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.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Review: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

a review by Rich Horton

I am not particularly a fan of horror, but I do like psychological characterization, and there is a sort of horror that uses horrific elements of the narrative as a means of characterization. I also have enjoyed Shirley Jackson's short fiction, and so have thought for some time that I need to read some of her novels (primarily this one and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the two that seem best regarded among her ouevre.) And, finally, one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Hand, just wrote an authorized sequel to The Haunting of Hill House -- A Haunting on the Hill. This provided the final spur to to reading Jackson's novel.

And you know what? I ended up reading it in late October -- so it's a well-timed Halloween read!

I both read and listened to the book, having bought the recent Penguin Classics reissue, with an introduction by Laura Miller; and having also got the audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne. I listened to the book on the way to work, and read it at night, so probably I experienced it 50/50.

Hill House is an isolated house in a rural part of the East, one assumes upstate New York though that's not specified. The nearest village is Hillsdale, about six miles away. The house's reputation is ominous, and it has been unoccupied for a couple of decades, except for occasional renters, who always leave much before the end of their lease period. 

The latest renter is Dr. John Montague, a professor who has an interest in occult matters. He stumbled across the story of Hill House -- built in the late 19th Century for a man whose wife died just as they moved in, mostly lived in by his two daughters, who ended up fighting viciously over the property, finally ceded to the estate of the companion to one of the sisters, who (the companion) had committed suicide in the house. Dr. Montague invites a number of people who seem to have had psychic incidents of their own to stay there with him one summer. Two accept: Eleanor Vance, a spinster in her early 30s, just freed from the tyranny of caring for her ailing mother, and Theodora, a free-spirited and vaguely artistic woman who has quarreled with her roommate. The two come to Hill House, along with Luke Sanderson, the somewhat raffish son of the current owners, and of course Dr. Montague.

The action takes place over about a week. Eleanor is the main character. She is beautifully realized (and Theodora is also well-depicted, though Luke and Dr. Montague never really come much into focus.) She is clearly yearning for, let's say, a life -- after decades of oppression at the hands of her mother and then her married sister. But she has no idea how to go about that, and she clutches at whatever scraps of friendship are offered by Theo or Luke. Dr. Montague is a prosy middle-aged man, and much of his character is revealed late in the book when his rather awful wife shows up with her elderly male friend Arthur. (They are obsessed with psychic manifestations, and things like planchette, in a way that annoys Dr. Montague.) The other character of mild prominence is Mrs. Dudley, the housekeeper, set in her ways, a wonderful cook but not a very friendly person, and like all the locals, profoundly wary of Hill House.

Over the few days they are there, there are disturbing incidents. The House is architecturally weird, easy to get lost in. There are horrible messages written on the walls, some in blood. There are noises in the night, and things seem to want to get into everyone's rooms. Strange things happen outside as well. And much of this seems directed at Eleanor. Meanwhile, Eleanor is getting attached to Theo (and it is strongly hinted that Theo is a Lesbian -- though Eleanor seems to have no real concept of adult relationships with either men or women.) Eleanor seems more disconnected from reality -- or connected to Hill House's (un)reality -- as time goes on -- and this leads to a dark resolution. 

It's very well written, and eerie without ever being quite, well, horrific, which makes the shocking ending more effective. We don't really learn what's going on -- and that's right, because mystery is part of the affect here. It's a very good novel, very involving, and a good example of a book that does not outstay its welcome. Definitely recommended.

As for Laura Miller's introduction -- it's solid work, well done. I have read a lot of Laura Miller's writing about books, and she's always worth reading. That said, I felt that she and I didn't quite read the same book -- her view of Eleanor was not wrong, but it wasn't quite mine. Which is fine -- but I'll adduce that as yet another piece of Jackson's mysteriousness.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Review: The Navigating Fox, by Christopher Rowe

The Navigating Fox, by Christopher Rowe

a review by Rich Horton

Christopher Rowe's new novella is The Navigating Fox. It's set in the same universe as his 2019 story "Knowledgeable Creatures", which I reprinted in The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2020, so I have been looking forward to this story.

This is a world in which many animals have been "uplifted", apparently by magic, so that they are "knowledgeable" -- the assumption is that they are human-level intelligent and can speak. (I will note right away that both stories in this world end up questioning some of the bases for these assumptions.) The story is told by Quintus Shu'al, who is the world's only "navigating fox", and perhaps the only knowledgeable fox. Quintus has just returned to the city of Aquacolonia, hoping to gain some information he has been promised concerning his origins -- the secret of who made him "knowledgeable".

He attends the meeting of the Sodality of Explorers, in which one Octavia Delphina is giving a paper which demands the expulsion of Quintus from the Sodality, due to the loss of the Benedictus Expedition (and Octavia's sister Cynthia) on an earlier journey that the fox led. (As a "navigating fox", his special ability is to navigate the "Silver Roads" that allow faster and (supposedly) safer travel across the continent.) Neither Octavia nor Quintus get what they want -- instead, they are inveigled into joining an expedition organized by the Holy, or priest, Scipio Aemilanus, who wishes to be led to the gates of Hell, and close them, thus ending Death forever. (It was Scipio who had promised Quintus information about his origins.)

The bulk of the story follows this expedition, with flashbacks to the earlier Benedictus Expedition. The new expedition includes Scipio, Scipio's spy, the crow Malavus, Quintus, Octavia, twin raccoon cartographers named Loci and Foci, and most interestingly, Walks Along Woman, a knowledgeable bison from the Great Northern Membership, an important polity of the continent. (Along with some assistants to some of these people.) Quintus leads both journeys on the Silver Roads, but critical things happen when they step off the roads, including meetings with the Lady of Toosa, an important woman (or women?) in part of the continent, and with whom Quintus as a, shall we say, complicated history. 

Everything converges at the gates of Hell, if perhaps not the gates Scipio might have preferred. More than Scipio's quest to end Death is involved, including political matters such as the health of the Empress who rules Aquacolonia (and much more); the true nature of knowledgeable creatures, not to mention humans; the fate of Cynthia Benedictus; and of course the origin of Quintus.

The story raises as many or more questions as it answers, and the questions are interesting. The location of the action is one question, though it seems plausible that the continent on which the action occurs is a version of North America, with Aquacolonia perhaps mapped to New Orleans (?) and the Empire based in Europe. (But again, who knows, and does it matter?) The real nature and history of knowledgeable creatures (and humans) is another. The ultimate consequence of the various political entanglements hinted at here. And so on.

It's advertised as a caper and a fable, and I don't think that's exactly wrong but it kind of misses the point, for me, anyway. It's funny at times, like a caper, and it's clever, and the characters are fascinating (especially Walks Along Woman), and of course talking animals seem like creatures from a fable -- but to call this a fable seems to me to do a disservice to the animals (knowledgeable and voiceless), who are not just variations on Peter Rabbit or Mr. Toad or the bears in Goldilocks: they are real people with real goals. I think there is a novel -- perhaps a grand novel, a saga -- buried in the potential of this milieu. What we have already is wonderful, and -- not to put any pressure on Christopher -- there is potential here for something truly special.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

by Rich Horton

Nicola Griffith made her reputation in the SF field, with such novels as Ammonite and the Nebula winner Slow River. She has also written contemporary novels. But though I had a feeling I would enjoy her work, I had only read a few short stories. In 2013 she published Hild, which received a good deal of adoring attention in the SF field. It is set in 7th Century England, and it is about a real historical figure, St. Hilda of Whitby, but many of the reviews I read implied that it was a fantastical retelling of St. Hilda's life. But all the reviews I read said it was very good.

So -- it got on my list of books to read. But for one reason or another (partly my focus on short fiction) I hadn't got to it. And this year the sequel, Menewood, came out. And so I finally pulled the trigger, and read Hild. Or, actually, listened to it! The audiobook is read, very well, by Pearl Hewitt. I also bought a copy of the physical book, which I think is very much worth it, partly to see how the names (and some other words) are really spelled. (For example, a very important character the pronunciation of whose name made me think "Keon" is actually named "Cian".) Plus, there's a glossary and a family tree. (To be honest, a map would have been fine as well!)

Anyway ... this is the story of Hild's life from about age 3 to age 18. Hild is the daughter of Hereric, part of the royal family of Deira, one of a number of small kingdoms in England, specifically the North, indeed Northumbria. When Hereric is poisoned, Hild's mother Breguswith moves them to the household of her uncle Edwin, the King of Deira. Hild grows up with the pressure of her mother's prophecy that she will be the Light of the World, while largely being raised by Onnen, her mother's body woman (and a wealh -- which means not Anglisc, so lower class (wealh eventually became "Welsh"), and speaking a different language, Brythonic); and always playing with Onnen's son Cian. Hild learns something of fighting from Cian, and even more of scheming from her mother, who pushes her to use her talents to become the King's Seer. To be clear -- this truly is an historical novel, not a fantasy at all, and while many characters think Hild can truly prophecy -- indeed, that she's a witch (haegtes) -- Hild's powers are entirely natural -- tremendous observation skills, judgment of people's characters, understanding of politics. Some of this is her ability, and some comes from her mother's instruction. 

Edwin's power grows, and his territory and influence are greatly expanded, in some part because of Hild's help. He becomes the Overking of the Anglisc, and founds the Kingdom of Northumbria. He is a widower, but soon marries a woman from Kent (with Frankish ancestry as well) -- and she is a Christian, so Edwin eventually converts, and begins to bring his subjects to the faith as well (for essentially cynical reasons.) All along Hild is helping him, and scheming, both for his and advantage and her own. Cian remains a close friend, and she makes a close woman friend in Begu, the daughter of Mulstan, an influential man who marries Onnen. Hild also buys a slave, Gwladus. The story follows Hild's education -- she learns writing, and Latin, from a captured Irish priest, Fursey; and she learns arms from Cian; and she becomes a Christian as well, though an enemy of the harsh bishop Paulinus. (Both Hild and Paulinus, in the long run, are canonized.) 

I don't want to detail the plot any more. It's intricate -- the scheming reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett, at times -- and it's also true to what we know of history. Certainly Edwin's story is an established part of history. His career as King is the center of the plotline -- various wars, marriages, negotiations with rivals, subjects, and foreign powers. 

The parallel plot details Hild's life, and the lives of those close to her: Cian, Begu, Onnen, her sister Hereswith, and others. This is both intimate -- there are love affairs, religious developments, personal growth (as with Cian's increased prominenence as one of Edwin's gesiths, or chief fighters.) It is also important to the main plot -- Hild in particular is portrayed as vital to Edwin's rule. The life of the historical Hild in this period is little known, and Griffith is free to invent much, but her inventions are consistent with what we know of St. Hilda's later life (though I suspect her prowess as a warrior is somewhat greater than that of the real historical woman.) More than the plot, the book is really fascinating in very convincingly describing life in England at that time -- the food, the travel, the politics, the way women live, class divisions, trade, clothing, religion, music, farming, war -- and more. There is action, and lots of talking, even some very well done sex scenes. It's an utterly involving novel.

It seems true to its time, and to the people of that time. Griffith avoids (at least mostly) giving her characters, even Hild, anachronistic views. She mostly avoids cutesy references to the few things people of our time will know about that time. (There is a sneaky Beowulf reference -- though Beowulf may have been written as late as the 10th Century, its events date to a century or so before Hild's time.) Hild is an exceptionally well-portrayed character. And the novel ends up being really moving and powerful at times. It ended, I confess, slightly before I expected (I cheated, and read up on history!) But the sequel, Menewood, is out now. And I suspect there will be at least one further novel. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Review: No Good From a Corpse, by Leigh Brackett

Review: No Good From a Corpse, by Leigh Brackett

by Rich Horton

The great Science Fiction writer Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was also a first-rate writer of crime novels, and Westerns. She wrote screenplays in all three genres, her credits including The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Empire Strikes Back. I have long been a great fan of her SF, but though I've seen some of her movies, until just now I hadn't read any of her crime novels.

No Good From a Corpse, from Coward McCann in 1944, was her first novel in any genre. It's pure hard-boiled noir, as cynical yet romantic as can be imagined. The story goes that Howard Hawks wanted her to write The Big Sleep (collaborating with William Faulkner!) after reading this novel, and that he was shocked when she showed up and wasn't a man. My copy is a 1999 Simon and Schuster trade paperback reprint, part of their Blue Murder series (edited by Maxim Jakubowski.)

Edmond Clive is the hero, a private detective, just returning from San Francisco, where he got some notoriety for solving a case. As soon as he arrives he meets Laurel Dane, a beautiful nightclub singer with whom he'd had a relationship of some sort. She seems desperate to see him, though it seems their relationship, whatever it may have been, is on rocky ground. Soon he realizes that Ken Farrar, another PI who Ed doesn't much like, has been pursuing her, and she's rebuffed him. At the same time, his childhood friend Mike Hammond, who had stolen his girlfriend long ago, also wants his help -- it seems he's finally gone straight, and married a rich woman, Jane Alcott, but that marriage has been threatened by some blackmail letters detailing his past, and also by his staying over at Laurel Dane's place. 

The pace is relentless. Before we even really know what's going on, Laurel Dane has been murdered, with Mike Hammond and Ed Clive in her apartment. Clearly they are the prime suspects, but Ed knows he didn't do it, and he becomes convinced that Mike didn't either. The rest of the book follows his somewhat flailing investigations, and a few more murders. He has to navigate a tangled web involving his own past, and that of Mike Hammond, and Laurel Dane's past, including her husband and a friend he made in prison; along with Jane Hammond's unstable siblings, Richard and Vivien Alcott. Ed takes an enormous amount of physical abuse. He battles with his frenemy detective, Gaines; and his investigations involve the usual mix of low-lifes and whores and drunks. The ending is satisfyingly twisty and cynical, and Ed Clive's philosophy of life is summarized with his favorite quote: "Of all things, never to have been born is best."

There are a couple of missteps -- Ed has a sidekick of sorts, Jonathan Ladd Jones, who seems a complete waste of time. Some of Ed's relationships with women come off strange -- supposedly he and Lauren never slept together, for example. Brackett's style is high noir, very well maintained, with a couple of passages that match the pure lyricism of the best sequences of her Martian stories. I don't think it's quite a great novel -- it's Chandleresque, sure, but it's not a match for Chandler at his best. Still and all, a novel well worth reading. 

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Resurrected Review: First Lensman, by E. E. "Doc" Smith

I wrote this review back in 2001, for posting at my newsgroup on SFF Net, and probably on rec.arts.sf.written as well. I was prompted to do so by its Retro-Hugo nomination that year. It was my first encounter with Doc Smith. I wasn't impressed, but, as I note, perhaps it would have been different if I read him at my "golden age".

First Lensman, by E. E. "Doc" Smith

a review by Rich Horton

I had never previously read anything by Doc Smith.  I didn't encounter him when I was 12 or 14, and by the time I knew his name as an SF legend I also had some notion of his reputation, and he didn't seem likely to appeal to me.  It may well be that First Lensman is a poor choice as a first Smith book to read.  It was the last of the "main sequence" of Lensman books to be written.  (I believe the "Vortex" books are technically in the Lensman universe, but outside the main plot line.)  That isn't necessarily bad, but the book is chronologically an interpolation into the previous sequence of books, and that usually is bad.  IMO, later books are best to be pure sequels, or to be unrelated efforts in the same universe.  When they are "prequels" that's dangerous, because they are so constrained by the weight of known events that they can seem programmed -- still, that can work.  But to slip a book into a chronological gap, as with this book -- that seems most dangerous of all.

As I understand the publishing history of this series, the first book was first chronologically, "Triplanetary", a serial in Amazing Stories in 1934.  However, that may not have been intended as a Lensman book -- certainly (if First Lensman is to be believed) it had no actual Lensmen.  (It probably had the villain Gharlane of Eddore, though.)  The next serial was "Galactic Patrol", in 1937, which featured already anointed Lensmen. There followed some sequels -- "Second-Stage Lensman", "Children of the Lens", maybe one or two more.  I believe these were all serials in Astounding.  By the late '40s, the serials began to be published in book form.  When "Triplanetary" was published as a book (1948, I think), it included some additional material to more explicitly link it to the later Lensman books.  Finally, in 1950, First Lensman was published, not as a serial but as a book from the first.  

This book presents, in terribly episodic form, the decision by the disembodied brains who collectively form Mentor of Arisia, to bring the incorruptible Virgil Samms of Earth to Arisia and award him a Lens, which will give him some special powers, particularly telepathy.  This will aid him in forming his dream of a Galactic Patrol, sort of a Galactic police force with army powers, which will unite the beings of the Galaxy in "Civilization".  The best, most incorruptible, beings of all species will travel to Arisia and get Lenses.  Smith makes clear that all species have the potential to be Lensmen, but that humans are the best -- he does so in a fairly inoffensive fashion, however.  And no women need apply, but that's a feature (of women, that is): something necessary and good and essentially feminine in their nature is incompatible with having a Lens.  Then the story follows Virgil and his incredibly beautiful daughter Virgilia (Jill), and his good friend Rod Kinnison and Rod's incredibly handsome son Jack Kinnison (who for Arisian eugenic reasons is prevented from being attracted to Jill, who has to settle for electronics genius Mason Northrop for a lover) as they set up the Galactic Patrol, are resisted by the evil Senator Morgan and his minions (all controlled, if you follow the chain of command far enough, by the Eddorians), break up a thionite ring, break up a pirate ring, and win an election.  Oh, and find a far off planet, convince its human-like inhabitants to spend something less than five years in building, in secret, a huge fleet which will vanquish the somewhat smaller fleet the Eddorians have caused to have built.  

It's bad.  Really.  I know lots of people love this stuff, and I can imagine the possibility that I would have lapped it up if I encountered it as a teenager, but seeing it now, I can't call it anything but bad.  Oh, there are hints of a nice imagination, like the description of one alien race that partly lives in the "fourth dimension".  And the rah-rah characterization is actually less cloying than it might seem: Smith seems so wholly to believe in his people that, while they are not three-dimensional, they are at any rate two-D, and they are distinguishable one from the next.  But the plotting is random, and sometimes makes no sense at all, and the science is just too silly, but worse, there is no suspense.  Also, the Lensmen don't win because of heroism, nor because of cleverness, nor even because of virtue, but because of overwhelming, ridiculously overwhelming, force.  Pure and simple.  Which is just boring.

It's quite possible, I acknowledge, that many of my problems with this book are intrinsic to its interpolated position -- his references to the Eddorians, for example, particularly to Gharlane, seem pro forma, thrown in to satisfy fans, but have little to do with the story at hand.  And the lack of suspense is partly explained, I suppose, by the fact that it all had to dovetail with the existing story of "Galactic Patrol".  So I'd be happy if anyone could indicate if any of the other books in the series are better.  But the Retro Hugo nomination for this book can only be due to people voting for fond long ago memories, and probably for fond long ago memories of the whole series, not this individual book.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Review: Terrace Story, by Hilary Leichter

Review: Terrace Story, by Hilary Leichter

by Rich Horton

Terrace Story is a short novel (a bit over 40,000 words by my count) -- Hilary Leichter's second novel. Like her first, Temporary (2020) it is perched somewhere within the bounds of fantastika, and at the same time it dances in and out of those bounds. It is sometimes funny, sometimes sweet, sometimes achingly sad. The fantastical and SFnal elements are real, and useful, and important -- but they won't, I think, disconcert readers unused to genre. In that sense there's a hint of, say, Emily St. John Mandel. But a writer I thought of even more is Kelly Link, not just in the deft use of the fantastic for human concerns, but to an extent in the voice.

It is structured in four parts, called Terrace, Folly, Fortress, and Cantilever. At first glance the parts are unrelated -- separate stories -- but the reader quickly gathers that they are connected -- some characters recur, and some are related to each other, and some events are viewed from different points of view. Yet the timing of the action is disconnected, and even the worlds in which events take place are not always the same.

We open with Edward and Annie, a young couple with a new baby, Rose, moving into a tiny apartment due to financial stresses. They struggle to make it work -- and they are happy with each other, at least -- and then, one day, they discover a strange thing -- a door that once opened to a closet opens to a lovely terrace. This only happens occasionally, and only when Annie's work friend Stephanie visits, but it's a relief, and something special, even as Annie's job position become precarious -- and suddenly there's a shocking finish.

The next sequence is also about a couple with a baby, and a curious house with a folly on the property. And, eventually, it's about adultery, and also about stories -- the story of a King, a Queen, and the hermit living in the folly. And then in Fortress we meet Stephanie, as a child, and learn her strange power -- to expand things, rooms, yards, people. But there's cost, that Stephanie eventually learns -- where there is expansion, there's contraction somewhere too. Including in her family -- wrenched by her sister's death as a child. Finally, in Cantilever, we are in space, with another family, Rosie and Kyle, and another case of expansion -- humanity into space, but the cost, of course, has been the loss of almost every other animal as humans expanded across the Earth. 

I haven't, I think, shown what is so lovely about this book. It is, above all, about family. About marriage. About children. About families growing, and contracting, and breaking. About hurt and love. The connective tissue is stories. The "Terrace Stories" Edward and Annie tell. The story of the King and the Queen and the Hermit. The stories Stephanie wants to be true, about her lost sister, about her friend Will, about her own life. It's arch at times, real at times, deeply affecting, beautifully written. 

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Trip Report: Montana, 2023

The Davidsons visit Montana, 2023

Carl and Mary Ann

My wife and her brothers have an interesting extended family. Their father -- named Harley Davidson! -- was born in Missouri, but moved to California during the depression to find work. He married a woman there, and had four children. The marriage foundered, and Harley moved back to Missouri, and married Mary Ann's mother, whom he had known before he went out west. Mary Ann and her three brothers were born between 1955 and 1961, but the family was always poor, and their mother died in 1970. Harley was not able to take care of the children, so they were raised by their aunts. Harley died in 1980. I met Mary Ann in 1982, so I never met either of her parents.

Mary Ann and her brother met their half-sister Myrna a couple times over the years, and in 2017 we all went out to California to stay with Myrna for a week. Their other half-sister Linda was there as well, but their half-brother Carl wasn't able to make it, because his wife Sandy had had a fall and couldn't travel. Myrna died a couple of years later. So as of this year, Mary Ann had never met her oldest half-brother. Carl lives in Montana, in Connor, a small town in the Bitterroot valley, not too far from the western border of Montana with Idaho, perhaps an hour south of Missoula. This year we made plans to visit Carl at his home -- Mary Ann and I; Mary Ann's brother Mark and his wife Becky; her brother Dwight and his wife Terrie, and her brother Scott, his daughter Rachel, and granddaughter Caitlyn. 

Mary Ann and I left on Wednesday September 20, taking a flight to Salt Lake City. We wanted a nonstop flight, and to travel in easy stages to Connor. We stayed in Farmington, Utah, after a bit of an adventure with the rental car. (The first one didn't have working Bluetooth, so we had to return it, in the process meeting a guy who had moved to Salt Lake City just three weeks before -- from Lahaina, Maui. His house -- built by his great-grandfather (I think) in the late 1800s -- had just burned down) We chose Farmington because the hotels were cheaper and because it's reasonably close to Antelope Island, the largest island in the Great Salt Lake. (It is now only ambiguously an island, because the lake has lost so much water that you could, as of late last year, walk to land (though I imagine it would be a marshy walk.) It's got about 5 feet of depth back in the past few months, but needs about 7 or 8 more feet to be truly healthy.) Antelope Island is a Utah State Park. It's best known, I think, for its population of bison, which were imported in the late 19th century. We saw plenty of bison, but alas no pronghorn, which are native to the island. I was happy to visit the island, but it's not the most impressive natural place in the world, it's fair to say.
Bison at Antelope Island

We then drove up to Idaho Falls, Idaho. September 21st is our anniversary (38 years!) and we had a nice steak dinner at a restaurant called Stockman's. There's not really that much more to see in Idaho Falls except the falls, and even they aren't all that spectacular. It was of interest to me because my Dad used to visit there regularly on business -- he worked at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, and Idaho Falls is home to Idaho National Laboratory. (On the way we drove by Pocatello, home of Idaho State University, and of the first-rate SF/Fantasy scholar and editor, Brian Attebery. I did wave on the way back, Brian!)

Bitterroot River in Connor
On Friday we went the rest of the way to Connor, and indeed to Hamilton, the somewhat larger city 30 or so miles from Connor where we had rented an Airbnb. This is in the Bitterroot Valley, between the Bitterroot mountains to the west (which pretty much form the border with Idaho) and the Sapphire Mountains to the east. The southern end dips slightly into Idaho, and the northern end bumps into Missoula. The Bitterroot River runs up the valley, which is around 4000 feet above sea level. The mountain peaks are over 10,000 feet. Lewis and Clark followed the Bitterroot River north in 1805. The primary Native American tribe was the Salish, though the Nez Perce lived nearby and in fact we drove by one of the more shameful battle (massacre) sites in American history, Big Hole, which is a bit east of the Sapphire mountains.

Trappers' Peak

The area is currently modestly famous for being the key shooting location for the TV show Yellowstone. Indeed, the ranch from the show is just a couple miles north of Connor, and a shootout scene in one episode was filmed on Carl's street. The population of Ravalli County, which makes up most of the valley, is just over 40,000 people. 

Our Airbnb was very nice. We had nine people staying, and five bedrooms, three baths, plus a "bonus room" over the garage with another bathroom, a large TV, a pingpong table and a pool table. There were two ponds on the property, and a pickleball court. There were elk and deer outside (and cows!) Lots of magpies, too, a bird I'd never really seen -- they are quite striking, black and white and fairly large.

Carl, Dwight, Scott, Mary Ann, Mark
Much of the next few days was occupied in visiting with Carl and other family members. Myrna's daughter Robin and her husband Keith, who are spending much of their retirement traveling the US in their RV, had arranged to be there. And Jimmy Garcia, a cousin, also lives in the Bitterroot valley. (He and Carl encountered each other in a bar many years ago, neither having any idea the other lived there.) Most of this was conversations, stories -- Carl telling about his life, and his brothers telling about theirs, comparing notes about their mutual father, etc. Some literal war stories. Stories about high school, about working life (Carl spent much of his career working on dredges), about hunting, so on. It was really striking, really moving, to see a family growing, expanding. And Carl is a damn good storyteller (so is Jimmy.) 

Mountains from the Airbnb
We shared dinners too. Caitlyn made soup for one dinner. Sandy and Carl cooked lunches and dinners. Becky and I did most of the breakfast cooking. We explored the valley some. One day driving down to Carl's we had to stop because the hay bales had fallen off a hay truck and blocked the highway. I got out with most of the other drivers and helped sweep the road. We went into Hamilton proper one day, did some shopping. The bookstore there, Chapter One, had a nice used book section where I bought some books (pictured at the bottom) -- the owner mentioned having visited St. Louis and in particular Left Bank Books. Another town, Darby, had some nice stores as well, including a candy shop and another used book store -- this one running on a book exchange model plus donations, no prices. One day we drove over to Wisdom, east of the Valley, about 45 minutes away (near the battle of Big Hole site) in search of highly recommended pizza. Alas, the place was closed -- the owner had fallen and wasn't in any condition to operate the restaurant. We also played pickleball, and fished (with no success) in the ponds. (Pickleball is exhausting!) And of course we luxuriated in the scenery -- it is really beautiful country. 

By Tuesday it was time to head out. The goal was to get to Yellowstone. We were staying in Island Park, Idaho. We slept in a bit, did a final cleanup of the Airbnb, and left by 10 or so. The drive to Island Park took about 5 hours, with an only too interesting final stretch, over an extremely rough gravel road, followed by an even worse rutted dirt road. But at last we got there. It was just a bit too late to explore any of the park, so we just checked in. I did run up to West Yellowstone, the Montana town right outside the park, and went into a bookstore there (not that impressive a bookstore.) 

Wednesday morning we did go to the park. We had a pleasant surprise entering it -- we are over 62, so we qualify for the senior discount, which is pretty good -- $20 gets you unlimited entrance to any National Park (or Monument) for a year, and $80 is good for the same for life. We realized pretty quickly that one day -- less than a full day -- isn't nearly enough to see the whole thing. We'll have to try to get back some time. What did we see? Some nice scenery -- the Madison River, in particular. And the Gibbons River, especially Gibbons Falls, which is pretty cool. (Apparently it's where the river cascades down into the caldera of the supervolcano.) I walked around the Norris Geyser area, with lots of fumaroles and such, and some geysers, none of which erupted. Pretty cool scenery, really, lots of strange colors and boiling mud and all that. I went by Steamboat Geyser, the tallest in the world. It erupts roughly every 30 to 40 days, and it had been 30-some days since the last eruption, so ... there was a chance? But no luck. I did chat for a bit with an Australian guy, there with his wife and two kids -- he said he was from Brisbane. I said I was "in the SF field" and one of my friends (Jonathan Strahan) lives in Perth (which of course is about as far from Brisbane as San Francisco from New York!) The guy said something like "I never knew there was an SF field!"

Me at Gibbons Falls

Norris Geysers Area

Gibbons River

Gibbons Falls

Steamboat Geyser

Those were a bit to the northwest of the Park, and then we headed south, to the Fountain Paint Pads -- more geysers and fumaroles and hot springs -- then to Old Faithful. We got there with about an hour to go before the predicted next eruption, so we grabbed some (very indifferent lunch) and then waited for the eruption. But Old Faithful was a bit of a strumpet, and didn't go off until a minute or so later than the latest time it was supposed to erupt. (That is, it was predicted to go at about 2:29, with a plus or minus 13 minute margin, and it went off at 2:43 ...) It's pretty impressive, I have to say. There were also bison wandering around, causing the park rangers to keep moving people away from them. 

Bison near Old Faithfull

Fountain Paint Pot

Old Faithful

Then we checked the driving time to our hotel -- and we realized that we really had to leave pretty much right away. We had hoped to stop in at Grand Teton too -- and there just wasn't time, plus it would have made the drive longer to go south first, as we were staying in Farmington again. Really poor planning on our part. We probably should have stayed another day. 

The trip back was mostly uneventful. Everything at the airport went smoothly, the flight was fine. And we got home to find -- a huge tree limb in the driveway! (Actually, a neighbor had warned us.)

It was really a wonderful vacation. Mostly for the family aspect, but also, Montana is a beautiful place, and Yellowstone is a treasure. We saw some fall changing colors, though not a lot -- we were probably a week early. If there was one mild disappointment, we didn't see quite as much cool wildlife as we hoped. Lots of deer, lots of bison. Only one pronghorn. No elk, no bears, no wolves. (Apparently there was a large crowd watching a grizzly bear eating an elk, but we missed that.) So we know the wild creatures are there -- but no luck for us. But that's not really a complaint -- we had a great time.

Grand Tetons

Fall Colors