Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame

The Fantasy Hall of Fame The Fantasy Hall of Fame by Robert Silverberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's inevitable with any anthology that I'll like some stories more than others, and in most cases I end up not liking some at all. I shouldn't have been surprised that this was still true even of an anthology that wasn't chosen by a single editor, but by vote of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America membership (as at about 1992, when the "and Fantasy" part was added to the organisation's title).

There are 30 stories. The rules limited each author to being represented by only one story, whichever one of theirs received the most votes, although in several cases there were multiple stories by the same author nominated. They're presented in chronological order, from 1939 (when Unknown magazine was founded as a venue for fantasy as we now know it) to 1990. Inevitably, most are famous classics in the field, and in many cases I've read them in other collections, but it's good to have them all in one place.

**** "Trouble With Water," H.L. Gold: as the editor notes, Campbell's Unknown published stories that - like the SF stories appearing in his better-known magazine Astounding - rigorously worked out the consequences of a single difference in the world, but chose a magical difference instead of a scientific difference. In this story, the protagonist is cursed by a water gnome to be unable to do anything with water (wash, drink, or touch). The characters are all stereotypes, mostly Jewish apart from the Irish cop, but they're affectionate stereotypes, and manage to have some dimension to them. It's amusing.

**** "Nothing In the Rules," L. Sprague de Camp: here, it's a mermaid in a swimming competition. It's a decent story, with comedy, drama and a touch of frustrated romance.

** "Fruit of Knowledge," C.L. Moore: I'm a big Moore fan, but I couldn't finish this story based on the Garden of Eden and the character Lilith from Jewish mythology. I found it heavy going, tedious even. Surely there's a better Moore story than this that could have been included; one of the Jirel of Joiry tales, for example. Though there was a hard limit of 17,500 words, and perhaps those stories are longer.

** "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," Jorge Luis Borges: I didn't finish this one either. It's about a fictional encyclopaedia that somehow becomes factual, but a lot of it is just infodump of the contents of the encyclopaedia, and it didn't keep my interest.

**** "The Compleat Werewolf," Anthony Boucher: a story from 1942 filled with humour and romance and action, it stands up well more than 70 years later.

"The Small Assassin," Ray Bradbury: I skipped this one, because although I admire Bradbury as a writer, I'm not actually much of a fan of his stories, if that makes any sense at all. I glanced at enough of it to decide that it was more or less horror, and I wasn't in the mood.

"The Lottery," Shirley Jackson: I skipped this one too, having read it before and not particularly wanting to read it again. It's a brilliant story, but dark.

**** "Our Fair City," Robert A. Heinlein: I'd just recently read this in another collection, and while I enjoyed it, I didn't want to read it again so soon. Humour, corrupt politicians, the citizens standing up against them, all good stuff.

**** "There Shall Be No Darkness," James Blish: another werewolf story, which I didn't feel belonged in this collection. The mood is horror, and the in-world explanation is SF; where's the fantasy? It's a decent enough story, though.

** "The Loom of Darkness," Jack Vance: I'm no fan of Vance's overwrought prose and distant, unemotional and unlikeable characters, so I didn't enjoy this particularly. Sword and sorcery, a rogue, but not a loveable one.

**** "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnolls," Margaret St Clair: again, more horror than fantasy, to me, but a good story that sustains a mocking, almost light tone against very dark events.

***** "The Silken-Swift," Theodore Sturgeon: I'd read this recently in the same collection as the Heinlein, so I didn't reread it, though it's an excellent story, emotionally powerful and beautifully written.

**** "The Golem," Avram Davidson: another Jewish author playing with Jewish stereotypes in a warm and affectionate way. The mundanity of the elderly couple plays against what I'm tempted to call the attempted darkness of the 'golem' - which is technological rather than magical, so this is, again, arguably SF, not fantasy.

**** "Operation Afreet," Poul Anderson: recently read in the other collection, not reread, and another werewolf story (making three werewolves in this volume). Again, too, humour and romance and action, and a well-written piece.

**** "That Hell-Bound Train," Robert Bloch: a deal-with-the-devil story, another common fantasy trope, particularly well executed by this master of the creepy, and closely approaching horror.

**** "The Bazaar of the Bizarre," Fritz Lieber: although I find the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, of which this is one, darker and grittier than I usually prefer, I still enjoy them because they're so well done and so atmospheric. Lieber was excellent at evoking the strange and sinister in a sword & sorcery setting, and that ability is on full display here.

**** "Come Lady Death," Peter S. Beagle: I've just read Beagle's latest novel, and it's interesting to compare it to this story from more than 50 years ago, early in his career. The story is much more mannered, with strong hints of literary descent from Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," but it's still powerful, and worthy of its inclusion here.

*** "The Drowned Giant," J.G. Ballard: a style of fantasy I don't have much time for, in which the fantastic enters the mundane world and is treated mundanely. Also a 'story' which is a description of a series of observations, not plotted, and on the whole I prefer even short stories to have a plot unless they're spectacular in some other way. This isn't.

*** "Narrow Valley," R.A. Lafferty: I'm not sure why this is the Lafferty story that always gets collected. He wrote others, I'm sure, just as good. But it's a quintessential Lafferty story: surreal characters and events, perhaps a bit flat, amusing in an offbeat way.

*** "Faith of Our Fathers," Philip K. Dick: like basically every Dick story ever, it's about what is real, and the untrustworthiness of perception and consciousness. The setting, in a world taken over by the Communist powers, is interesting, but I'm afraid I'm just not a big fan of this author's work. (Originally appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology.)

**** "The Ghost of a Model T," Clifford D. Simak: a beautiful example of a story without much in the way of a plot, that's more about a character's realisations - and, in this case, memories and perspective on life - than any events or struggle, but nevertheless works. Simak evokes the setting so extremely well that a plot isn't really necessary.

**** "The Demoness," Tanith Lee: I'm not a particular fan of Lee's dark, sex-soaked stories, but she does them well, and this is a classic example of one. It did leave me with sympathy for the title character, which was quite an achievement, all things considered, so she gets a fourth star.

***** "Jeffty is Five," Harlan Ellison: a fine story, which I'd read before recently enough that I didn't reread it. Very human and moving.

*** "The Detective of Dreams," Gene Wolfe: I can hardly cavil at this being the story that represents Wolfe, since it's the only one of his I feel I mostly understand, and even sort of like a bit. What surprises me is that, apparently, a lot of other people like it too, despite its overt religious message. The 19th-century voice is beautifully and expertly done, though.

**** "Unicorn Variations," Roger Zelazny: I'm a huge Zelazny fan, though more of his novels than his short stories - not that his short stories aren't good, but the longer works give me more time to sink into his powerfully imaginative settings. This one isn't, maybe, as imaginative a setting as some, but the story of a chess game for high stakes is enjoyable, and the touches of whimsy are classic Zelazny.

*** "Basileus," Robert Silverberg: another author whose craft I appreciate but whose actual stories are not my favourites; there's something dark and cynical and alienated at the heart of them that puts me off. This tale of a programmer who fills his computer with angels is no exception.

**** "The Jaguar Hunter," Lucius Shepard: I haven't read a lot of Shepard, but this is an impressive story, with a lot of depth to it. It uses a South American setting to compare and contrast Western consumerism with the older ways, more in tune with nature, but also more violent and savage.

*** "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight," Ursula K. Le Guin: I am a Le Guin fan, but more of some of her other work than of this. It's beautifully done, and incorporates rich material from Native American legend, but sometimes her stories lack story, to their detriment - at least in my eyes - and this is one of those.

*** "Bears Discover Fire," Terry Bisson: much awarded and frequently collected, but I've never quite seen what the fuss was about. Another more-or-less plotless story; a series of events happen, but for me they don't cohere together into an effective whole. I'm probably missing something.

**** "Tower of Babylon," Ted Chiang: with this story we are, in a sense, back at the beginning, because, like the stories in Campbell's Unknown magazine, it's a rigorously worked out exploration of a fantastical speculation, in this case about the structure of the universe (what if it was as some ancient civilisations believed?) The main character is somewhat flat, and largely there as an observer, but the working out of the premise is well enough done that I enjoyed it.

I don't know if there's an overall conclusion to be drawn from such a diverse collection stretching over more than 50 years. Early 90s SFF writers liked funny, action-packed werewolf stories? Stories can work without a plot if you do something else amazing? Rich description is a big help, but isn't essential? SF and horror stories sometimes get called fantasy? There's no one common factor in great fantasy stories? All of those seem to be true.

For me, some of these were amazing, others disappointing, but on average, they were fine, enjoyable pieces showcasing the considerable talents of their authors.

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Monday, 20 June 2016

Review: Summerlong

Summerlong Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm coming to this book as a "genre" fan, and Beagle really isn't a genre author, not in a traditional way. He's more of a literary author who uses genre elements - even though, unlike some other authors who do the same, he's been warmly embraced by the genre crowd. (I suspect it has more to do with which conferences you go to and which other authors you hang out with than anything in the work itself.)

Accordingly, the structure and the pacing and the way the book develops and resolves, or, in some ways, doesn't resolve, are not what I'm used to as a genre reader, and this made for a sometimes uncomfortable reading experience for me. This, really, is why I've given it four stars instead of five. It's excellently done, speaking objectively; but, speaking subjectively, what it is isn't a thing I completely love, and in part that's because I don't usually read this kind of book. (And, in much larger part, I don't usually read this kind of book because I don't completely love things like this.)

First, the pacing. The best metaphor I can offer is that Beagle builds the picture out of a great many small brushstrokes, and this takes time. It's not a fast-paced book; it's not meant to be. It's a book about the characters and how they change and develop and interact, and it's much more about how they respond to events than how they affect events, and the events themselves are mostly, especially at first, mundane and low-key.

I'm definitely not saying that I was bored. I did feel the slowness of the pace, but recognised what the author was doing and appreciated how well he did it. People who are looking for an action-oriented book will be disappointed, though.

So what about the structure and development and resolution? It isn't tidy. It isn't neat. It doesn't answer all the questions, restore the status quo, defeat the villain (since there really isn't one; even though there's a candidate, it's pretty clearly shown that he's unqualified for the position), or, in most ways, leave the characters better off than when they started. In other ways, though, it does leave them deeper, more open to experience, broader, and fuller than when they started, even if the blessing is extremely mixed.

There's a powerful vein of symbolism running through the story, as you'd expect; it's about the mundane meeting the mythic and being partly (and troublingly, and painfully, and in unexpected ways) transformed, though most of the key changes are not, in themselves, supernatural. Meeting the mythic enables the transformations to take place, but they were always inherent and potential in the characters. They just needed to be unlocked by the right experiences.

Among those experiences, at the hinge point of the book, is a terrible decision by one of the main characters. It's a decision that I thought might be implied by the starting situation; that, as I came to know the characters better, I began to think would not occur; and that I was troubled to see occur, because it seemed like a stereotype, and because it was a really bad idea, and because it's stereotypical because it happens all too often in real life, and because it seemed inadequately motivated given what there was to lose, and because I wished the character (and the other party to the decision) had chosen otherwise. And out of this decision comes messiness and no good resolution, which is where the realism comes in.

What Beagle does so powerfully in all his stories is to show the mythic meeting the realistic - the "realistic" in the form of beautifully rendered stereotypes raised almost to the level of archetypes, like the crotchety retired Jewish professor and the middle-aged Sicilian flight attendant who are central to this book. This is, I think, something literary fiction often does - showing people trapped in their stereotypes and struggling against them in vain - but in Beagle, at least, sometimes they encounter the mythic, enabling them to partially emerge from that struggle and develop in unexpected ways, while still being dragged down by the weight of reality. That's certainly the case here.

I don't know that I would say I liked the book. I certainly didn't love it. But I do admire it as a piece of art.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Monday, 13 June 2016

Review: The Facefaker's Game

The Facefaker's Game The Facefaker's Game by Chandler Birch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My usual rule of thumb is that any sentence in a blurb that says "for fans of $author" is most likely a bold lie by the marketing department. I decided to risk it, though, since I am indeed a huge fan of Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss, primarily for their likeable rogues in grim settings; and this time I wasn't disappointed, because that's exactly what I got.

I wasn't disappointed in the least - though, rereading the blurb, it also describes the book as "picaresque," and technically it isn't, since it lacks the essential "episodic adventures" element. I'm always happy with a heist, though, and although the heist doesn't end up being the central focus, there's plenty of heist-like scheming along the way.

There's also a wonderfully dark, grimy setting, with mysteries that, in this first book at least, are never resolved. Why do "rasas" turn up on the street with no memory, and where do they come from? Where do the animalistic people who roam the slums at night come from (and where do they go during the day)? We don't know - and we don't need to know. These are just among the realities the protagonist has to deal with, along with a cruel thief-lord and how to take vengeance on him, the difficulty of trusting his fellow rogues, his struggle to learn magic, the problem of keeping his friend safe, and periodic physical dangers as he attempts to solve his other problems.

The protagonist is well developed. A "rasa" who doesn't remember his origins, he has an instinct of compassion and protection towards others who are weaker, and rebellion towards those who are stronger. (This means that, although the setting is indeed grim and dark, the book itself is not grimdark, much to my relief.) He's one of those magically talented youngsters who show up so often in fantasy, but he struggles and works hard to learn magic, and has to have a moment of personal growth, not just desperate circumstances, to make a breakthrough. He's believably untrusting of his benefactors, and all of his actions are credibly driven by internal and external conflicts, even the ill-advised ones.

The magic system is well thought out and essential to the plot. Although there is a minor bit of coincidence here and there to get the characters together (and to provide a magical tool, which isn't too essential in the long run), it didn't strain my disbelief.

Apart from a few very minor typos in the pre-publication version I received from Netgalley for review, it's cleanly written and generally extremely competent, especially for a first novel by a relatively young author.

Above all, though, it's a gripping adventure with a character I wanted to see succeed, and who I want to read more about. I'm very glad that the ending points to a sequel, and I hope it's as strong as the first.

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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Review: Pisces of Fate

Pisces of Fate Pisces of Fate by Paul Mannering
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first in this series, despite the silly names, so I looked forward to reading this one. There's plenty of good stuff in it - comedy, adventure, a little bit of musing about what makes life worthwhile - but ultimately I felt it muffed the ending and didn't quite live up to its promise.

Partly, I think, this is because the protagonist, Ascott Pudding, is one of those directionless losers that you get sometimes as the protagonists of comic fantasy (Tom Holt comes to mind, and Terry Pratchett's Rincewind), and that means that he never really settles on a clear goal. Is he trying to complete his book on sea life? Well, sort of, but when (view spoiler) it doesn't upset him for very long, and he abandons that life work (which was really a way of not facing his issues anyway). Is he setting out to build a romantic relationship with the competent Shoal Smith? Well, a bit, but he's so pusillanimous about it (and she, understandably, is so lacking in keenness on the idea) that it never really goes anywhere, just serves as a source of tension and embarrassment. Is he trying to save his friend the parrot? Definitely, and he risks his life to do so - a decision that I felt wasn't adequately motivated, and somewhat out of character for someone so lacking in physical courage or ability. But that (authentically exciting) moment is soon over, and there's still plenty of book to go.

So is he trying to find the pirate treasure? He is, using the nonsensical argument that the villains will pursue him and Shoal as long as they think they're hiding something, so the obvious thing to do is find the treasure first and... hide it. But when (view spoiler). He's also, a bit, trying to find a way to save his sister Charlotte, even though they're not close; trying to figure out what is going on with all the gods, including the one who keeps dropping in at odd moments, occasionally as if out of a machine; and pursuing various minor, scene-level goals, such as not being killed by a highly intelligent octopus(view spoiler). But none of these goals (except the octopus one, briefly) drive him very strongly. Overall, he just isn't a very focussed or effective character, and I think that was the book's ultimate weakness. There are plenty of good elements - pirate treasure, the intelligent octopus, an intelligent parrot, apparently intelligent cats (who don't end up being important to the plot), a race across the backs of whales, a mystery, the meaning of life. For me, though, they didn't completely gel together into a fully successful book at the end.

Another round of copy editing also wouldn't go amiss; nothing major, but a number of "let's eat Grandma" errors (missing commas before terms of address), and a few other bits of slightly misplaced punctuation, including the dreaded interrobang. At one point, the text talks about a "brace of hairy fellas" and then, in the next sentence, about "some of" these fellas; a "brace" means two. There's also the occasional typo, about the usual number.

Overall, I'm still giving it four stars, because there was plenty of good material and I did enjoy it. I just thought it had some room to be a better book than it ultimately was.

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Monday, 6 June 2016

Review: Vigil

Vigil Vigil by Angela Slatter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book had the potential to end up as just another cookie-cutter urban fantasy, with a kickass heroine of mixed human and magical descent in the noir PI role, getting beaten up by monsters and eventually making the city safe for the innocent again. Fortunately, the author is skilled enough to lift this classic formula to a new level, not just executing it flawlessly but adding a layer of depth that the thousands of UF clones out there seldom achieve.

Primarily, I think, she achieves this by making the characters' relationships rich, varied, powerful, and fundamental to the plot. The protagonist's mother was missing from her life, and her father got arrested for the (literal) monster he was when she was still very young; she was raised by her grandparents. So far, nothing we haven't seen before. But then we get the solo mother next door and her daughter, who's a kind of niece to the protagonist, and whose actual aunt is toxic and crazy, and then we meet people who have dysfunctional families, who have happy families, who are alienated from their families, who have no families but have people they love who aren't genetic relatives... Family, in all its many forms and manifestations, ties the whole story together and drives the plot, along with a theme of caring for and protecting the young, and what happens when you don't.

I did feel that the protagonist's own romantic relationship was underdeveloped, as was her love interest; he ended up, for me, being a genderflipped damsel in distress (though the protagonist, to the author's credit, is not just an example of the Man With Boobs trope; far from it). I noticed in the afterword that he shares a name with the author's husband, so perhaps she has fallen into the trap of introducing someone she knows into her book and, therefore, not making them sufficiently real to the reader, who doesn't know them and can't fill in all the details for themselves.

That's a minor flaw, though, more than made up for by the book's many virtues. For example, it has a strong sense of place, as urban fantasy should. It's set in Brisbane, where I lived for most of a year (albeit more than 25 years ago), so I have some sense of the city; the centrality of the river, the history of flooding, the different suburbs and their character all come through strongly. Not only that, but the tough, no-nonsense protagonist feels somehow Australian to me. I've met a number of Australian women like her, and she comes across as fully authentic and real.

All of this is conveyed through excellent prose, too. I received an advance copy via Netgalley for review, which often means wading through multiple typos and a swamp of homonym errors that haven't yet been through final copy edit, but I spotted very few issues indeed. And the author is capable of a sentence like this: "the horrent twists of a most abhorrent shade of bright orange". I had to look up "horrent" (which means "like hair standing on end"), so this is an example of an author using a word I don't know (rare), using an obscure word correctly (also rare, sadly) and doing so with a touch of clever wordplay.

Overall, this is a fine start to a new urban fantasy series, which I'll be following with great interest. Highly recommended.

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Friday, 3 June 2016

Review: An Accident of Stars

An Accident of Stars An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Portal fantasy seems to be making a comeback, which is fine by me; I'm not sure why it fell out of fashion in the first place. This one, as you would hope from a new book, does something fresh with it, primarily by splitting the point of view between several different women: a teenage white Australian who goes through the portal more or less by accident, a middle-aged black British woman who's been "world-walking" for a while and is already familiar with the other world, and a couple of even younger teenagers from the other world itself. All of them suffer and struggle, and all of them are deeply impacted by the traumatic events that occur, much more so (and more realistically so) than one usually sees in fantasy.

It was refreshing and enjoyable to see diverse characters; societies in which women had a lot of agency; and perspectives of older as well as younger characters in what was, in many other ways, a classic portal fantasy.

If I had a reservation about the book, it was that so many of the plot turns, especially early on, occurred by coincidence. One could adopt the perspective of the inhabitants of the other world and credit the gods with manipulating events (though there's no clear indication that the gods are real and can do this), and there is also a sect of mystics who do deliberately manipulate events (but can't be credited with most of the coincidences). I found it hard, though, to avoid the feeling that the author was just forcing the plot. Now, it's done subtly; the characters are not handed easy answers, which is how inexperienced authors often commit this mistake. On the contrary, the characters end up a lot more battered, physically and emotionally, than the average fantasy cast. Nevertheless, there is a high degree of coincidence required to get everyone together and moving in the right direction.

This either stopped after a while, or I stopped noticing it, though. I was caught up in the story's flow, even though I was reading an ARC which contained a few not-very-insightful comments from an editor and a good many typos (which I'm sure will not appear in the published version). The language, and the craft, are competent in general, and I cared about the characters, their struggles, and their often-at-risk wellbeing. I'll be watching for further books in what looks set to be an enjoyable series.

I received an advance copy via Netgalley for review.

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Friday, 27 May 2016

Review: Star Nomad

Star Nomad Star Nomad by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I received a free review copy from the author.

I've been a fan of Lindsay Buroker's fantasy novels for some time now, and happily followed her into this new space opera series, because I've found her work consistently entertaining. Also, though I haven't read as much of it lately, I'm a space opera fan from of old, having grown up on Andre Norton and loved Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books.

Norton, Bujold, and C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith are in the lineage of this series, not to mention a little bit of Star Wars, though without the hokey ancient religion or laser swords. We have asteroid miners, the aftermath of a civil war (Alliance versus Empire), artificial gravity, various kinds of weapons including energy weapons, enhanced cyborg soldiers, power armour... it's all good stuff. We also have an ex-military officer with an old spaceship and a ragtag crew, just trying to make it back to where her young daughter is so they can be together (her husband was a civilian casualty of the war), and encountering - and overcoming - obstacles at every turn.

The characters are quirky, smart, brave, principled and constantly bickering, which is what I've come to happily expect from a Buroker book. The cyborg soldier distinctly reminds me of the assassin Sicarius from the Emperor's Edge series: emotionally closed off, laconic to the point of curt, unstoppably deadly, but with his own powerful set of principles. The space captain is, however, more assured and capable than Amaranthe early in the same series, and none the worse for it. She makes a great scrappy underdog, badly outgunned but forced by circumstances to forge difficult alliances and triumph through courage and intelligence, and that's how I like my heroes.

The political background is well, if briefly, handled. The Empire was totalitarian and repressive, and the Alliance fought long and hard to break it; since the viewpoint character was an Alliance officer, we mostly get that perspective, but the cyborg, who was an Imperial officer, gets to say his piece about how the Empire maintained order, and now everything is falling apart and pirates and warlords are causing chaos and suffering. Though it isn't dwelled on, it's a more sophisticated political background than a lot of light SFF has - and gives us a chance to encounter plenty of pirates and warlords.

I understand that this is the first of a series, and that the other books will be launching very soon after this one. I will definitely be picking them up.

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