Undercover: Clariel

The long-dormant Undercover series features the design quirks hidden under hardcover books’ dust jackets.

Kakaner and I have both been binge-re-reading Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, building up to an attack on the two latest: the extra-dark prequel Clariel (which neither of us had just read), and the just-released sequel Goldenhand.

While I really, really do not like the over-the-top, video-gamey new hardcover designs, removal reveals a metallic Charter mark (the symbolic basis of the Old Kingdom’s magical system):

book-clariel-undercover-1 book-clariel-undercover-2

Satisfactorily magical!

To resume griping: I know illustrative covers are out of fashion, but as an American reader, the switch to covers that scream “I WAS DIGITALLY RENDERED” feels particularly disruptive because the original American editions of the Old Kingdom books were beautifully designed and had such a coherent visual identity, built off of Leo and Diane Dillon’s elegant, grim, chilly illustrations (see middle row here). I bought Sabriel purely because of the cover art – I was quite young, and hadn’t ever seen anything quite like it before, inhabiting the borderlands between fantasy and horror as it did. It took me an oddly long time to actually read the book after buying it, but in the intervening years I would still pick up the book just to wonder at it – Sabriel’s severe gaze and ceremonial gesture, her mysterious bells, Kerrigor’s slitted grin.

I wish we had gotten the chance to see the Dillons illustrate Clariel. In the meantime, her hardcover and Goldenhand will be running around my house naked, as it were.

Go to:

Undercover: Pretty Monsters

Bookstores of Boston/Cambridge: Pandemonium Books

4 Pleasant St., Cambridge, Massachusetts (a few blocks away from the Central T stop)


(Photo taken during the first of the unrelenting series of snowstorms that hit early in 2011.)

Here’s quick but much overdue tribute to one of my most frequent bookish haunts in Cambridge. Pandemonium is a compact sff and gaming store with a very active schedule of author readings and signings (I’ve gotten to see Cat Valente read there twice, and Caitlín Kiernan once), and a broad representation of genre periodicals; new and used books; comics; and geek paraphernalia like calendars, artbooks, prints, and, obviously, gaming materials. Sadly, they did have to cut back severely on their magazine stock this past summer due to declining sales, and now stock only about half a dozen titles.

As Boston/Cambridge genre bookstores go, Seek Books is significantly more historically exhaustive, offering more in the way of rareties and out-of-print titles; Pandemonium is more up-to-date.

In-town customers may also enjoy their occasional special events, like the yearly holiday Geekfaire, where vendors offer sff-themed goods – Doctor Who scarves and the like.

Out-of-town browsers might like to investigate new titles via their nicely curated online catalogue, which can be searched by handy categories including awards won, character traits, plot elements, and writing style.


– E

Author Event: Caitlín R. Kiernan reads from The Drowning Girl

Only a bajillion days overdue (approximately), but here’s a quick event report of Caitlín Kiernan’s reading at Pandemonium Books (Cambridge, MA) in the spring of this year. The event took place on March 15th, on no less than the 75th anniversary of H. P. Lovecraft’s death.

Kiernan read from chapter 1 of her newest novel of dark fantasy, The Drowning Girl, from which I’d previously seen her read at Readercon 2011. Kiernan is my favorite reader of prose; she’s a sibylline presence, with exceptionally graceful gestures and voice. I didn’t understand at least a third of what was read at Readercon (which is only appropriate, as it was the chapter in which the book’s main character and narrator, who has schizophrenia, goes off her meds; Kiernan further noted that she was ill herself while writing the chapter), but was hypnotized; the first chapter of the novel was comparatively straightforward, a wry, edged introduction to protagonist India Morgan Phelps (“Imp”), her family’s history of madness, and her take on the unstable boundaries of truth and reality.

Kiernan reading from The Drowning Girl

A couple of tidbits from the Q&A following the reading:

  • Kiernan reflected on the fact that Imp represents, in some sense, “the person I wish I had become,” while Sarah Crowe, protagonist of preceding novel The Red Tree, was in part a representation of the person she had for some time become. [I’m afraid I didn’t write down as much context for this remark as I would have liked to, so if anyone has a correction or modification, I would welcome it.]
  • Deluxe dark-fantasy publisher Centipede Press has approached Kiernan about the possibility on working on a special edition of her 2001 novel Threshold.
  • There are some Very Exciting Projects in the works, which Kiernan was not at liberty to discuss. The furthest she could go was to hint that one had to do with comics (i.e. the now-ongoing Alabaster comic series with Dark Horse, which I love love love), and that the other had to do, just maybe, with a movie. She offered the summer of 2013 as a possible timeframe for more revelations about the latter.

Please see Kiernan’s website for more information about The Drowning Girl, and especially lend your attention to the haunting cinematic trailer. 

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Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed 

Princess Knight, by Osamu Tezuka (1953-6) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.28.2012
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.

(Yeah, the cover design is pretty punishingly cute. And also, classy! Oh Vertical, you know how to win my heart.)

The friend who egged me on in my desire to read this series, which has the proud distinction of siring the “princely girl” anime subgenre (i.e. Rose of Versailles, Revolutionary Girl Utena), described it as “nonstop shoujo bullshit.” Honestly, I can’t add much more to that than “but there’s lots of wacky gender stuff, too!!”

Adapted from the cover blurb:

“A mischief-making angel’s prank goes too far when the newborn princess of Silverland ends up with two hearts — one male and one female. Since the laws of Silverland only allow a male heir to ascend the throne, Princess Sapphire is raised as a prince. Princess Knight is the fast-paced tale of a heroic princess who can beat any man at fencing, yet is delicate and graceful enough to catch the eye of Prince Charming. Filled with narrow escapes, treacherous courtiers, dashing pirates, meddlesome witches, magical transformations and cinema-worthy displays of derring-do, you’ll be swept right along as Sapphire tackles one challenge after another.”

“One challenge after another” is only too right: the plot twists (potions, prisons, a desirous island queen, hellish pacts, Swan Lake references, etc. etc.) are addictive to a point, but past that point get exhaustingly frenetic. My patience was also tried by the fact that Sapphire is actually pretty dull. Apart from intermittent feats of gallantry, she doesn’t accomplish much other than throwing herself into defeatist fits of tears and mooning with disturbing passivity over her square-jawed and also dull main squeeze, Prince Franz. It comes as a relief to those of us rooting for a pluckier hero/ine that Tezuka has Sapphire close out her gender-bending with a bang: even though she ultimately prefers traditional femininity (she declares her desire to just get married in a dress, please), she’s still up for a swordfight even after her “boy heart” has been revoked.

One more photo and further thoughts on characters and gender after the cut:

Continue reading Princess Knight, by Osamu Tezuka (1953-6) E

Undercover: Pretty Monsters

Here’s a photo-feature that I’ve been wanting to start for a while: a series featuring the subtle design quirks that I occasionally find under the dust jackets of hardcover books. First up on the plate is Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters, whose full cover design you can see here. Will Staehle’s enigmatic, Victorian-funereal (with horned women) design easily ranks in my top, oh, twentyish? favorite book designs of all time. That thar is a very rough assessment, but hopefully my point is clear: there are a lot of book covers that I like, but I really, really, really like this one.

The little monster-mark underneath just seals the book’s place in my affections:

Undercover: Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link


– E

Bookstores of Boston/Cambridge: Seek Books

Seek Books
1747 Centre Street, Boston, West Roxbury, MA, 02132

Seek Books storefront

Seek deserves to be called something really grandiose, like “a repository of pulp splendor.” Seriously, if you’re an sff fan (especially if you’re the kind who has slightly off tastes and whose favorite authors are generally out of print… not that I’d know anything about this) and ever in the Boston area, don’t miss it. Seek has character.

Old posters and figurines and ’90’s boardgames abound; it smells like the kind of paperbacks that have banana-yellow edges; many of the books are battered within an inch of their lives (and rightly so, since Seek specializes in pre-1970’s fiction). The owners are as much curators as booksellers: series are carefully sorted out of the morass and shelved together, books with particularly loved cover art are wrapped in plastic.

The smiley-face-sticker pricing system is fun (and yes, the prices are ridiculously good), though sometimes the stickers do end up pulling off bits of binding off the spine. (Kakaner & I were also a little alarmed that sorted series are sometimes rubber-banded together, which means that spines and covers inevitably get bent.)

That aside, I don’t know too many other places where I could come away with a stack of eighteen or so Tanith Lee novels (I exaggerate, but not significantly) in one trip. Kakaner and I have been here twice so far, and each time we always end up finding way more things that we’d like to buy than we thought we were actually looking for – odd editions of favorite children’s books, copies of classics with actually frightening cover art (that Zelazny novel… SHUDDER)…

Some more photos under the cut, including some unbelievable monuments of SFF publishing history/nerd conversation pieces:

Continue reading Bookstores of Boston/Cambridge: Seek Books

Bookstores of Cambridge: Lame Duck Books

Lame Duck Books
12 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA

“We are internationally known specialists buying and selling important modern books and manuscripts with an emphasis on rare literature and primary works in the history of ideas in English, German, French, Spanish, Russian and other languages. Our shop features the most significant selection of 19th and 20th century Spanish language literature in the world, as well as important holdings of 17th and 18th century English poetry.”

Significantly fancy-pantsier than the bookstores that Kakaner and I usually feel comfortable rummaging through, clearly, but a fun taste of the high life. You enter this basement bookstore through a hushed, minimalistic art gallery (unaffiliated); the bookshop itself is similarly hushed and artsy.

Kakaner thought their prices ran a little high, for the books with which we were more familiar, but we had a good time regardless ogling such volumes as a first edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, another Atwood volume (forget which – K, do you remember?) that contained a handwritten letter of hers, and this J. Sheridan Le Fanu novel…

…with a seriously charming dedicatory doodle for someone named Phoebe:

Continue below the cut for a couple more photos:

Continue reading Bookstores of Cambridge: Lame Duck Books