The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Jul/Aug 2014: Afterthoughts

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
July / August 2014
Edited by C.C. Finlay
256 pages
4 stars

 

The stories in this volume were deeply visceral, diving to the core of that invisible organ the pumps human emotion. Guest editor C.C.Finlay chose works that grip the reader with their imagery, and place them firmly in those places we sometimes fear to shine light on. Many of the stories in this issue are disturbing and not for the squeamish, but incredible reads all the same. As much as I missed seeing some of my usual favorites in Fantasy & Science Fiction, the new names and the titles that go with them were refreshing and entertaining all the same.

MoFSF jul augNot to be read while eating.

Palm Strike’s Last Case
Charlie Jane Anders
four_half-stars_0

In this very well written superhero/sci-fi crossover, Charlie Jane Anders mixes the two genres without making either of them feel campy. In fact, aside from a few familiar tropes sprinkled here and there, the interconnection between the two is seamless.

Luc has been fighting against the drug lord Dark Shard for years now, ever since he lost his son Rene to their foul underworld. He’s getting old, and tired–but even then it takes some heavy pushing to get him to actually retire on a newly colonized planet far, far away. At least, retirement was on his mind before someone sabotaged his cryo-module, someone who knows he’s the crime fighting vigilante Palm Strike. Someone who has brought the drug war to what should have been a fresh, new start.

Told masterfully in present tense, something which is difficult to pull off at the best of times, Anders succeeds in placing the reader directly at Luc’s side, silently cheering for the old guy to put a fist to one more bad guy, and save the new world from certain disaster.

Subduction
Paul M. Berger
five-stars

This is easily the best story of the issue, and not just because I have a lingering soft spot for dragons from my high school days. Berger’s story of subterranean reptiles and tectonic plates and the destruction of Earth scenarios really puts the realism in magical realism.

Oliver doesn’t know who he is. He woke up in a bus stop with no memories of anything before that moment, and a pretty damn strong wanderlust. Following the pull from California all the way to a small fishing island on the north Pacific, Oliver isn’t sure that he’ll find any answers for the strange tingles of familiarity and flashes of a life previously lived. But one thing he does know is that he doesn’t like the earthquakes that are coming stronger, and more frequent than they have any business doing. And the pretty baker Moira is giving him more attention than any single stranger in a small community ought to get.

The amnesia element of the story gave it a wonderful sense of mystery, and while I wasn’t entirely sold on Moira’s role when she was first introduced, by the end of the story, I was quite attached to her, and more so to Oliver, who is just the sort of helplessly likable character I can easily fall for.

Seven Things Cadet Blanchard Learned from the Trade Summit Incident
Annalee Flower Horne
three and a half

I liked the narrative structure of this one, even if the story itself was short, with a very Scooby-Doo feel to it. Told in the first person by smart-ass cadet Blanchard as a sort of confessional, the events in the story take a distant second to the personality of the characters.

A stink bomb has gone off in Blanchard’s ship, Stinson, right in the middle of a trade summit. As the ship’s resident prankster, she naturally gets blamed for it, but of course, no one believes her when she insists she’s not the one responsible. It falls to her now to explain her side of the story, of how she and her group of plucky friends uncovered the real culprit, and the reasons behind the unfortunately hilarious prank.

The Traveling Salesman Solution
David Erik Nelson
3-stars-out-of-5

Here’s the thing: I distinctly remember studying the traveling salesman problem in university, but either my memory is terrible (always a possibility) or I wasn’t paying attention in class, because I had no idea what the problem was in this story. Understanding the math isn’t necessary to understanding the story, but if you’re like me and like the science in your science fiction to at least be accessible to the layman, it can be a little distracting. It’s possible that I may go back and read this one after glancing through my old textbooks, just to see if I might pick up something more on the second pass.

Being confined to a wheelchair isn’t all that much fun, especially when your brother-in-law is a marathon runner who won’t shut up about his most recent upset. But when our protagonist* gives in and finally agrees to hear the man out, it’s clear that he’s got good reason to be upset. Someone is cheating on marathons, and it looks suspiciously like teleportation.

Don’t ask me to explain any of the technical details of this one as even though there’s a lengthy passage describing it all, I still don’t get it. It was an entertaining read all the same, and the ending was something I absolutely didn’t expect, which earned my respect.

*One of the difficult things about reviewing stories written in first person is that I don’t get a name to latch onto, and when I do, I’m often too engaged with the story to write it down. If I missed the protagonist’s name in this story, my apologies.

End of the World College
Sandra McDonald
3-stars-out-of-5

I wasn’t too impressed with this one at first, but its tongue-in-cheek qualities saved it, in the end. It is, as the title suggests, one massive collection of every doomsday scenario come to life.

Bad things don’t come in threes. They come in hundreds, and they bring about the destruction of the world. But even in these trying times, the value of a good education is undeniable. Thus, the End of the World College is here to serve, and its course calendar neatly explains to readers everything that has gone wrong in the world, and what can be done to continue to survive in it.

I loved the style of this one, but it unfortunately seemed to stray in a few places into a more traditional narrative that bounced me around a bit, and reminded me of the story I was reading. Also, not being a huge fan of post-apocalypticals, this one wasn’t all for me.

The Girls Who Went Below
Cat Hellisen
3-stars-out-of-5

I’ve thought about this one for a while now, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it has a very unique setting among most fantasy and sci-fi I’ve read, as well as a somewhat unique storyline. However, especially near the end, it felt somewhat uncomfortably familiar, though part of that might be how well Hellisen captures the adolescent experience in fiction.

Lucy and Milly have always been close. As sisters living with their aunt out in South Africa, they’ve had a life far removed from the polite society of an England they don’t know. It seems that nothing can split the two apart. That is until the strange boy Mallery appears in their lives. Suddenly Milly is acting all sorts of strange, and pushing Lucy further and further away. Of course, Lucy isn’t blameless in this as well. As much as she hates Mallery for what he’s doing to her sister, she can’t help but feel there’s something about him…

Deeply disturbing by the end, this is one of those stories that you can see the road its taking. You pray it won’t go where you know it’s going to go (but secretly you want to see the traumatic crash at the end).

The Day of the Nuptial Flight
Sarina Dorie
4 stars

This one surprised me. I really wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did. The alien narration at first put me off, but as the story progressed, I found I liked the characters more and more, even if they story itself is very familiar. I don’t want to talk too much about this one, because the charm of it is definitely in the narration, and it should be taken as a whole. It is a very good story, though.

The Aerophone
Dinesh Rao
two-star-rating

There were a couple things about this story that niggled me as I was reading. Part of it was the language used was in places too cliche for my tastes. (Though, to be fair, in other places the imagery is stunning and very beautiful.) The plot also seemed to be loosely connected and not satisfactorily concluded. Finally, the main character was too inwardly leaning for the direction of the story, I felt. Not introspective or self-centered, per se but for a third person narration that didn’t seem at most points to be particularly close to the main character, only he felt developed. This made the secondary characters’ personalities and actions appear inexplicably erratic and ungrounded. It made me feel as though the protagonist was the only living human among a cast of marionettes.

Shanker is in a bit of a bind, at the moment. His research isn’t going very well, and he’s still struggling with the effects of an accident a few weeks prior. When his wife Julia introduces him to Dr. James, and indirectly, to Dr. James’ research, Shanker’s life takes a turn toward the supernatural. But what possibly could he have expected, blowing into a skull shaped aerophone, he was explicitly told not to blow into? Certainly not whispers and strange visages haunting him in mirrors. But that’s only the beginning.

The Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence 14-22 June, 1818, with Diagrams
Ian Tregillis
five-stars

First of all, I want to point out that this story is disappointingly lacking in any diagrams. I almost knocked a star off just for that, but for the fact that it was amazingly entertaining, with a clear, unique voice, and a trembling tale of seafaring horror. Still wish it actually had those diagrams, though.

Call Samuel Frobisher crazy if you must–certainly everyone else must have already–but he solemnly swears that everything he has written in his report is the truth. It came from the ocean. She… it, whatever it was, it came from the ocean, and bewitched the entire crew. Only an unfortunate accident spared Samuel from her spell, but not from her wrath.

If you like horror and 1800’s sailors’ narratives, this is just the story for you. Again, the story goes where you expect it will go, but it doesn’t bore the reader in the process. In fact you might just feel a slimy tentacle binding you to the pages.

Five Tales of the Aqueduct
Spencer Ellsworth
4 stars

I admit, as much as I enjoy reading surreal fantasy and science fiction, half the time I have no idea what’s going on. I think that’s why I like surrealist fiction, actually. I can disappear for a few pages into the free falling imagination of someone else’s brain, and experience what the disconnected world feels like from a different mind.

Five Tales of the Aqueduct is self explanatory. It’s five tales from the unnatural reservoir in the middle of the Californian desert. The tale takes you from the point of view of a drunk old woman and a talking catfish to a fishing pterosaur; from a young man and his elusive dream girl to a politician and a talking koi; and finally, all the way back to a catfish again.

Belly
Haddayr Copley-Woods
4 stars

I have a soft spot for fairytales, even dark, horror tinged fairytales (as most of the early ones were anyway). Belly, with its disgusting imagery, its helpless, trapped feeling, its down to the guts nauseating setting was no different. I loved it. I loved the narration, and the character, and while the ending went to places I hadn’t been expecting, it kept the fairytale feeling throughout the entire story.

Our protagonist has been swallowed by a witch. You’d think that was bad enough, but it’s far from the worst. See, this witch seems bent on making the protagonist’s life hell by swallowing all sorts of fowl, disgusting things, and making the poor girl swim around in it. But went one day a goat swallowed whole nearly thrashes a hole through the witch’s stomach, our protagonist gets an idea. One way or another, she’s escaping, but no one is going to be happy about it.

The Only Known Law
William Alexander
4 stars

This is maybe the most bitter-sweet story in the issue. For a while I was sucked into the protagonist’s indifferent, almost apathetic voice, but this is the trap. I was so moved by the end of the story that I couldn’t read the last one for a few hours while I recovered.

Nicolao doesn’t particularity dislike the jelly-like alien puttering around in a nutrient tank in his lab, but he doesn’t particularly like it either. Or maybe it’s just because his wife Yaretzi is going down to a new, uncolonized planet without him. And no, he doesn’t want to go with her. But Yaretzi is big on taking risks, and there’s nothing Nicolao can do about it except wait. And talk to this strange little alien Messenger who has some secrets to reveal, when it’s good and ready.

A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i
Alaya Dawn Johnson
three and a half

In A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i, Johnson gives the reader a vampire story that isn’t unlike many other vampire stories that have been written. We still have a protagonist who, for most of the story, longs to be a vampire and is in requisite love with one (I suppose that vampires are good at inducing Stockholm syndrome). The vampires themselves reminded me of those from the movie 30 Days of Night, which also placed the undead blood suckers in an unfamiliar environment. It is the Asia-Pacific setting that injects any newness into the story, and keeps it fresh enough to make it palatable. What endeared me to this story wasn’t the vampire element, or the human element–I’ve read that story before–but the Hawai’ian setting, and the way, as the title suggests, that fruit plays its part in preserving what remains of the human spirit.

Key is an overseer at a middle grade feeding facility for vampires. They’ve come, they’ve conquered, and now humans all over the world are but bottles in an endless bar chain. For Key’s part, being an overseer is better than being a bottle, but she still longs to see the man she loves, a vampire, perhaps the vampire who started all this on her Hawai’ian islands. When one of the humans in her care slashes up his veins and bleeds out all over the floor, Key might just get a chance. Her boss Mr. Charles sends her to investigate a similar suicide at the high end facility her vampire love Tetsuo runs.

The next book on my reading list is The Essential Bordertown edited by Terri Windling and Delia Sherman.

Blending Arts

Today was supposed to be my first day back at work after a week long holiday. Then my student caught a cold and my class was cancelled, so woohoo! Extended holiday! Armed with a cup of tea and an empty house, I did what I’d been doing for the last week: I was creatively productive for Bone Wall. I tickled out another 1700 words today and that combined with what I wrote over the break put me at just over 33,000. Awesome. But it’s still only a fifth of my word goal, which is actually a good thing considering I’m 33k in and I still haven’t gotten my main character’s butt out the door.

To be fair, things are a little rough in that protagonist role I gave him. Specifically, he doesn’t have all the much to do in the first half of my outline. Mostly, things happen around him that frustrate him until he does something stupid. Which is fine. But set up needs to happen via the other characters, and one of them in particular became so amazing that I accidentally gave her an 8000 word chapter, all for herself. For real.

That chapter wasn’t even supposed to be there. It wasn’t written into the outline at all, but a she had to take a three day journey through the desert that I had originally intended to be a time jump until I realized hey, this is a good opportunity to set down some scenery and toss in a few world building seeds for later. Well, it turns out that those seeds grew like hyperactive bamboo, and the next thing I knew, I had a whole other subplot in my arms, wailing and soiling itself. Fortunately it’s an easy enough thing to tie into the main plot later on, however, I now have 8000 words devoted to a secondary character, while my protagonist, for all intents and purposes, is at home twiddling his thumbs. It’s a problem, and I’m struggling to find things for him to do.

“Well, why don’t you just make the more interesting character the protagonist?” I hear you say in my mind, because my readers have suddenly become telepathic.  The answer to that is, because the secondary character has nothing to do in the second half of the book, and the protagonist is running around having all the cool adventures. It’s a tag team; they’re working together to frustrate me now, and I won’t have it! Hardship and turmoil all around. That’ll teach ‘em.

Return_of_Syn_by_SynSpyder

Because I had a week to kill and no plans to go anywhere or do anything other than turn my brain off and drool for a couple days, I thought I’d flex my art fingers and do some sketches for my WIP. Drawing is a nice way to relieve some pent up creative energy that won’t go easily into writing. Mostly, I wanted to do some costume design. I have a sort of a vague notion of what the cultural costumes for the characters are, but because I’m absolute shit at retaining images in my head for more than a few seconds, it really doesn’t hep me unless I can physically see what I’m trying to describe. It also doesn’t help that every single costume book I’ve bought has this bizarre idea that, aside from France and England (and the rest of the western European counties to a lesser extent) no one else in the world wore clothes.

Anyway, I’ve based my designs on what I could scrounge up on Pinterest of Turkish costumes, as those are as close as I can get to the vision in my head. At the moment they borrow heavily, but I can’t branch out creatively until I fully understand the root of what I’m drawing.

Before I self-consciously reveal my artistic soul to the whole, cruel internet, there’s a few things you should know:

1) I’m not phenomenally good at visual art. It’s not a skill I’ve spent a lot of time honing in recent years. As a child, I drew and drew and painted and painted, and there were some offers to attend art school and all that, but my father told me again and again that there was no future in art, and I stupidly believed him. (Lesson here, kids: if anyone tells you that you’re a fool for pursuing what you love, stick your fingers firmly into your ears and shout “LALALALALALACAN’THEARYOU!”). Anywho, in the end I decided I wanted to be a writer more than I wanted to be a painter, or a banker, or a veterinarian, and so I’m aware that my art will never make it into any beautiful galleries. I’m fine with that. (Really *sniff* I am *sniff*.)

2) Copics aren’t my usual medium. I get the most satisfaction with the finished product of my artwork from pencil or acrylic. But I now live next to an art store (just as dangerous as living next to a bookstore, believe me) and a whole world of medium has opened up to me. Copics are a sort of alcohol based marker that are more versatile than regular old Crayola felt pens. You have more control over transparency and blends and they can combine to form some really cool visual effects. I like working with Copics when I want to put some quick color onto a drawing, or experiment with color combos, but I am by no means fluent in their use. I’m a two year old finger-painting on the wall with my own diaper leavings compared to some of the art that can be drawn up with them.

3) These were mostly done as an experiment in design and color. Not a great deal of planning went into any of the designs here. I messed around with different pens and markers until I got something close to satisfactory, and changed my strategy for each new picture I did.

So, with that in mind, here is the product of three days of tinkering:

IMG_1742I started with this one. At this point I was just messing around, considering how my characters might dress. It’s not all that spectacular.
Things I Learned:
– I really need to find my outlining pens. Regular permanent markers bleed like a stuck pig when used with Copics.
– The colorless blending marker is not very good at blending. It is, however, somewhat decent at highlighting, if you can control the bleed.
– Textured paper is no good for Copics.
– Small detail work in a vastly different color needs to be done with another medium. Copics bleed together too easily. Probably because of the paper.
– I’m not skilled enough to make large shoes not look like large feet.
– I need to learn how to draw proper folds in clothing.

 

 

IMG_1744This one I had much more success with. I had a mission: to actually create something aesthetically pleasing. Something with some cool design elements. Something flashy. I ended up flubbing the pencil sketch, but the coloring turned out all right.
Things I Learned:
– As much as I shudder at assigning different poses to different sexes, drawing a noblewoman in a skirt with her legs spread looks awkward.
– Boobs mess up perspective.
– Either a cloth is all the way shear, or all the way opaque. Combining the two looks confusing.
– Light source is important.
– As is knowing the direction of the cloth fall.
– The colorless blender is boss at making something look like damask or brocade. Especially when used with a jell or milk pen.
– Reds bleed like, well, blood. It’s very messy.

 

IMG_1746With this final picture, I had a lot clearer picture in my head when I started it. I went in it with some clear ideas as to what I wanted the final product to look like.
Things I Learned:
– Screw finding my old outlining pens. Let’s by a new, expensive Copic drawing pen… that bleeds just as badly as the permanent marker.
– Even if you’ve got no other shade to use for shadows, don’t go with one that’s radically darker than your base palette.
– It doesn’t matter if it works in the photograph, the design has to make sense on your own page.
– Don’t get lazy with shading and highlights.
– White milk pen makes amazing patterns for cloth.
– Lighter Copic colors are easier to work with than darker ones.
– Outlining designs in fabric doesn’t work. Line art is best reserved for outside boundaries only.
– Don’t use shadows sparingly. There are three different shades for each color for a reason.

So that was a little view of my artistic endeavors for the week.

How do you blow creative steam?
Have you ever had a story hijacked by a side character? What did you do about it?

 

Home for the Holidays

Originally posted on Out of Print:

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Home for the Holidays
N J Magas

All her neighbors were already in the streets, but Mariko was still pacing in front of her window, watching their lantern lit outlines disappear into the darkness. Laughter and light conversation trailed after them as the crowds thinned and finally left the cobbled road deserted. Mariko let the curtain fall away from her hand and tapped her fingers against the sill impatiently.

“Hurry up Tetsuyo! Everyone is leaving!”

“Now hold on, I can’t find my hat.”

Oh, just leave it.

“It’s over by the window, next to the lilies.” Mariko poked her head out the door. Stragglers who trickled out of their homes hurried to catch up with the crowd and were quickly lost from sight. If Mariko and her husband tallied any longer, there wouldn’t be a seat for them on the boat.

“I looked there. It’s not—Oh, there it is. Now…

View original 2,827 more words

The Book of the Courtier: Afterthoughts

The Book of the Courtier
Baldesar Castiglione
189 pages (269 with afterword and references)

3-stars-out-of-5

 

For a book that’s only 189 pages long, it took a really, really long time to get through this one. Partly because it’s very dense, and partly because it was originally written in the early 1500’s, so much of the book drags in elegant language that tends to lose my twenty-first century attention span. It picked up in the middle where the dialogue gets heated, but it still took me close to two hours to get through twenty pages. In short, it’s not a book that lends itself well to casual reading.

the book of the courtierI’d say that I’m about to spoil this for you, if I was 100% sure that I understood it all.

To begin with, I liked The Prince better, if only because Machiavelli actually gives advice on how to be a good ruler, where The Book of the Courtier only goes as deep as “One ought to be good and fair”. How does one be good and fair? By doing good and fair things, obviously. It’s not very helpful in a lot of respects, but I suppose there aren’t many people these days who need to know how to be a good courtier or an effective prince.

The Book of the Courtier is a courtesy book, which is to say, a book meant to teach the reader about manners. What it has ended up being for modern scholars and historians is a great look into the life and times of the Italian court in the early Renaissance. Castiglione wrote the book as an extended letter, in four parts with each part representing a different night on which these dialogues supposedly took place. Now, apparently the people in the book are all real, however the dialogues themselves are fictional. The edition I read (pictured above) helpfully lists the characters in the beginning of the book. They are as follows:

Elisabeth Gonzaga: Duchess of Urbino, hostess of the dialogues.
Emilia Pia: Elisabeth’s friend, court agitator.
Ludovico da Conossa: Count, relative of Castiglione; another court agitator.
Giuliano de’ Medici (Magnifico): exile from Florance; highly suspected of participating in the dialogues to get laid.
Ottaviano Fregoso: suspected mysogynist.
Peitro Bembo: very much a poet; possibly also in this to get laid.
Cesare Gonzaga: relative of Elisabeth; possessor of good sense.
Gaspar Pallavicino: Count; most definitely a mysogynist.
Lots of other men and women who didn’t impress me enough to mention.

The dialogues begin when the courtiers present get tired of dancing and singing and music playing and all come together to play a game, which in this case means, ‘let’s sit together and nettle each other under the pretense of a debate’, which is pretty much how I watch movies with friends. The more things change. For a while the courtiers can’t decide what the heck it is that they want to talk about, all topics apparently having been exhausted, or being too exhausting. The Duchess puts the decision of what the night’s entertainment is to be to her companion Emilia, who immediately becomes drunk on power and takes cheap shots at the men as they give their suggestions. Finally–and with some exasperation–it is suggested that they talk about what the perfect courtier might look like, and Emilia jumps on the suggestion, and puts to task the poor man who suggests it. Honestly, I didn’t really like Emilia until Gaspar opened his mouth, which is kind of like disliking cabbage moths in your garden until you discover the wasp nest in your attic.

The first part of The Book of the Courtier is rather short and mostly deals with what the perfect courtier ought to be skilled in, which is pretty much everything. I mean, these are the first things you’d think of when putting together the perfect man: he’s got to be athletic in all the popular sports, given to masculinity over femininity, though he must also be sensitive and courteous, and well learned and well read, intelligent and prudent, likable and generous, skilled in the arts etc. etc. Draw up your vision of Prince Charming and that’s pretty much the beginning part of this book.

The second part of the book slides into the topic of how a courtier ought to speak to the various people in his life. This ends up becoming a very long (very long) discussion on what humor is, and all the different kinds of humor. And it wouldn’t be a good discussion if they didn’t include examples of each kind of humor, from puns to practical jokes. I’m sure the jokes were hilarious (actually no, a great deal of this chapter was very, very unfunny) except that the punch lines were in Italian, and so all the humor was lost on me. The chapter ends with the courtiers regaling each other with all the times they behaved like asshats at the expense of someone else. This, too, is apparently incredibly funny. However, Gaspar then decides to bring the entire mood of the evening down by suggesting that it’s totally unfair that women can play practical jokes on men, but men can’t play practical jokes on women. At which point a few of the other courtiers point out that it’s not really fair to play those kinds of jokes on women, seeing that men don’t lose much in the joking, but women stand to lose their honor, which, let’s face it guys, is all that women have of worth. But Gaspar has had his sudden woman rage ignited and won’t let this issue go, so he keeps railing on how unfairly women treat men, until finally Elisabeth says, “Since Gaspar can’t seem to find anything nice to say about women, one of you guys needs to step up and tell us what the perfect court lady is like.” (I paraphrase, of course.) This causes the assembled men of court to collectively pale and shit their pants, and request that the discussion be held off until the next night. Elisabeth and Emilia agree, and the evening is called to a close. One assumes that Gaspar is later given a swirly in a chamber pot by all the other men for getting them involved in his bullshit.

Part three is probably the most amusing portion of the book. It’s certainly the part I was most awake for. Emilia opens the conversation requesting that someone defend the honor of women from their enemies (Gaspar and Ottaviano, who takes his side). Throughout this, Gaspar continues to insist that he’s not an enemy of women, and that, in fact, he’s doing them a favor by telling them how truly inferior and wretched they are, instead of heaping on ‘false’ praises. At this point, the eyebrows of everyone in the court are raised at him and Ottaviano in an expression of Really, dude? Finally, the Magnifico has enough of Gaspar’s unfettered mysogyny, and takes it upon himself to give example after example after historical, literary and courtly example of how women are at least as accomplished, capable, intelligent and ruthless as men are. Apparently no one ever told Magnifico not to argue with the trolls. Predictably, Gaspar meets each of Magnifico’s examples with a host of logical fallacies and goal post shifting. Gaspar says women are weak; Magnifico gives him examples of women being strong; Gaspar says women are overly passionate; Magnifico gives him examples of women’s temperance; Gaspar says women are too cold; Magnifico gives him examples of women who have gone to incredible lengths for love; Gaspar says women are naturally inferior, and onward ad infinitum. Here are a few of my favorite moments from part three, again paraphrased:

Duchess: Ok, we’ve spent two nights talking about the perfect courtier. Since Gaspar wants to be an ass about it, you all have to talk about what the perfect court lady is like.
Courtiers: *pale* We…. we couldn’t presume to–
Duchess: I’m waiting.
Courtiers: But–
Duchess: Are you unable to?
Courtiers: Well, no, but–I mean… we could describe the perfect woman, but she would be a queen, not a court lady.
Gaspar: She doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a perfect woman, because they’re all incompetent and stupid.
Emilia: So, which of you fine and noble gentlemen is going to defend us against our enemy here?
Gaspar: Hey, I’m not your enemy.
Magnifico: *steps in to give 30 pages of examples of worthy women in history*
Gaspar: Like all women, they do things in extremes. You’d never find a man doing things in extremes. Also, current stories or they never happened.
Duchess: I notice, Gaspar, that over the previous two nights you never once raised an objection that all these fine and noble traits of our phantom courtier can’t be actually all be found in one man today, yet when Magnifico gives up examples of what a perfect lady might be, you’re quick to jab in “No such lady exists today.”
Frisio: I’ve never heard of any of the women you’re talking about, Magnifico, so your evidence is invalid.
Magnifico: You’re all retarded.
Gaspar: Women are stupid, imperfect defects of nature.
Duchess: Gaspar, I’m sitting right here.
Gaspar: I beg your pardon, my lady, but it’s true.
Magnifico: Dude, you seriously hate women.
Gaspar: No I don’t.
Magnifico: You totally do. You can’t say a single line about them without laying on the hate.
Gaspar: Look, it’s true that women are imperfect, and stupid, and without good reason or judgement, but they can’t help it, nature made them that way, thus, I accept that, and respect them for their natural deficiencies.
Magnifico: You are such a mysogynist.
Gaspar: I’m not, I’m just telling the truth, unlike you who unkindly flatter them.
Duchess: Still sitting right here, Gaspar.
Gaspar: Women will never be as perfect as men.
Magnifico: Are you serious? Here’s ten pages on how you’re wrong.
Gaspar: And here’s a paragraph on how husbands are abused by their wives.
Magnifico: Are you F***ING kidding me?! We’ve institutionalized women into a weaker role than men and you villainize them for occupying the role WE put them in?
Gaspar: Women are stupid, imperfect defects of nature.
Magnifico: ARGH!  I’m tired of talking about this. My Lady Duchess, can I stop debating with idiots now?
Gaspar: He only wants to stop because he can’t think of anything else good to say about women.
Magnifico: I could do this all night, Gaspar. You wanna take this outside?!

Gaspar: The greatest virtue of a woman is her chastity, without which no one could be certain where his children came from. That’s why women aren’t permitted loose living as men are.
Magnifico: I have no argument there, Gaspar, but tell me, why is it that we only say that women ought not to live loosely? Surely if men were as perfect as you say they are they should find it easy to live chastely as well. See, the thing is, we men make the rules, and we make them in such a way as to make ourselves blameless of everything we do, while sitting in a position to cast blame on women, as you do now, who are unable to defend themselves.

Frisio: You speak in generalities, give us some specific examples of virtuous women.
Cesare: *Gives several specific examples of virtuous women*
Frisio: Just because one woman is virtuous, doesn’t make all of them virtuous.
Cesare & Magnifico: =__=;

Cesare: You guys keep railing on women, saying that their appetites are so much stronger than men so that we have to put a bridle on them to keep them pure and chaste, yet ignore all the countless ways that men then attempt to lure women away from their chastity; with flattery, guile, threats, entreats, and violence even!
Gaspar: *Opens his mouth to retort*
Ottoviano: Oh, for the love of God, just let him have this argument, Gaspar! You’re not doing yourself any favors. All the women and most of the men already look ready to knife you in your sleep.
Gaspar: Hey, they should be thanking me! If I hadn’t goaded Magnifico and Cesare so much they’d never have heard all the praises and flattery of women.

So, yeah. Part three is a full of all the mysogyny and arguments for equality that we still see today. The more things change, am I right? By the end of this bickering between Gaspar and Magnifico, everyone is pretty exhausted, so they leave off on their chosen topic for the night again, tasking Ottaviano to speak finally on how a courtier ought to behave in regard to his prince, and how he must behave in love–both in youth and in old age. Ottaviano ends up arriving so late to the party that everyone figures he’s chickened out on the thing and prepares to just dance the night away. When he finally does arrive (likely hoping that everyone has forgotten all about his topic) the court immediately sits again to resume their conversation. Ottaviano pretty much describes that the courtier’s job in relation to his prince is to instruct him in all ways to be a good leader, which is fine and dandy until Magnifico points out that in doing so, he makes himself greater than the prince, which is unbecoming. A few conversation tangents later and they’re discussing the spiritual nature of beauty, and how (bizarrely) all beautiful people are automatically good and all ugly people are automatically evil. Unsurprisingly, Gaspar leaps in with some more mysogynistic comments, but is told to sit down and shut it, because everyone has heard enough out of him. Peitro has a sort of religious experience while describing beauty, and becomes so overcome by his own words that he turns it into a sermon (small wonder he later becomes a cardinal), and has everyone else so transfixed that they want to hear more, but he says the spirit that moved him has gone, and that is the end of the dialogues. Except that Gaspar tries to throw in a few more jabs at women, and Elisabeth warns him he’s on thin ice.

The Book of the Courtier was interesting from a historical point of view, and in a small way for picking up some cues for voice when writing nobility, but as a pleasure read it was dull and dragged in too many places to get through easily. It’s a good book for academics, not so good for anyone who wants to read an actual story.

The next book on my reading list is The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July/Aug guest edited by C.C. Finlay.

The Stranger: Afterthoughts

The Stranger
by Albert Camus
123 pages
three and a half

 

I was surprised how quickly I made it through this book. I read it on my kindle, though, so I didn’t actually know that it was only 123 pages, and sometimes it takes kindle a while to calibrate for my reading speed. So yes, this is a fast yet good read that I did enjoy in part because it was of a length and a quality that I could just continuously read until the end and feel the satisfaction of having received the entire story all at once.

The StrangerIf you scroll up and down really fast you may see an optical illusion!

First of all, I had to do some research into the life of the author and the meaning behind the book and in the process I learned some big new words such as existentialism. While Camus denied that he was an existentialist, he seems to have written enough pieces containing that philosophy that critics often shuffle him into that camp. Camus was born in French-Algeria which makes the vivid setting of The Stranger make perfect sense. He contracted tuberculosis like all the authors did, back in the day, and for a time was a member of the French Communist Party, though he was eventually expelled after being labeled a Trotskyite. He then became an anarchist.

Ok, enough of the author bio. Despite not considering himself an existentialist, Camus seems to have written a good example of existentialism in The Stranger. This might be one of the rare books in which an utterly boring, unassuming and unambitious character doesn’t sink the entire thing for me. In fact, much like Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim I found myself eerily connecting with the protagonist and his apathetic attitude to everything around him. (I certainly hope I don’t end up on death row for failing to show sorrow at my mother’s funeral.)

The main character is a man named Meursault, living in what appears to be lower-middle class Algeria, in an apartment complex with a host of interesting characters. He lives alone, though after having indifferently buried his mother he hooks up with pretty young Marie and the two of them hit it off rather well.

Unfortunately for Meursault, he gets involved in the feud his neighbor Roger has going with a group of Arabs over the treatment of an Arab woman who Roger suspects has been cheating on him. This sordid business eventually culminates in Meursault killing the brother of the Arab woman in the disorienting heat of the midday desert sun. This lands him on trial for premeditated murder. During the trial, the prosecution spends as much time analyzing Meursault’s apathetic behavior at his mother’s funeral as they do examining the facts of the shooting, ultimately to paint the picture of Meursault being a hardened, soulless criminal. He is eventually condemned to die as a result of this.

In the final scene of the book, Meursault is confronted by the prison chaplain who urges him to confess his sins and give himself to the mercy of God. Meursualt, who has up until this point been calm and indifferent to everything else going on around him finally loses his temper at this point and seizes the chaplain by the collar to tell him that no one has the right to judge him or his actions, and that God and religion both are a waste of his time.

Camus once said about his book,

I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.

and it is very true of Meursault. He doesn’t play the game of society, at least, society as it was in the 1940’s. When Marie asks him if he loves her, he answers truthfully, ‘it doesn’t matter, but not especially’. When she asks if he would marry her, he answers that he would if she wanted it, if it would make her happy. He doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, or show much sorrow at her passing because they didn’t get on especially well in her later years and he had to send her to a home, because of a lack of ability to properly care for her himself. He doesn’t show any sort of moral dilemma when Roger beats his mistress, and no remorse at killing the Arab. Meursualt doesn’t conform to the normalcy of society, and for that, he is sentenced to death.

In this message, the existentialism shines through, the belief that only the actions of the individual with free will matter. The book also carries Absurdist philosophies in Meursault’s condemnation despite him not having been at all the man that the town paints him as, as well as Meursault’s belief that everything is ultimately meaningless.

For such a short book, The Stranger certainly packs a punch, and a lot of philosophical meaning. It was a good read.

The next book on my reading list is The Book of the Courtier by Baldesar Castiglione.

A Wolf at the Door: Afterthoughts

A Wolf at the Door
166 pages
Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
4 stars

 

Wow, I just blasted through two books in a week, so expect a couple rapid fire posts over the next few days. I also just succumbed to another fever via child, so these posts may not make all that much sense. We shall see. In any case, I highly enjoyed reading A Wolf at the Door, even though it’s a retelling anthology. Retellings, as anyone who reads my reviews regularly will know, aren’t really my thing; I’m usually disappointed. However, through a combination of clever twists, witty writing and the use of fairy tales I loved from my childhood, the stories in A Wolf at the Door manage to sneak past my reading bias and into my heart.

A wolf at the doorBe careful which talking animals you stop to chat with.

As I was reading the anthology, it was obvious where some of the stories took their roots from. Others not so much, but they were The bok of goodnight storiesvery familiar to me. So much so that I couldn’t actually continue reading until I identified what the original fairy tale was. Fortunately I have a lovely book from my youth to reference. The Book of Goodnight Stories had been my bedside companion for years as a child until it disappeared and I thought I lost it forever. I found it tucked away at my parents house again; thankfully it survived the purge of the children’s things after we youngsters all moved out. It was what first put a true love of fairy tales in me. The book doesn’t Disney it up (though I suspect that they chose the tamest versions of each tale to include). It helped put me in the mindset to write The Black Horse (forthcoming, I promise) and it helped me identify almost every single story in A Wolf at the Door. Needless to say, if you like fairy tales, I recommend this book as well. I’ll be referring to it throughout this review, with page numbers from the book where each mentioned original fairy tale can be found.

The Months of Manhattan
Delia Sherman
five-stars

Now, there are a lot of fairy tales out there that have a sweet, positively minded girl paired with an antagonistic, moody and cruel stepsister–particularly in which the former is rewarded for her kindness and the latter is punished for her crassness. That said, I got the feeling that this story had roots in The Three Wood Elves (p.31), though that could just be because The Three Wood Elves is one of my favorite fairy tales of all time. Sherman puts a nice spin on it though, by setting it tangibly in Manhattan and very cleverly weaves the city atmosphere into the story narrative.

Liz lives with her father in New York City, and things are pretty good. When her father remarries and Liz finds herself with a similarly named and similarly aged stepsister, at first she’s thrilled. Unfortunate, her new sister doesn’t feel the same, and really they’re not all that alike at all. While researching for a school assignment, Liz discovers a talking painting which takes a shine to her sunny, positive attitude. With her luck on the rise, will her stepsister be able to hide the jealousy in her already black heart?

Cinder Elephant
Jane Yolen
4 stars

At the school where I teach we occasionally show the children short, educational cartoons. One of these we show is called ‘Cinder Elephant’, which features a bunch of animal characters and compares animal foot prints as the prince searches for his lost elephant. In any case, Jane Yolen’s version of the original Cinderella (p. 71) story reminded me of that cartoon pretty much the whole time I read it. Yolen uses some wonderful imagery throughout the story, especially when she writes the two wicked step-sisters. She also sets the story in a curious mix of the typical fairy tale setting and a modern setting, a technique I saw employed a few times in this anthology and quite enjoyed.

Elly is… shall we say, big-boned? Not that it bothers her much. Elly dances to her own tune, and she’s quite happy about it too. But when her father remarries and introduces two stick thin step-sisters into her life, Elly’s happiness takes a dive. They are unimaginably cruel to her, however, even when they call her Cinder Elephant, she keeps a positive attitude and does her chores quickly, so she can read another book. Prince Junior, is having troubles of his own. He needs to find a wife, and his father organizes a ball to do just that. I’m sure you know where this story is headed, but there are some interesting spins along the way.

Instructions
Neil Gaiman
five-stars

Neil Gaiman’s contribution to the anthology is exactly what the title says it is: instructions on how to survive a fairy tale, preferably in your original form or better. While it borrows elements from a number of different stories, I felt that much of its inspiration came from The Magic Pot (p. 29). At least, that was the first story that jumped into my mind when I read it. If you’re familiar with a number of fairy tales, I’m sure that Gaiman’s instructions will come as no surprise, but his writing, as always, charms and delights.

Mrs. Big: Jack and the Beanstalk Retold
Michael Cadnum
three and a half

The story of Jack and the Beanstalk is a rather ubiquitous one, but we don’t often stop to look at its events from the point of view of the giants. I mean, Jack is essentially a thief, isn’t he? The giant lived in a castle in the clouds. How often do you suppose he was coming down and tormenting the villagers such to deserve to be robbed and then murdered? According to Michael Cadnum, the giant (and his wife) were nothing if not upstanding citizens, who happened to be unsuitably large for life around tiny, squish-able folk. So when a passing peddler offers them some choice real estate up above everyone else of course they take it. It doesn’t stop the thieves, of course, but revenge is a dish best served cold. And at the source of one’s miseries.

Falada: The Goose Girl’s Horse
Nancy Farmer
three and a half

The Goose-Girl (p. 136) is another one of the fairy-tales I loved as a child, but I think I enjoyed the original more in this case. While I agree that Falada got the short end of the stick for her loyalty to a spineless, stupid girl, the ending of Nancy Farmer’s retelling of the story sort of took the wind out of the story’s sails. Stories that end with a character having known all along what was going to happen, or characters who are revealed to have manufactured tension for the protagonist make me wonder why I spent any time being concerned for her at all. In any case, Farmer retells The Goose-Girl from the first person point of view of Falada, a fairy horse kicked out of the fairy kingdom for not putting up with abuse against her. She’s tasked with carrying the Princess Belinda to her betrothed, but along the way she and Falada are cheated further and dropped down a peg. The only way they’re going to get out of this fresh mess is if Belinda learns some agency and finally speaks up for herself. Sometimes, you’ve got to make your own magic.

A Wolf at the Door
Tanith Lee
4 stars

This story I couldn’t identify, (possibly Little Red Riding Hood? p. 241) but I liked it all the same. The setting and the concepts read uniquely for me, making it a very enjoyable story.

It’s the Ice Age. Glasina lives with her mother and father by the frozen sea shore, where shaggy lions which look like chrysanthemums have learned to speak and beg for scraps from the humans. They don’t speak especially intelligently, but a talking animal is a talking animal. When Glasina one day meets a very articulate wolf and invites him home for a meal, she and her family soon discover they’ve acquired a bit of an uncouth house guest. It’s not like they can just kick him out, either. I mean, what if he’s an enchanted prince? Is it really worth turning him back?

Ali Baba and the Forty Aliens
Janeen Webb
five-stars

I loved this retelling. I wasn’t so sure of it at first but I absolutely loved the way Webb changed the original story, while keeping the same elements of the old one.

Alberto’s got a bit of a short stick. For one, he’s ended up with the nick name Ali Baba, and for another, he’s kind of an outsider, which has nothing to do at all with being excluded from the other kids private jokes and games. No, Ali is a real loner. He likes his black shirts and spiky hair, and his excursions out to the old Australian goldfields–mines long abandoned by prospectors to the delight of tourists and tourist shops. But one day it isn’t a few flecks of gold that Ali stumbles upon at one of the mines. No, it’s forty not-people, and a strange door concealing unimaginable riches. Ali can’t believe his luck, but sudden wealth is hard to hide, and his brother Dean is sure to catch wind of his new fortune.

Swans
Kelly Link
five-stars

At first I could only recognize the origins of this story, but I couldn’t find it in my book. Then I realized it was because the book put it in a frame story and called it The Tale of the Lost Alphabet. I don’t know what the name of the original story is, but in the version I know, the protagonist’s seven brothers were turned into rooks instead of swans, and not because they were too noisy but because they were lazy. In any case, Kelly Link retells this story in another mixture of fairy tale and modern setting, and borrows elements from a few other tales as well to round off her story. She ends her tale strongly, giving the reader some much needed catharsis for the emotion she’s built throughout.

Emma lives with her father the King and her six brothers in a big palace surrounded by memories of her dead mother, and she doesn’t say a word. When her father brings home an enchanted step-mother, Emma soon finds herself with six swans instead of six brothers. Of course, as nice as it is to have a new flock of pets around, her new step-mother doesn’t stop there, and soon everyone but silent Emma is a swan. With her step-mother gone and Emma all on her own, she must find away to bring back her family and come to terms with the loss of her mother for once and for all.

The Kingdom of Melting Glances
Katherine Vaz
4 stars

This was definitely one of my favorites in the anthology. The imagery and the word-play both are amazing, and make the story as real as fanciful. I recognized this tale too, but it’s not in my fairytale book. Perhaps I read it on Faith Mudge’s blog, Beyond the Dreamline (another great fairy tale resource, if you’re looking). It’s a very sweet tale, sure to warm even the coldest hearts (by proximity to the Sun alone).

Rosa with the lily-shaped birthmark on her face has just lost her mother and father who she suspects have melted at last into a puddle of each other’s love Unfortunately, this leaves her alone with her two nasty, spiteful sisters who can’t stand that the kind-hearted Rosa might get anything good for herself. They thwart her every happiness, even going so far as to attempt to kill her hummingbird friend. Distraught, Rosa goes on a journey to find the injured birth. It will take her all across the sky, but Rosa is nothing if not determined.

Hansel’s Eyes
Garth Nix
three and a half

This is a pretty straight forward, modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel (p. 160). Nix gives us the same wicked step-mother and weak-hearted father, but shakes up the witch’s candy house for an arcade shop in an abandoned part of town. Hansel immediately falls under the spell of the flickering video screens, but Gretel is spared. She’s got the talent for witching herself, and the witch who snatches them offers to teach her the craft. The catch is that if Gretel refuses, the witch will carve up the both of them and sell their organs on the black market. Naturally, Gretel accepts the witch’s offer, and naturally the witch comes to an unhappy end, but the method of which is employed here might surprise you.

Becoming Charise
Kathe Koja
4 stars

If the author bio hadn’t said that this was a retelling of The Ugly Duckling I might never have known. It’s a very clever use of the source material to describe the gauntlet that is adolescence, and the balance between fitting in and being who one is meant to be.

Charise is a bit of an outsider. She’s picked on at school and called a nerd for her interests in Albert Einstein and science and reading. She finds her studies boring and lacking substance and longs to find herself in a place that can nurture her interests and accept her the way she is. Her aunt is mostly sympathetic to the girl’s pain, but when Charise is offered the opportunity to transfer to a high end school across town, her aunt’s answer is a soul crushing no. Stuck now in the unending torment of her school and her bullies, Charise must find out who she is: just another duckling, or a cygnet waiting for her snow white wings.

The Seven Stage a Comeback
George Maguire
3-stars-out-of-5

seven spiders spinningWhile I liked this story the least out of the anthology, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that George Maguire wrote what was one of my favorite childhood novels: Seven Spiders Spinning. In case anyone was wondering if my love of spiders just came from a whim one day, no. I’ve loved spiders for as long as I can remember, and this book is one of the reasons why.

The Seven Stage a Comeback is most definitely not a spidery story, though one does get chills and creeps reading it. After Snow White left the dwarves, a huge void opened up in their lives which cause pain that no one could predict. The narrative unfolds in dialogue alone between the seven of them, and quickly turns stalkerish. But they’re dwarves, not humans. No one expects them to act with human decency. If they want to kidnap their beloved Snow White back to them, well, who could blame them?

The Twelve Dancing Princesses
Patricia A. McKillip
4 stars

This story, as far as I can tell, doesn’t change anything at all from the original story of The Dance-Away Shoes (p. 104). While I loved the original tale, I’ve already read it, and perhaps expected a little more creativity for its retelling. Aside from the fairy princes being turned into the undead, really, nothing much else was changed.

A soldier returning home from the war shares the last of his meal with an old woman who in return tells him of a desperate king trying in vein to find out where his daughters keep going every night, wearing away their shoes doing whatever it is that they are doing. The king seems to have no trouble finding people to look into the task for him, which is amazing when we consider that it’s no secret he beheads those who fail. The old woman gives the soldier some advice to not eat or drink anything the princesses give him, and gifts him with an cloak of invisibility before sending him on his way. Figuring he’s got nothing else to lose, the soldier decides to give it a go, but what he finds out along the way will both delight and horrify him.

The next book on my reading list is The Stranger by Albert Camus.

Free Book, Guys

This is just a quick post to let you know that Amok is free on Amazon for this weekend only. If you’re a fan of sci-fi, magical realism, or speculative fiction in general, click the cover below and see what sort of stories 24 talented authors put together, using settings from all over Asia.

coverFree, free, free! This weekend only!

Empires of Sand: Afterthoughts

Empires of Sand
David Ball
770 pages
4 stars

 

Phew! I mean really, I can’t remember the last book I read that was even close to this long. It may have been something by Terry Goodkind, but even his books aren’t usually this long winded. Empires of Sand is the second (!) book on my 2014 reading list. Yes, I’m a little behind, I’m aware of this. Even as a seven hundred page instrument of blunt force trauma, the book fulfilled it’s purpose for me: it kept me entertained and it put me in a desert mindset to write Bone Wall. I enjoyed it, and if you’re the type who likes to get lost (literally) in a good historical fiction, I think you’ll enjoy it too.

empires of sandI hate to ruin history for you, but there are some spoilers here.

David Ball tells his story in two parts. The first is the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war. The second follows the adventures of the main characters, Moussa and Paul, a decade later and largely in the Sahara. If the afterword is anything to go by, Ball wrote his story thick with history, and his attention to detail shines brightly throughout the narrative. At no point did I ever disbelieve any of the events I was reading. His use of real people from history, even giving them agency within the story, adds realism and suspense that I greatly appreciated.

My sympathies were with Moussa from the start. As a half breed between a French count and a Taureg noble, he gets the shit end of the stick in pretty much everything he does. He’s gored by a boar in the first scene because the evil priest hates his mother, he’s beaten and tormented at school by his peers and his teacher, he’s forced to flee with his mother after she kills the evil priest who tries to molest him (haha, I bet you didn’t see that coming. Hold onto your hats, it’s not the first cliche we’ll meet along the way). In the desert home of his mother, he’s beaten and tormented by his peers for being half French, disavowed by his cousin for not taking up with the French cause,  slandered as weak by the other Taureg nobles for taking a soft position on the French, and sold out by his aunt who’s only mind is her own comfort and social advancement. I would have felt more sympathy for Paul, but at times I felt that he wore his PTSD a little too conveniently.

Paul is Moussa’s cousin, and very close to him in age. Much to his mother Elisabeth’s dismay, Paul will never be count as his father Jules is the second born of the family and Moussa is the heir. After Jules is disgraced, dishonored and dispirited enough to take his own life, Elisabeth takes matters into her own hands and pulls the strings behind the stage to see to it that Paul rises to success that will eventually elevate her as well. Paul himself idolizes his father and takes his death quite hard. The only other person he loves as much is his cousin Moussa. When his uncle, aunt and cousin are forced to flee the country, Paul is devastated but follows in the footsteps of his father and joins the army where he enlists on an expedition into the Sahara to survey the land for a possible railway. Driven by the stories told to him by his aunt and his own thirst for adventure, Paul quickly finds that life in the dunes is full of treachery, bloody murder, and hard choices. What he’s seen and had to do he won’t be able to shake easily from his psyche, and will ultimately carve a path of bloody revenge in the sands.

If you’ve ever seen the Disney adaptation of Daniel P. Mannix’s book, The Fox and the Hound, then you are already familiar with the plot of Empires of Sand. Two youngsters born of different worlds become fast friends and inseparable playmates. However, due to an accident caused by the wilder of the two, they are forced into separation. As adults they come together again, share a brief moment of happy reuniting before the stark differences in loyalties separate them again in blood. What follows is a violent chase through the wilderness that ultimately ends in absolution. While I didn’t altogether mind the familiarity of the plot, it did make the ending somewhat predictable. Fortunately, the characters and the setting do wonders at holding reader attention.

This is a very, very long book, with multiple point of views that hop around often, sometimes without the benefit of a scene or chapter break. In the beginning, this confused me a great deal, especially as these point of view hops coincided with time jumps, making it difficult to find myself in the story. As I got deeper into the book, however, the plot became more linear, and the point of view shifts a little more clearly defined, making it easier to anchor myself.

There are some scenes and even point of views that I felt were a little superfluous and tenuously relevant to the story. There are a great number of pages devoted to the backstory of Father Murat and Sister Godrick, Moussa’s chief antagonists in the first half of the story, yet, for characters who do not appear at all in the second half where the bulk of the actual plot happens, their history seems to be unnecessary padding for the book. The point of views devoted to the machinations of Bismarck and the rest of the Prussians also seems rather unnecessary, given that the siege of Paris plays its biggest role as setting in the first half of the book, and absolutely no role in the second half. The Prussians are never heard from again. Delescluze as well is an unfired Chekhov’s gun of a character. He shows up briefly in the story to set up the disgrace of Paul’s father, and then is forever gone from the story, despite several instances of mention that he is being searched for in the book. A little disappointing. In the end, each of these characters is a cog (if tiny) in the machinery of the story, however the convenience of them is very obvious. Almost deus ex machina obvious.

Another thing that sort of tweaked my buttons a little was the villain standard. To be a villain in this story, one had to either have a sexual taste for the same gender (Father Murat, Jubar Pasha), or be Muslim (Tamrit, Mahdi, the Shamba). To a lesser extent, a woman whose power of evil is granted via sexuality (sexual abuse in the case of Sister Godrick, and sexual manipulation in the case of Elisabeth). It’s not that I specifically take issue with people of these groups or having these traits being made villains in stories, more that I take issue with the pervasiveness of them as villains. It’s been done to death, and sometimes it gets a bit offensive.

Now that I’ve complained about the book for a while, here are some of the things I loved:

The setting: Ball writes his settings very tangibly. I could feel the dank of the catacombs, the atmosphere of the Parisian streets, the heat of the Saharan sun and the chill of the mines. Ball spares the reader no detail in placing them right where he wants them. There is no difficulty in painting the scenes of the book in the mind, and it does wonders for bringing the story to life.

The suspense: Whether it’s the playful antics of boys antagonizing both French and Prussian troops or a bloody massacre in the desert, Ball knows how to leave a scene dangling, or draw a scene out just the right amount to make page turning a must.

The characters: Despite their failings, Moussa and Paul are both fundamentally likable characters. Ball did such a good job endearing me to them that I was near tears at the fates of their families and their inevitable separation. That they were able to reconcile in the end was a relief, and allowed me to come away from the book with pleasant feelings.

Strong narrative: This story is stuck firmly in my mind. I have a book hangover at the moment that’s making it difficult to pick up anything else, but the list is long and ever growing longer. Onto the next great book.

The next book on my reading list is A Wolf at the Door, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.

Welcoming New Books With Squee

I know what you’re thinking: “Two posts in two days? Did some one die?” No. No one died, why would you think that? That’s horrible. Can’t a woman deviate from her regular blogging schedule without the internet rubber-necking for a look at the bodies? Yeesh.

Actually, this week has been a mix of awesome and frustrating. I’ll start with the awesome first, because it’s really, really awesome. Also because I’m sure people will read the whole thing if I promise some sort of emotional carnage at the end.

Starting at the beginning, way, way back at the start of this week, I came home from shopping to a failure to deliver mail slip from the embassy. Sweet! New passport, I can finally buy my Christmas plane tickets home! But there being no time to pick it up at that moment, I went after work to grab my stiff new passport. When I got home, I found yet another failure to deliver slip waiting for me. This one from a package sent from New York. GASP!

So I busted open the door and cried, “Alex! We gotta go to the post office. NOW!”

“Why?” she called back down.

“Because it’s here!”

“What’s here?”

“IT!” And then I ran outside and whined at the door until she sauntered out as if the post office were open 24/7 and I wouldn’t die of disappointment if I didn’t have it in my hands that very night. I think I might have violated a few traffic laws in rushing down there, but I was too much of a blur for the cops to see me running reds on my bicycle. It was 8pm. When did the post office even close? Would I be able to retrieve it at all that night?

The lights were still on at the main office, and no one had bothered to pull down the blinds. It doesn’t matter what office hours are printed on the door, post office availability follows the same logic as Halloween candy availability: if the porch light is on, we’re good to go.

Huffing and red-faced, and slapped my second failed delivery notice on the front desk. “So-Sorry. One- just one more- please.”

The lady at the counter gave me a pitying look as she took my slip to the back, but I didn’t care. It was back there. The good vibes could not be contained. When she handed me my package, I left her with my identification card. No time could be spared. I had to get home. Had to open it.

Magically we acquired food somewhere along the way, but that was secondary compared to the package I had in my hand. With the tender care of a heart surgeon I slit open the box, and with the energy and excitement of each of my twenty-eight Christmases combined, I lifted away the protective wrap. This is what I found:

IMG_1695

Books. Beautiful, coveted, signed books. I was not expecting such generosity. I wasn’t expecting anything for what was a small favor to an admired author. I’m delighted and anxious to start reading all of these, but I really have to be done with Empires of Sand first. (Honestly, I don’t know why I bother making a yearly reading list. Too many other books jump in, demanding to be read.) My most gleeful thanks to both Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman for the above gift. These will most certainly be numbered among my personal treasures.

Ends

Let’s now return to the aforementioned Christmas plane tickets. Due to some family concerns, I’ve decided to go back to Canada this Christmas again. Waiting another two years for another visit is undesirable at this time. My family had in the past expressed puzzlement as to why Alex does not travel with me to visit them, and the reason for that is purely economic. It costs on average about $1200 for a single person to fly from Japan to Canada and back. For the both of us to take the trip would be at least $2500, not including finding someone to take care of the dog. My family, inclusive as they always are, decided to raise the money among themselves to pay for the both of us to visit this Christmas. (This would make a terrific holiday special.)

In fact, I managed to find good plane tickets for the both of us that didn’t even use all the money they sent us. Huzzah! The difficulty started when, in the time it took for me to submit all my information to the travel agency, the price jumped up by $800. But when I say that the tickets were good, I mean it. They were really good tickets, with a fast airline and short layovers. I figured that they were worth the increase, and accepted the change. And immediately after I confirmed the whole thing I realized that the increase put the total price over my credit limit.

Naturally, the charge was declined, but the agency kindly informed me that I should double check all my information and try again, or call them to consider other options. Knowing immediately what the problem was, I called my credit card instead. The continuation of my problems was likely in part my fault. The company assured me that the increase would be easy and simple, rattled off the information they had on file for me, and without pausing to allow me to confirm or edit any of it, sent the short application. It was rejected.

So I was sent to another department for a long version of the application, in which I corrected all the information they had on file for me, and answered all their questions truthfully. Perhaps too truthfully. I probably should have mentioned my marital status, but they never asked for it. As a result, it likely looks to them that I am living way above my means. I seem to have been denied my increase.

But, no matter. The agency gave the option to pay over two credit cards. All I had to do was call them and request that the additional cost be charged to Alex. It was a flawless plan that had only one flaw: the agency call center appears to be abandoned. I waited on hold, listening to the same robot man informing me that they were experiencing an unusually high call volume, for thirty minutes. Twice. While calling on international rates.

So I sent them an email. It may have been slightly passive aggressive. I’m still waiting to hear back.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014: Afterthoughts

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014
256 pages
4 stars

 

I finally have a weekend free to do some reviewing (for that matter, to do some reading for reviewing later). Weeks of stress and studying have come to an end. Time to get back into the literary saddle. My creative brain was wound so tight that when I sat at the keyboard last night, had one drink and next thing I knew there were 2,500 shiny new words before me. Awesome. If only they’d always come that easy. Not sure yet if they’re any good. Honestly, I’m afraid to look.

As with most issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction I enjoyed this one. While nothing in particular stood out and a couple stories didn’t do it for me, on the whole it’s a good read.

FSF May Jun

Which I’m going to do my best not to spoil. Promise.

The End of the Silk Road
David D. Levine
One-star-rating-1

I liked this story the least out of the issue. There are a few genres I don’t normally care for, but can read if they’re interesting enough. Detective mysteries are one of those genres, however The End of the Silk Road doesn’t have much in it to make it fresh. Several times throughout the story I felt I could skip whole paragraphs of familiar tropes that didn’t do all that much for the narrative. The story suffers an insufficiently entertaining first person protagonist, and wears its sci-fi skin like a bed sheet with eye-holes cut out.

Mike Drayton, PI has been hired to investigate the business of a Venusian drug dealer by his rival in love and life, Victor Grossman. If he can keep his hands off the dames and his head in the game, he stands to earn a tidy profit out of the deal, even if his employer is the last sleaze in the solar system he’d want to work for. But of course, it’s never that easy for a private investigator, and the past–both ugly and beautiful–has a way of stalking up on those lugging around too much baggage.

I rolled my eyes enough through this story to give myself eye strain, but if you’re a fan of detective mysteries and sci-fi settings, you’ll likely enjoy The End of the Silk Road a lot more than I did.

The Fisher Queen
Alyssa Wong
three and a half

Alyssa Wong’s take on mermaids in The Fisher Queen is both startling and intriguing. The story is as disturbing as it is poetic. Visceral without being graphic. Familiar and exotic. What I didn’t like about it came down to mechanics, specifically near the end where some things were left too unexplained to feel like the story concluded satisfactorily.

Mermaids are real. Lily knows it. Everyone says her mother was a mermaid, but she knows it’s not true. They’re just stupid fish, after all. She catches them for sale as an Asian delicacy. They’re ugly and dumb, and only worth what wealthy people will pay to eat something unusual. But there’s a seedy underbelly to the fishing industry that she doesn’t know about. Secrets, lies and questionable morals come to light when Lily joins her father on a deep sea fishing expedition and the truth is a deep, cold ocean.

The things I enjoyed and didn’t enjoy about this story surprised me but ultimately, I couldn’t connect with Lily’s motivations, especially at the end. I don’t like it when characters experience a light-switch of inner change. The transformation always seems too sudden to be believable. Still, it is a gripping story, perhaps to inspire a few nightmares.

White Curtain
Pavel Amnuel (Translated by Anatoly Belilovsky)
4 stars

This was a bit of a confusing story to begin with. It took a while for the scene to settle itself, and the characters who keep interrupting each other and vaguely hinting at the past make trying to understand the science fiction or even the premise of the story a bit of a challenge. However, once the reader gets their footing steady enough, this is actually a very pleasant read.

Dima has been having a difficult time of it. His wife Irina is a year dead and he has exhausted every avenue he can think of to bring her back. His final option is to consult with their old friend and colleague Oleg, now considered by some as a prophet. Dima knows Oleg is highly skilled at splicing together realities to alter people’s lives, after all, they used to work together, but will Oleg even agree to help him after Dima stole Irina away from him, all those years ago?

The prose in this story make it a wonderful read, as well as the sad procession of emotions that really tug at the heart strings. It is one of the best stories in the anthology, in my opinion.

Presidential Cryptotrivia
Oliver Buckram
4 stars

Like much of Buckram’s work, this collection of totally true secret facts about each American president is short, witty and entertaining. For that, I can forgive the lack of a story here. These little tidbits of shocking revelations gave me a few giggles of which I’m always thankful to Buckram for.

Bartleby the Scavenger
Katie Boyer
3-stars-out-of-5

A bit of a caveat to this review: I don’t care for retellings, I don’t like dystopias and Bartleby the Scrivener alternated between boring me to sleep and frustrating me into high blood pressure. That said, the fact that I could give Bartleby the Scavenger three stars at all has everything to do with Boyer’s skill as a writer.

If you’ve read Herman Melville’s original story, then there isn’t anything all that new in Boyer’s retelling. Even the names are very cheekily similar, if not the same. I’m fortunate to have read the story in the recent enough past that it hasn’t dissolved into obscurity from my goldfish memory, and I was able to connect the dots between the two works. There are many, many connections.

I won’t spoil it further though. Boyer weaves the original tale seamlessly into a post-apocalyptic landscape with several dystopian embellishments embroidered into the pattern, and comes out with something that is as original as it is derivative. I didn’t enjoy reading it any more than I enjoyed reading Melville’s story, but Boyer is clever enough to bring all the elements together in such a way that I could at least tip my hat to the talent that it took to do so.

Rooksnight
Mark Laidlaw
4 stars

As soon as I saw the cover of this issue I was excited. It couldn’t be, could it? A continuation of Bemused from the Sept/Oct 2013 issue? Oh yes it could! I wasn’t disappointed either. The characters still hold up, and though the plot is nothing out of the ordinary for a fantasy, it keeps itself entertaining.

It’s a tough life being a traveling bard, tougher still when you’re on a mission with a gargoyle. You never know where your next meal will come from. Sometimes you’ve got to steal it from a nest, and sometimes you’ve got to accept dinner invitations from suspicious folks. After the bloody events of Rooksnight, however, I’m not sure if Gorlen will seriously consider either option in the future.

One thing that did snag me a bit was that the prose–especially in the beginning–felt very self important. I wouldn’t have minded this all that much if the POV had been more closely attached to one of the characters. This not being the case, it stumbled my reading a little bit. Fortunately, this quirk seemed to be shaken off later in the story as the action picked up. Laidlaw is a master of evocative description, and the story ended very strongly, with a nice full circle turn-around that always delights me in fiction. I hope to read more of the adventures of Gorlen and Spar in subsequent issues.

The Memory Cage
Tim Sullivan
3-stars-out-of-5

I’m a little on the fence with this one as I find myself with a lot of Sullivan’s writing. On the one hand, the emotions in The Memory Cage are clear, crisp and painful. On the other, the mechanics of it, the drawn out exposition, the sci-fi necessary dystopian setting, and the overly familiar genre tropes bogged me down as I read it. I think I enjoyed it, but I can’t say that for sure.

Death isn’t the end, at least not definitively. Not any more. Not since the discovery of little pockets of revived consciousness, floating about in space, charged up by the interaction of particles. Jim can’t explain it–he’s just a technician, but he’s been honing in on his late father’s signal for a while now, searching for answers to the wrong questions while the those back on Earth destroy themselves.

There’s a lot of information in this story that I’m not sure all relates, but it is put together well enough that I can’t decide if it made the read difficult or not. Really, I think I liked and disliked this story in exactly equal proportions.

The Shadow in the Corner
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
3-stars-out-of-5

Despite a small victory up there with Bartleby the Scavenger, this is yet another story which I will have to admit ignorance of the source material. At least regarding specific details. The Cthulhu mythos is pervasive enough on the internet that it’s impossible to not have some knowledge of it.

Arnold Boatwright and Agrawal Narendra are just two scientists out of many who have tinkered with the secrets of the universe they’ve got no business messing with–as all good scientists do. It’s clear that the experiment (given the Frankenstein treatment of “the details are too horrifying to ever be made public”) has gone gone wrong, but no one knows just how horribly wrong. Well, Agrawal does. He saw… it. Directly. Everyone else saw… whatever it was second hand. Through a recording that they can’t get to play the same way again. Now Agrawal is convinced there’s something in the corner. A shadow. And it’s getting closer. And closer.

And closer.

Containment Zone
Naomi Kritzer
3-stars-out-of-5

I think the thing that kept me most from enjoying this story was the fact that I couldn’t pinpoint the protagonist’s age. In the end I placed her somewhere near to fifteen, but only because there were moments when I thought she was as old as twenty, and others as young as eight. This inability to accurately picture her in my head kept me largely out of the story, like an anxiety lingering on the fringes of the mind can ruin an otherwise pleasant day.

Rebecca is just like any other (?) aged girl, except that she lives with her father on a seastead off the coast of LA called New Minerva, free of things like national laws and regulations. When one day a mysterious illness strikes Min and several other seasteads, her father dumps Rebecca with one of their neighbors and disappears to fight the new infection, only appearing again briefly to give Rebecca and her host family a trial vaccine. But sitting quietly inside and waiting for the crisis to blow over is just not something that precocious children do, and confident that the totally untested vaccine will keep them safe, Rebecca and her friend Thor venture out of their quarantine to see just what the heck is going on. And boy, the skeletons are tumbling all the way out of the closet.

The pacing of this story is a little off from my personal tastes. It starts very slowly and ends in a sprint, to a sudden and unsatisfying conclusion that again made me question the protagonist’s age. The fact that I couldn’t decide if the story was supposed to be taken seriously or as a playful bit of fun at the expense of more melodramatic sci-fi also made reading this one a little uncomfortable, but in the end the characters were entertaining enough, at least to read it without much difficulty.

The next book on my reading list is Empires of Sand by David Ball. I swear I’m going to finish it this time, guys.