Thursday, January 28, 2021

Birthday Review: Capsules of four of Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville books

Today is Carrie Vaughn's birthday. I've previously done a birthday review focussing on her short fiction, so today I've assembled four very brief looks at some novels in the long series that began her book career: stories about Kitty Norville, a late night DJ who becomes a werewolf.

Kitty and the Midnight Hour

Carrie Vaughn is a fairly new writer whose short work I have quite enjoyed, so I was happy to see her first novel, which does not disappoint, though it's not quite a masterpiece.

Kitty and the Midnight Hour is expanded from a couple of stories that appeared in Weird Tales, about Kitty Norville, a werewolf who works as a late night radio DJ. One night she gets a call from someone who claims to be werewolf, and she runs with it. Before long, her secret is out, and so are some details about the supernatural creatures, mainly vampires and werewolves, who live among us. 

The story concerns Kitty's uneasy relationship with her pack -- she is supposed to be subservient to the leaders, and her new prominence threatens the pack's hierarchy. Also, there are threats from the vampires, who don't get along with the werewolves, and who fear exposure. And, finally, there is a "preacher" who promises to "turn" werewolves and vampires back into humans, but who seems to do more harm than good -- maybe. 

The novel is very good on depicting Kitty's difficulties with her pack relationship -- which has both good and bad sides; and on her ambivalence about her new nature and her original "human" nature. Would she want to change back? Maybe yes, maybe no. And so with many werewolves and vampires. Plotwise it's a bit slack and episodic. Some key issues are resolved, others are tabled for upcoming novels. It's a decent piece of work, not great, but I'll be looking for the sequel.

Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand

Carrie Vaughn's Kitty novels center on Kitty Norville, a Denver DJ who is also a werewolf. As related in the previous books, she has become a celebrity after she started a radio show dealing with the problems of supernatural beings -- werecreatures, vampires, and more -- and especially after she "outed" herself as a werewolf. By the time this book opens, she's the leader of Denver's "pack" of werewolves, having ousted the abusive previous pack leaders, and she's ready to get married to her former lawyer, Ben O'Farrell, who has been turned to a werewolf himself (not by Kitty). They decide to run off to Las Vegas to get married -- so as to avoid the hassle of putting together a big wedding -- and then Kitty's producer hits on the idea of a one-off TV version of her show, to be filmed in one of the Vegas hotel auditoriums. Plus Ben has realized his were-senses give him an edge at the poker table, and he has an itch to play in a big tournament.

Once in Vegas, besides getting ready for the wedding, and besides winning at Poker and putting on a TV show, Kitty and Ben investigate the local scene. This includes the surprising shallow vampire Master of Las Vegas, Dominic. Also there is a magician whose tricks appear possibly to be real magic, not just illusion. And there is a tiger/leopard show at one hotel in which, Kitty quickly figures out, the animals in the act are actually weres. Moreover, there don't seem to be any wereWOLVES at all in town. 

It's a short, fast-moving novel. Perhaps kind of a side-branch in the series as a whole. It's a good solid read, with an exciting and scary climax. And a slingshot to the next book ... which is as I said due in quick succession, in March.

Kitty and the Silver Bullet

I've also had lots of fun reading Carrie Vaughn's series about Kitty Norville, late night DJ and also werewolf. The books so far have introduced Kitty and her condition, and have also revealed that there are lots of magical beings out there -- werefolk of many types, vampires, skinwalkers, and more. Kitty has become a celebrity, and the world has become aware of the other humans among them.

In this latest volume Kitty is back in her hometown, Denver. As things open she has a miscarriage, and learns that a nasty side effect of being a werewolf is that you can't carry a child to term. Even more pressingly, her mother has been diagnosed with cancer -- and she isn't interested in Kitty's idea for a cure -- turning her mother into a werewolf. In the wider world, there is a serious threat to the stability of the paranormal folk in Denver -- the ruling vampire is under challenge, and Kitty's former pack leader, who she hates, has been embroiled in vampire politics. Kitty also is pressured to get involved, which is the last thing she wants ... but of course she can't stay out.

It's nice work -- a fairly typical entry in a template series, advancing the overall plot arc nicely while also setting up and resolving a single-book plot quite well. These remain good fun books.

Kitty Raises Hell

It's been a while since I read Kitty Raises Hell, and I don't have much to say about it. This came hard on the heels of the previous Kitty novel, in which she went to Vegas and got involved with some scary were-tigers and a really scary vampire. Now she's back in Denver, but the enemies she made in Vegas are still after her, and they seem to have sent a supernatural creature to harass her and her friends.

In the process of figuring out what's up with the curse, Kitty gets involved with the crew of a TV show that investigates supernatural stuff like haunted houses. The crew members are a mix of hardcore skeptics and people who think there's something to all this weird stuff, and over time Kitty wins them over somewhat. She also deals with a vampire from out of town who has a possibly interesting offer ... It's enjoyable as all these books have been, indeed I'd rate it one of the better entries in the series, though the basic review has to be: "If you are reading these books, of course keep reading them. If not, try the first one and see if they work for you." (Though probably any of the books can be read standalone with enjoyment.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Three Recent Black Gate Posts: on Idris Seabright, Forrest Leo, and Samuel R. Delany

 I publish essays fairly often at Black Gate, on various subjects. Recently I've begun a series trying to take particularly close looks at good or interesting stories, with the intent of discussing how and why they work. I'm not sure I do a great job showing HOW they work, but I hope at least I do a decent job looking more closely at the stories than I can in my typical Locus reviews.

So I thought it would make sense to tell readers of my blog about these essays, and indeed link to them. Most recently I published a piece on three quite short stories by Margaret St. Clair, writing as "Idris Seabright". Because these stories are so short it's hard to go into as much detail on them, but I think St. Clair is a writer who deserves more attention, and I think many of her "Seabright" stories are especially delightful, and strange.

Alien Eggs, a Diligent Salesman, and a Robot Psychiatrist: Three Stories by Idris Seabright

My previous piece was on a great novella by one of the very greatest SF writers, Samuel R. Delany: "The Star Pit". 

An Evocation of the Science Fiction Dream of Exploration: “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany

And while I'm here, I may as well mention a more conventional review I recently did of a delightful 2016 novel, The Gentleman, by Forrest Leo, that wasn't much noticed by SF readers:

Recent Treasure: The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Birthday Review: Stories of Allen Steele

 Birthday Review: Stories of Allen M. Steele

Today is Allen Steele's birthday. I've read a good many of Steele's novels and shorter work over the past few decades, generally with enjoyment though not rapture: Steele is a very traditional SF writer, reworking fairly familiar tropes. But he does so effectively, and if his stories seem a bit old hat that do entertain. (Allen lived not far from me, in the St. Louis area, for a while but I never met him them -- he's moved back east and I did meet him at a couple of Boskones.)

Here's a set of my reviews of his work from my Locus column:

Locus, February 2002

The cover story for Feburary's Asimov's is the latest of Allen M. Steele's "Coyote" tales, a series about the successful hijacking of a colonization starship to the planet called Coyote, and the subsequent struggles to establish a colony.  These stories are truly old-fashioned in some central assumptions: the habitability of Coyote is blithely accepted,  and there is little concern for disrupting an alien ecology. Somewhat old-fashioned, too, is the straightforward conflict resolution nature of the stories -- the conflicts often arising from the rather black and white division of the original colonists into heroic freedom-loving hijackers, and militaristic authoritarian loyalists.  So my reading of these pieces is colored by a certain lack of belief in the basic situation -- but getting past that, they have been a reliably entertaining several stories.  This latest is "Across the Eastern Divide": several teenagers, bored with life in the colony, illegally take a couple of canoes and some supplies and venture on a dangerous journey downriver, across the Eastern Divide, to the Equatorial River. The trip forces the illicitly pregnant narrator to confront her relationships with her baby's father, with another boy, and with her adoptive mother. The trip also forces all the participants into much greater danger than they had anticipated.  There is nothing much new or special here, but it is an enjoyable adventure story.

Locus, December 2002

Allen Steele continues his Coyote series with "Glorious Destiny". Steele is an effective adventure writer, fun to read, and this story doesn't disappoint. The struggling but apparently succeeding colony on the world Coyote now faces a new crisis – the arrival of another spaceship from Earth. The exact nature of the crisis, and Steele's solution, are a bit unexpected and nicely handled. This isn't a classic, but it is fast-moving and exciting. 

Locus, August 2003

Allen M. Steele's latest Coyote story is "Benjamin the Unbeliever" (Asimov's, August), about a religious cult centered around a surgically altered man. They come to Coyote, and the title character, looking for a job and attracted to a cute young woman in the cult, helps them out. He ends up guiding them on a dangerous journey into the unexplored wilderness, with tragic results. Steele tells a good story as always, though this isn't one of the best Coyote pieces.

Locus, April 2007

I’ll also mention the two novellas in the April-May Asimov's, both by familiar names, both pretty good. Allen Steele’s “The River Horses” is a Coyote story, in which Marie Montero and Lars Thompson, heroes of the revolution who have not adjusted well to peacetime life, are sent into exile to, in the Heinlein story model terms, “learn better”. The savant Manuel Castro accompanies them – for reasons of his own that we soon guess. The story has a familiar shape, and nowhere does it surprise, but it is well-executed and exciting.

Locus, September 2010

At the October Analog, I enjoyed Allen M. Steele’s “The Great Galactic Ghoul”. This fits a familiar Analog form: it’s a tale of asteroid mining, a disaster, and a rescue effort. What lifts it above the ordinary is its matter of fact, almost journalistic, telling, and its bleakly honest resolution to the mystery of the disaster (along with a sort of metastory of war and politics lingering in the background).

Locus, November 2014

Another enjoyable read that comes a bit short of full satisfaction is Allen M. Steele's “The Prodigal Son” (Asimov's, October-November), a sequel to his earlier “The Legion of Tomorrow”, about a group of SF professionals who set up a foundation to develop a starship. Here the disaffected great-great-grandson of the SF writer involved is sent to the island in the Caribbean where the starship parts are being built. The rather predictable plot has his cynicism overcome by a combination of satisfaction in his work for the first time in his life, along with of course the love of a good woman … so, it's a bit on the hackneyed side but it's well-executed and enjoyable reading anyway.

Locus, January 2015

Allen Steele continues his series of stories about an SF writer's legacy in “The Long Wait” (Asimov's, January), now revealed as the penultimate chapter of (as was already clear) an episodic novel. This is told by the daughter of the lead couple in the previous story. Her life is significantly devoted, not entirely by her will, to monitoring the progress of the starship launched in the previous story, while things fall apart at home, both locally (her mother never really recovers from the events of the previous story, and her father becomes an alcoholic) and globally (the Earth is threatened by an asteroid.) This is another story that treads quite familiar ground for SF readers, but it does so expertly: it never surprises, but it's a solid enjoyable read.

Locus, June 2015

“The Children of Gal” is the final installment of Allen Steele’s forthcoming Arkwright, which will be an expanded version of four Asimov’s stories which have followed the story of the building and then journey of Earth’s first starship. Here we see the state of the colonies established on Eos, in particular one isolated city which has established a somewhat repressive religion after a weather-related catastrophe. Sanjay is a young man whose mother has been banished for heresy, for claiming to see lights in the sky near Gal, their god. The arc of the story is easily enough guessed: Sanjay will eventually find a way to solve the mystery of the lights, and learn the true nature of Gal and his world. None of this surprises, but Steele handles the familiar material expertly, ringing a couple of nice changes on it, and the story is a good read throughout. 

Locus, December 2019

I find that in the last 2019 issue of Asimov’s I enjoyed several stories by, well, men of roughly my age, let’s just say. Allen Steele’s latest tale of the human settlement on the planet Tawcety, and their fraught relationship with the doglike rulers of the planet is “Escape from Sanctuary”. Crowe and his young friend Philip are in jail … but before long they’re freed, and soon after are in the hands of an outlaw gang, looking for a way to reunite Philip with his wife – which may end up taking them off Sanctuary, the only place humans are allowed. Fun and fast-moving adventure. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Birthday Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

 Charles Yu turns 45 today. His second novel, Interior Chinatown, just won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. Much of his earlier work, including many short stories and his first novel, is SF, or SF-adjacent. (I reprinted one of those stories, "Standard Loneliness Package", in my 2011 Best of the Year volume.)

For his birthday, here's a review I did for SF Site of his first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

Charles Yu is a young writer whose first book, the story collection Third Class Superhero, gained a lot of praise in literary circles. But he's one also a guy who grew up reading Isaac Asimov. He has professed admiration for the likes of Richard Powers, who writes literary novels -- but also sometimes SF, and almost always scientifically-engaged work. So, what is How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? Actually, that's an interesting question.

On the face of it, why doubt the SFnality of the book? The story concerns a 30ish guy named Charles Yu, who is a "certified network technician" working as an "approved independent affiliate for Time Warner Time". This means he fixes time machines. The story also concerns time loops and paradoxes and parallel universes. Pure SF, right? And indeed, so it is, at that level. But what is the novel really about? It's about a somewhat drifting young man, who misses the father who left years ago, and who occasionally visits his lonely mother, and who has never met the right woman to marry, and who is stuck in a dead-end job. Pure mainstream, right?

At bottom, such definitional questions don't matter very much. What Yu is doing, simply enough, is using some SFnal tropes in support of purely mainstream aims. That does affect the audience, of course. The novel isn't really interested in the mechanics of time travel, nor in a fully plausible future. Nor should it be. It's interested in the main character, and in his mother, and in his time machine's operating system (look, SFnal tropes again!) who has the personality of a sweet woman he's never really noticed while mooning over the girl he never married. And most of all, it's interested in Charles Yu's relationship with his father, an immigrant to the US, who struggled for years in his garage to invent a time machine and make something of himself. And who disappeared after his invention failed and someone else beat him to it.

But all that said, the novel isn't just another boring mainstream book about a guy trying to understand his father*. The SFnal furniture really does make things work. We know from the start that everything turns on a time loop engendered by Charles Yu killing his future self, and on the paradox that the book we are reading is a book he could only write by reading the book his dying future self gave him. Charles' mother is stuck in a time loop herself, reliving one of her few happy moments, or so Charles believes. And the entire "Minor Universe" in which the action takes place is a satirically altered version of our world -- or perhaps it is somehow our world? -- a minor universe slightly damaged in construction. The SFnal tropes, then, are not interesting as Science Fiction, per se. We don't care that this novel isn't in any serious way about the possibility of time travel. But the tropes work to help tell the story, and to make serious points about the central characters, and satirical points about the "real world." And that's as good a use as any.

I haven't said a whole lot about the plot of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and I don't think I have to. The book works not because of plot but because of voice, character, and a humorous but bittersweet attitude. It's not an earthshakingly brilliant book, but it's a very enjoyable first novel, from a writer with real chops.

(*Let's take it as read, shall we, that there are plenty of wonderful, not boring, mainstream books about a guy trying to understand his father.)