The OF Blog: November 2007

Friday, November 30, 2007

Yet another post on reviewing epistemology

Before I resume writing the New Sun reviews, I thought I'd just make a brief post reiterating and perhaps expanding upon prior comments I have made in regards to reviewing. Some of the motivation for this comes as a direct result of my preparations for reviewing Wolfe's book, while other motivating factors come from my experiences having to write short (750-1250 word) reviews of historical monographs when I was in grad school.

Reviewing a book is an inexact science. In many ways, reviews are idiosyncratic and they reflect the reviewer's personality and his/her take on reading. While some might argue that reviews are a take 'em or leave 'em affair, many have commented on what they call a "bad" review. When I say a "bad" review, I am not talking about whether or not a book was well-written or not, but rather whether or not the work being reviewed ever really was "reviewed."

One thing that I do before I set out to write a review of any book is to do a search for other reviews of the book (especially for those that have been out for years). This is due in large part to my background in history, where I had to demonstrate an awareness of other reviews and if needed, to refer to these different interpretations when I did a review of another historian's work. In a sense, I am reading and occasionally "reviewing" the other reviews before I ever begin writing a single word of my own review.

Being aware of others' takes and the reasons why they wrote the review and what they wanted to address helps me (and hopefully, others) to focus my attention a bit. But yet sometimes, I discover reviews that do not seem to address the book at all, but instead comes across as being a plug-in template consisting of A) Plot Summary, B) Liked it/Disliked it, C) Short Wrap-up, with nary a citation for those opinions. Earlier this week, I did a search for reviews of the New Sun books. Among many fine ones (Peter Wright's review being an outstanding example, although I disagree with some of his conclusions, which I'll address at the end of my New Sun reviews) that used textual evidence to support their assertations, I came across one (no, I will not link to it, as there are many of this type out there) that gave opinion without ever citing anything from the book to support this reviewer's opinion that the work was devoid of character development.

While I certainly could provide citations to the contrary (namely, focusing on the lacunae that hints at the narrator's unreliability, the shift in style that indicates another presence within the character of Severian, etc.), that is not the point of this post. When I read the review, it was as though there was nothing there that I could readily identify as being related to that book; it was too generic. In a day and age where "spoilers" are abhorred more than ever, have we gone too far and have decided that most anything cited from a text to support the reviewer's stance on its worthiness/unworthiness constitutes "spoilers" and thus ought to be avoided?

I have caught myself falling into this trap on occasion myself. I am one who is more interested in theme than in plot (because a book with interesting themes is more likely to be re-read by me than a book with a linear plot, for example), but yet I too have found myself not tackling the books at hand vigorously enough. While there are certainly many readers (perhaps you are one, yourself) who claim that they want nothing more than just a "well, did you like it?" from a reviewer, I believe that giving an opinion without supporting that opinion with evidence is doing a disservice to the reader, not to mention to the book being reviewed.

Before I began writing this post, I did a search for tips on how to write a good fiction review. Linked here is an article that I believe contains some valuable suggestions. In particular, I want to focus on the tips at the bottom of it:
  1. Do not attempt to write the review unless you have read the book carefully and completely.
  2. Do not make general statements about the book without supporting them with specific examples or quotations.
  3. Ask a friend to read the review. A fresh eye can often catch problems with the review that you might have missed.
Too often when I have read other SF-oriented blogs, I see the second tip not being followed. I would love to see more quotations, followed by an exploration of that quote. It doesn't necessarily have to be a quote that you agree with, but it ought to be one that gives at least some "flavor" of the book being reviewed. If, using the New Sun books as an example, an author has his character reflecting upon things such as the role of symbols in shaping our lives and the character repeatedly claimed to have an eidetic memory, something in the review ought to reflect at least an awareness of whether or not that the author addresses those issues in the course of the book(s). If the book is about the subtle manipulations of perceptions and the unreliability of the narrator and the reviewer focuses on a "lack of character development" without citing examples, then something has gone wrong with that review. A straw man has replaced the novel (with its warts and all) in that commentary.

But I am not guiltless here. I too have, on occasion, failed to present the book, instead falling back on a few truisms and general statements without ever really treating the book being reviewed as sui generis. But I shall at least endeavor to do better and to approach the level of reviewing that I had to do a decade ago. A story, good or bad alike, deserves no better than to be presented on its own terms and not as a shoehorned product.

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun: The Claw of the Conciliator

In discussing some of the themes and plot developments in the first volume of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series, The Shadow of the Torturer, I took pains to insure that I did not address certain thematic elements that would reoccur in deeper and sometimes more explicit detail further in the series. So as will be my practice in the coming volumes, I will not be going further than the book read, although since this is my third time reading the series as a whole, there might be a few occasions where I slip up and discuss events out of order. So for those wanting to know more about the symbols of the rose, the fountain, and the spaceship that were found on the tomb in the first volume, I shall not discuss that at length until I review the fourth volume, The Citadel of the Autarch.

There were certain characters and situations that I did not elaborate much upon when I wrote my theme-oriented review of The Shadow of the Torturer. Before I delve much into the plot development and the possible themes embedded in The Claw of the Conciliator, I want to spend a bit of time discussing a few characters that first made their appearance in the opening book in the New Sun sequence.

Thecla, the Chateleine who once was was the Autarch's leman (in this specific example, quasi lover, as we shall see later in this volume) before being seized and brought to the Torturers because of certain papers that implicated her as being associated with Vodalus, is in many senses the half-overlooked center of this series. We only learn the basics about her torture and how the diabolical Revolutionary drove away her will to live. I did not note it in the first review, but one could make an argument that the Revolutionary serves to represent our tendency to find faults in ourselves, often to the point of us committing what many Christians might call the most insidious of the Seven Deadly Sins, that of sloth/despair. In the course of the narrative, Severian stops at the point of exploring just what were the exact effects of the Revolutionary, but based on his passing comments, the hypothesis that I presented above might be developed from it.

Thecla's personality, which later we learn is often petty and cruel, is important not so much because we "witnessed" her torture and suicide, but because of a recurrent theme in this volume, one that was hinted at earlier with Dorcas's rising from the pond: resurrection of the body. A great many of the events that occur in this volume revolve in some point around the resurrection of the body or soul, or conversely, around the decay and corruption of both body and mind.

Jonas, a companion from afar who joins Severian near the end of the first volume, is one such example. Wounded in an attack about two-thirds into this volume, Jonas's body of cells and metal represents a sort of a reverse cyborg; a machine clothing itself in human parts in order to repair some prior damage. Severian's attempts to "heal" Jonas are only partial, but this melding of the biological with the mechanical in the person of Jonas perhaps could be viewed as a metaphor for the interactions between the physical body and the spiritual soul. However, the text is ambiguous on this point and I do not have citations to present to support this point.

Jolenta, the Nessus barmaid who becomes part of Dr. Taltos and Baldanders's travelling troupe, serves as an example of this mind/body union. Altered by Dr. Taltos's arts, she has become a thing of beauty and of desire, but yet there is a sickness within that mutates from a metaphorical matter into a very real and visible disorder near the end of the book. Her façade has crumbled and what we see then is now related to what the astute reader might have perceived soon after the first encounter with her after her transformation.

Dr. Talos, that mad scientist whose skills have managed to create simulacra of life, beauty, and truth. The composer of that play near the end which serves to foreshadow the concluding two volumes of Severian's saga. The fox-like creature, so clever and so manipulative, the apparent source of so much subterfuge. I have read elsewhere that some have postulated that Talos is based on the mythological Cretan creature of bronze that guarded the island, while others have noted his role as artificer as being but an extension of this attempt to replicate life via mechanical means. I side more with this second explanation, as Talos (and by extension, Baldanders) seem at first to have goals so similar to the more mystical bringing of the New Sun (or the second blooming of life on Urth), but whose means betray their real end goals.

By now, perhaps you are weary of my digressions and wondering just why I haven't discussed the plot of The Claw of the Conciliator. While it may seem as though I have digressed and not have attempted to explore the "story" of this novel and its strengths and weaknesses, in many ways I have covered just that, albeit via those seeming detours of character study. While The Claw of the Conciliator certain can be read on the surface level as the continued travels of Severian and friends from the gates of Nessus to the outliers of Thrax, to understand why the multitude of events such as Severian's second meeting with Vodalus and what transpired there occurred the way they did means adopting some of Severian's own approaches towards telling his story.

There were quite a few lacunae in this tale. Not only does the opening chapter pick up on the other side of those colossal gates of Nessus, in the town of Saltus (some commentators have noted that since the action apparently is set in South America, that Nessus may be the corruption of Buenos Aires and Saltus may be the alteration of the Argentine province/town of Salta), but the tone of the narrative changes. The careful reader has already noted, doubtless, that while Severian's eidetic memory has left him sharing all sorts of petty little details such as the stories from the brown book from Ultan's library in Nessus that he took after Thecla's suicide and his banishment to Thrax, there is so much that he is skipping or deigning to downplay. The open lies and lies by omission that will later become a hallmark of Severian's character are more on display here.

Also, the scene about halfway into the novel where Vodalus and his associates invite Severian to partake in what Wolfe later called a "diabolical eucharist" of consuming Thecla's body while drinking an elixir from an alien creature known as the alzabo (more on that in the next volume) is a turning point in the narrative. Lies of omission or not, the Severian "voice" that we have encountered to date appears to be singular in nature, but slowly after this scene, the thoughts and personality of the consumed Thecla emerge and occasionally the "Severian" we encounter on the pages of the book is somehow different; sometimes Thecla in tone, sometimes Severian, other times an amalgamation of the two. This partaking of the body and receiving something of the mind/spirit of the deceased is a sort of a perversion, some might say, of the Catholic/Orthodox doctrine of the Real Presence of the Christ in the wine and bread consumed in the Eucharist. It certainly something whose ramifications will become more evident in the succeeding volumes.

As I said earlier, resurrection motifs abound in this volume. From the healing of the man-apes (how did those creatures evolve or perhaps devolve over time?) to the partial healing of Jonas to the nigh-useless attempt on Jolenta, the blue gem that Severian carries, the legendary Claw of the Conciliator, serves to highlight this theme of healing in the midst of death and suffering. While I will address the theme of suffering later in the fourth volume review, it bears to keep this matter in mind as one reads these volumes.

The allusion-filled play near the end that Severian, Dorcas, Jolenta, Dr. Talos, and Baldanders perform (before I forget, there are a couple of scenes that I'm purposely leaving out as I need to wait until the fourth volume to discuss them at length) serves to foreshadow what lies underneath the journey of the exiled journeyman Torturer. From the Persian names for Adam and Eve to the mention of the "dawn" of Ushas (herself a Hindu deity of the dawn), the eschatological interpretation of the New Sun is presented in a way that seems opaque at first, but which yields so much fruit once the series is complete. Since I am writing this review with those who have just finished reading The Claw of the Conciliator for the first time, I will pause here. After all, the road again is not an easy one to travel.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gene Wolfe, Book of the New Sun: The Shadow of the Torturer

The four-volume The Book of the New Sun is widely considered to be Gene Wolfe's magnus opus and it consistently ranks as one of the most highly-regarded literary works of the past 30 years. Blending elements of science-fiction and fantasy into a first-person narrative, these four volumes (The Shadow of the Torturer (1980); The Claw of the Conciliator (1981); The Sword of the Lictor (1981); and The Citadel of the Autarch (1982)) have won or been nominated for multiple World Fantasy and Nebula Awards. Filled with allusions to creation myths, Christianity, hagiography, the Cold War, etc., these books have provided fodder for all sorts of speculation as to what lay underneath the surface of the narrative.

While I will not be exploring all of these myriad speculations, I do plan on providing a few selections from the books themselves to highlight a few of the themes that may be of interest to those reading this work. In doing so, I also will endeavor to provide a plot summarization in addition to this exploration of some of the more salient themes that I detected in this series. I shall break this down by individual volume, using citations and page references for the two two-volume omnibus collections released by Tor in the United States in 1994.

The Shadow of the Torturer

The epigraph to this book holds an important clue towards one of the themes of this series, that of religious parousia (or the Second Coming) and eschatology (or the belief in the "end times" of the world as we know it):

A thousand ages, in thy sight, are like an evening gone; short as the watch that ends the night, before the rising sun.
Taken from the fourth stanza of Isaac Watts's famous hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," this epigraph highlights the religious imagery and metaphors that will appear repeatedly during the course of these four volumes, albeit many of these religious symbols will be kept to the background and the reader can enjoy the story without needing to be well-versed in Christian (and especially Catholic) theology and traditions.

The story itself begins near the end of the narrative timeline. The main character, Severian, has just finished recording a narrative of his adventures that led him from being an apprentice (later journeyman) of the ancient guild of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, more commonly known as the Torturers. Severian, who tells this tale in first-person PoV, claims to have an eidetic, or "perfect," memory. As he narrates his life from growing up as an orphan among the Torturers to his coming of age, he reveals in passing certain discoveries that will later play a role near the end of the series. Among these is his playing in the necropolis of the ancient city of Nessus and his discovery of a tomb that has etched upon it the likenesses of a rose, a fountain, and a spaceship. These shall be discussed later.

However, there is a scene at the end of the first chapter where the boy Severian receives a coin from the rebel Vodalus. Severian makes an interesting observation that will bear heavily upon the importance of the events that follow:

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life - they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all. (p. 14)
It is this self-defining of ourselves, of our surroundings, and of our "purposes" and how each affects the characters' interactions with each other and their surroundings that drives much of the action that occurs. From Severian's later acquisition of a religious relic, the legendary Claw of the Conciliator (who in presented as being an analogue to Christ although not in a direct one-to-one correlation), to how others refer to the blasted and diseased red sun of ancient Urth and the belief that one day that the Conciliator would "return" to bring a "New Sun" (literal, metaphorical, or both depending upon the person), this notion that we are defined by the symbols we choose to represent our hopes and fears is one that Wolfe returns to on multiple occasions in the course of the series.

One such example of this symbolic interplay is that of Katharine (St. Catherine of Alexandria), who is the patroness of the Torturers. From the slightly altered re-enactment of her martyrdom to the quite ironic adoption of her as being the patroness of the Torturers, the symbolic execution and the expression of faith done through such a re-enactment serve to underscore Severian's later betrayal of his guild via the forbidden showing of mercy to an exultant (high-born, genetically altered nobility on Urth) lady, the Chatelaine Thecla. It is this "betrayal," perhaps akin to some degree with the scene of Jesus and the adulteress in the Gospels, that leads to a journey of exile for Severian.

During this exile/assignation to the city of Thrax, where Severian is to be the Lictor (or executioner) in lieu of being held in hopes of a death sentence, Severian meets up with many characters, from the vengeful Agia to the monstrous Baldanders and his companion Dr. Taltos to many others. One of the more mysterious characters is that of Dorcas, who lives up to her namesake when somehow she is "revived" when Severian finds himself diving into a pond to retrieve his sword Terminus Est (more on that shortly). The latter volumes hints not just at the healing powers of the Claw of the Conciliator, but also at the tangled skein of Severian's own personal past.

When Severian was presented with the executioner's sword Terminus Est, the presentation of its meanings (line of division, this is the end) illustrates Severian's role. Not only is he the executioner of those sentenced to die, not only is he the final image of authority that the condemned see before they die, but the name itself refers to the old Roman god Terminus, the lord of boundaries. In this case, the boundary between life and death and their interrelationships with each other are symbolized with how Severian uses the sword during the course of his travels.

While I certainly could continue to narrate various symbolic actions during the course of this first volume, I want to focus instead on a discussion Severian has near the end of this book with the apparent shade/ghost/image of one of his former Masters, Malrubius:

"Severian. Name for me the seven principles of goverance."

It was an effort for me to speak, but I managed (in my dream, if it was a dream) to say, "I do not recall that we have studied such a thing, Master."

"You were always the most careless of my boys," he told me, and fell silent.

A foreboding grew on me; I sensed that if I did not reply, some tragedy would occur. At last I began weakly, "Anarchy..."

"That is not governance, but the lack of it. I taught you that it precedes all governance. Now list the seven sorts."

"Attachment to the person of the monarch. Attachment to a bloodline or other sequence of succession. Attachment to the royal state. Attachment to a code legitimizing the governing state. Attachment to the law only. Attachment to a greater or lesser board of electors, as framers of the law. Attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal."

"Tolerable. Of these, which is the earliest form, and which the highest?"

"The development is in the order given, Master," I said. "But I do not recall that you ever asked before which was highest."

Master Malrubius leaned forward, his eyes burning brighter than the coals of the fire. "Which is highest, Severian?"

"The last, Master?"

"You mean attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal?"

"Yes, Master."

"Of what kind, Severian, is your own attachment to the Divine Entity?"

I said nothing. It may have been that I was thinking; but if so, my mind was much too filled with sleep to be conscious of its thought. Instead, I became profoundly aware of my physical surroundings. The sky above my face in all its grandeur seemed to have been made solely for my benefit, and to be presented for my inspection now. I lay upon the ground as upon a woman, and the very air that surrounded me seemed a thing as admirable as crystal and as fluid as wine.

"Answer me, Severian."

"The first, if I have any."

"To the person of the monarch?"

"Yes, because there is no succession."

"The animal that rests beside you now would die for you. Of what kind is his attachment to you?"

"The first?"

There was no one there. I sat up. Malrubius and Triskele had vanished, yet my side felt faintly warm. (pp. 197-198)

This scene reveals quite a bit, not just about how Severian orders his priorities in accordance to a hierarchy of legal standards, but more about how this attachment to the Divine in the personal form not only foreshadows what occurs later, but also how it symbolizes the views that the religious have in regards to matters of faith. This concept of ordering the power relationships not only refers back to the medieval Great Chain of Being, but it can also symbolize yet again the passage that I quoted at the beginning of this post.

There will be separate posts in the coming days on each of the remaining volumes, again with a mixture of some plot occurrences and thematic elements that I perceived to be important. But as I pause, if you wish to walk no farther with me, blog reader, I (like Severian at the end of each volume) will not blame you. Discussing Wolfe's themes is no easy road.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Over at Ecstatic Days, Jeff VanderMeer's blog, Catherynne M. Valente has begun her week of guest blogging with an interesting take on an old argument. Instead of just tritely using "worldbuilding" as a sort of self-explanatory beginning, she posits instead that what most fantasy writers are engaging in is a sort of ersatz "citybuilding," with two main models being that of an imagined view of New York of decades past or of a rural, almost bucolic early 20th century Topeka-type presentation.

The city is the political unit of fantasy literature, probably because of the ostensibly medieval setting. Cities offered protection, shelter, commerce–and ideas about the countries which contained these cities were vague at best for the entry level peasant. When fantasy writers talk about worldbuilding, what they often mean is citybuilding–creating consecutive cities that might be plausibly part of the same region one after the other. But there isn’t a lot of Federalism among dwarves, if you catch my meaning. The city-state is the dominant mode, even in kingmaking dramas, where the capital is the source of power and object of urban longing towards which the kinglet travels with unrelenting focus. The epic fantasy usually bounces between several (cf. George Martin, Tolkien, et al.) with one designated as the capital and a whole lot of flyover country making up the rest of the world.

It seems to me that most of the general fantasy cities are either Not!1983NewYork or Not!1910Topeka. Let me explain. New York City is no longer the terrifying, jewel-jawed behemoth set to devour your children and get your poodle addicted to crack. It’s far more likely to force your poodle into indentured servitude in a film-turned-Broadway-musical or sell your children exclusive Metropolis-only Disney products. But New York as a model for urban fantasy is forever stuck in that darkest and dingiest Alphabet City era Big Apple, full of magical heroin, prostitutes of whatever race skeeres ya most, and enough trash to bury Minas Tirith in an avalanche of Pepsi cans and lettuce.

The other fantasy city is Topeka circa 1910–bucolic, fertile, full of basically good natured country folk with carrots to sell and ancient artifacts to undervalue. Quasi-communist, ridiculously nuclear families, and all the women baking things for adventurers instead of smashing the patriarchy.

I think this is something worth considering when it comes to the construction of cities, although part of me thinks there needs to be a more explicit admission that reader fears/expectations also play a role in how we interpret this issue. Also, it'd be interesting if we could explore at length the roles that Space and Place play in this. Perhaps that'll be something for the near future. But for now, Valente's presented something well worth considering.

Unreasonable Expectations

This is going to be a rant. I usually refrain from doing these sorts of things out of a preference for decorum and also because it has been beaten into my poor head so many times that expressing strong opinions in such a forceful way generally wounds one's position at work, relationships, etc. But screw that. It's something that's been building for a long time, both professionally and personally, and I thought I'd entertain perhaps a few dozen of you with this.

There is this growing sentiment in American (perhaps Western or even global for all I know) society that one is somehow privileged to have something delivered to them ASAP, clap two hands and they hop to it. Whether it be people bitching and moaning that the service is "horrible" because it takes an extra two minutes at the drive-in window for the fries to be cooked due to the regular ebb and flow of work or whether there's a delay in starting a sports program on time for whatever reason, etc., more and more on message boards and at the usual work gossip corners, people have just become so damn demanding and bitching.

I resigned my teaching position earlier this year in part due to the constant whining and bitching and yelling and demanding. I'm not anybody's servant and when I faced virtual daily beratement from some spoiled kids because it wasn't done their way, it just becomes a daily battle not to tell them to go pleasure themselves with a rusty piece of barbed wire up a certain orifice. A couple of times I came perilously close to crossing that line before I realized that it just wasn't worth putting up with all that shit.

But that's now part and parcel of the working conditions of my former (and perhaps future - I'm a glutton for punishment and time off makes me miss those ever shrinking moments where I actually was permitted to *gasp* teach and the kids didn't throw a fit because I wouldn't let them use their review sheets on their exams) profession. It's just something that's going to be stress-filled and full of burnout moments as long as those privileged attitudes persist.

However, it is saddening to see such demanding and spoiled brat-like attitudes seeping into our hobbies, into purported means of entertainment. Sometimes, it's those who've been bitched at who in turn end up being the worst complainers of them all, I know. I've seen it too many times with sports teams, with demands for someone to lose their job/livelihood because one group of so-called "fans" doesn't like how things are being run, regardless of the conditions that affect performance.

And now it's seeped all the way into internet book "fandom." Into that fairly small but yet rabid (emphasis on the rabid part) "fanbase" of people who seem happiest when they get to nitpick and bemoan authorial choices and especially if, heaven forbid, there are any delays in the book product reaching them. Customer is always right and all that shit, you know.

It's a bit old, you know. Those so-called "fans" who feel like because they want something that it has to be provided ASAP, no exceptions, no justifications for delayed gratification. Heaven forbid that there be more than a year's delay between authors writing/revising books. Damn those authors who are overly optimistic and believe that they could move mountains for these demanding assholes and get things done in a 9-12 month period. Sometimes, it just isn't worth putting up with the "fan's" shit, it seems.

If the average secondary-world fantasy novel contains about 200,000 words and if on average it takes about 3-6 months for the editing process before another 3-12 months goes before it can be "slotted" into a publication run that outside of maybe a few hundred books out of the tens of thousands published each year (doubtless with their own demanding assh...err, fans) will be no more than 20 thousand books....what sort of insane writing schedule would one have to be on in order to get a quality work done in that amount of time? Considering that the average royalty rate is only 10-15% on hardcovers and considering that having a print run of higher than 20K is rare, it's hard to imagine how writers could be expected to write full-time on less than $20K/book.

So most writers work other jobs, higher-paying jobs that doubtless are stressful and time-consuming as well. It always fascinates me to read Jeff VanderMeer's blog and see the number of freelancing/tie-in/editorial jobs he does while still laboring on his own original fictions. Or to read about the college teaching positions that a Jeffrey Ford or a David Anthony Durham do to support themselves while they continue to write. I cannot begin to imagine how they manage to write even hundreds of words a day while doing such positions. I know I wouldn't have the energy to do that.

But yet there are quite a few assholes out there who seem to think otherwise. Perhaps they believe that authors can crap out thousands of words a daily in their sleep. If that were possible, I wish I could have possessed that ability when I was in grad school. I was lucky if I could throw a 7,000 word researched paper together over a semester's time around my other grad school responsibilities. So I have quite a bit of admiration for those writers who can finish a 200K word novel in their lifetime, much less within a year's span.

Editing/revising is also a bitch, having been through that process on said 7,000 word (which ended up being almost 9,000 with the revisions) essay. Took me weeks to get that revised paper polished enough to get the A I desired. I can only guess that it would take at least 10 times as long, perhaps 50 times depending upon the complexity of the writing, for a revised novel to be brought up to snuff. Especially if that writer has other responsibilities that pay more.

But I suppose these are just facile justifications for someone to be "lazy" or to "break their promises" to the fans. It's almost funny reading the comments here about one particular author's book being delayed one year until April 2009. Note the outrage just oozing out of some comments there. The belief that they had been "lied" to, the belief that it "shouldn't take that long" for the writing/revising/editing of a 200K+ novel. That there's "greed" involved, somehow.

Now imagine being that poor schmuck (in general terms, not in the particular case of Patrick Rothfuss, the author referred to in that link) making at best around an entry-level sales position from the book royalties, if that. If said comments were made face-to-face, chances would run high that such a low-paid worker would just say "fuck it" and leave. It's just not worth dealing with that. And heaven forbid if anyone were to tell those asshats where they could go.

Sometimes, I think we just give too much importance to what we want and not enough consideration for the difficulties that others face. But then again, I'm not a "fan." I just read and enjoy what is available and leave the fantasies of speculation and the almost inevitable bitching and moaning about unfinished stories to others.

Maybe one day they'll remember what it's like to be on the receiving end of unreasonable expectations. But I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Author Spotlight: Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus

When I was deciding the order in which I would review the Wolfe books that I own, The Fifth Head of Cerberus was a natural starting point, not just because it is the oldest (first published in 1972) out of the books I have, but more because its style and its themes are closest in relation to the books that came afterwards. This book is actually three novellas that connect with each other in ways that might not be apparent at first to the reader, but with re-reads and a careful attention paid to the tiniest of details, these connections make for a fascinating tale.

Before touching upon the stories themselves, it would be best to keep in mind that the setting is a dual-planet system, with the twin planets of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix revolving around each other. At some point in the relatively recent past (100-200 years before the literary present), French-speaking colonists had discovered this system and they began a conflict-filled conquest of the planets, which were then inhabited by a race of shapeshifters (or so some think, although many have come to believe this is a myth based on the lack of evidence remaining as to their existence) referred to as the Annese.

The first novella, "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," introduces No. 5, a first-person narrator who
has had a strange and confusing childhood, with hints of cloning and of a hidden and altered past. As his story progresses, the tone shifts, becoming more dark and sinister, as elements from his past are slowly (and perhaps untruthfully) revealed to us. No. 5 encounters an "anthropologist" named John Marsch, who in turn plays a major role in the next two novellas. This Marsch has secrets of his own and a careful look at what he says, does, and records here and in the other two novellas brings to light many events that seem to indicate what we experience on the surface may be far from what has been happening underneath the surface narrative.

"'A Story,' by John Marsch," the second novella, touches upon a possibly true, possibly fictionalized account of the last days of the pre-Contact Annese. The characters here engage in a sort of a ritual of the quest for knowledge, with dreams and the meanings of these portants playing a major role in shaping this fable/story of betrayal and sacrifice that might have reflections in the discovery of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix by the French soon afterwards.

"V.R.T" closes the novella cycle with an ominous scene of a police interrogation of John Marsch. Based on comments recorded by the interrogator as well as clues presented in the other two novellas, the astute reader may begin to question just what is real and what is falsified about the accounts presented to us. Have the Annese truly disappeared? Are they part of "us" now, or have "we" been replaced by "them?" These are some of the questions that may arise from reading this final novella.

However, like his latter novels, there are no simple readings of these interconnected novellas. I have come across some interpretations that argue that based on how the Annese are presented throughout the novel, that the three tales could serve as a metaphor for post-colonialism and the complex interrelationships between the "colonists" and the "colonized" that are analogues with what has taken place in Africa and Asia since the mid-20th century. There is something to that, but I also would argue that these stories also concentrate on issues such as nature vs. nurture and the scope and limits of "freedom" in a complex society.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus is not easy reading for those who want a simple, direct answer to questions. But for those who are willing to puzzle over what has been written and question what has been presented, this book certainly will make for an enjoyable reading experience that promises even more upon re-reads. This certainly was the case for me, as I hadn't read it since the summer of 2003 when I first bought it. I found that I enjoyed the mysteries much more this time around than I did when I first read it and I believe it is a book that will continue to yield more of its central mysteries the more times that I read it in the coming years.

Odds and ends and links, too

Here are a few things that I have been reading tonight in an attempt to fall asleep but have yet to do so because they were so damn interesting to me:

George R.R. Martin Q&A on Entertainment Weekly

Science Fiction Award Watch's poll on best of the 2007 winners closes 11/25 at 10 PM PST (or midnight my time)

SF Diplomat being slightly undiplomatic in his insinuations regarding Neil Gaiman and his blurb endorsements

Fantasy Book News and Reviews has been experimenting with a different blog review format. I need to comment on that sooner rather than later.

Graeme and Neth have two different takes on David Keck's In the Eye of Heaven. Mine is closer to Ken's, although I shall do a re-read in January before I tackle Keck's upcoming second novel (which I have in ARC form), In a Time of Treason.

John Joseph Adams, the "Slush God" for Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, has an interesting link to a call for writers for an "escapist"-themed collection.

Pat is damned, but Paul Kearney apparently isn't any longer.

SpecLit on the economics of writing, with surprise expressed over the very low rates that authors are paid (10-15% royalty rate on hardcovers, 7.5-10% on paperbacks...if the advance is met via sales beyond a certain amount, which rarely is ever reached).

The Book Swede continues his Quote of the Week, this time with Karen Miller.

Matthew Cheney writes a review column over two movies that I want to see, in the process reminding me that there is still a lot more that can be done with reviews to make them both more personal and more universal simultaneously.

La Gringa covers everything from the latest book acquisitions/sells to the "history" of LOLCats and Happy Cat's quixotic quest.

And finally, Nick Mamatas almost scares the crap out of me, but alas! My sleeping meds have finally kicked in. Good night/day, everyone.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review of the two-volume The History of The Hobbit

Historia, the domain of the Muse Clio, can mean two things. First, it could be the "history" in the English sense of a recounting of purportedly "true" events from the past which are of some importance for the reader of that day and time. Or conversely, it can mean "story" in the sense of a narrative account which might impart something of value to its recipient.

Both meanings come into play when reading and reviewing a critical examination of an author's manuscripts. What "histories" lie buried within the layers of texts that might influence a reader's perception of a novel's evolution? What "story" or "stories" might be contained within variant texts that might impart something of depth and of added value for the reader wanting to learn more about the genesis of a favorite story?

The best scholarly writings on historical documents, whether they be of tax records or of a fictional author's manuscripts, do much more than just lay out the facts. A well-written and superbly-researched study will produce something that not only will enable a reader new to the text to garner something about that document's importance but will also give the experienced reader more to consider about how that text came into being and what meanings could be derived from considering it at angles that perhaps the reader had not done before.

John D. Rateliff's two-volume study of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit manuscripts aims to accomplish those lofty goals. Rateliff, who earned his Ph.D. at Marquette University, home of the Tolkien papers, certainly has the background for pursuing a detailed analysis of Tolkien's work, having spent years organizing the papers and assisting Christopher Tolkien with the arrangement of the papers for the latter's twelve-volume The History of Middle-Earth (HoME) series. But until now, no one had attempted a systematic approach towards examining the evolution of The Hobbit, the influences on its development, and its oft-troublesome connections with the larger Middle-Earth mythology. Christopher Tolkien declined to do this in favor of Rateliff's greater familiarity with those particular papers. This proved to be an excellent decision.

Rateliff never met the elder Tolkien, therefore while he cannot use personal conversations as a guide to interpretation as Christopher Tolkien did, he also is not shackled with those same conversations being the cornerstone of the debate. For example, his discussion of the origins of the first stage in the writing of The Hobbit reveals that Tolkien's sons had differing recollections as to when their father began that story. After presenting their comments, Ratliff then notes that due to textual clues as well as comments made by the elder Tolkien much closer to the story's publication (most notably his references to a two-year writing period when presenting C.S. Lewis with a finished draft for commentary in 1932), that the sons' belief that their father began the tale in the mid-to-late 1920s is more likely a mistake of recollection rather than their father erring in his comments made in the late 1930s. It is this fact-checking and the use of sources outside the immediate family that illustrate Ratliff's devotion to exploring every available avenue when writing about the story's genesis and the influences on it.

Speaking of said influences, Rateliff brings out things such as the unproven (or rather, mostly disproven by him, depending on how you view the evidence he presents) theory that it was due to being bitten (or "stung," as Tolkien mistakingly thought these creatures did) by a spider-like creature in his infancy in South Africa that led to the creation of Ungoliant, Shelob, and the monstrous spiders of Mirkwood. He also notes how the opening chapters reflect a certain comedy of manners expression, not to mention the possible influence that Kenneth Graham's classic The Wind in the Willows might have had on the tone and presentation of the earlier drafts, a tone which makes it into the published story.

In addition, Rateliff's division of the manuscript into "phases" related to how the character names and key details evolved makes for an easier approach. The first volume, Mr. Baggins, deals with the first and second phase (while the second volume, Return to Bag-End, deals with the final phases up through the 1960s, when an abortive revision to make it even more closely-aligned with LotR). Although the main early segments are quite familiar, from the tea party to the setting forth, there were quite a few differences that Rateliff spends much time focusing on throughout this volume, from how the wizard's (then named Bladorthin, a name which in true Tolkienian fashion appears elsewhere) physical and magical characteristics changed to what these original traits might have meant before the story evolved.

While much (electronic) ink could be wasted in detailing each of these changes and their significance, I would rather shorten matters by noting that in cases besides the ones I have already noted, Rateliff does a good job setting the stage, postulating theories as to why Tolkien chose one approach over another through the judicious use of primary (the text) and secondary (in this case, letters from Tolkien to others over the years commenting on the story's evolution). In addition, Rateliff goes beyond what Christopher Tolkien did with the twelve-volume HoME when he writes summarizations of characters and events within the chapters (which are organized based on the published The Hobbit). This makes for a more "readable" story, making it easier for the reader to not just learn things of importance about the story's evolution, but also allowing that reader to take more from the story than what otherwise would have been possible.

Are there flaws in Rateliff's approach? Of course there are. On occasion, Rateliff indulges too much in reiterating points that had been covered before. This repetition detracted a little bit from the flow of the narrative explanation, but not to the point of making me want to put down the book for a while. As a study, Rateliff's The History of The Hobbit is one of the first professional researches into that story. It presents the evidence in a clear fashion, it examines it, and it makes reasonable presumptions based on what is available in the Marquette papers. As a book for the casual reader, it is more "readable" than the twelve-volume HoME, although it too might be a bit too "academic" in places for those who want the Reader's Digest version of the story. But on the whole, I believe this to be one of the more excellent researches done into the writings of a speculative fiction author and I would be disappointed if this is not considered for some awards next year for a related study.

Publication Date: September 21, 2007 (US), Hardcover in two volumes; May 1, 2007 (UK).

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (US); HarperCollins (UK)

Semiweekly Wolfe Reviews, Best of 2007 Poll Open

By a nearly 2 to 1 margin, Gene Wolfe was the victor over Jorge Luis Borges and other authors including Umberto Eco and Gabriel García Márquez in a mini-poll about which author readers here wanted me to read/review next. So every now and then over the next month or so, I will read and review the following Gene Wolfe novels/collections that I have:

1. The Fifth Head of Cerberus

2. Shadow and Claw

3. Sword and Citadel

4. Urth of the New Sun

5. Latro in the Mist

6. Litany of the Long Sun

7. Epiphany of the Long Sun

8. In Blue's Waters

9. In Green's Jungles

10. Return to the Whorl

11. Castle of Days (collection)

12. Free Live Free

13. Innocents Aboard (collection)

14. The Knight

15. The Wizard

16. Peace

17. Strange Travelers (collection)

Reviews of Soldier of Sidon and Pirate Freedom were done earlier this year, so I will not repeat those. These reviews will be done around other reads and commentaries here and I may vary the reading from those listed above. Look for the first review in the next few days and (hopefully) others every few days afterwards.

Also, I have a new poll up listing some of the books for consideration for Best of 2007. Still many I have yet to read, plus there are a couple on that list which almost certainly shall not make my personal Best of 2007 but which have garnered much praise among readers at the various sites and blogs that I visit regularly. If there is one that you felt should have made that list but didn't, feel free to comment on that here.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Setting and Fantasy

Daniel Abraham recently participated in an informal type of symposium on secondary-world fantasy with other New Mexico-based authors such as Melinda Snodgrass and George R.R. Martin, among others. In the link above, he summarizes the discussion on setting.

In the first part of his discussion on setting as a physical entity, Abraham notes the difficulties that secondary-world (I use this in place of "epic" fantasy because it also applies to stories that most certainly do not revolve around a Heroic Quest or star larger-than-life characters) fantasies have in creating a setting that would be both unique and "familiar" to readers. While most certainly it is much easier to create a certain "tone" for a story by having it set in a concrete place/time such as the early 1960s American South or Napoleonic Era France, fantasies certainly are not obligated to recreate this sense of familiarity. One thing that Abraham does not focus on, perhaps because of the unwritten rules regarding what constitutes "secondary-world" or "epic" fantasy, is the opportunity to use the physical landscape descriptions to create a sense of "otherness." I cannot help but to think of Michael Moorcock's excellent survey of similar themes in his revised Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. In that book, Moorcock explores the use of symbolic (and often simultaneously "real") images such as ruins and desolate landscapes from the early 19th century Romantics (Keats in particular) and how these images served to create vistas that were alien in feel and appearance, but which also served to create a sense of depth of time and of place in their stories.

Moorcock in that book notes that this use of setting to create a jarring effect (something that Abraham fails to discuss in his summation, although perhaps it will be addressed in a future column) has been a driving force behind some of the more memorable fantasies. Although Lovecraft certainly would not be considered the most "literary" of fantasists, his use of imagery to create this effect of desolation, despair, and doom went a long way towards making his stories so chilling and so popular a century later. M. John Harrison is another that Moorcock discusses for this effect. His Viriconium novels, full of ruins and the diseased leftovers from the mostly-vanished Afternoon Cultures, uses these ruins, these artifacts of a mysterious past that have come to haunt the denizens of a world-weary and altered world, to not just create a sense of a xenoscape, but also to make us question if what the characters experience around them is "real" or if it is part of a hallucination related to their environs. Viriconium, while ostensibly "real," has so many layers of perception around it, that as the reader progresses through the three novels and the various short stories, one cannot help but to question if one can really "place" this Viriconium in any one locale.

Setting as place can and perhaps ought to be more than just creating a sense of familiarity. While certainly there are readers (and to be honest, perhaps there is something to the argument that those who like to read "epic" fantasy are those who want more "broken in" settings than those who read fantasies for the experiences of the strange and the unusual) who view setting as being the establishment of a physical sense of "solidity," I believe there is much more that can be done with setting in a fantasy. If a setting also can evoke emotional attachments or deal with matters of time as well as with place, perhaps fantasies, with their explicit focus on the matters that cannot happen (or could never have happened in the past) here on this earth, could and maybe ought to utilize the jarring effects of "otherness" to create a milieu that is vivid precisely because we have to question the "ground rules" constantly in order to understand it.

Abraham's second part to setting, that of Setting as Milieu, concerns itself with the apparent conservatism of both the readers and the writers. When a setting (or "world," if you may) is established, there does appear to be this sense that it is somehow "independent" of the stories told to date within it. From those who ponder the fates of the "blue wizards" of the Istari that never appeared in person in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to those who write fan fictions dealing with Hogwarts, readers of secondary-world fantasies do tend to view this setting as being more than the sum of its story appearances. Abraham makes a good argument for this appeal being the combination of two seemingly contradictory impulses: The appeal of fantasy settings as being "new" and "different" from the world around us, but with the added sense of "familiarity" or "returning to home" with each additional volume.

There is indeed something to that argument. But I think it could be explored in more detail further in another writing. What are the sociological implications of readers wanting to immerse themselves in a fictional experience that have settings that become increasingly "familiar" and perhaps even more desirable than "the real world" with each passing volume? How does this relate with other trends in fantastical/speculative fictions where the lure of setting is to jar one from a sense of comfort or familiarity, to force that reader to consider things that are alien in nature? Those are just a few of the many questions that can and ought to be raised from a consideration of the uses and implications of setting in secondary-world fantasies. Abraham makes a good opening round for discussion here with this point. Hopefully others will take his points, question them, and perhaps come up with new vantages upon which we can continue to explore its influence on our experiences with these type of fictions.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Simply the Best

L.E. Modesitt has complained about there being just too many damn categories within fiction and perhaps too many damn "best of" categories to boot. He then goes on to imply that the decline of Western Civilization (no, not the punk movie of that name) or more specifically, the decline in reading, is somehow directly related to there just being too many damn divisions of fiction.

While at another time, I might half-agree with the notion that genre divisions are little more than marketing tools, this time I just cannot help but to disagree. And since choosing a "Best of" is by its nature a very subjective thing and since there are quite a few worthy "flavors" out there that are being recognized by writers and critics in many fields/genres, I thought I'd close this short thread with a simple video:

Be thankful - I had considered finding one of those beer commercials for "so here's to you, Mr. I put on too much cologne" or something along those lines. But I think Tina might be better on the eyes and ears...

Beowulf: Hal Duncan style

The images he uses to create his own take on filming the classic gest is quite amusing. Highly recommended for people here, even if you are wary of being sucked into a long Scottish monologue...

Sturm und Drang, FTW!

Although I am also reading a few other works that are much more closely aligned with "speculative fiction" concepts, I have found myself reading Friedrich Schiller's classic 1787 play Don Carlos. While I know that many place this work more in the Weimar Classicist movement of the 1780s-1805 period, in many ways I cannot help but notice quite a few strands lingering from the 1760s Sturm und Drang. For those of you confused as to why I'm posting this here rather than on Vaguely Borgesian, bear with me here.

Based on the troubled and sometimes twisted relationship between King Phillip II of Spain and his malformed and mentally disturbed son Carlos, there are many elements in here to which believe fantasy/SF readers (and writers, of course) ought to pay close attention, as Schiller manages to create a host of internal and external conflicts and to execute them brilliantly through the first three Acts (I hope to finish reading this tomorrow, but I felt inspired to write a brief bit tonight).

Schiller lays it out very early on: Carlos had been promised the hand of the daughter of the King of France, but Daddy Dearest, dearly missing his dead wife and not finding any suitable Habsburg cousins worthy of his connubial desires, gets the French King (I forget which one, perhaps Francis II, but it's during the troubles of the 1560s before Henri IV) to agree to having his daughter marry him instead of his son. Carlos, already fucked in the head due to a whole shitload of bad genes preserved via centuries of Habsburg incestual (uncle/niece, first cousin marriages) habits, goes all emo on Philip. Schiller here does a good job of highlighting the morbid obsession that Carlos bears for his step-mom while still giving enough foreshadows of the events to come to make it clear that Carlos might be missing a few cards in his mental deck.

Although I have a German original, I have also been relying upon a Project Gutenberg translation to aid me in my reading. While certainly not literal (in some cases, my rough renderings back into English were more poetic, albeit of a different style than what was employed for this old translation of Schiller's play), it makes it clear that Schiller wanted to capture the emotional conflicts not just between Carlos and Phillip, but also between Carlos and the Duke of Alva, with whom there was some form of rivalry, although much of this has to be laid at the feet of Carlos and his increasing paranoia.

So far, the play is outstanding and in a time when I'm wishing that there were SF authors that would have the gumption and the talent to create such marvelously disturbed but yet fascinating characters, I cannot help but to recommend Don Carlos as one example of a style of writing that certainly could be introduced into SF in order to broaden its palette.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Jay Tomio has a very interesting post in regards to the newest wave of SF bloggers that have emerged over the past six months or so. He gives some excellent advice (among many other thought-provoking comments) about the need to find one's own voice and the perils of seeking "validation" from others.

Even before reading his post, I had similar thoughts. I have been blogging for over three years now, but it took me almost that entire time to decide what direction this blog ought to be. I originally created it to be an extension of wotmania's Other Fantasy section, with links to discussions there and elsewhere that might appeal to that well-defined core audience as well as to others browsing the web or seeing a link to the blog in my posts on other forums. Back then, it was maybe an occasional article here, the rare review there, the odd interview over there. But there was no "voice" to it until more regular posts, the vast majority of them reviews of recent books, began to be crossposted here back in June.

I have reviewed over 50 books here (some only in brief paragraphs) in the past year. At first I thought it would be cool to review something first, to be the one who "broke" this book/author to a new audience. To be a "pimp" and get the accessories, like the ARCs and the interviews. But then I found myself wanting to discuss those books that aren't getting a major push. Maybe they are too "artsy-fartsy," or perhaps the publisher doesn't have the money to spare for a mass mailing of books to interested reviewers. But maybe there is something to those books, some of which are years old, that will appeal to me and perhaps I could mention them in hopes that another could give them a loving home.

While it is nice to receive freebies and to promote the "next big thing," that is not what I am about when I write reviews. I am interested in how the books are structured. Lately, I've started to believe that perhaps I need to be even more assertive with my own unique voice in this. Too often, people complain of "spoilers" when a snippet of a text is quoted to illustrate a purpose. I think listening too much to these people has crimped my preferred style of examination. So, depending on the book being read, there might be more "spoilers" of that sort, where there is a closer examination of the text.

I have been toying with the notion of creating a "rubric" of sorts, similar to how essays are evaluated, for the evaluation of the novels I am reading. But since I am so against visible "grades," it might take a different form or perhaps I'll use the criteria without giving the "scores" I assigned for each. It'll be an experiment, but perhaps it'll help me in developing my own voice.

After all, the only "validation" I need is my own take on what I have created and how much desire I have for exploring new approaches while reading new works.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Author Spotlights

In addition to reading/reviewing dozens of 2007 releases, I have been very busy this year reading and re-reading some beloved favorites from the past few years (for a list of the books read through November 10, click on the links above). Some of these authors I'm tempted to do a very special read-through for the last six weeks of 2007 and into 2008.

For a poll lasting through 11/25, I have listed some of the authors I am considering. I forgot to add in the possibility of doing a series of reviews of some of these authors' works that I own: Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, among those for whom I have at least 5 novels' worth of stories. All you have to do is vote in the poll or, in the case of the three authors I've mentioned above, respond to this post with your votes.

Depending on who is chosen, sometime around the end of this month and going for a few weeks at a time, I will review one novel and/or collection of stories each weekend. I figure that in a day and age in which new readers are not as aware of those authors who have influenced their favorite authors, it might be worthwhile on occasion to promote those authors which I personally think are worthy of discussion. But since I often have difficulties in making up my mind when several excellent choices are available, I thought it'd be nice to let the (few) readers here have a say in the process.

So vote early and vote often?

Review of Jeffrey Overstreet's Auralia's Colors

Oppressed kingdom. Mysterious orphan girl found, raised by outsiders. Girl possesses magical abilities that might threaten the kingdom with anarchy...or freedom. Scads of beasts, harrowing flights, big dust-up at the end of volume. Sound familiar and/or derivative?

If one were to go only by the form and not the substance of the tale, one might conclude that Jeffrey Overstreet's debut fantasy novel, Auralia's Colors, is just yet another Tolkien-by-the-numbers. But that would be doing an injustice to Overstreet's novel here, as while there are indeed certain points in common with not just Tolkien but also Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels, Overstreet does offer enough in the way of his own personal touches to make this a worthwhile read.

The plot is a fairly simple one, yet Overstreet executes its unfolding quite well. The kingdom/House of Abascar is under siege from the fearsome Beastmen. Within, the king has begun to oppress those who do not conform to his policies. Included in this is the banning of all magical items that might literally bring colors to life within his increasingly drab and color-free realm. Those who display such talents are to be either exiled outside the House's walls or must demonstrate some degree of usefulness to the king. Naturally, Auralia has this forbidden talent, but with a twist of having more command and colors about her than those around her. As she grows into her power, she comes into conflict with the king and his family, leading to a series of events that ends in an explosive affair that ends the first of apparently four novels in this series.

Auralia's story is told via a third-person omniscient narrative voice. Overstreet uses a very visual approach towards telling his story, as it seems he tries to imbue each scene and character with its own colorful approach. Almost poetic in feel, at times this strong narrative voice helps to carry the plot during those times when the usually-interesting characters become a bit too stale for my own liking.

There are also some possible religious themes contained within this post. The press release and the book blurbs hyped Overstreet's role as a movie reviewer for Christianity Today and there are scenes within the novel that could be taken as allegorical representations of religious themes. However, one would have to be looking hard for these themes to see them as being crystal clear, as the story stands well on its own, with the religious symbolism being but a nice ornament to highlight certain statements contained within the body of the text. The story certainly is one that is intriguing, although at times the distance created by the exclusive use of the third-person omniscient PoV weakened its appeal for me. In the end, I believe that Auralia's Colors is a decent to good start to a series, but not necessarily a great one in the making. Mild recommendation for all readers to sample.

Publication Date: September 4, 2007 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Waterbrook Press (Random House)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Review of Gene Wolfe's Pirate Freedom

Avast ye mateys! Batten down yer hatches and raise the Jolly Roger, ye landlubbers!

Or some stupid shit like that. Despite reading and mostly enjoying Treasure Island as a kid, I never really have given a rat's ass about pirates, pirate lingo, or just anything really related to pirate adventures. Generally, things such as Talk Like a Pirate Day or the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have left me feeling rather cold and disinterested. Too many clichés and never really anything in those stories and creations that make me care. I feel so claustrophobic at the thought of being trapped on a leaky ship for months at a time, with so little room to walk around, which might explain why I generally do not care for sea novels and especially for the pirate stereotypes that seem to abound in such tales.

So when I learned that Gene Wolfe's latest novel would be called Pirate Freedom, I could not help but to feel some trepidation, despite Wolfe's penchant for taking the most tired of clichés (such as the young boy/Quest story that he deconstructed in his The Wizard-Knight duology) and tweaking them and then skewering them with unreliable narrators and ambiguous chronologies. But after finishing Pirate Freedom, I found that fear to be mostly misplaced.

Pirate Freedom contains many different elements somehow fused into a coherent narrative. From a time-travel episode that is never explained to an adjustment to life at sea in a different time to a stormy romance to some questions of identity, this novel contains so many elements that a reader of Wolfe's previous works would come to expect in a novel of his. But this may be more of a double-edged sword than the cutlasses employed by several characters in the novel.

Father Christopher is the narrator of this story. Writing after the fact, he tells of his youth in passing (his family's "business" becomes ever more murky as the story progresses and he reveals certain things his father has taught him), how he became a monastic novice in Cuba, and how one day he walks out with a priest and leaves the early 21st century for the 17th Caribbean world. Readers of Wolfe's previous novels this decade, especially the two Able novels that comprise The Wizard-Knight, cannot help but to think that this unexplained time travel covers up something else that is transpiring under the surface.

The 17th century world that young Crisofóro (as he's often called by the people around him) is not the monolingual one so often presented in naval/pirate adventure stories. Wolfe does an excellent job of recreating the feel of a multilingual Caribbean world, where a patois of Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and West African languages and cultures were merging to create societies that operated on the fringes of European colonial rule. Christopher's experiences with domestics, traders, buccaneers, and eventually with pirates in some ways one of the most "true" of historical stories set in this milieu that I have encountered yet.

But yet there are those lacunae which Wolfe uses so often in his stories. How exactly did Christopher rise to become a captain? Just who are these people around him, particularly that one person in the city of Veracruz? What is Christopher leaving out and what is he outright lying about? These questions arise during the course of the novel and they create tensions that allow for the ending to be a powerful one.

The story here was very good and the conclusions, nebulous and as twisting as an Ouroboros, ought to leave the reader dwelling on the possible implications of the story and what was missed the first time through. For those unfamiliar with Wolfe's writing and modus operandi, this might be one of the more refreshing and challenging books that they have read. But for those of us such as myself who have read dozens of Wolfe's novels and short fiction, the good qualities of Pirate Freedom are tempered by an awareness that so many plot devices have been recycled from Wolfe's prior novels.

From the now almost-predictable use of the unreliable first-person narrator to how close Christopher's motivations and speech patterns mirror those of Able (and to a lesser extent, Latro), the astute reader familiar with Wolfe's other works might find him or herself predicting (as I did on occasion), "Ah, I suspect that we'll learn that ____________ is not who he/she is, but instead will be ________________." While on occasion my predictions were wrong, too often they were too close to being correct for me to feel the full wonder of this tale that I might have experienced if I had not been so familiar with Wolfe's previous works. However, while this detracts only a little bit from my overall enjoyment of the story, it does lead me to rank this just a little bit lower than Wolfe's Soldier novels and a tad higher than his The Wizard-Knight series. Highly recommended for readers, but with a caveat to those well-read in Wolfe's writings not to expect more than just more of the same.

Publication Date: November 13, 2007 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher: Tor

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Review of Rafael Ábalos's Grimpow

Young Adult (YA) literature has enjoyed a boom period following the phenomenal success of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Publishers who earlier might have marketed a story either for younger children or would "dress it up" a bit for a more "adult" audience found themselves with a burgeoning market and an audience insatiable for stories that would resonate with them like Harry and Friends did. Over the past seven years, rarely does a year go by without some publicist or publisher proclaiming "the next Harry Potter" is about to be released.

However, the YA audience is a very fickle one. As even the last three Harry Potter releases have shown, a sizable amount of those buying these books are adults, but that there is still a sizable percentage of those reading YA fictions that are between the ages of 8 and 12, or those now labelled as "pre-teens" in various marketing categories. Considering how amorphous this "Young Adult" label is, how does an author go about writing a story that has enough of an appeal to those 14 and over without alienating the 8 to 12 age group? A great many works have failed because it leans too much to one side or the other in this volatile mini-generational split where each year often brings a vastly different approach to life as well as shifts in reading preferences.

One of the latest entries into this YA market is a book from Spain. Rafael Ábalos, a lawyer by training, his first book for young readers, Grimpow: The Invisible Road, in 2005. This book starring a "chosen one" boy around 12-13 years of age in the early 14th century quickly became an international bestseller, topping some charts in Spain and Italy, before the book was released here in the United States back in October. When reading this book, I could not help but to think of another Spanish author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind), who began as a YA author before writing one of the best books translated into English back in 2004.

Grimpow: The Invisible Road is a medieval mystery. The title character, Grimpow, is an orphaned boy of around 12 or 13 years of age living in 14th century France. Living an itinerant life under the tutelage of a sometime-thief named Durlib, Grimpow and Durlib one day discover the body of a murdered man, whose clothing and possessions mark him as a person of importance. In the dead man's right hand, a polished stone is held. After Grimlow takes it, he begins to see visions and to be able to understand all written languages, quite remarkable for an illiterate youth of the High Middle Ages. There is also a scroll containing some mysteries that leads Grimpow on a road that takes him through some of the more tumultuous events in 14th century France that had such a great historical impact.

It is hard to decide how best to approach reviewing this book's strengths and weaknesses, as much of what made it an enjoyable read for myself might make it a frustrating read for someone younger and not as inclined to be fascinated by the historical backdrop. While I would have loved to have received this book in the original Spanish in order to determine how much of the style was Ábalos and how much was the work of his translator, Noël Baca Castex, there were times when the talk was perhaps a bit too formal for the 8 to 12 subset. However, the talk about religion, reason, and the secrets of the Templars (ever a popular theme these days, as readers of writers as diverse as Umberto Eco and Dan Brown can attest) make for a compelling read for those of us north of that 12 year-old group. Ábalos has developed an engaging character in Grimpow, one who is curious but is not too intrusive or too obnoxious; a perfect character for us to look into his world as if he were a window to this time period. The pacing is done pretty well over 480 pages and the glossary of terms at the end will assist those who perhaps are not up on their medieval cultural and social history.

There is one potential trouble area for some readers. As Grimpow and a friend work feverishly to solve a puzzle involving a treasure of the Templars, there is the insinuation about religion that might make the more conservative/orthodox readers uneasy. There are no open or direct attacks on the institution of religion, but there is an undercurrent that might make this unsuitable in the minds of parents who would rather their children wait until their teen years before dealing with certain doctrines of the faith. However, this is not a flaw in the book as much as a personal choice of the author that does tie in quite well with the purpose of the story.

Overall, Grimpow: The Invisible Road is a book that might be better suited for those over the age of 14 than for those under the age of 12 (and I purposely left out 13 year-olds, as some of them are complete aliens to me after three years of teaching middle school social studies! Just teasing...a little bit). It is, for the most part, well-written and I think it would make for a challenging but enjoyable read for middle school-aged children and beyond. Recommended, with slight reservations related to age level.

Publication Date: 2005 (Spain, Italy), October 9, 2007 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher: Delacorte Press (Random House)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Review of Sarah Monette's The Bone Key

Sarah Monette has had a busy past few months. The August 7th release of her third book in The Doctrine of Labyrinths quadrilogy, The Mirador, and the mid-October release of a collaborative novel with Elizabeth Bear, A Companion to Wolves, might be enough to satisfy virtually any fan, but now she has pulled off the publishing hat trick. A few weeks ago, after a two month delay, her collection of stories starring Kyle Murchison Booth was published by Prime Books as The Bone Key.

The Bone Key contains ten interconnected stories written between 2000 and 2006, most of them first appearing in various online and print publications such as Lovecraft's Weird Mysteries and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror XX. These stories star a mild-mannered and sometimes maladroit museum curator named Kyle Murchison Booth who, after a necromantic experiment, has found himself able to see supernatural creatures. However, this goes both ways and Booth finds himself having encounters ranging from a possessive dead guardian of a cursed necklace to a demonic love interest.

Ghost stories are among the most ubiquitous of tales. The intrusion of the spectral into our mundane world, the interposition of the strange and the familar; these create tensions that make people sit on the edges of their seats as they listen or read on for the next instance of the things that go bump in the night. Monette, with her academic background in Elizabethan era dramas, especially those involving ghosts, captures that sense of "what's going to happen next?" in these stories. Having such a mild-mannered and awkward character such as Booth allows Monette to create all sorts of dramatic tensions due to the juxtapositions of the likable but non-threatening Booth with these haunting ghouls and other creatures from the other side of the veil of life.

Compared to her novels, the stories found within The Bone Key are more "accessible" for the average reader. Since the average reader, if such a term as "average" ever really applies to a living person, will have had some exposure to ghost stories, it is much easier to "lose" oneself into these stories. While Booth's stories are told via a first-person PoV (in part to ratchet up the tension, since he himself does not know what comes next), he is a more "likable" character than say a Felix or a Mildmay might be for those unfamiliar with Monette's novels. It is much easier to sympathize with him, especially in "Elegy for a Demon Lover." Combine that with the recognizable surroundings and this is a recipe for memorable and spine-chilling stories. Highly recommended for all readers.

Publication Date: October 16, 2007 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Prime Books

Review of Jo Walton's Farthing

Alternate histories often give me the heebie-jeebies. While certainly the brand of speculative fiction that comes closest to our "real world," I still have much of the professional historian in me, making it difficult for me to read alternate histories without resorting to my academic training. Examining a writing as a text and seeking out every single flaw or failure to elaborate upon questions raised by the methodological approaches can take much of the joy of reading out of these works. And when the alternate history at hand touches so much upon my own area of specialization, the Nazi era (although to be honest, I concentrated on religious/cultural history of the late Weimar/pre-WWII Nazi period in Germany), it makes it difficult for me to believe that the author can construct a plausible tale without resorting to distortions or obvious references to "our" history of that time period.

So it was a great relief to see that for the most part, Jo Walton manages to avoid those pitfalls in her opening novel to an alternative history trilogy set in Great Britain. This novel, the Nebula-nominated Farthing, smartly eschews (at least for this opening book in the trilogy) examining the "what if" possibilities too much at depth. The reader learns very quickly that in this setting, Great Britain and Nazi Germany came to a peace agreement "with honor" in 1941, eight years prior to the beginning of the story. Winston Churchill failed to stop a "peace party" from arising in his party and the architect of that peace deal, Sir James Thirkie, assumes control.

But when the story begins, Thirkie is found dead, stabbed to death, with the dagger pinning down a yellow star akin to those the Jews of the Nazi-occupied lands were forced to wear. The body is discovered by an English Jew named David Kahn and this leads into an investigation into the murder that quickly seems to implicate the highest officials of the British government.

Walton tells this murder mystery using two perspectives: the first-person PoV of Lucy Kahn, David's wife who is the black sheep of her family for marrying a Jew, and Scotland Yard inspector Peter Carmichael. It is their interactions amid a backdrop of whispered accusations about Bolshevik terrorists, nefarious Jewish plots, and even more sinister accusations about certain characters that makes Farthing rise above the mechanistic "what if" scenario playing that often passes for alternate history. What happens in a world where one country knows that it exists at the whim of another? How would that affect political and social views? How did one democratic nation slide forward willingly into authoritarianism? And can it happen again?

These are but some of the questions that underlie the plot developments in Farthing. In just over 300 mass-market paperback pages, Walton poses these questions without being too direct, instead allowing the characters to raise them in a "natural" setting amid the cloak-and-dagger events that transpire during the story. Lucy and Carmichael have distinct voices and ways of approaching the world, and it is their personalities that make it easier to let go of what one knows of the past and to instead see the historical backdrop as being anything but inevitable or, conversely, false.

But yet the story does on occasion resort to the rather simplistic device of hinting at what we already "know" has happened elsewhere: the reports of the Jewish factory workers and their "disappearances," as well as the occasional mention of "gas" only served to break the spell for me and to remind me just how difficult it is to maintain a simulacrum of history. But despite this slipping of the metaphorical mask on occasion, Farthing was one of the better alternate histories of this fascinating and often horrifying time period that I have read. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: August 8, 2006 (US), Hardcover; August 28, 2007, Paperback.

Publisher: Tor
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