The OF Blog: February 2008

Friday, February 29, 2008

Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself

At first glance, there is nothing new, original, or earth-shattering about Joe Abercrombie's debut novel, The Blade Itself. The first of a trilogy (set to conclude next month in the UK and in the fall in the US) called The First Law, the storylines revolve around four main, rather stereotypical character roles: a barbarian, a torturer, a nobleman, and a mysterious wizard. One may be pardoned after reading the above sentence (or the blurb on the back of the American edition) if s/he thought that this tale would be but one more epic fantasy adventure of travel, with "plot coupons," and battles and conquests and feats of magic that defy the odds...and many readers' lowered expectations. However, in this opening book, Abercrombie injects a bit of a cynicism into the mix, sometimes doffing his authorial cap to the epic-wearied reader with tidbits such as the following scene between the noble-born Jezal and the sister of a commander-friend of his, Ardee West:

"How's the book?" asked Jezal.

"The Fall of the Master Maker, in three volumes. They say it's one of the great classics ... Full of wise Magi, stern knights with mighty swords and ladies with mightier bosoms. Magic, violence and romance, in equal measure. Utter shit." She slapped the book off the table and it tumbled onto the carpet, pages flapping. (p. 185)
When I first read this book back in January, I approached it with some skepticism. I had heard many almost rapturous reviews of the work, about how it "subverts" the standard epic fantasy tropes and how the wit and humor are excellent, etc. After a few bad experiences with such heightened expectations, I lowered my hopes. I just could not see how a story could be attention-grabbing and original if, as the few bits and pieces of actual detail I gleaned from the first reviews indicated, the action took place in a standard-issue cod-medieval setting with character types that might have come from Epic Casting Central. But I resolved to give it a chance and to see if Abercrombie's story and characters could make a positive impressive.

For the most part, this opening sequence exceeded my modest expectations and did little to change my beginning impressions. The introductory scene, with the northern barbarian Logen Ninefingers (who happens to be missing his "bird" finger, which I thought was a nice touch) fleeing from the Dogman member of a northern tribe in a land called Angland (itself a possible play off of so many thinly-disguised analogues for England), provided a false start. After this fast-paced action scene, we are introduced to each of the other main characters of this novel in segments that felt a bit too short before the next PoV section would begin. This ultimately led to a disjointed feel to the novel, as though the entire book were comprised of four sets of opening prologues to the action rather than being a work in which there were distinct rises and falls in action.

Normally, these faults alone would be enough to damn the book. However, Abercrombie's saving grace here was how he took these stock characters and instilled some sense of individuality to them. While I felt at times that he used asides too often (particularly in the italicized quips of the torturer, Glokta), for the most part his characters have a fairly realistic attitude of world-weariness leavened with some rather biting humor. Below is from the introductory Glokta segment, in which Glokta's old war injuries are alluded to in a rather interesting way:

If Glokta had been given the opportunity to torture any one man, anyone at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of steps. When he was young and widely admired, before his misfortunes, he had never really noticed them. He had sprung down them two at a time and gone blithely on his way. No more. They're everywhere. You really can't change floors without them. And down is worse than up, that's the thing that people never realise. Going up, you usually don't fall that far.

He knew this flight well. Sixteen steps, cut from smooth stone, a little worn toward the centre, slightly damp, like everything down here. There was no banister, nothing to cling to. Sixteen enemies. A challenge indeed. It had taken Glokta a long time to develop the least painful method of descending stairs. He went sideways like a crab. Cane first, then left foot, then right, with more than the usual agony as his left leg took his weight, joined by a persistent stabbing in the neck. Why should it hurt in my neck when I go down stairs? Does my neck take my weight? Does it? Yet the pain could not be denied. (pp. 16-17)
Instead of launching into a long infodump regarding Glokta's past that would have been inconsistent with the limited third-person point-of-view perspective that this scene has taken, Abercrombie smartly lets the reader get the idea for her/himself of Glokta's bodily ruin without belaboring the point. Later in the series, these injuries are shown to have some consequence when Glokta deals with another.

In another scene, the barbarian Logen Ninefingers reveals his thoughts on a situation that runs counter to what a stock barbarian might have said in regards to the glories of war:

Logen winced. In his youth, he would have loved to answer that very question. He could have bragged, and boasted, and listed the actions he'd been in, the Named Men he'd killed. He couldn't say now when the pride had dried up. It had happened slowly. As the wars became bloodier, as the causes became excuses, as the friends went back to the mud, one by one. Logen rubbed at his ear, felt the big notch that Tul Duru's sword had made, long ago. He could have stayed silent. But for some reason, he felt the need to be honest.

"I've fought in three campaigns," he began. "In seven pitched battles. In countless raids and skirmishes and desperate defences, and bloody actions of every kind. I've fought in the driving snow, the blasting wind, the middle of the night. I've been fighting all my life, one enemy or another, one friend or another. I've known little else. I've seen men killed for a word, for a look, for nothing at all. A woman tried to stab me once for killing her husband, and I threw her down a well. And that's far from the worst of it. Life used to be cheap as dirt to me. Cheaper."

"I've fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I've been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I've stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I've run away myself more than once. I've pissed myself with fear. I've begged for my life. I've been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I've no doubt the world would be a better place if I'd been killed years ago, but I haven't been, and I don't know why."

He looked down at his hands, pink and clean on the stone. "There are few men with more blood on their hands than me. None, that I know of. The Bloody-Nine they call me, my enemies, and there's a lot of 'em. Always more enemies, and fewer friends. Blood gets you nothing but more blood. It follows me now, always, like my shadow, and like my shadow I can never be free of it. I should never be free of it. I've earned it. I've deserved it. I've sought it out. Such is my punishment." (pp. 146-147)
Yes, these are some wounded, weary characters that populate this tale. While the notion of a barbarian north or of some nefarious evil group arising from the transgression of some law (in this case, there are two Laws, the First dealing with contacts with the other world of demons and the Second concerning with the consumption of human flesh) is a rather worn epic fantasy trope, it is due to the strength of Abercrombie's characterizations and the rather up-close and personal approach to the storytelling that manages to keep the plot just interesting enough for readers to want more. And while I have held off discussing the characters of the nobelman Jezal and the wizard Bayaz for now, due to events transpiring here that will be explored in much greater detail in the next couple of volumes, the scenes I cited above are representative of their general introductions and character developments. The "action," such as it is, is more of a set-up for the following two volumes, but with the promise that what follows after will make these oft-meandering plot threads into portents of something rather moving.

Publication Date: March 8, 2007 (UK); September 6, 2007 (US), Tradeback.

Publishers: Gollancz (UK); Pyr (US).

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Fun Little Game

Although I suspect the majority of people visit this blog based on a Google search or they are reading this via a RSS feed, I want to do a fun little social activity that I think might lead to some new book reads for myself and others. While this almost certainly has been done before, doesn't mean that one more time would hurt ya, right, so here goes:

I'm going to list five books that I've recently read and one book that I haven't read yet but hope to read in the near future. If you would please, respond with five recent reads and a book you hope to read soon (and if you have a blog, feel free to post it there with a link, in case others may want to visit your blog as well).

Five Recent Reads:

Samuel Delany, Dhalgren

Fritz Leiber, Lankhmar: Tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (vol. I)

Ignazio Silone, Bread and Wine

Venedikt Erofeev, Moscow to the End of the Line

Isamu Fukui, Truancy

One I Am About To Start Reading:

Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges (edited diary accounts that mention Borges, in Spanish, published in September 2006).

OK, that's me. Your lists?

Interesting poll results, viewership patterns

The results of the China Miéville/PSS poll question asked both here and at wotmania were quite illuminating. First the results of the poll here, with 95 people voting over the past week:

What is your opinion of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station?

Loved it - seminal work of the New Weird
46 (48%)
Liked it - good book
16 (16%)
OK - decent, but could have been better
4 (4%)
Meh - not the worst, but far from great
10 (10%)
Blech - I'd rather read you-know-who
1 (1%)
Haven't read it yet, but might
12 (12%)
Absolutely refuse to read it
1 (1%)
Hadn't heard of it before now
5 (5%)

Of the people who had read it (83% of those responding), those who loved PSS were a distinct majority (46 out of 77), with few who haven't read it yet and (thankfully) very few who have been living under a rock the past 8 years. Now for the results from wotmania's poll asking the same question, with a sample size of 185 votes:

Loved it - seminal work of the New Weird (20.00%)
Liked it - good book (11.89%)
OK - decent, but could have been better (2.70%)
Meh - not the worst, but far from great (2.16%)
Blech - I'd rather read you-know-who (1.62%)
Haven't read it yet, but might (23.78%)
Absolutely refuse to read it (3.78%)
Hadn't heard of it before now (34.05%)

We see at this site created originally as a fansite for a bestselling epic fantasy author, Robert Jordan, that the readership is nowhere near as aware of Miéville's first Bas-Lag novel. While there is still a majority of those who've read the work who loved the book, the number of those who haven't even heard of the book before the poll question is disconcerting. But even more interesting was the realization (again, this is from another wotmania Quickpoll question for its Other Fantasy section) that even though I and Jake are the two main mods there and are the two main posters here at the OF Blog, the readership there overlaps very little with the readership here:

How often do you check the OF Blog ( (184 Votes)
Asked from 2/4/2008 to 2/16/2008

Almost daily (4.35%)
A couple of times a week (5.43%)
A few times a month (8.70%)
Maybe once in a blue moon (21.20%)
I just read it for the first time now (3.80%)
Never/haven't heard of it (29.35%)
You're such a shameless pimp (27.17%)

So it shall be quite interesting to see what differences, if any, shall arise from the question I'll now pose in the Blog Poll. Another mod (who incidentally has his own blog here) wrote this excellent question based on a discussion elsewhere and I'm curious to see what the answers will be:

What do you think of maps included in epic fantasy books?

I'll post the comparisons next week sometime.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Monday Morning Links and Thoughts

Via Nick Mamatas, I come across this lovely little rant. Just when I think I can't be amazed by the sheer obstinacy of people who can't take "No" for an answer, the wannabe-writer's comments along the lines of "This is MY blog and I'll say what I want!" make me long for the days of dealing with recalcitrant middle-school students still stuck in the possessive ways of young children.

Tobias Buckell and Nalo Hopkinson are two of the five finalists for the Nebula Award for Best Novel. Two most excellent novels, I might add.

Graeme wonders in his own links post what book I was referring to in my post about "show versus tell." (The answer is this: While I was thinking much more about a general tendency that I've noticed in many epic fantasies recently, the book I was reading at the time of the post was Joe Abercrombie's Before They Are Hanged. As I went on to say, the story was written well enough to make the occasional occurrences of such asides mildly irritating rather than annoying.)

Speaking of Abercrombie's second book, Neth Space reviews it. Many of his criticisms are ones that I have of the first two books of the series, but I'll write a review of it later this week, so nothing more on it until then.

Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
is getting the rub from George R.R. Martin. But before Pat gets the "big head," I'm still going to tease him about needing to write more reviews (with citations), lest he starts drinking another author's Kool-Aid a bit too much ;)

Jay Tomio posts a review on FBS of Jonathan Carroll's The Wooden Sea, which I happened to read for the first time last week. Jay liked the book a slight bit more than I did, as I didn't find it to be as engaging as most of Carroll's other novels (and no, I have no plans on reviewing it at length).

The Book Swede reviews Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth, a story told in verse that I want to read at some point in the future, because I have a weakness for stories told in verse.

FBS interview with Michael Cisco, who wrote one of my favorite books from 2007, The Traitor.

The Wertzone reviews Paul Kearney's Riding the Unicorn, which thankfully is not a furry novel.

Guest blog on The Angry Black Woman, entitled "The Privilege of Politeness."

Ambling Along the Aqueduct has a blog entry on "When is Fiction Adequate?"

John Klima shares his thoughts on genre short fiction, which includes some intriguing information regarding pay rates for novels and short stories.

Patrick Rothfuss revealed there has been yaoi fanfic written based on his characters. Which leads me to wonder if furry fanfic is next...

And on that note, I'll stop for now. I'm feeling quite ill today...

Edit: Proving that everyday life can be even more weird than the New Weird, Jeff VanderMeer posts a horrifying story/photo of birds and their shit. I still think Shatner would have protected his car, but that's just me...

Friday, February 22, 2008

A quick thought on the show vs. tell maxim

While most people use "show, don't tell" in reference to plot descriptions/development, I can't help but notice that an author I'm reading now has his characters describe others a bit too often for my taste. I'd rather "see" the instances of a character being an asshole or saint, rather than being told that the character is one or the other. Every once in the while, as a direct reaction to a character's action, I can accept, but when I notice "asides" and an overabundance of irony being used to paint a character/scene, I cannot help but to think that the author has inserted him/herself a bit too much into the story and that s/he doesn't have as much faith in the "naturalness" of the characters as is needed for those characters to come "alive."

Thankfully, this book I'm reading has other positives that make the above merely irritating rather than damaging to the story at hand.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

This is not your obligatory Black History Month SF/F post

I almost didn't post this, because I am uncomfortable with the notion of forgetting/neglecting for 11 months only to "celebrate" during the shortest month of the year. However, over the past couple of years, I've made a more conscious effort to discover fiction written by people of color, especially those writing spec fic, so for those who only can recite Samuel Delany, the late Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, and maybe 1-2 other PoC writers, I'm going to mention briefly (and in some cases, review more extensively in the coming months) a few writers active in the field (besides the ones mentioned above) that deserve attention.

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, The Shadow Speaker - Although she's written other stories and another novel, when I read this YAish novel set in West Africa after a nuclear event in the mid-21st century, I was impressed with the strong narrative voice, her mixture of Nigerian folk-magic into the tale, and with the environmental concerns (water, crops being two prime examples). Her writing is beautiful and at some point in the future, I really want to re-read this novel before writing a full review. Suffice to say, she is one helluva storyteller. For another take, read David Anthony Durham's post here.

David Anthony Durham, Gabriel's Story; Walk Through Darkness; Pride of Carthage; Acacia: The War with the Mein - Speaking of Durham, not only is his epic fantasy opener, Acacia: The War with the Mein, one of the better 2007 releases that I've read, but I believe his historical novels are just as well-written, if not even more so. The fictional characters found in his first two novels, Gabriel's Story and Walk Through Darkness, have conflicts (internal and external alike) that make uncomfortable stories such as the US during the 1850s buildup to the Civil War and the West for African-Americans after that war all the more compelling to read. I do hope to write reviews of these two novels elsewhere after I do a re-read. His other historical novel, Pride of Carthage, I have reviewed positively on my personal blog.

Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring; Midnight Robber; Skin Folk (collection); The Salt Roads, The New Moon's Arms - For the past five years, Nalo Hopkinson has been one of my favorite writers, ever since I read her collection Skin Folk and fell in love with her use of the multitude of Caribbean dialects and folk legends to infuse her stories with polyrhythmic qualities that made virtually every other story stand out. In addition, her discussion of themes such as gender equity and LGBT issues in many of these stories has been done in a way that isn't "preachy," but neither is it water-downed; her characters are strong, sometimes mule-headed women who fight, struggle, and claw out some sort of existence in worlds where it seems that the entire pantheon of gods, duppies, voudon priests, and assorted others are out there to stifle any growth. Hopkinson's prose drew me in and I have been praising her every now and then here and elsewhere, and hopefully others will try her out. Also, do try the anthology Hopkinson co-edited, So Long Been Dreaming, as that is one of two excellent anthologies that contain stories by people of color.

Sheree R. Thomas (ed.), Dark Matter - I reviewed this anthology last year and I thought it was outstanding on how it took stories from the 19th century through the year 2000 and made a story of hope, trial, and struggle to keep dreams alive. The list of names included are impressive (click on the link above to see just a few of the many fine authors whose stories appealed to me) and the themes are still very relevant in a world that is struggling to admit that "color blindness" is but blindness of a different and insidious sort.

Tobias Buckell, Crystal Rain; Ragamuffin - Buckell has written two excellent Caribbean-flavored SF stories as well as many short stories (one is found in the So Long Been Dreaming anthology I mentioned above, while a collection is forthcoming this spring from Wyrm Publishing). There is much to like in his fast-paced yet thoughtful stories, as my review of Ragamuffin notes.

Ragamuffin, along with Hopkinson's The New Moon's Arms, are finalists for the Nebula Awards this year.

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - This book, although read too late to have been included in my Best of 2007 lists, is just stunning in its portrayal of an Afro-Dominican family and its cursed life, from the time of Trujillo and Son to the near-present in New Jersey. I'll just let my review of this book do the rest of the talking here, except I'll just add that this is a book that deserves more attention from spec fic fans, considering all of the SF references contained within the book.

But these are just the tip of the iceberg. There are doubtless tons others awaiting discovery by me later this year and in future years. Hopefully, others can point out newer PoC SF voices in the comments section so I can continue to expand my reading of those whose points of view and storytelling styles are so rich and rewarding to read.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

China Miéville: A Few Thoughts for Those New to Him

This past weekend over at wotmania, I wrote an online poll about China Miéville (I copied that question and its choices and posted a poll here for you to take) and his most famous book, Perdido Street Station (2000 UK; 2001 US). The results were rather dismaying, with over a quarter at the time of this writing (if you click on the link and see a different Quickpoll, just follow the link at the bottom to the archives and search for one posted around Valentine's Day) voting "Hadn't heard of it before now." While much of that can be chalked up to wotmania's core demographic group (those under the age of 25 who mostly read epic/secondary-world fantasies if anything besides the Wheel of Time), the high number of those who hadn't ever heard of Miéville bothered me just enough that I decided to write a short little summation of his writing. While this will not go in-depth into the reasons why I myself like (and sometimes am frustrated by) Miéville's writing, hopefully the short little snippets I write will be of interest to others. With one exception, the cover art here is for the American editions.

Miéville's first published novel, King Rat (1998) is set in a dark, drum and bass-influenced London underworld. It is a twisted retelling of the story of the Pied Piper and of the influence that music can have on people. The main character, Saul, discovers that his father has been murdered and later that his departed mother was actually a rat (of a magical, shapeshifting form). It is in this exploration of the mysteries surrounding his father's death and his own origins, when set to evocative descriptive prose such as the following, that makes for a compelling read:

The trains that enter London arrive like ships sailing across the roofs. They pass between towers jutting into the sky like long-necked sea beasts and the great gas-cylinders wallowing in dirty scrub like whales. In the depths below are lines of small shops and obscure franchises, cafés with peeling paint and businesses tucked into the arches over which the trains pass. The colors and curves of graffiti mark every wall. Top-floor windows pass by so close that passengers can peer inside, into small bare offices and store cupboards. They can make out the contours of trade calendars and pin-ups on the walls.

The rhythms of London are played out here, in the sprawling flat zone between suburbs and center. (p. 15)
In this, his first novel, we begin to see what later became hallmarks of Miéville's writing: dirty, dank, perhaps occasionally disgusting visual images superimposed upon an urban setting that is run-down, decrepit, decaying, but yet with signs of life (albeit of the more "humble" classes) peeking through. While the ending of King Rat is weak, the novel on its own is a good, darker counterpart to other "underground city" novels.

While King Rat might have served as a testing ground, it is in the Bas-Lag fantasy universe (to date, consisting of three vaguely-connected books that have no protagonists in commons) where Miéville earned his reputation for writing striking prose that on occasion could frustrate the reader as well as enchant said reader. The first Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station, is in my opinion a glorious mess. The story itself takes close to 100 pages to get going, because Miéville is so concerned with showing just how decrepit and oppressive the city of New Crobuzon is for its myriad races and social groups. But yet it is this focus on the shit-splattered streets and on the wretched Remade (men and women altered by magical means to have extraneous body parts or mechanical torsos or anything that suited the thaumaturge's fantasy, usually as punishment for some crime, often as petty as stealing to feed one's self) that makes this story so compelling. Instead of a tale of heroics and of rising from the "humble" to the privileged classes (as so many stereotypical heroic/epic fantasies go), Miéville removes the reader from that comfort zone and shows us a fantasy world whose equivalent can be found in E.P. Thompson's seminal 1962 work, The Making of the English Working Class. Instead of cheery rustics, we get the sordid side of New Crobuzon, as this passage shows in horrific detail:

He hated this floor. He hated the slightly blistering wallpaper, the peculiar smells that emanated from the rooms, the unsettling sounds that floated through the walls. Most of the doors on the corridor were open, by convention. Those that were closed were occupied by punters.

The door to room seventeen was kept shut, of course. It was an exception to the house rule.

David walked slowly along the foul carpet, approaching the first door. Mercifully, it was closed, but the wooden door could not contain the noises; peculiar, muffled, desultory cries; a creak of tightening leather; a hissing, hate-filled voice. David turned his head away and found himself gazing directly into the opposite room. He caught a glimpse of the nude figure on the bed. She stared up at him, a girl of no more than fifteen. She crouched on all fours...her arms and legs were hairy and's legs.

His eyes lingered on her in hypnotic, prurient horror as he walked past, and she leapt to the floor in clumsy canine motion, turned awkwardly, and unpracticed quadruped, looking over her shoulder at him hopefully as she pushed out her arse and pudenda.

David's mouth hung slightly open and his eyes were glazed.

This was where he shamed himself, in this brothel of Remade whores.

The city crawled with Remade prostitutes, of course. It was often the only strategy available to Remade women and men to keep themselves from starving. But here in the red-light district, peccadilloes were indulged in the most sophisticated manner.

Most Remade tarts had been punished for unrelated crimes: their Remaking was usually little more than a bizarre hindrance for their sex-work, pushing their prices way down. This district, on the other hand, was for the specialist, the discerning consumer. Here, the whores were Remade specifically for the profession. Here were expensive bodies Remade into shapes to indulge dedicated gourmets of perverted flesh. There were children sold by their parents and women and men forced by debt to sell themselves to the flesh-sculptors, the illicit Remakers. There were rumours that many had been sentenced to some other Remaking, only to find themselves Remade by the punishment factories according to strange carnal designs and sold to the pimps and madams. It was a profitable sideline run by the bio-thaumaturges of the state.

Time was stretched out and sickly in this endless corridor, like rancid treacle. At every door, every station along the way, David could not help but glance inside. He willed himself to look away but his eyes would not obey.

It was like a nightmare garden. Each room contained some unique flesh-flower, blossom of torture.

David paced past naked bodies covered in breasts like plump scales; monstrous crablike torsos with nubile girlish legs at both ends; a woman who gazed at him with intelligent eyes above a second vulva, her mouth a vertical slit with moist labia, a meat-echo of the other vagina between her splayed legs. Two little boys gazing bewildered at the massive phalluses they sprouted. A hermaphrodite with many hands.

There was a thump inside David's head. He felt groggy with exhausted horror.

Room seventeen was before him. David did not turn back. He imagined the eyes of the Remade behind him, on him, staring from their prisons of blood and bone and sex.

He knocked on the door. After a moment, he heard the chain being lifted from within and the door opened a little. David entered, his gorge rising, leaving that shameful corridor into his own private corruption. The door was closed. (pp. 341-343)
Although this scene is relatively minor for what follows after, I would argue that this and a couple of others serve as the soul of this novel (and series), imbuing it with a sense of moral outrage over the degradations that people force upon others (and themselves, on occasion) that rarely is touched upon in modern literature. It took an imagined city, full of its weird creatures and monsters, to allow people to see what most "polite" literature dares not show us these days.

While the ending of Perdido Street Station was a bit disjointed (although keeping in line with the notion that there can be no heroes in such a degraded society), Miéville's second novel, The Scar (2002) opens up the Bas-Lag universe and showcases the polity of a massive pirate fleet, Armada, which consists of thousands of lashed-together ships collected over the centuries. In this novel, Miéville has begun to distill his creative thoughts; his monsters (like the anophelii women) are more vicious and unsettling, with scenes of horror that can make some sick to read. But while I believe PSS couldn't decide if its main focus was to be that of the degradations of New Crobuzon or on the non-heroic qualities of its protagonists, here in The Scar Miéville has dispensed with most of the social history-disguised-as-fantasy-setting references. We do see glimpses of collectives and of the insidiousness of greed and how the "working (fReemade) man" struggles against that, but for me, the most powerful part was the Quixotic quest for The Scar itself and of what power potentially lay there. While the ending was rather predictable considering the thematic elements at play, I found this to be a very powerful novel.

The third Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council (2004) has divided many readers. I myself found the story and its structure to be very disappointing when I first read it in 2004, in large part due to the middle half of the novel. But yet in many ways (as a recent re-read and a discussion with a few others in the interim has revealed), Iron Council might be the best-written of Miéville's novels. Smaller (at 564 pages compared to PSS's 710 and The Scar's 638 pages) than the other two, the story contained within is much more personal. On my first read, I thought Judah Law's flashback story, which consumes over 100 pages in the middle of the novel, weakened the flow of the novel. However, on a re-read recently, I began to realize that his story, which showcased all of the changes that had transpired in the New Crobuzon-controlled territory since the events of PSS 20 years before, served to highlight quite a few of the themes of the two earlier novels as well as bringing the story forward into the "present." While I still believe that the ending is rather abrupt and could have been clarified a bit more, my recent re-read did open up some interpretative possibilities as to what that ending signified. So while I still believe The Scar was the best of the trio, Iron Council rates a strong second in my opinion for its structure and thematic elements.

Besides the Bas-Lag novels, Miéville has written a novella,The Tain (originally published in the UK by PS Publishing in 2003 as a signed, limited-edition work; later part of the anthology Cities (2004) and the collection I'm about to mention), Looking for Jake (2005), and the YA standalone novel, Un Lun Dun (2007).

The Tain can be read as a fable of sorts, a take on the hatreds engendered by the 19th and early 20th century Imperialist states. One day in London, the mirror people (Imagos), long forced to be mimicries of the people whom they hated for imprisoning them in such a stifling state (the story behind is this based on a Jorge Luis Borges writing that is excerpted at the end of the novella). So what happens when the repressed break forth and unleash all sorts of mayhem on the populace? It is that question which serves as the impetus for this tale.

Looking for Jake collects all sorts of shorter fiction that Miéville has written from the late 1990s to 2004. Most of them are set in a modern setting, but with elements of horror that leads to heart-racing, apprehensive reads on the part of readers who aren't for sure how (or rather, if) the characters will survive to another day.

Finally, Miéville's foray into Young Adult fiction, Un Lun Dun, is a rather uneven affair. Although the writing, while toned down a bit, is superb and the plot developments occur at a reasonably fast pace, there were times that I felt as though the writing, good as it would have been in most cases, failed to keep up with Miéville's imagination. The story of a prophesied savior who failed to save anything (leaving the heroism to the overlooked sidekick) was intriguing, but it just lacked the layers of depth that I have come to expect from Miéville. While as a YA novel it achieves most of its purposes, I cannot help but be reminded of the richness of Miéville's prose in other stories that has been stripped away here. However, it still is a worthwhile read, but I would recommend for adult readers to try Miéville's other works before reading this one.

Hopefully after reading this long bit, some of those quarter over at wotmania (and others here and there on the web) who haven't heard of Miéville will be willing to give one of these books a try in the very near future.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Book Trailer for Paper Cities, an Upcoming Urban Fantasy Anthology

I saw this on the Senses Five Press blog and I thought it was quite cool. I have an ARC of this book which I shall read/review sometime in the next couple of week. More and more authors and publishers are starting to do book trailers for YouTube and in some cases, they are well-done, such as this one. There is also a reading from the book that many of the authors in this anthology did during the recent World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga, New York.

A few more thoughts on the "competent" novels

I have been reading quite a bit during this long, dreadful waiting period for job interviews and return messages. While I haven't had the time to organize my thoughts as I would have liked (and I know I have a huge backlog of reviews to write for this blog of books coming out later this month and March), I just thought I'd share a few thoughts on a few books that I did read recently, without going into my usual explorations.

"Bad" books are the easiest to detect. The sentence construction is so sloppy, the characterizations are so flimsy, and the pace of the story is so plodding or dull as to make for a truly non-enjoyable reading experience. I don't review those books here and I usually refuse to mention them, as I follow the maxim that any publicity can benefit a book. However, when reading "flawed" books, I struggle to define just what it was that made that book so unmemorable. Unmemorable - that's the word I probably should use here to describe those books that fail to rise above the sum of its parts. Sometimes it's a matter of unremarkable prose that tries to be as "invisible" as possible and often succeeding too well at that goal (Jeff VanderMeer wrote something about that recently) and other times, as I blogged about last week, the characters are either too "weak" or "mismatched" for the story's needs.

For the first, Nathalie Mallet's debut novel, The Princes of the Cage (2007, Night Shade Books) almost was a real good read. Its main character, Amir, was placed in a mysterious, Arabian Nights-like setting of a sultan's palace/prison for the Sultan's hundreds of sons (who were engaging in a Social Darwinistic struggle to prove that one of them was the most fit for having dominion over the sultanate), with a murder mystery occurring. The ingredients were there and Amir had some potential as a character, but the prose was rather unremarkable. Things were described, events happened, 1-2-3, dominoes fall in place, and the story marches straight through to the end, with only hints of any dynamic plot developments. The writing was serviceable, but again, it was damningly unremarkable. The story just felt like an extended outline or sketch of what could have been a truly gripping tale. In the end, it was adequate when it could have been much more.

The second novel, Ann Aguirre's debut SF novel, Grimspace (February 26, 2008, Ace Books) was even more bland than the Mallet. The main character, Sirantha Jax, is supposed to be remarkable for her longevity in the field of "jumping" (via a genetic trait) ships through a sort of hyperspace called "grimspace." But one day an accident occurs and she is the only survivor but is accused of murdering the others. The blurb describes her as being "on the verge of madness," when someone mysteriously shows up in her cell, offering her a place in a rogue group. While this set up might sound intriguing, the Jax character is so devoid of "life" that I didn't feel as though she ever was truly "on the verge of madness." Couple this bland character with equally "transparent" prose and you get a story that is "just there." There is nothing overtly "bad" about it; it just is forgettable.

Now I am not one of those people who reads constantly in one genre or storytelling style, so it's not as though I feel I'm "burning out" on reading genre novels. However, one of the things that I have noticed (as have a few others here and there on the blogosphere) is that there just doesn't seem to be as much of an emphasis on writing evocative prose. Style isn't just some optional sauce that one puts on the narrative meal, but rather it is the key to making an author's story stand out among the crowd. I am much more forgiving of a distinctive novel that has some flaws in characterization and pacing than I am of a dull, competently-written story. It is a shame that more and more novels in multiple genres that I read seem to settle for being "everyman" in their prose than trying to write a memorable story that has its risks.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Books for an Imagined Future Niece or Nephew

Just over a week ago, my youngest brother got engaged, with tentative wedding plans for late this year or early next. That led me to think a bit about the possibility of having a niece or nephew soon and watching them grow up, either by living in the general vicinity or from afar. I remember the huge influence that my maternal grandmother had on my reading experience and I thought I'd just share some books that I conceivably could give to an imagined niece or nephew of mine from early childhood to their late teen years (presuming that they would be readers, that I would be willing to part with a few of these, and that these would all be appreciated, etc. I also should note that my brother and his fiancé are pretty close to being labeled as Evangelical, so certain obvious choices such as Pullman or Rowling's works might be iffy). These are not in any arranged order, other than how I wrote them down a few minutes ago when scanning my shelves. Feel free to suggest others as well:

1. Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon

2. H.A. and Margaret Rey, The Adventures of Curious George

3. Wilson Rawls, The Summer of the Monkeys; Where the Red Fern Grows

4. Ovid, Metamorphoses

5. Alexandre Dumas, The Three Muskateers

6. Anonymous, The Arabian Nights

7. John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress

8. Matthew Lewis, The Monk

9. Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer

10. Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

11. Rabeleis, Garganta and Pantagruel (okay, this might be iffy, I know)

12. Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe

13. E. Nesbit, Five Children and It

14. Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

15. Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

16. Bulfinch's Mythology

17. Frank Stockton, The Lady or the Tiger and Other Stories

18. Jules Verne, Around the World in 80 Days

19. C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (omnibus)

20. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit; The Lord of the Rings

21. Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

22. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

23. Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles; The Homecoming (illustrated)

24. H. Rider Haggard, King Soloman's Mines

25. Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

26. Jack London, The Call of the Wild

27. T.H. White, The Once and Future King

28. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

29. Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tale (duology)

30. Charles Shulz, Happiness is a Warm Puppy

31. James Thurber, The 13 Clocks

32. Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, The Shadow Speaker (review forthcoming)

33. Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart

34. D.M. Cornish, Foundling (another I need to review soonish)

35. Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

36. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

37. Margo Lanagan, Red Spikes (or any of her other collections)

38. Patricia McKillip, Riddle-Master: The Complete Trilogy

39. G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

Oh, and maybe the Marquis de Sade just for shits and giggles...

Any that you'd suggest that I consider reading/adding to this list for my hypothetical niece/nephew?

Friday, February 15, 2008

An interesting comment on review purposes

I was reading a link from one of the links I posted earlier today when I stumbled across this comment from a reviewer in regards to another making a comment about the reviewer's complaint about an author's word choice:

I don't know if you're being sarcastic or not, but if you were, look, this journal isn't trying to influence anyone to read a book. This is more of a personal take on books I've read, and how I feel about it, rather than me critiquing it for others.
So strange to see someone so naive about the nature of online reviewing. Over the past year or so, ever since I started posting the majority of my online reviews here, I've learned via that handy little Sitemeter widget that quite a few people do Google searches, Blogger searches, etc. On a few occasions, I've even had authors respond here, so it's just strange to think that one would make a "public" post and not expect one's own words to spark a reaction, especially when hundreds or thousands of visitors visit blogs such as this one each and every day, in hopes of learning more about a particular author and/or book. And while I try to be as fair and as analytical as possible, I do write much of the time in hopes that someone would consider trying a particular book (not-so-subliminal message here: Read more Borges, Cortázar, Eggers, Eco, and Calvino) or at least giving an author a first or second shot. After all, if writing is one form of communication, writing/blogging about an author's writing is part of that shared conversation, no?

Friday Morning Links

Hal Duncan discusses semantical differences with John Clute in regards to defining "fantasy." It is a relatively short Hal Duncan post. You can finish it in less than 10 minutes.

Jeff VanderMeer discusses the writing of Predator: South China Sea as well as listing some upcoming 2008 projects/releases.

A Dribble of Ink interviews Joe Abercrombie, who has recently embraced the notion that he's like a "Big Mac."

Robert at Fantasy Book Critic likes David Keck's In a Time of Treason as much (if not more so) than I did, plus he found the first book, In the Eye of Heaven to be quite enjoyable the first time.

Over at Neth Space, Irish author Peadar Ó Guilín has to answer the Questions Five (no, three, sir!) er the other side he see.

Pat's Fantasy Hotlist has its usual contests, promos, etc. and maybe a review in the future sometime soon?

Matthew Stover's upcoming third Caine novel, Caine Black Knife, is on track for an October 2008 release, as final copyedits are being done now. Since I loved the first two Caine novels, I most certainly shall be clamoring for a review copy for this one.

If The Deckled Edge enjoyed Gene Wolfe's Pirate Freedom that much, I wonder what he'll make of his The Book of the New Sun series?

La Gringa, fresh off of her hiring as a literary agent, has discovered the horrors of wannabe-writers, with lurid photos and all sorts of other joyous miscellanea found in the slushpile. But still, congrats for the new job!

Fantasy Magazine interviews David Anthony Durham.

Not-Neil Gaiman has a pseudonym "leak," but perhaps that pseudonym is really a real person?

Harlan Ellison on why he voted "No" on the recent WGA deal.

Patrick Rothfuss worries about Wisconsin's squirrels. I worry about them too, but for a totally different reason.

Sarah Monette has a writer's epiphany.

Strange Horizons on the food and diet of Hobbits.

De Leyenda revista sobre La carretera (The Road), de Cormac McCarthy.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An observation on "voice"

I recall a Monty Python skit in which Michael Palin's character, a rather timid accountant type, goes to a career counselor and tells him (Eric Idle, if memory serves) that he wants to be a lion tamer. From there, the usual MP hijinks, but there is something about that sketch that stuck with me. Yesterday, I was finishing up a read of Mark Haddon's excellent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time when I realized that what made this book work so well was how accurately the autistic narrator was portrayed (having been around two profoundly autistic students in my career, you begin to learn a few things about "odd" behaviors).

Last week, I had finished reading another book, Richard Dansky's debut novel, Firefly Rain. While in places the story was interesting, I couldn't help but notice that the character/setting duo just didn't mesh. Like Palin's wannabe-liontamer character, there was that sense of "offness" that permeated the novel. A good Southern Gothic novel, in my opinion, involves a rather strong sense of a decayed tradition, a palpable tension between the modern and the antebellum, all centered around a strong character who embodies such conflicts. Although Dansky sets up the events well, his main character and even more his setting fail to rise above the paint-by-numbers plot developments for a Southern Gothic. It could have been a great debut, but instead it petered out as the story progressed until I couldn't help but conclude that it was a flawed work that was merely decent when it could have been so much more.

Lately, I've noticed that with quite a few novels and stories. The settings will be intriguing, but the characters fail to have a strong "voice;" they are just there, fulfilling a role that perhaps any others could have filled. In some cases, the characters aren't allowed to "breathe," to be more than just a function of the plot and that bothers me. I love well-drawn characters. Give me some conflict or at least something that shows that the character I'm reading stands out in some form or fashion from the casting central ones. Furthermore, characters that explicitly were designed to be counters to clichés had better be written in more than a clever aside and a wink to the reader, for even that is a cliché of subversion, when little else is offered besides a twisting of yet another cookie-cutter character creation (say that three times fast!).

When I read a story that has such-and-such a setting, don't give me the timid accountant voice sputtering, stumbling, and spewing all sorts of infodumps out there for the reader to process. If the character is meant to be bold and daring, give me a narrative voice that reflects this. Otherwise, I'm just going to feel "meh" about the whole thing.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven; The Beginning Place

Although Ursula Le Guin is most well-known for her Earthsea YA fantasy and Hainish Cycle SF novels, I decided to try reading some of her more obscure work. I have completed read-throughs of two novels, the 1971 standalone The Lathe of Heaven and the 1980 YA novel The Beginning Place. Unfortunately for me, I do not have the time to explore these books in quite the same depth as I would have preferred, but I will try to convey in a few short paragraphs what it was about each of these tales that appealed to me.

Despite being published in 1971, The Lathe of Heaven contains much that is extremely relevant today. In a world where demographic explosions have had deleterious effects on climate, vegetation, and human populations, Le Guin's tale carries a ring of ominous truth to it, even if some of the particulars have been discounted by scientists 37 years later. The story begins with a Dreamer, a man named George Orr, who has discovered that his reality is malleable and that what he conjures up in his dreams becomes a reality. He inhabits a post-apocalyptic world, a world in which a fearsome series of events brought about by overcrowding and other environmental degradations has wiped out a large percentage of the world's population. He consults a doctor, Haber, who not only tries to analyze Orr's dreams, but to use certain techniques to get him to dream "good" things, such as an end to racism, sexism, xenophobism, etc.

However, as the events unfold with each passing dream-induced "change," a different sort of message emerges. It is one that is tied in very closely with the chapter epigraphs that Le Guin has chosen, an ideal that change, transformative agent that it is, is not always to be desired; that action is not necessarily an end or even positive in and of itself. More so than in the early Hainish cycle novels that I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, many of the principles of Taoism (namely the recognition of the world as it is does not necessarily have to be a world in constant desire for transformation) are explored even more in this text. Added to this is an underlying conflict between Authority (those who desire changes and transformation) and Liberty (those seeking to be free in such a way as to permit others to be themselves). Although I could quibble about the facileness in which these conflicts are presented, suffice to say that on the whole I found this novel to be quite excellent and on par with most of her more celebrated works.

The Beginning Place is much different in tone from The Lathe of Heaven. This story of two young people meeting somehow in a magic world across a stream from their mundane (and pain-filled) "real world" appears on the surface to be rather light fare, but as is typical for Le Guin's works, there are some rather "heavy" explorations of gender roles, the place of children in family, how abusive relationships emerge, and the traumas that so many youth have experienced in their short lives. However, this magical world, centered around a town called Tembreabrezi, is not idyllic either and there soon emerges a threat in which the boy, Hugh, feels he has to face, due to the townspeople declaring him to be their long-desired Hero. The girl, Irene, is rather mistrustful of what is going on, but during the course of their travels in this realm, much is revealed about her sources of distrust and fear, making for a sort of fable about the power that the young have to overcome even the worst situations that they might be experiencing in their own lives.

While I wasn't as enamored with this novel (the few words devoted to this being one sign) as I was with the other, for its audience, this short novel (183 pages in the library edition I borrowed) is one that is worth reading for those who are already fans of Le Guin's work. I just wouldn't consider it near her best.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, The New Weird

weird (wîrd)
adj. weird·er, weird·est
1. Of, relating to, or suggestive of the preternatural or supernatural.
2. Of a strikingly odd or unusual character; strange.
3. Archaic Of or relating to fate or the Fates.
a. Fate; destiny.
b. One's assigned lot or fortune, especially when evil.
2. often Weird Greek & Roman Mythology One of the Fates.
tr. & intr.v. weird·ed, weird·ing, weirds
Slang To experience or cause to experience an odd, unusual, and sometimes uneasy sensation. Often used with out.

[Middle English werde, fate, having power to control fate, from Old English wyrd, fate; see wer-2 in Indo-European roots.]
Despite the seemingly precise definition cited above, "weird" is something that resists pat explanations or cute labels; it is just there, lurking at the peripheries, making the observers of it quite uncomfortable. In fiction, there have been hints of "weirdness" in the writing, places where it feels almost like a transgression to cross, because of its often alien and grotesque nature. From the beloved ruins of the Romanticists to the dank, dark corridors of an Ann Radcliffe, full of mysterious, odd, and quite possibly malevolent creations, to the rather unsettled end to the rather frightful 20th century, many writers have come to explore those boundaries that contain elements that both fascinate and repel humans. When I heard about Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's latest anthology project, The New Weird, I was reminded of a comment by M. John Harrison in his introduction to the PS Publishing edition of China Miéville's The Tain, "China Miéville & the New Weird" written in October 2002:

Good fiction should make us question our experience of the world; not to say the means by which we scaffold that experience. But it should never do this obviously. The most painfully defamiliarising gesture is the most subtle. Good fiction has an uncanny quality: and that's enough to make it "fantasy" and "mainstream" at the same time. Let's go out there, we might say, meaning, into this mainstream arena, and make readers uncomfortable. Instead of splitting hairs let's do some acts of the countermundane.
In his introduction to The New Weird anthology, Jeff VanderMeer addresses not just the history of this "movement," stretching back to and referencing the near-iconic old pulp magazine Weird Tales, but also the problems inherent in such a purposely vague and yet fitting term. Back then, there were no rigidly-defined terms such as "epic fantasy," "urban fantasy," "horror," or "hard SF." Instead, in pulps such as Weird Tales, writers might mix elements of all of the above into an alchemical brew that would leave their readers feeling in turns fascinated and uncomfortable.
All well and good, one might argue. But what makes this "weird" the New Weird? VanderMeer continues, noting that the often-political, almost-always experimental approach of the New Wave writers of the 1960s and 1970s(M. John Harrison and Michael Moorcock being two prominent writers of this time period), with their appropriations of whatever "mainstream" tropes and concerns that they saw fit to use, made it okay again, after the rather rigid divisions between SF and Fantasy that occurred during the post-World War II Golden Age of SF era, to blend and blur the boundaries. In addition, during the 1980s, some horror writers (Clive Barker being cited as a major influence) began to take a more visceral, unsettling approach to Lovecraftian themes, daring to reveal much more of the hideousness of the imagined and "real" monsters than had been done before.

But experimenters rarely are accepted into the fold and by the 1990s, during a time in which the older political models seemed to be dissolving into a toxic mixture of ethnocentrism, religious fundamentalism, and rising xenophobism in the so-called "First World" nations, some writers influenced by the predecessors mentioned above began to write their own takes on the older fantasy, SF, horror, and "mainstream" tropes. This, VanderMeer postulates, is the beginning point for what later became known as the New Weird.

The term itself, he notes, is quite controversial, as even those associated with its coining, China Miéville, Steph Swainston, and M. John Harrison, later came to distance themselves from the term. Labels, after all, are tricky and confining entities that seek to bind and to standardize. But if "weirdness," this "uncanniness" that unsettles people, is such a slippery, vague word in the first place, how can labels apply? It is around this question that much of the VanderMeers' anthology revolves.

Many anthologies give little more than a brief introduction by the editor(s) of whatever theme(s) that the anthology seeks to explore. Here in The New Weird, the questions raised in the introduction are underscored by how the VanderMeers have divided their book. In the first section, "Stimuli," the reader is introduced to seminal stories such as M. John Harrison's "The Luck in the Head" (originally published in 1984 as part of Viriconium Nights), Clive Barker's "In the Hills, the Cities" (published first in 1984 in the collection Books of Blood, Volume I), and Thomas Ligotti's "A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing" (1997 publication, In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land). In each of these stories (and others that I neglect to mention above), there are a few common elements. The settings are very vivid, sometimes set in another "world," sometimes in a very recognizable contemporary Earth. The language of the stories focuses heavily on how the narrator/characters interact with their environs, which often differ from the characters' "norms." It is a classic "Man versus the Environment" clash in part, but there is much more to it than just that. In these stories, the reader can expect to find all sorts of unsettling situations or implications based on plot events, all designed to heighten any unease that the reader might hold. As an introduction to the influences on the latter styles, these stories work very well together.

In the second part, "Evidence," there are reprinted stories by Miéville, Jay Lake, Jeffrey Thomas, Steph Swainston, and Jeffrey Ford, among others. In these tales, the earlier tales' atmospheric settings and unsettled narrative reactions is married to an even closer attention to language and "real-world" concerns. Miéville's "Jack," set in his New Crobuzon universe, explores the machinations of a totalitarian state and the usefulness for that regime of having mythical hero-opponents such as Jack Half-a-Prayer oppose it. Miéville's descriptions of the Remaking process, of how Jack is eventually caught, and what happens to his snitch all serve to focus our attention not just on the wonderfully described situation, but also on how our own political systems are fraught with corruption and how complacent many citizens can be in light of such potential governmental abuses. Although the other stories in this section are not quite overtly political (or Marxist) as is Miéville's, they too have their moments in which the "weirdness" presented often hits a bit too close to home for our comfort.

But as well-written and presented as these stories were, one of the key selling points for this anthology in my mind was the third section, "Symposium." Here the VanderMeers have reproduced the opening salvos of a landmark 2003 discussion that originally appeared on The Third Alternative forums (now archived here) as well as publishing reprinted and original essays on the New Weird theme by Michael Cisco, K.J. Bishop, and a series of non-English language editors from Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe on the impact that such a movement as the New Weird has had in their countries, both in the selling of translated fiction as well as on native writers. It is in this section that the questions presented in the introduction reemerge and take center stage. The reader witnesses the debates over the terminologies employed, the questions over the efficacies of even having such a label, and so forth. For me, it was this section that made this anthology much more than the sum of its parts.

In the final section, "Laboratory," there is a writing project in which authors not often associated with the original New Weird movement, are presented with a story beginning written by Paul Di Filippo and are asked to riff off of that intro, using their own understandings of what "New Weird" might mean. This collaborative exercise on the parts of Di Filippo, Cat Rambo, Sarah Monette, Daniel Abraham, Felix Gilman, Hal Duncan, and Conrad Williams is a very striking look at how the techniques employed by the New Weird writers have influenced those whose stories at first glance might not be associated with such a movement. It was an interesting way to end the anthology and one that will take me multiple reads before I will feel comfortable presenting a cogent discussion of its themes and elements.

Perhaps that was one of the points of that exercise - to shake readers such as myself from our comfort zones and make us contemplate things that are often baffling, sometimes repulsive, but almost always imaginative and vivid. In this, the final section fits in well with the previous three and hints at what may lay ahead in the field. Defined precisely or not, the New Weird certainly has had a major impact on writing both inside and outside the narrowly-defined genre limns. This eponymous anthology does an outstanding job in presenting the New Weird in all its unsettling, vague, weird glory. Highly Recommended.

Publication Date: February 1, 2008 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Tachyon Publications

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Jeffrey Thomas, Deadstock

There were neighborhoods in the city of
Paxton where the police did not readily go—if at
all. Tin Town, for instance, orWarehouseWay; the
former given over mostly to mutants and the latter
to squatters in its nominal disused warehouses.
Sometimes fires in such regions were even left to
burn themselves out, despite the fact that the city
firefighting units were mostly automated in nature. (p. 9)
This opener to Jeffrey Thomas' latest Punktown novel, Deadstock, sets the mood for what follows over the course of 400 pages. A nasty, almost lawless place, filled with the lower classes, many of them mutants and other assorted riff-raff. A place where danger lurks. Right away, the reader knows that something dark is about to happen; not too many cheery stories are set in what amounts to a slum.

Punktown is a strange place, a human colony built on the remains of an alien city. As I read this novel, my first extended exposure to Thomas' Punktown universe, there was this sense of creepiness, as its denizens were introduced. Moreover, the atmosphere was much like a noir thriller and soon enough, the story that emerged after the brutal prologue shared much of that atmosphere, if not so much the hard-boiled detective atmosphere.

The basic story is a rather straightforward one: a priceless bio-engineered doll is stolen from a girl. One of the girl's classmates is suspected, but she too has disappeared. Both girls' fathers are rival geneticists. One of them hires a shape-shifting ex-soldier, Jeremy Stake, to track down the doll's whereabouts and to report his findings.

But there are many, many layers wrapped around this core. In the Prologue, someone seemingly unconnected with the disappearing doll meets a rather grisly end. There is a mystery surrounding the technology involved in making that bio-engineered doll. And through it all, we learn of a deeper struggle that has gone on in various places and dimensions, something that feels quite a bit like something that Lovecraft would have concocted for one of his tales.

This is but a very brief bit describing the type of story Thomas tells here. A multi-layered detective/horror story, however, can take on many flavors, but to discuss the story in detail risks breaking the plot skeins into fragments that do not add up to the whole. However, I do want to highlight a few images that showcase Thomas' ability to create an odd and rather creepy atmosphere:

“Burikko suru” was the Japanese expression for
this popular look. It meant, “to fake-child it.”
His client’s daughter and her three schoolmates
were sixteen years old—Jeremy Stake knew that
part already—but they all seemed shorter perhaps
than they should have been, not even five feet tall,
as if they had willed themselves to remain so petite
in order to further their cute and child-like appearance.
Stake wondered if they had undergone some
process that, at least temporarily, would suppress
their height to engender this effect.
They all had the same figure, too, as far as he
could make out: slender, delicate, with coltish legs.
The legs were particularly noticeable, because as
part of their uniforms they wore very short, pleated
tartan skirts in black and gray with a touch of
blue. Their trim blazers were black, with their private
school’s crest emblazoned in metallic gold and
blue thread. They wore white blouses and blue
“Hello, mister—I’m Yuki,” said one of the four
girls, smiling shyly, blinking her long lashes under
a mathematically straight fringe of bangs.
He could already tell she was Yuki, because she
was the only one without a kawaii-doll. Despite
the sameness of their uniforms and bodies, there
were small touches of individuality about the four
friends (but if one looked at all the girls from their
school, one would no doubt see these individual
touches widely repeated). One girl wore white
ankle socks. Another wore very baggy knee-high
white socks, bunched up in folds that contrasted in
an interesting way with her smooth brown thighs.
Another wore knee-high white stockings that
instead clung tightly to her calves. Yuki wore socks
like these, but hers were a deep navy blue color. (p. 23-24)
When I read this scene, I began to get the idea that genetics and the various manipulative possibilities of the gene code would take center stage. This notion of bio-altered girls and this sort of plastic uniformity about them only set the stage for later appearances by the menial-labor clones and the headless/limbless "deadstock" grown in vats rather than raised as truly alive beings. Thomas sets the stage well with this and the sense of revulsion and of apprehension created by such descriptions foreshadows the later plot developments, when questions of sentience and of "sentient rights" (for lack of a better term to describe the myriad self-aware entities that appear here) arise from a closer reading of the action.

Action, however, takes precedence over any symbolic reading of the events and people in the novel. Stake, while his conflicted personality and troubled past makes for an intriguing tale (one to be covered in Thomas' upcoming Blue War novel), does much more than just engage in a mental problem-solving exercise. The rival geneticists control gangs in Punktown and there are shootouts and quite graphic deaths. The plot moves at a brisk pace, as mystery after mystery is presented, only to be solved near the end of the novel. The early events of the Prologue loop back into the main story to create a fast-paced thriller type of feel, albeit one with a bit more brains behind the plot's brawn. The conclusion is mostly satisfactory, although it is quite obvious that room has been left for sequels.

Deadstock is not the deepest of novels; it does not spend much time pondering the mysteries of existence. However, it does contain some rather unsettling pieces that when considered afterwards, can add a tinge of unease to the reader's understanding of what is transpiring in this setting outside of this particular tale. Although doubtless my experience would have been enhanced if I had read Thomas' earlier Punktown novels, Deadstock works well on its own. I found Thomas' prose to be to the point, always driving the plot and the action forward, but at the same time adding just enough hints and clues here and there to make me aware that something much more vast than this relatively simple story is transpiring. The characterization was pretty good and Jeremy Stake makes for a compelling character. While I do believe that the story would have been stronger if Thomas had fleshed out the other characters, especially the one that appears in the closing scenes and is the source of the disappearances, on the whole it works as an atmospheric, dark detective novel. I certainly shall be reading more of Thomas' work in the future. Recommended.

Publication Date: February 27, 2007 (US), Paperback; January 25, 2008 as a free e-book

Publisher: Solaris Books
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