A couple of particularly interesting releases to look forward to in 2012:
Here is a bit of a blurb, found at en.risingshadow.net: “India Morgan Phelps — Imp to her friends — is schizophrenic. Struggling with her perceptions of reality, Imp must uncover the truth about her encounters with creatures out of myth — or from something far, far stranger…”. You can watch a lovely book trailer by photographer Kyle Cassidy and read some comments about the book by Caitlin Kiernan and other authors at Kickstarter.com, here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/612451148/the-drowning-girl-stills-from-a-movie-that-never-e
On his website, www.grahamjoyce.net, Joyce says about the book: “Simon Spanton, my editor at Gollancz, describes it as Angela Carter meets Rob Holdstock meets Kate Bush.” Sounds brilliant! The Sunday Times calls it: “A haunting modern fairy tale from the ‘brilliantly original”.
This is what Amazon says about the plot: “Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a very English story. A story of woods and clearings,
a story of folk tales and family histories. It is as if Neil Gaiman and Joanne Harris had written a Fairy Tale together. It is Christmas afternoon and Peter
Martin gets an unexpected phonecall from his parents, asking him to come round. It pulls him away from his wife and children and into a bewildering mystery. He
arrives at his parents house and discovers that they have a visitor. His sister Tara. Not so unusual you might think, this is Christmas after all, a time when families get together. But twenty years ago Tara took a walk into the woods and never came back and as the years have gone by with no word from her the family have, unspoken, assumed that she was dead. Now she’s back, tired, dirty, dishevelled, but happy and full of stories about twenty years spent travelling the world, an epic odyssey taken on a whim. But her stories don’t quite hang together and once she has cleaned herself up and got some sleep it becomes apparent that the intervening years have been very kind to Tara. She really does look no different from the young women who walked out the door twenty years ago. Peter’s parents are just delighted to have their little girl back, but Peter and his best friend Richie, Tara’s one time boyfriend, are not so sure. Tara seems
happy enough but there is something about her. A haunted, otherworldly quality. Some would say it’s as if she’s off with the fairies. And as the months go by Peter begins to suspect that the woods around their homes are not finished with Tara and his family… ”
I’ve found this blurb about it on en.risingshadow.net: “For the first time in nearly 40 years, an uneasy truce has been called between two neighboring kingdoms. The war has been long and brutal, fought over the usual things: resources, land, money. Now, there is a chance for peace. Diplomatic talks have begun and with them, the games of skill and chance. Two teams of fencers represent their nations at this pivotal moment. When the future of the world lies balanced on the point of a rapier, one misstep could mean ruin for all.”
Amazon says this about it: “On remote Rollrock Island, men go to sea to make their livings – and to catch
their wives. The witch Misskaella knows the way of drawing a girl from the heart of a seal, of luring the beauty out of the beast. And, for a price, any man might buy
himself a sea-wife. He may have and hold and keep her. And he will tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into those wide, questioning,
liquid eyes, he will be just as transformed as she. He will be equally ensnared. And the witch will have her true payment. Margo Lanagan weaves an extraordinary tale of desire, despair and transformation. With devastatingly beautiful prose, she reveals characters capable of unspeakable cruelty, but also unspoken love.”
Finally, as everyone probably knows, Stephen King has finished The Wind Through The Keyhole, another installment in the Dark Tower series. It takes place between the action of Volume 4 and 5, Wizard And Glass and Wolves Of The Calla. I’m very optimistic about it, and glad that King set it in-between existing volumes and didn’t try to continue the (very finished) story. King says he expects it will be out in 2012.
Helen Oyeyemi already earned a place as one of my favourite authors with her brilliantly dark psychological horror novel, White Is For Witching. Mr Fox is her newest book and it’s possibly even better. I got everything out of it that you’re supposed to get from a great read; I stayed up too late and put off chores to keep reading, hated for it to end, but couldn’t stop turning the pages.
Of course it helped that it is based on various versions of the Bluebeard tale, and that I have had an obsession with fairy tales since my teens, and that the enchanted/animal bridegroom is one of my favourite archetypes. Bluebeard is a special favourite with me because he, unlike the other ‘bad husbands’ of the fairy tale, does not turn into a prince nor wants to. He is much more ambiguous in his desire. Is he looking for that special ‘one’ who can pass the test he sets her so that he will finally be able to love without violence or is he a misogynistic monster, addicted to putting women in situations where they will inevitably behave like women, and then killing them in a rage over the nature they can’t help? Personally, I think he wants both, and that’s what makes him fascinating to me; wanting to kill and love at the same time. I think Oyeyemi really nailed that mixture of love and violence in Mr Fox. It is obviously a love story, but it is also an exploration of violence in relationships between men and women and of attraction to the unknown and the dangerous.
Mr Fox is a fragmentary novel. The narrative is framed by the love triangle between a writer, St John Fox, his imaginary muse, Mary Foxe, who becomes gradually more and more real and begins to demand that he change his habit of killing off his female characters, and his wife, Daphne, who has to deal with the fact that she might be losing her husband to a girl who isn’t real. Mary and St John begin a ‘game of words’ (inspired by a version of the Bluebeard tale in which his bride, called Mary, confronts him with his crimes and beats him through eloquence instead of running away) where they cast each other in different roles in various stories.
Mr Fox occasionally feels more like a short story collection than a novel, and this is one of the reasons it impressed me so much. I’m not usually very good at short stories. I always want them to go on for longer and can’t get involved with the characters because they still feel like strangers by the end of the story. I didn’t find this at all in Mr Fox, partly, of course, because the same characters keep appearing in different roles, but mostly because Oyeyemi writes so well that although I often felt momentarily frustrated when one narrative ended, I got caught up in the next story right away.
If I have to try to be a little critical I will admit that there are a few stories that feel a bit jarring and out-of-place. ‘My daughter the racist’ and ‘hide, seek’, while good stories and thematically somewhat similar to the rest, do not seem related to Mary and St John. Overall, the many different stories work well however, and there is natural structure and progression, with the final two fairy tales working very well as a conclusion. I should also add, as a disclaimer, that some of the stories in Mr Fox are very surreal. I personally love that kind of writing, and one of my favourite parts of the book included a bizarre scene where Mary chases a violin player across town for no particular reason except that she is trying to catch him, until he disappears into a strange house. Another great scene takes place at a graveyard where Reynardine, with his shock white hair and face painted like a harlequin, demands of a Yoruba woman that she write down and return the stories given to her by her ancestral spirits. Mr Fox is a weird (in a good way), clever and dark book, but it is also often funny, witty and warm. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Catherynne Valente’s website has a gorgeous new design (http://www.catherynnemvalente.com/) and, more importantly, a news update from the 1st of September reveals that Wyrm Publishing will release her four short novels “The Labyrinth”, “Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams”, “The grass-cutting sword” and “Under in the mere” in a single omnibus edition titled “Myths of Origin” in November 2011.
It’ll be great to have all of these in the same edition and the cover (to the left) looks great. Looks very affordable as well; Amazon has it for £10. If the beginning of the term hadn’t already depleted my book funds I would preorder right away. Something to add to the wish list for christmas…
Viriconium by M. John Harrison is one of the seminal works in the fantasy genre. Not only was it one of the first works to seriously challenge conventional ideas about fantasy tropes and world-building, but it also continues to be listed as a major influence by writers such as China Mieville. Viriconium consists of three novels and several short stories (all collected in Gollancz’ Fantasy Masterworks edition and the black/silver Spectra edition) set in the same world and centred around the city, Viriconium, and with recurring characters, but it is important to note that it is a sequence, not a series, and that each story can be read on its own and that there is no fixed chronology. In fact, this is one of the aspects I loved about the collection; reading the final story in the Fantasy Masterworks edition, A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium, first instead of last would be entirely possible and not more or less correct than reading it first, but it would give the reader quite a different perspective (it has to be mentioned that Harrison himself has said that this story should always be read either first as last, however). Having said that, the order that the Fantasy Masterworks edition presents the stories in works very well.
The first short story, Viriconium Knights, works well as an introduction and establishes the major thing that you really need to know about Viriconium: That it is not rooted in reality, but moves in time, changes shape and shifts focus constantly. This elusive nature of the city is at the core of every story, and no two stories present the city or its characters in quite the same light. This means that Viriconium is quite a challenging, surreal reading experience at times. The reader isn’t thrown into this all at once, however; as mentioned Viriconium Knights provides helpful hints about what is going on, while the next story, the novel-length The Pastel City, starts out as a fairly standard fantasy story with a quest plot line, a band of heroes and an old sage trying to save the city from a conquering force. What makes this story stand out is the weirdness of the setting and the complexity of the characters. Harrison is known for decrying world-building as pointless, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the world of Viriconium is in any way lacking; The Pastel City is full of rich, vivid imagery that immediately sets it apart from more traditional fantasy stories. There are metallic-coloured swamps, mechanical birds, vast deserts with ancient machines technology buried in them and, of course, the sprawling city of Viriconium itself with its deadly gangs, each with their token dress and cry, its bizarre buildings and disorienting, winding streets. Readers who love steampunk and New Weird writers such as Vandermeer, Mieville and Bishop should feel – almost – right at home. I say almost, because there is an eeriness and bleakness to Viriconium, and the land surrounding it, that makes it stand out from most other fantastical cities.
I warmed to Cromis, the introverted, melancholy and poetic hero of The Pastel City right away, but was also very interested in Cellur, an immortal so old that he no longer has any idea who, or even what, he is. Brave young Queen Jane, the old hero and soldier Grif and Tomb the Dwarf are perhaps less original, but still solid characters. I imagine that almost anyone who likes a good swords and sorcery story will enjoy The Pastel City. The only possible turn-off that I can image is Harrison’s prose, which some readers might find overly wordy, bordering on turgid. You need to be in the mood to read slowly and savour the language, which I thought was mostly brilliant, but occasionally overwhelming, and have a dictionary nearby – a native English speaker can expect to find a good number of obscure words that will need to be looked up.
The next novel, Storm of Wings, is considerably weirder and more dense than The Pastel City. It is set some decades after The Pastel City and begins with a similar plot: A foreign force is threatening the city and a group of heroes is sent to deal with it. In this case the “heroes” are a very far cry from what you would expect; in fact, they seem to be a sort of twisted, shadowy version of the band from The Pastel City. The character most resembling noble Cromis is a low-life assassin and the damsel of the group is a madwoman. The vague quest they embark on is carried out in a spasmodic, desultory manner – in fact, several of the “heroes” struggle just to keep their grasp in reality and minds on the task. The enemy, too, turns out to be very different from the evil horde that it initially seems to be. In short, Storm of Wings is where things really begin to become heavily deconstructed. Everything is coming apart, but in the city and in the characters’ minds. The other dominant theme is alienation; everyone seems to be stuck in their own version of reality, assuming that all the others are mad. While this sounds heavy-going, Storm of Wings is a very enjoyable story and doesn’t take itself too seriously to include some comedy.
The final novel, In Viriconium, takes the deconstruction to another level, but is at the same time less surreal and more subtle than the previous novels. It takes place inside Viriconium where a plague that drains inspiration and action out of people has spread to several quarters. The artist Ashlyme decides to rescue his friend and idol, the brilliant painter Audsley King, who lives in an infecetd zone. This, of course, goes terrible wrong. In Viriconium is a challenging read that picks up the threads from the other stories and ends with a conclusion that sums up Harrison’s point about the nature of reality very well. Like Storm of Wings, however, it is also very enjoyable and written with a sense of humour that makes it seem unpretentious in spite of its difficult subject matter and symbolism.
The short stories, too, are overall well-written and enjoyable, although I found some of them to be too abstract and bizarre, to the point where they begin to lose the reader. Overall, I would place Viriconium in the same category as books like Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun: A highly intelligent, challenging, surreal and enjoyable read that benefits from close reading and re-readings.
I highly recommend checking out this article by Harrison to learn more about the major themes of Viriconium and help you understand what Harrison is doing: http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/i/viriconium/
Sharp Teeth is Toby Barlow’s debut novel and winner of the 2009 Alex Award. It is a hard-boiled, urban fantasy novel about werewolves – and written in free verse. A combination which could easily have ended up either clichéd or pretentious in the hands of a lesser writer, but handled superbly by Barlow with his witty, elegant style and original ideas. Barlow has a new take on werewolves, heavily inspired by the behaviour of packs of dogs and wolves. The werewolves in Sharp Teeth resemble dogs rather than wolves, and are heavily dependent of their packs. A “coyote” – a werewolf without a pack – is a lost soul who won’t survive for long. Every pack has only one bitch, loved and revered by all the males, and serving as the social “glue” of the pack. The story follows three packs, one whose bitch abandons it when she falls in love with the dog-catcher, Anthony, a growing rival gang and a hunted third pack with only a heart-broken bitch and a few surviving members left.
Unlike the typical werewolf, Barlow’s wolves are mainly concerned with hunting each other, not humans. While humans do sometimes hunt them and are sometimes hunted for food, the werewolves have an entire society of their own. Humans represent more than prey or predator to the werewolves; often, lost or lonely werewolves seek shelter with humans, either by falling in love with one and hiding their true nature as wolf, like the unnamed female protagonist of the story, or by living the comfortable life of a loved pet and hiding their true nature as man, like the former pack-leader, Lark. While Sharp Teeth has plenty of urban grittiness and violence, the friendship between Lark and his human owner Bonnie and the love story between the female werewolf and Anthony are described with profound tenderness and insight. There is humour, too; some of the werewolves become fiercely involved in a bridge tournament while others retain their love of surfing, and Lark realizes to the full how good he has it when Bonnie picks up his shit in a bag.
The verse form, too, works surprisingly well. It’s always great when writers can pull off an unusual form without slipping into the ostentatious or gimmicky, and Barlow manages this by using the verse form in a flexible way that supports the pace and mood of the story. Violent, action-packed sequences are written in short, minimalistic bursts, while reflections or romantic scenes are more lyrical and written in longer stanzas. The language is generally modern and slangy with quite a bit of swearing. The more poetic stanzas are well-written and just infrequent enough that they don’t slow down the action. Overall, the verse form enhances the reading experience without seeming obtrusive, and as you get caught up in the story you will quickly find that the unusual form seems natural and barely noticable.
Sharp Teeth is a well-deserved winner of the Alex Award – It’s the kind of book I would recommend to pretty much everyone. The almost comic book-esque quality of the fast-paced, urban action combined with Barlow’s humour, ability to write touchingly without sentimentality and his love of dogs shining through on every page make it a hard book not to love. My only warning would be that some sources recommend it as a horror novel, and while it is often tense and sometimes sad, you shouldn’t expect it to be scary. Also, note that the Telegraph blurb on the back was written by someone who didn’t pay much attention – it states that Sasha and Anthony are in a relationship, and this is obviously not the case (it confused me for a moment, though).
Gene Wolfe’s most recent novel is a science fiction mystery set in a future America. The novel is about Skip, a sympathetic, intelligent and wealthy lawyer, dealing with the return of his “contracta” (a secular term for wife), Chelle, from a military campaign in space. Chelle has experienced her time away as only a few months while it has been twenty-odd years for Skip. As he struggles to rekindle their relationship and keep up with youthful, violently energtic Chelle, it gradually becomes clear that several characters are not what they appear to be. The novel is taken over by Skip’s attempt to sort through the motivations and plots of the different characters, while at the same time fighting off attacks by pirates, terrorists and spies.
Home Fires should be a fast-paced novel with so much going on all at once, but it can actually feel a bit slow due to Skip’s meticulous and mostly passive style of investigation. It is remarked upon at one point that while Skip has always thought of himself as a man of action, he is actually not. Home Fires is a very dialogue-heavy book and most of the mysteries are examined through questions and answers rather than actions. This gets a little heavy-going, since Skip also needs to spend a considerable amount of time explaining to other characters what is going on. On the other hand, these explanations make it possible for the reader to keep up and are probably quite necessary in that regard.
While Home Fires is actually a fairly straight-forward story, at least compared to many other Wolfe novels, there is the risk of information overload at times and you do need to pay attention to keep track of all the different characters and their secrets. There are a few unresolved and ambiguous questions at the end of the novel, so the reader can work on his/her own interpretation and try to piece everything together from what Skip lays out in the open. In this way, Home Fires is very satisfying as a mystery novel and should be enjoyable for Wolfe fans, who are used to keeping a close eye on details and like to do some detective work themselves, as well as new Wolfe readers, who won’t feel lost.
While Home Fires is mainly focused on space travel, war with an alien species, the ability to record a person’s brain pattern and upload it into another body as well as replacing entire body parts, there is a subtle supernatural element present as well. Skip and Chelle make a visit to a voodoo priestess at one point, and the presence of a ghost is hinted at. Wolfe is excellent at genre-blending – Book of The New Sun is technically science fiction, but reads like fantasy, for example – and the futuristic setting and typical science fiction elements are smoothly combined with thriller-esque action, detective fiction and a subtle and psychological ghost story in Home Fires.
At the heart of many of the mysteries in Home Fires lie questions about identity and relationships. Several characters have hidden or unrealised identities and are misunderstood by one another. This is especially true of Skip and Chelle, and I particularly liked the final chapters which clears up quite a few things about why it keeps going wrong between them by shifting to Chelle’s point of view. Skip is not an unreliable narrator (often used by Wolfe in other stories), but he is naturally narrating the events from his own point of view and this makes him appear to the reader as the rational, reasonable partner with Chelle as the unpredictable, rather destructive one. The change of perspective really fleshes out Chelle and makes her actions suddenly much more understandable, while also making it clear that Skip has perhaps not been seeing everything as clearly as he thought. This is exactly the kind of writing I love Wolfe for, and if the beginning and middle of the novel suffered occasionally from information and dialogue overload, the ending makes up for it.
William Morris is best known in fantasy circles as one of the first writers to combine supernatural elements with an imaginary world in his fantasy romances The Well at the World’s End, The Glittering Plain and The Wood Beyond the World. Some may also know him as one of the driving forces behind the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement in England and as a brilliant craftsman and textile designer – and even if you don’t, you’re sure to have come across his swirly, organic wall-paper designs at some point. What is less well-known is that Morris was also a political thinker and a revolutionary socialist.
News from Nowhere is a utopian romance which describes Morris’ ideal world based on his political convictions. Unlike many other socialists of his time, Morris did not view state control as the way forward. He was a wild, idealistic dreamer and wanted a world where art and work would be fused together, where everyone would live in tune with nature and each other and where materialism would be almost non-existent. News from Nowhere‘s protagonist, Guest, wakes up one day in exactly such a world and discovers that he has somehow travelled forward in time. There is no currency, no schools or other formal kind of education and no clear distinction between work and spare time, since everyone is free to take up the kind of work they like best. All of this is, of course, wildly unrealistic to the modern reader, but how many of us can say that we haven’t dreamt of a similar world at some point?
Morris succeeds surprisingly well in making his imaginary future seem like a real place with glowing descriptions of its sounds, smells and sights. This is what makes the book work really well as a utopia: You would actually want to live in this place – a bigger achievement than one might think, especially considering that it was written in 1890. As readers who are familiar with old utopian literature will know, the perfect vision of the future doesn’t often age well.
Morris also doesn’t shy away from dealing with the problems that would arise in such a society – to some extent. There are “grumblers”, people who want to return to an industrial, capitalistic society. There are murderers, who are dealt with in a democratic manner (but no thieves, since stealing doesn’t make sense in a society where everything is already free). Human emotions such as jealousy and bitterness still exist. However, all of these are extremely limited because of the overall harmony and freedom of Nowherian society. Morris conveniently skips a number of other issues, such as psychopaths (murderers always come to regret their actions), greed and – in my opinion the most glaring problem with Nowhere – the handicapped and mentally retarded. Morris assumes that bodily perfection would follow once we achieve a perfectly natural and harmonious lifestyle. Everyone is beautiful in Nowhere and everyone is at least smart and capable enough to undertake some kind of work or artistry. The comparisons between the gorgeous women of Nowhere and the drab women of 19th century reality began to grate a bit on my nerves after awhile. Morris was clearly obsessed with beauty and art and while this is part of his charm where world-building is concerned, it really isn’t very likeable when extended to his characters. Ugly people simply do not exist in Nowhere and people stay young-looking for much longer (to the point where the middle-aged Guest is considered a bit gross and ancient-looking). For me this really did not resonate with the idea of natural beauty and it seemed a little too close to our modern obsession with artificial beauty and youth.
Aside from those couple of problems News from Nowhere really is a very enjoyable book. There are plenty of reasons for modern readers to be interested in it, since the issues it deals with (mainly inequality, materialism and alienation from nature) are almost as relevant today as when it was written. Fantasy fans have an additional reason to pick up News as an excellent introduction to one of the major forerunners of the fantasy genre. It is relatively short (especially compared to some of his brick-sized fantasy novels) and lays out Morris’ views in an easily accessible plotline and language. While most of Morris’ fantasy works are written in archaic English, News is written in plain English with considerably simpler syntax than most other 19th century novels I’ve read.
Overall, highly recommended if you like romantic, thoughtful utopian fiction and also want to expand your knowledge of a major literary figure and artist. For a broader perspective I recommend also reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887. Morris wrote News as a critical response to Looking Backward, which paints a very different picture of socialist utopia, and Nowherian society does seem considerably more attractive if you take Looking Backward as a comparison.