Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Daniel Abraham - The Dragon's Path

My review of Daniel Abraham's The Dragon's Path is now up at Strange Horizons.

The format of this review's a bit different from my other reviews at the site, in that I and another reviewer - the perceptive and articulate Maria Velazquez - each appear in the same post with our views, creating a double review of sorts that has thrice the insight of any other review. As for what we focus on, I spent most of my piece on the characters while blithely dismissing aspects of the world that Ms. Velazquez then went on to reveal all sorts of damning implications about, none of which I'd ever considered. Our impressions couldn't be much more different, but that's no doubt the point of us being jammed together, so head on over and take a look.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta

On the surface, extra hours of game play for Fallout 3 seems like quite the good thing. I've made three characters so far, two of which reached quite a high level, and, though I haven't yet seen everything, I certainly wouldn't mind a brand new area to explore. As it turns out, though, I won't be finishing Mothership Zeta. Why not? Well, as it turns out, Bethesda seems to have completely missed out on everything that made their game enjoyable in the first place.

Fallout 3 is a game about choices. What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of quests do you want to take? How do you want to accomplish them? Mothership Zeta, on the other hand, is a linier shooter almost entirely devoid of choices and utterly bereft of characters. The story and freedom are as follows: you shoot aliens. The aliens don't speak anything but gibberish, and the woman you're locked in with at the beginning is so bland that she might as well be mute as well. You meet a door opening child that never says anything worth hearing soon enough, and after that all that's left is your meeting with a samurai, a soldier, and a cowboy. Bethesda's certainly proven they can make surprising and quirky characters work, but your only options here are to listen to their generic backstories and then go shoot aliens or to just ignore them and go shoot aliens. My god, the flexibility's astounding!

But alright, maybe it's a good shooter level. I liked the first few Halos, after all. But, of course, it's not a good shooter level. This is Fallout 3, not Halo, and Fallout 3's combat system is, to be blunt about it, rather awful. The selection of weapons is pitiful – you have a shock stick that kills just about everything in one hit, a gun, and a better version of that gun – and there's no variety to be had in the enemies. The level design consists of quasi-identical corridors. The objectives are all of the Kill stuff, go there, and push a button/kill stuff variety.

Mothership Zeta is, essentially, a showcase for the game's combat system that seems to have forgotten that nobody plays Fallout for the combat. I don't think I'm more than halfway through, but, instead of getting farther, I think I'll be loading an earlier save and never going back to the monotonous captivity that is Mothership Zeta.

[And an unrelated note: this week's review will be on Wednesday, due to Strange Horizon's publication schedule]

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cherie Priest - Boneshaker

In 2010, Boneshaker was nominated for a Hugo. From the outside, this seems to make a great deal of sense. Boneshaker is packed to the gills and beyond with promise. Our story focuses on a meticulously created alternate history Seattle, a world of an extended Civil War and steam technology, of gas-created zombies and the hellishly created and walled in ground zero where they roam. This is a story of mad science and horror, airships and ingenuity, with its characters on a quest to – to quote the back – rewrite history. Unfortunately, not only does every single one of those elements fail to live up to its full potential, but the book is a meandering mess that manages to be significantly less than its parts. Perhaps some of my disappointment comes from the book's prestige, and its failure to live up to it, but I just can't escape the feeling that I read a weak first draft of the brilliant manuscript everyone else got.

The book's opening is a harbinger of what's to come. When discussing how to determine the proper opening of your manuscript, James D. MacDonald says : Another way to say this is: it's the point where the characters can't decide, To heck with this and order out for pizza. The one-way door has blown shut and they can't get back into the theatre. Going by that definition, Boneshaker starts at least a few dozen pages too early. We begin with a history lesson disguised as a prologue disguised as a chapter in a fictional book. There, Priest conveys her fascinating backstory in the most expository way possible. To cut everything short, we learn that resident insane genius Leviticus Blue used his newly-created drill to tunnel under the Seattle streets and rob the city blind. While doing so, he went a bit too low, and a strange gas rose from the ground, killing and then reanimating its victims.

The narrative – though not yet the story by any means – then picks up with a journalist coming to speak with Blue's widow, Briar, and son, Zeke, many years after the disaster. Mind you, however, that you won't know the characters are Blue's family for quite some time. Instead, we discuss the family's other notorious figure, Maynard, who emptied the prison as the gas spread to allow the convicts to escape. Like many of the novel's characters, there's the feeling that Maynard is supposed to be morally ambiguous, but anyone who believes Maynard should have left the convicts to die likely believes that speeding, possession, and insults should all be hanging offenses. Once the reporter leaves, we see Briar and Zeke live their lives, and Briar go to work, all without a hint of their circumstances changing. That being said, on an emotional level, this might be the book's strongest section, in large part because it's one of the very few times that Priest lets her characters breathe, and the relationship between Briar and Zeke is distant and well portrayed.

When the plot does finally get moving, Blue's son, Zeke, makes his way into the walled city to try and clear the names of Blue and Maynard. Not willing to see her son in so much danger, Briar follows him beyond the walls into what's so far been built up as certain death. In actuality, of course, the walled city is not certain death. To be honest, it's not all that threatening at all and is, of course, inhabited by far more than zombies, or, as Priest calls them, rotters. First off there're the criminals there to make lemon sap, a drug created from the blight gas. Then, there are the racially homogenous Chinamen, few of which are named and fewer of which are characterized in any way. Finally, there're the folks who, for reasons all but inexplicable, have chosen to stay.

Once behind the walls, Blue and Zeke begin the process of meandering. In Briar's mind, Zeke is a tough and independent boy. Up until we get in its head, it seems she's right. After all, he did get past the wall, even if doing so is rather easier than one might expect. The moment we see him, however, Zeke bumps into the first of the inner city dwellers, a man named Rudy. Though Rudy is obviously untrustworthy, Zeke decides to follow him to and beyond the point where he knows Rudy is taking him in the wrong direction, to and beyond the point where another character comes right out and shouts Rudy's secret agenda to the world. Put simply, Zeke is a naïve puppy led to the clearly marked slaughterhouse by a single stale treat held by a stranger in blood-drenched clothes.

Like many of Boneshaker's faults – such as the subversion of expectations within the city – Zeke's innocence seems almost intentional. Perhaps Priest was just using Briar as an unreliable narrator, and Zeke's not independent at all outside of his mother's biased eyes. Such an interpretation, however, runs into trouble when the reader reads Briar's chapters behind the wall, for the problem is not just with Zeke. No, Priest's dominant mode of storytelling is simply a character blundering around until they bump into a stronger character (plot device?) that drags them off in a more interesting direction. That formula holds true for just about every on screen plot development in the entire book. This is a book full of motion and devoid of decision, a fast pace with no progress, a marathon runner on a treadmill.

But are the characters at least interesting? Many a novel, after all, has been able to make up for an undirected plot by virtue of those experiencing it, not least of them Steampunk/New Weird juggernaut Perdido Street Station. Alas, the answer is no. Neither Briar nor Zeke grow after the first display of their bond. The two display an almost herculean ability to remain absolutely unchanged by circumstances and revelations alike. The minor characters are on the same level and utterly lacking in depth, each owning no more than one or two attributes. Clearly, Priest was going for the menagerie off the edge school of strange sights and characters, but the problem is that most of her cast isn't fascinating, just shallowly abnormal and, above all, uninteresting.

That's not to say, however, that she can't imbue a character with promise. Swakhammer is introduced as a warrior in a gigantic metal suit, described as a man speaking through a helmet that gave his face the shape of a horse's head crossed with a squid. […] It was as if someone had taken a suit of armor and made it into a jacket. (p. 150) His every aspect, from his strange technology to his italicized dialogue, is clearly designed to set him apart. As soon as he removes his mask, however, he reveals a personality so bland he might as well have been an automaton for all the emotion he evokes. A worse disappointment by far, however, is Minnericht, the mad inventor who's taken over much of the blight. After being touted as a wasteland king by the rest of the cast, and after questions that he might be Blue returned, he instead turns out to be... *drum roll* yet another megalomaniacal villain, a baddie that must be dealt with by bullets after what little mystery he has is wrung out by the most improbable of coincidences and the most deflating of reveals.

Don't go away thinking that that's the only disappointing answer to an intriguing question, however. Almost every one of the novel's grand mysteries is similarly executed by a perfunctory and expository answer, with Priest managing to strike a balance between explaining away every hint of wonder and still somehow having everything make absolutely no sense. Why did the citizens build a wall instead of simply building a cover for where the gas was leaking out? Why is nobody else in the country even remotely interested by the presence of the damned undead? Why did the rotters listen to Minnericht? If there were only two ways into the city, and one was destroyed, why does nobody seem to care? For that matter, why was the only man on the path into the city an aged and unimportant defector? Why haven't the rotters starved in their nearly two decades of quasi-isolation? And on, and on, and on the inconsistencies go.

In her afterword, Priest defends the changes she's made to history and then writes: I realize that the story is a bit of a twisted stretch, but honestly—isn't that what steampunk is for? (p. 416) Well, no, I don't think that's what it's for at all. Speculative Fiction, in my mind, does not exist merely to make changes, but to make a point with those changes, whether that point be a thematic one or just an innovative way to convey a fantastic tale. Boneshaker does none of that, lacking not only a coherent theme but also a coherent plot. This is, as far as I can see, a sightseeing tour missing any particularly original or notably thrilling things to see. No, Boneshaker is not abhorrent, but its every element is either disappointing or uninteresting, and I see no reason why it ever came within spitting distance of the Hugo.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Publication v2

What could possibly shift my focus from A Dance with Dragons the very week of its release? Not much. In fact, just about the only thing I can think of is a publication. And, on that note, The Metamorphosis of Jane Doe will be appearing in Linger Fiction come August.

Yeah, in case you can't tell, I'm pretty fucking thrilled.

Friday, July 15, 2011

George R.R. Martin in New York City

When rumors of Martin's arrival spread through the crowd, a standing ovation began. This one stopped quickly, as the rumors turned out to be rather exaggerated, but after another false alarm or two we greeted the man himself with applause, hooting, and shouts of KING IN THE NORTH. Martin talked for about forty minutes, answering questions for half of it and opened with "See, I really was working on it" while holding Dance up. I'll admit I took no notes, so I'm representing the questions in the order that I remember them, and everything's paraphrased unless explicitly quoted.

Throughout, you could tell that Martin was proud of his work, and deservedly so, but he was never arrogant or pretentious and mentioned the familiar but endearing story of the signing he held after the release of A Game of Thrones were the only four people in the store left as he began to speak, earning him an attendance of negative four. 

Of course, the first two things he tackled were the delay on this book and the feared wait for the next. He discussed the split, which most readers here no doubt know most of the details of, and mentioned that a part of the reason he split the characters up as he'd did was that he'd written far more for some perspectives than others. After that, he thought Dance would be fast, having already had enough finished manuscript pages to equal Feast. Alas, many of those were either discarded and revised, and the book proved a third longer (in manuscript form) than Feast.

As for the next book, and the length of the series, Martin would give no promises. He hopes soon, and he hopes no more than seven volumes, but we'll have to wait and see on both accounts. "It will be done when it's done," he said, to a fair bit of applause. Before Winds of Winter, he'll write – and revise and revise and revise – the fourth Dunk and Egg novella and work on the world book, which should likely be coming out next year and might help salve the long wait for the sixth volume. There's also a potential Cookbook of Ice and Fire on the way as well, courtesy of the female duo who're preparing the various meals described in the series here. George, "more an eater than a cook," was presented with a dinner that sounded rather scrumptious at the start of the event.

Martin said that the fans in attendance could be divided into three categories: those with him since the beginning, those who read after watching the show, and those who watched but never read. (I suppose that I, having come to the series at the tail end of '08, am in group 1.5.) About the show, he had nothing but praise and said that he "loved" it and the experience of seeing his work adapted. That being said, he cautioned us, particularly about season's two Battle of the Blackwater, to remember that TV shows have budgets to consider, and that no budget can stand against a reader's imagination. As for a cameo, he had one in the pilot, but those scenes – for reasons unrelated – ended up on the cutting room floor, both for actors that were recast and for the overly humongous hats the nobility of Pentos, of which George was one, were decked out in. He has, however, done a few cameos in Beauty and the Beast, back when his hair was darker and he was skinnier, and fans are free to seek those out. A Game of Thrones attracted no less than 13 Emmys, he told us, and then said that Dance was the biggest seller of 2011 so far.

A fan asked about gay characters in the series, and Martin confirmed their existence and touched on the rather explicit nature of HBO's showing of Renly and Loras. He tries to show people from all groups – "gay, women, and people of color" were, I believe, his words – and that he believes that we're "all human" and all have some good and some bad. He has villains, heroes, cravens, selfish, and selfless from each group and each walk of life.

He responded to a question about the purpose of the gods in the series by discussing the two kinds of readers, one which reads solely for the plot (to whom he suggest the cliff notes) and the other that reads to experience. He's firmly in the latter school, as any of his readers could no doubt guess, and mentions living along with the characters in Lord of the Rings. He's heard claims that his works have gratuitous sex, gratuitous feasting, and gratuitous heraldry, but never of gratuitous violence. To the first of those, he said (and I am, I should mention again, writing from memory, here): "I show an axe entering a skull, and it's fine. But when I show a penis entering a vagina, then the letters will come."

To "Hodor, Hodor, Hodor, Hodor, Hodor, Hodor," Martin responded "Hodor." As I'm sure most are aware, Tyrion is (still) his favorite character. When asked if his advice for writing has changed in the process of Dance, he said that it hasn't. He advocates writing every day and beginning with short stories, comparing starting with an epic series (one perhaps involving fire or at least some sort of ice) as equivalent to beginning one's life as a rock climber on Everest. "Start on Bear Mountain," he urged us New Yorkers.

Another writing related question followed, where a fan mentioned Howard's sudden and vivid inspiration for Conan, and George's on mention of seeing the direwolf pups out of the blue, and asked how long should fans work towards such visions. Martin's response was to always try and make something out of them, and to keep working at it, though he did caution that it doesn't do to be too romantic about these things. One chapter in Dance came to him perfectly clearly, and demanded to be written, but it led nowhere, and – after attempting it half a hundred ways and even in dream form – he had to leave it on the cutting room floor. He also took a few stabs about the idea of a muse or writing via telepathic communication with another dimension; believe it or not, it's all one rather imaginative bearded man.

Segueing from there (though it was an entirely different question likely asked at the opposite end of the event), Martin said that he keeps almost everything in his head, though he does keep notes. He praised Elio, a certain Westerosi King , and Linda for knowing more about the series than he does and always having an answer (within five minutes) to any question he might ask. He's not totally sure how he remembers all the details and heraldry that he does, as all his prior works were stand alones (which he plans to go back to, after the series).

Despite notes and Ran, he does occasionally make mistakes – the two he cited being a character's magically changing eyes and a horse's sex change – which he hates, because they obfuscate the intentional mistakes of character memory, such as Ned's and Jaime's different descriptions of everyone's favorite kingslayer's finest moment. He hates when "George the Author" detracts from the work of "George the Brilliant Artist."

The last book that he read that made him go wow was James S.A. Corey's Leviathan Wakes, written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, which he said had a war between Earth and Mars, tough Belters from the asteroid belt, and space zombies – exactly the kind of space opera he likes to read. It's received great reviews, so now Martin's got no choice but to keep Ty's head down by showing him the reviews that Dance has gotten. The last question was whether he got protests from his editor about that big thing in A Game of Thrones, to which he only answered "No."

While waiting in line, I agonized the whole while about how to act in my two seconds of fame with him – overly heartfelt? Misery-esque devotion? glib? – and ended up asking if any one scene in Dance was as difficult to write as "a certain wedding in book three" (attempting to avoid spoilers for the A Game of Thrones reading fellow two places back, just in case). He said that Dance was hard in a different way – chronologically, lining all the perspectives up in Meereen – but no one scene was nearly as troubling as the Red Wedding.

Oh, finally – to the fan I sat next to – hello, Zach, if you're reading this. Nice to meet you and talk to you for a few hours. Perhaps we'll meet again, come the winds of winter.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thomas Ligotti - Noctuary

The last vision dies with him who beholds it. (p. 72)

Plotting an author’s career can be a difficult proposition, especially if the reader’s missing some of the puzzle pieces (in my case, Grimscribe). Still, some conclusions are easily drawn by any comparison of Thomas Ligotti’s early and late works. Noctuary, Ligotti’s third collection, is perhaps the least visceral of the author’s work, far closer to Teatro Grottesco’s abstractions than Songs of a Dead Dreamer’s grotesque developments in tone. Interestingly enough, though, Noctuary might be the most traditionally horror of all Ligotti’s collections, at least where plot and structure are concerned.

In an interview conducted a few years ago, Ligotti said:  I don't think I'm capable of depicting a normal, everyday person, and I'm sure I have no interest in doing so. Noctuary, however, features several characters that, if not quite normal, are still innocent, at least when compared to most of the bizarre narrators that fill much of the author’s other works. Mrs Rinaldi’s Angel has a child protagonist; The Tsalal stars a demonic child in a tale that, if it weren’t for Ligotti’s prose and themes, could have been from a half dozen Hollywood horrors; and Conversations in a Dead Language goes so far as to feature a genuinely sympathetic protagonist.

The last of those is especially interesting, because, if Conversations in a Dead Language were found in a general anthology or put forth by an anonymous creator, it could be from another author altogether, albeit another author of extraordinary skill. The story is made up of three scenes, each a successive Halloween night. The main character is a lonely but kind man, connected to humanity only by his mocking coworkers, his mother, and dispensing candy on Halloween night. As the story progresses, the main character is stripped of each of the things he cherishes. The conclusion is remarkable because it’s not an exhibition of Ligotti’s usual eroding depression but rather a melancholy pathos, still a dark tale but one dark in the most human of ways.

In Noctuary, Ligotti often brings religion to the fore, not as a truth in and out of itself but, still, as a force for good, no matter how ineffectual. In Conversations in a Dead Language, the character is described as a "clockwork parishioner," (p. 39), but it's the novella-length The Tsalal that explores the issue in a deper sense. The story is  about the birth of an antichrist-esque figure, a human avatar for the horrific Tsalal, the author of all changes, the great reviser of things seen and unseen, known and unknown. (p. 75) Andrew Maness, that avatar, dreams of a world in which all things were subject to forces that knew nothing of law or reason, and nothing possessed its own nature of essence but was only a mask upon the face of absolute darkness, a blackness no one had ever seen. (p. 78)

Such vistas of unreality are no doubt familiar to Ligotti's devotees. The Tsalal itself, too, appears in other places, namely the later-written The Shadow, The Darkness that concludes Teatro Grottesco. Here, however, the idea is the backbone for an almost conventional tale, one concerned with a physical threat to the world (not just a metaphysical or intellectual one), a town beset by increasingly horrific events, and a group of villagers that meet in the church to confront a manifestation of evil. But if the tale's first layer is that of the ever-shifting Tsalal, and the second is the familiar potential-apocalypse tale that the idea of the Tsalal is used to tell, I would be remiss to not point out the third layer, namely the disassociated and dreamlike way it is told. The chapters oscillate between several time frames, and while some aspects of the tale are examined at great depth, others are left entirely up to the reader to piece together, all of which leaves the story feeling more vision than reality, an experience at once vivid and impossible to ever wholly comprehend.

Mrs Rinaldi's Angel, on the other hand, centers on a child plagued by dreams. In an attempt to cure him of these nocturnal visions, the child's mother takes him to Mrs Rinaldia, who brings the boy to the angel within her home. The story is, in a way, a conflict between two visions of paradise. There is the nightmare-as-reality heaven as glimpsed previously in Songs of a Dead Dreamer's Vastarion, in which change and torment are commonplace and so cease to be negatives at all: The awful opulence of the dream, a rich and swollen world nourished by the exhaustion of the flesh. The world, in fact, as such. Any other realm seemed an absence by comparison, at best a chasm in the fertile graveyard of life. (p. 53) On the other hand there's the pure heaven that the angel brings, a bliss composed not of pain but of absence: If [the angel]  could have spoken it might have told, in a soft and reverberant voice, of the lonely peace of the planets, the uninhabited paradise of clouds, and an antiseptic infinity. (p. 59) As the tale's conclusion makes clear, humanity is not fit for either paradise, and our mere presence is sufficient to turn wonder into horror, but neither of those conclusions impinges on the general decency of the narrator.

To a greater or lesser extent, The Medusa, Prodigy of Dreams, Mad Night of Atonement, and even The Tsalal all concentrate on slowly building effects. This is a fine and often fabulous technique, but it here results in several tales being too focused on the climax at the expense of what comes before. Since many of Noctuary’s stories are less atmospherically dense as those in Ligotti’s collections, their contemplative nature can sometimes lead to too light a hold on the reader until the end.

This is strongest felt with Prodigy of Dreams and Mad Night of Atonement. Neither’s necessarily a weak tale – both have instances of powerful imagery and conclusions nothing short of fantastic – but each feels detached and overly expository in the opening and middle sections. Prodigy of Dreams shows an estate gradually taken control of by morbid oddities, but the narrator is far from the action, and some of the imagery feels more passing strange than fundamentally threatening or revelatory. Mad Night of Atonement’s main character, the brilliant, eccentric, and mad Dr. Haxhausen orates for most of the story’s length. What he says is interesting, and the twist of the final lines is a masterstroke, but there’s little tension up until the practical demonstrations begin. Of the building stories, The Medusa definitely best capitalizes on its structure. The story is about the crystallization of a philosophical idea, but the majority is instead composed of bizarre conversations and little clues that refuse to add up, all of which is fascinating and quite amusing upon contemplation once finished or reread.

The final category of the collection’s first two sections (the third of which shall be shortly addressed) is filled with bizarre, difficult to classify, and well paced stories. The Voice in the Bones is a surreal tale of pursuit and capture. The Strange Designs of Master Rignolo, however, is the collection’s masterpiece (at least in Ligotti’s traditional sense; both it and Conversations in a Dead Language are fantastic stories). The reclusive artist Rignolo has grown fixated on death. Seeking immortality, he’s attempting to immerse himself in his own landscapes. The narrator’s interactions with Rignolo, and with Rignolo’s work, build a powerful and unsettling atmosphere, and the tale’s climax is powerful and chilling. Like The Bungalow House and several others, this tale focuses on man's ability to - as The Conspiracy Against the Human Race would put it - use sublimation to distract us from the inherent plight of our existence. Like those other stories, The Strange Designs of Master Rignolo comes to the conclusion that there is no escape, but it reaches it in a rather different fashion. In The Bungalow House, we realize that we can never connect with others - or their artistic creations - because all those relationships are fabrications of our consciousness. Here, however, Ligotti seems to focus in on the idea that, since the landscapes are created by mortal humans, they can obviously not be used to get beyond normal human comprehension - or normal human mortality.

The final section, the Notebook of the Night, contains a wide array of Ligotti’s flash fiction. The pieces here range considerably. Some are (short) short stories in their own right, others lone images or snippets of ominous conversations and lives, and others are brief essays. The multitude of pieces are never explicitly linked together, but their effect is certainly cumulative. That is not, however, to say that none are successful on their own. Many manage to be as affecting as some of the author’s full length stories. The Career is similar in theme to pieces like My Work is Not Yet Done and some of Ligotti's other corporate works, but, at a page and a half, the story's lean as can be and darkly witty throughout. New Faces in the City features strong imagery and several quotable passages. The Spectral Estate focuses on haunted houses. It's a primarily expository piece, but there are several instances of powerful imagery throughout. Admittedly, a few of the pieces lack the space to make as much an impact on the reader as one of the author's longer tales, but the section is, as a whole, extremely powerful.

Though I wouldn't recommend a Ligotti newcomer begin with Noctuary, the collection is filled with fantastic stories that more than justify the reverence I and others accord Ligotti with. The stories here are often abstract, focused more on the exploration of ideas than on scares or thrills, and the ideas that it explores are fantastic, the prose they are conveyed with is at once dense and beautiful, and the atmosphere that soaks each of these stories is some of the greatest ever evoked. In the end, Noctuary is a brilliant and glowing gem of a volume, and its only comparative flaw is the even brighter glow of some of Ligotti's preceding and following releases.

Standouts: Conversations in a Dead Language, The Strange Designs of Master Rignolo, New Faces in the City

Sunday, July 10, 2011

In Anticipation of Dragons

I'm  excited about A Dance with Dragons. Like, really excited. Like, I made a completely shallow and empty post just because I'd first heard the release date. Like, I've been thinking of dates for weeks in terms of close to A Dance with Dragons and closer to A Dance with Dragons. Now we've hit closest to A Dance with Dragons, and I won't lie – I'm more than a bit nervous.

I got into Epic Fantasy, as no doubt many people did, with the Wheel of Time, and I read the series back to back up to Knife of Dreams (yes, it was that recent). The very next book I read was A Game of Thrones, and from there I read hundreds of speculative fiction books and eventually started this very blog. In the time since The Wheel of Time, and in the time since I began seriously reviewing, my tastes have changed. A lot. The doorstoppers that were once my meat and potatoes are still present, but in far less concentrated form. I read thin novels, standalones, and short stories, and I read science fiction, and horror, and crime. I did none of these things when I first got into fantasy, when I read Jordan and Martin and Abercrombie and Abraham and Sanderson and Erikson and Bakker and Hobb and Rothfuss (and even a bit of Goodkind) back to back. 

What Epic Fantasy have I read since? Well, in large part due to the length and my relative exhaustion with the genre, it's probably been the least read and least reviewed of the "major" genres I focus on. Most of the books I've read and liked, too, I enjoyed in spite – not because of – the arguably core aspects of the genre, the sprawl and the bloat (or, to put it in less pejorative terms, the epic-ness and the length). Even Wheel of Time, my original favorite from that era, failed miserably to live up to my memories and expectations with Towers of Midnight. That could be in part Brandon Sanderson's fault, but I doubt it's really anything more than a change of taste. The two main Epic Fantasy authors I can think of that I enjoyed in recent years – Parker and Erikson – seem to support this. Parker's books are leaner, while Erikson's, while thick, are certainly not standard fantasy fair. Martin, on the other hand, is an author beyond excellence, but one solidly in the center of the modern Epic Fantasy tradition.

Of course, this is a four hundred plus indulgence in overly personal whining. I'm well aware of that. The whole thing's a tad silly, especially seeing as I just loved Sandkings and Fevre Dream. Still, I can't help but worry: What if Dance doesn't live up?

Friday, July 8, 2011

On Obtaining Ligotti

If you're interested in Ligotti, but rather scared by the prices, the only way to obtain him – besides the few cheaper editions out there – is to get in on release day. As such, I just want to point out two upcoming rereleases of his work for anyone out there who's been intrigued by my reviews.

First, there's Subterranean Press's reissue of the man's Grimscribe, his second fiction collection. The limited edition sold out (alas, before I could make up my mind to spring for it), but the regular can still be bought on the publisher's site for 40 and on amazon for 26, providing copies remain. Judging by what the Subterranean Songs of a Dead Dreamer did, this is going to be 70-100 bucks within a year, so I'd buy now if you're interested. The cover was painted by Thomas Ligotti Online member Aeron Alfrey, who's got a fantastic amount of horrifying work up on his blog.

Second, there's an item of more interest to pure collectors. Ligotti's rarest work, The Agonizing Resurrection of Viktor Frankenstein and Other Gothic Stories, is being reissued by Centipede Press here. If you live in the US, you might be better served ordering from Subterranean, however, as they'll have it while their borrowed stock lasts for ten dollars cheaper. A warning on that front, though: Jerad's notorious for adding all sorts of goodies to big orders like this, and I've no idea if that'll hold true for those who order elsewhere. The book, though slim, will be filled with illustrations from Harry O. Morris and promises to be beautiful enough to sell your soul for, as you may well have to do to afford it, especially if you happen to go for the Insane and Wonderful Man's Obscenely Expensive and Beautiful edition, which is several times what I paid for my computer.

If you're after the other books, my best advice is the obvious: set up alerts on ebay/abebooks, and swing through amazon every few days. For the vast majority of my Ligotti books (and my collection's essentially complete), I got them for far below standard price by just being aware of them. My copy of The Nightmare Factory, for instance, I got for twenty-five dollars, compared to the cheapest listed amazon price of 125 dollars.

And no, in case you're wondering, Thomas Ligotti doesn't pay me to rave about him twice a week. I acquired my malignantly useless man love all on my own.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

George R.R. Martin - Sandkings

George R.R. Martin may be best known as the author of the bestselling and superb A Song of Ice and Fire series, but, long before he first wrote of a young boy witnessing a beheading, Martin made a name for himself with Science Fiction and Horror novels and shorts. Much of the man's short fiction was collected in the mammoth retrospective Dreamsongs, but, being the Martin-obsessive that I am, I've decided to track down each of his original collections. Sandkings, first published in 1981, was the author's third collection, and the stories are superb. A warning before we begin: most of my analyses will contain SPOILERS.

Of course, one of the many things that Martin is famous for is his position that genre is just furniture, that the same story can be told in any fashion with just a few substitutions. Well, though Sandkings frequently incorporates elements of Fantasy or Horror, the stories here are all quintessentially Science Fiction, tales that share a universe of interstellar travel and many worlds, explorations of man on the edge, of what happens in the moment when we leave everything we knew behind and realize the universe is far vaster than we ever could have dreamed. Of course, such a thematic course bears more than a passing similarity to the Weird Tales of Lovecraft or Ligotti. And to the Fantasy writings of authors as diverse as Neil Gaiman and China Mieville. Okay, so Martin might have been onto something with that furniture theory. More important still for anyone reading the collection, however, is the fact that Martin's treatment of the theme is no less nuanced and no less powerful than the treatments of any of the above authors.

We begin with The Way of Cross and Dragon. Our main character, a Knight Inquisitor, is called to address a rising, new heresy. Their beliefs? They have made a saint […] out of Judas Iscariot. (p. 16) As it turns out, the belief is a wholly artificial one, something created to mask the truths of existence as the heresy's instigator, a member of the sect of Liars, sees them: [T]hese naked truths are cruel ones. We who believe in life, and treasure it, will die. Afterward there will be nothing, eternal emptiness, blackness, nonexistence. In our living there has been no purpose, no poetry, no meaning. Nor do our deaths possess these qualities. When we are gone, the universe will not long remember us, and shortly it will be as if we had never lived at all. Our worlds and our universe will not long outlive us. Ultimately, entropy will consume all, and our puny efforts cannot stay that awful end. It will be gone. It has never been. It has never mattered. The universe itself is doomed, transient, uncaring. (pp. 25-6)

Martin's view – that religion is false, but perhaps comforting – is clear throughout the story, and the plot is lacking in dramatic flourishes, but the skill that Martin brings to the tale and the emotions he manages to evoke lend life to the concept. The heresy's faith is, of course, a tad absurd, but Martin gifts his descriptions of it with strength. Furthermore, it's interesting to note how many times Martin manages to layer the same meaning into his stories. On a grand level, we see people sustained by the lies of religious faith. Then, on an institutional level, we see similar delusions, where the story's Catholic Church attempts to view itself as the sole provider of truth even while there are seven popes and "over seven hundred Christian sects." (p. 16) Then, finally, the theme comes down to the character level, where our viewpoint Inquisitor masks his doubts and his humanity with the garb and ritual of his office. All of that being said, I will admit that part of the reason the story works so well for me is that I share the generalities of Martin's perspective. Would a tale this focused on message work for those who find its method incorrect or even insulting? I don't know.

The second story is Bitterblooms, a tale of seeming fantasy that morphs into something much more heartbreaking. Lost and far from home in a world of inhospitable snow, ice, and vampires, Shawn desperately tries to trek back. On her way, she comes across a seemingly impossible sight and is taken in by a woman named Morgan who possesses magic that can send her ship through space. But escape is an illusion, and Morgan is revealed as a Liar, offering false comforts while her guests starve on a diet of empty dreams. What makes the story truly tragic, however, is the fact that the places Morgan references – Old Poseidon with its weathered docks and its fleets of silver ships, the meadows of Rhiannon, the vaulting black steel towers of ai-Emerel, High Kavalaan's windswept plains and rugged hills, the island-cities of Port Jamison and Jolostar on Jamison's World (pp. 50-1) – are the legends and even settings of the volume's other tales. The world beyond does exist, but Shawn and Morgan never reach it. Bitterblooms may lack the insight of The Way of Cross and Dragon and the visceral nature of some of the volume's other tales, but its emotional core is devastating nonetheless.

In the House of the Worm comes next, the first story to not also appear in Dreamsongs and also the volume's longest tale, at sixty-one pages. Like in Bitterblooms, we find ourselves in a society on the end, one driven underground by the end of the world. And yet the world building here is almost optimistic. Amidst the ruins of civilization and delusion, life goes on. As a character says, The sun was dying long before I came into the House of the Worm, and it will continue dying long after I have left. (p. 64) The speaker there is our protagonist, Annlyn, who had no blood ties with the line of the Manworm, no secret sources of knowledge, but he was always quite sure of his opinions, and his friends – Veryllar and stout Riess and beautiful Caralee – thought him the wisest and wittiest of men. Once he had killed a groun. (p. 64) Annelyn is arrogant but amusing, and Martin is able to both render him sympathetic and a tad more than a tad conceited.

The story proper begins as Annelyn leads Varmyllar and Riess down towards the lower levels, where the monstrous groun roam, to slay the Meatbringer who slighted him at a party and seduced Caralee from his side. Like many teenage quests, Annelyn's was conceived with more bluster than bravery, but, at the point when he was counting on his friends to draw him back from danger, he instead finds one of his people's greatest warriors, coming to aid him in the slaying of the Meatbringer. What follows is, of course, a descent into the unknown, and, in no time at all, Annelyn is fleeing for his life in pitch black tunnels. The history that Martin reveals as the story progresses is somewhat hard to follow on anything more than a surface level, and the pacing of the tale's second half is a bit drawn out, but both of those complaints fade in light of the awe inspiring atmosphere and the pathos that Martin manages to create.

Next up is Fast-Friend, a piece only elsewhere available in the Subterranean Press two-story collection Starlady. The story centers on man's drive to reach the stars. Man, in Martin's tale, is able to cross the gulfs of space, but only by becoming a Fast-Friend. The protagonist and his lover, uncommon dreamers dreaming a common dream, join the program to become Fast-Friends, but the process is not as simple as it sounds. Most who enter the program simply die at the point of transformation, and those that do not become something other than human. The lover changes – and the protagonist balks. Our story begins years later, however, at a time when the protagonist is deeply scarred by his failure to take that final step. He's essentially divided his consciousness into two as he searches for a way to reach the stars while retaining his humanity. The physical love and human connection he once had with his lover he now experiences entirely with his angel, an organically created sex slave with a playful personality and an innocent mind. He has no attachment with the human woman he shares his ship with and seems incapable of even basic interaction with her. His intellect, on the other hand, is focused entirely on his quest: his idea to chain a Fast-Friend to his ship and use it, like a horse affixed to a carriage, to drag his ship through space at fantastic speeds.

The Fast-Friend that he captures is, of course, his former lover, but he balks once again at the moment of transformation. I couldn't do it, he explains to his ship mate. We would never have been able to let them outside the screens. They'd be animals, draft animals, prisoners. […] I guess they're not. Not people either, though, not anymore. (p. 136) To reach the stars in Fast-Friend, it seems that man must either surrender his physical form or his morality, and the protagonist chooses to do neither. The story's final lines give hope that the protagonist, now having withdrawn for the final time from the stars, might be reconnecting with humanity and leaving grandiose dreams and rather disturbing sex behind, but – as this is a Martin story – the quasi-happy ending is left ambiguous. Though not the collection's standout tale by any means, Fast-Friend is a well placed and executed tale with an interesting dilemma at its heart.

I have a confession to make about the next piece in the collection, The Stone City. When I first read this tale in Dreamsongs some years ago, I found it boring. Now, revisiting it, I'm astonished and somewhat horrified at my earlier reaction. If there has ever been a Science Fiction Weird Tale, an interstellar equivalent of Lovecraft's The Shadow Out of Time, it is The Stone City. This is a story quieter than many of the collection's other pieces, but it is, in my opinion, one of Martin's best works. The protagonist, Holt, is a member of a spaceship crew that is stranded on an alien world, trapped in a place that makes no sense, forced to try and make their way (and to try and escape) in an impossibly old and impossibly alien Stone City.

The crew has broken apart, and many of its members are dead for incomprehensible and comprehensible transgressions, the captain among them. Much of the crew is now living day to day, having lost all hope for escape, but some have remained optimistic, believing that The human mind can understand anything. Give me time, that's all, and I'll figure it all out. (p. 157) As the story progresses, as their imprisonment lengthens and their progress wanes, it becomes obvious that such thoughts are nothing but delusions: She said we'd come too far. […] She said it was wrong to think that the whole universe operated by rules we could understand. You remember. She called it 'sick, arrogant human folly.' You remember, Jeff. That was how she talked. Sick, arrogant human folly. […] The crossworlds almost made sense, that was what fooled us. but if Irai was right, that would figure. After all, we're still only a little bit from the manrealm, right? Further in, maybe the rules change even more. (p. 157)

In the middle of all that, Martin's characterization is enough to make Holt at once understandable and deeply flawed. All his life, Holt's yearned to explore the galaxy, but his idea of exploration is a cursory one more dependent on distance travelled than experience gained or cultures understood. He lusts after far off myths, not realities; as one crewmate puts it, he's just a "collector." (p. 151) He judges his crewmates Xenophile[s] (p. 150) while supporting himself by stealing from the hapless aliens all around him. The story finishes with The Stone City as a fantastic, mystical, and forever out of reach place, but in Holt's character we can see the dichotomy of self knowledge and exploration play out on a far more relatable scale, and one no less well handled for all of Martin's fantastic alien creations.

The next story, Starlady, is the one story in the collection that didn't work for me. Its connection to the general theme of the unknown is there – a woman (the titular Starlady) finds herself trapped in a space port devoid of the civilized rules she's used to – but the focus is on other things here. That, however isn't where the problems lie. The story is told in a very self aware manner, with Martin going so far to cast about for parts in the very first paragraph: This story has no hero in it. it's got Hairy Hal in it, and Golden Boy, and Janey Small and Mayliss and some other people who lived on Thisrock. Plus Crawney and Stumblecat and the Marquis, who'll do well enough as villains. But it hasn't got a hero… well, unless you count Hairy Hal. (p. 173) That by itself isn't a problem, but it becomes one when combined with a deeply amoral tale of prostitution and murder. Now, the themes themselves aren't an inherent issue. Martin has proven, time and time again, his ability to deal with sensitive and dark topics with both pathos and insight. But the distance and playfulness of the narrative voice here renders the treatment feeling crass and joking rather than heartfelt. Hairy Hal is not a hero but rather a pimp, and the intentionally overblown dialogue and prose's treatment of him feels shallow and almost insulting. Perhaps I'm being too hard on this story, but the intentional distance added to it left the characters unattractive and the plot unengaging.

Our closer, however, brings us back to par and beyond. Sandkings is one of Martin's best known stories, and for good reason. Simon Kress is a collector of exotic and violent pets, and he's a sadistic and cruel man to boot. While searching for the next lethal thing, he comes across Sandkings, insect-like hive minds that battle one another and worship their owner. He purchases them and shows them to all his friends, and, in classic fashion, his arrogance leads to his downfall. The setting is Science Fiction, while most horror aficionados agree that a time period like the reader's own is almost instrumental in instilling the sense that the horror is lurking near them. Finally, there's the fact that most unsympathetic main character – a group that Simon most certainly belongs to – make for poor horror. While the reader might love to read of their death, it's rather horrifying to see evil meet its end. For all these reasons, Sandkings seems set up for being enjoyable but not extraordinary. But, of course, every one of those expectations is proven wrong by the sheer skill that Martin brings to the table.

Like in many of the stories shown here, Martin here manages to thematically parallel the details of the character's life with the overarching SF plot. In his interactions with others, Simon is arrogant and blunt, always seeking to elevate himself above his peers. He's not wholly combative, however, as attested by his strings of former lovers and friends entangled with him both through loyalty and darker deeds. One of the main draws of the Sandkings is how they soon come to worship the face of the owner that they see above their tank, and so Simon comes to dominate their society. But, like how he soon comes to damage and even kill the human friends he has, Simon proves a cruel god to the creatures, and their representations of him soon grow all wrong, all twisted. His cheeks were bloated and piggish, his smile was a crooked leer. He looked impossibly malevolent. (p. 213) Among the humans around him, Simon eventually triumphs, burying his crimes and slaughtering those arrayed against him. Against the Sandkings, however, Simon is made to pay for his ways. The combination between the two groups is reinforced late in the story by two revelations. First, the co-owner of the store where Simon purchased the Sandkings is himself a Sandking, proving that the creatures are not inherently evil. The second revelation, of course, is the moment where the orange Sandkings transform into grotesque images of humanity, of a childlike but monstrous Simon.

But, while I find everything in the above paragraph fascinating, none of it even approaches the heart of the tale. Martin writes with enough devilish confidence to draw us into Simon's viewpoint, to force us to enjoy the sadism of the Sandking's wars and the luster of the parties. And then, later, as the Sandkings spread, Martin loads every word of the text with terror. Armored men, the representations of safety and power, find the very ground beneath their feet unstable and coursing with those wronged. The Sandkings fall from above, and they've cut off all means of escape. They thrive, and the air is putrid with the reek of their maws. They crawl through the walls, and the house is littered with their mutating forms. The atmosphere evoked here is almost without peer. By the end I was turning pages in a frenzy, desperate to escape the terrifying sensation of monsters all about me. This story is a visceral powerhouse without fear, a tale resplendent with both brawn and brains, a work unlikely to ever be forgotten by any who read it.

George R.R. Martin may be best known as the author of the bestselling and superb A Song of Ice and Fire series, but I'll go out on a limb and say that, as far as I can tell, the standout stories of this collection are on par with that genre leviathan. The stories in Sandkings explore a wide variety of subjects, and each is told in its own style. Comparing Sandkings to Bitterblooms to A Song of Ice and Fire is almost a silly exercise, but the threads that draw the three together are – besides the themes of man and the larger world – the unmatchable levels of quality that Martin displays in almost every tale he pens, regardless of that story's length or genre. If you are a Martin fan that has not read his short stories, you have done yourself a grave disservice. Go to amazon and rectify that at once.

Standouts: Sandkings, The Stone City, The Way of Cross and Dragon

[Note: page numbers from the Timescape 1st edition paperback]

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Reading in May

I've mentioned my love of Daniel Abraham a fair few times on this blog, and reviewed his short story collection from Subterranean Press, and so I dove into The Dragon's Path as soon as it crossed my doorstep. I can't quite say that the novel possesses as much depth or power as The Long Price at its height, but The Dragon's Path is an interesting and enjoyable book that serves to set up many an interesting thread for future volumes. Review coming.

 The White Luck Warrior, the second volume in the second of Bakker's three connected trilogies, can be easily compared to the middle volume of the first trilogy, The Warrior Prophet. As there, here we focus on an army on the move dealing with supply problems, and so on – but this book lacks the galloping pace of actions and revelations that made that first trilogy such an unforgettable experience. This is not, however, a weak book by any stretch of the imagination. Though I wish more ground had been covered, and less retread, the writing here is powerful and resplendent with metaphors and hidden meanings, and the thematic and philosophical ideas explored are as insightful as the standard that Bakker has set for himself.

Though I enjoyed many of the stories in The Martian Chronicles, I'll admit that, come the collection's end, I still wasn't convinced that Bradbury deserved his legendary status. Now, having read Something Wicked This Way Comes, I'll gladly admit that I was wrong: Bradbury most certainly deserves his praise. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story about danger and change, but it's also – and most of all – a story about childhood. The exuberance of its characters and the skill of its prose is mesmerizing, and, though the novel does occasionally verge on the saccharine, there are six moments of awe and majesty for every half stumble. This is required reading for anyone interested in our genre's greats.

 Spurred on by my Breaking New Ground challenge, I began Moon Called and found a fast paced and enjoyable Urban Fantasy book with well drawn characters and a generally quietly believable approach to world building. Though Briggs has yet to show herself exceptional in any way, Moon Called is still an enjoyable novel that promises better things ahead.

 Like Hard Man, Savage Night is crime so bleak and brutal it's impossible to react to with anything but a terrified, strangled laugh. Guthrie reacts to the borders of sanity and general taste like most of us view finish lines, and his characters are slammed together so hard and fast that the gruesome mess that's left is likely to leave you as sick as you are satisfied. This is a roller coaster ride of cleverness and tension, but, like all the best four hundred foot drops, it's best to brace yourself before going in.

 Dashiell Hammett's debut is noir writ large, a single amoral detective pitted against an immoral city. Like Savage Night, this isn't a novel that will win any points for restraint, but the laconic honesty of its telling and force of its words is impossible to ignore. Review here.

 Kiernan's Subterranean Press collection, The Ammonite Violin & Others, weaved nightmarish and erotic tapestries out of lush language and surreal descriptions. The Red Tree mesmerizes the audience in a way as different as can be. Here, Kiernan's speech is unadorned and honest, crude and raw and vulnerable. And the image that she paints is both vivid and disorientating, at once horrific and run through with desire.

 I think it's rather well established that I liked Nevill's first two novels, Banquet for the Damned and Apartment 16 a fair bit. I even interviewed the man here.  After all that, I went into The Ritual with damn high expectations – and the book's first half blew even those away. Here Nevill displays excellence in atmosphere and character, creating a taut and terrifying adventure that rivaled anything in Nevill's first two books. And then, alas, the book's second section began, and the characters were gone, and the pacing was gone, and the atmosphere was gone. Review coming.

As I read the first hundred pages of Stone, I was deeply in love. Roberts writes with all the penetrating honesty of a confession and the intricacy of a carefully considered narrative, and his ideas are fresh and riveting. Alas, soon after the imprisoned protagonist wins his freedom, narrative momentum grates to a meandering halt and never returns in force. Still, the ideas that Roberts explores are interesting, and the prose fantastic throughout. I'll be reading more of Roberts in the future for sure, though I hope that his other novels maintain a more even pace throughout.