Sunday, October 17, 2021

Review: The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow

 I notice that I haven't made a post here in almost two months. That wasn't the plan, but things happened. I'm going to try to be a more regulat poster.

The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow

a review by Rich Horton


My latest in a long series of reviews of books I heard, rather than read, is The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow. Harrow has been publishing short fiction since 2014, and she came to my notice with her Hugo winning short story from 2018, "A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies". Her first novel was The Ten Thousand Doors of January in 2019, and The Once and Future Witches, published a year ago as I write, was her second. It won the 2021 British Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

The novel is set in 1893, in an alternate history in which witchery is real, but has been brutally suppressed over and over again (mostly by men, and often, we eventually learn, but what seems to be the same, nearly immortal, man.) Though it eventually becomes clear that both men and women can do magic, this history assigns most of it to women, including things like collection of fairy tales (by the Sisters Grimm and Charlotte Perrault and Andrea Lang, for example -- and Alexandra Pope is the name of a famous translator of Homer.) Likewise history is altered in curious ways -- the witch burnings in Salem, for example, happened about a century later than in our history, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire becomes the Square Shirtwaist Fire and happens a couple of decades early. I could see the motivation for most of these changes (some, I suspect, just for fun) but I'm not surely they really worked -- at any rate, they nagged at me as artificial. More successful are the reimagined fairly tales intertwined with the main line of the story -- these interrogate the assumptions and intentions of traditional fairy stories effectively, and also work nicely to advance the plot (and back story) of the book.

The story here concerns three sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth, and James Juniper. They grew up in the backwoods, and their mother died young. They were raised by an abusive father, and by their grandmother, who taught them "witch ways" -- little magics, sometimes bigger magics, done in secret by women. The three are separated as the action starts, and each blames the others: Beatrice and Agnes both abandoned the much younger James when she was 11 or so, after a mysterious fire nearly killed their father and injured James Juniper. It's clear to the reader that none of the girls had much choice in the actions they took, and that their mistrust of each other is misplaced, but that mistrust drives the early action importantly. As the book opens, their father has died, and James Juniper, her home given to a male cousin, has fled to the city, to New Salem (while being suspected of having murdered her father.) New Salem (actually location never really given) was built, apparently, to replace the old town of Salem, which was burned to the ground to wipe out all traces of witchcraft, and to kill the remaining witches. As James comes to the city, she is drawn to its center, and so are her sisters, who have lived in the city for a while. (Beatrice is a librarian, and Agnes works in a mill.) As the three come together, a sudden storm reveals a mysterious tower -- the Tower of Avalon -- and it is clear to everyone, hopeful witches and suspicious moralists, that magic in some form has returned.

New Salem, we learn, has been explicitly recast as a highly moralistic city, and witchcraft is illegal, and all but unknown (at least, openly.) It is also the home of a nascent movement for women's suffrage. In something of a reaction to this, the upcoming mayoral race features a reform-minded opponent, Gideon Hill, a slimy man who urges severe opposition to both women's suffrage and any trace of witchcraft.

The three sisters represent a version of the traditional maiden, mother, crone. James Juniper, the youngest, the wild girl, is the maiden; Agnes, pregnant out of wedlock, and the most traditionally beautiful, is the mother, and Beatrice, the eldest, and a Lesbian, is the crone. But these cliched roles are also questioned and examined, and each is given fuller agency than in traditional stories. Soon they are -- if somewhat tentatively -- working together. James Juniper joins the suffragist society, but quickly realizes they are somewhat hidebound, very cautious (especially about any hint of witchery), and racist to boot. The sisters form a new society, explicitly looking to restore witchcraft, at first by resurrecting, from old stories and oral traditions, as many spells (witch ways) as possible, eventually be seeking to restore the Tower of Avalon. Meanwhile Agnes is trying to find a way to keep her coming daughter safe, and to give her a chance at an independent life; while Beatrice is forging a tentative relationship with Cleopatra Quinn, a black journalist from New Cairo, the black neighborhood of New Salem. And Gideon Hill -- who, it is clear to readers from the jump, has his own dark magical abilities -- is trying to capture them and destroy them.

The novel gains momentum quickly. There are actually three climaxes, each very powerful, each of which brought tears to my eyes. The magic is convincingly and imaginatively described. There are truly wrenching sacrifices that must be made, which are not shied away from. The back story of the sisters in interesting and well revealed, and the back story of some other characters, Gideon Hill in particular, is also intriguing. I will say I didn't quite find James Juniper's character to come to life as fully as her two sisters; and Agnes' eventual love interest seems a bit convenient. The novel makes a brave attempt to engage with racial issues, and also LGBTQ+ issues -- sometimes this aspect seems a bit sketched in, a bit forced. (Though necessary to acknowledge.) All these are quibbles (and so too is my feeling that the denouement is somewhat of a letdown) -- for the most part The Once and Future Witches is exciting, tremendously moving, and earns its ending.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Birthday Review: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips

Today would have been Alice Bradley Sheldon's 106th birthday. I was surprised and disappointed to find that I haven't really written anything substantive about her ... I suppose because I read her complete works before I really began writing about SF. Not that that's an excuse.

Here's a brief review I published in Fantasy Magazine of Julie Phillips' exceptional biography. (The review is brief because that was the format for the magazine.)

Review: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips (St. Martin’s Press, 0-312-20385-3, $27.95, 470pp, hc) 2006. 

A review by Rich Horton


It has been said that the lives of writers are not terribly interesting – perhaps this is sometimes true (though less often so than some might think), but it is certainly not true of the life of “James Tiptree, Jr.”. This was fairly clear even when we did not know who “Tiptree” was, and when rumor and “his” letters spoke of much travel, intelligence work in World War II, a psychology Ph.D., and government work. Then we learned that “Tiptree”, famously an “ineluctably masculine” writer in Robert Silverberg’s words, was a woman, Alice Bradley Sheldon, and her story became even more interesting.

As Julie Phillips’s excellent biography makes clear, her story was still more interesting than we knew. Alice Bradley was the daughter of a very successful Chicago writer, Mary Hastings Bradley, who was also an explorer and took her daughter on three trips to the African interior. Alice grew up rather wild, tumbling into a disastrous first marriage at her debut. She was bisexual, though her affairs with women were generally short-lived – perhaps simply because she couldn’t bring herself to fully accept her Lesbianism – or perhaps because her rivalry with her mother (or something else) made her ever suspicious of women. She was fiercely intelligent, beautiful, and hard to satisfy. Besides worthy service for the U. S. military, she was a promising painter, a chicken farmer, a psychologist, a journalist, a writer for the New Yorker, and more. But above all, once she took her male pseudonym, she was one of the greatest and most original SF writers of all time. 

Phillips’s book tells her life story with sympathy but also with a clear eye to her problems. It is also insightful as to the source of her SFnal inspiration, and quite strong in covering the literary value of the major stories and the novels. And it portrays very well the deep epistolary friendships “Tiptree” made with many SF writers, male and female. This is a moving life story, and an acutely written literary biography – a must for anyone interested in SF history.


Sunday, August 15, 2021

Cordwainer Smith Award Review: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D. G. Compton

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D. G. Compton

a review by Rich Horton


This weekend, at Readercon 31 (in a virtual sense), the 2021 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award was given to David Guy Compton, who wrote his SF as D. G. Compton. (He also wrote crime fiction as Guy Compton, and romances as Frances Lynch.) The jury this year comprised Grant Thiessen, Steven H Silver, and myself. This was our first year on the jury, succeeding Robert J. Sawyer and Barry Malzberg, who resigned last year after many years of service. (Their fellow juror, Mike Resnick, had died before last year's selection was made.) 

We discuss our selection in this video. Short version -- he was an exceptional writer of generally low-key SF (mostly novels), focussed on character and on social themes. The bulk of his work appeared between 1965 and 1980, though after an eight year absence he returned with 5 more novels between 1988 and 1996, plus an outlier short story in 2001. He was born in 1930, and is still alive, though he doesn't appear to be writing. He has been active in the assisted suicide movement. Though born and long resident in the UK, according to information in the 2015 NYRB Books reissue of this novel, he was at that time living in Maine.

The Continous Katherine Mortenhoe, from 1974, is probably Compton's best known novel. This is partly because of the 1979 film adaptation, Death Watch, directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and starring Romy Schneider and Harvey Keitel; but also because it's an outstanding book -- my personal favorite of Compton's oeuvre. It was first published in the US as The Unsleeping Eye (a Don Wollheim title change, and not inappropriate though less good than the original title.) Inevitably there were also editions titled Death Watch. My edition is the 1980 Pocket Books reprint, also called The Unsleeping Eye, and curiously copyrighted 1979, which is either an error, or reflective of revisions Compton may have made, either as a result of the movie, or of his 1979 sequel, Windows

The book is set in the relatively near future -- probably in our past as of 2021. Katherine Mortenhoe is a woman in her 40s. She has been diagnosed with a terminal disease, and given a month or so to live. This is extremely unusual for the world of this novel, as almost all diseases are curable, and no one dies except by old age (or violence.) The other main character, Roddie, is a TV reporter who has had a camera surgically implanted, so that anything he sees is recorded. He is assigned to get close to Katherine Mortenhoe, in order to record her final days for a sort of "reality TV show". (This particular bit of speculation by Compton seems very prescient now.) Katherine is at first very resistant, but she is worn down over time as her fate becomes widely known, and it becomes clear that her privacy is lost no matter what she does.

Katherine works in "the Romance division of Computabooks" -- apparently making revisions to computer-generated novels. (Her rackety father, we eventually learn, is also a writer -- of what seems to be trashy SF, in a sly swipe by Compton at his own preferred genre.) She has urges to write her own realistic novel. She is married to a rather colorless man named Harry, and their marriage is shortly coming up for renewal. Her previous marriage, to Gerald Mortenhoe, ended when he declined to renew. Her problem is that she seems totally out of touch with contemporary life -- and her doctor theorizes that this psychological issue has leaked into her physiological problems, causing her uncurable illness.

Katherine's reaction to her plight is primarly to attempt to escape -- not to escape death, which in essence she seems to embrace, but to escape the sort of ordinary life she had been living, and also of course to escape the intrusive TV focus. She has to elude Harry, but cannot elude Roddie -- who she doesn't know (and who doesn't obviously seem a TV journalist, as his camera is invisible.) So both of them end up with the "Fringies" (essentially, this future society's poor, homeless, and unemployed.) And then they find themselves at the estate of a very rich man, who is having a party/orgy. And they are threatened by nihilistic criminals. Throughout all this Roddie is entirely altering his view of his own job -- and his feelings for Katherine Mortenhoe. And Katherine is becoming, it seems, more and more herself.

There are some plotty twists that I won't reveal, except to say that the unavoidable destiny of the novel's characters cannot be changed. Other characters -- Roddie's boss, Katherine's doctor, her ex-husband, Roddie's ex-wife, Katherine's father -- come into view, and all these viewpoints coalesce to depict this rather interesting and sociologically convincing future more fully -- and more darkly. Katherine is a wholly believable character, and Roddie is interesting and worth following, if, I thought, not quite as convincing. The resolution -- even as its general shape is clear from the getgo -- is quite powerful, quite moving. This is a major novel, and while it wouldn't be correct to say that it was ignored -- it got a fair amount of notice -- it still deserves more attention, and deserves to stand among the key SF novels of the 1970s.




Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Review: We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker

We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker

a review by Rich Horton

Sarah Pinsker has written a lot of outstanding short fiction (and has two Nebulas to show for that), and her first novel, A Song for a New Day, also won a Nebula. So this, her second novel, has a lot to live up to. I "read" it, as I have with many novels since I got my Audible subscription, via listening to it. (In all honesty, the narration wasn't my favorite -- some of it was (probably unfair on my part) reaction to the voice, but also I wasn't quite convinced by how she changed voices between characters, and some of the phrasing didn't seem right to me.) Anyway, how does We Are Satellites stack up?

It's set in the very near future, and it concerns the reactions of a family of four to a new technology. The family consists of Val, a schoolteacher and running coach; her wife Julie, a chief of staff for a member of the House of Representatives; and their children, David, who is in high school as the action starts, and Sophie, a few years younger, who has epilepsy. The new technology is called a "pilot" -- a brain implant which, in essence, allows the brain to multitask much more efficiently. This tech is originally adopted by high school age kids (at least as we see) and David quickly wants one, noticing that his fellow students are doing better in class.

That sets up the central issue driving the book -- for Val is immediately, viscerally, opposed to pilots, and to David getting one; while Julie is open to letting David get one, and moreover she wants one herself. There is a political side illuminated by her position -- her boss is getting one, and most of the other people in her office are as well. Beyond that, BNL, the company making the pilots, is based in their district, so there are lots of jobs on the line -- and even some financial assistance for those who want a pilot. As for Sophie, her epilepsy makes her ineligible to get one.

This sets up some immediate, and interesting, social problems. One is solved quickly -- if pilots are expensive, won't they only increase the divide between the haves and have-nots? BNL, however, offers them for free to those who can't afford them. But there are still people on the "outside" -- those who can't (or won't) get a pilot -- people like Sophie, who can't, and Val, who won't.

The personal issue becomes fraught when David graduates, and instead of going to college accepts an offer to join the Army, which sees tremendous potential for soldiers using pilots. But this unites Julie and Val, who both hate the idea of David joining the military, purely (as portrayed) as mothers, who fear for their son's safety. Meanwhile, Sophie has made a friend at school, and her friend, led by his father, is part of a pilot resistance group, which Sophie joins. The other key development is in David's head -- the pilot gives him the ability to multitask, indeed -- but to a fault. He notices EVERYTHING, which is very distressing, and which he calls "Noise".

I won't detail the further developments, but we see the lives of David and Sophie develop as they grow into adulthood; and we see Val and Julie weather some serious crises in their marriage (caused mostly by lack of communication, which is blamed largely on Julie (and her errors are severe) but somehow some similarly terrible lapses by Val seem forgotten ...) 

So -- how did it work for me? Well, it was a mixed bag. The central idea is outstanding -- plausible, and worth examining, and much of the examination is spot on. But the plot ends up ensnarled in a really sort of cliche "evull corporation" thread. But more to the point, very often I had a hard time believing things. Some of this was character stuff that could be laid at the feet of characterization -- why don't people communicate more? Maybe that really is true to the characters, but if Julie, Val, and perhaps especially David (about his "noise") had actually talked more, things might have been much different. But there are other things -- there's a subplot involving a stolen corporate badge that I simply rejected, as someone who works for a defense contractor and has a badge -- the scheme would not have worked. And Sophie's resistance effort seems based more on the conviction that since she doesn't like pilots (because she can't get one herself?) the corporation that makes them must be up to something. (One of the speeches against pilots reminded me only too much of an anti-vaxxer's screed.) The fact that in this book, her suspicions end up true (for reasons that, again, I didn't quite buy) doesn't seem to me to justify getting there for the wrong reasons. (Especially as it's easy to imagine similar technology being critical to HELP people with epilepsy -- granting that in this future it didn't work, but what if a treatment for epilepsy also turned out to give people the same boost that pilots do? Where would Sophie stand? Even though some of the other, very worthwhile, issues with pilots would remain?)

So -- that sounds negative. But -- I still really liked the book. Why -- partly because Pinsker creates characters we like and root for, and who have real world problems that matter. Also -- the posited technology, the pilots, is both believable, and of real benefits -- but with real problems. I might well be guilty of the reviewer's worst sin -- wanting the author to write the book they want, instead of the book the author meant to read -- but I feel like the central concept is really cool, and the characters will support a nuance examination of some wrenching issues, so it's almost a copout to let things turn on corporate malfeasance instead of a close confrontation with truly troubling implications of a technology that can help, but that also has a dark side. For me, that would have been a more ambiguous novel -- but in the end more interesting.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Review: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

a review by Rich Horton


Some little way through The Goblin Emperor I had a thought -- this book's main character is "the Ted Lasso of Emperors". This won't mean much to those who have not seen the TV series Ted Lasso (in which case, my first recommendation is: See it now!) Ted Lasso is about a man hired to coach an English football team who is woefully unprepared for the job (he's an American football coach, which is the lame joke that inspired the series -- but the series is NOT about that joke.) Ted Lasso, with the help of a loyal assistant, and despite the open hostility of his players and many of the local supporters, manages to succeed (to a degree) simply by being unfailingly kind. The Goblin Emperor, then, is about Maia, a half goblin who becomes Emperor of the Elflands despite no preparation, and who faces open hostility from many of his subjects and from many of the people who should be helping him, but who succeeds mostly by being unfailingly kind.

The other thing that came to mind was the novels of Anthony Trollope, mostly because of Trollope's fascination with manners and with political minutiae, but to a degree because the steampunkish and also the monarchy plus nobles social structure in The Goblin Emperor is not entirely unlike Trollope's England. And also because if Jo Walton can do Trollope with dragons (in the thoroughly delightful Tooth and Claw) then why can't Katherine Addison do Trollope with elves and goblins?

I am, to be sure, late to the party with this book -- after all, it won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and was nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, all this back when it was published in 2014. What can I say? I am perpetually behind on my novel reading! I should also mention that "Katherine Addison" is a pseudonym for Sarah Monette, who was published a number of fine novels and excellent shorter work under her own name (I am particularly fond of her Kyle Murchison Booth stories, and her collaborations with Elizabeth Bear such as "Boojum".) One of my recent stratagems for catching up on novels is listening to audiobooks, and so with The Goblin Emperor, which I "read" in the narration by Kyle McCarley.

To briefly summarize the plot: Maia is the youngest son of the Emperor Verinechebel of the Elflands. Maia's mother was a goblin, and their unhappy marriage was purely political. She was "relegated" soon after Maia's birth, and so Maia never knew his father, nor the court. His mother died when she was 8, and he was raised thereafter by his much older cousin, who has been punished in essence (we eventually learn) for political reasons. This cousin is bitter, and very abusive to Maia.

Then there is an airship accident, and Verinechebel is killed along with all Maia's older half-brothers. He becomes the heir, and is summoned to court to take up his duties. He is confronted with a very hostile Lord Chancellor, and a great deal of suspicion by most of the court, not to mention a fair amount of prejudice due to his half-goblin ancestry. (In this world, it is clear, goblins and elves are the same species, just different races.) Fortuitously, he is able to hire as secretary the courier who brought the news of his elevation, and this man, Csevet, proves to be invaluable and very loyal.

Maia, then, must navigate a passel of issues, some personal, some political. These include the investigation into the airship crash that killed his father (which of course is quickly proven not to be accidental), confrontations with severely jealous relatives like his sister-in-law Chevien, who believes her son to be the rightful Emperor; and his quasi stepmother, Verinechebel's last wife Csoru. Likewise there is the question of his necessary upcoming marriage; and of the supposed necessity of his half-sister's marriage. There are political questions, in this book ultimately revolving around the issue of a proposed bridge across a major river. There is the desire of his grandfather, the Avar of the Goblins, who wishes to visit. His Lord Chancellor continues to obstruct him. His infatuation with an opera singer threatens, perhaps, scandal. And, eventually, he faces two separate assassination attempts. And his reaction, throughout, is to listen, to try to understand the other person, to do the unexpectedly kind thing.

Some of this description may make the book seem full of incident and action, but it really isn't -- it's mostly court intrigue, lots of talk, the occasional revelation of a dark backstory. And I was gripped throughout. I was completely absorbed, and very moved. I loved this novel.

And yet I must admit it's far from perfect. Part of the issue is that Maia -- delightful character though he is -- is perhaps a bit too perfect. Part is that he is really quite lucky -- in most any real life comparable situation he'd have been crushed. And the details of the plot do take on aspects of cliche. (That said, another complaint I've seen -- that there are too many weird words -- strikes me as wrongheaded. Perhaps aided by the narration, I found the words (names, titles, buildings, etc.) delightful -- strange but comprehensible, and greatly adding to the atmosphere.) As "fantasy", it's marginal. There is a touch of magic, but not a lot. The elves and goblins aren't really all that elflike or goblinlike, though I did like their ears -- really, as I said, they are stand ins for different races. (Not that that is really a problem.)

Bottom line -- this is in a certain way a comfort read. In that sense it makes us feel good -- by showing us that a good person can make a difference. I might not always (cynical old me) believe that, at least not to this extent, but I'd like to, and for the space of this novel I did. A good novel, a fun novel, a great read. Not a great novel, but that's not always what we need.


Sunday, July 4, 2021

Review: One Night Stands and Lost Weekends, by Lawrence Block

One Night Stands and Lost Weekends, by Lawrence Block

a review by Rich Horton

Everybody has to start somewhere. Lawrence Block, like many writers who came up in the 1950s, got his start in the men's fiction magazines of just after the pulp era. Digest-sized magazines, for the most part, that published very pulpy fiction. And this book collects the stories Block wrote and sold at the beginning of his career, to magazines like Manhunt, Trapped, Off-Beat, and so on. (One of them even went to Science Fiction Stories.) These pieces were first published between 1958 and 1963, with one outlier in 1966. 

I have read a lot of lower end '50s magazines, but in my case almost all science fiction. But the crime fiction market was similar in its way. Block is quite dismissive of these early stories, and for the most part he is right, at least in that Block's later work, such as the Bernie Rhodenbarr and Matthew Scudder series, is much better. But it is still interesting to see a writer learning. And, really, it's clear from his earliest stories that he could WRITE -- could put words together in interesting ways, could make the reader want to see what happened (even if, in many of these early stories, what was going to happen was fairly predictable), and could make the characters breath, even if, again, these early characters were drawn from stock. I was reminded to an extent of the career of Robert Silverberg, in science fiction -- he began writing fairly routine SF that for all that was never less than compentently executed -- you could see from the start that he could write. And both Block and Silverberg also honed their novel-length skills by writing a good deal of paperback soft porn in the same period, by all accounts likewise competent and professional if formulaic.

This book, a trade paperback from 2008, was actually originally published in two separate volumes by the estimable small press Crippen and Landru. The first book, One Night Stands, collected most of the short stories Block published in the first years of his career. These pieces run from say 1500 to about 4000 words. They are snappy, usually dark, setting up a criminal situation, and typically turning a little twist on things, often to the ironic misfortune of the main character. I had seen only one of these early, not surprisingly (me being me) the one science fiction story, "Nor Iron Bars a Cage", which I had read in its reprint in Judith Merril's Year's Best SF collection, under the original (lesser) title "Make a Prison". I thought the piece amusing anough, but frankly not worthy of inclusion in a year's best book -- and Block seems to agree. (It's about an alien sent to prison for a crime, and the people who imprison him congratulating themselves on the great prison they've constructed -- until they learn something (not all that surprising) about the alien's physical form that renders their prison useless.) But I read through the rest of these stories quickly, always entertained. As implied above, they tend to follow formula -- introduce a criminal situation -- typically someone doing a crime, or someone about to be victimized, occasionally telling of a cop investigating a crime -- and reveal an ironic twist, often the criminal getting caught for some foolish reason. There are a lot of beautiful women, either eager to sleep with the men in the stories, or not so eager but about to be forced to, or willing to sleep with them but for a much higher price than they think they're paying. Are these great works? No. But they're worth the price of admission.


The second Crippen and Landru book was called The Lost Cases of Ed Lincoln, and it collected three novelettes about a private eye named Ed Lincoln. The genesis of these stories is amusing -- Block was hired to do a tie-in novel for a TV series starring Ray Milland about a PI named Roy Markham. His first try seemed too good to waste on a TV tie-in, so he changed the name of the protagonist to Ed Lincoln, and sold it as a standalone (Death Pulls a Doublecross.) (The Roy Markham novel he did write eventually appeared as well, though after the TV series had been cancelled.) Block decided to try to turn Ed Lincoln into a series character, but never could make another novel work. But he did write these three novelettes for Man's Magazine in 1962/1963.

These are actually decent work, and a series of novels might have been OK. They're not great work, though. Ed is a fairly typical private eye, complete with a convenient friend in the police department, and a signature slightly unusual preferred drink (cognac.) He's happy to sleep with his clients -- though an ongoing minitheme is that the nicer (if not necessarily quite as beautiful) women he encounters are better for him. In "The Naked and the Deadly" he is hired by a beautiful young woman who says she's being blackmailed -- but when the "blackmailer" is killed after meeting Ed for the payoff, he learns instead that the woman's father was blackmailing a mob boss, who killed him and will kill the daughter too. But of course things are not quite that simple ... I thought this solid work. "Stag Party Girl" was a bit less successful. Ed is hired to protect a man who's being threatened by his whore/mistress now that he's marrying a rich girl. But when the mistress ends up killed at the man's bachelor party, he's the first suspect. Ed doesn't believe he's guilty, though the police do, and he keeps investigating, undercovering the sad tale of the fiancee, and eventually solving the crime -- a rather melodramatic solution turning on a psychosexual hangup that I frankly didn't buy. Finally, my favorite may have been "Twin Call Girls", in which one of a pair of sisters with the title profession hires Ed because she's been threatened with murder. Alas, before Ed can get to her, she's killed, and Ed needs to find the killer, with the help of her sister. I think I liked it because I figured out the solution right off the top, but it was one of those cases where even so working out the way the details come clear is almost more fun because you can see how they fit. On the whole I'd say a series of Ed Lincoln novels probably could have turned out fine, but perhaps it was better that Block invented Bernie Rhodenbarr and Matthew Scudder instead.

The title of the book refers not just to the experiences of (some of) the characters but to Block's self-deprecating account of how long the short stories in One Night Stands and the novelettes in The Lost Cases of Ed Lincoln took to write. I was amused by the ordering of the stories in One Night Stands -- alphabetical order by title, perhaps the first story collection I've ever seen ordered that way (not counting stories written to fill an alphabetical list.) And I should add that besides the stories themselves, Block's autobiographical introductions (to this combined volume, and to each original collection) are a very enjoyable addition.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Review: Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott

 Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott

a review by Rich Horton

Unconquerable Sun is the first in a new Space Opera trilogy from Kate Elliott. Thus it joins a quite remarkable list of recent Space Operas, many or most by women -- books from Arkady Martine, K. B. Wagers, Ann Leckie, Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth Bear, Aliette de Bodard, Kameron Hurley, Karen Lord; though of course by men too, such as Yoon Ha Lee, Tim Pratt, John Scalzi, and Gareth Powell. I am confident that that list could be much longer. 

How does it stack up in this company? The short answer is, very well. For the longer answer, I will start with my reservations: it cannot be said that the book avoids certain Space Opera cliches. The title character is a Princess, to begin with -- of a comity that calls itself a republic. (And, yes, the book does eventually explore at least somewhat the contradictions implied therein.) Beyond that, well, the main characters are all very special people, At least three of them (none of them the true central characters, but all important secondary characters) are repeatedly described as implausibly physically beautiful. Beyond that, the characters collectively are remarkably accomplished. As for the plot and action and space battles -- there is a good deal of coincidence and good fortune driving events. Let me add -- every one of these statements is true of many many Space Operas, going back to the beginning. (Indeed, it's true of many books, period.) One might say it's part of the DNA of the genre. We know what we're getting into, and we shouldn't complain.

Well, that last paragraph reads a tad mean. And I don't really want it to come off that way. Because given all that, Unconquerable Sun is both terrifically exciting, and full of neat ideas, unexpected revelations, and characters we really like being with. It is, I think, a very succesful piece of SF. It doesn't really break new ground, but it uses its familiar tropes expertly, and I will certainly be reading the rest of the series.

What is the book about? The title character, Princess Sun, the heir to the throne of the Republic of Chaonia, is 20, and as the book opens has just returned from leading a successful military action against Chaonia's principal rival, the Phene Empire. Over time we learn that Chaonia is a smaller federation of Solar Systems, and that Sun's mother, the Queen-Marshal Eirene, has managed to expand its reach, and forge alliances or at least detentes with important polities. Sun is her heir, but her position is perhaps precarious, because her father, Prince Joao, is a Gatoi, part of a ship-dwelling group who often serve as mercenaries for the Phene. Eirene, who already has several consorts, may be pursuing another marriage. And the rival Lee family, who control the security apparatus of Chaonia, have their own interests in the heirship. All interesting enough (and to be honest, pretty standard.) 

Sun quickly finds herself sidelined to a tour of shipyards, and is furious. Meanwhile, we are introduced to further points of view. One is Persephone Lee, twin sister of one of Sun's formal "Companions", Perseus Lee. Persephone, however, has escaped her family, and secretly enrolled at CeDCA, a military academy, and is about to graduate. Another POV, in chapters headed "A Dispatch from the Enemy", is Apama At Sabao, also a young military trainee, but for the Phene Empire -- and she is suddenly sent on a secret mission to make a surprise attack on Chaonian installations. The fourth major POV character is Zizou, a captured Gatoi mercenary. He has been taken in an attempt to study -- and hopefully subvert -- a treatment that Prince Joao believes the Phene give to the Gatoi, greatly enhancing their strength but also including a compulsion to fight to the death, and to always blindly obey the orders of their Phene commanders.

Soon events transpire that bring all these threads together -- Sun's group of companions is attacked, and Perseus Lee is one of the victims. Persephone, on the verge of graduation, learns she has not truly escaped her family, as she is summoned home to replace her brother as one of Sun's companions -- and also, to her horror, to take up a position as her Aunt's heir to the Governorship of Lee House. Zizou is stolen by the Lee family, in an attempt to embarrass Sun, and so also her father -- but Sun manages to gain his loyalty instead. Realizing that she is potentially under more direct attack (possibly from rival factions in Chaonia -- not just from the enemy), Sun and her group of companions make an escape, and for perhaps implausible but terribly exciting reasons manage to be in the right place at the right time to at least blunt the surprise Phene attack ... and, and, and -- the action is truly nonstop from this point, very nicely done, truly gripping. Mixed into this, of course, are the personal relationships of these characters -- especially those in Sun's entourage. Sun herself has taken her companion Hettie as a lover, which is frowned upon. Sun's mother has several, to some extent dynastic, marriages. And Persephone Lee (my personal favorite character by far) begins to form a bond with another character that will clearly be a fulcrum in coming books. 

I have said little about this stellar milieu. It seems the result of a diaspora from a poisoned Earth (most likely), which founded the Celestial Empire, based around a set of stars connnected by a "beacon network" -- which seems to be a set of artifical wormhole connections left by an older race. So far, so familiar, to be sure -- and the next fillip, that the Celestial Empire collapsed when a subset of beacon connections failed reminded me of Scalzi's Collapsing Empire. This is not a complaint -- all these elements, this furniture if you will, are part of the toolset SF writers use, and they are used nicely here. One element Elliott adds is another means of faster than light travel, rarely used because it's much slower than the beacons -- but also independent of them. The humans who have settled these stars use some degree of genetic engineering. For example, it goes unremarked that children are routinely born to same sex couples using genetic material from both parents (and even a third.) Cloning is forbidden in Chaonia, but it's clearly possible. The Phene Empire is more eager to use this tech -- most Phene have four arms, for one thing, and some (including Apama's mother) were born with a sort of armored shell. They have developed as well another, creepy, capability which looms very large towards the end of the novel. Much of this is not really fully developed in this book, but it has the clear potential to be a major issue in the rest of the trilogy. And it's all well handled, integrated into the book with the seamless skill of a veteran SF writer.

An important subtheme of the book, and presumably the trilogy, is exploring -- at least to a degree -- the injustices in even the supposedly "good" polity of Chaonia. (Note that how "good" Chaonia is, and how "bad" the Phene empire are, at least is not a matter of black and white.) Some of Sun's companions, or their "CCs", give us -- and Sun -- some insight into the contradictions in Chaonian society, and indeed Apama's situation hints at some ethnic prejudice in the Phene Empire. I suspect these aspects too will be more important in future volumes.

So, as I said, this was a tremendously fun read. The start is a little bit slow -- but for good reasons I think -- and once the engine of the plot is ignited, it's fast moving and involving. It's unashamedly full bore Space Opera, with as I've noted some of familiar implausibilities and conventions of that subgenre, and they are nicely deployed.


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Old Bestseller Review: The High Hand, by Jacques Futrelle

The High Hand, by Jacques Futrelle

a review by Rich Horton


Here's a return to the kind of book I started this blog to cover -- popular fiction, often forgotten, from the first half of the 20th Century. Often the books I cover in that category were bestsellers, but I'm not sure The High Hand sold particularly well. It was first published in 1911 by Bobbs-Merrill, but my edition is the 1912 reprint from Grosset & Dunlap. (Grosset & Dunlap were primarily reprint publishers, and indeed they filled a function analagous to that of mass market paperbacks beginning in 1940 or so.) The book is signed on the inside front cover and facing page by Mrs. Alfie Brown, and "? J. Brown", the latter signature dated 7/14/1912. It is quite a short novel, in the range of perhaps 50,000 words. This book is illustrated by Will Grefe. Grefe's illustrations are quite nice, in very much the typical style of late 19th and early 20th Century illustration as reprsented by the likes of Harrison Fisher and Charles Dana Gibson. 

I have remarked in these entries that often the biography of these writers is more interesting than their novels. Jacques Futrelle is another example. He was born in Georgia, on April 9, 1875. He became a journalist, starting the sports section at the Atlanta Journal, and continued to the New York Herald, the Boston Post, and finally the Boston American. In the latter paper he published a detective story, "The Problem of Cell 13", in 1905, featuring a "scientific detective", called, "the Thinking Machine", Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen. He wrote a number of further stories of the Thinking Machine, and it is these stories for which he is now best remembered, to the extent he's remembered at all. He left the American in 1906 to concentrate on fiction, and seven novels followed. He died on April 15, 1912, aged only 37. That date will be significant to some -- it is the date of the sinking of the Titanic, and in fact Futrelle, who had a first class ticket, was on his way back to the US on that ship. He refuse to get in a lifeboat, and (so the story goes) basically shoved his wife into the boat, and her last sight of him had him standing with John Jacob Astor, smoking a cigar as the Titanic went down.


Well, then, what about the book at hand? It's really a fairly minor effort. It's not one of his detective stories. Instead it's a political story, reminiscent of a couple other books I've reviewed here, such as Half a Rogue, by Harold MacGrath. Jim Warren is a young man in Warburton, in an unnamed Northeastern state. He has come from humble beginnings to become superindent of a factory, with the prospects of become manager when his boss retires. He's happy there, but when one of his workers suggests he ought to go into politics, to represent the interests of the working man, and to provide an honest alternative to the crooks who have controlled local politics for some time, he gets intrigued. And before long he has what he calls "the big idea", which is not made clear until the end, though we gather that his study has revealed that the crooks are "playing with marked cards", so Jim Warren will mark his own cards, to sweep them out.

The local state representative is one Francis Everard Lewis, who has become suddenly rich after gaining his seat. Lewis controls a legitimately rich fellow representative, Dwight Tillinghast. Tillinghast is a weak man, and Lewis has maneuvered him into the speakership of the legislature, with prospects of becoming Governor in the next election. Lewis has extracted a price, of course -- Tillinghast's beautiful daughter, Edna, being part of it.

Warren and Lewis' longtime fixer, one Franques, strike a deal -- Franques giving Warren the goods on Lewis. Using this information, Warren is able to force Lewis to drop out of the race for re-election, leaving the field clearl for Warren, who runs as the "honest man" who will clean up the corruption in their state. In the mean time, Warren has chance met Edna Tillinghast, and he is intrigued, but she learns who he is, and will have nothing to do with him when she realizes he has acted against her fiance. Warren carries forth in his campaign, winning easily.

And when he takes office, he continues maneuvering, making deals -- dirty deals -- to get plum assignments. These assignments give him the chance to advance the interests of his constituents -- but at a considerable price: he is acting as corruptly as those he had campaigned against. And soon he realizes that the price is even higher, for he is in love with Edna Tillinghast, and she has nothing but contempt for him. Worse, once he realizes that she has finally learned the depth of her fiance's own corruption, she breaks off the engagement. Moreover, Warren's plans require him to force her father out of the race for Governor. And his honesty compels him to confess to Edna his own involvement in underhanded schemes ...

But -- but -- Jim Warren still has his "big idea". With that, even facing arrest when Lewis exposes his corrupt deals, perhaps he can salvage everything! Everything, perhaps, but the love of Edna Tillinghast!

Well, what can I say? It's rather a silly book in many ways. Jim Warren's scheme is convoluted and reasonably speaking would never have worked. The message is sound enough -- yes, politicians, then and now, were as corrupt as the book displays, but still ... The resolution has some outrageously melodramatic elements (especially when we learn Franques' motivation.) And the depiction of women (basically Edna) is as full of guff as one could possibly imagine. That said, it's a quick read, never boring, and I don't regret the time I took with it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Birthday Review: Old Twentieth, by Joe Haldeman

Today is Joe Haldeman's 78th birthday. It is also my son Geoff's 29th birthday! Happy Birthday, Geoff (and Joe!)

Here's my review of Old Twentieth, written for SF site back in 2005 when it appeared. I've added a couple of things to update Joe's career status.

Old Twentieth, by Joe Haldeman

a review by Rich Horton


Joe Haldeman is a wonder. He continues to produce a novel every couple of years, each compact and intelligent and engaging and involving. [Alas, we have not seen a novel since Work Done for Hire in 2014. I suspect Haldeman may have retired -- and a well-earned retirement, no doubt.] At times he fumbles the ending (as with Guardian), but even in such a case the ride is very entertaining. [My main issue with Guardian is that I was loving it so much, when it switched from a historical novel to an SF novel -- and I didn't want that switch! Perhaps the reader's fault, and not the writer's.] And at other times, he finds a surprising yet internally logical ending that wholly satisfies -- so it was with The Coming, and now again with Old Twentieth. Haldeman also, as with some other veteran authors, has a certain facility with the toolbox of SF: with the classic ideas and again with the latest hot ideas; and he combines them effortlessly and effectively.

In Old Twentieth the ideas Haldeman juggles are immortality, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and a variant on the generation starship. He is also, as the title tells us, concerned with the 20th Century, the bloodiest century (though the 21st will turn out to be bloodier, says this novel), and the last century in which death was inevitable.

Central to this novel are scenes of war. We open at Gallipoli, one of the worst battles of World War I. But somehow the narrator escapes certain death, and we quickly gather that he is really using Virtual Reality to experience a simulation of an historical situation. He is Jacob Brewer, whose family was rich enough to purchase an immortality treatment before an horrific war between the lucky immortals and the poorer people who couldn't afford the treatment. He and his mother were among a very few survivors, but a couple of centuries later, the world has recovered, and a stable population of a billion or so lives quite pleasant lives. And they have decide to mount an expedition to Beta Hydrii.

Jake is the VR expert on the fleet of starships. His job is to maintain the VR simulation, which is mainly used for immersive experiences in any number of times in the 20th Century. The story concerns the starships beginning their journey. Jake gets married (a ten year contract -- immortals don't marry for life). And as the journey begins, unsettling things start to happen in VR. The most unsettling thing is that people start dying -- immortals. Another concern is some minor inconsistencies in the VR backgrounds. Jake's insistence on returning again and again to the VR tanks, dangerous as they seem to be becoming, puts great strains on his marriage. And he begins to realize that the VR system itself may be showing signs of independent action...

That's the main arc of the "present day" story: a mystery concerning problems in VR, and potential AI activity. And the resolution to this arc is quite surprising, and quite effective. But the story gains depth -- dare I say gravitas -- from the background supplied by the recurring trips to 20th Century milieus: World War I, the influenza epidemic, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, etc. These, combined with Jake's memories of his youthful experiences in the terrible war that nearly ended human civilization, provide a dark but oddly hopeful backdrop to the story of an expedition of immortal humans to another star -- a likely one way trip for no reason but knowledge, and a trip that almost before it starts is ominously freighted with the reappearance of the specter of death.

I hope I don't damn with faint praise when I say that this isn't a great novel: just another damn good novel, to add to a long list of damn good novels from Joe Haldeman. He may be the writer I can most reliably turn to for a worthwhile SF novel every time out. Old Twentieth is a great pleasure to read, and it rewards your reading not just with page turning interest but with thoughtful speculation. What more do we want from SF?

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Old Bestseller Review: Three Companion Pieces, by Margery Sharp

 Three Companion Pieces, by Margery Sharp

a review by Rich Horton


In this space I have recently reviewed two of Margery Sharp's early novels in their reprints from the much to be celebrated Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press, Rhododendron Pie and Harlequin House. As a result I want browsing through Sharp's early books and came across a much less well-known one, perhaps partly because it's slightly out of her usual way. This is Three Companion Pieces, a collection of three novelettes published in book form in 1941. As far as I can tell, it's been out of print for a very long time. 

The "three companion pieces" are three novelettes (or novellas), all set in the 19th Century. They are all romances, in that they are about men and women falling in what might be called love, but they are not quite traditional, and indeed in each case to some extent they are mocking, or criticizing, the conventions of romance stories. And, in fact, two of them end quite sadly. The stories are "The Nymph and the Nobleman" (1932, about 14,000 words), "Sophy Cassmajor" (1934, about 15,000 words), and "The Tigress on the Hearth" (1941, about 22,000 words.) At first I thought these were magazine stories, but on closer examination, as best I can tell, the first two were originally published as very slim separate volumes. I believe (though I can't be certain) that "The Tigress on the Hearth" first appeared in Three Companion Pieces in 1941, but it had a later slim edition of its own, in 1955.

In all these editions, including the omnibus volume I have, there are illustrations, by Anna Zinkeisen. The illustrations are fairly simple but quite nice. Zinkeisen (1901-1976) was a Scottish painter, best known for portraits and illustrations of medical scenes (she served as a nurse during the Second World War.) Among her portrait subjects were Prince Philip, and Sir Alexander Fleming (discover of penicillin.) She also did murals, and of course book and magazine illustration. Her sister Doris was also an artist.

So, to the stories. "The Nymph and the Nobleman" concerns Sir George Blunt, a young and fairly dense Englishman on his "Grand Tour". He is in Paris and quite bored when he happens to see a ballet performance, and he immediately falls in love with the head dancer. He arranges to meet her, and she gets the sense that he wants to have a bit of a dalliance, which is all in the usual way of things for her and so she agrees. He carries her off to England, and to her shock she realizes, despite the language difference, that he means to marry her. To her even greater shock, his mother makes no opposition to the marriage! This is where the story breaks with romantic cliche -- for it is quite clear that this alliance is not a love match, and not appropriate at all. And the second half of the story deals fairly realistically with the logical outcome -- George is a clod who has no idea how to take care of his wife, nor even any interest in her; and the dancer is oddly innocent, unable to resist this marriage but terribly sad and neglected, deprived even of her art. The ending is inevitable and quite sad. Sharp's light satirical touch is here, and for a while the story has all the delight of her more contemporary novels; but the conclusion -- while honest and effective -- is in quite a different meter.

"Sophy Cassmajor" tells of the journey from England to India, sometime in perhaps the middle of the 19th Century, of the title girl, only 17 and rather silly. She is going to India to marry an older man, a friend of her father's, and the man seemed nice enough when Sophy met him, so she doesn't seem to mind yet. She has a maid, a farm girl from her neighborhood, who was jilted by the blacksmith, and in something of a premonition, the maid dies of what seems to be heartbreak. Sophy, now chaperoned by a Frenchwoman, Madame Tricoche, meets one of the ship's officers, a fine young man. Soon enough, they think themselves in love -- and perhaps they are! And Madame is not the sort to stand in the way of young love, even if her charge is technically engaged to another. 

Again Sharp is setting up a traditional romance plot, only to upset it. The upset in this case is due to a storm, not to the interference of her family, or her future husband, and Sophy's reaction is perhaps the point of the story, or perhaps the point is simply that sometimes bad things happen. Again I feel that Sharp quite appropriately works out the story in the logical, and not romantic, way, which I think is her point.

Finally, "The Tigress on the Hearth" opens in Albania, with another young Englishman of the Victorian era touring foreign lands. Hugo Lutterwell, however, has manage to get himself in serious trouble, and an Albanian man is trying to kill him. All would be lost, but suddenly a young Albanian woman shows up and knifes the man -- and she and Hugo flee to Hugo's ship. Kathi is her name, and she has decided she is in love with Hugo. And she is a very fine figure of a woman, and Hugo is not entirely displeased ... so they return to England, and they get married, and, as Sharp says archly "at night Hugo found Kathi to be everything a wife should be". 


Hugo's family, who have been told a very inaccurate story of how Kathi saved his life, gladly welcome her, and soon the couple are set up well, and children come. And in a while Hugo is in line to be the next MP from their country district, despite a relative lack of political talent. But then a cad who had fled their county decades ago returns, and runs a very dirty campaign -- it appears Hugo will lose, despite the clear lack of character of his opponent. However, Kathi has her own ideas -- already demonstrated! -- about how to deal with cads who threaten her husband!

The result of all this is quite cleverly (and, I suppose, cynically) worked out, and the eventual effect on Hugo's future career is very amusing indeed. This is perhaps the lightest -- if also the most violent! -- of these three stories, and it's quite amusing. And, again, set very much in opposition to the standard romance cliches.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Review: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

a review by Rich Horton

Gideon the Ninth is Tamsyn Muir's first novel. Muir is a New Zealand based writer, who has published some outstanding horror-inflected short fiction since 2012. (I've reprinted two of her stories in my Best of the Year anthologies, which says something, I suppose, as in general horror is not my favorite mode.) Gideon the Ninth got a great deal of attention, including Nebula and Hugo nominations, and a Locus Award for Best First Novel. I knew I wanted to read it as soon as it came out, but, well, I'm terminally behind on novel reading. I have finally read the book, or, I should say, listened to it, via the audiobook read by Moira Quirk. My paper copy of the book is in storage, as we are getting work done on my house, so for the first time I will try to review a book via the audio edition (and some online cribbing!) alone. (I mean, who knew that the word I heard as "Lictor" was spelled "Lyctor"? Not to mention I was not quite sure if the main character's name was Gideon Naff or Gideon Nav, though I eventually leaned towards the latter, which turned out to be correct.)

Short version -- so as not to bury the lede! -- I really really liked this book. It's funny but very dark; it's science fiction but also fantasy and horror; the characters are involving and the plot is excellent, with a truly inspiring and deserved climax. (It's been described often as "Lesbian necromancers in space", which is not exactly wrong but kind of misleading. Yes, there are necromancers -- in fact, lots of them. Yes, there are Lesbians, but straight people too, and the fact that the main characters are Lesbians is important in the way that any character's sexuality is important, but it's not quite central. As for space -- well, this is a spacefaring civilization, but the book is primarily set on a single planet, in a single building.)

We open on the Ninth House, which we soon gather is a planet, inhabited by, as far as we can tell, an extremely small population of mostly older people. The sun is called Dominicus, and there are nine houses, each based on a planet. The fact that there are nine planets suggests that possibly the system might be our Solar System, and the Ninth House Pluto -- though I'm not sure this is a necessary conclusion. (For example, the most populous "House" might be the Third House -- could that be Earth? But the First House seems the historical base of this civilization -- could that be Earth? We really don't have enough information yet. Perhaps those who have read the sequel (Harrow the Ninth) have a better idea.) The primary point of view character is Gideon, who was not born on the Ninth House, but who was more or less adopted by them when her mother's spaceship crashed there, and her mother died. She is plotting to escape the Ninth House and join the Cohorts, the Undying Emperor's army. But her hated enemy, Harrowhawk, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, nominal ruler given that her parents have taken an oath of silence (convenient, that, as they are dead) is one step ahead of her. And then a summons comes from the Emperor. Each of the other eight houses (besides the First) are to send a necromancer, along with a "cavalier", to the First House, to train (or compete?) to become a Lyctor, and aid the Emperor in his ongoing war against some -- not well defined (though again I suspect Harrow the Ninth might help) -- enemy. Harrowhawk is of course the leading necromancer of the Ninth House, and there is a prospective cavalier, but, to Gideon's horror, Harrow has other ideas, and she maneuvers things so that the prospective cavalier is unavailable, leaving Gideon as the only alternative. Gideon is already a good fighter, and she gets some special training before they leave for the Lyctor competition.

This training happens on the First House, in a huge building (or palace) called Canaan House, that seems in terrible disrepair. There are 7 other "pairs" of candidates (though one "pair" consists of two twin necromancers to go with a single cavalier.) These are a carefully varied lot, with some positioned to be enemies of the Ninth House, and others allies. Each house has a different necromantic specialty -- for some reason the Ninth House is roundly feared, because of their traditional role as guardian of the "Locked Tomb" (which holds the body of the Emperor's greatest enemy) and because of their spooky bone magic. But the other necromancy is often just as scary -- the Eighth House specializes in using the life force of another person (typically the necromancer's cavalier), and the Seventh House requires their necromancers to be terminally ill, using the force of their dying to power their magic. The candidates are all given a room, and almost no instructions -- it becomes clear that their task is essentially to solve a puzzle contained within Canaan House. (Indeed, much of the novel really reads like an account of an attempt to solve an escape room -- to be sure, a much more deadly escape room than those I have played!) 

To this point the novel has been dark in a spooky but not really scary way, rather claustrophobic, and quite funny, the last driven to some strong degree by Gideon's snarky voice. Muir's prose strategy (apparently on purpose) is to use utterly implausible contemporary slang (along the lines of "That's what she said" jokes) to balance the strange far future milieu -- and I have to say that I found that a bit annoying at times. The other "weakness", I thought, was a near complete lack of information about the real nature of this spacefaring civilization -- there is a real sense that this Solar System might have a population of just a few thousand, based on what we see. I'm inclined to let that pass -- I suspect we learn a lot more in the second (and upcoming third) novels; and this novel's focus is what it needs to tell its story. (That said, just a bit more sketched in background detail might have been nice.)

Then the "trials" begin. Harrow abandons Gideon, attempting to solve the puzzles (of which Gideon remains at first unaware) by herself. Gideon trains with the other cavaliers, learning that she's actually pretty good despite her relative lack of cavalier training. She also makes some friends, particularly with Dulcinea Septimus, the languidly pretty and dying necromancer of the Seventh House. She also develops a bit of a crush on the stunningly beautiful Coronabeth Tridentarius, one of the curiously mismatched twin necromancers of the Third House. But then some terrible things happen, beginning with Harrow disappearing. With the help of the scientifically inclined necromancer of the Sixth House, Palamedes Sextus, Gideon rescues Harrow from what seems a death trap; and from then on she insists on helping Harrow with the puzzles, which turns out to be crucial. Soon a necromancer/cavalier couple are found horribly murdered, and the whole trial turns real.

So the book continues, with further sets of scary puzzles, and intriguing knowledge gained from each solution. But there are more deaths to come; and a fraught question: is it allowed for the candidates to cooperate? Or must they battle each other to steal the keys and knowledge obtained? And who or what is doing the killing? There are terrible secrets to learn, such as the means by which one becomes a Lyctor. (There are other more personal secrets, involving Gideon's and Harrow's childhood, and what happened to Harrow's parents and for that matter Gideon's mother. Also of course there is the predictable from page 5 or so development of Harrow and Gideon's personal relationship.) And everything winds up to a tremendous whizbang of a conclusion.

And I have to say -- the climax of the novel is just wonderful. It is a triumph in part of plotting -- we can kind of guess who the villains are early on, but who they really are -- and why! -- is a delightful revelation. There is tremendous action, and some really powerful moments, turning on honest and believable sacrifices. There were a couple of times I was cheering -- and times I was close to tears. This is definitely a book that "sticks the landing". And while it's the first of a trilogy, it tells its story completely, and does not leave us hanging on anything crucial (though to be sure there are still questions we look forward to learning answers to in the subsequent books.)


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Space Opera: Then and Now

The following is the introduction to my 2014 anthology Space Opera, which collected outstanding 21st Century short fiction in the Space Opera subgenre.

Space Opera: Then and Now

by Rich Horton


The term space opera was coined by the late great writer/fan Wilson (Bob) Tucker in 1941, and at first was strictly pejorative. Tucker used the term, analogous to radio soap operas, for “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn[s].” The term remained largely pejorative until at least the 1970s. Even so, much work that would now be called space opera was written and widely admired in that period . . . most obviously, perhaps, the work of writers like Edmond Hamilton and, of course, E. E. “Doc” Smith. To be sure, even as people admired Hamilton and Smith, they tended to do so with a bit of disparagement: these were perhaps fun, but they weren’t “serious.” They were classic examples of guilty pleasures. That said, stories by the likes of Poul Anderson, James Schmitz, James Blish, Jack Vance, Andre Norton, and Cordwainer Smith, among others, also fit the parameters of space opera and yet received wide praise.

It may have been Brian Aldiss who began the rehabilitation of the term with a series of anthologies in the mid 1970s: Space Opera (1974), Space Odysseys (1974), and Galactic Empires (two volumes, 1976). Aldiss, whose literary credentials were beyond reproach, celebrated pure quill space opera as “the good old stuff,” even resurrecting all but forgotten stories like Alfred Coppel’s “The Rebel of Valkyr,” complete with barbarians transporting horses in spaceship holds. Before long writers and critics were defending space opera as a valid and vibrant form of SF. (Coppel, by the way, reimagined “The Rebel of Valkyr” much later as a series of very enjoyable young adult books, undeniably Space Opera, beginning with The Rebel of Rhada (1968), under the pseudonym Robert Cham Gilman.)

By the early 1990s there was talk of “the new space opera” at first largely a British phenomenon, exemplified by the work of Colin Greenland (such as Take Back Plenty) and Iain M. Banks (such as Use of Weapons) - both of those novels were first published in 1990. “The new space opera,” it seems to me, was essentially the old space opera, updated as much science fiction had been by 1990, with a greater attention to writing quality, and a greater likelihood of featuring women or people of color as major characters, and perhaps a greater likelihood of left-wing political viewpoints. Once one noted the existence of “the new space opera” it was easy to look back and see earlier examples, such as Melissa Scott’s Silence Leigh books (beginning with Five-Twelfths of Heaven (1985)), M. John Harrison’s cynical The Centauri Device (1974), and Samuel R. Delany’s Nova (1968). One might also adduce Earthblood (1966), by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown, which takes a somewhat more cynical view of its hero than most Space Opera up to that point.

[I need to acknowledge here an observation that Cora Buhlert made, and I thank her for it. I completely dropped the ball by failing to mention the important (and very popular) work in this "pre-New Space Opera" time frame of two essential writers, both Grand Masters: C. J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold. Much of Cherryh's work is certainly Space Opera, and an exceptional example of it. Lots of people will cite the Foreigner books, or the Union/Alliance books, but I confess an abiding fondness for some very early novels: Brothers of Earth (1976), Hunter of Worlds (1977), and the Faded Sun trilogy (1978-1979). About a decade after Cherryh began publishing, Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar books started appearing, beginning with Shards of Honor (1986). These are often called Military SF, and certain cross all sorts of subgenre boundaries (as books should!) but books about a space-based empire involving wars between planets certainly fit the Space Opera mold. I feel sure that in addition to Delany, Scott, and Harrison the books of Cherryh and Bujold were part of the brew that "New Space Opera" writers were either extending or reacting to.]

Nova is my personal choice as the progenitor of space opera as a revitalized genre, but that’s probably a largely personal choice. (Nova is one of my favorite novels). Others could certainly point to something different: perhaps Barrington Bayley’s The Star Virus (1970 in book form, but a shorter version appeared in 1964). Even more sensibly one could say that space opera never went away—what about Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956), to name just one seminal earlier work?

Perhaps, then, The Centauri Device is in retrospect the key work. Harrison conceived it explicitly as “antispace opera,” and it was a reaction not just to the likes of Doc Smith, but to Nova, which  Harrison had called “a waste of time and talent.” To quote Harrison himself, from his blog: “I never liked that book [The Centauri Device] much but at least it took the piss out of sf’s three main tenets: (1) The reader identification character always drives the action; (2) The universe is knowable; (3) the universe is anthropocentrically structured & its riches are an appropriate prize for people like us.”

I should note in this context that my suggestions that books like Nova and The Centauri Device were important to the development of "The New Space Opera", especially the British version of same, have been plausibly challenged by Ian Sales -- who certainly knows whereof he speaks. Sales suggest that both Nova and The Centauri Device were not widely available in the UK by the early 1990s, when books like Use of Weapons appeared, and suggests a closer link to "Radical Hard SF", as exemplified by British writers like Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter (both of whom certainly have written Space Opera.) 

Even if The Centauri Device verges on parody, and explicitly disapproves of its subgenre, those three principles do suggest an alternate path for space opera, perhaps a truer definition of the “new” space opera: less likely to be anthropocentric in approach, less likely to accept that the universe is knowable, less likely to have the main character succeed (if he or she still does drive the action). And, anyway, Harrison returned to space opera with his remarkable recent trilogy, Light (2002), Nova Swing (2006) and Empty Space (2012). Those books certainly read like space opera to me, but they also certainly tick the boxes Harrison lists above (Harrison also, less importantly perhaps, started a trend for clever ship names in The Centauri Device, using phrases from the Bible and Kipling for spaceships named Let Us Go Hence and The Melancholia that Transcends All Wit.  That led, it would seem, to Iain M. Banks’ famous names for his Culture ships, and to similarly cute names in the work of many other writers.)

At any rate, once established as an essentially respectable branch of SF, space opera has continued to flourish. Some of it shows aspects of Harrison’s model, at least in parts, other stories are as triumphalist as anything that came before, more often we see a mix. A good recent example might be Tobias Buckell’s Xenowealth series, beginning with Crystal Rain (2006) - featuring heroes and heroines from nontraditional cultures, and somewhat ambiguous about the place of humans in a hostile universe, but also most assuredly featuring main characters with tons of agency and ability to drive the plot, and a general sense of cautious and perhaps conditional optimism.

The list of enjoyable space opera novels in recent years is long - notable practitioners include Alastair Reynolds, Karl Schroeder, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Nancy Kress, John Barnes, Elizabeth Moon, and James S. A. Corey; and I could go on for some time.

This book collects short fiction, however. One of the near defining characteristics of space opera is a wide screen, and this seems to drive longer works. It’s not nearly as easy to evoke the feeling of vastness, of extended action, that we love in space opera over a shorter length. But it can of course be done. Two of the best books of the past few years are original anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan: The New Space Opera, and The New Space Opera 2. These are packed with delicious stories, undeniable space opera of a variety of modes and moods, and they show that you don’t need five hundred pages for a good space opera. I’ve chosen a piece or two from each of these books for this volume.

I also must mention one newer writer in particular: the remarkable Yoon Ha Lee. He has yet to publish a novel [he has since, of course, with the outstanding Machineries of Empire books, certainly themselves very much space opera], but an array of striking stories has already established an impressive reputation. He has written work in multiple subgenres, but one of his continuing themes is war, and often war in space, between planets . . . which means, more or less, space opera. And in the briefest of spaces (see what I did there?) he can evoke a war extending across centuries and light years.

So, this book, which collects twenty-two outstanding stories, some traditional space opera in flavor, others which look at those themes from different directions; some set across interstellar spaces, others confined to the Solar System; some intimate character stories, other action packed; some (perhaps most) concerned with war and the effects of war, but others more interested in the grand spaces of the universe. But all, above all, fun.

[From the perspective of 2021, I will add, it's easy to see that just as I was writing (in mid-2013) we were beginning to witness a spectular explosion of wonderful new Space Opera. Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice appeared that year, and in 2016 came Yoon Ha Lee's Revenant Gun. Leckie won a Hugo for Ancillary Justice, and another excellent Space Opera, Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire (2019) also took that award. Add excellent recent work by Kameron Hurley, K. B. Wagers, Gareth Powell, Karen Lord, Aliette de Bodard, Tim Pratt, Elizabeth Bear, and many others, and it's clear we are in a great time for Space Opera.]


Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Old Bestseller Review: Harlequin House, by Margery Sharp

Harlequin House, by Margery Sharp

a review by Rich Horton


I recently read Margery Sharp's first novel, Rhododendron Pie, in its 2021 reprint from the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press. And I reviewed it here, so I will dispatch with  my quick summaries of my past experience with Sharp as both a children's author (The Rescuers) and an adult author (Cluny Brown et. al.), and also with the potted mini bio. All I will say is, having read Rhododendron Pie, I quickly proceeded to another of the Furrowed Middlebrow Sharp reprints, her 1939 novel Harlequin House.

Her first novel was quite nice, but by this one, her 8th, she had fully hit her stride. Indeed, I've read the novel preceding it (The Nutmeg Tree) and the two following it (The Stone of Chastity and Cluny Brown), and clearly by this period she had fully found her voice and her subject matter -- the latter being eccentrics, people just a step outside conventional British mores, just enough to titillate, but fundamentally attractive to any sympathetic reader. 

Harlequin House concerns, at the "romantic" heart of the story, a pair of siblings, Lisbeth and Ronny Campion. But Sharp chooses to tell the story primarily via another, unrelated, character, an older man named Mr. Partridge. Mr. Partridge runs a lending libary in the seaside town of Dortmouth. He appears an entirely respectably widower, but he has a streak of "lawlessness", represented among other things by his habit of interpreting the word "soon" in the "back soon" sign he posts on the door of his library whenever he takes a break rather liberally. While wondering his town, and particularly the resort hotel, he takes pleasure in watching people, such as beautiful Lisbeth Campion, whom he notes "resisting the attentions" of a great many hopeless young men. 

We soon learn that Lisbeth and Ronny were raised by a couple of maiden aunts, and their married sister. Lisbeth is engaged, to a man who is now in India, in the Army. But she still seems to take an interest in other men, such as the somewhat older Charles Lambert. Her aunts, the Miss Pickerings, are quite respectable, and her other aunt, Mrs. Maule of Australia, even more so. But her brother Ronny is prone to getting in trouble. And when Mr. Partridge sees Lisbeth getting in a car with Mr. Lambert, he decides to jump, fancying himself, perhaps, an impromptu chaperon. The car, however, is going to London, and Mr. Lambert shows no special interest in Miss Campion's virtue. Instead he drops her off ... and Mr. Partridge reveals himself. And quickly learns Lisbeth's story -- she's been visiting her brother, who has been doing time for dealing cocaine (by accident, he swears.) 

The upshot is that Mr. Partridge finally loses his job, and Lisbeth and Ronny, after a temporary stay with her strictest Aunt, Mrs. Maule, who is visiting from Australia, end up in a menage with him, called "Harlequin House" after Lisbeth lets her decorating insterests go. The idea is that Lisbeth is supposed to reform Ronny by getting him a good job; and the reality is that while Lisbeth is a good worker when she needs to me, and while Mr. Partridge (who finds an amusing job of his own) is glad to pitch in, the feckless Ronny never does a lick of work. The clock is ticking until Lisbeth's fiance returns from India to get married ...

The reader knows what's going to happen. There is no way that Hugh Brocard and Lisbeth are a reasonable match ... and the only hope for Ronny is a woman that will keep him in line ... and Mr. Partridge? Well, he's a survivor, that's for sure. The book proceeds forward to the inevitable conclusion, and that's not what matters. What matters is the sheer comic fun (light comic, not slapstick nor, really, satire) of it all. Lisbeth's rackety but goodhearted ways. Ronny's rackety but frankly wholly irresponsible and not in a good way ways. And Mr. Partridge, never quite understanding the Campions, indeed often wholly on the wrong foot, but always willing to go along with things; while effortlessly making friends with the other people in their house, such as the Walkers, genius level bakers; or T. Cubitt the grocer; and with the folks at the pub he quickly gravitates to. Mr. Partridge, of course, valiantly tries to prevent Lisbeth from doing wrong with the American man who seems much taken with her -- but even in that case he proves no match for Lisbeth's aunt Miss Pickering, who between visits to the Anti-Vivisection society is able to understand who is best for Lisbeth's future.

So what of the book. It is really lovely stuff -- one of those books that not only makes you laugh, but makes you smile throughout. It's the lightest of confections, sure -- and not all of Sharp's books are quite so light (though they are never "heavy", nor "dark",) but the lightness is in service of the reader's delight. I continue to be convinced that Margery Sharp is a writer wholly worthy of wide rediscovery.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Birthday Review: The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

 The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

a brief look by Rich Horton


The Master and Margarita is a famous 20th Century Russian novel. It's also a fantasy novel, and a comic novel, and one of the great novels of the 20th Century. This is a slightly polished version of a fairly brief review I wrote back in 2000, reproduced here for the 130th anniversary of Bulgakov's birth on May 15, 1891.

It's set in Moscow, apparently in the '20s or '30s. One day a couple of literati are talking when they meet a strange man.  Before long the man is laughing at their confident assertion that the Jesus and the Devil don't exist, and telling a story about Pontius Pilate and his encounter with Jesus, or Yeshua, and also predicting the death of one of the two men.  When the death occurs, the other man goes mad. The strange man, who is, of course, the devil, and his associates, including most memorably a talking, gun-toting, very large, black cat, are spreading havoc throughout Moscow. Most spectacular is a catastrophic magic show. Those Muscovites who encounter the devilish group are mostly humiliated, sometimes killed or driven mad. One notable, perhaps ambiguous, exception, is the case of the Master, who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate which has been excoriated by the figures in power in the Moscow literary world, and his lover Margarita. Margarita encounters the devil, and goes through hell itself in an attempt to free the Master.

That's a very brief and perhaps not very persuasive description. But it really is a remarkable book. In some part it is a satire of the Soviet system, and perhaps for people in the present day not all of that lands. But that doesn't really matter. The book also satirizes the Russian literary scene -- and, again, we may not recognize the specific targets but it remains incisive and funny. Indeed it is a very funny book, and a very strange book. It presents an odd combination of very sharp and funny satire, striking descriptive passages, and some very moving events. It also has the power of staying in your head after you read it. And I found the several long passages about Pilate and Yeshua and Matthias the Levite very affecting as well. The fate of the title pair is powerful and perhaps confusing. 

I read the Michael Glenny translation.  There are at least three others: a truncated version by Mirra Ginsburg (which dates, with the Glenny, to about 1967, when the book was first allowed to be published by the Soviet authorities), a more recent, quite highly regarded version, by Diana Burgin and Kathryn Tiernan O'Connor and an even new translation by the famous team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  The novel itself was written between about 1928 and Bulgakov's death in 1940.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Review: The Merman and the Book of Power, by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

The Merman and the Book of Power, by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

a review by Rich Horton


This is labeled "a quissa", which is "a fabulist storytelling form common to the oral and written literatures of Urdu, Persian, and Arabic". Wikipedia also suggests it's a particularly important literary form in the Punjab, a region common to both India and Pakistan. In this book the form involves a central plot interweaved with a great many shorter accounts which illuminate elements of the main narrative. The author is a scholar as well as a writer of fiction, and his story is based, the author's note says, on the "parallel histories, myths and multiple personas for Apollonius of Tyana, Hermes Trismegistus, Alexander the Great in the Western and Eastern literary canon, and the various religious, occult, and apocalyptic traditions associated with them." As such, many of the short tales are adaptations and translations of older texts. But this should not give you the impression that the book is at all dry -- instead, it is continually readable and interesting, telling a fine tale along with a host of fascinating older stories and descriptions of marvelous things.

The book opens with the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, but the real action starts a year later, when a strange creature -- a merman -- is brought to Baghdad. The Governor, intrigued, arranges for him -- the merman's name is Gujastak -- to be housed away from the palace, under the care of Qazwini, an astronomer and also a religious authority. Qazwini becomes the central character of this book. It is his scholarly knowledge that (as a literary convention) allows us access to the numerous vignettes about historical events, magical creatures, old tales, and philosophical ideas that are interlaced with the primary story.

This central story concerns the captive merman and his lust for another captive, a slave girl called Aydan. Qazwini himself is attracted to Aydan, and much is made of her animalistic nature, and that of Gujastak, which is implicitly contrasted with Qazwini's less impressive vigor. Another major thread concerns an historical (to Qazwini) mission to Central Asia to investigate a "rampart" constructed to contain Gog and Magog, who may bring about the end of the world. 

The result is an always fascinating amalgam of philosophical speculation, historical narrative, folklore and folk tales, and many stories of fantastical beasts. It never fails to entertain, and at the same time intrigue, with truly profound inquisition into the nature of the creatures described, the historical context, the religious context. And most of all, the book never bores -- it is frankly fun reading, no matter the depth of its imagination.