By the time they reach the eighth volume of their run, most successful series will have found their rhythm and settled into their groove, chugging aloBy the time they reach the eighth volume of their run, most successful series will have found their rhythm and settled into their groove, chugging along at a comfortable speed along well-known rails. And there is nothing wrong with what, especially in genre literature which by definition exists to retread familiar ground and to provide its readers with the comfort of knowing what to expect – while, of course, still keeping things fresh and interesting; to achieve that balance is what makes good genre literate (and fail it either way you will end up with something that is either boring or no longer genre).
However, it has been clear from very early on in their series of police procedurals that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are aiming for more than just good genre literature, that their ambition actually runs towards redefining the genre; and so it is no surprise that they keep experimenting with its boundaries even this far into their series. In The Locked Room they do that by opening the genre borders towards another genre, namely that of satire.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö always have shown a sense of humour, and that humour has always leaned towards the trenchant, but in this novel, in particular in the scenes featuring the task force on bank robbery and its leader “Bulldozer" Olsen. Those scenes are not only extremely funny, but they are also a well-aimed critique of the way the Swedish police apparatus is functioning, or more precisely, malfunctioning, thus taking up the thread from the previous volume. The spectacle the task force is offering, as ludicrous and laugh-aloud funny as it is, is not simply a Swedish version of the Keystone Cops – there is a reason why the authors start the first meeting of the task force with an essay-like passage analysing what and why is wrong with the police in Sweden, and only after that prelude has placed it in a context unleash all their savage humour. The police’s incompetence is again emphasized by contrasting it – another novelty for the series – a large amount of chapters from the viewpoint of the criminals, who turn out to be just as average and mostly normal as their police counterparts – only considerably better at their job, which gives occasion for even more satire.
At the same time as they are playing with genre limits in the bankrobbing thread of the novel, Sjöwall and Wahlöö – in a typical, highly ironical counter-move – follow a parallel thread, centred around the freshly returned Martin Beck, which tackles the most clichéd of mystery problems, namely the locked room puzzle. I strongly suspect that already at the time The Locked Room was written, no crime writer who wanted to be taken seriously would have dared touch this kind of mystery, and Sjöwall and Wahlöö not only tackle it full-on, but even name their novel after it. And of course there are some policemen who read crime fiction in their spare time, who remark on how the case could have come straight out of a mystery novel, and who thus introduce some light metafictional element into The Locked Room – an element that I doubt was very frequent in crime novels of the day, so that Sjöwall and Wahlöö manage to give even that most classical of puzzles a genre-expanding twist....more
Barbary Comyns is a very unusual writer, both regarding her life and her writings. She married early and unhappily, worked in a variety of jobs, someBarbary Comyns is a very unusual writer, both regarding her life and her writings. She married early and unhappily, worked in a variety of jobs, some of them rather… unusual, not to say bizarre (breeding poodles!) and kind of slipped into a writing career when she was persuaded to try to publish the stories about her early life she had been writing down for her children. She had a hard time finding a publisher for that novel, but finally succeeded and it was released as Sisters by a River in 1947.
As far as her writings are concerned, the only author I can think of who is somewhat comparable would be Robert Walser – they both share the unflinchingly affirmative attitude of their protagonists, who not only endure, but embrace and welcome all the misery that life throws their way. The writing of both appears odd, even quaint at first (and might remain that way to a superficial reading) but on closer inspection reveals that it has a darker undertone and a very sharp edge to it. The constant enthusiastic affirmation of even the most cruel and mean-spirited behaviour produces a subversion which denounces such behaviour and the society that produces it much more effectively than any open criticism could, and makes for a very uncomfortable, even unsettling reading experience – which, I think, is to a large part responsible for neither Walser nor Comyns getting quite the appreciation they deserve; if they are read at all, both tend to be classified as “quirky humour”, and this is a label that does not do justice to either.
However, there are at least as many differences between the two writers as there are similarities; in fact the actual reading experience of their respective works is very different indeed. What struck me most, at least with Sisters by a River, – the only novel of Barbara Comyns that I have read so far, but unlikely to remain the only one – was that while the world Walser’s protagonists live in is both mind-numbing and soul-smothering, Comyns’ protagonists find themselves just as often victims to or at least threatened by physical violence. That might be due to Comyns living in Britain rather than Switzerland, or to her writing several decades later – but for my part, I’m inclined to ascribe it to the gender of her protagonists, who appear to be all female.
As accepting, affirmative and even occasionally merry as the first-person narrator of Sisters by a River is, her life is filled with violence, a lot of it directed at herself either from her parents or her eldest sister. Taking a step back, detaching oneself from the narrative and taking considered look at everything she tells us about, this is a fairly bleak book – while the sisters of the title did live in an upper class home for most of their childhood, they were exposed to the constant fierce quarrelling between her parents and oppressed by the eldest sister who erected something like a rule of terror over her siblings, down to the colour of clothes they were allowed to wear (only brown and other drab colours, so that they would not outshine the eldest). That might sit strangely with the quirky and essentially harmless humour that is often ascribed to Comyns, but in fact it is precisely a mark of her greatness as a writer that she spins such a breezy and occasionally bubbly tale out of her misery (her own misery, too, given that Sisters by a River is presumably to a large degree autobiographical) – not, however, to gloss over them, but quite to the contrary: once the reader notices the dissociation between tone and subject matter, the bleakness of the latter is driven home as a shock, and once noticed, it cannot be un-perceived, but stays with the reader until the end of the novel and what appeared at first as quirkiness takes on an increasingly sad tone as the novel progresses.
And Barbara Comyns does make the reader notice – chiefly by way of the language which is very distinct (and marks another major difference to Robert Walser, whose prose is more conventionally beautiful) thanks to her idiosyncratic orthography. This is often taken as the narrative being written from the perspective of a child, but I for my part do not that this is a viable explanation – it is quite clear from several remarks the narrator lets drop that she is telling of events at a time well afterwards, which would put her at an age where one would expect people to get their spelling right. I think the spelling mistakes and linguistic distortions in the narrator’s writing show the wounds that the events she is writing about have dealt her, that her life has left her scarred even down to the way she is using language. It comes as no great surprise, then, that while some of the novel’s orthographic idiosyncrasies appear to be simple spelling mistakes, instances abound where an apparent error brings some hidden strata of meaning to light, placing Barbara Comyns’ writing in proximity to authors like James Joyce or Arno Schmidt, staunch modernists all.
I do not think I ever read a novel that was so extreme – moving from amusingly quirky to depressingly bleak, its language simultaneously child-like and avant-garde, the reading experience both delightful and harrowing – and yet was so very unobtrusive about it. Sisters by the River is truly a hidden gem, placed in a dark corner where it attempts to avoid drawing attention on itself, but once discovered and exposed to the light, it shines all the brighter. And I can’t help it, but I find it very exhilarating that even after reading several thousands of books one can still make discoveries like this one....more
I’m not exactly an avid reader of Horror Fiction, but do enjoy the occasional foray into that area. When I do, one of the things I find fascinating abI’m not exactly an avid reader of Horror Fiction, but do enjoy the occasional foray into that area. When I do, one of the things I find fascinating about it is finding out what it is the author wants his reader to perceive as frightening. That’s not always as obvious as it might seem, but in the case of Adam Nevill’s novel House of Small Shadows, it’s fairly clear pretty much from the start: dolls and taxidermy – two things whose high creep factor will be obvious to most people.
What both of those have in common is that through artifice they dress up something dead or lifeless to appear alive, and can be very successful at it – so much so that it seems but a tiny, almost natural (but at the same time, of course, profoundly unnatural) step for appearance to become reality, for the doll to stir, for the stuffed animal to move, for the supposedly dead to become alive.
One might delve deeper here, might even attempt some psychoanalytic analysis – and House of Small Shadows would undoubtedly offer ample opportunity for this. Essential for the immediate experience of reading the novel, however, is that sensation of creeping unease we feel peeking into the dead eyes of a stuffed animal or a doll, involuntarily wondering whether there might not be a spark of alien life hiding somewhere in their depths. Neville uses this unease and heightens it to a dizzying intensity over the course of the novel, starting on a note of slight discomfort and slowly but relentlessly building on it – leaving the reader profoundly unsettled and disturbed by the time they close the book. This is not a novel of neatly wrapped endings and tied-up threads; in fact it is a novel of frayed-out edges and blurry margins where all kinds of dreadful things lurk, only visible in brief glimpses caught from the corner of the eye.
I have read three previous novel by Adam Nevill, and in every single one of them he has proven himself to be a master at conjuring up a creepy atmosphere and of infusing his readers with a sense of impending dread creeping up on them, but I think he really has outdone himself in that regard with House of Small Shadows. Nevill might not compose the most beautiful prose, but he is obviously a very intelligent writer, and he does an excellent job of keeping readers disoriented, of throwing them off-balance by unexpected twists and turns of the plot, of constantly shifting the ground underneath them by messing with chronological not just on the chapter and paragraph level but down to sentence structure. As a result, it costs a bit of an effort to really get into the novel at first – one is never sure where one is at or what the heroine is on about, but gradually, and almost without the reader noticing, you get drawn into the novel; and once it has you grabbed by the neck, it won’t let go again, possibly not even after the ending. And if the ending is not tied up neatly with a pretty bow, then that is not lack of skill on Adam Nevill’s part but quite clearly his intention – by refusing to explain everything by the novel’s conclusion, he opens it up, lets it spill out and resonate in the readers’ minds even after they have turned the last page of House of Small Shadows....more
The first story in this issue, “Everything Beneath You” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, is a kind of a faux-Chinese fairytale, a genre (well, sub-genre, I sThe first story in this issue, “Everything Beneath You” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, is a kind of a faux-Chinese fairytale, a genre (well, sub-genre, I suppose. Or even sub-sub-genre?) that I am somewhat fond of, at least when it is well done. And this one is very well done indeed – while not as mindblowingly brilliant as last issue’s “Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips”, it is very solid and enjoyable to read, featuring an interesting reader and some thoughts on gender issues, which however are treated within the story’s framework rather than forced upon it.
The same unfortunately can not be said of Tamara Vardomskaya’s story “The Metamorphoses of Narcissus.” It is about the question whether art is more important than life – a question which I personally is well debatable, with the conclusion not at all foregone. The author of this story obviously disagrees with that, as she does not even attempt to present the “art over life” side but casts her artist as a unabashed villain whose art consists of nothing but manipulating and exploiting others. To call this story heavy-handed would be a euphemism, and overall it is quite forgettable. Which is a pity, as Tamara Vardomskaya writes well – hopefully she’ll curb the didactics in her further efforts.
This issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is unusual in that it contains not just the usual two stories but also a novel excerpt, namely from Galápagos Regained, by James Morrow. I do not like novel excerpts and therefore skipped this one for the most part – but since Jamess Morrow has been on my “I should really check this out” list for quite some time now, I took a brief peek, and it did indeed look quite promising. Don’t be too surprised if the author’s name pops up again in the not-too-far future....more
When I wrote in my post on Sjöwall’s & Wahlöö’s Murder at the Savoy that the authors were taking the whole of Swedish society into their analyticWhen I wrote in my post on Sjöwall’s & Wahlöö’s Murder at the Savoy that the authors were taking the whole of Swedish society into their analytical focus, I was not entirely correct – with all the harsh criticism there remained at least one area where things still seemed to be for the most part as they should be, namely the Swedish police. Certainly, there was the occasional incompetent cop, the occasional bureaucrat who cared only for his own career, but overall the novels gave the impression that police was filled with people like Martin Beck or Lennart Kollberg – far from perfect, but hard-working and well-meaning people.
All of this changes with The Abominable Man. This seventh novel in the series opens with an aged policeman being murdered in his hospital room, and the ensuing investigation into his death not only reveals him to be incompetent, narrow-minded, reactionary and prone to use violence, but also makes it clear that everyone knew about this, that in fact he trained many young policemen (with rather questionable methods) to his way of thinking, and that the only reason his career in the police came to a sudden standstill is the arrival of a more liberal climate in Swedish society during the sixties – a climate which by the end of that decade (when I presume the novel takes place) has already begun to fade again. And the farther the investigations proceeds, the more heinous the things uncovered about the current state of the Swedish police service – civilians being harassed, arrested on a whim, beaten up in police cars or cells, even left to die – and all of it without the least recriminations, complaints being squished by blind solidarity among police officers or swallowed up without a trace by the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the legal system.
At the same time, this is probably the most fast-paced and action-packed volume of the series so far, taking place within a single day and ending with an extended edge-of-your-seat-tension finale (and a rather high body count). A finale that also is highly symbolic – the Swedish police is so rotten to the core that it is beyond redemption and impossible to reason with, and anyone who attempts it is in mortal danger. It is hard to pick favourites here, but this might just the be the best installment in what has been a consistently excellent series (but of course there are still three more novels to go)....more
After the twofold cliffhanger The Way Into Chaos ended on, I of course had to grab the second volume right away and dig into it. The Way Into Magic cAfter the twofold cliffhanger The Way Into Chaos ended on, I of course had to grab the second volume right away and dig into it. The Way Into Magic continues seamlessly where the previous volume left off – so much so, in fact, that it reads more than the second part of a single novel than the second novel in a trilogy.
Pretty much everything I said about the first installment of The Great Way applies to this second one as well: it ticks all of the important Epic Fantasy boxes while at the same time being unusually lean and taut for that genre, combining a realistic setting with heroic characters. The point of view characters are the same, too: Treygar the soldier and Cazia the mage. I assume that their paths will eventually intersect again, but for the whole of The Way Into Magic they are separate, Treygar attempting to fulfill the promise he gave his king, Cazia trying to find out more about the Blessing that keeps on spreading across the former Empire. None of them are particularly successful, and it has to be said that the plot of the trilogy does not get very much advanced in this novel.
Which does not mean that nothing is happening – in fact, there is quite a lot going on, it’s just that most of it does not appear to be of much consequence in the grand scheme of things (and I should add that of course volume three might still show all of this to have been very relevant). It’s no less gripping for that, however, Cazia’s thread in particular (which takes up most of the novel for a reason) is very exciting, taking her into the far corners of the continent where she (and the reader) discover various new races and new cultures. Connolly is really pulling out all the stops there and I can just imagine cackling with glee while presenting a plethora of new people and places without a single infodump. The readers never get told more than the protagonists know, and they discover the world along with Cazia and Treygar – it’s not quite the level of throw-away world-building you find in Roger Zelazny (who this volume of the novel is dedicated to) or Steven Brust but it’s all very deftly done.
While Cazia and Treygar are travelling, the mystery thickens – what is the Blessing and who is behind it? what happened to the Evening People, and who are they, anyway? and how does magic tie into all of this? Connolly drops a lot of hints and foreshadowing without being too obvious about it – another thing he is quite adept at.
Although the cliffhanger this time is not as bad as the ones a the end of the first volume, I’m actually regretting I did not wait with getting these novels until the third volume of the trilogy has come out so that I could have read them all in one go. Now I have to wait two weeks for The Way Into Darkness…...more
This most recent issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is the first I’ve found throughout disappointing. As usual, it contains two stories, the first one bThis most recent issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is the first I’ve found throughout disappointing. As usual, it contains two stories, the first one being “Sweet Death” by Margaret Ronald. It’s not a bad story per se, but does suffer from being part of a series – while it is understandable that the author does not wish to bog her story down by repeating things about the world and the characters’ back story that she established in previous stories (all the more as apparently all of them have been appearing in BCS), for the reader who is not familiar with them the story will ineluctably feel lacking. I realise that this is somewhat my own fault for not subscribing to the magazine earlier, but it still remains that the story does not stand well on its own. While reading it, I was constantly nagged by a feeling of missing out on the significance of the events depicted or alluded to by the characters, and with that resonance missing, the story just felt flat.
While “Sweet Death” was at least somewhat nice, Yosef Lindell’s “We Were Once of the Sky” was, I’m afraid to say, outright bad. It presents the reader with an Alternative History where some aliens got stranded on earth somewhere in the past, but by the time the story takes place (in the 15th century) have been more or less assimilated. The story’s problems start with the world building: the author just plops a bunch of aliens right into human history and then has nothing change at all as consequence of that. Instead, he uses the setup to launch a sledgehammer-driven allegory about minorities which (to say at least something positive about it) could be used to illustrate the difference between “well-meant” and “well made.” Conceptually, there is nothing wrong with the story – Lindell has obviously given the subject of minorities some thought and gets it all right, showing not only the injustice of excluding minorities from societal participation but also how that breeds self-doubt in the minority itself. But as a story, “We Were Once of the Sky” fails utterly – everything is just so blatantly obvious, a flimsy packaging of narrative wrapped around a message, with no care given to and possibly no interest at all in character, structure and language. From the short biography that BCS appends after each story I gather that this is Lindell’s first published story, so there’s at least hope that he’ll be improving with practice....more
The Way Into Chaos is the first volume in a trilogy that apparently was funded via Kickstarter with a working title something like “Epic Fantasy withoThe Way Into Chaos is the first volume in a trilogy that apparently was funded via Kickstarter with a working title something like “Epic Fantasy without the Boring Bits”. One might disagree as to whether the “boring bits” (which presumably means infodumps on world building and extensive descriptions of clothes, scenery and customs) have to always be that (personally, I’d say it largely depends on the way they’re done), but I think everyone who has read past the first twenty or so pages of this novel will agree that The Way Into Chaos in any case is not boring at all.
This clearly is Epic Fantasy however, that is another thing about which there is no doubt – there might not be any Swineherd of Mysterious Descent and instead of a Chosen One we get a middle-aged, shortsighted soldier and an inexperienced noble’s daughter as protagonists, but Connolly does not shirk utilizing well-used tropes: there is a pseudo-medieval feudal society which is threatened by a mysterious army of evil, there are fireball-hurling wizards and all kinds of exotic races, and, most importantly, the story is basically told as one very long travelogue, with our heroes constantly on the road in pursuit of some plot token or other. In short, Connolly does not attempt to re-invent the genre, but to streamline it, trimming off fat but leaving the basic shape intact.
Depending on your preferences that might be a good or a bad thing – if you have issues with Epic Fantasy per se, roll your eyes at quasi-European feudal societies and heroes battling evil, then The Great Way (the name of the trilogy) will not be for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve enjoyed your Tolkien and think you might have liked Jordan if he’d just had some focus, then you might like The Great Way, too – you’ll recognise most of the elements, but will find that they are unusually condensed, resulting in a gripping, rousing tale that breaks into a brisk narrative speed from the get-go and doesn’t really let off until the end of this first volume. There are just two point of view characters, the soldier and the noble’s daughter (who also is a magician) mentioned above. I did not keep count but had the impression that chapters were spread out fairly evenly between the two of them, and Connolly does a good job distinguishing between their voices and their ways to perceive the world – they both emerge as credible characters, plausibly heroic but also with their deep-seated flaws, and like all good travelogues their journey is also one of growth and self-discovery.
In spite of the ubiquitous magic, this is mostly realistic Fantasy – there are no impossible feats, and our protagonists get tired and dirty, and cranky when they’re in a bad mood. It does not, however, fall into the “Grimdark” category – while the characters are not without the occasional selfish trait, their main motivation and driving force is to do good. They might at time have difficulties figuring out what exactly “good” consists of (both our protagonists are developing increasing doubts as to the benevolent nature of the Empire they originally set out to restore, for example) but there is never really a question about them placing the common good above their own. And seeing how Connolly has placed them in a very harsh world indeed, things certainly aren’t easy for them – the novel ends on a double cliffhanger, with Treygar (the soldier) having his body broken and Cazia (the magician) stripped of her magic. Thankfully, the volumes of the trilogy are scheduled to be released within a month of each other (Kickstarter backers even got them all at once), so the wait for the next installment won’t be very long (in fact, the second volume has already been released and been read by me as I’m writing this, so watch out for a follow-up post soon)....more
Simon Morden’s Metrozone trilogy first caught my attention back in 2011 with its seriously brilliant covers – a quite literally eye-catching style (anSimon Morden’s Metrozone trilogy first caught my attention back in 2011 with its seriously brilliant covers – a quite literally eye-catching style (and stylishness) which the publisher unfortunately abandoned for the trilogy omnibus as well as for this fourth volume of the series in favour of some considerably more conventional (and considerably more boring) SciFi-cover.
Thankfully, that did not affect the content – The Curve of the Earth is just as fast-paced, thrilling and entertaining as the first three novels in the series were – Samuil Petrovitch might have become older (and rather more powerful) but certainly not wiser, which is very much to the benefit of the reader.
The Curve of the Earth starts ten years after events in Degrees of Freedom with the disappearance of Petrovitch’s adopted daughter Lucy from a research station deep in the wilds of Alaska. Of course, Petrovitch will stop at nothing to get her back, even if it means crossing the USA where in this series Southern Baptist Fundamentals have taken over and brainwashed the entire population, turning the US into a nation-wide version of Stepford. And of course (it really is not much of a spoiler telling this) he will succeed in his mission, but take several beatings during the course of it and end up with even fewer parts of his original body intact. The way there is filled with non-stop action – FBI, CIA, NSA, the US military, all seem out to get Petrovitch and to keep him from discovering what Lucy saw before she disappeared, a secret so momentous that the US government are throwing even their few remaining scruples over board to keep it under wraps at any cost.
This is not the kind of Science Fiction that would push the limits of the genre, no mind-boggling quantum physics like Hannu Rajaniemi or mind-blowing literary experimentation like M. John Harrison, but it does not even try to be – this is pure entertainment, and meant to be nothing but fun. Not fun of the mindless variety, however – while Simon Morden does go over the top quite frequently (and with considerable gusto), he does know what he is doing (and what he is writing about – no post about any book of his would be complete without pointing out that in his day job he is an actual, real-life Rocket Scientist). The novel is well written and keeps a constant forward-driving urge, there literally is never a dull moment here – there is something exciting happening on every page if not every paragraph, and if it is not things being blown up or our heroes being shot at, being beaten or otherwise subject to threats, then it’s a surprising plot twist or another gasp-inducing revelation of just how the US have gone the way right-wing nutdom in Metrozone’s version of the future.
One caveat then for anyone considering reading this: if you happen to be a USian patriot, especially of the Republican variety, I really, really recommend giving The Curve of the Earth a wide berth. (And I probably should add that the novel is not satirizing the US per se, indeed his protagonist Samuil Petrovitch has quite a few good things to say about them – about what they used to be, that is. Morden is aiming at what the US have increasingly turned into since Reagan, Bush et al. and just prolongs those tendencies.) Everyone else: go and get this for one of the most entertaining fun rides in recent Science Fiction.
The novel does come to a satisfying conclusion, but leaves several threads unresolved (not to mention several of Petrovich’s original body parts still intact) so there is room for a sequel. And while I’ve read here and there that The Curve of the Earth was supposed to kick off another trilogy, Morden has followed it up with a fat Epic Fantasy novel instead. Which is probably quite good (I do own it, but have not read it yet), but I’m still hoping he’ll regale us with the further adventures of Samuil Petrovitch before too long....more
The first story in this issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is clearly influenced by China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, and makes no attempt to conceal itsThe first story in this issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is clearly influenced by China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, and makes no attempt to conceal its inspiration. “Alloy Point” by Sam J. Miller could almost be set in the universe of Miéville’s novels, it certainly has the same vibe of bizarre steampunk that permeates Perdido Street Station. What it falls somewhat short of in comparison is the writing – not that it was in any way bad, it just is noticeable not on par with Miélville’s. On the other hand, seeing how he is one of the most impressive stylists in the field, that would be asking rather a lot of a young writer who is apparently working through his influences, and once Miller has found his own voice he might actually turn out to be very good, “Alloy Point” certainly shows a lot of promise.
Miller might a bit unfortunate in that his story has not only the self-selected comparison with Miéville to deal with but also has been placed in the same issue as Matt Jones’ “Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips”, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is a very strange story, indeed strangeness is in a way what it is about – it reads a bit like the Fantasy version of stories like James Tiptree jr.’s seminal “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”, a story that is told from the perspective of an alien and features not a single human. Now, being Fantasy, “Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips” is not about extraterrestrials (and as far as I could tell, it remains open how human the narrator and his people are), but it explores a mindset that appears almost as alien to us.
Magic plays a big part in the vast majority of Fantasy literature. Mostly it’s either of the “roast your enemies with fireballs” or “evil wizard enslaving minions in his tower” variety; even the recent trend towards elaborate magic systems has not changed the basic pattern in which magic is wielded. Very rarely one encounters an instance where an author stops to wonder how the availability of magic would change a society, and even rarer are novels or stories that attempt to recreate what it would feel like to live in a world steeped in magic. This is what “Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips” does (one of the things, anyway, because there is quite a bit more to it), and it does so beautifully. It’s told from the perspective of a child or maybe an adolescent, so there is a certain lack of comprehension about what is happening inherent in that already, and is added that for him, magic is entirely commonplace, not something to be explained or to be wondered about. The sense of wonder is all the greater for the reader, however, who is trying to have the tale somehow cohere to his rationalist worldview and invariably failing – failing, however, in a most exciting manner. “Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips” is a very grim story, a story about loss, exile, punishment. It is a chilling story, but also a moving one, and one that is gorgeously written, as lyrical as it is bleak, and overall stunningly beautiful, emphatically among the best Fantasy I read in 2014. I’m fervently hoping to be reading more by Matt Jones before too long....more
I really like the “two stories every two weeks” format of this magazine, as that is an amount of reading that can easily be squeezed in without distraI really like the “two stories every two weeks” format of this magazine, as that is an amount of reading that can easily be squeezed in without distracting too much from my regular reading schedule. And stories are for the most part good to excellent, so I’m inclined to think that subscribing to this was a good idea.
Issue #162 opens with a story by Marissa Lingen, “A House of Gold and Steel.” It is Victorian Historical Fantasy, somewhat reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s seminal Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel. It is told in first person, the narrator is very engaging and the author does an excellent job with capturing the period tone. Unfortunately, things fall apart in the end, the conclusion is just too pat and not very plausible; the story might have profited from taking some more time to develop and resolve its conflict.
The second story, “Goatskin” by K.C. Norton is the highlight of this issue – set in a vaguely African setting, it is at heart a trickster story, and a story about female solidarity. It shares with the first story that it has a likeable first person narrator, but in this story the author manages to wrap things up in a satisfactory manner (by cleverly folding the telling of the story into what is being told) even though she packs considerably more events into (what I think is) roughly the same amount of pages. Thoroughly enjoyable, and I’m hoping BCS will publish more by this author....more
The introduction to this volume (by Michael Carlson) is one of the better ones in this edition – finally someone who does not deem it necessary to a fThe introduction to this volume (by Michael Carlson) is one of the better ones in this edition – finally someone who does not deem it necessary to a follow a mention of the authors’ Marxist leanings with a disclaimer that they are not preaching party politics.
Unlike communism or socialism, Marxism is not a political movement but a philosophy and an analysis of the workings of capitalist society (which both communism and socialism claim to build on – notice that there is a difference); in fact Marxism is probably to this day the most nuanced and incisive analytical tool in existence if one tries to comprehend the forces driving economy and society. And this is important for Murder at the Savoy, because while earlier novels in the series always had a strong element of social realism, it is here that Sjöwall/Wahlöö first attempt to tackle Swedish society as a whole rather than just certain localized aspects of it.
Depicting the whole of contemporary society as based on injustice, driven by corruption and held together by exploitation is of course quite ambitious for a police procedural, and while Murder at the Savoy is still clearly and unambiguously a crime novel, the authors just as clearly were not satisfied with the scope that following standard genre conventions offered them. And I would argue that it’s precisely an underlying Marxist analysis of Swedish society that allows Sjöwall und Wahlöö to open up their perspective here, providing a foundation that grounds their criticism and lends it impetus beyond the range of a crime fiction plot.
Which does not mean that the authors are neglecting that aspect of the novel – just like the previous installments in the series, Murder at the Savoy is an excellent police procedural, combining a compelling mystery with realistic descriptions of police work and plausible character portraits. Interestingly, at the same time as the series begins to present a broader perspective on Swedish society at the time, it also spends increasingly more time filling out the smaller details in the lives of its protagonists, painting small pictures inside the big one. In fact, it might even be the most admirable feature of this series how it manages to strike an almost perfect balance between prodesse and delectare – indeed, there are few works in any genre that mix instruction and delight as well as Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s series....more