just for a second.
“Well, ok—I call you that—but it’s fucking true.”
She snorted softly and looked away.
He rolled his eyes. They’d warned him not to curse. “Sorry. You were right when you guessed I don’t spend much time around women.”
Dr. Alan Bergen, the scientist/astronaut who "doesn't spend much time around women," is this romance/sci-fi novel's safely tameable semi-alpha male, informing us in the above passage just how awesome "Indiana Jane" Holloway is.
So of course they go on the mission, and find that there is alien intelligence on board the big unmoving ship.
There was some serviceable sci-fi in this novel, as when Jane makes contact with the surviving "crew," and starts to learn about its mission. There are perils aboard the ship, though most of the action is forced by arbitrary authorial fiat or by characters behaving like idiots.
I mean, how likely is it they'd send a first contact team, aboard a thin metal can surrounded by vacuum, to go meet an advanced alien race carrying 9mm pistols? Really? I guess about as likely as the U.S. Air Force deciding that the thing to do with a crashed alien space ship is to start vivisecting the aliens alive. Because no one in the Air Force has ever read a science fiction novel or thought through the ramifications, I guess.
I also found it amusing that the Indian-American scientist has to tell Jane that she's not familiar with Hansel and Gretel because she wasn't raised on Western fairy tales, but then she's the one who explains to a NASA astronaut what "Terran" means.
There's a really purple sex scene, a lot of overwritten dialog with the alien, an unconvincing romance mashed with Dr. Halloway becoming ever more awesome, and finally a To Be Continued. Because they don't even get off the damn ship by the end of the book.
I'd have forgiven the bad writing if the story was great, and I'd have forgiven a story that stretches my suspension of disbelief if the writing was great. But it's amateurish writing and a story with huge plot holes and frequent unbelievable character actions. I didn't quite hate this book, but I did not like it, and it was bad. Will not be reading the sequel.
Also, the author knows jack about linguistics. Googling "monogenesis" and "polygenesis" is not research....more
A collection of tales of "beauty and strangeness." You can find brief summaries and ratings for each story below, but because that filled up GoodreadsA collection of tales of "beauty and strangeness." You can find brief summaries and ratings for each story below, but because that filled up Goodreads' word limit for reviews, go to my first comment for a final verdict on the anthology as a whole.
The Gospel of Nachash, by Marie Brennan (4 stars)
What Brennan does most successfully here is pull off a work of Biblical fan fiction that actually sounds Biblical. Written like an apocryphal version of the Garden of Eden story, The Gospel of Nachash rarely betrays any "tells" of its origins as modern fiction. At times it does remind one of the World of Darkness, and I was really worried that the punchline would be vampires!, but that's not quite where it goes, though I can't say I was too far off.
In the beginning God made the world, and on the sixth day he made creatures in his image. Male and female he created them, and they were the bekhorim, to whom God gave dominion over every herb bearing seed, and every tree bearing fruit, to be in their care. Mankind he formed from dust, but the bekhorim were made from air, and their spirits were more subtle than that of man.
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's Day, by Tori Truslow (2.5 stars)
Although full of imaginative flights of fancy, this story of a parallel world in which mermaids live on the moon (Shakespeare's "moist star") seemed overly laden with excerpts from fictional newspapers and scholarly journals, leaving not much of a story underneath.
After the lecture tour and all the controversy that bubbled in its wake, it was suggested to Wynn by his colleagues that he leave England for a time. Not surprisingly, he embraced this advice and made preparations to visit the Tychonic Institute in Denmark. Before he could leave, however, came the announcement that was to open a new door for him, one that would lead to so many captivating insights and the promise of lasting good relations between humans and merfolk. Had he lived longer, history might have followed a very different course. But whatever did happen to Elijah Willemot Wynn? Previous biographers have latched onto wild conspiracies, but in the light of cutting-edge new research, the facts speak for themselves. We are now entering a darker chapter in his life: the academic alienation and the increasingly bizarre theories leading up to his disappearance—but alongside that, the unorthodox personal life, and at the start of it all, New Year’s Day, 1880.
Crow Voodoo, by Georgina Bruce (3 stars)
This is one of those stories where the author tried very hard to craft her words just so, producing an artisinal effort that one can admire for its beauty and polish and yet, as in the previous tale, fail to find all that much substance underneath. Crow Voodoo is essentially a changeling tale, with a woman who makes a bargain with a crow and pays a price. It has a nice urban-yet-traditional fairy tale feel to it, but the emotional impact was, to me, blunted by the self-conscious prosiness - an experience I have sometimes had with Cathrynne Valente and her lesser imitators.
Mortimer Citytatters is a midnight crow and a sinister spiv, but he knows what people want in wartime is a story. So he tells them: spine-chillers, bone-warmers, knee-tremblers, colly-wobblers, stories that drill your teeth, that perform open-heart surgery, stories that make the blind walk and the lame speak. It’s a good all-weather business, combined with a spot of common or garden begging, that makes ends meet.
No one should trust Mortimer Citytatters, but Jenny is paying him to write letters to her sweetheart in the war. The crow writes scathing love letters, without a lick of sympathy in them.
Dear Robin, he writes in scratchy midnight ink, Now that the nights have turned longer, I barely think of you.
Your Name is Eve, by Michael M. Jones (3 stars)
Clancy and Eve meet every night in the dreams of other people, dancing, dining, and enjoying the scenery that is generated by sleeping minds, leaving something as a gift for the dreamers whose dreamscapes they borrow. There is little background explaining how these two came to meet, and the development of their relationship is narrated, the actions of Clancy, who turns out to be the central protagonist, is described entirely in exposition; there is no dialog. This read as if we're simply being told what happened, and although I sense it was meant to capture the feel of a fairy tale, I found it too remote. The descriptions of dreamscapes were nice, but overall it felt very derivate of Neil Gaiman's Sandman.
When Eve vanished into the mists, Clancy remained behind, surrounded by the evaporating wisps of the dream, hands buried in his pockets. For several long moments, he stood still, lost in thought, and then he too faded. In the waking world, their host startled awake, and it took several minutes before the pangs of nostalgia and lost youth faded. Her memories of youth, normally hazy and fuddled, were crystal clear for the first time in years. This was Clancy’s gift to her for time well spent.
Hell Friend, by Gemma Files (4 stars)
A Chinese ghost story with a touch of Twilight — in a self-aware, ironic way. Jin-Li Song is a thirteen-year-old girl, half Korean and half Chinese. Her grandmother does not at all approve of her son's Korean wife, causing family tension and some identity issues for young Jin-Li. So of course she's ripe for seduction by a magical boyfriend living in a paper house who makes her feel like the most special girl in the world...
They want me dead, like them, Jin thought, horrified. Then looked Mingshi straight in the eyes, equally appalled by what she’d finally caught looking back at her, and blurted, out loud—
“You want me dead, too. Don’t you?”
Mingshi shook his head. “No, never. I love you, flower.”
“But…you’re not even real. You’re…”
(His perfect teeth shifting askew in that kissable mouth, even as she watched; perfect hair already fire-touched, sending up sparks. His face, far too gorgeous to be true, a mere compilation of every Clearasil ad, every music video, every doll Jin’d ever owned, or coveted.)
“…made of paper.”
Braiding the Ghosts, by C.S.E. Cooney (5 stars)
This was the first story in this collection that seemed both truly original and more than an exercise in weird fiction, yet still grounded in recognizable legends. It's about a girl named Nin whose mother died, leaving her in the care of her terrifying grandmother, Reshka. Reshka binds and enslaves ghosts to do her bidding, and she has little use for the living.
Reshka is not a nice woman. Nin's apprenticeship under her grandmother is cold and unloving. When she realizes that she is not willing to follow her grandmother's path, though, she proves that she's very much of the same blood.
Nin played the lure perfectly. But it was very, very hard.
Reshka never told her that it would hurt. Or of the horrors.
Her lips burned. Her tongue burst into blisters, which burst into vile juices that ran down her throat. The sky ripped open and a bleak wind dove down from the stars, beating black wings and shrieking. Reshka never said how a greater darkness would fall over the night like a hand smothering heaven, how every note she played would cost her a heartbeat, how the earth shuddered away from her naked, dancing feet as though it could not bear her touch.
Surrogates, by Cat Rambo (3 stars)
A vaguely cyberpunkish story about a future in which everyone lives in a Building (some sort of arcology, I gather), has an android surrogate to handle menial chores like housework and fucking, and the main character has an Insanity Chip installed which makes the world surrealistic and bizarre to her senses, but which causes friction in her new marriage. While the ideas and imagery were creative, I didn't find myself that interested in the characters or this tale of sci-fi domestic disharmony.
Floor 13: Government Offices
They were married on a Monday in the Matrimony office. A poster on the wall said, “Welcome to your new life!” Belinda signed the forms in her careful penmanship, but Bingo simply spit-signed, letting his DNA testify to his presence. There were three rooms processing couples and triads—larger family structure required even more complicated licenses than the one they had secured. This room was painted blue, and one wall was an enormous fish tank.
Lucyna's Gaze, by Gregory Frost (3 stars)
This was really a war story with some thin sci-fi trimmings. The narrator, who runs guns and other contraband in an unnamed country dealing with some sort of internal warfare, falls in love with a village woman named Lucyna. Then they are all rounded up by government troops and put in concentration camps. Things go about the way these things do, and while the story is narrated with suitably horrific attention to detail and the behavior of prisoners and guards, it's really not particularly fantastical until the end.
Another woman saw me standing there, unable to make myself approach but unable to back away, and she came up. “Do you know her?” she asked me. I told her that I did, that I knew her from the bakery in her village. The woman asked my name and I gave it. She walked up to Lucyna and said that I was here to see her. The fog seemed to clear a bit from her eyes then. She looked my way but there was little recognition. Maybe none at all. It might have been nothing but my hope of recognition. And so I stepped forward and said, “I wished to buy a loaf of bread from you.” Her eyes welled with tears then, and her chin quivered, and she threw her arms around me. I held her. For minutes, hours, it could have been forever. We all stank like rotting meat, even though we had been allowed showers earlier, but not our clothes of course. I reveled in her closeness, my face to her neck, seeking the smell of her underneath that stink. She cried and cried. She muttered names—again and again she said, “Janek.” She never said mine, not knowing it, nor asked it of me. She started to kiss me, kissed my mouth, my face, all the while saying, “Janek, my darling, my love, Janek.” While she clung to me, the other woman said, “He was executed that day—you remember that escape attempt. Did you know him?”
Eyes of Carven Emerald, by Shweta Narayan (4.5 stars)
This was a finely spun tale-within-a-tale of an alternate history in which Alexander the Great conquers even more of the world than he did in ours, and humans share the world with clockwork automatons. Despite his invincibility, he finds a foil in a mysterious clockwork bird.
Alexandros’ eyes narrowed with the first glimmerings of interest. What might this mechanism be, if not Persian? Surely not Northern barbarian work; it was too fine, though it wore around its neck a ring of shining gold, as they did. It looked old, but shifted without noise or stiffness. And it spoke Greek like a Persian; badly, but with meaning beneath the words.
And that last mystery implied a challenge worth taking. Alexandros said, “To whom do you belong? A king who is long dead, it would seem, or else one who neglects you.”
The bird rustled its feathers. “The last king who tried to own me died of slow poison while his city burned.”
Dragons of America, by S. J. Hirons (4 stars)
Another interesting fantasy story mixing magic and technology and alternate history. An alchemy student named Anselm Einarsson lives in the city of Arrowstorm, and dreams of getting past the American soldiers to see the dragon breeding grounds. The worldbuilding is all by inference, doled out a bit here and there with few explanations - where is Arrowstorm? How did the Americans come to guard the entrances and exits from the city? What is the role of the dragons? Interesting, and the story moves along, though it never quite becomes entirely coherent as a setting.
All through winter and spring the dragons of America had flown in Anselm Einarsson’s dreams. When summer finally came, and the first flight of them passed over the city heading for the eastern desert, he was so used to the idea of them that he almost slept through the crossing of that flock, mistaking the sound for low thunder. But they brought with them the odours of the semi-mythical land they came from: hamburgers, hot dogs, buttered popcorn, and beer. Green as dollar bills they would be and just as crinkly. So big they blocked out stars. Swift enough to turn on a dime, and change direction fleetly with the winds.
Where Shadows Go at Low Midnight, by John Grant (3 stars)
This is one of those stories with a "twist" where you figure out by the end (though enough clues are dropped during the story) that things are not quite as they appear. A couple taking a moonlight stroll discusses the nature of sunlight and moonlight, with references to a lost civilization of "Ghosts" that preceded them.
“It’s strange the Ghosts should have organized the days so well and the nights so very poorly,” she sighed as she rose again to her hind legs.
I shook my head, grinning, and looked at her. Her eyes were red from my brand’s glow as she gazed back. She was grinning, too.
“What I mean,” she said as we began to jog across more level ground, “is that the Ghosts created daylight so we could move around safely during the day. Why didn’t they create nightlight so we could do the same at night?”
Lineage, by Kenneth Schneyer (3 stars)
Framed by the meta-story of a future researcher finding evidence of an improbable historical figure who seems to have appeared in many different times and places, this is a series of vignettes in which some supernatural force intervenes in times of crisis and despair.
Instantiation, substantiation, manifestation, possession? I am no one, if more than nothing; years pass, but not for me. Then I feel, like an embrace, the fear and devotion—the lifeboat overflows, the enemy surprises the patrol, the burning wall begins to collapse, the asteroid approaches the shuttle, the dike bursts.
And I walk the earth again.
Murder in Metachronopolis, by John C. Wright (5 stars)
It takes a really good writer to put a new spin on time travel. Wright's tale uses a lot of familiar tropes, and his protagonist, a noir detective brought to the city of Metachronopolis by its autocratic, egomaniac Time Masters, hangs a lampshade on quite a few of them. Drafted into solving a murder in a city ruled by time travelers, you can expect paradoxes, loops, and twists galore, and this story has them, yet ultimately it wraps up in a coherent fashion. Especially impressive is the non-linear storytelling, which manages not to be confusing despite the out-of-sequence narrating of events.
“I don’t take cases from Time Masters, see? All you guys are the same. The murderer turns out to be yourself, or you when you were younger. Or me. Or an alternate version of me or you who turns out to be his own father fighting himself because for no reason except that that’s the way it was when the whole thing started. Which it never did, on account of there’s no beginning and no reason for any of it. Oh, brother, you time travelers make me sick.”
He drew himself up, all smiles gone now, all pretense at seeming human. My guess was that that was not even his real body, just some poor sap he murdered to have his personality jacked into the guy’s brain. Perfect disguise. No fingerprints, retina prints, no nothing. Just another flatliner dead for the convenience of the Masters of Eternity.
To Seek Her Fortune, by Nicole Kornher-Stace (2.5 stars)
Honestly, steampunk does very little for me, and this was a beautifully written steampunk story that did very little for me. We've got your somewhat cliched "strong female character" Lady Explorer who managed to claw her way up to command of an airship, and she's on what seems to be an endless quest around the world to visit every psychic, fortune-teller, medium, and tea-leaf reader to hear each one's version of how she'll die. I found the prose to be working a little too hard, and the mommylove moral almost got it knocked down another full star. Nice writing, but would not read the novel.
In the land of black salt and white honey, the Lady Explorer bartered a polar bear’s pelt, a hand-cranked dynamo, her second-best derringer, and three bolts of peach silk for her death.
Fold, by Tanith Lee (2 stars)
I know a lot of people love, love, love Tanith Lee. I must confess I've only read one or two of her books, so long ago I barely remember them. She writes gorgeous prose (a common theme in this anthology), but this story about a man who lives in a high apartment complex and writes mysterious love letters to the men and women who pass within his view down at ground level was... not really a story, more like an exercise in poetic imagery. Yes, there is an ending, when he finally leaves his apartment, but that too seemed a nonsensical straining effort at metaphor. Maybe I was just in a grumpy mood reading these last two stories, but word-bling, in the end, sometimes feels like an author's attempt to distract us with shiny objects.
Jintha wrote letters from a tower. They were letters of love.
The tower itself was quite high, probably of thirty storeys, but Jintha had long forgotten. He himself resided on the fifteenth floor. He had forgotten this too.
Beyond his apartment there were always various sounds in the tower, which had made him fantasize that he lived in a sort of golden clock, inside the mechanism of it. All who lived there, accordingly, would have their own particular functions, Jintha’s being, (obviously) to write love letters. This kept the clock accurate, made it work. Sometimes the clock struck. That was the silvery clash of the elevator doors. While the smooth ascending or descending purr of the murmurous elevator was like the movement of an intermittent pendulum. Birds often alighted on the broad sills of windows, or the elegant gargoyles which adorned the building. The clicking of their claws or whirr of their wings provided the clock’s ticking—now loud, now soft, now stilled—and now restarted.