Book Review: The Long Way by Michael Corbin Ray and Therese Vannier

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The Long Way stretches from Canton to San Francisco, from the Opium Wars to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and here there be dragons. The novel follows Chi-Yen, the young, mixed race daughter of a prostitute, whose efforts to survive the outbreak of the Opium Wars leads her to the apprentice, Sin-Feng, and his drunken master, Liu Kun. They are the last survivors of the Temple of the Seven Dragons and have been charged with protecting a sacred treasure. Chased around the world by East India Trading Company’s Basil Malvenue, their quest will unlock secrets and a power that could shift the fate of empires.

Ray and Vannier have filled the novel with an impressive amount of historical detail. This is a secret history, and they have made the effort to ensure the history is as accurate as a story with dragons can be. They breath life into both their Chinese and Old West settings, making them feel dirty, gritty, dangerous, and, most importantly, real. Equal care has been taken with Chi-Yen. We meet her as a downtrodden, world-weary preteen, wise and clever beyond her years. Her journey is the backbone of the novel. The reader experiences events largely as she does. Sin-Feng and Liu Kun are less well drawn. The relationship between the three is strained and develops largely unseen.

The novel covers a large span of time and geography. This is one of its strengths, but also its greatest weakness. The plot is not as intricate or as well realized as either the setting or the characters, and on several occasions jumps forward in time suddenly. This was slightly jarring but didn’t adversely effect the flow of the story. During the gap, however, all three of the main character, and even the villain, undergo drastic changes and development that is unfortunately glossed over.

The Long Way is, nevertheless, a well-written secret history that approaches its settings and concepts from a different angle. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

**Received copy from NetGalley for review

Book Review: The Man in Two Bodies by Stanley Salmons

Stanley Salmons’ The Man in Two Bodies is a science fiction crime novel following two scientists Rodge Dukas and Mike Barrett. Rodge is a physics genius decades ahead of his time who makes a breakthrough that could change the world, for good or ill. Mike, an old friend from college days, has plans for Rodge’s invention beyond the confines of academia. A competent scientist and technician he lacks Rodge’s genius but has a gift for practical application and planning. They go on a crime spree that leaves the police baffled, before preparing to enact the perfect crime with the help of Mike’s sometime girlfriend, Susan, who’s relationship with Rodge is more than friendly.

The novel opens slowly. Early chapters seem to revolve largely around Rodge explaining the central science fiction concepts to Mike and thereby the reader. Once the concepts have been established, however, it becomes an engrossing page-turner. Salmons skillfully shifts between the three main characters point of view to build suspense and slowly reveal their characters. Somewhat unusually for a high concept science fiction novel, the characters—their relationships and secrets—are the strongest part of the novel.

The Man in Two Bodies mixes science fiction, crime, and a character study into a fairly unique concoction. Salmons does not dig too deeply into his concepts, and gestures only briefly at wider societal implications. The tight focus and moral determination of the three character, however, is an effective demonstration. Despite the slow start, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

 

**Received copy from NetGalley for review

Book Review: Lovecraft’s Monsters

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I came to the world of H.P. Lovecraft rather late. I was aware of him, of course, but had never actually read any of his stories. His influence is vast and overarching. It is impossible to read in this genre and not feel his shadow, knowingly or otherwise. It is ironic that an author so concerned with the uncanny and the unknowable should become himself so familiar. Lovecraftian stories are a genre to themselves, comforting almost, if terrible horror and unknowable abominations can be called comforting.

Ellen Datlow has edited several Lovecraftian anthologies. Lovecraft’s Monsters focuses, as the title suggests on the monsters. Some of those featured in the stories are more recognizable than others, so Datlow has helpfully provided an index at the end, a glossary of Lovecraftian horrors.

There are eighteen stories in the anthology, most of them previously published. The author’s list reads as a who’s who of familiar and respected names in horror. As with all anthologies, some stories were better than others. “The Same Deep Waters as You” by Brian Hodge, “Inelastic Collisions” by Elizabeth Bear, “Waiting at the Crossroads Motel” by Steve Rasnic Tem, and “The Bleeding Shadow” by Joe R. Lansdale were the four standouts for me with Neil Gaiman, Thomas Ligotti and Karl Edward Wagner’s offerings not far behind.

“The Same Deep Waters as You” follows the host of a popular ‘ Animal Whisperer’ TV show as she is drafted by the US military in an attempt to communicate with several mutated prisoners taken from Innsmouth. Rather than grate, the modern day setting puts a new spin on perhaps the most famous of Lovecraft’s monsters and settings. Brian Hodge approaches from a different angle and provides a well-written slice of the uncanny.

“Inelastic Collisions” describes two fallen angels, Hounds of Tindalos, in their attempts to acclimate themselves to a human existence as only Lovecraftian angels can. It has just the right amount of twisted horror, and angst, and dark hungry creatures in human form.

“Waiting at the Crossroads Motel” is the story of an abusive, possibly inhuman father who takes his family to a motel in the middle of nowhere and waits, while more and more guests arrive all as oddly inhuman as he is. Steve Rasnic Tem perfectly captures the dreamlike sense of disquiet that characterized Lovecraft at his best.

“The Bleeding Shadow” by Joe R. Lansdale is my favorite story in the collection. A tale of private eyes, jazz, and eldritch abominations. This is well-crafted noir horror that places Lovecraft in an unusual setting and makes it sing.

**Received copy from NetGalley for review

Book Review: Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan

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Hollow World is a slice of good old-fashioned science fiction. Sullivan deliberately harkens back H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Like Wells, Sullivan has crafted a story of time travel that is almost entirely uninterested in the mechanics of time travel. There are no paradoxes, no clever time travel shenanigans. Time travel is merely a means to an end that allows Sullivan to explore what he’s really interested in: society and what it means to be human.

The main character, Ellis Rodgers, is a dying man. His marriage is in ruins and he is racked by guilt over his son’s suicide for reasons that eventually become apparent. He has also built a working time machine in his garage. His plan is simple—leave his crumbling life behind and travel to the future where a cure might be found. The theory is sound; the time machine works, but Rodgers finds himself in the far future in a seeming utopia called Hollow World. Here there is no death, no disease, no hunger, no want. There hasn’t been a crime in centuries. Everyone is genetically engineered. Everyone looks the same. There are no men or women.

It is a familiar set up, but Sullivan cleverly avoids the usual traps. Hollow World would commonly be depicted as a utopia, or more accurately a dystopia with a terrible secret at its heart. Sullivan refreshingly depicts a future society that is neither. It is simply a society like any other, different, but not without its flaws. The problems of modern society have been solved but replaced with others. This observation makes all the world building seem fresh and more realistic. Humans change, societies shift, but we aren’t heading towards paradise or hell, just more of the same.

The world building and exploration of the setting are the strongest parts of the novel. The plot is largely predictable and the climax anticlimactic. Rodgers, however, is a well-drawn character. His relationship with Pax, an idiosyncratic denizen of the future, is touching. Their closeness and mutual understanding form the heart of the novel.

Hollow World is a fast paced, well written, and delightful read. Michael J. Sullivan has crafted one of my favorite science fiction novels of the past few years.

**Received copy from NetGalley for review

Book Review: Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

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Yellow Blue Tibia stretches from 1946 to the Chernobyl disaster. The novel follows Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky, a Soviet science fiction writer, who along with several other writers was tasked by Stalin to create a believable story about an alien invasion that could be used as an external threat to bind the USSR together, after the US was defeated. The project was aborted and the writers went their separate ways. Skvorecky eventually becomes a bitter old man, eking out an existence as a translator, until the story he created starts coming true.

Adam Roberts has created an intriguing set up, in a slightly unusual setting. As one of the characters notes, America might have Area 51, but Russia has its own reports of close encounters. The Soviet Union on the brink of Chernobyl is suitably bleak. The bureaucracy, secrecy, and paranoia all lend the novel a heightened atmosphere. Indeed, Roberts has crafted a tense, well-written novel, with many twists and turns. It begins as an alien invasion thriller set in the Soviet Union, and while that remains technically true, by the end the reader realizes that something stranger and far more interesting is going on. However, as is often the case with historical science fiction or fantasy, there is a danger inherent in ascribing real-world events to supernatural or, in this case, extraterrestrial forces. Roberts just about gets away with it here, and it did not spoil my enjoyment of the novel, but it occasionally approached the border.

Yellow Blue Tibia is filled with good ideas and a number of well-drawn characters. Skvorecky is often amusing, but his irony even in the face of danger has a wonderfully sharp bite. The precise nature of the aliens is intriguing, if deliberately ambiguous, and different from the usual fare. Overall this was a fun read, different and occasionally thought provoking.

The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by E.B. Hudspeth

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The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black is first and foremost a work of art. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a few months now intriguingly promising something dark, twisted, and beautiful, and Hudspeth delivered on all counts. The detailed color illustrations and anatomical drawings of various alleged mythological creatures are incredible in and of themselves. The amount of detail and the descriptions, which are provided as a pseudo-medical compendium, is impressive. The accompanying short biography of Dr. Spencer Black is equally as detailed and researched.

Hudspeth commits to the reality of this secret history. The biography is written in a suitably dry, historical tone that lends Black’s grave robbing, surgeries, and increasingly sinister experiments a terrifying verisimilitude. Hudspeth has done his research and the medical and carnival settings of 19th Century Philadelphia are well depicted, grounding Dr. Black and making him feel far more plausible than, perhaps, he should. This is an excellent and chilling example of pseudo-history, although it is fairly short and leaves many questions maddeningly unanswered. Dr. Spencer Black’s madness and genius are left to the reader’s discursion. The tragedy, madness, and genius of Dr. Black and his fictional biography, however, are intended only to provide context.

The real attraction of The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black is the second half, The Codex Extinct Animalia, complete with illustrations and descriptions of sphinxes, sirens, satyrs, minotaurs, chimeras, dragons, harpies, and others. It is an immersive experience, and a work of art.

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Magazine Review: Clarkesworld Issue 91, April 2014

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Clarkesworld is one of my favorite online fantasy and science fiction magazines and always provides an interesting mix of stories. I first became aware of Catherynne M. Valente from its pages. This month’s issue contained six stories stretching from the present day to a future nursery where stars become ships. The two standout stories for me were Autodidact and Water in Springtime and I look forward to reading more of Benjanun Sriduangkaew and Kali Wallace’s work.

Passage of Earth

Michael Swanwick has written what is essentially a character piece taking place during a particular kind of alien invasion, although calling it an invasion is something of a misnomer. Hank is a county coroner with a history in government service, who is recruited by his ex-wife to perform an autopsy on an alien Worm. As the story enfolds Swanwick gradually shows the true nature of both Hank and the Worms. It is this characterization of both an individual and a collective species that is the story’s greatest strength, even if it occasionally seems to veer into Freudian territory.

Autodidact

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s story is difficult to describe. There is an almost dreamlike feeling to this tale of AIs forged from the corpses of stars and the effort to teach her ethics. The main character, Nirapha, is a survivor of the genocide of Mahakesi and is recruited to teach ethics the most dangerous and powerful ship in the universe. This is largely a three-hander consisting of Nirapha, the AI, and the AI’s ‘mother.’ The tug of war between them forms the meat of the story. I enjoyed it immensely.

Water in Springtime

Kali Wallace’s story of a mother and daughter straddles the line between fantasy and science fiction. There are hints of an ancient war still being fought, but the story focuses on the strained relationship between Alis and her mother. The mother is distant and otherworldly, capable of strange magic, magic that Alis seems to lack. The story traces Alis’ growing understanding of her own powers and subsequently of her mother. The magic in this story follows the water and is unique and well depicted. This is a melancholy story, almost a fairy tale from another world. This is my favorite of the issue.

The Cuckoo

Sean Williams combines future history, April Fools Day, chaos theory, and memes into a short, thought-provoking piece. One of the shortest stories in the issue, it nevertheless, has the densest concentration of ideas and concepts. The late 21st Century is cleverly drawn and the ideas are fascinating. I’ll admit that the concept of self-aware memes has always fascinated me, but is one that I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head around. I also appreciated the almost dry historical tone.

Going After Bobo

Susan Palwick writes about a broken family and a missing cat in the near future. The speculative aspects are less prevalent, but the family dynamics, the shadow of the father’s suicide, and the question of what actually happened to the cat provide ample drama. Sadly, on reflection, I’d say this was my least favorite story here.

Shining Armor

Dominic Green has constructed a future where the Commonwealth of Man is fading and mining combines threaten a small village protected only by a huge armored monstrosity, the Guardian, that requires an operator to function. This is a fairly standard set up, that Green enlivens both by telling through the eyes of a young boy, and through the lively depiction of the village’s personalities.

Book Review: Annihilation: A Novel by Jeff VanderMeer

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Annihilation: A Novel is Jeff VanderMeer’s latest novel. It is the first part in the prospective Southern Reach Trilogy which will be published throughout 2014. The second book is set to come out in May, and I’m awaiting it with baited breath. VanderMeer is, of course, best known for his contributions to the New Weird. I’ve been aware of him for some time, but had only previously read City of Saints and Madmen, which is a good a place as any to start. It is his signature and, until now, most popular work. Annihilation has a different feel to it, but is still recognizable.

The novel takes place during the ill-fated twelfth expedition to Area X, a region mysteriously cut off from the rest of the world where strange and terrible things have been reported. The expedition is comprised of four women referred to only by their job titles: an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and the narrator, a biologist. They have been sent by the Southern Reach, a secret organization almost as mysterious as Area X itself, to discover the secret of the region. Events almost immediately spiral out of control. Southern Reach is keeping secrets from them, and the very land seeks to contaminate them.

This makes for an intriguing set up, and that is precisely what the novel is—set up. The first part of a trilogy, Annihilation successfully introduces the reader to the weird uncanniness of Area X and even manages to tell a complete story in itself. The four women are well drawn, if a little distant, by design. The biologist is a distant woman, and her understanding of the other members is limited at best. Her story is effectively told, though there is room for a possible return. The story of Area X and Southern Reach, however, has barely started.

VanderMeer has a gift for depicting the uncanny and the frightening that he uses to full effect. This is a well-written, exciting, page-turner, but those expecting answers will have to wait. None of the central mysteries are answered, indeed the reader is left with the feeling that, perhaps, the right questions haven’t even been asked yet. As a result, it is difficult to truly judge Annihilation. It is the first part of a work in progress and it remains to be seen if the answers live up to the questions. But I trust VanderMeer and look forward to book two.

Book Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

 

In Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente has combined Soviet Russia with fairy tales and folklore into a compelling retelling of the story of Koschei the Deathless. Reminiscent of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in its magic realism and its darkly comic satirical edge, Deathless is naturally less sharp. Valente’s love of the folklore and interest in the period shine through engagingly.

One of Valente’s greatest strengths has always been the power and beauty of her prose. She has a gift with words, not just storytelling that is on full display here. The slow, tragic love story of Marya Morevna and Koschei is beautifully, almost hypnotically rendered. The opening chapters chronicling Marya’s childhood and their courtship are a near-perfect melding not only of fairytale tropes and elements, but also of fairytale style, with a material sense of history and place. These juxtapositions are where the book is at its strongest. Valente takes great care to ensure that Marya remains a strong, intelligent woman even when she enters Koschei’s realm. This world of firebirds, huts with chicken legs, magical villages, and house spirits is beautifully rendered, but thrown into welcome relief when the world of Stalin’s Russia and the Siege of Leningrad encroach on to the magic.

I personally love fairytales, have an interest in Russian folklore, and have enjoyed several of Valente’s previous novels. Deathless has a combination of elements that would seem almost tailor-made for me, and yet there is something missing. The novel starts to loose focus as the story progresses, and the perfectly judged beauty of the opening cannot be maintained throughout. I recommend Deathless as a wonderfully written fairytale that gains poignancy from its juxtaposition with the realities of Soviet Russia. It is not without its flaws but is definitely worth reading for both the prose and the wonderfully realized world.