However, a review that jumps all over the place and doesn't really engage the work at hand can muddy the waters a bit. When I read a review, whether it be full of ebullience or that it resembles the infamous "nattering nabobs of negativism,"and there isn't a consistent thread that ties evidence to opinion, I'm left going "buh?" There are three examples from the negative side (I may write a post in the future about the unsubstantiated hype reviews I've read) that I want to examine a bit:
The first is taken from a review that Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist wrote when he was beginning to do reviews. Since then, Pat has improved significantly, but this review of Caitlin Sweet's The Silences of Home has stuck in my craw for almost three years now, not just because I disagreed with his stance but more because it was so vague and disconnected.
While I appreciate his honesty here about stopping roughly 3/5 into the novel, I began to wonder at his mentions of unconnected books (something that continues throughout the course of the review). I'm of the camp that believes that in most cases, a book ought to be compared only with its own self, with its aims/intentions and how well those are achieved, rather than to anything else. In this review, while Pat uses the blurb copy as a means of comparison, the analysis of aims/intents compared to results/conclusions never breaks the surface level.
Unfortunately, The Silences of Home doesn't deliver at all, basically on every level. So much so that I didn't even finish the novel. I went as far as page 318, and I was forced to abdicate. I can count on the fingers of my hands how many books I have not been able to go through in my life, so this is not something that occurs very often. Indeed, the last book I failed to finish was Weis and Hickman's Well of Darkness.
The first point that needs to be made is that this novel should be considered a "Young Adults" book. Something for people who are a bit unfamiliar with the fantasy genre, who have yet to read the "powerhouses" such as Jordan, Kay, Donaldson, Williams, etc. I don't believe that any well-read person could get into this one. According to the blurb, Sweet's latest is «a saga of epic sweep.» Honestly, this novel has about as much depth as a Forgotten Realms book. The transitions are very awkward, and the entire tale doesn't flow quite right.There is no further exploration of what "Young Adults" means to Pat and if Sweet's book actually qualifies. Again, a mention of other books without grounding the present book's themes and execution. While we get a mention of the transitions being awkward, there is no evidence provided to support his comments. To be fair, Pat has said time and time again that he isn't after a detailed analysis of a book, but rather to give a sort of "layman's take" on a book and to see if Book X stacks up with similar books that he's read. All well and good (and Pat's justified popularity bears out how much similar-minded readers appreciate this no-frills approach to reviewing), but yet I feel a great injustice has been done to Sweet's book here and to those who might not know Pat from Mork from Ork. There was nothing in that review that showcased these perceived shortcomings. No sample of the dialogue to show whether or not these characters were "one-dimensional." No discussion of the story arc at all. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. In the end, I was left wondering if we had read the same book, because there was nothing in that review that jibed with my take on it.
Back in 2006, a reviewer for Strange Horizons, C.M. Morrison, wrote a review of Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora that generated quite a visceral response in the ever-tempestuous SF blogosphere teacup, much of it dealing with this rather provocative opening paragraph:
Just like everyone else, I am rather suspicious of hype. As soon as I hear something is the best new thing ever I start to wonder what's wrong with it. Sometimes, as in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the praise seems warranted. Far more often I want to know how the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies. Which brings me to The Lies of Locke Lamora, a book awash in buildup. There's a movie deal and already a fair number of foreign rights deals, and the buzz surrounding it seems determined to convince us that it will be a best-selling novel.While there is a time and a place for noting other reviews of a book, I felt that Morrison spent too much of her review concentrating on others' takes, not to mention focusing overmuch on the rumored deals regarding Lynch's book. I believe a review ought to be in some respects like the opening statements in a debate: present the argument, followed by evidence that supports the position. Morrison's review took too long to get started.
Unfortunately, what is within is not the next Strange and Norrell. The book opens with the following:At the height of the long wet summer of the Seventy-Seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy. (p. 1)
Putting aside the excessive-capital-letter disease that Lynch apparently suffers from, it was clear from this sentence alone that my expectations for the novel needed to be drastically reset. This was not going to be the wildly original fantasy I'd heard about; rather it was going to be a hodgepodge of well-worn tropes. Think The Sting meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets The Godfather meets your average fantasy world.
While I can understand the reaction to the first sentence, what surrounds it is yet another case of a reviewer mentioning all sorts of other, usually unrelated, books/movies instead of discussing the story at hand. While the admission that hyped-up expectations played a role in this was honest, I believe that Morrison again focused too much attention on what others liked rather than on what she liked or disliked.
It's also the point when it was driven home to me that Lamora is not very interesting. How? When faced with being manipulated into assisting the Grey King, Lamora decides that he should do pretty much exactly as asked and get it over with as fast as possible:
I enjoyed most of this, especially how she presents evidence to support her low opinion of the character. However, the review devolves more into a plot summation. There isn't as much analysis or presenting of evidence; Morrison sums up the story (including some "spoilers") and fires off a few takes without exploring this in much detail. In the end, her review read more like a school book report than anything that had a clear connection of introduction to conclusion with detailed analysis of the story."So we just sit back," said Jean, "and let him pull your strings, like a marionette on stage."
"I was rather taken," said Locke, "with the whole idea of not telling Capa Barsavi about our confidence game, yes."
"The coin involved has to be ... ludicrous. I doubt the Duke could keep a Bondsmage of rank on for this long. So who the fuck is this Grey King, and how is he paying for this?"
"Immaterial," said Locke. "Three nights hence, or two and a half now that the sun's coming up, there'll be two Grey Kings, and I'll be one of them." (p. 212)
That's right, he isn't going to try to find out the Grey King's plan or why he has been waging a war against the Capa or even who the Grey King is. No, he's just going to roll right over and do as he's told. (With the backup plan of possibly running away after.)
The third such muddled, poorly-structured review I read this morning. It was a review of The New Weird anthology posted by Paul Kincaid on SF Site. The introduction in particular was just baffling to me:
I'm sure I remember a time when anthologies were basically just a bunch of similarly themed stories brought together: the best time travel stories, the best Eskimo stories, or whatever. No more. These days it seems that barely a week goes by without another anthology that has an agenda, that is meant to work as propaganda. We are being assailed with collections that are designed to convince us that something old has been revitalised (the new hard SF, the new space opera) or that something new has been discovered (the slipstream anthology, the interstitial anthology, the post-cyberpunk anthology). If we enjoy good stories in these books, it is secondary to being convinced that this totally fresh way of looking at the genre is valid, is going to take over literature.
Now we have another addition to the ranks of genre propaganda: The New Weird. If we have to continue with these desperate attempts to convince us all of some innovative take on SF, can we at least hope that the editors will follow the example of Jeff and Ann Vandermeer. I am sick and tired of anthologies which appear to imagine that just pushing together vaguely similar stories will convince us that here is an entire new genre. Even if half the stories don't seem to bear any relationship to the stated purpose of the book, if the supposed purpose of the book is never fully explained, if no attempt is made to say how these particular stories fit the overall picture.
Propaganda is such a loaded term. When I read it, I get images of goose-stepping soldiers saluting a dictator standing on a balcony, perhaps with the "Horst Wessel Lied" playing in the background. Images of purple Kool-Aid and hundreds of dead people beringing a failed prophet. Words that are convincing but yet ultimately prove to be false or misleading. It is not something that I would readily associate with genre literature. Furthermore, while Kincaid may have a point in arguing that there are anthologies that do seem to make the old into something "new," I believe he dismisses too readily the differences in style and editorial direction that occur in these anthologies. I am also finding myself questioning what substantial difference is there between "the best"-themed stories and what is transpiring today with collections that focus on thematic similarities. This opening paragraph of his is rather strange.
Then it gets stranger with his comments on the TNW anthology itself. The sentences in that second paragraph bear the strain of Kincaid's argument presented in the first paragraph. "If we have to continue with these desperate attempts to convince us all of some innovative take on SF, can we at least hope that the editors will follow the example of Jeff and Ann Vandermeer." Such a back-handed compliment, if such a thing were intended in the first place. "I am sick and tired of anthologies which appear to imagine that just pushing together vaguely similar stories will convince us that here is an entire new genre. Even if half the stories don't seem to bear any relationship to the stated purpose of the book, if the supposed purpose of the book is never fully explained, if no attempt is made to say how these particular stories fit the overall picture." Is he even talking about the anthology that the VanderMeers edited, or is this just a rant about something altogether? Again, I just wish reviewers would keep their comparisons of one book to others to a minimum, as there is a red herring presented here. I think many readers would be excused if they were to presume that Kincaid's article intends to criticize recent themed anthologies.
Perhaps the most novel thing about The New Weird is that the Vandermeers take their propagandistic duties seriously. They begin with a long, carefully thought-out essay in which they discuss the origins of the term, the possible precursors and characteristics of the style, and even whether "new weird" is an appropriate name. ("New Weird" appears to be coterminous with what Conjunctions 39 referred to as the New Wave Fabulists; one makes a link to the old Weird Tales, the other a link to Moorcockian SF of the 60s. Both linkages appear to be in equal parts suggestive and misleading.) The book also includes an extensive segment of the internet discussions that first explored the idea of new weird, accompanied by short articles giving different but generally positive views on the subject. (It is worth noting that the only voices questioning the idea of new weird are Ann and Jeff Vandermeer themselves, though that in itself is radical.) They bring together, under the heading "Stimuli," a selection of stories that laid the groundwork for new weird; followed, under the heading "Evidence," by a selection of contemporary examples, and the book concludes with "Laboratory," which consists of a round-robin story written by a bunch of writers not directly associated with new weird but influenced by it. It is a model of how such an enterprise should be undertaken. By the end, I understood what people were talking about when they discussed new weird, and I saw why these particular stories were chosen as exemplars. If I remain unconvinced, it is not a criticism of the book but rather a sign that it has done its job too well.That first sentence...wow. How offensive can one get without trying to be? I think it might have been better for Kincaid to have dropped that entire "propaganda" nonsense and to have concentrated on the "why is there a need for there to be a themed anthology on this?" aspect. The mention of the oft-maligned Conjunctions 39 is actually a fair one, since on the surface at least there appears to be similar ground being covered, but Kincaid does not go anywhere with that comparison, however. The last sentence of the paragraph is very intriguing, as it at first seems to run counter to the quasi-diatribe of the first two paragraphs.
It quickly becomes clear that this is a book to be dipped into, rather than read straight through at a go. It is, for instance, a genuine pleasure to re-encounter M. John Harrison's wonderful Viriconium story, "The Luck in the Head." But when, a few pages later, you encounter Thomas Ligotti's "A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing" you begin to think: I've been here before. And later still you come across "The Art of Dying" by K.J. Bishop, and again you think: I've been here before. In isolation, in the context of a more varied collection, both of these stories would stand out as brilliantly as the Harrison. But here, read in such proximity, you cannot help but notice how they are playing on the same narrow range.Of course, when the anthology purportedly attempts to show the similarities between these authors and how there's an emerging style that runs through so many of these stories, one cannot help but to wonder if Kincaid's complaint is misguided. While I agree this is more a collection to be read a few stories at a time rather than straight through, I cannot help but to wonder if his complaint is justified.
There is the same sense of the city as the source of unease (in the most interesting of the non-fiction pieces here, "Tracking Phantoms," Darja Malcolm-Clarke equates the city with the distended body also typical of new weird), the same affectless voice, the same alienated characters responding not to emotion but to an odd metaphysic, the same sense that every accidental encounter is freighted with psychological purpose, the same way of looking at inexplicable incidents as if they do not need explanation, the same sense that the city's passing show has been arranged purely for the edification (or more usually mystification) of the protagonist, the same casual assumption that in the face of the irrational no-one would even consider trying to behave rationally. In Kathe Koja's "The Neglected Garden," for instance, when the central character discovers that the woman he was in the process of kicking out has somehow become incorporated into his garden fence, he does not even seem to consider the idea of rescuing her. Instead he simply watches her day by day, accepting, without trying to do anything about it, that his life is falling apart as she is claimed by nature. The symbolism is gruesomely effective, but to move from symbol to story requires the characters to behave as if they have no agency, no fully developed emotional life. Above all characters invariably approach terror or death, the usual if sometimes obliquely realised outcome of these stories, not with dread, anger or even acceptance, but with a strangely intellectual contentedness. As an unlikely journalist puts it in Bishop's story, capturing precisely the etiolated metaphysic that typifies these stories: "one apprehends a strangely exquisite unfurling of energies, an unravelling of reality and the expected". What does separate new weird from most horror fiction is that the horror is an almost purely intellectual experience, not an emotional one.Here, Kincaid does an excellent job in exploring many of the elements that go into these stories, but he seems to have shifted course quite a bit from his opening statements. It would seem, based on these thematic elements of unease, of strange and shifting places, of odd cities and odder inhabitants, that one would conclude that there is much merit to their inclusion in this anthology. But Kincaid seems to vacillate in this section. Nowhere is there a hint of a "falseness" of a comparison of these stories; they are, if anything, cut from too similar of a cloth, according to him.
It is this feeling that we are revisiting the same tightly prescribed range of literary mannerisms, mannerisms which recur repeatedly throughout the collection, that convinces me that, yes, there is something distinctive about new weird. But no, it is not rich enough or varied enough or potent enough to grow into its own sub-genre. As an aside, I have often wondered why, for example, Christopher Priest's Dream Archipelago stories have never been appropriated by the new weird lobby. Now I understand. Dark and threatening as the sexual undercurrent of those stories might be, the dread is meant to be an emotional shock not an intellectual curiosity.OK, now Kincaid seems to have settled on the idea that the anthology is justified in the sense that the stories do fit together, but he seems to argue that this isn't enough for it to grow into its own subgenre. However, I get the sense that outside of this particular collection and likely Miéville's stories, that he hasn't read too much "New Weird" fiction. There is quite a bit of a difference between a Jeffrey Ford and a Thomas Ligotti (to use two names that Kincaid singles out) and I would argue that if one examines how they approach telling their stories that one would find quite a bit of variance in style and plotting. Kincaid's point about the Priest stories is intriguing, but I would have to read those stories first before I could weigh in either way on that point.
Sometimes it seems that setting alone is sufficient to mark the story out as new weird. The models, of course, are Harrison's Viriconium and China Miéville's New Crobuzon (represented here by the story "Jack," which, lacking the space to uncurl the way his novels do, seems somehow thin fare). But there are plenty of other strange cities here, their by-ways, cafes and landmarks carefully named in a culture-free amalgam of European languages but generally not so carefully described. Here pale artists wander disconsolately, unable to take effective control of any aspect of their lives, while every festival, every eruption of life or colour into the city streets betokens some ill-defined threat.While I'd agree with this to a point, I would argue that based on the stories and the novels that these authors have written, that much of the point is to showcase stories in which there is an underlying sense of unease precisely because the characters do not have much of an illusory control over their lives. Here it would have been nice to have seen a comparison of how these stories originated with the very real social and political climes that have dominated Western societies over the past 20 years or so, as I think it would have made Kincaid's point stronger, if he had been able to present and then dismiss those concerns. But at least he's finally engaging the stories themselves, rather than writing generalizations on anthology purposes and goals. Too bad it took him over halfway into his review to start doing this. As for his conclusion, I disagree with it of course, but I was more troubled to see that this review started out talking about one thing, went in a few other directions a few paragraphs in, and the conclusion bears very little to no relation to its introduction. I just wished Kincaid would have rewritten the first half of his reviwe to focus on the collection at hand and the very troublesome issue of the "New Weird" moniker. That at least would have made for a more compelling argument, regardless of how individuals such as myself would have differed on the conclusions.
I know there is much to discuss or to argue with my own interpretation of these three reviews. However, I believe that I have presented my problems with their structural approaches in a fashion that illustrates my comments in the first paragraph. There are many reasons to question the approaches that the authors have taken in their books, but when reviewers get sidetracked on other books and other authors, the focus is lost. I'd rather read a focused review that addresses a book's shortcomings than to read a review that negative or positive alike, fails to engage the text for the entirety of the review.