(Disclosure: I listened to a BBC Radio production of Capek's playscript; my assumption is that they did an accurate translation from the Czech.)
Havin (Disclosure: I listened to a BBC Radio production of Capek's playscript; my assumption is that they did an accurate translation from the Czech.)
Having recently read E.V. Ogle's The Clockwork Man, widely regarded as the first 'cyborg' novel (although the term is never actually used in the book), I realized that I had never actually seen a production of, nor read, Karel Capek's R.U.R., in which the term "robot" was used for the first time. I decided, as I've beeen listening to more audiobooks and audio productions lately, to rectify that. For historical context alone, I'm glad I did. Yes, the themes (can robots feel emotion? will artificial intelligence spell the end of humanity? what happens when human greed and hubris outstrip common sense? how will the human race ultimately destroy itself?) have become science fiction tropes, used and perhaps over-used to better and worse effect since Capek's play was first produced. But it's always interesting to go back to a time when an idea genuinely was new, exciting, controversial, and see how it was presented at the time.
This play may be Capek's most well-known, but sadly it is not a masterwork. The ideas are more important than the characters are, which leads to a lot of speechifying and a great deal of character choices that are clearly there simply to move the plot to the next stage. Some attempt is made early on to establish the human female character Helena's personality in a way that will cause her later actions to make sense, but she will never go down as one of the theater's great female roles: she's by turns impulsive, indecisive; tears would be her greatest weapon if she was intentionally deploying them, but here they're just, the author seems to be saying, the natural reaction of a female to stress. The male leads fare no better: all 5 fall in love with Helena within moments of meeting her, simply because she's the first woman to visit their factory island in a long time; the factory president, Henry, essentially blackmails her into marrying him -- an emotional rape I found so distasteful I almost stopped listening. I made my way past it to the end of the book, but I would hope that modern stage productions would find a way to deal with this incredibly problematic element (rather than ignoring it or saying "well, that's just the way things were written back then").
Circling back to the reason I wanted to read/listen to the play: the ideas presented (about sentience, human's dominion over the world, etc) really are the reason to check this out....more
Rick Riordan continues to expand his "Percy Jackson" universe into other mythological realms in the first book of a new series featuring Magnus Chase,Rick Riordan continues to expand his "Percy Jackson" universe into other mythological realms in the first book of a new series featuring Magnus Chase, the cousin of Percy's girlfriend Annabeth. None of the usual PJ characters make appearances except for a cameo by Annabeth. (Unlike the first Kane Chronicles book, where the hint that this was taking place in a shared world was very subtle, Riordan decided to settle the issue of whether Magnus and Annabeth are related in the first chapter here.)
The story is told with Riordan's usual breezy style: fast set-up, huge action sequences every third chapter or so, tons of pop culture references, gods who have adapted to the modern world (Valhalla comes with all of the modern conveniences; Thor is a genre-tv addict), and a satisfying conclusion that wraps up the major plot points while still leaving hints for what's to come in the rest of the series. (Also like the Kane Chronicles and unlike the Jackson books, "Gods of Asgard" is a trilogy rather than a quintet.)
The characters are wonderfully diverse, as always. While Magnus is a white boy from Boston, his team of accomplices/friends includes the Valkyrie Samirah al-Abbas, a Muslim girl; Thomas Jefferson Junior, a black Union soldier from the American Civil War; Blitz, a dwarf who has failed to live up to the expectations/stereotype of his race; and Hearthstone, an Elf who is both deaf and unable to speak. Riordan has always attempted to make everyone feel included in this modern mythological world he's creating, and not just in terms of race. Sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtly, his characters have dealt with having ADD, being bi-racial, being homosexual, and now with being homeless, being deaf, having your family judge you or fail you, building a family of the heart to replace the family of the blood. And he does all of this without being preachy and without implying that any of these things are easy to experience or problem-solve.
Plot-wise, there's a lot here in common with the first Percy Jackson series: our young hero learns about the father he's never known and the special abilities that brings, then hears a prophecy that sets him on a quest, during which he learns about himself and gains deep, lasting friendships while dealing with gods who are snarky, self-important and sneaky. There are some differences in execution (for instance, the prophesying of the Norns is much vaguer than that of the Oracle at Camp Half-Blood). But I don't think Riordan is really attempting to create something from whole cloth here: he's expanding his fictional world to include another myth cycle he loves, and there are only so many ways humans and the gods can be connected. By setting his Percy Jackson, Kane family, and Magnus Chase books in the same shared universe, I think Riordan is telling his young readers that various belief systems can peacefully co-exist, that people from all walks of life can come together to solve problems, that our differences do not have to be divisions.
One of the other key differences with this series is that unlike the Greco-Roman and Epyptian myth cycles people are familiar with, the Norse cycle really does end with the end of the world via Ragnarok: all of the gods know what their roles will be when that day comes, and so that gives a slightly different cast to some of the villainous characters' motivations. It will be interesting to see how Riordan plays this out, and how (or even if) he'll portray Ragnarok in relation to the other sets of gods he's already written so well about....more
Overall, I enjoy the way the Dresden Files graphic novels (collections of monthly-issue mini-series from Dynamite publishing) fill in the gaps betweenOverall, I enjoy the way the Dresden Files graphic novels (collections of monthly-issue mini-series from Dynamite publishing) fill in the gaps between the novels. So far, it feels like each graphic novel has focused on a different aspect of Harry’s world: the straightforward investigation of a magical mystery (Ghoul, Goblin), the larger Black Council conspiracy (War Cry), and now a threat to the city of Chicago. Any threat to the city as a whole is going to mean the involvement of Harry’s supporting cast, and any chance to see more of Gentleman John Marcone, Karrin Murphy, Thomas Raith, and Mouse the wonder-dog is always welcome.
There is the usual clunkiness of repeated exposition that comes with any trade or hardcover collection of what was originally individual monthly issues, but other than that the story flows well and stays interesting throughout. The hints as to the nature of the sorcerer’s threat and the escalation of said threat across the arc of the story work well and meet the Dresden formula. No complaints there. Butcher & Powers also give us a look at an aspect of Marcone I don’t remember being obviously touched on in the novels: the man is a gangster, so of course he’d use his status as the only human signatory to the Unseelie Accords to set up a protection racket.
Carlos Gomez’s art works really well with this story, so much of which takes place in dark underground spaces, and his representations of Harry and Murphy in particular are the closest to what I pictured when I first started reading the books. ...more
Years ago, I read Ellen Kushner & Delia Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings without realizing it was part of a series. Ever since, I’ve been meaning tYears ago, I read Ellen Kushner & Delia Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings without realizing it was part of a series. Ever since, I’ve been meaning to go and read Kushner’s Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword. Swordspoint, the first book in the series, did not disappoint.
The ensemble cast gives us entry into all of the strata of society in Kushner’s un-named city, from the slum-ish warrens of the island of Riverside to the aristocratic garden estates on the Hill, and there are several characters to root for. While master swordsman Richard St. Vier and his lover Alec are the nominal main characters, the young aristo Michael Godwin is equally as important to the proceedings. Even though much of the violence and death that happens occurs because of Michael, he’s more the unwitting motivator than he is the actor, and Kushner makes sure we stay aware of his intentions and how things slip out of his control. Godwin grows and changes more than any other character in the book. St. Vier and Alec don’t change nearly as much, but St. Vier’s sense of self is heavily challenged, the codes and history that make him who he is brought under close scrutiny, and we’re not always sure he’ll survive the story physically and/or emotionally intact. Alec is a perfectly-written wild card: of an age with Godwin and sharing some of his condescension for age, but with a weight on his shoulders similar to St. Vier’s. While there are other POVs present, the perspectives of the swordsman, the aristocrat and the scholar give us most of our information on how this city works, and even more so when their worlds overlap and their worldviews butt up against each other.
I have to agree with comments by other reviewers that the first quarter of the book is a little slow compared to the rest of the book, but to me it’s a necessary evil. World-building and place-setting can be accomplished in any number of ways, and Kushner chooses the method that best fits the world she’s writing in: drawing room gossip serves us up not only characters, conflicts and clues us that this fantasy world’s design is largely that of Regency-era England: manners and appearance matter more than actually being right, and secrets matter even more than manners. The tone of the opening scenes reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Dangerous Liaisons. These early scenes are paying attention to and do have a strong bearing on everything that follows.
For the action-oriented, there’s plenty of dueling swordplay. For the drama-loving, there’s one hell of a courtroom scene. And there’s more than any fantasy novel’s fair share of humor, much of it of the drippingly sarcastic vein.
Although I own the paperback edition of Swordspoint, I listened to the “Neil Gaiman Presents” audiobook production, which is halfway between traditional audiobook narration (by the author herself) and a full-cast production. Kushner does most of the narrating, and does it well, but an accomplished cast breaks in occasionally to “illuminate” the dialogue. I especially enjoyed the performance of the actor playing Alec. ...more
Full disclosure #1: I won the audiobook of A Fashionable Indulgence via a Twitter contest run by the author. Full disclosure #2: I’m not a regular reaFull disclosure #1: I won the audiobook of A Fashionable Indulgence via a Twitter contest run by the author. Full disclosure #2: I’m not a regular reader of historical or modern romance, but I’ve read some of K.J. Charles’ speculative fiction romance. I really enjoy the author’s style and decided to take a chance on a more traditional romance. I’m glad I did.
The plot of Indulgence is that old classic: poor young man (Harry Vane) finds out he’s the long-lost relative of a rich family and drama ensues as he has to decide what world he belongs in. In this tale, that sense of being trapped between two worlds is additionally complicated by the main characters’ homosexuality. KJ Charles very capably maintains the truth of being gay in the Regency era (or really, any era in modern history predating our own): it was a death sentence. At several points in the story, the drama hinges either on someone (usually main character Harry Vane) doing something publicly which will draw unwanted attention to their sexuality or on someone (usually other characters) holding himself back from doing the same.
Of course, if the only drama in the novel was the “will they or won’t they be exposed” sort, the book would get boring quickly. Most of the drama comes from the other aspect of Harry’s life: that he’s grown up poor and on the run thanks to the revolutionary ideas of his late parents and now must rely on Julian Norreys to learn how to fit in to “proper” society. Harry’s conflict is palpable in every scene, even the funny ones. His indecision about where he belongs, about how best to help his friends while still improving his own life situation, is what motivates the book’s key moments and it all flows very well. Subplots involving a few of the other ‘society’ members (they call themselves “the Richardians” after Harry’s cousin Richard) fill out the book and set up plots for the upcoming volumes in the series (except for one subplot that hinges on those characters’ appearance in a previous short story) without feeling intrusive or distracting from the main narrative.
The drama serves the romance well, giving us complications and misunderstandings that stand in the way of a happily-ever-after for Harry and Julius. The two characters are almost polar opposites: Harry is emotionally demonstrative where Julius is cold; Harry wants to trust everyone, Julius trusts no-one. Wondering if they’ll ever find enough common ground to reveal their mutual attraction and then watching how they navigate making that work with all of the conflict going on around them is the main thrust of the book, and Charles spools that story out at just the right pace to keep reader interest. And as is to be expected from a KJ Charles book, the sex scenes are equal parts hot and romantic.
The only character who really comes across a bit one-note is Harry’s bitter paternal grandfather, the arch-villain of the piece. He fulfills his role in the story, but never really rises above the level of stereotype. Every other major and supporting character has some nuance and personality to them and I look forward to seeing some of them developed in future volumes.
I also enjoyed the narrator, who did a great job differentiating between the characters without overplaying the differences in accent that come with different social statuses....more
Jim Butcher launches his newest series, a sweeping story that merges several kinds of fantasy (military fantasy, Steampunk(ish), quest fantasy, and peJim Butcher launches his newest series, a sweeping story that merges several kinds of fantasy (military fantasy, Steampunk(ish), quest fantasy, and perhaps other sub-genres as well), with an engaging ensemble cast and some terrific world-building. So my biggest problem with the book isn’t with the book itself, but with the plot description on most websites and on the inside front cover flap. Because if you read that, it sounds like this book will only be about Captain Grimm and his ship; the rest of the ensemble of lead characters is written off with the phrase “team of agents on a vital mission.” I think that synopsis pitches the book to a particular audience and does a disservice to not only potential readers but also to the author and these great characters he’s created. If the entire book, or even 75% of it, were told from Grimm’s POV, I wouldn’t be commenting about it. But the book’s POV shifts between at least 6 major characters (three women, a very intelligent cat, and a male bad-guy in addition to the stalwart Captain Grimm), so I think they deserve more mention in the press materials than they’re getting.
That venting aside, I really enjoyed the book. The varying POVs enhanced the tension by enabling the author to cut away at key cliff-hanger moments, leaving us wondering just long enough what the resolution might be, unlike first-person narration where chapter-cliffhanger resolutions are necessarily at the start of the next chapter. There are just enough plot strands that the cutting-away keeps things interesting rather than creating false tension, although it’s clear the characters have not learned the first rule of role-playing games: never split the party.
All of the major plot strands are resolved by the end of the book, avoiding the problem many “first books in trilogies” suffer from. Even with all of those conclusions, there’s plenty of larger-arc material to propel the series forward into books two and three. The larger threat that is manifesting in the background is intriguing. The world-building is naturally worked in, with nary an awkward info-dump in sight. The plot development felt neither rushed nor too slow, even with the requisite introduction of each of the main characters. And here’s where I wonder what other genres Butcher is playing with; I found a few things that might be hints this is not some far-off world on which humanity has developed but rather the future of our own world. It’s possible I’m reading too much into a handful of random statements. I do have to say, though, that I found nothing particularly “steampunk” about the world or its setting other than the obvious Victorian-ish social structures and manners. The driving technology is vat-created crystalline structures, not steam. It’s a minor quibble on an otherwise intriguing world.
The characters are diverse in personality and social position, which keeps the ensemble from being too homogenous. While their roles perhaps map onto classic quest-style fantasy fiction (leader, warrior, mage, etc), their personalities quickly move them beyond tropes, and their personal histories add nice texture to the main plot: what is the full story behind Grimm’s expulsion (and Creedy’s “habbling”) from the Navy? Why has Bridget’s family House fallen so low in the estimation of the other Houses? Why can certain people speak Cat but not everyone? Why do Etherialists all have these weird personality quirks? Where exactly do the Warriorborn come from (as it seems to be a physical/genetic difference more than a station of birth)? Some of these questions are answered, some not.
And then there’s the talking cats, which people will either love or hate (and I’ve already seen both reactions). I personally liked them, and I wonder how much of the negative reaction to them is because they are actual cats as opposed to cat-like humanoids. Butcher has a knack for giving pets strong-but-appropriate personalities, and I think his characterizations of Rowl, Mirl and the rest of the cats is spot-on. Butcher also does a great job reminding us that just because someone is the hero of a story doesn’t mean they have to be likeable. By the end of the book, I was starting to warm to Gwen, but she’s still displaying the evidence of her rich-born privilege right up to the end, and I suspect her journey on that score will continue through the series. Her abruptness, her condescension, her conviction that her involvement in a problem is the only way to fix that problem all set her at odds with the other characters, and especially the ones she’s related to.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a solid start to a new Jim Butcher creation, and I’m definitely along for the rest of the journey. ...more
A really solid issue of fiction and essays. My thoughts on the eight short stories in the issue:
GOLDEN HAIR, RED LIPS by Matthew Bright. It's not realA really solid issue of fiction and essays. My thoughts on the eight short stories in the issue:
GOLDEN HAIR, RED LIPS by Matthew Bright. It's not really a spoiler to say that the main character is an immortal Dorian Grey, living in modern San Francisco at the start and height of the AIDS epidemic. His loves sicken and die, and a strange blond man stalks him with intimations that one of them is the cause of the plague. Bright's first person narration is very intimate and yet Dorian still seems removed from the action -- an interesting style to tell the story in, and an incredibly effective one for me, as it mirrors my own small-town, closeted connection to the epidemic (I wasn't directly touched by it, or didn't realize I was, until well into the 90s). Bright's choice to repeat certain phrases adds a chill to the narrative, reminding us that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes if we don't learn from them, but it adds a wistful longing as well.
ALIEN JANE by Kelly Eskridge. In an open (voluntary) hospital mental health ward, Rita meets Jane. Rita has anger management and self-control problems, while Jane can feel no physical pain. Through Jane, Rita comes to understand herself a bit better. The horror here is more subtle, working on the reader throughout in very small ways. There are a couple of gory moments, but the gore is not the point of the story even though it does propel the plot and reveal some character.
THE LORD OF CORROSION by Lee Thomas. I think I've yet to read a Lee Thomas story that didn't disturb me, and this is no exception. Main character Josh is a widowed gay single father whose life starts to unravel when adopted daughter Sophia starts acting out under the command of what sounds like an imaginary friend. Thomas starts the story with intimate, warm-but-pained memories of family history before gradually ramping up the horror from imaginary/background to very real/forefront.
RATS LIVE ON NO EVIL STAR by Caitlin R. Kiernan. Acadmic Jessie occasionally visits elderly neighbor Olan, who appears to be a conspiracy theorist. Up to a point, it is questionable whether Olan's theories, and the things he says he's seen in his life, are real or in his imagination. Kiernan's slow pacing allows the story to develop and build without jumping directly to an obvious conclusion.
DISPATCHES FROM A HOLE IN THE WORLD by Sunny Moraine. Unnamed narrator decides to do a doctoral thesis on "The Suicide Year," when thousands of people ages 10 to 25 killed themselves on social media -- an epidemic with no discernable root cause. It's a disturbing story on multiple levels: the concept, the narrator's voice, the things the narrator is leaving unsaid. The depression revisiting that horrible year brings on is palpable to the reader.
BAYOU DE LA MERE by Poppy Z. Brite. Ricky and G-Man, restaurant owners/chefs from New Orleans, vacation in a small bayou town. Encountering the old Catholic church's unusual statue of a seated-but-childless Virgin Mary dredges up childhood memories and puts a pall on their vacation. Brite's story explores why so many gay break from the Catholic Church but remain Christians saddled with lingering Catholic guilt that manifests at surprising moments; the story also touches on the nature of Catholic iconography.
HUNGRY DAUGHTERS OF STARVING MOTHERS by Alyssa Wong. Jenny serial-dates and has a particular kind of hunger that needs to be sated: she eats the horrible, evil thoughts of bad people. She inherited this from her mother, who choses to deal with her gift by hiding herself away from the world in a way Jenny just can't. That's just the set-up. Wong's prose is tight and compelling. Jenny's first person narration keeps the tension high and the reader's stomach as unsettled as the main character's.
LET'S SEE WHAT HAPPENS by Chuck Palahniuk. Young Heather's burgeoning interest in religion thanks to a flyer handed out at school drives her parents to take her to a snake-charming, speak-in-tongues revivalist church, where their attempts to mock the Charismatic reveals their own flaws. Palanhniuk's style is dense and fast and bounces between POVs; it's a tough ride but worth the effort....more
I’ve been wanting to read Cornell Woolrich’s “Rear Window,” the story Hitchcock based his film on, since I found a copy of this collection years ago,I’ve been wanting to read Cornell Woolrich’s “Rear Window,” the story Hitchcock based his film on, since I found a copy of this collection years ago, and finally got around to it. (Apparently, the other four stories in this collection were filmed as episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…”) Hard Case Crime reissued his novel Fright back in the early days of their imprint, but there hasn’t been a full-blown Woolrich revival yet.
This volume contains 5 Woolrich stories:
REAR WINDOW. The story/novella is just as gripping as the movie. Woolrich tells the tale in very tight first person, and you can feel Hal Jeffries’ initial boredom and building frustration, and even a bit of claustrophobia developing, throughout. Jeffries is a bit of a judgmental jerk, but that doesn’t mean his suspicion that his neighbor has committed murder is unfounded. The key difference from story to movie is the story’s lack of a female character; in the story, it’s Hal’s “houseman” Sam who does the legwork Hal can’t accomplish on his own. There’s just enough physical description to set the scene, but Woolrich doesn’t waste words describing any part of the alley scenery or other houses that won’t have an impact on the story progression, and that includes Hal’s own house.
POST MORTEM. A recently widowed woman and her new husband discover she has won an Irish Lottery ($150,000) thanks to her late husband having purchased a ticket – but they can’t find the stub that will allow them to collect. An enterprising reporter helps the widow figure out where the stub is. Of course, there’s more to the story: her good luck uncovers a mystery that Woolrich unfolds with several fun twists before the final reveal. This one has the feel of a “locked room” mystery without actually taking place in a locked room. The downside to the story is that the widow is the main character but not the main actor, a complaint modern readers can lay on much classic noir. Still, I felt she was a roundly-developed character within that context. (Adapted as Season 3, Episode 33 of Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
THREE O’CLOCK. Woolrich manages to combine the “jealous husband” and “home invasion/captive” tropes in an interesting and almost surreal story that feels the most different from the other stories in the collection. The narration is not first person but is still an extremely limited one character POV; this heightens the tension, allowing the main character’s paranoia to flow convincingly into panic, despair and perhaps insanity. It’s one of two stories in the collection that include a strong “dark humor” aspect. (Adapted for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1985 revival as Season 1, Episode 22, and also adapted as an episode of the tv series Suspicion)
CHANGE OF MURDER. Brains Dunleavy plans to kill a guy who has done him wrong, and goes to his friend Fade Williams for help in pre-arranging a suitable alibi. Both men’s plans sound flawless, so of course things go wrong. This one is absolutely dark humor all the way, and the patter and character names reminded me of Damon Runyon. If any story in this collection can be called “fun,” given all the murders and attempted murders and such, it’s this one. (Adapted for Season 1 episode 15 of Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
MOMENTUM. Paine, about to be evicted with his wife, goes to see his former employer about his past due pay. He waits out the employer’s current visitor, then decides to rob the man’s safe rather than risk being turned down. That’s the set-up for a story that lives up to its’ title, as Paine encounters one complication after another over the course of twenty-four hours. Again, not first person but very limited POV, and again that heightens the main character’s paranoia. It’s the fastest moving story in the collection, an interesting counterpoint in pacing to “Three O’Clock,” the other story that delves into paranoia in limited POV. (Adapted for Season 1, episode 39 of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) ...more
I’ll just come right out and say at the start that this was a difficult read for me. Not a bad read, but a difficult one. Burgess doesn’t make life eaI’ll just come right out and say at the start that this was a difficult read for me. Not a bad read, but a difficult one. Burgess doesn’t make life easy on the reader by providing a glossary of the ‘nadsat’ slang Alex uses so prolifically throughout the book – the reader must work through context clues to understand what these words mean, whether they are nouns or verbs, and whether they can mean more than one thing each. It slows down the process of reading, forces you to chew over each sentence. I was about a third of the way through the book before I finally felt at least some of the terminology was ingrained, but that first third was admittedly a slog, and I kept putting the book down, sometimes for a week at a time. I’d even go so far as to say that if this book wasn’t part of this year’s “To Be Read Challenge” list for me, I might have given up on it. I am glad I didn’t give up, because one the establishing of just how vile Alex and his friends are has been done, the rest of the book is a pretty solid commentary on the prison system, on how a poor economy incites more crime, and on the nature of choice and whether we have the right to (as Doc Savage used to do in the pulp novels of the 40s) surgically remove the ability to do wrong from repeat offenders. As Alex experiences the emotionally castrating Ludovico Technique, I couldn’t help but think of Alan Turing’s chemical castration for the offense of being gay. Turing had done nothing wrong except be born gay, while the fictional Alex’s brutality (beatings, murder, rape) is clearly criminal – but the book raises the question of where we draw the line when it comes to physically/mentally altering “criminals.” It’s not an easy question to answer, and it’s only one of the difficult questions the book asks.
And while the book did make me both work (for those context clues) and think (about the larger questions it’s asking), ultimately I felt a bit dissatisfied with it. I never really felt affected by the violence Alex and his friends (as well as the cops and others) perpetrate, and I think that’s largely because I was working so hard to understand the language that the actual brutality slid away across my mental periphery. There were an number of times, perhaps too many, where I found myself thinking “oh, that means they did something horrible to that person,” without feeling the emotions of the encounter (either Alex’s joy in his acts early on, or his nausea over it later).
I know a lot of people who absolutely love this book, so my personal experience with it may not match the majority. I have to give Burgess full credit for creating such a fully-involved set of slang and for challenging his readers in so many ways. ...more
Christopher Barzak's strength is in bringing the trappings of fantasy and horror into familiar modern urban, suburban and rural settings. He grounds hChristopher Barzak's strength is in bringing the trappings of fantasy and horror into familiar modern urban, suburban and rural settings. He grounds his work in the here-and-now, letting the fantastic/horrific bleed in through the edges to subtly work on the characters', and the readers', forgotten hind-brain. His new novel, an excellent follow-up to One For Sorrow (recently made into the movie "Jamie Marks Is Dead"), delves into the world of family secrets and long-held grudges that is so familiar across all genres of fiction, but his spin on these tried-and-true character points breathes new life into them.
Aidan Lockwood thinks his life and family are normal, that there's so much unremarkable about him he can't remember the last time he was invited to a party by his peers. I immediately connected with Aidan's self-effacing first-person narration, his feeling of being lost in a crowd and not knowing why he's lost. As the book jacket blurb tells us, tt turns out that some of Aidan's memories have been erased, including the complete loss of a childhood friend whose return sparks a journey of discovery for Aidan -- sself-discovery but also discovery of his family's secrets and tragic history. That's a lot of mystery to be revealed, and Barzak's pacing throughout the book is damned near perfect: we as readers, and Aidan as a confused teenager, don't spend too long lost in the fog of missing memories and tight-lipped relatives before things start to be revealed.
Aidan and Jarrod are the focus of the story, and watching them navigate their way back into friendship, back to the level of connection they had up until Jarrod's departure before seventh grade, and then watching them figure out where their relationship is going, is both endearing and awkward. Aidan's angry encounters with his secretive mother, his uncomfortable distance from his father and older brother thanks partially to having completely different interests, add to the familiar emotional roller-coaster. There were moments in the first half of the book when I almost forgot there was a supernatural element to be concerned about; that's a tribute to Barzak's ability to capture the awkwardness, anger, and misunderstandings that come along with any interpersonal relationship. When the supernatural element comes to the fore, when secrets start to be revealed (revealing deeper secrets in turn), Barzak still doesn't skimp on the awkwardness, anger, and frayed lines of communication being repaired. The supernatural threat is possibly even more frightening as it moves from the background to the forefront of the story, testing Aidan's loyalties, threatening to pull him out of himself and of the world (perhaps permanently).
Engaging, engrossing, with just the right level of detail to immerse us in Aidan's world while still feeling a bit dream-like, Wonders of the Invisible World is Christopher Barzak at the top of his already-impressive game....more
My thoughts on the fiction in this issue: (crossposted from my "365shortstories" community on Livejournal):
SEVEN WONDERS OF A ONCE AND FUTURE WORLD byMy thoughts on the fiction in this issue: (crossposted from my "365shortstories" community on Livejournal):
SEVEN WONDERS OF A ONCE AND FUTURE WORLD by Caroline M. Yoachim. Mei's quset to bring humanity to the stars is aided by Achron, a being outside of time that Mei has created / will create. The story structure is based on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as reimagined among the stars in the near and not-so-near future. Although the main character changes as she experiences a future full of sensations unknowable to the reader, she is still at heart the Mei who starts the story -- reminding us that while you can't go home again, you can bring the best part of yourself with you wherever you go.
GOD MODE by Daniel H. Wilson (reprinted from the anthology Press Start to Play). An unnamed narrator meets a girl named Sarah on a tram to the beach. Their first encounter involves an accident which causes Sarah some head trauma, which coincides with evidence that the universe is shrinking (stars winking out, etc). The question is: are the two connected, or is the narrator projecting his feeling that his own world is shrinking onto the universe? The narration feels appropriately claustrophobic for a "world disappears around us" story.
ALL IN A HOT AND COPPER SKY by Megan Arkenberg. The Narrator writes letters in her mind to a dead lover, Socorro, who was responsible for several deaths in a real time/life Biosphere experiment simulating life in a domed colony on Mars. The epistolary format mixed with internal monologue is very effective for conveying what the narrator did or didn't know about the events leading up to the deaths and how she feels about what has happened in the intervening years.
HARRY AND MARLOWE MEET THE FOUNDER OF THE AETHERIAN REVOLUTION by Carrie Vaughn (reprinted from The Mad Scientist's Guide To World Domination). In a story that takes place early in the career of Harry (aka Princess Maud of England) and her companion Marlowe, the two track down Doctor Carlisle, the scientist who made Aetherian technology usable by humans. It's a clandestine visit to the imprisoned doctor, to see what else he might be hiding. Of all the Harry and Marlowe stories (which I love), this one has the most Gothic Horror feel. I think it shows that Vaughn can plug just about any genre into her Aetherian alternate history and make it work. Also, since this story is earlier in their history, it's fun to watch Harry and Marlowe still figuring out how they work best together.
THE IRON HUT by Maurice Broaddus (reprinted from Sword & Mythos, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia). A neat Lovecraftian/Haggardian tale. A modern archaeology team discovers evidence of a lost legendary city called Kilwa Kivinge, on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. That night, the team leader Leopold dreams of a Nokian warrior named Dinga and his encounter with the city and its denizens. Broaddus takes the aspects of Lovecraftian cosmic horror and Haggardian lost cities and indomnitable warriors and puts his own indelible spin on both.
THE NINTH SEDUCTION by Sean McMullen. Castellerine Lynder of Faerie demands beauty from her lowborn goblin artisans. Raksar, the best of these, becomes a pawn in a game between the Castellerine and her mortal nemesis Lady Torval. If this were just a story about the testing of bonds of loyalty and the effect of beauty on a person's decisions, it would be good enough. But it's also a commentary on the way new technology changes not only warfare but our view of what behaviors are appropriate ... and how changes to both of these affect not just individuals but nations and worlds.
ESTELLA SAVES THE VILLAGE by Theodora Goss (reprinted from Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow). Young Estella lives in a quaint happy village with her foster mother Miss Havisham and their neighbors (Tess D'Uberville, the Ushers, Joe Gargery, Pip, Reverend Rivers, Holmes and Adler, and more). Trouble starts the day Estella notices black dots appearing everywhere ... dots no one else notices. This was a really fun bit of literary crossover fiction with a twist that is truly satisfying and, to me, wholly original.
WEREWOLF LOVES MERMAID by Heather Lindsley. A werewolf meets a mermaid at the wedding of a vampire to a teen mortal girl. Of course it's about opposites attracting and alter-egos and hidden lives getting in the way. And it's a truly funny story.
MILO AND SYLVIE by Eliot Fintushel. Milo is a troubled 15 year old with a secret he can't even bring himself to acknowledge, never mind telling the psychiatrist assigned to work with him. Fleeing when he thinks the shrink is up to no good, he meets performance artist Syvlie and slowly discovers who he is, how to cope with his secret past, and whether he's alone in the world or not. Fintushel moves the story along smartly, using Milo's point of view (but not first person narrative) to keep us in the moment even while flashing back to Milo's past....more