Friday, March 27, 2020

How Are the Mighty Fallen

Thomas Burnett Swann
Completed 3/27/2020, Reviewed 3/27/2020
4 stars

This is a retelling of the David and Jonathan story as if they were lovers and with some fantasy thrown in.  The question of the relationship between David and Jonathan has been a matter of speculation, that it was more than a bromance.  Of course, it is very controversial.  Published in 1974, it’s a subtle romance, with more emphasis on the forces around them than in the details of the relationship.  And it has a rather cold narration, not flowery or overly prosy, but it reads well.  It has gods, goddesses, cyclopes (yes, that’s the plural of cyclops), war, and intrigue.  It packs in a lot for such a short book.

Jonathan is the son of King Saul and Ahinoam.  But it turns out that Ahinoam is a siren and a queen from Crete and Jonathan Saul’s adopted son.  The two fled their island during the onslaught of Goliath, a giant cyclops.  They made their way to Israel where she met the King and married him.  Through a tragic incident, Ahinoam introduces David the shepherd and psalmist to Jonathan.  The two young men fall immediately in love.  David is kept in the court by Saul for his poetry and singing.  When Goliath comes to Israel to fight with the Philistines, Jonathan is fevered, and David takes up the mantle and slays Goliath with his sling.  David becomes a hero.  The rest of the story mostly follows the Biblical tale, with David and Jonathan trying to keep their relationship secret and pledging themselves to one another.

The story is well told.  I was impressed that the author was able weave in the subplot of Ahinoam and her background as a siren, though the full story of how they got to Israel is kind of an info dump.  It also goes into detail about Ahinoam’s patron goddess Ashtoreth and adds some humanity to the Philistines, creating a more well-rounded social setting. 

The character development is good, but Ahinoam really stands out.  She’s an immortal, so she has not aged while her husband the king has.  He does not divorce her, but he takes a concubine, effectively displacing her.  Still, she has figured out how to stay relevant.  She is the envy of Israelite women and the fantasy of Israelite men.  She is also the only one who knows about David and Jonathan, and councils them on the beauty of their relationship rather than the Jewish laws prohibiting it.  This is in stark contrast to Saul, who is losing his mind, and is tortured by Samuel the prophet’s constant scrutiny. 

The narration is third person and it has a coldness to it.  It’s almost told like a documentary.  As a result, I enjoyed the book tremendously, but didn’t feel particularly connected to it.  This next part is a bit of a spoiler.  The story has a tragic ending.  I thought I would have felt more at the end than I did.  I attribute this to narrative style. 

I give the book four out of five stars.  I didn’t know much about it going into it.  The cover, while exciting, doesn’t give you any clue that it’s about David and Jonathan.  None of the blurbs tell you this either.  I only knew that it had a gay relationship in a fantasy setting.  Once I figured out what was really going on, I buried myself in the book despite the coldness of the prose. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Queer Fear II

Michael Rowe, ed.
Completed 3/25/2020, Reviewed 3/25/2020
4 stars

The second of a two-volume anthology, this book explores horror, suspense, the supernatural, and the macabre with gay and lesbian characters.  Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror, this volume and its predecessor were also winners and nominees of several other awards in the horror genre.  The stories that comprise Volume II are mostly of the macabre nature.  A few are funny, a few are gross, a few are scary fantasy.  Many of them make you reflect on life, love, desire, and despair, and of course, good and evil.  I really enjoyed most of the stories.  Most are written well.  As usual with anthologies and collections, I’ll mention a few that I really liked.

The opening story, “Bugcrush”, is very weird but an excellent story.  It’s about a teen boy who has a crush on the new kid.  The new kid is an outsider with no friends at this school.  The teen boy notices he has friends from another school.  He manages to get invited to one of their get togethers, being led by his desire for the new kid.  He finds out they get high by getting bitten by insect larva that secrete a mind-altering chemical.  This story is really well written.  I was instantly in the head of the main character and terrified as other boys coerce him into trying the drug.

The second story, “Polyphemus’ Cave”, is also well written.  A closeted movie star in the ‘50s goes home for his abusive father’s funeral only to find out he was flattened by a giant cyclops from a traveling circus.  The cyclops can read souls even though he can only communicate with what is probably ancient Greek.  Again, I was instantly in the head of the main character.  I think when it comes to short stories, that’s the mark of a good one.  Can the author get you identifying with the main character quickly enough for you to totally experience the twenty pages or so of their story.

“On Being a Fetsih” is a gross but awesome tale.  A gay teen ghost is conjured by a living gay teen and his two friends.  The ghost falls in love with the teen and the teen gets off on the ghost.  “Want”, another gay teen tale, has the main character buying a voodoo potion to get the love of the high school star quarterback.  Of course, situations like this always go wrong.

“Numbers” took a while for me to figure out.  Eventually, I concluded it was the ghosts of gay men who died from AIDS telling their stories.  It’s written in a sort of journal style, recounting gay life in the ‘70s and moving into the AIDS era.  One of the narrators is the so called “patient zero”, the Scandinavian flight attendant who had hundreds of anonymous sexual encounters in the cities he flew to.

As I noted above, most of the stories were really well written with terrific prose.  I enjoyed most of them, even when I didn’t understand what transpired in the story.  There were a few of these, where I thought, “What the heck was this about”.  I only knew two of the authors, Poppy Z. Brite who wrote several gay horror novels, and Gemma Files who wrote the Hexslinger series among other books.  Many of the authors were Canadian, as the editor is.  Michael Rowe is also a journalist who currently contributes to the Huffington Post. 

I give the book four stars.  From the reviews I’ve read, the first volume is the better of the two, though this one won the Lammy.  I’ll have to pick that one up as well.  My only complaint with the book is that there were only two female-centric stories.  Given the title uses the term “queer”, I would have liked to have seem more diversity in the stories, although queer back when the book was published in 2002 was just beginning to be widely used again to be inclusive of the wide spectrum of gender and sexual identities.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Heartstone & Saber

Jacqui Singleton
Completed 3/21/2020, Reviewed 3/21/2020
3 stars

Not a bad book, but certainly not great.  As I read this, I felt like this was a first novel, which I think it was, though I’m not positive.  It had a lot of good ideas and decent plot, but reading it felt a little choppy and uneven.  It took me quite a while to get into the characters, as it took a long time to flesh them out.  But by about halfway through, I found it entertaining.  The story has magic, war, pillaging, and a lesbian love triangle.  The female characters are strong and dominate the story.  It didn’t necessarily feel like any new ground was covered, but it the end, I found myself enjoying it.

Elayna is a young peasant woman and the Witch of Avoreed.  She has a lover, a brother, and a powerful amulet called the Heartstone.  When mercenaries come and pillage the town disguised as the Sentinel Army from the throne, Elayna’s lover dies and her house is burned down as is most of the town.  It leaves herself, her brother and most of the town homeless.  They are rounded up to be sold as slaves.  Cydell, the ruler, known as the Hya, is infuriated with the action.  She goes to the auction block and frees the captives.  However, she takes Elayna and her brother with her to the castle to provide them with food, shelter, and work until the village is rebuilt.  Elayna hates Cydell, assuming she’s responsible for sending the Sentinels.  Cydell can’t convince her otherwise.  She sends the brother to Sentinel training, which he does enthusiastically.  Elayna, she employs under her nurse.  Though full of hatred for each other, the two women must work together to overcome a terrible evil that is spreading over the land and trying to steal the Heartstone. 

The lesbian love triangle comes as a subplot.  Cydell has a lover who is the leader of the Sentinels.  Valkyra (which is a little too close to Valkyrie for me) loves Cydell, but Cydell never really returns her love.  They are passionate and are together often, but the relationship is very one way.  Enter Elanyna with her Heartstone.  The powerful magic of the Heartstone affects desires, which creates an attraction between Elayna and Cydell.  This causes conflict, of course, because of their initial hatred.  And it causes conflict between Cydell and Valkyra.  This was one of the more interesting parts of the book because this is where we get a real feel for the characters, especially Cydell.  We’re in her head a lot more than Elayna and Valkyra’s heads.  We get to see her as a fierce ruler she is and then see her evolve as she comes to love Elayna.  Elayna’s transformation isn’t as well developed.  She’s a headstrong young woman, very black and white.  So we don’t see her emotions change and grow quite like we do with Cydell.

The writing was what was really lacking for me.  It felt like something I would write.  Not much prose, not much warmth.  And there were infusions that didn’t seem necessary.  The best example of this was a chapter that opened describing how this was a distant planet in a system with two moons and very large continents.  I felt like I didn’t need to know this.  She already told us previously that there were two moons, so we knew this wasn’t earth.  Having to talk about it as a planet in a different solar system just felt like filler.  Also, the dialogue felt wooden.  There were several times when I thought it didn’t sound like how real people would talk.  Other times, it flowed just fine.  I think maybe a better editor might have been helpful in smoothing out the rough ones. 

One of the nice things about the book is that there is some comic relief.  This comes from the brother and his best friend in Sentinel training, as well as from Cydell’s cousin Kovi, who comes across as that brash gay uncle that makes everyone laugh.  It was nice to break up the seriousness of the story with these interludes. 

I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s not great, but it’s really not that bad.  There’s a sequel that was published about ten years later, which I probably won’t read, and seems harder to find.  As far as I can tell, Singleton only wrote three books.  But she was also a playwright, director, and singer-songwriter.  I didn’t find any real biography of her, except her obituary.  She died in 2014 at the age of 58. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Through a Brazen Mirror

Delia Sherman
Completed 3/19/2020, Reviewed 3/20/2020
4 stars

This book is based on fragments of an old English ballad that was reconstructed the ‘70s.  It’s about a woman who dresses up as a man and becomes advisor to the King.  It’s sort of a “Victor/Victoria” story, but told in medieval times and very serious.  I found it a little dry, but I really enjoyed it.  Sherman has wonderful prose and story-telling ability.  She’s gone on to be nominated and win several awards for her period pieces and her YA work.

Elinor Flower’s husband and infant son are murdered by ruffians hired by her evil sorceress birth mother, Lady Margaret.  She dresses as a man using the name of her husband, William, and gets a job as an undercook for the King.  Due to her industriousness, she very quickly advances in rank, becoming a close advisor of the King, much to the consternation of the castle staff and noblemen.  Throughout this time, Lady Margaret continually tries to kill Elinor/William, not directly, as it is forbidden by the laws of sorcery to kill kin.  It seems there’s a prophesy that Lady Margaret will be killed by her own daughter and she does everything possible to subvert the prophesy. 

The book reads very easily, once you get the jumping timelines down.  The narrative follows William coming to the castle and working.  It jumps to Lady Margaret’s orders to kill Elinor’s family.  I follows Elinor’s birth and later her young life with foster parents.  Then it follows Lady Margaret’s attempts to kill William.  The use of William and Elinor is significant here as the story is told about Elinor as Elinor and Elinor as William. 

The character development is interesting.  The most colorful characters are the supporting cast, including the King, Elinor’s foster mother, Lady Margaret, and several women who fall for William.  Elinor/William is cold and aloof, which one would expect in her gender-bending situation.  However, it prevents us from seeing much inside her/him.  This is my only problem with the book.  If part of the narrative was told from her point of view, I think it would have made for a warmer book. 

One of the reasons I probably really enjoyed this book so much was that I got to read it in one day.  This of course is the time of the Corona Virus Pandemic.  I’m working from home, and there was not much work the day I read it.  So read it I did, in roughly half a day.  Once you’re into it, it’s a fast read, even though the dialogue is a little archaic and written messages and letters are very archaic.  I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s terrific fantasy with magic and demons all told in a pseudo-Middle-Age England setting.  It’s a hard book to find as it’s out of print.  I got a second edition used copy from the ‘90s.  But I think it’s a hidden gem that deserves a little more attention than it gets.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Somewhere in the Night

Jeffrey N McMahan
Completed 3/18/2020, Reviewed 3/18/2020
4 stars

Subtitled “Eight Gay Tales of the Supernatural”, this collection of short stories was very entertaining.  Some stories were tense thrillers, some fun, and some hard on the soul.  The writing was really good, not prosy, but tight, mostly first-person narratives.  I think in every story, I quickly identified with the main characters, even stand-offish, cynical Andrew the vampire, who was the subject of two of the stories.  It was a fast, enjoyable read.  It won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Fantasy and Sci Fi in 1990, back before they combined it into the LGBT catergory for Fantasy, Sci Fi, and Horror. 

My favorite stories were the Andrew the Vampire stories.  Brooding and cynical, he stalks the gay nightlife of a college town looking for his next victim.  The first story is short, where we get to meet him and follow him a long a little while he is on the prowl.  We learn that he cuts the heads off his victims after drinking their blood and that he’s real choosy about who he kills and who he turns into a vampire like himself.  In the second story, there’s a mystery involved as well.  Someone is stealing the heads from the scenes of his attacks, leaving the bodies to be found by the police.  So the hunt is on for the head-stealing murderer.  At the same time, Andrew’s eighteen-year-old coworker has a mad crush on him, while Andrew himself is not that interested.  The story involves him trying to navigate the young man, finding victims, and figuring out who the head-thief is.  Both were well written and very intriguing. 

Two stories that were also good and kind of closely related have to do with bashing incidents.  In one story, “The Dark Red Day”, a successful gay man comes back to his small, dirt poor hometown to seek out the love he left behind.  His idea is to bring him back to the big city with him, but the townspeople, including his redneck homophobic brother, have other ideas.  In “Fantasyland”, a gay teen who was bashed a few years ago lives his life in a near constant dream state.  His fantasies are nearly like disassociation.  Then he meets another gay teen, but it takes another bashing for him to come out of fantasyland and deal with his past.  Both of these stories really tugged at my heartstrings. 

The other stories were good too.  They included a possessed apartment unit, a cannibal party on Halloween night, a struggling writer’s characters coming to life, and an ancient evil coming out of hole in a man’s backyard.  All the stories were quite imaginative, even though some were common tropes.  The last of the four other stories was kind of a cross between Stephen King and HP Lovecraft.  But the beauty of the stories is that the author takes these tropes and turns them on their head and puts them in a gay setting. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  None of the stories were throw-away.  In fact, after finishing one, I looked forward to starting the next one.  The author only wrote one other book, a full novel about Andrew the Vampire.  I couldn’t find any other information about the author.  A Google search only brings up the books, no bio, no pics.  I’d speculate that he was another talented person whose life was cut short by AIDS.  Regardless of how he died, he left us wonderfully entertaining stories that I’m glad I discovered.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Songs of Chaos

SN Lewitt
Completed 3/15/2020, Reviewed 3/15/2020
3 stars

Dante McCall, the main character of this book, gets into a situation where he doesn’t know what the hell is going on.  For the first half of this book, I could really relate to him because I couldn’t figure out what was going on either.  I was just longing for something, even obnoxious exposition, to let me in on the secret to understanding.  Finally, in the second half of the book, things come together, and with very little exposition.  I have to hand it to Lewitt, she did a good job of esoteric world-building, throwing the reader into it full on, and then slowly revealing what it’s all about. 

Dante is an abnormal, first because he is a child with asthma, and second because he was experimented on under the guise of treatment and the experiment failed, leaving him what was termed asocial and borderline sociopathic.  As an adult, he lives with his brother’s family, but even they can’t deal with him.  Instead of sending him back to the authorities, they send him to space in a cargo ship where he’s picked up by a renegade generations ship.  This ship, the Mangueira, is a Brazilian ship about to celebrate Carnivale.  People on the ship aren’t too concerned about his troubled past.  They are more focused on costumes, glitter, floats, the upcoming Parade, and most of all, samba.  Dante is confused.  He’s not sure if he fits in with these people, but he’s determined not to end up back on earth.  Fortunately, he’s Italian and knows some Spanish and French.  That helps him assimilate into this Portuguese-speaking people.  However, he’s constantly plagued my memories of his past, feeling like he’s losing his mind, especially when he finds that the parrots and macaws on the ship can talk.

Thrown in the mix is a spy from a legitimate Trader ship.  It turns out the cargo ship he was on was destined for this ship, not the Magueira, and they want their cargo back.  The spy, Veronica, is half Brazilian herself, so she can easily slip on board the Mangueira and assimilate.  But the power of Carnivale is seductive and soon she questions her own reality. 

The plot seems quite convoluted.  As noted above, I spent the first half not knowing what was going on.  I enjoyed when the narrative followed Dante because I knew it would always have something in there that mentioned how confused he was.  As his confusion lifts, the plot is slowly revealed.  Once I got to that point, the book became an easy read instead of a slog, which I have to say, is what I felt like the whole book was going to be.  Fortunately, it wasn’t and I really enjoyed that last half.

The characterization was decent.  Besides the confusion, Dante was pretty well developed as an introverted asocial dropped into an environment where everyone is in everyone else’s business and being alone raises questions.  I also liked Skinny Fatima, the Mangueira’s navigator with a well-earned chip on her shoulder for being the butt of the cruel, attractive girl’s ire.  Veronica the spy doesn’t show up until late in the book, but gets a lot of development, and got a lot of my empathy.  There are a good number of characters, but not so many that I lost track of who was who. 

One of the things that really confused me was the samba.  The cast regularly broke into drumming and dancing.  It just seemed so incongruous with the idea of a science fiction novel.  But as the history of this generations ship is revealed, it makes sense.  It’s a symbol of identity and carries with it a spiritual connotation.  In the beginning of the book, we find that Dante was picked up by the authorities while dancing at Carnivale, so it takes him a long time to let himself be overwhelmed by it as the crew normally is.  I felt the same way, feeling swept away by it once I understood its historical and spiritual significance.  Oh yeah, and there’s a dance-off.

I give this book three stars out of five.  I think I would have given it more if more was revealed earlier than it was.  The waiting for the revelations made the book a difficult read for the first half, and for that I dinged it a star.  But the prose is good, the characters are good, and I could feel the exuberance of the dance and the colors and costumes, and even the talking birds. 

Thursday, March 12, 2020

In the Blood

Lauren Wright Douglas
Completed 3/12/2020, Reviewed 3/12/2020
3 stars

This book was a hot mess.  The writing was okay at best and the science was a little difficult to swallow.  I kept on thinking that this shouldn’t have gotten the nomination for a Lambda Literary Award in 1990.  I felt like it needed a really good editor to help the author with sentence building and continuity.  But for some reason, in the end, I realized I enjoyed it.  The plot is about a virus that sends the US into a nearly barbaric state.  The trope was most famously done by Stephen King in “The Stand” and has been done many times since.  However, it was probably a pretty novel approach to a book where women dominate the cast and feature a lesbian relationship. 

A virus probably made for biological warfare is released over the US.  It quickly spreads, infecting mostly men, but spreading to women through sexual contact.  The US breaks apart into pieces, with California, being ground zero, seceding first and closing its borders.  The state starts the Biostrike Force to stop the spread of the virus.  Enter Sandoval, a captain for the Force.  She and her militia of women, have orders to escort an invited Dr. Jean Ashe to California with an experimental but effective vaccine Ashe has created.  However, Sandoval’s lieutenant Valentin seems to have different, secret orders.  Once Ashe and her assistants are retrieved, the journey back to California becomes one of survival: from the elements, from the barbaric bands of men roaming the countryside, and from treachery within.

The story is told in chapters alternating in POV between Sandoval and solar-tech Hart, a woman working at the facility in Arizona where Dr. Ashe has been doing her research.  At the beginning of the book, the chapters were very choppy.  They included a lot of exposition about the beginning of the virus and the setup of Biostrike Force, as well as background stories of the two characters.  It was pretty heavy, as if the author was bogged down by her own world-building.  But once Sandoval and her team arrived in Arizona to pick up Ashe and her crew (including Hart), the storytelling became a little more cohesive, exciting, and easier to read.

The characterization isn’t great.  Many of the characters are rather wooden.  Neither Sandoval nor Hart seem particularly likeable, but as the story became more cohesive, so did they.  They both have perspective changing experiences as they struggle to survive the calamity and treachery that befalls the group.  And Hart finds herself falling in love with one of Sandoval’s soldiers despite having built a wall around herself at the start of the pandemic when she was only fourteen years old.  

Perhaps the greatest reason I enjoyed this book is because at the time of this writing, we are in the middle of a real pandemic, the Corona Virus.  People are panicking, the stock market is crashing, and schools and businesses are shutting down.  Conspiracy theories abound and our government is failing to act.  So the reading of this book was very synchronistic. 

Overall, it’s not a great book, but it caught me at the right time.  And it is interesting to read a book from the latter part of the beginnings of the subgenre.  I give the book three stars out of five.  I toyed with giving it two stars, but I did find it enjoyable and actually exciting despite its flaws.  By the way, that’s the definition of a hot mess:  based on all its faulty parts, it shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Ink and Steel

Elizabeth Bear
Completed 3/8/2020, Reviewed 3/8/2020
4 stars

This book seemed like two books:  one a complicated mystery and the other an “urban” fantasy, all set in Elizabethan England and the realm of the Fae.  The mystery part I didn’t like too well.  It had a lot of characters to follow and seemed to meander.  The other part, the fantasy part, was pretty tight, especially in the last third of the book.  It didn’t make everything come together as this is the first part of a duology.  In fact, it’s the third book in a four-book series, but this is a prequel to the first two, and it’s quite self-contained.  It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but it doesn’t resolve the mystery.  This book, with its sequel “Hell and Earth”, won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2009. 

I found the plot pretty convoluted.  There is an organization called the Prometheans which keeps Queen Elizabeth I on the throne of England.  They do this by employing the poet and playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe to write plays with magic in them.  When Kit is murdered, they bring in the up and coming William Shakespeare to fill his shoes.  Unbeknownst to the Prometheans, Kit is “resurrected” by the faeries and a glamour buried in his place.  Kit is tricked into drinking faerie wine which binds him to the faerie world, where their Queen Maeb has special plans for him.  Kit only gets to go back to the real world on occasion, and when he does, he meets with Will to prevent him from being murdered as well.  The two work together to try to find the traitor in the Prometheans that murdered Kit in the first place.  While rereading this paragraph, I realize it doesn’t sound convoluted, but trust me, in reading the book, the plot is anything but clear.

Kit and Will are the two main characters.  The point of view of the book alternates between the two of them, following them as their relationship and the mystery develops.  Kit is a gay atheist, who supposedly blasphemes as he lay dying.  This makes him and his works anathema, so the contact between Kit and Will is very secretive.  The two even write letters with invisible content to each other (the lemon juice trick) to protect Will.  And since time is different in the two worlds, each doesn’t know how much time has gone by in the other.  It is during these written and physical encounters that their characters really develop.  When the other Prometheans are involved, it’s just a mess of too many people under suspicion. 

In terms of character development, I really liked how we get to know Will not only through his relationship with Kit, but also with his wife Anne.  For the most part, he is living in London while she is in Stratford.  He regrets not seeing her and his children, but he’s pretty much bound to working in London, where there is plague.  And he probably can’t afford to keep them in London anyway.  This conflict tells us a lot about Will and also about Anne as well.  We don’t get her perspective, but it comes through the dialogue we do get between the two of them.

Speaking of the dialogue, it is written in very Elizabethan English, with the non-dialogue parts in modern English.  I found it very difficult to get into.  This may have been why I found the mystery part, which is mostly in the first two-thirds, such a slog.  This happens when I see a Shakespearean play as well.  It usually takes my ear some time to get accustomed to the old English.  But reading it was very difficult.  And the dialogue isn’t very direct; it’s very circuitous.  It seems that no one says what they mean, and when they do it’s not always very clear.  So besides the plethora of suspects, where I couldn’t remember who was who, I usually had trouble figuring out who or what they were talking about. 

The best part of the book is the last third.  It’s simply riveting.  It takes place in Faerie and in Hell.  Lucifer makes an appearance before this section, but obviously plays heavily in this part.  You see, the realm of Faerie is protected by Hell, and they must tithe one Fae every seven years as their payment for this service.  Saying anything more would be a spoiler, but Kit and Will are both involved in this part of the book.

Despite my trouble getting into it, once I did, I couldn’t put it down.  In fact, I eventually want to get to the next book because of that.  So I’m giving it four stars out of five.  I think if you enjoy reading Shakespeare’s plays, you’ll like this as well.  The prose is wonderful.  And I think that if you like mysteries, you might also like this.  The bummer is that it’s not been published in e-reader format.  I don’t know if it’s still in print; I got my copy from the library.  But I do recommend this book if you’re willing to give it some effort, because it does require some heavy concentration.