Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.4.2013
Book from: Personal collection

I began Gerald Morris’ series of Arthurian retellings (collectively called The Squires’ Tales and The Knights’ Tales) back when they first started coming out in the late ’90′s/early 2000′s. I remember starting with The Savage Damsel & the Dwarf in the yellow-lit, air-conditioned cool of the nearest public library when I was 16ish, and shortly thereafter hunched crosslegged in sticky summer weather over the pages of The Squire’s Tale. In a few weeks I’d read all the way up to Parsifal’s Page. Swift, witty, musing, and surprisingly gentle in moral tone despite their sharp humor and the grim fates that befall many characters, Morris’ novels fell in closely alongside my love of Karen Cushman’s medieval historical fiction, and of C. S. Lewis.

Almost 10 years later, I finally started catching up again with the series, and was delighted to find that Morris’ humanity as a storyteller registers even more deeply with me as an older reader. As my friend E. put it, the series is wonderful in embracing and illustrating “all kinds of different ways of being.”

The previous novels had as their protagonists fairly common YA types, though warmly realized: a half-fey squire navigating both mundane & otherworldly affairs, a whip-witted anti-damsel, and a Eustace Scrubb-ish prig who of course discovers valiance & humility under duress.

By contrast, Sir Dinadan’s major interests in life begin with drifting peacefully alone in the forest, and end with peacefully music-making (again, preferably alone) in the forest. I can’t recall another YA novel (suggestions welcome!) whose main character was so centrally concerned with solitude, and – crucially – was allowed to remain that way. Most children’s literature has social aims: the protagonists negotiate relationships (friends, family, romances), and struggle to assume positions of greater social responsibility.

Dinadan does indeed venture forth and meet all sorts of people, befriending some and looking askance at others. And, as Sir Tristan’s younger brother, he is dragged again and again towards the center of that most outrageously tragic of romances. But what he sees of Tristan & Iseult’s violent folly ultimately leads him to affirm his sense of sufficiency in himself and his art – even though his friendship with another “savage damsel,” as skeptic-minded as Dinadan, presents a tantalizing romantic charge throughout.

Without trivializing the essential tragedy of the violence and human wastefulness of Tristan & Iseult’s tale, Sir Dinadan affirms those who prefer to live small, live quietly and inwardly. I laughed often while reading, and closed the book feeling both heartened and melancholy. I plan to revisit Sir Dinadan often, especially since his quietness, skepticism, and steadfast unconcern with dramatic involvement reminded me of a very dear mentor of mine, whom I don’t get to see nearly enough. In Dinadan, Morris combines elements both of the fool and the hermit: capable of moving in society, he evenly judges the people and hierarchies he encounters there, but ultimately, contentedly, remains a man apart.

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Gerald Morris: bio and works reviewed

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I’m forever a concept-art junkie; for any fellow Saga fans, here are some concepty tidbits that I’ve enjoyed:

  • An interview with Fiona Staples, in which she discusses how she works out designs from Brian Vaughan’s descriptions (or in their absence) – since it’s not always clear to what extent an artist helmed visual development, I was delighted to learn that Staples was responsible for so many of the series’ trademarks, like its (yes yes yes) largely non-white cast, and skull- and seedpod-shaped spacecraft.
  • A set of sketches hashing out Marko and Alana’s looks (I can’t check whether these were included in the trade collection as I’ve lent mine out, so I’m including them just in case).

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Saga, Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (2012): review by Emera

 

Fans of Australian author-illustrator Shaun Tan, please to enjoy his very short illustrated story “Eric (presented by the Guardian), about a peculiar foreign exchange student. (Fans of Chris Van Allsburg will likely be keen on Tan’s work as well, given the resonance between their quiet, eerie, carefully rendered illustrations.) The last image made me gasp, and my skin prickle.

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Dispatches from a Troubled City (via Super Punch) is a satisfyingly varied collection of art inspired by the work of China Miéville, featuring work by nearly 20 different artists. The collection encompasses sculpture, artifacts, poster/cover design, and illustration, all almost entirely based on the Bas-Lag books, but with a couple of tributes to Un Lun Dun (my review; Kakaner’s) as well.

Favorites: Steve Thomas’ pro-avanc propaganda, Jason Chalker’s awkward-creepy-cute magus fin, and Jared Axelrod’s box of battered memorabilia from the pages of Perdido Street Station.

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China Miéville: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.12.14

“When I close my eyes, I see Jacova Angevine.

I close my eyes, and there she is, standing alone at the end of the breakwater, standing with the foghorn as the choppy sea shatters itself to foam against a jumble of gray boulders. The October wind is making something wild of her hair, and her back’s turned to me. The boats are coming in.”

Caitlín Kiernan’s novelette “Houses Under the Sea” (2003) introduces the Lovecraftian deep-sea mythology that later figures largely in the 2012 novel The Drowning Girl. My favorite section of the story is actually the very first, where Kiernan sets glinting shards of memory tumbling in the liquid medium of her protagonist’s memory. It’s painful, frightening, smoky, sensuous (just take the fact that the victim-villainess’ name is as outrageously rich as Jacova Angevine), with a noirish swagger later amplified by the narrator’s hard-drinking pathos, and, rather playfully, by included excerpts from the works of Angevine’s mystery-novelist father.

Technically, the story is beautifully crafted, with Kiernan’s trademark circular movement (which echoes the final image that ends up haunting the narrator – “She has drawn a circle around me”) of thought and memory carrying the reader to successive climaxes of dread. An empty warehouse with a recently painted-over floor. Undersea things – coldly, sinuously, invasively sensuous, both muscular and rotten-soft.

The role that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s deep-sea exploration plays in the story is especial fun for me given I spent several years in elementary school obsessively drawing viperfish and anglerfish, and my dream job for a much longer time was to work at said aquarium… (It did just occur to me that a thread of my anglerfish affinity persists, in that I now study the family of bacteria that includes Photobacterium, those responsible for the luminescence of anglerfishes’ and flashlight fishes’ light organs. Shine on, you creepy diamonds.)

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Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed

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I did not know this: Tove Jansson (moomin-creator) did illustrations for the 1962 Swedish edition of The Hobbit (courtesy Babel Hobbits, a repository for international Hobbit illustrations). They range from Quentin Blake-ishly sketched storm giants, to what is now my favorite rendering of the depths of Mirkwood. I don’t understand how Jansson always manages to combine qualities of both warmth and chill in her art.

Also, her Gollum is something else – towering over Bilbo, he looks unexpectedly like a wodwo or a Green Man, though I can’t think what his wreath might be made of. (Dried bats?)

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Via the ever-loyal but outrageously busy Kakaner: carved book landscapes by Guy Laramee. Mute, contemplative, eerily lit. I’ve seen my fair share of altered-book art, but as Kakaner put it, “This gives me the shivers in a good and bad way. More bad though.” (But bad in a good way, I would add!)

- E

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Brief notes on one of Anaïs Nin’s classic collections of erotica, Delta of Venus. I wrote these in response to a friend who expressed bewilderment after I recommended the stories to him without any warnings about the all the pedophilia, nonconsensuality, and assorted other violence; he deemed her stories alternately “amazing” and “vile.”

It actually never occurred to me before to wonder what, in these stories, she did “for herself” and what for her patron (or for the purposes of making fun of him!), because it all seems so her - all these lush, bizarre, horrible or tragic or tragically horrible people ransacking the world for sensation, satisfaction, a sense of power. The last time I read Delta of Venus, I was, very unexpectedly, actually reminded me of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies – the way people suddenly find themselves locating desire in anyone or anything, the violent and total shifts of emotion.

If you read Nin’s diaries, it’s absolutely how she sees the world – everything glowing with potency, with a very erotic, amoral energy. I also appreciate how she writes about sexual violence because you can tell that she has a strong sense of herself both as a potential [masculine] aggressor, and as a [feminine] victim, which I think a lot of women feel, and are confused and frightened – and sometimes excited – by.

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Anaïs Nin: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.2.2013
Book from: Personal collection

Louisa the Poisoner: cover

‘There are three things that grow in March Mire,’ said the aunt, in a silly sing-song voice, her eyes half closed, ‘and that grow nowhere else together, and seldom anywhere. Find them in one spot, take them and make them up. From them comes this dew. Oh Louisa. Listen carefully. This stuff grants the gift of death.’
Louisa widened her eyes but she was not actually impressed. Death was everywhere in the mire and especially often in her aunt’s nasty bottles.
‘Listen,’ said the aunt again, ‘the poison in this bottle leaves no trace as it kills. In the world beyond the mire this can mean much. I’ve told you, there are towns along the moors, and great houses piled up with money and jewels. If every cobweb on that ceiling was changed to bank notes it would be nothing to them … We’ll seek for just such a rich place. Then I’ll know how to go on. You shall pretend to be a lost lady, as I’ve trained you. You’ll do as I say, and our fortunes will be made.’
‘But how, Aunt?’
‘They’ll fall in love, and make over their goods through wills, which I’ve told you of. And then I’ll see them off …’

This standalone Tanith Lee novella from Wildside Press is quite as wicked and frivolous as it sounds. There’re vile aristocrats, bloody deaths, and incidental madmen and ghost horses; there’s brooding architecture (a manor called Maskullance!) and one of Lee’s trademark canny and uncanny heroines – those women who enter into society at an angle, slice their way in quietly. Also, George Barr provides some beautifully pulpy illustrations; his Louisa has a great Vivian Leigh-ish thing going on:

Unfortunately, the prose isn’t quite as effortless as it so often is in Lee’s work – the little twists of syntax often feel worked over, rather than sinuous and startling, and the dialogue frequently falls short of wittiness. And I think the story would have worked better at shorter length, given that a reading a detailed accounting of the sequential deaths of a bunch of boorish aristocrats entails spending a depressing amount of time with those aristocrats.

Still, the last few pages work up to a tremor of dreadful sublimity, and feature one of the best descriptions of hell I’ve ever read. If not one of Lee’s strongest works, this is nonetheless a fun treat for a cloudy autumn afternoon.

Louisa the Poisoner - Illustration by George Barr

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Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed

 

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Sighted in September by Boing Boing, for particularly avid Bradbury fans: a very rare asbestos-bound 1953 special edition of Fahrenheit 451, somewhat worse for the wear, but, one hopes, still somewhat safer from incendiaries, conflagrations, merry bonfires, unmerry bonfires, and other forms of fiery doom.

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On display by the Uppsala University Library: a 14th-century German book that was mended with silk thread. Looking at this gives me interestingly weird feelings: up close, the stitches are so homey in appearance (good ol’ blanket stitch!), but – especially where they were used to mend holes – simultaneously resemble biological structures or growths. Plant cross-sections, vacuoles, paramecia. I can see this being used as a springboard for an art exhibit about how we think about categories of craft/art/literature, about objectness, etc. For some reason I also just want to see an art installation of a roomful of colorful books suspended from floor to ceiling in white crocheted webbing. ”Shelob Reads to Excess”?

- E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 8.13.2013
Book from: Personal collection

The Water Mirror, by Kai Meyer: two pale-faced girls, one blonde and one brunette, are poled in a gondola down a grey-green Venetian canal

“In Venice, magic is not unusual. Merle is apprenticed to a magic mirror maker, and Serafin – a boy who was once a master thief – works for a weaver of magic cloth. Merle and Serafin are used to the mermaids who live in the canals of the city — beautiful creatures with hideous mouths that split their faces from ear to ear.

But Venice is under siege by the Egyptian Empire; its terrifying mummy warriors and flying sunbarks are waiting to strike. All that protects the Venetians is the Flowing Queen. Nobody knows who or what she is – only that her power flows through the canals and keeps the Egyptians at bay. When Merle and Serafin overhear a plot to capture the Flowing Queen, they are catapulted into desperate danger. They must do everything they can to rescue the Queen and save the city – even if it means getting help from the Ancient Traitor himself.”

Disappointing. I glommed onto this while bookshopping with Kakaner when I saw the cover art (by Jonathan Weiner), and couldn’t put it back on the shelf. This could have been a very nice dark-fantasy morsel – fast-paced, with a motley cast and an alternate Venice satisfyingly redolent of wartime paranoia and esoteric secrets whispered in clammy alleyways. (The setting is more interesting and memorable than the perfunctorily developed characters.)

Unfortunately, the prose is often awkwardly juvenile, e.g.,

“Merle appeared to be spellbound by the disgusting appearance of the fiery figure.”

Note that this is written from Merle’s perspective, so it makes no sense that she should “appear” to be spellbound. Of course it’s hard to say whether choices like these are original to the (German) text, or due to the translator, but there are also occasional outbreaks of ridiculousness that are more easily attributed to the translator, as when a mermaid’s skeleton is described as resembling a “supergigantic fish bone.” SUPERGIGANTIC. Boo, translator. This makes me curious about the editorial process for works in translation.

In any case, good brain candy if you’re one for intriguing world-building, but there’s not too much else of substance to enjoy. I’m still thinking about framing the cover art, though! That mermaid, boy o boy.

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Kai Meyer: bio and works reviewed

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Sighted in the streets of Cambridge, MA – the “Little Free Library:”

 - E

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