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REVIEW: Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham


Title: Down the Mysterly River
Author: Bill Willingham
Pub Date: September 13th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…

I’ve been a fan of Bill Willingham’s writing for years. His work on Vertigo’s Fables? Hands-down the best comic book writing out there. I’ve particularly appreciated the structure he brings to his sequential storytelling: sweeping, complex plots that more closely resemble epic fantasy than standard super-hero fare (most of which I can no longer stomach). Several months ago at BEA, I managed to snag a review copy of his new middle-grade fantasy novel Down the Mysterly River, which Tor Teen/Starscape just released a couple of weeks ago.

Down the Mysterly River follows the adventures of a young boy named Max who wakes up in the woods one day with no recollection of how he got there. Thankfully, Max is a Boy Scout and so is better prepared for such situations than I ever could be. As he tries to figure out where he is and how he got there, he makes friends with a talking badger, a tyrannical tom cat, and a friendly bear. All four of them are in the same situation, and together they must figure out what brought them to this place. But they must do so while fleeing from the Blue Cutters, a band of sword-swinging fanatics who want to re-create our heroes according to their own ideas of what makes people good. Obviously, Max and his friends are not particularly interested in being forcibly molded.

The book is generally structured as an adventure story, and blended with mystery. Our plucky band of heroes must sneak and fight their way free of the Blue Cutters while piecing together the mystery surrounding their appearance in this unfamiliar world. The book is written in omniscient third, but with a relatively narrow focus on Max. With his self-professed experience at detection, Max eagerly goes about solving the mystery and we are drawn into it in his wake. While Max may proceed with little fear, Willingham expertly uses ominous suggestions to raise tension for the reader. Within minutes of meeting Branderbrock the Badger, for example, we learn that he remembers his own death, suggesting that both he and Max are already dead.

I found the contrasts between positive and negative to be the book’s strongest aspects, and such contrasts show up repeatedly in Willingham’s character development. While our four heroes are drawn sympathetically, three out of the four have darker (or at least more negative) sides: McTavish the Monster (the tom cat) self-identifies as evil and selfish, but evidences unswerving loyalty when put to the test. In many ways, he reminds me of Doli from The Book of Three: on the surface, brash and self-centered, but heroic nonetheless. Walden the Bear is portrayed as dull-witted and lazy, but is giving and capable of great violence when roused. Max, with his capacity for introspection, teeters on the edge of making certain choices that may align him with the Blue Cutters’ morality. His struggles with his own conscience and justification lend the book its moral depth. Of the four heroes, Branderbrock is the only one who does not have a dual nature or conflicting desires. Together, our adventurers are offset by the Blue Cutters, who are depicted with haughty brutality. They are vicious and cruel, and their implacability in particular makes them frightening villains.

Willingham concretizes these contrasts in his battle scenes, where he does not shy away from violence. While I don’t think this weakens the book at all, I think it is particularly notable for its genre and intended audience. Most MG fiction – and even most YA – tends to steer clear of blood-in-the-mud battle scenes. And middle-grade heroes almost never kill human villains. Even in The Hunger Games, which is targeted towards a YA audience and is considered by many to be a particularly violent novel, Katniss Everdeen only directly kills one of the other twenty three tributes. But in Down the Mysterly River, intended for a younger audience, we not only watch our heroes become grievously wounded on several occasions, but we see the Blue Cutters torturing innocent animals, and watch Max actually kill one of the Blue Cutters.

This violence is depicted in a matter-of-fact fashion, and though I was surprised to see a MG novel with this degree of it, I found that it did not draw away from the story. In some ways, the violence lends a visual dynamism to the book: reading along, I imagined sequential panels visualizing the action as if I were reading a comic. This kind of stylized violence brings excitement to a graphic medium, but in prose I found that its implausibility diminished its realism. Yes, the book is violent. But it is no more violent Adams’ Watership Down, the story of Robin Hood, or Brian Jacques’ Redwall series.

Thematically, the violence was also treated seriously. Throughout, our heroes engage in violence defensively. They do not take the attack to the Blue Cutters: they are just trying to get away from people who are intent on torturing and killing them. And Willingham justifies our heroes’ violent response by showing us exactly how vile the Blue Cutters really are, and by making it clear that our heroes are significantly outnumbered. And, perhaps most significantly, he does not let our heroes off the hook: their actions have consequences, and Max is shown to struggle with his choices. That his actions to defend himself and his loved ones are justified in no way diminishes the poignancy of his guilty conscience. And, interestingly, the book seems to suggest that offensive action against the Blue Cutters is an adult right: one that twelve year-old Max is not ready to either understand or undertake.

The world-building is well-executed. Willingham’s cosmology – which lies at the heart of the mystery – is particularly interesting and appealing, though to explain why would unravel the mystery Willingham painstakingly sets up. Readers of Fables will no doubt recognize certain archetypes that show up in his world-building, but they are put to a very different use in Down the Mysterly River. The characterization and how it ties into the world-building is also particularly well done, with non-human heroes who we can understand and believe in despite their fantastic natures.

The writing itself is competent, but I found a number of areas where it could have been tightened. The first quarter of the book tends towards stilted descriptive sentences. At BEA, I asked Willingham about the difference between writing a prose novel and a comic script, and he pointed towards exposition. The book’s beginning clearly shows where Willingham struggled with this: his early descriptions tended to flow more like visual notation for an artist rather than descriptions of ongoing action. However, the text remains functional and his skilled characterization is able to overcome the exposition’s choppiness. And as the book’s plot accelerates, the flow improves and Willingham loses the stilted declarative style that predominated early on. By the book’s mid-point, sentences and paragraphs are flowing smoothly.

The other weakness that stood out to me in the writing was an occasional tendency to over-write. Honestly, I see this as less of a failure on the part of Willingham’s writing as on the part of his editor’s line-editing: good MG/YA editors should know to look out for this and trim it out of the book before it ever goes into production. Yes, this is a book for children. But kids are more perceptive than we stodgy grown-ups like to give them credit for. Even ten year-olds don’t need to have a rhetorical question defined and explained for them: if they don’t know the word, then they’ll pick it up in context. I found this tendency most jarring when it occurred at the end of certain chapters, throwing off the rhythm and dramatic resonance of the chapter’s conclusion. Next time, I would hope such extraneous and unnecessary sentences were just cut: part of what makes great MG fiction great is that it challenges the reader. And kids are especially sensitive to condescension in their reading.

Despite these weaknesses, I found Down the Mysterly River to be a fun adventure. The answers to Max’s mystery were robust, and the characterization and story arcs that Willingham takes us down are immensely satisfying.

For parents who may be concerned about the violence: it’s handled well, and if you have concerns about it, read the book yourself first, and then decide if your kid is ready for it. There’s no universal rule. I found that the violence was tasteful and well-executed. At nine or ten I know that I would’ve enjoyed the book. Whether the same holds true for your kid, well, that’s your call. Grown-up fans of Willingham’s comic book writing will probably enjoy it, provided that they remember that it is not a Fables book. Comic book retailers – who I’ve heard had trouble selling Willingham’s earlier prose novel in the Fables universe – may find that Down the Mysterly River is a great transition book for kids who read books like Owly and might now be ready for more grown-up fare.

I really enjoyed Willingham’s first foray into his own prose fiction, and I hope to see more books like this from him.

REVIEW: With Fate Conspire by Marie Brennan


Title: With Fate Conspire
Author: Marie Brennan
Pub Date: August 30th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A risky undertaking that is more than half-successful.

A while back, I received a review copy of Marie Brennan’s With Fate Conspire, the fourth in her Onyx Court series. Now, let me start with a confession: before receiving my copy, I hadn’t read any of the earlier books. I know, I know – alternate/secret history set in various periods in London’s history? Liking historical fantasy as much as I do, one would think I had devoured this series from the first book up to now. But for whatever reason, I missed it until finding its fourth volume in the mailbox. Holding the book in my hand, I faced a choice: I could either catch up on the previous three books, or I could just dive into the fourth. Doing so would be a risk: would I miss vital backstory or world-building? I didn’t know. But I justified my decision with the fig leaf of “someone else might pick up the fourth book first, right?”

With Fate Conspire is set in an exceedingly well-researched late nineteenth century London. It features two primary viewpoint characters: the mortal Eliza O’Malley, a poor woman of Irish descent living in the London slums and Dead Rick, a faerie skriker (a Lancashire name for a lycanthropic faery who is an omen of death – more commonly known as a Black Dog) living in the Onyx Court’s Goblin Market. When we first meet Eliza, we quickly learn that she is desperately seeking a way to track down the faerie who kidnapped her lover seven years prior. When we first meet Dead Rick, we find him brutally forced to work as a slave, enforcer, and errand-boy for Nadrett, a criminal kingpin in the Goblin Market. Connecting both perspectives is the accelerating industrialization of London: the rise of iron-based industry and the development of the London Underground Railway are destroying the faerie city.

When we first meet both characters, they already have interesting pasts. Eliza’s lover was kidnapped by faeries and she foiled a faerie terrorist attack on the London underground. Dead Rick’s past is more mysterious, but it somehow put him at the mercy of Nadrett. At first, I assumed that these histories were the backstory that I had missed by not reading the earlier books. But then I realized that A Star Shall Fall is set more than a century before With Fate Conspire – which means that their backstories could not possibly have been in the pages I’d skipped.

When I picked up the fourth book in the series, I risked missing out on vital backstory. But writing the fourth book in the series, Brennan took a similar risk: she placed the moment of displacement – the point where Eliza and Dead Rick’s adventures start – off-screen. This is a particularly risky approach: by not allowing us to participate in her protagonists’ displacement, Brennan risks our investment in the characters and their world. I really enjoyed the structure and courage that this showed, but I found that the risk was only partially successful.

Dead Rick is modeled as a hero (see my post on A Theory of the Hero). We are shown his desperation to survive the Onyx Court’s imminent collapse, and his willingness to commit violence, but there remain lines he refuses to cross. He is a moral character, despite the self-loathing we see. He is an aspirational hero who wants to survive while still doing what he feels to be right. He may not always succeed, but he continues to aspire. He is used to show us the lawless underbelly of the Onyx Court, and the amoral brutality of some faeries. The challenges he face are existential: will Nadrett kill him? Will he survive the imminent destruction of the Onyx Court? Will he become like Nadrett to do so?

The portrayal of Dead Rick and faerie society were the high points of the book for me. First, I always enjoy well-drawn heroic characters. The challenges which Dead Rick faces are packed with drama. On an individual level, the unflinching depiction of Nadrett’s brutality and Dead Rick’s desperation make him particularly sympathetic: I cringed to see his experiences and wanted everything to work out for him. At the same time, his story becomes a microcosm of the Onyx Court’s story. Dead Rick’s experiences concretize the drama of the Onyx Court’s collapse by showing us the little guy’s perspective. Dead Rick is no chosen hero, capable of saving the Onyx Court from London’s industrialization. He can barely keep himself alive, let alone save the faerie city. But it is his courageous struggle against insurmountable challenges that makes his story a page turner. In Dead Rick’s case, Brennan was able to successfully skip his backstory: the sympathy he engenders, his emotional stakes, and his relationship to the Onyx Court’s broader struggle were enough to earn my investment.

By contrast, I found Eliza to be the far weaker character. If Dead Rick is defined by his rough moral code, then Eliza is defined by her obsession with tracking down Owen Darragh. This is not an existential challenge. The worst-case scenario for Eliza is that she never finds him. But because we did not get her backstory, we are not as invested in her quest as she is. Brennan tries to make Eliza sympathetic using tools parallel to those used for Dead Rick: Eliza is a poor costerwoman of Irish descent. Her experience of London is that of the down-trodden and the discriminated. While this works to make Eliza somewhat sympathetic, her story lacks the emotional tension of Dead Rick’s. The dilemmas she faces are not moral in nature: she rarely needs to choose between right and wrong, or the lesser of two evils. Short of killing innocents, she’s happy to cross almost any line in her quest. Her challenges are almost always tactical, and they fail to mirror or concretize those of broader mortal London.

In Eliza’s case, skipping of the backstory did the character a disservice. It made it impossible for me to really invest in Eliza’s travails. This problem is especially apparent when compared against Dead Rick’s storyline. Eliza’s difficulties and choices are inconsequential when set against Dead Rick’s primary problem (the catastrophic collapse of the Onyx Court).

That the faerie perspective is more compelling than the mortal one probably should not be a surprise. The Onyx Court is the primary constant throughout the (surprise surprise) Onyx Court series – which in and of itself is an interesting structural feature. Most contemporary fantasies that deal with the world of faerie tend to be either portal or intrusion stories where the focal lens is a human who finds themselves caught up in the magical world. In those stories where a human isn’t our lens, we often see through the eyes of a faery who – for all intents and purposes – tends to be indistinguishable from a super-powered mortal.

When writing a series, most authors take the safe approach of following one set of characters as they progress through events that can be encapsulated within a mortal lifetime. But Brennan takes a different path. Rather than give us characters to follow over the course of a single escalating adventure, she instead opens a window onto a particular time in the history of the eternal Onyx Court. The effect is like tuning into a long-running TV series mid-episode, mid-season. By nailing the faerie perspective – and lending it continuity throughout the series – Brennan is able to diminish the impact. Yet the relative weakness of her mortal character (Eliza) underlines the fact that the faeries – and how the Onyx Court deals with the challenges it faces – are the author’s primary concern. I am curious whether the mortal characters in the earlier books are as weak as Eliza.

Despite Eliza’s weakness, With Fate Conspire remains a very good book. Dead Rick’s story is – in my opinion – enough to carry it, and ultimately make it a satisfying experience. The world-building and research stand out for the level of detail and the skill with which they are woven into the story. The book’s pacing was fairly solid, providing moments of rising tension and breaths where I could assimilate the plentiful skulduggery and intrigue. Fans of “London Above / London Below” fiction along the lines of Kate Griffen’s Matthew Swift novels (see my earlier review), Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: A Novel, or China Miéville’s King Rat will likely enjoy With Fate Conspire, as will fans of painstakingly researched and imagined alternate/secret histories like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel, or Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy.

Perhaps the strongest recommendation I can offer is that after finishing With Fate Conspire, I went out and bought the preceding three volumes. Brennan took a significant risk structuring this book as she did, and while she may not have succeeded as well as I might have liked, neither did she fail. I applaud her courage, and her skill for getting it more than half right. I’m looking forward to the preceding three books.

REVIEW: Blackdog by K. V. Johansen


Title: Blackdog
Author: K.V. Johansen
Pub Date: September 6th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An interesting epic fantasy that narrowly focuses on characters while playing with epic fantasy tropes.

It is tough to write an epic fantasy that adheres to the sub-genre’s conventions while still offering something new and innovative. Different authors use different techniques: Sanderson’s Mistborn subverts the idea that the hero always wins, Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series expands the scope of epic fantasy (see my earlier review), and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy undermines the trope of the perfect hero (see my earlier review). In her US adult debut Blackdog, K.V. Johansen builds a sense of narrow-focused hyper-locality embedded within a larger epic structure. By going small, Johansen is able to make her perspective characters, their struggles with madness and redemption, and the world they populate particularly compelling.

Blackdog opens from the perspective of Otakas, the protector of a remote mountain goddess named Attalissa. Otokas is an aging warrior, possessed by the mad spirit of the Blackdog. The Blackdog is crazy – utterly and implacably obsessed with protecting its goddess. It has gone centuries possessing one warrior after another, willing or not. From the opening pages we get the sense that Otokas and his predecessors walk a thin line between sanity and madness, constantly struggling against the Blackdog’s violent obsession.

Right away, we are given an interesting, compelling character whose perspective establishes the basics of Johansen’s world. In this world, gods are fundamentally tied to a particular place. Attalissa is not an all-powerful (or even moderately-powerful) goddess. While she may be the most powerful deity in her neighborhood, that neighborhood is still a backwater. Far away, there are empires and grand cities…but neither Otokas nor his goddess are interested in those places. They have one small corner of Johansen’s world, and the rest can go hang. Otokas’ mild irreverence and his dry, cynical sense of humor are put to good effect establishing this attitude. It immediately tells us that Blackdog is concerned with local matters, not the fate of the world. But while Attalissa and Otokas may be uninterested in the wider world, within the first chapter that world decides that it is interested in them. A warlord appears (literally) with an army on their doorstep, and Attalissa – an immortal goddess incarnated as a mortal child – and Otokas must flee to keep the goddess from being devoured. Otokas is able to get Attalissa out of her temple, but he is badly wounded. When he dies, the spirit of the Blackdog possesses Holla-Sayan, a foreign warrior traveling through Attalissa’s domain.

That first chapter is quite an action-packed opener, as within the first couple of pages we meet a compelling protagonist (Otokas), and right away find ourselves under siege. Despite the hard-hitting action, Johansen does an excellent job of keeping her world-building accessible, sliding it in between the arrows and sword fights. By adhering closely to her perspective character’s perception of the world, she gradually lays her world-building blocks. She manages this so subtly that the devices she utilizes are almost transparent: I had to look for them to find them hidden in the text. My first time through the book, I just got caught up in the adventure.

By the time we meet Holla-Sayan (and having read the back cover copy), I pretty much thought I knew what to expect from the plot: Holla-Sayan would be the hero, keep the goddess safe, wait for her to mature into her full power, try and organize some sort of resistance, come back and kick the warlord’s butt. And while in the loosest possible sense the book does follow this framework, the way in which Johansen executes it is particularly interesting.

This is not a standard “savior returns” fantasy: our “hero” is concerned first with keeping his own sanity, and only secondly with a warlord who did him personally little harm. Instead of focusing on the warrior/mentor/hero dynamic, Johansen builds a believable assemblage of secondary perspective characters who all act under their own agency. Since it will take years for the goddess to mature into her powers, she will need some sort of nascent resistance organization in place. But with Holla-Sayan too busy struggling with the Blackdog, this task is told from the perspective of one of Attalissa’s warrior priestesses. Holla-Sayan and the goddess actually spend most of the book completely ignorant of the goddesses’ supporters back home.

Each of the book’s six or seven perspective characters – including the warlord Tamghat and the goddess Attalissa – has a dark history that they are (in one way or another) trying to get through. Holla-Sayan is the only relative innocent among the lot of them, though his innocence is pointedly juxtaposed against the Blackdog’s animal savagery. While dealing with the superficial objective of defeating Tamghat or capturing Attalissa, each of the book’s key characters has to come to terms with themselves and their past choices. Johansen handles this emotionally fraught territory skillfully, offering a distinct flavor and different resolution to each of their stories. Where the resolutions do not satisfy, it is solely because some true conclusions are by their very natures unsatisfying: that is their point.

If there were a cheap “How to Write Epic Fantasy” book out there (and I’m sure there is somewhere) I suspect it would have at least one chapter on the value of epigraphs for world-building. Epic fantasy titles routinely get mocked for starting each chapter with a fragment of epic poetry, or a legend, or a piece of a history book, etc. from the book’s universe. As a reader, I’m always a little leery of epigraphs. Sometimes, I find them useful and insightful, but mostly I find they just take up space and add little to either the world-building or the story. I admit, after reading the first or second epigraph in a book, I’ll usually just skip the rest until after I’ve read through the text at least once. K.V. Johansen, however, eschewed epigraphs in Blackdog. Instead, she concluded certain chapters (particularly the early chapters) with a brief paragraph from an old-fashioned storyteller’s tale.

At first glance, one might be tempted to ask who cares? But by placing her epigraphs at the end of her chapters, Johansen is able to more effectively manage her pacing and the reader’s insight into the plot. The early chapters of Blackdog were particularly fast-paced and action-packed, and the epigraph at the end of the chapter gave much needed breathing room, an opportunity to pause and absorb the preceding events before diving into the next frenetic chapter.

Furthermore, the epigraphs adequately serve the function Diana Wynne-Jones lampooned with her “Legends” entry in the The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: they take us out of the perspective character’s head, and provide the reader with a brief glimpse into omniscient perspective. By carefully controlling what information is disclosed, we can put a number of facts together before our perspective characters do, which makes it that much more satisfying when our heroes catch up to us and figure it out. It’s a tried-and-true device frequently found in epic fantasy, and executing it deftly requires a careful balancing act: too much information, and the book yields no surprises. Too little, and the epigraphs offer no value. Johansen’s epigraphs – which only appear at the start of the book – manage this tightrope very effectively.

Johansen also uses creative dialogue markers to support her storytelling. Many of the perspective characters wrestle with madness and possession, which means that they have a lot of conversations with themselves. For those characters who are deeper in the throes of madness, or when the lines between their personalities grow more blurry, internal dialogue shifts from conventional form to more of a European fashion: Roman (straight, non-italicized) text, preceded by em-dashes, and lacking any “he said / she said” markers. This is particularly effective in the latter half of the book, where it amplifies the blurred and swirling wash of personalities within some characters’ heads. The overall effect is one that allows the reader to enjoy the whirlwind of madness and identity while still keeping characters and their diverging personalities straight.

Of the book’s perspective characters, only Attalissa did not appeal to me: this is the book’s primary weakness, and the reason why I’m giving it three stars. The goddess is one of the book’s most central characters, yet she has the least agency of them all. At the beginning of the book, when she is a little child, this is understandable and acceptable. But as she grows up, she continues to be passive and let events happen to her rather than take charge of them. This is understandable, given the character’s psychological make-up and history, yet nonetheless, it noticeably slows the pacing significantly in the chapters told from her perspective. It is not until the book’s climax that she becomes an active force, at which point her chapters accelerate to match the rest of the book.

Barring this one weakness, I quite enjoyed Blackdog. I felt that all of the characters were competently executed, even if Attalissa’s passivity throughout the book’s middle third bothered me. The world-building and the textual devices employed particularly stood out as interesting and of noticeable quality in the story. I would recommend Blackdog to people who have been exposed to epic fantasy before: this is not as accessible as (for example) David & Leigh Eddings’ work for new epic fantasy readers, but it is much more accessible than a lot of the hardcore epic fantasy out there. I believe fans of Brandon Sanderson or Brent Weeks in particular will enjoy this book.

REVIEW: Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse by Otsuichi


Title: Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse
Author: Otsuichi
(translated by Nathan Collins)
Pub Date: September 21, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A carefully constructed collection of unsettling horror stories with purposeful use of language.

Maybe it’s because I spent a decade living abroad, or because both my parents are immigrants. But for whatever reason, foreign techniques in storytelling and art have always fascinated me. Now and again, I find myself going on a binge of reading from a particular part of the world, and several months ago I started a Japanese binge – made all the harder knowing nothing about the language, and having only local sushi joints and the little otaku pop-culture I’ve been able to observe as culture references. But in my blind stumbles around Japanese literature, I picked up Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse written by Otsuichi and translated by Nathan Collins.

This is subtle, literary horror from Haikasoru (an imprint of Viz Media that specializes in bringing Japanese genre titles to the United States). Reading it brought to mind old-school Gothic works by folks like Sheridan le Fanu or Daphne du Maurier, with some of the creepiness of Edgar Allen Poe. What made this three story collection stand out were the prose techniques employed by Otsuichi (or possibly his translator). Using word choice and sentence construction as the subtle thematic bedrock is a rare treat in the horror genre.

The first (titular) story was written when Otsuichi was still in high school, and it shows some of the still-rough techniques that he would hone in his later works. Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse is told from the perspective of a nine year-old girl’s corpse, and I consider it to be the weakest of the three stories in this book. I cracked open the spine unfamiliar with Otsuichi’s writing or Nathan Collins’ translations, having been stung by particularly poor translations of other Japanese books in the past. As a result, the opening pages made me very concerned. The sentences were simple. Almost each one was a declarative statement. They were stilted. Choppy. The narrator’s observations were superficial and factual: this happened and then that happened and then something else happened. Reading these initial pages, I thought: “Great. Another lousy translation.” But I was wrong.

The unsubtle language that opens the story is purposeful. Otsuichi (and his translator) use simple sentence construction to put us in the head of his nine year-old narrator. As the story progresses, we watch through her eyes as her friend (and murderer) and her friend’s older brother try to hide her corpse. The narrator, in a child’s spare and simple language, tells us the facts of what happened, but the narrator’s understanding is limited by her age. Once she dies, the language grows more complex as her after-death experiences change her perceptions of the world. The transition happens subtly over the course of the story, and Otsuichi and Collins manage to make this transition smooth. If I were not looking for it, I might not have noticed it.

Once I realized that the author was doing this on purpose, I could get past the unsubtle prose and into the story. Despite being satisfied, I remain troubled by how superficially the narrator’s perceptions are presented. There was precious little introspection or abstract thought, and most nine year-olds I’ve met have some capacity for both. While this technique may be a cultural trait of Japanese fiction (Yasunari Kawabata excels at such purposefully superficial presentation), the degree to which it is employed in this story made it difficult for me to engage emotionally with any of the characters. However, the story’s disquieting ending relies on the narrator lacking an adult reader’s understanding of its implications.

The second story in the collection, Yuko is much shorter, much more powerful, and from my perspective, the best story in the book. Taking place in an indeterminate time period (could be present day rural Japan, could be any time in the last couple of hundred years), it follows a young, uneducated housemaid who takes care of a writer and his bedridden wife, Yuko. The housemaid, however, never sees, speaks with, hears, or interacts with Yuko, only with her husband. Scenes are presented from both the housemaid’s perspective (where Yuko never appears) and from the husband’s perspective (where he interacts with Yuko).

Reading this story, the beautiful language matters tremendously: the author and translator use lyrical, literate language and style to pull a fast one on the reader. That is not a bad thing. Throughout the story – almost to its end – the language evokes a conviction in the reader’s mind of one reality. And then with just one word – one word placed in just the right spot – it flips the reader’s genre expectations from horror to mystery. I had to go back to the beginning, and read it all again, before finishing the story with a new set of reading protocols.

That one word is the hinge on which Yuko pivots: before the hinge, the story is horror, generating that delightful sensation of creepy, disquieting terror. After the hinge, the terror is gone, replaced with an intellectual curiosity seeking an explanation: a mystery. When that explanation comes, the terror returns – but it is subtler, deeper, and darker than the Gothic terror inspired before that hinge.

Since reading this story, I’ve been wrestling with this technique. It is excellently executed, and manipulates the reader brilliantly. I had thought I was reading a Gothic horror story, and suddenly I found myself reading a Gothic mystery. Cleverly done. Yet at the same time, the technique stood out as a technique. It was like a slap in the face: there was no way I could have missed it. And I do not know if that is good or bad. Should the impact of word choice and sentence construction be noticeable to the reader as they are reading? Does seeing the mirrors ruin the trick? I loved this story, and the emotional ride it took me on. So I suppose it works. “Good” might be like pornography (and science fiction): I know it when I see it. But as a writing technique, I think it might be extremely risky.

The last and longest story in the book, The Black Fairy Tale, takes far fewer risks. It is a short novel told in three parts: the first is a grizzly, frightening tale about a raven who steals peoples’ eyes as a gifts for a blind girl. This was my favorite part of the story, with beautiful lyrical prose that tells a heart-breaking story of love, devotion, and the light and darkness of memory. The second part is told from the perspective of a teenage girl who loses her left eye, receives a transplant, and now sees her new eye’s memories. The final part is told from the perspective of the raven fairy tale’s author. On a superficial level, the teenage girl and the author’s story are linked: they come into gruesome conflict. Below that superficial level, the stories are unified by the fairy tale itself, with its focus on memory, vision, and detachment.

The emotional terror evoked by the story is its most powerful aspect. The story’s violence is depicted and described, and some of it gets fairly rough, but throughout it is handled tastefully; its horrific nature is in the emotional implication of what it does (or has done) to its victims. The story’s language, and in particular the gradual evolution and progression of imagery throughout the three parallel parts, makes this story a delight to read.

The book’s biggest problem is its organization. The Black Fairy Tale makes up over sixty percent of the book, yet it is the third story. The opening story – Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse – is the book’s weakest: I almost put it down before realizing that its unsubtle sentence construction was purposeful. I can imagine that many readers unfamiliar with Otsuichi or Collins might have given up without getting to the good part. A better way of organizing the book would have been to start with either Yuko or The Black Fairy Tale.

Regardless, the book is well worth reading. Fans of western horror will enjoy a title that hearkens back to the strong, subtle, emotionally resonant horror of du Maurier, le Fanu, and Poe. I think this is a good intro to Japanese horror and I’m definitely going to be checking out more from Haikasoru.

REVIEW: Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke


Title: Let’s Play White
Author: Chesya Burke
Pub Date: April 26, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An quiet, emotional ride.

Meeting a book is a lot like meeting a person for the first time. The setting, the company we find ourselves in (the book included), and the general ambiance all have an impact. The honest truth of the matter is that if I – a middle-class white guy in my late twenties – had not had the pleasure of meeting Chesya Burke at Readercon this past year, I probably would have skipped over her collection Let’s Play White. I would have judged it solely on the title, and Jordan Casteel’s excellent cover, as being intended for a different audience. And if I had skipped it, I would have missed a quiet collection of emotionally powerful short stories that remind me of Shirley Jackson at her best.

It’s tough to try and identify a common theme across the eleven stories in this collection. Yes, they all deal with race, class, and gender to some extent. But the stories avoid both strident polemics and simplistic allegory. Instead, Burke focuses on the more emotionally intense inner experiences of her characters, thus going beyond the superficial trappings of race, gender, or class. It’s tough to bring the totality of a character – incorporating both their personality and societal context – to life in a work of short fiction. There just isn’t that much room to build that reader/character relationship. But in each of the book’s stories, Burke pulls it off by giving us vibrant, powerful, and vivid characters that we can follow and feel for. Which is why the horror of their experiences is so powerful.

The stories in this collection are tough to classify. They skirt the liminal edge between horror, dark urban fantasy, noir, and straightforward mainstream literary fiction. Stories like “Walter and the Three-Legged King” or “He Who Takes the Pain Away” have a magical realist flavor to them, but the magic does not produce horror in the reader. Instead, the choices the characters make, and the consequences of those choices evoke that sense of horror.

Several of the stories stand out as being particularly effective. “I Make People Do Bad Things” is an excellent noir story set in early 1930’s Harlem. Anyone familiar with the history of post-Prohibition gangs in New York will enjoy Burke’s spin. Most of the stories and movies (like The Cotton Club) I’ve come across that focus on that time period tend to zoom in on the larger-than-life personalities of Bumpy Johnson, Dutch Schultz, and Lucky Luciano. But “I Make People Do Bad Things” instead focuses on Madame St. Clair, who was the Dutchman’s primary competition in the Harlem numbers racket. Burke opens up an interesting (fictional) window into her life and times, and in particular into a relationship she develops with a young girl with mysterious powers. The story pulls no punches, and portrays the kind of hard-as-nails toughness that is particular to all great noir stories. Yet at the same time, Burke manages to make St. Clair a more human character than most noir heroes, with fully realized flaws, regrets, and acceptance of choices made.

Both “Purse” and “What She Saw When They Flew Away” are quiet, heartfelt stories of loss that have few – if any – fantastical elements to them. The former evokes horror both on an emotional and visual level, while the latter is difficult to even call horror, unless that is the horror of deep sorrow. Were it not for the powerful visuals in “Purse” I suspect both stories would fit well within mainstream literary magazines, opening a window into the sad reality of women coming to terms with the loss of daughters and sisters. In many respects, I thought that they blended the quiet humanity of Shirley Jackson’s best work with Richard Matheson’s tactical use of violence.

Of the stories in this collection, “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” brought Shirley Jackson most to mind. In particular, it reminded me of my favorite Jackson short story (“Flower Garden”, which I’ve written about before). From a plotting and a stylistic standpoint, the two stories are very different. For one, “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” is more insistent. For another, it is much more direct than the Jackson story and represents bigotry head-on in its action. Yet despite this directness, it evokes similar sensations of horror and judgment, while retaining a quiet depth that will stay with me for quite some time.

Not all of the stories in this collection worked for me. In particular, I found the plot of “Walter and the Three-Legged King” unsatisfying at its conclusion. Much as I love ambiguous endings left open to interpretation, I felt that this story’s ending was too rushed, missing out on a symmetry to balance its excellent beginning and middle. Similarly, “CUE: Change” stood out as being a touch more simplistic than most of the other stories in the collection. In and of itself, it was not a bad story: the narrator’s voice was excellent (arguably one of the best executed voices in the collection) but I found that the story’s resolution lacked the subtlety and quiet resonance of its neighbors. Of the eleven stories in the collection, only three didn’t really work for me.

If you’re looking for a gore-spattered mess of horror, then Let’s Play White is probably not the book for you. Sure, Burke has scenes of visceral blood and guts, but they are rare in these stories, and then only used to evoke horror tangentially. Like Jackson, Burke taps into that eternal font of the most horrific aspects of humanity: our twisted desires, reasoning, and emotions. She shows what happens when we are pushed too far, but she does it with a deft hand and subtlety that is refreshing. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work in the future!

REVIEW: The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan


Title: The Clockwork Rocket
Author: Greg Egan
Pub Date: June 21, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An extremely detailed exercise in scientific world-building, though skimpy on character engagement.

Before I get into reviewing Greg Egan’s new book The Clockwork Rocket, I feel I must offer a disclaimer: I am neither a physicist nor a mathematician. The fact that I need to preface a discussion of the book with such a disclaimer should already tell you a lot about it. The Clockwork Rocket is hard science fiction, an impressive exercise in rationalist world-building that posits a universe whose physics differs significantly from our own. And while the book wins my applause for its science and world-building, I’m afraid the characters left a little to be desired.

The Clockwork Rocket follows the character of Yalda, a non-human female who lives on a planet quite unlike the Earth we know. She comes from a rural farming backwater, where few people are literate (despite the fact that her species can naturally manipulate their bodies’ shape and structure with enough precision to form symbols on their skin).

From the start of the book, Yalda is set apart from her neighbors. Unlike most of her siblings and cousins, she is introduced as a child who is discriminated against due to her lack of a predetermined mate and her large size. Using a child perspective character to gradually introduce the reader to some pretty complicated world-building is an old trick, but Egan pulls it off reasonably well. As Yalda learns about the physics of her world, we learn alongside her. When she becomes a teacher, we learn along with her students. The book is structured such that each chapter represents a particular event in her life, with jumps of indeterminate time between them – sometimes spanning days, other times entire years. We get to follow Yalda as she leaves the family farm, and begins to get a proper university education…still subject to her society’s discrimination and social expectation that females should be content to die giving birth to their children.

By the end of the first several pages, we are absolutely certain that we are not in Kansas anymore. If the structure introduces a problem, it is that there is a colossal amount of world-building to communicate. How much world-building would that be? Well, over on his web site Egan has posted over 80,000 words (that is not a typo) of notes on the physics and math alone. They are a thing of beauty. He’s even got cool tutorial videos! However, the strategy employed and the density of the world-building both lead the first half of the book to consist of little other than one scientist explaining something to another scientist (with copious diagrams and some explanation of formula). While the explanations are intellectually interesting, the lack of emotional tension and density of the scientific material may be off-putting to some readers.

From a plotting standpoint, two basic tensions are introduced. First, Yalda’s species has an interesting reproductive cycle. Females die giving birth, and if they delay reproduction for too long they risk involuntary parthenogenesis. This creates an interesting dynamic between the genders of her species, and leads to some thematic tension. Because she lacks a mate, Yalda is under particular pressure by the establishment of her society. As an independent thinker who aggressively seeks education and rejects the standard female role in her society, she challenges that establishment, and of course that establishment pushes back. It was refreshing to see that throughout the book, Yalda at no point needs to be rescued by a man. I can respect a hard SF story that puts a female scientist in jeopardy and doesn’t have her rely on an alpha male to save her.

The second tension is an impending apocalypse caused by two universes (with different rules of physics) colliding. As they collide, Yalda’s world is in danger of being destroyed. As a theoretical physicist and the discoverer of her universe’s flavor of relativity, Yalda is at the heart of her species’ efforts to save themselves. Their solution – to build a rocket ship that can be taken out of time, filled with top scientists, and then re-inserted into their timeline when the scientists’ descendents have figured out a solution – is ingenious. It is really cool that Egan’s alternative rules of physics make this plausible.

World-building vs Emotional Engagement in The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

The Clockwork Rocket: Intensity of Reading Experience

One would think that both the societal pressure and the risk of apocalypse would lend Yalda’s story a degree of emotional tension, but unfortunately whatever tension is produced gets subsumed by the sheer volume of diagrams and scientific explanations. The physics are fascinating – but I found that I didn’t quite care about the character as much as I would have liked to. This is especially a problem for the first half of the book, where the reader’s learning curve is very high. Once we’re grounded in the physics, the character and her problems become more engaging. But two hundred pages of world-building is a lot to plow through before we can really start investing in our perspective character. The Clockwork Rocket is not unique in this issue: much hard SF shares this problem (Kim Stanley Robinson’s classic Red Mars comes to mind). While readers used to hard SF who enjoy the intellectual challenge may enjoy this, it is not for everyone.

Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket is particularly interesting when compared to Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Like Egan, Yu posits a universe with rules of physics entirely different from our own. But Yu’s book focuses on the internal and emotional experience of his everyman character. It is through his character that we understand Yu’s world-building. Egan’s strategy is to focus on the world-building first, and then have the character follow. These two different approaches yield very different reading experiences.

Ultimately, I found The Clockwork Rocket reasonably satisfying. But that satisfaction was very cerebral: the book resonated intellectually with me in the same way that a particularly neat thought experiment might. Fans of hard SF will love the complexity, rigor, and comprehensiveness of Egan’s world building. However, now that Egan’s universe is introduced and his characters are left in a fairly interesting situation, I hope the next book focuses more on the characters and less on the physics. The physics are great – but alone they can’t really carry the story.

REVIEW: Graphs, Maps, Trees by Franco Moretti and a Critical Wish List


Title: Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History
Author: Franco Moretti
Pub Date: July 21, 2005
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A stimulating model for literary criticism.

So I’ve got a bit of a confession to make: I’m a critical theory nerd. I love the philosophical debates that arise from Russian formalism versus post-structuralism, and I get a twisted masochistic enjoyment from reading Derrida’s mysticism-disguised-as-science. If I’m not reading genre fiction, odds are my nose will be buried in a critical text. But despite this guilty pleasure, it is the rare work of theory that changes how I think about the written word. But that’s exactly the kind of reaction I had to Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History.

A Criticism of Critical Theory and the Application of Science

Even at its most basic “Spot runs” level, the key to effective writing has always been communication. Which is why I’ve always found it mystifying that the lions of critical theory forget this basic tenet. It is a shame that in the practical world of academia, a book as lucid, well-reasoned, and communicative as Farah Mendelsohn’s impressive Rhetorics of Fantasy will spawn far fewer doctoral dissertations than the jumbled arguments of Derrida’s Of Grammatology. This just makes me sigh.

I suspect it is because my background – for the most part – lies in market research, computer sciences, statistical linguistics, economics, and mathematics. My brain is wired to work in an analytical fashion more commonly found in the hard sciences. In those fields there is zero room for the ambiguity and fuzziness present in critical theory. If a mathematician were to try to publish a paper whose equations were as muddled as the majority of critical theory texts, she would be laughed right off the top of the ivory tower. Ultimately, beneath the rhetoric of their presentation lies objective science.

However, objective need not mean uncontested or incontroversial. Consider today’s economic debates about the “right” solution to the Greek debt crisis. There’s a joke that says if you put two economists into a room, you’ll have three opinions. Yet since the early 20th century, the critical theory establishment has eschewed a rational, scientific approach to literary analysis and instead has gone down the rabbit hole of spurious semantic navel-gazing. And while that has done a lot to further the peer-reviewed publication credits of many theorists, I’d argue it hasn’t done terribly much to move our understanding of literature forward. And it also limits the critical debate to the in-crowd who grok Derrida and Foucault.

A New Formal Science for Literary Analysis: Macro versus Micro

Which is why Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees is so refreshing. First, his argument has a clarity to it that most critical theorists lack. He lays out a logical case, and presents his arguments in a reasonably accessible fashion.

Fundamentally, Moretti is trying to bring the science back into critical theory. In one sense, he is updating the early 20th century’s formalism with the computational tools available to us in the 21st century. And that means that he’s mixing oil and water: words and numbers. Moretti’s underlying claim is that the close reading that forms the foundation of post-structuralism, New Criticism, most contemporary brands of Marxist criticism, etc. is a shibboleth: its propononents risk missing the forest for the trees. He argues that we can learn more about literature by applying statistical techniques across and within multiple texts. He proposes a separation between data collection and its interpretation, which is how economics, mathematics, physics, and literally every hard science in existence has operated for centuries.

A Framework for Quantitative Literary Theory

A Framework for Quantitative Literary Theory

Comparing it to the dismal science (economics), Moretti’s approach is to close reading what macroeconomics is to microeconomics. Moretti argues that we now have the tools to analyze literature at a macro-level, thus enabling us to notice aspects that close reading’s micro-approach would not spot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this approach is controversial. Most of the folks I’ve met in the humanities self-select as “bad at math.” So a theoretical framework that relies on statistics and charts is likely to be scary: it is quite literally a new critical vocabulary, requiring an entirely different set of skills. Yet this vocabulary can be particularly compelling, and offer new insights to our understanding of genre and literature.

Moretti’s Critical Toolkit

In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Moretti explains three independent tools that can be applied to literary analysis. He devotes an entire section to each of these three techniques, and the they can even be read separately without losing much of his over-arching argument.

State of the Genre: Graphs

Of the three, the first section (graphs) is the most compelling, most understandable, and most readily applicable. A picture is worth a thousand words, and I don’t need to be in the business of data analysis (which in my day job I am) to know that graphs can communicate information more succinctly than pages of text. The statistics that Moretti employs are as simple as they get: there are no formulas, no equations, no actual math is ever shown. All Moretti does is visualize data on publication history. That’s the kind of charting we all learned back in fourth grade, but which has so rarely been applied to literature.

Once that data gets visualized, Moretti is absolutely right that certain basic trends jump out at us and demand explanation. Which is where the critical aspect comes into play. Data by its nature is an observation: it tells us “what” but not “why”. And so Moretti attempts to explain the observed behavior of the data, providing some interesting insights into the periodicity and lifespan of genres in 19th century British texts. His critical conclusions – as he himself states – are not new. Others had made similar observations before. But by visualizing an extensive set of data Moretti is able to make a stronger – less anecdotal – case. In one sense, it is like particle physicists seeking empirical proof for the Higgs-Boson. The theory supporting its existence is not new: but there’s a lot of data crunching needed to prove it.

In speculative fiction, genre fragmentation is a very real trend. We’ve got hard SF, soft SF, zombie, splatterpunk, cyberpunk, sword and sorcery, steampunk, etc. And because our minds are statistical supercomputers, we perform quantitative analyses like Moretti’s every day when we say “Vampires are so over!” or “Hard SF is dying.” We base statements like that on a fuzzy sense of what’s being published, but we generally lack the hard and fast numbers to back up such hyperbolic statements. This is just as true for critics as it is for consumers, authors, publishers, and booksellers. By looking at actual data on published texts, we can lay to rest these debates about the health of different sub-genres and perhaps identify incipient trends that are just beginning to percolate. If I were a genre publisher, or a bookseller, I would be running these kinds of analyses once a quarter to have a more scientific handle on what’s going on in the marketplace: what my competitors are publishing and what my consumers are reading. Note that this analysis has nothing to do with the quality of what is being done: merely an observation of what is happening.

State of the Book: Maps

In his second section, Moretti dives into a deeper analysis of particular texts. Rather than try to put together graphs, he draws maps based on the events, characters, and locations of the texts he is analyzing. His argument that visualizing the relationships within a book may provide us with insights into its themes and characters is extremely compelling.

Unfortunately, the science in this section of the book begins to break down. While his maps are thought-provoking, he fails to provide us with an explanation of how they were generated. In the hard sciences, nothing can be proven if a given result cannot be replicated independently. Yet Moretti fails to provide an explanation for process by which his maps were derived. Are they based on actual observed/collected data? Or are they instead conceptual diagrams meant to symbolically represent relationships within and between texts?

If the former, then a further and more precise explanation of his methods would be necessary. Such an explanation would allow other critics to replicate, test, refute, and expand on Moretti’s findings. If the latter, then a discussion of the principles and approach by which he designed the maps would also be helpful for the same reason. While this opens the door to interpretative ambiguity, it would be helpful to give other critics insight into this tool.

I would love to apply Moretti’s mapping concepts to fantasy fiction in particular. Think of the classic fantasy texts that rely so heavily on location: Alice in Wonderland, Little, Big, Peake’s Gormenghast books, or the Lord of the Rings. Speculative genres – which rely so fundamentally on world-building – are particularly conducive to this kind of analysis, and I believe we can gain much deeper insight into their themes and techniques through its application.

Relationships Between Books: Trees

In the third and final section, Moretti describes trees as a tool for analyzing the relationship between different texts. Again, this tool is less a statistical one than it is a way of visualizing large amounts of information. Essentially, trees present a certain hierarchy: they have a flow to them from one point (or set of points) to another. We’ve seen these kinds of trees many times before: flowcharts, genealogies, or folders on our computer.

But by visualizing literary works in a tree-like structure, we are able to notice relationships and trends that might otherwise get drowned out. This is particularly interesting as we examine the evolution of genres. Moretti is well aware of this, applying this technique to the mystery genre. In particular, he uses trees to visualize how Arthur Conan Doyle and his contemporary mystery writers used clues in their stories. He makes a claim that Doyle’s use of clues is why Sherlock Holmes and the rationalist mystery has survived into the present day, while his contemporary competitors have been forgotten.

His argument is compelling, and it would be far more difficult to communicate if he did not have diagrams and pictures that made it easier to follow his argument. This is another tool that I would love to see applied to speculative fiction. For example, I would love to represent the presence of invented languages in speculative fiction using these tools, and then juxtapose that against their sales statistics. Whether we learn anything that publishers, booksellers, or authors can apply is uncertain: but the results would certainly be interesting.

Doing What It Means To

At its core, Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History does what it sets out to. It describes a set of techniques that can – and should – be utilized in the world of literary analysis. It shows how those techniques can be used to derive new insight into literature and genre, thus giving us a greater understanding of how written art functions.

At first glance, these techniques may seem scary. But in reality, they’re not that terrifying. Moretti’s techniques don’t use, or even any math that goes beyond an elementary school level. If he uses that kind of math, it is hidden beneath his accessible charts. If you know how to plot a simple graph, then you can begin applying his techniques. For teachers of critical theory, they offer a powerful tool to make theory accessible. Ultimately, one of Moretti’s pictures is worth ten thousand of Derrida’s words…if only because it is so easy to grasp.

From a scientific standpoint, this book is not perfect. It lacks some of the detail that would be laudable or expected in the hard sciences. But Rome was not built in a day, and had Moretti included that level of detail, I imagine that many critical theorists would be even more frightened by his ideas. I hope that more theorists – and especially genre theorists – look at Moretti’s work and try to apply some of its insights to speculative fiction.

With that in mind, here’s a short wish list of analyses I would love to see. These are really just a list of charts/diagrams that would then be wide open to interpretation and further analysis, but I think they would be really interesting and thought-provoking:

  • Graphs:
    • Number of Genre Texts Published in Hardcover vs Softcover by Sub-genre over Time
    • Unit/Dollar Sales of Genre Texts by Sub-genre over Time
    • Median Advances by Sub-genre over Time
    • Median Length of Texts by Sub-genre over Time
  • Map Analyses:
  • Trees:
    • Plot Tropes in Hard SF over Time
    • Gender Characteristics by Sub-genre over Time
    • Economic Systems by Sub-genre over Time
    • Usage of Neologisms by Sub-genre over Time

Golly…I wish I didn’t have to work for a living and had easy access to the archives of Bookscan / Amazon.com data to do even a quarter of those analyses. Anyone in the publishing industry want to pay a peer-reviewed, internationally published market researcher to put together some of this research?

REVIEW: Supernatural Noir ed. Ellen Datlow


Title: Supernatural Noir
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Pub Date: June 22nd, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Excellent storytelling, though slightly more supernatural than dark.  

 

First, let me start by saying that I love noir fiction and film. Give me a good hard-boiled detective story, and I’ll lap it up – typically not looking for much beyond entertainment. I also love dark fantasy and horror, and so the thought of blending them in a new anthology fittingly titled Supernatural Noir sounded great to me. Throw in one of the best editors working in the business today – Ellen Datlow – and I am definitely there. Having read a digital review copy, I can say that Dark Horse’s Supernatural Noir delivers as advertised, even if it may lean closer to dark fantasy than I would have liked.

With Datlow’s editorial pedigree, this should come as no surprise. On my shelves at home, I have over fifteen anthologies edited by Datlow (often with excellent collaborators like Terri Windling). I admit, I’m a bit of a fan. Historically, her anthologies have demonstrated a particularly consistent ability to showcase top-flight authors and stories, and to assemble them into collections unified along whatever dimension is relevant to a particular book. The table of contents for Supernatural Noir is no different in this regards.

The authors read like a “who’s who” of dark fantasy (more so than noir): Gregory Frost, Melanie Tem, Paul G. Tremblay, Laird Barron, Jeffrey Ford, Joe R. Lansdale. Sixteen authors contributed original short stories for the anthology, and all of them come from a dark fantasy / supernatural / horror background in their writing. This is not a complaint, but it should be an indicative fact: the authors selected for this book skew by experience towards the “supernatural” part of the anthology’s title, so it should not be surprising that their stories lean in that direction. If you are looking for horror stories written by hard-boiled mystery writers, you won’t find them here. Instead, this collection offers dark fantasists’ spins on the hard-boiled crime story. Which – I would argue – is just as fun, although it means the noir elements might get a little de-emphasized in some places.

A large number of stories (either explicitly or plausibly/implicitly) are set in the time period from the late ’40s to the late ’70s. Considering noir‘s roots in the late ’40’s and ’50’s, this makes sense to me: the square-jawed hero (or stalwart heroine – more on this in a sec) in a worn trenchcoat is emblematic of the post-War period. But the difference in tone between the stories set in this post-War period and the stories set in a contemporary (or vaguely futuristic) setting is striking. The stories set closer to WWII – like Richard Bowes‘ “Mortal Bait”, or Joe R. Lansdale’s “Dead Sister” – tend to employ a greater number of noir tropes. The later a story is set, the less prevalent noir‘s emblematic elements become. What does this say about modern society and the evergreen qualities of noir as a sub-genre? Is noir possible in a world with mobile information and instant access? Judging by the excellent contributions from Melanie Tem (“Little Shit”) and Nick Mamatas (“Dreamer of the Day”), the tropes of traditional noir fiction need to be adjusted and updated to operate in our modern reality: the tropes that worked in the days of vacuum tube televisions may not work any longer.

The second stand-out was the number of female and queer heroes featured. In many ways, this is representative of noir‘s original values: it should be only natural for a genre typified by a frank treatment of violence and sex to grow beyond the “haunted square-jawed hetero male detective” trope. The variety of heroes employed in these stories was encouraging, although at times it stretched some bounds of credulity. For example, while I thought Caitlin R. Kiernan‘s story “The Maltese Unicorn” was great fun, I was haunted by an inability to completely buy its heroine in 1935 New York.

Coming to it looking for fantastical noir, the anthology will be reasonably satisfying. If you come to it looking for noirish dark fantasy, I suspect you will be more satisfied. All of the stories here are competently executed. Some including Jeffrey Ford’s “The Last Triangle” and Elizabeth Bear‘s “The Romance” (which snuck up on me delightfully) will stay with me for a long time. Others, like Laird Barron’s “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven” just didn’t suit my own tastes, although I recognize their quality. Only two stories (Joe R. Lansdale’s “Dead Sister” and “Mortal Bait”) didn’t work for me for critical reasons: in both cases, they featured characters/voices that did not stand out, and plot structures that I found predictable. Interestingly, both were among the stories that adhered most closely to traditional noir structures. I believe their weaknesses highlight the single greatest challenge in modern noir: crafting a hero and voice that is distinctive and interesting. Most of the stories in this anthology – even those that did not particularly appeal to me – manage to get it right.

If I have one complaint to register, it’s a relatively minor (and inordinately geeky) one. I really enjoyed reading this anthology for its entertainment value. But I would have loved to see one or two critical essays discussing noir and its long relationship with the fantastic (and the Gothic). While I would have loved to see that, I freely admit to being a the kind of dork who likes reading literary analysis.

I recommend Supernatural Noir for fans of hard-boiled detective fiction who want to dabble in the fantastic, or for fans of dark fantasy/horror who want a touch of hard-boiled crime. And that recommendation really says it all: Supernatural Noir delivers as advertised.

REVIEW: Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley


Title: Cowboy Angels
Author: Paul McAuley
Pub Date: January 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
High-concept, hard SF alternate history with a spy-thriller edge.

I first came across Paul McAuley’s work sometime in the mid-to-late ’90s with his genetic cyberpunk (genepunk? I’ve always thought this should be a term) masterpiece Fairyland. Since then, I’ve always kept my eyes open for new McAuley novels and have found far more hits than misses among them. While his books span a variety of sub-genres (space opera, alternate history, genepunk, etc.), they share that high-concept imagination that underpins the best in science fiction. It was that same high-concept approach to alternate history which attracted me to his new novel, Cowboy Angels.

Books employing the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics are a dime-a-dozen, and so that on its own isn’t really enough to grab me. However, in Cowboy Angels, McAuley asks a question: what if the United States had found a way to travel between alternate versions of Earth at the height of the Cold War? In our real history, the Cold War was characterized by the domino theory, containment, détente, and proxy wars fought all over the world (Central America, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, South Asia, etc.). A downright fascinating time period in history, with the all-too-real primacy of the CIA, KGB, Mossad and other espionage agencies. McAuley’s brilliant concept is to introduce parallel worlds as a new front in this Cold War, which to my history-loving mind made me sit up and say: “Right on, this is going to be awesome!”

Cowboy Angels follows one Adam Stone, a retired special operations agent for the CIG (Central Intelligence Group). He has made his career as a spy working to spread US-style democracy across alternate versions of America. We first meet Adam Stone at the end of an era: American policy is changing with the election of the “peacenik” President Carter, and the nature of the Company’s missions is evolving. Adam Stone is comfortable with this change, having grown disillusioned by the manifest destiny ideology that had put him in moral quandaries in alternate Americas. But not all of his fellow agents are as comfortable with their country’s shifting values, and the book’s plot explores the lengths some people will go to in service of their ideology.

The novel’s plot is structured like a spy thriller, with Stone being called out of retirement to track down his friend and former partner, Tom Waverly. Waverly has gone on a killing spree across multiple alternate realities – killing the exact same woman over and over again. Neither the local authorities in those realities nor the Company know why. And so Stone gets reactivated to try and bring his friend in. What follows is a spy-thriller, but rather than have us jet off to exotic locales, McAuley takes us to exotic versions of the United States. Stone’s hunt for Waverly takes us to a kleptocratic New York decimated by nuclear war, to a United States that had been leveled in an apocalyptic World War III, and to a version of history very much like our own.

This is not a James Bond-style spy caper, where our hero gets to enjoy the good life in sunny Macao, Monaco, or other fancy places that begin with the letter “M”. While some of the alternate realities our hero visits seem bucolic, even pastoral “untouched” realities have their gritty undersides. And McAuley artfully exposes us to that, using blood and sinew to temper the novel’s escapism.

In terms of general concept, Cowboy Angels gets ten out of ten points for me. The idea of Kennedy-era expansionist/messianical foreign policy applying across alternate worlds practically begs to be written. Once again, McAuley’s ability to identify and execute on a particular concept is compelling.

However, for me, the book relied too heavily on this (admittedly awesome) concept to carry it. There were three weaknesses that detracted from my enjoyment of the book. Successful execution of both the novel’s concept as well as its spy-thriller plot structure requires distinctive settings, and the concept enables for some fascinating alternate versions of our world. While we get tantalizing glances into some fascinating settings (Nuclear Winter America, an American government-in-exile in Cuba, etc.), the majority of the book takes place in settings only slightly different from what we know. The settings we explore are different enough to remain distinct, but I think there was a wasted opportunity to explore some really interesting alternate versions of America. With so much of the book’s backstory dealing with the Cold War and the fight against Communism, it struck me as particularly odd that at no time did our hero venture into a Communist version of the USA.

The second, less significant, issue I found lay in some aspects of McAuley’s characterization. In particular, Stone’s romantic interest (which serves as a significant motivator through much of the book) struck me as particularly under-developed. Overall, I bought the character: I felt Stone was believable, and engaging. But I was unable to shake that arms-length disconnect and engage enough with the character enough to lose myself in his world(s). It was close – almost nailed just right – but I found that I just didn’t feel enough of Stone’s motivation. The solid plotting and awesome concept were enough to carry me over this weakness, but I wasn’t close enough to the character for McAuley’s gears and cogs at work to disappear.

The third, and least significant, problem I came across lay in the book’s pacing. Please don’t get me wrong, this is a fast-paced book, and it reads very quickly. However, the pacing is relatively unvaried throughout the text. This is an issue I often find in spy-thrillers: too often, I suspect their authors and editors believe readers equate escalating, no-respite events with being a page-turner. This leads to a go-go-go pacing which can be tiring if not offset and balanced against the emotional arc of the story. Just yesterday, Ursula K. Le Guin posted a great essay on this very subject. By giving his character – and the reader – room to catch one’s breath, McAuley could have deepened my emotional connection to the character and the story. By slowing down the story in a couple of places, the overall result would have been more emotionally powerful.

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Visually, the novel is attractive and stands out nicely. The cover was designed by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke and features an illustration by Sparth (aka nicolas bouvier). The cover really communicates the novel’s feel, contrasting futuristic Turing Gates against the decidedly-less-futuristic trains emerging from them.

Much as I enjoyed Stone’s adventure, my own personal tastes would likely have preferred to see the book’s backstory moved to the front. The transition from “manifest destiny” to “peace and reconciliation” and how that transition unfolds amongst the Company’s agents would be a really fascinating story, and one particularly relevant in today’s geopolitical environment. McAuley has set up a fascinating universe with infinite potential for clever, high-concept, and emotionally powerful stories. I would love to see a prequel set in this same universe exploring the Church Committee’s investigations into the Company’s clandestine operations.

Cowboy Angels is a very enjoyable book. The underlying concept is strong enough to overcome the minor weaknesses in setting, characterization, and pacing. That concept was enough to get my imagination firing, and often that’s exactly what I look for in SF. If you enjoy a good spy thriller, or get a kick out of playing with alternate histories, this book is definitely worth your time.

REVIEW: Chasing the Moon by A. Lee Martinez


Title: Chasing the Moon
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Pub Date: May 25, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An engaging, amusing read with decent characters.

A. Lee Martinez’ books are characterized by their serious plots, sympathetic characters, and an infectious humor that bubbles out of the cracks in his characters’ fictional lives. His latest novel, Chasing the Moon is a solid, enjoyable book that continues to showcase Martinez’ facility with genre tropes.

Chasing the Moon follows Diana, a vaguely-down-on-her-luck coat salesperson, who manages to land a great apartment. However, that apartment opens up Diana’s mind to all of the dark, Lovecraftian monsters that have stumbled into our reality. Diana must deal with the creatures in her apartment, the twisted realities of her entire apartment building, and ancient gods who want to devour the moon. All in a day’s work, right?

Martinez’ singular strength lies in portraying normal people in absolutely extraordinary situations. His ability to depict humanity, with all its shortcomings and strengths, is what imbues his books with humor. For Martinez, every monster – however alien, however monstrous, however evil – is just trying to get by, like you or me. Sure, that may mean destroying our universe, or devouring anything and everything in its path, but hey – nobody’s perfect. Martinez’ humor bubbles out of the clash of expectations created by these characters. Genre fans will expect the eternal embodiment of hunger to devour everything. That he might view his hunger as an eating disorder is unexpected, refreshing, and makes the character instantly sympathetic. Martinez places his heroes – human and inhuman alike – squarely before the abyss, and time after time he perfectly nails that moment when a nice person would reach out to shake the abyss’ hand.

While Martinez often gets compared to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, I think a better comparison might be Tom Holt. Like Holt, Martinez tightly controls the lunacy of his worlds. Chasing the Moon – like Martinez’ earlier books – lacks the gonzo anything can-and-probably-will happen world-building of Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And while it shares Pratchett’s serious-story-grounded-in-a-comedic-setting framework, Martinez’ world is more firmly grounded in our reality than Discworld, where everything becomes grist for Pratchett’s parody mill. I would argue that Chasing the Moon is not a parody at all, but that Martinez uses humor to show what makes us human.

While I greatly enjoyed Chasing the Moon, there were two aspects that left me vaguely unsatisfied. It’ll be a little difficult to explain without giving any spoilers, but here goes nothing:

The speed with which one of the principal secondary characters gets shuffled out of the story left me a little surprised. I suspect that was partially Martinez’ point: that someone we have invested in for much of the book, someone who bears under the strain for a while, may suddenly crack, or that the cracks might have been there all along and then suddenly give way. I also understand the need to contrast that character’s attitude and approach to the heroine’s. But that being said, the resolution to their interaction struck me as rushed. I would have preferred to have lingered on it a little longer, to explore that secondary character’s evolution a little more deeply. It was a choice, and I don’t necessarily think Martinez made a bad one. Just one that left me a little dissatisfied (which might equally well have been his point).

A less significant concern for me was the aspect of horror in this novel. Martinez clearly knows his science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes, having played them like a violin in his earlier novels. The influence of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith on Chasing the Moon is clear. But while Martinez manages tension very adroitly, that tension never veers into the gut-wrenching, abyssal horror that was emblematic of the classic Weird Tales pulps. Perhaps I’m a little jaded, or perhaps Martinez’ heroine is a little too plucky, a little too ready to deal with the horrors she faces. The tension escalates nicely, but I found myself reading it more like an adventure story than a cosmic horror tale. That being said, it reads as a very strong adventure story.

Overall, I strongly recommend Chasing the Moon. It is a fast-paced, really engaging read. Much like life, it has its moments of laugh-out-loud humor, coupled with moments of deep emotion. If you enjoy Tom Holt, John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars, or Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, I expect you will get a particular kick out of it. It’s a great summer book, perfect for reading on the beach…although beware of tentacles reaching up from the depths.

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