As I've written about before (here, and here) I'm a big fan of the Malazan universe created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont. Yes, the books are complex, the plots byzantine, and the cast of characters massive. But the universe is compelling, not to mention just plain fun. And after swimming through over eight thousand pages of text in this universe, I'm always eager to dive back into it. Which is why I was excited to read Ian C. Esslemont latest addition to the universe: Orb Sceptre Throne.
As I discussed when reviewingStonewielder last year, Esslemont has faced an uphill battle writing in his and Erikson's shared universe. His first attempts were a little tentative and with some weaknesses, but I thought that he really hit his stride in Stonewielder. What particularly struck me - as compared to Erikson's far denser works - was the (relative) accessibility of Esslemont's stories. Though on the whole Orb Sceptre Throne continues Esslemont's trajectory of improvement, it unfortunately stumbles on both accessibility and initial characterization.
"Accessible" is not an adjective often applied to the Malazan novels. With hundreds of characters, multiple perspectives, numerous side-plots (some spanning several novels), swirling allegiances, and piles of complex magic, they take a significant and sustained mental investment to enjoy. Despite sharing many of these features with Erikson's dense tomes, Esslemont's works tend to have a narrower scope and benefit from this greater focus. One need not be intimately familiar with the background established in Erikson's ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen to understand Esslemont's Night of Knives or Stonewielder. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Orb Sceptre Throne.
The book focuses on Darujhistan, roughly parallel in time to the events of Stonewielder and Erikson's The Crippled God (book ten in Erikson's series). The book features three core plot lines told from six primary perspectives. The central plot deals with a powerful and ancient tyrant trying to take control of the quasi-democratic city state of Darujhistan. The other plot lines, which ultimately tie back into the central story, deal with events on the wreckage of Moon's Spawn, and in the warren of Chaos last seen in Return of the Crimson Guard.
Even in that brief, thirty-thousand foot overview, the weakness of Orb Sceptre Throne is clear: to understand two out of the three central plot lines, the reader needs to be familiar with both the events of Esslemont's Return of the Crimson Guard, and Erikson's Memories of Ice (book three, though in reality, the entirety of Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is useful for adequate background). Because of the amount and complexity of backstory necessary to even begin navigating Esslemont's story, the book's audience is by default limited to those readers already significantly invested in the Malazan universe. In essence, Orb Sceptre Throne suffers from a very complicated case of middle-novel-syndrome.
Even if we accept that its audience is limited to those of us already familiar with the Malazan universe, the book still suffers from a structural weakness: the first one hundred fifty pages are a slow, somewhat meandering collection of unconnected narratives. Fans of the Malazan universe are prepared for gradual builds, in that the books' characteristic interlocking plot lines need a fair degree of set up. But successful execution of such slow builds requires consistently engaging characterization. And this is where the opening of Orb Sceptre Throne falls short.
In these early pages, Esslemont keeps many of his characters at arms' length, and as a result we fail to develop a rapport with them. The scholar Ebbin, who Esslemont opens his story with, is particularly problematic: though his motivation is intellectually understandable, I found that I was uninterested in his fate. With no redeeming features, and nothing to supplement his singular focus, the character was unable to engage me on an emotional level. This is a significant departure from the quality of characterization in Stonewielder, which was tighter, more focused, and significantly more engaging. Thankfully, after the first hundred and fifty pages or so, Esslemont returns to fine form.
Once the dominoes are all set up, the narrative focuses on several core perspectives (notably not Ebbin's) and we gain a greater engagement with our perspective characters. Esslemont's solid characterization and vivid depictions of action really shine once he gets going. The sections that particularly appealed to me were those set on Moon's Spawn, in the warren of Chaos, and those told from the perspective of the Seguleh. It is these narratives and their characters that pull us along in the story, and once their foundations are established the story's flow smooths into an enjoyable ride. The ending is - for the most part - satisfying, and those elements that remain unresolved are obviously teasers for subsequent stories that we can expect Esslemont to address in the future.
On the whole, Esslemont's Orb Sceptre Throne is one of the weaker Malazan novels, but for those of us invested in the universe, a reasonably enjoyable one. If you haven't yet gotten into the Malazan universe, then don't start with this one: you'll be lost within the first couple of pages. If, on the other hand, you are current with the Malazan universe, then by all means pick up the book. Its events are significant, and will no doubt be built upon in future volumes. Its weak opening may take some effort to get through, but once the story gets going, Malazan fans will enjoy it for the elements it shares with all books in the universe: its ambition, action, characters, and its moral and thematic complexity.
Several years ago, I discovered N.M. Penzer's The Harem: Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans, which opened my eyes to the fascinating history of the Ottoman sultan's harem. What could be more fertile soil for an awesome story than a group of educated women from diverse backgrounds, locked away by a patriarchal society yet with intimate access to the heart of political, military, and religious power, and simultaneously grooming the next generation of the same? The real intrigue and blood-soaked history of the Ottoman Empire's seraglio might well be called "implausible" if it were to show up in a fantasy novel, but with my pre-existing fascination, the moment I saw a book entitled The Steel Seraglio, I had to read it.
The Steel Seraglio is an impressively structured and well-executed fantasy that follows the experiences of three hundred sixty five concubines who - when their sultan is overthrown by an ascetic zealot - find themselves exiled into the desert, fighting for their lives, and their futures.
The Steel Seraglio is loosely structured as a novel-in-stories recounted by Rem, a librarian from the harem's home city. With its mythic feel and folktale overtones, I was strongly reminded of Catherynne M. Valente's In the Night Garden and Gregory Frost's Shadowbridge. However, The Steel Seraglio is more accessible and features more consistent momentum than either of these titles. Like most novels-in-stories, it features both nested and discrete, self-contained tales, but in this case each addresses and expands upon the conflict at the heart of this book: the concubines' battle for self-determination.
The book opens with not one but two prologues, which is an interesting and rather unusual choice. The prologues firmly establish the book's mythic tone, give a good sense of its flowing, evocative descriptions, and introduce us to the Careys' daring technical choices. The first of the two prologues transports us to a dry, desert environment and establishes a decidedly non-Western, patriarchal culture heavily influenced by Middle Eastern traditions. At this point, it is entirely unclear whether we are dealing with a secondary world fantasy or find ourselves in some strange quasi-historical environment.
The second of the two prologues further introduces us to our narrator, the librarian Rem, and lays out some of the background essential to the novel which follows. At the same time, this second prologues shifts to a slightly different, more self-aware narrative voice that strategically abandons some of the mythic tone - and it is this shift in voice that most caught my eye, as a bold and risky stylistic gamble that I felt ultimately paid off.
Despite the fact that I enjoyed both prologues on their own terms, I found the first to be one of the weaker parts of an otherwise strong novel. As mentioned above, the Careys successfully avoid the trap of most novels-in-stories by ensuring that each embedded tale shares and focuses on the novel's driving conflict. Of all of the disparate sections of the book, the first prologue alone ignores this central conflict. While it does a good job of grounding the reader in tone, style, and setting through some wonderfully evocative writing, when considered as the first movement in the larger score, I felt it to be somewhat out of place. The second prologue, however, does a good job of easing us into the book's central conflict.
The rest of the book maintains the prologues' lush descriptions and combines them with a momentum-charged focus on character and conflict. The over-arching story is of how the sultan's concubines are exiled after a coup d'état, and how they carve out self-determination for themselves. The story skillfully focuses on the experiences of the harem's leaders (and those of the narrator Rem herself).
The principal characters are a delight: the pragmatic wisdom of the elderly Gursoon, the icy passion of the assassin-cum-concubine Zuleika, the terrifying zealotry of the usurper Hakkim Mehdad, the hilarious cunning of the camel thief Anwar Das, or the self-absorbed immaturity of the surviving prince Jamal are a delight on the page. I found the narrator's own story a little self-absorbed for my taste, but this is not actually a weakness: the character remained well-drawn and interesting. I just found the others more compelling. Despite the myriad characters, and their many embedded stories, the Careys do an excellent job of capturing the conflicting, complicated, messy, and beautiful relationships of a disparate group thrust into one another's orbits by powers beyond their control. The fact that the characters are so rich and varied is a testament to the Careys' skill, and is the primary pillar on which the book's success rests.
The narrative voice is interesting, and takes a notable (and ultimately successful) risk: the narrator, Rem, is gifted by the djinni with the ability to see possible futures. She is a seer, and a librarian, and a storyteller, embedded in of her own mythic time while cognizant of our somewhat more egalitarian future. The seer character is a trope much over-used in fantasy, but the Careys freshen it with a realistic conceit: with her ability to see into the future, Rem's voice becomes peppered with anachronisms. Idioms and words that have no business in a mythic tale salt her prose: in the second paragraph of the second prologue, we are told that for a seer who can see the future "Tenses get a bit confused...and unravelling them again can be a bitch." This departure from the somewhat florid style so commonly associated with myth is shocking, and I found it refreshing.
This is a daring choice of technique, because it risks our immersion in the story: at first blush, we read The Steel Seraglio as a mythic, folktale style narrative. The prose is evocative, lush, flowing: it reads like legend. But by inserting contemporary, anachronistic constructions into otherwise mythic prose, we are forced to reconsider and reevaluate the words and themes introduced by the story. The effect may be jarring. Although some readers might find that it lessens the sense of mythic immersion the prose otherwise produces, I found that the technique was used sparingly enough, and with just enough strategic precision, to heighten my own sense of immersion. After all, wouldn't someone perceptually unmoored from their own time end up with some rather odd verbal tics? Because the Careys play this narrative device straight, making Rem's anachronistic tics and stories strange or incomprehensible to her own contemporaries, the effect heightens the world's remove from our contemporary mores, enhancing the gap between the novel's patriarchal world and our own.
Just as the novel's non-traditional setting is refreshing, so too is its thematic focus on women and their self-determination in a patriarchal society. This is the kind of theme that fantasy, a genre stereotypically known for its lantern-jawed (male) heroes, too rarely addresses. While the book wears its feminist themes on its sleeve, the Careys avoid the polemical trap by focusing on the complicated and at times messy emotional journeys that their (predominantly female) characters must take. As a result, the (perhaps obvious) themes are treated with a skill, compassion, and empathy which diffuses and dramatizes any moralizing agenda.
The core thrust of the novel is divided into two "books" within the larger novel, a "Book the First" and a "Book the Second". While both are well-told, well-structured, and maintain a well-paced momentum, I found that the second of these two books felt somewhat rushed. It focuses on the consequences of the events of the first, but it does so in a much more sweeping, view-from-thirty-thousand-feet fashion than the first eighty percent of the novel. In some respects, as a work of history within the fictional narrative, it works well. And my discomfort with this approach may simply stem from the fact that I wanted to spend more time in the Careys' world, and in the city of Bessa, and with the characters they introduced me to. But nevertheless, I found it felt to some degree like an attempt at a duology crammed into one volume.
Overall, The Steel Seraglio is a delight. Fans of mythic fantasy like Catherynne M. Valente's In the Night Garden or Gregory Frost's Shadowbridge will likely enjoy both its characterization and evocative description, while readers looking for a fun, action-packed story can find the same in its fast-moving pace. The weaknesses I saw, whether in its initial prologue or in the rushed second book, are on the whole quibbles: the book is great fun, and a rich, lovely work of art. The excellent interior illustrations by Nimit Malavia further add to its artistry, though from a design standpoint the artistry might have been heightened by illustrations more evocative of or otherwise tied to the Arabian, Persian, or Ottoman traditions which feature so strongly in the text itself, and in the excellent cover by Erik Mohr.
When I think about the anthologies I have read, I tend to break them out into three different types: exploring a particular style (e.g. Supernatural...moreWhen I think about the anthologies I have read, I tend to break them out into three different types: exploring a particular style (e.g. Supernatural Noir ed. Ellen Datlow, reviewed here), showcasing a particular sub-genre (e.g. Steampunk ed. Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer), or plumbing the depths of a specific theme (e.g. Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy ed. Ekaterina Sedia). Through painstaking editorial curation, anthologists consolidate different voices and stories into a meaningful, unified whole. They can become more than the sum of their parts, and at the same time are packed full of fun, entertaining stories. And while I found that Tyche Books moon-themed debut anthology Ride the Moon didn’t culminate in a deeper insight into human nature, the collection of fantasy and science fiction stories was well-selected, well-organized, and definitely a fun read.
Thematic anthologies like Ride the Moon are, in my opinion, the hardest type of anthology to pull off. A stylistic exploration requires attention to style and tone, a sub-genre survey requires breadth and depth within that sub-genre, but a good thematic anthology necessitates building a TOC of excellent stories that are linked on a superficial level (the ostensible theme) and whose underlying truths are simultaneously unified in some fashion. The best example of this kind of anthology in recent times that I can think of is Ekaterina Sedia’s Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy, which (despite the weaknesses of some individual stories) still managed to offer insight into how cities are employed in modern fantasy.
Ride the Moon is the debut book published by a new Canadian small press, Tyche Books. As their launch title, it is impressive. If I hold it to a high standard, it’s because on most measures I believe it comes pretty damn close to meeting it. Most of the stories are original to the anthology, though the occasional reprint (Edward Willett’s “Je Me Souviens” I recognized) is well worth inclusion. Most of the authors are Canadian, and I strongly recommend readers who might not be familiar with SF/F north of the border to check them out. While I recognized some of the authors (notably Claude Lalumière, Edward Willett, and Marie Bilodeau), most were brand new to me.
As the title suggests, every story in this anthology somehow touches on or deals with the moon as metaphor, god(dess), monster, or setting. With its lunar theme, the anthology skews somewhat fantastical: of the eighteen stories, only six are clearly science fiction. However, the remaining twelve fantasy stories tend to blend nicely between the explicit dark fantasy of Lori Strongin’s “A Moonrise in Seven Hours” to the more science fictional fantasy of Ada Hoffmann’s “Moon Laws, Moon Dreams”.
About half of the stories – most notably C.A. Lang’s “Tidal Tantrums”, Shereen Vedam’s “Aloha Moon”, Kevin Cockle’s “The Dowser” and Amy Laurens’ “Cherry Blossoms” – wrestle with the relationships of myth and magic in a modern, technological society. And while it might be tempting to say that therein lies the anthology’s unifying truth, I’m afraid that theory doesn’t hold up when faced with the anthology’s other stories.
The stories that I enjoyed most invariably did something fresh with both the lunar theme and their storytelling. Isabella Drzemczewska Hudson’s “Husks” is a beautifully written dark fantasy. The prose is lyrical and flowing, and Hodson’s imagery just draws you in. Her use of omniscience in the storytelling works to great effect: despite the omniscient narrator, I found myself embedded in the characters and their experiences. A. Merc Rustad’s “With the Sun and Moon in His Eyes” employs excellent characterization with tight prose. Both the subject matter and story structure reminded me of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, and appealed to me in many of the same ways. Shereen Vedam’s “Aloha Moon” and Ada Hoffmann’s “Moon Laws, Moon Dreams” both do a great job of drawing the reader into their characters, though I found the plot resolution of “Aloha Moon” a little too convenient. The biggest stand-out for me, however, had to be Edward Willett’s “Je Me Souviens”: a quiet, emotional, and intensely powerful story about mourning, loyalty, remembrance, and faith.
Some of the other stories, notably Krista D. Ball’s “On the Labrador Shore, She Waits”, Tony Noland’s “Sunset at the Sea of Fertility”, and Lori Strongin’s “A Moonrise in Seven Hours” didn’t work for me. In most cases this was because I found their characters and plot structures fairly predictable. They were well executed for what they were…I just found that they didn’t appeal to me, and were otherwise unmemorable and unremarkable.
In sum, I would say that Ride the Moon is an entertaining, well-written, and well-structured anthology. Despite their significant differences, the stories flow into each other nicely. I enjoyed reading it and – perhaps most importantly – it has turned me onto a number of authors who I might not otherwise have encountered. This is an anthology well worth picking up if only for those two traits. And as a debut from Tyche Books, it makes Tyche a small press that I’m going to be paying attention to going forward.(less)
Fiction has been mining myth since the first storyteller hushed a campfire crowd. Myths are - at some level - the foundation of every story, and in speculative fiction we often rely on them to shortcut the audience's emotional response: to get the reader "in the mood". In doing so, we rely on the oldest, most primal images: eyes glowing red in the night, footsteps behind us in the fog, etc. These images are rooted in our reptile brains, and there's no way we won't respond to them. But what about myths of newer vintage? The kind that haven't been percolating in our collective unconscious for centuries? In his debut novel, Southern Gods, horror author John Hornor Jacobs does a solid job mining two recent American myths: the Blues, and the Cthulhu Mythos.
Southern Gods tells the story of Bull Ingram, a WWII-vet hired to find a missing radio promoter, and Sarah Rheinhart, a single mother from a wealthy Arkansas family who comes back to her childhood home. The book opens with an incredibly well-written prologue set seventy three years before the events of the main story. Too frequently, I find that such prologues merely delay the story's real beginning and serve no narrative purpose. And looked at unemotionally, one might accuse Jacobs' prologue of being superfluous: the information it imparts might have been easily revealed through the principal narrative. But in this case, I am more than willing to forgive Jacobs' his prologue because it is hands down the best writing in the entire book. The prose is mellifluous, rich, and evocative. It draws you in, and makes you feel every moment of emotional heartache and fright. By the conclusion of the prologue, I found myself thoroughly engaged with the story and the unfortunate character the prologue introduces us to. From a plot standpoint, it might not have been necessary, but from an emotional standpoint it earned my complete engagement with Jacobs' world.
After the prologue, the story jumps seventy three years to 1951 and introduces us to our real hero: Bull Ingram. The main story opens with a classic noir setup: a world-weary and battle-scarred vet is just scraping by as muscle for a Memphis gangster when he gets hired to do a seemingly simple job that turns strange and very dangerous. Noir fiction is just as much about feeling as it is about its tropes, and Jacobs executes very well by taking his time. While the prose in the main storyline is not quite as evocative as the prologue, Jacobs focuses just enough attention to give us a real feel for Ingram's values and personality. We understand that he is a hard man, able and willing to do hard things when he has to. But he's also not a bad guy: he's just trying to get by, like everyone else. By not rushing into frenetic action, Jacobs more fully earns our investment in his hero and our engagement with his southern world.
I found Sarah Rheinhart, the female protagonist, to be far less engaging than Bull. While thematically much of her story arc revolves around re-establishing her own agency (we first meet her leaving her abusive husband), I nevertheless found found her overshadowed by supporting characters for much of her storyline. In particular, her childhood friend Alice upstages Sarah throughout the book's first half, only to recede to unimportance in the book's second half. I understand that Sarah's storyline is necessary for the book to function as a whole, but the role she is given is by nature more receded than I would have liked. If the supporting character of Alice were less engaging, or evidenced somewhat less agency than she does, perhaps I would not have noticed this relative weakness. But as it stands, I found Sarah to be less engaging than Bull.
Bull gets hired by a Memphis music promoter to find a radio promoter who went missing somewhere in rural Arkansas, and to track down Ramblin' John Hastur, a mysterious Blues musician whose powerful songs are played on a pirate radio station that nobody knows anything about, and which drive people to commit primal acts of lust and rage. And here, within that one sentence description of the book's plot, we already have the merging of those two quintessential American myths: Hastur's name is itself taken from Ambrose Bierce's short story "Haita the Shephard", from which it was lifted by Robert W. Chambers and then H.P. Lovecraft, and August Derleth in turn. This progression - from benign god of shepherds in Bierce's story, to the spawn of Yog-Shoggoth in Derleth's work - is plainly an example of the "folk process" at work on fiction. It also gives the reader an immediate insight into the Cthulhu-flavored horror that awaits them as the book progresses.
Jacobs' depiction of Ramblin' John Hastur also reconfigures the legend of Robert Johnson's Faustian deal, in which the Delta blues legend supposedly sold his soul at a crossroads at midnight in exchange for mastery of the guitar. This legend is probably one of my favorite aspects of the Blues as American myth, and I love encountering it time and again whether it's in books like Southern Gods or in movies like the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Both this legend and the harsh peripatetic lifestyle of early Blues musicians infuse Jacobs' lush descriptions of the music, his immersive imagery of the early 1950's rural south, and especially his characters' dialog.
Jacobs has an excellent ear for southern dialect, and his characters' speech patterns do a fantastic job of grounding the story in its setting. He does a particularly good job conveying characterization through his characters' sentence structures, which is done so subtly that I didn't even catch the mechanism until my second read through of the book. The dialog is easily my favorite part of this book's writing, because unlike the prose, it is consistently excellent throughout the entire book.
Much as I enjoyed Southern Gods, I did find a number of weaknesses. I have already mentioned the relative weakness of the female protagonist. But in addition, I felt that themes, characters, and plot points introduced in the first half either fade into insignificance in the second, or get ignored fairly completely. Alice, a strong, compelling supporting character is marginalized once Bull and Sarah get together. The intimation of Alice's ability to perform little acts of magic is dropped with only a cursory handwave. And I found a frustrating asymmetry between the themes of family explored in Sarah's storyline and the corresponding themes in Bull's arc. And finally and perhaps most significantly, I found the treatment of religion to be the one glaring weakness in Jacobs' otherwise excellent world-building.
The Cthulhu Mythos have a long and complex relationship with Judeo-Christian religion. In one sense, the Great Old Ones are an American myth purposefully divorced from traditional religious concepts. But regardless of the cosmogony employed by Jacobs and gradually revealed in the text, the human characters in his Deep South setting would be steeped in their own more traditional religious heritage. Yet religion is almost completely absent from Southern Gods, unless one counts a Roman Catholic priest's proclamations of atheism. The story repeatedly references Ramblin' John's Faustian deal as a deal with the devil, yet nowhere is there any other religious dimension applied to the whole affair, or even referenced in passing. I would have expected some nod towards Southern Baptist or Pentecostal traditions, but I didn't find any.
By its very nature, Lovecraftian horror operates in opposition to traditional Judeo-Christian religious concepts. That is one of the reasons why Cthulhu and his ilk are so unknowable and terrifying: they are gods inimical to our more comfortable conception of divinity. And yet Jacobs leaves this opposition implied, without even a cursory exploration in the text. In a less well-written book, this weakness would not have stood out so strongly for me. It is precisely because the rest of Jacobs' world-building is so excellent that this omission becomes so prominent.
Nonetheless, Southern Gods is a very well realized debut novel. It is atmospheric horror that skews into blood-and-guts when necessary. From a violence standpoint, it is not for the faint of heart, and yet both the execution and the narrative purpose of its violence is well considered. When Jacobs depicts violence, he does so well and for a good reason. Nevertheless, squeamish readers may find it a little off-putting. Fans of Southern Gothic will particularly enjoy the book's first half. Fans of the Cthulhu Mythos will probably get a kick out of the book in its entirety. Southern Gods is a really solid book, and I am definitely looking forward to Jacobs' next book (This Dark Earth, due out from Simon & Schuster in July 2012).
Happy New Year! Now that the formalities are out of the way, I thought I'd take a few moments to share with you what I did between Christmas and New Year's: In addition to remodeling our library, and turning our dining room into a library annex, I also spent the week slowly and carefully reading Tzvetan Todorov's classic book of genre criticism, appropriately titled The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.
Of course, I'd read about Todorov many times before. I'd even read a couple essays he'd written (I particularly recommend his typology of detective fiction). But I figured that it was best to see for myself what he had to say. And though in the end I was very satisfied, this book really defied my expectations.
The book's title is misleading. From the adjective-cum-noun "Fantastic" it is a short leap to the modern genre of "fantasy" - and so when I first bought the book, I expected to find a master critic expressing his own Unified Theory of Fantasy, like a Northrop Frye or a Wayne C. Booth for the speculative genre (for two excellent analyses more in this vein, I recommend Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy and Brian Attebery's Strategies of Fantasy). Instead, Todorov uses a much narrower interpretation of fantasy, placing it on a spectrum between stories where ostensibly supernatural events are explained through rational means (which he calls the "uncanny") and stories where supernatural events are shown to actually be supernatural (which he calls the "marvelous").
To put it another way, Todorov's uncanny stories are Scooby Doo episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are ostensibly beyond mortal ken (ghosts, monsters, strange worlds, etc.). But by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences are explained away in a naturalistic and rational fashion, thus erasing the supernatural from the story. It's like Old Man Withers being unmasked by the gang. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Todorov's "marvelous" stories are Buffy episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are beyond mortal ken, but by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences can only be explained by an acceptance of their supernatural reality. Todorov's "fantastic" genre, however, is the Twilight Zone: neither the characters nor the reader is ever really certain whether the supernatural events are to be accepted.
This is a much narrower definition of "the fantastic" than "fantasy" would imply. It excludes almost all secondary world fantasy, and almost all science fiction. Even most wainscot fantasies would fall into Todorov's "marvelous" camp. Which is a shame, because anything beyond his narrowly defined borders gets brushed off as beyond the scope of his analysis.
The first half of The Fantastic is an interesting, if dry, exercise in critical philosophy and semantic hair-splitting. He defines what he means by the fantastic, and provides a definite set of criteria for use in its identification. Given my (incorrect) expectations, the book initially frustrated me. I wanted to gleam sweeping insights with applicability across a broad swathe of fantasy titles and sub-genres. Todorov's painstakingly detailed definition of "hesitation" or what I would call ambiguity: the uncertainty felt by the character and the reader as to their implied frame of reference for experiencing the story. According to Todorov, if a story has no ambiguity, then by definition it falls outside the bounds of his fantastic. Now, I love ambiguous stories. But most fantasy, and most science fiction, eschews the degree of ambiguity described by Todorov. Let's face it: there are few The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever or There Are Doors out there.
Yet once Todorov establishes his definitions, he begins to dissect his ambiguous stories in much more painstaking detail, parsing their themes and structures. And here, The Fantastic becomes a treasure trove of insight. The conclusions Todorov draws regarding the fantastic are not, in fact, particularly interesting. They may be thought provoking, but they have limited applicability beyond his caged genre, and furthermore I suspect his reliance on the psychoanalytic school of criticism ignores too many other factors. Yet the techniques that Todorov applies, independent of the genre against which they are applied, are quite impressive.
In a very real sense, Todorov draws the treasure map to a very narrow sub-genre. But by doing so, he shows us how to draw such maps for any other genre in existence. I wish that Todorov had taken the trouble to do the same for both his uncanny and marvelous genres. But the process of structural analysis that he applied to his ambiguous stories can just as readily be applied to secondary world fantasy, portal/quest fantasies, wainscot fantasies, liminal fantasies, intrusion fantasies, and all the rest. And that is why this book remains significant: on the one hand, it adds to our critical toolkit, and by using much-analyzed "classic" texts of the Gothic age, it helps to bring the tools of genre criticism into the "respectable" light of academia.
In that sense, later critics like Farah Mendlesohn or Brian Attebery both benefited from Todorov's work. On the one hand, they apply to a broader body of work the universal techniques that Todorov pioneered. And on the other hand, they benefit from the fact that Todorov dragged ghosts and demons into the light of critical respectability.
All in all, this is a book on criticism well worth reading. But not for its conclusions: more for its methods.
As I've mentioned before, I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald's adult science fiction. His complex, multi-layered plots and penchant for near-future science fiction set in non-western cultures (Africa, India, Brazil, Turkey, etc.) have always struck me as interesting, engaging, ambitious, and structurally complex. So when I heard that Pyr was going to be releasing a new YA novel by Ian McDonald entitled Planesrunner, I jumped at the chance to read it.
McDonald has earned a large, loyal, and very much deserved following for his adult fiction. I don't know if the decision to market this particular story as YA lay with the author, his agent, or with his publishers, but it does make reviewing the book an interesting challenge. The YA and SF genres have different (though overlapping) conventions which stem from both their respective histories and their divergent audiences, and it is unclear through which lens we should look at Planesrunner. What comes first: the science fiction, or the YA?
Planesrunner is told from the perspective of Everett Singh, the fourteen year old son of a quantum physicist involved in the development of doorways onto parallel worlds. Everett watches his father get kidnapped, and then finds that he alone has the clues and capabilities to rescue him.
Judged solely by the protagonist's age, Planesrunner falls firmly into YA territory. Though the book opens in London, McDonald's hero comes from a Punjabi background, and McDonald's excellent ear for local cultures comes through in Everett's voice. Particularly in the novel's first third, McDonald paints Everett in solidly contemporary British colors, albeit filtered through his Punjabi background. Everett's cultural background can likely best be compared to that of Jessminder "Jess" Bhamra in the excellent Bend It Like Beckham: to say that Everett is a soccer-loving British boy tells only half the story, while to say he is Punjabi does the same. This is a blend culture more accessible to western readers than the India McDonald took us to in his (adult) Cyberabad Days, but it is definitely not the whitebread England of Harry Potter. As always, I applaud McDonald's presentation of cultural complexity.
The first third of the novel focuses on Everett's reactions to his father's kidnapping. From the high-powered opening, the story's pace slows down significantly as we learn more about Everett's family background (his parents have split up, he has a younger sister, etc.) and we get gradually introduced to our protagonist. We learn about Everett through his interactions with his mother, his soccer team buddy, the police, and his father's co-workers. Throughout this process, we gradually learn more about the work his father does, and about the parallel worlds that he helped discover. This part of the book is written with McDonald's typical skill, providing a good feel for Everett, his values, his cultural background, and his life. We grow to care about him, and get engaged in his desire to save his father. All of this is good, however by the standards of contemporary YA it happens rather slowly. Most contemporary YA that dives into the action the way this story does maintains and rapidly escalates the tension from page one. Here, the tension is maintained but its escalation unfolds more slowly. It is effective, but it has more of the feel of an adult novel than a typical YA story.
Once Everett deduces that his father has been taken to the parallel world of E3 and follows him through the gates, the book's pace accelerates substantially. First, the alternate reality Everett crosses into is a vastly different London, where oil was never discovered. As a result, its 21st-century society runs on coal-powered electricity and has no access to technology we take for granted (e.g. plastics). It is a delightful and compelling steampunk world, complete with vast airship fleets. The concept of a 21st-century London where oil had never been discovered is an interesting one, and McDonald does an excellent job of rendering its technological development believably. But while he does a fine job of nailing the technological/scientific world-building, I am less sold on the cultural flavor of his alternate London, which blends contemporary and pseudo-Victorian sensibilities.
On the one hand, we see that the alternate world has values and a cultural background commensurate or at least compatible with those of our modern world. The villains in E3 are quite at home in skyscrapers, modern dress, and with modern weaponry. But they are set in opposition to a romantic rabble of airship sailors who dress, talk, and generally act like they stepped out of the Victorian era. Perhaps this disconnect is part of McDonald's point, but upon reflection, I found myself doubtful. Nevertheless, it is a testament to McDonald's skill at world-building that these quibbles only arose upon reflection: while reading the story, I found the world compelling, engaging, and believable.
Once in this new world, Everett quickly joins up with that staple of the steampunk sub-genre, a crew of airship pirates sailors. They are second-class citizens presented as a rough-around-the-edges but still lovable rabble, quasi-Romany in nature. The characters Everett runs into, in particular his fiesty love-interest Sen, her adoptive mother (the captain), and her Bible/Shakespeare-quoting crewman are all extremely distinct, very interesting, and very engaging. In portraying both this world and the harsh underbelly of its society, McDonald made an interesting authorial choice: most of these characters speak in polari, which IRL is a cant slang developed in the British theater community in the 17th and 18th centuries. McDonald portrays this dialect directly in dialog, making it hard to parse for the uninitiated. I found myself torn as to its effectiveness.
The strategic use of polari deepens the credibility of McDonald's alternate world. Yet at the same time, it decreases the accessibility of that world. As an American whose only previous encounters with polari had been limited to a handful of phrases in a few episodes of Porridge while living in Europe, I found that it took real work to decode what characters in Planesrunner were saying. Interestingly, Everett had very little trouble doing so: it is possible that growing up in London, he would have had more exposure to polari than I have had growing up in the States. Readers as unfamiliar with it as I was might find that it takes a bit of effort to get through. Overall, this strategy marks an interesting choice, and one that in general McDonald pulls off effectively. However, it is a choice that I have rarely seen in YA. Experienced genre readers will probably just accept it and make use of the glossary at the end of the book, but I am less certain that YA readers will be willing to invest the same amount of effort.
The biggest weakness I found in Planesrunner was that once Everett stepped into the parallel world, it seemed as if he had entirely forgotten about the mother and younger sister he left behind. To some extent, this is a natural consequence of the plot's focus on rescuing his father. Nevertheless, I had the impression that themes of Everett's family introduced at the book's opening remained unaddressed (let alone resolved) at the book's end. Above all, it is this fact that makes the book feel more like an adult SF novel than a YA SF novel.
Themes of family, of choosing/balancing sides, and of cultural identity are all frequently explored in YA. One can argue (and I've done so on this blog before) that at some level all YA novels address the challenge of finding one's place in a complex, multi-layered, and ambiguous world. McDonald sets these themes up fairly well in the opening of Planesrunner, but fails to follow through on them by its end. Themes of family get re-introduced, with the focus on Everett's place within the airship's "adopted family", but it never ties back to the family he left at home. Perhaps as the series continues we will return to these themes and gain some closure. But stretching a single unresolved thematic arc across a series and without clear inflection points in each installment is something adult series may pull off, but flies in the face of typical YA conventions. It is one thing to end the plot of the first book on a cliffhanger as McDonald (more-or-less) does, but to leave thematic threads dangling (as opposed to tied, whether loosely or strongly) weakens the book's emotional resonance.
Overall, Planesrunner is a solid adventure. Read as such, it is perfectly enjoyable. Fans of adult science fiction will find it especially satisfying, and will likely find it fast by the standards of the adult genre. Fans of YA science fiction will likely enjoy it as well, though I suspect that long-term it won't be as memorable as more tightly themed YA novels. Readers of McDonald's earlier work will enjoy Planesrunner for how it builds on McDonald's strengths and how it diverges and expands on his previous patterns. However, readers looking for the thematic, structural, and sociological complexity of McDonald's adult novels won't find it here. That complexity may exist below the story's surface, incorporated into the story's world-building, but Planesrunner is a simpler, more adventure-focused story than McDonald's earlier work. In general, I found Planesrunner a fun if only partially-satisfying read, but I am definitely invested enough to pick up the next book in the series when it comes out.(less)
I've been a fan of Bill Willingham's writing for years. His work on Vertigo's Fables: Legends in Exile series? Hands-down the best comic book writing out there. I've particularly appreciated the structure he brings to his sequential storytelling: sweeping, complex plots that more closely resemble epic fantasy than standard super-hero fare (most of which I can no longer stomach). Several months ago at BEA, I managed to snag a review copy of his new middle-grade fantasy novel Down the Mysterly River, which Tor Teen/Starscape just released a couple of weeks ago.
Down the Mysterly River follows the adventures of a young boy named Max who wakes up in the woods one day with no recollection of how he got there. Thankfully, Max is a Boy Scout and so is better prepared for such situations than I ever could be. As he tries to figure out where he is and how he got there, he makes friends with a talking badger, a tyrannical tom cat, and a friendly bear. All four of them are in the same situation, and together they must figure out what brought them to this place. But they must do so while fleeing from the Blue Cutters, a band of sword-swinging fanatics who want to re-create our heroes according to their own ideas of what makes people good. Obviously, Max and his friends are not particularly interested in being forcibly molded.
The book is generally structured as an adventure story, and blended with mystery. Our plucky band of heroes must sneak and fight their way free of the Blue Cutters while piecing together the mystery surrounding their appearance in this unfamiliar world. The book is written in omniscient third, but with a relatively narrow focus on Max. With his self-professed experience at detection, Max eagerly goes about solving the mystery and we are drawn into it in his wake. While Max may proceed with little fear, Willingham expertly uses ominous suggestions to raise tension for the reader. Within minutes of meeting Branderbrock the Badger, for example, we learn that he remembers his own death, suggesting that both he and Max are already dead.
I found the contrasts between positive and negative to be the book's strongest aspects, and such contrasts show up repeatedly in Willingham's character development. While our four heroes are drawn sympathetically, three out of the four have darker (or at least more negative) sides: McTavish the Monster (the tom cat) self-identifies as evil and selfish, but evidences unswerving loyalty when put to the test. In many ways, he reminds me of Doli from The Book of Three: on the surface, brash and self-centered, but heroic nonetheless. Walden the Bear is portrayed as dull-witted and lazy, but is giving and capable of great violence when roused. Max, with his capacity for introspection, teeters on the edge of making certain choices that may align him with the Blue Cutters' morality. His struggles with his own conscience and justification lend the book its moral depth. Of the four heroes, Branderbrock is the only one who does not have a dual nature or conflicting desires. Together, our adventurers are offset by the Blue Cutters, who are depicted with haughty brutality. They are vicious and cruel, and their implacability in particular makes them frightening villains.
Willingham concretizes these contrasts in his battle scenes, where he does not shy away from violence. While I don't think this weakens the book at all, I think it is particularly notable for its genre and intended audience. Most MG fiction - and even most YA - tends to steer clear of blood-in-the-mud battle scenes. And middle-grade heroes almost never kill human villains. Even in The Hunger Games, which is targeted towards a YA audience and is considered by many to be a particularly violent novel, Katniss Everdeen only directly kills one of the other twenty three tributes. But in Down the Mysterly River, intended for a younger audience, we not only watch our heroes become grievously wounded on several occasions, but we see the Blue Cutters torturing innocent animals, and watch Max actually kill one of the Blue Cutters.
This violence is depicted in a matter-of-fact fashion, and though I was surprised to see a MG novel with this degree of it, I found that it did not draw away from the story. In some ways, the violence lends a visual dynamism to the book: reading along, I imagined sequential panels visualizing the action as if I were reading a comic. This kind of stylized violence brings excitement to a graphic medium, but in prose I found that its implausibility diminished its realism. Yes, the book is violent. But it is no more violent than Adams' Watership Down, the story of Robin Hood, or Brian Jacques' Redwall series.
Thematically, the violence was also treated seriously. Throughout, our heroes engage in violence defensively. They do not take the attack to the Blue Cutters: they are just trying to get away from people who are intent on torturing and killing them. And Willingham justifies our heroes' violent response by showing us exactly how vile the Blue Cutters really are, and by making it clear that our heroes are significantly outnumbered. And, perhaps most significantly, he does not let our heroes off the hook: their actions have consequences, and Max is shown to struggle with his choices. That his actions to defend himself and his loved ones are justified in no way diminishes the poignancy of his guilty conscience. And, interestingly, the book seems to suggest that offensive action against the Blue Cutters is an adult right: one that twelve year-old Max is not ready to either understand or undertake.
The world-building is well-executed. Willingham's cosmology - which lies at the heart of the mystery - is particularly interesting and appealing, though to explain why would unravel the mystery Willingham painstakingly sets up. Readers of Fables will no doubt recognize certain archetypes that show up in his world-building, but they are put to a very different use in Down the Mysterly River. The characterization and how it ties into the world-building is also particularly well done, with non-human heroes who we can understand and believe in despite their fantastic natures.
The writing itself is competent, but I found a number of areas where it could have been tightened. The first quarter of the book tends towards stilted descriptive sentences. At BEA, I asked Willingham about the difference between writing a prose novel and a comic script, and he pointed towards exposition. The book's beginning clearly shows where Willingham struggled with this: his early descriptions tended to flow more like visual notation for an artist rather than descriptions of ongoing action. However, the text remains functional and his skilled characterization is able to overcome the exposition's choppiness. And as the book's plot accelerates, the flow improves and Willingham loses the stilted declarative style that predominated early on. By the book's mid-point, sentences and paragraphs are flowing smoothly.
The other weakness that stood out to me in the writing was an occasional tendency to over-write. Honestly, I see this as less of a failure on the part of Willingham's writing as on the part of his editor's line-editing: good MG/YA editors should know to look out for this and trim it out of the book before it ever goes into production. Yes, this is a book for children. But kids are more perceptive than we stodgy grown-ups like to give them credit for. Even ten year-olds don't need to have a rhetorical question defined and explained for them: if they don't know the word, then they'll pick it up in context. I found this tendency most jarring when it occurred at the end of certain chapters, throwing off the rhythm and dramatic resonance of the chapter's conclusion. Next time, I would hope such extraneous and unnecessary sentences were just cut: part of what makes great MG fiction great is that it challenges the reader. And kids are especially sensitive to condescension in their reading.
Despite these weaknesses, I found Down the Mysterly River to be a fun adventure. The answers to Max's mystery were robust, and the characterization and story arcs that Willingham takes us down are immensely satisfying.
For parents who may be concerned about the violence: it's handled well, and if you have concerns about it, read the book yourself first, and then decide if your kid is ready for it. There's no universal rule. I found that the violence was tasteful and well-executed. At nine or ten I know that I would've enjoyed the book. Whether the same holds true for your kid, well, that's your call. Grown-up fans of Willingham's comic book writing will probably enjoy it, provided that they remember that it is not a Fables book. Comic book retailers - who I've heard had trouble selling Willingham's earlier prose novel in the Fables universe - may find that Down the Mysterly River is a great transition book for kids who read books like The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer (Owly (Graphic Novels)) and might now be ready for more grown-up fare.
I really enjoyed Willingham's first foray into his own prose fiction, and I hope to see more books like this from him.(less)
A while back, I received a review copy of Marie Brennan's With Fate Conspire, the fourth in her Onyx Court series. Now, let me start with a confession: before receiving my copy, I hadn’t read any of the earlier books. I know, I know – alternate/secret history set in various periods in London’s history? Liking historical fantasy as much as I do, one would think I had devoured this series from the first book up to now. But for whatever reason, I missed it until finding its fourth volume in the mailbox. Holding the book in my hand, I faced a choice: I could either catch up on the previous three books, or I could just dive into the fourth. Doing so would be a risk: would I miss vital backstory or world-building? I didn't know. But I justified my decision with the fig leaf of “someone else might pick up the fourth book first, right?”
With Fate Conspire is set in an exceedingly well-researched late nineteenth century London. It features two primary viewpoint characters: the mortal Eliza O'Malley, a poor woman of Irish descent living in the London slums and Dead Rick, a faerie skriker (a Lancashire name for a lycanthropic faery who is an omen of death - more commonly known as a Black Dog) living in the Onyx Court's Goblin Market. When we first meet Eliza, we quickly learn that she is desperately seeking a way to track down the faerie who kidnapped her lover seven years prior. When we first meet Dead Rick, we find him brutally forced to work as a slave, enforcer, and errand-boy for Nadrett, a criminal kingpin in the Goblin Market. Connecting both perspectives is the accelerating industrialization of London: the rise of iron-based industry and the development of the London Underground Railway are destroying the faerie city.
When we first meet both characters, they already have interesting pasts. Eliza's lover was kidnapped by faeries and she foiled a faerie terrorist attack on the London underground. Dead Rick's past is more mysterious, but it somehow put him at the mercy of Nadrett. At first, I assumed that these histories were the backstory that I had missed by not reading the earlier books. But then I realized that A Star Shall Fall is set more than a century before With Fate Conspire - which means that their backstories could not possibly have been in the pages I’d skipped.
When I picked up the fourth book in the series, I risked missing out on vital backstory. But writing the fourth book in the series, Brennan took a similar risk: she placed the moment of displacement – the point where Eliza and Dead Rick's adventures start – off-screen. This is a particularly risky approach: by not allowing us to participate in her protagonists' displacement, Brennan risks our investment in the characters and their world. I really enjoyed the structure and courage that this showed, but I found that the risk was only partially successful.
Dead Rick is modeled as a hero (see my post on A Theory of the Hero). We are shown his desperation to survive the Onyx Court’s imminent collapse, and his willingness to commit violence, but there remain lines he refuses to cross. He is a moral character, despite the self-loathing we see. He is an aspirational hero who wants to survive while still doing what he feels to be right. He may not always succeed, but he continues to aspire. He is used to show us the lawless underbelly of the Onyx Court, and the amoral brutality of some faeries. The challenges he face are existential: will Nadrett kill him? Will he survive the imminent destruction of the Onyx Court? Will he become like Nadrett to do so?
The portrayal of Dead Rick and faerie society were the high points of the book for me. First, I always enjoy well-drawn heroic characters. The challenges which Dead Rick faces are packed with drama. On an individual level, the unflinching depiction of Nadrett's brutality and Dead Rick's desperation make him particularly sympathetic: I cringed to see his experiences and wanted everything to work out for him. At the same time, his story becomes a microcosm of the Onyx Court's story. Dead Rick's experiences concretize the drama of the Onyx Court's collapse by showing us the little guy's perspective. Dead Rick is no chosen hero, capable of saving the Onyx Court from London's industrialization. He can barely keep himself alive, let alone save the faerie city. But it is his courageous struggle against insurmountable challenges that makes his story a page turner. In Dead Rick's case, Brennan was able to successfully skip his backstory: the sympathy he engenders, his emotional stakes, and his relationship to the Onyx Court's broader struggle were enough to earn my investment.
By contrast, I found Eliza to be the far weaker character. If Dead Rick is defined by his rough moral code, then Eliza is defined by her obsession with tracking down Owen Darragh. This is not an existential challenge. The worst-case scenario for Eliza is that she never finds him. But because we did not get her backstory, we are not as invested in her quest as she is. Brennan tries to make Eliza sympathetic using tools parallel to those used for Dead Rick: Eliza is a poor costerwoman of Irish descent. Her experience of London is that of the down-trodden and the discriminated. While this works to make Eliza somewhat sympathetic, her story lacks the emotional tension of Dead Rick's. The dilemmas she faces are not moral in nature: she rarely needs to choose between right and wrong, or the lesser of two evils. Short of killing innocents, she's happy to cross almost any line in her quest. Her challenges are almost always tactical, and they fail to mirror or concretize those of broader mortal London.
In Eliza's case, skipping of the backstory did the character a disservice. It made it impossible for me to really invest in Eliza's travails. This problem is especially apparent when compared against Dead Rick's storyline. Eliza's difficulties and choices are inconsequential when set against Dead Rick's primary problem (the catastrophic collapse of the Onyx Court).
That the faerie perspective is more compelling than the mortal one probably should not be a surprise. The Onyx Court is the primary constant throughout the (surprise surprise) Onyx Court series - which in and of itself is an interesting structural feature. Most contemporary fantasies that deal with the world of faerie tend to be either portal or intrusion stories where the focal lens is a human who finds themselves caught up in the magical world. In those stories where a human isn’t our lens, we often see through the eyes of a faery who – for all intents and purposes – tends to be indistinguishable from a super-powered mortal.
When writing a series, most authors take the safe approach of following one set of characters as they progress through events that can be encapsulated within a mortal lifetime. But Brennan takes a different path. Rather than give us characters to follow over the course of a single escalating adventure, she instead opens a window onto a particular time in the history of the eternal Onyx Court. The effect is like tuning into a long-running TV series mid-episode, mid-season. By nailing the faerie perspective – and lending it continuity throughout the series – Brennan is able to diminish the impact. Yet the relative weakness of her mortal character (Eliza) underlines the fact that the faeries – and how the Onyx Court deals with the challenges it faces – are the author’s primary concern. I am curious whether the mortal characters in the earlier books are as weak as Eliza.
Perhaps the strongest recommendation I can offer is that after finishing With Fate Conspire, I went out and bought the preceding three volumes. Brennan took a significant risk structuring this book as she did, and while she may not have succeeded as well as I might have liked, neither did she fail. I applaud her courage, and her skill for getting it more than half right. I'm looking forward to the preceding three books.(less)
It is tough to write an epic fantasy that adheres to the sub-genre's conventions while still offering something new and innovative. Different authors use different techniques: Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire subverts the idea that the hero always wins, Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon expands the scope of epic fantasy (see my earlier review), and N.K. Jemisin's The Broken Kingdoms undermines the trope of the perfect hero (see my earlier review). In her US adult debut Blackdog, K.V. Johansen builds a sense of narrow-focused hyper-locality embedded within a larger epic structure. By going small, Johansen is able to make her perspective characters, their struggles with madness and redemption, and the world they populate particularly compelling.
Blackdog opens from the perspective of Otakas, the protector of a remote mountain goddess named Attalissa. Otokas is an aging warrior, possessed by the mad spirit of the Blackdog. The Blackdog is crazy – utterly and implacably obsessed with protecting its goddess. It has gone centuries possessing one warrior after another, willing or not. From the opening pages we get the sense that Otokas and his predecessors walk a thin line between sanity and madness, constantly struggling against the Blackdog’s violent obsession.
Right away, we are given an interesting, compelling character whose perspective establishes the basics of Johansen’s world. In this world, gods are fundamentally tied to a particular place. Attalissa is not an all-powerful (or even moderately-powerful) goddess. While she may be the most powerful deity in her neighborhood, that neighborhood is still a backwater. Far away, there are empires and grand cities…but neither Otokas nor his goddess are interested in those places. They have one small corner of Johansen’s world, and the rest can go hang. Otokas’ mild irreverence and his dry, cynical sense of humor are put to good effect establishing this attitude. It immediately tells us that Blackdog is concerned with local matters, not the fate of the world. But while Attalissa and Otokas may be uninterested in the wider world, within the first chapter that world decides that it is interested in them. A warlord appears (literally) with an army on their doorstep, and Attalissa – an immortal goddess incarnated as a mortal child – and Otokas must flee to keep the goddess from being devoured. Otokas is able to get Attalissa out of her temple, but he is badly wounded. When he dies, the spirit of the Blackdog possesses Holla-Sayan, a foreign warrior traveling through Attalissa’s domain.
That first chapter is quite an action-packed opener, as within the first couple of pages we meet a compelling protagonist (Otokas), and right away find ourselves under siege. Despite the hard-hitting action, Johansen does an excellent job of keeping her world-building accessible, sliding it in between the arrows and sword fights. By adhering closely to her perspective character’s perception of the world, she gradually lays her world-building blocks. She manages this so subtly that the devices she utilizes are almost transparent: I had to look for them to find them hidden in the text. My first time through the book, I just got caught up in the adventure.
By the time we meet Holla-Sayan (and having read the back cover copy), I pretty much thought I knew what to expect from the plot: Holla-Sayan would be the hero, keep the goddess safe, wait for her to mature into her full power, try and organize some sort of resistance, come back and kick the warlord’s butt. And while in the loosest possible sense the book does follow this framework, the way in which Johansen executes it is particularly interesting.
This is not a standard "savior returns" fantasy: our "hero" is concerned first with keeping his own sanity, and only secondly with a warlord who did him personally little harm. Instead of focusing on the warrior/mentor/hero dynamic, Johansen builds a believable assemblage of secondary perspective characters who all act under their own agency. Since it will take years for the goddess to mature into her powers, she will need some sort of nascent resistance organization in place. But with Holla-Sayan too busy struggling with the Blackdog, this task is told from the perspective of one of Attalissa’s warrior priestesses. Holla-Sayan and the goddess actually spend most of the book completely ignorant of the goddesses’ supporters back home.
Each of the book’s six or seven perspective characters – including the warlord Tamghat and the goddess Attalissa – has a dark history that they are (in one way or another) trying to get through. Holla-Sayan is the only relative innocent among the lot of them, though his innocence is pointedly juxtaposed against the Blackdog’s animal savagery. While dealing with the superficial objective of defeating Tamghat or capturing Attalissa, each of the book’s key characters has to come to terms with themselves and their past choices. Johansen handles this emotionally fraught territory skillfully, offering a distinct flavor and different resolution to each of their stories. Where the resolutions do not satisfy, it is solely because some true conclusions are by their very natures unsatisfying: that is their point.
If there were a cheap "How to Write Epic Fantasy" book out there (and I'm sure there is somewhere) I suspect it would have at least one chapter on the value of epigraphs for world-building. Epic fantasy titles routinely get mocked for starting each chapter with a fragment of epic poetry, or a legend, or a piece of a history book, etc. from the book’s universe. As a reader, I’m always a little leery of epigraphs. Sometimes, I find them useful and insightful, but mostly I find they just take up space and add little to either the world-building or the story. I admit, after reading the first or second epigraph in a book, I’ll usually just skip the rest until after I’ve read through the text at least once. K.V. Johansen, however, eschewed epigraphs in Blackdog. Instead, she concluded certain chapters (particularly the early chapters) with a brief paragraph from an old-fashioned storyteller's tale.
At first glance, one might be tempted to ask who cares? But by placing her epigraphs at the end of her chapters, Johansen is able to more effectively manage her pacing and the reader's insight into the plot. The early chapters of Blackdog were particularly fast-paced and action-packed, and the epigraph at the end of the chapter gave much needed breathing room, an opportunity to pause and absorb the preceding events before diving into the next frenetic chapter.
Furthermore, the epigraphs adequately serve the function Diana Wynne Jones lampooned with her "Legends" entry in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: they take us out of the perspective character's head, and provide the reader with a brief glimpse into omniscient perspective. By carefully controlling what information is disclosed, we can put a number of facts together before our perspective characters do, which makes it that much more satisfying when our heroes catch up to us and figure it out. It's a tried-and-true device frequently found in epic fantasy, and executing it deftly requires a careful balancing act: too much information, and the book yields no surprises. Too little, and the epigraphs offer no value. Johansen's epigraphs – which only appear at the start of the book – manage this tightrope very effectively.
Johansen also uses creative dialogue markers to support her storytelling. Many of the perspective characters wrestle with madness and possession, which means that they have a lot of conversations with themselves. For those characters who are deeper in the throes of madness, or when the lines between their personalities grow more blurry, internal dialogue shifts from conventional form to more of a European fashion: Roman (straight, non-italicized) text, preceded by em-dashes, and lacking any “he said / she said” markers. This is particularly effective in the latter half of the book, where it amplifies the blurred and swirling wash of personalities within some characters’ heads. The overall effect is one that allows the reader to enjoy the whirlwind of madness and identity while still keeping characters and their diverging personalities straight.
Of the book’s perspective characters, only Attalissa did not appeal to me: this is the book’s primary weakness, and the reason why I’m giving it three stars. The goddess is one of the book’s most central characters, yet she has the least agency of them all. At the beginning of the book, when she is a little child, this is understandable and acceptable. But as she grows up, she continues to be passive and let events happen to her rather than take charge of them. This is understandable, given the character’s psychological make-up and history, yet nonetheless, it noticeably slows the pacing significantly in the chapters told from her perspective. It is not until the book's climax that she becomes an active force, at which point her chapters accelerate to match the rest of the book.
Barring this one weakness, I quite enjoyed Blackdog. I felt that all of the characters were competently executed, even if Attalissa’s passivity throughout the book's middle third bothered me. The world-building and the textual devices employed particularly stood out as interesting and of noticeable quality in the story. I would recommend Blackdog to people who have been exposed to epic fantasy before: this is not as accessible as (for example) David Eddings' work for new epic fantasy readers, but it is much more accessible than a lot of the hardcore epic fantasy out there. I believe fans of Brandon Sanderson or Brent Weeks in particular will enjoy this book.(less)
Maybe it’s because I spent a decade living abroad, or because both my parents are immigrants. But for whatever reason, foreign techniques in storytelling and art have always fascinated me. Now and again, I find myself going on a binge of reading from a particular part of the world, and several months ago I started a Japanese binge – made all the harder knowing nothing about the language, and having only local sushi joints and the little otaku pop-culture I’ve been able to observe as culture references. But in my blind stumbles around Japanese literature, I picked up Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse written by Otsuichi and translated by Nathan Collins.
This is subtle, literary horror from Haikasoru (an imprint of Viz Media that specializes in bringing Japanese genre titles to the United States). Reading it brought to mind old-school Gothic works by folks like Sheridan Le Fanu or Daphne du Maurier, with some of the creepiness of Edgar Allen Poe. What made this three story collection stand out were the prose techniques employed by Otsuichi (or possibly his translator). Using word choice and sentence construction as the subtle thematic bedrock is a rare treat in the horror genre.
The first (titular) story was written when Otsuichi was still in high school, and it shows some of the still-rough techniques that he would hone in his later works. Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse is told from the perspective of a nine year-old girl’s corpse, and I consider it to be the weakest of the three stories in this book. I cracked open the spine unfamiliar with Otsuichi’s writing or Nathan Collins’ translations, having been stung by particularly poor translations of other Japanese books in the past. As a result, the opening pages made me very concerned. The sentences were simple. Almost each one was a declarative statement. They were stilted. Choppy. The narrator’s observations were superficial and factual: this happened and then that happened and then something else happened. Reading these initial pages, I thought: “Great. Another lousy translation.” But I was wrong.
The unsubtle language that opens the story is purposeful. Otsuichi (and his translator) use simple sentence construction to put us in the head of his nine year-old narrator. As the story progresses, we watch through her eyes as her friend (and murderer) and her friend’s older brother try to hide her corpse. The narrator, in a child’s spare and simple language, tells us the facts of what happened, but the narrator’s understanding is limited by her age. Once she dies, the language grows more complex as her after-death experiences change her perceptions of the world. The transition happens subtly over the course of the story, and Otsuichi and Collins manage to make this transition smooth. If I were not looking for it, I might not have noticed it.
Once I realized that the author was doing this on purpose, I could get past the unsubtle prose and into the story. Despite being satisfied, I remain troubled by how superficially the narrator’s perceptions are presented. There was precious little introspection or abstract thought, and most nine year-olds I’ve met have some capacity for both. While this technique may be a cultural trait of Japanese fiction (Yasunari Kawabata excels at such purposefully superficial presentation), the degree to which it is employed in this story made it difficult for me to engage emotionally with any of the characters. However, the story's disquieting ending relies on the narrator lacking an adult reader's understanding of its implications.
The second story in the collection, Yuko is much shorter, much more powerful, and from my perspective, the best story in the book. Taking place in an indeterminate time period (could be present day rural Japan, could be any time in the last couple of hundred years), it follows a young, uneducated housemaid who takes care of a writer and his bedridden wife, Yuko. The housemaid, however, never sees, speaks with, hears, or interacts with Yuko, only with her husband. Scenes are presented from both the housemaid’s perspective (where Yuko never appears) and from the husband’s perspective (where he interacts with Yuko).
Reading this story, the beautiful language matters tremendously: the author and translator use lyrical, literate language and style to pull a fast one on the reader. That is not a bad thing. Throughout the story – almost to its end – the language evokes a conviction in the reader’s mind of one reality. And then with just one word – one word placed in just the right spot – it flips the reader's genre expectations from horror to mystery. I had to go back to the beginning, and read it all again, before finishing the story with a new set of reading protocols.
That one word is the hinge on which Yuko pivots: before the hinge, the story is horror, generating that delightful sensation of creepy, disquieting terror. After the hinge, the terror is gone, replaced with an intellectual curiosity seeking an explanation: a mystery. When that explanation comes, the terror returns – but it is subtler, deeper, and darker than the Gothic terror inspired before that hinge.
Since reading this story, I’ve been wrestling with this technique. It is excellently executed, and manipulates the reader brilliantly. I had thought I was reading a Gothic horror story, and suddenly I found myself reading a Gothic mystery. Cleverly done. Yet at the same time, the technique stood out as a technique. It was like a slap in the face: there was no way I could have missed it. And I do not know if that is good or bad. Should the impact of word choice and sentence construction be noticeable to the reader as they are reading? Does seeing the mirrors ruin the trick? I loved this story, and the emotional ride it took me on. So I suppose it works. “Good” might be like pornography (and science fiction): I know it when I see it. But as a writing technique, I think it might be extremely risky.
The last and longest story in the book, The Black Fairy Tale, takes far fewer risks. It is a short novel told in three parts: the first is a grizzly, frightening tale about a raven who steals peoples' eyes as a gifts for a blind girl. This was my favorite part of the story, with beautiful lyrical prose that tells a heart-breaking story of love, devotion, and the light and darkness of memory. The second part is told from the perspective of a teenage girl who loses her left eye, receives a transplant, and now sees her new eye’s memories. The final part is told from the perspective of the raven fairy tale's author. On a superficial level, the teenage girl and the author's story are linked: they come into gruesome conflict. Below that superficial level, the stories are unified by the fairy tale itself, with its focus on memory, vision, and detachment.
The emotional terror evoked by the story is its most powerful aspect. The story's violence is depicted and described, and some of it gets fairly rough, but throughout it is handled tastefully; its horrific nature is in the emotional implication of what it does (or has done) to its victims. The story's language, and in particular the gradual evolution and progression of imagery throughout the three parallel parts, makes this story a delight to read.
The book's biggest problem is its organization. The Black Fairy Tale makes up over sixty percent of the book, yet it is the third story. The opening story – Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse – is the book's weakest: I almost put it down before realizing that its unsubtle sentence construction was purposeful. I can imagine that many readers unfamiliar with Otsuichi or Collins might have given up without getting to the good part. A better way of organizing the book would have been to start with either Yuko or The Black Fairy Tale.
Regardless, the book is well worth reading. Fans of western horror will enjoy a title that hearkens back to the strong, subtle, emotionally resonant horror of Daphne du Maurier, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Edgar Allen Poe. I think this is a good intro to Japanese horror and I’m definitely going to be checking out more from Haikasoru.(less)
Meeting a book is a lot like meeting a person for the first time. The setting, the company we find ourselves in (the book included), and the general a...moreMeeting a book is a lot like meeting a person for the first time. The setting, the company we find ourselves in (the book included), and the general ambiance all have an impact. The honest truth of the matter is that if I - a middle-class white guy in my late twenties - had not had the pleasure of meeting Chesya Burke at Readercon this past year, I probably would have skipped over her collection Let's Play White. I would have judged it solely on the title, and Jordan Casteel's excellent cover, as being intended for a different audience. And if I had skipped it, I would have missed a quiet collection of emotionally powerful short stories that remind me of Shirley Jackson at her best.
It's tough to try and identify a common theme across the eleven stories in this collection. Yes, they all deal with race, class, and gender to some extent. But the stories avoid both strident polemics and simplistic allegory. Instead, Burke focuses on the more emotionally intense inner experiences of her characters, thus going beyond the superficial trappings of race, gender, or class. It's tough to bring the totality of a character - incorporating both their personality and societal context - to life in a work of short fiction. There just isn't that much room to build that reader/character relationship. But in each of the book's stories, Burke pulls it off by giving us vibrant, powerful, and vivid characters that we can follow and feel for. Which is why the horror of their experiences is so powerful.
The stories in this collection are tough to classify. They skirt the liminal edge between horror, dark urban fantasy, noir, and straightforward mainstream literary fiction. Stories like "Walter and the Three-Legged King" or "He Who Takes the Pain Away" have a magical realist flavor to them, but the magic does not produce horror in the reader. Instead, the choices the characters make, and the consequences of those choices evoke that sense of horror.
Several of the stories stand out as being particularly effective. "I Make People Do Bad Things" is an excellent noir story set in early 1930's Harlem. Anyone familiar with the history of post-Prohibition gangs in New York will enjoy Burke's spin. Most of the stories and movies (like The Cotton Club) I've come across that focus on that time period tend to zoom in on the larger-than-life personalities of Bumpy Johnson, Dutch Schultz, and Lucky Luciano. But "I Make People Do Bad Things" instead focuses on Madame St. Clair, who was the Dutchman's primary competition in the Harlem numbers racket. Burke opens up an interesting (fictional) window into her life and times, and in particular into a relationship she develops with a young girl with mysterious powers. The story pulls no punches, and portrays the kind of hard-as-nails toughness that is particular to all great noir stories. Yet at the same time, Burke manages to make St. Clair a more human character than most noir heroes, with fully realized flaws, regrets, and acceptance of choices made.
Both "Purse" and "What She Saw When They Flew Away" are quiet, heartfelt stories of loss that have few - if any - fantastical elements to them. The former evokes horror both on an emotional and visual level, while the latter is difficult to even call horror, unless that is the horror of deep sorrow. Were it not for the powerful visuals in "Purse" I suspect both stories would fit well within mainstream literary magazines, opening a window into the sad reality of women coming to terms with the loss of daughters and sisters. In many respects, I thought that they blended the quiet humanity of Shirley Jackson's best work with Richard Matheson's tactical use of violence.
Of the stories in this collection, "The Room Where Ben Disappeared" brought Shirley Jackson most to mind. In particular, it reminded me of my favorite Jackson short story ("Flower Garden", which I've written about before). From a plotting and a stylistic standpoint, the two stories are very different. For one, "The Room Where Ben Disappeared" is more insistent. For another, it is much more direct than the Jackson story and represents bigotry head-on in its action. Yet despite this directness, it evokes similar sensations of horror and judgment, while retaining a quiet depth that will stay with me for quite some time.
Not all of the stories in this collection worked for me. In particular, I found the plot of "Walter and the Three-Legged King" unsatisfying at its conclusion. Much as I love ambiguous endings left open to interpretation, I felt that this story's ending was too rushed, missing out on a symmetry to balance its excellent beginning and middle. Similarly, "CUE: Change" stood out as being a touch more simplistic than most of the other stories in the collection. In and of itself, it was not a bad story: the narrator's voice was excellent (arguably one of the best executed voices in the collection) but I found that the story's resolution lacked the subtlety and quiet resonance of its neighbors. Of the eleven stories in the collection, only three didn't really work for me.
If you're looking for a gore-spattered mess of horror, then Let's Play White is probably not the book for you. Sure, Burke has scenes of visceral blood and guts, but they are rare in these stories, and then only used to evoke horror tangentially. Like Jackson, Burke taps into that eternal font of the most horrific aspects of humanity: our twisted desires, reasoning, and emotions. She shows what happens when we are pushed too far, but she does it with a deft hand and subtlety that is refreshing. I'm looking forward to reading more of her work in the future!(less)
Before I get into reviewing Greg Egan's new book The Clockwork Rocket, I feel I must offer a disclaimer: I am neither a physicist nor a mathematician. The fact that I need to preface a discussion of the book with such a disclaimer should already tell you a lot about it. The Clockwork Rocket is hard science fiction, an impressive exercise in rationalist world-building that posits a universe whose physics differs significantly from our own. And while the book wins my applause for its science and world-building, I'm afraid the characters left a little to be desired.
The Clockwork Rocket follows the character of Yalda, a non-human female who lives on a planet quite unlike the Earth we know. She comes from a rural farming backwater, where few people are literate (despite the fact that her species can naturally manipulate their bodies' shape and structure with enough precision to form symbols on their skin).
From the start of the book, Yalda is set apart from her neighbors. Unlike most of her siblings and cousins, she is introduced as a child who is discriminated against due to her lack of a predetermined mate and her large size. Using a child perspective character to gradually introduce the reader to some pretty complicated world-building is an old trick, but Egan pulls it off reasonably well. As Yalda learns about the physics of her world, we learn alongside her. When she becomes a teacher, we learn along with her students. The book is structured such that each chapter represents a particular event in her life, with jumps of indeterminate time between them - sometimes spanning days, other times entire years. We get to follow Yalda as she leaves the family farm, and begins to get a proper university education...still subject to her society's discrimination and social expectation that females should be content to die giving birth to their children.
By the end of the first several pages, we are absolutely certain that we are not in Kansas anymore. If the structure introduces a problem, it is that there is a colossal amount of world-building to communicate. How much world-building would that be? Well, over on his web site Egan has posted over 80,000 words (that is not a typo) of notes on the physics and math alone. They are a thing of beauty. He's even got cool tutorial videos! However, the strategy employed and the density of the world-building both lead the first half of the book to consist of little other than one scientist explaining something to another scientist (with copious diagrams and some explanation of formula). While the explanations are intellectually interesting, the lack of emotional tension and density of the scientific material may be off-putting to some readers.
From a plotting standpoint, two basic tensions are introduced. First, Yalda's species has an interesting reproductive cycle. Females die giving birth, and if they delay reproduction for too long they risk involuntary parthenogenesis. This creates an interesting dynamic between the genders of her species, and leads to some thematic tension. Because she lacks a mate, Yalda is under particular pressure by the establishment of her society. As an independent thinker who aggressively seeks education and rejects the standard female role in her society, she challenges that establishment, and of course that establishment pushes back. It was refreshing to see that throughout the book, Yalda at no point needs to be rescued by a man. I can respect a hard SF story that puts a female scientist in jeopardy and doesn't have her rely on an alpha male to save her.
The second tension is an impending apocalypse caused by two universes (with different rules of physics) colliding. As they collide, Yalda's world is in danger of being destroyed. As a theoretical physicist and the discoverer of her universe's flavor of relativity, Yalda is at the heart of her species' efforts to save themselves. Their solution - to build a rocket ship that can be taken out of time, filled with top scientists, and then re-inserted into their timeline when the scientists' descendents have figured out a solution - is ingenious. It is really cool that Egan's alternative rules of physics make this plausible.
One would think that both the societal pressure and the risk of apocalypse would lend Yalda's story a degree of emotional tension, but unfortunately whatever tension is produced gets subsumed by the sheer volume of diagrams and scientific explanations. The physics are fascinating - but I found that I didn't quite care about the character as much as I would have liked to. This is especially a problem for the first half of the book, where the reader's learning curve is very high. Once we're grounded in the physics, the character and her problems become more engaging. But two hundred pages of world-building is a lot to plow through before we can really start investing in our perspective character. The Clockwork Rocket is not unique in this issue: much hard SF shares this problem (Kim Stanley Robinson's classic Red Mars comes to mind). While readers used to hard SF who enjoy the intellectual challenge may enjoy this, it is not for everyone.
Egan's The Clockwork Rocket is particularly interesting when compared to Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Like Egan, Yu posits a universe with rules of physics entirely different from our own. But Yu's book focuses on the internal and emotional experience of his everyman character. It is through his character that we understand Yu's world-building. Egan's strategy is to focus on the world-building first, and then have the character follow. These two different approaches yield very different reading experiences.
Ultimately, I found The Clockwork Rocket reasonably satisfying. But that satisfaction was very cerebral: the book resonated intellectually with me in the same way that a particularly neat thought experiment might. Fans of hard SF will love the complexity, rigor, and comprehensiveness of Egan's world building. However, now that Egan's universe is introduced and his characters are left in a fairly interesting situation, I hope the next book focuses more on the characters and less on the physics. The physics are great - but alone they can't really carry the story.(less)