Thursday, June 26, 2014

Darker Than You Think

Jack Williamson
Completed 6/26/2014, Reviewed 6/26/2014
4 stars

I selected this book for the Grand Master, Masterworks, and Fantasia Challenges.  I knew nothing about this book or Jack Williamson.  I had some concern because one of the sub-genre tags is Werewolves.  Call it prejudice, but I only think of werewolves in the context of B-movies and of course the recent vampire/werewolf romance craze.  So I wasn’t expecting too much.

The book begins with a low-budget black and white horror feel.  A reporter meets a mysterious woman at an airport while waiting for a press conference at the arrival of a a professor and his research team’s plane from Asia.  The woman wears a white wolf fur.  None of the reporter’s friends have a good first impression of her.  The wife of the professor is blind and has a seeing-eye dog who doesn’t like the woman either.   When the plane arrives, the woman disappears.  The professor takes the podium and states he has a major announcement sure to shock the world.  He begins a long, drawn out story to lead up to the announcement.  And just before he can state it, he dies of an asthma and heart attack.  

I couldn’t believe the melodrama of this scene.  The foreshadowing was uncomfortably obvious.  The soapy sudden death right before the big announcement was almost laughable.  I thought I was in for 282 pages of sheer torture.  The story continues with Will Barbee, the reporter, making a possible link between April Bell, the mysterious woman and the professor’s death.  They have drinks and dinner complete with clunky dialogue.  April confesses to being a witch.  That night, Barbee has dream about turning into a wolf.  Somewhere around that point, the book grabbed me.

The basic plot is very simple and formulaic.  The characters are two-dimensional.  You see everything coming.  But I found Barbee’s nightly excursions in the transformed state mesmerizing.  It makes the scenes which take place during the day more riveting.  I found myself consuming the book despite feeling like I was in a 50’s black and white creature feature movie.

An interesting part of the story is that Williamson attempts to add some science into the werewolf/witch mythology.  I found it quite fun, although he brings up a lot of science that is now outdated.  For instance, he places the origin of Homo Sapiens in the Gobi Desert rather than in Africa.  He has his characters involved with ancient strict Freudian psychology.  And when he discusses a germ theory, all I could think about was commercials from the 70s for Listerine and Lysol.  But I enjoyed the attempt and quickly found myself willingly suspending disbelief.

One thing I like about early the early SF writers, particularly in their short stories, is their regular use of the twist at the end.  It’s one of the reasons I love Bradbury’s short stories, and of course, “The Twilight Zone.”  “Darker” has a neat little twist at the end.  It’s not a shocker, but it adds another layer of fun to the experience.  

When I began the book, I was sure I was going to give it two out of five stars.  Instead, I give it four stars, not because it’s great literature, but because it’s a fun excursion into the earlier days of SF, Fantasy, and Horror that some of us older folks enjoyed as kids on Saturday nights in front of our gigantic twelve-inch black and white television set.  

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Cold Commands

Richard K. Morgan
Completed 6/18/2014, Reviewed 6/18/2014
3 stars

Second-book-of-a-trilogy slump.  That was my take of Morgan’s second installment in his “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy.  It continues the exploits of Ringil, Egan, and Archeth.  The first novel, “The Steel Remains”, spent a lot of time on world-building, back story, and character development, but it still had a plot within itself.  “Cold” lacks much real direction.  Its sole purpose seems to be to set you up for the forthcoming third book in the trilogy.  That left me as cold as its title.

The book suffers from lack of strong central plot.  Instead it gives you three overwrought story lines that don’t feel like like they’ll ever reach a denouement.  Instead you’re left immersed in lots of mood and lots of setup for the third book.  It gives you more insight into the three main characters.  Ringil has become an anti-slavery terrorist.  He attacks a large slave caravan, killing many of the overseer and freeing the slaves.  This of course makes him a marked man, forcing him to go into hiding.  Egan is more or less working security for Archeth.  Of course, he’s still butting heads with authority, this time with the forces of the Citadel, the center of the powerful religious movement that is close to dominating the society.  Archeth, still the Emperor’s right hand, investigates a report that the Ilwrack Changeling is staging a return to destroy humanity, and deliver the earth back into the hands of the evil Aldrain race. 

While all this seems exciting, the arc of each story line is incredibly long.  The book’s chapter order follows the same basic format of the first: Ringil, Egan, Ringil, Archeth, repeat.  While this created a strong episodic feel to the first book, it made this plot feel interrupted and detached.  Everything felt moody and meandering rather than building tension.  Granted, the characters are moody.  They’re anti-heroes, after all.  But the story could still be tighter.  I tried to read this book more quickly than the first, just to have a better sense of continuity for the three story lines.

The book did finally come together in the end.  It was very exciting.  The build-up simply took too long.  I was saddened by it because I still like the characters and where the story’s going.  I like Morgan’s prose.  And when I really concentrated on the parts where nothing felt like it was moving forward, I was able to appreciate his prose. 

Perhaps part of my disappointment with this book lies in the fact that I read and loved the first book just a month ago, and I read Gene Wolfe’s classic “Book of the New Sun” fantasy series starter “The Shadow of the Torturer” right before this.  Wolfe’s book is the first of a tetralogy, uses a lot of mood, and very obviously sets you up for the next book.  But Wolfe accomplished it with much more flair and in about a third less time.  I’m beginning to think I need to vary my reading between Fantasy and SF a little more to cleanse my palette between books of the same genre, maybe throw in some horror and contemp lit as well.

I’m still really looking forward to the third book which is coming out this October, despite reportedly being half again as long as this one.  And I’d plan to read some of his SF later this year.  I like Morgan’s prose, I like our three anti-heros, and I like the fantasy universe he created.  I’m hoping that I’ll go into it with a little more trepidation and perhaps lower expectations, and find it to have been a good series, rather than a first-book-wonder.  I give this book 3 stars with strong hopes for the trilogy’s completion.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Shadow of the Torturer

Gene Wolfe
Completed 6/7/2014, Reviewed 6/17/2014
5 stars

I struggled in my selection of a Wolfe book for the Grand Master challenge.  I didn’t want to start another series that I wouldn’t be completing for a while, but the title intrigued me.  Torturers and executioners are usually just nameless cameos in books and movies, not main characters.  And I remembered the book and its sequels from the pre-B&N mall bookstores, which must mean something.  I got the book from the library, read it quickly, and immediately put the rest of the series on my TBR pile.  This isn’t your average fantasy novel.  To quote Roger Zelazny’s back cover quote, it’s “…a portrait of a young man as a torturer.” 

The basic conceit of the book is awesome.  It’s the translation of a journal from Urth, i.e. Earth of the future, when the sun is dying.  The summers are short and the days are dreary.  The language of the future is no longer close to ours, and there are some words which are clearly “mistranslations” while others might even be made up by the “translator”.  Fortunately, I read the “Notes on the Translation” before getting to the end of the book, where this is explained.  It opened up a whole new level of understanding of Wolfe’s genius.  I think if I had not read the Notes until the end, I would have been floored as well, but would have needed to immediately re-read the book.  Perhaps that was his intention (evil grin).

The torturer, Severian, is the narrator, with a supposed eidetic memory, though there are times when you wonder if it’s as accurate as he thinks.  He recounts his youth as an apprentice torturer, through his elevation to journeyman.  But his journey is interrupted when he falls in love with a prisoner and helps her commit suicide rather than face death by slow, horrific torture.  For his crime, he is exiled to a life in a small, remote village as a simple executioner. 

Severian is quiet, moody, introspective, one of my favorite types of characters, probably because I can identify with him.   And despite the cultural revulsion of the torturers’ guild, people seem to be drawn to him.  After his exile, Severian accumulates a small entourage of interesting and quirky acquaintances, some trustworthy, some not so much.  But in the end, he’s not alone on his journey.

It should be pointed out that this book was created as a first volume.  Severian doesn’t get to his new home by then.  In fact, his journey barely has begun.  The true arc of the story is that he learns some things about life and himself by the end of the book.  Unfortunately, knowing the series continues kills some of the tension in a key scene where he duels with poisonous, razor-sharp leaves.  But by that time, the story carries itself, and you read on anyway.  I knew how it would probably end.  I was simply too engaged in the story to let that bother me.

When I first began reading this book, I was comparing it to Richard K. Morgan’s “The Steel Remains”, which I had recently finished.  It’s another fantasy with a brooding main character.  There’s a lot of graphic sex and violence.  From the title of Wolfe’s book, I was expecting something similar, at least in terms of the violence.  But that took a back seat to the development of Severian’s character.  The torture was subdued and matter-of-fact, almost incidental.  While I loved Morgan’s book for the in-your-face action and hardened, cynical characters, I loved “Torturer” for almost exactly the opposite reasons.  Severian is na├»ve, and torture is just a backdrop for the Wolfe’s world- and character-building.  Now that I’m reading Morgan’s second book in the series, I wonder if I’m a little disappointed after the experience I had with Wolfe.

It may be a while before I get to the rest of the series, but I want to read them all.  Severin and Urth are engrossing enough that I’ll find a way to squeeze them in this year.  I give this book 5 stars. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Brown Girl in the Ring

Nalo Hopkinson
Completed 6/4/2014, Reviewed 6/6/2014
5 stars

I have quite a fondness for African and Caribbean mythic fiction.  I think it’s because the author usually doesn’t assume the reader is familiar with the mythology.  It’s been way too long since I’ve brushed up on my Greek and Roman mythology to catch and understand the references in books like “Dhalgren”.  My Norse is weaker and don’t even mention Celtic or Meso-American.  So Nalo Hopkinson’s first book was right up my alley.  Filled with spirits, gods, herbs, and seers, “Brown Girl in the Ring” proved to be a satisfying and creepy romp through the Caribbean mythos.

The story takes place in the Toronto of the near future.  The inner city has collapsed.  The rich and middle class has left for the have on the suburbs.  Blockades keep the remaining undesirables entering the ‘burbs.  Ti-Jeanne, a young woman with a baby, lives with her Grandmother, Gros-Jeanne, who is the local healer for the transplanted Caribbean community.  Ti-Jeanne begins having visions of spirits. Gros-Jeanne believes that she has the gift and that she must stay with her to learn to how to control her communications with the other side. 

This mission is side-tracked by Tony, Ti-Jeanne’s former lover.  He’s trying to escape from Rudy, the drug lord of Toronto who’s assigned him the task of killing someone for their heart for a transplant scheme.  Gros-Jeanne grudgingly helps Tony attempt an escape, but it fails.  Now the drug lord has plans to kill all three and it is up to Ti-Jeanne to accept and harness her gift to stop him.  

“Brown Girl in the Ring” is a short, but powerful book.  We are drawn into the world of the two Jeannes immediately with supernatural events and pidgin-English.  At first it’s a little tough bouncing between the narration in standard English and the pidgin of the dialogue.  But I quickly found the transitions painless and was quickly immersed in the action.  And it doesn’t take long for the characters to come to life.  Ti-Jeanne and Tony are the younger generation, bearing the cynicism of having grown up too quickly in the urban blight, while Gros-Jeanne holds on to the ways of the past. 

Hopkinson uses a lot of detail to push you into the midst of all the magic.  The transformation of Gros-Jeanne and Ti-Jeanne into the spirits that possess them is downright creepy.  I found myself getting mad at Tony for fighting the reality of the magic with his cynical disbelief.  I certainly had willingly suspended mine!

I loved this book.  I was completely immersed in it.  And for a debut novel, it was incredibly well-written.  This kind of book makes you want to run back to the library and check out everything the author has written since.  Five stars.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Hobbit

JRR Tolkien
Completed 6/2/2014, Reviewed 6/4/2014
5 stars

How do you review a classic, a book you’ve read multiple times and have loved for nearly 40 years?  It’s not easy.  I can’t think of much to say that doesn’t sound trite.  So I guess I’ll be trite. 

I first read “The Hobbit” in 1976.  I was fifteen and I don’t think I had read much fantasy.  The extent of my fantasy reading was a hard bound Disney collection of short stories based on its famous animated films.  I had never read any YA fantasy or SF, like “Narnia”, “Oz”, or “A Wrinkle in Time”.  I just jumped from Dr. Seuss and Disney to Michener and Vonnegut.  So “The Hobbit” was a revelation.  I couldn’t believe a book like that existed.  I talked about it with my friends at school for weeks.  Then I discovered that there were three more books.  Needless to say, LOTR blew my mind. 

I read “The Hobbit” several more times in the next 10 years, loving it each time.  I think the last time I read it was in the late 80s, so it’s been over 25 years. 

A few days ago, I reread the book for my SF Book Club.  I thought maybe with this reading I’d have a tougher time with it because I’m older, more jaded and cynical.  From the opening sentence, I was enrapt.  I felt like I was being read to by Tolkien himself.  That is, of course, how it’s written.  But I think I felt it more strongly this time than ever before.  Reading in the last couple of years has gone from love to obsessive escape.  As I read it, I settled into my own little fantasy scenario of Tolkien reading it to me in a chair beside my bed while I was tucked under a big fluffy blanket.  I even carried this image with me while reading it on the train to and from work.

What struck me the most this time was the book’s episodic form.  Each chapter is almost a complete self-contained short story.  It’s like a buffet of amuse bouches.  The book never dragged.  Each chapter, each paragraph, each aside was purposeful and entertaining.

One odd note about my relationship with the book is that I never remember the battle at the end.  My memory jumps right over it to Bilbo’s return to the Shire.  So when I got to it this time, it felt like I was reading it for the first time.  It was amazing to me how Tolkien was able to make the battle terrible and intense yet keep it for a young audience, and still teach a lesson about the evils of greed and obsession.

I can’t but give this book 5 stars.  Even today, at the age of 53, this book delights and moves me.  It made me feel like I’ve wasted time not re-reading it more often.  

Thursday, June 5, 2014


Elizabeth Hand
Completed 5/31/2014, Reviewed 6/4/2014
3 stars

“Winterlong” is a complex novel set in Washington DC after two apocalyptic events, and at the edge of a possible third.  The story follows twins separated at birth.  Wendy is an autistic teen, having spent most of her life in an institution named HEL, where she was neurologically enhanced, turning her into a powerful empathy.  She has visions of a green-eyed boy named “Death”.  After escaping from HEL just before it’s attacked, she ends up with an acting troupe, disguised as a boy, and hiding from the powerful new governor of the region.  Her brother Raphael, an extraordinarily beautiful boy, grew up as a highly prized courtesan.  After accidently killing someone and losing the favor of his patron, he hides among the lazars, wild, cannibalistic children who serve the governor.  The monomaniacal governor believes the twins fulfill a prophecy which justifies his evil plans.  Wendy and Raphael end up on a path of self-discovery that will either culminate in or subvert the third apocalypse. 

There are many things to enjoy in this book.  The setting of Washington, DC is awesome.  The society has
broken down in a very interesting way.  The upper class is the zoologists from the National Zoo and the curators from the Smithsonian.  Despite the wars and degradation of the society, these institutions are still active and maintained.  What makes it more interesting is that what they now represent is not necessarily science, but a new mythology as well, evolved out of the memories of pre-apocalyptic civilization. 

A courtesan culture and trade evolved to service the upper class.  Their mythology revolves around the Magdalene.  I won’t go into my usual diatribe about the popular but incorrect belief of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute.  I found it more interesting that the misogynistic, prudish religions of the past gave way to an earthy, sexual goddess myth and society.

The characterization is really great as well.  I particularly was enthralled by Dr. Silverthorn, a doctor from HEL who ends up a servant of the governor, idol of the lazars, and protector of Raphael.  When Raphael meets him, he is far into his slow death from exposure to a flesh eating virus used in the attack on HEL.  Despite his suffering, he provides comfort to and mentors Raphael.  His decay is almost like a clock, counting down to the confrontation between the governor, Raphael, and Wendy.

My problem with the book has to do with the where the plot goes.  It starts out really well.  Hand’s prose is gorgeous.  But when Wendy joins the acting troupe, the plot meanders and prose becomes quite convoluted.  Hand consciously forces symbolism and mythology into the story.  I’ve read quite a few mythic fantasy and science fiction works recently, and even the ones that are too esoteric for me at least feel organic compared to “Winterlong”.  Hand is, pardon the pun, heavy-handed.  By the time I got to the end, I felt more like I should have had an existential experience, which I didn’t, than be sated by a powerful conclusion. 

But after all was said and done, I liked the book, even though I was somewhat mystified and exhausted with the end.  I’m even more interested in the sequels, particularly to see if Hand’s story telling matures.  This is one of those times when I wish I used half stars in my ratings.  I can’t call it a four star book, so I’m giving it three.  As difficult as the second half gets, I’d still recommend it.