The Pastel City, by M. John Harrison (1971) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.23.2017
Book from: Personal collection

Cover art by the wonderfully named Gray Morrow

“Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the Universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the Universe in confusion, dwindled, and died …

tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of Viriconium, the Pastel City, who now dwelt quite alone in a tower by the sea and imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, stood at early morning on the sand-dunes that lay between his tall home and the gray line of the surf. Like swift and tattered scraps of rag, black gulls sped and fought over his downcast head. It was a catastrophe that had driven him from his tower, something that he had witnessed from its topmost room during the night.”

Such mixed feelings I have about this direst and 70’s-est of fantasy novels! On the one hand, who am I to say no to prose that is that dire, and that arch. (see: my obsession with Tanith Lee) Also on that hand, M. John Harrison’s blog is one of my favorites; I’m fascinated by his intellect and sensibilities. On the other hand, this is almost 50 years distant, the plot and characters are so silly and derivative (battles for the fate of an empire, the reassembly of a band of elite warriors in order to defend a beloved queen), and there are giant sloths that are meant to be taken seriously as noble and tragic creatures. I’m not sure even 12-year-old me could have managed that sentiment successfully.

Politically, this has a provocative flavor: anti-capitalist, anti-industrialist. The conceit of the setting is that numerous high-technological societies have ravaged the earth’s resources, and fallen, leaving crumbling medieval cities that harvest glowing, deadly technology from wastelands to wage intermittent wars. Remaining civilizations, namely Viriconium, are burdened by a sense of their own impending failure; entropy is the order of the day. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth is an obvious influence, and I assume there’s a lot of Moorcock in there too, but I still have yet to read any of his work. There’s also a lot of T. S. Eliot, sometimes pastiched very directly via the not-great poetry of tegeus-Cromis. (Sorry, Cromis.)

Aesthetically, let’s just say it: this book is fucking nuts. The main appeal of the book for me is really just Harrison’s visionary, desolate, cavernous nature-writing, which could so easily be translated to some kind of 2-hour-long Pink Floyd music video, and I wish somebody would. Here’s tegeus-Cromis, he of the nameless sword, traversing the rocky hills:

“In a day, he came to the bleak hills of Monar that lay between Viriconium and Duirinish, where the wind lamented considerably some gigantic sorrow it was unable to put into words. He trembled the high paths that wound over slopes of shale and between cold still lochans in empty corries. No birds lived there. Once he saw a crystal launch drift overhead, a dark smoke seeping from its hull.”

Continue reading The Pastel City, by M. John Harrison (1971) E

Saga, vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (2012) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.14.2013
Book from: Personal collection

I’ve been doing some thinking this spring about figuring out reviewing practices, or a mindset, that don’t have me regularly consuming 3+ hours for writing and headscratching that I meant to have done in one, doesn’t give me hives, and generally achieves a higher fun/stress ratio. We’ll see how this goes.

Saga Vol. 1Oh Saga! Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga is so much fun that I can only assume that if you like fun, you will like Saga. It seems like Vaughan set out to create an X-rated Star Wars in comics – galloping galactic conflict in an expansive science-fantasy universe, plus some very colorful violence, and equally colorful sexytimes wherever characters seem like they might want or need to have ’em. But its immense irreverence has me reaching for Firefly as the easiest comparison.

However, the humor feels less strained to me than Firefly‘s. (The ticking of Joss Whedon’s brain behind the goings-on, working at being quirky or heartrending or whatever, is often too loud to me.) This is helped along by how boundlessly, weightlessly, beautifully weird the universe of Saga is.

Alanna and Marko are Romeo-and-Juliet runaway soldiers and new parents – much of the emotional weight of the comic rests in the anxieties of parenthood; the star-crossing romance seems forgettable by comparison. Their getaway ship is an enormous tree powered by personal sacrifices. Their babysitter and guide is a bisected ghost-girl (whose choice in headgear and allover pinkness reminded me of Runaways‘ Molly). Their pursuers include a TV-headed robot prince who just wants to get home to his recently pregnant wife, and a taciturn uber-mercenary with relationship hangups and a puma-sized, lie-detecting hairless cat. And given that all of the characters, even those that only appear for a few panels, are believably animated by a cantankerous, stubborn humanity, none of this feels like a burden of whimsy on the reader’s patience; I moved to greet each new surprise with incredulous laughter, and greedy eyes.

Fiona Staples (check out her sketchblog here) paints lushly, lushly, with a palette heavily reminiscent of the cool, dreamy neons of, naturally, 1970’s sci-fi – the soulkillingly garish bordello planet where The Will (aforementioned mercenary) makes a detour put me in mind of Bespin’s Cloud City, on acid.

Much of the imagery is clearly, simply meant to make the reader pause, and feel the uplift of wonder; I did plenty of that. Oh, those panels of the ship-tree drawing itself together to jet through space; oh, the towering beasties and haunted blue-green woods and luminous mountainscapes.

Alana reads her favorite romance novel

I am grateful that this comic exists, and am going quietly insane until the second trade comes out (July 2!).

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Brian K. Vaughan: bio and works reviewed

The Alleluia Files, by Sharon Shinn (1999) E

Date read: 2/20/06
Read from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

[Warning: Summary contains spoilers for the last two books of the Samaria trilogy, though the back-cover summary of the very first book spoils it all anyway (wtf).]

On the angel-governed planet of Samaria, Tamar is a member of the Jacobites, a cult persecuted and nearly destroyed by the Archangel Bael for their insistence that the god Jovah is no more than a mechanical spaceship that once ferried the original Samarian settlers to their new planet. Once again forced to flee the destruction of her friends and comrades, Tamar finds herself unwillingly entangled with the angel Jared, who, despite his lazy and easygoing nature, is expected to become the next Archangel. Jared himself is wary of Bael’s increasing fanaticism and strongly anti-technology stance. In a Samaria that is on the brink of industrialization, Jared begins to aid Tamar in her search for the Alleluia Files, the mythical documents that reveal the truth of Jovah’s identity.

I expected to be not-very-impressed as usual by Shinn’s work, and several times had second thoughts about bothering to pick up The Alleluia File, which is the third book of the Samaria trilogy. Nevertheless, I actually rather enjoyed this one, so I’m glad I took the time to finish up the trilogy. To reiterate my review of Archangel, the Samaria books are very conceptually engaging, this one especially so, as it’s rare for authors in fantasy to push the typical pastoral-feudal (or Renaissance, tops) society towards industrialization. In this sense, it’s a satisfying close to the overall arc of the trilogy. Particular fans of Jovah’s Angel, the second book in the trilogy, may also be gratified by the numerous nods made to characters and plot points of that book – though I get the feeling that it’s one of the least liked in the series, given its goody-two-shoes protagonist. (I’d comment more on Jovah’s Angel but I never wrote a review of it.)

To return to The Alleluia Files – as a whole, it’s significantly weakened by its loose construction and annoying reliance on coincidence to move the plot, and although Shinn generally writes good romance, a number of the romantic scenes in this book were unaccountably dorky and saccharine. Also, though its characters are likable and often moving, I found myself quite unable to remember anything about them only a little while after reading the book – which was also the case for me with the first two Samaria books. Ultimately, I found the Samaria trilogy entertaining and readable, but not outstanding. I haven’t bothered to follow up on the two standalone novels that follow it.

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Sharon Shinn
Archangel, by Sharon Shinn (1997) [E]
The Shape-Changer’s Wife, by Sharon Shinn (1995) [E]

Archangel, by Sharon Shinn (1997) E

Date read: 9/15/05
Read from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

Samaria is a utopian, hierarchical world, its people divided into strict social castes, from the wealthy, land-holding Manadavvi to the nomadic Edori. All are guided by the winged angels, who arbitrate mortal disputes and pray directly to the god Jovah through their music. Gabriel is an uncompromisingly principled angel due to become the next Archangel, who must therefore find his wife, the Angelica, in time for the next Gloria, when mortals and angels from across Samaria must gather and sing to show Jovah their unity. Unfortunately, he finds that his wife is Rachel, an embittered Edori slave girl who couldn’t care less about Gabriel or becoming the Angelica. Complicating Gabriel’s problems is the current Archangel, Raphael, who seems increasingly unwilling to cede his power, and has begun to foster corruption in the ranks of the angels.

Sharon Shinn‘s Samaria books are romantic science fantasies much along the same lines as Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. I actually read the second book of the original trilogy, Jovah’s Angel, first, but liked Archangel much more because the characters were so much stronger in personality.

I find, though, that the main interest of the books lies in the fascinating and well-developed world concept – almost more than I enjoy actually reading the books, I enjoy playing with the world-building and geography in my head after reading. (The same holds true for me, to varying degrees, for series like Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books and Storm Constantine‘s Wraeththu books.) Shinn writes what I might call “workhorse” fantasy – it’s reliably well-written, and there’s nothing really wrong with it, but it lacks spark and stylistic interest. But after all, having a compelling world is one of the main selling points of fantasy, so Shinn certainly succeeds there, as she also does in her romantic plotlines. Her descriptions do grow a shade purple every now and then, but in general she avoids mush and plays out convincing character chemistry.

But really, it all comes back to the world-building for me. I can’t help wishing that her books would explore more of Samarian culture, particularly that of the angels – I’d love to know details of how angel children are raised, for example…

Go to:
Sharon Shinn
The Shape-Changer’s Wife, by Sharon Shinn (1995) [E]
The Alleluia Files, by Sharon Shinn (1999) [E]