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REVIEW: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan


A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan Title: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
Author: Marie Brennan
Pub Date: February 5th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A scientific fantasy which strongly develops its narrator and world.

One of the most interesting themes I’ve found in science fiction is the genre’s complex relationship to science itself: most science fiction stories are simultaneously promoters of science and cautionary tales, warning us of discovery’s ethical dangerous. This makes for an interesting and powerful theme to explore, what with humanity’s unbridled capacity for discovery. But for all of its power, it is a theme which fantasy addresses all too rarely, which is why it was such a delight to recently read Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent.

I grew up on scientist adventurers: Verne’s Professor Arronax (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Doyle’s Professor Challenger (The Lost World), and Wells’ The Time Traveler (The Time Machine) all thrilled with the promise and possibilities reason could bring. These characters practiced and preached a set of positivist values, an Enlightenment tradition untrammeled by the softer complexities of Romanticism. And when a few years later I discovered the history of science, in particular through works like C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars, Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, and Farley Mowat’s Woman in the Mists I could see how real scientists worked and struggled to fit such values into a more complex world than the fictional.

For all of the positivist values promoted through the works of early science fiction, most of those books derive their conflict from the tension between their characters’ full-throated devotion to positivist principles and the subtler risks – ethical, philosophical, and existential – which science exposes us to. Verne’s Nemo – and his mad political philosophy – is an ethical exploration of the militaristic consequences of science, of technology’s capacity for both good and evil. The dismissal of Challenger and Summerlee’s findings in The Lost World explores how society treats discoveries which fly in the face of accepted wisdom, a social statement on public attitudes to science if ever there was one. And Wells’ The Time Machine is nothing if not a commentary on man’s self-destructive tendencies, offset by the Time Traveler’s genius invention of the time machine itself and his yearning to explore.

Such an exploration of reason, such an application of rational thought, is often inimical to much fantasy. So much of the genre relies on the irrational that it is easy to get uncomfortable when put beneath the magnifying glass. Fantasy generally explores different themes, leaving an exploration of science to science fiction. Some fantasists – notably Patricia C. Wrede in her Frontier Magic trilogy, Michael A. Stackpole in his Crown Colonies trilogy, and much in the steampunk vein – have incorporated such scientific themes, but their approaches tend to use science as a device for getting characters into trouble. Science is not the heart of the story: war or some other life-or-death struggle divorced from science provides the conflict. While such stories may be exciting, I usually find myself disappointed that the science gets short shrift.

But Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons keeps the science front-and-center, and builds tension and conflict naturally from that core. The way in which she achieves this effect is particularly interesting because it is simultaneously more obvious and more subtle than I would have expected. The obviousness stems from the book’s historical models: while it is a secondary fantasy, it is structured along the lines of the memoirs and stories of late Victorian (British) natural philosophers.

I am amazed that I don’t see this approach more frequently in fantasy. For 18th and 19th century readers in the Western world, journeys into Africa or South America would have been the equivalent of a secondary-world fantasy. Their settings and the cultures encountered would have been so alien as to be unrecognizable. They would have to establish and contextualize the strange environment, to explain its characteristics in both sensual and intellectual modes. In other words, the historical models for A Natural History of Dragons would have relied on the same type of world-building as any fantasy.

The basic structure of the story traces a recognizable path: the narrator’s development of scientific fascination, her initial discoveries, youthful exuberance, and systematic maturation as those discoveries mount is a natural progression recognizable, I think, to any adult. Because the novel is set during a time when people are ignorant of dragons, the ignorance of broader society (and initially of the narrator) is shared with the reader. We learn about Brennan’s secondary-world along with our heroine as she and her colleagues make what might seem to be basic discoveries. This evokes the same sense of obviousness we get when we look back at the scientific discoveries of yesterday.

The more subtle key to the novel’s success is maturation. A Natural History of Dragons is presented as a memoir written by the now-elderly Lady Trent, a rather feisty and by implication controversial natural historian. In the hands of a weaker author, her anachronistic attitudes (for her time, which is plainly modeled on the 19th century as conveyed by both voice and details in the text) would have always been present. From childhood, she would have been confident of her abilities despite prejudices against her gender, she would have always been respectful of other cultures, would have naturally become the intellectual and moral center of any expedition she took part in despite the many cultural factors stacked against her, etc. She would have been a modern heroine inserted into a historical world, and would naturally have triumphed over historical backwardness. The world would revolve around her because she is Our Heroine, and so a special snowflake.

Brennan neatly avoids this trap, and by doing so makes the book a delight to read. Yes, our heroine is special. But this is a tale of her youth, before she became Lady Trent with the notoriety such a title suggests. The narrator shows herself to be merely one step out of alignment with the mores of her time both during her youth and presumably at the time when the memoir is written. By alluding to her earlier works, and repudiating the prejudices she espoused therein, the narrator simultaneously acknowledges the problematic tendencies of the source time period, and provides justification for the narrator’s anachronism. The narrator does not share the attitudes of the time period of which she is writing because she – and presumably much of her society – has matured in the intervening years. We can plainly see the distinction between the narrator and her younger self, and this serves to further ground us in the character and the world. Yet the whole structure is made even more plausible by showing us the seeds of the opinionated older narrator in the actions and words of her younger self. It is a very neat trick.

Brennan’s character is clearly of scientific mind, and the focus in much of the book is on the science itself. Initially, one can be forgiven for thinking it a tale of simple positivist boosterism: after all, so much of its historical roots were exactly that. But as the adventure ramps up, Brennan introduces suggestions of a flip side to scientific development and discovery. This squarely puts the novel in the conflicted tradition of Verne, Doyle, or Wells. Yet unlike these far earlier writers, Brennan neatly balances the science with an inner emotional journey that at times can be quite touching.

If I have one complaint about the book, it is that it is too short. Partly, this perception is a selfish one: I would have gladly spent more time in this world, with these characters, and with the voice in which the novel is written simply because of how much fun I had with it. But structurally, while the book works as a standalone novel, it did leave me wanting more.

I don’t know (read: my Google Fu was unable to determine) if A Natural History of Dragons is the start of a series or a stand-alone one-off. This is plainly a memoir of Lady Trent’s youth, and she explicitly references other (it seems wilder) adventures which follow. At the same time, the implicit risks of scientific discovery are brought to the fore near the story’s conclusion. They are not resolved or developed in any meaningful sense, but rather are addressed at best temporarily, which while satisfying in this one volume does beg for further development. Both of these facts suggest that more books may follow, and I for one would be very happy if they do.

(UPDATE: Today’s Shelf Awareness for Readers has a nice write-up of the book, where they mention that it is the first installment in a planned series.)

I would also be remiss if I did not mention that the novel is a work of art in hardcover. I would recommend it on the strength of its design alone (with great deckled edges and a sepia-toned font which further evokes that Victorian sensibility), but for me, Todd Lockwood’s excellent illustrations seal the deal.

I strongly recommend A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent to anyone who has a taste for Victorian-inspired fiction, who loves the long age of discovery that spans from the Enlightenment through to the first World War, or who enjoys classic science fiction like Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, or H.G. Wells.

REVIEW: Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont


Title: Orb Sceptre Throne
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Pub Date: May 22nd, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An inaccessible middle installment that picks up midway through.

As I’ve written about before (here, and here) I’m a big fan of the Malazan universe created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont. Yes, the books are complex, the plots byzantine, and the cast of characters massive. But the universe is compelling, not to mention just plain fun. And after swimming through over eight thousand pages of text in this universe, I’m always eager to dive back into it. Which is why I was excited to read Ian C. Esslemont’s latest addition to the universe: Orb Sceptre Throne.

As I discussed when reviewing Stonewielder last year, Esslemont has faced an uphill battle writing in his and Erikson’s shared universe. His first attempts were a little tentative and with some weaknesses, but I thought that he really hit his stride in Stonewielder. What particularly struck me – as compared to Erikson’s far denser works – was the (relative) accessibility of Esslemont’s stories. Though on the whole Orb Sceptre Throne continues Esslemont’s trajectory of improvement, it unfortunately stumbles on both accessibility and initial characterization.

“Accessible” is not an adjective often applied to the Malazan novels. With hundreds of characters, multiple perspectives, numerous side-plots (some spanning several novels), swirling allegiances, and piles of complex magic, they take a significant and sustained mental investment to enjoy. Despite sharing many of these features with Erikson’s dense tomes, Esslemont’s works tend to have a narrower scope and benefit from this greater focus. One need not be intimately familiar with the background established in Erikson’s ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen to understand Esslemont’s Night of Knives or Stonewielder. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Orb Sceptre Throne.

The book focuses on Darujhistan, roughly parallel in time to the events of Stonewielder and Erikson’s The Crippled God (book ten in Erikson’s series). The book features three core plot lines told from six primary perspectives. The central plot deals with a powerful and ancient tyrant trying to take control of the quasi-democratic city state of Darujhistan. The other plot lines, which ultimately tie back into the central story, deal with events on the wreckage of Moon’s Spawn, and in the warren of Chaos last seen in Return of the Crimson Guard.

Even in that brief, thirty-thousand foot overview, the weakness of Orb Sceptre Throne is clear: to understand two out of the three central plot lines, the reader needs to be familiar with both the events of Esslemont’s Return of the Crimson Guard, and Erikson’s Memories of Ice (book three, though in reality, the entirety of Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is useful for adequate background). Because of the amount and complexity of backstory necessary to even begin navigating Esslemont’s story, the book’s audience is by default limited to those readers already significantly invested in the Malazan universe. In essence, Orb Sceptre Throne suffers from a very complicated case of middle-novel-syndrome.

Even if we accept that its audience is limited to those of us already familiar with the Malazan universe, the book still suffers from a structural weakness: the first one hundred fifty pages are a slow, somewhat meandering collection of unconnected narratives. Fans of the Malazan universe are prepared for gradual builds, in that the books’ characteristic interlocking plot lines need a fair degree of set up. But successful execution of such slow builds requires consistently engaging characterization. And this is where the opening of Orb Sceptre Throne falls short.

In these early pages, Esslemont keeps many of his characters at arms’ length, and as a result we fail to develop a rapport with them. The scholar Ebbin, who Esslemont opens his story with, is particularly problematic: though his motivation is intellectually understandable, I found that I was uninterested in his fate. With no redeeming features, and nothing to supplement his singular focus, the character was unable to engage me on an emotional level. This is a significant departure from the quality of characterization in Stonewielder, which was tighter, more focused, and significantly more engaging. Thankfully, after the first hundred and fifty pages or so, Esslemont returns to fine form.

Once the dominoes are all set up, the narrative focuses on several core perspectives (notably not Ebbin’s) and we gain a greater engagement with our perspective characters. Esslemont’s solid characterization and vivid depictions of action really shine once he gets going. The sections that particularly appealed to me were those set on Moon’s Spawn, in the warren of Chaos, and those told from the perspective of the Seguleh. It is these narratives and their characters that pull us along in the story, and once their foundations are established the story’s flow smooths into an enjoyable ride. The ending is – for the most part – satisfying, and those elements that remain unresolved are obviously teasers for subsequent stories that we can expect Esslemont to address in the future.

On the whole, Esslemont’s Orb Sceptre Throne is one of the weaker Malazan novels, but for those of us invested in the universe, a reasonably enjoyable one. If you haven’t yet gotten into the Malazan universe, then don’t start with this one: you’ll be lost within the first couple of pages. If, on the other hand, you are current with the Malazan universe, then by all means pick up the book. Its events are significant, and will no doubt be built upon in future volumes. Its weak opening may take some effort to get through, but once the story gets going, Malazan fans will enjoy it for the elements it shares with all books in the universe: its ambition, action, characters, and its moral and thematic complexity.

REVIEW: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod


Title: The Night Sessions
Author: Ken MacLeod
Pub Date: April 3rd, 2012 (US reprint)
August 7th, 2008 (UK original)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A near-future SF thriller with painstakingly-explained world-building that slows the pace significantly in its first half.

Science fictional world building is a double-handed balancing act. On the one hand, it teeters between the communication of relevant facts to the reader and the maintenance of the narrative’s forward momentum. On the other hand, it wobbles between the implausibility of the conceit and the effort the reader must make to accept it. When either of these two balancing acts tilts in any direction, it threatens to upend the other. And in Ken MacLeod’s hard SF thriller The Night Sessions, the string that ties them together is the year 2037, when the book is set.

The Night Sessions is a near-future police thriller: it has a crime (the murder of a Roman Catholic priest), and it stars an engaging though forgettable crime solver (DI Adam Ferguson), who uncovers a complicated conspiracy with extremely high stakes. What sets MacLeod’s thriller apart from the usual fare is its near-future science fictional world. The book is set in 2037, in a society that has managed to erect a pair of space elevators, developed ubiquitous self-aware robotics, and whose recent religious wars have led to the global primacy of political and cultural secularism/atheism.

It is an ambitious work that tries to marry the thriller’s frenetic pace with classic hard SF themes of robotic faith. And in this case, I found the marriage a bit rocky. Structurally, police thrillers count on their high-stakes action and non-stop pacing to keep the reader flipping pages. We get so wrapped up in the events of the story that we don’t have time to consider its plausibility, or to really examine the hero’s leaps in logic. Thrillers rely on the speed of the narrative train to keep us from counting its rivets. But in the case of The Night Sessions, MacLeod’s pacing gets swamped by world-building.

The book features a fascinating vision of a future Edinburgh (and to a lesser extent, a future New Zealand). The settings, and the characters’ interactions with them, make for a great extrapolation of contemporary technology trends (MacLeod’s conjectures about augmented reality and self-aware AI are particularly well-rendered). The sociological concept of people willingly abandoning religion, of faith becoming an embarrassing family secret, is the type of high-concept theme that brings to mind classics like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God, or Anthony Boucher’s “The Quest for St Aquin”. It was the idea of exploring how such a society came about and what life in such a society might be like which first drew me to the book. Yet because the story is set in 2037 (which isn’t that far off), MacLeod bent over backwards to establish how our world gets from where we are today to where his fictional environment becomes possible, and in doing so slowed the book’s pace significantly.

World-building is a particular challenge for near-future SF. When we write a story set one, two, or even twenty years from now, we always run the risk that life will outpace fiction. Far-future SF, or SF that is utterly removed from our contemporary environment, ducks this problem by asking us to accept the fictional environment as-is. Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space stories, or Frank Herbert’s original Dune are great examples of this at work: the scientific, sociological, and cultural conceits that are needed to make the story possible are easily accepted because the setting is fundamentally divorced from our reality. In one sense, they are secondary world fantasies, however plausible the science in their construction. Yet when a story is set in the near-future and on our planet no less, it automatically asks the reader to consider how our world gets to become the fictional one.

It is a challenge that some authors, notably Ian McDonald (especially in The Dervish House, see my earlier review), Paulo Bacigalupi, William Gibson, or Cory Doctorow (particularly in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) do very well. The trick, it seems to me, rests in avoiding history lessons. For example, in The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi wastes very little time on a high-level, abstract discussion of the ecological disaster that makes his fictional world possible. Instead, we see the near-future environment that his ecological disaster wrought filtered through the prism of his characters’ experiences. His characters know their world, live in their world, and we learn its dimensions and history through their perceptions of it. This technique is one which the New Wave’s sociological SF popularized in the ’70s, and which was further honed by the cyberpunk movement in the ’80s and ’90s. When done well, it takes a book’s themes and artfully expresses them through the story’s unfolding action, wasting no time (read: word count) on explanation when implication will suffice.

MacLeod, unfortunately, chose a different route. He painstakingly explains to us the history of his world’s Faith Wars (which he tells us began on September 11, 2011, and which were economically tied up with oil), and how they led to a (apparently global) rejection of religion, how global society grew disgusted the atrocities of war, and by society’s subsequent rejection of the faiths that spawned it. The book’s first half is essentially devoted to explaining this history and to establishing the characters’ relationships to it. This is a significant departure from a thriller or police procedural structure, and it is one which does the story no favors. Because so much of the book’s first half was explanatory, I found myself spending too much time questioning its conceits.

Even if I accept global disillusionment with faith, thirty years is an awfully short period of time for people to forget basic components of major global religions. MacLeod expects us to believe that his hero, who was raised in a society where religion was present, who served on the police force’s “God Squads” in persecuting religious citizens, has forgotten basic terminology associated with Christianity. I have difficulty believing that cultural concepts like the privacy of the confessional would be forgotten so quickly.

Furthermore, the book focuses exclusively on the Judeo-Christian faiths, with some off-hand references to Islam. This is somewhat understandable considering that the book is primarily set in Edinborough, with its strong Presbyterian and Calvinist traditions. But with MacLeod’s painstaking explanation of his world’s history, the lack of reference to Hinduism, Buddhism, or any of the other non-Catholic/Protestant denominations of Christianity (Greek or Russian Orthodox, for example) was striking. I suppose that it is possible that I missed a glancing reference somewhere, but as far as I noticed, there was precious little discussion of any religion outside of the Christian worldview. Where were the world’s other major religions during the Faith Wars? Where are they in MacLeod’s 2037?

Second, thirty years is an incredibly short period of time for a war-ravaged society to develop self-aware artificial intelligences and deploy them ubiquitously throughout society. The technological concept is interesting, the way that the robots operate within MacLeod’s fictional society is insightful, and the thematic exploration of AI and faith is reasonably well-executed. But frankly, I thought it unlikely that in twenty-five short years we might be at that point…especially if – as MacLeod makes clear – the United States was ravaged by a second civil war after the Faith Wars. I might be willing to offer a pass on the advanced technology: the Faith Wars would likely have spawned a lot of frenetic technological development, and MacLeod makes clear that the AIs were initially military technology. But for such technology to get broad distribution throughout society (rich and poor alike) in so short a time period also struck me as somewhat implausible.

However, these issues really only affected the book’s first half. By the second half, the world-building is mostly out of the way and allows us to buckle up for an exciting thriller. Though there is a bit of deus ex machina in places, and the unmarked perspective shifts were a bit jarring, the second half is paced well enough to be fun and intellectually engaging. While the doubts I experienced about MacLeod’s world-building continued to flutter in the back of my mind, I was able to get past them to enjoy the overall story.

The themes of faith, ecology, economics, justice, and identity that MacLeod explores were all interesting, but I felt that they all got fairly short shrift. With so many interesting concepts raising so many compelling questions, the relatively short novel was spread too thin to adequately explore all of them. Thankfully, novel’s the central question of machine faith gets just enough attention to ultimately be satisfying.

To be clear, despite its weaknesses Night Sessions is an enjoyable book, and it is ambitious. But it is not without its problems. It would have benefited greatly, I felt, from more rigorous attention to the methods of world-building, and to their relationship with the book’s pacing.

Fans of hard science fiction who are looking for an intellectual, mind-game playing book will likely enjoy Night Sessions, though they may find some of its conjecture irregular and implausible. Readers looking for a science fictional thriller will likely be disappointed by the book’s slow-paced first half, but may find that the conclusion makes up for the first half’s weakness. But readers who enjoy near future SF, and in particular those who are willing to deal with the challenges endemic to that sub-genre in exchange for stimulating extrapolation of current technological/economic trends, will find a lot to enjoy in Night Sessions.

REVIEW: The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey


Title: The Steel Seraglio
Author: Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey
Pub Date: March 13th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A mythic novel-in-stories that maintains a fast, unified pace

Several years ago, I discovered N.M. Penzer’s The Harem: Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans, which opened my eyes to the fascinating history of the Ottoman sultan’s harem. What could be more fertile soil for an awesome story than a group of educated women from diverse backgrounds, locked away by a patriarchal society yet with intimate access to the heart of political, military, and religious power, and simultaneously grooming the next generation of the same? The real intrigue and blood-soaked history of the Ottoman Empire’s seraglio might well be called “implausible” if it were to show up in a fantasy novel, but with my pre-existing fascination, the moment I saw a book entitled The Steel Seraglio, I had to read it.

The Steel Seraglio is an impressively structured and well-executed fantasy that follows the experiences of three hundred sixty five concubines who – when their sultan is overthrown by an ascetic zealot – find themselves exiled into the desert, fighting for their lives, and their futures.

The Steel Seraglio is loosely structured as a novel-in-stories recounted by Rem, a librarian from the harem’s home city. With its mythic feel and folktale overtones, I was strongly reminded of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tale and Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge. However, The Steel Seraglio is more accessible and features more consistent momentum than either of these titles. Like most novels-in-stories, it features both nested and discrete, self-contained tales, but in this case each addresses and expands upon the conflict at the heart of this book: the concubines’ battle for self-determination.

The book opens with not one but two prologues, which is an interesting and rather unusual choice. The prologues firmly establish the book’s mythic tone, give a good sense of its flowing, evocative descriptions, and introduce us to the Careys’ daring technical choices. The first of the two prologues transports us to a dry, desert environment and establishes a decidedly non-Western, patriarchal culture heavily influenced by Middle Eastern traditions. At this point, it is entirely unclear whether we are dealing with a secondary world fantasy or find ourselves in some strange quasi-historical environment.

The first prologue does a good job of communicating the flavor of the novel, introducing us to both a setting and style that heavily reminded me of The Arabian Nights and The Shahnameh. Considering how much I like both, and how rare it is to find fantasy which eschews quasi-medieval northern European settings, The Steel Seraglio was quite refreshing.

The second of the two prologues further introduces us to our narrator, the librarian Rem, and lays out some of the background essential to the novel which follows. At the same time, this second prologues shifts to a slightly different, more self-aware narrative voice that strategically abandons some of the mythic tone – and it is this shift in voice that most caught my eye, as a bold and risky stylistic gamble that I felt ultimately paid off.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed both prologues on their own terms, I found the first to be one of the weaker parts of an otherwise strong novel. As mentioned above, the Careys successfully avoid the trap of most novels-in-stories by ensuring that each embedded tale shares and focuses on the novel’s driving conflict. Of all of the disparate sections of the book, the first prologue alone ignores this central conflict. While it does a good job of grounding the reader in tone, style, and setting through some wonderfully evocative writing, when considered as the first movement in the larger score, I felt it to be somewhat out of place. The second prologue, however, does a good job of easing us into the book’s central conflict.

The rest of the book maintains the prologues’ lush descriptions and combines them with a momentum-charged focus on character and conflict. The over-arching story is of how the sultan’s concubines are exiled after a coup d’état, and how they carve out self-determination for themselves. The story skillfully focuses on the experiences of the harem’s leaders (and those of the narrator Rem herself).

The principal characters are a delight: the pragmatic wisdom of the elderly Gursoon, the icy passion of the assassin-cum-concubine Zuleika, the terrifying zealotry of the usurper Hakkim Mehdad, the hilarious cunning of the camel thief Anwar Das, or the self-absorbed immaturity of the surviving prince Jamal are a delight on the page. I found the narrator’s own story a little self-absorbed for my taste, but this is not actually a weakness: the character remained well-drawn and interesting. I just found the others more compelling. Despite the myriad characters, and their many embedded stories, the Careys do an excellent job of capturing the conflicting, complicated, messy, and beautiful relationships of a disparate group thrust into one another’s orbits by powers beyond their control. The fact that the characters are so rich and varied is a testament to the Careys’ skill, and is the primary pillar on which the book’s success rests.

The narrative voice is interesting, and takes a notable (and ultimately successful) risk: the narrator, Rem, is gifted by the djinni with the ability to see possible futures. She is a seer, and a librarian, and a storyteller, embedded in of her own mythic time while cognizant of our somewhat more egalitarian future. The seer character is a trope much over-used in fantasy, but the Careys freshen it with a realistic conceit: with her ability to see into the future, Rem’s voice becomes peppered with anachronisms. Idioms and words that have no business in a mythic tale salt her prose: in the second paragraph of the second prologue, we are told that for a seer who can see the future “Tenses get a bit confused…and unravelling them again can be a bitch.” This departure from the somewhat florid style so commonly associated with myth is shocking, and I found it refreshing.

This is a daring choice of technique, because it risks our immersion in the story: at first blush, we read The Steel Seraglio as a mythic, folktale style narrative. The prose is evocative, lush, flowing: it reads like legend. But by inserting contemporary, anachronistic constructions into otherwise mythic prose, we are forced to reconsider and reevaluate the words and themes introduced by the story. The effect may be jarring. Although some readers might find that it lessens the sense of mythic immersion the prose otherwise produces, I found that the technique was used sparingly enough, and with just enough strategic precision, to heighten my own sense of immersion. After all, wouldn’t someone perceptually unmoored from their own time end up with some rather odd verbal tics? Because the Careys play this narrative device straight, making Rem’s anachronistic tics and stories strange or incomprehensible to her own contemporaries, the effect heightens the world’s remove from our contemporary mores, enhancing the gap between the novel’s patriarchal world and our own.

Just as the novel’s non-traditional setting is refreshing, so too is its thematic focus on women and their self-determination in a patriarchal society. This is the kind of theme that fantasy, a genre stereotypically known for its lantern-jawed (male) heroes, too rarely addresses. While the book wears its feminist themes on its sleeve, the Careys avoid the polemical trap by focusing on the complicated and at times messy emotional journeys that their (predominantly female) characters must take. As a result, the (perhaps obvious) themes are treated with a skill, compassion, and empathy which diffuses and dramatizes any moralizing agenda.

The core thrust of the novel is divided into two “books” within the larger novel, a “Book the First” and a “Book the Second”. While both are well-told, well-structured, and maintain a well-paced momentum, I found that the second of these two books felt somewhat rushed. It focuses on the consequences of the events of the first, but it does so in a much more sweeping, view-from-thirty-thousand-feet fashion than the first eighty percent of the novel. In some respects, as a work of history within the fictional narrative, it works well. And my discomfort with this approach may simply stem from the fact that I wanted to spend more time in the Careys’ world, and in the city of Bessa, and with the characters they introduced me to. But nevertheless, I found it felt to some degree like an attempt at a duology crammed into one volume.

Overall, The Steel Seraglio is a delight. Fans of mythic fantasy like Valente’s The Orphan’s Tale or Frost’s Shadowbridge will likely enjoy both its characterization and evocative description, while readers looking for a fun, action-packed story can find the same in its fast-moving pace. The weaknesses I saw, whether in its initial prologue or in the rushed second book, are on the whole quibbles: the book is great fun, and a rich, lovely work of art. The excellent interior illustrations by Nimit Malavia further add to its artistry, though from a design standpoint the artistry might have been heightened by illustrations more evocative of or otherwise tied to the Arabian, Persian, or Ottoman traditions which feature so strongly in the text itself, and in the excellent cover by Erik Mohr.

The Steel Seraglio is a wonderful, resonant book and I would love to see more such novels from its authors, illustrator, and publisher.

REVIEW: Ride the Moon ed. M.L.D. Curelas


Title: Ride the Moon
Editor: M.L.D. Curelas
Pub Date: February 29th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An enjoyable, entertaining anthology with a wide variety of new authors.

When I think about the anthologies I have read, I tend to break them out into three different types: exploring a particular style (e.g. Supernatural Noir ed. Ellen Datlow, reviewed here), showcasing a particular sub-genre (e.g. Steampunk ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), or plumbing the depths of a specific theme (e.g. Paper Cities ed. Ekaterina Sedia). Through painstaking editorial curation, anthologists consolidate different voices and stories into a meaningful, unified whole. They can become more than the sum of their parts, and at the same time are packed full of fun, entertaining stories. And while I found that Tyche Books moon-themed debut anthology Ride the Moon didn’t culminate in a deeper insight into human nature, the collection of fantasy and science fiction stories was well-selected, well-organized, and definitely a fun read.

Thematic anthologies like Ride the Moon are, in my opinion, the hardest type of anthology to pull off. A stylistic exploration requires attention to style and tone, a sub-genre survey requires breadth and depth within that sub-genre, but a good thematic anthology necessitates building a TOC of excellent stories that are linked on a superficial level (the ostensible theme) and whose underlying truths are simultaneously unified in some fashion. The best example of this kind of anthology in recent times that I can think of is Ekaterina Sedia’s Paper Cities, which (despite the weaknesses of some individual stories) still managed to offer insight into how cities are employed in modern fantasy.

Ride the Moon is the debut book published by a new Canadian small press, Tyche Books. As their launch title, it is impressive. If I hold it to a high standard, it’s because on most measures I believe it comes pretty damn close to meeting it. Most of the stories are original to the anthology, though the occasional reprint (Edward Willet’s “Je Me Souviens” I recognized) is well worth inclusion. Most of the authors are Canadian, and I strongly recommend readers who might not be familiar with SF/F north of the border to check them out. While I recognized some of the authors (notably Claude Lalumière, Edward Willet, and Marie Bilodeau), most were brand new to me.

As the title suggests, every story in this anthology somehow touches on or deals with the moon as metaphor, god(dess), monster, or setting. With its lunar theme, the anthology skews somewhat fantastical: of the eighteen stories, only six are clearly science fiction. However, the remaining twelve fantasy stories tend to blend nicely between the explicit dark fantasy of Lori Strongin’s “A Moonrise in Seven Hours” to the more science fictional fantasy of Ada Hoffman’s “Moon Laws, Moon Dreams”.

About half of the stories – most notably C.A. Lang’s “Tidal Tantrums”, Shereen Vedam’s “Aloha Moon”, Keven Cockle’s “The Dowser” and Amy Laurens’ “Cherry Blossoms” – wrestle with the relationships of myth and magic in a modern, technological society. And while it might be tempting to say that therein lies the anthology’s unifying truth, I’m afraid that theory doesn’t hold up when faced with the anthology’s other stories.

The stories that I enjoyed most invariably did something fresh with both the lunar theme and their storytelling. Isabella Drzemczewska Hodson’s “Husks” is a beautifully written dark fantasy. The prose is lyrical and flowing, and Hodson’s imagery just draws you in. Her use of omniscience in the storytelling works to great effect: despite the omniscient narrator, I found myself embedded in the characters and their experiences. A. Merc Rustad’s “With the Sun and Moon in His Eyes” employs excellent characterization with tight prose. Both the subject matter and story structure reminded me of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, and appealed to me in many of the same ways. Shereen Vedam’s “Aloha Moon” and Ada Hoffman’s “Moon Laws, Moon Dreams” both do a great job of drawing the reader into their characters, though I found the plot resolution of “Aloha Moon” a little too convenient. The biggest stand-out for me, however, had to be Edward Willet’s “Je Me Souviens”: a quiet, emotional, and intensely powerful story about mourning, loyalty, remembrance, and faith.

Some of the other stories, notably Krista D. Ball’s “On the Labrador Shore, She Waits”, Tony Noland’s “Sunset at the Sea of Fertility”, and Lori Strongin’s “A Moonrise in Seven Hours” didn’t work for me. In most cases this was because I found their characters and plot structures fairly predictable. They were well executed for what they were…I just found that they didn’t appeal to me, and were otherwise unmemorable and unremarkable.

In sum, I would say that Ride the Moon is an entertaining, well-written, and well-structured anthology. Despite their significant differences, the stories flow into each other nicely. I enjoyed reading it and – perhaps most importantly – it has turned me onto a number of authors who I might not otherwise have encountered. This is an anthology well worth picking up if only for those two traits. And as a debut from Tyche Books, it makes Tyche a small press that I’m going to be paying attention to going forward.

REVIEW: Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs


Title: Southern Gods
Author: John Hornor Jacobs
Pub Date: July 26th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A reasonably-well structured debut novel with near-perfect Southern Gothic world-building.

Fiction has been mining myth since the first storyteller hushed a campfire crowd. Myths are – at some level – the foundation of every story, and in speculative fiction we often rely on them to shortcut the audience’s emotional response: to get the reader “in the mood”. In doing so, we rely on the oldest, most primal images: eyes glowing red in the night, footsteps behind us in the fog, etc. These images are rooted in our reptile brains, and there’s no way we won’t respond to them. But what about myths of newer vintage? The kind that haven’t been percolating in our collective unconscious for centuries? In his debut novel, Southern Gods, horror author John Hornor Jacobs does a solid job mining two recent American myths: the Blues, and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Southern Gods tells the story of Bull Ingram, a WWII-vet hired to find a missing radio promoter, and Sarah Rheinhart, a single mother from a wealthy Arkansas family who comes back to her childhood home. The book opens with an incredibly well-written prologue set seventy three years before the events of the main story. Too frequently, I find that such prologues merely delay the story’s real beginning and serve no narrative purpose. And looked at unemotionally, one might accuse Jacobs’ prologue of being superfluous: the information it imparts might have been easily revealed through the principal narrative. But in this case, I am more than willing to forgive Jacobs’ his prologue because it is hands down the best writing in the entire book. The prose is mellifluous, rich, and evocative. It draws you in, and makes you feel every moment of emotional heartache and fright. By the conclusion of the prologue, I found myself thoroughly engaged with the story and the unfortunate character the prologue introduces us to. From a plot standpoint, it might not have been necessary, but from an emotional standpoint it earned my complete engagement with Jacobs’ world.

After the prologue, the story jumps seventy three years to 1951 and introduces us to our real hero: Bull Ingram. The main story opens with a classic noir setup: a world-weary and battle-scarred vet is just scraping by as muscle for a Memphis gangster when he gets hired to do a seemingly simple job that turns strange and very dangerous. Noir fiction is just as much about feeling as it is about its tropes, and Jacobs executes very well by taking his time. While the prose in the main storyline is not quite as evocative as the prologue, Jacobs focuses just enough attention to give us a real feel for Ingram’s values and personality. We understand that he is a hard man, able and willing to do hard things when he has to. But he’s also not a bad guy: he’s just trying to get by, like everyone else. By not rushing into frenetic action, Jacobs more fully earns our investment in his hero and our engagement with his southern world.

I found Sarah Rheinhart, the female protagonist, to be far less engaging than Bull. While thematically much of her story arc revolves around re-establishing her own agency (we first meet her leaving her abusive husband), I nevertheless found found her overshadowed by supporting characters for much of her storyline. In particular, her childhood friend Alice upstages Sarah throughout the book’s first half, only to recede to unimportance in the book’s second half. I understand that Sarah’s storyline is necessary for the book to function as a whole, but the role she is given is by nature more receded than I would have liked. If the supporting character of Alice were less engaging, or evidenced somewhat less agency than she does, perhaps I would not have noticed this relative weakness. But as it stands, I found Sarah to be less engaging than Bull.

Bull gets hired by a Memphis music promoter to find a radio promoter who went missing somewhere in rural Arkansas, and to track down Ramblin’ John Hastur, a mysterious Blues musician whose powerful songs are played on a pirate radio station that nobody knows anything about, and which drive people to commit primal acts of lust and rage. And here, within that one sentence description of the book’s plot, we already have the merging of those two quintessential American myths: Hastur’s name is itself taken from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “Haita the Shephard“, from which it was lifted by Robert W. Chambers and then H.P. Lovecraft, and August Derleth in turn. This progression – from benign god of shepherds in Bierce’s story, to the spawn of Yog-Shoggoth in Derleth’s work – is plainly an example of the “folk process” at work on fiction. It also gives the reader an immediate insight into the Cthulhu-flavored horror that awaits them as the book progresses.

Jacobs’ depiction of Ramblin’ John Hastur also reconfigures the legend of Robert Johnson’s Faustian deal, in which the Delta blues legend supposedly sold his soul at a crossroads at midnight in exchange for mastery of the guitar. This legend is probably one of my favorite aspects of the Blues as American myth, and I love encountering it time and again whether it’s in books like Southern Gods or in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Both this legend and the harsh peripatetic lifestyle of early Blues musicians infuse Jacobs’ lush descriptions of the music, his immersive imagery of the early 1950′s rural south, and especially his characters’ dialog.

Jacobs has an excellent ear for southern dialect, and his characters’ speech patterns do a fantastic job of grounding the story in its setting. He does a particularly good job conveying characterization through his characters’ sentence structures, which is done so subtly that I didn’t even catch the mechanism until my second read through of the book. The dialog is easily my favorite part of this book’s writing, because unlike the prose, it is consistently excellent throughout the entire book.

Much as I enjoyed Southern Gods, I did find a number of weaknesses. I have already mentioned the relative weakness of the female protagonist. But in addition, I felt that themes, characters, and plot points introduced in the first half either fade into insignificance in the second, or get ignored fairly completely. Alice, a strong, compelling supporting character is marginalized once Bull and Sarah get together. The intimation of Alice’s ability to perform little acts of magic is dropped with only a cursory handwave. And I found a frustrating asymmetry between the themes of family explored in Sarah’s storyline and the corresponding themes in Bull’s arc. And finally and perhaps most significantly, I found the treatment of religion to be the one glaring weakness in Jacobs’ otherwise excellent world-building.

The Cthulhu Mythos have a long and complex relationship with Judeo-Christian religion. In one sense, the Great Old Ones are an American myth purposefully divorced from traditional religious concepts. But regardless of the cosmogony employed by Jacobs and gradually revealed in the text, the human characters in his Deep South setting would be steeped in their own more traditional religious heritage. Yet religion is almost completely absent from Southern Gods, unless one counts a Roman Catholic priest’s proclamations of atheism. The story repeatedly references Ramblin’ John’s Faustian deal as a deal with the devil, yet nowhere is there any other religious dimension applied to the whole affair, or even referenced in passing. I would have expected some nod towards Southern Baptist or Pentecostal traditions, but I didn’t find any.

By its very nature, Lovecraftian horror operates in opposition to traditional Judeo-Christian religious concepts. That is one of the reasons why Cthulhu and his ilk are so unknowable and terrifying: they are gods inimical to our more comfortable conception of divinity. And yet Jacobs leaves this opposition implied, without even a cursory exploration in the text. In a less well-written book, this weakness would not have stood out so strongly for me. It is precisely because the rest of Jacobs’ world-building is so excellent that this omission becomes so prominent.

Nonetheless, Southern Gods is a very well realized debut novel. It is atmospheric horror that skews into blood-and-guts when necessary. From a violence standpoint, it is not for the faint of heart, and yet both the execution and the narrative purpose of its violence is well considered. When Jacobs depicts violence, he does so well and for a good reason. Nevertheless, squeamish readers may find it a little off-putting. Fans of Southern Gothic will particularly enjoy the book’s first half. Fans of the Cthulhu Mythos will probably get a kick out of the book in its entirety. Southern Gods is a really solid book, and I am definitely looking forward to Jacobs’ next book (This Dark Earth, due out from Simon & Schuster in July 2012).

And to close out this review, here’s a clip of Robert Johnson playing some awesome Delta blues:

REVIEW: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre by Tzvetan Todorov


Title: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
Author: Tzvetan Todorov
Pub Date: 1970 (French)
1975 (English)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A relevant exploration of a narrow sub-genre within fantasy, applicable beyond its borders.

Happy New Year! Now that the formalities are out of the way, I thought I’d take a few moments to share with you what I did between Christmas and New Year’s: In addition to remodeling our library, and turning our dining room into a library annex, I also spent the week slowly and carefully reading Tzvetan Todorov’s classic book of genre criticism, appropriately titled The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Of course, I’d read about Todorov many times before. I’d even read a couple essays he’d written (I particularly recommend his typology of detective fiction). But I figured that it was best to see for myself what he had to say. And though in the end I was very satisfied, this book really defied my expectations.

The book’s title is misleading. From the adjective-cum-noun “Fantastic” it is a short leap to the modern genre of “fantasy” – and so when I first bought the book, I expected to find a master critic expressing his own Unified Theory of Fantasy, like a Northrup Frye or a Wayne Booth for the speculative genre (for two excellent analyses more in this vein, I recommend Farah Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy and Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy). Instead, Todorov uses a much narrower interpretation of fantasy, placing it on a spectrum between stories where ostensibly supernatural events are explained through rational means (which he calls the “uncanny”) and stories where supernatural events are shown to actually be supernatural (which he calls the “marvelous”).

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

To put it another way, Todorov’s uncanny stories are Scooby Doo episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are ostensibly beyond mortal ken (ghosts, monsters, strange worlds, etc.). But by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences are explained away in a naturalistic and rational fashion, thus erasing the supernatural from the story. It’s like Old Man Withers being unmasked by the gang. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Todorov’s “marvelous” stories are Buffy episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are beyond mortal ken, but by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences can only be explained by an acceptance of their supernatural reality. Todorov’s “fantastic” genre, however, is the Twilight Zone: neither the characters nor the reader is ever really certain whether the supernatural events are to be accepted.

This is a much narrower definition of “the fantastic” than “fantasy” would imply. It excludes almost all secondary world fantasy, and almost all science fiction. Even most wainscot fantasies would fall into Todorov’s “marvelous” camp. Which is a shame, because anything beyond his narrowly defined borders gets brushed off as beyond the scope of his analysis.

The first half of The Fantastic is an interesting, if dry, exercise in critical philosophy and semantic hair-splitting. He defines what he means by the fantastic, and provides a definite set of criteria for use in its identification. Given my (incorrect) expectations, the book initially frustrated me. I wanted to gleam sweeping insights with applicability across a broad swathe of fantasy titles and sub-genres. Todorov’s painstakingly detailed definition of “hesitation” or what I would call ambiguity: the uncertainty felt by the character and the reader as to their implied frame of reference for experiencing the story. According to Todorov, if a story has no ambiguity, then by definition it falls outside the bounds of his fantastic. Now, I love ambiguous stories. But most fantasy, and most science fiction, eschews the degree of ambiguity described by Todorov. Let’s face it: there are few Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever or There Are Doors out there.

Yet once Todorov establishes his definitions, he begins to dissect his ambiguous stories in much more painstaking detail, parsing their themes and structures. And here, The Fantastic becomes a treasure trove of insight. The conclusions Todorov draws regarding the fantastic are not, in fact, particularly interesting. They may be thought provoking, but they have limited applicability beyond his caged genre, and furthermore I suspect his reliance on the psychoanalytic school of criticism ignores too many other factors. Yet the techniques that Todorov applies, independent of the genre against which they are applied, are quite impressive.

In a very real sense, Todorov draws the treasure map to a very narrow sub-genre. But by doing so, he shows us how to draw such maps for any other genre in existence. I wish that Todorov had taken the trouble to do the same for both his uncanny and marvelous genres. But the process of structural analysis that he applied to his ambiguous stories can just as readily be applied to secondary world fantasy, portal/quest fantasies, wainscot fantasies, liminal fantasies, intrusion fantasies, and all the rest. And that is why this book remains significant: on the one hand, it adds to our critical toolkit, and by using much-analyzed “classic” texts of the Gothic age, it helps to bring the tools of genre criticism into the “respectable” light of academia.

In that sense, later critics like Farah Mendlesohn or Brian Attebery both benefited from Todorov’s work. On the one hand, they apply to a broader body of work the universal techniques that Todorov pioneered. And on the other hand, they benefit from the fact that Todorov dragged ghosts and demons into the light of critical respectability.

All in all, this is a book on criticism well worth reading. But not for its conclusions: more for its methods.

REVIEW: Planesrunner by Ian McDonald


Title: Planesrunner
Author: Ian McDonald
Pub Date: December 6th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fast-paced adventure story that reads more like adult science fiction than YA science fiction.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald’s adult science fiction. His complex, multi-layered plots and penchant for near-future science fiction set in non-western cultures (Africa, India, Brazil, Turkey, etc.) have always struck me as interesting, engaging, ambitious, and structurally complex. So when I heard that Pyr was going to be releasing a new YA novel by Ian McDonald entitled Planesrunner, I jumped at the chance to read it.

McDonald has earned a large, loyal, and very much deserved following for his adult fiction, I don’t know if the decision to market this particular story as YA lay with the author, his agent, or with his publishers, but it does make reviewing the book an interesting challenge. UPDATE: but his foray into MG/YA fiction represents an interesting critical challenge. The YA and SF genres have different (though overlapping) conventions which stem from both their respective histories and their divergent audiences, and it is unclear through which lens we should look at Planesrunner. What comes first: the science fiction, or the YA?

Planesrunner is told from the perspective of Everett Singh, the fourteen year old son of a quantum physicist involved in the development of doorways onto parallel worlds. Everett watches his father get kidnapped, and then finds that he alone has the clues and capabilities to rescue him.

Judged solely by the protagonist’s age, Planesrunner falls firmly into YA territory. Though the book opens in London, McDonald’s hero comes from a Punjabi background, and McDonald’s excellent ear for local cultures comes through in Everett’s voice. Particularly in the novel’s first third, McDonald paints Everett in solidly contemporary British colors, albeit filtered through his Punjabi background. Everett’s cultural background can likely best be compared to that of Jessminder “Jess” Bhamra in the excellent Bend It Like Beckham: to say that Everett is a soccer-loving British boy tells only half the story, while to say he is Punjabi does the same. This is a blend culture more accessible to western readers than the India McDonald took us to in his (adult) Cyderabad Days, but it is definitely not the whitebread England of Harry Potter. As always, I applaud McDonald’s presentation of cultural complexity.

The first third of the novel focuses on Everett’s reactions to his father’s kidnapping. From the high-powered opening, the story’s pace slows down significantly as we learn more about Everett’s family background (his parents have split up, he has a younger sister, etc.) and we get gradually introduced to our protagonist. We learn about Everett through his interactions with his mother, his soccer team buddy, the police, and his father’s co-workers. Throughout this process, we gradually learn more about the work his father does, and about the parallel worlds that he helped discover. This part of the book is written with McDonald’s typical skill, providing a good feel for Everett, his values, his cultural background, and his life. We grow to care about him, and get engaged in his desire to save his father. All of this is good, however by the standards of contemporary YA it happens rather slowly. Most contemporary YA that dives into the action the way this story does maintains and rapidly escalates the tension from page one. Here, the tension is maintained but its escalation unfolds more slowly. It is effective, but it has more of the feel of an adult novel than a typical YA story.

Once Everett deduces that his father has been taken to the parallel world of E3 and follows him through the gates, the book’s pace accelerates substantially. First, the alternate reality Everett crosses into is a vastly different London, where oil was never discovered. As a result, its 21st-century society runs on coal-powered electricity and has no access to technology we take for granted (e.g. plastics). It is a delightful and compelling steampunk world, complete with vast airship fleets. The concept of a 21st-century London where oil had never been discovered is an interesting one, and McDonald does an excellent job of rendering its technological development believably. But while he does a fine job of nailing the technological/scientific world-building, I am less sold on the cultural flavor of his alternate London, which blends contemporary and pseudo-Victorian sensibilities.

On the one hand, we see that the alternate world has values and a cultural background commensurate or at least compatible with those of our modern world. The villains in E3 are quite at home in skyscrapers, modern dress, and with modern weaponry. But they are set in opposition to a romantic rabble of airship sailors who dress, talk, and generally act like they stepped out of the Victorian era. Perhaps this disconnect is part of McDonald’s point, but upon reflection, I found myself doubtful. Nevertheless, it is a testament to McDonald’s skill at world-building that these quibbles only arose upon reflection: while reading the story, I found the world compelling, engaging, and believable.

Once in this new world, Everett quickly joins up with that staple of the steampunk sub-genre, a crew of airship pirates sailors. They are second-class citizens presented as a rough-around-the-edges but still lovable rabble, quasi-Romany in nature. The characters Everett runs into, in particular his fiesty love-interest Sen, her adoptive mother (the captain), and her Bible/Shakespeare-quoting crewman are all extremely distinct, very interesting, and very engaging. In portraying both this world and the harsh underbelly of its society, McDonald made an interesting authorial choice: most of these characters speak in polari, which IRL is a cant slang developed in the British theater community in the 17th and 18th centuries. McDonald portrays this dialect directly in dialog, making it hard to parse for the uninitiated. I found myself torn as to its effectiveness.

The strategic use of polari deepens the credibility of McDonald’s alternate world. Yet at the same time, it decreases the accessibility of that world. As an American whose only previous encounters with polari had been limited to a handful of phrases in a few episodes of Porridge while living in Europe, I found that it took real work to decode what characters in Planesrunner were saying. Interestingly, Everett had very little trouble doing so: it is possible that growing up in London, he would have had more exposure to polari than I have had growing up in the States. Readers as unfamiliar with it as I was might find that it takes a bit of effort to get through. Overall, this strategy marks an interesting choice, and one that in general McDonald pulls off effectively. However, it is a choice that I have rarely seen in YA. Experienced genre readers will probably just accept it and make use of the glossary at the end of the book, but I am less certain that YA readers will be willing to invest the same amount of effort.

The biggest weakness I found in Planesrunner was that once Everett stepped into the parallel world, it seemed as if he had entirely forgotten about the mother and younger sister he left behind. To some extent, this is a natural consequence of the plot’s focus on rescuing his father. Nevertheless, I had the impression that themes of Everett’s family introduced at the book’s opening remained unaddressed (let alone resolved) at the book’s end. Above all, it is this fact that makes the book feel more like an adult SF novel than a YA SF novel.

Themes of family, of choosing/balancing sides, and of cultural identity are all frequently explored in YA. One can argue (and I’ve done so on this blog before) that at some level all YA novels address the challenge of finding one’s place in a complex, multi-layered, and ambiguous world. McDonald sets these themes up fairly well in the opening of Planesrunner, but fails to follow through on them by its end. Themes of family get re-introduced, with the focus on Everett’s place within the airship’s “adopted family”, but it never ties back to the family he left at home. Perhaps as the series continues we will return to these themes and gain some closure. But stretching a single unresolved thematic arc across a series and without clear inflection points in each installment is something adult series may pull off, but flies in the face of typical YA conventions. It is one thing to end the plot of the first book on a cliffhanger as McDonald (more-or-less) does, but to leave thematic threads dangling (as opposed to tied, whether loosely or strongly) weakens the book’s emotional resonance.

Overall, Planesrunner is a solid adventure. Read as such, it is perfectly enjoyable. Fans of adult science fiction will find it especially satisfying, and will likely find it fast by the standards of the adult genre. Fans of YA science fiction will likely enjoy it as well, though I suspect that long-term it won’t be as memorable as more tightly themed YA novels. Readers of McDonald’s earlier work will enjoy Planesrunner for how it builds on McDonald’s strengths and how it diverges and expands on his previous patterns. However, readers looking for the thematic, structural, and sociological complexity of McDonald’s adult novels won’t find it here. That complexity may exist below the story’s surface, incorporated into the story’s world-building, but Planesrunner is a simpler, more adventure-focused story than McDonald’s earlier work. In general, I found Planesrunner a fun if only partially-satisfying read, but I am definitely invested enough to pick up the next book in the series when it comes out.

REVIEW: Lightbringer by K.D. McEntire


Title: Lightbringer
Author: K.D. McEntire
Pub Date: November 15th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Reasonably compelling characters, but the love triangle was wasted on me.

What is it with contemporary YA novels and love triangles? Maybe I wasn’t quite the lady’s man I thought I was in high school (I’m sure my ex-girlfriends and my wife are all laughing right now), but it seems like everywhere I turn in YA today, I come across a heroine torn between between two opposed romances. Team Gale vs Team Peeta. Team Edward vs Team Jacob. Clearly, I must have missed out on a defining characteristic of the teen years since I didn’t have multiple women competing for my affections. Wendy, the heroine of K.D. McEntire’s debut YA novel Lightbringer, does not have that problem. She’s got two guys fighting over her…and one of them has been dead for a long time.

Lightbringer is an interesting YA paranormal mystery. It’s got the standard love triangle (are there YA books today that don’t?) but that’s actually the least compelling facet of the book. Two entirely different facets caught my attention about Lightbringer: McEntire’s mundane, living characters, and her take on magic and death.

The book introduces us to Wendy, a teenager facing some tough times. Her mother is in a coma, her dad has to travel all the time for work, and she’s responsible for her two younger siblings. And she sees dead people, who she is duty-bound to help move out of limbo into the Light (whatever afterlife that might imply). It’s a lot for a teenager to deal with, on top of school and boys. The plot’s primary engine is Wendy’s quest to find her mother’s not-yet-dead soul, which she believes is lost somewhere in the Never, the limbo-like afterlife that certain stranded ghosts get stuck in. If ghosts stay too long in the Never, they will gradually lose their vitality and fade into Shades. If they don’t want to fade, then there’s a straightforward solution: eat the Lost, the souls of children who haven’t yet moved on. Yeah, it’s a bit dark. And McEntire’s depictions of the Walkers (the ravenous ghost-eating zombies) are chilling. A band of teenage ghosts try to protect the children from the Walkers, though they seem to be fighting a losing battle. The Never makes for a particularly compelling setting, an interesting ghost-eat-ghost parallel world that McEntire skillfully depicts. Her descriptions have an eery, ethereal quality except where the action comes hard and fast. That juxtaposition of misty language for place-setting, and concrete viscera (literally) is a highly effective combination.

Wendy, despite her ability to see the Never and send ghosts into the Light, is entirely unaware of the Never’s social complexities. For her, ghosts are ghosts. She is convinced that by sending them into the Light, she is helping them. That they might have different opinions, or that the Never’s population represents different moral choices, she is utterly unaware. All of this changes, as her quest to find her mother’s lost soul takes her deeper and more aggressively into the Never. There, she meets Piotr – one of the Riders who cares for the lost children. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything (the cover copy makes it clear) by saying that he’s one vertex of that love triangle. Of course, life and love are nothing if not complicated: he doesn’t realize that Wendy is the “Lightbringer” – a monster who destroys ghosts.

While Wendy is looking for her mother, Piotr is trying to find some of the Lost Children, who have presumably been kidnapped by the walkers. This represents a menacing divergence from the walkers’ normal behavior: typically they just eat the kids in question. But now they seem to be acting with tactics and guile, perhaps at the behest of a mysterious “White Lady”. With his experience in the Never, it is natural that Wendy should look to Piotr for help in finding her mother. As the book unfolds, their respective quests remain superficially parallel but separate. It is only through Wendy’s experiences in the living world, through her flashbacks to her relationship with her mother and her friendship with Eddie (Piotr’s rival for her affections) that the reader develops a sense of linkage between the two quests.

Much as I loved McEntire’s depiction of the Never, it was the living characters who carried the story. I wouldn’t expect a teenager who can see dead people and who is essentially duty-bound to kill them to be "normal". And she isn’t: she has issues, and how she responds to her family situation is heartrendingly believable. A grown-up might look at how she is described and shrug it off by saying that Wendy is “acting out”, but her actions are realistic, deftly handled, and most importantly – McEntire skillfully avoids any sense of authorial condescension. Wendy is engaging, and her voice rings true. Her friendship with Eddie, and their complex and shifting relationship both resonated for me in a way that the Wendy/Piotr hookup didn’t.

As a character, Piotr is quite frankly bland. His heart is in the right place, which I suppose counts for a lot, but for most of the book he felt like a placeholder character. All of the ghosts – Piotr included – are one-note characters who were removed from different time periods (one’s a Native American, one’s a flapper, we have no idea what time period Piotr’s from, etc.). Their speech patterns are peppered with dialog idiosyncrasies, which helps to make them distinct, but it does little to really flesh them out as characters. If the ghosts’ flat natures were by design, then this is some clever storytelling on McEntire’s part. It would be an interesting statement about the depth of characters who hang on, rather than move on with their after-lives. But I’m not certain that was the point McEntire was going for: the Wendy/Piotr romance undermines that point.

Wendy’s relationships with the living people in her life are much more fully realized. The scenes involving her younger siblings, who are both wrapped up in their own problems, are incredibly touching. I wanted to see more of those relationships, and to get a better understanding of how Wendy’s family dynamic worked. I really enjoyed the way Wendy’s relationship with her mother is gradually uncovered as the book progresses. The flashbacks that show Wendy learning how to use her gift, and the past/present family dynamics are all presented very well. McEntire does a good job of leaving vital truths unstated: they might get intimated, but it is up to us to make the connection. If we do, then the eventual reveal becomes that much more satisfying.

Bravely, McEntire does not skirt the moral implications of Wendy’s actions. And by the end, the book avoids offering a prescriptive solution to her quandries. Which worked well for me: the dénoument does not tie off the story with a neat little bow. Whatever conclusions she will draw from her harrowing experiences will be unpacked over the course of years (likely years in therapy). There is nothing easy about that, neither in real life, nor in well-drawn fictional characters. And that sense comes through.

The weakest aspect of the book for me was the whole love triangle aspect of it. I admit, I’m inclined to believe that love triangles in YA fiction (in particular in YA paranormal fiction) are ubiquitous to the point of being overdone. But in this case, I don’t believe that the love triangle actually added much to the story. In fact, I felt that Wendy’s relationship with Piotr detracted from the relationships with her family and (living) friends. Perhaps I would feel differently about this if the love triangle had some sort of resolution. But instead of resolving it in some fashion, it ends with a plot hole that I was simply unable to leap across. Hopefully, that plot hole will get plugged/clarified in a sequel, but the lack of resolution in this one book weakened the experience for me quite significantly. If it weren’t for the fact that the love triangle fell apart without resolving, I would happily have given this book four stars on the basis of McEntire’s creative world-building, deft writing, and excellent characterization. It has all of those elements, but the love triangle just really didn’t work for me.

Overall, I think Lightbringer is solid YA paranormal romance/mystery. As this is publisher Pyr Books’ first foray into the YA market, I think it’s a fine title to start with. Artistically, their experiment is a reasonable success (though not a category-sweeper). Despite its one significant weakness, I enjoyed Lightbringer. While I might not recommend it for everyone, I think that folks who enjoy the YA paranormal romance category will find a lot to enjoy in this book. I’m looking forward to more books from K.D. McEntire (whether in the same world or not), and I’m curious to see how Pyr will develop their YA list in the future.

REVIEW: Dear Creature by Jonathan Case


Title: Dear Creature
Author: Jonathan Case
Pub Date: October 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An excellent, heart-warming and hilarious novel told through sequential art.

So in my brain, I had a great blog post all planned out for today. It was going to be a nice and meaty post about different schools of writing process, and the dangerous temptation of superstitious totemic twaddle that so many of us fall prey to. But then I went through my mail from last week, and found a review copy of Jonathan Case’s debut graphic novel Dear Creature. And then my plans went the way of all those of mice and men. I cannot stress enough how excellent this book is, as a work of sequential art, as a story, and as an exercise in writing.

I didn’t even mean to start reading it: I intended to put it on my to-read shelves, and to get to it maybe sometime in the next couple of weeks. But somewhere in the twelve feet between opening the envelope on my kitchen table and putting it on a shelf in my library (probably because I “just took a peak” at the first couple of pages), Case’s story sucked me in like a whirlpool. Dear Creature is the literary, quirky, heart-warming, and deliciously pulpy love story (yeah, I know, right?) of an atomic sea mutant named Grue. Living in a sunken nuclear sub, and to the chagrin of a crustacean chorus, Grue is no longer content to devour lustful beach-going teenagers. With his eyes and heart opened by pages of Shakespeare’s plays found in soda bottles, the lonely sea monster naturally tries to seek out whoever has been sending out these messages.

It’s tempting when reviewing a graphic novel to start with the art. After all, the art is intrinsic to a graphic novel’s storytelling. But what really set Dear Creature apart for me was the writing. While many people who write sequential art are uncomfortable drawing distinctions between comic books and graphic novels, I’m afraid I’ve never agreed with Douglas Wolk’s claim that the sole difference is their binding. A true graphic novel – like Dear Creature, or Gene Luen Yang’s Level Up – is paced and constructed very differently from a bound-up collection of serialized 24 – 32 page comic books.

Most prose novels, whether we’re talking about Dickens, Calvino, or Ian Fleming, cannot be split up into neat episodes without losing some degree of their resonance or storytelling unity. But a graphic “novel” that began life as a series of smaller comic books, like Allan Moore’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, or Garth Ennis’ Preacher can never be more than the sum of its parts, however good those parts may be. That’s just the nature of the beast. But Dear Creature, while it is divided into chapters, coalesces by its very nature into a resonating, cathartic story that draws us in, makes us laugh, and satisfies us only when we have experienced its entirety. Case does not construct his individual chapters the way a comic book writer constructs particular issues: he constructs them the way a prose novelist constructs chapters, relying on the story’s over-arching flow, compelling characters, and emotional narrative to carry us along.

Case builds his characters through a flawless union of art and dialog. Grue, his lovelorn atomic sea monster, speaks in iambic pentameter entirely oblivious to its idiosyncrasy in 1962 California. With all of the book’s focus on Shakespeare, it’s tempting to try to find models in the Bard. But really, I trace Grue’s antecedents more to Cervantes than Shakespeare. Grue is like a modern day Don Quixote, in that for him the high drama of Shakespeare has applicability to every facet of his contemporary life. And if it doesn’t? Well, then by God it should! Case captures this touching quixotic earnestness in Grue’s every pose, centering our attention on his larger-than-life actions whether dramatic or comedic.

Grue is accompanied by a Greek crab chorus used to great comedic effect. If Aeschylus’ Oceanids in Prometheus Bound represent a “perfect audience’s” reactions to the Titan’s plight, then what do Case’s crabs represent? It’s not like they’re sympathetic to Grue’s concerns. Instead, they poke fun at the beleaguered monster and exhort him to return to feasting upon human flesh.

And Grue’s Dulcinea del Toboso? Like Aldonza Lorenzo, the woman who captures Grue’s deep and soulful heart with torn pages of Shakespeare sent into the briny deep is not your stereotypical love interest. First, she’s crazy, as in violently agoraphobic. And she is old (well, middle-aged) in the same way that Aldonza is plain. But just as Quixote looks past the simple truth in the interests of his higher truth, so too Grue simply does not notice. The love that forms between a man-eating atomic sea monster and a middle-aged agoraphobe is poignant, touching, and tragic.

Artistically, Dear Creature is equally clever. Case chose to draw it in a style that made me instantly think of Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Like Eisner, Case uses solid black shading to add depth to his panels, while relying on iconic lines to draw his heroes. This quasi-homage seemed most apparent and appropriate in the case of Henry Craw, a retiring policeman who particularly reminded me of an aging Denny Colt.

By combining excellent character development with superlative dialog, and a heartfelt emotional arc, Case has written one of the best novels I have read in years. And yes, that is novels as opposed to graphic novels. Yet since this book is structured so much like a prose novel, and with characters and writing that clearly trace their lineage back to classic literature, it did raise a question as I was reading it: does Dear Creature need to be sequential art to tell its story? Similar love stories, characters, quirks, and pulpiness have all been captured in prose by other authors before, and in particular this book made me think of A. Lee Martinez’ great books. But what did Case gain through choosing to tell this story visually? I think the answer speaks to Case’s prodigious and multifaceted skills and talents: by writing Dear Creature as a graphic novel, Case was able to get out of his own way. The use of sequential art in this book obviates the need for exposition. By relying on the art to show us what is happening, the dialog is able to stand on its own and remind us of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and classic drama undiluted by descriptive text. Which makes the story tighter, and in some ways purer, than it would otherwise have been.

I commend Jonathan Case for this excellent graphic novel. It is very rare to find a storyteller who is able to write something that is at once literary and meta-textual, while remaining touching and hilarious. To then combine that ear for dialog and prose with artistic talent is even rarer. If you enjoy sequential art, then hands down, you should pick up Dear Creature.

And I think that it should be on everybody’s short-list for the Eisner award.

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