Thursday, July 11, 2024

Resurrected Review: The Pyrates, by George MacDonald Fraser

Resurrected Review: The Pyrates, by George MacDonald Fraser

by Rich Horton

George MacDonald Fraser (1925-2008) was a British journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He is by far most famous for his comic historical novels about Harry Flashman, in which he made the cowardly character from the 19th Century novel Tom Brown's Schooldays into a hero (or antihero). I read the bulk of these with enjoyment as a teen. I plan to read his very long novel Mr. American sometime (it is peripherally related to the Flashman books.) But some years ago I read his comic novel The Pyrates, and I've resurrected what I wrote about that book.

According to Fraser, a man named Manders set him a painting of the deck of a pirate ship, packed with colourful piratical (or pyratical) characters. He decided the painting was too good to waste, and wrote this novel around it. When he was done, he wanted to use the painting as the book's cover, but he could not locate the mysterious Mr. Manders. They used the painting for the cover anyway. That story seems to good to be true in a way -- I wonder if he wasn't having us on.

The novel is a loving and over-the-top parody of pirate adventures, both cinematic (i.e. Errol Flynn) and literary (i.e. Rafael Sabatini and Jeffery Farnol) -- indeed, Fraser includes a long list of "influences" at the end of the book. It's told in a postmodern fashion, with plenty of deliberate anachronisms and direct addresses to the reader, reminding us of what is sure to happen, the book being fiction and all. It's very funny, in a way that is at times almost distracting, or perhaps tiring. Which seems an odd complaint -- that a purposely funny book might be too funny -- but at times I put it down simply because I was tired of the constant jokes.

The story concerns a valuable crown, with six jeweled sections, entrusted (by Samuel Pepys) to Our Hero, Captain Ben Avery, for safe delivery to the King of Madagascar. But unfortunately Avery's ship, in the charge of one Admiral Rooke, is secretly manned by a crew of pirates, who wish to free their comradess, the beautiful and bloodthirsty black woman pirate Sheba, who is being transported to prison (or a slave camp or something) on the same ship. They free Sheba, and also steal the crown, which conveniently splits six ways. In the mean time they also kidnap the beautiful daughter of Admiral Rooke, Vanity, who has fallen in love with Ben. And Ben is accused of the theft of the crown. So he must attempt to recover the six pieces of the crown, as well as rescuing Vanity, and also restoring his good name. And his only help is in the dubious person of the rascally Captain Thomas Blood, who ended up on the same ship, and who also has his eye on Vanity's virtue.

Naturally Ben will ultimately be successful, but not before facing the attentions of numerous women who fall in love with him, such as Sheba, Anne Bonney, and a lovely young Spanish woman; and also dealing with the evil and sadistic designs of the Spanish governor in the New World; and also dealing with Captain Blood's various betrayals, most of which actually end up helping things, if only by accident; and also dealing with cannibals and religiously zealous natives and his own agent. And so on. It's intricately but of course not plausibly plotted, wickedly funny, all in all a good read if as I implied somehow less that a true masterwork.

Monday, July 8, 2024

Review: Æstival Tide, by Elizabeth Hand

Review: Æstival Tide, by Elizabeth Hand

by Rich Horton

Æstival Tide (1992) is Elizabeth Hand's sequel to Winterlong, which I reviewed here. My copy is the Bantam Spectra first edition mass market paperback (remember those?) It has not been reprinted since 1992, except for the ebook available from Open Road.

The novel is set about a year after Winterlong. It shares with that book only one character, the mad Aviator Margalis Tast'Annin, who was killed at the end of the first novel. This novel opens with a scene of his "resurrection", as a rasa, essentially a zombie, and in this case a zombie in a robot body. He is now in the city of Araboth, an arcology (remember them?) located in what was once Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico. The city has been governed for centuries by the Orsina family, who seem to be in some sense loosely the rulers (or to consider themselves the rulers) of what remains of the old US, after the First and Second Ascensions. Unlike in Winterlong, some of this is detailed in exposition, and it mostly tracks with what I had deduced from reading the first novel, though I confess I has assumed the ruling "Ascendants" lived in space stations. (And perhaps they do, and the Orsinas are yet another layer of rulers.) 

The society depicted in Winterlong was cruel, but that shown in Araboth basically tells the aristocrats of that book "Hold my beer"! The Orsinate's power revolves around a city's worth of slave labor in various forms (with the cruelly resurrected rasas the lowest of the low.) They arbitrarily arrest people on the slimmest excuse or none, usually executing the prisoners, they breed people and genetically altered animals for sex, they perform human sacrifices often, culminating in the Feast of Fear every decade at Æstival Tide. It's as appalling a society as I've seen portrayed, and an oddly small one (Araboth, at the time of the novel, houses only some 20,000 people, though its capacity is much higher.) The residents fear the Outside, and any mention of it is potentially punishable by death. The ruling family is terribly inbred, and at the time of the novel (which takes place over just a few days) there are three surviving sisters, and one semi-exiled brother. (Although one sister and the brother had had an affair which resulted in a child so deformed that they abandoned it.) Margalis Tast'Annin had had an affair with the youngest Orsina woman, and when he broke it off he was sent off to the front, first returning a hero but then sent again on his abortive mission to the old Capitol, described in Winterlong.

That's the setup -- revealed over time in the novel, and, as I said, some of it a bit baldly revealed. (Which may have been the right choice in this book.) The novel itself revolves mostly around two characters. One is a 14 year old hermaphrodite named Reive who by chance becomes involved, to her peril, in the intrigues of the Orsinas, partly because she is able to properly interpret some dreams -- of the Outside. The other is another teenager, Hobi, the son of the Architect Imperator -- that is, the man in charge of the Architects, AIs that maintain the city and keep it structurally sound despite the storms that threaten it on the Gulf. Reive's adventures bring her to the attention of the sisters who rule the city, as well as associates such as the dwarf Rudyard Planck and the pharmacologist Ceryl Waxwing. Reive, in her earlier life in the lower levels of Araboth, had also ambiguously befriended the genetically engineered sea creature Zalophus, who longs to escape the city. Hobi, for his part, is taken by the exiled Orsina brother Nasrani to a room at the bottom of the arcology where he meets a beautiful android named Nefertity, who may have knowledge that could help people survive Outside -- or that could reveal some critical military secrets. Both Reive and Hobi, in different ways, confront hints and prophecies that the city may not survive the storms at this Æstival Tide, which is due in just a couple of days.

It's a novel that is by turns sickeningly beautiful and grotesquely horrifying -- and sometimes quite moving. The history it is built upon is even worse than we already knew from Winterlong. It's well-written though it didn't, for me, attain the heights of Winterlong. The imagination revealed is expansive and always intriguing. The characters are mostly quite mad, but believably so. I didn't like it as much as I liked Winterlong, but I think it's a worthwhile novel, and I am looking forward to the final novel of the trilogy, Icarus Descending. (Which is advertised as The Eve of Saint Nynex in the author bio at the end of the book -- I think the eventual title a bit better, and doubtless more marketable.) 

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Review: Expect Me Tomorrow, by Christopher Priest

Review: Expect Me Tomorrow, by Christopher Priest

a review by Rich Horton

Christopher Priest was born in 1943 and died earlier this year, at the age of 80. His first sale was "The Run", to Impulse in 1965. His first novel, Indoctrinaire, appeared in 1970, and he began to get wide recognition for his reality-bending fiction with novels like Inverted World (1974) and A Dream of Wessex (1977). His best known novel is probably The Prestige (1995) which was made into a successful movie by Christopher Nolan. A large portion of his work concerns the Dream Archipelago, a world-spanning belt of islands on another planet, which is featured in a number of short stories (including the classic "An Infinite Summer") and five novels.

Priest's fiction shows an abiding interest in the nature of reality, often involving virtual reality, or dream worlds (mental creations), or, in The Prestige, illusions. He also seems fascinated by twins, though to my knowledge he was not himself a twin (unless you count the comics writer named James Priest who works professionally as "Christopher Priest", a situation which could plausibly have become fodder for a Priestian story.) Expect Me Tomorrow, from 2022, his second to last published novel (in his lifetime, at any rate), features two sets of twins, and a sort of virtual experience to boot. It's also a climate change book.

It's set in two different times. One thread follows Adler and Adolf Beck, identical twins born in Norway in the middle of the 19th Century. Adler becomes a glaciologist, like their father, who died while studying a Norwegian glacier, while Adolf, called Dolf, is less stable: at first an aspiring opera singer, and later devoted to somewhat risky business ventures. We follow their story mostly from Adler's point of view, as he becomes interested in climate, not just as affected by glaciers, but also the Gulf Stream and sunspots and volcanoes. He and his brother move first to England, then to the US, where Adler meets a brilliant woman astronomer, and after the two marry they return to England. Meanwhile Dolf has traveled to South America to pursue his opera career, but eventually returns to England pursuing some business plans.

The other thread is set in 2050, and concerns another pair of identical twins, Chad and Gregory Ramsey. Chad is a psychological profiler, working for the police, while Greg is a journalist. Catastrophic climate change has made Europe a very dangerous place, with most of the continent descending into chaos. Chad lives in Hastings, on the English coast, and his life there is getting difficult -- he has lost his job (the police aren't interested any more in the subtleties of profiling now that they are dealing with internal and external climate refugees), while Hastings is clearly not going to be inhabitable much longer. But Greg revives Chad's interest in an old family story -- their disreputable great-great-granduncle Adolf. The reader figures out right away that Adolf is the Dolf Beck of the other timeline, though Chad's investigation is complicated because he had not realized that his Norwegian ancestor had changed names from Beck to Ramsey at one point, presumably due to Adolf's notoriety as a criminal. However, Chad has a breakthrough when he learns that some (frankly grossly implausible) police tech allows him to communicate through time with his ancestors via their DNA samples. This is complicated because Adolf and Adler Beck, as identical twins, have identical DNA -- and Chad randomly contacts both of them at different times.

In the end, then, the story intertwines three plots -- 1) Adler's life as a climate scientist, eventually leading him to conclude that sometime in the middle of the 21st Century the world will be plunged into a new ice age; 2) Chad's struggle to adapt to the worsening climate conditions, even as eventually he gets involved with a company that may have found a hopeful path to a solution to the climate crisis; and 3) Adolf Beck's criminal past.

I found the novel quite enjoyable, with some reservations. I've already mentioned the magic tech that enables communication with the past -- but I was willing to swallow that as a story-enabling device. But also, there are a great many infodumps in the book, presented mostly as Adler discussing his scientific ideas, which come off as the writer letting his research notes take over the novel at times. Priest is not typically a writer of beautiful prose, and that's the case here -- nothing sings. But it is very clean and clear writing.

I should also mention that Priest has used an actual, and quite significant, historical character as one of his main characters, for Adolf Beck was in fact a Norwegian immigrant who was at times an opera singer, and a speculative investor, but who was sent to prison multiple times for running schemes to defraud women. This case is well-known to this day, as Beck was a victim of mistaken identity, and of very shoddy police work, and his case, in which he was eventually exonerated, led to important reforms in the British court system. (The story is so well documented that by the end it's quite implausible that Chad would have had the difficulty he's shown having in finding out what happened to his "Uncle Adolf", especially once he learns Adolf's name was Beck.)

The real Adolf Beck was not a twin, so Adler and his ideas are invented. But the whole thing works nicely together, with the double twins (the Becks and the Ramseys) being oddly mirrored by the additional "twin" -- the criminal who looked just enough like Adolf Beck to have Beck confused with him. The two threads held my interest, and the contrast between Adler's theory of a coming Ice Age and the actual 2050 catastrophic warming due to greenhouse gases (of which Adler was aware) ends up driving the conclusion of the novel in a moving and cautiously optimistic fashion. Adler and Chad are the primary POV characters, and they are both pretty ordinary men, with happy marriages, and good jobs at which they are quite skilled -- not perhaps the stuff of drama but effective enough to me. Having said that, it's fair to say that Adler and Adolf's story is only tenuously connected to the 2050 climate change story -- though the linkage via Adler's research interest, if slight, is just enough to hold things together.

I don't rank this among Christopher Priest's best novels, but I did like it. I think it might have done better with one more revision pass -- I don't know, of course, but I wonder if Priest knew he didn't have much time left as he wrote it, so didn't have a chance to do the revisions. He also may have felt that the climate change subject was urgent enough that he wanted to get the book out quickly.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Review: Winterlong, by Elizabeth Hand

Review: Winterlong, by Elizabeth Hand

by Rich Horton

Winterlong, from 1990, was Elizabeth Hand's first novel. (Her first story appeared in 1988, but I didn't really become aware of her until "Snow on Sugar Mountain" (1991), and it was really "Last Summer at Mars Hill" (1994) and "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol" (2000) that clinched the deal. Since then, she's become a favorite, with stories like "Cleopatra Brimstone", "Illyria", "Near Zennor", "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerephon", and novels like Wylding Hall, Curious Toys, and Waking the Moon. But I still hadn't read her first three novels, a trilogy, Winterlong, Æstival Tide, and Icarus Descending. So when Readercon decided to have a panel on those novels this year, it was time to read them.

My copy of Winterlong is a 1997 reprint, from Harper Collins, with an afterword by Hand, which tells quite interestingly of the germination of the book. It is as I said a first novel -- with both the energy you expect, and some of the faults. But on balance it's a fabulous first novel. It's set in a post-apocalyptic future, in which there have been two previous "Ascensions" -- the nature of them unclear. The world as we see it is a mess.

It's one of those novels that drops you into its setting without telling you anything. This makes it hard going at the first, but before long it speeds up, and by the end the mysteries and ambiguities are a feature. We open with Wendy Wanders, an autistic girl (it is said) aged 17, who has been raised from a young age at the Human Engineering Laboratory (HEL), where she has been subjected to invasive brain surgery, and many experiments (and drugs.) This has made her an empath -- she can absorb emotions and memories from other people, either with an electical connection, or by tasting their blood. She believes she has no emotions of her own. She is also haunted by dreams or visions of a boy in a tree -- a hanged boy, perhaps, and has some intimation of a twin brother of her own. And, worse, her empathic connections seem to cause some people to commit suicide. As the facility in which she lives is taken over by a new staff loyal to the the mad Aviator Tast'Annin, who is the new Governor of the City, the doctor who has treated her most of her life has also committed suicide, and there are threats that Wendy's powers will be weaponized for a coming war..

The focus shifts to Raphael Miramar, a Paphian in the City, a City that is increasingly a dangerous place, with its new Governor and impending war, with the periodic viral strikes ("rains of roses"), with lazars and aardmen roaming the environs and kidnapping or killing anyone they can get to. The Paphians are prostitutes, members of several Houses. Raphael is, for now, the most prized catamite of House Miramar, having been adopted when young, though his twin sister, who never spoke, was sent away and is presumed dead. He is 17, and it's made clear that Paphians age out quickly. And he has decided to leave the House, for the patronage of a Curator, Roland. He hopes, while at the Curator's place -- a museum, of course -- he can actually gain some learning. And indeed he meets a woman who lets him help with her duties, and they begin to become close -- but that relationship comes to a shocking end. And we realize that Raphael too is plagued with dreams of a boy in a tree, and a sense that he is somehow an agent of Death. 

Readers will gather quickly that Raphael's missing twin is Wendy. And soon Wendy has escaped HEL in the company of an Aide, Justice, a member of a Paphian family, who is in love with her. Likewise Raphael is soon cast aside by his patron, and he finds himself at loose in the City, captured by lazars, and ready to confront Roland at the next chance he gets. Wendy and Justice find their way to a company of players (including an uplifted chimpanzee, Miss Scarlet Pan, who is the leading lady.) They put on old dramas (mostly Shakespeare.) Wendy is being searched for by the mad Aviator Tast'annin, and so disguises herself as a boy -- and is quickly confused for Raphael. Inevitably the fates of the two are entwined, and will converge eventually, and resolve the mystery of the Boy in the Tree while bringing Tast'annin's plans either to fruition or frustration.

The story is beautiful and horrifying. Death stalks the narrative, and death is easy and common in the City (which is readily recognizable as Washington, D. C.) I should say both sex and death are common, and often linked -- the prostitutes are abused as part of their expected roles, and are used sexually from very young ages, with the sex often violent. But there are many other ways to die in the City, and it's clear that life is similarly parlous throughout the rest of the geography of this future age. The prose is very lush, mostly to very good effect, especially in the final scenes, in which some passages are gorgeous and powerful. The novel is suffused with tragedy, and this never fails to wrench the reader. Important characters die in the first few pages, and at the end -- sometimes at the hands of our heroes, sometimes cruelly at the hands of villains, sometimes randomly. 

I'll quote one beautiful passage: "And there came to me then a great sound, the sound of singing. And I saw all of them, Emma and Aidan, Gligor and Merle and Anna, Dr. Silverthorn and Toby Rhymer, a white dog with eyes like burning ice and a girl who wanted to fly like finches, all of them like lights dancing in the air. With them shrilled the voices of the lazars, like wounds bleeding song, all of them crying out to me. Loudest of all was the piercing cry of a boy with fair tangled hair and green eyes, his hands streaming through the darkness like the purest moonlight and his eyes like burning stars." ("Wounds bleeding song" -- what a glorious image.)

It's not a perfect book. There are passages that drag a bit, and the strategy of telling the reader nothing, though appropriate, does make it hard to follow at times. That said, solving the mysteries, figuring out what the Ascensions were, and what the lazars are, and the aardmen, and the geneslaves, and so on, is enjoyable. The overall conflict is difficult to rationalize -- and perhaps that's only to be expected, but it does sometimes try the reader's patience. But all that is minor, and in the end this is a lovely and moving book, and the harbinger of a brilliant career -- which was indeed realized. 

Monday, July 1, 2024

Resurrected Review: Kiln People, by David Brin

As I continue working my way through novels by Elizabeth Hand and Christopher Priest in preparation for Readercon, I figured I'd resurrect a review to post here. This is David Brin's 2002 Hugo, Clarke, and Campbell shortlisted novel Kiln People.

(I actually wanted to post something I wrote about C. C. Finlay's alternate history fantastical Revolutionary War series, but I seem to have lost that somehow. But it's Charlie's birthday, so, Happy Birthday Charlie!)

Kiln People, by David Brin

a review by Rich Horton

Kiln People (2002) is set several decades in the future. The key technological innovation presented in the book is "golemtech" -- it has become possible to imprint a person's "soul", or "Standing Wave", into a clay model, a golem or ditto, which will then have all one's memories, and which can do errands for their "archtype".  These models last only a day, after which they return to the archtype, and the memories can be inloaded if the archtype so chooses.

This has resulted in an economic revolution.  Most of the grunt work is now done by low-quality golems, most of which don't even inload their (presumably boring) memories to their archtype.  As a result many people have no job, and live on the "purple wage".  Recreations include, predictably, unusual sex using special golems optimized for heightened sensation; as well as "clay operas" -- realistic dramas enacted with golems; and dangerous sports in which the loss of a golem is regretted only if it results in complete enough destruction that the memories cannot be inloaded.  A key change, too, is that wars are now fought as a form of "sport", with skilled soldiers sending fighting golems to such places as the Jesse Helms Memorial Battle Range to resolve international disputes.  These various tasks are done by golems of different sorts, by law all different colors: grey ones for relatively normal tasks, green ones for fairly menial work, white ones for extra sensation, ebony ones for intellectual focus, etc.

All this background detail is very well done.  Brin has done a neat job of pretty pure SFnal extrapolation -- taking a quasi-plausible and interesting bit of future tech, and trying to work out its effects on an entire society.

The story itself is basically a thriller.  Albert Morris is a private detective.  He ends up with several different "selves" investigating (in parallel, it turns out) the death of Yosil Maharal, one of the inventors of golem technology.  If it is murder (it might be accident or suicide) the suspects include Maharal's partner, Aenaeas Kaolin; a crime lord called Beta who has had many past encounters with Albert; Gineen Wammaker, a purveyor of sex dittos; and various fanatics, both anti-golem agitators, and those who want golems to have full civil rights.  This story is for the most part pretty exciting, and confusing is a good way that eventually gets resolved.  Albert's journeys, and those of his dittos (including a "frankie" -- a ditto who didn't copy true and wants to be independent of Albert), allow exploration of much of this future society.  The search for motives for the murder leads us to investigate some research, hence further extraploation: what would be the effect of dittos that could last longer than a day?  Of dittos that could be copied over long distances?  Of the possibility of loading somebody else's memories into your head?  All this is pretty interesting stuff.

Then, the book pretty much runs off the rails.  Why?  I think the answer is -- too much ambition.  Brin begins to explore even more metaphysical issues -- "souls" independent of the body, in another dimension -- life after death -- that sort of thing.  And in so doing he stretches his extrapolation to the point where my belief in it snapped completely.  The "mad scientist" finale really just about lost me.  I think the book would have been better if Brin had turned off his imagination at a certain point -- if he had been more conservative.

That said, though I think the silliness of some of the last 100 or so pages of the book is a severe flaw, it's still a pretty strong piece of SFnal extrapolation up that point, with some pretty decent action to the plotline.  Overall, I recommend the book -- worth reading, just not a great book.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Old Bestseller Review: The Hundredth Chance, by Ethel M. Dell

Old Bestseller Review: The Hundredth Chance, by Ethel M. Dell

by Rich Horton

Ethel M. Dell (1881-1939) was a writer of romance novels published between 1911 and her death. She was popular enough -- she made up to £30,000 per year -- that she was routinely disparaged in serious books at the time, and even nonserious books like those of P. G. Wodehouse. Her married name was Savage -- curiously appropriate given some of her sexual themes. She is largely forgotten these days, as with many very popular authors of that era who were considered lowbrow. As I am fascinated by popular fiction of the early 20th Century (and for that matter before and after!) I figured I needed to try her. I had bought a book of hers at an antique store some time ago, but it got buried in a box somewhere when we did some remodeling a couple of years ago, so instead I went to Project Gutenberg and downloaded a copy of The Hundredth Chance, from 1917.

I have to say, upon reading The Hundredth Chance, that I kind of get why she was popular. She wasn't a good writer -- but she was better (at the prose level, and even the character level) than many writers of her era. Certainly she was better than her contemporary E. M. Hull, another romance writer, best known for The Sheik. The Hundredth Chance is involving -- it keeps your attention, makes you care about the characters, even though every reader can guess the shape of the plot from the getgo. I note, too, that it was the 10th best-selling novel of 1917, according to Publishers' Weekly

That said, there are huge caveats to offer. For one thing, there are lots of unpleasant -- often unnecessarily unpleasant -- aspects to the book. There is plenty of casual racism -- several uses of the N-word, for one thing. There are no POC characters, so no outright offensive characterization, but there are attitudes. And there is violence against women -- one beating for example, and an attempted kidnap and rape using drugs. And -- perhaps most troublingly -- there is marital rape, over some time period. None of this is justifiable, but there it is. (I will add that his novel is rapey enough, but The Sheik is far more, and more offensively, rapey.)

And on the literary side, there are faults as well. I've already hinted at the predictability. There is also a heck of a lot of convenient coincidence, and some dei ex machinae. (A miracle cure, for one thing, and some sheer luck rescuing the heroine at the end. And more.) And while the characters are consistently and recognizably portrayed and differentiated -- they are still pretty two-dimensional. But for all that, the book does keep you reading -- and I enjoyed it.

The main character is Maud, a 25 year old woman who has spent much of her life caring for her 10 years younger brother Bernard, who is crippled. Maud's father, a baronet, is long dead. Her mother is a useless whiner. Maud herself had been close to marrying Lord Saltash, an engaging man who seemed to love her, and who is wealthy and of good birth. But Maud rejected him when she discovered his affair with a married woman. Her mother, rather mad at her for turning down such a good match, is, at the start of the book, ready to marry the vulgar local bar owner, to save the family, as she has run out of money. The bar owner turns out to be an abusive slob, and a bad businessman, and when he thrashes Maud she leaves, with Bernard (called Bunny.) 

She and Bunny have already met Jake Bolton, the groom who runs Lord Saltash's stables. Bunny and Jake have struck up a friendship. And Jake has clearly fallen for Maud, and has gone so far ask her to marry him -- an offer she refused, to some extent on the grounds that Jake is not of her social class. But now, with nowhere to go, Maud agrees to marry Jake, for protection. But she makes it clear that while she and Bunny will live with him, they will not sleep together. He makes one condition -- if they ever are living together alone -- that is, if Bunny is ever cured and can live on his own -- they must live "as man and wife". Maud agrees.

Jake and Bunny continue to be friends, and Jake is very good for him. And Jake is friends with an American doctor who just may be able to cure Bunny. At least, there is a chance in a hundred, and Jake is always ready to bet on  the "hundredth chance". But  Lord Saltash has returned. And he begins to attempt to seduce Maud. He urges her to divorce Jake, and come away with him. Maud is too moral to accept, but she still seems to warm to him, despite clear evidence of his immorality, in manners aside from his previous betrayal of her.

Things keep developing -- the American doctor comes, and is able to cure Bunny. This is great for Bunny, but Maud is torn in a way -- she has given over much of her identity to being his caretaker, and Jake has already taken some of that, with his male friendship. And now Jake -- already angry over Maud's apparent dallying with Saltash -- claims his right to live with her as "man and wife". Which leads to carefully offstage incidents of marital rape. Maud grows more and more miserable -- and a form of salvation arises when her wealthy uncle, who had cut his feckless sister (Maud's mother) off, agrees to have Maud and Bunny visit.

There's a lot more going on, and I've already said too much I think. There are horse races involving Jake's favorite horse, and some bad dealing from Lord Saltash, who is always ready to arrange to throw a race for money. There is a religious awakening of sorts in Maud. There is a scene where she is a convinced that Jake (who doesn't drink) is drunk -- due to Lord Saltash's lies. There is a fire, and heroism by both Jake and Maud. It seems that Maud might be pregnant, then she isn't -- and I'm honestly not quite sure if we are subtly shown that she lost the baby or if she really wasn't pregnant. And Saltash makes his final play for Maud -- and goes too far.

The thing is -- a lot of this is absurd. Hyson Concepcion, who mentioned reading Ethel M. Dell with (sometimes horrified, I imagine) enjoyment, upon someone telling her that it's meretricious trash, responded, "Of course it's meretricious trash. That's why I read it." I feel the same way -- there are certain writers who are just trashy enough (and slyly skilled enough) that they are simply fun to read in the right mood. Dell was one of those, it seems. I rolled my eyes at much of this book, but I kept reading, and I enjoyed it (with huge reservations, but hey!) 

I will note that I ordered a couple of used Ethel M. Dell books, and when they came I realized they were abridged, as part of something called the Barbara Cartland Library. Which reminds me that, if you want meretricious trash that ISN'T worth reading, Barbara Cartland's your woman. This is, I note, based on decades old memories of trying a Cartland novel or two after I ran out of Georgette Heyer, and realizing they were dreadful and boring. Anyway, I don't like to read abridged books, so I went to Project Gutenberg as noted above.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Review: The Book of Love, by Kelly Link

Review: The Book of Love, by Kelly Link

by Rich Horton

This may be the most anticipated first novel in the SF/Fantasy field of at least the past decade. Kelly Link has been publishing short fiction since 1995, and she attracted immediate attention. Indeed, in the first year end recommendations piece I did, at SFF Net in 1997, I listed "Flying Lessons", her third story, among my Best Novelettes, and wrote "Of those listed, I'd point special attention to the Kelly Link story, mainly because I think she is a new writer of considerable interest, based on the grand total of two stories of her's that I've read." That's one thing I think I got right!

Since then she has published close to 50 short stories, most included in her six collections (and one slim chapbook.) She has also edited several anthologies and co-edits the magnificent small 'zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet with her husband Gavin Grant. Kelly and Gavin also have a bookstore, Book Moon, in Easthampton, MA (very close to my Dad's hometown of Hadley, close enough that last year before Readercon I drove out to west central Massachusetts to see my Dad's old house (and the school my grandmother taught at) and then visited Book Moon.) She has won the Tiptree/Otherwise Award, three Nebulas, a Hugo, a couple of World Fantasy Awards, a Sturgeon, a Stoker. And she has gained plenty of respect outside the genre as well, with numerous placements on "Book of the Year" lists, a Shirley Jackson Award, and being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

As for myself, I have a long list of Kelly Link stories I adore. I reprinted "The Summer People", "Secret Identity", "The Game of Smash and Recovery" and "The Girl Who did not Know Fear" in my Best of the Year volumes. Other favorites include "Magic for Beginners", "Lull", "Light", "The White Road", "The Faery Handbag", "The Specialist's Hat", and "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose". So I was certainly anticipating The Book of Love.

So what is it like? It's a big novel that takes place over a period of less than a week, in December of 2014 in the town of Lovesend, MA. There are four central characters, about as many nearly central characters, and many more who get brief POV sections. It's a fantasy, involving a Moon goddess, some nearly immortal characters, people coming back from the dead, and lots and lots of magic. It's also a pretty naturalistic story, about life in a semi-gentrified, semi-tourist town, with a noticeable focus on race, as one of the main characters is the grandson of a bestselling romance novelist who happens to be Black (but who only wrote one novel with a Black heroine.) Aspects of the novel reminded me of Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon, and as one of the main families in this novel is named Hand, I wondered if that might be a little nod to Hand's book. I should add that while there are some points of resemblance, the two novels are on the whole very different. 

The novel opens with Susannah Hand still mourning the death of her sister Laura, who had disappeared about a year before along with their neighbor Daniel Knowe (who was also Susannah's off-and-on boyfriend) and Mohammed Gortch, another friend of Susannah's. Susannah has graduated from high school but is kind of drifting. Laura and Mohammed were a year younger than Susannah and Daniel. Susannah, Daniel, and Laura were in a band called Our Two Hands Knowe You, while Mohammed was obsessed with music but very private about it.

Then, mysteriously, Laura, Daniel, and Mohammed escape whatever realm they went to when they died. And their music teacher, Mr. Anabin, makes bodies for them and sends them home, having altered the memories of everyone in Lovesend so that they are thought to have returned from a semester studying in Ireland. But there is a catch -- Mr. Anabin and a sinister shapeshifting creature named Bogomil are rivals of some sort, and they agree that the three returnees, plus a strange fourth, a boy named Bowie, must complete some magical tasks, after which, "Two stay, two return".

There follows a sort of whirlwind series of days -- just days -- in which the four returnees variously struggle with their increasing magical abilities (or resist them, in Daniel's case), and reintegrate themselves with their families: Laura with her sister and their mother and an unexpected visit from their father who left long ago; Daniel with his horde of step-siblings plus his mother and stepfather; Mohammed with -- well, the shocking realization that his grandmother (the romance writer) died in his absence (his mother was long dead) and all he has is his grandmother's assistant, Jenny Ping; and Bowie -- well, Bowie, who had died centuries before, has mainly to realize his own identity. Daniel and Susannah reignite their relationship, Mohammed breaks off with his occasional hookup before falling in love with a strange visitor named Thomas; Laura finally takes the chance to encounter her long time crush Rosamel; and Bowie -- well, things are different for Bowie.

All along there are occasional spooky encounters with Mr. Anabin and Bogomil, some definite indications of magic, and then the realization that there is a new more powerful entity in Lovesend, a goddess named Mala Mogge, whose servants are Anabin and Bogomil -- and Mohammed's new boyfriend Thomas. Mala Mogge is a tacky individual, evil incarnate in ugly costumes and shabby temples, and she is looking for her lost key -- which she is convinced one of the returnees has. And that's what the novel turns on -- what is this key? Where is it? And should whoever has it cooperate with someone as vile as Mala Mogge?

The novel is a bit of a slow burn. It's never not interesting, but it takes a while to cohere -- I think for good artistic reasons, but readers do need to stick with it. We do get an extended look at life in Lovesend -- the coffee shop, the Cliff Hangar bar, the school, Little Moon Bay. And we learn a lot about not just the main characters, but people like Mohammed's grandmother Maryanne, who writes as "Caitlyn Hightower"; and Rosamel Walker, the sassy Black Lesbian; and her friends Natalie and Theo, whose parents own Thai Super Delight; and Daniel's little sister Carousel; and the statues Maryanne Gortch bought, of Black women whose achievements are in danger of being forgotten; and of course the back history of Bowie, and Thomas, and a girl named Avelot.

The novel comes to a climax after much chaos, some honest tragedy, some triumph, and some compromise. Towards the end the slow burn ignites, and there are some truly wrenching passages. Having said that, the resolution felt just slightly flat -- perhaps I simply wanted too much. It's an honest conclusion, to be sure -- it doesn't cheat. But it doesn't quite astonish. Still -- it's a novel above love -- and love's end -- and love send -- and maybe love zen! -- and successfully so. It's also about doors, and revenge, and magic, and death, and family. It's a very good novel, not quite a great novel, but a wonderful first novel. 

Friday, June 21, 2024

Resurrected Review: Trash Sex Magic, by Jennifer Stevenson

This is a review I wrote back in 2004 for the Internet Review of Science Fiction, a quite impressive webzine devoted to, er, reviews (and essays, etc.) of Science Fiction. It was founded by John Frost, and lasted until 2010. I contributed a couple of pieces.

Trash Sex Magic was Jennifer Stevenson's first, and it came out from Small Beer Press. She published a few more novels for Ballantine in 2008: The Brass Bed, The Velvet Chair, and The Bearskin Rug. I read the first couple of those and found them light sexy fun. They are paranormal romance with mystery elements. Since then most or all of her many novels have appeared from Book View Cafe, and seem to be in a similar mode, and are set (mostly?) in the same paramormal version of contemporary Chicago, called Hinky Chicago.

Resurrected Review: Trash Sex Magic, by Jennifer Stevenson

a review by Rich Horton

Jennifer Stevenson, a Chicago-area writer, has published a few short stories, but Trash Sex Magic is her first novel. It is set near the Fox River, in a version of Geneva, Illinois (called here Berne or perhaps Rimville). A real estate development is going up, but a few trailer owners who are about to be displaced are holding out.

The story is made up of a complicated, one might say organic, web of interactions among a large cast. Perhaps the main character is Raedawn Somershoe, a young woman living among the trailer park holdouts. Rae holds the group together, earning most of their money, acting as something of a voice of sanity. The rest of the locals' lives are intertwined, like vines or tree roots, with Rae's life. There is her older but still aggressively sexy mother, Gelia; and Gelia's main squeeze, an elderly black man named Erny Brown. There is the extended Gowdy family: Cracker Coombs, their disreputable uncle; King Gowdy, the straitlaced son who has just returned from Alaska and wants to take Rae away from all this; Cracker's basically feral twin children, Mink and Ink; and King's brothers: Willy, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality, and Davy, a rather simple teenager.

The outsiders represent the real-estate company. Central among them is Alexander Caebeau, a Bahamanian construction worker, heartsick at tearing down beautiful trees to put up ugly buildings, heartsick even more because he's missing his home island, and falling very quickly in love with Rae.

John Fowier is a sleazy executive, scared by the sudden seductiveness of Raedawn, plotting a backhanded way to get the holdout properties for his development. And Suzy Wohnberg is John's associate, bitterly aware that the price for advancement in the company will be sleeping with John.

All of the above seems not at all fantastical, but we soon gather that Gelia and Raedawn have somewhat "elemental" powers. Many of these powers revolve around a huge tree that the two women each treat as a lover (each jealous of the other). There is a perhaps tragic family secret concerning the tree. The plot action is precipitated by the construction workers cutting down this tree. Somehow Alexander Cabeau, as he is drawn to Raedawn, also finds himself taking on treelike characteristics. And the elemental powers of the Somershoe women and their extended family manifest in other ways—the Fox river is rising, and moving in unexpected directions, and foxes turn up in other curious ways.

The novel takes place over the course of only a few days. It's told from a dizzying variety of viewpoints. I do think the multiplication of viewpoints is a bit excessive—for example Davy's and Willy's stories seem mostly superfluous. It resolves rather definitely, though, leaving a few acceptably dangling threads. I enjoyed the novel throughout and read with interest and involvement. It's a strong first novel, a wild book, well-imagined and well-written, with absorbing characters.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Review: The Quiet Woman, by Christopher Priest

Review: The Quiet Woman, by Christopher Priest

by Rich Horton

The late Christopher Priest (1943-2024) was one of the greatest SF writers of his generation. He made an early splash with novels like Inverted World and A Dream of Wessex (aka The Perfect Lover), followed by The Prestige, which was made into a succesful movie by Christopher Nolan, and then by any number of stories and novels in his Dream Archipelago sequence. I wrote an obituary of him for Black Gate here

I am scheduled to be on a panel at Readercon next month concerning Priest. In preparation for that, I'm reading or rereading a number of his novels. So don't be surprised when you see a number of reviews of his work on this blog in the coming weeks. I'm starting with one of his lesser known novels, The Quiet Woman. This was published in 1990 in the UK, but didn't get a US edition until 2005, and that from the small press Cosmos (an imprint of Wildside Press.) 

Alice Stockton is a writer, recently divorced and as a result living in a village in Wiltshire, instead of in London. She has just submitted her latest book for publication, but, shockingly, it has been impounded by the Home Office, and she can't get any information about why. And then the one friend she has made in her new village, an elderly woman named Eleanor Hamilton, is brutally murdered. 

So far this seems like a fairly typical dark British thriller/murder mystery. But then Alice learns that Eleanor had a son -- a son she had never mentioned to Alice. Meanwhile Alice decides that her next book will be about Eleanor (her specialty is books about the lives of women.) Eleanor was also a writer, though she was cagy about her publishing history to Alice -- and it takes some time for Alice to learn the name she used as a writer (of children's books, indeed, books that Alice had read at the appropriate age.)

We get chapters from the son's point of view as well. His name is Gordon Sinclair, and we learn that his father and his older brother died in a terrible accident when Gordon was very young, after which, in his words, his mother went mad. Gordon has a difficult childhood, and copes in part by creating an imaginary world of his own. In the present day, he has a job in public relations of some sort, in which he rather sinisterly manipulates the news -- manipulates reality, one might say -- for his clients' advantage -- and his clients may include the government. Or perhaps some of this is his imagination?

The story gets slowly weirder. Eleanor Hamilton's political activities come into focus -- she was an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. And apparently there has been a meltdown at a French nuclear reactor close enough to England that fallout reached Alice's village. England's political situation seems darker than it was in our timeline, with much more active government censorship, as evidenced by the treatment of Alice's seemingly harmless book. Eleanor's stories about her past are faintly ominous. Gordon Sinclair seems a creepier figure. Alice worries about her physical condition -- has the fallout affected her? And what about the alien ships that land in the nearby farms, leaving crop circles? Not to mention the sordid sexual assignations between Alice and Gordon in the past -- though neither seems to recognize the other in the present day narrative.

It coheres in the end, with a scary and tricksy and slightly ambiguous resolution. It is in this sense a very Priestian book. I don't think it stands with his very best work, like The Prestige, or A Dream of Wessex, or his several more recent Dream Archipelago books such as The Islanders. But it's a solid work, spooky at times, if at other times I did feel that Priest may have overegged his pudding. 

Monday, June 17, 2024

Review: "The Contract" and "Assaulted and Pursued Chastity", by Margaret Cavendish

Review: "The Contract" and "Assaulted and Pursued Chastity", by Margaret Cavendish

by Rich Horton

I recently reviewed Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World, a significant piece of proto-SF. (Review here.) The writer is one of the more interesting authors, a fascinating, ambitious, and accomplished woman. She was born in 1623, the youngest child of Sir Thomas Lucas. They were a Royalist family. In 1644, she went into exile in France with William Cavendish, the Marquess of Newcastle, and they married in 1645. He was 30 years her senior, and had five children by his previous marriage -- she never bore him any children, but the marriage seems to have been a loving and successful one. They returned to England after the Restoration, and William's title was elevated to Duke of Newcastle, so that Margaret Cavendish is known as the Duchess of Newcastle (or Newcastle-upon-Tyne). She died in 1673.

Cavendish was a very prolific writer, on philosophical subjects and natural history. She also wrote some 20 plays, and several works of fiction, poems, a memoir, and a biography of her husband. Besides The Blazing World her most significant works of prose fiction are these two stories, which were first published in her 1656 book Nature's Pictures drawn by Fancy's Pencil to the Life. That book is an extended collection of a variety of works, in both prose and verse: essays, morals, fanciful descriptions of nature, an autobiographical essay, etc. The full book apparently has not been reprinted since the 17th Century. These two stories, along with The Blazing World, make up the Penguin Classics edition The Blazing World and Other Writings, edited by Kate Lilley, and first published in 1992. I assume, then, that in Lilley's view these stories are her most interesting pieces of prose fiction. 

The recent sort of rediscovery and rehabilitation of Cavendish as a major early woman writer seems deserved and belated. I think her relative neglect (though she was never forgotten) stems from a few causes -- skepticism about women writers, for one thing (in her lifetime it was often assumed that her husband actually wrote her works), but also resistance to her stubborn royalism and belief in absolute monarchy. Also, to be completely fair to her critics, her works, some self-published, really could have used the attentions of an editor, if simply to normalize such things as spelling and paragraphing, but also to clean up some really infelicitous prose. (I'm aware that in the 17th century spelling and such were not nearly standardized to the extent they are now.) Also, her philosophical speculations, while intriguing, have mostly become out of date due to scientific discoveries, though they were in keeping with such speculations back then, and,  in fact, she apparently published the first discussions of atomic theory in English. Even so, her fiction (and her biographical and autobiographical work) is more rereadable to us now.

At any rate, having read The Blazing World, I figured it made sense to get this Penguin Classics edition, partly for the very useful critical material included, and partly for the more rigorous editorial attention Lilley gave the text. And, of course, for the other two stories. They are both shorter than The Blazing World: "The Contract" is a novelette, and "Assaulted and Pursued Chastity" a novella, by SFWA standards anyway. "The Contract" is not fantastical, but "Assaulted and Pursued Chastity" definitely is -- an allegory set in an invented world, with one extended section set among a quite fanciful variety of humans.

"The Contract" concerns a young woman, named Deletia, heir to a significant estate, who is raised from infancy by her uncle. The uncle was friends with a Duke, and the two men agreed that the child should marry the Duke's second son. However, the son was not interested in betrothal to a child of (at the time) seven, and instead continued his rather debauched ways. Under pressure, he did agree to a contract of marriage, but thereafter ignored her. The child's uncle then arranged for his ward to have a very broad education.

When Deletia reached her teens, she learned that her supposed husband had instead married his latest married lover after her husband died, and had also become the heir to the Dukedom. This did not worry Deletia, for she knew she was blameless, and in fact she felt she had dodged a bullet, so to speak, by not being allied to an immoral man. And she was happy to continue her studies, now encompassing the natural sciences. But she was a very beautiful girl, and her uncle finally decided to introduce her to society. There she soon became a sensation (due rather more to her beauty than her accomplishments, alas) and attracted the attentions of an older man, a Viceroy, who wished to marry her. But she also had again met her contracted husband, now ascended to his Dukedom, and fallen in love. Still, she refused to become the Duke's mistress, and also refused to marry the Viceroy ... all leading to a courtroom drama in which the young lady uses her knowledge of the law to prove that she is the Duke's rightful wife based on the contract executed when the two were much younger. 

It's a curious work -- unsatisfying as a romance, in that the young Duke does not seem worthy of the heroine's affection, and a bit convoluted in working to a satisfactory conclusion, complete with a double marriage. But it's a fierce defense of women's intellectual abilities, and their right to a full education. And it's an enjoyable enough story to read.

"Assaulted and Pursued Chastity" is a stranger work. Like "The Contract", and for that matter, The Blazing World, it foregrounds a woman of great accomplishments and abilities, and indeed this heroine spends much of the story disguised as a man, and acting as one, to the point of engaging the affections of "his" Queen. It's highly allegorical as well, and is set in an invented world. 

A young woman, Affectionata, born in the Kingdom of Riches is forced to flee due to a war. Intending to make it to the Kingdom of Security, she ends up in the Kingdom of Sensuality, but without anyone to protect her, she is sold to a "bawd" (mistress of a whorehouse), who offers her to a debauched Prince. However, Affectionata (now called Miseria) refuses the Prince's attentions, and threatens to kill herself instead of submitting. Over time the Prince falls sincerely in love with her, but she will not have him without marriage, and the Prince is already married. To escape his importunities, she dresses as a boy (calling himself "Travellia") and stows away on a ship. 

It turns out the ship isn't heading in the direction Travellia hoped, so he vows to work for his passage, and before long he has become so useful to the ship's master that the master adopts Travellia as his son. But their ship is wrecked, and they end up in a strange land, described in detail, with unusual plants and animals, and strange (though clearly human) people. The master and Travellia (the only survivors of the wreck) are taken to the capitol city, and meet the King, but seem destined for the dinner pot (as these people are cannibals, and even raise the people of their lower classes for meat.) The two escape by claiming to be messengers of the gods, and indeed in the process convince these people to abandon cannibalism.

In the meantime the Prince has learned that Affectionata has escaped. She left him a letter, admitting that she loved him but would not have him unless he could marry her. In despair, he decided to chase after her -- but the ship he was on was captured by pirates. However, the Prince soon became the leader of the pirates, and ended up staying at sea. Where, of course, as one does, he quickly captured the small boat that Travellia and his adopted father had used to escape the cannibal kingdom. After some further pirate adventures, the Prince discovers Travellia's disguise, and again attempts to make her his mistress, but she still refuses, and she and her father again escape.

The Prince ends up at the Kingdom of Amour, while Travellia has made his way to the Kingdom of Amity. The Prince becomes an adviser to the King of Amour, while Travellia becomes an adviser to the Queen of Amity, who is soon enamored with him. But the King of Amour has long wanted to marry the Queen of Amity, and decides to go to war when she won't have him. In the course of things, the Prince leads the armies of Amour, while Travellia leads the armies of Amity, and both have successes and failures. The resolution, predictably perhaps, turns on the two reconciling (now that, conveniently, the Prince's wife has died back in his home country.) And the Queen of Amity is convinced to turn her affections from Travellia -- now that he is a she again -- to the King of Amour.

I enjoyed reading both these stories -- a bit more than I enjoyed reading The Blazing World, actually. That story has more interesting speculative ideas, but little to no plot, and it becomes quite tedious at times. Both these stories have plenty of action, and "The Contract" has a coherent plot. Both are marriage stories, though it must be said that the central romance is disappointing in each case, with the main female character falling for an objectively pretty awful person. But both stories truly center female intelligence, female agency, female learning. 

And especially in "Assaulted and Pursued Chastity" there is some pretty intriguing play with gender. Affectionata/Miseria/Travellia is referred to by both male and female pronouns, takes traditional male roles, and at the end will be taking a major role in ruling her newly adopted country. It's also interesting to note that both stories feature the female protagonists marrying older men who have been previously married -- just as Margaret Cavendish did. (It's interesting that in the marriage between the rulers of Amour and Amity the author seems clearly to prefer Amity. One could wonder if that's a hint to the nature of her marriage to a much older man.) There's no doubt that these stories are often weird, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes loopy -- but they are also quite interesting. 

Friday, June 14, 2024

Old Bestseller Review: The Flame of Life (Il Fuoco), by Gabriele D'Annunzio

Old Bestseller Review: The Flame of Life (Il Fuoco), by Gabriele D'Annunzio

by Rich Horton

I ran across this book at an estate sale. It is part of a series called The Foreign Classical Romances, published by P. F. Collier. I bought it assuming it would be a romance in the old sense, which is to say a tale of adventure. I also figured reading another book in translation would be a good thing.

I guess I scored one out of two on that. Il Fuoco is a novel first published in 1900, and set in 1882/1883. It is a Romance in the sense that it is part of Italy's Romantic tradition, a late, rather decadent movement in reaction to the more realist tradition led by the great Alessandro Manzoni with I Promessi Sposa (The Betrothed.) It's also a romance in a sense because it is intensely focused on the love affair of two people, Stelio Effrena, an ambitious poet; and La Foscarina, an "aging" actress. This pair are supposedly based on the affair between D'Annunzio and the brilliant actress Eleanor Duse, though of course there are plenty of differences between the novel and real life. (For example, Duse and D'Annunzio's affair was conducted between 1894 and 1910 (with D'Annunzio being consistently unfaithful throughout) -- Duse was 36 and D'Annunzio 31 when it commenced, while La Foscarina is only 34 in 1883 when this book is set, with Stelio Effrena a few years younger -- but a ridiculous fuss is made about La Foscarina's decaying state as an "older woman".) Apparently there was a scandal of sorts when the novel appeared, for its semi-autobiographical nature was obvious, and it was widely felt that he portrayal of Duse was cruel and unfair.

I wanted to look briefly at some of the publication details of the novel. As noted, it first appeared in Italy in 1900 as Il Fuoco, literally The Fire or The Flame. The English translation came out later the same year. The American edition was from L. C. Page & Co., and the copyright was held the publisher (as usual in that day.) The translator appears to have been "Kassandra Vivaria", a pseudonym used by Magda Stuart Sindici, an Italian woman who was married at that time to the English publisher William Heinemann. (I do not know if Heinemann (or anyone else) published a UK edition of the book.) (I should note the Project Gutenberg attributes the translation to Dora Knowlton Ranous, an American translator, primarily from the French I think. I don't know the reason for that attribution, which they date to 1907, possibly when the P. F. Collier edition was published -- but there can be little doubt that Collier used the 1900 translation.) There is, by the way, a much more recent translation, by Susan Bassnett, a scholar of both Duse and D'Annunzio, from 1991, called The Flame. In a sense, Duse has her revenge now -- she is still revered as one of the greatest actors of her time, while D'Annunzio is little read.

I'll link to this fine piece from Susan Bassnett, on translating Il Fuoco, and on D'Annunzio in general, from a 20th or 21st century perspective, to be sure, but a very fair one, and a perspective that I think sees D'Annunzio's faults and his skill pretty accurately. 

The dating of the P. F. Collier Foreign Classical Romances is an interesting (to me) question. Abebooks listings say 1900, but that's absurd, as at least one book in the series is copyrighted 1901, and the introductory material discusses books published even later -- 1905 for a novel D'Annunzio was supposedly working on that is discussed in the biographical sketch in this book. Paul di Filippo found a newspaper advertisement for the series from 1907 -- so I'd suggest the books were published in 1906 or 1907.

Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938) was a major literary and political figure in Italy. From the age of 18 he was publishing short stories and poems, and later turned to novels, journalism, and eventually plays. His politics were at that time socialist, but always very nationalist. He was elected to the Council of Deputies in 1897. He became a war hero in the First World War, as fighter pilot (he had taken a flight with Wilbur Wright as early as 1908.) His nationalist views hardened, and he briefly took over the city of Fiume in what is now Croatia, and declared himself dictator. He was allied with Mussolini and is considered a proto-Fascist, though his political views remained ambiguous. He appears to have written little or nothing after the onset of the war.

So, what to say of The Flame of Life? It's an odd bird. The writing is florid but sometimes effective. The pace is slow, and I was tempted to skip at points, especially in the beginning. The descriptions -- mostly of Venice and points nearby -- are lovely, but the grandiose artistic theorizing is a bit tedious. I will add that as with any translated literature, one should caution that some of the prose issues may not be the original writer's fault.

The story opens in September 1882, at a festival sponsored by the Queen (or Dogaressa, wife of the Doge) of Venice. The young poet Stelio Effrena is to give an address at the festival. He is accompanied by his friend La Foscarina, a famous actress who is worried that her age (all of 34!) and her history of affairs make her increasingly ineligible to be the mistress of a younger man such as Stelio (late 20s -- just a kid!) To this point she has vowed not to make their relationship sexual. They discuss Stelio's theories about his art, and his ambitions, particularly to create a new poetic/musical ballet/drama, in which Foscarina will play the lead role. He also wants to build a new theater for his drama, and he needs a singer for his work, and a dancer. He brings up the young singer Donatella Arvale, who is also performing -- and later La Foscarina introduces him to Donatella, who is going home to care for her dying father. La Foscarina then finally agrees to become Stelio's mistress.

This sets the stage for the rest of the novel. Most of the scenes concern long conversations between the two, as they, over the next few months, spend a great deal of time together, visiting various Venetian locations, such as the island of Murano, home of the glassworks (moved there centuries before because of the danger of fire) where a master glassmaker gives La Foscarina a beautiful goblet. Their discussions turn primarily on two subjects: Stelio's artistic ambitions and theories, and La Foscarina's jealousy of Donatella Arvale, with whom she is convinced Stelio wants to have an affair. Much of this is internal dialogue, especially La Foscarina's side, as she contemplates killing herself or otherwise submitting to Stelio's desire to stray. And Stelio does make it somewhat clear that he believes it is his right as a great artist to have that freedom in their relationship.

We hear, too, of La Foscarina's early life -- poverty as a child, a full-time actress from the age of 14, early subjection to the desires of men, and her theories of acting (which are kind of method-like, actually.) Much of this is actually quite closely based on Duse. There are some passages concerning Richard Wagner, as well. Stelio is given a role at Wagner's funeral, indeed -- and Wagner did die in Venice in February 1883. Part of this is thematic -- D'Annunzio was a great admirer of Wagner, but it is clear that Stelio's aim is to create a more Italian, or more Latin, art, to succeed Wagner's Teutonic work. 

The novel ends without the melodramatic events that seemed to be hinted at, instead with La Foscarina resolved to support Stelio's projects; and apparently (with pains) also ready to bear his seemingly likely affair with Donatella Arvale. D'Annunzio had planned two more novels in what would have been collectively called The Romances of the Pomegranate, but neither ever appeared, though the biographical sketch here implies that he had written the second volume, to be called The Victory of Man. This must have simply been a mistake. I suspect the other two novels might have followed Stelio's career to its triumph, and also focused on the other two women -- Donatella Arvale and, I imagine, the dancer who would also have had a role in Stelio's magnum opus. 

So what do I think? I'm glad I read it, but it's a mixed bag. It's really very sexist, and if we accept the apparent semi-autobiographical nature of it, it suggests that D'Annunzio was fairly horrible to his lovers. The prose is overdone by contemporary standards -- and I suspect also by the standards of its time -- but it hits some powerful notes. The philosophizing is a bit grandiose, and I don't buy it, but it was sometimes interesting, and a plausible representation of the character's beliefs. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Review: Inside Man, by K. J. Parker

Review: Inside Man, by K. J. Parker

by Rich Horton

Inside Man is a 2021 novella by K. J. Parker (Tom Holt.) It was published by I got my copy from John O'Neill at Windy City Pulp and Paper a little while ago. Parker is a writer I always find entertaining in his sardonic fashion, so I brought it with me while I attended my niece Katie's wedding, figuring (correctly) that I wouldn't have much reading time, so something slim would be appropriate.

This story is set in Parker's oft-used fantasy world, but it has an oddly Christian feel to it, complete with references to Saint Michael. It's already clear that we are not to expect any particular historical consistency in this setting, and not necessarily consistency of, say, magical rules either. It's just a convenient frame for stories. (The ISFDB suggests that this is part of a series with Prosper's Demon (2020), which does treat the idea of demonic possession with the goal of influencing future events in a "long game", much like this novel, but otherwise it doesn't seem closely related. I will say that I liked Prosper's Demon rather more than this book.)

The narrator is the Devil, or, as he quickly explains, part of the Devil's organization, thus the Devil in the "My Name is Legion, for we are many" sense. He has been demoted to liturgical compliance at a monastery -- attempting to disrupt the prayers for the soul of a particularly foul sinner who gave the monastery a bunch of money. The ambiguity implied there -- the side of God is taking money to allow a terrible man to escape his deserved punishment while the Devil is trying to stop that -- is part of the point: the narrator argues that he and his fellows are a necessary counterpoint to the hosts of Heaven.

Over time we learn the reason for the narrator's demotion -- a traumatic event while he was possessing the mind of an unborn child with the intention of subverting him as an adult. We learn a bit about unfortunate event in the distant past -- the Rebellion. We learn a lot of Satanic bureaucracy. And we encounter a new assignment for the narrator -- back on the front lines, so to speak -- which is entangled with all that history. 

It's reliably amusing and provoking in Parker's trademark cynical fashion. There is a mass of spot on Biblical references, lots of snark, and a very twisty and clever plot. And there is a certain amount of philosophical/theological speculation. And some real feeling. But it still feels to me like pretty minor K. J. Parker. Not quite as intricate as his novels (not surprisingly, due to length), and lacking the extended passages on how things work that are an abiding pleasure in other Parker stories. (There are also no women characters, which is not necessarily an issue, as Parker's typical view of male/female relationships is quite odd and quite dark. This can be profoundly effective and affecting, as in Tom Holt's masterwork, The Walled Orchard; but it can also come off as unproductively and unconvincingly cynical.)

If you like Parker, you'll enjoy this novella. But it's not essential.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Hugo Nominees for Best Novel, 2024: review summary

Hugo Nominees for Best Novel, 2024: review summary 

by Rich Horton

Over the past few weeks (with one exception that I read last year) I have read and reviewed all six novels on the 2024 Hugo ballot. Those reviews are linked below, in alphabetical order by author:

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

The Saint of Bright Doors, by Vajra Chandrasekera

Translation State, by Ann Leckie

Starter Villain, by John Scalzi

Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh

Witch King, by Martha Wells

As I think my reviews make clear, none of these books are terrible -- they all have redeeming values, and I'm glad I read them all. Having said that much, it also might be clear that I'm having a hard time enthusiastically supporting any of them for the Hugo. Is that a statement about the state of SF today, or the state of me as a reader of SF today? Probably both, in all honesty.

In my reviews, I identified one even split between the novels: there are three nominees who are all a bit older than the other three, and who have all won Hugos for Best Novel. These are Leckie, Scalzi, and Wells. The other three nominees are actually not terribly young, but they are younger than the others and I believe the only Hugo nomination among them, before this year, is Chakraborty's for Best Series. (And Chakraborty's nominee is her fourth novel -- Chandrasekera and Tesh's books are first novels.)

There is another even split: three are Fantasy (The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, The Saint of Bright Doors, and Witch King), the other three are Science Fiction. In my view there is a third split -- this may be a more controversial statement, but it's what I think -- three of them are more ambitious, while three strike me as, let's say, "entertainment first" (which doesn't preclude ambition, to be sure.) The more ambitious books, I claim, are Translation State, The Saint of Bright Doors, and Some Desperate Glory. By ambitious, I mean to suggest that these three books tackle knottier themes, and introduce more intriguing and original SFnal or Fantastical ideas. 

Two of the books are the first books in series (The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi and Witch King), while Translation State is an entry in a long set of books set in the same universe, but it is essentially a standalone (thought there are definite references to events in other books.)

One other link to note -- and this has nothing to do with the quality of any of the books -- is that only one of them (Translation State) has a love story, or romance plot, of any real significance. That doesn't mean there aren't romantic relationships depicted in the other books (though there really isn't one in Starter Villain) but that those aren't central to the novels, and indeed are mostly quite backgrounded. Mind you, this isn't a complaint -- it's a well-motivated artistic choice in each case, I think. (For example, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is noticeably about a group of middle-aged people, a couple of whom are married, and a couple more do have love interests but those are just a small part of their depiction.)

So -- in summary, what do I think of these books -- how do I rank them? I'll state my prejudices first. As hinted above, I do prize ambition -- both literary ambition (I definitely give extra points for good prose) and thematic ambition -- asking difficult questions, and presenting intriguing and original ideas. Especially science fictional ideas: cool extrapolation, and the treatment of technologies or scientific ideas that raise interesting question or that throw light on broader ideas, such as, say,  what does it mean to be intelligent. I also concede that, for the Hugo, I will tend to favor Science Fiction over Fantasy. This isn't an absolute rule: a great enough Fantasy (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, say) will get my vote over even very good SF, but it is my prejudice. Partly this is simply that I personally am more of an SF fan, and partly it is a feeling that there is a very prestigious award for Fantasy (the World Fantasy Award) and I think it would be OK if the Hugos took (or took back?) a similar role for SF. Having said that, I concede that Fantasy absolutely is eligible for Hugos, and I'm happy for anyone or everyone else to disagree with me and vote for all the Fantasy they want to! (And, too, I concede the difficulty of drawing a bright line between the two genres.)

So, here's my current ballot:

1. Translation State

2. The Saint of Bright Doors

3. The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi

4. Witch King

5. Some Desperate Glory

6. Starter Villain

An SF novel comes first, but then somehow the three Fantasies! I am already inconsistent. Though, frankly, it was Translation State's SFnal virtues that broke a tie between it and The Saint of Bright Doors. I simply felt that the flaws of the last two novels on the list were sufficient that I couldn't vote for them any higher -- Some Desperate Glory's artificiality, weak worldbuilding, and arbitrary (and manipulative) characterization hurt it, and Starter Villain's insubstantiality, basically, hurt it.

I thought the best written book was The Saint of Bright Doors. All three "veteran" writers do solid professional work, but in no case did their prose stand out for me; and honestly I thought the other two books would have benefitted from another pretty strict pass of line editing. Both the Chakraborty book and the Wells book were, for me, quite fun reads, really solid adventure fantasy, but not much beyond that. (They are also both first books in series, and while they do each conclude their central stories quite fairly -- the reader isn't cheated -- there are unanswered questions that won't be treated with until later volumes -- this isn't a fatal flaw but can serve as another tiebreaker.)

(I'll also caution that I might grade a bit harder for Hugo nominees -- I think that's fair, really.)

What was my nomination ballot? Here it is, again with links to my reviews:

1. Orbital, by Samantha Harvey

2. Terrace Story, by Hilary Leichter

3. The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz

4. Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon, by Wole Talabi

5. The Scarab Mission, by James L. Cambias (actually not on my nomination ballot because I read it too late)

Three SF novels, one odd borderline case (the Leichter) and one Fantasy. Talabi's novel is the only first novel on my list. The first three are very ambitious books, and the last two are more on the "entertainment" side but also do engage with interesting and important ideas. I will say that the Talabi and Cambias novels could have been replaced on my nomination list with the Leckie and Chandrasekera books -- I may well have ended up ranking them third and fourth if they'd been on the ballot but it would be close. As far as prose goes, Orbital is one of the most beautifully written books I've read in some time. Leichter's writing is quite different but also very effective. Newitz and Cambias fit in the "solid professional prose" category, and so too does Talabi though I think there are some first novel flaws in his book. 

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Hugo Nominee Review: Starter Villain, by John Scalzi

Hugo Nominee Review: Starter Villain, by John Scalzi

by Rich Horton

Here is the sixth and last of my reviews of the 2024 Hugo nominees for Best Novel

I don't think John Scalzi needs any introduction. Suffice it to say he has won three Hugos, including one for Best Novel (Redshirts, in 2013), and been nominated many more times. He's a very popular writer, and deservedly so -- I've enjoyed those of his novels I've read quite a lot.

Starter Villain is in many ways of a type with his other novels. It's told in his usual rather snarky voice. It's fast-moving and fun. I'm happy I read it (listened to it, I should say, as narrated by Wil Wheaton.)

The narrator is Charlie Fitzer. He's a journalist who has lost his job due to the general troubles print journalism is experiencing, and is making do by substitute teaching. He is divorced, and had been living with his father for the past several years. But his father has died, and now he's living in his father's house, while his half-siblings pressure him to sell so they can get their chunk of the inheritance. His career plan is to buy the local pub, in Barrington, IL,* and keep it going, as he has many fond memories of it. He has a cat, and soon will get another. And now his uncle, Jake Baldwin, his mother's brother, has also died. He never really knew Jake, who had a falling out with Charlie's father when Charlie's mother died. But Jake was actually very rich, as the owner of a number of parking garages. Charlie's last contact with Jake was a wedding gift, in which Jake included a brief note that predicted to the month when Charlie's wife would leave  him.

So far -- so what? But then a mysterious woman shows up at Charlie's house. Mathilda Morrison had been Jake Baldwin's chief assistant, and she wants Charlie to stand up for Jake's funeral. Apparently no one else liked Jake, as evidenced by the extremely hostile audience at the funeral. And shortly thereafter, Charlie's house is blown up -- luckily while he (and his cats) are outside, though a Federal agent is inside -- which means that Charlie might be a suspect in a case of arson and murder. Fortunately, his cats lead him to a nearby house, and reveal that they are intelligent and can communicate via a special computer and keyboard. And Mathilda Morrison soon tells him that he has inherited Uncle Jake's entire fortune -- which turns out to comprise a great many businesses besides the parking garages.

Soon Charlie is at Uncle Jake's private island, which turns out to be something like a superhero lair, complete with satellite destroying weapons, intelligent dolphins that want to form a union, and a hidden storeroom containing treasures looted by the Nazis. Charlie learns that he is now a villain, in charge of Jake's array of companies, many of which are involved in secretly inventing disruptive technology. He also learns that there is an entire convocation of villains, engaged in similar enterprises, and that Jake was an enemy of that convocation ... and that he must soon visit them for their yearly convention at Lake Como.

Naturally, when a bunch of supervillains get together, there is a great deal of potential for violence, and backstabbing, and shady dealings. Charlie is thrown into this world, with his only help being Morrison and his cats. And so things go -- there are plenty of twists coming, lots of implausible events that are only partly explained by the final revelations, lots more snark, plus negotiations with the oppressed dolphins, etc. etc.

It's a fun novel to read -- Scalzi can do this sort of thing by reflex, it seems. But it's really pretty insubstantial. None of it makes much sense. The science is implausible (as you expect from supervillain stories.) The depictions of evil corporations and of the dolphins' labor-organizing efforts are profoundly unconvincing. (The Hugo Book Club does a better job than me in criticizing this here.) Charlie himself is kind of a thin character, and his eventual happy ending is very predictable and also not terribly convincing. It's decent light entertainment -- it's worth reading -- but in my book it's not worthy of a Hugo, nor even, really, a nomination.

*The novel depicts Barrington as a sort of typical modest suburb -- and I'm not saying the neighborhoods described don't exist. But I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and my internal image of Barrington (where Gene Wolfe lived, by the way) is of a quite affluent suburb, even more so than my hometown of Naperville. (And a recent visit to the environs of Barrington did not contradict that image!) This isn't a complaint, mind you -- I dare say that the parts of Barrington Scalzi describes are real. 

Monday, June 3, 2024

Hugo Nominee Review: Witch King, by Martha Wells

Hugo Nominee Review: Witch King, by Martha Wells

by Rich Horton

Here is the fifth of my reviews of the 2024 Hugo nominees for Best Novel. Martha Wells published her first novel, The Element of Fire, when she was 28, in 1993. It was well-received, getting a nomination for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel, and she went on to publish five novels and a half-dozen or so short stories in its series, collectively called Ile-Rien. She began another series, the Books of the Raksura, in 2011, and that too comprises five novels and some short fiction, and it was shortlisted for the 2018 Hugo for Best Series. All those stories are Fantasy, and until 2017 her only science fiction was some work in the Star Wars and Stargate franchises. But in 2017 she published All Systems Red, the first novella in her Murderbot series, which is definitely SF. It was an immediate sensation. I remember the buzz about Murderbot at the 2017 World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio, where Wells was the Toastmaster. The stories and novels have since won four Hugos: two for Best Novella, one for Best Novel, and one for Best Series. I think they are definitely deserving, for what that's worth. More recently, she has nobly taken to withdrawing Murderbot stories from award consideration, presumably feeling that they've received their fair share of recognition. This includes this year, in which she withdrew Nebula and Hugo nominations for the Murderbot novel System Collapse. But Witch King, the first in a new Fantasy series, is still on the ballot.

I have only read a couple of Wells' fantasy short stories (which were quite good) -- the only longer works I've read by her until now are Murderbot stories. So Witch King is an introduction of sorts, for me, to this important aspect of her oeuvre. I will add that according to the Amazon listing, the book is the first in the Rising World trilogy, but it works quite well as a standalone novel. (That said, there is plenty of room for more stories in this world.)

The novel is told on two threads. The main character is Kai, a demon prince who is called the Witch King. The novel opens as he wakes from some form of imprisonment underwater. It turns out he has been wakened by an expositor -- some form of magic worker -- who planned to make him a familiar to increase his power. This doesn't go well for him. Kai ends up freeing his friend Ziede, a witch (an actual witch -- not a demon called Witch King!) They escape, and realize quickly that while they were gone Ziede's wife Tahren Stargard, an Immortal Blessed, has also been captured and imprisoned -- an action that threatens the stability of the treaties maintaining the Rising World, a new polity that emerged after the Hierachs' War, some 60 years earlier. 

Lots of questions already! What are demons? What are witches? What are Immortal Blessed? What are expositors? What are Hierarchs? We learn the answers over time. (In essence, all are different sorts of magic users. This world also has mortals, some of whom can become magic users such as expositors.) Each type of magic is different, with limits and costs. The other question is -- what happened 60 years ago? And for that, we get the other thread.

This thread also involves Kai, Ziede, and Tahren (after all, they are all immortal to some degree or other.) Kai is now (then) Kai-Enna, a demon who has taken the body of a dead member of the Saredi people, according the the terms of a treaty Kai's (human) grandmother established, whereby demons can come from the Underearth to the surface to live among the Saredi -- but only by occupying the body of a dead human. We see Kai-Enna as an adolescent -- but war is coming, as the mysterious Hierarchs advance, using their tremendous magical weapons to obliterate all in their path. The Immortal Blessed have allied with the Hierrachs, but one, Tahren Stargard, has rebelled and tries to help the mortals resist the Hierarchs. Kai, having taken another body after Enna's death, ends up imprisoned. But with the help of a brilliant mortal Prince-heir, Bashasa, he and the witch Ziede and Tahren manage to kill two of the Hierarchs -- something thought impossible. But in the process Kai takes over the body of a living expositor -- a terrible betrayal of the agreement the demons had made. This alienates some demons, but Kai and Bashasa and company are more concerned with taking the battle to the Hierarchs.

Meanwhile, in the more recent thread, Kai, Ziede, and a growing band of allies (a street child they rescued from the expositor, some soldiers another expositor had enslaved, Tahren's brother Dahin, and more) journey to recover a "finding stone" that may lead them to Tahren, while being chased by what appear to be members of a conspiracy to disrupt the Rising World. 

I don't want to say much more. The plot is well executed, and both threads are great fun. The magic is effectively portrayed and in context convincing. The political questions are worthwhile. There are deep mysteries in this world that may provide material for further books. The gender background is intriguing if kind of understated -- for example, Kai is a demon who strongly identifies as male, but he occupies both female and male bodies without stress or change in his personal identification. Tahren and Ziede are both female and are married, and Ziede has a child, but it's not clear (to me, perhaps I'm obtuse) who the father is or if Tahren is even though she's female. The battles are well described, the geography is interesting. 

It's a good, fun, novel. But is it a Hugo winner? I'm not so sure. For one thing, it's -- well, it's in many ways a typical fantasy novel. A well done fantasy novel, to be sure, but while it rings some interesting changes on some of the tropes it plays with, it doesn't really do anything spectacularly new. I liked it. I'm glad I read it. I'll read more in the series as they come. But, for my Hugo votes, I want something at another level.