Sunday, November 27, 2022


Nicola Griffith
Completed 11/25/2022, Reviewed 11/25/2022
5 stars

A truly gorgeous novella by an award-winning queer author.  This is a brief retelling of the Arthurian legend featuring a woman in the role of Percival.  The book draws on older sources of the legend and uses Welsh spellings of the names of the characters.  So Percival is Peretur, Arthur is Artos, and Camelot is Caer Leon.  Griffith did some intense research for this novella, as she describes in her Afterword.  This is my online book club selection for December and I’m glad I voted for it.  The prose is gorgeous, the retelling is inventive, and the characters are relatable.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this book nets Griffith her first Hugo next year.

Peretur grew up with her mother in a cave.  Her education was with nature, with whom she has a deep psychic connection.  Despite her mother’s insistence that she stay away from people, Peretur is drawn to leave for Caer Leon, where she believes she is destined to be a Companion to Artos.  Only through this journey will she figure out who she is.  So she leaves and works her way through farmlands disguised as a male youth, helping farmers, ridding the area of bandits, and breaking the hearts of young women on the way.  When she gets to Caer Leon, she finds her true destiny and the truth about her own past.

The greatest thing about our main character is that she is so humble.  She has many gifts including communicating with nature and a surprising talent for combat despite growing up alone.  Yet she is not a proud hero.  She simply wants to bring goodness into the world.  Even when she reaches Caer Leon, she does not want any reward for any of her duties.  She simply wants to be one of the King’s Companions so she can do good.  The process of her discovery of her sexuality is also very well done.  And how she accomplishes getting into relationships is marvelous.  But even there, she is humble and honest, despite her ruse of being a man.

I was really taken by the prose.  In the very beginning, it feels scarily overwhelming, but once I got into the story and the rhythm of the language, it flowed naturally, being just the right amount of description and plot moving.  It probably helped that this was a novella.  If this was a full-sized novel, the prose could have been a distraction from the movement of the plot.  

The world building is also wonderful.  Griffith takes the existing Camelot and transposes it to Welsh mythology.  The sword in the stone and the Grail are stolen power artifacts of the Welsh gods.  Merlin is not the benevolent wizard of Disney, but a more devious character with his own agenda.  And the whole early Medieval culture is fully realized in the countryside in which Peretur journeys.  

I really enjoyed this book as I have her earliest novels, Ammonite and Slow River.  I give this book five stars out of five.  I connected with Peretur right at the beginning and felt her passion the whole way.  And I knocked this book out in a day, even though the prose slows you down a bit with its lushness.  Griffith has a few other novels that I’m going to have to read, including the massive tome “Hild”, just because I want to read everything by her.  She’s three for three in my book.

Friday, November 25, 2022


Peter Straub
Completed 11/25/2022, Reviewed 11/25/2022
3 stars

This is a really good best-seller type novel.  However, it won the 1989 World Fantasy Award, so I was expecting some fantasy element.  Horror also often appears on fantasy award lists, so when I realized no fantasy elements were forthcoming, I figured this would be a horror novel.  But it turned out to be a straight-forward murder mystery.  No horror elements other than the horrors of war and human evil.  Disappointing. 

The story revolves around four Vietnam vets who come together to see new Memorial in Washington, D.C.  They come to find out about murders that have happened in southeast Asia that all have the same elements, missing eye, missing ear, and a playing card in the victim’s mouth with the word “Koko” written on it.  The thing is, they know Koko from their time during the war.  They were all present for an atrocity that happened during the war and Koko seems to be related to that.  Instead of going to the police, they try to solve it murders themselves.  Then when one of their own is murdered, the ante goes way up, because they may be next.

As a general thriller type novel, this was pretty good.  It was very long, like a lot of the best-selling horror and thriller books of forty years ago.  See Stephen King and Dean Koontz.  Lots of details about the characters that are tangential to the plot.  A lot of flashbacks to Vietnam to explain the terrible tragedy that the lieutenant was court martialed for.  A lot of PTSD.  The book felt long and often lost momentum.  I think if this book were written today, it would have been more like 400 pages rather than 600.   

The character development is pretty good.  I did come to like each of the four vets, even the crazy one.  They stayed true to character throughout the book.  One vet not in the original four was even gay, and the writer didn’t kill him off or resort to homophobia in his character arc.  For that I was grateful.  Michael Poole is the main character, taking up most of the page space.  A pediatrician in a crumbling marriage, he wants to leave his cushy practice in the suburbs for a private practice for the needy in the Bronx.  I liked him even though he went through most of the book in an emotionless state.

If I knew this was not fantasy, I would have probably rated this book higher, but I give it three stars out of five.  It’s hard to rate a book high when you’re disappointed with it.  Also, I thought the prose was very mediocre.  The prose and form of the book reminded me of an episode of the animated series “Daria” where her friend tells the head cheerleader that Daria is sick with “brain fever” and nothing that reading a couple of best-sellers couldn’t cure.  This book could have been one of those best-sellers.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Nifft the Lean

Michael Shea
Completed 11/19/2022, Reviewed 11/19/2022
4 stars

I was taken by surprise by this book.  This 1983 World Fantasy Award winner by an author I never heard of was an astounding book.  Comprised of four related novellas, it’s about the best sword and sorcery book I’ve read.  It’s not just a D&D adventure, but a mythic journey into the underworld, replete with demons, giant bugs, sorcerers, and aliens.  Nifft is a thief who takes on well-paid missions that provide him with his own, personal Dante’s Inferno experiences.  And the prose is truly outstanding.

Each novella is narrated by Nifft, except for the last one where he is more a spectator than an active participant.  In the first three, he, with his thief buddy Barnar, have a specific quest.  In “Come Then Mortal, We Will Seek Her Soul”, the two are visited by a ghastly ghost of a woman who made a lovers’ pact.  She died, but her lover didn’t.  She engages the two to find him and bring him to the underworld for breaking his oath.  “Pearls of the Vampire Queen” finds Nifft and Barnar attempting to steal a horde of pearls from a Vampire Queen who demands an annual sacrifice of a virgin man in return for protection for those on her land.  In “Fishing the Demon Sea”, the two are about to be executed, but are given a reprieve if they agree to rescue the noble’s son who was kidnapped by a demon.  This story finds the two on a subterranean ocean with Gildmirth, who is condemned to live in the underworld.  The three search for the son, who’s a thankless narcissist, only to find he is more interested in finding a powerful elixir than be rescued.  Lastly, “The Goddess in Glass” is a strange tale of giant rock-eating beasts and a dead goddess in glass that may be an ancient alien whom the natives worship.  

I loved the first two stories.  I thought they were very interesting and inventive in their world building.  Like all four tales, they were very dark, with bizarre demons and creatures.  They were just the right length for their plots.  The prose was stunning.  I was not expecting anything so literary.  The word choices were amazing without seeming self-aggrandizing.  That is not easy to pull off.  So many authors easily get into a “look at me, I have a big vocabulary” mode that detracts from the story.  I felt that Shea’s prose was devoid of anything like this.  It was simply marvelous to read.

The third story was a bit more difficult to get through.  There were a lot of scenic descriptions which frankly I found boring after a while.  I realize the intent was to be in awe of this strange underworld sea and demonic civilization, but it dragged for me.  It did not have the spark and freshness of the first two.  However, I really liked the character of Gildmirth.  He was a benevolent guide who had keen insight.  It was nice to have such a kind character show up in a world of pain and horror.  He is perhaps the best defined character in the whole book.

The last story was back to the pace of the first two.  However, Nifft had little role in this story, perhaps because he wasn’t the narrator.  Out of all four stories, this was the most unusual, with its mix of fantasy and aliens.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  Overall, it’s excellent.  If you’re going to read it, be ready for a challenge.  It’s not an easy read with its large vocabulary and intense prose.  It’s also not available in e-reader format and is not easy to find.  I got my copy from an InterLibrary Loan from Wisconsin.  But if you’re up for the task, I think you’ll enjoy it.  It’s a shame this book has not had more staying power over the years.  

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Or What You Will

Jo Walton
Completed 11/13/2022, Reviewed 11/13/2022
3 stars

I believe Jo Walton is the queen of meta.  Her imagination when it comes to mixing the magical with the mundane self-referentially is quite amazing.  This book is no exception.  However, I found it a tougher read than most of her books.  I could appreciate the brilliance that went into the concept, but I found the form hard to follow.  I’d say it took me half the book to really sink my teeth into it, and shocked myself when I realized it took me two weeks to read the just over 300 pages.  I think some people will really love this book and others will not.  I’m in the in-between place.  However, it did win the 2022 Mythopoeic Award. 

The plot is tough to describe, but I’ll give it a try.  Sylvia is an award-winning fantasy author who has cancer.  She has an imaginary friend/inner voice who has been with her since childhood.  This voice has appeared in all of Sylvia’s thirty novels.  Now that she’s dying, the voice realizes that he too will disappear.  He devises a plan to have Sylvia write herself into her next novel so that both she and he can be immortal.  The location of the book is a Florence-like Italian city called Thalia.  And the voice, as the character Pico, has already opened the doors of immortality in this world when he died in a previous novel set there.  But the question is, can the voice convince Sylvia that this is a real possibility, not just a literary device.

The voice is the narrator, which can make things very confusing as you read the book.  He often speaks in first person about his present interactions with Sylvia.  He also narrates the book she is writing and tells the history of her life, including her painful childhood and abusive first marriage.  There is something very autobiographical in the story of Sylvia’s life, but I don’t know enough about Walton to know if this is true or not.  It is written, though, with such urgency and realism that it leaves the question open.  

Another thing to be aware of is that Walton draws the characters of her book within a book from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “The Tempest”.  I’ve seen both several times, but only barely remember them.  You don’t have to know the plays in depth, but it would be good to know the main characters, like Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban.  She does a quickie summary of “Twelfth Night” to help with those characters.  They all do come alive thanks to Walton’s wonderful prose, something I’ve always loved of hers.  

The world-building is wonderful, making you feel immersed in both a Renaissance and present day Italy.  Walton describes the city so well you can taste the gelato and entrees Sylvia gets and gives you an in-depth analysis of the cobblestone history of the roads.  It’s truly magnificent writing.

Where I got lost was the jumping back and forth between the different times.  There are two characters from the turn of the 1800s who through the action of the gods (Sylvia), send them back to this alternate Thalia of immortality.  There, they encounter the destruction of Caliban and the political machinations of the rule of the city.  Sylvia is writing this while actually in Italy, and the narrator takes you back and forth between the present and Thalia so subtly, I often didn’t realize where I was and who was speaking.  We’d be following Sylvia as she waits for the delivery of a decent chair and then slide right back into Orsino figuring out what to do with his imprisoned half-brother.  

I give this book three out of five stars.  I really liked a lot about it, but found it difficult to follow.  This is the eight or ninth novel of Walton’s I’ve read, and there hasn’t been a bad one in the bunch.  This one was just hard to follow.  Between books like this, Among Others, and My Real Children, I can say Walton does wonderful things writing about real issues for women.  She also mixes genres in these books so that it’s hard to say if it’s regular or genre fiction.  But the overall results are generally really impressive.  I bet a lot of people will love this book, and it will have its detractors.  I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves immersing themselves in books, loving them so much that you’d love to be inside one. 

Friday, November 4, 2022


Martin Scott
Completed 10/30/2022, Reviewed 10/30/2022
2 stars

Martin Scott is a pseudonym for Martin Millar, the author of the only book I ever gave zero stars, “The Good Fairies of New York”.  It was before I wrote reviews, but on the WWEnd site I gave it ½ a star because there was no way to enter zero.  It was an atrociously written story of Irish fairies that make it to New York get into mischief and throw up a lot from drinking too much.  So I was very hesitant reading this book which won the 2000 World Fantasy Award.  Fortunately, there was only a few hangover and vomit scenes and the elves had an herbal cure for it.  This book wasn’t too bad, a noir PI tale with a fair amount of tongue in cheek humor set in a fantasy world somewhere between ancient Rome and Middle Earth.  But it didn’t grab me the way I expect an award winner to.  

Thraxas is the hard-boiled, overweight, hard drinking PI with a barbarian for a landlord and a female human-elf-orc mix ex-gladiator sidekick.  He owes one of the mobs money he lost gambling on chariot races.  He takes on several clients whose jobs all intertwine in a confusing mix of detail and intrigue.  There’s a box with secret letter in it.  There’s a magic red cloth that deflects magic attacks.  There’s murder and double-crossing and a whole lot of politics.  Somehow Thraxas wades through this to try to solve each case and hopefully collect his fees to pay off his gambling debt.

The world building was interesting to say the least, as was the magic system.  You can only hold a few spells in your head at a given time, and Thraxas being a mediocre sorcerer at best could only hold one.  Casting spells takes a lot of energy unless you are a master sorcerer.  There are dragons, elves, fairies, centaurs, orcs, and humans.  There’s an interesting priesthood of the True Faith which the priests are always trying to promulgate, though it is heresy to try to convert an orc.  The world feels like it’s typical medieval Euro-centric fantasy, but there’s a tinge of ancient Rome with Senators, gladiators, and chariot races.  If it sounds confusing and overwrought, it is, but I found broad mix helped keep my interest.

I didn’t relate to or have empathy for any of the characters.  Thraxas was not exactly likeable nor was he repulsive, he was just kind of meh.  I kind of liked his human-orc-elf sidekick Makri.  She took classes at the local college and was trying to get into university, all the while helping Thraxas get out of jams in his cases.  She was pretty well developed, with her education goals, her gladiator past, and her manipulation of men for tips by wearing chainmail bikinis while serving mead at the local inn.  She was pretty kick-ass, but in the end I felt nothing for her.  There were a lot of cases with a lot of minor characters, none of whom really stood out.  One scene I did like was when Thraxas and Makri go to the Fae enclave in the forest and the fairies and centaurs all were enamored of Makri.  What’s significant is that in the human world, she’s shunned because of her orc blood.  Here she was welcomed and loved.  It almost made me feel something for her.

I give this book two stars out of five.  It’s not bad, just not that good.  The prose, while not as bad as “Good Fairies”, has a lot to be desired.  However, enough people must have enjoyed this book because there are a total of twelve in the Thraxas series.  It’s not my cup of tea, but it obviously sells.