Tag: fantasy

This Census-Taker – China Miéville

In past posts, I’ve alluded to the divide within the speculative fiction world, wherein on one side stands the group that wants to elevate unheard voices, shine a light on different stories, and push the boundaries of our boundless universes just a bit farther. From the other side wafts a miasma, that same stench that has consumed U.S. politics which, in this case, wants to make science fiction “Great Again.” That group calls itself the “sad puppies,” which isn’t a joke, somehow. Anyway, their continued efforts to bend the system to push certain works toward award nominations have been less effective than previous years, though not entirely ineffective. Which brings me to This Census-Taker, by China Miéville.

I had planned not to read any of the puppy-nominated books from the 2017 Hugo nominees list, but I’d been meaning to read China Miéville for a while, having had his work recommended to my time and again by friends and colleagues the world over. Despite what follows, I will very likely try another Miéville in the future.

This Census-Taker is a book that, for me, never quite took off. It blends elements of fantasy and horror within a surreal framework, muddied by the unreliable narrator, a nameless boy who tells the story in pieces, from different periods of time, and with varying levels of basic knowledge. For all its artistry, the (quite good) writing isn’t able to give the requisite lift to the book. It falls flat.

There’s a murder (maybe), and a (possibly) bottomless hole where his (suspected) evil father dumps the (presumed) victims of his homicidal tendencies: animals and humans alike. Sometimes, the story moves one step outward, telling a loose frame story—the nameless boy, older now, in some kind of incarceration, is writing down the details of his childhood—but that, too, remains somewhat bland. This Census-Taker becomes even more lackluster when comparing it to the other nominated novellas from this year’s Hugos—Black Tom, Vellit Boe, and Every Heart a Doorway in particular, which I had read shortly before sitting down to listen to the audiobook of This Census-Taker.

As I implied above, I don’t indent to blackball Miéville from my to-read list as a result of my less-than-stellar affair with this novella. He’s a fascinating figure who has amassed an impressive corpus, and I’m curious to see his takes on other genres.

Maybe you, friend, can convince me to pick up one of his books sooner. Give it your best shot in the comments.

Penric and the Shaman – Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold, who won the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Series (for the Vorkosigan Saga), is a fantastically decorated writer. Among her many accolades are six Hugos, three Nebulas, three Locuses, and as of 2010 (according to wikipedia), has sold over two million books.

And because I’ve been derelict in my studies of speculative fiction, I hadn’t heard of her until I saw Penric and the Shaman on the list of nominated novellas for the 2017 Hugos.

It’s tough to give a fair review to a novella that is set smack-dab in the middle of an established series: the second novella in a series of five that is itself set within a larger series. There’s an established world, pantheon, society, and long-standing relationships between characters, nations, and religious sects that would have been prohibitively difficult (not to mention ill advised) to include in the novella.

As such, there’s a bit of catch-up on the part of a reader hopping in to the Chalion series in its fifth installment. That being said, Bujold did an excellent job of back-filling questions for new readers while making sure that her pacing would keep knowledgable fans interested. Even with her admirable efforts, I found myself occasionally lost while reading Penric and the Shaman. There was just too much information to assimilate. There was plenty of available information between the lines, in character behaviors and dialogue, but keeping track of it is where I became disoriented.

But that’s part-and-parcel of my circumstance as a reader, and not a knock against the book. Bujold’s writing is very good—she imbues a sort of clarity in her writing that makes even the abstract and hallucinatory moments in the novella easy to picture, which helped me a great deal when it came to piecing the story together in larger, implied context.

Penric is a young (too young, according to most of the reactions to him in the story) sorcerer, advisor to a princess, and a divine priest of the “Bastard’s Order”—who represent the Bastard, the unnamed god of the forgotten, abandoned, and etcetera. Penric is also possessed, or perhaps in possession of, a demon, Desmonda, who hangs out in his brain and can occasionally, with Penric’s permission use his body.

Penric is sent off on a mission to capture a runaway shaman, Inglis, who has been charged with murder. When Penric and his cadre of soldiers finally catch up to Inglis in the snowy mountains, they discover that the situation is much more complex than they’d been led to believe, and Penric is tasked with balancing his roles as a clergyman and sorcerer, torn between his desire to help the man he’s chasing and appeasing the hard-nosed military leader who just wants to complete the mission.

Penric and the Shaman is, all-in-all, an excellent story that deals with intriguing themes of belief, death, personal responsibility, and agency within a wonderfully deep framework that I knew almost nothing about. I’m sure I would have loved the story if I was familiar with Bujold’s other work, but as it is, I really enjoyed Penric and the Shaman.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe – Kij Johnson

A strange and delightful congruity connects The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe with the last Hugo-nominated book I reviewed, The Ballad of Black Tom. Both reach back toward Lovecraft, grab hearty handfuls of story, and mold it into works that manage the requisite respect for the author of such incredible tales while openly challenging his prejudices. You can refresh your memory about how Victor LaValle elegantly reframes Lovecraft into a tale of loss and revenge in last month’s review. We’re here today to talk about Kij Johnson’s brilliant, expansive, and enthralling The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

Most of the story takes place in the same world as Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, complete with the array of fantastical locales and creatures that populate Lovecraft’s dreamlands—that’s right folks, there are zoogs, gugs, and ghouls aplenty in Vellitt Boe. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read Lovecraft’s Unknown Kadath, but based on some cursory research it’s a bit of an outlier in Lovecraft’s body of work, particularly because it isn’t as macabre as his other works. In fact, some people on the web called it “uplifting.” I’ll reserve my own commentary until such time as I have read the book in question. I’m certain that an intimacy with Unknown Kadath would make reading Vellitt Boe all the sweeter, but even without knowing the context in which the story’s told, Vellitt Boe is a terrific work of writing.

In contrast to where LaValle took Lovecraft’s horror, Kij Johnson took the wonder and fantasy of Lovecraft and cranked them up to eleven. But there’s a stunning reversal at the heart of the story, specifically to do with wonder, which I’ll go into further below. Where LaValle took Lovecraft’s bigotry and reformed it into a story of loss and cathartic revenge, Johnson looked at the complete lack of women—his dismissive sexism—in Unknown Kadath and, occupying the space he glossed over, tells a story about adventure, fear, wonder, and the subversion of the divine.

Vellitt Boe, the eponymous protagonist of the novella, is a professor at the Women’s College at Ulthar (one of the dreamlands). That there is a Women’s College at all, and the hinted-at fragility of its existence, is clear commentary on Lovecraft’s treatment of women in general, but it isn’t a focal point of the story. It’s the foundation upon which the stakes are built for Vellitt and, though they remain throughout the story, an odd distance grows between Vellitt and the College she defends; her need to protect the school, its staff, and its students never falters, but her personal connection to it wanes.

A brief overview of the story’s events before I dive into what captivated me about it: Vellitt Boe is awoken in the middle of the night to discover that one of her brightest students, Clarie Jurat, has run away with a man from the waking world. As Clarie’s father is one of the benefactors of the Women’s College, this scandalous event could have far-reaching ramifications, up to (and including) the closing of the Women’s College. Vellitt volunteers to go after Claire and return her to the College, and sets off immediately. At this point, we know little of Vellitt aside from her role at the school and tidbits about her personality. As she travels, we learn more about her past and her passions—the story is a story of growth and change that is inspired by (and mirrored in) her adventure. Ultimately, the quest takes Vellitt out of the dreamlands and into the waking world where she finds Clarie and delivers her message—that Clarie must return to the dreamlands. That she must go home. It so happens that, because of the quest itself, Vellitt is barred from returning to the dreamlands. She is unable to go home.

Connection to home, or a lack thereof, is a recurring theme in the story, and there’s a kind of inverse relationship between Vellitt’s fading connection to her home and the overall story arc. As she travels, we learn that Vellitt lived an adventurous and nomadic youth, finally settling at Ulthar and hanging up her traveling cloak and boots for what she thought would be the remainder of her life. But at 55 and back on the road, Vellitt feels the breath of new life in her, and though she sees how she has aged since her traveling years, she realizes that while she was happy at Ulthar, she was stagnating. She was home at Ulthar. But she’s at home on the road—at home at the helm of her own moment-to-moment experience.

As she travels, she’s presented with difficult trials, and each is surmounted with the intervention of Vellitt’s own lived experience. The people she traveled with, the loves and abuses and terrors and strengths of her youth, they all inform her and propel her in strength toward finding her goal, which happens to be restricting that selfsame adventurous streak in a young girl. Vellitt feels for Clarie, for her desire to see the waking world, but she knows that tragedy could befall the Women’s College if this one girl’s thirst for adventure isn’t curbed. The sacrifices she must make so that the progress women made in that world wouldn’t be nullified. It’s a conundrum. It’s thought provoking and gives pause.

Before I spoil the whole book for you, I’d like to talk about one more thing I found particularly compelling about The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe: The dreamlands are extraordinary, vivid, and magical. To us—and to waking-world dreamers who visit—it is a fantastical delight. In many respects it is to Vellitt and Clarie, but it is home. Having both been involved with dreamers, they yearn to see the waking world, with its infinite sky of billions of stars, with its enormous scale and properly behaved physics. A tessellating sky that’s something between paper maché and silken lacework is beautiful, but limited. Through the eyes of Vellitt, the awesome landscape of the dreamlands is dimmed, and when she finally opens her eyes in the waking world, a Wisconsin blue sky on a clear day holds the majesty of all the prismatic crystalline cliff-sides you can imagine. The simplicity—mundanity, even—of the real world isn’t replaced. Rather, it is seen from a different perspective, and I was as enchanted with the infinite sky, one I’ve seen every day for my whole life, as Vellitt when she first saw it.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is available on Amazon.

The Divine Comedy – Dante

This is another one of those cases where I feel that a book I aim to review is out of my league. The Divine Comedy is absolutely beyond the scope of my review blog.  So I will attempt to not review it for its contents.

But what I feel is within my purview is a discussion of the performance of the audiobook, since that was how I made it through the somewhat difficult text.

The first time I tried to read Inferno, as a high-schooler, I wasn’t able to penetrate the form. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get past the second canto. It might have been because I was too focused on looking at it as an epic poem, a work of unparalleled religious zeal.

But listening to Edoardo Ballerini’s performance of the book on Audible was a completely different experience. The form—the epic poem—took a back seat to the wild fantasy that is contained in its stanzas. Ballerini brought the sense of the narrator’s fear and awe, his deep love for Virgil and his beatific image of Beatrice, his curiosity and horror and shame to the forefront of the experience. He gave form to the incredible landscapes of the circles of hell, purgatory, and paradise.

But even so, it took me weeks to listen to the 14-hour audiobook. It was a tough thing to commit to doing when I’d sit in the car—was I going to dive back into obscure references to Italians from the Middle Ages on this particular trip to Trader Joe’s?

Typically, when I listen to an audiobook, it’s all I do until the book is done. When I’m cleaning, cooking, eating, commuting—whatever I do, I power through the books. With Dante, though, I felt compelled to finish not by an eagerness to allow the story to unfold, but by a desire to check “Dante” off the list. And for what it’s worth, I’m glad I did. It’s a remarkable work of fantasy, horror, and rapture.

I think that I was only able to finish it this time thanks to the audiobook, so I’ll heartily recommend Edoadro Ballerini’s reading of Clive James’s translation of The Divine Comedy.

This audiobook is available on Audible, through Amazon.

Summerlong – Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle is best known for writing The Last Unicorn, which I haven’t read but heard of time and again as childhood-defining. For what it’s worth, I tried watching the animated feature but was vetoed by the other denizens of my household. I shall try another time, and crack open the copy of The Last Unicorn currently sitting on my shelf in due time.

Knowing only about Unicorn was insufficient preparation for reading Beagle’s recent novel, Summerlong, published by Tachyon Publications in September of last year. I made assumptions about what Summerlong would be based on nothing, and that is a huge disservice to what is an extraordinary novel.

Summerlong is on the outer fringes of fantasy, more a story of modern slipstream fiction like something by Haruki Murakami. It’s the kind of book where the boundaries of reality slowly erode and the characters’ realities unravel in consonance with the surreal.

In the case of Summerlong, a complicated-but-functional family on an island in the Puget Sound. A middle-aged couple, Abe and Joanna, have a straightforward life which is rocked by the arrival of Lioness Lazos, a mysterious young woman who enchants the couple completely.

With Lioness’s arrival, the unraveling begins on both macro and micro scales, from strange weather to bizarre animal appearances and children who can pull full-grown flowers from deep in the earth.

The story itself is excellent, full of emotion and tension, action and introspection, character and mystery. But the writing itself is so damn good that even if the plot was weak this would be a fantastic read. Beagle’s language is sophisticated but relatable, his characters bleeding through every word, every carefully placed comma, and the spaces between. Their pain and hope and love and confusion suffuse the text so completely that I achieved that sought-after state of readvana, wherein you look up from a book and you aren’t sure what life is, who you are, or what anything is.

I was enchanted by this book. I was transported, surprised, and amazed by it. If I had read a synopsis of it, I may have passed on it altogether, which would have been a terrible loss. It’s books like Summerlong that are defining points in a budding writer’s journey, where you read something and say “I want to be able to do that.”

Summerlong is available on Amazon and directly from Tachyon.

The Echoes of Sin – Chris Philbrook

(Beware of spoilers, for they be plentiful below.)

The concluding entry in Chris Philbrook’s Kinless trilogy, The Echoes of Sin, does a massive amount of worldbuilding. It reminds me a bit of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series, wherein after being taken on a wild journey through a fantastical world, we learn that it’s actually some kind of post-apocalyptic vision of Europe. Whereas Lawrence loosely explains it as a result of science growing too powerful for its own quantum britches, Philbrook leaves the gap between the “fall” and era of the story unfilled.

I burn with curiosity as to the nature of the fall. I hope, nay, pray that he dig into it in some future date. The word ‘trilogy’ fills me with dread, however, that this story is done and that I’ll never find out more about the fascinating world Philbrook has built, where human souls manifest as spirits and the talented can speak to the souls of machines and inanimate objects.

Now that my plea for more information is out of the way, let’s talk about The Echoes of Sin. We find the twins on the run with their compatriots, having been accused of the murder of their aunt—the one who orchestrated the inciting events of the trilogy. But they’ve got bigger fish to fry. They’re on their way to uncover the biggest secret in the world, the thing that pivoted the course of history for the planet, the cataclysm whose echoes ripple throughout the world and the hundreds of years that have elapsed.

Meanwhile, the purple queen (of the empire that took center-stage in the first book) is at the border with an army of zombies and necromancers who are prepared to steamroll over an ill-equipped town that blocks their path. The tension ramps up more rapidly in this book than in the previous two, but that makes sense, given the threads that need addressing in the story,  but the pacing works well.

The heroes get the more immediately compelling of the two plots, fighting a group of vampires with an intriguing connection to the Church of Souls—they were left by the twins’ aunt to protect the secret that the others were killed over. The fighting is tense, the sides find compromise and, eventually, the heroes are lead to the heart of the secret: a gateway to the past.

It’s a must-read if you’ve read the other two. And since you should read the other two, I suppose I’m saying you’ve got to read this one.

There are some excellent twists in The Echoes of Sin, and narrator Kevin T. Collins did an admiral job of bringing the book to life in a way that raised my heart rate at the right times, and personified the whole cast well. As was the case with the previous books, I found his narration a bit slow, but thankfully I was able to easily speed it up to my comfort level.

Before signing off, I want to return to the thought that opened this review. I was being cheeky about it up there, but the message is that the ending of The Echoes of Sins leaves more questions asked than answered. This might frustrate you—it frustrated me a bit—but I think that frustration also falls under the purview of emotions authors may want to elicit in a reader. If you’re reading this, Chris Philbrook, I’d love to know if you did that to me on purpose. Either way, you wrote an excellent trilogy.

The Echoes of Sin is available on Amazon and Audible.

It’s All Fun and Games – Dave Barrett

allfungames_finalI watched Dave Barrett’s It’s All Fun and Games climb the charts of the Nerdist Collection contest on Inkshares with a mixture of admiration and curiosity. The premise—a Live-Action Role Play game come to life—seemed pretty basic. I decided it would be made or broken by the quality of the prose and characterization, since the plot could not possibly be that interesting. Right?

Not quite.

Turns out that It’s All Fun and Games was a fabulous read. The writing was effective—not arabesque or anything, but strong writing that was easy to read, but not overly simple—and the characters had enough depth. But what took me by surprise is the larger arc of the story (left unresolved in the book) and where it might lead.

For those of you unfamiliar with Live-Action Role Play (LARP), it’s one of the nerdier pastimes you can get into. Essentially, it is acting out your dungeons and dragons characters and battling each other using foam weapons, nerf arrows, and beanbags as your implements of war. Here’s a cringe-worthy example of LARP in action.

Now that you understand the context, we can talk about It’s All Fun and Games. Six friends begin what seems to be a weekend of normal LARPing adventure when, for reasons unknown, their make-believe becomes real. The begin to take on the mannerisms of their assumed characters, as well as their personalities, memories, and abilities. They take their mysterious and magical translocation in stride, assuming they must play out the “encounter” to discover how to get home.

For a short while, progress is smooth. They save some townsfolk from brutal bandits, find some treasure, and feel powerful with their in-world “enhancements.” But, things tending toward entropy, a member of the team is soon killed, and all but one are taken captive by a group of monsters.

The process of rescuing the team is fun to read, but the tacit acceptance of the changing circumstances by the group (attributed to their assimilation of fictional personalities) is irksome. They rebel at the notion of their captivity in a fictional world for only a short while (until things get real what with the death and all), and from that point forward, are adventurers. I’d have liked to see a bit more resistance on the part of the teenagers—though they’ve become magically skilled and fine warriors in their own right. Even if some parts of it would be awesome, I can’t say I’d be entirely stoked to suddenly find myself in a dungeons and dragons quest.

The end of the story is somewhat abrupt. The crew is rescued by the unlikeliest of members, and they set off to learn more about the Evil Guy who brought them to the fantasy land for reasons unknown. It kind of fizzles out—a single encounter that would have been terrific fun to play with friends in dungeons and dragons, but a less-than-perfect ending to a novel, perhaps.

If, as I surmised from the accompanying text, Dave Barrett intends to make this a serialized story, I’d be glad to read the next installments. It was a quick read, without too many surprises, but absolutely enjoyable and well worth your time, if DnD is your cup of tea.

It’s All Fun and Games is available on Amazon and Inkshares.

Motive For Massacre – Chris Philbrook

51fvpa-gojlThe sequel to Wrath of the Orphans is, incidentally, much less wrathful than its predecessor. Motive for Massacre might sound like it gets hairy—and it certainly does—the plot of Motive follows the Everwalk twins along the path to discovering who orchestrated the destruction of their home and the slaughter of its two hundred-or-so citizens, and why.

It’s a much tighter story than Wrath, owing to the fact that it didn’t have to do much world building, allowing Chris Philbrook to immediately focus on the characters and their challenges. It is also stronger as a result.

I listened to Motive on Audible at double-speed, which rendered the problems I mentioned in my Wrath review obsolete. Kevin T. Collins’s narration is strong, if still a little one-dimensional.

Motive spends considerably less time traveling, which contributes to its sense is focus, and lingers on description only long enough to give you a sense of place, except when locations are relevant later in the story. As I said above, this one is really about the characters.

Malwynn and Umaryn find themselves in situations where their thirst for bloody revenge takes a backseat to other desires. Umaryn is quickly realizing that her abilities as an artificer are extraordinary, and Malwynn is falling in love.

The twins are challenged by their individual and collective needs, which drives the first half of the book well. And just before that world have become irksome, the story switches gear and the central arc of the trilogy, discovering who was responsible for the destruction of their home, and why they did it.

Their adventure takes them back on the rails, and they learn much more than they’d anticipated about their family’s past and present. Adventure ensues, but it is in many ways subdued when compared to the explosive and violent action in Wrath.

Motive is a more enjoyable book through and through, though it would be impossible to read without making it through Wrath first. That being said, if your want to commit to (probably) more than forty hours of listening to a dark fantasy and steampunk crossover, you could do much worse than dig in to the Kinless Trilogy.

Motive for Massacre is available from Amazon and Audible.

WarblerChat — An Interview with G. Derek Adams

When I read G. Derek Adams’s Asteroid Made of Dragons, I became infected with a new love of fantasy. You can read all about how much I loved Asteroid as well as his first novel, Spell/Sword, in the linked reviews. What I’m sharing below is the content of our delightful conversation last weekend. Talking with Derek was a delight, and I hope to interview him again when he has a fantasy novel empire.

Dreams of Distant Shores – Patricia McKillip

mckillipdreamsofdistantshores

Tachyon Publications has a knack for putting out excellent collections of short stories—in fact, it seems to be their specialty. This week’s “flavor” is Patricia Mckillip’s Dreams of Distant Shores, an excellent anthology that spans modern fiction, slipstream, and urban fantasy.

Dreams of Distant Shores contains five short stories and two novellas, and while you should certainly read the whole collection, I’d like to focus on the novellas in this review.

The first, The Gorgon in the Cupboard, is emblematic of Mckillip’s strengths at imbuing characters with tremendous reality and honesty. The cast is made up of artists and their many models and muses, principal among them a painter pining for another painter’s wife, and a peasant who has undergone the deepest of personal tragedies—the loss of a child.

Oh, and there’s a talking painting of Medusa, too.

The flow of The Gorgon in the Cupboard is fantastic. It maintains many threads effortlessly, while transmitting real emotion through believable characters using surreal moments and wavering sanity. The Gorgon in question, the Medusa on the protagonist’s painting, is nothing more than a par of eyes and a mouth, imbued with life—whether as a figment of his imagination or by some magical intervention—and a keen and biting wit that she uses to motivate him to look in different places for the muse he seeks.

The way McKillip uses painting, color, and the struggle to express the moving, sometimes ephemeral nature of the subject, is phenomenal. It puts you right there with the artists as they paint and cavort around town and the countryside. The introduction of Jo, the muse, is done in heartbreaking contrast—a rainy night finds her huddled with vagrants under the awning of a butcher’s shop, where she reminisces about the death of her infant child and aged mother. All she has to remember them by is her scarf. Once, she had been a model for the protagonist, but the manner of her initial departure was such that she wouldn’t dare return to his studio.

Things twist and turn, the Gorgon whispering encouragements and distractions into the painter’s unwilling ear, and the plot resolves nicely. All told, it’s a fabulous story.

But the story that shines brightest in the anthology is, without a doubt, Something Rich and Strange. Here, McKillip enters a Haruki Murakami-esque state, building a world and a “normal” life for her characters, then blurring the edges of reality slowly, until you’re plunged alongside the characters into the surreal and mythological. It’s a magnificent story, truly wonderful, and even if the rest of the stories were mediocre—they aren’t, the whole anthology is great—this story would be well worth picking up the whole book for.

Something Rich and Strange takes its name and much of its symbolism from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, dealing with sea-gods, temptation, betrayal, love, trust, and bravery. It’s a whirlwind story that buffeted me like a hurricane. The transition into surreality was so smoothly done that I looked at the world around me, confused and unsure of whether I, too, was falling into some kind of fey. Something Rich and Strange is brilliant. That’s the long and the short of it.

Dreams of Distant Shores is available on Amazon and Tachyon.com.