Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce

Graham Joyce is again nominated for a World Fantasy Award, this time for Some Kind of Fairy Tale.  Our protagonist is...well, we're not sure, the teller is a mystery.  And he/she says this is key to the book.  But the central character is Tara, a girl who disappeared in the woods near her home for twenty years, then shows up again only being able to account for six months.  And that six months was spent in an impossible place.

Her family, and in particular her boyfriend at the time, have to adjust to her reappearance.  It's particularly hard for the boyfriend since he was strongly suspected of her murder.  She also appears not to have aged, which lends unwilling credibility to her story of only being gone six months.

The characters are what make the story very well worth reading--her farrier brother, her old boyfriend Richie, and an elderly neighbor lady, along with several others, are all fully drawn and human, and it's pretty easy to like them all.  Even her misguided psychiatrist doesn't come off as villainous.  It's a circle of people all trying to figure out what happened, including Tara.

Who is the voice of the book?  I have yet to figure that one out, and in the end I can enjoy just mulling that over.  But see Ben Godby's comments on Strange Horizons--he enjoyed the book, but pretty much thought the "unreliable narrator" bit was just pulling our leg.  I think I agree.

My favorite part--after a very well-told story, we get a real ending.  Some very good authors (I am thinking of early David Brin in the Uplift novels) struggle with endings.  Others don't try (see David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, and a gaggle of other auteurs).  I was very moved, and glad to have had the opportunity to read this book.  A strong four stars from me.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Let Maps to Others, by K. J. Parker

K. J. Parker wrote the wonderful A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong, which was nominated for last year's World Fantasy Award, and returns this year with Let Maps to Others.  It's as good, in a somewhat different way. 

Our protagonist is the foremost scholar on a most confusing phenomenon of a country.  Essequivo was visited once, three hundred years ago, by a merchant who brought back a massively valuable cargo.  There is incontrovertible evidence that he really went somewhere (brought back inventions as well as spices etc.) but he kept the reference to himself and then died suddenly.  Ever since, scholars have been turning over every archive and scrap of evidence trying to figure it out.

Parker goes on to tell a remarkably well-rounded tale, giving a very brief, entertaining but complete description of the impact this fact had on the Republic (the protagonist's country) and the protagonist himself.  The economy was greatly stimulated just by the preparations made for the future visits.  Fortunes were made, then lost as the hoped-for return did not happen.  Our protagonist (it's first person all the way, and his name is not mentioned) was the son of one of these investors.  The story scales all the way from economics down to the personal rivalry of the protagonist and another leading Essequivo scholar.  We have wonderful detail on Renaissance sailing ships, manuscript creation and preservation, and human relations.  All this without a romance crutch.  Great stuff.

Many stories of this sort would be set on an alternate Earth, with recognizable geography.  Parker chooses to forgo this and set it in an entirely fictional world.  This is obviously deliberate--Parker demonstrates very good research and would have been perfectly capable of adapting Earth.  To me it's just an aesthetic choice, though Parker might have something else to say.

There's even this fun undercurrent of the Republic as a reasonably well-off nation, but a somewhat feckless one.  They build ships that appear to be quite capable but are in fact no match at all for the rival Empire ships, or even weather.

All in all a very deftly woven story, highly worthy of reading for both enjoyment and appreciation of craft.  The more I think about it the more I like it.  4 stars for me.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Hardened Criminals, by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is a powerfully good writer.  Such strong stuff I have to take it in small doses.  It took me several days to get through one of his novellas.  I finished The Hardened Criminals in one sitting, but it's still a bit of a test. 

Lethem was one of the inspiring forces behind the collection I am currently reading, The Secret History of Science Fiction.  He speculated in an interview on what SF would be like today if Gravity's Rainbow had won the 1973 Hugo award, rather than Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (also a pretty good book).  He believes SF lost an opportunity to reward and promote literary SF, but chose the safe route. 

I've read them both, and have to say I enjoyed Rendezvous With Rama but can't remember much about it, while I remember quite a lot about Gravity's Rainbow.  Mostly I think I'd be better off reading more Lethem, but haven't quite gotten up to it yet.

The Hardened Criminals starts with its literal premise--a prison built from the bodies of criminals, somehow hardened and preserved so that they sort of live and talk, but are solid as rock.  The son of one of the hardened criminals is put in the cell where his father is built in, as part of an effort to uncover a conspiracy.  But there's quite a lot more to it, of course.  Lethem gives you an insight on the thoughts and decisions of Nick Marra as he negotiates prison life in this very unusual prison. The state of the prisoners is explored in detail, but without diverting the story from the living characters.  It's a great example of speculative fiction being used to explore an idea and bring it out in more stark detail.

Lethem has been feeling constrained by SF lately, and has been branching out.  But I bet he never leaves entirely.  I highly recommend this one, it will leave you thinking for a long time.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Ziggurat, by Gene Wolfe

There are some interesting theories out there on what Gene Wolfe's "The Ziggurat" short story means.  Indeed, Wolfe is heavily analyzed as an author. The theories involve spoilers, so be alert if you want to experience the story for yourself. 

It's anywhere from a madness allegory to a more straightforward but disappointing ending. In the story, the protagonist (Emery Bainbridge) is going to be visited in his cabin by his ex-wife, and he expects it to be unpleasant.  But he is also visited by people who rob him, but don't act like normal thieves.  They steal his gun and his wife's car, briefly kidnap one of his twin girls, and kill his son.  But through all this they seem to be trying to survive, not necessarily kill for the fun of it.

Most of the story is centered on Bainbridge, and his wife Jan.  Wolfe is a masterful writer, bringing out the characters' personality while leaving motives mysterious.  Bainbridge is a strangely detached man, ruminating on the violence of the women robbers (he works this out) while planning what to do about them.  He deduces that they have arrived in some sort of a spaceship, shaped like a ziggurat and landed in a nearby lake.  At last he confronts them as they hide in his cabin, kills  one and wounds the other.  He assists the survivor and plans to live with her, concocting a story for the police about how they were both wounded by his own gun by accident.

It seems an unworthy ending for Wolfe, so the link above leads to others.  "Maximum Delusion" runs the theory that the whole story is Bainbridge's delusion, papering over having killed his twin daughters. 

I tend to believe the "Flawed Hero Unhappy Ending", where Bainbridge may be trying to make the best of a bad situation but it's unlikely to go well.  The story is too outlandish to fool the cops.

In any case, there's a conundrum here that good writers struggle with in creating aliens.  Wolfe's humans are very human indeed.  But his spaceship humans (and humans they are--time travelers) can't speak, so end up very light sketches.  It's a puzzling story, but in the end I vote for just a little disappointing, not full-on mad.  2 stars.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Buddha Nostril Bird, by John Kessel

I have returned to The Secret History of Science Fiction for some more stories--today's is Buddha Nostril Bird.  And the link is to a full version of the story, which was by complete coincidence recently published in the Weird Fiction Review. 
It definitely qualifies as weird fiction, in that it's strongly surrealist.  But not so far as mere Dadaism.  It's on the edge of coherent, one can definitely follow a story.  Kessel tells a story of a contest between Objectivism and Relativism (as he uses the terms, though the usage is close to the vernacular and not much like what philosophers mean).  Our protagonist is in prison, resisting the calls of the jailers to use the Well and become protean like they are.  He escapes and reconnects with his old faction in the city.  But he doesn't understand it anymore, though he thinks he does.
Challenging fiction like this takes an accomplished author to have a hope of pulling it off, and Kessel definitely is.  Reading something like this is mental yoga--makes you feel good to achieve the posture (or be able to follow the story).  And feels good afterward too.  Worth the stretch for 3 stars.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Return From Avalon (And Points West) by Rusty Rhoad

I have just finished a delightful first novel by Rusty Rhoad called Return from Avalon.  I don't consider myself an expert on Arthurian Fantasy--in fact, most of my experience with the legendary king is through the movie Excalibur.  Which was a fine film, by the way.  But back to the book.  Arnie Penders is a mild-mannered bookseller in San Francisco who decides to chuck it all and go on a road trip.  The trip is driven by dreams--vivid, sometimes frightening dreams of what he was in the past or will be doing.  It is told as a series of letters to his ex-wife, starting out quite tongue-in-cheek and presuming she won't read them.  He also begins to act a bit strangely--braver than he has been in the past, seeking out evil to confront.  And getting respect he isn't used to from strangers, particularly women.

His journey takes him across the country and the ocean, all the way back to Mother England.  You can watch him grow every step of the way as he encounters and deals with the characters that cross his path.  I rooted for him all the way through, and was fully rewarded.  This book will make you smile all the way through it.  There's enough action, heroic and erotic, to keep adrenaline going for a late night read.  But unless you are the most delicate of hothouse flowers nothing to be offended at.  Read this one to make yourself feel better, it will work.  Four stars from me.