Friday, December 29, 2023

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

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

by Rich Horton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 22, 2023

Review: The Zanzibar Cat, by Joanna Russ

Review: The Zanzibar Cat, by Joanna Russ

by Rich Horton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

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

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

by Rich Horton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Review: Translation State, by Ann Leckie

Review: Translation State, by Ann Leckie

by Rich Horton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Review: The Sound of His Horn, by Sarban

Review: The Sound of His Horn, by Sarban

by Rich Horton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Review: Flint and Mirror, by John Crowley

Review: Flint and Mirror, by John Crowley

by Rich Horton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 4, 2023

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

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

by Rich Horton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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