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PACT OF THE FATHERS
xwidget_42_Pact of the Fathers   Ramsey Campbell has long been acknowledged among those who know modern horror as a true master. Despite his critical success, he remains largely and unfortunately unknown to the mass audience. If given the chance, his latest novel--PACT OF THE FATHERS -- would probably win those masses over. It's a delicious updating of that venerable crowd-pleaser, the gothic novel. Whether dealing with the psychological or the supernatural, Campbell has endeared himself to horror fans with a convincing and chilling grimness. His realistic portrayals of the horrors of urban and personal disintegration force the reader to consider that which is too disturbing to consider. But, let's face it, this is not the stuff (usually) on which best-sellerdom is launched. With PACT OF THE FATHERS Campbell loses none of his literary touch, but abandons much of his trademark grimness in this gothic romp. He takes what is far from his strongest plot and turns it into a compelling page-turner keyed on winning characterization, deft dialogue, and the occasional surprise. Daniella Logan is the university-student daughter of film mogul Teddy Logan. Logan, an American, started his movie empire in England with a series of Hammer-type horror flicks. He later turned to "uplifting," crowd-pleasing dramas often derived from Biblical tales. Teddy dies suddenly in an automobile accident while driving under the influence of alcohol -- even though this is one bad habit Logan was never known to indulge. The evening after the funeral, Daniella visits her father's grave and discovers a group of black robed men arrayed it and performing some weird ritual. coverDaniella is a contemporary gothic heroine, of course, not some defenseless heiress locked up in a castle. Although she is an heiress of sorts, she's independent, spunky, intelligent, lovely, and a modern incarnation of Nancy Drew determined to discover the meaning of the assembly at the grave. She soon discovers other mysterious clues and determines to discover more. Before it's all over, Daniella -- in pursuit of a missing box, a similarly missing book, and answers about the grave-group -- has life-threatening encounters in the family mansion, discovers her potential inheritance may have been squandered by some poor financial judgment on her father's part (of course, should she die before attaining the proper age, there are other inheritors), is either avoided or ignored by the police and her father's circle of successful friends (the single helpful soul meets with extremely foul play), discovers a strange dagger at her father's grave, is threatened by a bunch of punk girls who hang out at the cemetery, and (back in that family mansion) has the dagger disappear on her, winds up in jail for assaulting a police officer, and is incarcerated against her will in an insane asylum. She also meets up with Mark, an independent, spunky, intelligent, handsome modern incarnation of -- well, not Ned Nickerson. Think Bob Woodward as a cool movie journalist rather than with a political beat. Sparks fly but are quickly doused when she learns his true identity. After a thrilling escape from one of her tangles, she flees to a Greek Island and takes refuge as the guest of the aging but still glamorous Nana Babouris. Teddy made her a star and Nana made Teddy a successful producer. Campbell inserts chapters concerning the island-sojourn in the midst of those with linear progression, thus heightening a sense of suspense. On the off-chance that Tor/Forge changes the cover copy that gives the book's main secret (although the title itself is something of a giveaway), I will go no further. (Although I suspect you and I would have figured it all out fairly early anyway.) Suffice to say the robed assemblage are indeed a wicked bunch and their supposedly ancient beliefs involve murderous suppression of the present. Okay, the plot is far from Campbell's strongest and PACT has more in common with Barbara Micheals/Elizabeth Peters or Daphne DuMaurier (and that's merely a comparison, not meant as disparagement to any of the three) than anything the author has done before -- and it's all marvelous. Daniella is delightful and you can't help but care about her. Moreover, the melodrama has enough real drama to carry a terrifying message: that humans can convince themselves of anything when it comes to satisfying their greed, even that their innocent victims -- since they are sacrificed with love -- go straight to paradise and the most sacred of relationships can be profaned. A Campbell novel is always a treat -- they just come in a variety of flavors. The nail-biting taste of psychochildkiller Hector Woollie in SILENT CHILDREN the haunting supernatural tang -- spiced with a sprinkling of social and domestic trauma -- of NAZARETH HILL, etc. PACT OF THE FATHERS is a bit more over-the-top of the boiling gothic pot than you (oh devoted reader of dark fiction) might expect from the author, but you'll find it a deliciously savory stew. And, with any luck, a larger audience will slurp it up, too. -- Paula Guran, originally appeared in Cemetery Dance #37
books · March 29, 2022, 10:19 a.m.
SILENT CHILDREN
xwidget_38_Silent Children Many good writers could have made a decent thriller out of this plot: After his murders are discovered, a crazy child killer fakes death. Successfully disguised, he returns even more demented than ever and soon two more children disappear. In the hands of Ramsey Campbell, however, these bare bones of plot are magnificently fleshed out into a masterpiece of psychological terror. There are moments of suspense that literally sent my pulse racing and caused my breath to catch. If Campbell can do that to a jaded old horror reviewer like me, well... Part of the genius lies in Campbell's ability to contrive and covey convincing characters. Leslie Ames, a divorced mum who works in a music shop, is practical, caring, sexy, maternal, and altogether believable. Her son, Ian, is an adolescent male with all the complexities, misfortunes, loneliness, and hope inherent in the age. They decide to move back into their home in the London suburb of Wembley, a domicile they deserted when the body of a little girl was discovered buried under the concrete of a remodeled kitchen floor. The murderer, a contractor named Hector Woollie, knowing this crime and other child-murders had been discovered, has supposedly drowned himself. Although the child's body is long gone, lurid press coverage -- written by wheelchair-bound reporter Verity Drew (a minor, but well-drawn character) -- has turned the house into a "house of horror" they can not sell. Jack Lamb, an American horror writer enters their lives as a boarder and supplies a romantic spark for Leslie as well as a strong male role model for Ian. Jack's novels inspire the boy to try his hand at horror writing. (An activity that just leads to more grief for Ian.) But we have a monster drawing nigh. Like all monsters, Woollie never sees himself in that role. He simply loves children and can't stand to see them abused by their parents. Woollie merely sings them to sleep, you see, to give them permanent peace. We never sympathize with Woollie, but we begin to see his point of view. That in itself is, of course, terrifying. Lamb is a horror writer who, for reasons we learn in the course of the book, questions whether he himself is innately evil. (At a climactic point, the villain murmurs, "Like horror do you? I'll show you horror.") In the case of Leslie and Ian, the world begins to condemn them as monsters, even though they are the victims. Is the world more horrific than the monsters it creates? Is fictional horror somehow as harmful as real horror? Can situations implicate us in evil? Is anyone truly innocent? As with most of his work, Campbell asks higher questions and delves into deeper levels: ultimately, that's what sets the master writer above the hack. SILENT CHILDREN is half gone by the time anyone is put in real physical jeopardy. When it happens, the victim is Charlotte, the daughter of Ian's father's new wife Hilene. (More multidimensional supporting characters.) She goes missing and Ian stumbles upon her and her captor. He must use all his wits and considerable imagination to try to keep them both alive. Another cliche? Not with Campbell. There are no comic-book heroics here. Just real kids in real danger and suspense so thick you can smell it. And in the end? As one character discovers: "Life wasn't a story unless you made it into one." Which is just what Campbell does, and does so magnificently.   xwidget_39_Indigo Any artist will tell you there are seven colors of the spectrum. A physicist, however, will explain there are only six colors in the spectrum. Indigo does not exist. Look for it. You'll find blues and violets. Where is the fugitive color? Maybe it DOES exist, but can only be seen if you know how to look for it. Graham Joyce takes this idea and turns it into a fascinatingly original dark surrealistic fantasy thriller. (Try putting that label on a spine.) Jack Chambers, an ex-bobby who now is a London process server, travels to Chicago to execute his father's will. Wealthy, manipulative, eccentric, and hated by his son, Tim Chambers has left a manuscript, INVISIBILITY, A MANUAL OF LIGHT, that Jack must publish. The paternal Chambers believed indigo exists -- as a color, a door of perception, and the pathway to invisibility; his book is a guide to finding it. Jack will be well-rewarded for his execution of this and other provisions of the will, but the most of the estate will go to his half-sister, Louise, and a mysterious artist, Natalie Shearer. Jack is immediately incestuously attracted to Louise and the sexual tension is intense. They eventually travel to Rome in order to find Natalie and sell a house there. When Louise returns to Chicago, Natalie -- an ex-lover of Tim's -- relieves Jack's pent-up libidinal frustration as they enter into an odd affair dominated by the search for indigo. Murder and further intrigue intrude as well. Joyce provides the entire self-training manual and it's convincing enough that readers will find themselves wondering if they, too, can discover the fugitive indigo. Will Jack find it? Are there invisible forces at work? Will forbidden love become acceptable for the sibling soul mates? INDIGO, propelled by its rich atmosphere rather than action, is as seductive and beguiling as its premise.   xwidget_41_DeadTimes The year is 1825 and 110-year-old Mae Johnson, the offspring of a Caucasian trapper and the only daughter of a Hopi snakepriest, makes a deal with the devil that gives her eight additional lives. Not that they are particularly happy or long lives. After all, we are dealing with the Dark One here. She first becomes Rachel, a young woman who died in childbirth in 1691 and winds up involved in the Salem witch trials. Myra, a murdered black woman in 1943 Louisiana is her next life and Mae/Myra and she's possessed by the need to find her own murderer Navarro bogs down a bit when she takes Mae into her next two lives/deaths involving vampires in the year 1585. As Nathan Carter, a black man in 1961, Mae must deal with racism then is reborn in the same year as a white racist. Next stop is in the body of Will, a twenty-something 1986 Chicago yuppie afflicted with AIDS. Her eighth life is that of a murdered L.A.street whore, Perdita. As long as you can accept deals with demons, Indian curses, and that a woman born in the wilderness in 1715 can instantly adapt to such varied situations, DEADTIMES is a entertaining read. Mae, in whatever personification, faces the dark cruelty humans inflict on one another time and again and Navarro effectively conveys that horror. Only when she leaves this motif and introduces melodramatic pseudo-medieval supernatural evil does she falter. Otherwise, it is a genuine page-turner.
books · March 29, 2022, 10:16 a.m.
The Emperor of Gondwanaland and Other Stories
xwidget_37_The Emperor of Gondwanaland and Other Stories Paul Di Filippo is the type of author who is often termed a "cult writer." In other words, he's not well known by the reading world at large but he's well respected among those "in the know". Not that he receives too much respect - he's been nominated numerous times for various awards (Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, Wired Magazine, World Fantasy) but has never taken home the prize. (He did win a British Science Fiction Association short story award back in 1994.) His previous short story collections have each concentrated on a single facet of his wide range (steampunk, humor, "hard SF", and fantasy to name a few), but this collection of 18 stories is a sampler of his intelligent, accomplished, and whimsical writing. It's very much like a box of chocolates: you never know what you are going to get, but its all pretty tasty. Some may prefer the chewy caramel (in the title story, a lonely modern everyman finds intimacy and a new allegiance online), others like a creamy filling ("A Monument to After-Thought Unveiled" features a young poet Robert Frost who writes "grimly fantastical" pulp fiction and mentors an even younger H.P. Lovecraft, who, socially well-adjusted and happily married, edits Weird Tales) or a nutty crunch ("Ailoura" re-invents "Puss-in-Boots" as an homage to science fiction). Like any collection of treats, this one shouldn't be passed up.
books · March 29, 2022, 6:25 a.m.
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Second Annual Collection
xwidget_36_The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Second Ann In the growing list of "year's best" SF anthologies, Gardner Dozois's is still a "must read." This year's twenty-second edition covering the year 2004 proves why. It's massive (664 pages, 28 stories), excellent, and diverse. Along with veteran writers (including M. John Harrison, Nancy Kress, and Vernor Vinge), there are newcomers like Paolo Bacigalupi, Colin P. Davies, David Moles, Christopher Rowe, and Vandana Singh. Known-but-not-for-SF writers like fantasist Caitlin Kiernan and mystery/thriller-writer Brendan DuBois are also present. Some stories seem like fantasy (Kage Baker's "Mother Aegypt"), others blend genres (James Patrick Kelly crosses aliens with hard boiled private eyes in "Men Are Trouble" and, in "Intrigue," Walter Jon Williams mixes spaceships and intrigue). Standard SF tropes are given fresh twists by Michael F. Flynn in "The Clapping Hands of God" (first contact) and Stephen Baxter with "Mayflower II" (generation starship). Eleanor Arnason presents a unique perspective in "The Garden," a "science fictional romance" written by an alien. Dozois includes his summation of the field and honorable mentions list. The volume, like the genre, may now be venerable, but it's obviously still vibrant.
books · March 29, 2022, 6:23 a.m.
The Wavering Knife
xwidget_34_The Wavering Knife In a review of his The Cat's Pajamas & Other Stories, I mentioned James Morrow as an accomplished satirist who combines the dark with the droll. Brian Evenson, although far more brutal than Morrow, also manages to combine horror with humor. Unlike Morrow, he is no moralist. Evenson's stories are mirrors in which humanity sees its hideous self reflected without apparent comment or judgment. He tells story after story in an immaculate, logical voice that convinces us that violence is not an aberration and that savagery is not momentary insanity. We come away believing such things are not only essential to the human race, but serve to define it. Evenson speaks the unspeakable in a matter-of-fact manner that makes the horror all the more disturbing. In "The Ex-Father" a girl comes home from school with her younger sister and, in the middle of an after school snack, discovers the cat is leaving bloody footprints. She ascertains the cat's paws are not, as she had feared, injured then follows the tracks "back to her mother's bedroom to find her mother inside, lying on the floor dead after trying to saw off her own head." The girls' father reenters their lives and moves back into the house to care for his daughters, but he remains a "ghost." The elder daughter feels she must "snap the ex-father back into being a father again." She devises and executes an appalling plan that may well "snap" her father into...some state. Many of the stories are grounded in modern-day religiosity. Some good Christian boys have a few beers in "Barcode Jesus" and decide it is time to bring the local Wal-Mart to the Lord. ("It's not just any Wal-Mart...It's a Supra-Wal-Mart. Open 24/7. They got a grocery store and a video rental and a hair salon and even a bank-not just a cash machine, but a whole fuck-all bank....They got a tire center and you can get hunting licenses from squirrels to deer and there's an electronics center and a shitload of toads and frilly hats and God knows what else.") That the conversion in "Barcode Jesus" eventually involves a human bomb is not shocking, but inevitable. One's acceptance of this inevitability is, of course, shocking. A sanctimonious Mormon concludes that "liberals have seized the reins of the Church, leading the horses to run full bore away from God" in "The Prophets." He feels a return to the earlier Prophets of the Latter-Day Saints is the cure and sets about to resurrect "the last true prophet," Ezra Taft Benson, from the dead. Another group of pious men attempt male bonding and confront cross-dressing in a hilarious "Promisekeepers" that turns dark only at the end. Similarly, "The Gravediggers" modernizes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with gruesome wit that turns absolutely chilling at the conclusion. In "The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette," the narrator tries to kill his lover and afterwards "a measure of uncertainty slipped into their relationship." "White Square" is something of a mystery that will remind many readers of Kafka, but is deserving of its own recognition on the merits of its prose alone. "Moran's Mexico" toys with writers and academia, complete with footnotes. All eighteen stories in The Wavering Knife are worth reading. And, although Evenson has long garnered academic and literary acclaim, horror and fantasy readers or critics have never particularly noted him. He is far past due our recognition, praise, and reading as he is definitely "one of ours."
books · March 29, 2022, 6:09 a.m.
The Cat's Pajamas & Other Stories
xwidget_35_The Cat's Pajamas and Other Stories Despite some noteworthy awards, James Morrow is one of the more underappreciated writers in the business. He's also one of the best and one of the funniest. Morrow is a true satirist, a moralist who identifies some of our many faults and offers a wholly new perspective (not solutions, mind you, that is not his job) through his droll distortions. I suspect mainstream readers, as well as some science fiction and fantasy lovers, may be somewhat put off by exactly what you horror-lovers will relish the ghoulish side of his darkly delightful satire. Although enlightenment may be provided, it's usually not offered until we've dealt with at least some despair. It's probably enough to tell you the title story retells H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau by way of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but that's not all, folks! There's thirteen tales here that will have you laughing and weeping at the same time. "Come Back, Dr. Sarcophagus," a small play original to the volume, involves a creature feature host who needs a little outside help - outside of this world - to hold on to his job. In another original playette, "The Zombies of Montrose," a voodoo priestess provides raises the dead and puts them usefully to work in suburbia. Performance copulation has become high art in "The Wisdom of the Skin," but perhaps it is just a passing fancy. Catholicism's attention to the rights of the unborn evolves into a nightmarish future of dystopic fecundity in "Auspicious Eggs." "Apologue" is very short, very touching, and features a certain giant ape, a marauding mutant lizard, and a rollercoaster munching rheodasaur who come out of retirement in post-9/11 New York. James Morrow obviously loves his fellow human beings and has a sharp eye for their foibles. His wit and pen are sharper still. If you are unfamiliar with Morrow, this wonderful collection his first new title in about five years --from Tachyon (an equally wonderful small press based in San Francisco) is a superb starting point. If you already know him you won't want to miss it.
books · March 29, 2022, 6:06 a.m.
The Book of Renfield: A Gospel of Dracula
xwidget_33_The Book of Renfield Timing can be everything. Two Dracula spin-offs were released in June. One, the hugely hyped The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, immediately shot to the top of bestseller lists. The other, The Book of Renfield: A Gospel of Dracula has yet to receive the attention it deserves. Renfield may benefit from the big book's coattails but is more likely to be overwhelmed. The novel should, of course, be judged on its own merits, which are considerable. In the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, R.M. Renfield was a madman confined to Dr. John Seward's asylum. Dr Seward deems him "a zooephagous (life-eating) maniac" who wants to absorb as many lives as he can...in a cumulative way...[he gave] flies to one spider and many spiders to one bird, and then wanted a cat to eat the many birds." Renfield is also "a sort of index to the coming and going" of the vampire. Most importantly, it is through Renfield's character that Dracula is revealed as a force of capital-E Evil. It is this theme -- and its role in the 21st century -- that inspires Lucas's literary alternative. He employs Dr. "Jack" Seward, to tell the full story of Renfield's life -- and that of Jack himself -- through "historical documents," diaries and transcriptions. Lucas's style merges almost seamlessly with Stoker's (or rather Mina Murray Harker's, as she is depicted as the real author of Dracula) and his intimate knowledge of the original novel is impeccable. Unfortunately, these admirable qualities may be lost on the mainstream reader who embraces the romantic interpretation of the vampire over its evil version.
books · March 29, 2022, 5:49 a.m.
Moorcock: Three Reviews
xwidget_30_The White Wolf's Son Although acquainted with the Eternal Champion, my initial introduction to Moorcock was through books like AN ALIEN HEAT, THE HOLLOW LANDS, and THE END OF ALL SONGS, as well as GLORIANA and, later on, MOTHER LONDON. Eventually I caught up somewhat with Elric and Jerry Cornelius then flirted a bit with Pyat. I approached THE WHITE WOLF'S SON with some trepidation fearing I would be lost. Instead, I found answers to question I did not know I had. Readers previously unfamiliar (or somewhat baffled) with the "multiverse" created by Moorcock get a metaphysical short course; those already knowledgeable are exceedingly well served. The complex plot begins when a menacing stranger appears near twelve-year-old Oonagh von Bek's family manse in Yorkshire. She quickly finds herself providing hospitality for a band of oddly familiar and strangely heroic men. Before much more can happen, the earth tilts under Oonagh's feet and she finds herself in the World Below. A handsome foxy gentleman, Lord Reynard, befriends her, but with the villainous Gaynor the Damned and Klosterheim after her, she soon needs more protection. The bad guys want to destroy the universe in order to "remake it in their own image" and think Oonagh is part of the key to their success. Elric of Melniboné plays a major role as does Oona, the Dreamthief's daughter (and Oonagh's grandmother). Many Temporal Knights and avatars of the Eternal Champion appear as the adventure spans the multiverse and several versions of Mirenburg to reach its climax in the Dark Empire of Granbretan. Although told from the viewpoint of young Oonagh, it is filtered through her later adult perspective. Moorcock breaks "novel-writing rules" with glee in THE WHITE WOLF'S SON and it only enhances the story rather than detracting from it. Multiversal character Una Persson, for instance, stops the action entirely when she drops in to deliver a great deal about Elric's Dream of a Thousand Years to a character who much resembles the author. The breakneck adventure is also interspersed with considerable philosophizing, but the pace never lags. There are far too many characters, but the reader never loses focus. Moorcock makes it all work and astounds with a grand finale the serves as both beginning and conclusion to an epic fantasy saga that will really never end.   xwidget_31_Wizardry and Wild Romance Anyone seriously interested in fantasy of any sort should, of course, read this updated collection of Moorcockian criticism. Writers, scholars, and reviewers cannot be considered even minimally informed unless they've digested it. If there is such a thing as an Ur-document of non-Tolkienesque fantasy it is his essay "Epic Pooh," but that's not all this compilation presents. "Origins" offers a succinct but sweeping look at the foundations of fantasy. "The Exotic Landscape" brilliantly enunciates the importance of the connection between character, setting, and imagery in fantasy. Evolution of fantastic "Heroes and Heroines" is included as well as an appreciation of the comedic in "Wit and Humor." Fantasy is essentially a Second Romantic revival, we are told in "Excursions and Developments", and its commercialization and influence are summarized. (Moorcock does not muse on the consequences of the current trend in commercial publication that strips publishers of their power and cedes it to marketers. But who does?) The addition of a number of recent reviews further updates and extends his views. Moorcock's opinions demand thought and often provoke reaction, but even at his most devastating, they are supported not only with intelligence and knowledge, but blessed with wit and conveyed with style. Those who disagree with him seldom equal his erudition and ease of understanding. Decked in a wonderful John Picacio cover, enthusiastically introduced by China Mie&eacville;, and primly (if no less positively) afterworded by Jeff VanderMeer, this Monkeybrain Books edition should be in every library in the English-speaking world (and many outside it) as well as in your own personal collection.   xwidget_32_New Worlds NEW WORLDS: AN ANTHOLOGY was first published in the UK in 1983, but this is the first US edition. Intended not a "best of" but as a "sampling" of typical material, the earliest of the 21 stories, eight articles, and single poem dates from 1964 and the latest from 1977. More than a third of the total dates from 1967 and 1968, pivotal years of chaos and exuberance that rocked the world. "New Worlds" was a British magazine (then an anthology series) that became identified as the nexus of science fiction's "new wave" during the 1960s and 1970s. The new wave's most revolutionary accomplishment was, perhaps ironically, to reintegrate science fiction with literature as a whole. What the "New Worlds" writers accomplished, as editor Michael Moorcock puts it in this edition's new introduction, was a unification of the once-separate worlds of the generic and general. "[T]hose worlds," he writes, "are no longer incompatible and are, indeed, now, generally, indistinguishable." In fact, read today and taken as a whole, much of this fiction sometimes seems bland. It's a little too much like modern mainstream fiction in which nothing very interesting takes place. Other stories are of historical interest but no longer carry their original impact. When "Running Down" was first written, for example, M. John Harrison's eloquent prose was probably breathtaking. Now, it stands only as the original pattern for the more brilliant work that came after. "The Eye of the Lens by Langdon Jones" was wildly experimental in its day. It seems a bit tedious now. Norman Spinrad's druggy "No Direction Home" was once impressively original, but it has not worn well. Pamela Zoline's "The Heat Death of the Universe," still delivers its message with its juxtaposition of entropy and housewifery, but is now classic rather than au courant. Ballard's "The Assassination Weapon" is a landmark piece that has retained its impact, but, as part of THE ATROCITY EXHIBIT is now iconic. And how do you now respond to a story like "Angouleme" by Thomas S. Disch? On one hand, the story of well-to-do child-murderer wannabes reads more like fact than fiction now. On the other, if you've read Samuel R Delany's "The American Shore: Meditations on a tale of science fiction by Thomas M. Disch-Angouleme" then you are overly aware of the story. Any magazine or anthology is, ultimately, judged and remembered by the best and most memorable of its material. We may read scores of stories in the issues of magazine "X," but we will fondly recall what a great rag it was by the singular stories that stand out -- not the overall content or even a fair sample. "New Worlds" published stories like "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel Delany, "A Boy and His Dog by Harlan Ellison" by Harlan Ellison, JG Ballard's "Billennium", and Zelazny's "The Keys to December", and much more. This re-issue is historically interesting; perhaps a "best of New Worlds" is also called for. The eight nonfiction pieces included were, for me, of particular interest. Daphne Castell in 1964 on "The Realms of Tolkien" based around an interview with the writer before he became an adjective; an incisive John Clute on James Blish; JG Ballard on MEIN KAMPF; John Sladek railing against von Daninken's CHARIOTS OF THE GODS in 1969. M. John Harrison rants about the (then recent) regrettable triumph of fantasy over reality, a topic he now rants about with more clarity. James Colvin provides a lesson for all of us pubic opinionizers in "A Literature of Acceptance," a gem of well-written opinion that, in retrospect, proves rather mis-guided in spots. ("Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT is self-indulgent, infantile, self-conscious derivative, escapist fantasy...is pretty near unreadable...altogether a very embarrassing book indeed.") Christopher Finch writes on Eduardo Paolozzi's art 20 years before he became Sir Eduardo and David Harvey addresses "The Languages of Science." It leaves one to wonder where equivalent material is being consistently published today.
books · March 29, 2022, 12:25 a.m.
Elantris
xwidget_29_Elantris This satisfying debut novel begins ten years after the magic that once made Elantris, a radiant city of benevolent demigods, inexplicably fails. This capital of Arelon and and its magnificent inhabitants are reduced to rotting monstrosities. The city of Kae, lying in the shadow of ELantris, becomes the capital, but a mysterious malady still randomly afflicts individuals, including the crown prince, Raoden. Like others so affected, Raoden is cast into Elantris and considered dead in Kae. Princess Sarene of Teod arrives to wed the prince and is told he is dead, but that she is considered to be his widow. This political convenience is needed to preserve an alliance between Arelon and Teod, the last two countries outside the grasp of the religiously fanatical Fjordell Empire. Hrathen, a priest of the empire, arrives on the scene to convert the heathen Kae. Machinations and a non-stop single-volume story ensue. Sanderson still has room to improve his prose, but his imaginative chops are apparent.
books · March 29, 2022, 12:15 a.m.
Lady of Mazes
The ring world of Teven Coronal offers a wide variety of consensual realities, "manifolds", governed by a specific set of technologies. Each offers meaningful, if differing, ways of life for inhabitants. Livia Kodaly's cosmopolitan microcivilzation, Westerhaven, is one of comfort and gentility. Qiingi is a warrior of the Raven people in a manifold with a "noble savage" narrative attuned to the sacredness of living things. Invaders, followers of a mysterious "3340", arrive on Teven and devastate its ways of life by destroying the "tech locks" that enforce the separate realities. Since most people no longer believe in a reality beyond their own, they cannot accept the revelations. Livia, uniquely shaped by a disaster in her childhood, can survive and adapt. She, along with her co-survivor Aaron Varese, and Qiingi leave Teven to seek salvation for their home. Although shaped as an adventurous journey by protagonists who must face a series of unknowns, the novel is also an exploration of the political, social, and personal aspects of the question "How does humanity survive when, due to godlike technological powers, each person can have everything they want?" The insightful Schroeder's answers are fascinating, astonishingly original, and packed with provocative ideas. The science is solid, but like all good stories, it is the human element that makes it a standout tale. And, like the very best speculative fiction, Lady of Mazes is full of debatable points that give it a life beyond its pages.   xwidget_28_Lady of Mazes  
books · March 28, 2022, 11:36 p.m.
Orphans of Chaoes
xwidget_27_Orphans of Chaos This is a book that's likely to be misunderstood. Chances are you will either find it wickedly entertaining, highly imaginative, and thought provoking -- as I did -- or you find it disgusting, sexist, inappropriate, and to be kept out of the hands of children at all costs. (Don't worry. I'll get to the naughty bits soon enough.) Five young people -- to all appearances in their teens -- are the sole students of an English boarding school on a vast estate replete with stately Georgian and Edwardian edifices. Except for the mix of sexes, this institution more closely resembles a pre-World War II British public school than any educational facility of the current century. They learn Greek and Latin, translate Homer and Hyginus, study Euclid, Descartes, Shakespeare, and Milton. The curriculum includes astronomy, philosophy, theology, advanced physics, and a rigorous course of mathematics. They read Thackeray, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Roald Dahl, but they are well acquainted with pop stars as well. The school staff has Dickensonian names -- Headmaster Boggin, the motherly Mrs. Wren who cares for the girls, sinister Doctor Ananias Fell, the musical Miss Daw. The orphans recollect being called (in something like the Roman manner) Primus, Secunda, Tertia, Quartinus, and Quentin, but were allowed as children to they chose their own rococo names: Victor Invictus Triumph, Amelia Armstrong Windrose, Vanity Fair (the only other girl), Colin Iblis mac FirBolg, and Quentin Nemo (who stuck with his childhood nomen.) As narrator Amelia puts it, "The estate is our home, our academy, and our prison." Like all adolescents, they must test boundaries. But don't be mislead -- this is no heartwarming tale of headstrong youngsters adventurously coming of age. Well, actually, it's that, too, but not in the way you might expect and we are most decidedly not talking about Harry Potter. These five orphans aren't learning spells under a (mostly) kindly faculty at Hogwarts. No one is as they first seem and the orphans are being (at the very least) drugged into forgetting who and what they are. The plot simmers as the orphans strive to find clues to their identities. They discover mythic tales they have written down and hidden, stories they have evidently forgotten and re-discovered time and time again. As they regain memory they find themselves in possession of special superhuman powers. Quinton can fly and make magic, Victor can manipulate molecules, Vanity discovers secret passages, and Amelia can see and move in the fourth dimension. Colin's power, in fact Colin himself, is more vague than the others at first, but eventually we learn he has psychic powers. But don't be misled -- this is no comic book story of superpowered teens. The X-men are only mutant humans. These kids are something other than human altogether and this book is not simply tale of good guys vs. bad guys. The simmer heats to a full boil when the school's Board of Visitors and Governors show up for a meeting. Quentin and Amelia spy on them and they turn out to be, well, of mythic proportion. Boiling along we, and the orphans, come to understand that there different versions of the universe. Each orphan comes from a different version and each draws upon his or her universe for power. They are, indeed, prisoners, but their warders -- an amalgam of various factions and interests -- are also held hostage to cooperating with one another in order keep the orphans in their grasp. But don't be misled -- despite the concepts we aren't wandering into that sort of fantasy where everything gets explained in "scientific" terms. There are times when it seems that way, as when Amelia tries to explain the fourth dimension: Oh! You're right. There are only six points on the hypersurface where the axis intersects it that form 3-spheres. I guess I was confusing the number of right-angled intersections with the Kissing Number, which in the case of 4-d equal 24. I was fooled because I was thinking that if a sphere is all points equidistant from a given point, such that x²+y2²+z²=r² then a four-sphere would satisfy w²+x²+y²+z²=r².... No, Orphans of Chaos has as much more, to do with the metaphysical than the pseudo-tangible. Those who understand little of Christian theology might even be misled into thinking this is shaping up into some sort of C.S. Lewis Christian "supposition". (Lewis: "Let us suppose that reality contained different parallel worlds, and that in one of them the Son of God, as He became Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.") The orphans are being raised in a form of Christianity closely resembling that of an Anglican "High Church" and even use the Compline at one point. There are Arthurian references and those legends were, of course, soundly entrenched in Christianity for over 500 years before current non-Christian interpretations. More pointedly, a character claims to be the "last Donatist" and speaks at length of Christianity. But she *is* a Donatist, disparaging and condemning any other version of the faith, explaining the Bible is full of fables and nonsense. Still waiting for me to explain why some will be misled into being offended by Orphans of Chaos? Very well. Prudes can probably handle the scene where the girls discover their powers of seduction when they roll up their plaid skirts, unbutton their white blouses, and tie on some aprons in order to distract the groundskeeper Mr. Glum with a saucy sexy-maid routine. They can abide a scene shortly thereafter when Colin turns "from a little annoying boy into a dangerous young animal" and Amelia both loathes and loves his mastery of her: Victor [who she fancies] looked into my eyes and he saw I wanted Colin's strong hands on me, I wanted to be helpless in his arms. He saw how pleased, how flustered, the sensation was to me....But that wasn't the message I wanted him to see. It was your hands, Victor, I wanted; your strength I want to triumph over me. Shades of Regency Romance, perhaps, and somewhat purple prose, but nothing really offensive. They might wince at a scene worthy of Clive Barker in which Lamia, the bloodsucking "Mother of Vampires" whose hair ornaments turn into scalpels, tests whether a captive Quentin is a man or a boy. His "flaccid manhood" attests to the latter. No, our book banners are going to get upset with the ongoing theme of sexual dominance and submission including scenes of abduction with intention of rape, bondage, humiliating display, and spanking. And there was an even darker naughtier pleasure trembling beneath the fear and confusion in my body [thinks Amelia]. Because I knew this wasn't a teacher punishing a schoolgirl. This was a man spanking a woman. He certainly would not have done this to a man. And he might not even have done it to Vanity. It was something for me. A bad thing, maybe even a terrible and humiliating thing, but it was mine. Shades of Victorian Smut! Yes, Wright is certainly having a great deal of fun with his mildly erotic BDSM passages, but anyone who sees them as gratuitous lechery is reading them out of context. Although impossible to convey in a review (I'm having enough trouble avoiding spoilers), Orphans of Chaos is about the balancing and shaping of power and the power of belief. On a psychological level -- and here, on a metaphorical level -- BDSM is about the exchange of power and Wright is juxtaposing it against the emotions of characters who are so sexually innocent that who bestows and receives a first kiss is of primary importance. Another contingent, that of SF/F snobs, may be offended by the obvious parallel to Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber. In Orphans, like in the Zelazny book and consequent series, lost memory is the key to true identity and knowledge of true identity leads to immersion in intrigue and power struggles. Get a grip, folks, Zelazny had a Master's degree in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. You don't think he was inspired, like all writers, by those who have come before? Orphans of Chaos has some other elements in common with Zelazny's Amber (and, perhaps, come to think, his Lord of Light) but the most pertinent is complexity. This volume is not even half the potion Wright is brewing and, not surprisingly, a sequel, Fugitives of Chaos, is forthcoming. No doubt there will be those who are offended by this division. I'm a little miffed myself, but only because I look forward to more Chaos with much anticipatory glee. I'm sure I'll not find the likes of it before then. Perhaps if Laura Antoniou were to get a degree in physics and both Roger Zelazny and Neil Gaiman were dating her and they were all reading Hesiod in the original Greek and studying Christian theology -- they might write something like John C. Wright's novel. Since that will not happen and you, dear reader, are neither easily misled nor offended, then you will certainly want to read Orphans of Chaos. -- Paula Guran
books · March 28, 2022, 11:29 p.m.
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