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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.20.2013 
Book from: Personal collection

Arriving in the English countryside to live with her mother and new stepfather, Jenny has no interest in her surroundings, until she meets Tamsin. Since her death over 300 years ago, Tamsin has haunted the lonely estate without rest, trapped by a hidden trauma she can’t remember, and a powerful evil even the spirits of night cannot name. To help her, Jenny must delve deeper into the dark world than any human has in hundreds of years, and face danger that will change her life forever.

This is the book that restored my Beagle-faith after I bounced violently off of The Innkeeper’s Song; frankly I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem, given how little I’ve seen it mentioned or discussed. I cannot recommend this more for fans of spooky English/Celtic fantasy, like Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, or even Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. It is also quite queer, in a very sweet, nondramatized way. (Jenny remarks on her head-over-heels reaction to Tamsin by saying, “I’d never been the type to get girl-crushes before,” and that is the full extent to which she dissects any issues of sexual identity; the rest of the time she just goes on loving Tamsin.)

The initial few chapters – when it’s not clear yet what sort of haunted universe Jenny has stepped into, and her encounters with the uncanny are glancing and inexplicable – are by far the creepiest. But even once the central mystery is mostly laid bare, the combination of characters and world, both fantastical and actual-historical, are terrifically compelling.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.14.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The Lies of Locke Lamora features long cons, crime-boss uprisings, and bloody revenge plots amid the cluttered criminal underworld of a bustling, sweltering, alchemy-infused alternative medieval Venice. Our heroes: the Gentleman Bastards, a tiny brotherhood of con artists, led by the unparalleled liar Locke Lamora.

One of my good reading buddies went crazy for this novel shortly after it came out, and I had always wanted to read it since, especially because the title was so mischievous, lyrical, and evocative. The fact that it continually resurfaces as a fan favorite 10 years on also piqued my interest. (e.g., it’s still on the bestseller list at my local sff bookstore, Pandemonium.)

Based on the hoopla, I’d been expecting something Dorothy Sayers-esque – exceptionally witty and elegant – but unfortunately found this, prose-wise, to be a solid B+ at best. Lynch’s writing is markedly juvenile: he overuses italics and parentheticals, and treats profanity in large quantities as funny per se. Characters emote by gritting their teeth, gulping, and squeaking. I would describe the humor as geekily goofy, rather than witty. His descriptions are colorful and involving, but not sharply observed. He does a good job of conveying personality more through dialogue than exposition, but again, isn’t quite sharp enough to fully resolve characters purely through these means. I wouldn’t say the characters feel hollow, as they often do in mediocre fantasy – symbols of people rather than people – but there’s a general feeling of a slightly unfocused photograph about the whole thing. The villains in particular are dreadfully boilerplate.

That said, I stuck it out, and had a lot of fun with it. This book has vim – it has bounce and fun and grit and texture – qualities that are helped along by Lynch’s obvious enjoyment at sharing his created city, and a greater part of lightheartedness than grimness. Read the rest of this entry »

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.3.2016; 9.17.2016
Book from: Personal collection

book-wizardofthegrove

Wizard of the Grove is an omnibus reedition of Tanya Huff’s 1988/1989 romantic high fantasy duology, Child of the Grove and The Last Wizard. I picked this up back in high school based on the lovely cover art (which I note has been redone recently to be trendily dark, teal, and high-contrast), subsequently reread it several times, and then lent it out repeatedly for a number of years. I only just recovered it, in fact, and celebrated with a rapid reread (the first in almost 10 years, I think).

Child of the Grove concerns the birth and ascendance of the world’s final wizard, a quasi-dryad named Crystal, who is conceived in order to combat the world’s cruel, corrupt, imperializing second-to-last wizard. The Last Wizard details Crystal’s adventures after she’s already saved the world – a narrative conceit that I enjoy.

The series is firmly middle-of-the-road high fantasy, complete with many glowing jewel-colored eyes, internal monologues about the fate of the world must rest on one’s young shoulders, and a villain remarkable only in how generic he is. (He does have chest hair in addition to his flowing red-gold locks, which is how you know this is from the ’80’s.)

However, Huff executes the usual conventions with a really likable combination of toughness and sweetness, her characters (minus aforementioned villain) are credible (if some of them are eye-rollingly juvenile, other characters actually call them out on it), and her plots are briskly paced and incorporate a fun variety of narrative elements.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.30.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The House with a Clock in its Walls - cover

Orphaned Lewis Barnavelt comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan and quickly learns that both his uncle and his next-door neighbor are witches on a quest to discover the terrifying clock ticking within the walls of Jonathan’s house. Can the three of them save the world from certain destruction?

Bellaaaairs! Such a landmark of my childhood spookyscape. When I was in elementary school, I was already obsessed with spooky shit, even though I was also too weak of constitution to not end up with nightmares for a month after reading something particularly choice. Poe at 9 years old was one high-water mark; Bellairs at 10 or 11 was another. (Isn’t even just the name Bellairs perfect? So rich and old-world; it sounds like old libraries with bell-pulls.)

Bellairs’ preoccupation with the occult was, I think, several layers more complex and esoteric than the more traditional ghost stories I typically found in the library, and correspondingly struck me as something much wickeder, with potentially apocalyptic consequences. Even though M. R. James is considered Bellairs’ most immediate stylistic influence, in my head he’s more immediately the YA answer to Lovecraft (who is also a James descendant, of course). I hadn’t ever encountered something like his red doomsday skies, resurrected corpses, and convincingly evil necromancers before. That mixture of human wickedness and imminence of the terrible sublime – very Lovecraftian, it seems to me. Read the rest of this entry »

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.18.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The King of Elfland's Daughter - cover

In their ruddy jackets of leather that reached to their knees the men of Erl appeared before their lord, the stately white-haired man in his long red room. He leaned in his carven chair and heard their spokesman.

And thus their spokesman said.

‘For seven hundred years the chiefs of your race have ruled us well; and their deeds are remembered by the minor minstrels, living on yet in their little tinkling songs. And yet the generations stream away, and there is no new thing.’

‘What would you?’ said the lord.

‘We would be ruled by a magic lord,’ they said.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a dreamy, colorful, exceedingly British literary fairy-story for adults; it’s a crucial antecedent to the Lord of the Rings, Lovecraft, and other early purveyors of rich prose and high fantasy. I’d been meaning to read this ever since I started delving into Tolkieniana in high school, and saw it discussed in one of Tom Shippey’s essay collections, and finally invested in a personal copy when Seek Books liquidated a few years ago (alaaaas).

Previously, I’d only read one other bit of Dunsany – one of his short stories, likewise in a Shippey anthology that I picked out in high school. I remember the story as being pleasantly swampy, and involving big swords, at least one lizard-monster, and monolithic architecture. Great; carry on.

Elfland unfortunately I found a slog to get through, which is one of those things that makes one feel jaded. About once a chapter there’d be a human insight or a wondrous image that made me smile; the rest of the time, I found it terrifically cloying, and poorly paced and motivated. It seems to stagger back and forth in the territory between overexplained high fantasy and mystifying fairy story, such that it’s neither quite weird enough to fly free of expectations of logic, nor quite grounded enough in recognizable motivations to feel like much more than a succession of elaborate tableaux. I’d also argue there’s something rhythmically off about the delivery of the fairy-story elements, where the repetition and flow fail to build the kind of irrefutable dream-logic that pulls good mythos onward, but this could be a secondary symptom of my dislike for Dunsany’s writing on the sentence level.

The allover layer of pastoral treacle is what did me in from the beginning. (e.g., “little tinkling songs” above.) I have a tolerance for British plumminess that easily tips over into an embarrassingly active enjoyment (see: my ability to repeatedly reread Richard Adams’ epic fantasies), but Dunsany overleaps plumminess and stands firmly in the Land of Preciousness. So many buttercups.

Returning to the idea of generic contributions: it was interesting to recognize the eventual moral bent of the narrative – where magic/sense of wonder is a good in and of itself, and its restoration to a land is a triumph – as one that I had previously thought of as typical of later fantasy. (McKillip does this a lot, for example.) That is, I see that story structure as deeply indicative of a genre that is both conscious and defensive of itself of as a genre. It makes sense, then, that Dunsany would stand as a precedent to Tolkien et al. not only in style, but in literary ethos.

Related reading:
“The Golden Key,” by George MacDonald (1867) E

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Korgi, by Christian Slade (2007): The woodland escapades and scrapes of a fairy-like young girl and her magical corgi companion – corgis were traditionally said to be fairy steeds. There are three volumes so far; I’ve read the first two.

Korgibook korgi3

This would be a great gift for folks, children or otherwise, who are keen on fairies and/or dogs. Korgi is so cute and so peaceful – nearly as cute as Mouse Guard, and whimsical, dreamy, and celebratory of motion in a way that’s reminiscent of a lot of the first volume of Flight. Slade is not a very good draftsman (wandering facial features + an overall look that is slightly squishy and uncertain), but every panel is well-composed, again and again hitting that evocative sense of marveling at a woodland expanse. Also, his linework is notably enjoyable – scratchy, nervy, woodsy. His treetrunks are so nice.

Something that Slade does really right is letting loose when drawing the villainous critters – their gleeful bloat and gnarl works well to counterbalance the wide-eyed sweetness of the rest of the comic.

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ApocalyptiGirl, by Andrew MacLean (2015): A beautiful, energetic, but morally questionable post-apocalyptic yarn of a young warrior woman and her cat surviving amid tribal warfare.

ApocalyptiGirl

Read it for the crisp action sequences, expressive characters, and scruffy, nubbly, involving environments (rusting, grass-overgrown mechs; a home built in an abandoned subway train). The story’s mysteriousness is dampened by exposition that manages to be both heavy-handed and slightly garbled, and by the pat ending, which seems to lazily undercut all of heroine Aria’s past moral quandaries over the bloodshed she’s seen and enacted.

ApocalyptiGirl

Still, the ambience and visuals are striking and memorable; I’m very happy to own the comic to keep revisiting the art.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.7.2016
Book from: Personal collection

DID YOU KNOW that before Patricia Wrede hit it out the park with the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, she wrote a fair bit of generic epic fantasy? It’s true! Just look at this:

The Harp of Imach Thyssel

I found a copy at a used bookstore, and could not pass it up. Those glowing tights exerted an uncanny magnetism.

The Harp of Imach Thyssel is the third in a series of five books set in Lyra, all of which appear to have been recently revised and republished in the omnibus Shadows over Lyra (1997). Here’s the plot of Harp:

“Everyone wanted the legendary harp – except the man who found it, and was wise enough to fear its power.”

Execution was as you might expect based on the cover art. Since it’s Patricia Wrede, the dialogue can be witty, the writing is brisk, and some of the characters’ relationships are mildly intriguing, but otherwise, everything, everything about this book feels almost disturbingly superficial. None of the characters have motivations or desires more specific than “I fear/desire the Harp!” + “I love, in an incredibly nonspecific way, my family and hate my enemies.” There’s little to no sense of either political or mythological reality, even after the barrage of historical exposition in the last 20 pages or so. This is epic-fantasy MadLibs and a triumph of telling-not-showing.

I enjoyed this as a historical curiosity, and derived a bit of scandalous thrill from seeing an author who’s now exclusively acclaimed for mischievous but squeaky-clean YA, write something that involves death and sex (or at least overtly expressed sexual attraction). In the abstract, it’s fun to consider checking out the revised version of this, but given the time… I’d rather reread the Enchanted Forest Chronicles instead.

Go to:
Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (1988)
The Grand Tour, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (2004)
Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1990)
Talking to Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1985)
Thirteenth Child, by Patricia C. Wrede (1985)

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More tidying of the drafts backlog. I read this issue back in 2011, holy crap; I’m not sure why I wrote about only these two stories. I did note that in the two old MF&SF issues that I own from the 1980’s, there wasn’t a single female writer, out of 17 total authors and several more columnists (also there were these spectacular ads).

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“From the Desk of Gilmer C. Merton,” Gene Wolfe: This was a terrible way to first read Wolfe. (I read The Wizard Knight duology, a very distinctive Arthurian retelling, shortly afterwards and liked it quite well.) The story is an extended and unfunny joke about sf&f publishing.

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“Down Among the Dead Men,” Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann: Vampiric Jew in a concentration camp. I say “vampiric Jew” rather than “Jewish vampire” because Dozois and Dann don’t seem to have put any effort into making this at all a particularly Jewish story, which seemed thoughtless and insensitive. The vampire character, and the narrator’s reactions to him, are clearly the products of western fictional conventions by way of Bram Stoker, which seems idiotic when you consider the wealth of fascinating, terrifying eastern European and specifically Jewish vampire folklore. The only Jewish thing the narrator does is participate in observance of Passover; otherwise we see him thinking about how he used to venerate another character as a “saint” and a makeshift weapon as a “holy relic.”

  • Encyclopedia Britannica: “The cult of saints in terms of veneration was not a part of the monotheistic religion of Israel.”
  • jewishvirtuallibrary.org: “Judaism, as a general rule, rejects physical manifestations of spirituality … perhaps the greatest sin the Israelites collectively committed was the construction of the Golden Calf … Today, Jews do not venerate any holy relics or man-made symbols.”

Encountering the vampire seems to have no spiritual repercussions for the narrator (which I have a hard time believing would happen even if he were a secular Jew – wouldn’t it make you start thinking hard thoughts if you were suffering at the hands of both mundane and supernatural embodiments of evil?); again his Jewishness is ignored, and the vampire trope is ultimately mined only to make fairly banal points about the contagiousness of violence and what people are willing to do to survive. All told, I had a hard time not seeing this as a by-the-book vampire story, with a distasteful veneer of seriousness and importance.

Go to:
BBCF: MF&SF, June 1983
Time Warp 1987: F&SF and a couple of soggy old men
More from the annals of F&SF

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I’m trying to do something about the massive backlog of 60-98% complete post drafts. It’s scary in there! For example, both of these bits are from (gulp) 2012.

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Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (1993), by Frank Miller & John Romita Jr.

While Daredevil has long been my favorite single superhero, I wasn’t the right kind of fan to be the target audience for this. This is an origin-story miniseries that fills in gaps and juicy details (the rise of Kingpin, Matt’s childhood training, and his initial relationship with Elektra in college). I grew up with 4 or 5 single Daredevil issues around the house – much obsessed-over, but far from exhaustive enough for me to be able to appreciate the back-filling that Miller does. Since Miller compresses over a decade into 5 issues, the pace was also too breakneck for me to feel like I could really sink my teeth into the narrative, until Miller slows down enough to focus on a crucial kidnapping incident at the end of the series.

General thoughts: the style is strikingly noir, which is not surprising given that it’s Miller. Matt’s rage is always simmering in the background, and his rough upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen lays down the basic growth medium and texture for his character. Miller emphasizes in his intro that Daredevil could easily have been a supervillain. The emotional hook of the miniseries is that Matt’s righteous anger and physical prowess aren’t enough to make him a hero (there’s a really awful moment where he accidentally kills a prostitute while trying to attack one of his father’s killers); he must also learn self-mastery.

I warmed very slowly to Romita’s art, as it’s sort of blockily formless a lot of the time. However, there are occasionally really effective panels that made me okay with him by the end – in particular, the poetic silhouettes of Daredevil bounding across the Manhattan skyline, and one creepy close-up of Kingpin’s chilly eyes.

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Hellboy: Wake the Devil (Vol. 2) (1993), by Mike Mignola

Paranormal folkloric bingo! On top of the evil Nazis + Rasputin + cosmic/Revelations-flavored menace from last time, there are a Napoleonic-era vampire lord kickin’ it old school, Thessalian witches, Baba Yaga, an iron maiden broken in by Elizabeth Bathory, Lamia, Hecate, a homunculus… Honestly, it got overwhelming at times (I felt whiplashed), and occasionally I questioned the lumping of so many mythologies together, given that it really did start to feel like “lumped together” instead of “woven together.”

But the goofy dialogue lightens things up well, and Mignola’s art always sells it. There’s a spectacular cosmic setpiece of about 5 pages towards the end of the arc that actually had me reading with my mouth open. And then – emo Rasputin! Because even villains bent on universal chaos have to question themselves sadly sometimes, even if it’s just to ask if they’re being selfish enough.

Plotwise, this is really just expanding on the “evil Nazis/Rasputin plot for cosmic chaos” direction. Not too much more character development, sadly, although there’s plenty of character exposition.

– E

 

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 3.13.2016
Book from: Personal collection

Elephantasm is a violent, brooding, erotic fantasy of revenge against imperialism and patriarchy: Tanith Lee takes on Heart of Darkness, by way of colonial India. Elephants, monsoons, open wounds, whips, trauma survivors, immolation. Lush madness and harsh justice prevail against the privileged and callous. Lee’s usual interest in tough, quiet, street-bred, canny/uncanny heroines is in evidence.

More unusual is the sense of social and emotional reality around the secondary characters, especially the villains, who tend to be brutish to the point of caricature in Lee’s work. Here, she builds up thoughtful layers of pathos and longing around the Gormenghastly members of the Smolte household, as despicable as they are. This makes the book more interesting – earthier, more human – at the same time that it sharpens the implacable moral judgment that eventually arrives. Structurally, Lee also does some good work with the interleaved perspectives and flashbacks; Elephantasm had more of a sense of being a constructed novel than many of her works, which often register as simply a bewildering outpouring of strange events.

The obsession with the physical whiteness of the heroic characters is troubling, but unsurprising given Lee’s vampiric tastes in human beauty. It is meant to mirror the importance of ivory and bone in the plot, and Lee also consciously works against the ‘white savior’ narrative by positioning her heroine as a conduit, not an incarnation, of the Hindu gods. Nonetheless, it’s an off note, and undermines the book’s desired radical message.

One of the odder elements of the book is the character of Elizabeth Willow, the Smoltes’ deranged cat-daughter, who maybe crept in from a story of her own, or arrived (now that I think of it) as a weird domestic inverse of The Jungle Book‘s Mowgli. I mention her a) because the proliferative violence of Tanith Lee’s imagination never fails to amuse me – that, having established a grotesque household of sexually obsessive parvenu malcontents, she just had to stuff in one more oddity; and b) because the predatory girl-child is one of my favorite figures (see also Merricat Blackwood), and I’m always happy to see her. I hope Elizabeth Willow had an interesting, if likely not long, life after the main events of the novel blew by.

Go to:
Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed
The Book of the Damned, by Tanith Lee (1988): review by Emera
Madame Two Swords, by Tanith Lee (1988): review by Emera
Louisa the Poisoner, by Tanith Lee (1995): review by Emera

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