Monday, 24 November 2014

Liesel Schwartz, Chronicles of Light and Shadow 3: Sky Pirates (2014)

Liesel Schwartz’s Chronicles of Light and Shadow 3: Sky Pirates is an Adventure. There’s much incident and little depth, plus a great deal of painstaking pointing-out of the states characters are in rather than trusting the Idiot Reader to figure it out for herself. For example, near the beginning, the protagonist finds herself ‘in the vastness of the Sudan’ and we’re told ‘the sight of it made a lump well up in her throat. Being out here in the vastness ... the emptiness of her surroundings perfectly matched the emptiness she felt in her heart—she felt desolate and alone’ [9]. Those last five words in particular are the prose-style equivalent of bellowing into a person’s ear because you think they’re deaf, or dim, or both. The effect on the normally calibrated ear is not an agreeable one.

Elle Chance feels an emptiness in her heart—she FEELS DESOLATE—AND ALONE—because in a previous instalment of this multi-volume Adventure her husband went missing in the netherworld, a wraith now, perhaps dead, possibly retrievable. The novel steers Elle across her steampunk world on a book-length quest for him, fighting all the time through an endless blizzard of clichés: ‘throw caution to the wind’; ‘a dull ache’; ‘a dizzying height’; ‘her back straight as a ramrod’; ‘she hated him with every fibre of her being’. It’s like this all the way through: teeth are gritted; mettle is tested; trouble kicks off. Not once but many times we have the exchange: ‘There was a knock on the door. “Enter!” X said’, where X might be any of the sinister men in Schwarz’s dramatis personae. This is how the pirates speak: ‘gold! The cap’n is going to be pleased!’ [69]. Indeed these pirates do pretty much everything you'd expect them to except actually say ‘arrr!’ ‘Dashwood’s words had struck a nerve. That nerve had been connected to sensitive thoughts she had buried deep within her’ [139]. Oh THAT sort of nerve! Moments of ultra violence jar awkwardly against this cosily over-familiar texture:
Elle raised her Colt and shot the pirate in the face. His head exploded like a melon, with bright red gore splattering against the wood panelling behind him. [68]
There’s also a sex scene in a jungle lake, where Elle shags the Pirate Captain (despite being still on the search for her hubbie) in which ‘they both climaxed with such force’ that it makes the whole lake ‘vibrate’. That’s some shagging!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Rachel Pollack, The Child Eater (2014)

Pollack's Golden-Compassy braiding of 'fairy tale world' and 'modern Western society' story strands starts with such storming brilliance it can almost not help itself but slide, a little, and diminish as the story is spooled out to 350 close packed pages. Matyas, a potboy at a run-down inn in fairyland hangs out after his shifts with the young daughter of the local blacksmith. They swap stories to alleviate the boredom.
They talked of women with fishtails and the heads of birds who sang to sailors and drove them mad. And angels, or maybe demons, that rode on great fish that could swallow men whole, with room inside for the men to build homes, and fires to keep themselves warm.

When they tired of talking about the sea they imagined the cities they might visit if they could ever cross the water. Cities where the animals had taken over and now the people had to beg for bones at the feet of long tables where dogs lay on silk pillows. Cities where the buildings sang strange songs all night long and everyone had to go deep underground to be able to sleep. Cities where golden heads on silver poles lined the streets and would tell you anything you wanted to know. Cities where the children had killed all the adults and used the blood for magic spells that forced angels to give them whatever they wanted. [1-2]
Potentiality being so much more magical than actuality, it proves impossible for the on-the-page story of The Child Eater to live up to these marvellous glimmers of possible story. It's by no means a bad novel. On the one hand, there's Matyas's dream, equal measures starry-eyed (or starry-haloed) and ruthless-selfish, of escaping poverty and becoming a 'Master' wizard, through which we get a great deal of magical specificity. On the other, over in our world, there's Jack's magic-stifling obsession with being 'normal, and the consequences it has for him, and later for his son, witch-born Simon. It's good, readable stuff. It's just a little ponderous after that gorgeous beginning. What is it Auden says?
The empty junction glitters in the sun.
So all quays and crossroads: who can tell
These places of decision and farewell,
To what dishonour all adventure leads?
It's not that the actual bi-plot drags its heels: if anything both storylines are a trifle too busy. The Child Eater entity itself is less gory than you might be thinking, although it certainly has its bloody moments; and I found the rather egregious Tarot theme more tiresome than anything. But the novel is detailed, intermittently powerful, and full of excellent things. It is a notable book. Ah, but ... but ...

Wednesday, 19 November 2014


The excessively talented Chris Baker has rustled up the above, for Ian Whates' forthocming NewCon Press edition of my short fiction. The collection is to have the sanctified title SAINT REBOR, and the specific image Chris has chosen is from my Bugs-On-The-Moon story 'Metametamorphosis'. Nice, no?

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Den Patrick, The Boy With The Porcelain Blade (2014)


'The Boy With the Porcelain Blade'
I find myself unable to read this title without immediately picturing Morrissey waving gladioli and crooning against plangent Johnny Marr guitar chords. Surely I can't be the only one? 'The bo-o-oy with the po-orcelain blade/Behind the hatred there's laid/A murderous desire for ...' Wait. What?

Young, charming, a dazzling swordsman, a heart of gold, no ears. I've met Den Patrick in real life and couldn't help picturing him as Lucien. Except for the ears. I believe Mr. Patrick possesses ears.

Plenty of these, disposed for convenience onto a three-page list of dramatis personae at the beginning of the book. They are either virtuous or wicked, and they roll very smoothly onto the stage (or page), along their respective grooves, as the story requires.

Alternating chapters between (a) Lucien's adventures after failing the test, with his improbably brittle sword, that would have granted him admission to the higher echelons of 'The Desmesne', a huge Gothic castle in which the King and his elite govern cruelly and autocratically over some generically lumped-together farmers (actual farmers are not included in this pack), a test he fails by being too noble-hearted to execute certain prisoners, and (b) flashback chapters of Lucien's upbringing inside the Castle Keep.

The front and back cover namecheck Gormenghast, but Patrick's world is considerably less ornate and rococo than Peake's. This is a slim tale built for reading speed, set in a pared-down imaginative realm, better on action than on its rather pro-forma touches of 'Gothick' mood. (The cover blurb also implies the book is like a Scott Lynch novel. Like that's a good thing! Right there, on the cover! I mean: seriously. Rest assured, it's better than that.)

Lucien takes refuge from pursuit in a cemetery at midnight: 'An unkindness of ravens heckled outside the mausoleum, their voices carrying over the windless sky ... the sepulchre was a welcome refuge, shielding him from the night and the questing gazes of House Fontein' [89].


Cod Italian.

I was occasionally put in mind of The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but with more pseudo-The-Borgias Renaissance swordplay. A spaceship has colonised a distant world with a hierarchical, rather cruel society. There's some confusion over which characters are humans and which aliens. But where Gene Wolfe writes deeply unsettling ontological ambiguity, Patrick puts the emphasis more on flashy, video-game-ish and sometimes frankly improbable sword-fights.

There's a moment where Lucien is charged by a sabre-waving enemy on horseback. Our hero falls to the ground, lies beneath the galloping creature as it passes above him, hacks upward with his (by this point in the story, metal) sword, cuts the cummerbund or surcingle without so much as scratching the horse's belly, and then leaps to his feet. The rider's saddle slips, and the rider falls ignominiously to the ground.

There is not. I think you may have misread what I wrote.

Not to worry.

Yes. A fun read.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

James Smythe, The Echo (2014)

This is the second Smythe 2014 title I've reviewed here; and although my rapture about the first was muted just a tad, I'm much more impressed by this second. Altogether a more solidly rendered, more subtle, complex and resonant tale. It is, in point of fact, the sequel to 2012's The Explorer, and Book 2 in a planned foursome modelled, of course with all necessary sciencefictional mutati mutandibus, on Eliot's Four Quartets. This is a very good thing. SFF needs more grand structural ambition of this sort; and a quaternionic sequence like this makes a refreshing change from those endless herds of trilogies that sweep across miles and miles of golden genre, silently and very fast.

The Echo plays intriguing games with the doubleness of its sequel status. It is both a retread of The Explorer and, somehow, completely different. Story is set twenty years after the events of the first vol., when the Ishiguro disappeared into the strange deep-space 'anomaly'. A new mission is readied, developed by two brilliant scientists, both fascinated by space travel since their young days: the identical twins Tomas and Mirakel Hyvönen. Smythe is as interested in the 'echo' implied in genetic twinship, not a million miles away conceptually (although literally a million miles away in distance) from Bruce Chatwin's uncanny little 1982 novel, On The Black Hill. The closeness and rivalry of these two is exceptionally well realised, through unobtrustive telling and deftly interpolated flashbacks. It's a bold step by Smythe to walk his plot through the same steps as The Explorer: the expedition through space, the anomaly, things getting weirdly tangled and fucked-up. It's hard to discuss the specifics without spoilerization. Suffice to say it's beautifully paced, really eerie and gripping.

Not that I'd say it's quite perfect: Smythe's scientists (the most talented scientists in the whole world, we're told) don't at all have the vibe of actual scientists, and don't do any of the things one might expect actual scientists to do. They 'ping' the anomaly (what, like a submarine?), even though the 'pings' 'disappear into it'. The launch of the Lära is a bit screwy: they all have to be protected, within sealed units that 'create their own pressure level inside them' (eh?) since 'the speeds that the ship will reach as it pushes off from the NISS...' (eh? Newton's equal-and-opposite, though, yeah? Won't this shove the NISS out into deep space?) ' ... free of the trappings of any real gravitational pull ...' (eh? still in the Earth's gravitational well, though, yeah?) '...are so ridiculously powerful that they could -- or would -- damage the human body' [32]. But, OK: I'm not one to be a Hard Physics pedant. This isn't a Hard Physics book. All I'd say is: The Echo manages, intermittently but potently, to generate some of the sense of human frailty in a profoundly hostile environment that made the Gravity movie so memorable; but Gravity was scrupulous about getting the science right, which only increased the potency of the film; whereas you get the impression Smythe is simply less scrupulous about such things. He's more interested in the interpersonal than the interplanetary, in the psychological than the physics-logical. And in those areas, Smythe is absolutely second-to-none amongst contemporary writers of SF.

In these End Times of ours there are as we know rumours of things going astray, and amongst those rumours is one that intimates the year-by-year schedule for the publication of Smythe's Anomaly Quartet might be going astray. If these rumours are true, then I may have to start a petition. Or organise a march. One thing that reading The Echo makes clear, that a reading of The Explorer alone does not, is that it won't be possible properly to judge the success with which Smythe achieves his impressive ambition until all four books are out. The sooner that this happens the better.

Diana Gabaldon, Written In My Own Heart's Blood (2014)

Read in my own eyes' weariness.