Friday, December 29, 2023

Review: Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon, by Wole Talabi

Review: Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon, by Wole Talabi

by Rich Horton

Wole Talabi is a Nigerian SF writer (and anthologist), now resident in Malaysia, who has published a number of arresting short stories over the past decade. "A Dream of Electric Mothers" was a Hugo and Nebula nominee this year. Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon is his first novel.

It's a curious book, in a sense. It's been marketed to some extent as a caper novel, and indeed there is a caper, or at leat a heist, as the engine of the plot, but that's a minor part of the book, really. (And as a caper qua caper it's not that interesting.) I'd say it's much more a love story, between Shigidi, a nightmare god, and Nneoma, a succubus. But it's also a satire of corporate politics, and a critique of colonialist theft of indigenous art, and even a novel offering an afterlife of sorts for Aleister Crowley!

The story is told in multiple timelines -- the main action is set in roughly the present day (2017 or so) but there are flashbacks to the 1970s, to distant African history, to Crowley in Algeria in the first decade of the 20th Century, and more. All this is well organized -- the reader never loses their way, and the themes and plot of the book are well developed by this method.

Nneoma, as a succubus, is essentially immortal, and gains her power from taking the life force from her sexual conquests as they orgasm. Shigidi, when we first encounter him (timeline-wise) is an ugly minor god, working for a "spirit corporation", which gains its profits from prayers, and from answering prayers, by such means as gods like Shigidi killing their clients by sending nightmares to their enemies. The spirit corporation is failing, however, due largely to a loss of believers, and hence their prayers. Shigidi hates his job, and on one mission he encounters Nneoma, who is dealing with the same victim from her different angle. Nneoma spots what she calls potential in Shigidi and convinces him to quite the corporation and join her as sort of an independent. And they spend a few years jointly preying on victims much as Nneoma has for her millennia of existence.

Shigidi falls desperately in love with Nneoma, but she, though happy with his company and his lovemaking, doesn't wish to commit to true love. We eventually gather that her issue goes back to the loss of her beloved sister Lilith, far in the past, due to her sister's falling in love with another being. Meanwhile, the spirit corporation is undergoing some internal dissension, and its long absent leader Olorun decides to take a more active role. He's been working on the side with Shigidi and Nneoma, but as a crisis arrives he decides he needs the two of them to retrieve something for him from the British Museum -- the titular Brass Head of Obalufon. But that is no easy job -- and this requires them to work on both the normal side of reality, and the spirit side, and to engage some special help -- which turns out to involve Nneoma calling in a long-owed debt from Aleister Crowley.

The book bounces along engagingly, as we learn about Nneoma's history with Lilith, and about Crowley's history with Nneoma and his "afterlife", and about Olorun's corporate maneuverings, and about setting up the heist. There's plenty of cool action, and some great sex, and some really neat setpieces. And the resolution takes us in an unexpected direction. I enjoyed it.

It is a first novel, though, and I have a few caveats. One seems not uncommon for first novels -- there's a LOT here, and at times I felt there was too much -- or, perhaps, that for the novel to be about as much as it is it probably should have been longer. One thing that was never dealt with is the morality of Shigidi and Nneoma's preying on their victims -- perhaps this is a logical treatment, but, well, it bothered me. I also felt the prose was uneven -- in the most important parts -- the cool setpieces, the resolutions, some of the imagery involved in that -- it's really exciting. But a bit more work throughout would have helped -- some parts came off to me as a tad unfinished, too ready to rely on cliché. Again -- this seems like a first novel issue. I have a feeling we'll eventually see this book as a promising entrée to a significant career.

Not to end on a down note -- this is a fun book, with some interesting ideas, and I definitely recommend it.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Review: The Zanzibar Cat, by Joanna Russ

Review: The Zanzibar Cat, by Joanna Russ

by Rich Horton

The Zanzibar Cat is one of four collections of short fiction that Joanna Russ published in her lifetime. Of these four, it is perhaps the most representative of the main thrust of her oeuvre. The Adventures of Alyx collects four stories and a novel about her recurring character Alyx -- oddly, the other Alyx story appears in The Zanzibar Cat. Extra(ordinary) People is focussed on five late stories, from 1982 through 1984. And The Hidden Side of the Moon is a curious miscellany of lesser known SF/F stories and some mainstream work.

Having said that, I'll note that the publication history of The Zanzibar Cat is a bit complicated. It first appeared as a hardcover from Arkham Press, in 1983. The paperback edition, from Baen, appeared a year later, and it has a somewhat different Table of Contents. The paperback does not include Marge Piercy's introduction, and it also omits three stories ("How Dorothy Kept Away the Spring", "Poor Man, Beggar Man", and "Old Thoughts, Old Presences".) But it includes two stories not in the hardcover: "Dragons and Dimwits" and "The Precious Object". (Two of the stories not included in the paperback of The Zanzibar Cat do appear in The Hidden Side of the Moon.) I'll be reviewing the Baen paperback.

This collection is excellent, but of course not all the stories are at the top level -- though all are worth reading. I'm going to foreground my favorites (five stories in all), and then discuss briefly the rest. The book does beautifully represent Russ's range, and also her wit, her imagination, and her outstanding prose.

The book opens with perhaps Russ's most famous short story, "When it Changed", which won the Nebula in 1973. It is an excellent story (though oddly it's not even my favorite Joanna Russ story from 1972!) It's about the planet Whileaway, on which a plague killed all human males, and which has thus been all-female for 600 years. And now a ship with men has arrived, and it's quickly clear that things will change. The story is particularly good in portraying a real-seeming all-female society without making it a utopia, with real characters, and real problems and virtues.

Since I hinted at it, I'll mention my favorite Joanna Russ story from 1972, also in this book: "Nobody's Home". Russ's brief comment reads: "This one began with Larry Niven's speculations about teleportation and ended as a Utopia -- for some." It's about a future society with teleportation all around the world, and apparent lack of scarcity, and group marriages, and it's fundamentally about a group marriage and what happens when a new woman enters the marriage. It's clever and witty and breakneck and fascinating and thoughtful and at its heart terribly sad -- for some. On this reading (this is a story I've read many times) I was struck in particular by the breathless first three or so pages -- truly a tour de force. One of the great SF stories of all time.

"A Game of Vlet" is the last of Russ's Alyx stories, and the only one not to appear in the somewhat definitive Alyx collections (Alyx, from the Gregg Press, and The Adventures of Alyx, from Timescape, and reprinted by The Women's Press and by Baen -- the reprint editions omit Samuel R. Delany's introduction but are otherwise identical to Alyx.) It's set in Ourdh in ancient Greece -- contemporaneous with the first Alyx stories -- and it concerns a challenge by a magician to the Governor -- a game of Vlet, on a unique "virgin" board such that the winner will defeat all his enemies. The magician is captured -- and a Lady appears, offering to substitute for the Government of Ourdh -- while the magician will play for the Revolution. The results are beautifully ambiguous. The Lady is not identified but is clearly Alyx (and so Russ confirms in the introduction.) It's a characteristically witty and clever story, great fun with some real truth behind it. 

I've written at some length recently about "My Boat" (keep checking Black Gate for that) so I'll just say here that it's one of Russ's very best stories, about a 15 year old black girl in a newly integrated high school, into drama, and her boat. The story is told by one of her high school friends -- as he ruefully admits, a typical white liberal racist who didn't realize he was racist despite his liberal aspirations. The girl and another of the narrator's friends take My Boat on a fabulous trip to glorious fictional lands, but the narrator chickens out. There is wish-fulfillment here, as Russ acknowledges, and a distinct Lovecraftian influence, and it's a beautiful and powerful story.

"The Extraordinary Voyages of Amélie Bertrand" has distinct correspondences with "My Boat" in that it concerns wondrous voyages by an outwardly unprepossessing woman, as described by a man who is a bit afraid to accompany her. This story is explicitly an hommage to Jules Verne -- the narrator is a middle aged Frenchman in the 1920s who describes his curious encounter with Madame Bertrand at a certain train station, at which by crossing the station in the wrong direction one can travel, randomly, almost anyhere. Madame Bertrand tells him of her voyages -- and he experiences a bit of that, but doesn't quite take the full step. Then, it seems, the train station is to be closed ... neat stuff.

Those are my top five stories, but the rest of the book is all worth reading -- some of it is light throwaway stuff, but still fun, such as "Useful Phrases for the Tourist" and "Dragons and Dimwits". There are three very strong early stories -- "My Dear Emily", "The New Men", and "There is Another Shore, You Know, Upon the Other Side", which deal expertly with classical fantasy elements -- vampires in the first two cases, a ghost in the third -- but still surprise. "The Man Who Could Not See Devils" is a well done logical working out of the title premise -- how would things work out for a man who could not see the demons that ordinary people can -- nice work but a bit slight to my mind. "The Soul of a Servant" is very strong work, with the narrator -- the title servant -- telling of his actions as the man in charge of a fortress of sorts in Tibet, when supposed revolutionaries arrive, and in the context of usual visits of privileged tourists. It's a knotty story, with effectively unresolved moral questions at its heart. A couple of stories struck me as pieces that I didn't quite "get" which I still could see were worthwhile, if not quite for me -- "Gleepsite" and "Corruption". "The Precious Object" is a fine mainstream story, in which the narrator becomes obsessed with a gay (male) friend of hers ... strong work, and, I suspect, related to her novel On Strike Against God, which I have not yet read. And the title story is a delightful work based on Hope Mirrlees' masterwork Lud-in-the-Mist, taking a slightly metafictional angle as the people of Appletap-on-Flat send an expedition to deal with the evil undead Duke Humphrey, and his demon cat, and only the miller's daughter survives the expedition to say what resulted.

Joanna Russ was indisputably one of the great SF writers of all time, and a great critic as well. It is a shame she was not named an SFWA Grand Master -- her career was cut short by severe health problems that plagued her for the last quarter century of her life, which may explain that, but the sheer quality of the work she did produce, and the great influence exerted by both her fiction and her crtical work, certainly merited that honor. The Library of America has recently published Joanna Russ: Novels and Stories, which collects three major novels, the Alyx stories, and two other award-winning stories ("When it Changed" and "Souls") -- and that is an essential book. But The Zanzibar Cat is also a necessary read -- it's really an exceptional collection on its own terms, and only two of its stories also appear in the LOA book.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Review: Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time, by Rumer Godden

Review: Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time, by Rumer Godden

by Rich Horton

Take Three Tenses is the American title of Rumer Godden's sixth novel, which is better known as A Fugue in Time, its original UK title. I have not read much by Godden, but I am familiar with her in a general sense, and I had heard of what I thought to be her major novels, including two early novels made into major films: Black Narcissus and The River. In addition, I would have cited In This House of Brede, Kingfishers Catch Fire, and A Candle for Saint Jude as her best known works. But I saw this novel at an estate sale, and I figured "Why not?" (It turns out that it too was made into a movie -- at least nine of Godden's books have been filmed! -- Enchantment (1948) with David Niven and Teresa Wright. It seems to have been well-received, and it seems pretty faithful to the book, except for an understandable but significant alteration to the ending -- an event that, to be fair, I sort of expected as I read the book.) The novel was quite successful itself -- my copy is from the seventh printing, in June 1945 -- the first US printing was in March! 

Not to hold anyone in suspense -- I was immediately, er, enchanted. It's a glorious, lovely, novel. I thought for a bit that I might have discovered a forgotten classic, but I quickly decided to investigate. Two of my favorite book reviewers, both of whom I knew to like Rumer Godden, Jo Walton and Scott Thompson, have reviewed A Fugue in Time. Jo loves it, Scott likes it with reservations -- in this case I'm with Jo. It was apparently out of print for some time, but was reprinted, by Virago, in 2013. So, instead of revealing something special to unsuspecting readers, I'll just be adding my voice to those who already know this book. 

Margaret Rumer Godden was born in England in 1907, but was largely raised in India (her father was a shipping executive.) She spent some time at school in England, but mostly lived in India until after the Second World War. She ran a ballet school in Calcutta (now Kolkata) for twenty years. She converted to Catholicism in 1968 after many years of study. Ballet, India, and Catholicism are all recurring subjects of her books. She wrote some 60 books -- novels, children's books, memoirs. Her elder sister, Winsome Ruth Key Godden, was also a novelist (writing as "Jon Godden"), and the two collaborated on some memoirs late in life. She married twice, the first time unhappily, the second time much more successfully (though she has been quoted as saying she never really loved any man but Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice!) She had two daughters. She was named an Officer of the British Empire in 1993, and died, a month short of her 91st birthday, in 1998.

The novel is divided into six sections: Inventory, Morning, Noon, Four O'Clock, Evening, and Night. It is preceded by three quotations: a passage by Lawrence Abbot describing Bach's fugues, a long quote from T. S. Eliot's "East Coker", and two bits from The Book of Common Prayer, about birth, death, and children. These all serve to comment on the themes and structure of the book. As the Abbot quote and the two titles of the book suggest, the structure is quite experimental -- quite fugal indeed. The action of the novel extends from about 1840 to about 1940, with some brief flashes forward to the future, as far as 1990. (In this sense it could be called SF, though I don't really think that's quite useful -- in another sense there are passages that might be read as fantastical (involving a ghost.)) The tenses are artfully manipulated -- past tense, present tense, future tense -- and the prose throughout is very elegant -- Godden was truly a beautiful writer.

The novel opens in a house, with the only remaining survivor of the original family who still lives there, retired General Sir Roland Dane. The General, now called Rolls (his name alters from Roly as a child to Rollo as a young man, to Rolls in his old age) is discussing with his solicitor the expiration of the 99 year lease on the house, and he realizes he will have to move out, and that the old place, number 99 Wiltshire Place, will likely be torn down. The house is described from bottom to top, and the garden, and an old plane tree, and reference is made to the family members, and the servants, who have lived there this past century. There is a key painting, labeled "Mrs. Griselda Dane, wife of John Ironmonger Dane Esq., and their children: Pelham, John Robert, Lionel, James, Selwyn, Selina, Frederick, Elizabeth, and Rollo. 1861". And we are told: "There is no Lark in the picture. There is not, anywhere in the house, a picture of Lark." Thus we know nearly all of the main characters: John, called "The Eye", is the patriarch. Of his sons, this book will mostly feature Pelham and Rollo, and his first daughter, Selina, is another key character. And Lark -- Lark is a mystery to be slowly introduced. The only other family member of importance is Grizel, Pelham's granddaughter, and it takes a while for her to come into focus. There are also many servants who also fugally appear and reappear -- many of them related to each other -- so: Mrs. Crabbe and Proutie are Rolls' servants in 1940, and Mrs. Sampson, Mrs. Crabbe's grandmother, was charwoman in the 1800s sometime, and there is the Cook, and Nurse, and Proutie's aunt Mrs. Proutie, and Agnes the maidservant. 

The novel goes on to layer in the details of all these lives -- Griselda's marriage to John in 1840 when she is 17 and he 29; his insistence on having 9 children: then Griselda dying at the birth of Rollo. The loss of Frederick and Elizabeth at age 5. Pelham's eventual emigration to the US (so that Grizel is an American.) Selina's somewhat cramped life, due both to her taking over housekeeping at her mother's death, and to her own nature. Grizel, in 1954 or so, remarking on the milkman's brilliant son going to Eton while her son, the descendant of many men who went to Eton routinely, will settle for a more ordinary school. And Rollo -- and Lark. Lark is the daughter of musicians who died in the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 (a real historical event and also the subject of one of William McGonagall's famously awful poems.) The Eye had been visiting her parents, and she was with him when her parents died, so he took her home to be raised as his daughter. (It is strongly hinted that Lark's mother was the Eye's mistress, and thus it seems plausible that Lark is his illegitimate daughter, though this is never established -- if true, it lends an incestuous flavor to the book's central romance.) Selina hates Lark from the beginning, for no good reason, and thus Lark's childhood is rather poisoned. But both Pelham (some 30 years her senior) and Rollo (a more appropriate 8 years older) fall for her ...

All these entanglements are resolved, bit by bit, as the book progresses, especially as Grizel shows up shortly after Rolls learns that he must leave the house, and as Lark's nephew Pax also shows up. Grizel is an American volunteer ambulance driver, and Pax an airman, temporarily in London after an injury. We can guess where that leads -- and then we can see how Rolls responds, and how his memory of Lark and how their romance worked out informs things. And we keep learning of Selina's rather sad life, and of Griselda's proto-feminist feelings; and how though she seems to love her husband she also powerfully resents him, for reasons he mostly never understands. The book is less about class but that comes through too, in seeing the servants' lives, and how their positions change over decades, and in seeing how the presumably lower class Lark is treated by Selina, and even Rolls' bitterness about his military career and his ambiguous successes in that realm. And of course how he perceives the American invader, the rather "liberated" (for 1940) young woman Grizel. 

The experimental structure is, for me, profoundly successful. The seamless shifts in time -- back to the 1840s, to the 1880s, the novel's "present" of 1940, and then the slight but telling hints of the future -- are very effective. As I said, it's beautifully written. The characters come through excellently -- perhaps Griselda and Selina above all, even though Lark and Rollo are more closely the "main" characters -- though it truly is an ensemble novel, or perhaps one should say a novel in the form of a fugue played by a small chamber orchestra of characters. It is moving throughout. I loved it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Review: Translation State, by Ann Leckie

Review: Translation State, by Ann Leckie

by Rich Horton

This is Ann Leckie's latest novel, from 2023. It is set in the Imperial Radch universe, at roughly the time of the events in the Ancillary Trilogy, and at least one character from those books appears in this one. That said, it's an oddly confined book -- the action is almost entirely on a couple of space stations, often confined to close rooms. Leckie's novels often can be called "space opera", and the larger settings are certainly operatic -- grand spaceships, enigmatic and menacing aliens, a star-spanning empire, etc. -- but much of the focus is tightly on character issues.

The title, Translation State, seems an extended -- and effective -- pun. As the story revolves around the strange Presger translators -- people bred from human DNA by the alien Presger to serve as emissaries to humanity -- "translating language" is the obvious meaning. But the story also concerns translating one's personal state (if you will) -- two main characters wish to identify as human despite some anomalous DNA, and also this Imperial Radch future features many differing expressions of gender identity depending to some extent on where people live. But beyond that she reveals some very interesting tech that involves instantaneous (it seems) spatial translation.

There are three POV characters. Enae is an middle-aged person who has cared for hir cranky Grandmaman for years, and finds hirself forced to take a job after hir Grandmaman dies. The job sie gets is presented as a sinecure of sorts -- to investigate a Presger translator who had disappeared a couple of hundred years before. Reet lives on Rurusk Station, alone, his only pleasure watching Pirates of the Death Moon, until he is contacted by the Siblings of Hikipi, who seem convinced he is a Schan -- a descendant of the former rulers of the Hikipi, an ethnic group which has been mostly eliminated from their ancestral home, and is looking for a way to deal with their oppressors, the Phen. And finally Qven is someone stranger -- we see them from early childhood as they grow to near adulthood -- and then they learn that part of adulthood for a Presger translator (which is what they are) is to "match" with another Presger translator -- a process that Qven, for reasons, is terribly afraid of.

All three POVs converge fairly quickly. Enae decides to take hir job seriously, and the (very cold) trail of the runaway translator leads to Rurusk station. Reet has gotten a new job thanks to the Siblings of Hikipi, and in that capacity he is assigned to Enae. And Qven, whose reluctance to match has gotten him in trouble with his translator clade, is taken to the Treaty Administration Facility, where the treaty between humans and the Presger -- that provides for Presger translators and keeps the Presger from killing humans -- is dealt with. There they are waiting for a new match for Qven -- which turns out to be Reet, who, as we will have guessed, is actually a Presger translator, descended (one assumes) from the escaped translator. Reet is arrested, and taken to the Treaty Administration Facility, because unmatched translator adults are very dangerous. (Plus there are politics involved!) And Enae comes along, in part because sie knows this is linked with the translator escape sie is supposed to investigate, but also out of kindness to Reet.

And the rest of the novel -- a rather big chunk of it -- involves the intrigues around the status of Reet and Qven, the question of whether they should be forced to match, and the complications caused by a threatening Hikipi spaceship. All this goes on for a while, but it really does hold the interest, despite its rather claustrophobic setting. (That said, I do think some judicious cutting wouldn't have been a bad thing.) One key thread is identity -- especially for Reet and Qven, both of whom end up insisting that their identity is human. Which is politically inconvenient for the Radch, and the Presger translator clade, and maybe even the Siblings of Hikipi. 

There's a lot to like here. The ideas central to the novel ... the nature of Presger translators, and the nature of the Presger and their tech ... are pretty darned cool. The characters are mostly nice to spend time with. The ethos presented is, well, humane. (And I've failed to mention a couple more important characters: a bio mech serving as a represent of the Geck ambassador; and an ancillary of the newly independent spaceship Sphene.) All this is neat, and it deepens the background of the Imperial Radch universe in interesting ways.

I wasn't wholly satisfied, however. I felt that some of the plot was a bit too coincidence driven. I felt the characters -- or their growth and change -- seemed a bit arbitrary at times. And I have to say that Enae -- a character I'd like to see more of -- ultimately was a bit wasted -- hir part of the book almost seemed superfluous, though it wouldn't surprise me if sie took on a more prominent role in future books.

A good novel, not a great one. A worthy addition to Ann Leckie's corpus, but in a way I feel we're still waiting for the major work that will show us something more momentous in the history of the Radch. 

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Review: The Sound of His Horn, by Sarban

Review: The Sound of His Horn, by Sarban

by Rich Horton

This is one of the classic "If the Nazis Won" novels, first published in 1952. The author was a British diplomat named John William Wall (1910-1989). He used "Sarban" for his fiction, which includes two more short novels, The Dollmaker and Ringstones, and a number of shorter stories, mostly in the horror mode. There were some additional stories found in his papers after his death, in a similar mode. The Sound of His Horn is, in my view, alternative history, but it's also a horror novel, with certain creepy erotic overtones, and as such it fits in with the rest of Sarban' oeuvre, as far as I can tell. It's also quite short -- perhaps 36,000 words by my quick and dirty estimate -- similar in length, I think, to Ringstones and The Dollmaker (and to such posthumous works as "The King of the Lake".)

The opening line of the novel is memorable: "It's the terror that is unspeakable." This line is spoken by Alan Querdilion to a group gathered at his house in England sometime in the late 1940s. The narrator is a friend of Alan's, who hadn't seen him since 1939. Alan had been captured by the Germans after his ship had been sunk, and sent to a POW camp. He has not seemed quite the same man since his release, causing his mother concern, and not yet ready to marry his girlfriend. And this line is spoken after an argument about fox hunting -- and Alan, formerly a traditional English country squire sort, comes out firmly against it -- despite his girlfriend's support for the sport.

Later that night Alan and the narrator are alone together, and Alan offers to tell a story about his time as a POW. He, along with much of the camp, had planned for escape, indeed been part of a group that organized attempts by various POWs. Finally, he tells the narrator, his chance had come. He and another man have tunneled under the fence, and they are taking different routes to freedom. After a stressful night, Alan is lost, and he comes to a strange seeming woods, and attempts to enter them -- and wakes up in a hospital room of some sort.

Alan eventually learns that he has run into something called a Bohlen field -- an electrified barrier of some sort -- and his doctor is proud of having successfully treated him, as he slowly comes back to health. But the doctor is a bit odd, and the nurses are not forthcoming, and the whole environment is strange. And -- they claim that it is 100 years or so after the Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, established the Reich. And this estate is that of the Reich Master Forester, Graf von Hackelnberg. And at night Alan sometimes hears the terrible sound of a horn ..

The doctor finally agrees to show Alan around the estate. And Alan learns the terrible things going on ... the mute servants, all looking alike. The hunting equipment. The references to slaves and Under Races. And then he sees the hunt ... women dressed as cats who drag down deer is just one thing. But there are also hunts of humans ... channeled to a shooting ground. One beautiful young women seems to escape, others are brought down. Finally Alan witnesses the end result -- the captured women, trussed like turkeys, brought to the table to be served to the guests -- for whatever use they prefer. There is a truly grotesque sadistic erotic depiction to this scene. 

But the Reich Master Forester soon finds Alan -- and takes him to be sent, naked except for clothing mimicking an animal, to be a future victim of the hunt. Alan makes plans to escape, especially after he encounters Kit, the beautiful woman he'd seen escaping the previous hunt. I'll not tell how Alan escapes and returns to our timeline. But -- it's fairly clear -- he has not mentally fully escaped. He still remembers the sound of the horn, and the terror. 

This is not a rigorous extrapolation of a future Nazi-dominated world, such as in Jo Walton's Small Change books, or The Man in the High Castle, or even Katherine Burdekin's pre-War novel Swastika Night (written as by "Murray Constantine".) It's certainly not a novel of heroic resistance against a future Nazi realm. It's a dreamlike -- nightmare-like -- vision of a particular horrible realization of Nazi ideology. (Perhaps Keith Roberts' great novelette "Weihnachtabend" is the best comparison.) It's evocative and disturbing and it offers no consolation.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Review: Flint and Mirror, by John Crowley

Review: Flint and Mirror, by John Crowley

by Rich Horton

Flint and Mirror (2022) is John Crowley's 14th novel (or 13th, or 10th or 11th, depending on how you want to count.) It may be his last -- Crowley is in his 80s. Crowley is a writer whose every novel is essential, one of the greatest writers of our time. And Flint and Mirror is no exception.

It is, outwardly, an historical novel about the life of Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, who lived from 1550 to 1616, and who was the ruler of Ulster, the northern part of Ireland; at first an ally of Queen Elizabeth in her attempts to consolidate English rule over the island, and later the leader of a war of resistance, the Nine Years War, the last true chance for Ireland to be independent of England for 300 years.

It is also, outwardly, a fantasy about the magic of Ireland, represented by the Sidhe, and by such creatures as selkies; and the magic of England, represented by Dr. John Dee and alchemy and far-seeing and communication with angels. At the same time it's about the contention of the True Church -- Catholicism -- with the new religion (Protestantism) -- and with the older, pagan, religions having a say as well.

It is a story of character -- of two-souled Hugh O'Neill, of John Dee, of Hugh's confessor Peter Lombard, of Queen Elizabeth, of Ineen Fitzgerald and her selkie lover and her hopeless human husband Cormac Burke, of the pirate queen Gráinne O'Malley, of Red Hugh O'Donnell, of Englishmen like the Earl of Essex, and Sir Henry Sidney and his son, Hugh's friend, the poet Philip Sidney. Most of these are historical characters, they come through believably, and wholly people of their time.

And it's beautifully written. Crowley is an utter master of prose -- graceful, flavorful, surprising at times, luminous. For me, it is the magical passages that truly sing. The historical narrative is well-told, but the magical intrusions are ... magical.

The story? The main thread is simply Hugh O'Neill's life: fostered with the O'Hagans when young, partly to avoid the threat of his murderous Uncle Shane, who has killed enough relatives to make himself The O'Neill. Then taken to England as an adolescent, fostered by the Sidney family, with the objective of teaching him English ways and making him an ally of Elizabeth, who wishes to cement her control of Ireland. As he leaves England he meets with creatures of the Sidhe, and they gift him a piece of flint. And in England he meets John Dee, and is given an obsidian mirror -- in which he sees Queen Elizabeth, and she him. When he returns to Ireland he plots to replace Shane as The O'Neill, all the while also doing Elizabeth's bidding, particularly when the Earl of Desmond, in the South of Ireland, revolts. But the time comes when his loyalties to Ireland come to the forefront, and he rebels himself, mostly uniting the fractious clans of Ireland, and though he has some great victories, ultimately he fails, and is forced to flee to Rome. The final chapter, the last moments of his life, in Rome, is remarkably moving.

There are side plots, most notably the story of Ineen Fitzgerald, who, as ships of the Spanish Armada are wrecked ashore in Ireland, meets a mysterious man, a selkie, and sleeps with him, and bears his child. This act dogs her life, and also that of Cormac Burke, who has escaped his violent and abusive father, after failing to kill him, and who loves Ineen though she cares nothing for him. Cormac ends up leaving and fetching up with Gráinne O'Malley -- coming to no good end. There is another interlude concerning Hugh O'Neill's courtship of Mabel Bagenal, daughter of Sir Nicholas Bagenal, the marshal of the English army in Ireland. And there are scenes with John Dee using magic to manipulate -- as well as he can -- events in Europe to the advantage of his Queen. 

It's a powerful and beautiful novel, a worthy capstone, if it ends up being a capstone, to John Crowley's writing career. I don't rank it with my favorites among Crowley's work (the novels Engine Summer and The Translator, and short stories like "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" and "Great Work of Time") but that is no shame. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Review: Sally-Ann, by "Susan Scarlett" (Noel Streatfeild)

Review: Sally-Ann, by "Susan Scarlett" (Noel Streatfeild)

by Rich Horton

Based on recommendations from both Scott Thompson of Furrowed Middlebrow and Jo Walton, I decided a while back that I ought to try Noel Streatfeild, and perhaps particularly her light romance novels written as by "Susan Scarlett". These latter comprise a dozen books published between 1939 and 1951, books which Streatfeild seemed to all but disown, regarding them, I suppose, as less serious than her adult fiction under her own name.

Streatfeild was born in 1895, the daughter of a Vicar who eventually became a Bishop. Her family name is quite old in England (perhaps signaled by the unconventional spelling of "field"?) but they were not well off (at least, I suppose, not until her father became a Bishop.) She became an actress and model, and in the 1930s turned to writing fiction. She published sixteen adult novels (plus the 12 "Susan Scarlett" books), and quite a few books for children, beginning in 1936 with the still popular Ballet Shoes. Her children's books retain enough popularity that they were mentioned in the film You've Got Mail. Her adult books seem to have been a varied lot, some quite dark, some comic, some mixed in tone, and were quite well respected and still have admirers. She was named to the Order of the British Empire in 1983 and died in 1986, aged 90.

Sally-Ann (1939) was the second "Susan Scarlett" novel. The main character is Ann Lane, an 18 year old girl working in a beauty shop. Her father trained to be a doctor but had to drop out and take a job as a chemist (pharmacist, in US terms) and then had to sell his shop after a block of flats were built nearby with their own chemist shop. The family struggles to make ends meet by taking in boarders. Ann's 11 year old brother has significant health issues.

Ann's job is fairly high status, it seems -- she's the junior of two makeup specialists. The shop seems to attract a high-end clientele, and the plot is set in motion when the senior makeup specialist falls ill on the wedding day of a Marquis's daughter. Ann is sent as her replacement. And after making up the bride, a crisis arrives -- one of the bridesmaids has also fallen ill. For vaguely implausible reasons there must be a replacement -- and the Marchioness realizes that Ann is just the same size as the missing bridesmaid, who is from South Africa and unknown to any of the wedding guests. Ann is drafted into being the replacement -- and to calling herself, for just this day, Sally.

OK, that didn't make much sense! And, inevitably, Ann and one of the groomsmen, Sir Timothy Munster (heir to the Munster soap fortune) fall head over heels in love. Sir Timothy pursues Ann, who has to pretend to be Sally just a bit longer, and after a couple of meetings they are wholly committed to each other -- even as Timothy still thinks Ann is Sally. The problem is, Timothy's cousin, Cora Bolt, is in love with him too -- and she makes plans to find out who Ann really is and put a spoke in Timothy's romance. Cora manages to do so (after another outrageous coincidence) and while Timothy is unfazed by Ann's circumstances, and in fact makes friends quickly with Ann's brother, Timothy's father is infuriated, and threatens to disinherit him. So Ann nobly decides she must break off with Timothy, and go hide in the country -- because she will not be the woman to ruin Timothy's life.

Does all work out well in the end? Do you really need to ask? Is this a bit of implausible fluff? Well, yes it is. But is it still lots of fun? That too! For one thing, though Ann and Timothy are both a tad idealized (Ann especially) they are still nice characters to read about. (Cora Bolt is portrayed as rather mean and selfish -- I felt this was a bit of a weakness and it seemed to me she deserved to be pitied more than despised. And we never do learn her fate.) Some of the best parts of the book revolve around Ann's job -- her working environment, and her rapport with her co-workers, seem very well portrayed to me, very realistic. Streatfeild was a working woman herself for some time, and had to make her own way financially, and I think she knew her way around all this. 

Is this a great novel? No. But it's fun and I'm glad I read it. My copy is one of Dean Street Press's Furrowed Middlebrow books -- books chosen by Scott Thompson for reprinting. Over the past few years Scott has been able to reprint in the neighborhood of 100 books under this imprint. Alas, the sudden and untimely death some months ago of his publisher, Rupert Heath, has put an end to this project. But by all means check out these books, by writers you may have heard of (Stella Gibbons, E. Nesbit, Margery Sharp) and some much less well known.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Review: Asimov's Science Fiction, November/December 2023

Review: Asimov's Science Fiction, November/December 2023

Here's a look at the fiction in the latest issue of one of the greatest SF magazines of all time.


"The Ghosts of Mars", by Dominica Phetteplace

"The Death of the Hind", by Kevin J. Anderson and Rick Wilber

"Blade and Bone", by Paul McAuley


"The Open Road Leads to the Used Car Lot", by John Alfred Taylor

Short Stories:

"Embot's Lament", by James Patrick Kelly

"Berb by Berb", by Ray Nayler

"Neptune Acres", by Robert R. Chase

"Meet-Your-Hero", by Prashanth Srivatsa

"The Four Last Things", by Christopher Rowe

"The Disgrace of the Commodore", by Marguerite Sheffer

"In the Days After ...", by Frank Ward

Novellas first ... I will say upfront that "The Ghosts of Mars" and "The Death of The Hind" were mild disappointments. Worth reading, but not special. Both are sequels to earlier stories. "The Ghosts of Mars" follows "Candida Eve", a strong story about a woman who is the only survivor of a trip to Mars -- her fellows, as well as many people on Earth, died in a plague. (The story was indeed -- though I am sure accidentally -- rather topical when it appeared in the May-June 2020 Analog.) This new story is set many years later, after a subsequent attempt to colonize Mars also failed, leaving, again, one person behind -- the Martian-born daughter of the heroine of "Candida Eve". She stayed on Mars because she had genetic alterations which made returning to Earth impossible. Now that Mars has been abandoned to her and the robots, the story follows her dealings with the robots, her conversations with people (including her mother) on the ship returning to Earth, and with a social network friend on Earth, and eventually with a visiting alien ship ... There's a lot going on, and it's pretty interesting, but some of it just didn't convince me, and also I felt the story overlong. "The Death of the Hind" is the sequel to "The Hind", a pretty good story about a crisis on a generation ship, escaping a ruined Earth and traveling to a "Goldilocks" planet. That crisis involved damage to the ship's AI, which necessitated a harsh regimen including forced euthanasia, until (in the story) the AI is partially repaired. This story is set a few decades later, as the Hind approaches its destination, and the conflict is between the Captain's daughter Dothan, a pilot who is eager to get to the planet, and her estranged father, who thinks they should stay on the ship, especially after it's revealed that the planet, though habitable, isn't quite the paradise some had expected. Other characters are the decaying AI, Dothan's Down Syndrome son, and the Captain herself. I thought the story a bit over-determined -- everything that happened seemed like stuff I've read in many previous generation ship stories, and I was also nitpickingly bothered by what seemed clichés such as naming the planet Goldilocks, and the first settlement First Landing. 

Paul McAuley's novella, "Blade and Bone", on the other hand, is outstanding. It's set on Mars, some centuries after the end of the Quiet War, which McAuley chronicled in a series of exceptional stories and novels. This Mars is only partly terraformed, and life is difficult. Groups of "Trues", who had established a harsh empire earlier, predicated on maintaining the "true" human genome despite advances that allow people to live in the outer Solar System and other harsh environments, raid farms and small cities, murdering indiscriminately. The protagonist, Lev, is a middle-aged mercenary, who had hoped to retire until his previous mission ended terribly. He's hired on with a group that has a contract with an ancient uploaded brain, who wishes for them to recover some relics from one of his descendants -- one of her fingerbones and her vorpal blade. The group is chasing the Trues who apparently stole these relics. Lev makes friends -- of a sort -- with the "agent" of their client, as well as a trigger-happy young recruit -- and when things go profoundly pear-shaped, Lev is nearly the only survivor, and is forced to chase after the blade and the bone -- which seem to be unlucky things to possess. It's a dark story, but not quite a hopeless one. It's exciting, and thoughtful, and mildly twisty. 

The only novelette is John Alfred Taylor's "The Open Road Leads to the Used Car Lot". Taylor died on October 7, just about as this issue was published -- he had turned 92 in September. (I learned from his obituary -- thanks to Jim Harris and Piet Nel for the alert -- that he was born in my city, St. Louis, and that he went to Southeast Missouri State university.) This leaves 95 year old Allen Kim Lang as possibly the oldest still active SF writer, with D. G. Compton having just died at age 93, and Donald Kingsbury (not quite 94 years old) as far as I know not still writing. Taylor had published occasional short fiction for over 50 years, both SF and Horror, and some was very impressive. This story is pretty good, about Isaac, who in 1964 is offered a chance to meet a woman he'd spent a day with in 1939 at the World's Fair. It's immediately clear to the reader that she's a time traveler -- and soon that's clear when Isaac meets her and realizes she's the same age she was in 1939 -- and so some very strange things Isaac saw back then are explained. The story really revolves around technological change -- from the Victorian Era to 1939 to 1964 and to the time traveler's future. 

I'll go through the short stories in TOC order. James Patrick Kelly writes a column for Asimov's, and for a long time was a very regular contributor -- with stories almost every June. But as there aren't June issues any more "Embot's Lament" comes in November-December. It's a good story -- Embot is a "timecaster" -- a sort of AI that records a person's life experiences and transmits them to the future. Its job this time is Jane, who is stuck in a terribly abusive marriage. She is finally trying to get out -- and Embot is tempted to help, even though that's against the rules. The results lead to significant consequences for Jane -- and also for Embot.

"Berb by Berb" is set in the same future as other Ray Nayler stories like "The Disintegration Loops" -- one in which the US recovered a crashed flying saucer in 1938, and tech derived from that radically altered World War II and after. This story is set in an area of the US near a lab at which there was an accident with the alien tech. The result is that assemblages of -- junk, I suppose -- coalesce and become sort of robots. The protagonist had worked at the lab, and now lives in the area, dealing with the occasional "visiting" berb. What are berbs really? What do they do? Who knows? Maybe even they don't. And the story -- resonating a bit with the ideas about intelligence in Nayler's excellent first novel The Mountain in the Sea -- lets us ask the questions too.

"Neptune Acres", by Robert R. Chase, is a look at an attempt to profit from climate change and rising sea levels by selling submersible housing, from the point of a view of a man recruited to attend the sales party who ends up in grave danger after a storm arises. Decent back of the book work, mild topical extrapolation. 

Prashant Srivatsa's "Meet-Your-Hero" posits a near future technology that allows one to virtually visit a "hero" -- like a movie star. Junaid is a poor young man who enters the lottery each week to try to win a ticket to meet his favorite star -- and then he does. With perhaps predictably disillusioning results. The best part of the story is the believable and grounded portrayal of Junaid's life, his mother's financial stress, etc.

"The Four Last Things" is the prize story in this issue (along with "Blade and Bone".) Christopher Rowe, over the past year or more, enthusiastically discovered the great Cordwainer Smith, and of course there was influence. Influence transmuted, naturally, through Rowe's own striking imagination. The Four Last Things, in Catholic theology, are Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Here we have the crew of a "mule ship", arriving at the planet Ouest'Mer, which is the home of strange sea-living worms, who make noises that may or may not have meaning as they "drum" in the ocean. Each of the four crew members reacts differently, interprets differently, based on their nature, their history -- and each are stressed by disaster. It's a weird story, an evocative story, a mysterious story. The Smith influence is at once evident, and indirect. The weirdness evokes Smith, the feeling that this is an organic future, not a version of the present day. But the imagination is all Rowe's. (I will suggest another writer whose (rare) fiction I thought of while reading this story -- John Clute, especially his novel Appleseed.)

Marguerite Sheffer's "The Disgrace of the Commodore" is a curious brief piece about a ship's commander who lost his ship to the British in 1807, and in the story is in what he thinks is Purgatory -- he's in a ghost ship as his real ship is disassembled. It's nicely written, but it didn't quite work for me. 

Finally, Frank Ward offers "In the Days After ...", as a woman comes to Louisville to adopt a child, for reasons that slowly become clear -- a strange disaster that conferred a sort of immortality on a subset of people. And the effect of that immortality is, for some at least, quite terrible. The general idea is familiar, but the particular effects on some characters in the story are nicely portrayed. 

One last comment -- I was amused to note that this issue features four writers in their 70s or older -- all who were contributing to Asimov's in the 1980s or 1990s and still are today. (Taylor, Chase, Kelly, and Ward.)

Monday, November 27, 2023

Review: Sunday Morning Transport, October 1, 2023 -- November 19, 2023

Review: Sunday Morning Transport, October 1, 2023 -- November 19, 2023

Sunday Morning Transport is an excellent online magazine of SF and Fantasy, that began publishing in January, 2022. The Editor-in-Chief is Julian Yap, and the Managing Editor is Fran Wilde. They publish one story per week, on Sunday morning of course. It is a subscription site, part of the Substack empire, but one story each month is free. I will say that I recommend you subscribe! (For one thing, I really think we should be paying for our short fiction -- in the long run, that's how we can pay the authors. For another thing, it's good value for the money!)

I've decided to begin reviewing occasional "issues" of magazines -- print issues of print magazines, and however issues might be defined for online 'zines. Sunday Morning Transport doesn't define "issues" per se, however -- so I just went back to October 1st and I'll cover all of those stories until Thanksgiving -- mostly briefly. Just to give a flavor. 

October 1, "Halfway Between Albany and West Point", by John Chu

This is an interior monologue by a TA at a university that seems to blend teaching of music with teaching of assassination. The narrator tells of his reaction to an attempt by one of his students in the Harmony and Counterpoint class to kill him. It's very cleverly told, and interesting throughout, but I confess I wanted an explanation of why the university has a required "practicum" which involves each student killing a teacher. The math doesn't seem to work. Perhaps I missed something obvious. But it was a fun read.

October 8, "The Inventor We May Learn Is More of a Conceptual Artist in Part Seven", by Leslie What

Opens as series of descriptions of amusing weird inventions, but moves darkly and effectively to something quite different. It's quite short, and it works, and I don't want to give anything away.

October 15, "Redemption Weather", by Christopher Rowe

Sana is a flyer for the Katabatic League in what seems a post climate catastrophe world, racked by terrible stories. The League works -- or claims to work -- to temper the storms. As the story opens, she notices a struggling aircraft, barely making it to shore, and she helps rescue it. And the passenger makes a strange claim -- he knows "the Secret of Bait". Which results in Sana and this man yoked together, in a fashion. Rowe has the ability -- the Tiptree-like ability -- to tell us almost nothing, show us intriguing stuff, and never explain yet fascinate. (As Tiptree put it: "Start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then DON’T TELL THEM." We don't know exactly the details of this world, nor the end result of the actions shown -- but it's intriguing indeed. So it works.

October 22, "We Will Witness", by Martin Cahill

A well written story of a man dying in a war, and a time traveler appearing to "witness" his death, to offer comfort. Moving, but, to my mind, a bit slight. But effectively empathetic.

October 29, "Mother Tongue", by Zoe Bellerive

Bellerive's first sale, I think, and it's really nicely written, in dialect, about Cassie, whose mother is a witch, and who runs away from home when her mother cuts out her tongue and sews in her own (the mother's) in its place. Cassie catches a frog, and plays card with it, and, well -- like a few of these stories, I felt like it wanted to show setting, and character, and language -- and worked on all those levels. But didn't quite have a finish. Still, I'd read more about Cassie.

November 5, "Mid-Earth Removals Limited", by R. S. A. Garcia

This is a pretty amusing story about a woman dealing with waste cleanup after magical creatures invade Mid-Earth from another realm -- which means leaving lots of messes, but, well, making life more interesting. And our heroine confronts a soldier who realizes that now he's in Mid-Earth, his Immortal Lord, His Evilness, no longer has power over him. So he joins with the protagonist to help with the title operation. Fun stuff, again, a tad slight.

November 12, "The Corruption of Malik the Unsmiling", by Naseem Jamnia

Reminded me a bit of "Mid-Earth Removals Limited" -- a light-hearted story about setting up a small business in a magical place. This time, it's a gas station/coffee shop in Hell, run by a jinn. Who, against his nature, insist on ethically sourced products -- and who also makes friends with Mister M., the title character, who -- well, never smiles, among other duties. Enjoyable.

November 19, "By Throat and Void", by Tobias S. Buckell

A pure adventure story, in which a ship full of refugees, fleeing a war, tries to escape through the "Throat" to their sister planet. Cool SF ideas, exciting action, and a rather cynical but believable resolution. And, like many of the stories, well done, but seeming to be the part of something bigger. Though this story does resolve itself.

In sum, then -- this is a 'zine wholly worth reading. All of the stories are well-written, all of the voices are intriguing. Of course, they are not all completely successful. And perhaps there's a habit of leaving the reading want a bit more -- which isn't always a bad thing. From this tranche, I especially recommend the stories by Christopher Rowe and Leslie What. (From earlier in the year, I will mention particularly "Alphabet of Swans", by E. Lily Yu; and "The In-Between", by James Patrick Kelly.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Old Bestseller Review: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

Old Bestseller Review: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

a review by Rich Horton

This is perhaps Wilkie Collins' best known novel (the other candidate being The Moonstone.) It was serialized in 1859-1860 in Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round; and then in three volumes by Sampson Low in August 1860. It was also published nearly simultaneously in the US -- serialized in Harper's Weekly, then in book form by Harper and Brothers about two weeks after the English first. It is considered  the first "sensation novel".

William Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was the son of a painter, William Collins. He spent some time as an adolescent in France and Italy and became fluent in both French and Italian. His father wished him to become a clergyman but Wilkie would have none of it. He did study law, and indeed passed the bar but never practiced. He worked for several years as a clerk for a tea merchant. His first story appeared in 1843 and his first novel, Antonina, in 1850. (In the interim, he published a biography of his father.) Charles Dickens took an interest in his work, and many of Collins' stories and novels appeared in Dickens' two magazines, the aforementioned All the Year Round and also Household Words. Collins and Dickens also collaborated on some stories and a play. (Dickens' contributions to literature as an editor and mentor to other writers are pretty significant -- see Elizabeth Gaskell as well.) Collins became well off after The Woman in White's success. He ended up publishing a couple of dozen novels, a number of short stories, and several plays (including a well-regarded adaptation of The Woman in White.) He suffered severely from gout, and took laudanum for the pain, becoming an opium addict.

His personal life was a bit controversial. He never married (he disapproved of the institution), but enjoyed long-term liaisons with two women (often simultaneously): Caroline Graves, and Martha Rudd. He had three children with Rudd, and also raised Graves' daughter as his own. I might add that some details of his autobiography make their way into The Woman in White to some degree -- the main male character is an artist, like Collins' father; legal machinations are critical to the novel, using his knowledge of the law (though he made one enormous mistake); and I would argue that his main character's relationship with the two main women characters strikes me as essentially bigamous, though it is not really presented quite that way.

The novel is told primarily by Walter Hartright, a young drawing teacher, in about 1850. Hartright presents it a faithful record of the events concerning the mysterious "woman in white" and Laura Fairlie, a young woman whom he tutors in drawing, and who has a striking resemblance to the woman in white. Hartright makes it clear he is writing all this after the novel's resolution, and he add that he will include the testimony of other characters in the narrative when necessary. Thus, much of the novel is presented as diary entries of Laura Fairlie's half-sister Marian Halcombe, and there are other shorter entries -- depositions from witnesses to some events, a confession of sorts by the chief villain, etc. It's a nice device, and Collins uses it effectively.

The novel is divided into three parts, or "epochs". In the first we see Walter Hartright accept the commission from Frederick Fairlie, the incredibly lazy and selfish uncle of Laura Fairlie, to teach his two wards drawing. (Laura's parents are both dead, as are Marian Halcombe's (she was the daughter of Laura's mother and her first husband.)) Walter also meets the mysterious "woman in white", whom he learns is an escapee from an asylum. Walter and Laura soon fall in love, and Marian advises Walter that he must resign his position and leave, for Laura is already engaged. The engagement is briefly endangered by an anonymous letter denouncing Laura's fiancé, Sir Percival Glyde -- which Walter learns was sent by the woman in white, who also closely resembles Laura, and who knew Laura's mother. After Walter leaves, Marian takes over the narrative, and we learn of the unfair marriage contract Sir Percival forces on Laura -- which will give him her fortune if she predeceases him.

The next epoch shows Laura and Sir Percival's trouble marriage -- it is clear that all Sir Percival wants from Laura is her money. Marian attempts to protect Laura, but there is a new character, the flamboyant and corpulent Italian Count Fosco, who also has financial reasons for harming Laura ... for his wife is Laura's aunt, who would receive a portion of her inheritance were she to die. After a lot of maneuvering, and an inconvenient illness for Marian, the Count is able to set some schemes in motion, with the object of removing the obstruction Laura offers, and also to deal with Anne Catherick, who may know an inconvenient Secret about Sir Percival Glyde.

The third epoch follows the efforts of Walter Hartright, after his return from Central America, where he fled to nurse his sorrows after having to leave Laura, to unravel the dastardly schemes of Count Fosco, to learn what really happened to both Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick, and to find out Sir Percival's Secret. I won't say more -- this is a very plotty novel, very satisfyingly so, and I don't wish to spoil it.

In the end it's an extremely fun read. There are two great characters -- the villainous but impressive Count Fosco, and the redoubtable Marian Halcombe. It must be said that Laura Fairlie and Walter Hartright are both a bit dull. Though Laura is described as far more beautiful than Marian, and also as the more accomplished at drawing and music, it is Marian who is intelligent and brave and unconventional, and it's not a surprise that Collins received letters from men who wanted to know who was her original, so they could find her and marry her. I don't rank this novel with such novels as Middlemarch, David Copperfield, and North and South ... it really is a bit too melodramatic. As I said, it is considered the first "sensation novel" -- novels that showed lurid happenings in apparently normal English families. (Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, from just two years after The Woman in White, is another sensation novel.) I don't think Collins' prose is quite on the level of Eliot or Dickens, though it's fine. His characters are not as acutely drawn. But his plot is intricate and fascinating. There are some delicious comic moments, mostly involving either Count Fosco or Frederick Fairlie. Most assuredly a novel worth reading, worth its fairly steady reputation. And I will be reading at least The Moonstone, Collins' second most famous novel, in the coming several months.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Clock Star Rose Spine, by Fran Wilde

Clock Star Rose Spine, by Fran Wilde

a review by Rich Horton

I have been enjoying Fran Wilde's fiction for quite a while now, but I wasn't really aware of her poetry. (Likely I should have been, given that a story like "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" could be seen as a long prose poem.) But I ran across a copy of her collection of poems, Clock Star Rose Spine at a convention a while ago, and snapped it up. I had sampled it from time to time, but I didn't remember to read it all through until seeing Fran at the World Fantasy Convention recently (and having her sign the book.)

Forgive me for my vocabulary for reviewing poetry isn't at the level as I think it is for fiction. But I'll do what I can! I'll start by mentioning that we sometimes think that our genre fiction writers will write genre poetry -- but that doesn't need to be the case at all! For one thing, in the classic sense, poetry is a genre all its own. But for another thing -- the conventions of genre, what makes a genre writer a genre writer (and remembering that many writers can't be pigeonholed as "genre" writers anyway) is usually plot, or setting, or speculation. What makes poetry poetry is (mostly!) language. And language is important to any writer. (Or I should hope it is -- insert snide Dan Brown remark here if you wish!)

Clock Star Rose Spine was published in 2021 by Lanternfish Press. It is illustrated by the author, very nicely. (I had no idea Fran was an artist as well!) There are four sections, one for each word of the title. The poems are sometimes intensely personal (including eight "Self Portraits") ... actually, they are all intensely personal, but some more obviously so than others. There are some poems that do fit in the SF/F genre, such as "Self Portrait as a Selkie" and "You are Two Point Three Meters from Your Destination". There are poems about family, poems about place, poems about art, poems about people, poems about ideas. So it should be for every collection! There are poems that ache, poems that smile, lines that land perfectly.

A few favorite poems: "Clock Star Rose Spine", "You are Two Point Three Meters from Your Destination", "A Catalog of Lost Negatives", "Comet Garment", "Wish Boat", "Theft", "Orrery", "Self Portrait as Event Horizon". (My mother would scold me for calling eight "a few" -- "that's several," she would say, when I took "a few" cookies!)

A few favorite lines: "A series of gates -- too small to pass through.", "the ink bleeding tendrils of blue throught the bright",  "No one knows we're standing still, even when we're not dancing", "Your words float on the wind.", "Even the word does what it says, each "r" spun around the big "O".

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Review: Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty, by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis

Review: Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty, by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis

a review by Rich Horton

Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty (1988) was the last novel Avram Davidson (1923-1993) published in his lifetime. As with his posthumous novella, The Boss in the Wall, it was a collaboration with his ex-wife Grania Davis. Davidson and Davis divorced amicably and remained close, and, in fact, Davidson was godfather to Seth Davis, Grania's son with her second husband, and Seth has been doing excellent work as Davidson's literary executor, bringing much of his work back to print, and publishing some unsold novels and memoirs as well. Grania Davis (1943-2017) was a significant author in her own right. She published a couple of dozen short stories, and several solo novels, most notably, perhaps, Moonbird (1986), a fantastical tale set in Bali.

This novel primarily concerns the mission of Marco Polo, along with his father Niccolo, and his uncle Maffeo, to seek out the rumored castle of the Sleeping Beauty. They have been in China (Cathay) for some years, working for the Mongol Emperor, Kublai Khan, and the aging Kublai is interested in the Sleeping Beauty's apparent immortality, not to mention her beauty, and also is interested in any hope of a cure for his favorite son, Prince Chenghin. 

That's the basic setup, but the real point of the book is to present a humorous (and slightly satirical), romantic, colorful and adventurous travelogue through the wonders and perils of Asia in the 13th Century. In the manner we expect from an Avram Davidson novel (see: the Vergil books and the Peregrine books, not to mention Adventures in Unhistory), this particular 13th Century is based more on the legends and fancies prevalent at the time than it is on our history, though it hews at least in the basics to the biographies of the Polos and Kublai Khan.

Pretending to be collectors of the Khan's salt tax, the three Polos, along with Marco's slave Peter the Tartar, the scholar Yen Lung-chuan (who believes all is illusion, even fierce animals attacking them), and a party of the Khan's soldiers, attempt to follow the ambiguous directions on a map which purports to show the location of the Sleeping Beauty's castle. Along the way they gain and lose allies, such as the mighty Norseman Olavr; the beautiful acrobat Su-Shen, with whom Marco falls in love; a clever miniature sphinx, who is always riddling (of course); the herbalist Hua T'o; and a strange traveling knight, who goes by many names, but mostly (in this narrative) Hou-Ying. They encounter dragons, griffins, huge snow leopards, frogs, a trickster monkey, cannibals, dog-headed pirates, sea-dragons, ghosts, warrior nuns, a giant talking carp, and many further marvels. They visit much of the Khan's empire, plus Bur-Mien, the Pleasure Island, Tebet, and other places. They are menaced repeatedly by Cumanian rebels allied with Kublai's rebellious cousin Kaidu Khan. And we are treated to some of Marco's earlier dealings with Kublai Khan, including witnessing his disastrous attempts to invade Japangu.

This is all a bit discursive, but never boring. (Though I imagined at times that Grania Davis was grabbing the reins from Davidson, and insisting the narrative move forward.) But the depictions of the wondrous and fearful creatures and locales is enjoyable. The tone is usually light, but some darker, and some sweeter, scenes convince, particularly Marco's romance with Su-Shen. The resolution of the plot is logical -- consistent with the outlines of the Sleeping Beauty story but sensible in the context of Kublai Khan's desires. It is not a great novel, but a fun one.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Resurrected Review: Cavalcade, by Alison Sinclair

Here's a review I wrote back in 2000 of Alison Sinclair's novel Cavalcade.


by Alison Sinclair

Millennium, London, 1999, (originally published 1998), £5.99;

ISBN: 1-85798-564-8

A review by Rich Horton

This interesting novel is set entirely on an alien spaceship. The book opens just as hundreds of thousands of humans have woken up from being transported from Earth to the ship. This was entirely voluntary: the aliens came and announced that they'd take anyone who wanted to go. People are segregated by language, it seems, and we follow the viewpoints of a few people in the English language area: Stan Morgan, a NASA scientist attached to a U. S. Army squad which hopes to learn enough about the spaceship to be able to return to Earth with the data; his niece Hathaway, a pregnant teen who just wants a new life away from her stressful home; Stephen Cooper, a disaffected young man who was afraid he would be wanted for murder and who found the ship a convenient way to run really far away; and Sophie Hemmingway, an upper class American research M. D. who fears a genetic disease will give her Alzheimer's by the time she's fifty, and who hopes to learn from the aliens.

The story starts somewhat slowly, but the characters are interesting enough to hold our attention. Almost everyone is surprised by the way the ship works. No electrical device will work, shattering Sophie's hopes of research, and frustrating many people's belief that they will be able to communicate with Earth. Food supplies seem to be a problem, but in time the ship itself starts to make food. Shelter is a problem, but the ship can be altered to provide this as well. A variety of societies quickly form: an all-women society (complete with explicit allusions to Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See"), an anarchic group, and the main group, an attempt at a cooperative society run by an expert in refugee camps.

The novel follows to some extent the stresses involved in setting up these groups, and in their interaction, but the more important problem is understanding the ship and the aliens, who don't seem to want to communicate. Morgan and his army squad attack the problem somewhat analytically, including a dangerous expedition into a dark core area which might be the control room. Stephen Cooper, always a loner, explores the ship on his own and also finds the control room. Hathaway is an artist, and she finds that her attempts at painting on the ships walls provoke a response that may be communication.

Then a series of crises bring things to a head: first a plague which kills many of the humans, followed by Stephen's past catching up with him, then conflict between the different societies, and finally an emergency as the ship seems to begin to break down. The final parts of the book are very exciting, and the resolution is quite original, and also very moving. The central mysteries are resolved fairly and in an interesting manner, the plot is resolved excitingly and without cheating, and the book's theme is strong and saisfying, and deeply science-fictional. In some ways it is reminiscent of Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, or perhaps one might say it is almost a response to that work.

All in all, this is a very satisfying novel, highly recommended. It is well-deserving of its position on the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist for its year of publication. One might quibble over a few details. Some of the plot is set into motion by odd coincidences. One gets very little sense that the ship is populated by any humans but the English speaking ones, though Sinclair is careful to mention that their are enclaves for every culture and (major) language. And as I said, the opening is a bit slow. But these are minor points, and on balance I was very pleased. (Also, while I admit to being predisposed to this statement by knowing that Sinclair is Canadian, this seemed a very Canadian book, even though none of the major characters is Canadian.)

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Review: The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford

Review: The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford

a review by Rich Horton

I read this novel back in the '90s sometime, and I liked it but I felt that I didn't quite get it. I had decided it needed a reread, and my book club put it on the schedule -- so I did reread it! I bought the audiobook, read by Gerard Doyle. I assumed I'd find my own copy to have as reference ... and I couldn't find it! So I bought a used paperback, and ended up alternating listening and reading. And, naturally, I then remembered that my own copy was a hardcover! I'd been looking in the paperbacks. So now I have two! I will add that the new edition -- my audiobook but also the recent Tor trade paper reprint -- has a very nice introduction by Scott Lynch.

John M. Ford (1957-2006) was one of the most interesting and original SF writers of his time. He first impressed me with a story called "Mandalay", in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in 1979; other great short works include "Walkaway Clause", "Fugue State", and "Erase/Record/Play". I loved his second novel, The Princes of the Air, and also Growing up Weightless. He was a first-rate poet as well -- I am particularly fond of his Arthurian poem "Winter Solstice, Camelot Station" (which I discuss in this Black Gate piece). I also liked his two Star Trek novels, The Final Reflection and How Much for Just the Planet? His works were each very different to the others, in multiple genres, doing varied things, but always beautifully written, elliptical, complex -- resembling, say, Gene Wolfe and Dorothy Dunnett, among others. At his too early death (from a heart attack, perhaps caused by complications of Type 1 diabetes) he left an unfinished novel, Aspects (finally published in 2022), which I adore -- I think it would have been recognized as one of the great works of 21st Century Fantasy had he had a chance to finish it. (I review it here.) 

Somewhat notoriously Ford's novels went out of print after his death, and it seemed impossible to get them reprinted, as his estate was in a mess. Somewhat miraculously, Isaac Butler, a journalist and new-hatched Ford enthusiast, was able to track down his heirs and untangle the issue, which was apparently largely due to his agent leaving the field approximately as he died. Thus many of his novels have been reprinted, and some more books may be in the offing. The first to be reprinted was The Dragon Waiting.

The novel opens with an historical note, in which Ford tells us that the novel is a fantastical alternative history, though attempting to use period appropriate technology, and also true historical characters of the period (especially Richard III.) There follow three chapters introducing three of the four main characters (none of whom is present in the historical record.) In the first, Hywel is a ten year old Welsh boy, who is lured by a wizard sensing his talent to both free the wizard and go off with him to learn to use his talent, despite the wizard's dire warnings. In the second, Dimitrios Ducas is a teenaged boy whose father is the governor of a Gaulish province of the Empire of Byzantium. Dimitrios comes to realize that his father has essentially been exiled, and that as his family has a potential claim to be Emperor, there is danger of worse. He also has a remarkable talent to inspire loyalty in his friends, who include the native Gauls. All this -- and his mother's ambitions -- lead to a tragic result, and further exile for Dimitrios. In the third chapter we meet Cynthia Ricci, in her early 20s, a doctor serving Lorenzo de' Medici. The maneuvering of the states of Italy, especially with regard to the prospect of Byzantine rule, ends up with Lorenzo (and Florence) at the mercy of the Duke of Milan, and Cynthia and her father (also a doctor) are entangled in the mess. (The main action of the book is set roughly at the same time as Jo Walton's excellent novel Lent, and it was interesting to see Ford's portrayals of some of the characters from Lent, especially Marsilio Ficino and Girolamo Savanarola. As I know that Jo is a fan of Ford's novels, I'm sure she was aware of these parallels.)

Ford never tells us outright (until an afterword of additional historical notes) the Jonbar point of this alternate history, but it's clear that it lies with Constantine's successor, Julian the Apostate. In this history, Julian succeeded in his goal of rejecting Christianity, and established a rule for the Byzantine Empire that no faith would be given preference. By the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire controls much of Europe, with about half of Gaul under British control, and occasional nominally independent states around and between the major powers.

The main action of the novel starts a bit later, at an inn in Northern Italy. A group of travelers have gathered, just ahead of a storm. These include Timaeus Plato, a venerable scholar, with his companion, a soldier named Hector; Charles de la Maison, a French mercenary; Gregory von Bayern, a natural scientist; Claudio Falcone, a courier; Antonio Della Robbia, a Medici banker; and a gentlewoman named Caterina Ricardi. It is soon revealed that a wizard, named Nottesignore, has been sent to the stables. The reader fairly readily guesses the identities of Timaeus Plato, Hector, and Caterina Ricardi -- who have already been introduced to us. The rest of this section involves much conversation, a couple of murders, and a key revelation -- that Gregory von Bayern is, in fact, an expert in artillery, and a vampire. After a visit to France (or the remnants thereof), and encounters with Louis XI and the Margaret of Anjou, the widow of Henry VI, and an attempt to gain possession of a document giving George, Duke of Clarence, the crown of England instead of his brother, the current king, Edward IV; the main quartet (Hywel, Dimitrios, Cynthia, and Gregory) head for England, where they will become enmeshed in efforts to manage the future of the English crown, partly (or mainly) as an attempt to forestall Byzantine influence.

I won't say much more about the plot -- perhaps I've already said too much. But it is rich and complicated, and there are many more fascinating characters to meet: Richard III, of course (though he's not yet the king); a Christian Welsh witch named Mary Setright; Anthony Woodville, brother-in-law to King Edward IV, and a man regarded as a renaissance man, England's perfect knight; numerous other intriguers, including for example John Morton, rumored to be a wizard (and the originator of "Morton's Fork" in our history); and of course Edward's young sons, the famous "Princes in the Tower". There is lots of action -- battles, daring rescues, desperate treks. There is lots of magic -- wizardly spells, a remarkable dragon, alchemy. There are acts of wrenching heroism, and of dreadful treachery, and some that might be both at once. The resolution is powerful and moving. 

But most of all there is character. Cynthia's agony over her acts of violence, in violation of her oath as a doctor. Hywel's battles with letting his wizardly powers consume him -- apparently always a danger for wizards. Dimitrios' attempts to find a man to whom to be truly loyal. And Gregory's agonized struggle with his vampiric needs. I am no fan of vampire novels, on the whole, but I rank two as truly worthy: George R. R. Martin's Fevre Dream, and this novel. 

It is very well written, not simply on the prose level, though that is excellent, but on the emotional level. Line after line hits exactly right -- tears our hearts out or exalts us. "That's why she must go with Hywel: there are better quests than war." "Her eyes hurt, as if she were crying, but any tears would be lost in the rain. Lost the silver owl and gained an ugly blob of lead -- an alchemical miracle." "We forget that anyone who can curse can bless." "Once I have learned properly to hate, Uncle, then will I truly be King?" "There was no explaining to them the taste of their blood in his mouth." "We are what the world makes us. And half the world is Byzantium, and the other half looks East in wonder."

I will add one more note -- this rereading was immensely helped by referring to the Draco Concordans, a fan-produced concordance to the novel, mainly the work of Andrew Plotkin, with contributions by several other people. It does a great job clarifying the timeline, explaining both the real and alternative historical elements, and highlighting some of Ford's little jokes. (I found a couple that the Concordans missed -- the apparent nod to Roy Batty's death speech from Blade Runner (which appeared as Ford was writing the novel) and a nod to Mae West's autobiography Goodness Had Nothing to do With It.)

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Capsule Reviews: A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest, plus three others

Capsule Reviews: A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest, plus three others

by Rich Horton

I like Chris Priest's writing a lot "An Infinite Summer" is one of my favorite SF stories. The Inverted World was one of the first serials I ever read in an SF magazine (Galaxy, in 1975 or so), and it fairly blew me away.  I read Darkening Island (Fugue for a Darkening Land) at just the right age to be impressed by its non-linear narrative structure. But for some reason, maybe because his books don't seem to get much push in the US, I haven't been following him lately. I have just now read what I believe to be his fifth novel, A Dream of Wessex (US title The Perfect Lover), from 1977.  This is a very interesting novel, and very intriguing.  

The basic idea is quite "Priestian", a (very little) bit reminiscent of his first novel, Indoctrinaire: in the near future of 1977 (1985), a research project is set up whereby a group of people sort of "pool" their unconsciousnesses and create a realistic world 150 years in the future.  Ostensibly this is to explore what might be done to reach a more pleasant future.  The dreamed future is set on "Wessex", which is the western part of England after it has been separated from the mainland by earthquakes, with the new channel roughly along the path of the river Stour.

All of England is communist, and part of the Soviet sphere, while the US is Islamic.  (The notion that this is a more pleasant future, or realistic, is one on which one's mileage may vary.)  The "dreamers" all have alter-egos in Wessex, and they return periodically to report. But one of them, David Harkman, has never returned. Another, Julia Stretton, goes looking for him, while she also worries because her abusive former lover has maneuvered his way onto the project. Julia and David fall in love in Wessex, but all is threatened when Julia's lover begins to change the parameters of the future world. The idea is a bit barmy, I think, but it's appealingly solipsistic, as well. The idyllic scenery of Wessex is well-evoked, and the resolution is very nicely handled. A different, but very interesting, book.


Indoctrinaire was Christopher Priest's first published novel. A British scientist, working on a mysterious project in the Antarctic for the US government, is kidnapped by a couple of rather odd people and taken to a strange prison in central Brazil.  After some time he realizes his captors don't really know what to do with him, and he escapes to discover the real nature of his imprisonment, which I won't realize for fear of spoilers.  I didn't find this a very successful novel on the whole.  It showed promise, but the ultimate revelation was silly, and much of the plot was highly contrived.  Priest did manage to pull off a fairly moving and somewhat true-to-his-character ending.  He got much better quickly, with Fugue for a Darkening Land and The Inverted World.

The Separation

This is an alternate history, comparing two time streams -- ours, and one in which Rudolph Hess's mission to England was successful and England made a separate peace with Germany in 1941. The personal story is expressed via a pair of twins, Olympic rowing champions, who play different roles in the two time streams. I liked the book, but had reservations about Priest's careful arrangement of his alternate history to be roughly comparable to ours despite comparative Nazi success -- in my words, Priest palmed about 6,000,000 cards.

"The Discharge"

Much stranger is Christopher Priest's "The Discharge", a new Dream Archipelago story, which originally appeared in a French anthology. This is a long novelette about a man who comes to awareness at the age of twenty, with almost no memories except that he is an artist, as he is conscripted into the army to fight in the 3000 year long war. The story tells of his war experiences, but more closely of his artwork, especially in the odd style called "Tactilism". This is an odd and not completely successful story, but the writing and the images are sufficiently interesting to make it well worth reading, even if the plot and internal logic don't quite cohere.