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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Fantasy and SF books

The book reviews in the last post proved more popular than the role-playing stuff that preceded it. I admit I'm surprised, but we live in an age when politicians and bloggers alike are buffeted by the forces of populism -- interesting times, as the Chinese say. So here are a few more reviews, this time all of genre books so you can see how picky I am. I'll save the best till last.

American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940's Until NowAmerican Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940's Until Now by Peter Straub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quite a curate's egg. Some of the stories are what I would expect of "the fantastic" - elusive, oblique, unsettling, breathtakingly fanciful, or all of the above. Joe Hill's "Pop Art", for example, in which the narrator remembers his inflatable childhood friend. That's a world in which people just are sometimes inflatable and Hill runs with the idea. But contrast that with Poppy Z Brite's "Pansu", which relentlessly expounds a feeble idea about exorcism; it might as well be one of Ross Rocklynne's problem-solving SF stories, only with made-up stuff in place of clever physics. Or Caitlin Kiernan's "The Long Hall on the Top Floor", which is hardly a story at all but more like a treatment for a formulaic TV series about a drunken, hip-but-bitter psychic investigator; Constantine lite. Or look at the way Jane Rice in "The Refugee" feels obliged to painstakingly lay out the crumbs of plot and evidence to coax us towards the denoument of a rather undistinguished werewolf story.

But then there are gems too. John Collier's "Evening Primose", about the shadow community living in a department store; Tennessee Williams's poignant, spectral "The Mysteries of the Joy Rio"; Truman Capote's inexplicably threatening "Miriam"; John Cheever's "Torch Song"; Shirley Jackson's "The Daemon Lover" (there's the twisty nightmarishness I wanted); Mary Rickert's disturbing and ambiguous examination of grief and guilt in "The Chambered Fruit"; Benjamin Percy's dislocated existential horror "Dial Tone" - these and others make the collection worthwhile.

A Maze of DeathA Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It shouldn't work, this. It gives every indication of being slapped together with no planning, the characters are opaquely written, the set-up is both contrived and confusing. Yet somehow Dick pulls a workable yarn out of the hat. Maybe that's because the experience of reading it throws you into the same state of fretful bafflement that the characters are experiencing. Or maybe it's simply because, when it comes to paranoid delusions, Dick knows whereof he writes. It's not great but worth reading to see what the brush of genius can do to transform a mess.

Second Foundation (Foundation, #3)Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one is more fantasy than SF. A mutant with mind-controlling powers disrupts Asimov's rise-of-empire story. That's fun for a while, but Asimov can't think of a way out so he gives the entire Second Foundation the same powers, and they wave a mental wand and that's it. All sorted. As for what those powers are - we all had them once, apparently, but lost them with the development of language. Oh, Isaac, that's lazy.

Still, it's a good story with at least one compelling character in 14-year-old aspiring novelist Arcadia Darell, a prototype for feisty teen investigators.

There's one slip-up where Asimov puts us inside the head of a character who could not possibly be thinking what he tells us she is because it later turns out she's been on top of the whole situation all along. Isaac, that's careless; you were pantsing it, I suspect.

At the end, having enjoyed the ride, I still had to wonder why Hari Seldon didn't just put the psychologists (who are really kind of psycho-economists) and the physical scientists on the same planet. It would have saved a lot of confusion. That'll be why, then.

Quite a lot of typos in these editions, by the way. You can work out what was meant but it's irritating.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another real curate's egg. I liked the concept, and it takes some getting your head around. To summarize: because in consecutive lifetimes people you met in the previous lifetime remember that as their last lifetime too, it seems that the entire world must reset when every single ouroboran from the dawn of time to the end of the human race has completed one life. Which was kind of fun to think about.

This means that you can send messages forward as far as you like in one instantiation of the world, but you can only send a message back by one generation at a time. Nonetheless, our narrator gets a message that the end of the world is happening sooner than it used to. He soon twigs that it's because of a rogue ouroboran in his own lifetime (1919 to the early 21st century) who is meddling in the old Things That Man Was Not Meant etc.

Now here's the biggest flaw in the book. We are asked to accept that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, just as long as ouroborans do nothing to try and improve the human lot. Create antibiotics 50 years early? Why, you fool, there'll be a dotcom crisis in the 1960s and nuclear war before 2020.

[Spoilers here on in...]

There's nothing wrong with SF taking a reactionary view. What would paperback sales be like in Boko Haram territories if it couldn't do that? But the dramtic flaw here is that we are presented with this intriguing, unexplained phenomenon of reincarnation, and one of the characters is trying to build a magic mirror - sorry, quantum mirror - which might well tell him and us what lies behind it all. But he's the bad guy. We're supposed to root instead for the plodding narrator who is doggedly trying to stop him so that dotcom crises and humanitarian disasters can happen when they're supposed to as ordained by - whatever, whoever. Personally I think the story would have worked better if the narrator was trying to cause change and reveal truths rather than putting all the genies back in their bottles.

The author does well at evoking the sense of many different lives lived. Less so at the emotional journey. The narrator's relationship with his real and adoptive fathers interested me far more, but was much more sketchily covered, than his struggle to stop anything different or interesting from ever happening. At one point his nemesis marries the woman he himself loved a dozen lives earlier. The reaction s both too little and too much - "I crawled into the bushes and wept." Dude, it was like 800 years ago. I can pass old flames in the street without going nutso, and that's just a matter of decades.

But then, our hero is an eidetic. Or rather, to use their own terminology, a mnemonic. He remembers everything. Often these eidetics are troublemakers, because they take vaccines and gunpowder back to earlier times. But wait a mo', every message passed back down from the future must do that... Moving on.

The style is rather uncomfortably prosaic and stilted. An attempt to render how somebody born in 1919 would write? Perhaps, but some poetic licence would have made it more tolerable. The ending is a little rushed, the bad guy all but throwing himself onto the pyre. It had the smack of author fatigue to me; time to wrap up and work on something else.

Still, an interesting concept - even if it is never actually explored either emotionally or scientifically. Maybe that will be in the sequel, but 400 pages was quite enough for me.

(Editing anomalies: a "temporarily" that should have been "temporally" and a strange lapse into Chaucerian idiom with "nor in no life". Blame the publisher for those; authors have enough to do thinking this shit up.)

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The story of a 13-year-old boy whose mother has cancer. As with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, who would drown this kitten? It's the sort of book publishers absolutely love doing, because they can't always judge literary quality but worthiness is obvious to all. "Brave, compassionate, beautiful..." say the cover quotes; they write themselves. It's the kind of thing that almost has me rooting for the tumour.

It's in the past tense, which makes it almost a collector's item among kids' books these days. The style is...

Well, the style. It is.

That is the style.

A bit like Dr Seuss? That's what I thought too. Okay, it is for kids, but I grew out of Dr Seuss by age 6 or so. After a hundred pages the shallowness of that screenplay-like prose really grates. But it is in the past tense, I give it points for that.

Some light spoilerishness now. The most interesting part to me was the main character's relationship with his tormentor at school. The denouement of that was thoroughly unsatisfying (the author's inspiration simply took an afternoon off) and the aftermath completely unrealistic. I don't think criminal cases involving bodily harm are left for school authorities to adjudicate, for example, nor is prosecution solely dependent on pressing charges.

The monster is okay, but it doesn't have much to do except tell a series of stories that feel like padding - probably because they are. The ending is all tell not show, but it's relentlessly worthy so librarians will love it.

A part of the proceeds from the book do go to charity. But you could always cut out the middleman.

Dark Satanic MillsDark Satanic Mills by Marcus Sedgwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only graphic novel in my reviews of 2013 (though not, of course, by any means the only comics work I've read this year) this is a quite unsettling approaching-apocalypse story with some of the DNA of Survivors, Quatermass IV and 1984 - along with much that is original and brilliant in its own right.

The White DarknessThe White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is beautifully written, has an intriguing premise (Captain Oates lives on as the imaginary friend of a 14-year-old girl) and convincingly rounded characters.

You can see there's a but coming, can't you? I found for the first quarter of the book that the story didn't really bite. That bit is like a long set-up that is all put across in wonderful prose, but it lacks the intrigue factor needed to make you keep on reading. It was only when the narrator gets to Antarctica (I'm not giving anything away here) and things start to go wrong that the novel becomes really compelling.

One problem, I decided, was that there is plenty in the set-up that the reader can see but the narrator cannot. This creates a disconnect between us and our protagonist. That's all very well when the narrator is somebody like Charles Pooter. We may not connect with Pooter or even respect him that much, but we do find him endearing. That's comedy. But in a dramatic tale like this, where the narrator is our sole point of contact with a story that is hopefully going to move us (and it does) it is potentially fatal to find that you're distanced from that narrator for a good chunk of the book.

So, overall I recommend this (and my wife btw would give it 5 stars) but you do need to be patient with the slow build-up.

The Battle Of The SunThe Battle Of The Sun by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The caveat first: it's a kids' book, so I'm not the intended audience. I'm trying to think back to what books I'd have read at that age. Robert Heinlein's juvenile novels (Red Planet, etc). Dracula. Mike Moorcock's Mars books. Very different.

It's full of inventive ideas and Ms Winterson is obviously enjoying herself, to such an extent that it often feels as if she's making it up as she goes along. That's okay, by the way, as long as you don't drop any plates. And she doesn't.

The style is lush and lyrical, but feels a little repetitive after a while. No doubt that's deliberate (it creates an incantatory feel) so is only a complaint from an adult reader's perspective.

Likewise the perfunctory characterization. It's like a fairytale, so there's no depth or complexity there. A character is brave, or devious, or ruthless, or honest, and motivations are: greed, love, fear. Lacking that, it reads like a role-playing game write-up in which characters are seen doing things but we never really go inside them. I'd have preferred fewer characters with more time given to them, but children now have different expectations from when I was reading Heinlein and Stoker.

Btw I only discovered halfway through that it's sort of a sequel to Ms Winterson's other kids' book, Tanglewreck. I'm not sure that matters - you can read this one on its own - but it was odd.

Riddley WalkerRiddley Walker by Russell Hoban
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now that everybody is in such a flappy fuss about Station Eleven (give it three years and you'll have to Google it) this seems like a good time to re-read possibly the greatest work combining narratology, theatrical performance, and post-apocalyptic future history. Hoban said he could never spell properly again after confabulating the narrator's language, but it was worth it.

Titus Groan (Gormenghast, #1)Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me more than 30 years to read this book. After originally abandoning it a few chapters in, I nearly gave up at the same point. There's a whole world and a lot of characters to introduce, and Peake wasn't writing for an audience of TV-weaned YA goldfish. He takes his time but suddenly it pays off. You really know these characters because he has put care into making them individuals. His prose is beautiful and he has the most vivid visual imagination of any author I've come across.

It is, in short, a masterpiece. Normally I reserve 5 stars for books that I feel affect me profoundly and permanently - that "change my life", as all great art should on some level. I regret not coming to Gormenghast a lot sooner. If I'd read it 32 years ago it would have stretched me to create more interesting fantasy worlds in my own books.

(Thanks incidentally to Marcus Sedgwick: it was his superb comparative review of Gormenghast and Lord of the Rings that sent me back to the book after so long. I feel I need to acknowledge that, having just trashed his latest book in another review. And one day maybe I'll read Lord of the Rings.)

Death Is a Lonely Business (Crumley Mysteries, #1)Death Is a Lonely Business by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A magic realist whodunit in which the young Bradbury is himself the protagonist. Only, being Bradbury, it's never as simple as that. The murderer seems to be more existential than physical, the familiar landscape of LA suddenly far more fantastical than Mordor. The one flaw is that Bradbury, as a writer who notoriously disdained plotting, allows an important character to slip out of the story while two others, introduced later and in whom we are consequently less invested, become more prominent than they really should. But imagine it as a sixtysomething author getting up and just improvising a prose-poem of dread, beauty, loneliness and the desire to connect with others and you can't help but applaud.

Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of TekumelEmpire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tekumel by M.A.R. Barker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read it more times than I could count and I've spent as much time in Professor Barker's imagination as on the planet Earth. EPT is the most perfect example of the proliferating story threads that Damien Walter describes as one of the chief joys of reading a roleplaying game ( I'm not religious, but if I was this would be my Bible.

View all my reviews


  1. I have at least read some of those authors, if not the books reviewed. I had meant to ask you in a previous post, could you expand upon Tekumel, but it slipped my mind? I assume it is actually a novel? I don't want another Dragon Warriors situation thirty years on!

    1. There are several Tekumel novels. Also some brilliant sourcebooks (Deeds of the Ever-Glorious and The Book of Ebon Bindings) that can be read like fiction, plus solo gamebooks and several role-playing systems, one of which you can get free from the sidebar on the right. I shall do some posts about Tekumel at some point, but if you thought Sparta generated some tumbleweed then just wait..!

    2. Fair enough! Sparta was interesting, as are all your posts. However, that old adage, if I've nothing of value to say...

      As per our film conversation, I'm wracking my brain to recommend some material you may have overlooked, but yet again I'm struggling (LOTR not-withstanding)! I do have a real soft spot for John Christopher, Death Of Grass, Tripods, Sword Of The Spirits, Guardians, Dom and Va and others, but I'm guessing they're a little too mainstream and pedestrian (and most of them aimed at children!) for your tastes.

      Will add Tekumel to Binscombe and Oliver then. You're costing me a fortune, and it's not even going into your beer fund!

    3. Any royalties earned by John or Oliver at least have a chance of going towards a pint for me when it's their round. Doing well while doing good, I call that.

    4. All good then. I may drop Tekumel from my basket, not because it doesn't subsidise your round, but it's only the novels I would have gone for, which you don't seem mad keen on reading the below.

    5. Sounds sensible. If you're not going to role-play in Tekumel, I don't think it's really possible to get any sense of what's so great about it. There's no tourist guide -- you have to go there :-)

  2. I'd be interested in anything you had to say about Tékumel. Or Dragon Warriors for that matter.

    1. Both are topics dear to my heart, Dominic, so watch this space.

  3. Ah, the good old edition of Tékumel, never surpassed up to that day.
    Concerning the novels by Pr. Barker, I think that are less better for what concerns the style and the plot, though still interesting for the description of that fantasy world. One of those novels was heavily criticized for featuring a special torture scene where a magical evil worm slides into a naked girl's.... hmm.... I shall not go further....

    1. Hmm, that does sound a bit dubious. I slightly offended Prof Barker in a review of his first Tekumel novel when I said that it was a good adventure story but "don't expect great literature". Mostly I've avoided the novels because they are concerned with big multi-dimensional universe-shattering plotlines and the Tekumel that interests me is the one of clan rivalries and deep history. In short, I would have liked the novels to be Tsolyani Jane Austens but instead they were H Rider Haggards.

    2. Here is a review, with a mention of the scene (John Dee, who wrote the latest Tékumel RpG, draw a picture of that scene but you may not like that I post the link...)

    3. But my intention is not to belittle Prof. Barker; just to show that there is no direct relation between a great background (as original as Tékumel) and the stories or adventures based on it. As a counterexample, Howard's Hyboria is not original (though intriguing to my eyes), but most of his stories are interesting (that's funny, but I did not like "Beyond the Black River" because it was too "Wild West" to my European eyes, while many agree to consider it as one of Howard's best stories).

    4. Knowing REH, he almost certainly wrote it as a Wild West story first, then found he couldn't sell it so rewrote it starring Conan. Still, he could get away with that because he was a great writer.

      As for the torture scene -- I read Man of Gold but I don't remember it. Prof Barker's fictional tastes would have been shaped by the pulps of the '30s and '40s that never shied away from BDSM. Not that I'm excusing it or condemning it; a novel may contain whatever scenes it needs to contain. But the Tekumel novels don't grab me the way the world does, for the reasons you say.

    5. Yes, that's clearly an option for REH - he did this for "The God in the Bowl", a police story he rewrote into a Conan one; therefore, this novella is quite criticized while - I must admit - I enjoyed it.
      According to the "Conan scholar" Patrice Louinet (whose analysis accompanies the French translations), REH began to grow tired of Conan (he never wrote anything about Conan after "Red Nails", but his suicide prevents us from having a definitive opinion about this) while he was developping an increasing interest on stories of the Wild West (let's not forget he was a pure Texan guy !) and hoped to limit himself to that genre.

    6. I'm pretty sure that REH was happy to follow wherever the winds of the market took him. If he was dropping fantasy, it may simply be that Wild West yarns were selling more easily, and/or that those pulps paid more than Weird Tales.

  4. So, I may add my own reading recommendation : during the last month I read the French translation of Howard's original Conan stories (not the infamous pastiches made after Howard's death by Sprague de Camp and C°, but the first texts as they were published in the 30s in "Weird Tales"). Most stories are really great !
    And if you don't want to pay, you can read (legally) most of these (out of copyright) stories from their links on Wikipédia (for English only....)

    1. Jamie and I both have huge admiration for ol' Two-Gun Bob. I especially like the opening of "Rogues in the House". If you only read one Conan story, that's the one.

  5. May good deities both "real" and fictional be with you and your nation in this, the Year of the Angry Idiot. I mean, Jesus, what the fuck were they all thinking?!

    1. I'm asking myself that too, John. I can only apologise to the rest of the civilized world for the unreasoning stupidity of my fellow countrymen.

    2. Blame the organ grinders...

    3. Hi Dave, as I wait for my Irish passport to come through I thought I'd ask if you've read much by Tim Powers, who was a good friend of PKD ? His stories are a mixture of loving historical detail, swashbuckling adventure & philosophical speculation. His leading men & women are never unblemished superheroes but tend to start the story with numerous mental & physical scars and accumulate a lot more in the telling of the tale...'damaged goodies' we might call them ? TP's speciality is the metaphysical action scene in which the well worked out rules of materialist magic systems (earthy branches of secret science rather than channelling of the One Power) (no fireballs here !) are played out to thrilling effect. Highly recommend the time travel escapades of The Anubis Gates and the true history of the Romantic poets revealed in The Stress of Her Regard...

    4. The Anubis Gates is one of my favourite fantasy/SF novels, John. I haven't read much of Mr Powers' other work, but I have several of his books so I ought to take a look.