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
This book’s subtitle “Strangers in Iceland” should be taken seriously – this is not a travel book, where the narrator goes on a leisurely voyage of exThis book’s subtitle “Strangers in Iceland” should be taken seriously – this is not a travel book, where the narrator goes on a leisurely voyage of exploration and discovery, Instead, it is the story of someone moving from Great Britain to Iceland, and struggling to find their place there, to come to terms with the land and its people. As a result, the Iceland presented in Names for the Sea is as un-exotic as it gets, its narrative for the most part far removed from the touristic gaze, instead directing its attention at the places where things superficially look the same, only to discover the persistently strange in the seemingly familiar.
This is not the book to read for advice on planning your next vacation trip to Iceland; not even the book to read for advice on moving there – Names for the Sea is not out to give practical tips, but chiefly concerns itself with the experience of trying to fit in a foreign country. And as it turns out – and this is probably the most fascinating part about this highly enjoyable book – this experience is not less of a struggle when the culture one attempts to make oneself at home in appears so very similar to one’s own. The book starts off with a kind of prologue, a short description of the author’s visit to Iceland as a 19-year old, then goes on to a description of her one-year stay as lecturer at a university in Reykjavik with her husband and two small children and ends with a kind of epilogue, another visit to Iceland after the author’s return to England which in many ways calls back to her initial visit. From that circular structure it is already noticeable that this is not some random rambling, but that the author has given her narrative a form, and I think one can safely infer from this that Names for the Sea aims for more than being a simple recital of facts, or even a series of travel impressions.
Although the book certainly does offer a phenomenology of Iceland, seen from the perspective of someone who is stranger enough to still keep some distance to what she describes, but at the same time close enough to develop a sense of what it is like to actually live in that country. The major part of the book, between epilogue and prologue, falls I think into two parts (of about equal length) – the first tells of how the author attempts to make a home in Iceland, at first trying to recreate what she used to have back in England, then, as she gradaully realises the impossibility of that, as she and her family are more and more exposed to the realities of living in Iceland, coming to terms and making their peace with Iceland’s unique environment. The second half sets in when the author and her husband decide to leave Iceland after a year has passed – from then on, her narrative becomes considerably more like a “normal” travel tale, with her visiting interesting locales and interviewing interesting people, the book moves from experience to description (and I also suspect, although that is never explicitly mentioned, that this was also the point where she decided to write a book on her experiences in Iceland, and collecting material for that). But even in the latter part, the reader is always made aware that this is not an objective, detached report, but that a country, the landscape, other people are only accessible as part of a subjective experience. Consequently, we find out a lot about the narrator in the course of this book (who, as this is non-fiction, is presumably identical with the author) which in turns gives the reader some insights into how contemporary British people experience themselves and their place in the world.
But what seems to interest Sarah Moss – what, at least, I found the most fascinating part of Names for the Sea is precisely not the description of a single culture, not even a comparative study on how British and Icelandic ways of life differ. I think the book is more ambitious than that and actually aims for an exploration of how two cultures interact, what it means to be a stranger in a foreign country. She shows the struggle of having to find a place of your own in a place where you do not belong, but also the excitement of it, the discoveries along with the frustrations, and the joy when you finally become comfortable. There is tinge of melancholy at the end when the author and her family visit Iceland again, but it is a bitter-sweet sensation for it shows that after one year of staying there Iceland did manage to some degree become their home.
I read this book on a whim and it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise – not just a travel book but a thoughtful exploration of the borderline between cultures, and an excellently written one, too – there are (mostly in the book’s first part) many intense descriptions of light on the Icelandic landscape and (mostly in the second part) of encounters with various people and places (a visit to the water museum being one of my favourites). I will have to check out one of Sarah Moss’ novels soon....more
**spoiler alert** Sherry Thomas wrote three stories to accompany the novels of her “Fitzhugh Trilogy”. This one is the first chronologically, a preque**spoiler alert** Sherry Thomas wrote three stories to accompany the novels of her “Fitzhugh Trilogy”. This one is the first chronologically, a prequel telling the story of how the stepmother of Christian (the male protagonist of the first volume in the trilogy) met her second husband. It is very short (I read it in about fifteen minutes, if that many) but also quite delightful, presenting an interesting Victorian-age riff on the supposedly modern-day “No Girls on the Internet” meme. (Which is kind of a spoiler, I suppose, but then Sherry Thomas keeps dropping hints so humongous that even the most superficial of readers will have figure it out about halfway through the story at the very latest.) With a story this short, you can not really expect much in the way of plot and character development, and you will not be getting much, either – what you will get, however, is a fast and fun read, which is also (at least at the time I’m writing this) free at Amazon, so there is nothing to complain about here....more
This is not the best of Stevenson’s novels (that would, in my opinion, be The Master of Ballantrae) but his most famous (with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeThis is not the best of Stevenson’s novels (that would, in my opinion, be The Master of Ballantrae) but his most famous (with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a very close second), and deservedly so, as Treasure Island gave the blueprint for pretty much any tale of rousing adventure to follow it.
And I do not just mean pirate stories – that part is very obvious, for here it is all, and is for the first time, every single ingredient that makes a good pirate yarn – hidden treasure (and of course X marks the spot!), greedy pirates and noble sailors, peg legs and parrots, even “pieces of eight” and “shiver my timber” – everything that later became a cliché, here it is for the first time, and still as fresh as it was in 1883. And this is probably what is most surprising about Treasure Island, that it not only has aged so well, but that it has triumphantly survived having each and every element making up its story turned into a tired cliché by myriads of pirate novels and pirate movies. With most other novels, things would have turned out for the reader the way they did when they finally find the burying-place of Flint’s treasure – they’d find it plundered and empty, a huge disappointment. But Treasure Island manages to bear the weight of its countless imitations lightly on its shoulder, and remain an exciting and highly entertaining read even if you know exactly what is going to happen next, at times even could recite parts of the dialogue without having to read them.
Most of that I think is due to the extremely clever and effective way the story is structured – starting off with the domestic and familiar, in this case a small English town, then introducing some mystery by way of a stranger arriving. The enigmatic visitor then turns out to have danger in his wake, and an encounter with that is followed by a broadening of horizons, our naive hero setting out into the wide world, making friends, meeting challenges, experiencing betrayal and capture, and somehow there always seems to be some kind of siege involved… And if that sounds familiar to you, that’s because it is the general schematic for not just The Lord of the Rings but pretty much every adventure story told in writing or film during the last 150 years or thereabouts, for which Treasure Island instituted the basic pattern. And even if one holds with Joseph Campbell that every human narrative basically tells the same story, then it is Treasure Island that created the monomyth’s characteristic modern-day mold.
So even if Treasure Island is, taken on literary merits alone, a relatively minor work, judged by its influence, which is immense and reaches far beyond the pirate genre, it is one of the most important works of the 19th century. And it is also, even this long after its publication, a hell of a lot of fun to read. Apart from being a compelling yarn told at a cracking pace there is a third reason for that, one without mention of which no consideration of Treasure Island would be complete – and this is of course the character of Long John Silver. Again, depending on one’s inclination, one might view him as the original incarnation of the charming rogue character which has since then become very familiar, or as the updated version of the trickster archetype, but in either case Stevenson here clearly hit a nerve and created a character that would be imitated countless times in the decades since the publication of Treasure Island. Silver stands out even among his fellow pirates – those are portrayed as either terrifying (Blind Pew, Captain Flint) or (pretty much all of the rest) as behaving like children (unable to plan for the future, easily swayed, wantonly cruel, having both irrational respect for and irrational distrust of authority figures), while Silver is somehow both and neither – his total absence of any sense of ethics beyond self-preservation makes him appear both ruthless and gives him a certain innocence, he is a-moral in the truest sense of the word, a character type that continues to exert a considerable amount of fascination, down to today’s TV shows.
The only serious flaw in what is otherwise a gem of a novel lies with its narrator, “young” Jim Hawkins. He is supposed to a child, but does not come across as one at all, the pirates behave much more in character like he does. When he does something unconsidered and dangerous it appears more due to plot requirements than to any childish irresponsibility in his character, otherwise he shows an annoying maturity, making him easily the blandest character in the whole novel. Which might be a narrative strategy – leaving the narrator and protagonist a blank canvas as a means of letting the reader project themselves in his place – but that does not make him any less boring.
But even a wooden character like Jim Hawkins can not seriously distract from just how fresh this novel still appears, the bit of dust its protagonist has gathered is quickly blown away, and the rest of Treasure Island shines in such brilliant and vivid colours that nobody will pay him much heed anyway. And I really need to read The Master of Ballantrae again…....more
I think I read one French book in the last two years, and as a result, my French might have gotten a bit rusty. And as it turns out, reading a novel tI think I read one French book in the last two years, and as a result, my French might have gotten a bit rusty. And as it turns out, reading a novel that consists mainly of dense descriptions is not the best way to get back into a language. Who would have thought?
In a generous estimate, I think I probably understood three quarters of the novel – but this being, precisely, a novel, the semantically murky final quarter was most likely the most important part – the nuances and shades of meaning, the things not said but inferred, the whole comet’s tail of connotations trailing after the various images the novel deploys. In consequence, this post should be taken with an even larger pinch of salt than usual as it is pretty much certain I missed a lot here.
As is clear from the title onwards, this novels is a love story – and it probably was a good idea of Anyi Wang to point this out in the title, or else people might not have guessed from her novel alone. The author goes to great lengths to make the relationship between her protagonists as unromantic as possible – they are very unlike each other (mentally as well as physically), they barely communicate with each other verbally (in fact, the whole novel has almost no dialogue at all), they fight with each other almost as much as they make love to each other (to the point where the one becomes almost indistinguishable from the other), and more than once the reader is beset by the strong suspicion that they do not even like each other. And yet, there is an undeniable attraction between them, an attraction that maybe is all the stronger because it manifests itself in spite of the people it connects. This is the story of a veritable amour fou, then, and it’s probably not a surprise that it appears to only have been translated into French.
The novel’s protagonists – who, as far as I can remember, are never named, but remain simply “she” and “he” throughout the novel – are dancers in a ballet troupe based in a small Chinese village; the translator’s in addition foreword informs us that it is taking place during the cultural revolution (not something I would have noticed for myself, but… see above). They are both somewhat outsiders, not particularly likeable, and would be nothing special if it wasn’t for their physical form, the girl being unusually large and the boy being unusually small. This already indicates that Anyi Wang is not going to stick with traditional expectations, and as it turns out, she is not sticking with any expectations at all – I suspect she might have set out writing the novel with the purpose of writing an Anti-Romance; and while she certainly succeeded with that, I could not help the feeling that in parts she was rather overdoing it with the breaking of Romantic patterns, to the point where I had to forcefully remind myself that I was supposed to be reading a love story.
Almost everything that happens in this slim novel happens on the physical plane – there is no touching of minds here, but a continued series of colliding bodies. And that is to be taken quite literally – the protagonists hurl their bodies against each other, flail, bump, scratch, kiss, bite, fuck and explore pretty much every single form of bodily contact that is physically possible. Emotions do run high, but they are almost never given expression in verbal form – love, this novel seems to say, is not a meeting of like souls in harmony but is continuous, fierce struggle between bodies that are ineluctably drawn to each other even against the conscious will of the minds inhabiting them.
Unfortunately – and here I am stepping onto really thin ice, because of my limited comprehension of the language – the novel seems to resort a bit too much to telling rather than showing which robs it of some of the impact it otherwise might have had. There is a distant, almost detached tone to the narrative over long stretches which I think fits ill with the purely physical nature of the relationship depicted in it. However, those passages alternate with beautiful, vivid descriptions which give the novel an intensity which seems appropriate to its subject matter. On the other hand, this switching between a more distanced and a more immediate narrative tonality might very well have been intentional and might very well work for someone who is more familiar with the French language (or who even is able to read the novel in its original Chinese) than me. And even I liked the novel sufficiently that I might seek out the other two novels of the trilogy Amour dans une petite ville is apparently part of....more
This is either a very short issue or one that reads particularly fast, in any case it felt like I got through it in no time (might be due to me readinThis is either a very short issue or one that reads particularly fast, in any case it felt like I got through it in no time (might be due to me reading most of it while waiting for a train that was behind schedule).
The first story, "A Guest of the Cockroach Club" by M. Bennardo was somewhat on the "meh" side of things. Vaguely reminiscent of Lavie Tidhar's fun Bookman series, here it is giant cockroaches secretly ruling the US rather than giant lizards openly ruling the British Empire. This story is completely lacking the flair of Bookman however, has a bland plot, bland characters and bland writing - by far the weakest story I have come across in that magazine so far (which I've subscribed to starting with Issue #157 and have greatly enjoyed so farI.
The second story, "The Streetking" by Peter Hickman, is the shorter of the two (as seems to be tradition in this magazine) but is decidedly more fun. The basic plot is not terribly original, but this never gets to be a problem as it is so short and Hickman deftly compresses into a few pages what would have been sufficient plot for a novel. The two main characters, though only sketched, are rendered very strikingly and make an impression on the reader, but what makes the story stand out most is the writing - while Hickman is hardly the first to present a story written in rogue's jargon, few manage to pull it off as successfully as he does here, and it's the first person narrator's voice which makes this story a joy to read....more
Empty Space is – after Light and Nova Swing – the third installment in M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. Nobody who has read the previousEmpty Space is – after Light and Nova Swing – the third installment in M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. Nobody who has read the previous volumes (and I strongly recommend doing so before tackling this one) will expect any major reveals or a neat tying-up of loose threads from this, but even so, the lack of closure here is quite amazing, and I for one can not discern any reason why the author should not continue the series, should he feel so inclined.
Having said that, I should add, however, that Empty Space is tied more closely to both Light and Nova Swing than those two novels were amongst each other – the most recent (I do hesitate to say “final”) novel is populated by characters first encountered in the two earlier ones, and it makes use of the same three-threaded narrative as the first volume, again presenting the reader with one thread taking part in the twenty-first and two taking place in the twenty-fifth while retaining at least some of the noir atmosphere from the second. While the previous novel had a strong element of pastiche, this seems to have been curtailed in Empty Space – or rather (unless, of course, I simply missed something) this third novel does not so much mimic other Science Fiction authors, but appears to be a pastiche of the two previous novels – as if the third novel was haunted by the two earlier ones, or maybe in turn was haunting them. Given the way Harrison messes around with time it is hard, maybe impossible to tell which it is, but in either case I think Empty Space bears its subtitle “A Haunting” not only because of the various kinds of ghosts we encounter on the plot level but also for the way it picks up, repeats and distorts themes and motives from the earlier novels. And for the way it is haunted (or in turn haunts) the history of the Science Fiction genre – Harrison might have toned down the pastiche somewhat, but Empty Space is still filled with references and allusions to SF movies and literature; hardly a page went by where I did not stumble across something and it is likely I missed a lot, too.
The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy has always been about Science Fiction, about what it is, was, and could be, and Empty Space, possibly the saddest of three novels none of which is exactly cheerful, comes across (at least it did to me, but I’m certain it will mean different things to different readers) as an elegy on the genre – a story of failures, missed chances, outright betrayals, populated by spectres of lost hopes. At the same time, however, the novel is a wonderful example of what Science Fiction is still capable of.
I might be wrong (it has been quite some time since I read the earlier volumes) but I had the impression that in Empty Space there is given considerably more room to descriptions than in the previous novels, paragraphs upon paragraphs of dense, detailed descriptions piled on top of each other, demanding that the reader to remain tightly focused on the text or else become mired in impenetrability. But possibly the difference is not so much quantity but rather quality – M. John Harrison, who always was a writer with a keen ear for the English language, appears to have reached new heights of intensity here, and the writing in Empty Space seamlessly melds the precision of travel narratives with the semantically ambivalent imagery of poetry. This results in breathtaking, utterly gorgeous writing, but it also keeps the reader at a distance from things happening (or not happening) in the novel – this is not a novel for readers who want their fictional characters to be likeable and easy to relate to and identify with. This is clearly a narrative strategy – the characters themselves appear strangely distant from their own experiences, and even seem unable to identify with themselves, watching their own actions and even emotions as if from afar. There is a distinct chill pervading not just Empty Space but all of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, but contrary to what one might expect, it is not a chill that repels the reader but quite to the contrary is almost a beguilement, drawing readers into the novel.
And this, I think is M. John Harrison’s major achievement with Empty Space (and the whole of this trilogy, if trilogy it is) – the way he gradually transforms the novel into just one of the strange phenomena he describes inside it, something at the same time utterly alien and irresistibly intriguing, something that promises an epiphany, some revelation of meaning any second now, only to collapse into itself and remain incomprehensible. It has been several centuries since the discoveries of Copernicus revolutionised our view of the world; but while we may have accepted on an intellectual that the universe was not created for humanity, it remains very hard to realise this on an emotional level. I think one of the things Science Fiction is particularly suited for is to make us aware, make us really feel what it is like to live in a world that does not care about man, that is sublimely indifferent to his needs for warmth and meaning, and there are few – very few works of SF that transmit that feeling as intensely and viscerally as M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. It is an uncomfortable place to be in, and with a rather bleak outlook, but it is also an extremely fascinating one, and one that possesses its own, unique beauty....more
Welcome to Temptation starts off with two cars colliding with each other; the characters bounce of each other, collide with others, who then again bouWelcome to Temptation starts off with two cars colliding with each other; the characters bounce of each other, collide with others, who then again bounce, and in the end (almost) everyone lands in their appropriate pocket. In other words, the novel unfolds much like a game of billiard, and if you’ve ever read anything by Jennifer Crusie you will not be surprised to learn that pool billiard plays a major role here, because her novels just are clever that way.
And Welcome to Temptation is one of her best – the plot zings ahead, moves along several deft bankshots and finally is pocketed elegantly. There is host of characters all of which are credible enough to remain plausible even through the occasional spin towards caricature or satire, the writing is polished and hits the spot precisely, and the story packs quite the emotional punch. In other words, this is about as good as Romance fiction gets, is both witty and emotional, funny and moving. Jennifer Crusie is often (and, I think, rightly so) mentioned as the Romance author to recommend to people who do not read Romance fiction; and the reason most frequently cited for that is along the lines of “you don’t even notice you’re reading Romance.” Which, while not completely wrong, is still somewhat off, at least the way I see it – Jennifer Crusie’s novels (even the later ones that branch off into different genres) are deeply rooted in Romance and never pretend to be otherwise; they’re simply not what most people (those not reading Romance fiction, anyway) expect Romance to be. They are neither soppy nor clichéd, they are well written in a snappy, fast-moving language, and above all they are fiercely intelligent, juggling, in the case of Welcome to Temptation, a plot involving a dozen major and minor characters, mayoral elections, gender politics, a murder case and wall painting. And pool billiard. And there’s a dog, too. It still is fluff, of course, but does not want to be anything else, and it excellent fluff that is smart and entertaining and does not presume its readers to be stupid. In other words, it is a huge lot of fun and among the most entertaining novels I have read in 2014....more
And finally it is here, the much-dreaded final volume of Shadow Unit: Just two long episodes and three vignettes, but to say that those packed a massiAnd finally it is here, the much-dreaded final volume of Shadow Unit: Just two long episodes and three vignettes, but to say that those packed a massive punch would be an understatement of massive proportions. This installment returns to the accustomed mixture of two episodes and a number of vignettes, but the apparent normalcy is shredded very soon, and the series emphatically goes out with a bang. A big one.
The first episode, “Asylum” by Chelsea Polk and Elizabeth Bear presents a marked contrast to Volume 14’s slow, introspective stories and delivers relentless action and nail-biting tension. Like all good thrillers, it starts off harmless enough but tension ratchets up quickly as the story progresses and snowballs into a fast-paced, violent finale. This episode is likely to leave readers somewhat shaken and breathless, and they get the chance to recover a bit with a series of vignettes before the final episode of the series hits them.
The writers of Shadow Unit made it clear very early (from the Season One finale at the very latest) that they were pulling no punches, so “Something gotta eat T. Rexes” (everyone who has followed the series so far will immediately recognise wha that title refers to) might not come as a surprise, but that does not mean it comes as any less of a shock. This is a devastating story, and a large part of the reason it hits so very hard (apart, of course from being exceptionally well written and constructed, but that goes without saying for the entire run of Shadow Unit) is that the reader feels very close to these characters. Partially that is no doubt true to the sheer amount of time one has spent with them at this stage – but on the other hand, I doubt that anyone will stick fifteen volumes with a series with characters that don’t catch their interest in some way. One might not necessarily like them – although by now, we’ve been in their lives and their heads so often and so deep that we not only know many of foibles and weaknesses but also all redeeming features of all of them – but they have always been fascinating to read about, and that is thanks to the great work the Shadow Unit writing team has done on consistent and consistently engaging character building and character development. I for one have grown quite fond of the Anomalous Crime Task Force over the course of the series, and I think among all its many merits, those characters are what stand out most about Shadow Unit and what will stick in my memory for some time to come.
The final story, as brutal and horrifying as it is, emphasizes that again, and it’s not all bleakness – in the end, we do get a glimpse of the survivors and getting on with their lives, even a glimmer of hope that things might improve in the future. Personally, I’d have wished for a few more vignettes to show the aftermath of the events in the final episode, but I have to admit that “Bunny”, the one vignette we actually are getting, makes a perfect ending (but note the very deft callback at the very end of the last episode to the very beginning of the first one) to what has been one of the most fascinating and intriguing experiments in genre literature as well as a highly entertaining and emotionally engaging series.
And, of course, one can’t help but wonder if there’ll be Shadow Unit – The Next Generation at some stage…...more
Volume 14 of this series, and I just cannot emphasize enough how much an achievement it is on part of all the individual writers involved as well as tVolume 14 of this series, and I just cannot emphasize enough how much an achievement it is on part of all the individual writers involved as well as the “show runners” Emma Bull and Elizabeth Bear to have kept Shadow Unit alive and fun to read throughout over such a long stretch.
This volume comes without any bonus material at all, presenting just two long stories. I’m missing the vignettes, but not quite as much as I was expecting to, because their usual functions are either to give us background on the Abnormal Crime Task Force’s history or glimpses into the private lives and minds of the team’s members, and the latter is here done by the two regular episodes, “Dark Leader” by Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, and Emma Bull, followed by “Due North” by Leah Bobet. They are both very quiet and introspective episodes, with not much outward tension but rely mostly on character and psychological tension.
“Dark Leader” is an enjoyable read, but mostly “business as usual” for the ACTF (or, as it’s often fondly called by its members, the WTF), and for me at least this volume’s highlight was “Due North”, my favourite contribution by Leah Bobet to the series. The episode mimics TV shows in having an A plot and a B plot, both of which are only thematically connected – the theme being community, what it takes to create one, and what sacrifices are made to keep one alive, and it’s hard not to see both threads as a commentary on the WTF team itself that by now has become home and family for many of its members.
All in all, this is an almost contemplative volume, but none the less impressive for that. It marks the calm before the storm which is looming on the horizon in form of the much-dreaded final Volume 15…...more
This third installment of Shadow Unit contains ”Refining Fire” the Season 1 finale (either a long novella or a short novel, depending on how you wantThis third installment of Shadow Unit contains ”Refining Fire” the Season 1 finale (either a long novella or a short novel, depending on how you want to consider it), written by Emmal Bull and Elizabeth Bear, together with a great number of vignettes. In it, one of the Unit’s members is captured by a gamma (the super-powered criminals the Shadow Unit is investigating) – quite a common maneuvre for crime show and fiction to raise the stakes and ratchet up tension, but I do not remember having it ever seen done quite this way before. Not only because it turns it out that there is a rather close connection between kidnapper and victim, but chiefly in the way that captivity is narrated – there is not even the faintest trace of glamourization here, and “Refining Fire” spares the reader none of the details that TV shows (and indeed, most novels) merely gloss over if they mention them at all. This is not for the faint of heart – there is not a lot of actual physical violence here, but an intense and very vivid depiction of what it means to be completely in the power of someone who has no moral restraints at all, which makes for a chilling and very uncomfortable read. It is not all bleakness though – the final vignettes show the reaction of all the team members to the finale’s events, and those are full with moments of touching friendship and heartwarming kindness. Shadow Unit is great stuff, and I’m greatly looking forward to reading Season 2....more
I’ve been fascinated by Shadow Unit ever since I first read about it – both because of the concept and because several favourite authors (Elizabeth BeI’ve been fascinated by Shadow Unit ever since I first read about it – both because of the concept and because several favourite authors (Elizabeth Bear! Sarah Monette! Amanda Downum!) are involved with this. The problem used to be that I do not much like to read on the computer, so except for the occasional, wistful-sigh-accompanied visits to the web site nothing ever came of the fascination. – But now I have Kindle, and with some really fortituous timing all three completed seasons are out as e-books, so I can finally read them. And you know what? Judging by this first instalment, they’re just as good as I expected.
Shadow Unit is a virtual TV show – what it reminds me most of (though your mileage may vary, depending on what your favourite shows are) is Criminal Minds with a paranormal twist (which might yet turn out to be science-fictional – it’s still too early to tell yet). It’s about a special FBI unit down the floor from the BAU (who refer to it mostly as the WTF) and concerns itself with so-called “gammas”, perpetrators that have undergone some mutation, or maybe it is an infection – neither the reader nor the protagonists know at this stage, but I’m expecting that the overarching plot will eventually shed some light on that. Beside that plot, the show (there’s four novellas by Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette and Will Shetterly in this instalment, plus several vignettes) spends a lot of time on the mebers of the Shadow Unit, their characters and their histories – the first two episodes here focus very strongly on that, even to the point of pushing the individual cases (the third level Shadow Unit plays out on) somewhat into the background. It is quite a varied and fascinating cast of characters presented here, all of which, is being hinted at in varying degrees of explicitness, come with their own backstories and secrets which am expecting will be elucidated in due course. As an additional twist, two of the team members are showing some symptoms of the mutation/infection/whatever and while they have not turned gammas yet (they’re designated as betas, with normal humans being alphas) they might very well be on their way there…
Shadow Unit works very well, both on the level of giving the feel and atmopshere of a police procedural TV show and on that of a serial work of literature – each of the authors retain their indivual, distinctive voice and yet each contribution fits snugly into the greater whole, telling a thrilling story (or, in the case of the vignettes, shedding a brief light on various team members) while at the same time exploring the protagonists and furthering the overarching plot. The episodes are suspenseful, moving, funny (though I have to admit that some of the banter went rather over my head, probably due to me not being an USian and as soaked in their popular culture as the writers are). This seems like the start of a very enjoyable ride and I’m keen to find out where the writers are going to take it....more
I know I’ll be sad when I get to the end of this series – and not just because there will be no more episodes after that, but also (and possibly evenI know I’ll be sad when I get to the end of this series – and not just because there will be no more episodes after that, but also (and possibly even more so) because at this stage, there cannot really be any doubt that things are not going to end well for the members of the FBI’s Anomalous Crime Task Force which we readers have come to know quite intimately over four seasons of episodes and vignettes.
It is not just the length of time we have spent with them that has made these people grow on us, but the at time almost uncannily deft hands the series’ authors have at characterizations, and in particular at convincingly describing relationships, Romantic and otherwise. The introduction of the new team member in this and the previous volume is very much a case in point, and again I was particularly struck by the way his relationship to his wife is shown, which comes across as both moving and realistic.
The series has always been playing with superhero tropes, and I guess it was only a matter of time until one of the Anomalous Crime cases would go meta and cast himself as a supervillain. Leah Bobet’s “Wild Card”, the opening story in this 13th volume of Shadow Unit finally delivers on that, and does so in an almost comedic manner, closing with what surely must be the most bizarre suspect interview in the history of crime fighting ever. The episode sets the tone for this volume, which in general is comparatively light-hearted for what is at heart a very dark, occasionally even outright bleak series. Like in the previous volume, we get a large number of episodes but only a tiny helping of additional material. Elizabeth Bear shows in “Underworld” that she’d make a great author of True Crime books (at least if she gets to make her facts up), in Chelsea Polk’s “Single Bullet Theory” a returning character from outside the team takes the central spotlight, giving us a fascinating glimpse on how the anomaly marks even people it left in its wake, while Emma Bull’s and Will Shetterly’s “Apolysis” is all about spiders, to which all I have to say is – ewwww. And that sometimes I’m glad that this is not an actual TV series…
Shadow Unit is a fascinating project, not just imitating TV crime shows, but actively transferring their narrative structures into writing and coming up with all kinds of interesting ways to achieve a TV series’ effects with literary means and keeping it fun to read throughout. Two more volumes to go now…...more
Volume 12 of Shadow Unit continues the fourth and last season of this mock TV-show over from the last installment. We get no less than four episodes hVolume 12 of Shadow Unit continues the fourth and last season of this mock TV-show over from the last installment. We get no less than four episodes here, which I think is a record for the e-book publications of the series, but barely any additional material – not sure whether that is a sign that the authors are getting tired of the series or of increased focus as they are nearing the finish line.
I’m leaning towards the latter, as I at least was not able to find any signs of exhaustion while reading this; to the contrary, I was impressed how the authors still managed to keep everything fresh even so many volumes into the series. The first two episodes here, “Five Autopsies” and “Hope Is Stronger Than Love” achieve this by giving us an outside perspective on the team and its work, the remaining two by furthering the main story arc and deepening relations between the protagonists, and all of them by presenting a well thought-out and excellently written crime plot which, in keeping with the rest of the series, stays as rigorously realistic in its depiction of FBI procedures as it is compellingly imaginative in the invention of the crimes that are being investigated. Good stuff, and I know I’ll be sad when I get to the end of it....more