Monday 25 July 2016

Review: Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World

Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World by Jonathan Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of this book from one of the authors (Kate Heartfield), because we are members of the same writers' community.

Shakespeare can legitimately be considered one of the early English fantasists, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, and bits and pieces in a few of the other plays, so the idea of a book which takes his fantastica and creates new stories appealed to me. It's been done before, of course, in various ways, and will be done again, with various degrees of success. This one distributes the story between several different authors, and I was keen to see how they handled it.

I assumed, going in, that it would be more or less a themed anthology, but it's more than that; the stories interlink and form an overall narrative. Unfortunately (in my opinion) it becomes more and more meta, literary, and, to me, pretentious as it goes along, until we're in second person present tense, breaking the fourth wall left and right in a full-on metafictional multiverse.

It doesn't start out that way, though. It starts out with Foz Meadows' "Coral Bones," which begins some time after The Tempest finishes and questions whether Miranda would really be happy with Ferdinand (who was, after all, basically the first man she ever met, if you don't count Caliban or her father). It's well written, well edited, and does a good job of building on the original story. It has an explicit five-act structure, and, of course, refers to several Shakespeare plays as source material (the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream play crucial roles; in this version of the setting, the faerie courts are openly known to the mortal world and interact with mortal courts), but that's as close to the plays as it gets. It's a short story, and a good one, which brings the themes bang up to date and doesn't try to be anything else.

Kate Heartfield is next, with "The Course of True Love". Here we have a witch, a faerie changeling, Duke Orsino (from Twelfth Night), and Queen Mab, as well as Titania and Oberon. It's becoming clear that the stories are linked, at least by sharing a setting. The main characters of this story don't recur later in the book, but it does advance the metaplot somewhat. It's a rather charming romance between older people, though for me it wrapped up a little too neatly. Again, it's presented in five acts, and again, it's well edited.

Emma Newman's "The Unkindest Cut" had a few minor faults. One was trying too hard to shoehorn in Shakespearian references; there were also a few places where words were used oddly, and the occasional comma splice. The story was strong, though, a tragedy of manipulation and murder in the clear spirit of Shakespeare (as well as involving several of his characters). Unlike the preceding stories and the one that follows, it isn't split up into five acts.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Even In the Cannon's Mouth" brings us characters from several other plays (As You Like It being one), caught up in the war that's been referenced also in the first three stories. Each scene opens with the kind of scene-setting that you get at the beginning of a Shakespearian scene, including the stage direction "Enter" and whichever character or characters start off the scene. The characters are vivid, their interaction well handled, and the writing rich and competent, but there's the occasional typo or slight homonym error ("bad" for "bade" twice, "institute" for "institution," "sheath" for "sheathe"). In Act Five, the fourth wall is broken, and we get our first taste of second person and our first indication of the metafictional multiverse. This is where, for me, the book started to go sideways.

Finally, we have Jonathan Barnes' "On the Twelfth Night," which has nothing really to do with the play Twelfth Night, but is set around the twelve days (or nights) of Christmas, 1601. It involves Shakespeare's family, and is (for the first eleven nights) told in second person, present tense, as if addressing Anne, Shakespeare's wife. I was unsurprised to learn, in the back matter, that Barnes writes for the Times Literary Supplement and the Literary Review and is a writer-in-residence at a university; the whole thing is very literary, in a way I personally don't care for much. It does remain spec-fic, in that the metafictional multiverse is at the heart of the story, though it goes through a lot of atmospheric setting-up to get there. It misuses the word "catechism" to mean "prayer," misplaces some commas, and uses "hove" as if it were the present tense (which should be "heave"), but otherwise reads smoothly enough.

As you may have detected, I enjoyed each story in the book slightly less than its predecessor, and if I was just going by the last one I'd consider three stars, though I'd probably settle on four; it's competently done, for the most part, though not the kind of thing I love. The standard starts out high, however, and the decline is gradual until we hit the final story. Speaking for myself, I would have preferred a sequence of stories like Foz Meadows' one, which didn't try too hard and just extrapolated and expanded on the source material in an entertaining and thought-provoking way, keeping firmly within the fiction. That's just my taste, though, and yours may well differ.

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Wednesday 20 July 2016

Review: Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder

Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder by David G. Hartwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I complained of this book's predecessor, Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, that some of the stories, far from being masterpieces, had been rescued from well-deserved obscurity. I didn't have the same reaction to this volume, though, even though the same editor had taken a similar approach: combine well-known genre classics with long-out-of-print pieces by famous authors, some of whom aren't usually thought of as belonging to the SFF field.

At the same time I bought those two books, I also bought The Fantasy Hall of Fame, and there's a considerable overlap in contents. This volume shares Margaret St. Clair's "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnolls," J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned Giant," and R.A. Lafferty's "Narrow Valley" with the Hall of Fame volume, none of which, to be honest, were among my favourites in either book; the Hall of Fame shares with the first volume "Our Fair City" (Heinlein), "The Silken-Swift" (Sturgeon), "The Detective of Dreams" (Wolfe), and "Operation Afreet" (Anderson).

I'd also previously read some others in this volume: Peter S. Beagle's "Lila the Werewolf," a typical Beagle piece in its beauty, its depiction of people trapped in their stereotypes, and its tragic arc; Anne McCaffrey's "A Proper Santa Claus," a powerful story about the crushing of childhood creativity and wonder; and James Tiptree, Jr.'s "Beyond the Dead Reef," which, slightly unusually for that author, focusses more on ecological disaster than on gender role disaster.

There are, however, plenty of pieces that are new to me, many of which I enjoyed. John M. Ford's "Green is the Color," which opens the book, is a lovely human story filled with magic and wonder. So is Robin McKinley's version of "The Princess and the Frog". Patricia A. McKillip's "The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath" is magnificent and unexpected, as you'd expect from her if you've read much of her work. John Brunner's "The Things That Are Gods" is a hearty bit of sword-and-sorcery with some depth to it. I also enjoyed Osbert Sitwell's version of "Jack and the Beanstalk," something that you'll not see reprinted in many places, I suspect.

Other pieces I wasn't so keen on. I've always disliked Jack Vance, whose characters use stilted dialog to convey their utter lack of any admirable qualities, and the samples in this book don't change my mind. Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Parrot," as well as being not to my taste, had, I felt, limited claim to be in a book about "fantasy and wonder," since the fantastical element could well have been in the mind of one character. Although Graham Greene's "Under the Garden" has the same ambiguity about whether anything fantastical has actually occurred, I enjoyed it more as a story.

There are rescued treasures as well, though, from Charles Dickens ("Prince Bull," a political satire), W.S. Gilbert ("The Triumph of Vice"), J.M. Barrie (the original "Peter Pan" story, which I seem to somehow have never read, though I've read Peter Pan and Wendy many times), Mark Twain ("The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," a fine satire on the value of a conscience), Frank R. Stockton ("The Griffon and the Minor Canon," which I'd read in his own collection, though I suspect few other people have), George MacDonald ("The Gray Wolf," an early, and unusual, werewolf story), L. Frank Baum ("The Enchanted Buffalo," a blend of Western tall tale and native legend), E.T.A. Hoffmann ("The King's Bride," a quirky wonder story), Fitz-James O'Brien ("The King of Nodland and His Dwarf," another political satire with a strong anti-slavery message, by an author who died in the American Civil War), and William Morris ("The Hollow Land," a pseudomedieval tale so authentic that I felt I needed scholarly notes to explain it to me).

In the first book, I felt that the editor had compiled an odd mix of often-collected 20th-century SFF stories with deservedly obscure earlier works, and that it didn't really come together into an interesting collection. Here, I felt he was much more successful, and that the stories were better chosen.

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Monday 18 July 2016

Review: Hunt for Valamon

Hunt for Valamon Hunt for Valamon by D.K. Mok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I became aware of D.K. Mok's work when we both had stories in the Terry Pratchett tribute anthology In Memory: A Tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett . I enjoyed her story in that book, and bought this book in consequence.

It reminds me, in many ways, of a Terry Pratchett story. We have not one, but two earnest, rather hapless young men with burning ideals about how the world should be, who struggle and sacrifice and are willing to pay any price to make it that way, because they care very deeply. We have several capable, no-nonsense young women who eventually come round to the young men's way of thinking, and provide necessary ingredients of the solution. We have some dark moments, but also some very funny moments, mostly either "hapless young man is hapless" or else clever play with language. The plot is exciting, suspenseful, and far from predictable. Every so often we have a beautifully phrased philosophical statement like "People only knew what they wanted, not what was important. That's why things didn't work." The editing is excellent, and I don't say that often or lightly.

There is one way in which I felt the book could have been improved, and it's an issue that this kind of book is vulnerable to. There are a lot of fairly generic minor characters, and I had trouble, when one showed up again after an interval, remembering who they were or anything else about them. The main characters were OK; we saw enough of them, and they had enough things that they wanted and enough distinctive attributes, that they were easy to remember and tell apart. The minor characters, though, needed to stand out from the background a bit more clearly, even if it was just through a couple of initial descriptive tags that could be mentioned again when they reappeared (the Roger Zelazny method).

Apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will be looking out for more from D.K. Mok.

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Monday 4 July 2016

Review: Penric and the Shaman

Penric and the Shaman Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this novella, as I did the previous one, though in both cases I wished there was more. The plot is quite linear, without as many complications or as much protagonist agency as is often the case with Bujold's best work. Compensating somewhat, the characters are well developed; in fact, the development of the three viewpoint characters is what primarily happens in the book.

The three are also very different: a middle-aged man who is basically a policeman, a young sorcerer/divine, and a young shaman who has made a terrible mistake and doesn't see his way clear to fixing it until the other young man comes along.

Other reviewers have regretted the lesser role of Desdemona, the sorcerer's demon, in this book, and I understand why; she's amusing, especially when she's in conflict with her sorcerer. However, the first book set up that relationship, and now the second one is building on that as a given and taking the character of Penric, the sorcerer, forward.

Penric has a lot of wisdom for a young man, and it seems that part of the reason he has come to be so good-natured and accepting is his own unusual situation. He's admirable, and enjoyable to read. It's nice to see a wise, kind character in a genre where the characters are often given to stupid decisions and, sometimes, cruel and selfish ones.

I hope for some more in this series.

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